From Doctor Who to Brave, the best Christmas TV to watch

Downton Abbey. Picture: BBC
Downton Abbey. Picture: BBC
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Get your remote control at the ready and prepare for a televisual feast, including Doctor Who, Downton Abbey and an imperilled penguin

BEST MUSICAL: The Sound Of Music Live!

Tonight, STV, 7.30pm

Staging elaborate live versions of classic musicals has become a record-breaking TV phenomenon in the US, and since bumper ratings are among ITV’s favourite things, they’ve cannily imported the concept wholesale. That exclamation mark in the title tells you almost everything you need to know about The Sound Of Music Live! – it’s an excitable, ambitious project packed with crowd-pleasing songs with the added frisson that everything could go horribly off-piste at any moment. Former Strictly champ Kara Tointon will be in full-on yodelling mode as Maria, with Downton Abbey’s Julian Ovenden (below with Tointon) as Captain Von Trapp and reliable all-rounder Alexander Armstrong as lovable choirmaster Max.

BEST KIDS: From Andy Pandy To Zebedee: The Golden Age Of Children’s TV

Monday, BBC4, 9pm

For big kids, really. This beautifully crafted film explores the early days of children’s TV, from Muffin The Mule’s debut in 1946 to the inauguration of the first specialised BBC children’s department in 1950. Paying tribute to pioneering talents like Tony Hart (below with Pat Keysell) and Eric Thompson, it includes contributions from John Craven, Derek Griffiths, Janet Ellis and Johnny Ball, as well as Chris Packham weighing in on how difficult it must have been to wrangle that hamster in Tales Of The Riverbank. Nigel Planer does an appropriately soothing job as the narrator, though it would have been highly entertaining if they’d hired Morph’s cheerfully belligerent pal Chas to do the voiceover instead. To get you in the mood for the documentary, it’s immediately preceded by a curated selection of classics, including Play School and Grange Hill.


Wednesday, BBC1, 8.30pm

Midwinter is particularly bleak in the Antarctic, but that’s when baby penguins are born. In this chilly-looking but heartwarming nature documentary, discreet cameras follow the fortunes of Snow Chick, a cute little emperor penguin who, after being the last to hatch, seems to be always playing catch up with his more boisterous p-p-p-peers. The South Pole is depicted as a challenging place to grow up, a spectacularly beautiful but harsh environment populated by opportunistic predators. Luckily, Snow Chick has pluck and charm to spare even if (like most humans) he sometimes struggles to tell specific penguins apart. Kate Winslet provides the jolly narration.

BEST COMEDY: Trollied: A Christmas Carol

Wednesday, Sky1, 9pm

Aisle be back. This broad, brightly lit sitcom set in the fictional Valco supermarket chain has, over the course of five seasons, created its own rich ecosystem of workplace rivalries and romances. What’s notable about this Christmas special – which, rumour has it, might be the last ever episode – is the return of original star Jane Horrocks, who played harried assistant manager Julie in the first three series. Here, she’s essentially the ghost of Christmas past, trying to gently persuade fusspot manager Gavin (Jason Watkins) that it’s not exactly in the spirit of the season to insist his knackered staff come in on Christmas Day just for restocking purposes.

BEST RELAXATION: All Aboard: The Sleigh Ride

Christmas Eve, BBC4, 8pm

After BBC4’s success earlier this year broadcasting a leisurely canal boat ride, here’s a suitably seasonal spin on slow TV. Strap in for an uninterrupted two-hour sleigh ride through Lapland, pulled by reindeer through hillocks of snow and forests of silver birch. With no overbearing voiceover or intrusive music, it sounds like the perfect way to clear and calm your mind before what can be one of the most stressful days of the year. Just sit back, enjoy the swish of metal runner through fresh powder, the gentle tinkle of sleigh bells and soak up a genuine winter wonderland. Snow bother.

BEST FOOD: Jamie’s Night Before Christmas

Christmas Eve, Channel 4, 7pm

There’s not much comfort and joy at Christmas if you’re the person in charge of the food. Preparing the traditional giant bird and all the trimmings is a time-consuming, often precarious process. Affable kitchen wizard and reliable banter-monger Jamie Oliver is a man always keen to help out, so after conducting a survey to discover the nation’s greatest Christmas dinner fears, he’s tailored an hour-long tutorial to get us over all the bumps and lumps of the big day, practically guaranteeing tender turkey and outstanding sprouts. To make things even more enjoyable, turn it into a drinking game by glugging a glass of sherry every time the gregarious gourmand says “dollop” or “food hack”.


Christmas Day, BBC1, 3.10pm

Unless they launch a new franchise called Croy Story, this is likely to remain Pixar’s most Scottish movie ever – set in the mist-wreathed kingdom of DunBroch, a mulchy place ruled by King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Their rebellious teen daughter Merida (left, voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is both handy with a bow and dismissive of the various suitors being lined up to try and consolidate DunBroch’s political influence. Her journey towards self-determination takes a slightly unexpected left-turn into magic that elevates this beyond the usual fairty-tale fluff. In recent years, Merida has been subsumed into the rather identikit pantheon of Disney princesses, but here her spirit is as fiery as that distinctive head of curls.


Christmas Day, BBC1, 4.45pm

It would be mean to describe Martin Freeman’s acting as wooden, but here he is voicing the lead in the latest Julia Donaldson story to be animated as a festive treat. Following The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and Room On The Broom, Stick Man is, at heart, the story of an unlucky soul who just wants to get home in time for Christmas. Things are complicated by the fact that, because of his inherent stickiness, Stick Man is constantly being pursued by dogs, getting washed away down rivers or greedily surveilled by birds as potential nest-building material. Jennifer Saunders, Sally Hawkins and Rob Brydon round out the voice cast, with Hugh Bonneville popping up as a particularly plummy Santa.

BEST SCI-FI: Doctor Who

Christmas Day, BBC1, 5.15pm

Comedians Matt Lucas (right) and Greg Davies guest-star, which is probably just as well, since the past few episodes of Doctor Who have been particularly rough on the multiverse’s favourite Time Lord – he could do with some cheering up. The Doctor has retreated to the year 5343, in full bah-humbug mode during Christmas on a remote human colony. When a ditched spacecraft brings the Doctor unexpectedly back into the orbit of his one-time wife River Song (Alex Kingston), what should be an emotional reunion becomes rather more complicated thanks to River’s volatile new husband, his Infinite Majesty King Hydroflax of the Final Cluster. Can they unravel the marital riddle? Will two hearts – well, technically, three, thanks to Gallifreyan physiology – become one?

BEST FINALE: Downton Abbey - The Finale

Christmas Day, STV, 8.45pm

Soon we’ll all be experiencing an excess of Downton downtime – this Christmas special is the final capstone of Julian Fellowes’ world-conquering upstairs/downstairs melodrama, a six-season saga that has reflected historical events and shifting social attitudes from 1912 to the cusp of 1926. With the Crawley clan, including Robert (played by Hugh Bonneville, below), reunited in the run-up to New Year’s Eve 1925, there are no shortage of plot threads to resolve, although this series finale will have to go some to top a certain dinner table scene featuring an explosive ulcer and an aghast Neville Chamberlain, one of 2015’s most memorable TV moments.

BEST CLASSIC: Peter & Wendy

Boxing Day, STV, 8pm

You might not think the world needs another adaptation of JM Barrie’s classic, especially when the Hugh Jackman-starring prequel Pan failed to take flight at the box office this year. But at least this version is trying something different, beginning in contemporary Great Ormond Street Hospital as 12-year-old Lucy (Hazel Doupe) is being prepared for major heart surgery. After reading a certain story about a boy who can fly, she drifts off to sleep, reimagining the tale with herself as Wendy and the rest of the cast rounded out by friends and family, from her mum (Laura Fraser) as Mrs Darling to her surgeon (Stanley Tucci) as the croc-fearing Hook. Pop star Paloma Faith pops up as Tink.

BEST WHODUNIT: And Then There Were None

Boxing Day, BBC1, 9pm

Screening over three consecutive nights, this star-studded adaptation of the biggest-selling crime novel of all time (100 million copies sold, apparently) hopes to kickstart a new “Christie at Christmas” tradition. At the invitation of a mysterious couple, ten strangers – among them a thirsty playboy, a God-fearing spinster, a reckless doctor and a burdened businessman – find themselves stranded on an isolated island off the Devon coast. As they attempt to piece together why they’ve been summoned, the guests start to get bumped off, one by one. Charles Dance, Anna Maxwell Martin, the great Sam Neill and Miranda Richardson are among the top-drawer cast gliding around in natty 1930s threads, with Poldark’s hunky scythe-wielder Aidan Turner glowering as the secretive Lombard.