Christmas, for me, has always been about television. I mean, obviously, it’s about food, and drink, and family, and presents, and games. But the moment when the meal has been finished, the washing up done, the wrapping paper and boxes all cleared away, and everyone sinks down into a sofa in front of the fire and watches a Christmas-themed episode – that is the moment when I finally feel that everything is as it should be, and the cares of the world can fall away.
For many modern day Scrooges, Christmas TV is a saccharine-fuelled exercise in trite sentimentality, but in my festive eyes, nothing beats a good Christmas special. And, for one day a year at least, we’re almost certain to get a happy ending to warm the heart.
Here, then, is my own list of the best ever Christmas specials. Have a happy Christmas and a joyful, healthy and prosperous New Year.
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The Vicar of Dibley: The Christmas Lunch Incident
This episode, shown on December 25, 1996, has passed into festive folklore as an instant classic. Geraldine (Dawn French) agrees to attend four Christmas lunches, so as not to disappoint any of her enthusiastic parishioners. Lunching with Jim and Frank, she is given an entire Christmas pudding to eat. At the Hortons, she ends up in a sprouts-eating competition. And at Alice’s, she is astounded to find that Alice (the late and hugely lamented Emma Chambers) has an even dimmer sister, Mary (a memorable cameo from Mel Giedroyc). Finally, Owen feeds her an unspeakable meal, including tripe (bleugh) before he gives her a lift home in the bucket of his tractor. There’s even time for a misunderstood proposal from guest star Peter Capaldi.
Only Fools and Horses: The Jolly Boys’ Outing
In the 80s and 90s, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without a trip to Nelson Mandela House to spend an hour or so with the Trotter family. Over the years, there were a staggering 18 Christmas specials, which continued long after the regular sitcom had been put to bed. A 2019 poll by the Daily Express saw this 85-minute special, from 1989, top the rankings, and it’s difficult to argue. It is not remotely Christmassy (it’s set over an August Bank holiday weekend) but the subject matter – a trip to Margate for the regulars from the Nags’ Head – allows all of the show’s wonderful incidental characters to shine. Arrests, exploding coaches, Rodney punching Cassandra’s snobby boss, and Del Boy reuniting with lost love Raquel, it’s got it all.
Frasier: Miracle on 3rd or 4th Street
My love for Frasier knows no bounds, and the Christmas episode in the show’s first series must rank as one of the best. When Frasier’s (Kelsey Grammer) much anticipated Christmas with his son falls through, the radio psychiatrist grumpily decides to work on Christmas Day instead. His radio show is a cavalcade of misery, with the callers (voice cameos from the likes of Mel Brooks, Rosemary Clooney and Ben Stiller) doing little to alleviate his festive gloom. But when a dishevelled Frasier shows up at a cheap diner, having forgotten his wallet, he learns the true meaning of Christmas. The episode shows Frasier at his pompous worst and humane best, and is 22 minutes of comic perfection.
Okay, when we said a Christmas special guaranteed a happy ending, we weren’t necessarily talking about EastEnders. After all, happiness is in short supply in Albert Square at the best of times. But the second of the two-part Christmas special in 1986 – watched by more than half the nation – was certainly memorable. It was the day that Ange finally got her comeuppance. Having faked a terminal illness in order to get her husband, Den, to stay in the marriage (as you do), she is confronted by an understandably somewhat miffed Den. The episode culminates in his handing her divorce papers, with the memorable line “Happy Christmas, Ange.” Cue the drums. In 2018, it was voted the most dramatic moment in British Christmas TV history.
Downton Abbey: Christmas at Downton Abbey
From the Queen Vic to the slightly more austere setting of Downton Abbey, where the two-hour 2011 Christmas special did much to cement the show’s place in the hearts of an enthusiastic nation. It’s Christmas 1919, and it’s all go in Yorkshire. Bates is convicted of murdering his wife, and urges Anna to live a full life without him (sniff). Lady Sybil and Tom come back from Ireland and are welcomed into the family, with her expecting a baby (and we all know how that turned out…). And, most memorably, Lady Mary sends her scheming suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle, packing, and confesses her past misdemeanours to Matthew. But will he forgive her? Of course he will, it’s Christmas!
The Morecambe and Wise Show, 1977 Christmas Special
Back through the mists of time, before Call the Midwife, Doctor Who and Only Fools and Horses, Christmas Day TV was all about two people: Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Their Christmas specials were a staple of British television from 1969-1983, and garnered the kind of audiences that today’s shows can only dream of. Their 1977 special was watched by a staggering 28 million people, who were treated to some vintage comedy from the unforgettable duo. The show itself was simply an extension of their regular series – albeit longer, with a bigger budget, and more celebrity guests. In this one, Elton John got lost in the bowels of TV centre, before bumping into the cast of Dad’s Army (with Arthur Lowe memorably calling him ‘stupid boy’). Other sketches involved luminaries such as Penelope Keith, Richard Briers, Paul Eddington, James Hunt, Michael Parkinson and Frank Bough, before Elton John finally showed up to the right studio ‘after’ the show had finished. So he ended up performing to two cleaning ladies (played by… you guessed it…)
The Royle Family
It’s difficult enough to watch any episode of the Royle Family without tears in your eyes, lamenting the tragic early death of its wonderful creator and star, Caroline Aherne. But this one? Impossible. After a typical Royle Christmas, consisting of characteristic boorish behaviour by Jim (Ricky Tomlinson) Anthony goes out to meet mates, and Dave takes Nana home, leaving just Denise, Jim and Barbara at home. When Denise goes into labour, and has a wobble about motherhood, it is the cue for one of the most touching scenes in TV history. Sitting on the floor, leaning against the avocado bathtub, Jim takes his daughter in his arms and waxes lyrical about the joys of parenthood, while Pie Jesu plays on her birthing tape. It sums up what it means to be a parent, or grandparent, in all of its messy, unforgettable beauty.
Gavin and Stacey: A Special Christmas
Christmas 2019 saw the massively popular sitcom return for a one-off special after almost 10 years away, and saw the families converging on Gwen’s house in Wales for Christmas dinner, cooked by an increasingly fraught Bryn (a superb Rob Brydon). Smithy (James Corden) joins proceedings in order to spend time with his son, Dave the Baby, and brings with him his girlfriend Sonia. However, Sonia is unimpressed by proceedings, and decides to leave to join her own family. This leaves the way open for Ness (Ruth Jones) to declare her feelings for Smithy, which she does in characteristically blunt fashion: “If truth be told, I loves you.” Cue proposal, fade to black. An audience of 18.5 million made this the most-watched non-sporting event on TV for a decade.
Okay, I understand that this is stretching the definition of a ‘Christmas special’, as it’s a one-off, but it’s Christmassy, and it’s special, and I couldn’t possibly not put it in. Astonishingly, the classic animation, based on Raymond Briggs’ picture book of the same name, will be 39 years old this Christmas, but it’s still as beautiful and bittersweet as ever. Set to a gorgeous Howard Blake score, including the classic Walking in the Air, the story follows the adventures of a boy and his snowman, who fly, on Christmas night, to the frozen North, where they meet Father Christmas. The ending, when the boy awakens the next day and discovers that his icy friend has melted, is almost too much to bear. No, you’ve got something in your eye.
Like Fawlty Towers, The Office ensured its status as one of the all-time great comedies by only ever transmitting two series. But in Christmas 2003, a two-part festive special tied up all the loose ends of the show to glorious, Bafta-winning effect. A year after finding fame as the star of the ‘documentary’ series about office life in Slough, David Brent is scraping a living as a ‘celebrity’, appearing in nightclubs alongside Howard from the Halifax adverts. He is single, and unsuccessfully internet dating. Tim is still working at the job he hates, at Wernham Hogg, while Dawn has moved to Florida with odious fiancé Lee. And Gareth is still, well, Gareth. But when the whole group are reunited for a Christmas party, a little bit of festive stardust is sprinkled over Slough as, one by one, the much loved characters find the happiness the audience craves for them. And finally – be still my beating heart – Tim and Dawn confront their true feelings.
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