Rest, play - learn if you must

20th December 2002 at 00:00
Robin Buss settles for three wise men, dinosaurs and a gigantic hound

If you had several video recorders, you could probably record enough television over Christmas and the new year to keep yourself entertained well into 2004. There are dramas, comedies, Christmas specials, documentaries, soap operas and every treatment of A Christmas Carol, from musical to Muppet.

Channel 4 introduces a season of Ealing comedies with Forever Ealing (December 30, 1.25-2.35pm), and the terrestrial and main movie channels are showing more than 350 old films between them. There are also religious programmes, just to remind us what all the fuss is meant to be about.

Among the big dramas is a new adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (BBC1, December 26, 9-10.40pm): a pet that is not just for Christmas. Richard Roxburgh stars as Holmes, supported by a cast that includes Richard E Grant, John Nettles and Geraldine James. Despite some arty camera angles, eerie music and a detective with a morphine habit, this is a straightforward version of the novel.

The Christmas spirit fuels nostalgia like brandy on a pudding. Alan Bennett offers us Christmas Under Fire (BBC2, Christmas Eve, 8.05-9.35pm), recalling seasonal bombardments in 1940, and a Christmas dinner during the 900-day siege of Leningrad at which the main dish was glue (boiled to make soup). If that is not enough nostalgia, we have hours of repeats, some good, some awful.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (Channel 4, December 26-30, 11.05am-12 noon) are always welcome. This year's series is delivered by Professor Tony Ryan, who is talking about all things small: molecules, mobile phones and so on. He will demonstrate a skill that any science teacher would love to have: how to keep an audience listening and learning with the minimum of props.

The Real Jane Austen (BBC1, December 30, 7-8pm), is a touching biography with dramatisations, narrated by Anna Chancellor; her Jane would cheerfully have put up with a dozen annoying relations at Christmas, then made it amusing in the retelling. Not so John Osborne, Angry Man (Channel 4, Christmas Day, 8.05-9.35pm), the first television portrait of the playwright, who died seven years ago. Arnold Wesker, Doris Lessing and Jonathan Miller, plus some of Osborne's wives and other enemies, are on hand to recall him.

Beyond nostalgia, lies history. Tony Robinson is on Channel 4 for three hours solid next Friday, first with Time Team, then narrating Fact or Fiction: the real King Harold (December 27, 8-9pm). There are also dramas featuring Darwin's Daughter (Channel 4, December 28, 7.50-9pm) and Dinosaur Hunters (Channel 4, December 30 and 31, 7.55-9pm), a dramatisation of Deborah Cadbury's book about the rival scientists who developed theories to explain dinosaur fossils.

And religion? BBC2 is showing Mystery of the Three Kings (December 21, 8.15-9.05pm), in which it investigates what may be the reality behind the story of the Magi. It is also the theme of The Virgin Mary (BBC1, December 22, 8-9pm), which comes with a warning that some viewers could be upset by the programme's conclusions, as well as by the scenes of childbirth. According to the narrator, Sue Johnston, Mary was probably sold into marriage with Joseph at the age of 12 and did not give birth to Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. Then, on New Year's Eve, Channel 4's religious strand Witness returns (December 31, 5.05-6.05pm) with a film by James Runcie about heaven.

So, plan your viewing for a happy, restful and instructive Christmas.

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