Paul Whitelaw's guide to the best Christmas TV

All of human life is to be found in this year’s festive TV listings, writes Paul Whitelaw, along with Shaun the Sheep, an Abominable Snow Baby and some Ice Age mammoths

Call The Midwife Christmas Special PIC: Neal Street Productions
Call The Midwife Christmas Special PIC: Neal Street Productions

It’s time once again to stoke the fireplace, plump up a velvet cushion and straighten our tasselled hats, as we gaze with childlike wonderment at this year’s Christmas TV schedules. And where better to start than with a queasy psychological thriller. The Girl Before (19-22 December, BBC One, 9pm) stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a woman who moves into a stunning ultra-minimalist house designed by David Oyelowo’s mysterious architect. The unfortunate catch is that the occupants have to live by a strange set of exacting rules. Numerous unfortunate twists ensue.

Following on from last year’s charitable dismantling of Cinderella, Beauty & The Beast: A Comic Relief Pantomime for Christmas (19 December, BBC Two, 9pm) boasts an all-star cast including Lily Cole, Miranda Hart and Guz Khan. If it doesn’t make you laugh, then at least it’s all for a good cause.

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The comedy continues with festive editions of BBC Scotland’s excellent domestic sitcom Two Doors Down (20 December, BBC Two, 9:30pm) and Mandy: We Wish You a Mandy Christmas (20 December, BBC Two, 10pm), in which Diane Morgan of Philomena Cunk fame reprises her role as a most unusual yet well-meaning klutz from a high-rise estate.

David Tennant as Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days PIC: Slim 80 Days / Federation Entertainment / Peu Communications / ZDF / Be-FILMS / RTBF Photographer: Tudor Cucu
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The charming family sitcom Ghosts (23 December, BBC One, 8:30pm) is also back for a Christmas special. This year, the spectral and corporeal residents of Button House learn a valuable lesson.

That flossy phenomenon from Mossy Bottom Farm makes a welcome return in Shaun the Sheep: The Flight Before Christmas (Christmas Eve, BBC One, 6pm). When Shaun’s little cousin Timmy goes missing, our hero mounts a rescue mission. Spoiler: it all works out fine in the end.

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Written and directed by Mark Gatiss, The Amazing Mr Blunden (Christmas Eve, Sky Showcase, 7pm) is an adaptation of the fondly-regarded 1970s family film about two children investigating a haunted Victorian mansion. Gatiss himself stars alongside Simon Callow and Tamsin Greig. And he’s back just a few hours later with A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint (Christmas Eve, BBC Two 10:30pm), his latest exhumation of a pocket-sized chiller from the great MR James.

I half-expected him to turn up again in Quentin Blake: The Drawing of My Life (Christmas Day, BBC Two, 4:10pm), but he takes some time off to allow famous fans such as Michael Rosen and David Walliams to pay tribute to the beloved illustrator. But the star attraction is Blake himself, who guides us through his fascinating life and career. His distinctive artworks are an indelible part of our collective childhoods, and he continues to delight young readers and budding artists to this day.

Worzel Gummidge PIC: Leopard Films / Photographer: Chris Harris

Julie Walters and David Harewood lend their voices to Terry Pratchett’s The Abominable Snow Baby (Christmas Day, Channel 4, 7:30pm), a sweet animated fable from the late Discworld author. The titular "monster” is an adorable 14-foot innocent who arrives quite by accident in a conservative little English village. Most of the residents are dismayed by his presence, but he’s welcomed with open arms by an old lady and her grandson. Pratchett’s humane message is beautifully conveyed.

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Last year, Eric Morecambe’s son Gary discovered an unmarked film canister in the attic of his family home. Lo and behold, it contained a long-lost episode of The Morecambe & Wise Show. Gary promptly handed it over to a team of experts, who restored the monochrome telerecording to its original colour glory. And now it’s our turn to see it in full. The Morecambe & Wise Show 1970: The Lost Tape (Christmas Day, BBC Two, 7:45pm) should be a treat.

Deftly sculpted sentiment abounds as usual in Call the Midwife (Christmas Day, BBC One, 8pm), although you may have to set your Betamax machines to record either that or The Great Christmas British Bake Off (Christmas Day, Channel 4, 8pm), in which the cast of Russell T Davies’ outstanding drama It’s a Sin get the Hollywood treatment.

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RTD’s old Doctor Who compadre David Tennant stars in a lavish new eight-part interpretation of Jules Verne’s classic adventure yarn Around the World in 80 Days (Boxing Day, BBC One, 5:50pm), but don’t confuse A Very British Scandal (Boxing Day to 28 December, BBC One, 9pm) with the Welsh wizard’s almost identically titled drama about Jeremy Thorpe. This is a new series about the notoriously fraught divorce between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll in the 1960s. It’s the handiwork of Sarah Phelps, a writer renowned for her striking Agatha Christie adaptations.

Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing PIC: Owl Power

In Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Christmas Fishing (Boxing Day, BBC Two, 9pm), the affable anglers encourage special guest Paul Gascgoine to fulfil his long-held dream of catching a salmon. If that hasn’t encouraged you to watch, then nothing will. Bob also chats to a medical professional about the importance of looking out for the vulnerable at Christmas, and we’re treated to some music from Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott from The Beautiful South. Bob and Paul’s gentle riverbank excursions are a balm for the soul. Spending time with them at Christmas is particularly uplifting.

And the bucolic comfort doesn’t end there. Mackenzie Crook’s revival of Worzel Gummidge (28 and 29 December, BBC One, 7:15pm) has been a quiet triumph. Magical even. The latest episodes involve some meddling birdwatchers and an enchanted fairground organ. Straw hats off to Crook, this is truly beautiful television.

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Our terrestrial journey ends with Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard (30 December, BBC One, 8pm), in which the great man sheds light upon an extraordinary archaeological dig. Four years ago, in a gravel quarry near Swindon, two amateur fossil sleuths discovered the remains of several Ice Age mammoths. Could this ancient graveyard unlock the secret of why those creatures were here, and also how they died?

And that’s your yuletide lot for this year. There will be laughs, there will be tears, there will be Gatiss. Why, all of human life is here. Enjoy.

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Streaming Highlights

Face facts Amazon and Netflix: when it comes to classic Christmas TV specials, BritBox and the BBC iPlayer stream rings around you. I searched for highlights elsewhere, but the quadruple B-Team turned out to be unbeatable. So here we go...

First shown in 1988, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (BritBox) is a sublime subversion of Dickens’ hardy perennial, in which the only kindly member of the Blackadder dynasty undergoes a life-changing spiritual intervention. Richard Curtis and Ben Elton are at the top of their game here, it’s one of the ‘adder saga’s strongest episodes.

A niche choice, perhaps, but Chas and Dave’s Christmas Knees Up (Britbox) will provide succour to those of us who enjoy charmingly tatty early 1980s light entertainment. The genial cockney duo host proceedings from – where else? – a studio mock-up of an East End boozer. Their guests are Eric Clapton, Albert Lee and Lennie Peters of "and Lee” fame. It’s quite the time capsule.

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The Christmas episodes of "modern” Doctor Who (BBC iPlayer) don’t always present the series at its best, but they’re sometimes rather lovely. Should you so wish, you can binge on all of ‘em. I particularly recommend Steven Moffat’s enchanting A Christmas Carol featuring Michael Gambon.

Eddie Braben wrote all of Morecambe & Wise’s best material, and he receives his deserved due in the witty and sensitive drama Eric, Ernie & Me (BritBox). Not strictly speaking a Christmas programme, but it’s a celebration of three great artistes who will always be associated with television at this time of year.

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An absolute hoot, Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas (BBC iPlayer) is a brusque compendium of 15-minute episodes from 1975 in which the formidable kitchen doyen instructs us to whip up some Christmassy dishes. The beige studio backdrop compliments her food to perfection. Back in 2000, The League of Gentlemen (BritBox) made their only Christmas special. Naturally, it took the form of a horror portmanteau: three short stories linked by an overarching storyline. It’s one of their crowning achievements; horrific and hilarious, a twisted labour of love.

We’re used to Louis Theroux in serious documentarian mode, he’s been making programmes of that nature for almost 20 years, but Louis Theroux’s Weird Christmas (BBC iPlayer) whisks us back to the late 1990s, when he was better known as an ever-so-slightly impudent journalist with a keen interest in the wackier outliers of American society. In this episode, he invites some of the characters he met during series one to an intimate Christmas party. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only time a hard-line Christian evangelist, a right-wing survivalist, a gay porn star, and a man who claims he can commune with aliens have ever been in the same room together. The results are surprisingly sweet. Well, sort of.

It has been scientifically proven that you can’t go wrong with either of the Porridge (BBC iPlayer/BritBox) Christmas specials. They never fail to entertain, no matter how many times you’ve seen them. No Way Out, in which Fletch fakes illness to avoid being swept up in a doomed escape plan, is an example of this peerless sitcom at its best.

A personal favourite of mine, Knowing Me Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge (BritBox) features the notorious frozen turkey-based incident that destroyed Alan’s BBC career. He’s bounced back since, but this note-perfect special from 1995 finds the Norwich broadcaster at a low ebb both professionally and personally. But the show must go on, at least for as long as he can keep it together…

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