TELEVISION / A smashin' time was had by all

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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?