It’s New Years Day and I’m feeling charitable so this blog is brought to you in a whisper, with a cold flannel (for your forehead) and a bacon sandwich (for your mouth… if you need instructions on how to eat a sandwich, maybe don’t get out of bed yet). Read my round-up of the best Christmas telly and figure out what you want to watch on catch-up to keep the festive feelings flowing, and I’ll pop to the shops for paracetamol. Alright?
A classic tale of mismatched neighbours Andrew (Stephen Merchant, playing exactly the sort of person he always does) and Dev (Asim Chaudhry) from Bedford on a 9 hour mission to save Christmas and buy the must-have toy (Sparklehoof the Unicorn Princess) for Andrew’s daughter. Dev is the lonely chubby one, separated from his family at Christmas, and Andrew is the awkward angry intellectual, successful but bad tempered with a family who loves him for some unseen qualities. Dev teaches Andrew to be a happier man and a better father, and despite themselves they’ll be best buddies for life. Basically it’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles or Jingle All The Way for the small screen. It looks lovely with cosy camera angles suited to our suburban action heros. There’s great pacing throughout with real tension and subversive moments of mischief. Neither lead performance is all that over-the-top and their situation, while silly, seems entirely probable. An unexpected gem.
I was excited for this as a horror story is always welcome, especially on a dark evening at the end of the year. Written and directed by Mark Gatiss we’re in the able hands of one half of the genre-reviving Inside No 9 team. Simon Callow stars as veteran radio actor Aubrey Judd, a rather smarmy luvvie with a voice like treacle in a silk smoking jacket. Sadly thought his dark and troubled past was telegraphed from miles off. As soon as the first hints of supernatural skulduggery turned up the words of the radio script started describing a beautiful young man. It was obvious he’d murdered an old boyfriend and the guilt was finally too much to bear. Nothing about it was unexpected or shocking, which was a real shame especially as much of what Aubrey was pontificating about was the craft of horror writing. Is this more edgy rule-breaking that we’ve come to expect from Gatiss? Or was it just a bit of a waste of time?
A Christmas special was an unexpected treat from Ben Elton’s Shakespeare sitcom, and a delicate way to bookend the tragic climax of the third series. This show has really found its feet since series 1, one of those comedies that’s really worth your time despite a shaky start and now it’s an absolute treasure. Not giving too much away, this episode was all about the theme of Christian redemption so vital to the festive season (thanks for that nugget Mark Kermode). I’m delighted to be able to report it was a surprise Dickens, which is a phrase you so rarely get to use in polite company, and not as expected Twelfth Night or A Winter’s Tale. I know it makes no sense that David Mitchell’s Will Shakespeare is narrating a story written 230 years after Shakespeare died, but trust them – it turns out to be both funny and moving.
Hideous reality intervenes in the Christmas magic with a review of the fetid swamp of news from the past 12 months which we’ve managed to somehow endure – high five! As Frankie puts it, 2018 was the year in which Aretha Franklin had a better time than you. His laser-focussed analysis isn’t just on Brexit and Trump, although they feature heavily. Share in his abject horror at the generally unpleasant events of 2018 and his bowl loosening fear at what next year will bring. Do you remember back in 2008 how much trouble he was in for comparing an athlete to a spoon? Halcyon days. Anyway, enjoy Miles ‘Radio 4’ Jupp chortling at the heat death of the universe. Finally we’ve got something nice to look forward to.
By way of a chaser to harsh reality, try this. A gameshow born in the USA, as you can see by the trademark house band. This is a super cheesy addition, but maybe something we shouldn’t dismiss too quickly – imagine Jools Holland tinkling the ivories on Newsnight every week or Michael Buble taking the edge off the angry gammons on Question Time, finally getting him some work in the other 11 months of the year. Nice, right?
Taskmaster on Dave and Richard Osman’s House of Games on the Beeb have given new life to parlour games on TV. Saturday night telly has taken notice, and The Time It Takes presented by Joe Lycett and Alison Hammond ought to be awful, but somehow isn’t. Similarly Celebrity Game Night is a good variety of entertaining games, with celebrities shepherded by the extremely able Liza Tarbuck. Watching Danny Baker, Kerry Godliman and Dom Joly get high velocity popcorn in the face was quite a spectacle. And, spotted by Mr H, there’s a surprise writing credit for British comedy stalwart Kevin Eldon which marks it out immediately as far too good for Channel 5. Definitely worth a watch.
Did you ever see a place on screen that you know is entirely fictional but you really want to visit? For me I think it’s the Lord of the Rings hobbit houses in The Shire, Fozziwig’s Christmas Party in The Muppets Christmas Carol and now the magical Chinese restaurant in this baffling and beautiful documentary. This was one of the most festive feel-good shows of the season, despite it being set around a Jewish family eating Chinese food at a wild looking restaurant on Christmas Day. Canadian director Larry Weinstein teaches us about the vast cultural importance of Jewish immigrants to the US and how they wrote all the best festive tunes, and we learn the significance of Chinese food to them as a elegant solution to feeling left out of the Christian celebrations. Any sense of a stuffy documentary format is sprinkled in fairy dust as customers take turns to sing these iconic tunes with knife wielding chefs and dancing dragons in the background. Quite rightly it’s been nominated for an International Emmy. Gong Hei Fat Choy and Happy Hanukkah to us all.
So to the big drama feature of the BBC’s schedules, and a tense moment for fans of Agatha Christie and Sarah Phelp’s previous awesome adaptations. With The ABC Murders she was taking on a big name detective and the casting was, well frankly, a bit odd. Could John Malkovich fill the exquisitely polished shoes of Hercule Poirot and do the character justice as David Suchet and Peter Ustinov before him? Well, in a word yes. In a few more words, read my full review here (watch out for some spoilers if you’ve not seen it yet).
You’ve made it! Well done! Go and find someone to mix you a restorative Bloody Mary and polish off that tub of Celebrations. And if I can have one final word – thanks to you dear reader for all your support this year. Personally 2018 has been by turns, a bag of shite, awful, miserable and terrifying so I love coming back to the blog and chatting with you about the greatest, strangest, most gripping, most magical and best stories on TV.