What to watch on TV this Christmas

Children get the best TV this year, says Rachel Cooke.

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The annual story about Christmas repeats so beloved of our tabloid press came with an extra twist this year when Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television, “fought back” on Twitter, accusing the journalists who trot out this line about laziness. “BBC schedules full of amazing shows this Christmas,” he wrote, before having a good go at the Mirror, which had insisted that 63 per cent of the BBC’s festive output this year would consist of repeats. Crikey, I thought, as I followed all this. Cohen is right to defend the BBC. If he won’t, why should anyone else? But I felt the fear, too. No one loves the “TV’s Christmas reheats” story the way the Daily Mail does. His wife might like to consider giving him a hard hat and a flak jacket this holiday season.

Still, Cohen can take heart from being (more or less) right. Naturally, ITV has asked Julian Fellowes to dial in a Downton Abbey special, and he has obliged with an episode in which Lord Sinderby invites his new daughter-in-law, Rose, and her awful relatives up to Northumberland to shoot Lord Grantham . . . sorry, I mean grouse (Christmas Day, 9pm). But this, alas, is pretty much it from ITV when it comes to delivering the sorts of shows – comforting and more than a little camp – in front of which Britain’s middle classes are apt to flop with their Crabbie’s ginger wine and chocolate brazils. By contrast, BBC1 not only has Doctor Who (Christmas Day, 6.15pm) and Call the Midwife (Christmas Day, 7.50pm), but the return of Sally Wainwright’s brilliant Last Tango in Halifax (28 December, 9pm) as well as Mapp and Lucia, an adaptation by Steve Pemberton of E F Benson’s divinely funny novels (about two competitively snobbish spinsters in 1930s Rye), starring Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson and the biggest set of dentures since Dick Emery’s vicar (29 December, 9.05pm). Of course, I accept that you may not be in a camp mood. Sloe gin and too many Quality Street may simply have increased your misanthropy exponentially – in which case, tune in to Wallander (BBC4, Boxing Day, 9pm), the very first Swedish version of Henning Mankell’s first Wallander novel. This is its British premiere.

For children, there comes an embarrassment of riches in the form of The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, Charlie Higson’s adaptation of Norman Hunter’s much-loved book (BBC1, Christmas Eve, 8.30pm; Harry Hill stars); The Boy in the Dress, an adaptation of David Walliams’s adorable novel (BBC1, Boxing Day, 6.55pm); and Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot (BBC1, New Year’s Day, 6.30pm), in which Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman bring Quentin Blake’s illustrations to life.

Ditto for culture vultures: on Christmas Day BBC4 will screen the Royal Ballet’s Winter’s Tale (7pm) and on 20 December Jeremy Paxman plays Santa (or something) in Christmas University Challenge (BBC2, 8.35pm; the novelist Jonathan Coe is among those taking part). Less highbrow, but twice the fun – like Michael Frayn gone wrong – will be Panto! Mayhem, Make-up and Magic (BBC4, 22 December, 9.25pm), in which a documentary team goes backstage at the Nottingham Arts Theatre as it attempts to stage a Christmas show on a budget of £600. That Day We Sang (BBC2, Boxing Day, 9pm) is Victoria Wood’s TV version of her own musical. Set in Manchester in 1929 and 1969, it tells the story of middle-aged Enid and Tubby as they attend a reunion of the choir in which they sang as children. Imelda Staunton plays Enid and Michael Ball is Tubby, which will be recommendation enough for anyone who saw them in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. On the subject of singing, I also commend The Kid in the Middle, a documentary about Sammy Davis Jr (BBC4, 21 December, 9pm).

Finally: comedy, which has a distinctly valedictory air this year. Man Down, Greg Davies’s batty sitcom about a disaster-prone teacher called Dan, will struggle on without Rik Mayall (who played Dan’s father) in a one-off seasonal special on 23 December (Channel 4, 10pm), and Miranda Hart will say goodbye to the character that made her a household name on BBC1 on Christmas Day (7.15pm) and New Year’s Day (8pm). James Corden’s caper The Wrong Mans, which styles itself as a comedy-drama but seems mostly to want to make us smile, returns to BBC2 on 22 December (9pm), and I don’t expect we’ll see it again for some time, if ever, given that its star is off to host a network chat show in the US.

Toodle-pip, then, to all three. Or, as Mapp and Lucia would have it: au reservoir for now. 

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 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014