The best Christmas television of 2014

The cast of Downton Abbey enjoy the festive setting. Picture: Carnival Film

The cast of Downton Abbey enjoy the festive setting. Picture: Carnival Film

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REMOTE control at the ready, here’s the pick of Yuletide television

BEST MOOD-SETTER

Doctor Who. Picture: BBC

Doctor Who. Picture: BBC

You’ve Got To Love Christmas

Today, STV, 7pm

It’s unclear if the title of this pleasingly undemanding festive special is a truth universally acknowledged or a thinly veiled threat. To fully enjoy Christmas, though, it’s a good idea to unclench a little, and there’s probably no better way to get your body and mind ready for all those hours sprawled on the sofa watching non-taxing telly than this clips-and-quips package narrated by Jane Horrocks. Linda Robson (above), Warwick Davies, Kate Garraway and a galaxy of other ITV-contracted stars offer up personal stories of present-buying catastrophes and turkey-burning disasters, with Dame Edna providing a little caustic edge.

BEST COMEDY

The Wrong Mans

Monday and Tuesday, BBC2, 9pm

A second series of the surprisingly successful thriller/comedy hybrid written by and starring Mathew Baynton (of Horrible Histories) and James Corden (of seemingly everything else) as two hapless council workers sucked into a crime conspiracy. Season two starts in Texas, with fidgety, soft-spoken Sam Pinkett (Baynton) and clattering oaf Phil Bourne (Corden) in trouble with the law while also being presumed dead back in the UK. It’s essentially Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em shot with the production values and gleaming tech-intensity of 24 or Spooks, even if the lads seem slightly more in control of their fate this time round. Enjoy it, as a third series is unlikely now that Corden has upped sticks to the US to take over hosting The Late Late Show after the departure of Craig Ferguson.

BEST FAMILY

The Incredible Adventures Of Professor Branestawm

Christmas Eve, BBC1, 8.30pm

Adapted by Charlie Higson from the book series by Norman Hunter, this big-hearted drama sees Harry Hill swap his usual enormous collar for the chinstrap beard and shabby tweeds of absent-minded inventor Theophilus Branestawm, an eccentric genius who can’t stop blowing things up with his Heath-Robinson inventions in the idealised British village of Great Pagwell. David Mitchell, Ben Miller and Simon Day co-star, with Madeline Holliday as plucky schoolgirl Connie, the sensible Marty McFly to Branestawm’s manic Doc Brown.

BEST REALITY

Gogglebox 2014: Best Bits

Christmas Eve, Channel 4, 9pm

One of the highlights of Channel 4’s slightly underwhelming Christmas 2014 schedule is technically a repeat in that it cherry-picks highlights from the past two series of Gogglebox. But it’s a year that has seen the “us watching them watching TV and shouting at it” format steadily grow in ratings and reputation, with offshoots launching in the US, Poland, Italy and Ireland. And since it’s screening on Christmas Eve, there’s finally a relatively risk-free opportunity to try and match Steph and Dom (below) drink-for-drink, just to see what happens.

BEST DRAMA

Downton Abbey

Christmas Day, STV, 9pm

The now-traditional Christmas special with the extended Crawley clan is usually a Downton downer – Julian Fellowes has a habit of throwing traumatic events and upsetting departures into his otherwise exquisitely mannered period soap. In interviews, Elizabeth McGovern – Lady Cora herself – has promised there will be “no sudden deaths” to deal with in the 2014 edition, and for a change the action actually takes place over Christmas, albeit mostly at an extended shooting party in Northumberland. It won’t be a particularly happy occasion for Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle), since his wife Anna (the brilliant Joanne Froggatt) will be spending the festive season in a place with lots of bars but no drink: jail.

BEST SCI-FI

Doctor Who: Last Christmas

Christmas Day, BBC1, 6.15pm

Nick Frost guest-stars as Santa, and presumably knows whether Peter Capaldi has been haughty or nice (spoiler: he’s usually haughty). Rumours abound that this is the episode where Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman, right) will leave the Tardis for good, and while precise plot details are relatively thin on the ground, the main thrust seems to involve shapeshifting aliens terrorising scientists at the North Pole, which is presumably where Mr Claus comes in. Canny Scottish showrunner, writer and producer Steven Moffat has described it as “The Thing meets Miracle On 34th Street”, which sounds like he hasn’t toned down the scariness just because it’s Christmas.

BEST KNEES UP

Chas & Dave’s Xmas Knees Up

Christmas Day, Channel 5, 7.05pm

Screening as part of Channel 5’s Sing-Along Christmas Day (which starts early with André Rieu’s Christmas Around The World and finishes with a three-hour marathon of Britain’s Favourite Christmas Songs followed by the ABBA-tastic Muriel’s Wedding), this feels like a nostalgic nod to the 1980s, when you couldn’t turn on a 14-inch Sanyo portable set without glimpsing Mr Hodges and Mr Peacock classing up a naff TV variety show with a couple of tunes round the old joanna. Some mock their rockney stylings, but they’re like the Cockney Crowded House – you know more Chas and Dave songs than you think you know, and 90 per cent of them are irresistible. Gertcha!

BEST SOAP

EastEnders

Christmas Day, BBC1, 8pm

It was a year ago that Danny Dyer first swaggered into EastEnders as Mick Carter, the new landlord of the Queen Vic. If that was a relatively happy Christmas for the Carter clan, this one looks like being considerably worse. How much longer will Mick’s wife Linda (Kellie Bright) keep secret the sexual assault she suffered at the hands of Dean (Matt Di Angelo)? And what will Mick do when he finds out? The reliably loquacious Dyer recently told the Radio Times that the episode is the dramatic equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off. “I get to show every bit of range I’ve got as an actor,” he claims, which you can take whichever way you want. Meanwhile, it’s the first Christmas for the Moon twins Bert and Ernie.

BEST MOVIE

Avengers Assemble

Boxing Day, BBC1, 8.30pm

If it was a risk for Marvel Studios to commit to a series of standalone movies for untested characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor before crashing them together as heroic super-squad the Avengers, it’s a gamble that has paid off mightily. Writer/director Joss Whedon’s brightly coloured blockbuster has become one of the biggest-grossing films of all time, triggering a new batch of sequels and offshoots that Marvel have confidently timetabled until 2019. As comicbook tradition dictates, the various heroes initially squabble among themselves before properly teaming up, even while crafty Norse god of mischief Loki – in the delightful form of Tom Hiddleston – sneaks off with the entire movie. Light-footed and funny enough to entertain the whole family, it makes a welcome change of pace from raspy-voiced Batman, and features a great cameo appearance from Harry Dean Stanton.

BEST CRIME

Agatha Raisin And The Quiche of Death

Boxing Day, Sky1, 8.30pm

Marion Chesney, creator of Hamish Macbeth under the pen name of MC Beaton, wasn’t thrilled with the 1990s BBC adaptation of her novels: “I wrote about a six-foot laidback Highlander and I got a 5ft 8in Glaswegian with a chip on his shoulder.” Hopefully she’ll find more to admire in this first adaptation of her other popular crime series, starring Ashley Jensen (right) as London PR Agatha Raisin, who tries to get away from it all by moving to the sleepy village of Carsley in the Cotswolds. When Agatha’s entry into a quiche-making competition is blamed for killing someone, she investigates the death herself, uncovering long-buried secrets and forbidden passions. Among the supporting cast, there’s a mini-Cold Feet reunion, with Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris as the village cad and his long-suffering wife.

BEST MUSICAL

That Day We Sang

Boxing Day, BBC2, 9pm

Last time Michael Ball was on our TV screens it was on Channel 4’s luvvie sitcom Toast Of London, where he played “Michael Ball”, a genuinely intimidating legbreaker collecting gambling debts on behalf of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. Here, Ball is in a more reflective mode as lonely insurance salesman Tubby, who reconnects with the equally unhappy Enid (Imelda Staunton), 40 years after they were both part of the special Manchester Children’s Choir that sang on the best-selling recording of Purcell’s Nymphs And Shepherds. Adapted and directed by Victoria Wood from her own 2013 stage play, the feature-length drama crosscuts between 1969 and 1929 and is as heartwarming, beautifully observed and funny as you would expect, reaffirming Wood’s status as a national treasure. It’s also a full-blown musical, although it keeps that under its hat for the first ten minutes or so. n

• Graeme Virtue talks TV every Wednesday morning on BBC Radio Scotland’s MacAulay & Co

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