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TV guide to Christmas and New Year’s: What to watch, from Doctor Who to The Great Christmas Bake Off

All the best dramas, comedies and reality specials you can catch on the air over the festive break

Isobel Lewis,Louis Chilton
Sunday 27 December 2020 17:02 GMT
Doctor Who festive special official trailer

After a year that has seen life adjust to social distancing, mask-wearing and national lockdowns, it’s nice to know that some things never change.

Christmas is the time to be merry – and for many, this means sitting back, putting your feet up and watching some warm-hearted festive TV.

The BBC’s line-up for 2020 sees many of the broadcaster’s best loved programmes return for seasonal specials, including Doctor Who, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Call the Midwife. Over on Channel 4, meanwhile, The Great Christmas Bake Off and Big Fat Quiz of the Year will cater to those viewers craving a yuletide kick.

Other channels have just as much to offer; whether it’s sumptuous cookery programmes, lighter comedy fare or thought-provoking drama, there’s plenty to watch for those that don’t want to turn to streaming services or DVDs.

So hang up the mistletoe, bust out the brandy (or a non-alcoholic beverage of choice) and have a read of our picks for the 15 best TV programmes airing over Christmas 2020…

Monday 21 December

Moonbase 8, Sky Comedy, 9pm 

Out of this world: Oscar-nominated actor John C Reilly in Moonbase 8 on Sky Comedy (Merie Wallace/SHOWTIME)

In this light-hearted comedy from US network Showtime, John C Reilly, Tim Heidecker and Fred Armisen star as three hapless astronauts-in-training, vying to be the crew that Nasa send to a newly constructed moon base. Its three formidable leads also served as writers, alongside Jonathan Krisel, who directs all six episodes. In a year when similar sitcoms are inexplicably all the rage (think Steve Carell’s Space Force or Armando Iannucci’s Avenue 5), Moonbase 8 has emerged as a late contender in TV’s very own space race. 

Wednesday 23 December

Mary Berry Saves Christmas, BBC One, 6.30pm

No-hopers: Mary Berry is tasked with aiding three kitchen novices in her new BBC special (BBC / Rumpus Media / Plank PR / Pete Bateson)

Celebrity chef Mary Berry fronts this yuletide cookery special in which she guides three novice chefs to prepare elaborate Christmas foods for their loved ones. Adding a bit of seasonal spice to it all is the fact that Berry’s three subjects - a zookeeper, a customer service rep and a bra fitter - have never cooked a meal from scratch in their lives.

Motherland, BBC Two, 9pm

If you’re not quite sick of your own family yet – it’s only 23 December; there’s still time – amp up the chaos with this Motherland Christmas special. Lawful-evil Amanda (Lucy Punch) is trying to celebrate with a sophisticated soiree complete with a sexy Santa costume and 30ft tree, only for it to be gate-crashed by Diane Morgan and co with their cheap booze in hand.

Christmas Eve

Worzel Gummidge: Saucy Nancy, BBC One, 5.55pm

Mackenzie Crook returns as Worzel Gummidge for another hour of gentle adventure (BBC/Leopard Pictures/Amanda Searle)

What says “Christmas” more than a trip to the seaside? Carrying on from last year’s two-episode reboot of the classic children’s character, Worzel Gummidge returns for an hour of even more whimsy. In it,  Mackenzie Crook’s anthropomorphic scarecrow goes on a sojourn to the coast, helping out the talking figurehead of an old ship, known as  Saucy Nancy (Harry Potter’s Shirley Henderson). 

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The Great Christmas Bake Off, Channel 4, 7.40pm

After a rollercoaster 11th season of the hit cooking contest – which drew record-breaking viewership numbers for Channel 4Bake Off returns to our screens for a delectable Christmas special. Noel Fielding, Matt Lucas, Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood welcome a number of former Bake Off contestants, competing for the title of Christmas Star Baker. Will their efforts rise to the challenge like a perfect loaf of bread? Or fold like a bad Christmas souffle? Only time will tell.  A new year’s edition is also scheduled for Sunday 3 January at 7.45pm.  

Birds of a Feather: We Gotta Get Out of this Place, ITV, 9.15pm

Sociable but distant: Birds of a Feather tackles the pandemic head-on in its new festive special (ITV)

The Covid-19 virus is known for being especially contagious – not even long-running ITV sitcoms are immune! Set three years after Tracey (Linda Robson) sold the shared house to Dorien (Lesley Joseph), Birds of a Feather’s extra-long festive special finds its characters in a state of flux following a tumultuous, pandemic-striken year (aren’t we all?). Les Dennis makes a guest appearance here as Graeme, Dorien’s latest love interest.

Christmas Day

Quentin Blake’s Clown, Channel 4, 7.40pm

Helena Bonham Carter narrates the animated version of Quentin Blake's Clown (Channel 4/Charlie Clift)

Quentin Blake’s endearing children’s picture book Clown is translated to the screen with traditional hand-drawn animation techniques, in the vein of Channel 4’s winter classic The Snowman. Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, this wholesomely eccentric Christmas cartoon will have younger viewers positively walking in the air.

Call the Midwife, BBC One, 7.40pm

Filmed much later in the year than usual due to the pandemic, and with full social distancing measures in place, the Call of Midwife Christmas special is nonetheless chock-full of the usual medical melodrama. Set in December 1965, the episode sees Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) rushed to hospital, while Shelagh (Laura Main) enjoys a surprise reunion which leads to an emotional (and seasonally appropriate) catharsis.

Boxing Day

The Masked Singer, ITV, 9pm

The stuff of Christmas nightmares, it’s the return of The Masked Singer (Vincent Dolman/Bandicoot TV/ITV/PA)

The Masked Singer may not be the reality TV show we as a nation want, but it’s certainly the reality TV show we deserve. Mo Gilligan will be joining Jonathan Ross, Davina McCall and Rita Ora (oof) on the judging panel as they try to figure out just who’s behind those giant costumes. Because nothing says Christmas cheer like watching a terrifying anthropomorphic hot dog belt out Take That, right?

Big Fat Quiz of the Year 2020, Channel 4, 9.05pm

The Big Fat Quiz of the Year is the highlight of the festive TV calendar for many and after a year as deranged as 2020, we have high hopes for this year’s special. Expect Joe Lycett talking about changing his name to Hugo Boss, Richard Ayoade deliberately trying not to talk about his brother-in-law Laurence Fox and plenty more madness from panellists David Mitchell, James Acaster, Stacey Solomon and Maya Jama.

Sunday 27 December

Black Narcissus, BBC One, 9pm

Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh (FX/Pari Dukovic)

If years of horror movies and hen-party costumes have taught us anything, it’s that people love nothing more than sexy nuns. Black Narcissus is the latest series to tap into this idea. It follows a group of sisters (led by Gemma Arterton) who attempt to turn a palace in the remote Himalayas into a convent, only to find it haunted by a dark and erotic past.

Wednesday 30 December

Pandemonium, BBC One, 9.45pm

In the absence of another Gavin and Stacey Christmas special, why not fill the Alison Steadman-shaped hole in your viewing schedule with Pandemonium. She’s joined by Katherine Parkinson, Jim Howick and Tom Basden, with the one-off special following a family who decide to have their summer holiday in Margate in December, with hi-jinks inevitably ensuing.

Uncle Vanya, BBC Four, 10pm

Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood stars in Uncle Vanya (BBC/Angelica Films/Johan Persson)

Few industries have been affected by the pandemic quite like the theatre scene, which came to a halt in March and has only been able to open sporadically since. This new version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, starring Toby Jones and Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood, may have been cut short by lockdown, but fortunately not before it was filmed for BBC Four, where you can find it this festive season.

New Year’s Day

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks, BBC One, 6.45pm

It wouldn’t be Christmas without Doctor Who, but this special episode is surprisingly light on The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) herself. Instead, we have Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) as they are left to face the Daleks alone, with the episode sure to be a weepy one for fans as they say goodbye to Cole and Walsh for good.

The Serpent, BBC One, 9pm

Come for the crime, stay for the sunglasses (BBC/© Mammoth Screen )

Need a new true crime drama in your life? May we suggest The Serpent, which is based on the real-life story of Charles Sobhraj, a serial killer who murdered up to 20 travellers across India, Thailand and Nepal’s “Hippie Trail” in 1975 and 1976. The show stars Jenna Coleman, Tahar Rahim and Ellie Bamber, and we reckon you can expect some great flares and terrible facial hair from this one.

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