Alternative guide to the best Christmas TV

Nun putting on lipstick

Black Narcissus is part of the BBC's drama package at Christmas. Sister Ruth (AISLING FRANCIOSI) is being led astray in this new adaptation of the classic novel - Credit: FX/Pari Dukovic

With lockdown returning and bursting our collective Christmas bubble after Christmas Day, we require good entertainment now more than ever and with a multitude of different channels to choose from, sometimes it is easy to let a new TV gem become buried under an avalanche of seasonal repeats.

This is a festive guide to some choice films and TV specials that may have been overlooked by the main channels as they seek to trumpet the arrival of the Christmas soaps, Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent, any number of shows featuring Ant and Dec or the annual Call the Midwife marathon.

If you fancy something a little different this Christmas, something to take your mind off the real-life disaster movie being enacted outside our front doors as 2020 becomes 2021, then have a wander through this list of alternative Christmas treats.

Worzel Gummidge and friends with a wheelbarrow

Worzel Gummidge returns for another feature adventure this Christmas. The show features Susan (INDIA BROWN), Worzel Gummidge (MACKENZIE CROOK), Saucy Nancy (SHIRLEY HENDERSON), John (THIERRY WICKENS) - Credit: BBC/Leopard Pictures/Amanda Searle/Matt Burlem

Christmas Eve:
Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse – Sky One, 8.15pm

Two great children’s authors who existed in two different eras and wrote in two very different styles but would have happened if they ever met?

But, incredibly they did and this original 90-minute television film tells the story of a meeting between two of the country’s most beloved children’s authors.


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Roald Dahl met Beatrix Potter when he was just six-years-old and this all-star dramatised story explores how the meeting would go on to inspire Dahl in his own writing.

Dawn French stars as Beatrix Potter, with eight-year-old Harry Tayler as Dahl and support from Rob Brydon, Alison Steadman, Nina Sosanya and Jessica Hynes.

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Worzel Gummidge: Saucing Nancy – BBC One, 5.55pm

Mackenzie Crook’s reinterpretation of scatterbrained scarecrow Worzel Gummidge is one of the great television moments of the past 12 months, so it is good to have a new adventure for Christmas.

This time, Worzel visits a scrapyard with Susan and John and overhears the grumbling of a foul-mouthed old friend – the carved ship’s figurehead, Saucy Nancy.  Nancy would like nothing more than to return to the sea, and it falls to our heroic trio to get her there, which means a rare and rather challenging foray out of Scatterbrook for Worzel Gummidge.

As with last year’s specials this feature-length story has a wonderful supporting cast – Shirley Henderson as Nancy, Vannessa Redgrave as Peg and a special appearance by Brian Blessed.


Christmas Day:
Quentin Blake’s Clown – Channel 4, 6.40pm

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a festive animated special – think Wallace and Gromitt or The Snowman – this year we have Quentin Blake’s Clown narrated by the other-worldly Helena Bonham Carter.

This festive short tells the story of a toy clown who embarks on a quest to find a new loving home after being thrown away with a load of old discarded toys. This moving children’s picture book has been animated using traditional hand-drawn animation techniques.

Clown drawing by Quentin Blake

Quentin Blake's Clown is latest children's picture book which has been transformed into an animated film. This Channel 4 short is narrated by Helena Bonham-Carter - Credit: Channel 4/Quentin Blake

Zog and the Flying Doctors – BBC One, 2:35pm
More soon-to-be-classic animation, this time courtesy of Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson. The animation looks spectacular and should keep the little ones entertained while you are trying to get Christmas dinner on the table.
The story follows flying doctor trio Zog, Pearl and Gadabout and the events after a forced landing at a palace sees Pearl locked up by her uncle – with Zog and Gadabout tasked with rescuing her. Voices are provided by Lenny Henry, Rob Brydon and Killing Eve’s Alexandra Roach.

Bridgerton – Netflix 

This romantic drama is a diversely cast, lust-fuelled adaptation of Julia Quinn’s romance novels detailing the amorous pursuits of young aristocrat Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and the rakish Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). 

The story opens with London’s engagement season in full swing, but who will take the hand of the Queen’s favourite, Daphne? Expect this bodice-ripper to be one of the talking points of Christmas and the New Year.

Bridgerton cast lined up on steps

Bridgerton is the new romantic drama on Netflix (L To R) Florence Hunt as Hyacinth Bridgerton, Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton, Ruth Gemmell as Lady Violet Bridgerton, Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton, Claudia Jessie as Eloise Bridgerton, Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton, Will Tilston as Gregory Bridgerton and Luke Thompson as Benedict Bridgerton - Credit: LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

Boxing Day:
All Creatures Great and Small – Channel 5, 7.45pm

The relaunching of this heartwarming series was one of the most inspired ideas of 2020. This version is closer to the books (and much more Yorkshire) than the classic TV series. The photography and the storytelling is much more cinematic and gives viewers a real sense of place and time.

Newcomer Nicholas Ralph plays vet James Herriot while Samuel West is the curmudgeonly Siegfried Farnon and Callum Woodhouse as the wayward Tristan.

More than three million people tuned into the first episode, giving Channel 5 its largest audience in five years. A second series is already in the works but this Christmas special will give fans the necessary warm-glow over this festive period.


Sunday December 27
Black Narcissus – BBC One, 9pm

The Powell and Pressburger post-war classic, often cited as one of the greate is reimagined for the 21st Century as an all-star, three-part big-budget drama which features Diana Rigg giving her final performance.

Based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, it details the growing tensions within a small convent of Anglican nuns hidden away among the peaks of the Himalayas.

It turns out that the convent is haunted by a dark and erotic past. Aisling Franciosi (Lyanna Stark from Game of Thrones) is the dangerously envious Sister Ruth and Alessandro Nivola is the man who makes these chaste women of God a little hot under their habits.

The cast also includes Gemma Arterton, Jim Broadbent, Rosie Cavaliero and the late Diana Rigg.


Wednesday December 30
Pandemonium – BBC One, 9:45pm 

There’s always something very satisfying about the arrival of a brand new sitcom with an all-star cast. Pandemonium is doubly satisfying because it’s about a family who have had a worse year than the rest of us.

Alison Steadman stars along with Katherine Parkinson, Jim Howick and Tom Basden. This one-off special follows the Jessop family who decide to have their summer holiday in Margate in December, with disaster just around the corner.

Uncle Vanya – BBC 4, 10pm
One of the great creative transformations of lockdown was the way that theatre has managed to harness the power of television and the internet to reach out and entertain people remotely.

There’s nothing to compare with seeing a performance live but if you can’t access live theatre because of lockdown then a well recorded or live streamed theatre performance is the next best thing.

This latest production of Uncle Vanya opened in the West End in March and closed almost immediately. Happily, this five-star production was filmed and the BBC is bringing it to a wider audience as the year draws to a close.

Conor McPherson’s updating of the Anton Chekhov play casts Toby Jones as the tired, disappointed, highly relatable Vanya, who could easily exist in our beleaguered Covid-controlled world. It co-stars Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood.


Film poster montage for The Serpent

The Serpent is the BBC's new true-life crime drama for the New Year. Picture Shows: Charles Sobhraj (TAHAR RAHIM), Herman Knippenberg (BILLY HOWLE), Angela Knippenberg (ELLIE BAMBER), Monique/Marie-Andrée Leclerc (JENNA COLEMAN), Ajay Chowdhury (AMESH EDIREWEERA), Suda Romyen (CHICHA AMATAYAKUL) - Credit: Roland Neveu


New Year’s Day

The Serpent – BBC One, 9pm

Start the new year off right with this true crime drama based on the life of Charles Sobhraj, a serial killer who murdered up to 20 travellers across India, Thailand and Nepal’s “Hippie Trail” in 1975 and 1976. The show stars Tahar Rahim as notorious conman and serial murderer Charles Sobhraj, with Jenna Coleman as his accomplice, Marie-Andrée Leclerc.

Scripted by Ripper Street creator Richard Warlow, The Serpent weaves its hypnotic spell across eight tense episodes. The attention to period detail will no doubt bring plenty of flares and baggy, tied-dyed, cheese cloth shirts.
 

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