TV critic Paul Whitelaw takes us through the highs and lows of this year’s festive TV offerings, with highlights including the enduring warmth of Call The Midwife.
Call the Midwife BBC1, Christmas Day 7.40pm
You can instantly tell that this Christmas special was filmed under social-distancing conditions, but that does fade into insignificance once the story takes hold. The everlasting appeal of Call The Midwife can’t be vanquished by people standing quite far apart from each other. This year, 1965 to be exact, the circus comes to town. Peter Davison ups the pathos factor. Midwife cleaves to a proven formula, but my goodness it works. These people are heart-tugging artisans. It’s not a cynical show, though. That emotion is sincere. I guarantee you will have tears in your eyes by the end. It’s a gentle jolt of warmth and hope, something we’re all in urgent need of, especially on Christmas Day.
Marcus Rashford: Feeding Britain’s Children – Monday, BBC1, 7pm
In this year of terrible years, footballer Marcus Rashford has emerged as a symbol of decency and compassion. He’s devoted himself to raising awareness of child poverty in Britain, to such an extent that he shamed the government into announcing a £400 million winter grant scheme for vulnerable families. The man is a hero, the direct antithesis of our self-serving rulers. I haven’t seen this documentary, it wasn’t available at the time of typing, but it sounds like something we should all watch. Rashford explains why he feels so deeply about this cause. He often went without food as a child, his family couldn’t afford it. No human being should ever find themselves in that situation.
The Goes Wrong Show: The Nativity – Tuesday, BBC1, 7pm
The Mischief Theatre company have, in recent years, become a festive TV staple. Quite right, too. Like the similarly talented Horrible Histories team they have broad family appeal. Their shtick is simple – under the guise of a fictitious amateur theatre troupe, they mount deliberately terrible plays. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. And from thence the humour arises. This shambolic version of the Nativity isn’t their best, but it’s still good for a few laughs. Sample gag – an angel suffers a wardrobe malfunction. “Halo! Halo!” he pleads. “Is it me you’re looking for?” replies a shepherd. The canned laughter is distracting, but forgivable under the circumstances.
The Magical World of Julia Donaldson Wednesday, BBC2, 7.30pm
This profile of one of Britain’s most popular children’s authors is a heart-warming paean to the transcendent power of fiction. Donaldson’s most famous work, The Gruffalo, has sold more than 17 million copies and been translated into 100 languages. Admirers such as Sophie Dahl and Michael Rosen sing her praises and Helena Bonham-Carter and Imelda Staunton deliver some lively readings. But Donaldson, a beacon of benevolence in a dismal world, is never overshadowed by these famous faces. A gentle warning for parents of young children – near the end, it doesn’t shy away from the personal sadness she’s endured. However, it’s relayed in a sensitive way. Beautiful television.
Ghosts -Wednesday, BBC1, 8.30pm
There have been precious few things to celebrate in 2020, but I’ve been cheered by the continuing success of this delightful supernatural sitcom from the Horrible Histories gang. In this, its first Christmas special, Button House’s surrogate family muddle through as best they can. Julian, that sleazy, sexist, trouserless Tory MP, is given a shot at redemption. A visit from corporeal Mike’s family puts everything in perspective. Ghosts is just so perfectly-pitched, it’s a family-friendly show which understands that kids don’t have to get every single joke. This lot, like me, grew up on a healthy diet of traditional and alternative comedy. Daft, smart and full of heart, it treats its audience with respect.
Jennifer Saunders’ Memory Lane Wednesday, ITV, 9pm
This is a rather peculiar programme. It was presumably intended as the first episode of a series in which Saunders, a la Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, ferries celebrities around in an elegant vintage vehicle. But you can tell that it’s been gathering dust for months – it makes no sense as a Christmas special. Saunders’ guest, Michael Sheen, takes her on a jaunt around his adopted hometown of Port Talbot. Heavily bearded and encased in a capacious poncho, Sheen comes across as a nice man who is grateful for his success and truly proud of his resilient working-class community. It isn’t mere lip-service either, he does everything within his power to support it.
Victoria Wood: My Secret List – Christmas Day, BBC2, 9.10pm
When Victoria Wood died in 2016, a nation mourned. She was phenomenal, a subversive national treasure. Much like Alan Bennett, her observations had far more bite than one might glean at first glance. Wood was lovable, but never Horlicks cosy. Her acute turn of phrase was second to none – if you have a love of language, its musical rhythms and colloquial absurdity, she can leave you reeling in awe. This two-part tribute, which unfortunately wasn’t available for preview, compiles sketches chosen by Wood as examples of her best work. It also features contributions from some of her collaborators and fans. As long as they don’t talk over the sketches themselves, it should be a treat.