TELEVISION / A smashin' time was had by all

Neil Diamond did it with laryngitis, Bruce Forsyth did it on a grand piano with all his contestants, Diana Ross did it with Placido Domingo in Vienna. Bing Crosby didn't do it, for once. All showbiz was dreaming of a 'White Christmas'. But outside, Nature, with exemplary taste, took her cue from the crystalline hush of the King's Chapel boys. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.

In our house, the big question of the holiday didn't come from Cilla Black in the children's Blind Date (ITV) - gorra boyfriend loov? - but from a small shepherd still brooding on her Nativity play: 'Well, does the little baby Jesus live with Father Christmas or not?' As Eric Morecambe was wont to say at this time of year, there's no answer to that. On the box, almost nothing was sacred. Little baby Jesus got roughly the same treatment as when he first arrived - put out the back with the ox, the ass and Ian McCaskill. But on Christmas Eve, A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (BBC2) from Cambridge reminded you of His story. 'An essential part of Christmas,' trumpeted Radio Times. Not that essential: it was on in the early evening, where no one besides the doggedly faithful was likely to be free to watch it. The birthday Boy may have been pushed off centre- stage by Arfur's bit on ver side in EastEnders (BBC1), but no one could say he didn't have the best theme music. The live service had been on the radio earlier, but television let you see where those extraordinary noises were coming from. It was hard to believe they came from anywhere. The camera held fast on a tiny Fotherington-Thomas - all ears and join-the-dots freckles over milk cheeks - then jumped across for a quick peek at the organist at full splay across his keyboards, then lay on the floor to get a better look at the astonishing vaulted ceiling where men once spun stone like spiders.

Hundreds of candles sent shards of light across the choir as they sang 'In Dulci Jubilo'. Through the dark glassily. It was beautiful, but still not a patch on the radio. Ethereal works better on the ether. You didn't want to watch the geography graduate reading one of the lessons, her Medici nose in cruel profile, never mind have her identified in a caption, personalising that which draws its strength from the impersonal and therefore universal. Over on ITV, there was the kind of mystery television does best (an Inspector Wexford story). It fares less well with the Christmas mystery, being physically incapable of leaving much to the imagination. Seeing is not believing.

The big guns in the traditional Christmas Day movie battle were short on shells. If there was anyone left who hadn't seen Shirley Valentine (BBC1), they might have managed a sherried smile as the plucky Scousewife who talks to the wall to avoid going up it set off to find the meaning of life on a Greek island. This turns out to be having yer cozzie taken off by Tom Conti sporting a moustache that would have done well at Cruft's. ITV managed the not inconsiderable feat of finding a bad Nick Nolte film (Three Fugitives), while on Channel 4 there was Christine Edzard's The Fool - a real gooseberry: designer Dickens without the plot ('Can we have a bit more rudge on this, Barnaby darling?'). It was left to BBC2 to provide a quiet masterclass in world cinema, with a plum from every genre: Rio Bravo, Top Hat, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, Dangerous Liaisons and Rear Window. Sprouts permitting, this meant you could go from Fred and Ginger pitter-pattering round a rain- lashed bandstand to Jimmy Stewart stuck indoors with a plastered leg. All of them under the weather, yet they made you feel over the moon.

Yule purists will have mourned the loss of The Poseidon Adventure. What is Boxing Day without Shelley Winters stripping to her enormous smalls to reveal a surprising aptitude for long-

distance underwater swimming through the twisted bowel of a capsized liner? Jean de Florette (BBC2), which looks like becoming an annual event, is a bit too classy to make a satisfactory replacement, but has the same gift of allowing you to drop off and resurface without noticing that an hour has passed.

There was a hellish host of specials, identified by the number of festive references they could stuff into the standard- size turkey. 'Nice to see you at Christmas, to see you at Christmas nice.' On Blind Date, Cilla was 'avin' a smashin' time with her junior contestants. The saccharine premise of the show - tiny boys dangling over the edge of bar stools delivering rehearsed lines to win over the gorgeous giggling and front-toothless Natasha, eight - was thwarted by the kids themselves who remained beguilingly honest when confronted by the great lie of showbiz. A little birdie had told Cilla that seven-year-old Jonathan ('Awwwwww don't 'e look smart?') had 11 girlfriends. 'Well,' he said, curtly, 'I've only reduced to two.' Robert had a little brother and sister. 'Awww, you're all one big 'appy family then?' 'Not really,' said the boy with an openness that spoke to the very heart of a nation shut up with its relations. Asked which bit of Blind Date he liked best, Robert said: 'When the screen comes back and you can tell they can't stand each other.'

Over on BBC1, Brucie was 'avin' a smashin' time in the Generation Game. Age may have withered Brucie's face to the texture of dried fig with a fringe on top, but his infinite-variety act never flags - the expansive showman's courtesy, the mock tyranny to which the contestants gladly submit. The show's own brand of Schadenfreude was particularly welcome. Things may be bad at home, but at least you don't have to make an origami reindeer in 45 seconds on national television. The rather-them-than-me factor reached its apotheosis in the game where contestant Michael had to launch himself under the squeaky leather groin of an Austrian folk dancer to make the beast with two bottoms. When each man began thwacking out a tune on the other's buttocks it was time to turn over to A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert (C4). Kathleen Battle sang like an angel, but her dress suggested she'd squeezed between two scarlet armchairs and brought them with her.

The real cracker of the week was Victoria Wood's All Day Breakfast (BBC1). This was in the Eric'n'Ern slot of fondest memory, and it was a measure of Wood's achievement that she didn't shrink in the comparison. She has some of their daft innocence - all those galumphing girls who go into boutiques and can't find anything to fit them except the cubicle curtain - but she also has an ear to rival Alan Bennett and Barry Humphries. Wood hears what we all hear every day, but she heightens it, then puts it back into the situation it sprang from. Deploying hand-grenades under the settee. As when Nicola, a tremulous thing in lilac angora, shared with us the new colour scheme of her bedroom: 'White with a hint of peach, peach with a hint of melon, liver with a hint of kidney.'

Wood has spent much of the last year feeding her baby in front of daytime telly and has absorbed its ghastly argot like mother's milk. All Day Breakfast was an excoriating spoof on Richard and Judy, but you didn't need to have seen the treacly couple to appreciate the bathetic ping-pong of Sally and Martin. 'Well, I'll be talking to Lulu about how a revolutionary treatment has brought hope to LITERALLY thousands of sufferers from split-ends.' 'And I'LL be discussing, with no embarrassment at all, wonky wombs and faulty fallopians.' Wood had donned a blonde Judy bob and perfected the mannerisms (concerned chin in palm, split-second flick from hooting laughter to extreme gravity), but it was the words that punctured the skin. Most biting of all was The Mall, a sublime Eldorado spoof set in an echoing shopping precinct ('And it's a goody,' beamed Sally).

It had it all: dialogue on placards for morons ('Tea, Mrs Banstead?' 'The hot drink?'), and those establishing speeches which do away with plot by getting characters to tell each other things they know ('Only three more minutes and then we find out whether divorcing my husband, moving to Gloucesterfordshire, opening an exclusive lingerie shop in a practically brand new shopping centre was such a good idea'). Wood played Eldorado's Trish Valentine part with tangerine leggings and mangled golden-hearted Cockney speak: the rest of her company was just as sensational. The blessed Celia Imrie had exactly caught the rhythms of soap, holding an anguished look three seconds too long; while Julie Walters proved it was a genre in which excess had no meaning. It had at least one viewer of the doomed Spanish tragedy crying tears of gratitude.

From one of the year's great catastrophes to another. The Queen (all stations) had a lady signing her speech for the deaf on BBC2. She could have done with signals for the hard of loyalty. 'I and my family,' for example, might usefully have been rendered by a toe in the mouth.

Her Majesty was in fuschia wool, just two screeching tones away from the Christmas decorations behind. This was as it should be; showing a proper disdain for colour co-ordination and other earthly concerns which have landed the family firm in the mud. You can always rely on HM to give the little baby Jesus a namecheck. She looked weary, blinking owlishly through big glasses; the iron perm worn like a helmet in a state of siege. She has never liked the camera, and it dislikes her back, making an instinctive formality look like coldness.

Not surprisingly, she took family continuity as her text, moving swiftly on to Christian hope and redemption. It was a shame, after the leaking of the speech in the Sun, that she didn't take the chance to go live, as her father and grandfather had before her. It might have been nervous and halting, but it would have shown a welcome frailty and a proper defiance. And it would have spared us the strangulated syntax of 'I and my family, as we approach a new year, will draw strength from this faith in our commitment to your service in the coming years.' Does someone get paid to write this?

The most interesting thing came right at the end as two verses of the National Anthem played over a montage of the Queen's 40 glorious years. A quick look in the dictionary of quotations found one verse they missed: 'Confound their politics, frustrate their knaveish tricks.' It should have been broadcast as a public health warning before Pallas 2 (C4), the House of Windsor's unofficial soap in which real footage is dubbed with a fake script. This is like all the losing entries in a caption competition being strung together, stretched over 25 minutes, and the joke running out after 30 seconds. Thus we saw the Queen in Japan, growing ever more desperate at each function: 'I want to go to the toilet.' Little baby Jesus, whatever next?

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015