Christmas Television: Doctor Who, Fri BBC1<br/>Catherine Tate: Nan's Christmas Carol, Fri BBC1<br/>victoria wood's Midlife Christmas, Thur BBC1<br/>The Story of Slapstick, Sat BBC2

Time Lord's a-leaping

Tom Sutcliffe
Monday 28 December 2009 01:00

The first episode of the Christmas Doctor Who ended – rather pleasingly – with the Master cloning himself globally, using some intergalactic doohickey to turn everyone on the planet (barring those useful to the plot) into another version of himself. Even Obama turned into the Master, addressing a White House press conference entirely composed of Masters – John Simm's manically cackling features beaming back at us from every corner of the screen. The BBC, meanwhile, was engaged in a plot to do something similar with the actor David Tennant. He was playing the Doctor, naturally – working himself towards a long predicted regeneration on New Year's Day – but he also pitched up as a camp Scottish Ghost of Christmas Present in Catherine Tate's special and as the Prince of Denmark in the television version of the RSC Hamlet on Boxing Day. For some odd reason, he hadn't been offered a cameo role in the Christmas EastEnders or allowed to do a demonstration tango on Strictly Come Dancing Christmas, but I expect these rather elementary errors can be corrected by next year.

This Doctor Who two-parter has been awaited in some quarters with the same anticipatory reverence the Magi brought to that stable in Bethlehem. I am not a believer – as I may have revealed here before – but there some nice jokes in the early section here, including the fact that the Tardis now appears to have a central locking key fob. Unfortunately, whenever they start explaining the plot to each other, often drawing on a comprehensive knowledge of earlier episodes, my mind begins to glaze over. "We see so much but understand so little," said a fretful Ood at one point, worried about the bad dreams he and his fellow Oods. I'm with you there, pal, I thought. And – horribly blasphemous though I know this thought is – I still can't stop myself getting the giggles whenever David Tennant runs anywhere, his lips peeled back as if he's bracing himself for an onslaught by a dental hygienist.

I haven't always been a fan of Catherine Tate's Nan either, admiring the character work but finding the essential joke a little repetitive. But Catherine Tate: Nan's Christmas Carol managed to refresh two overworked franchises simultaneously: Tate's horrible old lady gag and Charles Dickens' snow-dusted morality tale. Nan makes a perfect Scrooge, hideously unseasonal when Uncle Bob Cratchit turned up on a visit from Yorkshire with his queasily cheerful children. She wasn't exactly pleased with the gift they'd given her – a charity donation to the Mobile Library of Sudan. "It's a picture of an Arab man standing next to a donkey with half-a-dozen copies of The Da Vinci Code strapped to its back," she said witheringly on opening the envelope. It's an alternative present, her great-niece explained. "What... alternative to something I wanted?" she snapped back. She demanded ID from the Ghost of Christmas Past and told the Ghost of Christmas Future that his introductory video was rubbish. Offered the chance to change the future after her admonitory vision of a loveless old age and lonely funeral, the first thing she asked was, "Could they bring back Lovejoy... I do love it."

Victoria Wood, God bless her, had a crack at Lark Rise to Candleford in her Christmas Eve special, Victoria Wood's Midlife Christmas, packaged and presented as a kindly gift to middle-aged couch potatoes. The target was a whale in a barrel, frankly, but there were still some fine jokes, including the scene in which Cranchesterford's teenagers exchanged embroidery text messages, stitching like fury and then handing the frame over to a nearby urchin to deliver. There were also some terrible jokes, though knowingly and lovingly handcrafted to be terrible, so that it didn't matter. Given its content, the line "I could have been a corn tender", uttered by the family paterfamilias when he wistfully recalled his unfulfilled ambition to go into the seed trade, was surely an unbeatable candidate for corniest gag of the Christmas break. Julie Walters was on good form too as Bo Beaumont, fruitlessly struggling to build public presence after years of playing Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques. She walked out of Strictly Come Dancing because she couldn't master the three-step warm-up Anton du Beke tried to teach her, was passed over for a new Delia series because her signature dish – crackermole, a sardine on a Tuc cracker – didn't appeal, and pulled out of Who Do You Think You Are? when it becomes clear that she was going to have to reveal her true name and date of birth.

The Story of Slapstick began by being mildly diverting (good clips of Chaplin and Buster Keaton) but got more and more infuriating as it proceeded, undone by feeble apercus from its contributors ("Tears and laughter are very close" – Nicholas Parsons) and transparently wrong-headed cultural generalisations in the script ("We can't get enough of silent comedy these days." Eh?) By the end, I wanted to smack it in the face with a giant frying pan.

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