Last night's viewing - The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, BBC2; Cutting Edge: King of Christmas Lights, Channel 4
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Tuesday 20 December 2011
It was only a matter of time. A Charles Dickens comedy-adventure mash-up had to happen, and what better timing than now, in the warm-up to our annual pre-prandial sit-down to A Christmas Carol? I'm only surprised that zombies didn't feature. As it turned out, zombies weren't required. The first of the four-part series, The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, wove together characters and plotlines from Bleak House, Great Expectations and The Old Curiosity Shop, along with a star cast and a sparkling script to make for an entertaining spoof.
If the names of the characters sounded a little contrived at first, a sharp script and perfect casting quickly allayed fears. Robert Webb played the hapless Pip-inspired adult orphan, Jedrington Secret-Past, searching for just that; Katherine Parkinson charmed in her role as his wife-turned-"treacle junkie"; Johnny Vegas turned up as a noble street urchin and Celia Imrie's variation on Miss Havisham (Miss Christmasham) was a winning one. Even Stephen Fry managed to play not yet another version of himself as the baddie, complete with protracted evil laugh. He played the lawyer who repossessed Jedrington's shop and threw his wife and children into a debtors' prison, setting off a plot of Dickensian twists and turns in which novels converged, coincidences occurred and long-lost mothers, lovers and children re-united.
The script, written by Mark Evans, who has previously penned a Radio 4 "comedy", Bleak Expectations, had that rare double-edged agility to appeal across generations. It was both cute and clever, so youngsters got an action-filled plot with Jedrington's children delivering some corking lines, while adults got Dickensian cross-references and literary satire. The wordplay and visual jokes must have tickled both. As we brace ourselves for a fair share of anodyne viewing over the festive period, this breathes life back into the family entertainment genre by actually doing what it says on the tin. Let's hope it maintains its momentum for another three episodes.
There was bleaker stuff on Channel 4 with a Cutting Edge documentary on people obsessed by Christmas lights, which felt it needed 45 minutes to explore the extent of the "phenomenon" in which people create ever bigger displays outside their homes. Why, when a tabloid newspaper can sum it up with one simple picture story of Britain's brightest Christmas house, its garden lit up like a nuclear fire-cracker? The film-makers found a cast of Christmas decoration junkies who felt they could go one better than the Selfridges window display. One couple even got a "celebrity" to switch on their lights (they were hoping for Nicolas Cage, but got John Challis – Boycie from Only Fools and Horses).
There were two brothers from Bristol, a male couple from Somerset, and Karl, a young man with a PhD whose mother regarded him, albeit half in jest, as "a bit autistic". The documentary seemed to veer undecidedly from a straight-faced interrogation of the mindset of its subjects to slyly sending them up. The two young men from Somerset were shown wearing Santa hats and bickering quietly as they switched on their lights. We followed them in the build-up to their switch-on that extended to nearby homes ("To have the whole street aboard would be like a dream come true") and subsequent gripes by neighbours who wanted no part in their luminous light-show. Karl showed us his band of robotic puppets that would, according to the voiceover, get him noticed in the world of "extreme decoration". The brothers came in with their story, speaking about their late father's love of Christmas (cue choral music) and how this festive fixation might have been triggered by his loss. It felt like an attempt by the producers to introduce psychological depth, but it rang hollow, and the programme featured in that subgenre of reality TV that focuses on people who are extreme, obsessive, or pathologised as such, for the purposes of cheap entertainment.
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