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The best Christmas TV and films for crime fans

Wondering what's on telly over the festive period? Here's our pick of the best Christmas TV and films perfect for crime and thriller fans.

Whatever you get up to this Christmas, the chances are that it’ll be the most unusual festive period in living memory. While forces outside of our control may have conspired to make this Yuletide season a little more pared back and scaled down than we’re all used to, there’s one constant that remains: TV.

Television is as much a part of Christmas as Brussels sprouts, flimsy paper crowns and pretending to be grateful for yet another £4 shower gel and anti-perspirant gift set. Of course, there’s the Queen’s Speech at 3pm and the inevitable showing of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. But we’re not overly interested in those. We want to know what crime treats the box has up its furry red sleeve this year, don’t we?

To save you the time and effort, we’ve scoured the pages of the TV guide and here, without further ado, is our pick of the very best Christmas TV of 2020.

The best dramas on TV this Christmas:

Jenna Coleman and Tahar Rahim star in The Serpent, one of the best crime dramas on TV this Christmas

The Serpent

Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) and Victoria‘s Jenna Coleman star as real-life killer couple Charles Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée Leclerc in this lavish-looking eight-part thriller. Sobhraj was responsible for at least a dozen murders – though thought to be many more – his targets all being young beatnik traveller types across Asia’s ‘hippie trail’ in the mid-70s. Leclerc, for her part, was – to one degree on another – his accomplice.

The Serpent, named after Sobhraj’s apt moniker, looks to be the first big opulent series of the year, one which we’re hoping will hook us with drama but also regale us with what looks to be one of the most fascinating criminal stories of the era.

When? New Year’s Day, 9pm
Channel? BBC One

Abigail Laurie, Tim Roth and Genevieve O’Reilly star as Anna, Jack and Angela in Tin Star: Liverpool, one of the best dramas on TV this Christmas

Tin Star: Liverpool

The first two series of writer/director Rowan Joffé’s quirky crime drama have thrilled fans of the show since it first aired on Sky back in September of 2017. Never subtle, but always thrilling, the first two runs saw former Met copper Jim Worth (Tim Roth) and his family’s adventures as he took over as sheriff of a small mining town in the Rockies. The fun started when Jim’s dodgy past began to catch up with him.

For this third and final six-part outing of Tin Star, the Worths tackle matters head on, returning to England to confront the bad guys that forced them to move to the Canadian mountains in the first place.

Expect violence, cruel laughs and plenty of family bickering. Perfect viewing for this time of year, then.

When? Christmas Eve, 8pm
Channel? Sky Atlantic

Diana Rigg stars as  Helena Vesey in Mother Love, one of the best dramas on TV this Christmas

Mother Love

This outstanding drama may be over 30 years old now, but it still packs one helluva punch. So good is its star – the late, great Dame Diana Rigg – that she won the 1990 Best TV Actress BAFTA for her troubles.

The Avengers and Game of Thrones star plays the twisted matriarch Helena Vesey, a jealous and vengeful woman with a serious grudge. It’s a creepy four-part drama series that wowed audiences back in 1989. There’s no reason why it can’t again.

James Wilby (Poldark) and David McCallum (The Man from UNCLE, NCIS) co-star. Check it out.

When? Tuesday 22 December, 9pm
Channel? BBC Four

David Suchet stars as Poirot in Hercule Poirot's Christmas, one of our best Christmas TV picks

Poirot

We’ve decided to go a little nostalgic for our final television pick of Christmas 2020 telly. The third ITV channel has a twirly-moustached treat lined up for the early evening of the 24th.

This feature-length episode from 1994 is a festive special and sees a classic Agatha Christie set-up. David Suchet’s Poirot is hired by a tyrannical old millionaire to attend the holidays at his country pile to observe the festivities. On the surface it seems an odd assignment for the Belgian sleuth until, of course, one of the gathered family offs the old man.

Can Monsieur Poirot solve the crime…? Well, yes. Of course he can. Watching him do so is where the fun comes in. ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ is a perfect way to spend the early part of the night before Christmas.

When? Christmas Eve, 5:55pm
Channel? ITV3

The best films on TV this Christmas:

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in Catch Me If You Can, one of the best crime films on TV this Christmas

Catch Me If You Can

This autobiographical tale of the con artist Frank Abagnale from 2002 is treated with a suitably light touch by director Steven Spielberg, so it zips along nicely. Tom Hanks is strong in support as the fed on Abagnale’s tail, but this surprisingly sweet little film is all about Leonardo DiCaprio’s powerfully charismatic central performance.

When? Sunday 20 December, 5:50pm
Channel? BBC Two

Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx star in Collateral, one of the best crime films on this Christmas

Collateral

If there’s a director you’d want making a movie set entirely in LA at night, it’s Heat and To Live and Die in LA’s Michael Mann. Collateral sets up a nice dynamic between its two leads, Jamie Foxx – as a quiet, naive cab driver – and Tom Cruise – as an increasingly manic and scary silver-haired hitman. It’s a neon-lit thrill ride with some genuinely unforgettable scenes (the nightclub shootout is particularly slick).

When? Tuesday 22 December, 10:40pm
Channel? BBC One

Image from The Italian Job, one of the best crime films on TV this Christmas

The Italian Job

‘Hold up, lads. I’ve got an idea…’

Of course, we’re recommending the classic 1969 Michael Caine and Noël Coward caper comedy, not its insipid and uninspired 2003 remake starring a gurning Mark Wahlberg and the incredibly disinterested-looking Ed Norton.

This absolute romp of a heist film encapsulates everything that was hip, swinging and cool about Britain at the time. It’s fun, funny and has a load of Mini Coopers, some missing doors. What’s not to love? This is proper Christmas watching.

When? Christmas Day, 3:30pm
Channel? Channel 4

best christmas tv

The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs is not only the greatest serial killer movie ever made, it’s one of the greatest crime movies ever made. We’d go one further and suggest it’s flat out just one of the best movies ever made.

Tense, taut, terrifying… This film, now 30 years old, is a horror film, a thriller, a police procedural and an insight into psychopathy. It’s packed full of incredible performances, with Anthony Hopkins’ cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter and Jodie Foster’s whip smart junior FBI agent anchoring the film. Anthony Heald, Scott Glenn and Ted Levine are all brilliant in support.

The last act is arguably cinema’s most suspenseful ever. If your heart isn’t hammering out of your chest for the night vision scene, you need to see a cardiologist.

When? Sunday 27 December, 10:40pm
Channel? ITV1

Image of Carey Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch A Thief, one of the best films on TV this Christmas

To Catch a Thief

Christmas is the ideal time to watch – or rewatch – old movies. Crime classics don’t come all that more classic than the 1955 Hitchcock thriller To Catch a Thief.

Cary Grant plays a former cat burglar who’s retired out to the French Riviera. When a spate of crimes much like the ones he used to carry out starts up again, he instantly becomes the prime suspect. The trouble is, he’s innocent and the police are lazy. So Cary is forced to catch a thief. Grace Kelly co-stars.

When? Wednesday 30 December, 1:05pm
Channel? BBC Two

Image of Ian McKellen as an aged Sherlock Holmes in Mr Holmes

Mr Holmes

This slightly more gentle and relaxed take on the Baker Street detective may not pack quite the punch that Guy Ritchie’s films or the BBC TV series do, but it’s well worth your time nonetheless.

Sir Ian McKellen takes on the role of an aging Sherlock Holmes, pulling off the part with the kind of consummate ease you might expect. While there is a case to crack, sleuthery isn’t the point of this understated tale, which is a fresh and interesting take on a character we’ve all come to know so well.

When? New Year’s Day, 6:20pm
Channel? BBC Two

Image of Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot in Appointment With Death

Appointment With Death

This 1988 Poirot film may not be the most memorable or thrilling of the many films and episodes in the cannon, but Peter Ustinov makes this adaptation of Christie’s 1938 book more than watchable. The great thesp and bon vivant is joined by the likes of Lauren Bacall, Carrie Fisher, John Gielgud and Hayley Mills in this film which is rather curiously directed by the late Death Wish director and Esure car insurance advocate Michael Winner.

When? Sunday 27 December, 12:05pm
Channel? Channel 5

There you have it – our pick of the best Christmas TV and films on this Christmas. Have you taken a magnifying glass to the Radio Times and spotted something that’s not made our list? Let us know in the comments below!

Steve Charnock
Steve Charnock
Steve Charnock

Steve Charnock is a freelance writer who writes news stories, features, articles, reviews and lists. But *always* forgets to write his mum a birthday card.

Follow Steve on Twitter.

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