Christmas TV guide 2021: What to watch this festive season, from A Very British Scandal to Doctor Who

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 (BBC / Blueprint)
(BBC / Blueprint)

Start planning your festive viewing schedule now: there’s so much brilliant telly airing over the Christmas break, you won’t want to leave the sofa.

From family-friendly animations and cheery comedy specials to glossy thrillers and darkly funny period drama, here’s what we’ll be watching...

Last Train to Christmas

 (Sky)
(Sky)

Michael Sheen dons a frankly astonishing wig (think Legolas with a mullet) to play Eighties nightclub boss Tony in this festive film from Sky. As he embarks on the pre-Christmas ritual of getting the train home for a family reunion, things get weird in the buffet car, and Tony is transported forward in time to 1995, when his life seems to have gone seriously off-kilter. To get things back on track, he must move from carriage to carriage, travelling forward and backwards to different stages of his life to make big changes. A Christmas Carol crossed with a bad National Rail journey? We’re on board.

Sky Cinema and NOW, available now

The Girl Before

 (BBC/42/Amanda Searle)
(BBC/42/Amanda Searle)

This adaptation of JP Delaney’s novel stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jane, a woman who is offered the chance to move into a sleek, ultra-minimalist house designed by a mysterious architect (David Oyelowo). There is, as with every London rental property that seems too good to be true, a major catch - she must follow the designer’s exacting list of demands. When she discovers what happened to her predecessor Emma (Jessica Plumber), things take a sinister turn.

BBC iPlayer

Beauty and the Beast: A Pantomime for Comic Relief

 (BBC / Crook Productions / Quentin Blake)
(BBC / Crook Productions / Quentin Blake)

Here’s some Zoom-based festive silliness in aid of a good cause. Lily James and Oliver Chris lead Comic Relief’s Christmas panto, which this year tells the story of Beauty and the Beast with illustrations from Quentin Blake. The supporting cast is a real roll call of comedy faves and acting legends, featuring - deep breath - Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Sian Gibson, Simon Bird, Tom Rosenthal, Susan Wokoma, Celia Imrie and Pam Ferris, plus cameos from Miranda Hart, Lenny Henry, David Walliams, Michael Sheen and David Tennant.

BBC iPlayer

Emily In Paris

This glossy, divisive and inexplicably Golden Globe-nominated Netflix show returns for a second outing, complete with more jaw-dropping outfits and more terrible Franglais. After embroiling herself in a love triangle - and presumably setting back Franco-American relations by several decades - last time around, Lily Collins’ Emily is now trying to focus on her work (as a sort of marketing expert slash influencer) - but will an encounter with an intriguing fellow ex-pat (played by Brit actor Lucien Laviscount) change that?

Netflix, December 22

Hansel and Gretel: After Ever After

 (Sky)
(Sky)

David Walliams and Sheridan Smith, rendered almost entirely unrecognisable by layers and layers of prosthetics, lead the latest festive fairy tale special from the comedian and wildly successful kids’ author. This time, he has turned his attention to the story of Hansel and Gretel, imagining what happened to the gingerbread-loving siblings after Grimms’ (grim, even by their standards) tale came to an end.

Sky Max, December 23 at 8pm

Ghosts

 (BBC/Monumental Television/Guido Mandozzi)
(BBC/Monumental Television/Guido Mandozzi)

In this festive edition of the hit sitcom, haunted house owners Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) and Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) discover a man living in a tent in the grounds of their home. Could it be… Santa? A Christmas miracle seems pretty unlikely, and the unruly gang of ghosts that roam Button House have plenty of advice on how to deal with this new guest, most of it predictably rubbish. Look out for a guest appearance from Jennifer Saunders.

BBC One, December 23 at 8.30pm

Not Going Out

 (BBC/Avalon/Mark Johnson)
(BBC/Avalon/Mark Johnson)

Lee Mack’s long-running, crowd-pleasing comedy returns to our screens for a Christmas outing. This time around, Lee is feeling pretty annoyed that Lucy (Sally Bretton) has booked the whole gang tickets for the panto - not least because her teenage crush, a certain Jason Donovan, is the star attraction.

BBC One, December 23 at 10pm

Shaun the Sheep: The Flight Before Christmas

 (BBC / Ardman Animations)
(BBC / Ardman Animations)

Glad tidings for Aardman Animation fans of all ages: Shaun the Sheep is back with another baa-rilliant festive adventure. In The Flight Before Christmas, our favourite ovine adventurer tries to break into the farmhouse to nab some stockings, but his mission gets diverted when his friend Timmy goes AWOL. Can Shaun bring him back home in time for Christmas? Fingers (or, erm, hooves) crossed.

BBC One, Christmas Eve at 6pm

The Amazing Mr Blunden

 (Sky)
(Sky)

The ever-prolific Mark Gatiss wrote, directed and also stars in this adaptation of Antonia Barber’s overlooked children’s classic, which has been undeservedly languishing out of print for the past few decades. Gatiss has transposed the action to the present day, with teenagers Jamie and Lucy dragged into a time-travelling mystery when elderly lawyer Mr Blunden (Simon Callow) turns up at their door, offering their mother a gig as the caretaker of a potentially haunted house. What follows plays out like a kid-friendly spin on The Turn of the Screw.

Sky Max, Christmas Eve at 7pm

The Mezzotint

 (BBC/Adorable Media/Michael Carlo)
(BBC/Adorable Media/Michael Carlo)

Gatiss continues his festive tradition of writing and directing a spooky story for the BBC (and continues to make everyone else feel bad about their own comparatively sluggish productivity levels) with this adaptation of a ghostly tale by MR James. A heavily mustachioed Rory Kinnear plays Edward Williams, a lecturer who receives an engraving of an eerie manor house, where all is not as it seems. Nikesh Patel, Robert Bathurst and Frances Barber also star.

BBC Two, Christmas Eve at 10.30pm

Don’t Look Up

The latest release from director Adam McKay (the man behind The Big Short, Vice and Anchorman) boasts what is surely 2021’s most star-studded cast list. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play a pair of astronomers who embark on a global media tour to break the news that an approaching comet is about to wipe out the earth. Meryl Streep plays the President, with Jonah Hill as her son-slash-Chief of Staff, plus appearances from - deep breath - Timothée Chalamet, Mark Rylance, Cate Blanchett and Ariana Grande (playing… a pop star).

Netflix, Christmas Eve

Superworm

 (BBC/Magic Light Pictures)
(BBC/Magic Light Pictures)

A starry voice cast, featuring not one but two former members of The Crown’s royal family, has assembled for Superworm, the BBC’s latest team-up with Gruffalo duo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Matt Smith voices the titular worm, a big-hearted invertebrate who’s always helping his fellow garden creatures get out of scrapes - until the tables turn when he’s kidnapped by the evil Wizard Lizard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith). Olivia Colman is on narrator duties, with Rob Brydon, Patricia Allison and Cariad Lloyd voicing various critters.

BBC One, Christmas Day at 2.30pm

Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special

After a Covid-imposed fallow year, the Strictly Christmas special is back with bells on (and, presumably, bucketloads of fake tan). Mel Giedroyc, First Dates star Fred Sirieux and Adrian Chiles are among the celebrities hoping to impress Shirley Ballas and her judging panel with their fancy footwork and be crowned 2021’s Christmas champion. As ever, Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman will be on presenting duties, with Jamie Cullum and Gary Barlow providing musical interludes.

BBC One, Christmas Day at 7.10pm

Terry Pratchett’s The Abominable Snow Baby

Well, doesn’t this sound adorable. The likes of Julie Walters, Hugh Dancy and David Harewood have lent their vocal talents to Channel 4’s latest Christmassy cartoon, an adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s festive short story. When an Abominable (but very cute) Snow Baby arrives in a picturesque English village, he’s rescued by an intrepid granny (Walters) who helps her neighbours overcome their initial wariness towards their 14-foot visitor.

Channel 4, Christmas Day at 7.30pm

The Great British Bake Off

 (Channel 4)
(Channel 4)

La! After leaving our hearts broken into thousands of tiny pieces when It’s A Sin aired earlier this year, the inhabitants of the Pink Palace are reuniting for a special Christmas edition of The Great British Bake Off. Olly Alexander (Ritchie), Nathaniel Curtis (Ash), Lydia West (Jill) and Shaun Dooley (who played Ritchie’s dad, Clive) will all enter the tent in a bid to win over judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith with their baking know-how (or total lack thereof).

Channel 4, Christmas Day at 8pm

Call The Midwife

 (BBC / Nealstreet Productions / Sally Mais)
(BBC / Nealstreet Productions / Sally Mais)

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a festive trip to Nonnatus House. Kicking off the eleventh series of the Beeb’s cosiest period drama, this year’s Call The Midwife special sees Lucille (Leonie Elliott) and Cyril (Zephryn Taitte) gearing up for their impending winter wedding, while the rest of the nurses and nuns are facing their busiest Christmas Day yet on the maternity ward. Whatever happens, expect to shed a few tears.

BBC One, Christmas Day at 8pm

The Larkins at Christmas

 (ITV)
(ITV)

ITV’s Darling Buds of May reboot, starring Bradley Walsh and Joanna Scanlan, debuted this autumn and is already getting the feature-length festive special treatment, with a 90 minute episode airing in a prime Christmas Day slot. Eldest Larkin sibling Mariette (Sabrina Bartlett) and love interest Charley (Tok Stephen) return to the village for Christmas, with the latter bringing his parents along. With a recent spate of burglaries and a festive power cut on the cards, things are unlikely to go smoothly.

ITV, Christmas Day at 9pm

Around The World In 80 Days

 (BBC / Slim 80 Days)
(BBC / Slim 80 Days)

David Tennant leads this jolly eight-part adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel as the eccentric explorer Phileas Fogg, who is joined by valet Passepartout (played by Ibrahim Koma) as he attempts to circumnavigate the globe in - you guessed it - 80 days to win a bet. Along for the ride is journalist Abigail ‘Fix’ Fortescue (Leonie Benesch). A second series has already been announced, so TV bosses are clearly banking on a hit from writers Ashley Pharaoh (Life on Mars) and Caleb Ranson.

BBC One, Boxing Day at 5.50pm

Death in Paradise

 (BBC / Red Planet / Denis Guyenon)
(BBC / Red Planet / Denis Guyenon)

Ten series in, this wildly successful murder mystery series finally gets its own feature-length Christmas special. The island of Saint Marie’s go-to detective DI Neville Parker (Ralf Little) is preparing to return to the rainy UK for Christmas, but his plans are thrown off-kilter when a billionaire shipping magnate dies in shady circumstances. Former lead Danny John-Jules will return as Officer Dwayne Myers, and he’ll be joined by a bunch of guest stars including Juliet Stevenson and Mathew Baynton.

BBC One, Boxing Day at 7.30pm

All Star Musicals at Christmas

 (ITV)
(ITV)

Getting a one-off chance to don full costume and perform a show tune in front of musical theatre legend Elaine Paige is either a dream come true or the stuff of abject nightmares, depending on your personality type. Let’s hope that for the latest bunch of celebs competing in this yuletide version of All Star Musicals - including Ben Miller, Fern Britton, Anita Rani and Gyles Brandreth - it’s the former. Each star receives training from top West End coaches before singing to the judging panel, which also includes Samantha Barks and Trevor Dion Nicholas.

ITV, Boxing Day at 8pm

A Very British Scandal

 (BBC / Blueprint Pictures)
(BBC / Blueprint Pictures)

Sarah Phelps brings the jaw-dropping story of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll’s divorce to the small screen with all her usual pitch-black humour. The couple (played here with icy poise by Paul Bettany and Claire Foy)’s break-up was spectacularly acrimonious, dominating the front pages with twists involving forged letters, violence, drugs and an explicit Polaroid picture that led to the first instance of slut-shaming in the British press. Just like its precursor series A Very English Scandal (which focused on the trial of politician Jeremy Thorpe), it’s a must watch.

BBC One, Boxing Day at 9pm

Worzel Gummidge

 (BBC/Leopard Films/Chris Harris)
(BBC/Leopard Films/Chris Harris)

Mackenzie Crook returns as the genial scarecrow for two more hour-long films. The first, Twitchers, sees a bunch of ornithology enthusiasts intrude on Worzel’s home turf when a rarely sighted bird makes an appearance near Scatterbrook Farm. The second, Calliope Jane, features a cameo from comedian (and last year’s Strictly champion) Bill Bailey as Mr. Peregrine, the owner of a travelling fun fair that arrives in Scatterbrook for one night only.

BBC One, December 28 and December 29 at 7.15pm

The Book of Boba Fett

Everyone’s favourite intergalactic bounty hunter is getting his own spin-off series, 40 years after stealing the show in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Picking up where the most recent series of The Mandalorian left off, it sees Fett and mercenary Fennec Shand heading back to Tatooine to fight over Jabba the Hutt’s old territory. Let’s hope he steers clear of the Sarlacc pit this time around.

Disney+, December 29

Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard

 (BBC / Windfall Films / Julian Schwanitz)
(BBC / Windfall Films / Julian Schwanitz)

Four years ago, Sally and Neville Hollingworth stumbled across something unusual while walking around a gravel pit outside Swindon: sticking up from the ground was a mammoth’s fossilised leg bone. The amateur fossil hunters had inadvertently discovered a mammoth graveyard in a prehistoric riverbed of the Thames. In this one-off film, Sir David Attenborough heads to the site with a team of archaeologists and palaeontologists to learn more about the Ice Age creatures they’ve uncovered.

BBC One, December 30 at 8pm

Stay Close

Netflix’s collaborations with crime writing big hitter Harlan Coben inevitably result in the sort of twisty, addictive thrillers that are best devoured in one extremely stressful sitting - they’re perfect, in other words, for that post-Christmas hinterland period when no one quite knows what day it is. Their latest is an adaptation of bestseller Stay Close, which stars Richard Armitage, Cush Jumbo and James Nesbitt as a trio connected by a dark, long-buried secret.

Netflix, New Year’s Eve

Queer Eye

If there ever was a TV show to fill you with tidings of comfort and joy, that show would be Queer Eye. The Fab Five are back for a sixth round (can you believe it’s been that long?) of tear-jerking, quietly heartwarming makeovers, this time heading to Texas to transform participants’ homes, wardrobes and lives. Happy-crying our way through the entire series sounds like a much better NYE experience than watching fireworks in the cold or paying quadruple rates for a taxi.

Netflix, New Year’s Eve

The Lost Daughter

 (YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021.)
(YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021.)

Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut with this adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel, which generated plenty of critical buzz on the festival circuit earlier this year. Olivia Colman stars as Leda, a college professor who finds herself drawn to young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson), prompting memories of her early days with her own daughter to come flooding back. Watch it now and feel smug when everyone starts raving about it come Oscar season.

Netflix, New Year’s Eve

Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts

Here’s a school reunion that you’ll actually want to attend. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are heading back to Hogwarts to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, marking the first time they’ve been on screen together since the final film was released in 2011. They’ll be joined by a host of co-stars, from Ralph Fiennes to Helena Bonham Carter to Gary Oldman, to share inside stories from the much-loved franchise. Magic.

Sky and NOW, New Year’s Day

Doctor Who

 (BBC Studios/James Pardon)
(BBC Studios/James Pardon)

Jodie Whittaker isn’t handing back the keys to the Tardis just yet: she and showrunner Chris Chibnall still have three more special episodes left before the Doctor regenerates and a new era (headed up by Russell T. Davies) begins. The first of these will air on New Year’s Day, with Aisling Bea guest-starring; plot details are being kept under wraps for now, but we do know that the action will centre around a self-storage facility (who said travelling through space and time was glamorous?) owned by Bea’s character.

BBC One, New Year’s Day at 7pm

The Tourist

 (BBC/Stan/HBO Max & ZDF/Ian Routledge)
(BBC/Stan/HBO Max & ZDF/Ian Routledge)

In the opening moments of this off-beat, high-octane thriller from screenwriting duo Harry and Jack Williams, our nameless hero (played by Jamie Dornan) finds himself careering through the Australian outback, pursued by a tanker truck determined to drive him off the road. When the nightmarish chase comes to an end, he wakes up in hospital with no idea who he is - but figures from his past still seem determined to track him down. Shalom Brune-Franklin, most recently on our screens as Line of Duty’s Chloe Bishop, also stars.

BBC One, New Year’s Day at 9pm

Attenborough’s Wonder of Song

 (BBC / Mike Birkhead Associates / Mike Birkhead)
(BBC / Mike Birkhead Associates / Mike Birkhead)

It’s a busy Christmas for Attenborough: the nation’s best-loved broadcaster will also explore the power and purpose of animal song in this BBC One film. Sir David has picked his favourite recordings, from the song of the humpback whale to the song of the lyrebird, each of which has been recorded during his lifetime, and each of which has broken new ground in our understanding of the natural world.

BBC One, January 3 at 6.30pm

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