Christmas TV: the top 12 festive treats

Alison Graham presents her pick of the programmes coming our way this Christmas...

You’ve ordered the turkey, stirred your Christmas pudding mixture and you’ve bought the kids lots of battery-powered plastic tat that you have tried, and failed, to hide in the wardrobe.


Never mind, one of the great pleasures of the festive season is looking forward to the telly, knowing you will actually be able to watch for hours and days on end entirely guilt-free because that’s what Christmas is for.

It’s the time of year when gorging on succulent television schedules is perfectly acceptable; when, such is your stupour, you’ll watch tooth-rottingly twee American made-for-TV films on Channel 5 about dogs made homeless at Christmas or estranged dads trying to win back the affections of their angry kids by pretending to be Santa. I’ll watch them all and I won’t feel ashamed. A bit nauseous, perhaps, but never ashamed.

But we can do better than that. It’s the season to be jolly and to dip into the broadcasters’ selection box of comedy and drama, maybe to try something new – like Steve Pemberton’s adaptation of Mapp and Lucia – or something more familiar, such as the Doctor Who special.

So plump up the sofa cushions, find your Christmas slippers and break open those sugared almonds left over from last year in the hope that they might have softened just a bit. Christmas is coming – so let’s see what we’ll be watching.

Miranda (BBC1)

For fans of Miranda Hart, there will be tears this Christmas as she bids farewell to the sitcom that made her a huge star. Her Christmas specials mark the last time we’ll eavesdrop on the chaotic life of what-I-call the world’s most hapless joke-shop owner. 

Mapp and Lucia (BBC1)

EF Benson’s matchless comic novels about two warring grandes dames in a small, gossipy seaside town are my desert island books. The waspish Benson was brilliant at skewering the innate humour of the towering snob, and actor/writer Steve Pemberton, who’s adapted a handful of the stories for this three-parter (and also stars as fey Georgie Pillson), has done a sparkling job.

The splendid duo of Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor are the mighty women, locked in a battle for social and cultural supremacy in the south coast town of Tilling in the 1920s and 30s. 

Last Tango in Halifax (BBC1)

Not a Christmas special, but a welcome return for Sally Wainwright’s warm, vibrant, Bafta-winning love story. Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid are back as newlyweds Alan and Celia, but the glow of their honeymoon is dimmed when Alan is shaken by someone from his past. Rupert Graves joins the cast for the new series.

Downton Abbey (ITV)

A Downton Abbey Christmas special actually set at Christmas is a novelty, though we have to wonder what the mood will be like after the unfortunate Anna was arrested for murder at the end of the last series. Will anyone really feel like celebrating, will the halls be decked with holly or heartache? The feature-length episode, always the perfect digestif on Christmas night, guest-stars Alun Armstrong (New Tricks). 

Call the Midwife (BBC1)

The unmistakeable voice of Vanessa Redgrave has soothed us into every episode of Call the Midwife, reading the memoirs of the series’ inspiration, Jennifer Worth. But we actually get to see her in the Christmas special when she plays the mature Jenny (above). A new series is coming soon…

Doctor Who (BBC1)

So the Doctor said a poignant farewell to his companion Clara as Peter Capaldi’s first series ended. Bye-bye Clara, at least for now, as she will return in the Steven Moffat- scripted Christmas episode with Nick Frost as Santa Claus. But there’s a special thrill for anyone who considers Patrick Troughton his or her Doctor — his son Michael guest-stars.

Mrs Brown’s Boys (BBC1)

It’s reviled by critics, including me, but adored by audiences, so of course I had to include this, otherwise it would be like trying to ignore an earthquake in the next street. Last year’s Mrs Brown’s Boys wiped the floor with all of the festive TV competition and this year’s two special episodes will doubtless do the same.

Esio Trot (BBC1)

Roald Dahl’s beloved tale features some blockbusting talent. It stars Judi Dench, Dustin Hoffman and James Corden (who’s also back in The Wrong Mans on BBC2), and is adapted by Vicar of Dibley collaborators Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer.

Hoffman is Mr Hoppy, a retired bachelor who harbours a secret passion for his neighbour, Mrs Silver. She, however, lavishes all her affections on her pet tortoise. What can Mr Hoppy do to woo her?

Celebrity University Challenge, Celebrity Mastermind (BBC2)

You know that brainy quizzes are good for you, particularly at Christmas, when your head is fogged by too many thimble-sized glasses of those syrupy liqueurs you found at the back of the cupboard.

Besides, the celebrity versions of University Challenge and Mastermind are probably just a teeny bit easier than the usual. Johnny Ball, Tom Rosenthal and other celebs take a turn in the black chair.

Carols from King’s (BBC2/BBC4)

You don’t have to be religious to find a peaceful oasis of serenity and light in this beautiful service from the magnificent King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. As it’s 60 years since the first Carols from King’s, a documentary on its history will be shown before this year’s service. BBC4 will also broadcast a restored version of the 1954 programme over the holiday period.

Professor Branestawm (BBC1)

I read Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawn books at school, and loved them. So I hope Charlie Higson’s adaptation, with Harry Hill as the bonkers professor — brilliant casting — will urge today’s kids to seek out the original stories. Branestawm is not much more than a big kid himself, always getting into scrapes with his idiotic inventions. Vicki Pepperdine (Puppy Love, Getting On) plays his long- suffering housekeeper, Mrs Flittersnoop.

The Boy in the Dress (BBC1)

Little Britain’s David Walliams has found a whole new career as a successful children’s author, who taps into the peculiar type of loneliness that can make children feel like outsiders.


Twelve-year-old Dennis (Billy Kennedy) is an ordinary boy who feels out of place in his dull town. But a glimpse of a fashion magazine leads him into a whole new life full of possibilities. Walliams stars along with Jennifer Saunders, Meera Syal and model Kate Moss. 

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