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Your Christmas TV guide for a holiday like no other

With Christmas ruined for many by the weekend’s sudden announcements, we find ourselves clinging to any sense of normalcy this festive season. And what better way to do so than by wrapping up warm on the sofa and tuning into some terrestrial television treats?

Doctor Who returns with another festive special—airing on New Year’s Day for the third year in a row—as does Call The Midwife, with an episode that promises a lot of drama. All the usual soaps will be delivering spectacular climaxes, particularly perennial favourites EastEnders and Coronation Street, currently celebrating its sixtieth year. And, unfortunately for many, Mrs Brown’s Boys is returning for a pair of specials for the tenth(!) year in a row.

Several shows are presenting pandemic stories: we’ve already seen Dawn French return in The Vicar of Dibley, with Geraldine presenting sermons over Zoom. A short segment on Black Lives Matter drew ire from the right—the usual columnists in The Telegraph and The Spectator reared their reactionary heads—and the BBC have reported over 100 complaints, but many viewers praised the sensitive handling of the topical subject matter on social media.

Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow, meanwhile, which stars David Mitchell as William Shakespeare, sees the Bard quarantined with Kate (Gemma Whelan) in the Great Plague of London. “William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, what have you done?” has been a common refrain from the über-productive since the spring; hopefully, such a premise will also provide suitable comedic material.

A one-off comedy from Tom Basden, Pandemonium, airs on the 30 December: “2020 has been an absolute nightmare for the Jessop family. To boost family morale, they decide they are going to have a summer holiday after all, even if it is in Margate in October.” It should be relatable and excruciating in equal parts, not to be missed. There are some comforting Christmas tales from several sitcoms: The Goes Wrong Show takes on the Nativity, King Gary and Motherland give us seasonal specials, and the glorious Ghosts returns with some festive flashbacks.

Strictly Come Dancing has already aired its finale—watched by over 13 million and a wonderful antidote to Saturday’s soul-crushing announcement from No. 10—but the traditional Christmas special won’t be on, due to understandable COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, they have prepared The Christmas Countdown, which will reveal “the 25 most memorable dances of all time,” as decided by a public vote.

“From the perfect 40s, the trophy-winning routines, dances that have made us laugh, and perhaps some that are remembered for other reasons,” this seems like a fair compromise. Quite a few shows are giving us such ‘best of’ festive roundups: Britain’s Got Talent are welcoming back some of the most popular contestants from the show’s 14 years; Victoria Wood: The Secret List gives us the legendary comedian’s favourite sketches, based on a list found among her effects.

Two of the most intriguing and gorgeous offerings are aimed at kids, but will undoubtedly be enjoyed by all ages. Zog and the Flying Doctors and Quentin Blake’s Clown—both adapted from much-loved kids’ books—these one-off animations have wonderful casts and stunning visuals. Zog features the voices of Lenny Henry, Rob Brydon and Patsy Ferran and airs on BBC One on Christmas Day; Clown is narrated by Helena Bonham-Carter and also airs on Christmas on Channel 4.

BBC Two has a particularly strong December lineup of comedy-documentaries: Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Christmas Fishing and The Christmas Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan have both already aired, giving us unusual festive specials that nonetheless have both heart and humour. The Last Woman on Earth With Sara Pascoe promises a similarly intriguing travelogue, as she learns “how to do the world’s most endangered jobs, from ice-carving in Finland to climbing trees to making sweets in Cuba.”

For savage and cynical takes on the year’s news, we have both Frankie Boyle’s 2020 New World Order and Death to 2020 on Netflix, from executive producers Charlie Brooker and his Black Mirror co-showrunner Annabel Jones. With an all-star cast—Hugh Grant, Samuel L. Jackson and Lisa Kudrow, among others—and supreme writing team, this spoof documentary will undoubtedly be an original take on an unprecedented year. Personally, I can’t wait for the Gogglebox review of 2020: few shows capture the zeitgeist of the nation as well as Gogglebox and no doubt their familiar cast of couch potatoes will have a lot to say about this eventful year. Hopefully, we’ll get some new content, rather than just a roundup of commentary from throughout the year.

For the quiz lovers, there’s the Christmas University Challenge, where distinguished graduates return and compete for the trophy; an Only Connect special with returning teams; and the annual Big Fat Quiz of the Year, which drew criticism for its failure to cast any female comics, instead only giving us male comedians and female celebrities.

In terms of binge-able streaming content, Netflix brings us Bridgerton on Christmas Day, the first original series from Shonda Rhimes’ nine-figure deal with the streaming service; the fourth part of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina drops on New Year’s Eve.

And, for anyone missing the thrill of live theatre, a filmed version of Colin McPherson’s Uncle Vanya—which closed prematurely in the West End this March—will be airing on BBC Four next Wednesday. Similarly, the National Theatre’s pantomime, Dick Whittington by Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd, has been filmed and will be available for viewing on YouTube from 3 p.m. on 23 December until midnight on 27 December.

There’s more than enough to keep busy between now and the New Year, with the inescapable Annual Hootenanny and plenty of distractions to make up for cancelled fireworks displays around the country. And, looking ahead, January brings us not one but two new seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race—UK season 2, US season 13—to keep us entertained throughout whatever disasters 2021 might bring…