The TV film schedules over Christmas tend to be a balancing act between novelties, classics and time-passers. Naturally, much fuss is made of the network premieres, but the BBC has decided the best way to cheer everyone up this year is with a generous selection of golden age musicals, which includes the peerless Singin’ in the Rain (Sunday 26 December, BBC2, 12:40). But what else should you be looking out for?
Tuesday 21 December, ITV, 13:45
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, this animated take on William Steig’s revisionist picture book retains its edge and energy. Wittily debunking the Disney approach to fairytales, Shrek won the inaugural Oscar for best animated feature. And if one helping isn’t enough, Shrek 2 (2004) is on the same channel the following day.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Tuesday 21 December, BBC2, 13:50
You’d never know from the snow scenes that this adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel was filmed under the same Spanish sun as Anthony Mann’s 11th-century epic, El Cid (Friday 31 Dec, BBC2, 8:55). Faced with the warmest winter in 50 years, director David Lean made do with tons of marble dust from a nearby quarry and asked Omar Sharif and Julie Christie to look cold. Sprawling across one of the most turbulent decades in Russia’s past, this demanding drama juxtaposes history and humanity to compelling effect.
Carry On Screaming (1966)
Tuesday 21 December, TCM, 18:50
This uncannily creepy Hammer horror parody ranks among the Carry On team’s funniest achievements. With series regular Sid James unavailable, Harry H. Corbett assumed the role of Sergeant Bung with aplomb in his sole Carry On outing, alongside Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding as the dastardly siblings, Orlando and Valeria Watt. Their Bide-a-Wee lair is given a gothic glow by cinematographer Alan Hume, who had worked for Hammer and Amicus.
Wednesday 22 December, Sky Greats, 17:15
William Wyler’s adaptation of Lew Wallace’s biblical bestseller set the standard by which subsequent blockbusters are judged. The scale of the production and the audacity of sequences like the chariot race bestow a genuinely epic status on the story of a Jewish prince (Charlton Heston) who vows vengeance on the onetime friend (Stephen Boyd) who condemns him to a slave galley. It now shares its record haul of 11 Oscars with Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
Die Hard (1988)
Wednesday 22 December, ITV, 22:45
John McClane (Bruce Willis) is in no mood for nibbles and small talk at the Nakatomi Corporation festive party. In this pulsating adaptation of Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, he seeks to rescue his estranged wife from the gathering that’s been hijacked by charismatic German radical Hans Gruber (the debuting Alan Rickman). Tough, tense, thrilling and witty. Yippee ki-yay!
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Wednesday 22 December, Sky Family, 00:55
Winning the Academy Award for best supporting actor, Edmund Gwenn is note-perfect as the Macy’s department-store Santa who may or may not be the real deal in this Christmas classic. Eight-year-old Natalie Wood should also have received a special prize for her touching display as the modern miss who is too grown up for festive folderol.
Thursday 23 December, Talking Pictures, 9:10
No festive season would be complete without Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and there are three big-screen variations to choose from this year. Rather than revisit Alastair Sim (1951) or Albert Finney (1970), why not plump for the first sound adaptation of the ultimate Yuletide ghost story? Having played Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1913 silent version, Seymour Hicks has the old miser’s mannerisms down to a tee.
The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971)
Friday 24 December, Talking Pictures, 12:05
Half a century has passed since this exquisite ballet film revealed the dancing talents of Beatrix Potter’s timeless animal characters. In his sole directorial outing after editing Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), Reginald Mills demonstrates an innate sense of rhythm and space. He keeps the camera movements simple to show off the brilliance of Sir Frederick Ashton’s choreography, the grace of the Royal Ballet dancers, and the charm of the BAFTA-nominated costumes and sets.
Friday 24 December, BBC1, 13:30
Seven decades after Walt Disney considered an origin story for Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’, the studio finally dispatched Princess Anna to the North Mountain ice palace to convince reclusive sister Elsa to release Arendelle from eternal winter. Buoyed by the success of Oscar-winning song ‘Let It Go’, Frozen amassed over $1 billion worldwide, making it the highest grossing animation in screen history – until overtaken by its 2019 sequel.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Friday 24 December, C4, 14:00
Frank Capra’s variation on A Christmas Carol flopped on its original release and only became essential festive fare after showing up on television. In many ways, George Bailey (James Stewart) endures a tougher ordeal than Ebenezer Scrooge, after his status in Bedford Falls plummets. Yet his core decency makes his redemption all the more moving. Stewart excels at the head of an ensemble that’s been enchanting us for three-quarters of a century.
White Christmas (1954)
Saturday 25 December, C4, 12:55
Twelve years after Bing Crosby introduced Irving Berlin’s festive standard in Holiday Inn (1942), he crooned it again at another hotel in the run up to Christmas. The premises are owned by Crosby and showbiz sidekick Danny Kaye’s old army commander, and the screenplay whips up plenty of Cold War patriotism, as well as seasonal schmaltz. Yet the cornball sentiments combine with some knockabout and romance to ensure there isn’t a dry eye by the final reprise.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Saturday 25 December, Channel Five, 15:10
There’s a clutch of James Bond movies on this Christmas, but it was a very different Ian Fleming story that inspired Roald Dahl to write this screenplay. With songs by the Sherman brothers of Mary Poppins fame, the adventures of inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke), Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) and their flying car are made as fearful as they are fanciful by the splendidly sinister performance of ballet dancer Robert Helpmann as the Child Catcher.
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Saturday 25 December, BBC1, 15:10
Neatly tee’d up by Saving Mr Banks (Tuesday 21 December, BBC1, 14:45), this return to the world of P.L. Travers reaches TV screens three years to the day after its cinematic release. It was made to restore joy to the world, and Emily Blunt certainly throws herself into creating a nanny who is closer to Travers – and indeed Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940) – than Julie Andrews in the 1964 classic.
Knives Out (2019)
Saturday 25 December, Sky Thriller, 20:00
Director Rian Johnson spent 14 years mulling over his first case for private detective Benoit Blanc. The wait proved worthwhile, as this ingeniously plotted whodunit manages to celebrate and subvert murder-mystery conventions. Sleuth (1972) and the scandalously underrated The Last of Sheila (1973) were two of Johnson’s many inspirations. But the action is as unique as the manner in which Blanc (Daniel Craig) deduces who killed Massachusetts mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).
Beyond Christmas (1940)
Sunday 26 December, Talking Pictures, 10:15
Also known as Beyond Tomorrow, this charming Christmas ghost story deserves to be much better known. Produced by fabled cinematographer Lee Garmes, the action is filled with deft visual effects that are all the more impressive considering this B-movie’s modest budget. There’s a lot of plot to digest, as – following a plane crash – three engineers strive in spectral form to keep two young lovers together. It’s a whimsical weepie, but every element is impeccably judged.
The Big Heat (1953)
Sunday 26 December, Great Movies Action, 01:15
Crime reporter Sydney Boehm adapted a Saturday Evening Post serial for this story of a homicide detective (Glenn Ford) uncovering links between the force and a local syndicate. No stranger to the underworld from his Dr Mabuse days, director Fritz Lang invests the action with a noirish menace, which peaks when a henchman (Lee Marvin) hurls a pot of scalding coffee into the face of his moll (Gloria Grahame).
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Mon 27 December, BBC2, 21:00
Thirty-five years is a long gap between sequels, but fans still had to be patient to reconnect with Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), as the action instead centres on a search by KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling) for information about an experimental replicant named Rachael. The original version ran four hours, but this two-time Oscar winner is all you’re going to see, as Denis Villeneuve isn’t one for director’s cuts.
Despicable Me (2010)
Tuesday 28 December, ITV, 12:30
Created by Spanish animator Sergio Pablos and French designer Eric Guillon, the Minions are the most profitable animated franchise ever, appearing in five features and 15 shorts. The initial triptych is showing on consecutive days on ITV, with Stuart, Kevin, Bob and their yellow capsule-shaped pals initially seeking to help the arch-villain Gru (Steve Carell) obtain the ray gun he needs to shrink and steal the moon. Any attempts to avoid chuckling are utterly futile.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974 and 2017)
Tuesday 28 December, C4, 21:00 & Wednesday 29 December, BBC2, 16:55
There’s plenty of Poirot to keep the little grey cells active this festive period. Peter Ustinov essays the Belgian sleuth in Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile (Tuesday 28 Dec, BBC2, 14:50). But there’s also an unmissable opportunity to compare the methods and moustaches of Albert Finney and Kenneth Branagh, as they set about discovering who murdered an American businessman on a snowbound locomotive. This is Agatha Christie at her most fiendish, and it takes two all-star casts to do her justice.
Another Round (2020)
Mon 28 December, Sky Hits, 22:00
Subtitles have become an endangered species on the Christmas telly, but Thomas Vinterberg’s poignant, Oscar-winning appreciation of the preciousness of life bucks the trend in the timeliest manner. Inspired by daughter Ida’s stories about the drinking exploits of her classmates, Vinterberg’s film was made in the aftermath of the 19-year-old’s death in a car crash. But there’s nothing overtly mawkish about a story that sees Copenhagen teacher Mads Mikkelsen (typically excellent) and three middle-aged colleagues test the theory that humans perform better with raised blood alcohol levels.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
Wednesday 29 December, Sky Hits, 20:00
This distinguished biopic gives you a chance to see why British actor Daniel Kaluuya won the Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for his performance as Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was betrayed in 1969 by teenage car thief-turned-FBI informant Bill O’Neal (the also nominated Lakeith Stanfield).
Cat Ballou (1965)
Thursday 30 December, Great Movies Action, 07:50
This comic adaptation of the western novel The Ballad of Cat Ballou introduces us to a schoolteacher (Jane Fonda) who needs a gunslinger after her father’s murder. The avenger and the killer are both played by Lee Marvin, in a dazzling dual turn that earned him an Oscar. He thanked his horse in his speech, although Smoky didn’t go home empty-hooved: he won the Craven Award for his hilarious drunken antics.
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Thursday 30 December, Sky Greats, 09:35
Christmas is a time for families, but no one would wish the Dupea clan on their worst enemies. Having fled his Puget Sound home to escape the expectations of his musician father, Robert Eroica Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is no more successful at passing himself off as a blue-collar worker in a California oil field. However, the actions that would have made him a countercultural icon half a century ago now smack of the toxic masculinity that has remained an eviscerating constant in American society.
Thursday 30 December, BBC2, 21:00
Renée Zellwegger completed the hat-trick of Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA for her performance as Judy Garland in this take on Peter Quilter’s play, End of the Rainbow. Darci Shaw also impresses as the young Garland making The Wizard of Oz (1939), but Zellwegger captures the singer’s exhausted sadness during her last year on the London cabaret circuit. Garland can be seen in happier times this Christmas in Meet Me in St. Louis (Christmas Day, BBC, 12.50).