It was as if BBC1 and ITV had chartered choppers used for dousing forest fires. The sickly sweet potion of the long-established Call the Midwife mixed with that of The Larkins at Christmas, new but drawing on an old formula. What a mess! What a cocktail of niceness, kindness, cuteness and goodness!
The challenge from Call the Midwife had been: “Come and have a go if you think you’re soft enough!” The Larkins, stepping up to Christmas night primetime after one underwhelming season rebooted from The Darling Buds of May, didn’t seem quite ready and indeed may never be. For Call the Midwife rules this slot, the undisputed heavyweight - no - featherweight champ. Soft as a baby’s bottom, it’s televisual calamine.
As is traditional there were lots of bottoms in a festive tale involving breech babes and also leech brides. Lucille, marrying Cyril on Boxing Day, required the old wives’ worm-based remedy for blood clots after bashing an eye during her hen night. What, on Call the Midwife? Was there a stripper and did he need to borrow the convent’s baby oil? Hang on, you’ve got a continuity problem. The show has only reached the late 1960s. And anyway Sister Hilda was organising so it was “party games, fruit punch and a selection of savoury snacks”. Spoilsport alert!
Not in the punch but namechecked were condensed milk and castor oil. Every few minutes Call the Midwife slips in a nostalgia-pricking mention of a staple from an era when the nation wasn’t in the grip of a pandemic (and all we had to worry about were mumps, rickets, lungs filled with soot, Reds under the bed and the mass outpouring of grief caused by the Beatles' break-up).
A recurring scene was kids opening an advent calendar and being thrilled by the simple, postage stamp-sized images of Christmas. And in those moments parents all across the land scowled at their offspring lost in smartphone dwams and groaned: “Whatever happened to childhood?”
Heroin addiction, though, did figure. The moll of the leader of some wannabe gangsters had been avoiding clinics during her pregnancy, with the inevitable dire results when the baby was born. Call the Midwife doesn’t really do menace so these thugs weren’t scary and even mimsy Dr Turner was able to persuade him to embrace parenthood.
There was one continuity issue: were Christmas jumpers really a thing in the late 1960s? They also featured in The Larkins which is 1950s-set and which also attempted some crime. A burglar was at large, eventually confronted by Pop, laughing off the gun being pointed at him. The mutton-chopped patriarch, you see, can extricate himself from any social awkwardness or indeed life-imperilling situation with a mere tip of his hat and some gorblimey joshing.
Bradley Walsh as Pop will be the show’s draw for some and its drawback for others. His every line is a would-be gag or the direct lead-up to one and watching him gets incredibly tiring. Must he be “on” all of the time? Was it unchristian of me, when he cheerily announced “I’m off to save Christmas”, to hope that he might perhaps have been hit by even the merest scintilla of self-doubt, possibly of the scale and velocity of a Monty Python boot? You see, that would make him so much more interesting.
The Larkins had a stunning support cast including Robert Bathhurst from Cold Feet, Tony Gardner from Fresh Meat and Amelia Bullmore but the only drama here beyond the thieving concerned the threat to the local Nativity from a power cut. Call the Midwife had a Nativity, too, and the rival shows jousted with jokes about TV’s infancy - “the infernal television,” according to Mother Mildred. But the maternal nuns won the night, as they usually always do.
Might there come a more serious challenge, though, All Creatures Great and Small (Channel 5)? Nairn Academy old boy and former Highland League footballer Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot certainly deserves the chance to move from Christmas Eve to the big day after another exciting festive special.
Would Tristan finally pass his exams? Would Siegfried finally realise that life’s too short for blustering and harrumphing and get it on with Diana? Would housekeeper Mrs Hall finally realise that life’s too short for keeping her hair tied up in a cloche hat and feather-dusting to get it on with Gerald? (Hang on, why’s she changed out of that pretty dress and what happened to all the mistletoe? No! … ). And, most crucial of all, Tricki Woo seemed to have lost the will to live having been indulged with the finest hams and liqueur chocolates - I knew the feeling last night - and was in a coma. Could Mrs Pumphrey’s pekinese be saved?
What, you don’t think any of this sounds exciting? Then you don’t love this show like I do and you’re a fool. Near the end James brought a little bit more of Scotland to Yorkshire by halting his boneshaker at a dry-stone wall, sumptuous views all around, and carving a Cailleach - Queen of Winter - for the Christmas fire. This attempt to ward off evil won’t work - WW2 is coming. But better than the original, Robert Hardy and all? Sacrilegiously, yes.