INSIDE THE TUBE

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The Independent Culture
Christmas Crackers

'Tis the season to be goggling. Once all the frenzy of shopping and feasting has subsided, Christmas often becomes one long slump in front of the telly. It sometimes seems to have turned into a televisual rather than a religious festival.

During these national occasions, families traditionally hunker down to watch the BBC, while ITV, sensing a lost cause, appear to run up the white flag. Anyway, advertisers are less interested over the holiday period because consumers have spent all their money in the run-up to Christmas.

That's not to say that there is absolutely nothing on ITV. They have a couple of classy period dramas up their sleeve. Tara FitzGerald is nicely cast as the feisty heroine Lady Dona St Columb in a one-off adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's swashbuckling romance, Frenchman's Creek (ITV Sun 20 Dec). Juliet Stevenson (right) is equally well-suited to the part of Annie Lee in John Mortimer's lush dramatisation of Cider with Rosie (ITV Sun 27 Dec). Laurie Lee, the author of the original book about his Gloucestershire childhood, provided the voice for the narration before his death.

High-calibre drama is also on the BBC's menu. In A Rather English Marriage (BBC2 Wed 30 Dec), those two great actors and 1960s icons, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, are reunited on screen for the first time since The Dresser in 1986. In Andrew Davies's funny and touching reading of the novel by Angela Lambert, they play Reggie and Roy, a former fighter pilot and an ex-milkman, who are thrown together when their wives die on the same night in the same ward.

On a more edgy and contemporary note, BBC1 are showing the latest Minette Walters adaptation, The Echo (BBC1 Tue 29 & Wed 30 Dec) on consecutive nights. This thriller revolves around a journalist's (Clive Owen) investigations into why a dead tramp was discovered in the garage of a super-rich woman (Joely Richardson) who paid for his cremation.

The comedy highlight on the BBC is likely to be Ted and Ralph (BBC2 Sun 27 Dec), an 80-minute spin-off from the hugely popular Fast Show characters. The relationship between the stiff-upper-lip English aristocrat, Ralph (Charlie Higson), and his faithful Irish retainer, Ted (Paul Whitehouse), is made even more awkward than usual when Ralph is obliged by a will to find a wife.

But the schedulers are saving perhaps the biggest treat of the festive season till last. Channel 4 are devoting their entire New Year's Day primetime schedule to a Frasier Night. Frasier (above) is more or less the perfect sitcom. Sure, it is well-written and directed, but it is elevated to a different plane by the exquisite comic acting of Kelsey Grammer (Frasier), David Hyde Pierce (Niles) and John Mahoney (Martin). JR

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