The Independent's Christmas television guide
iWallace & Gromit, Shooting Stars and The Krypton Factor: some old friends are back on the box, discovers a delighted Rob Sharp
Friday 19 December 2008
The star of Christmas television this year isn't an overweight man crammed into red pyjamas, though he is as well loved by the British public, and his garb is equally eye-opening.
He sports a pea-green woollen tank top, a red tie, and what appear to be brown slacks topped with an elasticated waist. He is often to be seen with a doe-eyed, beige beagle in tow.
Sound familiar? It should, for this year's Yuletide television schedules are headed up by claymation's favourite character, Wallace, paired up with long-time canine sidekick Gromit. The national treasures make a welcome return to the small screen in A Matter of Loaf and Death on Christmas Day (BBC1, 8.30pm).
This offering sums up the programmers' attitudes to seasonal broadcasting: stick to eel-good sentimentality combined with cockle-warming humour; wheel out the big guns; and sit back and enjoy the results, mince pie in hand.
It's the first Wallace and Gromit project since Aardman's acclaimed 2005 feature film Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (also showing on BBC1 on Christmas Day, at 4.30pm), and the pair's first short since A Close Shave in 1995. Wallace (Peter Sallis) and Gromit now run a bakery business. It is called Top Bun, though the characters still land up in a doughy mess. Gromit learns that bakers have been mysteriously disappearing and tries to sniff out the cause before Wallace ends up a victim.
Typical roller-coaster action ensues in the half-hour episode, as Wallace is held prisoner and meets a new love interest, Piella Bakewell, a bread enthusiast, voiced by the former Coronation Street actress Sally Lindsay. The project, one year in production, would have been a hot Oscar tip had it not missed the deadline. Expect typically witty results, not least in Wallace's Heath Robinson-style inventions and screenwriting parodies of the Batman and Aliens blockbuster films .
The same day, also on BBC1, is this year's Doctor Who special. The Next Doctor (BBC1, 6pm), plots how the dimension-bending adventurer (David Tennant) time-travels his way into the path of fellow Time Lord David Morrissey. Like that electronic book you're hankering after for Christmas, details of the plot are under wraps, though the Cybermen are expected to clunk their way back into town. Trivia spot: the episode is the metallic monsters' first appearance in two-and-a-half years. When they faced the show's first doctor, William Hartnell, they came out of the snow. According to Russell T Davies, writing in the Radio Times, this new episode will feature a homage to that original 1963 appearance. It was Davies, of course, who spearheaded Doctor Who's reinvention in 2005.
From one load of celebrity shufflers to another: stay with the terrestrial broadcaster for Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1, 7pm), for three of the series' celebrity successes – Kelly Brook, Alesha Dixon and Jill Halfpenny – pitting their salsas, rumbas and tangos against another three pairs of dancers. Expect jokes from long-time host Bruce Forsyth about Tess Daly's similarities to a "Christmas cracker".
Strictly joins a cornucopia of BBC silliness in the form of a QI Christmas Special (22 December, BBC1, 9pm), with know-it-all talents Rob Brydon, Clive Anderson and Dom Joly appearing alongside host Stephen Fry. On the other side, the mind-body-spirit-crushing game show The Krypton Factor returns to screens for the first time since being axed in 1995 (New Year's Day, ITV1, 7.30pm). Celebrity Big Brother, love it or hate it, will be back early in the new year (2 January, Channel 4, 9pm).
Comedy is a big winner this year. On Christmas Day, both Alan Carr (10.35pm) and Lee Evans (11.40pm) will be shown doing stand-up on Channel 4. The most-recent series of Peep Show is screened in its entirety (E4, 27 December, from 10pm). Also make efforts to join in with All New Shooting Stars (30 December, BBC2, 10pm, for fans of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer's surreal student-beloved brand of humour), as well as the Morecambe and Wise 1975 Christmas Special (Boxing Day, BBC2, 9.30pm), The Royle Family (Christmas Day, BBC1, 9.30pm) and, most importantly, Harry Hill's TV Burp Review of the Year (Boxing Day, ITV1, 7pm). Gavin and Stacey, the critics' favourite comedy show (Christmas Eve, BBC1, 10pm) floats the idea that Gavin (Mathew Horne) might be taking a job back in Cardiff, where Stacey (Joanna Page) comes from.
On the serious drama front, there's the new BBC version of The 39 Steps (28 December, BBC1, 8pm), with Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks), as the hero Richard Hannay. Many of the features of Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 film have been cast aside (for example, his film based on John Buchan's 1915 novel was set between the world wars, whereas this is in the run-up to the First World War, as Buchan had it). Screenwriter Lizzie Mickery, who co-wrote the 2006 TV thriller The State Within, says she's refused to be influenced by earlier versions. "I didn't let myself think about it. I was immediately caught up in the story and I just set off," she said in an interview. "I have added fun and romance, I hope, and a bit of oomph." And the best films? Slim pickings for viewers over 10, but you could do worse than Pan's Labyrinth (22 December, Film 4, 9pm), Con Air (23 December, BBC1, 10.35pm), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (Boxing Day, More4, 6.45pm).
One gripe about the 2008 Christmas schedules: over the BBC's two main channels, there will be 270 hours of re-runs over the two-week season. "While there will be no repeats in peak time on BBC1 on Christmas Day, we are happy to be able to offer viewers the chance to see some of the BBC's best programmes again, and our research shows they really appreciate this," said a BBC spokesperson. Something for everybody, almost. As long as you don't mind that you've probably seen it before.
PRESENTING OUR FESTIVE TELEVISION HIGHLIGHTS...
Five best sitcoms
Gavin and Stacey (Christmas Eve, BBC1, 10pm)
The Royle Family (Christmas Day, BBC1, 9.30pm)
Blackadder Rides Again (Christmas Day, BBC1, 10.30pm)
The IT Crowd (Boxing Day, Channel 4, 9.50pm)
Peep Show (27 December, E4, from 10pm)
Five Best Films
Pan's Labyrinth (22 December, Film4, 9pm)
Con Air (23 December, BBC1, 10.35pm)
The Day after Tomorrow (Boxing Day, Film4, 6.40pm)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (Boxing Day, More4, 6.45pm)
Lions for Lambs (27 December, Sky Movies Premiere, 10.30pm)
Five best specials
Top of the Pops (Christmas Day, BBC1, 2pm)
Doctor Who (Christmas Day, BBC1, 6pm)
Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death (Christmas Day, BBC1, 8.30pm)
Jools's Annual Hootenanny (31 December, BBC2, 10.55pm)
Celebrity Big Brother: Live Launch (2 January, Channel 4, 9pm)
Five best dramas
Coronation Street (Boxing Day, ITV1, 7.30pm & 8.30pm)
The 39 Steps (28 December, BBC1, 8pm)
The Curse of Steptoe (28 December, BBC4, 10.30pm)
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (29 December, BBC2, 9pm)
Jonathan Creek (New Year's Day, BBC1, 9pm)
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