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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence