Xmas Viewing Part Two

Doctor Who Snowmen

Welcome back to Part 2 of the Xmas Viewing List and if you were largely uninspired by what is being served up this year in the days leading up to Christmas you can expect to find more disappointment as we rejoin the schedules on Christmas Day itself for what must surely rank as one of the most lacklustre line-ups of recent times. As always though there are a few gems to be found – almost exclusively, as per usual, on the BBC.

First up, mention must be made of one of the dullest traditions in the history of the British people – listening the Queen drone on in her latest hostage video to the nation. It’s clear that the annual recording of this must rank as her very least favourite moment of each year and it’s so mutually un-beneficial (the nation is bored watching while the Queen can barely stay awake while recording it) that it’s a surprise it hasn’t long ago been replaced by the sight of some freshly painted doors drying. As has been pointed out by others before, considering that she has had sixty years now of practice with this message you’d think she’d actually be a lot better at it. Instead, it’s a chore for both her and us.

However, the first thing to watch out for on Christmas Day is the BBC’s latest animation of a Julia Donaldson children’s book. Following on from the huge success of The Gruffalo two years ago and last year’s sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child (both repeated in the run-up to Christmas) this yuletide sees the BBC plundering another of her backlist titles and another genuine modern classic piece of children’s storytelling with a friendly witch in Room on the Broom. It just goes to show that you can always create something new which the nation will take to its hearts and which will quickly turn into a Christmas tradition each year. Donaldson’s charming works, brought to life in her books by the superb and heartwarming illustrations of Axel Scheffler (which are rendered skillfully in 3D animation for these screenings), are now something which both I and my son look forward to each year. And with so many classic works under her belt it’s highly possible that her slot in the Xmas schedules could run and run. Personally, I’d recommend the wonderful The Stick Man for next year which finishes at Christmas with an appearance by Santa to boot.

Another thing which didn’t exist in the Xmas programming until very recently, and which it would now be inconceivable to have Christmas without, made its first appearance back in 2005 and has graced the line-up with a new installment every year since. Yes, for the eighth year on the trot we have a brand new episode of Doctor Who to look forward to. Almost always these are actually very Christmassy in flavour and this year is no exception as the Doctor takes on malevolent sentient Snowmen in Victorian London with an evil Richard E Grant skulking around. To be honest, the yearly Xmas episode of Doctor Who, and the series in general, has been a lot less enjoyable ever since Russell T Davies handed over the reins of running the show to his successor, Steven Moffat, but that won’t stop me looking forward to it all the same and with a new TARDIS interior promised, as well as a revamped title sequence and theme music (hopefully much better than the rather dull versions of the last revamp when Moffat took over), it’s going to be the most eagerly anticipated show of the day in my household. Oh, and Sir Ian McKellan – Gandalf himself – voices the big baddy while Matt Smith looks set to continue his excellent tenure as the Doctor with a brooding performance following on from losing his two companions at the end of the last series.

And, well, that’s just about it really. Two potential hits to look forward to and just about nothing else. The BBC will no doubt score enormous ratings for their Xmas Strictly Come Dancing and the social meltdown that is the annual gloom and miseryfest of Eastenders but the schedules after Doctor Who are skewed heavily away from entertainment for the whole family and with the addition this year of a seasonal sprinkling of Call the Midwife the kids may as well just traipse off to their rooms with their new toys following the end titles of Doctor Who.

So, what else is there? Well, another Christmas tradition is a slice of James Bond. This year, there’s no movie to be found but we do have a repeat of a Top Gear special looking at the cars of James Bond. To be honest, car chases in movies bore me rigid. Probably even more rigid than cars in general normally bore me. Though perhaps not quite as rigid as Top Gear‘s neanderthal laddish obsession with cars and driving them very fast as somehow being an expression and barometer of your manliness. Richard Hammond ineptly presenting a show on cars – Bond or otherwise – while revving up engines because he’s a real man must surely rank as the thing I want to watch least this Christmas. In fact, perhaps I’ll make my way over to You Tube instead and re-watch this superb evisceration of Top Gear in general and Richard Hammond in particular by Stuart Lee. Infinitely preferable.

It may be a repeat but the only other real highlight of the day is Blackadder’s Christmas Carol on BBC2. It’s simply perfect festive viewing, superbly written and performed and it somehow manages – almost impossibly, but with consummate skill – to perfectly marry both seasonal warm-heartedness and biting cynicism into a satisfying blend of timeless comedy that is sure to leave you with a glow and a smile upon your face. Such a pity though that for many years (and on DVD as well) the BBC have been screening an edited version of this special which, following Baldrick’s revelation that due to high Victorian infant mortality the part of Jesus in the nativity play has had to be filled by a dog, omits the line about the kids looking forward to nailing the dog up at Easter.

And so what do ITV have in store for us? Damn all, really. It’s one of those certainties in life that ITV gets utterly annihilated by the BBC each and every year in the Christmas ratings battle. Even their normally reliable flagship of the Christmas episode of Coronation Street has not only been losing out to Eastenders but also to Doctor Who. In recent years it’s almost as though ITV have given up the ghost and just thrown in the towel and this has never been more evident than this year. Living in the Ulster Television region of ITVland I’m treated not only to the usual pawn sacrifice of Emmerdale against Doctor Who but – incredibly – an ordinary episode of a regional opt-out programme: Lesser Spotted Ulster. It’s difficult to even begin to fathom what was going through the mind of the UTV scheduler here. Instead of a Christmas special of something or a family orientated programme to chase after the Christmas Day family audience we’ll just show a regular episode of a minority interest series about a boring man wandering around the countryside talking to old codgers about making walking sticks and basket weaving. At prime time. On Christmas Day. They may as well just screen a test card saying, “Programmes will return in half an hour. Do not adjust your set”. The Shove Ha’penny World Championships would be a better choice. Are they thinking, “We may as well just shove any old guff out as everyone will be watching Doctor Who“? It’s moronic scheduling.

Of course, ITV do have one major weapon up their sleeves for Christmas evening and that’s the latest Downton Abbey Xmas Special. To be honest, this will, with a degree of certainty, be much more far-fetched than anything witnessed in Doctor Who earlier. ITV, who had fallen way behind the BBC in the making and selling to America of period dramas in recent decades have suddenly stumbled upon a winning formula which is, nevertheless, utterly unwatchable. Masters of the vacuous serious drama as well as being masters of ridiculous pantomime-like characters and plotlines in their soaps, ITV have blended the two together and sprinkled posh accents and frocks on top to provide unmissable viewing for their target demographic – i.e. those who wouldn’t know a good drama if it kneed them in the groin. Julian Fellowes, who has a proven track record with the movie Gosford Park of providing immaculately produced period settings over the top of an utterly shallow and empty script, has opened up a new genre for ITV to milk – the period soap. For that is all Downton is – a soap opera, more ridiculous than any other on TV, but with upper class accents.

Strangely enough, ITV3 are far more watchable on Christmas Day by giving up the ghost even further and showing little else but Carry On movies. In fact they’re even screening one of them twice on the same day, but at least it’s the excellent Carry On… Don’t Lose Your Head. Carry On movies were a staple of my childhood TV schedules and many of them are fine examples of bawdy British comedies of the time, ridiculous double entendres and all. Their real peak was in the mid sixties when they produced a run which included Don’t Lose Your Head, Carry On Cleo and Carry On Screaming (all of which are shown over the holiday period) which combined their saucy humour with excellent production values. However, by the mid seventies they were a cheaply made embarrassment parading increasingly blue humour in a way which made the participants look like rather pathetic dirty old men. Some of the finer black and white and colour movies are on show though on ITV3 this Christmas and the truly abysmal penultimate movie, Carry On England is shown on BBC2 on 30th December.

Boxing Day brings more comedy of the kind that forces me to scratch my head wondering who it is actually for. We get the second Mrs Brown’s Boys special of the season and also the beginning of a new series of Miranda. If you get caught in someone’s house (probably an elderly relative) and are forced to endure that particular double bill, I can only advise you to remove all sharp objects from the vicinity, including your keys, for fear of you being tempted to gouge out your own eyes.

Channel 4 provide some movie escapement as they cleverly run two sequels over the holidays. The first is the second part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the first was on Christmas Day) and the other is the first part of the original Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. In truth, Dragon Tattoo is only average and the first movie in particular removes huge expanses from the novel which leave the main characters seemingly very lacking in motivation. However, this is exactly the sort of thing which should be on at Christmas – series of films which encourage you to come back the next night for more of the same.

And speaking of which, we arrive at what easily looks like being the best of TV shown on Boxing Day and which triggers a mini season of movies – BBC2’s showing of The Girl which examines the relationship between Sir Alfred Hitchcock and the last of his great screen blonde ice maidens, Tippi Hedren. With Toby Jones and Sienna Miller playing the two leads this is a fascinating subject matter and comes just ahead of the major Hitchcock biopic starring Anthony Hopkins next year. While next year’s movie will focus primarily on the making of Psycho this one obviously homes in on the two back to back movies Hitch made in the 60s starring the girl he plucked from obscurity before throwing her back there and holding her under contract without ever using her again, The Birds and Marnie. These are two very fine movies from Hitchcock – his last great works in fact with only the mixed Frenzy being worthy of his name after these two releases – and the story behind them, with the slightly seedy and manipulative older Hitchcock trying to control a pawn he has created, being a compelling subject.

Following on from The Girl BBC2 are screening that night both his brilliant version Daphne Du Marier’s Rebecca and his very overlooked black comedy Mr and Mrs Smith. Further Hitchcock movies from his earlier period, including The Lady Vanishes, will be shown on the 28th December  and ITV will even get on the act with another Du Maurier/Hitchcock work, and subject of BBC2’s drama, The Birds. It’s about time that broadcasters started theming their schedules this way over the festive season again. When I was younger I was drawn into the works of so many actors and directors by the fact that their films would be stripped across a number of evenings (albeit often in graveyard slots). It seemed that each year brought several seasons of films starring the likes of Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Woody Allen, Jack Lemmon and many others. You’d also get runs of Marx Brothers, Abbot and Costello and other old comedies. It was an education, creating an interest for me in the movies as I scanned the Radio Times that wouldn’t have been there if they were one-off movies and Hitchcock seemed to always be represented with at least a handful of movies, if not a full-blown season. It created viewer loyalty and it seems bizarre that the broadcasters seem to eschew this handily available tool for getting people to watch their particular channel over Christmas. They always increase the number of movies they show so why not, within such an increased wealth of film broadcasting, create a little space for memorable runs of movies rather than treating each as a one-off which has to fight all over again to gain attention.

Fortunately, this year seems to see something a slight return for this format of old with Hitchcock, Charles Laughton, the screen goddess strand, and two trilogies being represented. However, several months ago I took maters into my own hands, fully expecting that the schedules would be even worse than they are and devoid of good movies. I set about creating my own themed seasons and so the only four Hitchcock DVDs I didn’t own were ordered up cheaply, four Fritz Lang movies were purchased and a few Terry Gilliams were earmarked on my shelves for re-viewing. Into this mix the brilliant new box set from the BFI, Ghost Stories for Christmas, featuring all the episodes of the BBC’s (mostly MR James) ghost story adaptations from the 60s and 70s, was acquired in order to provide some spcetral chill and an old Hollywood ghost movie starring Ray Milland, The Uninvited, was added to my own plans. Throw in some Peter Cushing Sherlock Holmes stories from the 70s BBC box set and I had my own schedule worth looking forward to. Who needs the uninspiring offerings from the main channels when you can do it yourself? Sadly, it’s what we’re more or less forced into doing if we want something decent to watch because this year is a big disappointment which, save for some superior children’s programming and some traditional repeats, has been lacking somewhat in vision.

And so that is Christmas 2012 in TV world. After Boxing Day it’s not worth mentioning much else save for the annual disappointment of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny on New Year’s Eve and the reliably observant and funny Charlie Brooker with his review of the year which, frustratingly, isn’t shown in Northern Ireland until Wednesday 2nd January.

Normal service will soon be restored with the blog soon and first up will be a number of half completed and late articles on shows from the last year such as the BBC Monty Python drama Holy Flying Circus, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, the BBC’s Rolling Stones at 50 strand of programming, a farewell to Ceefax and analogue TV, the final series of The Thick of It and the slightly crazy last series of The Killing. Until then, Ho! Ho! Ho! and here’s hoping you find your own way of enjoying what TV has to offer over the holidays.

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