BBC Christmas TV: our picks from the bumper festive selection

Nancy Durrant,Katie Rosseinsky and Jessie Thompson
·7-min read
<p>Gemma Arterton is excellent as the prideful Sister Clodagh in the BBC One adaptation of Black Narcissus</p> (FX)

Gemma Arterton is excellent as the prideful Sister Clodagh in the BBC One adaptation of Black Narcissus

(FX)

The BBC has announced its bumper festive selection of Christmas shows and it’s a variety pack of epic proportions. Our team picks the shows we’ll be watching this season

Black Narcissus, BBC One

It wouldn’t be a BBC Christmas without a period drama that seems perfect for watching with your parents at first glance (‘It’s all about nuns, it must be just like Call The Midwife…’) but quickly leaves everyone feeling a bit awkward. The big screen version of Black Narcissus was heavily censored and even banned in some countries upon its release in 1947 for controversially sexing up Catholicism, which tells you most of what you need to know. Gemma Arterton plays Sister Clodagh, a nun tasked with setting up a convent in an isolated Himalayan palace. KR

Worzel Gummidge: Saucy Nancy, BBC One

I’ll admit that the title makes me grit my teeth (a former boss used to occasionally address me as ‘fancy doughnut’ but no doubt this will replace it) but the two previous episodes of this new version of the scarecrow stories were so charming that I can’t stay cross. Mackenzie Crook’s root-veg-headed crop defender is sweet and kind, and his two human sidekicks Susan and John (India Brown and Thierry Wickens) are adorable. It’s all woven together with a hearty dose of irresistible English folk magic. A sunlit tonic for a tough winter. ND

The Great British Sewing Bee, BBC Two

<p>Joe Lycett stops his charges from getting their bobbins in a twist</p>BBC/Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon

Joe Lycett stops his charges from getting their bobbins in a twist

BBC/Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon

Perfect programming if you decided lockdown 2.0 was the right time to become a dressmaker, only to be left weeping into your pincushion (not me guv). The lovely, wholesome Sewing Bee returns for a festive special, featuring a set of celebrity sewers probably getting their bobbins in a twist. It’s presented as always by the wonderful Joe Lycett, who deserves an OBE for services to making stressed out stitchers giggle as they have breakdowns over hemlines on national telly. JT

Being Bridget, BBC Two

A lot has changed since Bridget Jones first sat on her sofa and sang a bit of Celine Dion into her glass of wine. MeToo, social media and rising London rents would all make Helen Fielding’s books very different if they were written now, and a new documentary will chart Bridget’s literary legacy and what has changed since she first appeared 25 years ago. And graduating from Sit Up Britain to BBC Two? We’re proud of her. JT

Motherland, BBC Two

<p>Our favourite hapless mums (and dad) are back </p>BBC

Our favourite hapless mums (and dad) are back

BBC

Our favourite hapless west London mums (plus token dad Kevin) are back for Motherland’s first Christmas special, which will see the gang gearing up for queen bee slash mumfluencer Amanda’s seasonal soirée. If it’s even half as disastrous as the group’s half-term Airbnb staycation in the previous series, we can confidently predict it will be a mulled wine-swilling riot. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the third series of Sharon Horgan’s brilliant comedy lands some time soon (in the meantime, series one is on Netflix). KR

Uncle Vanya, BBC Four

The words ‘world-beating’ have been bandied around a lot this year, but our theatre industry is one thing that really does live up to that label. We’ve been tragically deprived of performances in 2020, and Ian Rickson’s acclaimed production of Uncle Vanya was one of the many shows cut down in its prime by the pandemic. What a treat, then, that the BBC and producer Sonia Friedman have collaborated to give it another life, filming a performance in lockdown to be broadcast on BBC Four. It features a top notch cast, including Toby Jones, Richard Armitage, Rosalind Eleazar and Aimee Lou Wood. JT

The Serpent, BBC One

<p>Jenna Coleman and Tahar Rahim lead this insane story of murder on the Hippy Trail</p>BBC

Jenna Coleman and Tahar Rahim lead this insane story of murder on the Hippy Trail

BBC

What an insane story. In 1975-6, up to 20 young Western travellers were murdered on the Hippie Trail, across India, Thailand and Nepal. The killer, a smooth-talking psychopath named Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim, with Jenna Coleman as his adoring partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc) continued to evade capture, despite being Interpol’s most wanted man. The story of his apprehension, initiated by a junior diplomat (here played by Billy Knowles) at the Dutch embassy in Bangkok, is the subject of this eight-part thriller. Jaw-dropping. ND

The Red Shoes, BBC Two

Another delight for performance lovers: Matthew Bourne’s utterly divine adaptation of 1948 film The Red Shoes will be broadcast on BBC Two this Christ,as. The gorgeous production tells the story of how gifted ballerina Victoria Page ends up caught between two men and her passion for dance; it picked up two Olivier Awards back in 2017 and was restaged at Sadler’s Wells last year. It may not be quite the same as being in the room, but many of Bourne’s shows have been filmed for the screen with most of the magic still intact. JT

Call the Midwife Christmas Special, BBC One

<p>Nativity is the order of the day in Call the Midwife</p>BBC

Nativity is the order of the day in Call the Midwife

BBC

My love for the long-running nuns-and-babies saga knows no bounds, so another Christmas special, in which hopes for an uneventful Yuletide will always be reliably dashed, is a cause for unbridled joy. As fellow fans will know, the distant spectre of demolition still hangs over Nonnatus House, Valerie recently lost her adored but errant grandmother, and we’re all desperate to find out whether Lucille will ever make an honest man of Cyril. And as ever, let’s give festive thanks for Sister Monica Joan. ND

Christmas University Challenge, BBC Two

If you’re a very specific type of nerd (guilty!) nothing compares to the fleeting intellectual thrill of getting a question right on University Challenge. The festive edition of Paxman’s highbrow student quiz features a line-up of famous alumni defending their institutions - cue hilarious throwback photos dating back to their undergraduate days and minor revelations about which newsreader actually has a degree in Old Norse. The best bit? The questions are - whisper it - nowhere near as hard as the brainteasers dished out to the usual contestants, meaning our chances of sailing through a full round are much higher. KR

Victoria Wood: The Secret List, BBC Two

Like a knitting needle hidden in a ball of cashmere, there’s little more inviting and surprisingly skewering than the comedy of the late, great Victoria Wood. Revealed in Jasper Rees’s recent biography as brilliant but controlling, beset by anxieties about her appearance and her relationship with her unavailable mother, she always demanded a great deal from her collaborators (including stalwarts Celia Imrie and Julie Walters) but much more from herself. Her comedy was precision-tooled, and this collection of 20 sketches is taken from a list of her chosen favourites, discovered in a notebook after her death. ND

Penguins: Meet The Family, BBC One

<p>Which will be your favourite penguin?</p>BBC

Which will be your favourite penguin?

BBC

There are very few things I would commit to watching for 18 whole hours (that’s probably the reason I’ve never been able to get on with box sets of prestige American dramas - they are simply too long.) However I’m willing to make an exception for this blockbuster nature programme, which will devote a 60 minute episode to each of the 18 species of penguin, from big name favourites like Emperor and Humbolt to lesser known breeds like the intriguingly named Northern Rockhopper and Chinstrap. KR

Royal Ballet All-Star Gala, BBC Four

For dance lovers who were not lucky enough to be in the extremely reduced, very socially distanced audience for this gala back in October, this will be a genuine treat. Marking the first time that the full Royal Ballet company were able to get back on stage with their house orchestra (they had to take out all the stalls seats to be able to space them out enough) it’s a gorgeous testament to the company’s excellence that includes old favourites and fabulous new works. ND