Welcome back to this holiday edition of This Week in TV and firstly I’d like to say Happy Christmas to all of my readers and I hope you had a good one.
We start this look back at the best that Christmas TV had to offer by focusing on the most anticipated programme of the festive season and this is of course Doctor Who. Of course this anticipation is partly based on the fact that we know we’re going to see the first glimpses of Jenna-Louise Coleman as new assistant Clara Oswin, after appearing as a slightly different character in The Asylum of the Daleks episode, while also seeing the affect that losing Rory and Amy has had on The Doctor. It appears that the impact has been huge as The Doctor has been sulking since his former companions left him with his only friends being former characters including Madame Vastra and Strax who realise that he needs to move on. One night while hovering over Victorian England The Doctor encounters Clara while she leaves her job as a barmaid and attempts to erase her memory however he later realises that her memories are somehow creating killer snowmen. This is a problem as Clara’s other job is as governess to the children of a widower who clearly has the hots for her and her these snowmen she creates could well create problems for her childcare career so The Doctor encourages her to imagine them melting. The case of these snowmen intrigues The Doctor enough to get out of his slump and traces their origin back to Richard E Grant’s evil Dr Simeon who himself is being controlled by super-computer The Great Intelligence voiced by Ian McKellen. As the story goes on Clara and the children continue to be terrorised by the snowmen which leads The Doctor to ask Clara to help him and essentially invites her to become the new companion after showing her around the TARDIS. However as he gets to know her some more certain things she says, including talking about souflees, remind him of Oswin who he met during Asylum of The Daleks. Tragedy strikes when Clara dies after being attacked by the snowmen however after learning of her full name The Doctor realises that Clara and Oswin are one and the same so goes off in the TARDIS to find her. Personally I have found the last two Doctor Who Christmas Specials to be fairly lacklustre as they haven’t really connected into the plot of the main show but instead of been parodies of A Christmas Carol and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe however luckily this year was different. Here we got a reason for a new companion, the explanation of the links between Oswin and Clara and a decent bad guy in Richard E Grant and The Killer Snowmen. We also saw Matt Smith at his best and I for one really believed he was still going through the grieving process and to me he continues to grow as an actor during his time as The Doctor. Overall this was the best Doctor Who Christmas Special since David Tennant’s last episodes and it also makes me look forward to the spring episodes of this series a little more.
This Christmas also saw the return of The Royle Family after a year’s absence, mainly because Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne forgot to write an episode last Christmas, who as always are worrying about food and what’s on the TV. The special this year was based around three different stories the first being Jim’s win on a scratch card which he kept to himself however when Barbara later found out she was annoyed that her husband could keep a £100 win to himself. Barbara was doubly upset when she lost her wedding ring something Jim failed to care about and once again she felt like he didn’t care about their marriage. Dave and Denise were also having issues after as he was experiencing problems with his ‘dickey’ which the rest of the family found absolutely hilarious. Finally neighbour Joe was on the search for a new woman and put an ad in the local paper looking for a ‘vacant lady’ however he had a number of disastrous dates along the way. However as it always does on The Royle Family things worked out for all three with Jim revealing he kept the money a secret in order to buy Barbara a new ring while Joe found love with a woman who was very similar to his late wife and Dave’s dickey even started working if very briefly. I personally I have a real soft spot for The Royle Family however even I have to admit that this special seemed lazy at times and relied on some easy gags to get laughs. The problem is that the original Royle Family was all based in real time however since it started being based over a number of days it’s lost some of the charm that made it so likeable in the first place. Having said that this was still incredibly funny and I greatly enjoyed the gags about Joe’s search for love and Dave’s issues in the bedroom. The cast also have great chemistry after all these years however it’s a shame that Ralf Little couldn’t make an appearance here while it seems that the late Geoffrey Hughes has also been replaced by Lorraine Bruce’s Carol. If The Royles are to return in 2013, which is certainly possible, then they really need to remember what made the show so great in the first place and not rely on the fact that the viewers are simply going to tune in solely based on nostalgic memories.
Talking of nostalgia it’s something that Call the Midwife has in droves and the programme, which was the BBC’s biggest drama hit in years, got its own Christmas special here as Jenny Lee recounted her first Christmas in Poplar. Instead of delivering babies though Jenny’s Christmas is involved in finding out exactly why the notorious vagrant Mrs Jenkins, played by Benidorm’s Sheila Reid, is always hanging around whenever there’s a home birth going on. As Jenny digs further she finds out that Mrs Jenkins had many children who all died when they were in the workhouse however through continued visits to Mrs Jenkins she improves her life, health and even gives the former seamstress a new lease on life after having her make costumes for the local nativity. Meanwhile neighbourhood girl Lynette looks to have interest in nursing after poking her nose at the various pamphlets at the birthing clinic but in actuality she is pregnant a secret she is trying to keep from her mother. Lynette uses all the information she has to deliver the baby herself before planting her newly born son on the steps of Nonnatus House where she knows it will be well-cared for and indeed when the nuns find the baby they instantly take a shine to him. Later when the doctor examines the baby he realises that if they don’t find the mother soon enough then she will start to become infected and indeed Lynette later collapses while playing the angel in Chummy’s nativity play. Though her parents are firstly ashamed at having their daughter become a mum at such an early age they later come round to the idea and look after their grandchild as one of their own. To counterbalance the stories of vagrant women and teen pregnancy we have the aforementioned nativity play which stresses Chummy out more and more each day due to the fact that the mayor of Poplar will be in attendance. Despite everything going wrong all of the characters band together to help Chummy and as is always the way on Call the Midwife it is only when everybody helps each other do things turn out alright. This Christmas special basically included everything that made Call the Midwife such a success with the usual picturesque squalor, depressing moments and Miranda Hart comedy foibles on display for all to see. My only worry is that not a lot of people would want to see a full on birth scene while they’re still attempting to digest their sprouts or want to watch a young girl collapse after giving birth on her own. Luckily it seems most of the nation did as Call the Midwife was the most-watched non-soap on Christmas Day which will probably mean that series two of the drama will once again be a monster hit.
Turning to the Sunday before Christmas now and a family-friendly programme that was one of my festive highlights that being Mr Stink based on the children’s story by David Walliams. Mr Stink focuses on the life of 12 year old Chloe who is an outcast both at school and at home where she is constantly ignored by her aspiring politician mother who favours her high-achieving younger sister over her. Chloe’s only ally is her father, here played by Johnny Vegas, a man who really cares for his daughter and wants her to find some friends of her own. One day Chloe meets tramp Mr Stink with the two outcasts bonding and she eventually convinces Stink and his dog Duchess to move into her family shed a plan that works well until Stink interrupts a television interview involving Chloe’s mother. After this Mr Stink becomes a star in his own right eventually being asked to run as an MP by the Prime Minister, played by Walliams himself, however he turns him down by pointing out all of the hypocrisies involved in the world of politics. Though Mr Stink decides not to become a part of Chloe’s family on a full time basis his influence lives on as Chloe’s mother encourages her a lot more and relaxes after being let go from her party. Mr Stink was a joy to watch from beginning to end and it really reminded me of the Christmas specials that I used to watch when I was young which, like Mr Stink, were often adapted from children’s books. Though the book appeals to kids, due to it having a twelve-year old protagonist, it also has a lot to say on how we treat the homeless as well as the lies that politicians tell. In terms of the cast Hugh Bonneville was a perfect choice to play the titular tramp even if he is occasionally upstaged by Britain’s Got Talent’s Pudsey as Duchess the dog. Meanwhile Sheridan Smith and Johnny Vegas are also great as the parents, even if they’re not a totally believable couple, and Walliams is appropriately slimy as the prime minister. The star of the show though is undoubtedly Nell Tiger Free is just that mainly because she looks like a normal 12 year old girl rather than a child actor. She is a captivating presence and you really feel for her when she is bullied by her classmates or chastised by her mother for daydreaming. The only criticism I have of Mr Stink is that I wish it could’ve been longer but overall this is a really captivating traditional family story and I really believe there should be more of this kind of programme on over Christmas.
Following on from Mr Stink was Loving Miss Hatto a drama written by, but not starring, Victoria Wood based on a story of musical fraud that she first heard about while listening to Radio Three. The one-off drama is essentially a love story which starts when aspiring record producer Barrie falls in love with talented but nervous pianist Joyce Hatto with the two falling for each before later marrying. After producing one very successful record her career suffers setbacks when she miscarries and then later when Barrie is imprisoned after failing to pay import tax on a number of foreign radios. The drama then switches to 2002 when Joyce, now suffering from cancer, realises her playing days are behind her however when she least expects it her career experiences a resurgence thanks to renewed interest in her records from internet fans. As Barrie sees how happy his wife is after this new success he decides to increase her joy by copying a classical recording but pasting it the way she would play it and then attributing this new recording to her name. As Barrie releases these new CDs through his revived record label Joyce finds fame and is interviewed by Radio 3 before later being profiled by Gramophone magazine. The couple’s deception though looks to have been discovered after American musicologist Brian Ventura played Joyce’s new recordings against the originals and found hers to be copies. Barrie was able to keep his deceit a secret until Joyce’s death in 2008 however later he decides to come clean to a music journalist however to protect the good name of his wife decides to tell the press that Joyce knew nothing of his deception. It is clear that Wood has great affection for the story that she is telling throughout the drama however for me she spends too much time telling the story of the young Joyce and Barrie before getting to the real meat of the story in the tale of the couple’s musical fraud. My enjoyment of the second half of the drama may have been increased by the fact that Alfred Molina and Francesca Annis were absolutely stunning as the central couple both adding a certain pathos to their performances. Ultimately I don’t feel as if Loving Miss Hatto will be as critically acclaimed as Wood’s previous script for Eric and Ernie but that’s not to say it was an inferior programme in any way. I do feel though if this was an uneven tale which I initially found it hard to get to grips with and only really enjoyed in the second half thanks to the more intriguing tale and the performances from Annis and Molina. Overall though Wood has proved once again that she is almost as accomplished a dramatic writer than she is a comedian and actress and it is clear that through her two single dramas that she has added yet another string to her already crowded bow.
We end this week with a few of my thoughts on the two part finale of Merlin which came to an end on Christmas Eve after a very successful five series. The penultimate episode culminated in the predicted battle between good and evil with Morgana’s magical forces taking on the knights of Camelot with Mordred being killed off in the process. Personally though I found it an interesting choice for the final episode to be almost a road trip in which Arthur learnt the truth about Merlin’s magic as the wizard tried to save his king’s life. Initially upset about Merlin keeping this secret for all these years he ultimately saw all the good he did for him and things went a bit Brokeback Mountain once the pair started complementing each other. As most now know Merlin wasn’t able to save Arthur’s life however he allowed his legacy to live on as he became the ‘once and future king’ while Gwen took over the throne. The one element of the finale I wasn’t a fan of was the fact that Morgana, who had been presented as a major threat for so long, was defeated by Merlin so easily and I thought there’d be a more monumental battle between the two then their actually was. Having said that Merlin has been enjoyable ride and has entranced parents and children alike so I’m just hoping that whatever the BBC decides to replace it with is as well-produced and well-acted as this enjoyable family series has been.
Next Time: Ripper Street, Doors Open and Celebrity Big Brother