Laughter and tears: fitting remedies for Christmas

A TRAIN was very late out of Charing Cross the other night. Laconically, the guard apologised: the delay was caused by a fatality on the line, he explained, adding, with weary cynicism, "silly season, I'm afraid". Such lurches of emotion - from exasperation, to horror, to bathos - are very Christmassy. Strenuous efforts to reproduce the peace and goodwill promised by the Bethlehem angels are not always rewarded: joy usually creeps in unannounced, and rare is the household that does not Laugh a Little, Cry a Little (WS).

As the sun rises bright and warm on a garden in India, members of the Laughing Club International meet to practise. Laughter, explains their founder earnestly, is excellent therapy for bronchitis and asthma, exercising the lungs and reducing blood pressure. At first they told jokes to get started, but that became risky with ladies present, so now they solemnly ho-ho-ho themselves into guffawing jollity, like so many novice Father Christmases. Laughter is a weapon no sadist can disarm, no amnesty confiscate. Its closeness to grief is proverbial; by some mysterious alchemy, tragedy can readily provoke either, and both spill over into tears - which distinguish us from animals and offer us a vital waterway back towards serenity.

Lydia Syson's thoughtful, intelligent programme was the most sophisticated of many attempts to define and celebrate happiness this Christmas. John Bird sadly failed to conjure up the elusive, exotic wraith of Peter Cook in Cook's Tour (R4) on Boxing Day. One of the people he asked for help with the programme had advised him that the only possible way to do it was to make it all clips, but he tried valiantly to do more than that. The clips, however, were what you wanted to hear, and Bird himself admitted that discussions of comic procedure tend to be depressing. Still, Willie Rushton did offer a nice thought, that John Major's voice is directly descended from E L Wisty. It's true, isn't it?

More successful was Roy Hudd's Extremely Amusing History of the Comic Song (R2), which really lived up to its title. Hudd is an amazing man, immensely knowledgeable but blessed with a deft lightness of touch that allows him to inform painlessly. His own rendition of a Purcell song was brilliantly funny - but the whole hour was highlights. I particularly liked Marie Lloyd's lovely refained voice belting out "Every Little Movement Has a Story of Its Own" with outrageous innuendo, and it was very pleasing to know that her real name was the same as her illustrious successor in the genre, Victoria Wood.

Also living up to its title was an appalling offering from R1. Midnight Massacre was a horrible thing, both offensive and emotional in its blatantly lurid attempt to appeal to yoof by means of heavy-rock music intercut with quasi-spiritual experiences. If the Worldwide Message Tribe are really "Britain's hippest Christian band", as the Radio Times declares, then God help Britain.

Now just a mention of Emma Freud's enjoyable study of urban myths in A Friend of a Friend (R4). These modern folk tales are gloriously preposterous affairs, given credence by the fact that they happened to your brother- in-law's next-door neighbour's best friend's auntie. Some are familiar, but one I hadn't heard before was about a dog taken to a vet, choking. The vet keeps it in for observation/surgery, but the owner's phone is ringing as she returns home. "Call the police at once," says the vet and, sure enough, a burglar is hiding, locked up in the bathroom, nursing his hand - which is lacking three fingers. Aaargh.

Finally, back to the search for happiness and Nick Baker's jokey effort. Don't Worry, Be Happy (R4), he suggested, asking a team of "experts" to concoct a recipe for happiness. As they toiled away producing the kind of vital ingredients that we amateurs could readily suggest, namely health, wealth, love and job satisfaction, he went to extremes. The imprisoned Terry Waite was happy when a chance to look out of a window offered him a glimpse of a woman carrying bright flowers; Elvis, labouring on the "hedonic treadmill", was ultimately incapable of joy, despite having access to the most disgustingly vast sandwiches I have ever been asked to imagine.

And then along came Professor Eysenck. Oh yes, he's the one they always ask. He pretended to have brought along something new. He prevaricated a bit, wrapped it up in different paper, hid it behind his back, but in the end, de-spite more years of earnest research, he produced the same answer he always gives. Toss away your Prozac and your video, leave the post-Jungian monks contemplating the pretty patterns on their carpets in Kentish Town, and get out there and do the one thing the Professor guarantees will make you happy. On with your kilt, pump up your bagpipes and start on the Scottish dancing: after all, it is Hogmanay.