Essential TV

Christmas TV Specials: Eight classic festive treats


Christmas TV Specials features:

Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020)

Director: Ken Cunningham

Let me start by taking you back to Christmas 1978; Star Wars had become the only topic on many a child’s lips, while Santa found himself inundated with requests for shiny new Kenner toys from a galaxy far, far away. Therefore, developing a Star Wars TV special seemed logical to quench this consumer thirst, with CBS bumping Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk for The Star Wars Holiday Special. To be fair, the show started pretty well, with Han and Chewie escaping Star Destroyers to reach the planet of Kashyyyk for ‘Life Day’ celebrations; with Chewie’s family. However, ‘Life Day’ celebrations were soon to descend into what can only be described as a psychedelic mess, a Star Wars-inspired LSD trip lasting one and a half hours.

Since then, there has never been another Star Wars Holiday Special, until now! But this time, it comes courtesy of the Lego Star Wars team at Disney +. The result may not reach the legendary heights of the original in terms of its mystique and questionable characters. However, Its tongue in cheek take on the 1978 Christmas outing, and the Skywalker legacy is nothing short of genius all the same. Here its humour reaches adults and kids alike as it places the Star Wars universe into a gigantic intergalactic blender.

We also love: The Simpsons: Marge Be Not Proud (1995)

The Vicar of Dibley: The Christmas Lunch Incident (1996)

Director: Gareth Carrivick

Good Christmas comedies are a rare commodity in the landscape of TV specials, with many dating badly as tastes in humour march forward. However, the first Vicar of Dibley Christmas special is one 90s comedy that bucks this trend, its devoutly silly humour wrapped in a timeless story of companionship and the Christmas dinner. Here Geraldine (Dawn French) gets far more than she bargained for on her first Christmas as Vicar of Dibley when she receives multiple dinner invitations.

One of the reasons The Vicar of Dibley remains so fresh is held in the closeted and timeless world it represents. This is a world where the village Vicar remains the centre of community life, with every other character desperate for her approval and attention. However, when this is combined with cutting gender politics and the timeless British need to be friendly, The Vicar of Dibley raises more than a few big festive laughs.

We also love: Two Doors Down – Episode One (2013)

The Wonder Years: Christmas (1988)

Director: Steve Miner

It’s Christmas 1968, and the colour TV is just beginning its march across middle America. However, in the Arnold household, black and white TV continues to reign supreme. But, that fact isn’t going to stop Kevin and his older brother Wayne from campaigning for a colourful Christmas. However, their dad, Jack, seems deaf to their campaigning, no matter how much grovelling and nagging they try. Meanwhile, Kevin has split with Winnie but receives a gift from her, offering the spark of hope that Winnie may still like him. But can Kevin find a gift for Winnie at the last minute?

Over six seasons, from 1988 to 1992, we walked in the footsteps of the Arnold family as the 1960s turned to the 1970s and American society changed. During this time, The Wonder Years gave us five festive treats, each one exploring family, change and social progress through delightful comedy and drama. However, while each Christmas outing is unique in its own right, it’s the first festive episode that holds a place in my heart. The December 1988 episode perfectly explores the transition from a Christmas wrapped in childhood wonder to a more adult understanding of the festive holiday for young Kevin. Here The Wonder Years provides us with a delicate yet commanding commentary on the growing consumerism of Christmas during the late 1960s in a powerful 30-minute story that remains a Christmas TV gem.

We also love: My So Called Life – So Called Angels (1994)

Family Guy: Road to the North Pole (2010)

Directors: Greg ColtonJames Purdum

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without an Elf or two, whether they are sitting on your shelf causing trouble or struggling to survive hoards of killer reindeer in a smog shrouded North Pole. In 2010, Family Guy offered us one of their finest Christmas TV specials to date with a sublimely silly, incredibly dark and delightfully bonkers adventure. At just 44 minutes, Road to the North Pole is the perfect antidote to all the glossy festive merriment. Here its intelligent adult humour joyfully subverts the classic Christmas tale in a story that will see your Grandma spit out her sherry in sheer disgust.

Opening with the musical number ‘All I Really Want for Christmas,” our favourite Griffin family members and Quahog residents joyously list their festive desires. However, things take a turn for the worst when Stewie and Brian head to the local mall to see Santa Claus. Of course, this Santa is a fake, and Stewie isn’t happy, leading him to hunt down the real Santa with Brian in tow. However, on arrival at the North Pole, Stewie and Brian find a nightmare of epic proportions with Santa’s workshop, a toxic factory that spews out ozone killing chemicals. Here the commercialism of Christmas has turned happiness into a living nightmare with inbred zombie Elves and rabid reindeer.

We also love: Robot Chicken’s DP Christmas Special (2010)

The League of Gentlemen: Yule Never Leave (2000)

The League Of Gentlemen took gothic-inspired horror/comedy to new levels on its premiere in 1999 while giving birth to a set of characters who still shine with originality. However, nobody sitting in front of their TV on the 27th of December 2000 could have anticipated just how dark the show’s only festive outing would be. Here we are offered four dark festive tales laced into one outstanding slice of TV that plays with a range of Dickensian themes. Yule Never Leave is Pemberton, Gatiss, Shearsmith and Dyson off the leash as we visit a vindictive vicar, a downtrodden wife, and a potential gay vampire who feeds on choir boys. So, if you fancy delving into one of the darkest Christmas specials ever made, look no further than Yule Never Leave.

We also love: The Twilight Zone – Night of the Meek (1960)

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010)

Director: Toby Haynes

Ever since its rebirth in 2005, the Doctor Who Christmas Day special has formed a central part of the BBC festive schedule. The only exception to this rule has been the most recent custodian of the Tardis keys, Jodie Whittaker, where her festive outing found itself moved to New Year’s Day. Doctor Who has offered us a mixed bag of Christmas adventures since 2005, with some stunning while others melted faster than a snowman in July. However, in my opinion, it was Christmas Day 2010 that saw the best of these festive Doctor Who outings emerge. Following David Tennent was never going to be an easy task. Still, on entering the Tardis in early 2010, Matt Smith made the role his own, his energetic, child-like Doctor oozing eccentricity, humour and wonder. Smith’s interpretation of the Doctor remains one of the most child friendly and accessible of all the incarnations. Therefore it’s no surprise the best Christmas special sits within his first season.

A Christmas Carol is not only bathed in the spirit of the Dicken’s classic; it’s rooted in the very foundations of the Doctor’s character. Here the very nature of time travel in all its wonder, risk and magic is explored in one of the finest sci-fi Christmas treats to have ever graced our screens.

We also love: Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned (2007)

The Signalman: A Ghost Story for Christmas (1976)

Ghost stories at Christmas have long formed a part of the festive celebrations; in fact, spirits are as much a part of traditional Christmas celebrations as Halloween. From Shelley’s Frankenstein to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, Christmas has always been a time for scares. However, in particular, two authors have become synonymous with Christmas ghosts, Charles Dickens and M.R. James. In 1968 the BBC aired a Jonathan Miller adaptation of M.R. James Whistle and I’ll Come to You. This short 30-minute play gave rise to the annual Christmas ghost story in BBC’s festive schedule. However, after four years of sublime M.R. James stories, 1976 would see the BBC turn to Charles Dickens for their source material, with the The Signalman starring Denholm Elliot. The result was the best BBC’s ghost stories for Christmas ever produced, and one that still sends a shiver down the spine.

We also love: Lost Hearts (1973) and A Warning to the Curious (1972)

Malcolm in the Middle: Christmas (2001)

We don’t talk about the sheer brilliance of Malcolm in the Middle enough or its revolutionary impact on the family sitcom. After all, except for The Simpsons and Rosanne, the American family comedy had hardly changed since the 1980s. However, Malcolm in the Middle was to change everything when it stormed onto our screens in 2000 with a chaotic, freewheeling story of family life.

Malcolm in the Middle would offer us three dedicated Christmas episodes throughout its seven-season run that joyously unpicked the Wilkerson family Christmas. However, for me, it’s the first Christmas outing that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Here we find Lois threatening to cancel Christmas due to the boy’s bad behaviour and Francis visiting his confrontational, chain-smoking grandmother for Christmas. What elevates each Malcolm in the Middle Christmas episode is the show’s willingness to explore the fact that Christmas isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s stressful, tense and often disappointing as families strive for a vision of perfection that never really existed. Here joy, memories and love come from the imperfections surrounding us rather than the soft glow of a Christmas tree.

We also love: Father Ted “A Christmassy Ted” (1996)

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