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21 December 2013

Fromage warning: your guide to festive telly

Rachel Cooke tells us what to watch – and what to avoid.

By Rachel Cooke

When it comes to recommending Christmas television, it might be best for me to start with a list of what you should avoid. While it’s blindingly obvious that Michael Bublé’s Christmas Special (Channel 5, Boxing Day, 7.15pm) is going to be unendurable (that novelty Christmas sweaters are suddenly cool will not, alas, render this particular platter of seasonal fromage any less whiffy), some other truly dire shows may emit a siren call.

Even the more discerning among us are apt to fall into a nostalgia-fest once the surfeit of relatives, booze and sprouts has done its windy worst; the makers of such lame horrors as Still Open All Hours (BBC1, Boxing Day, 7.45pm) – an update of the sitcom about a stuttering shopkeeper, minus Ronnie Barker, its only star – and Downton Abbey (ITV, Christmas Day, 8.30pm) rely for their ratings on precisely this kind of existential despair.

Under no circumstances, then, must you give in to temptation when it comes to either of these shows, for all that you have such fond memories of Granville’s Fair Isle tank top, for all that you’ve heard – this is the end of days – that the great Paul Giamatti is to appear in Downton Abbey as the wayward brother of the world’s dreariest countess. Ditto Vicious (ITV, 27 December, 9pm), the unfunny gay sitcom that longs to be Rising Damp but isn’t fit to touch that show’s hem, and Len Goodman’s Perfect Christmas (BBC1, Boxing Day, 9.20pm), in which the Strictly judge gives you TV’s best – yuck – festive bits.

Steer clear and your self-respect will, depending on how much Baileys you’ve taken, leap like a lord, coo like a turtle dove and dance like a lady. In any case, there’s so much good stuff on: an embarrassment of riches, whatever the Daily Mail says about repeats. Drama first. I didn’t much like Death Comes to Pemberley, P D James’s homage to Pride and Prejudice, but the TV version (BBC1, begins Boxing Day, 8.15pm) sounds promising, largely thanks to the casting. Lizzie Bennett will be played by the excellent Anna Maxwell Martin and her devoted husband by Matthew Rhys, an actor so much like my idea of Darcy that I perspire lightly just thinking of him.

Another banker is The Tractate Middoth, an adaptation of the M R James ghost story by Mark Gatiss (BBC2, Christmas Day, 9.30pm). An eerie library, a vanishing Hebrew text, a cloaked figure stalking the halls . . . Just make sure you don’t have to leave the room to fetch the Quality Street while it’s on. Gatiss has been busy, having written an intricate new episode of Sherlock (BBC1, New Year’s Day, 9pm). David Walliams’s Gangsta Granny (BBC1, Boxing Day, 6.05pm) – a Scrabble-playing OAP has a secret life – also gets a transfer from page to screen, starring Julia McKenzie. Walliams is not the new Roald Dahl but he comes pretty close. And yes, there is Doctor Who, for those who can take it (I can’t); Matt Smith bows out on Christmas Day (BBC1, 7.30pm). Cybermen may possibly be involved.

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For jokes, head in the direction of Raised by Wolves, a sitcom by Caitlin Moran and her sister, Caroline; inspired by their childhood in Wolverhampton, it sounds like a more gentle, more hormonal version of Shameless and will feature the top girly confection that is Battenberg cake (Channel 4, 23 December, 10.50pm). For culture, try The World’s Most Expensive Stolen Paintings (BBC2, 21 December 21, 9pm), in which Alastair Sooke tells the story of some big art heists. When it comes to social history, I like the sound of Time Shift: Ladybird Books – How Britain Got the Reading Bug (BBC4, 22 December, 9pm) in which, among others, the former poet laureate Andrew Motion will deconstruct the weird, exasperating allure of those indestructible little hardbacks (“Jump, Jane, jump!”). For music, there is The Muppets and Lady Gaga at Christmas (Channel 5, 22 December, 5.25pm). Apparently, no one is saying anything about Gaga’s Kermit-skin dress, not even Miss Piggy.

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Finally, quizzers should tune into Pointless Celebrities, starring the Chuckle Brothers, Linda Lusardi and her husband, Sam Kane, Roy Wood of Wizzard and Keith Harris and Orville (BBC1, 21 December, 5.40pm). Oh, man. If Orville made me feel odd as a kid, he makes me feel even weirder now. The giant nappy, the falsetto voice, the maudlin self-pity . . . Baffling in so many ways, but mesmerising – which makes him an ideal contestant for this peculiar but addictive show, which is light years more fun than Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary or any of the other more traditional forms of seasonal torture.