Television: Men behaving crapulously

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Television's prevailing fantasy of Christmas is a roaring fire, deep snow, a mountain of perfectly wrapped presents under a 20ft tree and delirious levels of bonhomie (such that passers-by chortle merrily as they snowball each other in the streets). All is warmth and prosperity, with the turkey gleaming as if it has been french-polished and every face around the table shining with contentment. Christmas trees don't have needles, toys don't need batteries and drinkers don't get hangovers.

Rather unexpectedly you were given all of this in the Men Behaving Badly special on Christmas Day (BBC1), Simon Nye having decided to intersperse the domestic dystopia of Tony and Gary's flat with scenes of soft-focus Perry-Como-esque festivities. You first saw the boys walking through a Dickensian street scene, arms crammed with parcels as they exchanged greetings with the roast chestnut seller and jolly urchins; then you cut to the reality, a rain-drenched, litter-strewn market street, on which Gary was searching for an 11th-hour Christmas present. Tony followed rather erratically behind, clutching a sprig of mistletoe with which he seduced passing dogs into a drunken exchange of saliva. "Happy f---ing Christmas to you too," snarled Gary, after the only stallholder still open had attempted to charge him pounds 30 for her spare false teeth.

This alternation between two kinds of cliche - the delusive and the world- weary - continued throughout the episode and proved rather effective, the programme being broadcast at a time when even the most determinedly seasonal viewer might have been beginning to feel a little crapulous. Those cloyed by synthetic visions of yuletide glee will have enjoyed the astringency of the pastiche; those slumped in festive anti-climax - exhausted by misconceived presents, compulsory good will and over-indulgence - will have relished the only mildly exaggerated reflection of their own day. The jokes seemed a good deal perkier than they have in the last few episodes of the series, though they were as dependent as ever on the staples of feminine exasperation and male oafishness. This being the season of licence and unrule, I found myself watching with two six-year-olds, and I can report that they both found the inevitable willy joke hilarious to the point of abdominal pain.

Gary and Tony would presumably have spent Christmas Eve watching the Eurotrash Christmas Special on Channel 4 - a guaranteed provider of semi- nudity, double-entendre and lavatory humour. Eurotrash's idea of the Christmas spirit would be perfectly summed up by a musical vibrator that plays "Oh Come All Ye Faithful". They hadn't actually managed to track down such an item for their seasonal gift guide, but they did include reports on the Catalonian tradition of adorning their nativity scenes with a small crouching man attending to a call of nature, a nude aerobics video and a French amateur porn mogul who turns up at the door carrying a camcorder and wearing a Santa negligee. I am thinking of seeing a therapist about the problem but I find I enjoy Eurotrash, in particular the candid air of contempt with which Antoine de Caunes delivers this fishnet stocking crammed with salacious tat.

Gary and Tony would not have spent Christmas Eve watching any of the programmes on BBC 2, which offered a rather more elevated notion of grown- up fun. The best of these was "Toy Stories", a Modern Times about the way in which no adult can ever be said to have left off childish things, our toys having made us what we are. Stephen Walker slightly blurred the focus of his central theme by including footage of children talking about their Tamagotchis (charming, but slightly off the point) and some montages of children playing that reminded you of the calculated sentiment of health-insurance adverts. But there was a truer pathos to some of the tales told here, a sharp sense of the wayward mental perspectives of childhood, when the loss of a toy can leave a lifetime scar of bereavement.

One middle-aged woman was momentarily undone by recalling how her fastidious father had thrown a beloved sailor doll on to the fire, because she had been sick over it; 50 years on, she still had the miniature substitute which she had saved her pennies to buy. Another woman recalled the aching grief of seeing her own dolls laid out at the school fete, for others to buy. I had recently conducted a cull on my own children's growing herd of soft toys but this programme made me feel so unnerved by what I might have done to as yet uncalloused souls that I am contemplating resurrecting them from the attic limbo in which they languish.

Arena's programme "The Banana" later that night was much less enchanting - a notionally sprightly miscellany of banana facts and folklore that became increasingly irritating the longer it continued. Arena has made a speciality of these anthology programmes - in which the cultural and social implications of a single object are explored - but they only work if there is some sense of covert argument at play. Here there was no editorial principle that I could discern beyond an open door: if you did a word search on "banana" in any sizeable database and then assembled the resulting hits in no particular order, you would end up with something very similar - Ian Hislop saying "I'm a banana", the Reverend Canaan Banana, Freddie Mercury with bananas on his head, Auberon Waugh's now well-trodden story about his father eating all the bananas, banana republics. I usually love bananas, but I couldn't finish this one.

Almost equally ill-conceived was A Christmas Dickens (BBC2 passim) - not because the hessian-bearded Simon Callow wasn't up to the task of reading Dickens (there's no doubt that he can "do the police in different voices") but because the unwise decision had been made to employ a living laugh-track. Every now and then the camera would cut away to a group of people in Victorian dress, all of them obliged (contractually, I imagine) to adopt facial expressions of intense interest and amusement. The most conspicuously distracting of these was a gentleman with mutton-chop whiskers and shining eyes whose face was the very epitome of comic anticipation - he trembled to the brim with scarcely contained hilarity, every now and then spilling over in a variety of Equity-minimum chuckles, titters and chortles. A more effective way of ensuring that the audience would remain stony-faced I cannot conceive.

Thomas Sutcliffe's daily television review returns in `The Eye' on Monday 5 January.

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