Some of you will know that on alternate Monday mornings, Paul Hammond interviews me for his Talking Points radio programme on UCB 1. We talk about all kinds of aspects of media, culture, and the arts. One of our long-standing traditions is to do a round-up of some television programmes, and films on television, over the Christmas period. A listener asked if I could produce a list so, here’s my very personal take on what’s worth watching over the next couple of weeks.
Saturday 22 December
Watership Down – BBC1, 7:30 pm (first of two episodes)
A new two-part adaptation of the much-loved but heart-rending story by Richard Adams, co-produced by the BBC and Netflix. The CGI animation is voiced by James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Gemma Arterton, Olivia Colman, John Boyega and Sir Ben Kingsley. Apparently it will be less traumatising than the 1978 film, but have a box of tissues handy and beware of showing it to younger or particularly sensitive children without watching it first.
Sunday 23 December
Up (2009) – BBC 1, 3:25 pm 4:55 pm
Absolute gem of a film from Pixar, directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson – a wonderful redemptive story which opens with the most wonderful and economical (and heartbreaking) portrayal of love between two people.
Mary Poppins (1964) – BBC1, 5:00 pm – 7:15 pm
Yes, I know Robert Stevenson’s classic film starring Julie Andrews is on every Christmas, but it’s always worth watching again – and especially so this year as Mary Poppins Returns is in UK cinemas from Friday 21 December, starring Emily Blunt in the title role. And you can catch Saving Mr Banks on Boxing Day.
Click & Collect – BBC 1, 9:00 pm
This looks like it could be entertaining, and possibly also a critique of our consumerist society – but I’ve not seen it so I don’t know. Stephen Merchant plays a father who’s failed to buy his six-year-old daughter the present she desperately wants – Sparklehoof the Unicorn Princess. When he discovers it’s sold out in London, his irritating neighbour, played by Asim Chaudhry, tracks down the only one in stock anywhere. The trouble is it’s 300 miles away and it’s Christmas Eve, so the two of them go on an urgent road trip.
Arthur Christmas (2011) – Channel 4, 1:45 pm – 3:45 pm
A CGI animation from Aardman (for Sony Pictures Animation) with characters voiced by James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, and other big names.
Zog – BBC1, 4:50 pm
Christmas Day on the BBC often brings a delightful new television adaptation of a Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler children’s book. From the makers of The Gruffalo this year comes the story of the most enthusiastic dragon (voiced by Lenny Henry) in school, who is also terribly accident prone. A mysterious young girl with dreams of becoming a doctor always patches him up after his scrapes. When Zog has to pass a test in princess-capturing, the girl comes to his rescue again.
Call the Midwife – BBC1, 7:45 pm
While the Doctor Who Christmas special has been moved to New Year’s Day, Call the Midwife is staying put. It’s Christmas 1963 and the nuns of Nonnatus House have to go to the Mother House where Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) is told that she could be the next Mother Superior. Back in Poplar, the midwives have to deal with four Chinese orphans brought to them by Sister Mildred (Miriam Margolyes in a guest appearance). Call the Midwife is is often very emotional, but is always life-affirming and heartwarming as its focus is consistently on the greatest of human qualities – love, compassion, fortitude – in a world of pain. Although the series has moved well beyond the memoirs of Jennifer Worth on which it was originally based, it still very much reflects her Christian worldview. An extra bonus is that this episode features a baby from our church in Southampton.
Torvill & Dean – BBC 1, 9:15 pm
A drama-documentary of the early years of Jayne Torvill (Poppy Lee Friar) and Christopher Dean (Will Tudor). It starts with their separate childhood ice-skating experiences in Nottingham, and their increasing passion for expressing themselves on ice. When their paths intersect, success begins to become a possibility, and their journey eventually takes them to the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.
Saving Mr Banks (2013) – BBC 2, 2:30 pm – 4:30 pm
P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) reluctantly meets with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) who has spent 20 years trying to persuade her to allow him to turn her book Mary Poppins into a film. A delightful and very moving film with – as you would expect – fabulous performances from Thompson and Hanks.
The Midnight Gang – BBC 1, 7:30 pm
A one-off comedy drama based on the bestselling children’s book by David Walliams, in which he stars as an evil headmaster. It’s the story of five children on a hospital ward who want some adventure.
The ABC Murders – BBC 1, 9:00 pm (first of three episodes)
New three-part adaptations of Agatha Christie crime novels are also becoming a Christmas tradition for the BBC, which is absolutely fine by me. In this telling of Christie’s 1936 story, Hercule Poirot (John Malkovich) and Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint) hunt for a serial killer known only as “A.B.C.”.
Friday 28 December
Emma (1996) – BBC 2, 12:30 pm – 2:25 pm
My favourite adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, Greta Scacchi, and Toni Collette in the story of a young woman whose attempts at matchmaking jeopardise her own chances of love.
Eddie the Eagle (2015) – Channel 4, 8:00pm – 10:00 pm
Inspired by the true story of Michael "Eddie the Eagle“ Edwards (Taron Egerton) who became an iconic unlikely, eccentric, but courageous British ski-jumper who took on the establishment in order to compete at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. Heartwarming and immensely enjoyable.
Saturday 29 December
Philomena (2012) – BBC 2, 9:00 pm – 10:30 pm
Fifty years after Irish nuns took Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) son away from her to be sold to an America couple, cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the screenplay) takes up her case in an attempt to find out what happened to the son Philomena never saw again. Based on a true story. See my article on the film.
Sunday 30 December
Paddington (2014) – BBC 2, 5:40 pm – 7:30 pm
Simply one of the most delightful films ever made.
Les Misérables – 9pm (first of six episodes)
This is what I’m most excited about from the Christmas TV schedules: a six-part adaptation by Andrew Davies of Victor Hugo’s classic historical novel from 1862. There have been a number of film adaptations since the first in 1935, including Tom Hooper’s superb 2012 version of the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, which starred Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. Amazingly, this new non-musical adaptation appears to be only the second TV series of Les Misérables, the first being a French four-parter in 2000, starring Gérard Depardieu and John Malkovich. Starring Dominic West as Jean Valjean, David Oyelowo as Javert, Lily Collins as Fantine, and Olivia Colman as Madame Thénardier, this looks set to be a fabulous piece of television.
Victor Hugo was Brough up as a Roman Catholic, but moved increasingly far from it during his life, eventually becoming a rationalist deist (that is, he believed that reason is the only reliable source of knowledge, and that God is the first cause of the universe but has no continuing involvement in it). Nevertheless, Les Misérables has some immensely strong Christian themes – grace, mercy, redemption, and hope – primarily focused on the character of Jean Valjean. In a recent interview, Dominic West said of Valjean:
“He’s the best superhero ever written. I’ve played a lot of villains and I don’t find them interesting anymore. After a tough start, he ends up trying to be the best man he can be when all the odds are against him, and he makes goodness interesting, which is quite rare. If he’s not fighting bad guys, he’s climbing out on ships masts to save a sailor, all while battling his own demons. He’s incredible, what a great part to play.”
New Year’s Eve
Big Hero 6 (2014) – BBC 1, 2:40 pm – 4:15 pm
When a devastating event happens in San Fransokyo, 14-year-old robotics genius Hiro finds himself in immense danger. With the help of Baymax, an inflatable healthcare robot, and a group of friends, Hiro has to save the day. For me this was a surprisingly moving and uplifting film.
New Year’s Day
Doctor Who Christmas Special – BBC 1, 7:00 pm
The first Christmas special for the new team of Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, and Tosin Cole, with Chris Chibnall at the helm. “When a chilling force from across centuries of history poses a terrible threat to planet Earth, can the gang save the day?”