The Past Christmas on TV

Christmas is properly over now: adults are back at work; kids are back at sch— wait, what? Another lockdown?

Well, the festive season is over either way, isn’t it? So it’s time for my annual look back at some of the TV highlights. Or what was on, anyway.

Doctor Who  Revolution of the Daleks
Doctor Who: Revolution of the DaleksThis year’s Doctor Who special felt like a bid by showrunner Chris Chibnall to keep fans happy. Popular character Captain Jack Harkness is back, properly this time — after a cameo-ish appearance last season, this is his first major role in the show since 2008. And the proper Daleks are back, too — we got a sort-of-Dalek two years ago in the last special, but, after that’s used as the model for an army of “security drones”, the real Daleks turn up to exterminate them, with the 2005-style bronze Daleks making their first full appearance since 2015 (yes, it’s been that long).

Of course, the one thing most fans would really like Chibnall to do is bugger off and let someone better write the show. He hasn’t given us that gift yet, sadly, but at least this is one of his better episodes. It’s suitably romp-ish for a seasonal special, with plenty of running down corridors, exploding enemies, and the odd gag or two. There’s even some political satire, albeit fairly familiar, heavy-handed, and underdeveloped. Well, that’s Chibnall’s whole style, isn’t it? He can’t seem to escape it, or doesn’t want to (there are surely other writers or script editors he could employ to help point him in the right direction).

The other big news this episode is the departure of regulars Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh). The latter has been one of the highlights of this era, but is given short shrift here. He barely has anything to do all episode — with a cast this big there’s no time for everyone to get emotional subplots (or what Chibnall thinks passes for them), and here they’re shared between the Doctor, Ryan, and Yaz… plus returning villain Robertson, of all people, who is arguably the episode’s main character. What a shitty way to write out two of your leads. And when it comes down to it, Graham only decides to leave the TARDIS because Ryan wants to go, and he wants to spend time with Ryan. Walsh is a fine actor when given the chance, and he deserved better. Ryan’s reasons for leaving aren’t quite as underwritten, but Cole does most of the heavy lifting, injecting a lot into unspoken moments to convey what Ryan’s feeling. A bit of screenwriting advice I once read asserted that, if you don’t bother to give your characters subtext, a good actor will invent their own regardless — it feels like that’s what’s happened here; or, at least, Cole has expanded well on the thin material Chibnall gave him.

In any other recent era, Revolution of the Daleks (an inaccurate title — it should’ve been called something like Purity of the Daleks, or even Security of the Daleks) would be a middle-of-the-road episode, at best. At present, it’s probably going to be remembered as of the highlights of the era. There are now rumours that Jodie Whittaker is planning to leave the show after her next run, having completed the more-or-less standard three series. Well, the wrong person is going: she’s a fine Doctor let down by poor writing, and we’d all be better off if Chibnall would go and let someone else have a crack at giving Whittaker the material she deserves.

Cinderella  A Comic Relief Pantomime for Christmas
Cinderella: A Comic Relief Pantomime for ChristmasWith theatres mostly shut this November and December due to Covid restrictions, the UK’s traditional pantomime season was a write-off. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and so an all-star bunch of actors and entertainers (including the likes of Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hollander, and Anya Taylor-Joy, plus multiple surprise cameos) came together over Zoom to record this hour-long panto in aid of Comic Relief. (FYI, there are two versions available: a 60-minute one that aired on BBC Two, and a slightly extended 63-minute cut available on iPlayer.)

I imagine it would’ve been easier logistically to film everyone separately (and would we have been any the wiser?), but instead they seem to have wrangled all these stars together on the same Zoom call and performed it in more-or-less real-time. That ‘almost live’ aspect adds an element of unpredictability to proceedings — there’s the occasional tech issue, and a fair degree of corpsing and improvisation. Looking at other reviews, I guess this wasn’t to everyone’s taste (“a poor effort when better productions were hidden online”), but I thought it added to the do-it-yourself charm. It’s not a slick production by a bunch of pros, but has an air of fun similar to a bunch of mates doing their best and having a ball. The end result is very silly, of course, but all in the right spirit.

Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse
Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious MouseSky’s big special this year was this based-on-a-true-story tale of when a young, bereaved Roald Dahl went on a trip to meet an ageing Beatrix Potter. Two of the great British children’s authors meeting up at very different points in their lives? It’s a wonder no one’s thought to film this before. Although, based on the evidence here, the meeting was fairly short and inconsequential — that they met is an interesting bit of trivia, not a defining moment in either’s life. To get this anecdote up to barely-feature-length (it’s just over an hour without ads), there’s a lot of expanded backstory on both sides. The Roald side feels like it must be broadly true — it’s all about him (and his mother) struggling to cope with the deaths of both his sister and father — but the Beatrix side feels dreamt up to balance it out — it’s just about her arguing with an agent about the contents of her latest book. Eventually, these threads converge on the eponymous pair’s brief meeting… and that’s the end. It’s a slight and gentle film, but it made for moderately charming Christmas Eve fare.

Comedy Specials
The Goes Wrong Show: The NativityAs usual, the schedules were full of sitcoms and panel shows offering half-hour doses of festivals merriment. Highlights included a fourth Christmassy edition of The Goes Wrong Show, in which the accident-prone Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society turned their attention to The Nativity, with predictably disastrous — and hilarious — results. I get that Goes Wrong is too silly for some, but it hits just the right note for me. A more heartwarming tone was struck by the Ghosts special, in which Mike’s overbearing family coming to stay (clearly not set this Christmas, then). In keeping with the style of the recent second series, their presence prompted flashbacks to the life of horny MP Julian, which, via a series of kinky sex parties, delivered a message about appreciating your family while you can.

Meanwhile, Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow very much engaged with the current situation in an episode entitled Lockdown Christmas 1603, which imagined Will and his landlady Kate stuck at home during a plague-induced lockdown. Naturally this was a vehicle for observations about present-day life. It would be too kind to call it satire, but it was moderately amusing. After several years of Christmas specials, Not Going Out instead turned its attention to that other major end-of-December event: New Year. A show already fond of gathering its whole cast in a single location for basically a one-act play was perfect fodder for lockdown-constrained filming, and that’s what we get here: everyone gather for New Year’s Eve. Cue their inevitable sniping at one another — but when that gets too much, the assignation of New Year’s resolutions turns into some kind of group therapy session. It’s quite bold of a sitcom to deconstruct its characters’ defining foibles so explicitly, especially when there are more series on the way. One suspects the life lessons learnt won’t last…

Also watched…
  • Blankety Blank Christmas Special — Yet another revival for the popular gameshow. It was supposedly a one-off, but I suspect it was intended as a backdoor pilot; as it was a ratings hit, I’d wager we’ll see more. I could’ve included it in the comedy roundup, because its main appeal is less as a gameshow and more in the format’s potential for humour.
  • Death to 2020 — I brazenly counted this as a film for statistical reasons, but it’s a TV special really. My full review is here.
  • Have I Got 30 Years for You — An entertaining but also insightful look back at three decades of the predominant news quiz.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Black NarcissusThis Christmas, I have mostly been missing Black Narcissus, the BBC’s three-part re-adaptation of a novel most famous for being adapted into a film by Powell & Pressburger. It’s on iPlayer in UHD now, which is usually an incentive for me to catch it. Talking of three-part re-adaptations, I also didn’t watch Steven Knight’s version of A Christmas Carol — that was on last year, when I didn’t have time for it until after Christmas had passed. “Guess I’ll have to try to remember to watch it next year, then,” I said. Oops.

    Next month… Perhaps Cobra Kai. After loving season one, I deliberately didn’t rush on to season two so that I didn’t burn through it too fast before season three. Then Netflix announced season three for early January, and then moved it forward to January 1st, and now instead of nicely spacing it out I just feel very far behind. Must resist the urge to burn through two seasons now instead…

  • Cinderella (2015)

    2016 #43
    Kenneth Branagh | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | U / PG

    Disney’s animated classic is re-imagined in live-action, losing the songs but expanding the story. The latter serves to find a little more realism in the setup (how Cinders became a servant to her stepmother, etc), as well as in the characters’ motivations and actions.

    Cate Blanchett excels (as ever) as the evil stepmother, and Lily James sells Ella’s perfectness as delightful rather than irritating. It’s kinda odd to see Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden as a clean-cut Prince, though.

    Branagh brings requisite class and gloss for a remake that, while not a classic like the original, is a worthy revisioning.

    4 out of 5

    Cinderella (1965)

    aka Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella

    2009 #91
    Charles S. Dubin | 78 mins | TV | G

    CinderellaThis clearly made-for-TV adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (the second of three, to date) is a rather weak affair, easily demonstrating why no one seems to remember it.

    The story is almost a scene-for-scene recreation of Disney’s version at times, although considering the limited variation in adapting the story — unless one decides to get quite radical or flesh it out, that is — that’s forgivable. The cast are largely unmemorable, the exceptions (not for good reasons) being Stuart Damon, whose acting is poor but singing is fine, and Ginger Rogers, who is barely noticeable as the Queen, particularly as she doesn’t do what she was most famous for. Fair enough, she was in her 50s, but the only other reason for her presence is to provide a star name at the top of the cast list. And Celeste Holm I recognised from High Society, which is neither here nor there.

    Dubin does the best he can with TV studio limitations, using colourful painterly backdrops and trying to find some variation in camera angles, but it’s largely as flat as the sets. The musical numbers are quite entertaining, if mostly insipid, not that any approach R&H’s best anyway. I couldn’t tell you much about any of them within a few hours, never mind longer.

    Anyone combating the might of a Disney classic is going to struggle, but that doesn’t prevent a decent effort from being produced. Between a below par set of songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein and weak staging, this Cinderella doesn’t even come close to that.

    2 out of 5