The best TV to watch this Christmas

From Dracula to Doctor Who.

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What do I want for Christmas? Actually, I think I might be getting it in the form of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s adaptation of Dracula (BBC One, begins New Year’s Day, 9pm). Blimey. Not only is the role of the Count to be taken by the Danish actor Claes Bang (no jokes, please: I’ll make those myself later, in private), for whom I went vaguely bonkers after seeing him in Ruben Östlund’s 2017 film The Square. Bang will also be playing him as a camp, “bi-homicidal” monster who gives off a slight whiff of Hannibal Lecter. Gatiss and Moffat have, it seems, thrown Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel – splat – against the wall. Their version will be sexy, and purists may not be happy. But really, what’s not to like? I think the whole thing – so, bite me! – sounds like heaven.

Transylvania aside, I’m not sure that new drama is where it’s at this Christmas. As usual, the BBC is rolling out Call the Midwife (BBC One, Christmas Day, 7pm) and Doctor Who (BBC One, New Year’s Day, 6:55pm); the best ITV has to give us is a new series of its schlocky melodrama Bancroft (New Year’s Day, 9pm), in which Sarah Parish plays a murderous (and seemingly lockjawed) copper.

If you want ghost stories, there are two: Martin’s Close, another adaptation by Mark Gatiss, this time of a story by MR James (BBC Four, Christmas Eve, 10pm; Peter Capaldi stars); and The Small Hand, a version of Susan Hill’s novella about an antiquarian book dealer who stumbles on an abandoned house and… well, suffice to say: here be malign spirits (Channel 5, Boxing Day, 9pm; with Douglas Henshall).

The BBC is also serving up a super-gritty version of A Christmas Carol, adapted by Steven Knight, the creator of Peaky Blinders, and starring Guy Pearce as Scrooge (starts BBC One, 22 December, 9pm). But these shows apart – I’m not sure that Wisting, BBC Four’s latest Scandinavian crime import, really counts (begins 28 December, 9pm, with the discovery of a body in a field of Norwegian Christmas trees) – the pickings seem quite slim to me.

Things are no better if you’re after comedy. But only a true Grinch would not be looking forward to the much-anticipated return of James Corden and Ruth Jones’s adorable Gavin and Stacey (BBC One, Christmas Day, 8:30pm). Dame Edna Everage also makes a comeback in Dame Edna Rules the Waves, in which we find the Australian megastar on her yacht with, among others, Nile Rogers and, er, Rick Stein (BBC One, New Year’s Eve, 9:05pm).

Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe is no more, but at least we have Cunk and Other Humans on 2019 to skewer the past year (BBC Two, from 16 December, 10:30pm); the thought of the exceedingly dim Philomena Cunk (as performed by Diane Morgan) pondering Brexit is irresistible – though it’s possible that, ultimately, she may not sound vastly different from Dominic Raab. You want Miranda? I’m not sure that I do. But anyway, Miranda Hart is to be reunited with her sitcom co-stars in a show from the London Palladium that promises behind-the-scenes titbits, surprise guests (not more Rick Stein?) and music (Miranda: My Such Fun Celebration, BBC One, New Year’s Day, 5:45pm).

Children are spoilt for choice this year, especially when it comes to animation: The Tiger Who Came to Tea (Channel 4, Christmas Eve, 7:30pm) is an animated version of Judith Kerr’s most beloved book, and The Snail and the Whale (BBC One, Christmas Day, 2:30pm) brings to life Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s story of friendship. Little My, Snufkin and co are also back in a second series of Moominvalley (Sky One, 21 December, 1pm). I’m slightly traumatised by Mackenzie Crook’s appearance as the scarecrow of Scatterbrook Farm in Worzel Gummidge (BBC One, Boxing Day, 6:20pm). Never has a turnip looked so… anatomical. But Crook has also written this (his update on the story will include iPhones as well as tractors), and given how brilliant his sitcom Detectorists was, I think it will be worth giving it a go.

Finally, some documentaries. The Last Igloo (BBC Four, Christmas Eve, 7:30pm) follows an Inuit hunter as he constructs seal traps and fishes in the ice. The Decade the Music Died (Sky Arts, 27 December, 9pm) looks at all the musicians and singers we’ve lost in the past ten years, from David Bowie to Amy Winehouse.

My choice, however, would be Hugh Grant: A Life on Screen (BBC Two, 23 December, 9pm), in which the actor serves as a witty, self-deprecating guide to his career, from Four Weddings to Paddington 2 and A Very English Scandal (he will even revisit some of the “strange, Euro-pudding series” in which he appeared after Maurice, the 1987 Merchant Ivory picture that gave him his break). Thanks to Grant, a man now in grave danger of becoming a national treasure, I’m able to sign off by noting that, though this column began with a Bang, it certainly does not go out with a whimper. Happy viewing, and happy Christmas. 

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 appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning

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