The pick of Christmas television: How to make the most of your holiday viewing

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It's not just the return of Edina and Patsy – there's Downton, the Doctor, and Dickens. Gerard Gilbert presents his pick of the seasonal small screen

Finally the torrent of festive-themed cookery shows has subsided – no more Jamie/Hugh/Gordon/Nigella/Lorraine/Heston/Hairy Bikers hectoring viewers to try something new this Christmas when they must know that 98 per cent of us will persist with dried-out roast turkey and over-boiled sprouts. No, now is the time for the main event – the family gathered, collectively or individually, round their flickering giant flat-screen TV(s), home cinemas, laptops and mobile phones.

Oh come ye, oh come ye to the BBC – for the state is as usual the only broadcaster with the funds to fully embrace the season, although ITV has scheduled its mighty Downton Abbey in an intriguing face-off with EastEnders. One of the shows is set in an England that no longer exists, the other in the years just after the First World War. And one is shamelessly soapy, the other contains some of the best drama writing on contemporary issues on British television.

Alliterative types could summarise the superstructure of this year's Christmas telly with As and Ds – with Ab Fab, Austen and Albert Square, and Downton, Doctor Who and Dickens – Dickens winning out over Austen in his 200th birthday year. In the absence of the decidedly Dickensian Royles, the Brockmans of Outnumbered take their rightful place as the first family of British sitcom, although comedy fans wishing that the past 30 years had never happened can do just that, starting tonight at 9pm on Channel 5 with the The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show from 1980 (Alec Guiness in Ernie's Hamlet; can't wait).

Movies – once the big talking point of the festive schedules – are now more conspicuous by their scarcity on the main terrestrial channels, while there is a parlour game to be had spotting – by looking at the foliage on the trees – which Christmas specials were filmed during the summer. Outnumbered and Downton Abbey seem to fall into this category, although Downton's greenery is artfully concealed by smoke machines. And finally, if you only have time for three shows this year, make it The Borrowers, Great Expectations and the Christmas Day episode of Absolutely Fabulous. The rest of the new Ab Fab trilogy is far weaker, but that one is a gem. And it contains a cameo by Sofie Grabol – Sarah Lund from The Killing, so make sure you come suitably attired. All in all, not a bad year, if suitably predictable for such unpredictable times.

Friday 23 December

The Many Lovers of Jane Austen

9pm BBC2

Don't get too excited. This is not a shocking exposé of the writer's hitherto unsuspected promiscuous sex life, but rather Amanda Vickery exploring Austen's fluctuating popularity and the hold that her fiction has on readers today. From the Jane Austen Museum in Bath to an Austen fans' convention in Texas (featuring ladies in bonnets and guest speaker Pride and Prejudice screenwriter Andrew Davies), Vickery asks what it is about our own time that makes the once neglected (the Victorians had no time for her) novelist so popular.

Raymond Blanc's Christmas Feast

8pm BBC2

The entente cordiale might be going through one of its rough patches at the moment, but Cameron and Sarkozy could take some tips from Raymond Blanc as he pays homage to both England and France with dishes from his country of birth made with ingredients from his adopted homeland. "Food is as important a communion as a mass," opines Blanc, an unexpected fan of our Christmas pudding. "You die a little, but who cares?" he says.


9.30pm BBC1

No new Miranda Christmas special this year, so here's last year's, in which Hart's endearingly clumsy alter ego tried spending Christmas at home without her parents and, of course, ended up spending it with parents (Patricia Hodge and Tom Conti). Also featuring the most hideous Christmas jumper since Mark Darcy's in Bridget Jones's Diary.

The Joy of Country

9pm BBC4

And, on the subject of dodgy dress-sense, here's a documentary that finally makes sense of Country and Western music stars' addiction to cowboy kitsch. In fact, it's an all-round encyclopaedic and clear-sighted history of how hillbilly music turned into rhinestone cowboys, and the testimony of a new generation of C&W musicians who are taking it both forward and back.

Christmas Eve

The Many Faces of Les Dawson 9pm BBC2

The nostalgic can wallow in plenty of retro-fare this Christmas, from old Morecambe and Wise specials, by way of Tommy Cooper repeats and this splendid profile of the poker-faced comedian who was still selling vacuum cleaners at the age of 38 when, in 1967, he had one last throw of the dice and entered Opportunity Knocks. Dawson's deadpan humour is appreciated here by John Cleese, Robert Webb ("it's quite easy to play the piano badly and not be funny") and Russell Kane ("some of us younger people did muddle him up with John Prescott"). Touchingly, Dawson stopped cracking mother-in-law jokes when his wife's mother died.


9.20pm BBC1

Sue and Pete (Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis) decide to go on holiday to the Canary Islands... on Christmas Day. Cue a well-worked against-the-clock farce involving a dental emergency, a house-sitting sister whose boyfriend may or may not have a criminal record, and a visit to Sue's father (the excellent David Ryall) in hospital.


10pm BBC1

The traditional redemptive sugar substitute is provided by the "heart-warming" (your critical alarm bells should now be ringing) tale of a Birkenhead family holidaying in Lapland. Sue Johnston and Julie Graham star, and Zawe Ashton – so wonderful as Vod in Channel 4's student comedy drama Fresh Meat – plays the tour rep known as "Jingle Jill".

Timeshift: Epic – a Cast of Thousands!

10.40pm BBC4

Charlton Heston once defined the Hollywood epic as any movie that he was in, and he's in a lot of the Fifties and Sixties historical epics detailed in this "ten commandments of big cinema" – whether parting the Red Sea as Moses or driving the Moors from Spain as El Cid (the latter screens on Christmas Day on BBC4).

Christmas Day

The Gruffalo's Child

6.30pm BBC1

One for the littl'uns – or at least those littl'uns who aren't Aardman or Pixar savvy because this sequel to last year's adaptation of Julia Donaldson's popular pre-school tale of a canny mouse and the eponymous beastie strikes me as beautifully animated but on the dull side. I'm not sure so slight a bedtime story bears opening out into half an hour, even if it contains more A-listers than a Ricky Gervais sitcom, including the voice of Robbie Coltrane as the Gruffalo, James Corden as the mouse and Helena Bonham Carter as the storyteller.

Doctor Who

7pm BBC1

It's The Chronicles of Narnia out of Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death as head writer Steven Moffat takes charge of this year's Christmas special, the last one for Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill) whose departure next year has just been announced. It's 1941 in "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe", and Claire Skinner, seen stressing out last night in Outnumbered, here plays a mother grieving over the news that her RAF airman husband (Alexander Armstrong) has been lost over the Channel. She takes her two children to a dilapidated house in Dorset, whose "caretaker" (Matt Smith) opens a portal onto a magical snowy forest...


9pm BBC1

Meanwhile, in the less salubrious end of soap land, there's the usual mix of whodunnit – or rather who is stalking Phil? – panto villain (Yusef, the local GP who makes Machiavelli seem wet behind the ears) and domestic disharmony (Bianca's out of prison). The only real mystery is why, with the yuletide form of Albert Square, the denizens don't take an extended foreign holiday at this time of year. Actually Pat (Pam St Clement) is taking a terminally extended vacation – apparently (spoiler alert) after a fire breaks out at the B&B.

Downton Abbey

9pm ITV1

It's Christmas 1919 at Britain's most famous stately pile, the family are presenting their gifts to the staff – including a book for Carson ("The Royal Families of Europe... I will find this most interesting, my Lord", says the butler in one of several lines that could come straight from The Fast Show) – playing charades upstairs and conducting a sEance in the servants' quarters. All is not well between Lady Mary and THE vile newspaper magnate upstart Sir Richard, and two more posh actors find gainful employment – Nigel Havers as a gold-digging lord and Robert Bathurst, all teeth as a war-wounded love interest for Lady Edith. All that's needed is Hugh Grant and Colin Firth to join the New Year's shooting party and it'll be a full house.

Absolutely Fabulous

10pm BBC1

Previewers have been asked not to reveal which of the characters has been away "doing bird" (in Patsy's words), which makes writing about the first new Ab Fab episode in six years a little bit on the tangential side. Not to worry, it's a gem, embracing such intervening technological advances as iPads (Bubble tries to draw on hers) and Twitter. Eddie (Jennifer Saunders) is ballooning ("not even the credit crunch can tighten your belt"), Patsy (Joanna Lumley) decides to claim her pension – if only she can find evidence that she exists – while applauding the summer riots ("I love a bit of extreme shopping"), and Bubble (Jane Horrocks) gives a bravura one-woman summary of the royal wedding. All that and a short but sweet cameo from Sofie Grabol, Sarah Lund in The Killing – this is the first and best of the three, new, 20th anniversary episodes.

Boxing Day

The Borrowers

7.30pm BBC1

Absolutely fabulous is this winning adaptation of Mary Norton's classic tale about little people who live beneath the floorboards. Miniscule Arrietty Clock (Aisling Loftus) allows her curiosity about "human beans" to get the better of her and befriends a lonely boy living upstairs. Soon, grumpy gran Victoria Wood is pulling up the floorboards, as Arrietty and her mum and dad (Sharon Horgan and Christopher Eccleston) run for their lives. Brilliant visuals, with support from Stephen Fry as a scientist specialising in "homo sapiens redactus", and former Misfits loudmouth Robert Sheehan as a cheeky chappy who catches Arrietty's eye.

Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait?

9pm BBC2

What did the author of Pride and Prejudice really look like? The only surviving sketch – "a rough little scribble" by Austen's sister Cassandra, that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London – shows a mousey young lady, nothing like the poised and sharply intelligent-looking woman in a recently unearthed portrait. But is this really Austen? It is of more than academic interest to Dr Paula Byrne, who owns the picture, and stands to be anything up to £1m richer if it's authenticated. Can she persuade a panel of Austen experts that it is the real deal?

Agatha Christie's Poirot

9pm ITV1

Who or what is camper than Christmas? Why, of course, David Suchet's brilliantined, moustache-twiddling, sleuth with the habit of speaking about himself in the third person. Anyway, there's a corpse on blind old bat Anna Massey's drawing room carpet and she neither knows how it got there or why her clocks have stopped at 4.15pm precisely. Does it have anything to do with a secret wartime base beneath Dover Castle? Is Poirot Belgian?

The Royal Bodyguard

9.30pm BBC1

The spirit of Clouseau lives on in Guy Hubble (David Jason – looking a tad aged for some of these stunts, bless him), an incompetent chosen as head of security at the Palace. He got the job because he saved the Queen from a runaway carriage, having accidentally scared the horses in the first place. If your idea of hilarity is Mr Bean, or Jason falling through the pub bar in Only Fools and Horses, then look no further.

Tuesday 27 December

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

8pm BBC4

A bit like the uncle (or in this case Auntie) who always used to give you an educational toy for Christmas, the BBC injects some learning into the TV schedules with these annual lectures. This year it's the turn (on consecutive nights) of Professor Bruce Hood to talk us through the workings of the human brain.

Great Expectations

9pm BBC1

It has been more 10 years since the BBC's last Great Expectations (with Ioan Gruffudd as the adult Pip and Charlotte Rampling as Miss Havisham), enough distance perhaps to revisit the Charles Dickens novel still most memorably filmed by David Lean in 1946. Actually, this is terrific, with Gillian Anderson playing literature's most famous jilted bride, the chilly and chilling Miss Havisham – bare-footed and dressed still in her tattered wedding gown like the missing member of Shakespeare's Sister. Oscar Kennedy, who played the pre-adolescent Nigel Slater in last year's biopic of the TV chef, Toast, again impresses as the young Pip, while the almost ridiculously handsome Douglas Booth is the older version, and Vanessa Kirby is the grown-up version of the love of Pip's life, Estella. With the depth of supporting cast (Mark Addy, David Suchet, Ray Winstone, Shaun Dooley) you'd expect from such a production , and the Essex marshlands atmospherically filmed, this screens over three consecutive nights.

Three Men Go to New England

9pm BBC2

"We're here because..." says Griff Rhys Jones, interrupted by chuckles as he ponders the question of why he and Dara O'Briain and Rory McGrath are now boating down the north-eastern corner of the United States, "because they told us to come here." Indeed there is a sense of that the latest annual outing for our three comedic amigos is straining for excuses for yet another nautical adventure. I suggest they remain ashore next year. Anyway the ruse they have stumbled on is to join a flotilla celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The dynamic of the sub-Top Gear banter remains the same, with Griff as the father of the boat, and Rory and Dara as the naughty children.

Fast Freddie, the Widow and Me

9pm ITV1

ITV's contribution to the Dickensian/Capra -esque canon of redemptive Christmas tales stars Lewis's Laurence Fox as an obnoxious luxury-car dealer given a community service order after a drinking-driving conviction. This he spends with disadvantaged teens at a centre run by Sarah Smart, one of whose eponymous members is a terminally ill teenage orphan whose last wish is to have a big, proper family Christmas. First the Scrooge-like Fox must find the lad's family...

True Stories: Sarah Palin – You Betcha!

10pm More4

In his first film in five years, Nick Broomfield takes his sound boom and faux-naif schtick to Wasilla, Alaska, in a bid to get an interview with Sarah Palin that you know will never happen. He unearths some rather stale grudges against the town's erstwhile mayor, and gets rightly stone-walled by Wasilla's devout evangelical community. Refusal to talk, in Broomfield's world, amounts to an admission of some sort of guilt, but this is a welcome break from the traditional festive fare.

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