Television: Binging it all home

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The Independent Culture
When it comes to television at Christmas, as it does at least once a year, our powers of hindsight become distinctly myopic. "There's been nothing much worth watching on telly this Christmas" is an annual whinge at least as sacred as, "Don't give me any more sprouts, I hate sprouts!", yet presupposes that there ever was anything much worth watching at Christmas.

There wasn't, not even in the heyday of Eric and Ernie. In 1979, people harked wistfully back to 1959. Indeed, if x represents the Golden Age of Television, and y represents the here and now, then x plus 20 always equals y. And if that's too much algebra for a cold Boxing Day morning, think of it like this, that we're always telling our children not to go anywhere with strange men, yet there is nobody stranger than the Ghost of Television Christmases Past. Don't give in to his blandishments. He's a sick old fantasist, who will tempt you with a Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, then force you to endure a dozen Christmases with the Crosbys.

Surely you remember those seasonal visits to the home of Bing and his lovely family (who later claimed that he beat the bejesus out of them on a fairly regular basis)? Bing would stand in front of the fireplace simultaneously humming and puffing his pipe - a difficult trick to pull off - while around him, children with mouths made principally of metal would gaze awkwardly into the middle-distance.

Mouths still loom large in the Crosby family. I know because Bing's widow Kathryn popped up on The Christmas Top Ten (C4) to remind us of those happy times. Kathryn looks as if she has been face-lifted by a crane. She seemed to have trouble talking and at first I couldn't work out why, but eventually realised that it was because the orifice where her mouth used to be is actually her belly-button. Which puts her mouth somewhere around the small of her back.

Incredibly, though, she was not the most disturbing-looking creature on The Christmas Top Ten. That distinction belonged to tombstone-toothed Shane McGowan, who must have fallen on hard times from the top of the same crane that face-lifted Kathryn Crosby. Even in the glory days of The Pogues he was never what you'd call wholesome. But now he looks like someone you would hurriedly cross the street to avoid. He was born, we learnt, on Christmas Day.

As were most of the young characters in Coronation Street (ITV), although the increasingly sinister Rosie Webster snuck in on Christmas Eve. It is all very well pursuing bumper festive ratings, but there is a price to pay when you realise that, come Christmas and New Year, you can hardly move in Weatherfield, Walford or Brookside Close without bumping into someone celebrating a birthday or mourning a death. Down Coronation Street, if an even mildly pregnant woman winces after Christmas lunch, it is less likely to be simple indigestion than the onset of labour pains. Soon, it will be happening to characters who aren't pregnant at all. Or who aren't even female. What price a Christmas Day baby for Curly Watts next year?

The Royle Family (BBC1) succumbed to the same temptation, as Denise's waters broke all over the avocado bathroom suite - it had, of course, to be avocado. But the scene was perfectly in context, and besides, the performances of Caroline Aherne (like sinister Rosie Webster, a Christmas Eve baby herself) and Ricky Tomlinson were simply awesome.

Because of her other talents it is sometimes overlooked, but Aherne is an astoundingly good actress, and to steal a show from Liz Smith and Sue Johnston amounts to grand larceny. "What if the baby doesn't like me?" she sobbed, and if you weren't sobbing with her, you must have nodded off. As for Tomlinson, a man who offers such little evidence that he has learnt his lines in advance is either a very poor actor or a sublimely good one. In his case, of course, the latter.

There's not much to say about The Royle Family that hasn't been said already. To be vegged (and turkeyed) out in front of the telly watching the Royles vegged out in front of the telly is a definitive fin-de-siecle experience. But as I said, that's been said. "This is the one day of the year we all get together to look at the bloody television and look at the shite they put on," moaned Jim Royle (Tomlinson). I wouldn't want to over-analyse, but this was a sentence that resounded in different ways. For one thing, the Royles get together all day and every day to look at the bloody television. While for those who really do get together just one day a year, The Royle Family made at least 40 minutes of it worthwhile.

There was another dose of Tomlinson in The Greatest Store In The World (BBC1), as a department store Santa bent on ransacking the corporate safe. The store, Scottley's, looked suspiciously like Harrods, so it was a safe worth ransacking, though to have been really topical, it should have been loaded with Christine Hamilton's jewellery. Anyway, Santa was aided by his elf (Sean Hughes) but the dastardly pair were foiled by a couple of girls (Elizabeth and Holly Earl) and their spirited mum (Dervla Kirwan). It was lively, amiable stuff - adapted by Alex Shearer from his own popular novel - and my kids loved it, even though my four-year-old, bless him, wondered how there could be a truly happy ending without the children's missing daddy being restored to the bosom of his family.

There was an exceedingly happy ending at the conclusion of Wives and Daughters (BBC1), and an expensive ending too, shot in Africa. At least it looked like Africa. BBC costume dramas are usually shot in Wiltshire but there is just no way you can easily replicate the veldt within easy reach of Devizes, so sometimes budgets have to be stretched. And budgets shared with WGBH Boston stretch further. Thank heavens for American co- production money. Even though we occasionally pay for it artistically. I recall an Inspector Morse - also made with WGBH, if memory serves - in which the backdrop suddenly and needlessly shifted from the dreaming spires of Oxford to the Royal Crescent, Bath. Before long the trail of clues would undoubtedly have led Morse to Stonehenge, Stratford, York Minster, and the zebra-crossing outside Abbey Road Studios.

Wives and Daughters, I'm pleased to say, made no such compromises. It was perfect in nearly every way, although if you were going to carp, you might say that Osborne Hamley's secret wife spoke implausibly good English for a French maid. But I'm not going to carp. Michael Gambon and Francesca Annis had the best lines, yet made more of them than you would have believed possible. Just to say that Justine Waddell, as Molly, was not overawed in such company would be praise indeed. But she was much, much better than that. Truly, Christmas-time telly is not always what it used to be.