Though it’s not quite Christmas yet we’re into festive fortnight which means a lot of one-off dramas and special editions of you’re favourite, and not so-favourite shows, this week.
And what a bumper week we’ve had starting off with the finale of Strictly Come Dancing. Overall this has been a fairly pleasing series featuring fourteen contestants who have all put their heart and souls into it and even the comedy act, Russell Grant, was passionate about his performances and that’s more than can be said for either Widdecombe or Sergeant. For once it seemed that the right people left at the right time, with the possible exception of Rory Bremner, meaning that we had one of the strongest finals in years but also I felt one of the most predictable. Firstly there was Jason Donovan a man who has had his ups and downs in the competition but pulled it out of the bag towards the end of the series although he seemed to lose popularity along the way. Having said that his partner Kristina must be happy to get to the final for once having gone out first last year and being lumbered with John Sergeant the only plus she’s got out of Strictly is finding a boyfriend in Joe Calzaghe. Chelsee Healey meanwhile came into the contest as a dark horse and a relative unknown to the many who don’t watch Waterloo Road and she also had the newest dancer in Pasha but together they’ve worked as a likeable couple who’ve improved immensely throughout the show and out of three finalists she has demonstrated the most skill. Harry Judd meanwhile already had experience from competing in the Children in Need special and had the biggest fanbase in the McFly contingent but to be fair to the lad he actually also possesses a natural rhythm and worked well with his partner Aliona. The final this year was in Blackpool and it was good idea as it meant that all this year’s contestants got to dance at the mecca of ballroom. The other quality that marks the Strictly final out from the other episodes is the showdance and all three finalists’ routines differed from each other. Harry’s showdance was very rock n roll even allowing him some time out to play the drums, Jason had a 1920s inspired dance with plenty of lifts and Chelsee’s disco-esque number saw the most dangerous lifts of the evening as Pasha almost killed her numerous times. After last year’s upset which saw Kara Tointon beat favourite Matt Baker to the Glitterball this year the predictable choice won as Harry beat Chelsee to grab gold but it didn’t matter as this was a great exclamation mark in what has been arguably Strictly’s best series to date.
After last week’s Royal Variety Show another December tradition, the British Comedy Awards, also aired recently. Fans possessing more than a short term memory will recall that the awards last aired in January celebrating 2010′s comic achievements. This year’s ceremony was meant to celebrate 2011 however it seemed to have a bit of foggy memory itself as Miranda and Peep Show both were nominated here and neither aired a single episode this year. Maybe they were just there to make up the numbers as the eventual winner, Twenty Twelve, was actually one of my favourite sitcoms of the year. The other gripe was that The Inbetweeners won an award specially created for rewarding them for making a lot of money for Channel 4 with their Box Office topping movie but at least this did allow us to see the surreal sight of Kylie Minogue saying the word clunge. The Inbetweeners’ picked up one of four special awards, which surely makes them less special, the other three being a lifetime achievement award for Have I Got News For You, a best comedian ever award for Lee Evans and a writer’s award for the brilliant Armando Ianucci. Other winners I was happy about were Psychoville for Best Comedy Drama, Shooting Stars winning Panel Show and Angelos Epithimou scooping best Newcomer. As much as I love Miranda Hart I feel she hasn’t done enough in the last year to win the Best Female Comic Award, Sarah Milican’s attempt to appear on every programme paid off as she became the Queen of Comedy and Darren Boyd one Best Male Comedian for Spy although I’m guessing it’s more for everything he’s done over the past few years. But The Comedy Awards is half about the awards and half about the surreal moments – Miranda, Greg Davies and Amir Khan driving off in a cable car came close as did the appearance of Educating Essex’s Mr. Drew and Mr. Goddard missing the Christmas Party to look awkward presenting a prize. There was also some excellent oddball pairings including Nick Hewer and Paloma Faith and Gareth Malone and Hilary Devey. But there were two standout moments the first was when Vince Cable came on and tried to do some topical humour which sunk faster than a lead balloon and the other moment was a very dour Freddie Starr looking like someone who has just received bad news at the doctors presenting an award to Angelos who did his best to turn around the situation and make Freddie seem a little bit funny. Overall a mixed night and once again the show ran over, my suggestion don’t give any awards to programmes that don’t deserve it and maybe don’t book the double act of Cable and Starr next year.
That swiftly moves us on to a sitcom which on the whole was sadly overlooked at the awards despite it winning the BAFTA for Best Sitcom earlier in the year. I’m talking about the beautifully observed and well-written Rev which doesn’t always tickle the funny bone but always presents a well told story and has a captivating and sympathetic lead performer in Tom Hollander. As this is Christmas week it was apt for the programme to end with a festive special. We join Adam Smallbone and his wife Alex on the last two days before Christmas a time of parties, dressing up as Santa for the ungrateful local schoolkids and trying to drum up as much money as his predecessor did to appease the dreadful Archdeacon who once again is on Adam’s back. Coupled with this Alex’s father Martin turns up after his other daughter’s children contract the measles and he is forced to spend the holidays with them. Martin wants an old school Christmas spent with his daughter, sprouts, turkey and The Queen and is so demanding on her time that she ends up missing Midnight Mass in which Adam snaps and hurls insults back at the drunks who attend the service simply to have a laugh. As with Rev there are some moments of turmoil, Steve Evets’ Colin turning on Adam for example, mixed in with moments of real humour like when the assistant at the local shop won’t allow him to buy all their mince pies in one go. Adam experiences both sorrow and joy here with a sad passing and some great news both of which wrap up two on-going storylines well. To see Christmas from a vicar’s point of view, and done in a realistic way – sorry Dibley, seems like a great idea for a special and indeed it was. The inclusion of Geoffrey Palmer as Martin added a little bit of sitcom royalty to the show and made it seem that little bit special while all the main characters arriving at the church one by one to end with a Last Supper tableau was a little cheesy you can forgive them because after all it is Christmas.
More comedy or perhaps it was satire as the BBC’s Dickensian season kicks off with a send-up of the books of Mr Dickens himself entitled The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff. The story kicked off with Robert Webb runing the titular establishment a kindly man who is good to the poor and also to his wife played by Katharine Parkinson. Then one day Stephen Fry’s evil lawyer Malifax Skulkingworm happens on him and informs him that the granddad he never knew he had had left a debt which Webb’s Jedrington must now repay. When he fails to do this his wife and children are thrown ito the debtors prison while Jedrington must find out why the lawyer wants to bring him down and it may have something to do with his surname Secret-Past. Along the way we have a gang of urchins led by Johnny Vegas, a trio of maiden aunts, a treacle addiction, Jedrington’s son growing a moustache to be the man of the family and David Mitchell popping as the eccentric Jolliforth. The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff was an odd programme on the one hand it was well made and well observed with some good deadpan performances from Mitchell and Webb and outstanding turn from Fry relishing his part as the Victorian swine. It was also good to see some veteran thespians sending themselves up such as Una Stubbs, Celia Imirie, Phylida Law and Judy Parfitt. On the other hand though I think at times it swapped plot for satire and sometimes there were so many references and asides that it spoilt the flow of the main story. So while I enjoyed the performances and the wit that was on show I think overall The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff needed to calm itself down a little bit in order for us to enjoy the jokes as well as the acting.
As its Christmas Time there was plenty more period stuff on display including ITV1′s one-off drama Just Henry. This starred Josh Bolt, best known for a bit part in Nowhere Boy, a 15 year old schoolboy trying to cope with a new family in the fallout of World War II. Charlie’s father had supposedly passed away and he was now living with his mother and her new husband played by Dean ‘Ray from Ashes to Ashes’ Andrews. Henry struggles to keep the memory of his father, who he believes to be a war hero, alive but has help from his paternal grandmother played by the legendary Sheila Hancock who disapproves of Henry’s mother getting remarried. Henry’s school life also turns upside down when he falls for new girl Grace and has a new teacher in Mrs Beaumont who encourages him with his passion for photography and the cinema. The plot then takes a turn when Henry’s father Joey returns and demands his family back but is he the hero that Henry remembers? From that description you can probably guess where Just Henry was going but for a pre-Christmas Sunday evening drama it worked a treat. I thought Bolt gave a good showing here having to basically appear in every scene, a daunting task for any young actor, he succeeds in making Henry a compelling character and one who is morally torn as the plot goes on. It helps that Bolt is ably supported by both Hancock and Barbara Flynn the latter of whom plays his firm but fair teacher while the former plays the grandmother and often steals the show. What I really liked about Just Henry was its references to 1940s cinema, such as The Third Man, to illustrate what is going on in the main plot and Charlie’s relationship with John Henshaw’s cinema usher is a good little touch in what elsewhere is a strong melodrama. Overall predictable but with incredibly strong performances throughout the cast and a dash of nostalgia thrown in for good measure, Just Henry did the job when it came to providing a heart-warming December tale.
Which is more than can be said for what followed on the other side a three part prequel to the All Creatures Great and Small franchise entitled Young James Herriot. Here the young Herriot, played by Ian de Caestecker who so great in The Fades, arrives at Glasgow Veterinary College complete with a Scottish accent he didn’t possess in the original show. As a trainee vet Herriot is incredibly trusting which is a shame as he is surrounded by a group of callous cads who try and allude him of both his dignity and his money. This bunch are led by the detestable Rob McAloon who is clearly at the college because he is being funded by his rich parents who want him to have some kind of direction in his life. The other lead student character is the brilliantly named Whirly Tyson who is the token female character because, as we are told early in the first episode, the Glasgow institution is the only one to allow women to train. Obviously then every time Whirly is on screen she is sprouting some sort of cliché about women’s rights and how she should be treated as an equal which is often met with misogynistic snarls from the teaching staff. Almost immediately the feckless Herriot falls foul of two of his lecturers the great Gary Lewis’ Professor Gurnell who seems to want to expel everybody in the college at one moment or another as well as Professor Richie with whom he eventually forms a grudging respect. The first episode is set around James trying to settle in while at the same time assisting a long-in-the-tooth farmer with a horse that is destined for the knacker’s yard and an innocent young lad who doesn’t want this to happen. Obviously stereotypes and clichés are fine in these sort of dramas as long as they look nice but on top of a predictable plot, Young James Herriot is full of browns and greys when we should be enjoying at least a bit of sunny settings to couple Herriot’s initial sunny enthusiasm. The young cast are ill-served by unflattering and underwritten characters while of the older cast members only Lewis and Natasha Little as Herriot’s landlady make a lasting impression. Overall a disappointing three-parter and one that needs to make some serious changes if it is to return as a full series.
If after reading that you’ve forgotten it’s Christmas I’ve got a staggering five shows left to remind you starting with the third consecutive drama from Sunday night – Lost Christmas. This one was set around Manchester in the build-up to the holiday and starred young Larry Mills as Goose a boy who lost both his parents years earlier and has since been living with his dementia-riddled Grandmother making a living by stealing and selling stuff on to his father’s old friend Frank played by Jason Flemyng. Frank comes across a man going by the name of Anthony, played by Eddie Izzard, when he goes out one night and he soon discovers that ‘Anthony’ has the ability to find what other people have lost. From there Goose, Frank and Anthony go on a journey to find a necklace which will hopefully reunite all three men with things they have lost and along the way come into contact with a young grieving couple and a heartbroken doctor. At first I have to say I wasn’t particularly taken with Lost Christmas after the initial opening shock the scenes following Goose around as he played an Artful Dodger type character didn’t really convince. But once Izzard became involved and the story really started going we began to see why the characters were at this point in their lives and what could change to prevent this from happening. There is a good little segment referencing Oscar Wilde’s The Little Prince which I quite enjoyed and the supporting performances from Christine Bottomley, Steven Mackintosh and Geoffrey Palmer, yes him again, were all superb. But it was Izzard who was the star here giving a very understated turn, for him anyway, as Anthony tries to discover his true identity. There were a couple of things that I didn’t like for example displaying the grandma’s dementia by having her butter a Christmas Card thinking it was a slice of bread was a bit insulting and the ending was a little bit too neat but overall this was a really enjoyable Christmas fairytale and one that should be aired every Christmas.
From there we turn to Channel 4′s Cutting Edge strand who this week gave us an insight into the world of competitive Christmas decoration in The King of Christmas Lights. The programme focused on three different sets of men hanging up their lights which all attract a crowd every year. The youngest – Carl didn’t really get much of a story but that’s because overall he was quite a sweet lad and he had help from dad Alan I have to say though I wouldn’t want to live next door to someone who’d set up a flock of mechanical singing penguins to serenade the neighbourhood for the next month. But the two main duos focused on were both based in Somerset – karaoke DJ and former Cruise ship entertainer Paul Tool and his friend and bus driver Chris up against brothers Paul and Lee Brailsford. The documentary informed us that this was a competition, even though the pair never met, as we saw one enter the same store as the others were leaving and later Paul and Chris lurk in the background evaluating the Brailsford boys’ efforts. Chris and Paul’s main story though involved trying to find a celebrity to switch on their lights initially they went after Nic Cage, who owned a property in the area, but after failing to lure him outside of his abode they went back to the drawing board which is a shame because I’m sure Cage could’ve got a film about evil European terrorists trying to destroy Britain with explosive novelty lights. The boys then had a toss-up between 1980s kids favourite Grotbags and Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis the former failed to reply to their tweets while the latter they dismissed for not being famous enough. Eventually they told us they had a sitcom star who was known for one thing and I was thinking Arthur ‘Good Moanin’ Bostrum but in the end it was John ‘Boycie’ Challis who came on with the full character voice launching into a diatribe about Marlene before obviously asking for his twenty quid. The Brailsfords meanwhile also charmed the neighbourhood but their display was much more gaudy than Chris and Paul’s despite the fact they got the bigger celebrity names in Wallace and Gromit. Although I found the stories engaging and amusing the main problem I had with The King of Christmas Lights was its focus on this endeavour as a purely boyish, and mainly single boyish, fad with all three sets of decorators being almost indistinguishable if you weren’t fully concentrating on the programme. I’m sure they could’ve found at least one couple or group of girls who are as nerdy and competitive as the males on display here it’s a shame because as much as I did enjoy this programme I was left thinking that we were told the main reason for dressing houses up like this was because of serious daddy issues.
Staying on Channel 4 who have also managed to turn Christmas into a family game show where a young engaged couple could win up to half a million pounds in a programme hosted by Vernon Kay. Unfortunately they didn’t win any money if they could actually put up with Kay for a whole week, he just came a standard, instead Danny and Naomi had to endure various challenges relating to their extended families. Firstly they had to move in to a secluded cottage come TV studio which was inhabited by creepy elves before they welcomed both of their immediate families. From what we were told Naomi’s parents, who were separated, were both fairly dour individuals her father Derek especially came across as a Scrooge, Naomi’s family were completed with her sister Lauren and Lauren’s son Ollie. Danny’s family was slightly larger as he had three very screechy annoying sisters who were all put out when they realised they couldn’t be bridesmaids at his wedding. Danny’s mum and dad also are people who consider themselves to be pranksters but are in fact quite tiresome and they are those kind of people who go completely overboard at this time of year. There are two ways in which the couple win money one is a task in which different members have to work together, in this case the four sisters won 60 grand by putting massive baubles on a tree, while the other is making the choice of another person to stay in the house. The first instance of this was when two of Danny’s sister partner and Lauren’s partner arrived at the house, Sammy’s partner Alan is worth the most money to the fund so he is picked to stay on despite the fact that the other two men only had a couple of grands difference between them and will miss spending the majority of the festive period with their kids, nice one Vernon! Then there’s the last temptation of Christmas in which each day one family member is picked and offered various gifs at a price most of which will take money from the prize fund. The first episode saw this happen as Sammy chose a holiday to Milan in exchange for two grand from the prize fund to be fair she had won 15,000 pounds of it but even still this was meant to cause arguments but it didn’t. Home for the Holidays is one of those programmes in which people are ritually humiliated in order to get money but there was nothing here to make me want to watch these people who were either boring or completely over-the-top. On top of that Vernon Kay’s smug smile is enough to put me off my Christmas goodies as is a programme that has been formatted to the hilt and I guess will gradually lose viewers as Naomi and Danny win more cash.
More Christmas couples now as Don’t Tell the Bride returned for a one-off special. This time we met Juan and Alice who met when she propositioned him on a dating website after she ran onto of money during a night on the town sounds like true love. But somehow they got engaged and like all the other brides on this show she has sacrificed planning her wedding in favour of getting £12,000 and Juan doing everything. When Alice says ‘I Hate theme weddings’ near the opening of this episode you just know that Juan is going to do and inspired by Alice’s supposed favourite book of all time he goes for an Alice in Wonderland themed wedding as her name is Alice, geddit? Juan’s mind then seemed to leap about ten times in the wrong direction as he links Alice in Wonderland to the statue in New York’s Time Square and suddenly he has booked seventeen flights to the Big Apple and asking guests to fork over £500 so he can find a venue and a cake. While the initial plans are quite astonishing the best parts of the episode comes when both bride and groom arrive in New York with Alice initially believing that she is just having her Hen Night Stateside. Juan meanwhile is low on money after booking accommodation and hiring a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy man to do up his empty space as the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party so he heads to a dodgy section of Chinatown to a cut price boutique and buys a cheap dress that apparently will, ‘show off her pins’. However when Alice sees it she comments that you could literally see her pubes so she chooses another dress at the same store that cost the same amount of money. Juan’s choice of lodgings also turned out to be an area of the projects in Harlem that wouldn’t look out of place in a show like The Wire something that his future mother-in-law ends up tearing up over. However it all comes well in the end as the bride realises the theme and in possibly the best episode of the series they got married in a very emotional ceremony. For aficionados of the programme the Las Vegas episode is often held up as the classic but this second transatlantic episode was equally as fun and terribly moving. I felt myself tearing up at the end and then realised I really should get out more.
However that realisation came just before The Only Way is Essexmass aired as the TOWIE gang coped with the losses of major alpha males Mark and Kirk and tried to create new stories between the characters that are left. The two major stories coming out of the last series, apart from Mark’s exit, was Mario attempting to forgive Lucy and Joey and Jess kissing at the Bonfire Party. The Lucy and Mario story went a bit haywire as Mario was still reminding her of her infidelity and also went off to Lapland with Joey, Chloe and the two Laurens infuriating his lover by going on holiday with her mortal enemy. The Jess and Joey saga was also scuppered by Sam, who also turned into a bit of a jealous cow, who questions the age difference between the pair but the end of the episode saw the two Js kissing again. However the best parts all featured Arg in the run-up to his birthday and the introduction of his grandmother Nanny Brighton to form a geriatric double act with Nanny Pat. Arg’s fantastic Tudor-themed party was the finale of this episode and saw the girls all push their boobs up while the men donned codpieces something Joey really didn’t understand so Arg went all history teacher to tell him. The sweet ending saw Arg, who in Mark’s absence has dubbed himself the King of Essex, telling Lydia that they should seriously find somewhere to move into together. It’s fair to say that Mark Wright’s departure and the subsequent axing of Kirk has left a dent in the masculine side of the TOWIE cast with only Mario, Arg and Joey carrying that torch to be fair the Italian Stallion has slightly improved at the constructed reality version of acting. The rumored axing of Lauren Pope, Sam, Maria and Harry seems a little odd when there’s a lot of new deadwood that could be cut including Perri, Billi and Cara. On the plus side Chloe’s role has been extended and her bizarre meeting with Santa was one of the highlights here, the woman who is more plastic than flesh is Towie’s best character at the moment and will hopefully be utilised next year.
OK that’s you’re lot till Christmas now and everybody have a good time and we’ll be back sometime after Boxing Day
Next Time: Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, Outnumbered, Lapland, Text Santa, Ab Fab and More