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17 December 2022

The highs and lows of Christmas TV 2022

From the Motherland special to the return of Happy Valley.

By Rachel Cooke

At this time of year, we all like to be able to hand out the presents, and I’m no exception. So here it is, my gift to you, which comes in the form of the wondrous news that there is to be a Motherland Christmas special (BBC One). You don’t need batteries for this one, but I would gently advise on watching it alone, the better fully to revel in your snarky ecstasy. In Motherland: Last Christmas, it’s a full house round at Julia’s (Anna Maxwell Martin): not only her in-laws, but also Kevin (Paul Ready), saved from eating vending machine crisps with other divorced dads, and Liz (Diane Morgan), whose ex has bailed. Meanwhile, Amanda (Lucy Punch) is spending the day with Johnny and his new wife, cue clenched smiles and at least one White Company scented candle. I haven’t looked forward to anything so much since the Sindy doll I procured from my grudging parents three years after everyone else got one.

The BBC has roundly aced this Christmas. Highlights include a third and final series of Happy Valley starring Sarah Lancashire and – yes! – James Norton (BBC One); a feature-length episode of The Detectorists, starring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones (BBC Two); a return for Bad Education starring Jack Whitehall (Bad Education Reunion, BBC Three), and a spiffing-sounding new series, Marie Antoinette, created and written by Deborah Davis, the writer of the Oscar-nominated film The Favourite (BBC Two; Emilia Schüle plays the title role to Louis Cunningham’s Louis XVI). For children, it has an animated adaptation of Charlie Mackesy’s bestselling The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (BBC One) and a Malory Towers Christmas Special, in which Darrell is forced – boo! – to spend the holiday at school (CBBC). Culture fiends will delight in Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends (BBC Two), a concert of the composer’s music that sold out immediately when it was staged in May (among those appearing are some of Sondheim’s absolute best interpreters: Rosalie Craig, Janie Dee, Maria Friedman, Julia Mackenzie, Jenna Russell, Imelda Staunton). I’m also avid for what is becoming a Christmas tradition: an MR James ghost story adapted and directed for television by Mark Gatiss. This year’s is the exceedingly chilling Count Magnus (BBC Two) and will star Jason Watkins.

ITV’s schedule is – oh, Lord – dominated by three As (Alan Carr, Ainsley Harriott, Ant and Dec), while Channel 4 goes with Jamie (Oliver), Kirstie (Allsopp) and Sarah (Beeny), and yet more bloody Bake Off. It all feels a bit cut-price. But stick your fingers into Sky, and you may well pull out the odd plum. Its slate includes an animated adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice, voiced by Hugh Bonneville, Emilia Clarke, Hugh Laurie and David Tennant; the return of the excellent I Hate Suzie, starring Billie Piper; and something called – I can hardly believe I’m typing this – Christmas Carole, a “reimagining” of Dickens’ most famous story starring Suranne Jones as a wealthy, outspoken entrepreneur (is her name… Carole Scrooge? I suppose it must be).

On Channel 5, we can take refuge in the usual cosiness (you have to admit, it has got TV hygge sorted) with a return to Darrowby in theAll Creatures Great and Small Christmas Special and the Madame Blanc Mysteries Christmas Special. What? You’ve never seen the Madame Blanc Mysteries? OK, then. It’s a series about a Cheshire antique dealer who, for complicated reasons, finds herself in the south of France trying to solve various mysteries including that of her husband’s death. I’m vaguely obsessed by it for the simple reason that a recurring character, an expat chateau owner, is played by Robin Askwith, formerly the star of Confessions of a Window Cleaner and other naughty sex capers of the 1970s. Weird, I know.

Though not half as weird as what, for many, will be the most important television screened this Christmas. Yes, I’m talking about the World Cup Final on 18 December, which will come to us live from Qatar on both BBC One and ITV. How bizarre, to watch this event surrounded by tinsel. A Quality Street for every corner? A mince pie for each goal? Either way, half-time snacks are going to have to be completely rethought.

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[See also: Even Claudia Winkleman can’t make The Traitors watchable]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special