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christmas 2023

Genuinely good Christmas TV shows to watch during the festive season

We had a peek at some of the biggest series arriving on our screens over the next few weeks, from ‘The Heist Before Christmas’ to ‘Truelove’, and here’s what we thought…

Sunday 24 December 2023 23:44 GMT
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Turkey or gravy?: A few of the stars we’ll see on our screens this Christmas
Turkey or gravy?: A few of the stars we’ll see on our screens this Christmas (Sky/BBC/ITV/Channel 4)

What do we think of when we think of Christmas? Michael Bublé, maybe. Parsnips, perhaps. Television that ranges from delightful to dire – definitely. Christmas TV is a constant but whether it’s any good is another matter entirely.

We got our mitts on a selection of some of the biggest shows that are on the way, so we can help you choose what to prioritise when you are too Christmassed out to think.

From Ncuti Gatwa’s first full Doctor Who episode to the arrival of new dramas Truelove and The Castaways, here’s what you can expect on your screens this festive season, and our verdict on what’s actually worth watching…

A Ghost Story for Christmas: Lot No 249

BBC Two, Christmas Eve

Get out the Baileys because you will probably enjoy Mark Gatiss’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story more if you are slightly drunk. Here you have Kit Harington and Freddie Fox, all cut-glass vowels and waistcoats, slapping each other in the face. Why? Because eccentric Oxford don Edward Bellingham, played by Fox, has bought an ancient mummy that may or may not be possessed, and everyone is a bit unnerved. There’s not a woman in sight – well, it was Oxford in 1881 – but there’s plenty of candlelit, high camp gothic atmosphere. Short and sweet at 30 minutes, the story isn’t a spooky Christmas tale of classic proportions, but it is old-fashioned fun. Jessie Thompson

Colin Ryan, Kit Harington and Freddie Fox posh it up in this year’s spooky Christmas show (BBC/Adorable Media Ltd/Colin Hutton)

The Heist Before Christmas

Sky Max, Christmas Eve

Pyromania, vandalism, and an armed robbery by Santa in the first 10 minutes don’t exactly scream “family Christmas show”. But this one-off adventure starring James Nesbitt and Timothy Spall as two Father Christmases is certainly aiming for that. Beyond the surprising opening moments is a heartbreaking story of a single mum, wishing she could make Christmas special for her two young children. Bamber Todd’s Mikey, the eldest, never takes off his jacket, even while he sleeps, showing a struggling working-class family amid a cost of living crisis in a cold, snowy Northern Ireland. The Heist before Christmas deals with the brutal reality that many families will be experiencing this festive period, and will make many feel grateful for what they might have at Christmas time. Finn Cliff Hodges

Mrs Brown’s Boys

BBC One, Christmas Day

The turkey giblets of Christmas TV, in that it ought to be swiftly extracted and tossed in the nearest waste disposal bin, the Mrs Brown’s Boys festive special has returned with trademark ignominy. Lurching between hacky comic mugging and almost hallucinatory amounts of schmaltz, the first of two episodes sees Brendan O’Carroll’s malignant granny pine for her lost rocking horse, give shelter to an Alzheimer’s-afflicted old woman, and pull a whisk from her undergarments. More than a decade into its existence, this show is now firmly established as its own kind of white noise – a tribute to vintage sitcom tat, and a prehistoric era of entertainment in which live studio audiences seal-clap to the vague sound of jokes. In 2023, though? Pass the sherry. Adam White

Doctor Who: “The Church of Ruby Rose”

BBC One, Christmas Day

The traditional Christmas Day Doctor Who has been lost in time and space for the past several years, with the Tardis instead beaming into living rooms on 1 January. But returning showrunner Russell T Davies has gone old school in 2023, with the Doctor confirmed for his first 25 December appearance since 2017. “The Church of Ruby Rose” promises to be something old and new. Fifteenth Doctor Ncuti Gatwa will embark on his “first epic adventure” – having been introduced in the last of the David Tennant comeback instalments that celebrated the character’s 60th anniversary. He will be joined by his new companion Ruby Sunday, played by Coronation Street’s Millie Gibson. Plus there will be a cameo from Davina McCall, who previously graced the series in 2005. Hold on to your sonic screwdrivers – it’s going to be special.  Ed Power

Ncuti Gatwa admits nerves ahead of Doctor Who debut

Ghosts Christmas Special

BBC One, Christmas Day

Pass the tissues. Everyone’s favourite paranormal sitcom Ghosts is coming to an end after five seasons – though not before giving us a wonderful Christmas special as a parting gift. Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) are adding one more resident to Button House with their newborn baby Mia, home from the hospital and ready to meet her many spectral roommates. Might I suggest anyone hosting annoying in-laws this holiday season invite them to watch, too, as Mike’s busy-body mum (Sutara Gayle) gets in the way of the celebrations – hopefully they’ll get the hint. Annabel Nugent

Tabby McTat

BBC One, Christmas Day

The annual adaptation of one of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s picture books is a Christmas telly tradition by now (and a saviour for frazzled parents in need of a breather). This year, Jodie Whittaker is on narrator duties for this sweet half-hour jaunt, telling the story of a musically inclined cat (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) who keeps crowds of passers-by entertained when he duets with his busker pal Fred (Rob Brydon). When the pair are separated, Tabby McTat starts a new life with fellow neighbourhood pet Sock (Susan Wokoma) but can’t help pining for the old days. Exquisitely expressive animation makes this a real treat. Katie Rosseinsky

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The Castaways

Paramount+, Boxing Day

A word of warning: if you’re a nervous traveller venturing to warmer climes this Christmas, you might want to swerve The Castaways, which features some of the most stress-inducing in-air sequences we’ve seen since Idris Elba got trapped on a plane in Hijack earlier this year. Patron saint of British telly Sheridan Smith stars as Lori, whose island-hopping holiday to Fiji goes horribly awry when her flight disappears en route to its destination. Céline Buckens plays her younger sister Erin, who should’ve been on that same plane; powered by a lingering sense of guilt, she sets out to unravel exactly what happened to Lori and her fellow passengers. Katie Rosseinsky

Sheridan Smith as plane crash survivor Lori Holme in ‘The Castaways’ (Paramount)

Murder is Easy

BBC One, 27 December

Murder may be easy, but adapting Agatha Christie, it turns out, is not. Screenwriter Siân Ejiwunmi-Le Berre and director Meenu Gaur have teamed up for this TV version of the novelist’s 1939 story but the drama seems to be confused about whether it’s a good old-fashioned murder mystery, a jaunty comedy, or a strange and surreal Twin-Peaks-esque thriller. Industry and Rye Lane star David Jonsson – in the role of a former policeman investigating a spate of murders in a small village – is, as ever, a captivating screen presence. And he’s the first ever Black hero in a Christie adaptation. It’s just a shame he’s let down a little by an on-the-nose script and odd stylistic choices. That said, it’s quite a pleasant, unchallenging watch, which might be just what the doctor ordered after an overindulgence in sausage rolls. EH

Mr Bates vs The Post Office

ITV, New Year’s Day

This dramatisation of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British history will make your heart ache. A reliably ruffled Toby Jones leads an exceptional cast as Alan Bates, who, with his fellow postmasters and postmistresses, fought for years to clear their names after they were accused of theft, fraud and false accounting due to a defective Fujitsu IT system. The accusations tore their lives apart, with many being forced to pay thousands of pounds out of their own pockets, and losing their jobs and homes in the process. There was at least one suicide. To this day, not one Post Office or Fujitsu employee has been held to account over the scandal, much less faced criminal investigation. This show, which serves as proper, powerful campaign television, could make a real difference. EH

The Tourist

BBC One, New Year’s Day

Warm, cuddly feelings are overrated. If you prefer your festive period chaotic and tense, tune into The Tourist, which returns for its second season on New Year’s Day. Jamie Dornan is back as Elliot, a rugged amnesiac running away from a dark past he couldn’t recall if his life depended on it – which it does. Round two and it’s business as usual (except for the setting, which has relocated to Dornan’s native Ireland after season one’s Australian outback locale): Elliot has been kidnapped by a group of dodgy characters in response to some terrible but forgotten sins – leaving his girlfriend Helen (Danielle MacDonald) trying to piece together the mystery. Perfect viewing for your first hangover of the year. AN

Men Up

BBC One, 29 December

A feature-length drama about one of the first clinical trials for Viagra may not immediately strike you as “festive viewing” but Men Up has ended up as one of those funny but thought-provoking stories that British telly does so well. Based on the real 1994 trial at Swansea’s Morriston Hospital, it features an all-star Welsh cast (including a Gavin & Stacey reunion for Joanna Page and Steffan “Dave Coaches” Rhodri) and imagines the stories of five participants. Each of them hopes that this new drug will be a magic bullet for their relationship woes but that’s not quite the case. KR

The cast of Viagra drama ‘Men Up’ (BBC/Quay Street Productions/Tom Jackson)

Truelove

Channel 4, 3 January

Agatha Christie has become an annual Christmas tradition but this new year drama is like the evil twin of And Then There Were None, in which guests on an island are gradually bumped off. Here, a group of old pals, entering their twilight years, get together at a funeral and decide they will help to bump off each other. “Truelove” becomes their agreed code for when the time is coming (as well as their reason for doing it for one another). Lindsay Duncan and Clarke Peters lead the cast, and although it might sound a bit bleak for January, the first episode suggests it’s going to be unlike anything that’s been on telly for a while: an unflinchingly dark reflection on mortality full of very black wit. JT

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