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10 December 2020

The best TV of Christmas 2020

The highs and lows of festive viewing, from Regency drama to TV’s crummiest game show.  

By Rachel Cooke

I would love to be able to bring you good news this Christmas time: the TV version of a vaccine. But it’s tricky. Whatever some commissioning editors are on, I don’t fancy a shot of it myself. How, for instance, to explain the return of TV’s crummiest game show, Blankety Blank (BBC One, 25 December, 7pm), hosted by Bradley Walsh with various celebrities in attendance? I don’t think we can blame this distressing aberration on Covid, nor can we accuse the virus of having had anything to do with Dancing on Thin Ice (ITV, 1 January, 9pm), in which – I’m not kidding – Torvill and Dean scour the frozen Alaskan lakes for a spot on which to perform Boléro outdoors, while simultaneously exploring the tricky triple Axel that is global warming.

But as the government keeps telling us, we’re all in this together. We must try to find collective comfort in the predictable delights of Call the Midwife (BBC One, 25 December, 7.40pm), All Creatures Great and Small (Channel 5, 22 December, 9pm), and Dr Who (BBC One, 1 January, 6.45pm) – at least the Daleks are making a comeback this year (exterminate!). Meanwhile, those who miss Downton Abbey (there must be some) may find succour in the form of Bridgerton (Netflix, 25 December), in which the creator of Gray’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes, swaps her scrubs for empire gowns and tight britches in a Regency drama starring Julie Andrews as Lady Thistledown, Polly Walker as Lady Portia Featherington, and Ben Miller as Lord Featherington (no, I didn’t make these names up).

[See also: The ten best TV shows of 2020]

For my own part, I’ll be watching Amanda Coe’s new adaption of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel Black Narcissus (begins 27 December, 9pm, BBC One), a book I’ve always loved not least because it owes its title to a scent by Caron (Narcisse noir). Reimagining this one takes some chutzpah: not only is the novel, set in a convent of Anglican nuns in the Himalayas, utterly bewitching, Powell and Pressburger, as you’ll recall, also made it into an Oscar-winning film starring Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh (played now by Gemma Arterton). I’m curious to know how it’s turned out, and I’m keen to get entangled, too, in The Serpent (BBC One, 1 January, 9pm), a drama by the writers of Ripper Street, Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay, about the serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who preyed on tourists on south-east Asia’s hippy trail in the Seventies. The French actor, Tahar Rahim, will play Sobhraj; Jenna Coleman will star as his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc.

If you’re after comedy, there are Christmas specials of Ghosts (BBC One, 23 December, 8:30pm) and Upstart Crow (BBC Two, 21 December, 9pm). More reliably, Victoria Wood’s Secret List (BBC Two, 25 December, 9pm) comprises her best moments, as chosen by Wood herself (the list was found in one of her notebooks when she died in 2016). My treat, however, will be Motherland (BBC Two, 23 December, 9pm); it’s Amanda’s Christmas soiree, and please God let the eggnog be spiked with ruthless ambition, and the mince pies laced with existential failure.

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[See also: The best of Christmas radio]

As for theatre, the pickings, though slim, are delightful. Matthew Bourne’s captivating ballet The Red Shoes gets an outing (BBC Two, 25 December, 6pm), as does a filmed performance of Conor McPherson’s Uncle Vanya (BBC Four, 30 December, 10pm), starring Toby Jones, Richard Armitage and Roger Allam – a West End hit that closed early due to the pandemic.

The big Christmas animation for children this year is Quentin Blake’s Clown (Channel 4, 25 December, 7.40pm), voiced by Helena Bonham-Carter. Finally, let us give Mackenzie Crook’s Worzel Gummidge (BBC One, 24 December, 5.55pm) a shout-out. Crook’s genius here, apart from his decision to update Barbara Euphan Todd’s stories about a scarecrow with an environmental message, is to make the dialogue work on two levels: while only the grown-ups in the room will get some jokes, children will find them funny nevertheless, simply by dint of the loopy way they sound. Not all of us will be together this Christmas; rooms will be less crowded, families more scattered. But if you’re lucky enough to be in a bubble of young and old, Crook’s turnip-headed hero might be something you can all watch safely, in every sense of the word. 

[See also: How Netflix changed the channel]

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special