The 10 classic Christmas TV episodes you should see – but probably haven’t

From The Box of Delights to Sherlock Holmes by way of Moonlighting - it's the festive telly you need to discover

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Sick of seeing Del Boy become a millionaire? Tired of watching Margo’s food not being delivered? Fatigued by walking in the air with the Snowman. Well, let me come to your rescue with the antidote – it’s the best classic Christmas TV you’ve yet to watch. Well, OK, some of you may already be in on the festive secrets that I’ve listed below – but come on, spread the word. These are the shows you SHOULD be watching. So, in no particular order…

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1. Cagney and Lacey (I’ll Be Home for Christmas)

A criminal in a Santa suit? Check. A dodgy Noo Yawk hustler flogging Christmas trees? Check. Cagney being surprised by the love and affection shown by children? Double check! Basically, this festive visit to the 14th precinct offers everything you need in a Christmas police procedural. Plus you get a curveball in the form of Petrie’s pregnant wife facing complications in labour. And the whole thing is written by future crime-writing master Robert Crais.

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2. Moonlighting (Twas the Episode Before Christmas)

Sure, this seems at first like typical post-modern Moonlighting fare, what with David wondering whether this could very possibly be the Christmas episode after a mum in distress by the name of Mary leaves a baby on Miss Dipesto’s doorstep. But wait for it – because the pay-off is truly something else. Stars Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis were always fond of breaking the fourth wall but getting the whole crew to sing The First Noel as snow falls onto the studio floor makes for a moving TV moment that’s totally unique.

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3. Murder, She Wrote (A Christmas Secret)

It’s amazing to think that Murder, She Wrote ran for 12 seasons and yet it only ever did one Christmas episode. Surely, it should have been a yearly tradition? But at least this one is a winner, even if it only contains a wounding rather than an actual homicide. As is proper, it’s set in Cabot Cove, where Jessica is busy prepping for the big day, only for her plans to be marred by embezzling and gunfire. NB: pay special attention to the alternative lyrics for We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

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4. Cheers (Christmas Cheers)

A terrifically cynical 30 minutes at the Boston bar in which Rebecca makes everyone work on Christmas Eve, the regulars scorn It’s a Wonderful Life, Norm sweats buckets in a Santa suit and Carla loses it with a customer (“Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah – now get out!”). Then comes a reminder for a disillusioned Frasier that miracles can happen – even if they’re small and fleeting…

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5. A Charlie Brown Christmas

It’s been a staple part of the US TV schedules ever since its debut in 1965, but the fact that this jazz-scored classic goes largely unshown in the UK is – to get all Charlie Brown about it – quite depressing. Touching on the over-commercialisation and secularism of Christmas, it manages to pack so much wisdom into its 25-minute running time. And it’s hard to think now that network bosses were fretting about including Linus’s Bible quotation in the original broadcast – it’s definitely one of the stand-out moments.

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6. The Box of Delights – episode 1

Kids today may be used to megabucks CGI-filled big-screen spectaculars like the Narnia films, but show them this eerie 1984 BBC teatime drama and they’ll be hooked. It’s the story of young Kay Harker, who is given a magical box by an old Punch-and-Judy man. Only, more nefarious types are after it too…This is a Christmas story with bite – and it’s just as creepy and disconcerting today as it was three decades ago. Treat yourselves to the opening episode and I guarantee you’ll end up watching all six.

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7. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (The Blue Carbuncle)

Those eagerly anticipating the new year return of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock should enjoy this Christmas-set case from the Jeremy Brett-starring series made by Granada. Criticisms have been levelled at Brett for his cold, snappy performance, but he’s in playful mood here as Holmes tries to work out how a valuable gem ended up in the gullet of a goose. Highlights include his showdown with Covent Garden salesman Breckinridge and an arch confrontation with the shifty James Ryder.

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8. ER (Blizzard)

You can’t go too far wrong with any Christmas in the ER, but this pulse-racing first-season episode remains superior. Suffice it to say that a gear shift a third of the way in throws a fun-filled snow day in the emergency room into chaos. The gurneys pile up, Polish admin clerk Bob proves her worth and patient Patrick plays inappropriately jolly festive tunes over the PA. What more could you want? Well, maybe the sight of Dr Greene walking out into the snow with a woolly hat on – but, hey, you get that too!

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9. Coronation Street (Hilda leaves)

OK, so if you’re as old as me then you might well remember Hilda’s send-off (26 million did watch it at the time – yes, inclusive of the omnibus, trivia fans). But archive episodes of soaps rarely get shown these days and with Jean Alexander having passed away earlier this year, it’s the perfect time to seek out this belting 1987 visit to Weatherfield. After seeing Hilda trill Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye, you’ll realise you’ve witnessed festive soap at its peak.

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10. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas

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The big-screen Poirots such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile at this time of year. But while they are as joyously camp as Christmas itself, they’re not actually set in December. Enter David Suchet with this chilly mystery that sees Hercule head to a stately home where a frankly evil old buzzard gets slain. Expect an air of Hound of the Baskervilles about one big reveal and watch out for Mad Maya Sharma from Corrie as one of the suspects.

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