What to watch on TV this Christmas

Avoid the hassle of taking a highlighter to the Radio Times –​ plan your viewing now with my guide to the best Christmas television.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The TV schedules this Christmas are somewhat of a sight for sore eyes, for which reason they’re best approached in the style of an A-level student, with fluorescent pens in two colours and a shatterproof ruler. Or you can just take my advice, which is, I think, pretty fail-safe – though I offer it with the proviso that what follows won’t leave anyone with much time to talk to their families. (Might this be a good thing? No comment.)

First, drama. Let’s swing swiftly by Doctor Who (5.45pm) and Call the Midwife (8pm), both of which are on BBC1 on Christmas Day (Sherlock, in case you’re wondering, is a New Year’s Day treat at 8.30pm), and pause at Last Tango in Halifax, which returns for a two-parter (BBC1, 19 and 20 December, 9pm) in which Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) leaves the posh Harrogate school where she is headmistress, having decided to “put something back” by joining a Huddersfield comprehensive. Needless to say, her mother, Celia (Anne Reid), is not pleased. “It’s a state school!” she wails. Does this sound a little dashed off, plot-wise? It does to me, and I’m Last Tango’s biggest fan. But then, its writer, Sally Wainwright, has been very busy: To Walk Invisible, her drama about the Brontë sisters, screens on 29 December (BBC1, 9pm). Expect more wailing here, albeit of the wind, plus a selection of inordinately severe hairstyles. Sick though I am of the parasitical Brontë industry, I will be watching.

Last year, the BBC had a Christmas hit with Sarah Phelps’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – a success that it hopes to repeat with The Witness for the Prosecution, starring Kim Cattrall, Toby Jones and Andrea Riseborough (BBC1, Boxing Day, 9pm). If that’s too tame, you can try either Delicious (Sky 1, 30 December, 9pm), a drama about a celebrity chef (Iain Glen) who is caught in a love triangle with – the mind does slightly boggle – his wife (Emilia Fox) and his ex (Dawn French), or Medici: Masters of Florence (Netflix, from 9 December), in which Richard Madden and Dustin Hoffman, among others, play members of that naughty Renaissance family (a bit like The Crown, only with poison). Quarry (Sky Atlantic, 21 December, 9pm) doesn’t sound terribly seasonal – a Vietnam vet tries and fails to reacclimatise in 1970s Memphis – but it features what sounds like a great performance from the always magnificent Peter Mullan.

To comedy. My choices are Outnumbered (BBC1, Boxing Day, 10pm), if only because it will be interesting to see what kind of performances the Brockman children turn in, now that they’re grown-up; Inside No 9: the Devil of Christmas (BBC2, 27 December, 10pm), an episode of Steve Pemberton’s and Reece Shearsmith’s genius black-comedy drama set in an Austrian village in 1977 (the good children will get presents from St Nicholas, while the bad ones will be punished by the demonic Krampus); and Cunk on Christmas (BBC2, 29 December, 10pm), in which the hapless reporter Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan) gets all deep and festive (“As a young man, he kept a low profile in the wood industry,” she notes of Christ). Alan Bennett’s Diaries (BBC2, Christmas Eve, 8pm), an hour-long compendium of reading, chatting and pottering, may appeal if you’re one of those who think that he’s the embodiment of cuddliness. But I’ll not be tuning in because I don’t.

Children are well catered for this year (thank God, the author thinks, as she contemplates the small crowd of banshees that are her nieces and nephews). Try We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Channel 4’s animated version of a much-loved classic by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury (Christmas Eve, 7.30pm); Revolting Rhymes, an animated version of Roald Dahl’s book, featuring the voices of Tamsin Greig, Dominic West and David Walliams (BBC1, Boxing Day); and (best of all, in this adult’s view) The Farmer’s Llamas, an adventure starring Shaun the Sheep (BBC1, Christmas Day, 1.20pm).

What about culture? Does Shirley Bassey count? If so, she appears with her “good friend” David Walliams on Christmas Eve (David Walliams Celebrates Shirley Bassey, BBC1, 9pm), when “Goldfinger” certainly will be sung. Classier by far is The Ballet Master: Sir Peter Wright at 90 (BBC4, 27 December, 7pm), a portrait of the choreographer that comes with behind-the-scenes footage of the Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker.

However – using “culture” in the widest sense of the word – I am looking forward much more to the return of Pop Quiz (BBC4, 28 December, 9.30pm), the first round of which will feature Tom Bailey from the Thompson Twins and Andy McCluskey from OMD. And, yes, alarums: Mike “Ukip Calypso” Read will be in the chair. The Christmas University Challenge begins on 19 December (BBC2, 8pm), when the poet Simon Armitage will be one of those representing Manchester University.

Finally, if the thought of watching TV about food doesn’t make you queasy, at a time when a bowl of Quality Street is to be found on every available surface and the fridge has become a turkey graveyard, there is always The Cook Who Changed Our Lives (BBC2, 22 December, 6.30pm). For my part, I’m not really sure that Anna Del Conte, the Italian food writer who is now 91, was quite the influence that Nigella Lawson insists she was. Still, if you want to track our progress from tinned ravioli and macaroni cheese to spaghetti al granchio and pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale, this one might be for you. Buon appetito

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 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016