If you’re not sure what to watch this Christmas, never fear – because award-winning Radio Times columnist Alison Graham has been poring through the schedules to help you find the tastiest morsels and avoid the complete turkeys this festive season.
So whether you’re looking for Poldark in a murder mystery, a Time Lord marital spat or a silent two-hour sleigh ride, check out her top picks below – there’s the perfect TV gift for anyone in there somewhere.
1. And Then There Were None (Boxing Day BBC1)
Aidan “Poldark” Turner puts on a shirt and lays down his scythe, thankfully only temporarily, to star in an adaptation of Agatha’s Christie’s bestselling crime fiction book of all time. It’s the one where ten strangers are invited to an island off the Devon coast and are stranded by the tide. Then there’s a murder…
2. Peter and Wendy (Boxing Day ITV)
Do you believe in fairies? Do you believe a new version of Peter Pan starring Paloma Faith can win a whole new audience for JM Barrie’s story of the boy who never grows up? We shall see. Faith stars as Tinkerbell, with Stanley Tucci as Captain Hook in this version that opens in modern-day Great Ormond Street Hospital, where 12-year-old Lucy (who also plays Wendy Darling) is about to get treatment for a serious heart condition.
3. Dickensian (Boxing Day BBC1)
One of the weariest, most self-regarding clichés about British television drama is that if Dickens were still alive, he’d be writing EastEnders. DickensEnders, maybe? But this mammoth 20-part behemoth is scripted by Tony Jordan, possibly the writer most closely associated with the BBC1 soap. So who knows, maybe Dickens really would have written EastEnders after all. Stephen Rea, Pauline Collins and Caroline Quentin are among the many stars of this sort-of ghost story set in Victorian London.
4. We’re Doomed!: The Dad’s Army Story (22nd December BBC2)
There’s a big-screen version of beloved sitcom Dad’s Army just around the corner. In the meantime here’s a dramatised account of the struggles of writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft to bring to television their comedy set among a small WW2 Home Guard platoon on the South coast. It stars Paul Ritter as Perry and Richard Dormer as Croft. John Sessions is Arthur Lowe (Mainwaring, above)) and Julian Sands the urbane John Le Mesurier (Wilson).
5. Doctor Who (Christmas Day BBC1)
After a few years offscreen, Alex Kingston’s foxy archaeologist River Song returns to Doctor Who for her first meeting with Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor – but apparently, she’s not convinced this Time Lord is the real deal. While he tries to persuade her, they’ll have to face the forces of evil and make new allies in the form of Greg Davies’ King Hydroflax and Matt Lucas’ Nardole respectively. All that, and there may be a new sonic screwdriver or two… HF
6. Sherlock (New Year’s Day BBC1)
After Sherlock Holmes’s re-invention as a modern-day superhero, he’s back where he began for the most anticipated drama of the Christmas season. The deerstalker hat, the Inverness cape, the Meerschaum pipe, this is Benedict Cumberbatch as “classic” Sherlock, the man imagined in prose by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and realised in pictures by his Strand Magazine illustrator Sidney Paget.
Of course it’s also the unmistakable look of Sherlock’s co-creators and writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s favourite film incarnations of the sleuth and his devoted sidekick, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.
The Abominable Bride is a one-off, snowy ghost tale, a special that takes Sherlock and John (Martin Freeman) to the “right year”, says Moffat. “It’s a new story, but if you know the original stories, you’ll see that it’s fashioned out of quite a few others. As ever with us, we’ve chosen several and there are loads of references. One of them you have to be able to speak Chinese to get.”
7. Fungus the Bogeyman (27th December Sky1)
Raymond Briggs’s lovely family story about a world-weary creepy creature who spends his days trying to frighten people comes to Sky1 with Timothy Spall in the title role.
8. Harry Price: Ghost Hunter (27th December ITV)
I loved Neil Spring’s novel The Ghost Hunters and my fantasy cast list was headed by Rafe Spall as the perfect actor to play real-life psychic researcher, paranormal investigator, author, ghost-hunter and sceptic Harry Price.
So I’m delighted that Spall plays Price in Jack Lothian’s adaptation. When we first meet Price he’s fallen on hard times in 1920s London and, despite his strong motivation to unmask charlatans who exploit the bereaved, he’s losing his moral compass. Price’s most infamous investigation was at the Borley Rectory in Essex, anecdotally “the most haunted house in England”. This could be a perfect Christmas ghost story.
9. Downton Abbey (Christmas Day ITV)
You thought it was all over. It is now, almost, with the last, ever, ever, ever television episode of Julian Fellowes’s world-conquering hit (though who knows, there might be a film version). Will the loose ends finally be tied up? Will Lady Edith, last seen looking wistful in a meadow, get a man?
10. The Sleigh Ride (Christmas Eve, BBC4)
The title says it all: it’s a ride in a sleigh. Welcome to snowy, slow TV. It’s a concept dear to RT readers, who took BBC4’s Slow TV season to their hearts. So this is a rare treat — no narration, no extraneous music, no Maria Carey breathily singing about whatever it is she wants for Christmas. It’s just a two-hour symphony of crunching snow and the odd tinkle of a reindeer bell as we hop aboard a sleigh in Lapland to take in the glorious surroundings.
11. David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef (30th December, BBC1)
Yes, the Great Barrier Reef actually belongs to David Attenborough, or so this title suggests. But surely no one would begrudge our age’s great communicator that possessive apostrophe, because Attenborough has made the natural world his own. In this three-part series, pioneering camera technology, including satellite scanning, reveals even the smallest of life forms living on that 2,300km of coral.
12. Call the Midwife (Christmas Day BBC1)
Past Call the Midwife Christmas specials have been marked by bleak stories featuring poverty, death, despair and loneliness. But thankfully hope is never quite abandoned in Poplar as the nuns and midwives go about their work, and there’s always a bit of tinsel to be seen somewhere. It’s 1960, the BBC arrives in town to record a carol concert, and dear Sister Monica Joan goes missing.
13. Peter Kay: 20 Years of Funny (Christmas Eve BBC1)
One of the more extraordinary experiences of my life was accompanying comedian Peter Kay around his home town of Bolton. Everyone knew him, it seemed, and what’s more they weren’t afraid to come up and say hello.
Kay has his roots firmly in the characters who have shaped his life in the place where he still lives. This documentary looks at the path that took him to sell-out shows, chart-topping charity singles and comedy superstardom.
14. Festive Music (Christmas Eve/Christmas Day, BBC1+2)
Amid the grasping consumerism and the welter of stodgy food, whether you are religious or not it’s always a pleasure to enter another world, one of stillness, light and goodness. Carols from King’s on Christmas Eve is an oasis of beauty, and this year Midnight Mass and the Christmas Morning service both come from splendid Bath Abbey, where transcendent voices will ring around its glorious Gilbert Scott fan-vaulted ceiling.
15. The Great History Quiz (Christmas Eve BBC2)
Christmas turns our heads to puddings and we end up sitting in front of anything on the telly as long as it glitters. So here’s a palate-cleansing bit of brain-boxery to sharpen soggy wits.
A 60-minute special dedicated to the Tudors. And we ALL know about the Tudors, it’s surely a proven fact. Is there a grown-up in the land who didn’t do them at school? Kirsty Young hosts and we are invited to test our knowledge against that of Lucy Worsley, Horrible Histories’ Greg Jenner and Dan Snow, among others.
Additional writing by Huw Fullerton