Television Review: Last Christmas

COME CHRISTMASTIME, as surely as the roads get clogged up by exiles heading home for the holidays, so the ether gets jammed with ghosts and angels, rubbing people's noses in the consequences of their actions. Charles Dickens invented the genre in A Christmas Carol, and Frank Capra posted a variation in It's a Wonderful Life. In Last Christmas (BBC1), Tony Grounds combined elements of both stories with a related genre, the second-chance movie, in which dead souls return to Earth to settle unfinished business.

The twist here was that the person being dragged off to observe Christmas past was a nine-year-old boy, Frank (Phillip Dowling); and the soul out for redemption was his late, West Ham-supporting father, Neville (Ray Winstone), a trainee angel dispatched to earn his wings by helping his son through the grieving process.

For a while, the play's main literary model seemed to be Hamlet, as Neville set about convincing Frank that his death was down to the boy's mother, Gwen, adding the supplementary complaint that she was living in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed - or at any rate, enjoying a tentative romance with Geoff, a downtrodden single father.

But it soon began to look as if Grounds' inspiration was drawn mainly from his own oeuvre. As in the mostly magnificent Births, Marriages and Deaths, Winstone was called on to play a charming bastard whose charm wore thinner. To begin with, Frank was happy to take his father's word for it that his mother was the evil one; but as he jaunted through Christmases and other seasons past, he began to see the true nature of his parents' relationship - that his father had been a self-serving, cowardly philanderer, using Frank himself as a weapon against Gwen. Births, Marriages and Deaths was recalled in other aspects of the play: the setting, among east London tower-blocks and council sprawl; the identification of a schoolmaster as a source of misery (Geoff's wife had run off with one).

The savagery and weirdness of Births, Marriages and Deaths was here replaced by whimsy and emotional stereotyping. In a scene out of It's a Wonderful Life, Frank plunged off Tower Bridge into the Thames, subsequently getting rescued by the heavily made-up shade of Bobby Moore. And by the end, Frank had learned to "let go" of his dad, a concept clunkingly symbolised by a scene in which Neville's ashes were launched into the clouds on a West Ham banner suspended from helium balloons.

On the other hand, Pauline Quirke, whom I've never forgiven for Birds of a Feather, was excellent as Gwen, projecting a realistic combination of maternal certainty ("I'm your mum, you love me") and vicarious terror. Phil Daniels did as much as could be expected with the weedy Geoff - the play's funniest moment was his blurted remark to Gwen, "I wish you was my mum," followed by a punctured, "I obviously didn't mean that. I was just trying to compliment you, like." And Winstone is always compelling, even hampered by a weird Goldilocks coiffure and glowing white anorak.

Last Christmas wasn't quite what I'd written to Santa for, but I'm not rifling through the wrapping-paper for the receipt.

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