Twelve TV treats of Christmas
Gerard Gilbert peeps under the bonnet in 'Cranford' and takes a trip with the Time Lord in a selection of the best yuletide viewing
Friday 11 December 2009
Elizabeth Gaskell's eponymous Cheshire town (filmed in a National Trust-owned village in Wiltshire) lives and breathes again for two sumptuous new episodes. It may take a while to remember what has happened to whom, but things eventually get up to speed, rather like the dreaded railway, which is now at the gates of Cranford. Otherwise, it's the usual round of love, death and exquisite Farrow & Ball interiors, as Dame Judi Dench, Julia McKenzie, Deborah Findlay and Imelda Staunton reprise their roles as the "Cranford Amazons"– as Gaskell dubbed them – joined by newcomers Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Dockery, Nicholas Le Provost and (most promisingly) Rory Kinnear as the Italianate black sheep of Lady Ludlow's family, Lord Septimus.
When: 20 & 27 December, 9pm BBC1
An Englishman in New York
A gratifyingly successful updating of Jack Gold's ground-breaking The Naked Civil Servant, the 1975 drama about the early life of raconteur Quentin Crisp, with John Hurt reinhabiting the role that made stars of both actor and subject. Crisp moved to New York in 1981, embraced by both high society and the demimonde (Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon plays his new friend, the performance artist Penny Arcade), until some characteristically controversial remarks – dismissed the burgeoning Aids crisis as "a fad" – severely dented his popularity. At heart, though, this is about an old queen's encounter with the newly assertive gay politics and lifestyle – and not being sure if he likes it.
When: 28 December, 9pm ITV1
Victoria Wood's Mid-Life Christmas
With Ant and Dec attempting to become ITV1's answer to Morecambe and Wise on Boxing Day, this is the nearest that the BBC comes to that inclusive festive family show of the bygone Eric and Ernie era. Giving a flavour of the gentle spoofs being cooked up by the "queen of comedy" (the BBC press notes) is a pastiche of costume dramas called "Lark Pies to Cranchesterford". Guest stars include Julie Walters (natch), Delia Smith and Anton du Beke.
When: Christmas Eve, 9pm BBC1
The Day of the Triffids
John Wyndham's Cold War sci-fi classic updated to our own eco-apocalyptic times, to a near-future where farmed Triffids are supplying the world's oil requirements. And then a solar storm causes nearly everybody on the planet to go blind and ... Yes, yes, yes, but what are the Triffids like? Are they scary or just a bit, well, silly? The BBC are only allowing previewers to watch the opening 20 minutes of the first episode – so the walking plants have yet to be witnessed in all their CGI glory. What can be glimpsed, however, looks promising, with an intelligent script from British ER writer, Patrick Harbinson, and an all-star cast that includes mother and daughter, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, Dougray Scott, Eddie Izzard, Brian Cox and Jason Priestley.
When: 28 & 29 December, 9pm BBC1
Outnumbered Christmas Special
In normal years, The Royle Family would be the sitcom special to be most keenly anticipated, but after last Christmas's aberration, "The New Sofa", judgement should be reserved on Caroline Aherne's latest reunion, "The Golden Egg Cup" (Christmas Day, 9pm BBC1). For unalloyed excitement, the 'Outnumbered Christmas Special' has me slathering at the chops. It's Boxing Day, and Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin's recognisably modern metropolitan family, the Brockmans, has been burgled – and I don't mean harassed parents Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner getting every scene stolen from under their noses by the improvising child actors, Tyger-Drew Honey, Daniel Roche and Ramona Marquez.
When: 27 December, 10.30pm BBC1
Doctor Who – The End of Time
Well, it's the end of David Tennant's time as the Tardis traveller, at least. Tennant has made a suitably half-mad, slightly inhuman Time Lord, although I'm not entirely sure that Russell T Davies's generally triumphant regeneration of the franchise hasn't taken a wrong turn with its ever-more movie-sized special effects and over-emphatic relationships between the Doctor and his companions (talk about an age difference). Naturally, the very existence of the Earth is jeopardy in this two-part swan-song, as John Simm and Catherine Tate return respectively as the Master and Donna, and Timothy Dalton and the redoubtable June Whitfield break their Doctor Who ducks.
When: Christmas Day, 6pm BBC1; New Year's Day, 6.40pm BBC1
Parents of any child born in the last 10 years will be familiar with Julia Donaldson's modern classic about a wily mouse that gets the better of its natural predators, and Donaldson's story and Axel Scheffler's illustrations are brought faithfully to the screen with some beautiful CGI animation. There's a swanky cast to boot, with Gavin & Stacey's James Corden voicing the mouse, Robbie Coltrane as the Gruffalo, and John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Rob Brydon and Helena Bonham Carter as the other forest beasties. Older children might prefer Ingenious, a one-off drama by Jeanette Winterson in which a group of youngsters discover genies in a bottle.
When: Christmas Day, 9.15am (Ingenious) and 5.30pm (The Gruffalo), both on BBC1
EastEnders/ Coronation Street
The soaps are no strangers to Shakespearean themes, especially at this time of year, when "murder most foul" (as the Ghost put it to Hamlet) is traditionally on the agenda, and one leading character – having been fattened like a Christmas turkey – is ritually dispatched. When Archie Mitchell is found lifeless on the floor of the Queen Vic (where else) this year, there's a list of suspects longer than Peggy's face after a hard day pulling pints. And if you ain't 'ad yer fill of cockneyism by now, there's always Catherine Tate's foul-mouthed OAP in Nan's Christmas Carol. Adultery is the main theme in Weatherfield, where Kevin, a man who prefers his women to have names ending in the letters l, l and y, plans to tell Sally that he is leaving her for Molly. But Sally has some news of her own.
When: Christmas Day, 7pm ITV1 (Coronation Street); 8pm BBC1 (EastEnders)
"The man from Doctor Who", as Jonathan Miller sniffed on hearing of David Tennant's casting as the RSC's Hamlet, turned out to be a pretty impressive Prince of Denmark until the actor's prolapsed disc necessitated a back operation and prolonged absence from the London stage. Theatre-goers who missed Tennant's much-hyped Dane can let their all too solid flesh melt into the sofa as they enjoy this three-hour (and that's with some fairly hefty textual excisions) film version of Gregory Doran's 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production, retaining all the key cast members, including Patrick Stewart's top-rank Claudius.
When: Boxing Day, 5.05pm BBC2
Orson Welles over Europe
Richard Linklater's engrossing new film, Me and Orson Welles, could well stir any dormant interest in the actor-director, in which case look out for Simon Callow's telling of the story of Welles's self-imposed exile in Europe, during which time he made The Third Man and developed a love of bullfighting. It's part of a BBC4 season about the great showman, featuring The Third Man itself, along with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and a two-part 1982 Arena profile with Leslie Megahey's in-depth interview with Welles.
When: 27 December, 9.30pm BBC4
Sleep with Me
You can wager that any drama styling itself an "erotic thriller" will be neither of those things, especially when it's been gathering dust on the shelves of ITV since last year, and it might be my judgement that is faulty, and not ITV's, but I think this is a cracking adaptation of Joanna Briscoe's 2005 novel (by costume-drama specialist Andrew Davies). Elfin-faced Anamaria Marinca (she played one of trafficked Moldovan sisters in Abi Morgan's Sex Traffic) is strangely alluring as the mousy, seemingly harmless, Sylvia, a Frenchwoman on the margins of London literary life, who, before you can say "bunny boiler", has inveigled her way into the relationship of book reviewer Richard (Adrian Lester) and girlfriend Leila (Jodhi May).
When: New Year's Eve, 9pm ITV1
The Turn of the Screw
Two blond, blue-eyed, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-their-mouths moppets – you'd immediately be on your guard, wouldn't you? But then perhaps you've seen The Innocents, Jack Clayton's 1961 cinema version of Henry James's much-filmed ghost story, unlike Ann, James's young governess (played by Michelle Dockery) as she takes sole charge of the horribly knowing Miles and Flora. The action is updated to the aftermath of the First World War, and Ann's relationship to the children's father is unnecessarily sexed up, but otherwise it's served as spare as it should be. And Sue Johnston is excellent as Mrs Grose, the housekeeper who knows more than she's letting on.
When: 30 December, 9pm BBC1
What was the most memorable arts event of 2009? In the comments form below (or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org) nominate your favourite - in film, music, theatre, comedy, dance or visual arts - with a brief explanation as to why it tops your list and we'll print a selection in The Independent Readers' Review of 2009.
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