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Christmas TV: Motherland, The Dectorists, Ghosts and more top comedy picks

© BBC/Merman/Natalie SeeryPaul Ready (Kevin), Anna Maxwell Martin (Julia), Diane Morgan (Liz), Philippa Dunne (Anne), Lucy Punch (Amanda) and Tanya Moodie (Meg) in Motherland: Last Christmas
Paul Ready (Kevin), Anna Maxwell Martin (Julia), Diane Morgan (Liz), Philippa Dunne (Anne), Lucy Punch (Amanda) and Tanya Moodie (Meg) in Motherland: Last Christmas

One of the best parts of Christmas is gathering around the telly to watch the festive specials on offer.

Here, Stevie Gallacher picks out the best in comedy coming up over the coming days.

Motherland, BBC1, Friday, 9.30pm

You know a comedy has really caught on when they do a Christmas special.

And so it is with Motherland, the hilariously stressful parenting sitcom from the mind of Catastrophe writer Sharon Horgan.

School’s out for the festive season so the mums and Kevin (Paul Ready) are busy prepping for the ultimate in blended Christmas celebrations.

It’s a full house at Julia’s, played by the wonderful Anna Maxwell Martin, with an influx of grandparents demanding endless cups of tea, as they play with a VR headset Paul bought “for the kids”.

Julia has invited Kevin along, too, after learning that his alternative was dining on turkey crisps from the hotel vending machine in the company of the other divorced dads.

Kevin excitedly offers to whip up a full-on Persian feast. Liz – played by Diane “Philomena Cunk” Morgan – also turns up when her ex cancels following a massive Christmas Eve bender, letting her down on his first ever offer to host.

Meanwhile, Amanda (Lucy Punch) is spending Christmas Day with Johnny (Terry Mynott), the kids and Johnny’s new wife, Tamara (Louise Delamere).

Which is fine. Really fine. It’s fine. Amanda’s mother Felicity (Joanna Lumley) has also been invited and jumps at the chance to revel in the awkward atmosphere.

The contrast with Christmas at Anne’s (Philippa Dunne) house couldn’t be starker; Anne is hosting her mammy (Maggie McCarthy) and the cousins – all 29 of them – and is beside herself with excitement.

Despite their enduring love-match, Meg’s (Tanya Moodie) husband Bill buys her a present so dire that it has her questioning whether he really knows her at all…

The Detectorists, BBC2, Boxing Day, 9pm

Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones as Andy and Lance in The Detectorists © BBC
Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones as Andy and Lance

Five years is a long time to wait for fans of The Detectorists. That’s how long it’s been since the gentle but much-loved comedy was on our screens.

It’s no surprise, given the show’s creator, writer and star Mackenzie Crook is, like his main character, rather dithery.

“He’s a procrastinator and it takes things to get to a head, and then he is very willing to do the right thing and work hard,” Crook says of his creation, Andy Stone.

“As I was saying that aloud, I was thinking, ‘Am I just describing myself?’” he confesses, chuckling. “He’s an exaggerated version of me. I could quite easily just do my hobbies all day and not actually get anything done.”

The Bafta-winning comedy, centred on two friends who share a passion for metal detecting, was an instant hit when it aired in 2014, lauded for its warmth, charm and idiosyncratic humour.

At first, Crook tried to resist the “gentle” epithet attached to The Detectorists.

“The thing that’s pointed out to me all the time is the gentle tone of it, the kindness,” says the 51-year-old actor.

“That was deliberate, to set out to write something uncynical. So I think its popularity is down to it just being a bit of a breath of fresh air in among brilliant comedies, but comedies that have cruelty in them.”

“But I’ve made my peace with it now – it is a gentle comedy,” he adds, smiling. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not funny.”

Fans would certainly agree with his sentiment, and in three short seasons, the last having aired in 2017, and one Christmas special, Crook has dug up a formula that audiences cannot seem to get enough of.

It was little surprise, then, that his announcement of a new 75-minute special, to air this festive season, was met with elation.

The Danebury Metal Detecting Club (DMDC) is in trouble. With developers sniffing around, and having lost out on a big finder’s fee, its members are in need of a miracle to save their beloved scout hall, the official synopsis reads.

But when Lance (played by the brilliant Toby Jones) secures permission to search 10 acres of undetected land, it looks like things could be on the up. That is until a mysterious relic is unearthed, and Lance breaks protocol, threatening his friendship with Andy and the future of the DMDC.

The plotline, Crook says, just occurred to him. “But against the treasure hunting, I was also able to see where our friends are and what they’ve been doing. For while lots has changed, lots has stayed the same, too.”

For Crook, a new episode was, at the least, a great excuse to meet up with old friends, especially Toby Jones whom he met over lunch to float his ideas.

“Andy and Lance are proper firm friends; they’re never more comfortable than when they’re in each other’s company,” he says of the on-screen duo. “And our friendship has now sort of become like that. I mean, Toby is my only sort of famous friend, really.

“He’s turned into a friend, rather than just a work colleague. We have a right old laugh when we’re together.”

Ghosts, BBC1, Christmas Day, 7.25pm

The cast of Ghosts © BBC/Monumental/Guido Mandozzi
It’ll be all fright on the night for the cast of Ghosts

Spectral presences… at Christmas? BBC1’s popular sitcom had an obvious, Dickensian route to go down with their festive special.

Sadly, Blackadder got there first!

Ghosts co-writer Mathew Baynton, who plays Thomas, considered riffing on A Christmas Carol for the episode which airs on Christmas Day.

“On top of the challenges of our own show and not repeating ourselves is that you’ve got all of the Christmas specials in the history of sitcom in the background of your mind,” he explains.

“So there are ideas we’ve had before where we’ve said, ‘You’re not going to top Blackadder doing A Christmas Carol, let’s not go near A Christmas Carol’.

“For the first Christmas special, it was the very first idea we had and dismissed. It was like, ‘Our show is called Ghosts – if anyone is ever going to do a thing with the Ghost of Christmas Past, and so on…’ But it’s like, Blackadder nailed it, don’t go near it.”

In this episode, Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) are forced to reassess their Christmas day plans when they hit a bump in the road on the way to have lunch with Mike’s parents.

Meanwhile, their ghostly housemates decide to throw a special Christmas pantomine to raise their festive spirits on their return home.

Deceased scoutmaster Pat Butcher (played by Ghosts co-creator Jim Howick) will rbe questioning his very identity, while Kitty (Lolly Adefope) gets her moment in the spotlight thanks to a much-needed pep talk from the Captain (Ben Willbond).

The Ghosts will also get together for a special festive episode of the companion podcast Inside…Ghosts, featuring Howick and Baynton, available on BBC Sounds straight after the special airs on BBC1.

Miriam’s Dickensian Christmas, Channel 4, Tuesday, 9pm

Miriam Margolyes enjoys Christmas, Dickens-style
Miriam Margolyes enjoys Christmas, Dickens-style

Her gripes with the festive season are, among others, that it is over-commercialised, too expensive and a whole heap of stress. So why, then, is her name attached to a wholly
festive-sounding Channel 4 show by the name of Miriam’s Dickensian Christmas?

In a brilliant paradox, Miriam Margolyes, 81-year-old veteran of stage and screen has agreed to see if she can warm to the season through her love of Charles Dickens. “He’s a living, breathing presence in my life,” she says.

With her search centred on the festive traditions Dickens introduced in A Christmas Carol, Margolyes will immerse herself in the world of the Victorians, discovering the advent of turkey dinners, Christmas cards, family theatrics and parlour games.

“I’ve always loved Dickens. And I’m always trying to find ways to put him on TV and get everyone else to learn more about him and enjoy him,” says Margolyes.

“He’s a force for good, which we badly need at the moment. And I learnt about things, like cooking and craftwork, because I’m absolutely not into anything domestic.”

As for her own festivities: “I mean, I loved doing it. But no, I think I’m a bit set in my ways now,” she concludes. “I mean, I’m 81, I’m allowed to be, I’m stuck in a groove. And I’m not going to change.

“You know, instead of going down to the pub, go to an old people’s home and give someone a present or a sing-song or something – just to cheer people up. If it cheers people up, it’s a good thing.

“I think Dickens wanted people to think about Christmas, he wanted to sharpen their moral sense. He wanted to make them better than they were, just as he did with Scrooge.

“And that’s what I take away from A Christmas Carol itself, is that we can all be Scrooge, but we can be Scrooge repaired as well.”

Mrs Brown’s Boys BBC1, Christmas Day, 10.25pm

Brendan O’Carroll stars as Mrs Brown – plaster cast and all © Press Association Images
Brendan O’Carroll stars as Mrs Brown – plaster cast and all

For many families across the UK, Ireland and beyond, Mrs Brown’s Boys is as much a part of Christmas as a stuffed turkey, crackers and a cheeky morning glass of bubbly.

Irish comedian Brendan O’Carroll, who created the sitcom and stars as Agnes Brown, says it’s a real buzz that Mrs Brown’s Boys has become such a Christmas staple, particularly as the programme returns to BBC1 for its typical two-episode bumper festive specials.

“I absolutely love it – I get goosebumps that Mrs Brown has become part of Christmas,” says the 67-year-old.

“That’s what people who come to the show say, ‘Ah, it wouldn’t be Christmas without Mrs Brown’. You’re kinda going, ‘Oh, my God, we established that’.

“Because in my day that was Morecambe and Wise. It wasn’t Christmas without Morecambe and Wise. So it’s a buzz.”

The Christmas episode centres around Buster’s “magic Christmas tree”, which he claims is only visible to those who are pure of heart, and who believe in Santa Claus.

Christmas for O’Carroll – who is the youngest of 11 siblings – means family antics full of hilarity. It’s usually a time when the whole family gather, even though the family are away, he says. “My memories of Christmas…I’m the youngest of 11. So by the time I came into my formative years, most of the family had either emigrated or got married. And at Christmas, on Christmas Day and Christmas Eve, they would all come home.

“I spent my Christmas week in the airport crying with joy as my sister or brother would walk through the arrivals gate.

“And then of course, I’d spend the New Year crying at the same gate because they were going.”

“Christmas was family. We try and keep it that way as well,” adds O’Carroll, who has been married to his Mrs Brown’s Boys co-star Jennifer Gibney since 2005.

Several of his children and grandchildren also appear in the show – so a family Christmas really is a Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas. “Even now, Christmas morning, we’ll have all the kids and the grandkids together for breakfast,” he adds.

“They have to go their own way and do their own Christmas dinner because they’ve got to make their own Christmas too, but breakfast at granny and grandad’s is very much part of their Christmas.

“They start arriving at about 7.30 in the morning, so the joy of them all coming is fantastic. But it’s only matched by the joy of them all going! Because the place is in bedlam.

“And then you spend your late Christmas morning tidying up, and then of course it’s Christmas dinner time. I’ve always cooked Christmas dinner for the family.

“So I get my turkey ready and get my spread ready.

“And then Christmas night, we have a pyjama party. So everybody comes, the cast, some of the crew. Everybody comes to our house in their pyjamas.

“And we have a few drinks and we all watch the Christmas episode (of Mrs Brown’s Boys) together – we all watch it for the first time, we haven’t seen it before.

“It’s a buzz. It’s great. We look at each other and we go ‘No, you were great!’ ‘No, no, you were great!’”