A collage of Paddington Bear raising his hat, James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life and The Snowman seen against a background of colourful Christmas tree illustrations.
Reading lists

A book lover’s guide to this year’s festive TV

We've trawled the schedules so you don't have to. Curl up with a box of chocs, your drink of choice and our guide to the best Christmas programmes.

We might be book lovers first but we’ve got to admit that you can’t beat a great book-to-screen adaptation. And one of the best parts of the season is sitting curled up on the sofa, Quality Street tin in hand, while watching a festive favourite or a glitzy adaptation of a beloved book.

From stalwart classics to brand new shows, this is our pick of the Christmas TV schedules this year – and there’s enough to keep you entertained from now, right up until the new year.

Saturday 18th December

12:00pm Nigella’s Christmas Table | BBC2
1:00pm Mary Berry’s Country House at Christmas | BBC2
2:30pm Maleficent | BBC1
3:55pm Charles Dickens and the Invention of Christmas | BBC2

What better way to start the festive season than with the dream duo of Nigella Lawson and Mary Berry? Nigella whips up a feast of roast duck with orange, soy and ginger, while Marry Berry takes us on a visit to Yorkshire’s Harewood House as it prepares for a Christmas celebration on a grand scale.

If you’re after something more fantastical, turn over to Maleficent: a modern re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty told from the perspective of its villain. Meanwhile, Griff Rhys Jones explores how the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol captured the Victorian imagination and made Christmas the biggest celebration of the year.

Sunday 19th December

11:30am Nadiya’s Fast Flavours | BBC2
6:55pm A Christmas Carol | ITV3

Nadiya turns her attention to stress-free special occasion recipes, from a spectacular Middle Eastern-inspired lamb roast with “jewelled” cous cous to an earthy chicken stew and sweet treats for all the family to enjoy.

The festive season wouldn’t be complete without at least one version of A Christmas Carol so tune in to this TV movie version from 1984, featuring the American actor George C. Scott in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. If you’d prefer the Muppets version, you can find it on the Disney+ subscription service or available to buy and stream through Amazon Prime and YouTube.

Monday 20th December

1:45pm The Grinch | ITV
7:05pm Mary Berry’s Festive Feasts | BBC1

The Grinch hatches a devious plot to ruin Christmas for the Whos of Whoovile in this animated 2018 adaptation of Dr Seuss’s story, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as the acid green miser.

In Mary Berry’s Festive Feasts, Mary is on-hand to help three novice cooks who want to create surprise feasts for their families. She demonstrates sumptuous recipes and shares useful tips but will they be able to pull it off when they’re in their own kitchens?

Tuesday 21st December

11:50am Gnomeo and Juliet | Channel 5

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this animated film follows a pair of garden gnomes who fall in love but must keep their romance a secret due to the ongoing feud between their families. Featuring James McAvoy and Emily Blunt as our diminutive heroes, along with a veritable smorgasbord of supporting A-listers, this should keep the family entertained for a couple of hours.

Wednesday 22nd December

11:20am Rick Stein’s Cornish Christmas | BBC1
1:10pm Jamie’s Italian Christmas | Channel 4
10:35pm Crazy Rich Asians | BBC1
11:45pm Great Expectations | BBC2

For more festive foodie inspiration, join Rick Stein as he prepares a goose and learns about the history behind wassailing. Or for a continental twist on the traditional roast turkey, flip over to see Jamie preparing a Christmas feast with all the trimmings. 

Based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians offers plenty of light-hearted escapism. Rachel and her boyfriend Nick travel to Singapore for a friend’s wedding, only things don’t go exactly to plan when Nick’s (extremely wealthy) family reveal their expectations for him to stay in Singapore and take over the family business – without Rachel.

For a classic saga, BBC2 is showing the 2012 version of Dickens’ Great Expectations, starring Jeeremy Irvine and Helena Bonham Carter. When young orphan Pip has a chance encounter with an escaped convict, it sets off a chain of events that see him rise through society’s ranks.

Thursday 23rd December

1:45pm Penguins: Meet the Family | BBC1
5:10pm Matilda | Channel 5

A whole programme! Dedicated to penguins! It’s not a book adaptation but it’d be remiss of us to leave this celebration of our smartly-dressed namesake off the list. From New Zealand’s lush forests – where penguins first evolved – to Cape Town, the Galapagos Islands and, of course, Antarctica, we meet all 18 penguin species and see them as never before.

Precocious young bookworm Matilda's greatest desire is to go to school. But when her father sends her to the terrifying Miss Trunchbull’s Crunchem Hall, she discovers a useful ability that might just help her change things for the better.

Christmas Eve

9:05am Quentin Blake’s Clown | Channel 4
12:30pm Father Christmas | Channel 4
2:00pm It’s a Wonderful Life | Channel 4
4:30pm Dolittle | BBC1
5:00pm The Snowman | Channel 4
5:35pm The Snowman and the Snowdog | Channel 4
9:00pm All Creatures Great and Small | Channel 5

Christmas Eve’s schedule is packed with some of the best-loved Christmas TV. Channel 4 is bringing the animated adventures, from Quentin Blake’s story of a discarded clown toy on the hunt for a new home to Raymond Briggs’ depiction of what Father Christmas might get up to during the rest of the year. And, of course, there's the timeless classic, The Snowman, and its more recent follow-up, The Snowman and the Snowdog

There’s also perennial favourite It’s a Wonderful Life, which sees James Stewart in the lead role of a man convinced his life has been a failure, until his guardian angel shows him otherwise. Dolittle, a fantasy adventure based on the classic novel, stars Robert Downey Jr as a doctor who can communicate with animals, on a quest to find a legendary island.

Round things off with more animal-based drama, and one of the cosiest programmes of the year: the All Creatures Great and Small Christmas special, based on James Herriot’s own experience of being a vet in the Yorkshire Dales.

Christmas Day

3:10pm Chitty Chitty Bang Bang | Channel 5
4:10pm Quentin Blake: the Drawing of My life | BBC2
9:00pm The Larkins at Christmas | ITV
9:35pm Their Finest | BBC4

An inventor restores a broken down car with the help of his family, in this adaptation of Ian Fleming’s children’s novel of the same name. Much to their surprise, it turns out the car has some surprising powers. In Quentin Blake: the Drawing of My Life, the much-loved illustrator depicts his own story on a huge canvas, with added insight from Felicity Dahl, widow of Roald Dahl, and the curator Olivia Ahmad.

It’s a time for nostalgic stories as best laid plans descend into chaos in The Larkins at Christmas, based on the beloved Darling Buds of May books, while the outbreak of WWII requires people to create films for the Ministry of Information in Their Finest, a wartime comedy that satirises the propaganda machine without making light of the very real horrors of the time.

Boxing Day

11:55am Ainsley’s Christmas Good Mood Food | ITV
4:20pm Paddington | BBC1
5:50pm Around the World in 80 Days | BBC1

Ainsley Harriot brings fizz, food and friendship in this Christmas edition of his Good Mood Food series, while Paddington brings fun and frolics in this at-times nail-biting adventure starring Ben Whishaw as the eponymous bear from darkest Peru.

Later, BBC1 offers a double bill of a brand new adaptation of Jules Verne’s globetrotting tale, featuring David Tennant as Phileas Fogg – a man drawn into a bet to test whether he can circumnavigate in the globe in just 80 days.

Monday 27th December

5:55pm Paddington 2 | BBC1
9:00pm Blade Runner 2049 | BBC2

In this sequel, things are looking desperate for Paddington, who has been falsely arrested and imprisoned. Meanwhile, on BBC2, futuristic science-fiction thriller Blade Runner 2049 picks up three decades after the events of the original film, which was based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

Tuesday 28th December

2:20pm Agatha Christie: Talking Pictures | BBC2
2:50pm Evil Under the Sun | BBC2
4:45pm Death on the Nile | BBC2
8:00pm Skyfall | ITV2
9:00pm Murder on the Orient Express | Channel 4

Make it a day of murder and intrigue with BBC2’s afternoon of Agatha Christie, starting with a documentary that takes a closer look at the film adaptations of the Queen of Crime’s mysteries, followed by two Peter Ustinov-helmed Hercule Poirot films.

If that wasn’t enough, hop over to Channel 4 in the evening for the Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express; it’s complete with a star-studded cast including Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Dame Judi Dench. If it’s spies and espionage you’d prefer, Daniel Craig’s James Bond is sent on a mission that delves into his own past to reveal long-hidden secrets in Skyfall.

Wednesday 29th December

2:20pm Emma | Drama

There’s plenty of poorly-judged matchmaking and romantic misunderstandings in this 2009 adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel. Settle in as all four parts of this dramatisation, starring Romola Garai as Emma, are being shown in a row.

Thursday 30th December

11:15am My Fair Lady | Channel 5
3:35pm The Jungle Book | BBC1
10:35pm Ready Player One | BBC1
10:50pm Being Bridget Jones | BBC2

Rex Harrison plays Professor Henry Higgins as he tries to coach a cockney flower girl, played by Audrey Hepburn, to pass as a society lady in classic musical My Fair Lady.

For a more high-stakes adventure, turn to the 2016 version of The Jungle Book, featuring the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba as CGI-renditions of Baloo, Bagheera and Shere Khan.

Ready Player One, showing later in the evening, is a fast-paced sci-fi thriller set in 2045, where most of society is plugged into a lethal virtual reality competition. Over on BBC2, Being Bridget Jones is a celebration of the iconic character created by Helen Fielding.

New Year's Eve

12:30pm Jane Eyre | BBC2
2:45pm Hook | Channel 5
9:00pm The Aftermath | BBC2
9:00pm Spectre | ITV

See out 2021 with your tin of Quality Street and your drink of choice. Start your afternoon with a period drama based on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre before moving onto Hook, the cheerful fantasy adventure that takes inspiration from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

As we move towards midnight, choose between The Aftermath, a WWII drama starring Keira Knightly as a grieving wife who falls in love with the German owner of the property she and her husband are staying in, or Spectre, which sees James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, infiltrating a shadowy criminal organisation. Either choice finishes in time for you to ring in the new year – and here’s hoping to a more positive 2022.

Graphic: Alexandra Francis for Penguin
Images courtesy of StudioCanal, Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Snowman Enterprises Ltd 2021

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