THINK Christmas, think the past: that’s clearly what the TV channels do, with even the non-repeats bearing a familiar sheen.
As well as those two period behemoths Call The Midwife (Christmas Day, BBC1, 6:15pm) and Downton Abbey (Christmas Day, STV, 8:30pm) – both guaranteed to be blandly feelgood this year, the former because of its early timeslot and the latter because everyone complained about last Christmas’ death – there are plenty of other tales to help us feel that we’re living in the past, even as we unwrap the latest iPad or Xbox.
A Boxing Day indulgence, DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY, is based on PD James’ novel, a posh fanfic set six years after the end of Pride And Prejudice, when Elizabeth and Darcy’s happy marriage is rocked by crime. It’s a gorgeous production, with luscious shots of stately homes and countryside (the location filming is split between Chatsworth, used for the 1995 series of P&P, Castle Howard, best known for Brideshead Revisited, and Harewood House, up the road from Emmerdale).
The casting is good too, with Anna Maxwell Martin appealing as a calm, witty, more grown-up Lizzy (though flashback scenes show that she wouldn’t have worked in any adaptation of the original) and Matthew Rhys as a quite perfect Darcy, though the series frustratingly keeps them estranged, making their relationship seem a little dull (no wet shirt scenes here). Matthew Goode as a surprisingly sympathetic Wickham may be even better.
That said, while this is a fun treat for Austen fans, it doesn’t really feel like a believable continuation of the story and the anachronistic dialogue is wearying: characters are always insisting, “I’m fine,” or saying, “we need to talk”. But hey, ho: it’s Christmas.
Similarly backward-looking is the ubiquitous Mark Gatiss’ revival of the old festive ghost story tradition, with an adaptation of MR James’ THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH. From its delightfully cumbersome title to its gorgeous spooky library, this is a restrained and atmospheric chiller.
For more active shudders, THE WHALE is based on the true events of the sinking of whaleship the Essex in 1819, said to have inspired Moby Dick. Martin Sheen (as the older version, looking back) and Charles Furness play Tom, a teenage cabin boy aboard what turns out to be a disastrous and very wet voyage.
The whale turns out to be the least, if the first, of their problems as the sailors desperately struggle to survive in an open boat with no supplies. It’s unavoidably hammy in places, but a fascinating story, decently portrayed and enough to put you off your turkey.
But there is something on TV that’s very much of 2013: the unexpected gift of LIMMY’S SHOW CHRISTMAS SPECIAL!, which combines belly-laughs with a sense of the peculiarities, strains and lurking depression of the season. Poor Falconhoof tries to do good; stoner DeeDee undermines A Christmas Carol; and there’s a disturbing party. If it’s to be the last of this brilliantly original show, it’s a great send-off.