Written by TV

Christmas Television

Now Christmas is over*, it’s time to carry out an appraisal of the good and the bad over the period.
Like many, I think that Sherlock was probably the best programme on over the Christmas/New Year period. It’s an incredibly smart take on Conan Doyle, and is a wonderful reinvention. The ninety minutes just flew by, with so many good things, that you almost have to immediately watch it again to make sure you haven’t missed anything. That’s particularly the case if you’re familiar with the canon. I’m sure we’ve not seen the last of “the woman”.
And I loved Great Expectations over three nights. I immediately looked up where they’d filmed the wonderful marsh scenes (Tollesbury if you’re interested), and began to formulate plans to visit at some point. But Gillian Anderson’s Mrs Havisham was such a fresh take on the character that it made her real rather than just a mad woman in a big house. Perhaps Douglas Booth’s Pip was just a little bit too pretty, but it didn’t get in the way of a terrific tale, well told. Finally, Ray Winstone’s Magwitch was surely a definitive one.
I was slow catching up with Doctor Who since nobody else in my family wants to watch it at Christmas. But having finally caught up, I’m pleased I did, as it was a great Christmas episode, archly borrowing from CS Lewis, and including some other clever elements. The only oddity was the opening scenes of the Doctor escaping a space ship which we saw in the traditional “Star Wars” fashion. Did the production team just have a surplus of cash which they needed to spend, so got a massive space ship rendered in CGI? Fun for the kids though.
I watched series one of Downton Abbey, but I’m afraid I rather gave up on series two. The first episode was living, partially watched, alongside all the other unwatched episodes from the second series, on my PVR until just a couple of weeks ago. Then, finally, needing the space, they all got deleted. So I had no real reason to watch the Christmas special. However, the rest of my family did want to watch it, so I can only report from sitting on a chair with no real view of the screen, reading a book at the same time. What I can report is that ITV1 managed to pump the thing full of commercials to an astonishing extent. And I’m curious to learn what the value-for-money case is to charge around £20 for the DVD box-set of the whole of series two without the Christmas special, and a further £15 for that one Christmas episode. Good luck to them with that!
I think my favourite programme on Christmas Day was actually Darcey Bussell Dances Hollywood. While I’m not necessarily in favour of faux TV challenges, this programme was really an excuse to watch and listen to lots of dancing and music from the classic Fred & Ginger and Gene Kelly period (if there can be a single period encompassing that era). Bussell attempted to reinterpret some of the famous dances performed in the various films of that period. With lots of discussion of the original dances, alongside copious clips from the films in question, the series was really informative as well as entertaining. As a nice companion piece, BBC Four repeated the John Wilson Hollywood Prom from earlier in the year featuring music from this period (Radio 3 gave it a run too), while Wilson has been playing the music on his four part Radio 3 series – the current episode I especially recommend.
The best comedy over Christmas that I saw, was probably Miranda. The fact that it was a repeat from last year didn’t lessen that fact. I found it just as funny second (and for complicated iPlayer-testing reasons, third) time around. Roll on the next series.
I believe that the genesis of Prof. Brian Cox’s A Night with the Stars was from a claim he made that he didn’t actually need a globe-trotting budget a lots of helicopters to make a watchable hour of science on television. He could do it with just a blackboard. And this was, sort of, it.
Except that it was actually a bit more like the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, since it was actually shot at the Royal Institution, and like those lectures (also shown on BBC Four after Christmas), it featured various experiments. The difference was that the Christmas lectures are shot in front of school kids, while this was shot in front of “stars”. And that was my main problem. You had the likes of Sarah Millican and Jonathan Ross clowning around and not really quite understanding the science, even though the ideas weren’t exactly hard to grasp. In many ways, the fact that they were famous and were cracking jokes, actually made it harder to understand what Cox was explaining. In the end, though, the science did out. There’s a much better balance of science and comedy on his radio programme with Robin Ince, The Infinite Monkey Cage. Oh, and the title of the programme was not just a bad pun, it was also a misnomer, since most of the programme talked much more about sub-atomic particles rather than stars (although I realise that the two are related).
Charlie Brooker’s 2011-Wipe was a treat not to be missed. He just nailed it all the way through, with some very smart commentaries from his pseudo-commentators, and even a nice development of an Adam Curtis blog into a fully featured piece about Rupert Murdoch. It’s probably the programme that most demands that you watch it now. And think about yourself next time you kid yourself that My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is just a bit of fun.
As an aside, I think that more topical comedy programmes should highlight the lack of ability to include Parliamentary clips in satirical or entertainment programmes. It doesn’t feel democratic that we can’t.
I must admit that I’ve not yet watched Endeavour, aka Young Morse. It’s interesting enough for me to record, and I’ll get back to it, once I’ve worked through the latest “stripped” drama series – Public Enemies which does sound good.
Sky One brought out its big guns with Treasure Island starring Eddie Izzard and Elijah Wood. The entire cast was very strong in this reworking of the classic. Overall, I thought it did a pretty decent job once we’d got over some directoral quirks – all those deliberately-out-of-focus shots. I’m not too fussed by the liberties they took with the story, as that’s the sort of thing that TV has to do with books (see Great Expectations above). Go and read the book if you want to read the original. I’m sure that enough people will return to the book having seen this.
I was slightly confused by Sky’s drama trailer running heavily over the period. It advertised all their drama offerings, yet tended to mix programmes from 2011 with forthcoming 2012 offerings.
The regular New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna was broadcast in full on the BBC HD channel, with the second half which always ends with the Blue Danube and the Radetzky March, getting its regular BBC 2 bill. Perhaps it was just me this year, but it didn’t engage me as much as it has done some years. I still tune in though.
Hacks was a Guy Jenkin penned one-off comedy-drama set in a fictional tabloid owned by an Australian proprietor, where phone-hacking was rampant. It passed an hour OK, but I’m not sure that it was completely successful. To a certain extent, it tried to mirror real-life too closely at times, while at others, it departed into its own world. I think slightly less direct comparisons with reality would actually have made it a bit sharper.
Absolutely Fabulous returned for the first couple of three (I believe) special editions. Except that they weren’t all that special. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since they don’t need to be. But I was left a little non-plussed. The first of the pair was definitely the stronger, even if the inclusion of the wonderful Sofie Grabol (Lund from The Killing) was very much a case of shoe-horning in, someone that you realised at the last minute, was in London and available for an hour or two’s shooting.
The second episode was pretty poor in my reckoning, even if the performances were fine. And is it just me, or is Jane Horrock’s Bubble now even more over the top than she used to be?
The biggest let down of the season was the new David Jason comedy, The Royal Bodyguard. It was as though someone had just picked up a boxset of the Pink Panther films and thought that it was time for a reworking. But at 70, it just doesn’t make sense for Jason to be attempting such physical comedy. I’ve no problem with silly comedies, but they’ve got to make you laugh. And this just didn’t.
So it’s all rather unfortunate that this seems to have been paired with the least funny comedy on UK television (and quite probably the least funny “comedy” anywhere in the world) – Mrs Brown’s Boys. Yes Monday nights have an hour of utterly missable comedy on BBC One. I’m still upset a that Mrs Brown was used in the Christmas BBC One trailer. It was cringeworthy enough without the inclusion of her/him.
Armstrong and Miller aren’t exactly the laziest actor/comedians in the country. Ben Miller is fresh from his affable Death in Paradise series set in the Caribbean, and is currently to be seen in the utterly brilliant The Ladykillers on stage in London. Meanwhile Alexander Armstrong was in the Christmas Doctor Who, the PM in Hacks, and can be seen most afternoons on the above-average gameshow Pointless (at least it has questions, and doesn’t rely on luck, which is the case with just about every gameshow these days). So their new comedy pilot, Felix and Murdo, written by Simon Nye, was always worth checking out. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the pilot all that good. Comedy, notoriously, can take a few episodes to get going, but their Edwardian lotharios felt like sketch show characters not fully-formed enough to hold together a full episode (let alone series). They were ably assisted by a decent selection of comic actors, but I can’t see how Channel 4 can commission this to series. Not that it stopped The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret getting made, which shows how far a strong cast will get you on C4.
I’ve already mentioned Top Gear in India as being especially poor this year. Right idea, poorly, and lazily, executed. Top Gear is a guilty pleasure, and the longer-form challenges and journeys can often be the best bits (I’m not at all interested in ten minute reviews of sports cars). But this was seemingly made on autopilot, which is a shame as it could have been so much better.
I can’t actually remember a single programme that I watched over the period on Channel 5, and aside from that stored up episode of Endeavour and the partially watched Downton Abbey, I can’t think of a great deal I saw on ITV1. Indeed I couldn’t help noticing that ITV1 didn’t seem to have any one-off dramas this Christmas which is unusual. They normally seem to have something along those lines to put out on Boxing Day, but not this year. Perhaps something a little more high-brow than their regular crime-filled fare?
And as for Channel 4, their “mash up” simply highlighted all the strands of the channel I dislike intensely (the news aside), while the endless comedy specials aren’t funny.
So, have I missed anything?
* As Nigel pointed out in an excellent Christmas episode of Rev which vied with Miranda for best comedy over the period, Christmas isn’t over until the Epiphany. Not that it doesn’t mean I saw discarded Christmas trees littering the streets on the way to work this morning.