Our critic Paul Whitelaw loves TV, which is why he’s offended by the cheap offerings we so often get at Christmas, so here he offers a guide to tell the crackers from the cheese.
It’s Christmas time, and there’s no need to be afraid. Not my words, but the words of Messrs Geldof and “Ure”, who evidently didn’t have the Celebrity Juice Christmas Special in mind when they spoke so rashly back in 1984. No, they were thinking about famine in Africa. And Celebrity Juice wouldn’t be invented – or rather, torn from the bowels of Hell – for another 24 years. But the point still stands.
I love Christmas. I also love TV. You don’t have to be Einstein or Daphne from Eggheads to arrive at the implied conclusion of that statement. But Christmas TV is often about as much fun as an armed tax audit. Then again, it can often be wonderful. Would you like me to scratch my brains to present a few examples of both? Oh, all right then. Seeing as it’s Christmas…
BLACKADDER’S CHRISTMAS CAROL
The key things to remember when making Christmas specials are:
a) Please don’t make one if your show is appalling at the best of times;
b) For our Lord Baby Jesus’ sake, don’t forget to set it at Christmas;
c) When in doubt, give Dickens a shout.
Chaz’s immortal A Christmas Carol has weathered so many adaptations and wacky permutations, you’d think it’d be as knackered as Marley’s ghost by now. But unless it’s placed into the hands of a maniac, I honestly think you can’t go wrong with a lively variation on the story of Scrooge. Just ask Bill Murray, Doctor Who and The Muppets. And spare a kindly thought for Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, who in 1988 hit upon the inspired idea of subverting A Christmas Carol and their notoriously foul-hearted Blackadder character.
The conceit is simple yet delightful: unlike every other member of his lineage, Victorian moustache proprietor Ebenezer Blackadder is the kindliest man in the world. So naturally, everyone he meets takes advantage of him. In an attempt to enliven Ebenezer’s lonely existence, Robbie Coltrane’s Spirit of Christmas tries to remind him of how wonderful he is by showing him the wretchedness of his relatives throughout history. Inevitably, however, Ebenezer gradually comes to admire their wit and cunning, and ultimately reverts to egregious type.
Then at the height of their powers, Curtis and Elton were astute enough to realise that the best comedy Christmas specials give the viewers something a little bit different and, well, special.
It’s all too easy to assume that everyone at home will be too sozzled and indulgent to notice or care about a drop in quality. Just setting the action at Christmas and chucking in a few tired cracker gags won’t do. And that’s why Blackadder’s Christmas Carol is easily as funny as any of the more celebrated episodes – it was made by people who, in those days at least, always put quality first. It feels like a Christmas treat, while losing none of the sharp wit that made the regular series the classic that it is.
You can enjoy it for the first or umpteenth time on Christmas Day on BBC2 at 8pm.
MRS BROWN’S BOYS
In a way, this defiantly old-fashioned adult panto is TV’s brightest emblem of the true spirit of Christmas, seeing as the only reasoned response to watching it is a solemnly uttered “Jesus Christ.”
The argument in favour is that it appeals to an audience who have been ignored for too long, namely those overlooked millions who shriek with mirth at the very idea of a man in drag saying rude words and brandishing a vibrator. I can’t argue with its popularity, but I can argue that it’s a crass, depressing, lazy shriek of badly written garbage.
The only thing that could do more damage to our beloved comedy tradition of cross-dressing is if George Osborne personally demolished a trail of orphanages while dressed as Carmen Miranda.
Anyway, the BBC, in an extraordinary act of cruelty, have foisted not one but two Mrs Brown Christmas specials on us this year (Christmas Eve, 10.15pm, and Boxing Day, 9.30pm, BBC1). And wouldn’t you know it, they’re atrocious.
I’ll give the limelight-hogging O’Carroll one grudging point for at least trying to make them as Christmassy as possible. Mrs B writes a nativity play in which she stars as the Virgin Mary. There’s a bit of slapstick business with a Christmas tree, which is practically de rigueur. It’s not at all funny, of course, but it’s there.
Otherwise it’s dismal business as usual: every useless gag is painfully signposted from miles away, before the whole thing degenerates into a horribly cynical puddle of forced, fake, unearned pathos. Tonight’s Christmas Eve episode actually ends with Mrs B eulogising her dead dad to the strains of a music box. And this following 25 minutes of crude slapstick and “fecks” in which she’s portrayed as a thoroughly unsympathetic ratbag. They’d be better off calling it “Mrs Brown’s Schizoid Circus of Doom”.
Fundamentally, I’d like to see Brendan O’Carroll introduce the Christmas institution of announcing your retirement from television.
The family sitcom is, of course, perfectly suited to a Yuletide makeover. Shows such as C4’s Friday Night Dinner, which is set almost entirely within the confines of a single family home, practically demand that at least one episode be set at Christmas.
The inaugural special from Friday Night Dinner (tonight, 10:30pm) is pretty successful, in that it’s consistently amusing – it too involves a bit of comic business with a Christmas tree – and revolves around an awkward extended family gathering where everything goes pudding-shaped. This is practically a staple of Christmas-themed sitcom episodes, used in everything from The Royle Family (back this year on Christmas Day) to Peep Show and Outnumbered.
Sadly, our sole visit to the Brockman household this year (tonight, 9:35pm) suggests that the inevitable has finally happened: the young actors who play Ben and Karen are now too mature and self-aware for the comedy to work. Ben is alarmingly deep-voiced and large, and Karen – once the linch-pin of the show – has hardly any screen time at all. It’s as if writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin have realised she no longer works as a character. If you remove the eccentric charm of Ben and Karen from the equation, then Outnumbered doesn’t have any reason to exist. I suspect the fifth series next year will be the last.
Speaking of disappointing Christmases...
That Walford is at its most miserable at Christmas has become such a cliché, the most subversive thing they could do now is have a festive episode where everyone has a thoroughly lovely time and nothing bad or dramatic happens at all. Why, they could even fill it with loads of those hilarious comedy set-pieces the show is renowned for.
Every year the writers try to outdo the gloom and catastrophe of years gone by. The ultimate EastEnders Christmas would probably involve the residents of Walford being wiped out in a nuclear attack, except for lone survivor Phil Mitchell, who’d spend the entire episode wandering around the square in a charred paper hat screaming “WHY?!” while swigging from a bottle of contaminated vodka. Closing shot: Phil gently sob-singing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen to himself while rocking back and forward on his haunches in the remains of the Queen Vic. The closing credits play out over eerie, howling silence. BBC announcer: “And now on BBC One, time for some Christmas cheer with Miranda!” Is that what you want? Because that’s what you’ll get one day.