Christmas TV guide 2013: Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly

Yes, there’s Downton, but also Austen as murder mystery, comedy from Sarah Silverman and thrilling documentaries about climbing Everest

“So, is there anything good to watch this Christmas?” asks the friend/colleague/relative this year, usually in a tone that suggests that they don’t expect an affirmative answer. But the truth is that, yes, there is – except you’ll probably have to search for it beyond the predictable big-hitters.

The attractions of Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing are well-known but there are plenty of hidden gems sprinkled among the fortnight’s mass-audience “treats” - the sorts of drama, comedy or documentary smart enough to stop us turning into an intellectual equivalent of Mr Creosote, the exploding gourmand in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Here is our guide.

Drama

Big hitters

Most are clustered on Christmas Day, the only serious clash being between EastEnders (8.30pm BBC1) and Downton Abbey (8.30pm ITV), the latter finally seeing the arrival of Paul Giamatti as Cora’s naughty brother Harold – and it says a lot about the thespian firepower in this show that the talented Sideways star doesn’t unbalance it.

Amongst the usual neo-natal storylines, the plot of this year’s Call the Midwife (6.15pm BBC1) has to incorporate the move of Nonnatus House necessitated by the (real-life) sale of the disused Jesuit college where the show’s first two series were filmed, while there’s a regeneration of a different sort in Doctor Who (7.30pm BBC1), as Matt Smith gives way to Peter Capaldi. Smith’s swansong is written by Steven Moffat, executive producer of Sherlock, which returns to BBC1 on New Year’s Day at 9pm. So how did Cumberbatch’s detective survive his rooftop fall?

Meanwhile the three-part Death Comes to Pemberley (8.15pm BBC1 26, 27, 28 December) – PD James’ continuation of Pride and Prejudice as a murder mystery, finds Matthew Rhys (The Americans) stepping into Colin Firth’s shoes as Mr Darcy. Anna Maxwell Martin is a suitably spirited Lizzie Bennet.

Hidden Gems

The Tractate Middoth

(9.30pm BBC2 Christmas Day)

Between writing his excellent drama about the birth of Doctor Who, An Adventure in Space and Time (repeated on Christmas Day, 4.30pm BBC2), and the first episode in the new series of Sherlock (see above), Mark Gatiss found time to write and make his directing debut with a slight but effective adaptation of MR James’s ghost story about a cursed Hebrew text.

The Thirteenth Tale

(9.30pm BBC2 Monday 30 Dec)

A rather more substantial and accomplished ghost story is Christopher Hampton’s genuinely unsettling adaptation of Diane Setterfield’s gothic novel, with Olivia Colman playing a biographer summoned by dying author (Vanessa Redgrave on top form) and unearthing her childhood secrets. The stand-out drama of Christmas 2013.

Music

From Top of the Pops Christmas (2pm BBC1 Christmas Day) and Carols from King’s (6.15pm BBC2 Christmas Eve) to Jools’ Annual Hootenanny (11.30pm BBC2 New Year’s Eve), the season’s musical treats are highly familiar. But you might like to try these:

Hidden Gems

Great American Rock Anthems

(9pm BBC4 Boxing Day)

Soaring guitar solo? Tick. Screaming vocals? Tick. A catchy chorus? “If you don’t get them on the chorus you don’t have an anthem,” says Alice Cooper, one of the contributors (along with Dave Grohl, Meat Loaf and Todd Rundgren) to this paean to the US rock anthems’ 1970s-90s heyday.

The Joy of Abba (9pm BBC4 Fri 27 Dec)

Is there anything new to be said about the Swedish foursome? The revelations (for me at least) include the entrenched hostility of their homeland’s hippy-left to Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s catchy (and increasingly melancholic brand) of pop. In 1970s Sweden, Abba were the real rebels.

Queer as Pop: From the Gay Scene to the Mainstream (10.55pm Fri C4 27 Dec)

After a brisk trot from Village People to Lady Gaga, by way of Bowie, Boy George and the gay-porn iconography of boy-band videos, the knives come out. Erasure’s Andy Bell leads the attack on the way that everyone from Kylie to Rihanna cynically targets the pink pound.

Comedy

There are “Christmas Specials” (just how “special” varies) of Not Going Out (10pm BBC1 Christmas Eve), Trollied (9pm Sky1 Christmas Eve), Mrs Brown’s Boys (9.30pm BBC1 Christmas Day) and Vicious (9pm ITV Fri 27 Dec), as well as the return of Essex sisters Sharon and Tracey in the re-booted Birds of a Feather (10pm ITV Thur 2 Jan) while David Jason reprises his now Ronnie Barker-less Yorkshire shop-keeper Granville in Roy Clarke’s Still Open All Hours (7.45pm BBC1 Boxing Day). Elsewhere Rab C Nesbitt (10pm Thur 2 Jan) takes aim at the “bedroom tax” turning his boudoir into a study.

Hidden Gems

Raised by Wolves

(10.50pm Channel 4 Mon 23 Dec)

Journalist Caitlin Moran and her sister Caroline wrote this sitcom pilot imagining their own free-range childhood on a Wolverhampton council estate as if it was happening today. The excellent Rebekah Staton (Pulling) plays the chain-smoking mother of a large brood – the girls (Germaine, Aretha and Yoko) all named after strong females, as the Moran sisters attempt to reclaim intellectualism for the working classes. It’s the sort of household where teenagers have posters of George Orwell on their bedroom wall.

Mel Smith: I’ve Sort of Done Things

(9.45pm BBC2 Christmas Eve)

The rubber-faced star of Not the Nine O’Clock News and Alas Smith and Jones died of a heart attack earlier this year at the age of 60, but some contributors here express surprise that the hard-drinking Smith made it even that far. A revealing and affectionate look back at how a precocious bookie’s son from Chiswick turned actor, director, businessman, gambler and hot-shot Hollywood producer-manqué.

The IT Crowd Manual

(10pm Channel 4 Christmas Eve)

A treat for fans of Roy, Moss and Jen as a repeat of this year’s The It Crowd Special: the Internet Is Coming (9pm Channel 4) is followed by this documentary about Graham Linehan’s computer-geek sitcom. Stars Chris O’Dowd, Richard Ayoade and Katherine Parkinson are joined by anybody and everybody (except, as you’d expect, Chris Morris) who has ever guested.

Richard Ayoade as Moss in the IT Crowd (Channel 4)  

Sarah Silverman: We are Miracles

(9pm Sky Atlantic 30 Dec)

Silverman is in fine fettle as she succeeds in both amusing and discomfiting a live audience in this HBO special that takes in Scientology and vaginal deodorant – and manages to make jokes about rape and 9/11 widows while not coming across like Frankie Boyle. The is comedy that’s vulnerable and alive, rather than over-polished and as dead as Jack Dee’s pan.

Documentaries

There’s an endurance theme with this Christmas’s documentaries, whether it’s TT motorcyclist Guy Martin trying to break various speed records in Speed with Guy Martin (8pm Channel 4 Sun 29 Dec) or Ben Fogle and James Cracknell trudging in the footsteps of explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger as they cross the Arabian desert’s Empty Quarter, in Ben & James versus the Arabian Desert (9.15pm BBC2 Boxing Day).

Hidden Gems

Endeavour: Everest Without Oxygen (10.45pm BBC4 Sun 29 Dec)

The first of two thrilling documentaries about unusual attempts on the world’s highest mountain, starting with Leo Dickinson’s 1978 record of Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler’s without-additional-oxygen ascent. On the following night, Endeavour: Everest by Balloon (9.50pm BBC4) records the only successful balloon flight over Everest – completed (just about) by cameraman Leo Dickinson and partner Chris Dewhirst.

PQ17: An Arctic Convoy Disaster

(9pm BBC2 Thur 2 Jan)

Say what you like about Jeremy Clarkson (and many do) but he can be a first-rate journalist and communicator – and this is his lively account of the wartime Arctic convoys that ferried guns and tanks to Uncle Joe Stalin against appalling odds, and of one particular ill-fated convoy. Clarkson-phobes can always take pleasure in watching the presenter shiver on an icy deck.

Arts and books

Not everyone was convinced that Don Quixote was the right choice for Carlos Acosta as his opening work as choreographer for the Royal Ballet, but judge for yourself in The Royal Ballet: Don Quixote (8pm BBC4 Christmas Day). The other dance performance on Christmas Day is Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty (6.10pm BBC2), otherwise there is this trio of arts documentaries well worth seeking out:

Hidden Gems

Timeshift: The Ladybird Books Story

(9pm BBC4 Sun 22 Dec)

Starting with “British Birds and Their Nests”, how a Midlands printing firm and one of its enterprising salesmen, Douglas Keen, managed to get round post-war paper rationing to create the iconic and beautifully illustrated children’s imprint, Ladybird Books.

MR James: The Ghost Writer

(10.05pm BBC2 Christmas Day)

Broadcast straight after his adaptation of The Tractate Middoth (see above), Mark Gatiss sets off in the footsteps of its author, Monty James, a sexually-repressed Victorian with a fine taste for historic architecture and the macabre.

Michael Palin in Wyeth’s World

(9pm BBC2 Sun 29 Dec)

In an unexpectedly absorbing Culture Show special the former and renewed Monty Python star travels to the US state of Maine in search of a favourite artist, the realist painter Andrew Wyeth, who died in 2009 at the age of 91. Palin manages to secure an interview with the woman whom the married Wyeth secretly painted for 15 years, thereby creating something of a scandal but also some of his most compelling works.

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