OK after all that excitement what was your favourite show of the Christmas period? Well we’re back on the blog with two editions covering all the programming starting here looking at the big shows from Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
And we start with the non-soap ratings winner I’m talking of course about Doctor Who. It seems weird to think of it that just a few years back we didn’t have an annual Timelord festive episode to get us through but now this seems like a tradition. It seems to be an important point for the Doctor Who Christmas Special not to talk too much about the previous series as a lot of people will be probably be watching this as a one-off festive treat and that’s what happened with this year’s The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe. As you can deduce from that title the story is slightly influenced by CS Lewis’ classic Narnia books in so much as it focuses on a family who have journeyed away from war-torn London to a deserted country manor and are soon transported into another world. Obviously the Arwell family are soon visited by The Doctor after he promised mother Madge, played by Claire Skinner, a return favour after she helped him years before when he crashed on Earth. Madge wants her children to have a great Christmas before she informs them of the death of their father, played by Alexander Armstrong evoking memories of David Niven, a fighter pilot whose plain was lost and he is presumed dead. The over-curious kids journey to a Narnia-like wood through he present that the Doctor had put under their tree but are soon under threat from some suspicious trees as well as from a trio of evil humans played by Bill Bailey, Arabella Weir and the tall guy one from Benidorm. Obviously when Madge goes in after her kids thinks start to get pretty predictable, pretty quickly and there’s a lovely happy ending. Thankfully after this seperate story things are set-up for the new series as The Doctor reunites with Amy and Rory after Madge tells him that nobody should be alone for Christmas. With the Tardis team back together it seems that 2012 will be the last year that the Ponds will be journeying with The Doc but I’m sure it will be an entertaining ride. As I have really enjoyed this past series of Doctor Who I was a little disappointed by this Christmas special but then that might be because it wasn’t directly meant for me. This was a fairly basic story that was maybe a little too weak and failed to stretch over its hour time limit and I also found the three comics weren’t as intimidating as they were meant to be. On the plus side the kids weren’t that annoying and Claire Skinner was great as the over-burdened mother and of course Matt Smith put in another energetic performance in this Christmas Special. I’m sure young fans of Doctor Who enjoyed this immensely but I’m afraid to say it just wasn’t for me.
Unlike ITV1′s ratings winner which has just been revealed to be the consolidated ratings winner when all the Sky Plus/iplayer nonsense is taken into consideration. That’s great to know because all Downton fans really need to have seen this episode which felt more like a series finale than a one-off Christmas special. At the end of the last series we saw Mr Bates being arrested for his first wife’s murder while Matthew Crawley’s intended was killed off by the dreaded Spanish flu only for Lady Mary to take off with the dastardly press baron Richard Carlisle who threatened to reveal her sordid night with the late Turkish diplomat. Bates’ trial didn’t go at all well especially when the waspish O’Brien was called as a prosecution witness along with Earl Grantham and Mrs Hughes. It was pretty clear that the jury would hear a guilty verdict but after some badgering of the easily swayed Minister of Defence got his sentenced reduced from death to life imprisonment. Meanwhile after some arguments between Carlisle and Mary, Robert finally found out why the pair were still together and told his daughter to flee to America for a bit leaving her horrid fiancée behind. Though at the last minute Matthew found out everything about Mary and finally admitted his love for her and they kissed in the snow before he quickly proposed and she said yes. There was also a one-off story involving Samantha Bond’s Rosamund and Nigel Havers’ fortune hunting cad which again was a Downton plot that didn’t end well. As well as laying the plot on thick there were some festive cheer there was the erection of the grandiose Christmas tree, the New Year’s hunt and the ball where the servants danced with the masters. Though the usual accusations of being ridiculous can be levelled at Downton this was the perfect thing for Christmas there was plenty of plot and festive cheer and I don’t think one fan couldn’t be happy with the final outcome an utterly perfect episode.
Sometimes the return of a comic classic is a mistake, see the last Red Dwarf for an example, but when it’s done right it can bring back memories of why the original was so great. Thankfully Jennifer Saunders picked the right time to resurrect her PR Guru Edina Monsoon in the age where self-promotion is everything and social networking is au-fait. Obviously Eddie is all-over the buzzwords like Twitter and Ipad but doesn’t really know anything about them and that’s where the beauty of the character lies. The first episode’s story revolved around Saffy’s release from prison after serving two years for a charge of fraud and it soon transpires that she was top dog inside. However that is only because she was befriended by the real top dog Baron who realised that Saffy had a connection to Patsy the woman to who she used to deal drugs and who owes her a load of money. The story then was that Eddie and Patsy had to get the money together and actually realised that Patsy was owed a small fortune in wages from her magazine as well as her pension. Meanwhile Baron was tormenting Saffy who had basically become her wife and was feeling more intimidated at home than she was at prison. Ab Fab’s real success though was the chemistry between its five lead cast members with June Whitfield in particular sparkling in her few scenes as Eddie’s mother. Also worth a mention is Eddie’s new love of The Killing a subtitled programme that Saffy was surprised to see her mother watching however the joke here was that Eddie really thought she had learnt Danish so when she tried to communicate with a dream version of Killing heroine Sarah Lund she found out that she was simply spouting Gobbledygook. I have to say I really found this episode of Absolutely Fabulous hilarious and everything was done right from the jokes to the pop culture references to the putdowns and it seems that with only another two specials that Patsy and Eddie won’t be outstaying their welcome which I feel is a good thing.
While we’re on sitcoms we had the return of David Jason to televised comedy on Boxing Day in The Royal Bodyguard. Here Jason plays Guy Hubble a buffoon who comes from a long line of buffoons including a father who accidentally almost killed Churchill. Hubble had been given the rank of Captain to keep him out of the way and assigned to the duty of car park attendant at Buckingham Palace however he saves The Queen from a disaster that he himself has caused and is therefore named the new royal bodyguard. This news is met with distain by both his superior officer and his junior a man who had worked in secret service for a number of years and had hoped to be promoted to the role that Hubble received. His job in the first episode was to make everything was secure in the hotel that The Queen was staying in even though he was unaware that one of the porters was a spy as was the attractive woman who just happened to ask him to dinner. From there even the most naive of viewers must’ve been able to guess what would happen next. The Royal Bodyguard draws obvious comparisons to Johnny English in so much as both feature men who have to protect the country and both probably shouldn’t be in the jobs that they are doing but the problem is David Jason is no Rowan Atkinson when it comes to physical comedy. Jason’s strengths always lay in delivering putdowns and verbally sparring with co-stars while the only real pratfall he ever participated in was that iconic falling through the bar scene where Trigger did a face. Jason seems a little bit out of his comfort zone as he stands on a window ledge in just his underwear or makes a mess of trying to eat a lobster in fact I feel he’d be more at home playing the superior role with another comic in the role of Hubble who I feel could do a better job. But not all the criticism can be levelled at Jason as nothing here is particularly original and The Royal Bodyguard feels very date indeed. When I informed the people I was watching this with that this was the start of a brand new series they seemed very surprised indeed and I would agree with them as even one episode of The Royal Bodyguard was enough for most people so I can’t possibly imagine where they’ll go with another five instalments yet to air.
Next we journey to the Brockman house for the Christmas special of Outnumbered where we find the family rushing their way through Christmas day in order to fly off to the Canary Islands for a holiday they paid for with some money they won. But this being Outnumbered there are many things to get through first including the younger kids not particularly wanting to go away, Jake suffering from a hangover, Karen’s toothache warranting a trip to the dentists and a visit having to be made to Sue’s senile father at the hospital before they finally make it to the hospital. There seemed to be a lot of the same old jokes here with Sue’s dad not recognising Pete and Jake at the hospital while Karen torments the young dentist who had agreed to work on Christmas Day. In fact it was Ben, who had really bugged me in the last series, who really changed here having quite a sweet exchange with Sam Kelly’s widower who was in the dentist’s waiting room. There was also the issue with Sue’s friend Jane who they had elected to house-sit for them and who herself was supposed to have an unsuitable former convict boyfriend but again we had the classic Outnumbered mix-up. As a massive fan of Outnumbered I have to say I was very disappointed with this Christmas special and overall I just felt it was a bit flat. I think they had the opportunity to do a traditional Christmas special in their own style but instead the family was separated for the majority of the episode and neither of the subplots really panned out. It was the Jane story which was perhaps the funniest but again you knew where this one was going so when the punchline finally hit it didn’t have the same impact. While there are no problems within the cast I feel that, in trying to do something different, writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin have penned a fairly alienating episode of their usually warm sitcom which I hope at least gets a chance to redeem itself before it comes to an end in the near future.
Another sitcom that aired a festive special over the Christmas weekend was Mrs Brown’s Boys a programme that I was never a big fan but which inexplicably got massive viewing figures here in the UK when it aired last year and especially for this special. For those of you who’ve never seen the programme before it concentrates around Agnes Brown a woman who is very family-orientated but foul-mouthed and portrayed by a dragged-up man by the name of Brendan O’Carroll. The Christmas special wasn’t much changed from the rest of the series and saw Mrs Brown swear every time someone told her it wasn’t snowing and also saw her anticipate having all of her family round the same table over Christmas. But it eventually became apparent that one or two of them were not going to make it and that the rest of her children had to decide which of them was going to tell her the truth. I think the success of Mrs Brown’s Boys really depends on how funny you would find a scene in which a man in drag hits a man pretending to be older than he is multiple times with a tin lid while the old man is wearing a crash helmet. To be fair Brendan O’Carroll does inhabit the role of Agnes very well to the extent that you sometimes forget it’s a man but the rest of the cast, with the exception of the ever professional Susie Blake, are very weak mainly because O’Carroll seems intent on casting his entire family in the supporting roles. While you could argue that this was definitely the most festive of the Christmas sitcom episodes I just found it stuck in the past with its constant need to break the fourth wall very gimmicky indeed and overall this was another programme that I do appreciate some people find laugh-out-loud funny but I personally find dated and not in the slightest bit amusing.
Sticking with the theme of family we move on now to Lapland a one-off festive comedy drama starring Sue Johnston as the matriarch of a large scouse family who all yet off to spend Christmas at the North Pole. The recently widowed Eileen has decided that this year she wants to do something different and therefore the family yet off to Lapland so her two younger grandsons can meet Santa Claus to the chagrin of her two other grandchildren both of whom are old enough not to believe in Saint Nick any more. Instead of a relaxing getaway the group are flung onto a coach trip like excursion with their own club rep who goes by the name of Jingle Jill. Eileen’s daughter Paula is concerned about her mother’s attitude and her not mentioning her father’s death while Paula’s husband Ray is more concerned about seeing the Northern Lights and getting one over on a colleague at work. Meanwhile her son Pete is portrayed as someone who likes one too many drinks and his wife Mandy is constantly complaining about spending Christmas away from home instead of be able to watch crap on TV. It does seem that Eileen might be getting over her husband when she connects with widower Maurice but it seems that this senior romance may not go anywhere either. Lapland was an odd programme which failed to live up to its initial promise and I felt very underwhelmed by the lack of closure in the final scenes. With Ray’s constant wish that he see the Northern Lights I think that it was pretty clear early on what the final scene would inevitably be. I feel that the highlight of the whole piece was Sue Johnston’s story of a woman whose life had been defined by her marriage trying to cope with her husband’s death. Her brief flirtation with Keith Barron’s Maurice was also an interesting subplot but like with so many of Lapland’s stories didn’t really go anywhere. The rest of the cast seemed to be stuck with clichéd characters which is a shame as both Stephen and Julie Graham seem lumbered with somewhat unlikeable roles and I also didn’t by Waterloo Road alumni Elizabeth Berrington and Stephen Ash as a married couple. On the plus side I felt the elder grandchildren bemoaning the fact that they had to do something because their cousin’s still believed in Santa very realistic and I thought Zawe Ashton was the funniest thing in the show as Jingle Jill the Club Rep who secretly wanted to have been assigned to sunnier climes rather than being stuck in Lapland. Overall a promising premise with a great performance from Johnston but one that had far too many characters and jumbled stories and also suffered from a lack of closure.
Something that the kids in Lapland would really have enjoyed was the early Christmas treat that was just one for the kids. I’m talking about The Gruffalo’s Child which is the follow-up to the entertaining animated adaptation of the original Gruffalo story from Christmas Day 2009. This time the Robbie Coltrane voiced Gruffalo has a child who he has forewarned about the devious mouse who tried to outfox all the animals of the wood by creating the fictional Gruffalo who eventually turned out to be real. Shirley Henderson’s meek voice seems a perfect fit as The Gruffalo’s child ventures out into the forest to find the mouse while constantly reassuring herself that she’s not scared of everything. Along the way she comes into contact with the animals from the first story including John Hurt’s Owl, Rob Brydon’s Snake and Tom Wilkinson’s Fox until finally coming into contact with James Corden’s Mouse. I have to say like with the 2009 adaptation everything seemed to have been done right with the direct quotes from the book being used and the rhyming structure appealing to young children in particular. Meanwhile for a big kid like me I thought the animation was a combination of old-school charm and modern technology and made the whole thing seem utterly charming. The voice cast all seemed utterly suitable for the roles in which they had been cast and all seemed eager to please and do the best job they possibly could and that’s why I feel that The Gruffalo’s Child was such a great choice for Christmas Day and why I hope that in another two years’ time we get the next instalment in this loveable children’s franchise.
Talking of adaptations of children’s classics we end this ride through Christmas weekend with the latest in a long line of takes on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. Having only just been adapted by the Japanese Studio Ghibli animation company we now find another live action version by the BBC who had previously adapted it in the 1990s where it starred Penelope Wilton and Ian Holm as diminutive parents Pod and Homily Clock. Here those roles are played by Christopher Eccleston and Sharon Horgan while their daughter Arriety has aged somewhat from the books and it is played by 21 year old Aisling Loftus. For the one person who has never read the story it focuses on little people who live under your floorboards and venture out when you’re asleep and borrow certain items from them. In this case the Clock family are living in the house of Granny Driver who has taken in her grandson and son-in-law following the death of her daughter. When Granny, played by Victoria Wood, sees one of The Borrowers she informs Stephen Fry’s sociology Professor Mildeye who goes to great lengths to try and capture the little people of who’s existence he has been convinced of for years. When Pod and Homily are taken by him it’s up to Arrietty to save them assisted by the loveable rogue Spiller and Driver’s grandson James. When I first heard that the BBC were going to adapt this story yet again my main thought was, why don’t they just leave my childhood alone? But thankfully everything was done perfectly here even if it wasn’t a true adaptation of the stories but rather an amalgamation of them with a lot of poetic license throughout. Everybody was cast perfectly here and the standout members of the cast have to be Loftus as Arrietty and Fry great as the eccentric professor who knows that he is right although I have to say I’m not quite sure if Wood is ready to play grandmother characters. The sets and the height differences were all brilliantly and seamlessly handled and my only criticism is the teen romance between Arrietty and Robert Sheehan’s Spiller which seemed to be a box-ticking exercise to lure in a specific audience. That is a minor quibble though as The Borrowers was perfect Christmas family entertaining as it was a mix of comedy, drama, family unity and startling sets and special effects and the perfect way to end this Christmas blog.
Next time on the Blog: Great Expectations, Earthflight, Felix and Murdo, Fast Freddie The Widow and Me and much more.