Christmas TV highlights 2013
A round-up of the best festive telly including Brooklyn Nine Nine, David Blaine and Rab C Nesbitt
There’s nothing like a ripping ghostly yarn to let you know that Christmas is here. Mark Gatiss has long been a fan of horror and spookly goings-on with much of his recent work in drama (Crooked House) and documentary (Horror Europa) veering towards the uncanny. The figure who has long haunted his memory is MR James whose short stories were adapted for TV on heavy Yuletide rotation when Gatiss was a nipper. You can almost sense the swell of pride oozing from the screen as the League of Gentleman chap gets to direct one of James’ creepy tales about a mean-spirited man’s will. The Tractate Middoth (BBC Two, Wed 25 Dec, 9.30pm ●●●●) acts as a prelude to MR James: Ghost Writer (BBC Two, 25 Dec, 10.05pm ●●●), Gatiss’ loving exploration of this conflicted and complex Victorian writer, but it feels as though the schedulers have slotted them in the wrong way round. Surely the documentary should be the appetite-whetter rather than the main event?
The Thirteenth Tale (BBC Two, Mon 30 Dec, 9.30pm ●●) has all the makings of being proper creepy with its mysterious twins, a massive country pile, crazy scars on an old lady’s hand and some weird voices in the night, but while Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman do their utmost, they’re fighting a losing battle. The lack of genuine chills are replaced by a soundtrack which loudly tells (rather than subtly shows) which bits are meant to be terrifying.
Did David Walliams have a prickly relationship with his mother by any chance? After Sheridan Smith’s nasty Thatcherite matriarch in last Christmas’ Mr Stink, Miranda Hart comes over very un-maternal towards her boy, Ben, in Gangsta Granny (BBC One, Thu 26 Dec, 6.05pm ●●●). While the references to Strictly seem perfectly germane to the storyline, the namedropping of other BBC programmes falls into the shameless product placement category. And while the finale is curiously unmoving when salty tears should be oozing from your mince pies, there are still some pleasures to be had: Julia McKenzie has much fun as the eponymous crim, though in the gleeful stakes she is no match for Robbie Williams as the flamboyant ballroom star, Flavio.
For fans of swashbuckling derring-do, Moonfleet (Sky 1, Sat 28 & Sun 29 Dec, 8pm ●●●) will probably do the job as Ray Winstone mumbles his way through his role as smuggler Elzevir Block whose son is brutally killed by public-execution fan Mohune (Ben Chaplin). Block’s thirst for vengeance is somewhat blunted by the fact that one of his not-dead offspring has taken a right old shine to Mohune’s brazen daughter. None of this can end well, in every possible sense.
Brooklyn Nine Nine (Channel 4, Thu 9 Jan, 9pm ●●●●) looks like being many people’s new favourite US sitcom. You might recall Andy Samberg from the largely icky bromance, I Love You, Man, but here he proves once and for all, that if anyone who wants to dub him the ‘new Ben Stiller’ then they’re very welcome. Imagine 30 Rock relocated to a police station and you have Denis Leary’s short-lived The Job. You also have this, Brooklyn Nine Nine, with lines sharper than a Ukrainian copper’s chainsaw.
Some old British comedy faves make a return with mixed results. Birds of a Feather (ITV, Thu 2 Jan, 8.30pm ●●) always felt like the unfunny black sheep in the Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran family of fine comedy lamb (The New Statesman, Shine on Harvey Moon, Mosley) and the opener to a new series won’t change anyone’s mind. A stream of ropey double entendres and gags you can see three continents away are order of the day as Dorien reinvents herself as the author of a steamy bestselling fiction entitled 60 Shades of Green. That’s about as ‘clever’ as it gets.
From Chigwell to Govan and Rab C Nesbitt (BBC Two, Thu 2 Jan, 10pm ●●●) is back, but unlike Birds, the jokes are better and there’s a real vitality at play with Ian Pattison pinning almost every word that skitters out of Rab’s mooth to the current political and social landscape. The austerity measures have forced our bevested hero into becoming a criminal renegade and attempting to take from the rich (the banks) and give to the poor (and his granddaughter Peaches who needs a bundle of cash to go on a fancy school trip). Cue ‘Rab in Hoodie’ and ‘Maid Mary-on’. It’s almost as though Pattison originally named his characters for this very moment.
Caitlin Moran and her sister Caroline have penned a relentlessly lumpen pilot episode of Raised By Wolves (Channel 4, Mon 23 Dec, 10.50pm ●●) about a home-schooled family on a council estate. Could everyone please muster the strength to pray to whatever false idol takes your fancy that this won’t get any further. Man Down (Channel 4, Wed 25 Dec, 10.35pm ●●●●) continues to be gloriously silly and wonderfully profane (Greg Davies might well be the best swearer on the box). Its festive special starts off with teacher Dan being pushed into the Christmas tree by his mad old dad played with maximum wolfish effect by Rik Mayall, and ends with possibly the worst school Christmas play ever produced.
The man who once tried (and largely failed) to spook Eamonn Holmes on a breakfast TV sofa is back with a one-off exploration into his incredible genius. David Blaine: Real or Magic (Channel 4, Wed 1 Jan, 9pm ●●●●) starts off with opening credits straight out of a Marilyn Manson video before he gains entry into the homes of some rich and famous A-listers. Kanye West looks somewhat bored, sipping dolphin petal juice (possibly) while Blaine illusions his heart out for the billionaire tyke. Conversely, others nearly split themselves in two with hysteria over his mindboggling capers, including Jamie Foxx, his daughter and nigh on 70 close friends and neighbours, while the Breaking Bad boys Bryan and Aaron try to be themselves but come across very Walt and Jesse in their reactions. Best of all is Ricky Gervais’ curse-riddled befuddlement at the ‘needle-through-the-arm’ jape which he gets to witness rather too up close and personal.
But can Blaine pull off his most daring feat yet and take any viewers away from Sherlock (BBC One, Wed 1 Jan, 9pm)? No spoiler alert is required for this bit about ‘The Empty Hearse’ as the Beeb have wisely kept the whole shebang under tight wraps. We can still deduce that the long wait since ole Benedict leapt from a roof to his seemingly certain demise will be well worth the wait.