TELEVISION / Hosts from hell and heavenly feats of clay

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU missed Big Break Christmas Special (BBC 1) you were one of the lucky ones. We're in the doldrums now, into that eerie period where anticipation is all over but it is still a little too early to start running the round-ups of last year's disasters. Instead, you get this year's disasters, tinsel-swathed programmes that were clearly thought not quite up to the hurly-burly of Christmas Day itself.

Not true in all cases obviously. Lovejoy (BBC 1) was something of a lynch-pin for the schedules, but after some six hours of Christmas specials I just couldn't bring myself to go on location to East Anglia and North Carolina, even with the promise of Sir John Gielgud as guest star. Perhaps someone can write and tell me which airline they used to get to America as I'm thinking of starting a league-table for aircraft-taking-off shots. (I notice, incidentally, that British Airways managed to claw back a bit of ground in One Foot in the Algarve after Virgin's triumph in Birds of a Feather.)

So I watched Big Break instead. The words 'It's all in a good cause' are famously lowering, slamming a door shut on relieving sarcasm, but they are particularly grim when uttered by Jim Davidson. 'I woon't mind hosting me own show wiv a glamorous lot of guests from panto land,' he said, when John Virgo asked him for his Christmas wish. He got three snooker players in drag and a mixed bag of minor celebrities, which may explain the faint whiff of menace behind the coercive good cheer that followed.

I'm just about prepared to believe the geezer's a diamond in real life (though I'd want documentary proof), but on screen there's something unsettling about Davidson's comedy, a feeling that it could turn nasty at almost any point. He's an ungenerous comic, treading on the laughs, and most of his humour is aimed away from himself, at other people. With Davidson you never feel very far from that verbal bully's whinge, 'It was only a joke. Don't you have a sense of humour?' It's all for charity, though, so I'd better not complain.

I got rid of the taste of Big Break by watching the video of The Wrong Trousers (BBC 2) again, a work of genius cruelly transmitted on Sunday at a time of day when many adults would have missed it. It was a sequel to A Grand Day Out, which won Nick Park a Bafta for best animation last year, and in it the characters of Wallace, an inventive pensioner, and Gromit, his dog, are further refined.

Gromit is the hero really - wiser and more refined than his master (he listens to Bach), long-suffering in his devotion, easily hurt and wonderfully expressive. As Wallace prattles, pretending to have forgotten that it is Gromit's birthday, the dog sulks behind a newspaper at the breakfast table, one paw emerging to flip open a musical birthday card in an attempt to jog his master's memory.

It was a thriller this time, involving a pair of mechanical trousers that can walk up walls and the nefarious intentions of a penguin who arrives to rent the spare room. The penguin is in fact Feathers McGraw, a notorious jewel thief who disguises himself as a chicken by placing a red washing-up glove on his head. He displaces Gromit from his pleasant bedroom (complete with bone-motif wallpaper) and from the affections of his master, but the natural order is finally restored after a wildly inventive chase sequence.

Just as in Creature Comforts, the film which won Park an Oscar, the joy is in the details - the arch in Gromit's eyebrows as he finds that he has been bought a new collar and lead, the penguin-flap that he finds installed in the front door when he returns from a brief period of exile.

Park has an uncanny ability, usually reserved by mythology for the higher deities, to infuse life into mute clay, but that skill alone wouldn't explain the charm of The Wrong Trousers, which has atmosphere, wild sight gags and a certain pathos to commend it too. If there's any justice in the world it will replace The Snowman as a Christmas fixture.