TV preview: The Making of a Lady | Bad Santas

The Making Of A Lady, ITV
The Making Of A Lady, ITV
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WHILE “ITV drama” is no longer the contradiction in terms it used to be – this year, they’ve clearly been making an effort – they still have a tendency to underestimate their audiences.

Because their new costume drama, The Making Of A Lady, has had its title rudely demoted from that of its source, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original novel The Making of a Marchioness. Despite achieving a cult following under that name since it was republished recently by Persephone Press, who specialise in forgotten women’s classics, presumably ITV thinks that audiences would be too dumb to understand such a long word.

Don’t they know that the niceties of aristocratic titles are the meat and drink of costume drama fans? There’s nothing a bonnet addict likes more than the chance to learn how a Duchess must precede a Marchioness into dinner, yet both can snub a mere Honourable. And isn’t the whole point of the story that young Emily, the poor but noble heroine, is ALWAYS a lady, in the Victorian sense, but must learn how to live up to the position she marries into?

Oh well. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, except that the title change is in some ways indicative of the adaptation’s lack of imagination. What was a charming fairytale with a satirical edge, from the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess, has become a dull, predictable tale of goodies and baddies which even a Victorian matron would surely have found a bit tame.

The initial part of the story is rushed through, as put-upon Emily, secretary to Joanna Lumley’s dowager dragon – and there’s not nearly enough of her, sadly – is suddenly whisked from her respectable, bare lodging rooms by the Marquis, who needs to marry and reckons she’ll do as well as anyone. It’s not very romantic but then, love is all very good, he says, but what about security?

She’s quickly installed at the other end of a vast dining table ten feet away from her new husband, in a vast mansion with snooty servants, and told to get a move on “doing her duty” – that is, producing an heir. And in a month when a certain other Duchess has been congratulated on her likelihood to do the same, that somehow doesn’t seem as outmoded as it should.

Things seem set up for Emily to realise she’s made a terrible mistake in exchanging love for security, but what do you know: the marquis is actually just super, as well as super-rich. He’s a wee bit old for her, but he’s played by Linus Roache so that’s OK. He has some dodgy relatives, mind you, who creep in when he goes off to do his own duty, shooting foreigners or something.

This is not a psychological drama like Jane Eyre or Rebecca, but a gentler story and, for stretches, quite dull. The shady looking people turn out to be bad, the lower classes are loyal, there are secret hidey-holes and sexed-up, drug-taking evil Indians and extremely predictable twists. It’s all rather like a posh panto.

But then, so is Downton Abbey, and plenty of people don’t seem to mind as long as it involves titled people wearing nice frocks and having meals served to them in stately homes. If you turn your brain off, put your feet up and have a glass of eggnog to hand, you might find this acceptable pre-Christmas viewing.

And speaking of the season, by the time I’d watched Bad Santas, I had written the word “Santa” in my notes so many times, it began to look like gibberish: Santasantasantasanta. There is an awful lot of relentless ho-ho-ho-ing in this amiable programme too and a man named Johnny Sausage (“people call me that to differentiate from other Johnnys”) who is always referred to by his full name, for obvious reasons.

Not one for Christmasphobes, then. The show is about the Ministry of 
Fun, described as “Britain’s top Santa agency” which instantly makes you wonder how many others there are, and what they do the rest of the year. Well, actually, they are a promotions company. And they’re probably quite good at it, as they’ve managed to become the focus of this two-part series promoting themselves.

The boss, James Lovell, believes they not only have the most but the best Santas. This year, for telly purposes, he is giving some bad Santas a second chance: people who have been out of work for a while, or have been in prison, but who will be trained to be sent out to stores. The training consists of memorising reindeer names, doing face-painting, practising the laugh, learning about popular toys and how to say Happy Christmas in different languages.

“They’re a right unlikely motley crew,” says James’ colleague, cast as the doubting one. Indeed: they have 100 convictions between them, including armed robbery and GBH. When they find out that one has a court case pending, he’s dumped; which may be sensible, but isn’t very Christmassy. With his past exposed on national TV, good luck getting another job now. Meanwhile, Johnny Sausage Santa keeps creeping off for a fag and to swig tequila in breaks.

Worry not: this features an introduction by the real Santa explaining that these folk are only helping him out, so it’s safe for family viewing. That is, if your family can handle the arbitrary rules of reality show challenges and some heavily artificial editing.