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Christmas TV Preview: Call the Midwife delivers warmth and hope – despite social distancing

Call the Midwife (Copyright BBC).
Call the Midwife (Copyright BBC).

This week, Paul steps into Christmas…


Marcus Rashford: Feeding Britain’s Children – Monday, BBC One, 7pm

Marcus Rashford: Feeding Britain’s Children (Copyright BBC)

In this year of terrible years, the footballer Marcus Rashford has emerged as a profound symbol of decency and compassion. He’s devoted himself to raising awareness of child poverty in Britain, to such an extent that he basically 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, BBC One, 7pm

The Mischief Theatre company have, in recent years, become a festive TV staple. Quite right too. Like the similarly talented Horrible Histories team (more of whom below) 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 doesn’t represent the team at 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 (I’m using that term correctly) is distracting, but forgivable under the circumstances.

The Magical World of Julia Donaldson – Wednesday, BBC Two, 7:30pm

The Magical World of Julia Donaldson (Copyright BBC)

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 over 17 million copies and has been translated into 100 languages. Admirers such as Sophie Dahl, Nadiya Hussain and Michael Rosen pitch up to sing her praises. Meanwhile, 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: towards the end, it doesn’t shy away from the personal sadness she’s endured. However, it’s relayed in such a sensitive way, you needn’t worry too much. Beautiful television.

Ghosts – Wednesday, BBC One, 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 sweet 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 or inference. 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, STV, 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 during the pandemic; 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.

Call the Midwife – Christmas Day, BBC One, 7:40pm

Call the Midwife (Copyright BBC).

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 God 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. Enjoy.

Victoria Wood: My Secret List – Christmas Day, BBC Two, 9:10pm

Victoria Wood: My Secret List (Copyright BBC)

When Victoria Wood died in 2016, a nation mourned. She was phenomenal, a subversive treasure. Much like Alan Bennett, who she presumably admired, 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.


A Shot in the Dark – Tuesday, Film4, 4:45pm

A Shot in the Dark (Copyright United Artists)

The second film in the Inspector Clouseau series is undoubtedly the best. It was made at a time when Peter Sellers was still capable of delivering a wonderfully focused comic performance, with no trace of the manic self-indulgence that would mar later Clouseau films. Plot-wise it’s a fairly straightforward Agatha Christie spoof in which the bungling detective refuses to accept, against all evidence to the contrary, that a beautiful French maid (Elke Sommer) is guilty of murder. Perfectly-timed comic set-pieces abound – director Blake Edwards is on top form too – the most famous being Clouseau’s supposedly smooth interrogation of George Sanders over a chaotic game of billiards. An absolute delight from start to finish.


Small Axe – Sunday December 13, BBC One

Small Axe (Copyright BBC)

There was no finer work of art on TV this year than Steve McQueen’s anthology about black lives in Britain between the 1960s and 1980s. It concluded with the story of Kingsley, a dyslexic child removed from mainstream education and sent to a school for the “educationally subnormal”. Systemic racism was the overarching theme of Small Axe; Kingsley represented the blatant targeting of ethnic minorities within a biased, unjust system. Was Small Axe quite didactic at times? Yes. That was the whole damn point. McQueen set out to educate, and he succeeded. For the last few weeks he has taught black history to millions. An uncompromising project fuelled by anger and love, its recurring message was this: listen and learn.

New Elizabethans with Andrew Marr – Thursday December 17, BBC Two

Marr’s messy essay about public figures who came to prominence during Elizabeth II’s reign spluttered to its conclusion last week. He’d obviously drawn up an admittedly interesting list of nominees without much thought as to how they would fit together in a satisfying social history whole. The overall point of the final episode was to show how, despite the decline of British industry, various great Britons continued to innovate. As always, it was more diverting when Marr focused on lesser-remembered figures such as the ‘scandalous’ Lady Norah Docker, a big star in her 1950s heyday, but you can’t do justice to the likes of Jimmy Reid, Clive Sinclair and Dusty Springfield in bite-sized chunks. What’s the point?