Christmas TV Specials: Eight classic festive treats

Christmas TV Specials feature: Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, The Vicar of Dibley, The League of Gentlemen, The Wonder Years, Malcolm in the Middle, Family Guy, Doctor Who and The Signalman.

Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020)

Let me start by taking you back to Christmas 1978 when Star Wars had become the only topic on many a child’s lips. But while Santa found himself inundated with requests for shiny new Kenner toys from a galaxy far, far away, there was a lack of any visual stimuli; after all, this was pre-VHS. Therefore the development of a Star Wars TV special must have seemed logical to quench consumer thirst. For one night only, CBS would bump Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk for The Star Wars Holiday Special, and 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 soon descended into what can only be described as a psychedelic mess, a Star Wars-inspired LSD trip, if you will.

Since then, there has never been another Star Wars Holiday Special, until now! However, this time, it comes courtesy of the Lego Star Wars team at Disney +, and the result is a tongue-in-cheek take on the 1978 Christmas outing and the Skywalker legacy. Appealing to kids and adults is tough, but here it’s achieved as the Lego team places the Star Wars universe into a gigantic intergalactic blender.

Christmas TV SpecialsWe also love, The Simpsons: Marge Be Not Proud (1995)

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

Good Christmas comedies are a rare commodity in the landscape of TV specials, with many dating as tastes in humour change. However, the first Christmas outing for the Vicar of Dibley is one of the best! Its devoutly silly humour is wrapped in a timeless story of companionship and Christmas dinner as Geraldine (Dawn French) gets far more than she bargained for on her first Christmas in Dibley. When multiple dinner invitations arrive Geraldine finds herself trying to please everyone as she forces a year’s supply of Brussel Sprouts into her mouth while attempting to maintain a festive smile.

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, 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 deep and dark the show’s only festive outing would dive. Here we are offered four festive tales weaved 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.

The Wonder Years: Christmas (1988)

It’s Christmas 1968, and the colour TV is just beginning its march across America. However, in the Arnold household, everything remains very black-and-white as Kevin and his older brother Wayne start a Christmas campaign for a new TV. But their dad, Jack, isn’t playing ball, no matter how much they grovel and nag. Over six seasons, from 1988 to 1992, the Arnold family became our neighbours as we watched the 1960s morph into the 1970s.

During its run, The Wonder Years gave us five festive specials, each exploring a range of social issues and family pressures. However, while each Christmas outing is unique in its own right, it’s the first that holds a place in my heart, simply titled ‘Christmas’. This episode from December 1988 perfectly explores the festive transition from childhood wonder to teen anxiety and adult understanding for Kevin. Christmas offers us a delicate conversation of the growing festive consumerism of the late 1960s and 70s in a beautiful thirty-minute story that remains a timeless slice of US TV.

Essential TV

Christmas TV Specials – We also love, Two Doors Down – Pilot Episode (2013)

Malcolm in the Middle: Christmas (2001)

Malcolm in the Middle would offer us three dedicated Christmas episodes through 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. 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.

Family Guy: Road to the North Pole (2010)

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 the 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.

Christmas TV Specials – We also love, My So-Called Life – So-Called Angels (1994)

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010)

Since its rebirth in 2005, the Doctor Who Christmas special formed a central part of the BBC festive schedule, initially holding a prestigious Christmas Day slot before moving to New Year’s Day under Jodie Whittaker’s stewardship. Over the years, Doctor Who has offered us a mixed bag of Christmas outings, with some stunning in vision and scale and others melting faster than a snowman in July.

Following David Tennent was never going to be an easy task, but on entering the Tardis in early 2010, Matt Smith quickly made the role his own, with an energetic, child-like Doctor who bathed in delightful eccentricity, humour and wonder. His first season was bold, brilliant and different from the Tennant era, and it also offered us the best Christmas special ever produced. Bathed in Dickensian spirit, Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol feels like a return to the very foundations of the complex character we have come to love over fifty glorious years. This is writer and showrunner Steven Moffat at his most powerful, ingenious and fun as we are offered an emotional, festive and exquisite time travel adventure only the Doctor could deliver.

Christmas TV Specials – We also love: Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned (2007)

The Signalman: A Ghost Story for Christmas (1976)

Ghost stories have long formed a part of our shared festive celebrations; from Shelley’s Frankenstein to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, Christmas is as much a time for scares as Halloween. M.R. James had sat at the heart of the BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas tradition since 1968. But in 1976, the BBC would turn to Charles Dickens’ lesser-known short story about a haunted section of railway for its festive scares after years of James adaptations. The result was one of the finest TV ghost stories ever made, The Signalman, starring Denholm Elliot. With a Dickensian story that still sends a shiver down the spine, The Signalman played with cinematic sound and cinematography in a manner rarely seen on TV at the time, creating a taut spine-tingling atmosphere that defied its television roots.

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




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