TV & radio: what to tune in to this Christmas (19 December –1 January)

Can't decide what programmes to watch or listen to? Check out our history TV and radio listings, packed full of shows you won't want to miss

Downton Abbey S5

The fifth series, set in 1924, sees the return of our much loved characters in the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey. As they face new challenges, the Crawley family and the servants who work for them remain inseparably interlinked.

ZAC/OLIVER BARKER as Master George Crawley, ALLEN LEECH as Tom Branson and MICHELLE DOCKERY as Lady Mary Crawley. 

Photographer: Nick Briggs


King Albert’s Book
Radio 4
Friday 19th December, 3.45pm

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In 1914, novelist Hall Caine invited famous figures to pay tribute to Belgium’s monarch in a book designed to raise money for the nation, then so recently invaded by Germany. The first episode in a three-part series features readings from the books, including poems by Rudyard Kipling and Edith Wharton. Continues on Boxing Day.

Find out more here.

Home Front
Radio 4
Friday 19th December, 9.00pm

This week’s omnibus edition of the drama gathers up five days of happenings in Folkestone 100 years ago. Don’t forget to listen out for the weekday episodes (12.04pm), while the Boxing Day omnibus charts reactions at home to a Christmas in which the nation was at war.

Find out more here.

Archive On 4: Peter And The Wolf
Radio 4
Saturday 20th December, 8.00pm

Christopher Frayling explores the creation of Prokofiev’s symphony for children, Peter And The Wolf, written in 1936. While it enjoys a lofty reputation around the world, and has been narrated by everyone from Boris Karloff to Bill Clinton, it’s far less celebrated in Russia.

Find out more here.

Classic Serial: Anthony Trollope’s The Small House At Allington
Radio 4
Sunday 21st December, 3.00pm

The BBC’s adaptation of The Barchester Chronicles returns with the fifth novel in the sequence. It’s a tale that revolves around the arrival of handsome Adolphus Crosbie in Allington. But watch out, ladies, he’s not to be trusted. Episode two of three follows on Sunday 28th December.

Find out more here.

The Rest Is History
Radio 4
Sunday 21st December, 7.15pm (next episode 28th December)

The entertaining panel show hosted by Frank Skinner, a man who wants to know more about history, continues. Victoria Coren Mitchell and Andy Zaltzman are the guests; Katy Brand and John Lloyd appear on Sunday 28th December. Dr Kate Williams is the show’s historian-in-residence.

Find out more here.

Sammy Davis Jr: The Kid In The Middle
BBC Four
Sunday 21st December, 9.00pm

Singer, Rat Pack hell-raiser and civil rights campaigner who marched alongside Dr Martin Luther King, Sammy Davis Jr’s life was truly remarkable. Here, some of those who knew him remember a showman who was deeply insecure, a spendaholic who died millions of dollars in debt.

Find out more here.

The Long View
Radio 4
Tuesday 23rd December, 9.00am

The series in which Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland looks at a current issue through the prism of the past returns. First up, he looks at parallels between the fashion for charting our lives on social media and the 19th-century obsession with keeping a diary. On Tuesday 30th December, Freedland considers debates on obesity.

Find out more here.

Great Lives
Radio 4
Tuesday 23rd December, 4.30pm

Musician Brian Eno nominates Michael Young (1915–2002) as someone who led a great life. No wonder. He may be the comparatively uncelebrated, but Young wrote Labour’s 1945 election manifesto, coined the term ‘meritocracy’ and co-founded the Open University. On Tuesday 30th December, Dr Tom Solomon speaks up for Roald Dahl (1916–90).

Find out more here.

Roman Britain From The Air
ITV
Tuesday 23rd December, 8.00pm

In a documentary that promises to be full of whizzy aerial sequences, Christine Bleakly jumps into a helicopter, the better to look down on Roman remains below. Down on the ground, historian Dr Michael Scott offers an expert’s take on what’s survived through the centuries.

Find out more here.

Len Goodman’s Big Band Bonanza
BBC Four
Tuesday 23rd December, 9.00pm

The Strictly judge tells the story of swing music as it played out in Britain in the wake of the second world war. It’s a documentary rich in social history, as Len explores how bandleaders such as Ted Heath enjoyed huge success even as rock’n’roll blew in from the US.

Find out more here.

The Reunion
Radio 4
Christmas Day, 7.00am

Should excitable small persons wake you early on Christmas morning, don’t worry. Bow to the inevitable. Make a cup of tea. Then sup it while listening to Sue MacGregor discussing one of the most important cultural events of recent history, the creation of Wallace and Gromit, with Nick Park, writer Nick Box and Aardman founder Peter Lord. Cracking.

Find out more here.

The Queen’s Garden
ITV
Christmas Day, 3.10pm

Alan Titchmarsh, a man so deferential he sometimes rather calls to mind unctuous courtiers from years long gone by, gets to explore the 39 acres that make up the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Where he finds hallucinogenic mushrooms. Not precisely a history series then, but expect plenty on the history of the site. Concludes Sunday 28th December (6.00pm).

Find out more here.

Call The Midwife
BBC One
Christmas Day, 7.50pm

It’s the run-up to Christmas 1959 in East London. Cue Chummy trying to choreograph dancing snowflakes, and then being asked to bring some order to a poorly managed mother and baby home. Elsewhere, Cynthia is drawn into the case of two former residents of a Victorian mental hospital.

Find out more here.

Downton Abbey
ITV
Christmas Day, 9.00pm

As trailed in the last episode of the regular series, Julian Fellowes’ annual seasonal episode begins with the Grantham clan joining Rose’s in-laws, the Sinderbys, for a shooting party. Alun Armstrong guests as a rude butler. Later, it’s all back to Downton for ale and a right old Christmas knees-up. Possibly.

Find out more here.

Sunday Feature: Matthew Street’s Palace of Great War Varieties
Radio 3
Sunday 28th December, 6.45pm

Presented in the style of a music hall evening, Matthew Street hosts a special show exploring the popular culture of the first world war era. The subjects covered include films that attracted the censors’ attention and how travelling trick-cyclists coped when colleagues left for the Western Front.

Find out more here.

Al Murray’s Great British Spy Movies
BBC Four
Monday 29th December, 9.00pm

The comedian, aka The Pub Landlord, celebrates espionage capers in film, from Hitchcock’s pre-second world war efforts, via Bond and the cold war, to the recent cinema version of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Murray’s guests include Stella Rimington, former head of MI5.

Find out more here.

 

Radio Christmas pick…

UK Confidential
Radio 4
Tuesday 30th December, 11.00am

Martha Kearney previews the release of secret government files from the middle of the 1980s. This was a time when Thatcher was in her pomp, and also an era when the Westland affair, the Spycatcher trial and the spread of Aids were in the news. Contributors include Michael Heseltine and Roy Hattersley.

Find out more here.

 

TV Christmas pick…

Narnia’s Lost Poet: The Secret Lives And Loves Of CS Lewis
BBC Four
Tuesday 30th December, 9.00pm

AN Wilson profiles a man best remembered as the creator of the Narnia stories, CS Lewis. He argues that the success of these books has rather overshadowed Lewis’ wider career, which took in theology, medieval scholarship and broadcasting. Plus there’s plenty on Lewis’s colourful private life too.

Find out more here.

War And Peace
Radio 4
New Year’s Day, 9.00am

Taking up fully 10 hours across the course of the day, here’s an epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel charting life in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. A starry cast includes Alun Armstrong, Tamzin Merchant and John Hurt. Those without the requisite stamina may wish to consider the virtues of iPlayer.

Find out more here.

The Clash: New Year’s Day ’77
BBC Four
New Year’s Day, 10.45pm

Featuring previously unseen footage of the Clash recorded in London on New Year’s Day in 1977, filmmaker Julien Temple offers a skewed take on Britain just before punk gobbed its way into the mainstream consciousness. A film that’s also a celebration of the great British tradition of getting together to see in the New Year.

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Find out more here.