Christmas television round-up

There have been a few ‘events’ on television over the festive period, including a new Marple, the return of the traditional Ghost Story for Christmas, and a sequel to a Jane Austen classic.  We also saw the return of a classic sitcom, and a Christmas special of an ITV comedy which was a cult hit earlier in the year.  And finally, a twist on the meaning of Christmas and life from a new perspective.

Death Comes To Pemberley adapts the novel written by PD James, continuing the story of the characters from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ six years on from the wedding of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.  They are leaving peaceably at Pemberley with Darcy’s sister Georgiana, their two small children, and a retinue of servants, and everyone is busy preparing for the annual ball – until disaster strikes and murder shakes the very foundations of this noble family.  The bringer of bad tidings are of course the Wickhams (Darcy’s childhood friend and Lizzie’s sister Lydia), and soon Wickham is suspected of that most heinous of crimes, the murder of his good friend Captain Denny.  The novel was a fairly decent read, mixing some familiar turf (Mrs Bennet’s hysteria, a handful of flashbacks to the original novel and the almost aborted courtship of the Darcys) with material more likely to be found in a murder mystery, but this adaptation proved to be painfully slow and suffered from questionable casting (Matthew Rhys is no Darcy, and Anna Maxwell-Martin portrays a Lizzie who is not enjoying her marriage or new found status as mistress of such a great house) and some over-acting (Trevor Eve, in a rather silly wig, is rather too ripe as the local magistrate).  The solution is also rather exasperating, after bringing several disparate characters and plotlines into the mystery.  This book could have been adapted in half the time rather than taking nearly three hours.

Endless Night is not a Miss Marple book, but rather a standalone Agatha Christie psychological murder novel.  As the run of original Marple stories now seems to have run dry, we have had Julia McKenzie’s amateur sleuth shoehorned into stories meant for Tommy and Tuppence before now, but here she did not seem to belong.  The action flowed in a much more interesting way when she was off-screen, and she wasn’t really required for the ‘big reveal’.  I am familiar with the 1970s film adaptation with Hywel Bennett and Hayley Mills so could remember who the murderer was, but despite a few good set pieces this new version would have been fine simply as it was.  Good to see Wendy Craig back on screen though.

The last ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ was several years ago, and this new adaptation of The Tracate Middoth, written and directed by Mark Gatiss, promised some chills and atmosphere, and almost delivered on both.  John Castle plays the man who is constantly searching for a particular volume in a dusty old library, only to find it always in use by a mysterious, malignant force who prevents him from even venturing into the stacks.  This character doesn’t have a name but is given a face (always a mistake, I feel – look at the classic film ‘Night of the Demon’ when what you don’t see is a lot more frightening than the monster itself).  However this adaptation of the MR James story is not played for laughs, and although some of the characters feel and look too modern to convince in a plot like this, it was a reasonable half an hour.  Whether it becomes a classic like the original 1970s run is a another question.  I’m glad this series seems to have been given something of a resurrection and look forward to seeing whether a tale is in development for next Christmas.

Still Open All Hours reunited the surviving cast members of ‘Open All Hours’ with Grenville (David Jason) not only running his uncle’s shop now, but also seemingly channelling his voice.  He has a son from a mysterious one-night stand who doesn’t seem to do very much, and even the presence of Nurse Gladys Emmanuel and the Black Widow couldn’t save this unfunny shambles.  I’m rather sad to report that a series seems to be in planning.  Twenty years ago this might have been a goer, but I fear not now.  However it seems to have achieved the highest TV ratings of Boxing Day, so the pull of Jason to viewers obviously hasn’t waned.

The other returning sitcom (from earlier in 2013) was Vicious, which was given a Christmas special in which Freddie and Stuart play hosts while their new friend Ash cooks dinner.  If you enjoyed their pantomime sniping in the series (and I did, after a shaky start) there was much to enjoy here, as the veteran pairing of Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi make withering comments to each other while horny neighbour Violet jettisons her huge new boyfriend on the doorstep and continues to lust after the hapless Ash.  The rather vague Penelope also had an important secret to reveal during a name of ‘Truth or Dare’.  This sitcom might not have attracted critical acclaim or huge audiences, but it is fun and puts older characters at centre stage, behaving disgracefully, which can only be a good thing.

The Fir Tree was an import from Denmark, taking a Hans Christian Andersen film to present the story of a tree from first shoots to the Christmas season at centre stage in a happy house, to eventual destruction into firewood, from the point of view of the tree – with the eventual message that we only have a limited time in which to enjoy life.  Very unusual and well-produced.  If you missed it, find it here