The best television this Christmas
From Downton and EastEnders to a Snowman sequel and Room on the Broom, this season's festive fare has something for everyone. Gerard Gilbert selects his holiday highlights
The Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbo has rather spoiled for me the innocence of sculpted mounds of frozen precipitation with his serial killer novel The Snowman, and this Christmas a new generation of children are poised between associating these festive figures with either good or evil.
Channel 4 gets in there first with The Snowman and the Snowdog, their sequel to the 1982 animation of Raymond Briggs' classic, The Snowman.
On the dark side, the Snowmen also happen to be Steven Moffat's latest Doctor Who villains – their malevolence mitigated somehow by their resemblance to Zippy from Rainbow. Doctor Who is one among many predictable seasonal treats, and equally predictable (and right) is the fact that the licence-fee financed broadcaster has again poured by far the most resources into the annual holiday. The other channels make token efforts, but by and large they leave Christmas to the BBC.
And while it's good to see ITV keeping Downton Abbey apart from Call the Midwife, they've still placed Coronation Street hard up against Heidi Thomas's saga of Fifties childbirth. In reply, BBC1 has placed EastEnders against Downton – not so much "Who killed Derek Branning?" (Albert Square's big storyline this year), as "Who tried to assassinate the Earl of Grantham?"
If I had to select only five programmes to watch this Christmas, they would be Restless, Miranda, Call the Midwife and the two Arena documentaries (see below). But then that's one of the joys of this time of year – the schedules, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, are like a box of chocolates. Except, by and large, you know what you're going to get, and anyway I've already gobbled everything except the coated Brazil nuts. Anyone for charades?
The Snowman and the Snowdog Christmas Eve 8pm Channel 4
It's 30 years since the original Snowman was the highlight of Channel 4's first Christmas, but will today's post-Pixar generation be walking on the air, or will they be blasé about the hard graft involved in producing this charmingly bespoke (40 artists producing 200,000 pencil drawings) sequel to Raymond Briggs' classic tale?
Room on the Broom
Christmas Day 4.35pm BBC1
What exactly is the point of an all-star cast when the likes of Gillian Anderson (as the witch), Rob Brydon, Martin Clunes, Sally Hawkins and David Walliams are virtually monosyllabic? At least Simon Pegg, as the narrator of Julia Donaldson's non-Gruffalo tale, gets a good vocal workout, as various lonely forest animals hitch a ride on a flying broomstick.
Uncle Wormsley's Christmas
Christmas Eve 10pm Sky Atlantic
Steve Coogan makes a suitably un-avuncular narrator in this nightmare-before-Christmas tale for older animation fans with a taste for something darker, as spouses Julian Barratt and Julia Davis supply voices. What to buy a boy who has everything? A giant crab, of course.
Arena – Screen Goddesses
Sat 22 December 9pm BBC4
Greta Garbo devours John Gilbert like a cat with a moustachioed, over-acting mouse, Rita Hayworth peels off her black satin gloves in Gilda, and silent actresses Louise Brooks and Clara Bow are so modern and alive that it is startling to think that these performances are more than 80 years old. The only downside to this delicious tasting menu is the dearth of accompanying movies.
Elizabeth Taylor: England's Other Elizabeth
Sun 23 December 10.55pm
This profile was filmed in 2000 at the time of Taylor receiving a damehood from the Queen. Now there's a conversation you would want to overhear.
Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel
Christmas Day 5.25pm BBC2
The nation's favourite be-wimpled art historian, now 82 and serenely contemplating her own mortality, fronts what amounts to a sort of "Desert Island Religious Paintings", interweaving her life story with meditations upon how the old masters depicted the Gospel stories.
Arena: Moominland Tales – the Life of Tove Jansson
Boxing Day 9pm BBC4
Those philosophical peace-loving trolls, the Moomins, have enchanted generations of children since their first appearance in the 1950s, and the story of their creator, Finnish artist Tove Jansson (left), is a fascinating tale of survival against the odds – in Nazi-occupied Helsinki and as an active lesbian in a hostile world. It's perhaps not surprising that Jansson took herself off to a remote island and became a hermit.
Christmas Eve 9.35pm BBC1
Unavailable for preview, so it will be interesting to see how rapidly the child actors – Tyger Drew-Honey, Daniel Roche and Ramona Marquez – are growing up, as they become reluctant attendees as Mum and Dad (Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis) throw a party.
Christmas Eve 10pm Channel 4
Having Jez fall in love with Dobby has been the genius idea of the latest series of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong's never-disappointing sitcom, which climaxes tonight in some pretty unsavoury places – not least Super Hans's flat. Dobby (the splendid Isy Suttie) is offered a job in New York, but should she stay or should she go?
The Royle Family
Christmas Day 9.45pm BBC1
After a year off, the cast is depleted with Jessica Hynes, the Twenty Twelve star, having decided that gluttonous neighbour Cheryl has now run her course, with Ralf Little absent too. The rest are here though, as Barbara (Sue Johnston) goes overboard with presents from a pound shop.
Boxing Day 9pm BBC1
After a two-year hiatus, Miranda Hart's clownish alter-ego comes roaring back on top form. The joke shop has fallen victim to the recession and Miranda is forced to find a grown-up office job. Needless to say, her dress gets caught in the lift, but you'd expect nothing less.
Loving Miss Hatto
Sun 23 December 8.30pm BBC1
Victoria Wood's new drama is the real-life story of failed concert pianist Joyce Hatto (Francesca Annis), whose husband, record producer Barry (Alfred Molina), hits on the wheeze of livening up their quiet suburban existence by passing off the recordings of other artists as his wife's.
Christmas Day 5.15pm BBC1
It's yet another Victorian Christmas for Matt Smith's forlorn time-traveller (below) – he's missing those Ponds (as indeed am I) until he meets chirpy governess Clara, played by new companion Jenna-Louise Coleman. Pace Raymond Briggs, but this year's adversaries are some sharp-teeth snowmen controlled by a megalomaniac Richard E Grant.
Call the Midwife Christmas Day 7.30pm BBC1
Golly, as Miranda Hart's character, Chummy might say – Heidi Thomas has provided some hard-hitting (but well-judged) stuff for early on Christmas night. As usual, we're spared few of the graphic details as a teenager gives birth alone and a gangrenous semi-vagrant (an outstanding performance from Sheila Reid) is haunted by her workhouse past.
Christmas Day 8.45pm ITV1
No need for smoke machines to disguise the fact that their Christmas special was filmed in high summer (as was the case in 2011) because this year's story is set in August. The nobs are headed to the Highlands to stay with the pater and mater (played by Peter Egan and Phoebe Nicholls) of wild child Lady Rose, the servants being left at Downton. And while the cats are away, the mice do play...
Boxing Day 9pm BBC2
Soon we will have two Hitchcocks to compare – Anthony Hopkins' version, terrorising Janet Leigh during the making of Psycho in Hitchcock, and this BBC biopic, with Toby Jones as the director, terrorising Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller, far left) during the making of The Birds. I hope Hopkins channels Hitch's devilish humour, because the words coming of the otherwise well-cast Jones's mouth sound like they ought to be funny, but aren't. He was a dour sex-pest in other words.
Boxing Day 9pm ITV1
"It's like the Italian Job, then?"… "Yes, but without the Italian", is an early exchange in this cheerful adaptation (Sandi Toksvig is one of the writers) of Ian Rankin's art heist novel. Stephen Fry plays an academic drawn into a plot to rob an Edinburgh gallery. Douglas Henshall and Lenora Crichlow co-star.
Thur 27 December 9pm BBC1
Hayley Atwell is perfect as Eva, the Russian emigrée persuaded to work for the British secret services in wartime America, that William Boyd might have written his source novel with her in mind. Boyd as usual adapted his own prose, the action flitting between the 1940s and the long, hot summer of 1976, where Eva's daughter (Michelle Dockery) realises that she doesn't know her mother at all.
Carols from King's
Christmas Eve 6.15pm BBC2
Four million fewer Britons may now describe themselves as Christians than 10 years ago, but just as some only ever attend at church at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (and then half-cut, a truth beautifully observed in last year's seasonal special of Rev), so for others that elusive "Christmas spirit" hasn't been tapped until the soloist at King's College, Cambridge, has launched into "Once in Royal David's City".
Christmas Day 8pm BBC2
Strictly Come Dancing judge Darcey Bussell steps lightly back into her area of expertise, presenting a Kirov Ballet production of Tchaikovsky's classic ballet from St Petersburg. Ulyana Lopatkina takes the demanding duel role of Odette/Odile.
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