Hello and Happy New Year to everyone out there as I deliver a very BBC-heavy look back at the headline shows that aired over a very packed Christmas.
Over the past few years the Doctor Who Christmas Special has become the one constant in BBC One’s festive line-up. In a year in which the festive choices were rather uninspired I was personally looking forward to this year’s special mostly as I enjoyed the previous series immensely. I’ve particularly enjoyed the way that Peter Capaldi has breathed new life into the character and I felt his father/daughter dynamic with Jenna Coleman’s Clara has been terrific. With The Doctor and Clara parting ways at the end of the last series I was an unsure about just how writer Steven Moffatt would reunite them. In a rather seasonal manner it was Nick Frost’s Santa Claus that facilitated their reunion as they were soon swept off to a base on the North Pole. I think Moffatt decided to include Santa Claus as a character in the special as nothing else about ‘Last Christmas’ was particularly joyous. In fact Moffatt’s story had a lot in common with several horror movies most notably The Thing and Alien. This was due to the fact that it featured a number of scientists trapped on a military base with rabid mind crabs who were dead set on killing them by making them believe in their fantasies. One particularly dark scene saw Clara believe she was celebrating Christmas with her late boyfriend Danny Pink. It was only when The Doctor infiltrated this dream that she realised that she and Danny could never be together and that her own life would be rather empty. Moffatt kept the twists and turns coming though as in an Inception-inspired story the group found that they were in dreams within dreams. The final scene also let us know that, contrary to certain reports, Jenna Coleman would be returning for the next series alongside Capaldi.
I for one was a fan of this news as I think Coleman has been able to offer a lot more opposite Capaldi then she ever was against Matt Smith. It will be interesting to see if Moffatt decides to create another love interest for the pretty teacher or if she will just enjoy her time flitting around space with the middle-aged Doctor. As I alluded to, I felt Last Christmas was one the darkest of Doctor Who’s festive specials outside of those that featured a regeneration. Capaldi had his serious face on for most of the episode whilst Coleman conveyed the fact that Clara was still in mourning for Danny. The guest cast members also played it straight, with the possible exception of Faye Marsay as the gobby Shona. I liked Shona so much that I wouldn’t mind if she eventually reappeared on the scene to replace Clara in the role of the assistant. There was also a nice little nod to Doctor Who’s past as Michael Troughton, the son of former Doctor Patrick, starred as the base’s professor. Nick Frost meanwhile was a joy to watch as Father Christmas and appeared to be having a whale of a time dishing out the only joyous moments alongside all the horror film references. I would go as far as to say that ‘Last Christmas’ was a little bit too dark especially for the kids who have been allowed to stay up long after opening their presents. Whilst I’m a fan of a little light horror the light and shade balance in this episode was way off and I’d be happy next year to just see The Doctor decorate his Christmas Tree for an hour. That being said I’m still very excited about the next series of Doctor Who especially now we know that both Capaldi and Coleman are on board.
Following on from a third series that saw the departure of its lead actress Jessica Raine, Call the Midwife’s Christmas episode felt like a transitional affair. For example, seemingly out of nowhere, regular midwife Cynthia seems to have decided to take holy orders and departed the show at the end of the episode. For what is supposed to be a festive special, there wasn’t much joy to be had from the two central storylines, both of which dealt with quite depressing subject matter. Whilst the aforementioned Cynthia dealt with a mentally-challenged couple, Patsy and Chummy were called upon to reinvigorate a dilapidated mother and baby home. To bring a tad of festive cheer to proceedings, writer Heidi Thomas decided to give the more overtly comic characters a few lighter subplots. So for example, batty Sister Monica Joan went on the search for a patriotic Christmas tree whilst handyman Fred was worried that his identity as the Poplar Santa Claus had been rumbled. Thomas also gave long-time fans of Call the Midwife a nice treat by having narrator Vanessa Redgrave appear on screen for the first time as the elderly version of Raine’s Jennifer Worth. Though the actress’ appearance was welcome her narration in this episode was invalid as she was essentially remembering events she was present for. I also felt it was rather clunky that her husband Philip told her that she should right her memoirs down and I personally think that Thomas is better than this. What this episode of Call the Midwife told me is that the fate of the show is currently in flux and I think Thomas and her fellow writers need to decide what to do with the characters they have left. With Raine gone and Miranda Hart about to depart it falls upon the newer faces to get their day in the sun when series four begins next year. I’m just hoping that this Christmas Special was a simple blip and that the next run of Call the Midwife will see in a second chapter for this gritty serial drama.
Fans of Miranda Hart were in luck over Christmas as not only was she prominently featured in Call the Midwife but her own titular sitcom came to an end. It was clear that Hart wanted the final two episodes of Miranda to appeal to fans of the show so she filled in with crowd-pleasing moments. That being said the first of the double bill, which aired on Christmas day, had a rather dour conclusion as Gary informed Miranda that their wedding was off due to her lack of self-confidence. Thankfully, Miranda picked herself up again on New Years’ Day and realised that Gary was the man she wanted to be with. Packed full of clips from previous episodes, Miranda’s biggest fans got to see all of their favourite moments from days gone by. We also saw the return of the long-forgotten Clive who got married to the over familiar customer who populates Miranda’s store on a regular basis. The appearances of both Heather Small and Gary Barlow at Miranda and Gary’s wedding offered up more treats for the audience at home. But what really brought a tear to my eye was Hart’s closing speech in which she thanked the fans for their devotion and for making her sitcom a ratings winner. It’s really easy to be critical of Hart’s old-fashioned approach to comedy but I’ve always had a real soft spot for the programme. These final two episodes were a brilliant example of a programme that never took itself too seriously and whose cast were always willing to make idiots of themselves. Hart and her co-stars, most notably Patricia Hodge and Sarah Hadland, have to be proud for creating some of the most treasured characters in recent British comedy history. I personally don’t think this is the end for Miranda and in fact I believe that there’s a very real possibility that we’ll get another Christmas Special from the joke shop owner within the next few years.
It appears that a new festive TV tradition has sprung up recently as we have yet another adaptation of one of David Walliams’ children’s books. Following the success of Gangsta Granny and Mr. Stink, The Boy in the Dress tells the tale of fashion-mad Dennis who has to hide his passion for clothing from his boorish father and brother. Dennis later finds a friend in classmate Lisa who is an aspiring designer and makes a dress for him to wear at school. Posing as French student Denise, our young hero soon feels comfortable in his new attire but his rouse is exposed rather quickly. I believe that The Boy in the Dress is definitely Walliams’ most autobiographical work to date as it deals with a youngster who isn’t necessarily comfortable in his own skin. I found the adaptation of the piece to be perfectly paced as it led up to a heart-warming conclusion. Part of the joy of watching these Walliams adaptations are in seeing a fantastic child actor who in this case was young Billy Kennedy. Kennedy was the perfect choice to play this identifiable schoolboy who had hide his passion from his nearest and dearest. I felt that Kennedy coped as well with the slapstick moments as he did with the more emotional scenes in which Billy reminisced about his now departed mother. Walliams has also attracted a fine supporting cast to the piece most notably Jennifer Saunders, Tim McInnerny and Meera Syal all of whom add a bit of colour to the piece. The only piece of casting I didn’t particularly like was that of Kate Moss who appeared as herself on the cover of Vogue magazine. Aside from this piece of stunt-casting everything about The Boy in the Dress was expertly judged and once again I was wiping away tears of joy during the final football match. Thankfully there are more David Walliams books still to adapt and I full expect to see yet another one of the comedians’ novels on screen this time next year.
Two examples of heartwarming family fare now both of which focus on more mature love stories. We begin with Richard Curtis’ adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot; a book I actually remember reading when it was first released. The essential story of Esio Trot involves the lonely plant-loving Mr. Hoppy who is in love with his downstairs neighbour Mrs. Silver. Unfortunately, Mrs Silver only has eyes for one man; her tortoise Alfie so Mr. Hoppy devises a plan to make the love of his life happy. Curtis pads out what is a very thin tome into a ninety minute TV film by introducing James Corden’s narrator who adds a bouncy energy to the piece. He also creates Mr. Pringle, a boorish rival for Mrs. Silver’s affections who comes between them several times during the course of the programme. It’s no surprise that the man behind Notting Hill and Four Weddings has turned Esio Trot into something of a romantic comedy and that’s just what Curtis has done with Dahl’ story. I think by making Esio Trot a story about unrequited love that he’s created a story that will appeal to both adults and children. Whilst there’s a lot of substance for the adults, I reckon the kids will like all the hectic slapstick comedy employed by Curtis as a result of Mr. Hoppy’s purchase of numerous tortoises. Director Dearbhla Walsh has seemingly got to great pains to recreate Quentin Blake’s illustrations of the original book as every frame of Esio Trot is designed to within an inch of its life. But what really made Esio Trot work for me was the two performances from Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench who share brilliant chemistry throughout. It was particularly good to see Hoffman take a leading role here and showcase that he can still bring the best out of a character even though he’s now in his ninth decade. Overall I was completely charmed by Richard Curtis’ family tale and would love to see him adapt more stories from my childhood in the near future.
A similarly charming tale was provided by Victoria Wood who adapted her stage musical That Day we Sang for the screen. Based on a documentary Wood watched while living in a bedsit, That Day We Sang follows the story of the Manchester Children’s Choir who performed with the Halle Orchestra in 1929. The majority of Wood’s film took place forty years after the recording when the BBC taped a similar reunion documentary to the one that the writer recalls so vividly. The focus of That Day We Sang is original choir member Tubby Baker and his growing feelings for fellow choir member Enid. Wood plays out Tubby’s story over the two timelines as we follow his relationship with his mother in the 1920s as well as his middle-aged regrets in the 1960s. Just like with Esio Trot, That Day We Sang is a charming show that focuses on middle aged regret and love in later life. In his first TV role, I thought that Michael Ball shone as he brought an innocence to the role of Tubby which made his character endearing. Ball also share brilliant chemistry with Imelda Staunton who as Enid was a force of nature. Even though she didn’t appear in the film itself, Wood’s fingerprints were all over That Day We Sang especially during the musical numbers. Memorable songs included Tubby and Enid performing a Fred and Ginger number in Piccadilly Gardens as we all as Enid’s daydreams about being able to cast off her name. The dialogue bounced around perfectly and the whole piece built up to a crescendo of a final number that was perfectly judged. If I were to have one minor criticism then it would be that there was maybe one too many songs for my liking. But overall I feel that Wood has done what she said out to do, namely provide a televisual treat for the festive period.
A million miles away from both of the above programmes are the final two episodes of action comedy The Wrong Mans. Writers and stars James Corden and Matthew Baynton caught us unaware last year when they provided us with the first series of the kind of programme we’d never seen before. At the time I believed that The Wrong Mans was so perfect that it would be a shame to do any more and to an extent I feel I was right. Once again Sam and Phil found themselves in a number of tricky situations from being banged up in prison to coming into contact with a briefcase that contained a deadly package. The joy of the first series of The Wrong Mans came from the fact that Corden and Baynton were able to balance the dark elements of the plot with their own trademark British humour. Initially I feel they struggled to do this, especially during the prison scenes which at times felt too dark for what is essentially a comedy show. However, in the second episode, Baynton and Corden redeemed themselves especially during a set piece involving the old coke and Mentos trick. One of the problems for me was the fact that these episodes of The Wrong Mans were split up into two one hour shows rather than the thirty minute instalments that we’re used to. I believe that the pace of the story would’ve been better if the shows had been split up into four rather than the two that we were served up. One thing that hasn’t disappeared though is the chemistry between Corden and Baynton which is as strong as ever. Corden portrayed Phil’s wide-eyed innocence perfectly and I felt he was brilliant as the new confident version of his character when the two were working in Mexico. Corden’s funny man persona works well against Baynton’s more straight-laced Sam and I believe that The Wrong Mans is essentially a love story between their two characters. Ultimately I’m not sure if it was the right idea to bring The Wrong Mans back in this fashion but at the same time I think it was a good idea for Corden and Baynton to be able to say a proper farewell to their characters.