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Saturday, 30 December 2017

Matt on the Box: Call the Midwife, The Miniaturist, The Great Christmas Bake-Off, Child Genius Vs Celebrities and Eric, Ernie and Me

So how was your Christmas? As ever mine was made up of over-indulging on Quality Street and watching the majority of what was on the box over the festive period. Whilst not a comprehensive guide of everything I watched the first Matt on the Box column in over a year looks at some of the big-hitters as well as a couple of shows that you may have missed.


Along with Doctor Who and Eastenders, BBC One's big Christmas offering was the annual festive instalment of Call the Midwife; which was primarily set during the aftermath of the Boxing Day blizzard of 1962. New nurse on the block Valerie Dyer (Jennifer Kirby) was part of one of the episode's major storylines as she dealt with expectant mother Linda (Francene Turner) who'd moved to London alongside her beau Selwyn (Joel Morris) who wasn't the baby's father. Unfortunately, it appeared as if Linda and Selwyn wouldn't be allowed a happy ending as the baby ended up arriving four weeks early and didn't appear to have survived. Meanwhile, Doctor Turner (Stephen McGann) was shocked to learn that Percy (Peter Quince), a man who he treated earlier in the day, was later found buried under the snow. What I love about Call the Midwife is how the central stories become something more and that's what happened in both cases here. Rather than being a kindly older gent, Percy was revealed to be an abusive husband to his widow Mabel (Anita Dobson) and their estranged daughter Anthea (Rebecca Callard). In a more surprising twist, Linda's baby survived a journey back in Valerie's nursing bag and later made a full recovery in something akin to a Christmas miracle. The mixture of heartwarming and harrowing tales were supported by a more light-hearted subplot involving Phyllis Crane (Linda Bassett) running afoul of a local policeman who I'm sure will become her love interest in subsequent episodes. Finally, we learnt that newlyweds Barbara and Tom (Charlotte Ritchie and Jack Ashton) were briefly departing Poplar for Birmingham so that the latter could perhaps advance his chances of becoming a vicar. Thankfully, it was a case of all's well that end's well as the snow gradually drifted whilst all the characters congregated for a community dinner and panto where everybody indulged in a good old-fashioned sing-a-long.

Anybody who listens to our podcast on a regular basis knows that I'm a massive Call the Midwife fan and I believe it's a drama that combines elements of light and shade better than any other currently on British television. Initially I was unimpressed with this episode as I felt it was simply going through the motions however the show's writer and creator Heidi Thomas took the primary stories in directions I didn't expect. I felt that Jennifer Kirby put in a splendid performance as we saw Valerie go through a catalogue of emotions as she responsible for what happened during the birth of Linda's baby only for her to be more shocked when she realised he'd survived. Jenny Agutter was also given the rare chance to shine as her Sister Julienne desperately tried to reunite Mabel and Anthea by visiting the latter to hear her side of the story. In this element of the episode, Heidi Thomas never shied away from the descriptions of Percy's abusive nature and especially what he did to Anthea when she was just a teenager.  Anita Dobson and Rebecca Callard were perfect as Mabel and Anthea respectively and their inevitable reunion at the pantomime was beautifully played. Although I didn't feel it was a memorable as previous Christmas specials, especially last year's South Africa instalment, Call the Midwife still put on a strong showing. Both central storylines were well-played and diverted expectations, whilst the supporting stories provided a much-needed bit of light relief. I'm now looking forward to the show's seventh series to see if Thomas can continue to make the episodes as strong as this year's Christmas special turned out to be.


Elsewhere over the festive week BBC One relied on two literary adaptations to fill up key slots in its schedules, one of which was a two-part dramatisation of Jesse Burton's best-seller The
Miniaturist. Set in late 17th Century Amsterdam; The Miniaturist was told from the point-of-view of eighteen-year-old Nella (Anya Taylor Joy); a country girl who has been transported to the city as the new wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt (Alex Hassell). However, Johannes is rarely present, and his rather eerie family home is run by his pious sister Marin (Romola Gari) who wants to protect the secrets that appear to exist in the Brandt household. Early on, Johannes gives Nella a doll house replica of their home and tasks the local miniaturist of the title to furnish it with accessories. Initially, the miniatures that Nella receives are intricately crafted versions of the things she cares about most in her life such as her pet parakeet and the marzipan treats that she craves so much in her now sugar-free home. However, mystery packages soon begin arriving with miniature versions of the household staff Cornelia (Hayley Squires) and Otto (Paapa Essiedu) as well as a tiny version of messenger Jack Phillips (Ziggy Heath); a character whose connection to Johannes is revealed in one of the drama's more shocking moments. The packages that Nella receives predict moments in the plot such as a mini cradle relating to the later reveal of a shock pregnancy and a sharp dagger attached to one of the dolls warning of a stabbing occurring during a struggle in the household. Whilst the first ninety-minute long instalment of The Miniaturist that aired on Boxing Day was perfectly balanced and slowly peeled back the secrets in the Brandt household, I found the hour-long conclusion of the story to be lacking the pace of the first part. I believe this is because most of the episode took place away from the house which had been an integral part of The Miniaturist up to this point and was almost a character in its own right. Furthermore, it turned a haunted house chiller into more of a courtroom drama as Johannes faced accusations about his private life whilst Nella desperately tried to save the family she had just married into.


Despite my reservations about the second part of the story, I enjoyed The Miniaturist a lot more than I thought would and I would go as far as to say that it was one of my favourite shows of the Christmas week. The star of the show was Anya Taylor Joy who was perfect as the wide-eyed Nella whose innocence is slowly stripped away the longer she stays in the Brandt household. The fact that she was in every scene is a testament to her abilities and she was able to act as the audience's proxy perfectly. Romola Gari was similarly brilliant, initially playing Marin as a Mrs Danvers type before revealing her vulnerable side in the second instalment. Meanwhile, Alex Hassell was able to keep us guessing about Johannes until his big secret was revealed towards the end of the first instalment. Having not read the book, I don't know how faithful John Bronwlow's adaptation was, but I felt he paced the story perfectly for the most part. The best element about Brownlow's adaptation was how he focused on the strange relationships between the five members of the Brandt household and how they worked together to try to keep the outside world from discovering their secrets. My favourite relationship throughout The Miniaturist was that of Nella and Johannes who, whilst not having a traditional romantic relationship, were shown to have a strong friendship with the former showcasing her loyalty to her husband until his final moments. One element of the story I wasn't a big fan of was the fact that Brownlow tried to appease the audience by having The Miniaturist (Emily Berrington) appear and reveal her motives to Nella. Apparently, this scene didn't appear in the book and in my opinion didn't add much to the overall story. What did work about The Miniaturist was the sumptuous art direction and particularly the beautifully-crafted miniatures which added an authenticity to the story. Guillem Morales' direction was brilliant especially during the more dramatic moments of the story as secrets about the Brandts were revealed. Due to its strong storytelling and beautiful design; The Miniaturist was perfectly scheduled over the festive week as it was a drama that added something darker to the usual saccharine offerings at this time of year and featured a star-making performance from the wonderful Anya Taylor Joy.


One show that wasn't on the BBC this year was The Great Christmas Bake-Off; a show whose migration to Channel 4 has been heavily documented. The strange thing about this year's specials was that the bakers competing in them were all from the BBC era of the show with the Christmas Day special featuring 2016 competitors Val and Selasi, the 2014 series' Becca and most excitingly Paul; the creator of the iconic Bread Lion. It was clear from the Yule Log-centric signature challenge that this quartet presented the right mixture needed to make this Christmas show something special. Val was a particular favourite from last year's series and the haphazard nature combined with her rather messy final offerings reminded us why we loved her once again. Selasi retained his title of the coolest Bake-Off contestant ever as he winged his way through several challenges including the Mince Pie technical where he revealed that he had no idea how to create a lattice topping. Paul meanwhile proved to be the star of the show and in fact Paul Hollywood noted how he'd improved as a baker in the last two years. The showstopper challenge, which involved creating snow-globe style cakes, seemed overly-complicated for a Christmas special and felt more apt for a challenge on the main show. That being said, the final creations were amazing especially Paul's penguin-themed globes which made him the winner of the show overall. Elsewhere, Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding proved why their partnership was such a success as their skits and interplay during the show were perfectly timed. I especially enjoyed the opening sequence where they were joined together in the same jumper that Prue had supposedly knitted for them. I even warmed to Prue Leith, something I struggled to do during this year's series, as she revealed herself to be a fan of the festive tipple which was just as well as each of Val's bakes was accompanied by a tincture of alcohol. The instalment ended with Noel joining Wizard on stage for a version of 'I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day' which cemented the Bake-Off as one of the more festive of this year's Christmas specials and an offering that provided the icing on the cake for Channel 4's successful version of the show.


Channel 4 provided another enjoyable festive treat with Child Genius Vs Celebrities: Christmas Special, which saw four memorable contestants from the junior Mensa challenge series take on some famous faces. The star of the child genius team was certainly snappy-dresser afro-haired nine-year-old Fabio; who memorably got further than his sister in this year's series. It was also great to see Mog back on the team and to learn that he is now a member of the British junior parliament. Fabio and Mog were joined by current champion Rhea and maths whizz Christopher to create somewhat of a super team. Their opponents included comedian Dom Joly; whose strategy saw him attempt to befriend the rival team and team captain Rob Delaney who vowed to crush the little nerds who stood across from him. The celebrities' star player appeared to be Channel 4 News' Cathy Newman as she was the ace of the spelling round and went head-to-head with Fabio in the opening contest. However, Newman later stumbled in the memory round when she lost a contest to Christopher in which they had to name every prime number in a sequence. The celebrities' fourth team member Janet Street-Porter was in it to win it and displayed her competitive side in her memory round against Fabio. I was personally surprised when the celebs gained an advantage but it was short-lived as the kids trounced them during the maths round and they never recovered. I'm a massive fan of Child Genius and this celebrity special was especially fun as for the most part it was very tongue-in-cheek. Quizmaster Richard Osman kept things ticking along nicely and was on hand to provide some analysis along the way. Although some attempts were made to make this into a Christmas Special, from the fact that the hall was decorated to the themes of some of the questions; most of what happened here could have been aired at any time of the year. Despite lacking a festive theme it was a Christmas special that the whole family could enjoy and even my sceptical clan started to enjoy it as the show wore on. In my opinion, this Christmas special demonstrated why Child Genius is one of Channel 4's hidden gems and I hope that it will get more people watching the next series whenever that materialises.


Finally, we turn to BBC Four for a one-off drama that some of you may have missed in the form of Eric, Ernie and Me. Neil Forsyth's offering focused on the relationship between Morecambe and Wise (here played by Mark Bonnar and Neil Maskell) and their long-time writing partner Eddie Braben (Stephen Tompkinson). Beginning after the iconic comedy duo's patchy first BBC series, the drama demonstrates how Braben brought out the best in Eric and Ernie by showcasing their personality and interplay through his writing. Whilst Eddie's writing equalled ratings for the duo's programme it had a negative impact on his health leading him to have a couple of breakdowns over the years. This being the festive season, the final act of the drama focused on Eddie's contributions to the legendary 1977 Christmas show which 28 million people watched; a figure that seems unimaginable in today's TV landscape. I felt that Eric, Ernie and Me was the perfect Christmas drama as it focused on characters we knew but looked at them at a different angle. At times Forsyth portrayed Eric and Ernie as demanding working partners who cared very little for Eddie's health as long as their jokes were funny as they possibly could be. This darker side of the comedy double act was perfectly balanced with a parade of their greatest hits which included the famous breakfast skit, seeing the duo in their double bed for the first time as well as fleeting appearances from some of their special guest such as Andre Previn and Glenda Jackson. I was a little worried at first that Maskell and Bonnar performances were hinging too much on caricature but as the hour wore on they relaxed into the roles and were believable as Morecambe and Wise. Meanwhile, Rufus Jones and Alex Macqueen lent fine support as the duo's producer and Bill Cotton respectively. However, this was Tompkinson's show and he was utterly endearing from beginning to end particularly shining in his depiction of Eddie's slow mental breakdown. If I had one small quibble it was a times that the drama felt rushed and if BBC Four had given it another fifteen minutes Forsyth would've been able to explore the relationships between the characters in a little more detail. However, this was a perfect dramatisation of a relationship that created several classic comedy moments and were responsible for plenty of hours of iconic Christmas TV.

Talking of Christmas TV that's your lot for now, I'll be back next week talking about the rest of the festive schedule as well as some of the shows that the channels are debuting during the first week of the year. See you then.

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