TELEVISION / Season of ill will and family misfortunes

CHRISTMAS is a time for families. A time for avoiding them if you believe what you see in the Christmas specials. By the time you'd watched the seasonal offerings from Chef] (BBC 1), Only Fools and Horses (BBC 1), Birds of a Feather (BBC 1), Keeping up Appearances (BBC 1) and One Foot in the Algarve (BBC 1), Marshal Zhukov's assault on Berlin, described in The Great Commanders (C 4), looked like a festival of human harmony. Elsewhere it was clear that familial bickering, envy and malice have become an indispensable staple for British sitcom writers, as vital to their nourishment as krill is to the baleen whale.

In Chef] Gareth snapped at Janice over the price of turkeys, kitchen etiquette and map-reading; in Only Fools and Horses Del bickered with Raquel about drinking and gambling; in Keeping Up Appearances Hyacinth and Richard quarrelled over luggage, money and map-reading (they draw from the same well, these writers) and it won't surprise you to know that Victor Meldrew didn't spend his holiday on the Algarve spreading good cheer. Common to all these programmes were scenes of people being driven half round the bend by their nearest and dearest. Christmas specials, see?

What wasn't common to them all was wit and inventiveness. Conventional Christmas specials always give a nod to the Nativity story - the episode must contain travel and the appearance of a star. So Birds of a Feather went to Los Angeles to track down George Hamilton (the brief cameo by Richard Branson should be categorised as a promotional appearance, given the obliging pack shot of a Virgin jumbo that immediately followed it). Like first-time tourists packing pot-noodles in their luggage, they had taken something familiar to remind them of home. 'She was bitten by a dingo.' 'A dingo. Was it wild?' 'Absolutely furious.'

Keeping Up Appearances (the QE2 and Lord Lichfield) was a little better, though only because of Patricia Routledge's remarkable ability to keep a line afloat. Had she been on the Titanic it would have limped into New York harbour a few days after the collision, too intimidated to sink. Her facial expression on finding that she was sharing the cruise with her slobbish brother-in-law was beautiful to watch - like one of those animated weather maps as a low-pressure system hits the British Isles - and it made up for the shameless sprayed-on jollity of the ending.

One Foot in the Algarve (Portugal and Peter Cook) and Only Fools and Horses (Peckham and a lavish inner city riot) were in a different league. What's good about both is the range of comedy they draw on - it's like moving into stereo after the monotone pleasures of Birds of a Feather and Keeping up Appearances. Verbal wit, slapstick, sight gags, running jokes, and a sly, tangential depiction of character animate plots which have been carefully constructed rather than chucked together. One Foot in the Algarve won out by a neck, if only because it kept faith with its dark glee at other people's catastrophes to the very last frame.

Talking about catastrophes reminds me of Camp Christmas (C 4), one of the more embarrassing programmes broadcast this year. A simulation of those log-cabin house parties beloved of American television, it offered dreadful jokes ('Have you heard about the gay pope? He's simply divine'), some of the worst dubbing seen on screen since the Grecian 2000 adverts, and awkward cameos from gay celebrities.

Only a sense of embattled solidarity could have persuaded you to watch to the end and in that respect, at least, it represented the spirit of Christmas better than anything else in the last four days. The programme was awful because of its affectionate inclusiveness. It doesn't matter that Justin Fashanu can't do much but sit on the sofa looking shy. He's one of the family. It doesn't matter that Derek Jarman is too ill to do anything but smile weakly, he's always welcome here. For any closet gays watching, the message would have been clear. Come out all of you, come out of the cold.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears