TELEVISION / Ain't no Santa Claus

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The Independent Culture
Everyman (Sunday BBC1) opened with a sweet old man in a full white beard talking about the message of Christmas. But he was not preaching seasonal good cheer or inviting little children to sit on his lap (a practice now discouraged anyway in many grottoes). He was in fact a very un- Santa-esque, retired Anglican priest lamenting the loss of simplicity and wisdom in our Christmas celebrations.

At that time of year when we elbow each other out of the way in shopping queues and cut each other up in traffic jams in a consumerist frenzy, Jonathan Stedall's film dwelt on the more contemplative side of the mid- winter festival. The documentary's slow style certainly afforded you time to ponder such questions as 'why have football fans taken to wearing Santa hats?' Great chunks of the film were given over to moody shots of Christmas cards on the mantlepiece and the star on top of the tree.

In such a setting, the poignant moments stood out. Prayers were read for 'the poor and the helpless' over footage of a doddery old man struggling to put crusts on the bird-table. The same man had earlier tried and failed to keep the imploring tone out of his voice as he said to the Meals on Wheels woman who delivered his Christmas dinner, 'Don't go just yet'. It is not hard to see why Christmas is the busiest time of the year for the Samaritans.

Life with Eliza (Sunday BBC2) was jollier fare. Time was when John Sessions was in danger of winning the Tony Slattery Memorial Award for Services to Over- Exposure. You couldn't turn on the telly without seeing him thesping it up as Dickens or Napoleon. But of late he has kept his head below the parapet, and he now returns to the firing-line in a suitably low-key vehicle - 12 bite- sized Edwardian monologues on early-evening BBC2. Despite the distractions of a ludicrous crinkle-cut chips hairdo and moustache, he gave a nicely understated performance in the first episode. And what a relief to see the one-time Emperor of Improv playing only one character.

At the opposite end of the budgetary scale was Screen One: The Hummingbird Tree (Sunday BBC1). Watching, it was easy to forget that these are austere times at BBC Television, struggling with a pounds 58m overspend. This was not just a glossy drama set in Trinidad, but a glossy period drama set in Trinidad. So we were treated to wonderful stately limousines, splendid colonial mansions, and any number of 1940s safari suits.

The story bore a superficial resemblance to Lord of the Flies. (Lots of snobbish brats in shorts and ties running riot in an island paradise, taunting the weaker members of their group, shooting arrows and blowing conches on the beach.) But The Hummingbird Tree was a much slighter affair than Golding's grand parable about human nature.

The innocent love affair between the white boy Alan (Tom Beasley) and his Indian kitchen girl Jaillin (Desha Penco) was conjured up with sensitivity. Once, their fingers touched as they washed their hands in the same bowl, and a tender smile played across both mouths. Less subtle was the pervasive air of doomy, star-crossed love. Alan could relate to the Indians' cricket match (even with the novelty of a cow fielding at Square Leg), but he had to avert his gaze as Jaillin cheered along at a cock fight.

Both children were excellent (there again, you rarely see a bad child actor these days - even on Grange Hill). But for all the good acting and a marvellous soundtrack, you were left with the impression that you had been reading a short story rather than a novel.

No danger of feeling short- changed by Equinox: ET - Please Phone Earth (Sunday C4), a comprehensive account of Nasa's version of Search for a Star. Stuart Carter's intriguing film posed much the same question as that eternal seeker after truth, Woody the barman on Cheers (Friday C4): 'Sam, do you think there's a reason for all the stars?'

You cannot make such a programme without a passing nod to Star Trek, but this Equinox seemed to be moving its head rather too vigorously in the direction of Gene Roddenberry with a backdrop, music and a beauty parade of aliens straight out of the Captain's Log.

Otherwise, director Richard Smith showed great originality; we were offered more imagination in this hour than in a whole series of Blake's Seven. The surreal nature of Nasa's search was captured by the speeded-up image of a giant radio telescope changing its positions in time to the Blue Danube waltz. And, as one scientist warned that 'it's not nice to be invaded by aliens', the camera homed in on some oppressed- looking Americans sitting by a sign that read 'Welcome to Columbus Bar'.

But in all its cosmic probing, the most vital mystery addressed by ET - Please Phone Earth was this: why do aliens in the movies always speak perfect English?

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