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.

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