Of all the many boxes at Christmas, the telly remains perhaps the most important – an opportunity to bring all the family together for festive films, annual traditions (The King’s Christmas Message, Carols from King’s) and repeats/specials we grumble about but sit down and watch anyway. Televisual treats are plentiful this year: from thrillers to sci-fi, children’s classics to cosy comedy, there is something for everyone. Here’s our pick of the best 12.
The Famous Five
CBBC, December 9, 5.25pm
One of the least likely marriages in screen history? Nicolas Winding Refn, notorious for stylised, punishing cinematic excursions including Pusher, Bronson and Drive, adapts and directs three new versions of the classic Enid Blyton adventure stories. Times have changed since the last take almost 30 years ago, with Julian, Dick, Anne and George now accordingly and effectively diverse (although Timmy remains a dog). Their first jaunt introduces George (Diaana Babnicova) to her cousins and embroils them in a mystery on Kirrin Island involving formidably hissable adversaries Diana Quick and Jack Gleeson, the latter best known for playing television’s archetypal brat, Game of Thrones’s Joffrey Baratheon.
BBC One, December 10, 9pm
Swapping crime-busting beneath the waves for a whodunit in the skies, Suranne Jones’s doughty DCI Amy Silva returns with personal and professional partner Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) to investigate another military scandal. This time, it’s the RAF under scrutiny when a weapons demonstration for a controversial Middle Eastern regime goes desperately awry. Romola Garai and Dougray Scott are among the military top brass with something to hide, while the six-part story itself reprises that gloriously Vigil-y combination of pushing the margins of plausibility without ever quite breaking them. Expect cliffhangers, whiplash plotting and pungent geopolitical commentary.
The Winter King
ITVX, December 21
From Sharpe to The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell’s stories have long been favoured by broadcasters – for obvious reason. Cerebral, action-packed and faintly preposterous, their tales of perennially wronged outsiders seeking justice offer perfect escapism, and this grimy, grounded and lavishly budgeted reimagining of fifth-century Camelot is no different. Iain De Caestecker is the Arthur to Nathaniel Martello-White’s Merlin, as a divided Britain is wracked by civil war, its ascendant leader the embittered, rage-fuelled King Uther (Eddie Marsan). Can they navigate the shifting alliances, push-pull of Christianity and paganism, and their own all-too-human vulnerabilities to seize the throne?
Mog’s Christmas/Tabby McTat
Channel 4, TBC/BBC One, Christmas Day, 2.35pm
Feline festivities aplenty this Christmas as two classic picture books are beautifully animated and voiced by eye-catching casts. The team behind The Tiger Who Came to Tea return to Judith Kerr’s work for the heartwarming tale of a grumpy but beloved family cat excluded by the strangeness of the celebrations, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy as dad and mum.
The 11th Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler animation, meanwhile, is a hugely touching story of a cat (Sope Dirisu) who loses the busker (Rob Brydon) whom he mewlingly accompanies, before finding a new family in an unlikely setting; Jodie Whittaker narrates.
Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road
BBC One, Christmas Day, 5.55pm
So successful has the return of David Tennant and Catherine Tate to the Tardis been, it would be easy to regard Ncuti Gatwa’s arrival with some trepidation, were the latter’s screen performances to date – notably in Barbie and Sex Education – not so scene-stealingly effervescent and charismatic. Details of this special episode – whose title was inadvertently revealed by producing partner Disney+’s Twitter account as The Church on Ruby Road – introducing the 15th Doctor are top secret, although snow, peril and the arrival of his companion, Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), are as nailed on as a Christmas wreath.
Ghosts Christmas Special
BBC One, Christmas Day, 7.45pm
Among the customary platter of comedy Christmas specials – Here We Go, Not Going Out’s centenary episode, Dawn French’s London Palladium stand-up – the most enticing is surely the last-ever visitation from the most adorably eccentric spooks this side of A Muppet Christmas Carol. In a half-hour brimming with daft humour and profound pathos, an unwanted visit from Mike’s mum causes profound irritation among both earthly and ethereal beings. A plan is put in place to make her leave – however, their plotting inevitably pulls this most unwieldy of family units closer together, even as a final farewell beckons. May it rest in peace.
Charles III: Coronation Year
BBC One, Boxing Day, 6.50pm
For the past 12 months, the cameras of Buckingham Palace’s long-time celluloid partners at Oxford Films (Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers, The Queen’s Coronation in Colour, and many more) have been following the King and Queen as they become accustomed to their new roles, carry out their duties and, of course, sit at the heart of the nation’s first Coronation in 70 years. This feature-length film, narrated by Helena Bonham Carter (The Crown’s very own Princess Margaret), promises exclusive access and the sort of carefully mediated revelations which are the stock in trade of their documentary collaborations.
Storyville: Pianoforte/The Piano
BBC Four, December 17, 9.20pm/Channel 4, late December
Whether you like your ivory-tinkling on the contemplative, traditionally virtuosic side or favour a little more showbiz, you will be well catered for this Christmas. For the former, there’s a feature documentary going behind the scenes of Warsaw’s International Chopin Piano Competition, held every five years and responsible for bringing to prominence pianists including Maurizio Pollini and Yundi Li. For the latter, Claudia Winkleman, Lang Lang and Mika return alongside some of the first series’ most striking performers – notably its winner, the blind, autistic and jaw-droppingly talented teen Lucy Illingworth – for some public renditions of seasonal classics with a twist.
Rambert Dance in Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby/Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty
BBC Four, New Year’s Day, 9.25pm/BBC Four, TBC
Four stars apiece from the Telegraph’s dance critic for these two very different ballets. The first, a punchily choreographed prequel to Steven Knight’s epic tale about Birmingham gangsters, traces the rise of the eponymous mobster (played here by Guillaume Quéau) and takes its Nick Cave-fuelled soundtrack, wartime setting and ultraviolent DNA to forge something invigoratingly irresistible. Less confrontational is Matthew Bourne’s splendidly lively revival of his 2012 take on Tchaikovsky’s most challenging ballet, marrying remarkable puppetry with a surfeit of production trickery and hints of the supernatural for a thrillingly fiery piece which does justice to the peerless score.
Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy
BBC One, December 27, 9pm
Television has become increasingly open to reinventing the Queen of Crime’s work, with this relatively unknown little gem a case in point. The location remains an idyllic English village and the set-up a conversation between strangers on a train hinting at homicidal goings-on in sleepy, rural Albion, but the setting has been updated to 1954 – all the better to pick apart the refraction of post-war social mores. Rising star David Jonsson (Rye Lane, Industry) leads the cast as outsider and investigator Fitzwilliam, with Penelope Wilton, Morfydd Clark, Douglas Henshall and Mark Bonnar offering support over two deliciously tricksy hours.
Mr Bates and the Post Office
ITV1, New Year’s Day, 9pm
A bracing dose of social commentary from Gwyneth Hughes is gifted a stellar cast for this four-part drama exploring the scandalous mistreatment of hundreds of postmasters and postmistresses, many of whom were wrongly accused, prosecuted and convicted of fraud, theft and false accounting when real responsibility lay with a misconceived, malfunctioning IT system. Toby Jones (as the titular Alan Bates), Monica Dolan, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Alex Jennings are among those telling a story which remains far from over, as dozens still fight to clear their names and receive adequate compensation for lives lost, reputations ruined and years spent in prison.
BBC One, New Year’s Day, 9pm
One of the most enjoyably torturous and unpredictable thrillers of recent years, 2022’s The Tourist united Jamie Dornan’s amnesiac man of mystery Elliott Stanley and Danielle Macdonald’s Outback copper Down Under, as he sought clues regarding his identity and shadowy past, and she found release from unfulfilling work and a stifling, coercive relationship. This sequel from the prolific Williams brothers (Boat Story, The Missing) takes them from her homeland to his, as various chickens with violent tendencies come home to roost back in Ireland. Expect black comedy and red blood to feature prominently on their travels.