Christmas TV preview: Doctor Who | Downton Abbey | Absolutely Fabulous | The Royal Bodyguard

Matt Smith as Doctor Who
Matt Smith as Doctor Who
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It’s perversely pleasing to hear jokes about crack on Christmas Day...

When Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, few could’ve predicted that, not only would it become one of TV’s biggest hitters, but also that it would quickly establish itself as an annual family staple on Christmas Day. And although the Yuletide specials have never seen the series at its best – they’re usually okay, but hardly essential – Christmas dinner without a visit from the Doctor is as unthinkable as Santa deciding to cool it for a year.

But last year’s special – the first written by current show-runner Steven Moffat – was significantly stronger than usual. Whereas that riffed neatly on Dickens, his sophomore effort looks loosely to CS Lewis’ Narnia fables for inspiration. And guess what? It’s by far and away the best Christmas special yet.

Exuding a chestnut-warming aura of wintry magic, it finds the Doctor attempting to host the most wondrous Christmas ever for a 1940s wartime family in need. But things go seriously awry, as they always must, when a child’s curiosity over a mysterious present wrapped in tardis-blue paper plunges them all into mortal danger. To say any more would spoil the surprise, but suffice to say it balances wit, action, inventive ideas and emotionally resonant character drama in the richest Doctor Who spirit.

Matt Smith excels as usual, but he’s ably supported by Claire Skinner from Outnumbered as a mother who’ll stop at nothing to protect her kids – the episode is fundamentally a touching paean to parenthood – and Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir as comically ineffectual “antagonists”. It also pits the sonic screwdriver against its ultimate foe, finds the Doctor gaining a nifty new soubriquet, and tosses in the obligatory throwaway reference for old-school fans to go “Ooh!” at. It’s not just the spirit of the season making me giddy – this is truly beautiful television.

And while I wouldn’t go quite so far regarding the first festive offering from Downton Abbey, it’s still irresistible. Because if ever a drama was designed for Yuletide consumption, it’s this lavish, moreish chocolate-box fantasia.

It’s Christmas 1919. The denizens of Downton exchange gifts beneath a colossal tree (Maggie Smith’s withering dowager gets a nutcracker, aptly enough), play charades, consult a ouija board, indulge in a spot of game hunting, and search for a missing dog. So pretty much your annual family Christmas. Even Nigel Havers turns up. It was only a matter of time.

But Bates, the world’s noblest manservant, is languishing in gaol for allegedly murdering his wife, causing much trembling of lip and – a Downton staple this – characters being damned decent in the face of adversity. A terrible secret is also revealed, with surprising results. Oh, it’s all good stuff.

Whereas the recent series often felt like a rapidly edited trailer for an upcoming episode we never saw in full, the extended two-hour running time – including six ad breaks, naturally – allows writer Julian Fellowes to develop the story at a more manageable pace, with the whole caboodle ticking along splendidly like the finely tuned clockwork a l’orange it is. See what I did there? Sickening, isn’t it?

Reviving a popular sitcom usually smacks of desperation, but as far as panto reunions go, the first of three new episodes of Absolutely Fabulous is quite good fun, despite the unwelcome intrusion of a desperately over-indulgent studio audience and the embarrassing mugging of Jane Horrocks in a lazily crowd-pleasing cameo.

Jennifer Saunders is probably incapable of delivering a mirthless script, and she’s still a terrific comic performer. It also boasts that rarity: a genuinely surprising celebrity cameo.

A plot precis would ruin the central gag, but it remains what it always was: a big, broad, raucous comedy with some agreeably sharp edges. Plus it’s perversely pleasing to hear jokes about crack and methadone on BBC1 on Christmas Day, if only because it will annoy people who get annoyed by things like that.

Similarly, one doesn’t expect a sitcom at this time of year to revolve around a plot to assassinate the Queen, especially one starring Sir David of Del Boy. But The Royal Bodyguard – which marks his return to BBC comedy after several austere years on t’other side – does just that, albeit in the most inoffensively silly way. (See our interview on p10).

His titular security ace is a Clouseau-esque incompetent utterly convinced of his superior prowess; hardly an original creation, but Jason plays him with his usual aplomb. And you get the sense that he’s really enjoying playing comedy again. But at 71, watching him take constant pratfalls – despite the understandable use of doubles at times – can be more worrying than funny: the latterday Norman Wisdom effect.

But I can’t deny the appeal of this cheerfully basic slapstick farce from the writers behind The Worst Week of My Life, which exists purely to make its audience laugh and nothing more. Its very predictability is part of the gag, although it remains to be seen whether it can sustain over a series.

Incidentally, the only thing he doesn’t fall through in episode one is a bar-hatch. But there’s still time yet. Come on, Dave, just for old time’s sake.

DOCTOR WHO, Christmas Day, BBC1, 7pm

DOWNTON ABBEY, Christmas Day, STV, 9pm

ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS, Christmas Day, BBC1, 10pm

THE ROYAL BODYGUARD, Boxing Day, BBC1, 9:30pm