What to watch on television this Christmas

Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who. Picture: BBC/Cat Yang

Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who. Picture: BBC/Cat Yang

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ANDREA Mullaney picks out the best television programmes from the Christmas week schedules

Today

Rik Mayall: Lord Of Misrule

BBC2, 10:05pm

When almost anyone who’s had their 15 minutes dies now, social media is awash with people who have never given the deceased a second thought chiming in that they’ll be missed. When Rik Mayall died suddenly in June, thousands tweeted their grief.

“He was a golden youth,” says Ben Elton. “He was the greatest of us all,” says Alexei Sayle. “The sexy genius, Rik Mayall,” says whoever wrote Simon Callow’s suitably grandiose narration for this tribute programme, which does the usual run-through of all the late star’s famous roles, making out that each was incredibly groundbreaking, while celebrity chums say what a great guy he was.

The thing is, with Rik Mayall, for once all of that is absolutely true. He was a bloody sexy genius. He was unique and I’m quite willing to believe he was brilliant to know. And that grief felt real: to a certain generation, at least, he was ours in a way no other entertainer could be and loved as much as any stranger could be. He never sold out, never became a sentimental, corny shadow of himself.

This tribute programme – obvious as it is, missing (totally understandably) any contributions from his family or Adrian Edmondson, but filled with wonderful early footage and photos – reminds us of just what we lost.

You may cry a wee bit. But you will definitely laugh.

Tomorrow

Sammy Davis Jr: The Kid In The Middle

BBC4, 9pm

When Sammy Davis Jr, Broadway star, and Kim Novak, Hollywood siren, fell for each other, legend has it that fearsome studio boss Harry Cohn hired gangsters to threaten Davis, who quickly married a more “appropriate” girl.

Later, Davis would attempt to roll with the punches as part of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, getting to sing and joke around at Vegas’ hottest casinos, while being obliged to grin through dubious racial banter. But he seemed to show his true feelings when he marched with Martin Luther King.

Davis’s long and successful career is slightly overshadowed now by this sad narrative which demonstrates how even a major black star of the time couldn’t escape racism. And this not-especially-festive documentary does include accounts from the likes of the Rev Jesse Jackson which dwell on his battle to overcome it. But it also features contributions from the likes of Paul Anka and Engelbert Humperdinck, who knew him best as a singer, dancer and actor.

With a long-mooted Davis biopic still to get off the ground, here’s the real story.

Monday

The Wrong Mans

BBC2, 9pm (and Tuesday, 9pm)

It’s only fair to admit that I was quite biased against The Wrong Mans when it began last year. Not only did it have a stupid title (still not explained) but it starred and was co-written by James Corden. Once the well-liked breakout star/co-creator of Gavin and Stacey, his ego and ubiquity led to a backlash that saw him branded one of the most annoying men in Britain. But, much like this series’ heroes, he made a miraculous escape, bouncing back with a highly entertaining, carefully thought-out comedy thriller.

As he’s about to become the new host of a late-night American chat show, this two-part return of The Wrong Mans may be its last hurrah. It sees Corden’s Phil living it up in the US, while pal Sam (co-writer Mathew Baynton) is less happy about what has followed their last accidental escapades with gangsters and spies.

The plot moves speedily, with the hapless pair quickly in yet more dangerous situations which they’re completely unable to cope with. Realism goes out the window, but there’s charming banter between the duo, who are given to reminiscing about their town’s Christmas lights even when banged up in a high-security Texan jail.

Tuesday

2014 – The Rory Review

BBC1, 10:40pm

In his recently-published, tremendously indiscreet diaries, Daily Telegraph journalist Alan Cochrane mused about meeting Rory Bremner before the referendum. The satirical impressionist apparently spoke “in a funny voice” for a few minutes, leaving Cochrane flabbergasted when it was revealed he was supposed to be “doing” Alex Salmond.

Let’s hope Bremner has mastered it by now, as this is his last round-up of this extraordinary year of Scottish affairs, including interviews with some of the major players, from punters to pundits to politicians. Now re-settled in Scotland, after a career mostly based around Westminster politics, Bremner’s first Holyrood special last year showed him trying to get a grip on the referendum before it really began (something that many national commentators found themselves scrabbling to do at the last minute). So what is his conclusion now? And how on earth will he portray Nicola Sturgeon?

Christmas Eve

The Incredible Adventures Of Professor Branestawm

BBC1, 8:30pm

Advertising man and stage magician Norman Hunter first created his quintessential absent-minded professor in the 1930s, in a couple of well-loved children’s books. He then took a 33-year break, reviving Branestawm in the 1970s when he knocked off a string of books of comically disastrous experiments, which became fixtures of the story-reading show Jackanory for a new generation.

Nothing much had changed: Branestawm still existed in a dreamy, madcap world where “doing science” meant blowing things up and it was understood that geniuses were exempt from normal behaviour, like dressing properly or remembering anything.

Now, science tends to mean computerised calculations and even landing a rocket on a comet does not exempt a chap from apologising for a dodgy shirt. In fact, not all scientists are even chaps. But we still have this idea – popularised by dramas like The Social Network or Sherlock – that no-one can be that clever and still be, well, “normal”.

Charlie Higson, who revived another old franchise for the pre-teen set with his Young Bond books, has adapted Hunter’s characters for a nostalgia-soaked family romp, nominally set in the 1930s but actually set in a delightfully artificial never-was.

Harry Hill makes his thespian debut as the eccentric academic, though it’s more of a broad performance than actual acting. But he’s surrounded by a capable, in-on-the-joke cast including Ben Miller, Simon Day, Vicki Pepperdine and Higson himself. A basically-modern little girl sidekick (Madeline Holliday) stands in for the hoped-for young audience, gleeful over bangs and mess but still, perhaps, getting hooked on science into the bargain.

Christmas Day

Doctor Who

BBC1, 6:15pm

In a recent interview, Peter Capaldi made the astute comparison between the Doctor Who Christmas special and Morecambe and Wise, previous kings of the family festive slot. True, there are no dancing newsreaders (Strictly has that covered these days) but there is a sense of old time variety hour about these wonky, tinsel-fied, cliché-packed specials which make hardcore fans shudder, leave sherry-fuelled grans confused and are now as much a part of Christmas Day telly as adverts for tropical holidays and newspaper stories about too many repeats.

Showrunner Steven Moffat is unlikely to veer from that jolly formula even with Capaldi’s newer, grumpier, bah humbug Doctor Twelve. Guest star Nick Frost, in a nice act of nominative determinism, plays yer actual Father Christmas, who apparently has a long-running dispute with the Doctor, possibly over satsumas. Meanwhile bereaved (and pregnant?) Clara will surely be cheered up somehow.

The story is set at the North Pole where, in a lift from The Thing, scientists are grappling with monsters. Watched any other day, this won’t stand up at all; it’s not meant to.

Boxing Day

The Boy In The Dress

BBC1, 6:55pm

A young lad spots Kate Moss in a Vogue fashion spread and falls in love – with frocks. Twelve-year-old Dennis is fed up with everything after his parents split; could dressing up as “Denise” cheer him up? Yes, it turns out, in this sweet-natured adaptation of David Walliams’s children’s book (following previous Crimbo versions of his Gangsta Granny and Mr Stink).

OK, so Moss’s cameo doesn’t display any hidden thespian talents and everything is resolved extremely conveniently, but it aims to celebrate difference and individuality, which can’t be too bad, given how our commercially-driven youth culture too often tells kids that there’s a “right” way to look. And with Jennifer Saunders, James Buckley, Tim McInnerny and Walliams himself popping up among the grown-ups, there’s enough here to keep kids and hungover adults amused.

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