The TDF Top Ten: TV Christmas Specials
On our last TDF Top 10 of the year, we get in the festive mood with our bumper final feature, as we pick the 10 greatest TV Christmas specials of all time...
Christmas specials! We love them! But which are the best ones?
Christmas specials are a wonderful part of the TV landscape. Watching a repeat of a childhood favourite, or finding out a beloved show is coming back for Christmas, can bring back warm, fuzzy memories and make us excited about seeing beloved characters who feel like old friends.
There are so many different types of Christmas specials out there it's hard to compare one against the other; is SpongeBob Squarepants Christmas episode better than Downton Abbey’s Christmas episode? Obviously shows like those are apples and oranges (SpongeBob Squarepants is better). So for this list, its less THE top ten of all time and more A top ten. They’re also all great, so my ranking is a little free and easy!
I’ve tried (loosely) to pick Christmas episodes of already established shows, rather than show’s that only exist as Christmas specials. The list also leans a little British TV-centric. Of course, this is the TV I grew up with and loved at Christmas so I’m bound to have a bias but also, British television tends to approach Christmas specials a little differently to US television; We go more for the big, elaborate one off episode of a pre-existing show and they go more for one-off production Christmas specials or casually Christmassy episodes in a season's run.
So allow me to present the very last TDF Top 10 of 2020 as I present The TDF Top 10: TV Christmas specials…
10. Community – Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas
I could write a thesis on Community and how something so good could simultaneously be so bad, but Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas is a pretty great episode and deserves a spot on this list for its ambition alone. (If you want to hear more of our thoughts on Community, check out our top 10 episodes by by Ingham).
When I was a kid, all those old 60s Arthur Rankin, Jr ‘Animagic’ animated Christmas specials would be on early morning Channel 4 in the run up to Christmas. In the UK (at least in the past 40+ years), they’ve never really had the prominence they do in the US and so haven’t become part of our psyche in the same way. We’re probably more familiar with films riffing on the motif, such as Elf of The Nightmare Before Christmas, more than the specials themselves.
This episode of Community is one such riff, with the entire episode (apart from one brief shot of a reflection) shot as stop-motion. The reason for this is explained as Abed having a self induced break with reality and perceiving the world as stop motion to help process the growing distance from his estranged mother. More than just a Christmas episode gimmick, the conceit works very well, allowing for comedy to be drawn from the familiar characters in an unfamiliar setting as well as spoofing those warn out Christmas special tropes.
Adeb is starting to become a little obnoxious by this point in the show but the writing hasn’t turned cruel, as it arguably does in later seasons and the characters are all warm and fun in this stop-motion setting. While not quite the quality of those old classics, the animation is well executed (it’s a bit Robot Chicken shonky in places) and the story manages to be positive and dynamic and almost works as a stand-alone Christmas story.
9. Smallville – Lexmas
I love Smallville, and I don’t care who knows it! Yes, yes, it has very variable quality over the years and the narrative drifts and gets lost and almost eats itself at times but over all, I love it. I especially love Lexmas. A classic spin on the It’s A Wonderful Life trope, while obvious and (quite clearly deliberately) cheesy, it actually serves a greater purpose and really pushes the characters along in the main season arc.
After being shot, Lex Luthor gets to see a glimpse of what his life would be like if he gives up LexCorp and global domination and settles down with Lana Lang and starts a family in Smallville. It’s sweet, emotional and the entire cast (at this point in the show’s run no one is showing any signs of character fatigue) are excellent, playing matured, best version variants of their characters. The ending is as heart breaking as it is inevitable.
It manages to be a distracting, fun Elseworlds-look at these characters but it's more than just a festive throwaway. Characters, specifically Lex Luthor, make major decisions and narrative changes by episode's end. Oh, there is a whole subplot about Clark in the real world delivering Christmas gifts and helping out Santa. That bit is a little creaky but Smallville gonna Smallville, I guess.
8. Frasier – Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz
Frasier always delivered fun Christmas episodes, the clash of Frasier’s dad Martin’s tacky 50s Americana Christmas with Frasier’s upscale, metropolitan Christmas, was ripe for comedy head butting. You also have Frasier’s own son, Frederick, sometimes coming to visit providing for some good Jingle All the Way style last minute gift buying comedy.
For me the most Frasiery Christmas episode of Frasier is Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz. Frasier is Christmas shopping for his ex-wife and son, who are Jewish and picks a Hanukah gift. This leads to Mrs. Moskowitz, who gets chatting with him in the store and sets him up with her single daughter, believing he is Jewish. This doesn’t come up between Frasier and the daughter until Christmas eve when Mrs. Moskowitz is due to pay a brief visit to Frasier’s apartment. Through a beautifully and subtly arranged set of seemingly innocuous circumstances, the episode reaches its dénouement when Mrs. Moskowitz opens the Bathroom door to find Jesus (Frasier’s brother Niles) stood with a Christmas tree.
What is especially good in this episode, is the building of the pieces for the final visual punch line. It makes perfect narrative sense that the apartment isn’t decorated and for the tree to end up in the bathroom, Niles dressed as Jesus and hiding in the bathroom at the exact moment needed is logical and could happen to anyone… it’s a one act of farce, like a Neil Simon play in sitcom form, that utilises every convention the show had built up over the previous few seasons and it delivers every time I re-watch it. And I re-watch it a lot.
For more on Frasier, check out Baz Greenland's TDF Top 10: Frasier.
7. Alan Partridge - Knowing Me, Knowing Yule
After the success of Knowing me, Knowing You, Alan Partridge returns for a Christmas extravaganza as only Alan knows how. This is a fantastic progression of the Partridge character, his desire to do big stunts and ape more impressive programmes fits perfectly with the Christmas theme of bigger is better and razzle-dazzle. Everything, of course, goes wrong from guests not turning up to giant crackers exploding. Set on an extravagant and expensive set built to look like his home, the episode is a lovely dig at those awkward and hackneyed Christmas studio shows; it’s a little bit Noel’s House Party, a little bit This Morning and a lot bit awful.
The whole episode is a master class of comedy crescendo with every beat, gag and failed segments leading to Alan punching the head of programming and being told he’ll never work for the BBC again. It isn’t just more of the same from the main series; it really does crank the cringe factor up to eleven as the stakes are suddenly very high for our antihero. We watch in horror as Alan frantically tries to pull out of his Christmas special and secure another series. The outcome of this episode directly effects the next stage of Alan’s career and pushes forward the progression of the character.
6. Inside No 9 - The Devil of Christmas
This beautifully constructed piece by Steve Pemberton and Reece Sheersmith, presented like a late 70s multi-camera drama (directed to perfection by Graham Harper, a veteran of the multi-cam drama), is a classic Christmas ghost story based around Krampus, complete with shonky sets, the odd boom mic in view and the occasional fluffed line.
Just as we settle into the conceit of the old school style presentation, we’re snapped out of the moment with a voice over (a superb Derek Jacobi) as the footage rewinds and we realise what we’re watching is in fact a DVD commentary of this old Christmas drama.
Inside No 9 built its reputation on presenting (usually) macabre tales with dark twists and this story is no different. The twist when it comes is clever, sinister and a little lament full. The Krampus drama is fairly creepy in itself and I’d have been quite happy to watch an entire episode presented in the style of. But Jacobi’s narration throughout, while enthusiastic and whimsical, adds a level of unknown menace as the audience’s unease grows and the story glides coolly to its terrible dénouement. A perfect, post-modern reinterpretation of a classic British tale of Christmas horror.
5. Only Fools and Horses – Diamonds Are for Heather
There is an unofficial tradition with British TV shows, that when the actors get too big and too busy and the writers have moved on to other projects but the show is still reeeeealllly popular, it comes back every couple of years for a Christmas micro series of one or two specials. A prime example of this is Only Fools and Horses. However, as classic as many of the show’s later Christmas specials are (I love the Batman and Robin scene as much as the next man) I’m a bit of a traditionalist with Only Fools and prefer the old days of Grandad, 30-minute run times and defiantly NO Cassandra!
Diamonds Are for Heather is a very simple story in which Del, during a slump of extreme Christmas loneliness and introspection, meets Heather, a woman with a young son and an AWOL husband. Over the course of the episode, we see Del get closer and more enamoured with Heather and her kid. Eventually, he decides to propose, potentially leaving Rodney and Grandad, to start a new life as a family man… but his proposal is turned down as Heather’s husband is back on the scene.
It’s a sweet and melancholy episode and the first time we really, properly, get to see Del’s desire for a family and his willingness to embrace responsibility. The performance and writing work hand in hand to bring a lot of depth to the character, which gets built and expanded on in later series… its also, very funny. Perhaps not as overtly Christmassy as some of the bigger, brashier Christmas specials the show ended up producing, but definitely one of the most heartfelt.
4. The Office (UK) Christmas Special
This Christmas special provided some much needed closure and an unexpectedly kind and happy ending (more or less) to the various characters who inhabited the world of Wernham Hogg.
Part of the genius of The Office Christmas special is, we just didn’t know if we would get a happy ending. There is a moment when it looks like ex-receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis) will go back to her drab life while the eternal everyman that is Martin Freeman’s Tim, will simply progress up the Wernham Hogg ladder and you honestly think, yup, that’s it. That’s the ending. Bitter sweet, no happy ending, as it should be, we’re British dammmit and everything should be miserable. But then, just in the last few moments, we get one of the most satisfying conclusions to any on screen love story and a happy ending is had by all(ish).
Because in this episode, not only do Tim and Dawn finally get together but we also see David finally stand up to Finch, the bigger boy bully who he spends so much time trying to impress. David Brent is a terrible person but he’s not a bad man; he’s lonely and obnoxious and selfish and a bully but he just wants to be liked and loved. The show and especially these final episodes, manages to show us that he has the potential to be (at least a bit) better when others show him a little kindness. For a sitcom so focused on cringe, embarrassment and cruelty to end on a message of kindness is, I think, pretty nice.
3. Doctor Who – Twice Upon A Time
For pure Doctor Who fun and adventure I’d be tempted to say The Runaway Bride, which I find infinitely re-watchable (the TARDIS flying in a car chase with a black cab, anyone?) belongs on this list and it is very Doctor Who… but it’s a close runner up to what might be a more controversial choice; Twice Upon a Time.
I’m happy to concede that this is not be the best episode of Doctor Who and in an exclusive Top Ten Doctor Who Christmas Specials, wouldn’t necessarily take my top spot - but it has a certain balance that I actually think is sometimes missing from the Christmas specials. Yes, space Titanic about to hit earth is perfect; yes, the Doctor using time travel to Christmas Carol someone into protecting a planet is fun but Twice Upon a Time is actually a little more gentle, a little more reflective and, quite frankly, doesn’t try so hard. So for this list, I’d like to show it some love.
Moffat really leaned into the Christmas part of the Christmas specials, with lots of snow and tinkly music, Father Christmas, magic gift boxes and killer snowman. All great, but all very on the nose. Twice Upon a Time is set at Christmas, sure, but it’s the themes - growth, love, memory of those lost and redemption, that make it feel Christmassy. The 1914 truce is a potent backdrop but the entire story is about self-reflection and looking to the future. There is no bad guy, no conspiracy. No one to save other than the Doctor himself.
Multi Doctor stories are always fun (and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise) and David Bradley is a strong addition as the first Doctor (complete with hand wave explanation as to why he doesn’t look quite right. I love a hand wave explanation) and Peter Capaldi’s swan song performance is heartfelt and triumphant. After so much excess and bombast that often missed the mark, I enjoyed seeing the Moffat era come to an end with a little low-key humility and restraint.
Check Sab Astley's top 10 episode of modern Doctor Who (2005+) here, while Baz Greenland's top 10 of classic Doctor Who can be found here.
2. Blackadder's Christmas Carol
While the fourth series may be a little over praised and the first a little under appreciated, anyone who knows their Blackadder knows that the third series is the best – and the Christmas special definitely falls under the umbrella of the third series.
It has a fairly simple premise; a reversed A Christmas Carol. We’ve had three series of Edmond Blackadder (Rowen Atkinson) being a nasty, selfish, greedy git serving as excellent groundwork for this twisted version of the character (the nicest man in England). Victorian Era Blackadder is kind to a fault, being near penniless from indulging the greedy friends and family who come scrounging at his door on Christmas Eve. It also has the superb punch line to a joke set up by Charles Dickens 100 years earlier; Blackadder shouting ‘Humbug, humbug!’ before offering Baldrick a sweet!
Robbie Coltrane’s Ghost of Christmas Present visits Blackadder to congratulate him for his goodness and show him how bad his ancestors were. This allows for two very funny sequences set in the previous couple of Blackadder incarnations. Far from being just passing sketches, these are fully realised little stories with proper beginnings, middles and ends and feel almost like mini episodes in their own right. The cast really show off the subtle differences between their various timeline personas and the whole episode is almost a celebration of the very nature of the show.
Of course, in our story Blackadder decides to turn bad as it looks more fun and history is put back on track for a classic Blackadder bastard to take on World War One.
1. The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1977 (and 75… and 71)
Morecambe and Wise are the granddaddies of the UK Christmas special. The tradition of grand, Hollywood stars doing song and dance Christmas specials was a staple of US TV from the 50s right up until today, with its heyday being the 60s and early 70s. We didn’t have Sinatra or Martin or Crosby, but we did have, Morecambe and Wise.
Unlike those American TV specials, Eric and Ernie’s shows we purely comical (even the musical guests got lampooned) and acted to spoof and parody the glitz and glamour of Hollywood showmanship. The Christmas special became a flagship of the BBC’s schedule. A younger, modern audience may think of it now as just another old TV show, but this show was huge. It was practically every TV in the country tuned in huge. The 1977 Christmas special (the actual on screen title was “Eric and Ernie’s Christmas Show”) was watched by in excess of 20 million people – closer to 30 million going by some sources, the kind of viewing figures even the biggest programmes can only dream of today. When I was little, even into the late 80s repeats and compilation shows were taking pride of place in the Christmas schedules and lapping up huge viewing figures.
I’ve picked the 1977 show as the ‘best’ episode as it was the biggie; a huge list of guests stars that included Elton John, Penelope Keith, Angela Rippon and her legs, the BBC news reading team performing Nothing Like a Dame as well as the cast of Dad’s Army… but I am also rather fond of the 1975 episode featuring Diana Rigg as Nell Gwyn and of course, the 1971 show with the famous André Previn sketch. All their Christmas shows are great and picking the best is almost arbitrary, what’s important is their legacy.
New audiences may appreciate their significance and their impact less and less as time moves on but their influence on the Christmas schedules and the tradition of the UK Christmas special shouldn’t be understated. I don’t think its hyperbole to say their shows helped mould the make up of British Christmas television, because everyone new on that one special day, in the depths of winter, Morecambe and Wise could bring us sunshine.
Some Honourable Mentions...
Wallace and Gromit – not really Christmas specials, but they became a huge part of the Christmas schedules, that left a little legacy of the BBC producing unique Christmas animated specials.
The Simpsons - Personally, I hate The Simpsons but it deserves a nod for launching its 30+ year career with a Christmas special. Well played.
The Vicar of Dibley – a show that sort of ‘became’ a Christmas show. Cosy and warm, if a little twee, it was a wonderful cast elevating the ideas and gags. It feels right to watch it over the festive period. And it's back this year too...
Terry Pratchet’s The Hogfather - This mini series about Death taking over from (an allegorical) Father Christmas was the first proper, live action, adaptation of a Discworld novel and it’s stunning to look at, funny and very Christmassy.
Anything Nigella Lawson does at Christmas – her weird brand of casual food porn fits perfectly at Christmas when we’re all feeling indulgent and cosy and I love those random scenes where she sneaks down stairs to make a midnight snack!
What are your favourite Christmas specials? Let us know in the comments below and check out our long list of TDF Top 10 features, covering everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Avatar: The Last Airbdender, on our page here.