The highs and lows of this year’s Christmas TV

From Agatha Christie to, er, Anne Widdecombe.

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When I first read that ITV’s big Christmas drama was to be a Torvill and Dean biopic starring Anita Dobson and Stephen Tompkinson, I pictured the pair of them whooshing around on the ice to the sound of Ravel’s Boléro and promptly fell into semi-hysterical laughter. My God, what the hell kind of casting was this? But either ITV’s announcement was misleading or I wilfully misread it. In fact, Jayne Torvill will be played by Poppy Lee Friar and Christopher Dean by Will Tudor; Dobson will perform a turn only as Miss Perry, Torvill’s coach at the Nottingham Ice Stadium, while Tompkinson will appear as her dad. I’m still not sure whether I’m relieved about this, or hugely disappointed.

Torvill and Dean is, I think, almost certain to be ripely cheesy – and all the better for it, probably. But if you fancy ham for your supper on Christmas night rather than stilton, have no fear: the BBC’s big drama is Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders starring the world’s greatest over-actor, John Malkovich, as Hercule Poirot. Apparently, Malkovich and the film’s writer, Sarah Phelps “take everything you know about Poirot and turn it on its head”, which sounds alarming – though, thus far, what this means in reality is only that Malkovich performs the role of the Belgian detective with an English accent and no waxed moustache. I’ve written before of my exasperation at the BBC’s obsession with making Christie more gritty and “relevant”. But if you feel as I do, all is not lost. Andrew Davies has written a six-part adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (BBC One), starring Olivia Colman, David Oyelowo and (hooray) Dominic West, that promises to be altogether more classy.

I also look forward to the retro pleasures promised by Mark Gatiss’s ghost story The Dead Room (BBC Four), in which Simon Callow plays the presenter of a long-running radio horror series who discovers that all is not quite quiet in his studio; and to The Queen And I (Sky One), a film based on Sue Townsend’s 1992 novel, in which David Walliams will play the prime minister. (Walliams will also appear, incidentally, in the BBC’s adaptation of his children’s novel The Midnight Gang, about a boy who, with the help of his fellow patients and a kindly porter, battles it out on a hospital ward against a cruel matron.)

Do you remember the 1978 animated film of Richard Adams’s novel Watership Down, voiced by John Hurt and Richard Briers? A new BBC/Netflix version of the story has just as starry a cast (James McAvoy is Hazel and Nicholas Hoult is Fiver), but it comes without both Art Garfunkel’s song “Bright Eyes” and some of the more upsetting scenes – the poor slaughtered bunnies! – that so traumatised my generation.

What about comedy? Would it be cruel, in this context, to mention that Ann Widdecombe will appear in the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special (BBC One)? Perhaps – though it wasn’t me who once described her as “a dancing hippo”, “the Ark Royal” and, er, haemorrhoids (no, that was the judges).

On Channel 4, The Inbetweeners celebrate their tenth birthday with a party: actually, a two-hour show hosted by the sitcom’s four stars featuring behind-the-scenes videos and interviews with famous fans (amazing to think that the series ran originally only for three series). On ITV, there is a Bad Move Christmas Special in which, I’m guessing, Jack Dee will look even more than usually mortified in reindeer knitwear.

On BBC One, Stephen Merchant will star in Click and Collect as a suburban father who embarks, accompanied by an annoying neighbour (played by Asim Chaudhry), on a long road trip at the last moment to bag his daughter’s most wanted present: Sparklehoof the Unicorn Princess. Channel 5 will screen a Christmas special devoted to the eternally funny Scottish actor, impressionist and comedian Stanley Baxter, now 92. The BBC is also to dust down two “lost” episodes of Morecambe & Wise.

You may, of course, long for some culture at Christmas time – something just a cut above your Beano annual (though is anything really ever a cut above a Beano annual?). Sky Arts is to screen both the recent stage revival of the 1963 musical Funny Girl, starring Sheridan Smith as the Broadway star Fanny Brice – a production that was a huge hit – and Frank Sinatra’s Madison Square Garden concert from 1974.

The BBC has documentaries about the comedian Billy Connolly and the artist and writer who brought us The Snowman and Fungus the Bogeyman, Raymond Briggs; Ken Dodd will be remembered in How Tickled We Were (BBC Two); Swan Lake from the Royal Opera House will be shown on BBC Two.

Finally, just to let you know that the Christmas edition of Doctor Who has, for the first time in over ten years, been moved from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day. Apparently, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is to return to Earth where she will face a “terrifying evil”. As I write, no one is saying whether this has anything to do either with John Malkovich or Ann Widdecombe. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special