Christmas comes but once a year, as does, in this unforgiving annus horribilis, Doctor Who (Christmas Day, BBC1, 5:45pm), who hasn’t graced our screens since Christmas 2015. So there will be much rejoicing when Peter Capaldi returns for an adventure in which the Doc joins forces with a masked New York superhero. Ahead of the new series next year, Matt Lucas also returns as a semi-regular companion.After seven successful years at the TARDIS console, Doctor Who show-runner Steven Moffat retires at the end of 2017, to make way for new boss Chris Chibnall of Broadchurch infamy.
Moffat’s exit will presumably give him more time to focus on his other hit drama, Sherlock (New Year’s Day, BBC1, 8:30pm), which returns for a fourth series this Yuletide. Episode one, written by co-owner Mark Gatiss, finds Holmes and Watson investigating the mysterious destruction of images of Margaret Thatcher (sounds like a perfectly reasonable pastime to me).
Meanwhile, we travel back in time to 1950s South Africa for a special episode of Call The Midwife (Christmas Day, BBC1, 8pm), in which the midwives struggle to rescue a tiny mission hospital with links to their order. It’s the equivalent of one of those 1970s sitcom spin-offs in which the cast venture overseas, albeit with a significantly more sombre bent.
Following a well-received pilot earlier this year, Rowan Atkinson makes his second outing as sensitive French detective Jules Maigret in Maigret’s Dead Man (Christmas Day, STV, 9pm). This time he’s doggedly drawing links between fatal attacks on three wealthy farms and the murder of an anonymous Parisian.
The period intrigue continues in The Witness For The Prosecution (Boxing Day/Tuesday 27, BBC1, 9pm), an impressive adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie mystery yarn.
Produced by the team behind last year’s similarly atmospheric staging of Christie’s And Then There Were None, it stars Toby Jones as John Mayhew, a shabby 1920s solicitor who takes on the case of a dashing young man accused of murdering a wealthy widow (Kim Cattrall). Initially indifferent to his client’s plight, Mayhew gradually comes to believe in his innocence. All he requires is the alibi of the man’s inconveniently vengeful showgirl wife (Andrea Riseborough).
If that weren’t dour enough, the tortured saga of the Brontë sisters is brought to admirably unseasonal life in Sally Wainwright’s To Walk Invisible (Thursday 29, BBC1, 9pm, see cover interview pp4-7). Creator of the justly lauded Happy Valley, Wainwright caps another winning year (for her, at least) with this drama about three 19th century Yorkshire women struggling to assert their literary genius in an oppressively patriarchal society. Should you be sick of festive cheer by this point, then put your trust in Wainwright to provide the ideal antidote.
A brighter note is struck by various tributes to much-loved celebrities this Christmas, beginning with the BAFTA-backed Sir Lenny Henry – A Life On Screen (Monday 19, BBC2, 9pm).
This cheerful traipse through his storied career, from New Faces hopeful to Tiswas, Comic Relief and his late flowering as a Shakespearean actor, is bolstered by typically humble contributions from Lenworth himself, alongside astutely-chosen archive clippage plus talking heads such as Richard Curtis and Trevor McDonald.
One of Britain’s greatest comedians receives his due in Les Dawson Forever (Wednesday 21/Thursday 22, ITV3, 9pm), a thorough two-part documentary celebrating his unique combination of traditional Northern humour and lugubrious erudition. Few other comics have managed to elicit such helpless torrents of laughter with a mere glare.
While the same can’t be said for ubiquitous David Walliams, his palpable sincerity is rather touching in David Walliams Celebrates Dame Shirley Bassey (Christmas Eve, BBC1, 9pm), which does what it says on the glitter-flecked tin. To celebrate the Tiger Bay diva’s 80th birthday, Walliams takes his showbiz chum on a nostalgic wander through her eventful life. New performances of classics such as Goldfinger prove that she’s still in fine, lung-busting voice.
A treasured Dame of a much more modest hue, one of our finest actresses receives a deservedly glowing profile in Judi Dench: All The World’s Her Stage (Friday 30, BBC2, 8pm). Beloved not only for her thespian prowess but also her charming lack of pretentiousness, Dame Judi is reliably a-twinkle yet resolutely non-starry as luminaries such as Billy Connolly, Ian McKellen and Daniel Craig queue up to sing her praises.
He wouldn’t thank you for the ostentatious compliment, but Alan Bennett is another National Treasure ™ adored for his droll self-deprecation. In Alan Bennett’s Diaries (Christmas Eve, BBC2, 8pm), the peerless playwright, humourist and deceptively barbed curmudgeon reads extracts from his latest volume of diaries while granting us access to his everyday existence. If you don’t want him to be your best friend by the end of this profile, then I fear for your character.
Awestruck science mammal Professor Brian Cox joins forces with comedian and Galaxy Song author Eric Idle for an irreverent voyage through The Entire Universe (Boxing Day, BBC2, 9:30pm), which marks a return after 40 years for Idle’s deliberately ramshackle post-Python vehicle, Rutland Weekend Television. Peppered with Broadway-style show tunes and typically whimsical skits, it manages to impart actual scientific knowledge while keeping its tongue firmly in its cheek. Warning: may contain the perplexing sight of Cox in drag.
The third series of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s highly acclaimed comedy-horror anthology kicks off in ingenious style with Inside No 9 – The Devil
Of Christmas (Tuesday 27, BBC2, 10pm). Set during Christmas 1977, it’s a claustrophobic, studio-bound chiller filmed using authentic period equipment so as to resemble an actual BBC production from that era. The attention to detail is wonderful. Pemberton and Jessica Raine play a stiffly middle-class couple whose yuletide holiday in Austria is ruined by the presence of a not-so-mythical creature. Listen out for Derek Jacobi as the programme’s fictional director; his “DVD commentary” is an essential component.
Prepare to shed a tear at the beautifully animated adaptation of author/illustrator Raymond Briggs’ Ethel & Ernest (Wednesday 28, BBC 1, 7:30pm), a tenderly autobiographical portrait of his parents’ lives. The Great Depression, the Second World War and the advent of television are among the cultural flashpoints we encounter from their first meeting in 1928 to their deaths in the early 1970s. In its quiet, unassuming way, it’s a profoundly moving account of working-class life in the 20th century.
Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a visit from the immortal Roald Dahl, whose subversive parody of traditional folk tales is adapted via animation in Revolting Rhymes (Boxing Day/Tuesday 27, BBC1, 6:30pm). Narrated by Dominic West in the guise of a suave wolf, its treatment of classics such as Snow White and The Three Little Pigs should delight children and adults alike.
Finally, Charlie Brooker provides a suitably caustic assessment of not only the season but this entire year in both Cunk On Christmas (Thursday 29, BBC2, 10pm), featuring his clueless cultural commentator Philomena Cunk, and 2016 Wipe (Thursday 29, BBC2, 9pm). Even a satirist of Brooker’s calibre will have trouble covering every dark and disastrous detail of this drama-packed year, but watching him try should be grimly entertaining. Let’s hope he doesn’t have to tackle so much in 2017.