Television Review

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The Independent Culture
CHRISTMAS TIME is, of course, the season of goodwill, a time to mull over the things that bind us together, rather than those that divide us. And there's no better vehicle for reminding us of this than The Royle Family (Christmas Day BBC1). Granted, it has its cruel moments, mocking jokes that appeal to the Roman circus spectator in all of us - such as the clan's outburst of united mirth at young Anthony's revelation that his girlfriend's family play parlour games at Christmas ("Is their telly broke?" Denise wondered).

But what makes it so endlessly gripping and gives it a tinge of genius is a kind of "Hey, look, you can see our house" factor - the delight and shame of recognising something of yourself on the screen. For me, this moment came when, while sitting in a post-Christmas dinner digestive slump, Barbara Royle asked the others what they thought of the turkey: "I've never liked turkey", "I can take it or leave it, Barbara" and, "It's a bit tasteless". Well, she said, next Christmas she wouldn't cook turkey. Denise was truly shocked: "Mam, you've got to have turkey." "Don't be such a killjoy," Jim said, with his customary blindness to irony. As a summary of the way most people feel about not just turkey but all the Christmas trimmings, it can hardly be beaten.

As a small concession to more traditional Christmas attitudes, Jim was finally allowed to show a soft centre. Denise's waters broke and, as her dad sat with her on the bathroom floor, he had to snuffle back the tears, as he looked forward to being a gran-dad and back to the moment when he'd first held Denise and knew that he'd do anything for her. Mind you, you couldn't help thinking that all he ever does do for her is change channels and make snide remarks. Still, as we keep telling ourselves at Christmas, it's the thought that counts.

Recognition comes harder with Dickens, whose characters divide fairly neatly into the insipid and the grotesque, but there must be something that strikes a chord with me - why else does David Copperfield (Christmas Day and Boxing Day BBC1) always reduce me to tears?

Well, nearly always. This two-part adaptation, written by Adrian Hodges and directed by Simon Curtis, boasted some wonderful casting - when Maggie Smith walked through the door, it was obvious that here was the product of a long-term selective-breeding project specifically designed to produce the ideal Betsey Trotwood, querulously and formidably unconscious of her own oddity. But it was also clogged by some lazy approximations to type: Pauline Quirke was too flabby and calculatingly sentimental for Peggotty; Alun Armstrong is not cut out to play straightforward decency, as embodied by Dan Peggotty.

There were moments that sharpened the novel's focus: Mr Murdstone (Trevor Eve) playing footsie with David's mother gave a nice suggestion of his sexual power over her, something only hinted at in the novel. But mostly it muted or blunted the book's passion: in the novel, when David sees his new brother, he flings himself on his mother's breast and weeps; here, he held her hand and smiled benignly.

Anyway, that's quite enough Dickens for one year. Perhaps in 2000 we could have some sort of moratorium?