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16 December 2015

Call the bogeymen: this year’s Christmas TV

Those Tory vultures who deludedly believe that the public won’t mind if the BBC is dismantled would do well to scan the Christmas schedules.

By Rachel Cooke

Those Tory vultures who deludedly believe that the public won’t mind if the BBC is dismantled would do well to scan the Christmas schedules, a cursory glance at which reveals that, this year, it practically owns the holidays. While ITV pathetically waves the lonely Lady Edith at us (Downton Abbey, Christmas Day, 8.45pm) – “Will she marry at last?” it quavers desperately, reeking of Yardley – BBC1 provides crowd-pleaser after crowd-pleaser: Doctor Who (Christmas Day, 5.15pm), Call the Midwife (also Christmas Day, 7.30pm), Sherlock (New Year’s Day, 9pm), and on and on. It’s a bit embarrassing. Think, for a moment, of the two channels as parents. Here is ITV, hurriedly shoving a few satsumas and a crummy old Pez dispenser in an ancient stocking. And here is the BBC, frantically wrapping all the luxuriant booty it picked up when it splurged at Hamleys months ago.

Let’s begin with the BBC. Beyond the return of the above, its main offering is Dickensian, Tony Jordan’s extraordinary Dickens mash-up (BBC1, begins on Boxing Day, 7pm). I first heard about this crazed project last September, at a literary festival, from Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, who advised on it (a professor of English at Oxford, he is the author of the brilliant Becoming Dickens). All I can tell you is that, as he spoke, there was wonder in his eyes. Jordan, once the lead writer on EastEnders, has plucked various Dickens characters from their own stories and put them to work in his, a soapy 20-part drama (each episode is 30 minutes long). Will it come off? Who knows? Andrew Davies had great success when he chopped Bleak House into half-hour slices and Jordan’s cast is great (Anton Lesser as Fagin, Stephen Rea as Inspector Bucket, Pauline Collins as Mrs Gamp). On the other hand, it seems risky at best and downright stupid at worst to mess with the great, immortal Boz. Which isn’t to say that I won’t be watching, because I will.

We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story (BBC2, 22 December, 9pm) is a drama reconstructing the bringing to life, by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, of what remains our most beloved sitcom. I’m looking forward to Julian Sands’s turn as John Le Mesurier. And Then There Were None (BBC1, begins Boxing Day, 9pm) is a new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s island murder mystery by Sarah Phelps, with an all-star cast that ­includes Charles Dance, Toby Stephens, Miranda Richardson and the wonderful Burn Gorman. Also, Aidan “Poldark” Turner. Expect a total campfest.

For children, there’s Harry Hill in Professor Branestawm Returns (BBC1, Christmas Eve, 5.20pm) and David Walliams starring in an adaptation of his book Billionaire Boy (BBC1, New Year’s Day, 7pm). By way of a bonus ball, Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists (BBC4, 23 December, 10pm) returns for a Christmas special in which Lance (Toby Jones) hasn’t found even so much as some “canslaw” (ring pulls) in months . . .

Besides Lady Edith – and something called Bafta Celebrates Downton Abbey (21 December, 9pm), which sounds truly vomit-making – what will ITV be dishing up? The Sound of Music Live! (20 December, 7.30pm) is, well, The Sound of Music performed live by, among others, Kara Tointon, Katherine Kelly and Julian Ovenden (yes, Lady Mary’s old boyfriend in . . . oh, God). Peter and Wendy (Boxing Day, 8pm) borrows characters and ideas from Peter Pan but is set in Great Ormond Street Hospital in the 21st century. It stars Stanley Tucci as Hook, which sounds fun, and Paloma Faith as Tinker Bell, which sounds alarming. In Harry Price: Ghost Hunter (27 December, 8.30pm), Rafe Spall plays the noted 1920s denouncer of fraudulent spiritualists.

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Slim pickings, too, at Channel 4, whose Christmas fare seems to consist mainly of predictable-sounding documentaries with titles such as My Crazy Christmas Lights (Christmas Eve, 8pm) – though I won’t be able to resist Inside Lego at Christmas (Boxing Day, 8pm), given my longing for a box of Lego Architecture, the bricks for adults (if you love me and you’re reading this, I want Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, please).

Finally, there is Sky’s version of Raymond Briggs’s Fungus the Bogeyman (Sky 1, ­begins 27 December, 6pm). Timothy Spall is the damp-loving, tunnel-dwelling but not-very-scary monster and Joanna Scanlan is his “drear wife”, Mildrew, while Marc Warren and Keeley Hawes play the “Dry Cleaners” above ground (ie, human beings). I loved Bogey as a child and I love him still: I find myself longing to see what happens when his son, Mould, proclaims, as he does in this version, that he is “Dry-curious”. But I hope the programme-makers haven’t cleaned the whole thing up too much. Fungus without greet* in his gumboots and ­colossal colophons** emanating from his behind wouldn’t be Fungus at all.

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* Greet: purulent or morbid discharge

** Colossal colophon: a really stinky fart

This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special