Robert Jackman

The best of this year’s Christmas TV

The best of this year's Christmas TV
A Very British Scandal (BBC)
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Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the BBC. Upon publishing its 2021 Christmas schedule, the corporation was quickly attacked by some of its more trenchant critics who pointed out that – shock horror – its Xmas day line-up was completely identical to last year’s. What kind of fools do they take us for, they cried.

Yet this brutal accusation breaks down almost entirely when you look at the schedule and realise that the vast majority of these alleged ‘repeats’ are actually nothing of the sort – but rather entirely new episodes of the same old Christmas staples. Is that a problem? Maybe. But imagine the backlash if the BBC didn’t commission the likes of Call the Midwife and Strictly?

But while saccharine tales of East End newborns might be watched by millions, they’re not exactly the pinnacle of good television – even after a boozy Christmas afternoon. So where are the nuggets of gold amongst the more predictable seasonal offerings this holiday season?

For all its alleged laziness, the Beeb isn’t actually a bad place to start. Their Christmas dramas begin with a four-part adaptation of J.P. Delaney’s psychological thriller The Girl Before (19-22 December). It stars Selma’s David Oyelowo as a minimalist-obsessed architect who offers his chic London apartment at ultra-low rent provided his (female) tenants are willing to live by a series of strict rules. The rest of the plot, I'm told, is best kept unspoiled.

Over on BBC Two, Sherlock and Dracula co-creator Mark Gatiss adapts another work from M.R. James – the great Victorian horror writer . This time, it’s The Mezzotint (24 December), in which Rory Kinnear plays a university art master who comes into possession of a seemingly ghostly engraving with demonic intent. Downton Abbey’s Robert Bathurst and the excellent Frances Barber also have leading roles.

Perhaps the pick of the dramas, though, is A Very British Scandal (26-28 December): a spiritual successor to A Very English Scandal, Russell T. Davies’ superb take on the Jeremy Thorpe story. This time around, Paul Bettany and Claire Foy star in a dramatisation of the headline-grabbing divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. Screenwriter Sarah Phelps has stoked the culture war fires by revealing her interest in the story was inspired by the media’s treatment of Meghan Markle.

Amongst the Beeb’s more festive-sounding offerings are a new Shaun the Sheep (24 December), an animated adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s Superworm (25 December) and a return of Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel (ditto). Having just wrapped up its best season in yonks (albeit with a slightly poor finale), Doctor Who returns on new year’s day, while one-time Tardis pilot David Tennant stars in a new version of Around the World in Eighty Days (25 December).

ITV also scores points for uncancelling John Barrowman: recently banished from the Doctor Who universe after historic revelations of his Carry On-esque horseplay behind the scenes. Barrowman hosts All Star Musicals At Christmas (26 December), in which Fern Britton, Gyles Brandreth and Catherine Tyldesley are mentored by West End stars to perform their favourite musical hits with a full orchestra. Let’s hope he behaves himself.

Channel 4 has Sue Perkins returning with The Greatest Showman (24 December): a Bake Off style show in which stars – well, Johnny Vegas, Dani Dyer and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen – are whisked off to the Alpine mountains to try their luck as ice sculptors. The Bake Off itself is back on Christmas day, with half the cast of It’s a Sin in the tent, and Joe Lycett takes over the popular Travel Man (27 December).

As a rule of thumb, the streaming services invest less in the Christmas battle (preferring to aim for year-round dominance), letting their vast archives of Christmas movies do the trick. Probably the biggest seasonal offering comes from Disney+ which plunders further into the Star Wars universe to bring The Book of Boba Fett (29 December): a new spin-off series carefully cultivated to tap into the success of The Mandalorian. Families will no doubt enjoy Disney's latest children's release Encanto (Disney+, 24 December) where a magical family from Colombia raise a seemingly non-magical daughter Mirabel. Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda brings his signature pizzazz to the film's musical numbers.

Netflix, meanwhile, takes a venture into Brit drama with Stay Close (31 December): all-star mini-series based on a Haran Coben novel and featuring Cush Jumbo, James Nesbitt, Richard Armitage, Eddie Izzard and Sarah Parish. It's the fifth of 14 (!) Coben novels that the streaming giant has vowed to turn into miniseries. The Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio comedy Don't Look Up, released on 10 December, has also been turning heads, at least on the American talk show circuit. It has more Hollywood stars on its cast list than you can shake a stick at, including Meryl Streep. Not always the sign of a surefire hit but we'll see.

And after a massively underwhelming first outing in 2020, Charlie Brooker’s new satirical vehicle returns too – as Hugh Grant, Diane Morgan and others play fake celebrity pundits in Netflix's Death to 2021 (27 December). If it doesn’t give us something better this time around, it will certainly be one ‘repeat’ we can all do without next Christmas. Fingers crossed they’ve pulled their socks up.