By Louise Bolotin
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but not necessarily for watching TV. In between the seasonal repeats, one-star Xmas films and the Christmas specials of popular dramas, you have to pick through to find what’s worth switching on for. Here’s my bumper stocking for you.
James Corden’s comic thriller The Wrong Mans (Mon/Tues, BBC2, 9pm) returns for a two-part “series” co-starring his sidekick Matthew Baynton. It was a surprise hit last year and our anti-heroes now find themselves in Texas, working for a trucking company. But before long they find themselves embroiled with Russian assassins and Mexican drugs barons. And there’s a marvellous swipe at Top Gear. Norman Hunter’s Branestawm tales were hugely popular with two generations of older kids up to the 1980s. The first one, written in 1933, has been adapted for TV for the first time since the 60s. The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (Christmas Eve, BBC1, 8.30pm) tells the tale of an absent-minded boffin facing off the council jobsworths who want to close his lab down and sell it off to a munitions factory tycoon. Fabulously anarchic, it was written by Charlie Higson and stars Harry Hill as Branestawm, supported by David Mitchell, Simon Day, Ben Miller and Miranda Richardson.
Christmas Day specials: Doctor Who (BBC1, 6.15pm), Call the Midwife (BBC1, 7.50pm) and Downton Abbey (ITV, 9pm). Salvation is in the air – the Doctor battles aliens in the Arctic and Santa (Nick Frost, left) saves the day, Chummy saves two pregnant girls who’ve been dumped in a home for unwed mothers and Bates tries to save Anna from the hangman’s noose.
David Walliams has a neat track record now in creating cosy family-friendly dramas for Christmas. His latest, The Boy in the Dress (Boxing Day, BBC1, 6.55pm), tells the story of Dennis, a 12-year-old, who is a talented footballer but finds his world opening up when he stumbles across a fashion magazine. He starts cross-dressing, even playing on the pitch in dresses and going to school as “Denise”. It’s a wonderfully lighthearted examination of the serious issues facing transgendered people, starring Jennifer Saunders, Meera Syal and Billy Kennedy as Dennis, with cameos from Gary Lineker and Kate Moss. Victoria Woods’ hit musical is adapted into a feature-length TV play in That Day We Sang (Boxing Day, BBC2, 9pm). Set in Manchester in the late 60s, middle-aged Enid and Tubby go to a reunion of the children’s choir they sang in 40 years earlier. As their childhood memories surface they embark on a tentative romance. The dialogue is classic Wood – acerbic asides and wry observations – and the story is told mostly in song. Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball head the cast.
Your box-set binge: Game of Thrones (from Sat, Sky Atlantic, from 9pm), seasons 1-4, three episodes at a time. Fans of the blood-thirsty fantasy drama should settle in for the next 12 nights.
Versatile entertainer, Sammy Davis Jr, could sing, tap, dance, tell jokes… and was a member of Sinatra’s infamous Rat Pack. Sammy Davis Jr: the Kid in the Middle (Sun, BBC4, 9pm) profiles the man and his career, set firmly in historical context. A civil rights activist, his lengthy relationships with white women were taboo in the 50s and 60s, but his conversion to Judaism after a near-fatal car crash rocketed him to superstardom. With contributions from family and former lovers, Jesse Jackson, Paul Anka and Engelbert Humperdinck, it’s followed by a compilation show of his BBC performances. Michael Bublé’s Christmas (Mon, 5, 9pm) has the popular crooner delivering festive songs and chat from Radio City Music Hall in New York. His guests include the legendary Barbra Streisand.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, and Len Goodman’s Big Band Bonanza (Tues, BBC4, 9pm) aims to show why this jazz style was such a massive phenomenon. Glenn Miller’s tunes kept up the Allies’ spirits during WW2, which Hitler found so threatening German “swing kids” faced arrest, but the style continued to thrive and is still popular today – a fascinating piece of cultural history. Tim Rice: a Life in Song (Christmas Day, BBC2, 9pm) celebrates one of Britain’s finest lyricists. Michael Grade plays host, longtime collaborator Andrew Lloyd Webber pays tribute and the stars lining up to sing his musical hits include Rufus Wainwright, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Tim Minchin, Laura Mvula and Roger Daltrey.
Actor Sir Ian McKellen sits for three finalists in Portrait Artist of the Year 2014 (Tues, Sky Arts 1, 8pm). The prize is to paint another thespian – Alan Cumming – for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and £10,000. Host Frank Skinner was not the best choice – he’s an irritating distraction, but it’s a tense and thrilling final. Julie Walters: a Life on Screen (Christmas Eve, BBC2, 9.30pm) profiles one of our most respected and talented actors. She scooped this year’s Bafta Fellowship, cementing her place in the national pantheon. Here she talks about her lengthy and versatile career. Regular collaborators Victoria Wood and Alan Bleasdale pay tribute.
Shakespeare’s classic romance is danced in The Winter’s Tale by the Royal Ballet (Christmas Day, BBC4, 7pm). This production was filmed at its world premiere earlier this year at the Royal Opera House. Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson dance the lead roles of Leontes and Hermione. There’s more dance in Carlos Acosta’s Cuban Night (Boxing Day, BBC4, 7.30pm) – an exciting show starring ballet dancer Acosta that blends classical and Afro-Cuban dance styles. Filmed at the Royal Opera House, with the Royal Ballet, Ballet Rambert and the Cuban National Ballet.
The inimitable Joan Rivers, who died earlier this year, had a sabre-tongued wit but her British “agony aunt” chat show (2004-06) wasn’t well known. The Best of the Joan Rivers Position (Sat, 5, 10.50pm) is a romp through the highlights, which includes Graham Norton discussing his sex life in explicit detail and Katie Price getting a dressing down. Also gone from us this year – Rik Mayall, who is remembered in Rik Mayall: Lord of Misrule (Sat, BBC2, 10.05pm). The archive clips are a choice selection of his best work – the rocket-fuelled physical comedy, surrealism, subversive satire and pompous punk wit – in Blackadder, The Young Ones, Kevin Turvey, The New Statesman, Bottom... Those lining up to pay tribute are a veritable who’s who of British comic talent – they include Michael Palin, Simon Pegg, Lenny Henry, Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Christopher Ryan, Tim McInnerny, Jools Holland, Ruby Wax and Greg Davies. Simon Callow narrates. Greg Davies’ splendid sitcom Man Down (Tues, C4, 10pm) almost didn’t get recommissioned after the death of co-star Rik Mayall but it’s back for a seasonal special in which Dan and and friends visit his aunt Nesta’s turkey farm.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a panto. Oh no it wouldn’t! Storyville goes backstage in Panto! Mayhem, Makeup and Magic (Mon, BBC4, 9.25pm), following the am-dram cast and production team of Nottingham Arts Theatre as they put on their version of Puss in Boots. Heartwarming, like a fine mug of mulled wine. War Horse at the Proms (Boxing Day, BBC2, 5.25pm) is staged at the Royal Albert Hall, with a cast the includes the National Theatre Ensemble, the Military Wives, the BBC Concert Orchestra and Handspring’s marvellous puppets. This is a fine reworking of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s tale of Joey the army horse who gave service in WW1 in France and how young Albert, his previous owner, tries to bring him safely home.
Children will lap up On Angel Wings (Christmas Eve, BBC1, 4.15pm), the nativity story magically retold by author Michael Morpurgo, in a charming animation. Michael Gambon and Juliet Stevenson star. Carols from King’s (Christmas Eve, BBC2, 5.25pm), from the University of Cambridge, is the first of two traditional carol services. Christmas Carols on ITV (Christmas Eve, ITV, 11pm) is hosted by Aled Jones at a church in Manchester. The Queen addresses the nation on BBC1 at 3pm in her traditional Christmas Day speech, while Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message (1.50pm) is delivered by Sharon Osbourne.