What's on: Christmas and New Year TV guide 2020

Benjie Goodhart / 15 December 2020

TV blogger Benjie Goodhart rounds up what's on over Christmas and the New Year, including a three-part adaptation of Black Narcissus starring Gemma Arterton and a host of Christmas specials.

Righto, here we are. We only ruddy well made it to Christmas. I think we all deserve a rather large round of applause and a gargantuan trifle just for getting through this absolute dog’s dinner of a year. Christmas might be a little unusual this year, of course. With a vaccine now being distributed, many people are choosing to stay at home, and celebrate with loved ones later in the year. Certainly, it’s not going to be the annual festival of bacchanalia that normally sweeps the nation.

But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Instead of nestling a glass of lukewarm sherry and standing around talking to virtual strangers about house prices, this year offers the perfect excuse to get a vast delivery of chocolate and wine, and sit with your thumb surgically attached to the remote control. What could be better?

Here, then, is the rundown of the best of the festive fayre to keep you all in good spirits until – THANK YOU!!! – 2021 arrives, and with it, the promise of better times to come.

In the meantime, I wish you a happy and healthy Christmas, and remind you that all my seasonal tips should be sent in brown envelopes filled with unmarked notes.

Find out about the history of Christmas TV

Saturday 19th December

Celebrity Mastermind 1/14, 5:25pm, BBC One: Hurrah, a new series in which celebrities subject themselves to the ritual humiliation of the twin terrors of John Humphrys and the dreaded black chair. Though why is the next episode not on until Monday 28th December? Pass.

Strictly Come Dancing: The Final, 6pm, BBC One: Another year, another triumphant series filled with celebs, sequins and samba, the escapism of Strictly was never more needed than this year. Now, the final is upon us, as the nation awaits with bated breath to discover which twinkle-toed celeb has skipped their way to the glitterball trophy.

Idris Elba Meets Paul McCartney, 9:20pm, BBC One: Paul McCartney discusses his 60-years-and-counting music career with Idris Elba, ahead of the launch of his latest album, McCartney III. McCartney, for those of you who don’t know, was in a little-known pop foursome called The Bangles. Or something. I think they were from Newcastle. No, hang on… Oh, just watch the programme…

My Generation, 9:20pm, BBC Two: In an annoying bit of scheduling, up against Sir Paul and Idris, we have a look at the 1960s through the eyes of Michael Caine and some interviewees… including Paul McCartney. The documentary looks at what the 60s meant to those who were actually there, and able to remember it (I was still a glint in the milkman’s eye…)

Sunday 20th December

Songs of Praise: the UK’s Favourite Carol, 1:15pm, BBC One: It may not be the most high-profile public vote on BBC One today, but this special edition of Songs of Praise from St Paul’s Cathedral promises to be a lot of fun, with host Aled Jones joined by Sir Cliff Richard, Katherine Jenkins, Andrea Bocelli and others for the countdown. If O Come All Ye Faithful doesn’t win, I’m throwing my mince pie at the telly.

Sports Personality of the Year, 8pm, BBC One: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s been a funny old year – and nowhere more than in sport. At first disrupted, then cancelled, then played behind closed doors, it has nevertheless proved a welcome distraction from the lack of, you know, pubs. Now, the annual review of the sporting year will look back on a remarkable 2020, for good and ill, before presumably giving the award to Lewis Hamilton, whose achievements in a record-breaking year are simply extraordinary. There will be justifiable recognition, too, for Marcus Rashford, whose campaign for free school meals during lockdown was one of the high points of 2020, and a reminder that footballers aren’t all the selfish idiots of tabloid perception.

Michael Palin’s Himalaya: Journey of a Lifetime, 8pm, BBC Two: Michael Palin looks back at his extraordinary 2004 series, and reflects on what was one of his more challenging and rewarding trips. As ever, 90 minutes in the great man’s company is a joy.

Monday 21st December

Marcus Rashford: Feeding Britain’s Children, 7pm, BBC One: Documentary following the 23-year-old through his extraordinary year, as he waged war against child hunger. And won. This revealing film also looks at Rashford’s own humble beginnings – he knows whereof he speaks – and hears from his brothers and mother about their iconic family member. Inspirational stuff.

Christmas University Challenge 1/10, 8:30pm, BBC Two: Time for the first of ten festive specials, as celebs(ish) turn out for their alma maters and Jeremy Paxman plays his traditional Scrooge role. All jolly good, educational fun.

Celebrity MasterChef Christmas Cook-Off, 9pm, BBC One: We’ve gone a full week without a single version of MasterChef being onscreen, which obviously is unthinkable at the BBC. Thankfully, John Torode and Gregg Wallace are back tonight, with four of the most memorable celebs from past shows – Vicky Pattison, Dev Griffin, Janet Street-Porter and Christopher Biggins – cooking up a series of festive treats.

Tuesday 22nd December

Nigella’s Cook, Eat, Repeat Christmas, 8pm, BBC Two: Sumptuous festive delights abound as the Queen of luxury gourmet naughtiness does her thing, with dishes from across Europe, including pork ribs that I will dream of. And there’s also a recipe for oliebollen and appelflappen, should you be so minded.

All Creatures Great and Small, 9pm, Channel 5: This remake of the much-loved BBC original proved to be one of the happier televisual developments of 2020, so a Christmas Special is welcome indeed. Festive cheer is in short supply for James Herriot, as the object of his affections, Helen, is marrying someone else in the morning. Still, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and this is TV-land after all. Whatever could happen, I wonder?

Being Bridget Jones, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary exploring the newspaper, literary and ultimately celluloid phenomenon that is the irrepressible Ms Jones. Among those interviewed are creator Helen Fielding, and stars of the movie Renee Zellwegger, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth.

Wednesday 23rd December

Ghosts, 8:30pm, BBC One: One of the high points of telly in 2020 was series two of this marvellously silly sitcom, which managed to combine hilarity with genuine pathos. This Christmas special sees Mike and Alison attempting to host the perfect Christmas, while we learn more about the life and death of trouserless 1990s MP Julian.

Motherland, 9pm, BBC Two: The delightfully cynical comedy is back with more bitterness than a bottle of Jif lemon. Anna Maxwell Martin and Diana Morgan star, and as ever, Lucy Punch has a ball as the poisonous Amanda, who is throwing her annual tinsel-and-tiara party.

Jennifer Saunders’ Memory Lane, 9pm, ITV: The comedian hops into a gorgeous E-Type Jag and takes actor Michael Sheen to the places from his past that helped shape him into the charismatic Hollywood star he has become today. Wistful, nostalgic and fun, this is an hour of feel-good TV that goes perfectly with a sherry and a mince pie. Or four of each.

Christmas Eve

Carols from Kings, 5:30pm, BBC Two: For me, Christmas really began when I’d lie on my parents’ bed, with my mum, and listen to this on the radio. This year, she’ll be staying on her own, with a vaccine so close, but I will listen to this and think of her. Before spending an hour shouting at her on Christmas Day because she can’t work Zoom.

Worzel Gummidge: Saucy Nancy, 5:55pm, BBC One: Mackenzie Crook’s remake of the classic scarecrow show was one of the highlights of 2019, and so it proves again with another bucolic delight. Shirley Henderson stars as Saucy Nancy, a wooden ship figurehead who has to get back to the sea. Festive family fantasy fun of the highest order.

The Great Christmas Bake Off, 7:40pm, Channel 4: Deck the tent with boughs of holly, the bakers are back. Four memorable bakers from recent years return to bake up a storm, and face the terrible judgements of the divine duo of Prue and Paul. Matt Lucas – a revelation in the last series – and Bake Off: The Professionals presenter Tom Allen, helm proceedings and make silly jokes. Bliss.

Roald and Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse, 8:15pm, Sky One: This feature-length drama stars Dawn French as Beatrix Potter, middle aged, grumpy and losing her sight – and Harry Tayler as a grieving young Roald Dahl, with Jessica Hynes playing his concerned mother. It is based on a true story, and promises to be one of the delights of Christmas.

One Night in Hamleys, 9pm, Channel 4: Remember that dream you used to have, of being locked in an enormous toy store overnight, and having the complete run of the place. Well, for one night only, that dream becomes a reality for Romesh Ranganathan, Tom Allen and Rob Beckett. Amidst the ensuing hilarity, there is also a reflection on what childhood really means.

Miranda’s Games with Showbiz Names, 9:45pm, BBC One: Miranda Hart returns to our screens with a one-off game show pitting celebrity couples against each other in ever more absurd challenges from the comfort of their own homes. If nothing else, it should allow you the opportunity to judge celebrities based on their choice of soft furnishing.

Christmas Day

The Queen, 3pm, BBC One: A nation attempts to stumble to its feet for the national anthem, despite a bellyful of turkey and a glass or two of Baileys. Then we all take a spot of comfort from HRH at the end of a tumultuous year.

Call the Midwife, 7:40pm, BBC One: Is it just me, or is it always Christmas in Poplar? Anyway, the annual festive favourite that is as much part of Christmas as the Queen’s Speech returns, with the circus visiting town, and Peter Davison guest starring. And – wouldn’t you know it – there’s even a dusting of snow. Is it me, or does it also always snow in Poplar on Christmas Day?

Quentin Blake’s Clown, 7:40pm, Channel 4: Channel 4’s fondness for turning classic children’s stories into Christmas animations gets another welcome incarnation, with Helena Bonham Carter narrating this story of an abandoned toy clown’s search for love. Hankies at the ready, people.

Britain’s Got Talent Christmas Spectacular, 8pm, ITV: Some of the most celebrated acts from 14 years of BGT return for a one-off festive special, hosted by Ant and Dec. And expect to see the judges emerge from behind their desk for a special performance. It’s not exactly Doctor Zhivago, but with an expanding tum full of food, something light and frothy might be just what’s required.

Victoria Wood’s Secret List 1/2, 9:10pm, BBC Two: Victoria Wood was so busy, and in such demand, that she never got to make the ‘best of’ compilation show she had planned. The furthest she got was picking out her favourite sketches from her show "As Seen On TV”. Over two programmes, we get to see her own choices of her favourite clips, intercut with the memories of friends and fans. It might be the 200th Victoria Wood retrospective we’ve seen, but with someone this good, no amount is too many.

Mrs Brown’s Boys, 10pm, BBC One: The whole clan celebrate Christmas, Covid-style, while Agnes (Brendan O’Carroll) enters a competition to give her own version of the Queen’s Speech. A second special airs on New Year’s Day.

Boxing Day

The Repair Shop at Christmas, 6:45pm, BBC One: Ostensibly this is a show where experts restore treasured possessions to their former glory. In reality, this is a programme about people, memories, and the sentimental value of stuff. As such, it can be deeply moving. Warning: Tonight’s episode will tweak at even the stoniest heart.

The Masked Singer, 7pm, ITV: Weird hallucinatory gameshow that will have you examining your mince pies to see if someone slipped magic mushrooms into the list of ingredients.

The Great British Celebrity Sewing Bee, 7:45pm, BBC One: Joe Lycett presents a special two-part celebrity version of the show, with contestants including Shirley Ballas and Sara Pascoe wielding the needle.

Big Fat Quiz of the Year, 9:05pm, Channel 4: Light-hearted and irreverent look back at the year’s biggest stories in the annual comedy news quiz presented by Jimmy Carr. People of an easily-offended disposition might like to find something on BBC Four to watch instead.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Celebrity Special, 9:30pm, ITV: The real interest in this sleb spesh will be seeing just how comfortably Clarkson and guest Piers Morgan manage to sit in the same room together. The two have a long-standing animus that has, on at least one occasion, turned violent. This should be fascinating.

Sunday 27th December

Antiques Roadshow: What Happened Next, 8pm, BBC One: Yes. YES!!!! This is the show we’ve been waiting for all these years – where we get to find out what happens after the show, to some of the more memorable (and valuable) items. You know how they always insist that they’d “never, ever sell”? Turns out it’s not entirely true… As if we ever thought anything else!

Black Narcissus, 9pm, BBC One: Three-part drama, showing on consecutive nights, based on Rumer Godden’s 80-year-old novel. Gemma Arteton stars as Sister Clodagh, one of a group of nuns selected to go and start up a mission in a remote Himalayan palace. But the palace has a dark and erotic history which seems to seep from its very walls, and the ghosts from the past are everywhere. A bit saucy, apparently.

Back to the 80s with Lenny Henry 1/4, 9pm, Channel 4: Navel-gazing ahoy as Channel 4 screens a four-part series about the history of, um, Channel 4. Lenny Henry hosts this first episode, before Vic Reeves guides us through the 90s tomorrow. We are promised the disasters as well as the triumphs, so Mini Pops, arguably the most misconceived show in TV history, will almost certainly make an appearance.

Monday 28th December

Britain’s Most Expensive Houses, 8pm, Channel 4: Nothing beats a spot of nosing around someone’s home, and of it happens to be a ridiculously lavish, palatial job, so much the better. This promises to be property porn at its most lascivious.

Billy Connolly: It’s Been a Pleasure…, 9:30pm, ITV: Oh Billy! The Big Yin has announced he’s retiring from live performing, hence this ITV special. Billy and wife Pamela Stephenson are interviewed in their Florida home, while a host of celebrity fans discuss their love for the man, and select their favourite bits of stand-up. The end of an era, and the world a slightly less funny place as a result.

Tuesday 29th December

Penguins: Meet the Family, 6:30pm. BBC One: If you thought that penguins were only ever found shivering and grouping together on Antarctic ice sheets, think again. This charming documentary follows the 18 different types of penguin in a huge variety of habitats, from cities to equatorial islands. Expect a fair amount of waddling and falling over.

Wednesday 30th December

Stephen Fry’s 21st Century Firsts, 8:30pm, ITV: Feature-length documentary in which polymath Fry looks at the technological and social changes that have revolutionised society in the last 20 years, and asks what the next two decades maty have in store for us.

Not Going Out, 9pm, BBC One: Lee Mack’s sitcom returns for a Christmas special, as Lee and Lucy (Sally Bretton) endure a joyless New Year’s Eve with their extended family. On a poignant note, Lee’s dad is played, for the last time, by the late Bobby Ball.

Pandemonium, 9:45pm, BBC One: Sitcom starring Katherine Parkinson, Jim Howick and the always-brilliant Alison Steadman, following the Jessop family as they clumsily navigate their way through a holiday in Margate after a Covid-ruined year from hell.

New Year’s Eve

The Big New Year’s In, 9pm, BBC One: Paddy McGuinness presents an hour of music, games and celebrity guests, with a quiz all about 2020 that viewers can join in from their sofas. Here’s a question for you: Was 2020: (a) Rubbish (b) Terrible or (c) Rotten?

The Last Leg of the Year, 9pm, Channel 4: Adam Hills, Josh Widdecombe and Alex Brooker bid a not-so-fond farewell to 2020 in their inimitable style.

The Graham Norton Show, 10:25pm, BBC One: The affable Mr Norton has lined up an excellent selection of guests tonight, chief among them the legendary Mr Tom Hanks. The supporting cast includes Jamie Dornan, Emily Blunt, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nish Kumar and Jessica Chastain.

New Year’s Day

Dames: Talking Pictures, 12:45pm, BBC Two: One-off documentary celebrating the actresses who have been made Dames, showing interviews and performances from throughout their career. Those featured include Emma Thompson, Diana Rigg, Julie Walters Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren.

Doctor Who, 6:45pm, BBC One: Jodie Whittaker returns as the eponymous Doctor, who begins the show trapped in a space prison. Fortunately, she doesn’t spend the entire episode stuck in there, looking at the four walls, otherwise it would just be a busman’s holiday for all of us! Instead, she does battle with the dreaded Daleks, in an episode that features John Barrowman, and says goodbye to Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole.

Chitty Flies Again, 7:30pm, Channel 4: Is there a more magical family film than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? David Walliams doesn’t think so. His mission, in this evocative, nostalgic and fun programme, is to try and make Chitty really fly, with the help of engineer Tony Hoskins. Truly scrumptious.

The Serpent, 9pm. BBC One: Tahar Rahim plays real-life conman and serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who preyed on backpackers in 1970s Bangkok, while Jenna Coleman plays his accomplice and girlfriend Marie-Andree Leclerc. As the bodies begin to stack up, a junior Dutch diplomat (played by Billy Howie) starts to become suspicious, in this heady and atmospheric eight-part series.

Dancing on Thin Ice with Torvill and Dean, 9pm, ITV: I’m not entirely sure why, but ITV are sending the ice dancing legends off to skate on a lake in Alaska. Poor pair, they’ll freeze their boleros off. Anyway, the landscape should be suitably Christmassy and spectacular, so what’s not to love?

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