Paul Whitelaw: My picks of the Christmas TV schedule

Dr Who. Picture: Ray Burmiston/Simon Ridgeway/BBCDr Who. Picture: Ray Burmiston/Simon Ridgeway/BBC
Dr Who. Picture: Ray Burmiston/Simon Ridgeway/BBC
The space adventure leads the Christmas schedules, but there are many other gems to enjoy, writes Paul Whitelaw

All civilised people agree that the best way to enjoy Yuletide is this: find yourself a comfy chair, stock up on snacks and a beverage of choice, and feast indulgently on the TV schedules. So what does the telly-box have in store for us this year?

In terms of drama, Doctor Who (Christmas Day, BBC1, 5:15pm) reunites the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and River Song (Alex Kingston) for a light-hearted romp with a touching twist. They’re joined by Greg Davies as the disembodied head of a bloodthirsty king, and Matt Lucas delivering a sweet comic turn as a befuddled messenger.

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Back on Earth, Call The Midwife (Christmas Day, BBC1, 7:30pm) abandons its usual Christmas gloom for a cockle-warming yarn in which a BBC camera crew descends upon the church to film a children’s carol service. The only snag is they don’t want anyone looking too poverty-stricken. They’ve clearly come to the wrong place.

Downton Abbey's Lady EdithDownton Abbey's Lady Edith
Downton Abbey's Lady Edith

The period palaver continues in Downton Abbey – The Finale (Christmas Day, STV, 8:45pm). Fans of the sumptuous soap will likely be in tears as the residents of Downton bid farewell on the New Year’s Eve of 1925. What will Dame Maggie Smith do with her withering glances now? Someone, please, put them to more good use.

The inspired brainchild of EastEnders/Hustle/Life On Mars nabob Tony Jordan, Dickensian (from Boxing Day, BBC1, 7pm) finds a host of Dickens characters living as neighbours on a London street. There’s great fun to be had watching the likes of a young Miss Havisham interacting with Scrooge, Fagin et al. Broadcast in 30 minute chunks throughout the week, it’s basically an eventful 19th century soap replete with moreish cliffhangers.

Agatha Christie’s most successful novel, And Then There Were None (From Boxing Day, BBC1, 9pm) has been adapted countless times in the past. But this new version, featuring an all-star cast including Aidan Turner, Charles Dance, Sam Neill and Miranda Richardson, doesn’t feel redundant. On the contrary, it’s a beautifully rendered, eerily atmospheric production of a classic yarn in which several strangers are invited to a remote island manor. As the mystery thickens, the body count rises...

If that weren’t nerve-jangling enough, Harry Price: Ghost Hunter (Sunday 27th, STV, 8:30pm) stars Rafe Spall as Britain’s most famed real-life spook-buster. In this fictionalised version of events, he’s approached by an MP who claims his house is haunted. Price prides himself on spotting hoaxes, but might there be something in this particular case? I wouldn’t be surprised if this standalone period drama spins off into a series.

Detectorists Christmas Special. Picture: BBCDetectorists Christmas Special. Picture: BBC
Detectorists Christmas Special. Picture: BBC

One of the most eagerly-awaited highlights of the season, the latest instalment of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’ Sherlock (New Year’s Day, BBC1, 9pm) swaps its usual contemporary garb for a traditional adventure set in Victorian London. Preview copies are unavailable, but – knowing Moffat – there will doubtless be a fiendishly clever reason for the period switch-over. Either that or it’s because Benedict Cumberbatch looks dashing in a deerstalker.

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As usual, some of our most beloved comedy stars are out in force this Christmas. However, despite celebrating his career as a comic actor, In Search of Gregor Fisher (Monday 21st, BBC1, 9pm) is a poignant documentary in which the Rab C Nesbitt star reflects upon his complicated upbringing. Adopted twice as a baby, Fisher only recently unearthed a family history blighted by tragedy.

Bathed in affection for its subject matter, We’re Doomed! The Story of Dad’s Army (Tuesday 22nd, BBC 2, 9pm) is a beguiling dramatisation of the origins of the classic wartime sitcom. It shows how writers David Croft and Jimmy Perry faced opposition from within the BBC while coping with the eccentricities of their veteran cast. John Sessions is particularly uncanny as the endearingly temperamental Arthur Lowe.

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One of the best British sitcoms of recent years, Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists (Wednesday 23rd, BBC4, 10pm) returns for a typically charming Christmas special. We’re used to seeing Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Crook) scanning fields in sunny temperatures, so the wintry weather comes as a shock. What chance do metal detectorists have in a barren landscape?

Dickensian. Picture: Todd Antony/BBCDickensian. Picture: Todd Antony/BBC
Dickensian. Picture: Todd Antony/BBC

Celebrity friends including JK Rowling, Richard Curtis and Danny Baker assemble for Peter Kay: 20 Years of Funny (Christmas Eve, BBC1, 9:05pm), which celebrates his career so far. With the highs of Car Share and Cradle To Grave, 2015 has been a great year for Kay; this is the ideal epilogue.

National treasure™ Stephen Fry receives his own glowing tribute in Stephen Fry: A Life On Screen (Tuesday 29th, BBC2, 9pm). The likes of erstwhile “m’colleague” Hugh Laurie wax fondly about the divine Stephen’s loveliness, while the great man himself reflects upon his career and his struggles with depression.

More plaudits abound in The Many Faces of Ronnie Corbett (New Year’s Day, BBC2, 8:30pm), which does an admirable job of exploring the multifarious career highlights of a diminutive living legend. Naturally, despite the celebratory tone, Corbett himself is humility incarnate.

I’m told that Christmas is a time for children most of all. In that case, the little tykes are catered for by the likes of Stick Man (Christmas Day, BBC1, 4:45pm) and Billionaire Boy (New Year’s Day, BBC1, 7pm). The former is an animated adaptation of the best-selling book by Gruffalo creators Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, while the latter is the latest Christmas staging of a Dahl-influenced tome by David Walliams.

Meanwhile, for the grown-ups, documentary highlights include Rudolf Nureyev – Dance to Freedom (today, BBC2, 8:50pm), which tells the gripping story of the great ballet dancer’s defection from the Soviet Union to the West, and the delightful From Andy Pandy to Zebedee: The Golden Age of Children’s TV (Monday 21st, BBC4, 9pm). A nostalgic traipse through the archives, it’ll soothe the soul of anyone over 30.

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As we grind towards 2016, the tragic tale of an operatic pop legend is sensitively told in Roy Orbison: One Of The Lonely Ones (Tuesday 29th, BBC4, 9pm), while yet another national treasure™ shows no sign of flagging in Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough (Wednesday 30th, BBC1, 9pm), a typically gorgeous new series in which he revisits an underwater fantasia he first explored in 1957.

After gorging on that lot, you’re entitled to sleep behind the sofa for at least a dozen months. See you next year.

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