“I’m hoping it will be a real classic”, says the decidedly un-Cockney-sounding executive producer of EastEnders, Dominic Treadwell-Collins, of this year’s Christmas special in Albert Square – murder, adultery and shocking revelations being but mince pies and mulled wine to the writers of Britain’s second-most-popular soap.
Most of what is on TV this Christmas will be as unsurprising as someone yelling at someone else in the Queen Vic, but there is some original programming amid the glut of Christmas specials, and even a few things to stretch the over-indulged mind.
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
Jenna Coleman’s Clara returns to the bosom of the Tardis and Peter Capaldi’s tetchy Doctor, but is it just (as has been rumoured) for one last, climactic send-off? Of course we wouldn’t and couldn’t tell even if we knew. Suffice to say that it all takes place in the Arctic, Nick Frost plays Father Christmas and Michael Troughton, son of 1960s Time Lord Patrick Troughton, features.
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (Sky1)
Adapted from the books of MC Beaton – the Scottish writer also responsible for Hamish Macbeth. Ashley Jensen plays a high-flying London PR whizz who retires to the Cotswolds and becomes an amateur sleuth. An ensemble cast with Hermione Norris, Robert Bathurst and Matthew Horne should make up for the unpromising title.
Mapp and Lucia (BBC1)
Emmeline 'Lucia' Lucas (Anna Chancellor), Georgie Pillson (Steve Pemberton) and Elizabeth Mapp (Miranda Richardson) in Mapp and Lucia (BBC/Photographer: Nick Briggs)
Those with cherished memories of the sublime 1980s Channel 4 adaptation of EF Benson’s delicious comedy of interwar small-town snobbery may wish to avoid it, but Steve Pemberton’s new version is still pretty good – with Anna Chancellor and Miranda Richardson as the warring queen bees of Tilling. Pemberton and League of Gentlemen co-star Mark Gatiss also feature.
Downton Abbey (ITV)
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
A Downton Christmas special that’s actually set at Christmas for a change, with snow and all that, but which once again sees the Crawley family on the move, this time spending the season with the newly-wed Rose and Atticus (the episode was filmed at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland – the setting for Hogwarts in several of the Harry Potter films). Matthew Goode guest stars, George Clooney won’t, and Tom Branson and Daisy might both leave.
Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic)
Emilia Clarke as Danerys, the Mother of Dragons (HBO)
A bit behind with events in Westeros? Why not spend the entire Christmas fortnight there – as Sky Atlantic screens the entire back catalogue, starting on 20th December. Alternatively record it and avoid both being seen as anti-social, and the price of multiple box-sets.
Tubby and Enid (That We Sang) (BBC2)
That We Sang, with Enid (Imelda Staunton) and Tubby (Michael Ball) (BBC/Endor Productions)
That rarity, a television musical. Set in 1929, when 250 children travelled to Manchester to record “Nymphs and Shepherds” with the Hallé Orchestra, and in 1969, when a TV documentary reunited two of those children – now lonely, unfulfilled adults – Victoria Wood’s adaptation of her own big-hearted stage hit, That We Sang stars Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball.
Olive Kitteridge (Sky Atlantic)
Olive Kitteridge (HBO Enterprises)
Fancy something downbeat amidst all the enforced jollity? Frances McDormand gives a remarkably complex performance as the New England maths teacher in HBO’s four-hour adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories.
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Kiefer Sutherland and Stephen Fry, who appeared together in 24: Live Another Day, reunite for a one-off drama. In the midst of a crisis, downtrodden James (Sutherland) agrees to carry out a hit for his neighbour in return for a large sum of money. And, yes, you can feel a seasonal moral coming on…
TV specials to watch this Christmas
Show all 14
The Boy in the Dress (BBC1)
David Walliams' children's book The Boy in the Dress has been adapted for Christmas telly (BBC)
A David Walliams (Gangsta Granny, Mr Stink) adaptation is a fast and deservedly becoming a new BBC Christmas institution and the latest is his tale of cross-dressing 12-year-old Dennis Sims. Newcomer Billy Kennedy takes the title role, Jennifer Saunders co-stars, and Kate Moss – a chum of Walliams’ catwalk-model wife Lara Stone – has a cameo.
Esio Trot (BBC1)
Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench star in the BBC adaptation of Roal Dahl's Esio Trot (BBC)
Dustin Hoffman and Dame Judi Dench bring some seriously high-wattage star-power to Richard Curtis’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic about a shy old bachelor, Mr Hoppy, and his plan to win over a tortoise-loving neighbour (Dench). Whatever next – Tom Cruise reads Jackanory?
On Angel Wings (BBC1)
Produced by the same team who made The Snowman back in 1982 – and repeated every year since – this animation is based on the book by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo. A reworking of the nativity story, the voices include those of Michael Gambon and Juliet Stevenson.
Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special (BBC1)
Forsyth is back for this Christmas special (BBC)
Everyone seems to agree that it was refreshing to see two women presenting the latest series instead of the usual older man-younger woman combo, but Christmas sees the return of Sir Bruce Forsyth and his hoary gags. Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Lisa Riley, Louis Smith and Russell Grant are among the former celebrity contestants working their way through the ballroom repertoire.
David Attenborough’s Conquest of the Skies (Sky1)
David Attenborough's Conquest Of The Skies (2014 BSkyB/Colossus Productions)
Anyone who has just unwrapped a 3D-ready TV set will be able to appreciate this latest family-friendly wildlife special from the Bafta-winning team behind Natural History Museum Alive and Flying Monsters – as Attenborough celebrates his 88th Christmas on planet Earth by taking a 3D look at the creatures who defy gravity in one way or another.
The Snowman and the Snowdog (Channel 4)
After 30 years as a Christmas TV fixture, Raymond Briggs’s animated, air-walking lump of frozen precipitation was joined by a snow-mutt in 2012, and together they are fast becoming a new Christmas TV fixture as Channel 4 screens this pleasingly retro hand-drawn cartoon for yet another year.
There are countless seasonal episodes of sitcoms, including Cuckoo (BBC3), Man Down (Channel 4), House of Fools (BBC2), Stella (Sky1) Mrs Brown’s Boys and Not Going Out (both BBC1), while Still Open All Hours returns for fans of David Jason and Roy Clarke’s nostalgic paean to old-fashioned general stores. Otherwise…
Miranda Hart and Sarah Hadland star in the Miranda Christmas special (BBC)
Miranda Hart bows out – or more likely falls over – as she perhaps wisely ends her slapstick studio sitcom with two valedictory episodes. “As she gets older, I don’t want her to keep making a fool of herself,” says Hart of her decision to finish off her disaster-prone singleton. Fans will be hoping for a happy ending – perhaps with Gary or (more radically) with Stevie?
The Wrong Mans (BBC2)
Sam Pinkett (Mathew Baynton), Phil Bourne (James Corden) in The Wrong Mans (BBC/Hulu - Photographer: Coco Van Oppens)
The return of Bracknell council co-workers Sam and Phil (Matthew Baynton and James Corden), whose lives were turned upside down when Sam answered a ringing phone at the site of a car-crash. Now stranded in a high-security jail in Texas (“do you have a code for the wi-fi?”, Phil asks rather hopefully”), can they get home in time for Christmas?
Black Mirror Christmas Special (Channel 4)
Jon Hamm as Matt Trent in Black Mirror (Hal Shinnie/Channel 4)
Comedy of a much darker hue as Mad Men’s John Hamm – a big fan of the last series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian drama – joins Rafe Spall and Game of Thrones’s Oona Chaplin for a one-off, 90-minute tale that will be, according to Channel 4, “the most mind-bending episode yet, showcasing three inter-woven stories of Yuletide techno-phobia”. Best to go easy on the sherry beforehand.
Rik Mayall: Lord of Misrule (BBC2)
Stars such as Michael Palin, Simon Pegg, Ruby Wax and Ben Elton give tribute to the late comedian Rik Mayall in this BBC2 show (Getty Images)
Simon Callow narrates a tribute to the comedy actor who died so prematurely and unexpectedly earlier this year, with contributions from Michael Palin, Simon Pegg, Ruby Wax and Ben Elton. Another tribute – this time happily for a comedy actor who is still with us – celebrates the career of Julie Walters.
ARTS & MUSIC
The Winter’s Tale (BBC2)
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s full-length adaptation of Shakespeare’s play was The Royal Ballet’s biggest undertaking of 2014 – and a bold and colourful triumph to boot. Edward Watson as Leontes and Lauren Cuthbertson as Hermione are ideally cast, even if Antigonus is consumed by a wave rather than exiting “pursued by a bear”.
Ten Pieces (BBC2)
“Classical music is a bit like having a spaceship… it can take you anywhere you want”, says Dick (or is it Dom?) in a film that has already been seen in cinemas by more than 100,000 primary-school children. It’s all part of the ambitious project to introduce youngsters to their classical musical heritage, with the 10 selected works including Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Holst’s The Planets.
Sir Tim Rice: A Life in Song (BBC2)
Tim Minchin, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Gemma Arterton, Rob Brydon, Laura Mvula and Rufus Wainwright help the great lyricist reminisce about his 40 years writing hit songs for musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and The Lion King. Recorded this summer at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
War Horse Prom (BBC4)
One of two recorded Proms held back from the summer (the other is the John Wilson Orchestra’s version of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate), this somewhat confusingly staged concert mixes the likes of Elgar, Holst and Ravel with John Tams’s folk songs, the war poets, and screened biographies of Mata Hari and Edith Cavell. Little wonder that the equine puppet steals the show.
Great British Spy Films (BBC4)
Al Murray’s look at a genre that has occupied some of our great directors, including Alfred Hitchcock (Getty Images)
A season of home-grown espionage movies (including The 39 Steps and The Ipcress File) is introduced by Al Murray’s look at a genre that has occupied some of our great directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, and Powell and Pressburger.
Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (BBC4)
Only the sixth woman to deliver the prestigious talks in their 189-year history (but the third since 2009), Danielle George, professor of radio frequency engineering at Manchester University, will be explaining “how to hack your home”. Prof George hopes to inspire creative thinking around everyday gadgets such as smartphones and electric motors and to turn them into radical new devices that could change the world.
Top Gear Christmas Special (BBC2)
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special (BBC)
The special that Jeremy Clarkson and team were filming in Argentina before they got chased out of the country by a mob supposedly enraged by their numberplate. We probably won’t see Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond hiding under their researchers’ hotel bed, because the cameras had been ditched by then.
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