A Christmas Carol

9pm, BBC One

People keep trying to fix it, but, really, 176 years since he wrote it, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol shows no need for any refitting, restoration or future-proofing. As Yuletide parables go, only It’s A Wonderful Life and the one about all the hotels being fully booked in Bethlehem come close, and both those have problems around motivation. I’ve still got no idea what the guy with the myrrh was supposed to be thinking.

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge is so familiar, in fact, that – just like that one about the baby being born among damp, dingy, dirty stable floor straw – it can be easy to overlook, or mistake for something else. Constantly adapted and readapted, from page to stage to screen, musical to comic book to TV commercial, each one making fresh edits and draping new additions on top (or copying edits and additions others performed previously), instead of the actual thing, we see dilutions, further distorted by our own associations, assumptions and misconceptions.

Several times, while reading about Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight’s new BBC adaptation, I’ve seen pieces warning viewers not to expect a “cosy Christmas tale,” or words to that effect. But, surely, Dickens’s story, springing from his observations of destitute street children, was never simply that. Of course it arcs toward transformation, redemption and good will to all, and, yes, the two greatest film adaptations – Scrooge, the 1951 movie with Alastair Sim cowering beneath his bedsheets; and, I kid you not, 1992’s Muppet Christmas Carol, with Michael Caine stomping through the cast of fuzz and felt – have holly and ivy atmosphere and plum-pudding comfort and cheer.

But, beneath all the trimmings, A Christmas Carol is a harder affair. Dickens offers it pleasantly wrapped in sly wit, style and mischief, but his story is terrifying in its supernatural evocations of purgatory and punishment and in its realistic depiction of our capacity for inhumanity in the face of suffering; and heart breaking in the way it faces us with all the time we waste, and all the regrets we build up and drag around.

Knight’s three-part series is far from without flaw. But, to its credit, it dives deep into the bleakness that lurks in the story, personified to the hilt here by its Scrooge, played, in another fantastic performance, by Guy Pearce, an actor who only gets better.

This is Scrooge not simply as mean old bah-humbug miser. Pearce presents him as a man already haunted long before any apparition turns up, a living, loathing knot of grey tension, consumed by feelings gnawing inside, part Norman Tebbit, part Johnny Rotten. A slightly younger Ebenezer than usual, the strength and sharpness Pearce brings, along with his talent for humour – here handled with a distant, spiteful, acid touch – make him all the more terrible, hateful, and pitiable. Knight writes him some terrific lines: laying out an extra lump of coal in the freezing office for his put-upon scribe, Bob Cratchit, Scrooge gets some dust on his cuffs and mutters, “That smudge is from kindness.” Dickens would approve.

Sadly, not all Knight’s additions are so successful. He spends too much of the first episode inventing the horror cliché experiences in the afterlife of Scrooge’s deceased partner, Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham; the cast is terrific). We actually see Marley being given his macabre mission to return to Earth to try and convince Scrooge to change his ways – a waste of time, because Marley just explains it all again to Scrooge when he turns up in his rooms.

It’s worth sticking through all this faffing, however, because, eventually, we return to Pearce’s magnificent Scrooge and the ineradicable ghosts of Dickens’s tale. We need his story more and more every year. The most dangerous creatures it warns against, the horrific twins Ignorance and Want, are thriving out there.



Hugh Grant: A Life On Screen

9pm, BBC Two

Fresh from his rousing guest role in the biggest horror event of the season – Election 2019 – Grant sits down to look back, a little bit baffled, over the shape of his curious career. Beginning with his earliest days as “Hughie” in a posh 1980s comedy troupe, he proves an astute and amiable guide: “I accepted everything,” he says of the period around his breakout in Four Weddings And A Funeral, “even if it was crap.” Long typecast as the stammering charmer, it’s been a more varied career than is often credited (with creditably weird outings like Lair Of The White Worm and Bitter Moon), and, as last year’s A Very English Scandal demonstrated brilliantly, he’s getting better as he goes. The hour-long profile also features contributions from colleagues including Richard Curtis, Sandra Bullock, Colin Firth and Andie MacDowell.


The Tiger Who Came To Tea – 7.30pm, Channel 4

Martin’s Close – 10pm, BBC Four

It’s heartwarming to see two Christmas Eve TV traditions being observed: the festive family animation, and the eerie old ghost story. Whether Channel 4’s new adaptation of Judith Kerr’s beloved picture book will become as cherished as the form’s benchmark, The Snowman (also showing, blub, 3.50pm, Channel 4) remains to be seen. There’s maybe a little too much Robbie Williams and David Walliams for that; but when it sticks to Kerr’s original, this hand-drawn animation is really charming. Later, lights out as writer Mark Gatiss continues his laudable mission to keep the Ghost Story For Christmas alive with Martin’s Close, adapted from a creeping story by the old master, MR James. In 1864, an arrogant young squire stands accused of murdering poor young Ann Clark…Peter Capaldi glowers as the bewigged prosecutor.


The Snail And The Whale – 2.30pm, BBC One

Call The Midwife – 7pm, BBC One

Gavin & Stacey – 8.30pm, BBC One

Dolly Parton: Here I Am – 8.30pm, BBC Two

Following The Gruffalo, Stick Man, Room On The Broom and The Highway Rat, another delightful Christmas animation based on a book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, with Sally Hawkins and Rob Brydon voicing the snail who wants to see the world and the whale who gives her the chance. There’s more travelling in Call The Midwife as the nuns and nurses head to a very Christmassy Outer Hebrides on a mission from God to set up a clinic despite local grumbles. Next, to Wales via Essex, as Bryn (Brydon again) frets over cooking Christmas dinner for Gavin & Stacey and crew. And Finally to Tennessee for Here I Am, a fantastic profile of the whipsmart Dolly Parton. Stay tuned afterwards for her barnstorming 2014 Glastonbury set.


Worzel Gummidge – 6.20pm, BBC One

Susan Hill’s Ghost Story: The Small Hand – 9pm, Channel 5 When the first pictures emerged from the set of Mackenzie Crook’s new two-part adaptation of Worzel Gummidge, it seemed he might be going for a full-on horror version: with a tendril-sprouting turnip head and Freddy Kruger-like root fingers, his Worzel is nightmarish, and he’s not even the most unsettling character featured. But while Crook’s vision of Scatterbrook might scar younger viewers for life, this lovely updated take is actually sweeter and less sinister than Jon Pertwee’s beloved 1970s series. Crook treats the farmland landscapes with the same glow, mystery and folk vibe he brought to Detectorists, and stamps an environmental message on top: “There’s something wrong with the weather.” (Continues 7pm tomorrow.) For more deliberate chills, The Small Hand is an atmospheric adaptation of Susan Hill’s old dark house story, with Douglas Henshall excellent as a haunted book dealer.


Fleetwood Mac Night

9.30pm, BBC Four

A triple-bill devoted to the battle-scarred group that gives you good tunes and classic soap opera dynamics. The night begins with Fleetwood Mac’s Songbird: Christine McVie, a profile of the singer who, while not always there, always adds something extra special as writer of songs including Don’t Stop and the spine-tingling Songbird itself. At 11pm, A Musical History sees famous fans including KT Tunstall, Toyah Willcox, Fran Healy, Edith Bowman and Alan McGee extoling the Mac’s might between fistfuls of archive. Best of all, though, is Fleetwood Mac: Don’t Stop (12 midnight), a documentary exploring the various inter-band passions and feuds that fuelled them, especially the complex relationship between former lovers Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. They, along with John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, are present for interviews, seeking to dispel some of those – wait for it – rumours. Tusk!


Mystify: Michael Hutchence – 9.20pm, BBC Two Wisting – 9pm, BBC Four Assembled from a vast wealth of archive footage, including many intimate home movies and other private recordings, director Michael Lowenstein’s documentary takes an impressionistic approach to capturing the short, sometimes turbulent and finally tragic life of INXS singer Michael Hutchence. In places, it’s maybe too impressionistic: more narrative spine and steering might have made for a stronger piece. But it’s an evocative portrait nonetheless, and, aided by new interviews with friends and colleagues, often genuinely poignant and revealing – the section with Kylie Minogue recalling their relationship is a real highlight. It’s followed by Live Baby Live (11pm), a newly remastered concert showcasing INXS in their pomp at Wembley in 1991. Meanwhile, Eurocrime fans look out for BBC Four’s wintry new Norwegian import, with widowed detective William Wisting (Sven Nordin) discovering a serial killer at work in his small, snowy coastal town.