It's that time of year when distant relatives feel obliged to make a courtesy visit, dropping in for a spot of constrained seasonal joviality. Here's Ballykissangel, (BBC1) for instance; we haven't seen it for months - haven't even given it a thought, to be honest, let alone tried to get in touch. And then last night suddenly it pitches up on the doorstep to go through the Yuletide motions. The result, hardly surprisingly, was just a little bit awkward all round - with a heavy reliance on ancient family jokes and some stiff expressions of seasonal sentiment. In deference to the Christmas spirit the running joke in this episode was bird-brained and wattled - taking the form of a live turkey ("His name's Dustin, be the way") which Father Peter had won in a raffle, and which escaped the sage-and-onion suppository due to his squeamish procrastination about neck-wringing. In the end it disappeared somewhere - the running joke that is, rather than the turkey - presumably making off through one of the large holes in the programmes' narrative structure. You sense that a writer's powers of invention are at a low ebb when you spot a large sign reading "Abandoned Mine Workings - Danger" early in the drama, and so it proved here.
I would have thought that the village equivalent of an office party would have been the perfect moment for Assumpta and Peter finally to clinch their long and enervating erotic negotiation; a good bout of alcoholic remorse and a few soulful "never again" speeches next day would keep the watchdogs at arms length and the resulting guilt might even have recharged the batteries for another series. But despite the now familiar longing looks there were no forward movements in that area. Instead the writer had to drop a child down a mineshaft to carry us through the last desultory 30 minutes - a homage to Lassie unenlivened by any local twist (I had hoped the turkey might re-appear to tug urgently at the policeman's trousers - "What's that Dustin? Trouble at the mine!"). In fact, there was something curiously halfhearted about the whole affair - both inside the fiction - the search party for the lost child consisted of three blokes standing in the pub and one policemen actually looking - and out; the early sections of the script made all sorts of seductive promises that were never quite fulfilled. "What the heck - it's Christmas," said a senior policeman towards the end, turning a blind eye to some minor lapse in standards. It could just as well have been a motto for the programme.
Channel Izzard , the previous night on Channel Four, constituted a far more thoughtful gift to the viewer. Watching The Direct Article, a recording of one of Izzard's stage performances, you could see why he has always been wary about television appearances. His act needs a captive audience, or at least one devoted enough to sit through the messy bits. It's like watching a man move through broken pack ice, leaping from one unsteady floe to the next, sometimes darting wildly sideways to avoid a widening gap, sometimes floating with the current for a while, occasionally losing his footing altogether. Mostly very funny though and he's as good without words as he is with them - one of the best moments being an inspired bit of clowning in which a bird on an airliner (don't ask) exchanged meaning looks with a bird flapping outside, showing off the reclining seat and turning aside at one point to ask for white wine with its meal. I also enjoyed the speculation about Pavlov's failed experiments with cats ("Day Three. Rang bell. Cat said he'd eaten earlier.") and "The Lust for Glorious", a spoof documentary which followed the creation of a promo video designed to pitch the cross-dressing Izzard into the American market. "I will prostitute myself to get this country," he announced to his PR agents, "but not in a tacky way". The tasteful result involved three-in-bed sex scenes (to reassure rednecks unnerved by the lipstick), fast cars and a carefully staged scene of artistic temperament - marred only by the fact that Izzard could barely lift the television set high enough to get it out of the hotel room window.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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