The 12 best shows to watch on TV this Christmas
From Doctor Who and Little Women to Snow Bears and McMafia - here are 12 festive treats to look forward to from TV editor Alison Graham
Is it really that time of year again? Surely Christmas can’t be approaching? Wasn’t it only a few months ago that we were wassailing and roasting chestnuts on an open fire before singing carols around the piano? Or have I slipped through some strange space/time continuum and I’m imagining I’m celebrating Christmas in the 1950s?
There’s a feeling that Christmas will be anticipated more eagerly in 2017, a feeling that it’s at least a happy, uniting event that will, thank heavens, fingers crossed, mark the end of a bitterly unpleasant year. A year in which the news has presented us – at one point it seemed almost nightly – with the most harrowing of images.
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If nothing else, television at Christmas is about escapism, so prepare to plump up the sofa cushions and lose yourself, if only for a little while, with a box of inedible sugared almonds and a bit of a warm glow.
1. Little Women BBC1
I remember loving a BBC1 Sunday tea-time adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s timeless, ageless classic way back in 1970. I also remember sobbing like a donkey at, well… you know what… very much like Joey would much, much later in an episode of Friends. My mum had to console me, though I still bear the scars of being exposed to such literary trauma so young.
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I’m glad that a whole new generation of young girls (and boys, and women and men) will wail at the Sad Bit in this marvellous story, adapted by the great Heidi Thomas (she’s having a busy Christmas, what with the Call the Midwife special, too). Emily Watson is Marmee, matriarch of the March family (daughters Amy, Jo, Meg and Beth) growing up during the American Civil War.
2. Snow Bears BBC1
That’s it, I’m lost. A goner. It’s over. I am mush. Just look at the teeny-weeny polar bear cubs in this lovely film. They are as cute as little pies. Who can resist? Not me, ever. Look at their little paws! And their little noses! I’m already sobbing at just the thought of a film centred solely on the story of the two cubs and their mother as they battle the odds to travel 400 miles in search of seal-rich pack ice at the North Pole. Pick me up and dry me off when it’s over.
3. Mary, Mel and Sue’s Surprise Party BBC1
Even though the C4 version of The Great British Bake Off turned out to be a pleasantly surprising treat, it’s still good to see Mary, Mel and Sue reunited — if only for a Christmas one-off of something that’s not at all Bake Off related.
This is an unusual show, a mixture of DIY SOS and Noel’s Christmas Presents. The trio visit a community in South Wales that’s been through tough times and try to sprinkle a bit of festive magic. Volunteers at the community centre, who work hard to provide hot meals and bingo, get a boost as Mary, Mel and Sue organise Christmas dinner and a party.
4. Doctor Who BBC1
I saw the charming Peter Capaldi just days after he’d filmed his final scenes as the 12th Doctor, which also, of course, marked the end of showrunner Steven Moffat’s tenure. It was a poignant moment for both actor and writer, but the Doctor’s future is surely in the safest of hands with Chris Chibnall taking over as showrunner, and of course Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor.
Her arrival, via a Christmas Day episode regeneration, will mark an incredibly exciting new chapter in the show’s history. And what a great role model she will be for little girls. The special will guest-star Mark Gatiss as a First World War soldier called “The Captain” and will be Pearl Mackie’s final episode as companion Bill Potts.
5. Victoria ITV
As Prince Albert is widely credited with inventing Christmas as we know it — trees, cards, the works — I’m looking forward to full-on festive Victorian folderol in a two-hour special from writer Daisy Goodwin.
As we return to Buckingham Palace, however, the young queen (Jenna Coleman) is feeling gloomy, so it’s up to Albert (Tom Hughes) to spread a little magic by turning their home into a wonderland. He also infuriates his wife by inviting two unwelcome guests, Uncle Leopold and Victoria’s awful mother…
6. The Highway Rat BBC1
The year’s big Christmas animation is an adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s children’s book about a greedy rat who tyrannises animals along the highway, stealing their food — clover from a rabbit, nuts from a squirrel, a leaf from some ants and a horse’s hay.
But the Highway Rat (voiced by David Tennant) has an Achilles heel: sugar. He craves it and his sweet tooth leads him to a sticky outcome. Also starring Tom Hollander, Rob Brydon, Nina Sosanya and Frances de la Tour. Last year’s Donaldson Christmas Day animation, Stick Man, secured more than nine million viewers.
7. Grandpa’s Great Escape BBC1 and Ratburger Sky 1
David Walliams has carved quite a career for himself as a bestselling children’s author. I’ve seen at first hand how much book-mad kids love him and find so much in his stories of people, not just children, who don’t quite fit.
Grandpa (Tom Courtenay) is a former wartime flying ace who now suffers from dementia. When his family can no longer look after him, he moves into an old people’s home, Twilight Towers, run by the sinister and conniving Miss Dandy (Jennifer Saunders). Ratburger tells the story of Zoe, a girl with a stepmother (Sheridan Smith) who can’t stand her and a dad who’s never around.
8. Call the Midwife BBC1
Call the Midwife has quietly become a Christmas Day staple as it fits the general seasonal mood of kindness and goodwill. It’s 1963 and Poplar is blanketed by snow in the coldest winter for 300 years. Brutal low temperatures, blizzards, power cuts, road closures and frozen pipes combine to test the patience of our lovely midwives.
Val helps a young couple, newly arrived in London, as the mum goes through a traumatic birth, while Sister Julienne struggles to reunite a family. Anita Dobson guest-stars.
9. McMafia BBC1
Everyone is terribly excited about this adaptation of journalist Misha Glenny’s bestseller McMafia, a look at the far-reaching effects of global crime. James Norton (Grantchester, War and Peace) takes the lead role of Alex Godman, the English-raised son of Russian exiles with a Mafia past, whom Alex has spent his life trying to escape. He’s built his own legitimate business with his girlfriend, Rebecca, but is soon drawn into a world of money laundering, corrupt politicians and ruthless intelligence agencies.
10. Eric, Ernie & Me BBC4
This is not to be confused with the 2011 biography of our most beloved comic duo written by Peter Bowker and the much lamented Victoria Wood. Neil Forsyth’s drama focuses on Eric and Ernie’s scriptwriter Eddie Braben, who became a star in his own right, particularly after all those brilliant Christmas shows.
Stephen Tompkinson plays Braben as he takes the duo to hitherto unimaginable heights of television success, culminating in the 1977 Christmas show (the one with Elton John). Mark Bonnar (Unforgotten) plays Eric Morecambe and Neil Maskell (Humans) is Ernie Wise.
11. The Miniaturist BBC1
A big Christmas highlight — a two-part adaptation of Jessie Burton’s hugely successful novel. It’s an unusual, unsettling thriller set in 1686, when teenager Nella arrives at a sumptuous house in a wealthy part of Amsterdam.
She’s full of hopes for the future as she prepares to embark on a new life as the wife of a wealthy merchant. But the new bride quickly realises that all is not right when she’s met by her husband’s forbidding sister, Marin (Romola Garai).
When she finally meets her husband, he presents her with a glorious wedding gift, a miniature replica of their home, which is furnished by the elusive Miniaturist, someone with an uncanny ability to know what’s going on in Nella’s life.
12. Carols from King’s BBC2, Radio 4
Any Christmas preview would be criminally incomplete without this wonderful annual oasis of light in the darkness. But after a year scarred by atrocity after atrocity, here and abroad, this beautiful service brings time for peaceful reflection. At the very least it will allow us all, religious or not, to pause amid Christmas Eve preparations to think about the things that really matter.