Hi folks, hope you all had a fine Christmas and that much telly was watched by all. Now it’s time to reflect on what you’ve watched with my look back at the best offerings from Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
It was in fact Boxing Day which provided the majority of the highlights of this instalment as it offered up something new against the familiarity of the Christmas schedules. Kicking off on Boxing Day and running well into the new year is Dickensian; a new period drama which imagines a street on which all of Charles Dickens’ characters live side by side. I think Dickensian works best when the characters on screen are ones that we are familiar with hence writer and creator Tony Jordan’s decision to load the drama with names from A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. In fact it’s A Christmas Carol’s resident ghost Jacob Marley (Peter Firth) who gets the lion’s share of the screen time in episode one as he gradually builds up a shopping list of enemies. Anybody who has read the book will know that ‘Marley was dead to begin with’ however here he isn’t bumped off until the end of episode one. The second episode of Dickensian then begins what I’m sure will be a series long investigation into the murder of Marley by Bleak House’s Inspector Bucket (Stephen Rea). The other plot threads in Dickensian almost play out like origins stories of some of Dickens’ most famous characters most notably Miss Amelia Havisham (Tuppence Middleton) who we meet as a young lady. Although those who’ve read Great Expectations will know how Amelia’s story pans out it’s fun to see Jordan creating the moment in which her brother plots her downfall with the help of con artist Meriwether Compenyson (Tom Weston-Jones). We also meet Bleak House’s Lady Dedlock when she was plain old Honoria Barbary (Sophie Rundle) and in love with the handsome Captain James Hawdon (Ben Starr). Both of these stories are told in such a way as to not alienate audiences unfamiliar with the work of Dickens but at the same time welcoming those who are aware of each individual story.
Tony Jordan has in fact gone on record to say that he wanted to write Dickensian for both those who know their Dickens inside out and those who may have only watched A Muppet’s Christmas Carol. Whilst this is right to an extent, I couldn’t help looking up some of the characters in Dickensian that I was less familiar with in order to better understand their stories. What Jordan has done well is to assemble a mixture of romance, treachery, comedy and death making Dickensian feel almost like a Victorian soap opera. In fact with Jordan’s background as an Eastenders writer and the thirty minute instalments in which Dickensian is presented I feel that that might be what BBC One were going for. Starting the events of Dickensian at Christmas Eve was a masterstroke as the drama perfectly lends itself to the festive schedules due to the majority of its characters celebrating the season. Dickensian is also generally great to look at thanks to a fantastic set created by Michael Ralph who previously worked with Jordan on The Ark. Ralph has created the world of Dickensian perfectly, with the main set containing twenty seven two-storey houses and fifteen working fireplaces. As far as Jordan’s script goes it’s the perfect concoction of old-fashioned dialogue and easy-to-understand storytelling. While I personally felt that there were one too many characters, it seems that Jordan had tremendous fun creating Dickensian and the majority of that fun does translate onto the screen. With such a large ensemble cast it’s hard to highlight just one performance however I did think the action picked up when the terrific Stephen Rea appeared in episode two. Meanwhile both Pauline Collins and Omid Djalli delivered scenery-chewing turns as Martin Chuzzlewitt’s Mrs Gamp and Our Mutual Friend’s Mr Venus respectively. But for me I think it was Tuppence Middleton’s version of a young Miss Havisham that stole the show for me as she portrayed the familiar character with a mix of innocence and inner strength. My main issue going forward is that there are another eighteen episodes of Dickensian to get through and even though each part is only thirty minutes that’s still a large commitment to make. However I will persevere for now with a series that may be a little muddled in places but is lovingly designed, creatively written and at its heart provides something a bit different for this time of year.
A more traditional literary adaptation was given to us in the form of Sarah Phelps’ take on Agatha Christie’s best-selling And Then There Were None. The basic plot of And Then There Were None sees eight seemingly disparate characters journey to Soldier Island, just of the Devon Coast at the behest of the unseen Mr and Mrs Owen. They include the mysterious Philip Lombard (Aidan Turner), retired judge Lawrence Wargrave (Charles Dance), army veteran Gen. John McCarthur (Sam Neill) and Vera Claythorpe (Maeve Dermody) a former teacher who has been given the job of secretary to the Owens. As the night goes on the guests realise that they have been invited to the house for a variety of reasons including job interviews and the promise of a lively party. However as the guests sit down for dinner they realise they have been gathered at the house for something more sinister as a record is played accusing each of them of murder. From there on in, the characters realise they are trapped on the island and one by one they are bumped off. By the end of the first episode two of the main characters are killed and there’s the suggestion that somebody is playing a deadly game with them. Just like with every literary adaptation, And Then There Were None provides a different viewing experience for those who have read the book and those who haven’t. As I’m in the small minority who haven’t experienced Christie’s original text I was shocked by every twist and turn meaning that I’m already anticipating the next two episodes. But I do feel that even those who have read the book will get something from this new adaptation primarily due to the production design which makes the eerie Soldier Island comes to life. Director Craig Viverios perfectly ramps up the tension whilst Phelps perfectly paces the action meaning that the audience are nearly always on the edge of their seat. The majority of the cast give scenery chewing performances with Aidan Turner on slimy form as the enigmatic Lombard while both Charles Dance and Sam Neill try to out-ham each other as the episode goes on. But for me it was Maeve Dermody who gave the most sympathetic turn as school mistress Vera who is harbouring a fair few secrets of her own. Although it might be one of the most traditional offerings this Christmas, And Then There Were None was a gripping yarn that kept me intrigued throughout.
The third literary adaptation on Boxing Day was more kid-friendly as ITV took on JM Barrie’s classic Peter Pan for the updated interpretation Peter and Wendy. Peter and Wendy focuses on 12-year-old Lucy (Hazel Doupe) a girl with a serious heart condition who has checked into Great Ormond Street fora life changing operation. As she is just on the cusp of being a teenager Lucy feels like she’s still being treated like a child by her mother (Laura Fraser) however when a kind orderly shows her the hospital’s museum dedicated to Peter Pan she decides to give Barrie’s book another go. So starts the dual storyline in which Lucy narrates the story to the other patients on her ward and later escapes into a fantasy world where she plays Wendy. This dual narrative is a neat idea with the majority of the actors playing characters in both the modern day story and in the Peter Pan fantasy. So for example Stanley Tucci’s brilliant surgeon Dr Wylie, who is performing Lucy’s operation, becomes Captain Hook in the fantasy sequences. Whilst these dual roles work for the most part, the fact that Wylie’s medical students also play Hook’s was a problem as it was hard to buy the likes of Ricky Champ and Ben Crompton as aspiring doctors. I personally preferred the sequences in which Lucy’s predicaments in the 21st century merged with the world of the Peter Pan story as I enjoyed the central concept. However less successful were the scenes that were purely set in the fantasy world primarily as Zachary Sutcliffe wasn’t a commanding enough presence as Peter. However my biggest issue with Peter and Wendy was the casting of Paloma Faith as Tinkerbell who was so irritating that I really wanted the poison to finish her off. Though I realise I’m not the target audience for Peter and Wendy I do feel that it could’ve done with having twenty minutes shaved off its running time as I suspect younger audiences will get bored. However over all there was much to like about Adrian Hodge’s new twist on an old classic not least of all was the central performance by Hazel Doupe, a young actress who I feel will go far in the future.
When compared to Boxing Day, Christmas Day offered very little in the way of new shows with familiar favourites clogging up the schedules. Whilst the like of The Love of Dogs and Call the Midwife really did appeal to yours truly one programme I always make time for every Christmas is Doctor Who. Over the past couple of years Doctor Who Christmas Specials have varied in quality with some being a little too childish and last year’s Last Christmas being far too dark in my personal opinion. Going in we already knew that The Husbands of River Song would see the return of Alex Kingston’s vampish criminal and also an appearance from Matt Lucas. However we knew little of the plot which saw River marry the brutish King Hydroflax (Greg Davies) just to steal the diamond that is buried in his skull. When The Doctor and River initially cross path she doesn’t recognise him at all primarily as she believes that he is going to be wearing one of the twelve faces that he’s had up to this point. The interplay between Capaldi and Kingston plays almost like a screwball comedy as River’s current husband meets one beau after another as he attempts to help her retrieve the diamond from Hydroflax’s head. The darkest the episode gets is when River is confronted by a hoard of Hydroflax’s supporters just as she’s about to cut his head open however even this is played for laughs. I would say that the light tone of the episode would annoy some people but I think Christmas is the perfect time to do an episode like this. It also had a rather melancholy conclusion as River realised this was the last time she’d see The Doctor however their last date would go on to last longer than she expected. I personally thought that this was one of the better Doctor Who Christmas specials as it had a lighter tone and plenty of action to keep the kids happy. More than anything else it was one of the funniest episodes of Doctor Who in recent memory thanks to the contributions of both Greg Davies and Matt Lucas. Furthermore I think this was the best use of River Song in an episode and I felt that the chemistry between her and Capaldi was brilliant so much so that I was a little upset that this would be the last we’ve see of her. However I suppose looking back isn’t an option and I’m personally looking forward to seeing a new companion when The Doctor returns next year.
Moving onto something a bit lighter now with Russell Howard’s acting debut in A Gert Lush Christmas; a piece that he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Steve Williams. The basic conceit of the one-off comedy drama was Meet the Parents as Howard’s Dan introduced his girlfriend Lisa (Hannah Britland) to his oddball Bristolian family. They included his inappropriate mother Sue (Sophie Thompson), his foul-mouthed father Dave (Neil Morrissey), his drug-taking Uncle Tony (Greg Davies) and his excitable sister Julie (played by Russell’s real life sister Kerry). The first twenty or so minutes of A Gert Lush Christmas pulled out almost every awkward family cliché including the womenfolk talking about marriage way too fast and later Dan and Lisa listening to his parents have sex. However, primarily due to the quality of the cast, these scenes were quite well presented and I found myself laughing several times. Where the piece fell down for me was the inevitable moment when Dan’s family briefly caused he and Lisa’s separation when Uncle Tony spiked his nephew’s drink which somehow made him kiss one of his ex-girlfriends. The scenes in which Dan tried to win Lisa back were very weak indeed as was their eventual reconciliation which was framed around a child’s magic trick. I do feel a lot of the blame for what went wrong about A Gert Lush Christmas can be attributed to Russell Howard’s one-note performance as well as he and Williams’ poorly paced script. It’s quite evident that Howard can’t act to save his life and throughout the hour I just felt I was watching the host of Good News visiting his eccentric family. Howard never once made Dan sympathetic and as a result I found myself feeling sorry for his rather sweet-natured if off-beat family. Although there were plus points, namely the turns given by Sophie Thompson and Kerry Howard, ultimately A Gert Lush Christmas fell flat for me which was a shame as it was one of this year’s festive highlights that I was looking forward to the most.
Finally, we turn our attention to a junior version of a Channel 4 favourite in the form of Gogglesprogs; a programme that was awarded a primetime slot on Christmas Day. Rather than watching recent TV shows, the ten groups of siblings or friends have been given a selected group of clips to watch from the last year. As the Gogglesprogs are restricted to what they watch there were a fair few films that were watched throughout the hour including Frozen and Jurassic Park. The election coverage also got the kids talking as did the final to The Great British Bake-Off. However I thought the two best moments came when the kids watched Michael Mosley’s programming about the creation of human life and later a Natural World programme focusing on elephants. The development of the human face saw quite a lot of the kids freaked out by the computer images on screen with some trying to replicate what they saw with their own faces. But it was the operation on a three-month old with a cleft pallet which was the highlight as we saw the kids’ emotional reaction to the traumatic procedure. It was interesting to compare and contrast the Gogglesprogs’ reaction to a clip watched earlier in the year by those on Gogglebox as the kids gave more of an unfiltered reaction to their adult counterparts. Meanwhile the emotional reaction to baby elephants getting sucked down a river on Natural World was possibly the highlight of the show as it demonstrated how caring kids could be. The way that the older siblings on the show comforted their more distraught brothers and sisters was a lovely moment as was seeing the tears naturally fall from the eyes of a couple of the children. Just like Channel 4’s recent The Secret Life of, a lot Of the joy of Gogglesprogs was hearing some of the silly things the kids say but here we also saw how intelligent some were. I’m now interested to see what Channel 4 do with the full series of Gogglesprogs particularly in what material they’ll select for the kids to watch. Ultimately it was great to watch something like Gogglesprogs on Christmas Day as it was both heart-warming and funny plus it’s got me anticipating what a full series of the show will bring.
So that’s your lot for now and this will actually be my last Matt on the Box for 2015. I’d like to thank all of you who read my column over the last year and I’ll be back in early 2016 to discuss a little programme called Sherlock.