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8 December 2021

The highs (and lows) of festive TV

From Around the World in 80 Days to A Very British Scandal.

By Rachel Cooke

Oh dear. As the usual suspects have already observed – “déjà viewing” was how one headline put it – this year’s BBC One Christmas Day line-up is almost exactly the same as last year’s; blow off the dust, and you’ll find Call the Midwife, Mrs Brown’s Boys and a repeat of The Vicar of Dibley. But please, don’t despair! On the plus side, its drama bods are so pleased with one of their few new commissions, an adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days starring David Tennant as Phileas Fogg (Boxing Day, 5.50pm), they’ve already green-lit a second series. (Where will he go next? Mars? Venus? Bognor?)

Personally, I’m not convinced Fogg is the way to a ratings victory. A couple of months ago I attended a debate at which he was voted the most boring character in literature. If we must do international travel, I’d rather rewatch Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. But I am excited about A Very British Scandal, in which the screenwriter Sarah Phelps will tell the (still piping-hot) story of the Duchess of Argyll’s infamous 1963 divorce (BBC One, Boxing Day, 9pm). Claire Foy plays Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (in the reddest lipstick you’ve ever seen), and Paul Bettany the kilt-clad Duke in this tale of dead-inside aristos behaving badly – and I, for one, cannot wait.

Has the BBC really failed us? It doesn’t seem so to me. The Tourist (BBC One, New Year’s Day, 9pm) stars Jamie Dornan as a man who finds himself suffering from a bad bout of amnesia in the red-hot Australian outback (its script is by Harry and Jack Williams, creators of The Missing, so if nothing else it’ll twist and turn like a mountain road). And The Mezzotint (BBC Two, Christmas Eve, 10.30pm) is an adaptation of MR James’s classic ghost story by the ever-brilliant Mark Gatiss, starring, among others, Rory Kinnear and Robert Bathurst. The BBC will also bless us with a new outing – baa! – of Shaun the Sheep (The Flight Before Christmas; BBC One, Christmas Eve, 11.35am); Jonathan Van-Tam’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (expect tortuous sporting analogies; the first goes out on BBC Four, 28 December, 8pm); and Quentin Blake: The Drawing of my Life, a documentary for which the illustrator of our childhoods has created a 30ft-long canvas covered in self-portraits (BBC Two, Christmas Day, 4.10pm). What? Yes, of course there’s a Doctor Who special. It’s on New Year’s Day (BBC One).

No, it’s elsewhere that the pickings are on the slim side. Gatiss is at it again for Sky with The Amazing Mr Blunden (he writes, directs and co-stars alongside Tamsin Greig). Based on the 1972 film of the same name, itself based on Antonia Barber’s 1969 novel The Ghosts, this Turn of the Screw for children is about siblings who find themselves living in a ramshackle mansion when their mother becomes housekeeper to its owner, Mr Blunden (Christmas Eve, 7pm). Also from Sky is Last Train to Christmas, a film starring Michael Sheen as a bloke whose inter-city to Nottingham enables time travel to both past and future depending on which carriage he’s in (available to stream 18 December). ITV has done its best to hype its The Larkins special, though HE Bates’s rural syrup is not for everyone, especially after one too many sherries (a power cut causes havoc in the village; Christmas Day, 9pm).

What about Channel 4? How is Nadine Dorries, our diligent (and highly aesthetic!) new Culture Secretary, likely to feel about the prospect of the cast of Russell T Davies’s drama, It’s A Sin, lining up to take part in a special edition of The Great British Bake Off? (Christmas Day, 8pm). Let us hope none of the cakes is too… risqué. If television began to eat itself some time ago, I think it may now have arrived at pudding. How much further, for instance, can the competition format be pushed? You might want to have a good think about this over the holiday (or not). In The Greatest Snowman (Channel 4, Christmas Eve, 8pm) celebrities will travel to “an Alpine resort” where, supported by “seasoned sculptors and engineers”, they’ll “risk chilblains” as they attempt to produce “the most extraordinary snow creations ever seen on TV”. (What? There have been “snow creations” on TV before?) Sue Perkins presents/waggles her mittens/prays it will all be over soon.

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[see also: The best TV of 2021]

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special