Boxing Day TV review: Thanks to the prowess of PD James's Death Comes to Pemberley, it’s a delight to be lost in Austen again

Whatever objections purists might have were cheerfully put to one side

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The Independent Culture

Christmas just isn’t quite Christmas without a period drama, but with the classical canon of Dickens, Eliot, Austen and Hardy all thoroughly exhausted, we’re running short on original material to adapt for the screen. Good on the BBC, then, for thinking of Death Comes to Pemberley, PD James’s 2011 Austen pastiche, which rejoins the characters of Pride and Prejudice six years after the close of that novel.

At Pemberley, the Darcy family and their servants were busy preparing for a ball when Jane’s disgraced sister, Lydia (Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who!), and her caddish husband, Mr Wickham (a perfectly cast Matthew Goode), turned up, uninvited. Lydia was screaming about some shots heard in the wood and soon Mr Wickham was in the frame for murder, which put their stiffly honourable host, Mr Darcy (Matthew Rhys), in another difficult position. It was a lot of fun – and whatever objections purists might have to a Jane Austen book that wasn’t actually written by Jane Austen can cheerfully be put aside: after all, screen versions always involve the creative input of others.

No, the real problem for this three-part series isn’t the shadow of influence cast by Austen herself, but the one cast by the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice adaptation, which kicked off a global wave of Austenmania and continues to turn up in lists of the greatest ever TV programmes. I’m not sure I quite warmed to Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth Darcy née Bennet, but her struggles were as nothing compared to Matthew Rhys. In the billowy, wet-shirt competition that is playing Mr Darcy, Firth will always come first.

What Death Comes to Pemberley does have over Pride‘n’Prej is an author attuned to modern sensibilities. There was the upstairs/downstairs tension of Downton Abbey, the murder mystery plot of Sherlock and, for some reason, half the brilliant cast of The Thick of It. Rebecca Front hit the right note of hysteria as Mrs Bennet and Joanna Scanlan brought just a touch of civil servant Terri to the disapproving housekeeper Mrs Reynolds. Let’s also give a mention to Kevin Eldon (or “the actor Kevin Eldon”, if you prefer) as Dr Belcher. He didn’t do much in this first episode, but I know fans of under-watched Nineties comedy will join me in hoping he gets more lines next time round.

Boxing Day’s other big treat was an adaptation of another popular book from 2011, David Walliams’s novel for children Gangsta Granny. Last year, his 2009 novel Mr Stink, starring an uncharacteristically grubby Hugh Bonneville, was a big Christmas TV success, and now this. Are we witnessing a new festive tradition in the making?

Reece Buttery starred as Ben, a boy who hates staying over at his grandmother’s every Friday while his ballroom-dancing obsessed parents (David Walliams and Miranda Hart) sew sequins on to their OTT outfits, or catch another episode of Strictly Come Dancing. In Ben’s eyes, Granny (Julia McKenzie) is just a boring old woman who’s idea of a slap-up meal is cabbage soup and whose idea of fun is Scrabble and a 7.30 bedtime. But might he have underestimated his old nan?

Aside from being something of an extended insult to Strictly fans (Britain’s Got Talent judge Walliams is clearly fiercely loyal to his own reality-TV brand), Gangsta Granny had a moving message that was a cut above the usual children’s-story moral. It was a reminder to treat the elderly and, indeed, all family members, with a respect for their individual passions and secret selves. As Gangsta Granny says: “Just because we’re old, doesn’t mean we’re boring. We might just surprise you.”