Your guide to Christmas radio

A Christmas Carol, Neil Gaiman's Good Omens, George Michael, Cabin Pressure... Jane Anderson's recommendations will "sweep out the holiday humbug with a quality broom"

It’s a fact. Some people do not enjoy Christmas. There are a number of perfectly pleasant, psychologically balanced adults who find the forced stuffing of festive frivolity as distasteful as a goose primed for its fatty-liver, fois-gras fate. Radio is here to sweep out the holiday humbug with a quality broom.

Advertisement

The drama team at Radio 4 has gone into overdrive with not one but four spectaculars. Things begin traditionally with A Christmas Carol (Sat 20 Dec, 2.30pm R4. Repeated New Year’s Day, 2.00pm R3). Robert Powell turns in an exquisite performance as Scrooge, the man who learns to love humanity after a lifetime of self-obsession. But the whole production is lifted to another level by Neil Brand’s full-score orchestration, which perfectly captures the mood of each of the three ghostly visitations.

This is followed by a masterpiece in pitch-black comedy from the pairing of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in Good Omens (Mon 22 Dec–Fri 26 Dec, 11pm R4 and Sat 27 Dec, 2.30pm), where two angels – one working with God, the other with Satan – form an unholy alliance. Unfortunately, there has been a bit of a mix-up with the birth of the Antichrist, and the American ambassador’s son (Warlock) might not be the child to bring on Armageddon after all. The fate of our planet will be decided after Any Questions on Saturday 27 Dec, Radio 4. Thus was it written… 

There’s a joyful reworking of Blithe Spirit (Boxing Day, 2.15pm R4) when Lynda Snell’s Archers hopefuls make their entrances and their exits, with the talents of the comic actor Julian Rhind-Tutt adding a certain flourish to the Noël Coward play as Charles Condomine. It’s Shakespearian in its ambition: fictional characters playing fictional characters – but it works.

And then, the production that demands the most devoted, or possibly hungover, of listeners: the ten-hour epic that is War and Peace (New Year’s Day, from 9am R4 FM). Spread across the whole day, this is a big ask for any listener, but the combination of Tolstoy’s beautifully evocative writing and the stellar cast (brought together by director Celia de Wolff) – John Hurt, Simon Russell Beale, Lesley Manville, Harriet Walter, Phoebe Fox, Paterson Joseph and Roger Allam – makes this the radio event of the year.

Musical offerings are as eclectic as one would hope, ranging from George Michael in Concert (Christmas Day, 7.00pm R2) to the most symbolic performance of the season, A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (Christmas Eve, 3pm R4). Add to the mix two very different guests on Desert Island Discs the Archbishop of Canterbury (Sun 21 Dec, 11.15am R4) and Ray Winstone (Sun 28 Dec, 11.15am R4) – and a real range of tracks is guaranteed. 

Classical music devotees are in for an international treat with the EBU Day of Christmas (Sun 21 Dec, from 1.02pm R3) and if swing, big- band music and Hollywood glamour tick all the right boxes for you then the perfect programme is Frank Sinatra – the Dream Concert (New Year’s Day, 5.00pm R2) where Fanilows will be popping their corks when Barry Manilow introduces a compilation of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ best live performances. 

Younger listeners are not overlooked this year either. My Playlister (New Year’s Day, from 10am R1) has the personal music picks of stars including Sam Smith, Lily Allen and the Vamps to entertain all. 

As for comedy, there are two big hitters with the final episodes of Cabin Pressure (Tue 23 and Christmas Eve, 6.30pm R4and Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show (Boxing Day, 11.30am R4). The former sees the wonderful sitcom come to a happy end, especially for its biggest star, Benedict Cumberbatch, while the latter witnesses the Count stooping to new, unfathomable lows of showbiz disgrace.

News, arts and factual addicts get a festive fix courtesy of the Today programme (Fri 26, Mon 29–Wed 31 Dec, 6.00am R4) where an array of guest editors, including Lenny Henry and Tracey Thorn, set the news agenda. David Attenborough’s Tweet of the Day (Christmas Day, 5.58am R4) brings the Christmas shearwater to centre stage and John Hurt is back again with a poignant First World War narrative in All Is Calm (Christmas Eve, 10pm R2).

A family favourite comes with Aled Jones’s voicing of The Snowman (Christmas Eve, 6.30pm Classic FM). Ian Hislop offers some surprisingingly comforting nostalgia in With Great Pleasure at Christmas (Christmas Day, 5pm R4). There are high-octane interviews in Formula 1 Review of the Year (New Year’s Eve, 9pm R5 Live) and, finally, my favourite festive offering, the sublime poetry of Found at Sea (Sun 28 Dec, 4.30pm R4).

Advertisement

Happy listening – and happy Christmas!