The Weekend's Television: Lark Rise to Candleford, Sun, BBC1
Dustbin Baby, Sun, BBC1
Russell Brand's Christmas Ponderland, Sun, Channel 4
Far from a wasted life
Monday 22 December 2008
I learnt the other day that you can ask the BBC questions under the Freedom of Information Act. I might file one to find out what sums the Corporation expended on artificial snow in the last financial year.
It's not going to be a small number, I think. In Lark Rise to Candleford, it looked as if they'd spray-frosted the whole of Buckinghamshire, all those Lilliput Lane sets reissued in a seasonal special edition, sprigged with festive sentiments and Candleford jollity.
It looked so olde-tyme wintry that a shudder ran down my spine, though I find myself in some difficulty in explaining why. The other day, talking to his wife on Shrink Rap, Billy Connolly expanded on his critic-disabling theory that there's no such thing as good and bad, just stuff you get and stuff you don't.
Generally, I would fight this kind of relativism with every fibre of my being, but 10 minutes of Lark Rise to Candleford has a way of taking the fight out of a man. It's so earnestly desirous that we should feel good – clarinets and oboes chortling away on the soundtrack – that it seems pointless to assail it. But, on the other hand, I can hardly bear to watch. I don't get it, in short, and almost immediately find myself regretting the fact that the person best qualified to parody its cosy tics and mannerisms – Dawn French – is also disqualified, because she's in it, delivering a performance that hovers just this side of open insurgency.
I had a much better time with Dustbin Baby, and a much better time than I'd expected full stop, the mid-afternoon scheduling having slightly wrong-footed me about how tough this adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson's novel would be.
There are limits, of course. Its account of a life lived in care couldn't have had swearing, or casual drug use, and when a shadow fell over a child's bed at night, it wasn't the care-home manager coming to exercise some horrible droit de seigneur, as it might have been in an adult drama. But it wasn't cosy or falsely reassuring either. It began with a bad birthday, April coming down to an unnervingly perfect breakfast table to find that she'd been bought a pair of moonstone earrings by her foster mother, Marion.
What April yearned for, though, was a pink mobile phone, and her disappointment was compounded by the fact that all birthdays were bad for her, a reminder that she didn't know who or where she came from, having been abandoned in a skip shortly after birth. So April skipped school for the day, revisiting the landmarks of her troubled childhood in a search for more information.
Her case file was a fat one and it made grim reading: the suicide of her adoptive mother after marital breakdown, a chain of unsuccessful fosterings, bullying and delinquency in a care home. But April's apparently inexorable downward slide was blocked by the sensible brogue shoe of Marion, a frumpy history teacher who took a liking to her, and eventually offered to foster her.
Juliet Stevenson was good as a woman who was far more comfortable in the past than the present, and whose attitudes weren't always reflected by those she met: "If we see her, we'll bash her for you, right?" said a group of mocking youths that she questioned about Alice. "I'd much rather you didn't," she replied with absurd formality.
But her performance was more than matched by that of Dakota Blue Richards as Alice, mostly banked-down and wary but prone to sudden wild flashes of anger. There were implausibilities in the drama – places where it was a lot kinder than the world might have been – but it still made you well up with its final reconciliation, and it felt as if the emotion had been honestly earned.
I enjoyed Russell Brand's Christmas Ponderland a lot more once I started to imagine the Daily Mail headlines it might provoke: "Foul-Mouthed Brand in Virgin Mary Blasphemy", perhaps, for the sequence in which he imagined the Holy Mother as an Essex slattern, taking a very dim view of the accommodation.
Or "Brand in Paedophile Joke Outrage" for the sequence in which he explored the dangers of Christmas Santas: "I've been working in the grotto trade for quite a while," he slurred, parodying a Santa manager. "And I've learnt to get rid of anyone in the nonce line."
Not that I wouldn't have enjoyed him without the pleasing fantasy of someone harrumphing themselves into an apoplexy. He's not to everyone's taste, as the BBC so painfully discovered, but he is funny.
The show itself is a fairly standard funny-clips-and-commentary deal, but it works because of Brand's wild energy. I particularly enjoyed his indignant dissection of Wizard's song "I Wish It Could Be a Wombling Merry Christmas Every Day", a number he rightly arraigned for conceptual overkill. An hour of a Wombling Merry Christmas perhaps, but everyday? Surely not.
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