Best of Christmas TV 2016 reviewed and rated
Genuine festive treats come from Alan Bennett, Dom Joly and a good old-fashioned dragonslayer while Mrs Brown's Boys and a Raymond Briggs animation deliver a slice of bah-humbuggery
The phrase 'national treasure' gets bandied around willy-nilly as much as the word 'legendary' these days. But if anyone deserves such celebratory coinage, then it's the eponymous subject of Alan Bennett's Diaries (BBC Two, Sat 24 Dec, 8pm ★★★★☆). This documentary follows the laureate from Leeds as he prepares to unleash the next instalment of his daily jottings covering 2005-2015, as well as going on the publicity trail for the film adaptation of his 90s memoir and play, The Lady in the Van (which makes its terrestrial premiere straight after on BBC Two, Sat 24 Dec, 9pm). And in proper fish-out-of-water style, he heads for New York to be awarded a Library Lion alongside the likes of Gloria Steinem and Karl Ove Knausgaard, all the while fully in the belief that not a single soul there has much of an idea who he is.
This supremely modest scribe seems barely to have changed down the years: one photo shows a young Bennett in trademark jumper, shirt and tie (only the tweed jacket is missing). Arguably, the only shocking moment over the course of an hour is another picture, taken alongside his partner Rupert, where he's attired in trousers and a casual blue shirt, the top two buttons having been wildly unleashed. Bennett is charming and polite company throughout (when he quotes one critic dubbing him a typical northern 'cunt', it barely registers as possible), reassuringly anti-Tory and pro-EU while taking the threat to the UK's public library system as almost a personal affront.
At one point, Bennett recalls his time in 60s sketch comedy group Beyond the Fringe, alongside Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as being something of an embarrassment. But no doubt this is more down to Bennett's self-conscious nature and publicity-shy demeanour rather than the work's quality. For Pete'n'Dud fans, hearing that some long-lost material has been resurrected will make this the perfect Christmas. Peter Cook & Dudley Moore: The Missing Sketches (Channel 4, Sat 31 Dec, 8pm ★★★☆☆) reveals a bunch of routines which had been removed from the BBC archive (due to efficient housekeeping rather than anything darkly censorious) before thankfully turning up in some non-Beeb shoeboxes across the world.
As well as being able to view the sketches for ourselves, we witness the immediate reactions of some famous fans. This does give the show a Celebrity Gogglebox ambience, with the mirth expressed veering from the positively giddy Ronnie Wood and Josie Lawrence (though she was justifiably less than keen on the homophobic skit which Cook and Moore filmed in Oz with Barry Humphries) to the more sober reverence and smiling restraint of Richard Ayoade and Will Sharpe (creator of Flowers). With the show's airtime clocking in at just over 45 minutes, it's somewhat irritating to hear Rob Brydon do a Come Dine With Me-esque recap before and immediately after every ad break when surely more commentary or context would have kept things ticking over nicely.
It's hard to know what makes the fans of Mrs Brown's Boys (BBC One, Sun 25 Dec, 10.30pm ★★☆☆☆) tick, but given that they number the many millions, it's sometimes worth trying to fathom it. As the first part of this year's festive double-bill proves, pretend swearing and a lot of smut seem to go a very, very long way. Christmas baubles were probably born to be the butt of a panto-ish genitalia gag, but the excruciating signposting on display here makes it virtually worthless. Even the element which made this show almost watchable (all that corpsing in front of a live studio audience) becomes less pleasing due to its utter inevitability.