I’ve been look back at Christmas TV, some of which I am just catching up with.
I always enjoy “Doctor Who”, and the Christmas story was a rather fun and lighter piece, like a party, although it had a sad wistful romantic ending that was rather nice. It was not a very complex piece, easy to digest after Christmas pudding. How did it measure up to Christmas specials of previous years? If you said it was like a fine wine, then it was a good year, but not a great year. I do fear, though, that needing to know back stories is not good at Christmas, when what is needed is more of a one-off episode which viewers need to know very little of the Doctor Who background.
“Call the Midwife” was a heart-warming reminder from the rather dotty nun that Christmas is about family and relationship, and magic too. The scenes with the BBC producer wanting to film in a typical East End parish church were ripe with humour, but the service itself was full of the magic of carols with a lovely solo performance.
There was not too much amiss apart from the lost nun Sister Monica Joan played to perfection by Judy Parfitt, rambling off to visit her childhood haunts, except that just when you think it is too safe, to sweet a confection, something turns up out of the blue – in this case, the body of a dead woman, who at first we think is the nun, then realise is not. But the sisters get clothing for her to be dressed decently, and pray for her, and attend her funeral.
We never find her name, but such acts of kindness stand as a mark of how bad a society is, that it neglects its elderly, but how good people can be in responding to that. I wonder how many priests have the experience of conducting services for those unmourned, and unloved. It reminds me of a man found in Grouville in 2014, whose body lay there decomposing. He was a difficult man, and people had given up on him. Social services had not flagged his case up. He had fallen through the cracks. It’s always very sad to see. I wonder who came to mourn him?
The animated highlight was not the “Snowman and the Snow Dog”, which had done the rounds for a few Christmases, and is actually not really quite as good as the original “The Snowman”. It was “Stick Man”, a delightfully magical piece of animation, with the story of a stick creature, strange but in many ways our kin with his stick family who live in the family tree. He gets separated from his home, and the story is his quest to return through dangers and adventures.
I only caught it by accident, but I’m glad that I did. It is apparently based on a children’s story, and has been brought to life vividly, and the stick man himself seems so endearing and real."I'm stick man, can't you see", he cries, but most of his encounters are with children who see him just as an ordinary stick to play pooh sticks with, to throw for a dog, or to decorate a sand castle. Eventually, of course, he gets home to his family, who have waited, sad, but still hoping for his return.
January seems a season for detectives and murder. “Endeavour” has returned in fine form, quickly filling in the gap between the end of the last season and this with breathtaking economy. That ensured it could get on with the story, and Morse unable to resist the lure of detecting difficult crimes, comes back into the fold. The 1950s setting is well realised, although I imagine some purists will have criticisms. Oxford, of course, is timeless in its beauty.
The 1950s is also the setting for the less urban and much more rural “Father Brown”, back for a fourth series with Mark Williams now well settled in the role, and ably supported by Sorcha Cusack as his Irish housekeeper. Unlike, for example, the Father Dowling Mysteries, the producers and writers of this series, though it has adapted Chesterton’s priest for a more modern time, and belonging to one Parish, still has a spiritual heart that Chesterton would have approved of. Father Brown, unlike Father Dowling, is not just a man in a cassock who just solves crimes - he also dispenses mercy and hope.
“Midsomer Murders” is back and last weeks, about an apparent UFO, was rather good, and had several plot strands to unravel before the murderer was discovered. A tale of complex relationships, and families that were in different ways dysfunctional, it has more meat than the week before. It is really rather amazing that it is still going, and people are still dropping dead around Midsomer.
It’s probably helped by Neil Dudgeon’s John Barnaby who brought a much needed shot in the arm to the series which had become rather stale with John Nettles rather just going through his paces and playing it by numbers. Nettles had become one of those policemen, like Jack Warner as Dixon, who somehow kept his job long after retirement age. I rather like Gwilym Lee as Sergeant Nelson. Jason Hughes’ Sergeant Jones always seemed a little too smug for me.
Winter is cold and warmer weather is on offer in “Death in Paradise”, which is topical sun, the rather beautiful fictional island of Caribbean with its French culture – reminiscent of Jersey in some ways, and Kris Marshall’s wonderfully eccentric but brilliant detective Humphrey Goodman. Unlike a crime show – such as Bergerac – this is actually a locked room puzzle show, with a variety of impossible murders carried out, clues and red herrings, and the chance for the viewer to solve it if they think it through.
I don’t – I just enjoy the experience, and the reveal which is usually a rather clever “aha!” moment. It is very relaxing on a cold winter’s evening. It has been criticised as formulaic, and it is in some sense because it is always an impossible crime with clues, a reveal involving flashbacks, and - rather like a reality show - we are told who is not the killer first. But the stories are inventive variations on a theme, and as long as it keeps its inventiveness, and the quirky characters at its heart, it will be worth watching.
And on Radio…
The Morpeth Carol was a strange play but I rather liked its mysterious qualities.
Nine-year-old Harry lives on the edge of a housing estate in an un-named Northern town, a serious and intelligent lad with a troubled mum and dad. Late on Christmas Eve he escapes his rowing parents and ventures out into the night. and on a snow-covered precinct in between high-rises he finds what looks like a crashed sled, burning presents scattered in its wake, and mortally wounded reindeer all around.
There's also a very scary looking man, gaunt, unshaven and hooded, who skulks around the crash site, finishing off the dying animals with a shotgun. It is very different take on Santa Claus as more of a mythical and elemental figure from the distant past, cursed to takes human form at Christmas and deliver presents to selected children – we never quite find out why. It has the qualities of a dark Christmas fable, almost as if we have misunderstood and tamed the wild elemental creature with our cosy Father Christmas, and this is the true story behind all the legends, something primal and pagan.
As Radio Times put it:
“It’s a novel take on Christmas, but writer Timothy X Atack manages to make his twisted tale seem ancient too. Bleak but not cynical, amoral not immoral, these seasonal scenes revert to the pre-Christian, and jolly Saint Nick becomes a gaunt and hooded Odin-like figure. A mythological touch allows for some surprisingly poetic moments — eternally cursed, this enigmatic pseudo-Santa describes his prison as ‘the space between the night and the daylight sky’”
I’ve been enjoying a play from 2007, “Backtrack”, where a volunteer helper at a temporary centre for the homeless finds herself oddly interested in one of the down-and-outs, and for once allows herself to follow her instincts. It stars Maxine Peake as Jan, Joseph Kloska as Fiz, Mark Straker as Matt and Marcella Riordan as Molly. At its heart is relationship and joy, and a journey from the city of London to the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales.
More recently, “A Family Affair” has been both amusing and poignant. On 22nd November 1990, following dissention in the Conservative ranks and an equivocal leadership ballot, Margaret Thatcher made the dramatic decision to offer her resignation as prime minister.
Michael Dobbs' play follows Thatcher's last traumatic days in power, seen from the perspective of her husband, Denis, and her family. Stephen Moore as Denis is really excellent, and much of what we see is from his perspective, which is why I actually felt some sympathy for Mrs Thatcher as she finally saw her political ambitions crumble away.