Retellings, big returns and new adaptations: Christmas TV of 2019

There was a line in my Christmas theatre job this year which was lauding the excitement around Christmas TV specials, and every time I uttered the words, there was a definite truth in them for me. Christmas hails in some truly excellent slices from the television cake, offering different flavours for all to enjoy in their own ways.

As someone who was fortunate enough not to be working on Christmas Day, I was treated to a plethora of small screen treats. Luddites may bemoan the modern habit of gathering round the television to watch some commercialist entertainment rather than spending time with family, but for me and I think for many families, shared viewing tastes can unite families who can often times be at odds with one another.

So, without further ado, here are a selection of my thoughts on my Christmas viewings…

A Christmas Carol (BBC)

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Guy Pearce as Ebeneezer Scrooge

Dickens’ 1843 novella has been adapted numerous times – almost ad nauseam – and while there have been modern adaptations bringing a twist to the original tale such as the 1988 Scrooged or mashups with pop culture icons like The Muppet Christmas Carol, a new twist within the confines of the story’s original setting has rarely been attempted.

Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight helms this three part adaptation of the traditionally heart warming tale, but given Knight’s previous writing creds, don’t for a moment think this is the same saccharine tale that has been told time and time again. This is a version not made for purists of the text and nor does it ever pretend to be – the opening scene of a young working class lad urinating on Robert Marley’s grave firmly asserts itself as breaking away from the rose-tinted glasses of a traditional Dickensian Christmas.

While some may have bristled at the divergences from the original plot and atmosphere of the novella, I delighted in this, what I felt to be, a far more realistic and philosophical presentation of the classic tale of moral redemption. Examinations of the intersectionality between race, class and disability are succinctly and cleverly handled, and the evolution of Scrooge’s change of heart feels far truer than in the original – to me, Scrooge seems immediately won over by the Spirits by simply looking at his past, making the battle for his soul by the Spirits of the Present and Future null and void.

Guy Pearce presents a compelling Scrooge, with hints towards neuroatypicality which bring a new intrigue to his emotionally distant and misanthropic nature. He is dislikable but complicated in his cruelty and as we see his redemption achieved not solely through the thawing of his heart to emotion, but also in equal measure through logic and reason, the perhaps most uncomfortable aspect of the original tale is broken down – the now much deservedly scorned white saviour complex. In this version of events, the Cratchit’s do not forgive Scrooge for his previous wrong doings, Bob Cratchit is not the simperingly loyal employee, and rather than resting on our laurels that all is right in the world because one millionaire gains a conscience, we are challenged with a call to arms by Mrs Cratchit. While the Cratchit’s may survive from the generosity of Scrooge’s donation, the final shot of Vinette Robinson looking directly down the camera barrel brings the tale to stark relevance.

We live in a world where the richest of us continue to lie and cheat their way into more money and prestige while the working and lower-middle classes continue to suffer under austerity measures. Thousands of children are currently living in poverty, and families are having to turn to charitable organisations like food banks in order to put some kind of dinner on the table. Mrs Cratchitt’s final words hold a frightening pertinence.

“Spirits… there is still much to do.”

The Goes Wrong Show: The Spirit of Christmas (BBC)

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Henry Lewis as Santa and Charlie Russell as Nistle

I love a bit of slapstick comedy and I love spoofs and satires. I first saw Mischief Theatre’s original production of The Play That Goes Wrong on the West End in 2016 and I absolutely fell in love with the show. I adored the classic am-dram gaffs, the inflated egos of the cast members, and the fecklessness of the technical team. It wasn’t ground breaking comedy but it was a merry spoonful of utter silliness.

The Spirit of Christmas is most certainly silly, but was my belly aching from laughter and hilarity? Decidedly not. Perhaps I was viewing the show with too much of a cynical adult eye, but in watching this Christmas special, I felt wearied of jokes and gags that seemed tired and unoriginal – gags which have been executed with much finer precision and panache by comic geniuses like Morecombe and Wise or Victoria Wood.

The comedy felt flaccid and far too over reliant on the bombastic talent of Henry Lewis’ luvvie Santa. I had the distinct sense that I should be laughing at Santa failing to come down the chimney, or Christmas decorations getting mixed up with food items but few of these farcical gags could evoke a smile let alone a chuckle from me. As I felt with the Royal Variety performance of their upcoming show, Groan Ups, there were too many broad strokes and not enough detailed work to the plot or performances.

No doubt, The Spirit of Christmas is a wonderful way to introduce kids to farcical comedy, but for a (perhaps) jaded comedy viewer such as myself, it fell flat.

Martin’s Close (BBC)

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Peter Capaldi as the Attorney, Dolben

Watching ghost stories, particularly the old and new adaptations of M.R. James’ spooky creations, is something of a tradition in my family. It’s one of the few traditions we’ve been able to keep up as a family during a particularly busy season this year, and I’ve loved being able to settle into the macabre comfort of these familiar tales on these dark winter nights. So I was thrilled to know that Mark Gatiss had adapted another of James’ stories for Christmas this year – excited enough that I even read the original short story. The English Lit nerd in me lives on.

Compared with recent big blockbuster spookfests such as The Conjuring or The Babadook, M.R. James’ stories are somewhat tame for most modern horror audiences, but there is a quintessential and atmospheric sensation that comes from his stories. These are tales of dread and the fear of the unknown, the terror of being pursued by an unrelentingly malignant spectre. Martin’s Close encapsulates these familiar, Jamesian tropes, even including his love of a historical setting.

Concerning the 17th Century trial of a country gentleman, George Martin, for the murder of a local village girl, Martin’s Close examines abuse of power, particularly between class, gender and ableism. It is about the unrelenting rage at injustice that a spurned and mistreated girl’s soul embodies, and for a text that was written in the early 20th Century, is refreshing in its lack of victim blaming towards the female subject of the case.

Martin’s Close is an extremely accurate adaptation to the original text – in fact, much of the dialogue is spoken verbatim from the story. Yet, that is perhaps where this ghost stories weaknesses lie. It is framed as a story within a story, as a contemporary amateur historian retells the narrative from recently discovered court records, yet this overarching framework is completely unnecessary to the main narrative of the tale within a televisual medium. Having an actor give direct address in intercutting scenes between the court action was jarring and oddly self-indulgent, bringing a sort of tongue-in-cheek nature to the narrative, completely undercutting the sinister atmosphere created within the historic scenes. Indeed, the most alarming scene from the original story is literally cut short by a camera cutaway during the only female witness’ testimony, removing to some extent the true extent of the horror at the realisation of George Martin’s situation.

While it is a true adaptation of the text, Martin’s Close does not utilise the advantages of television’s visual medium to enhance the horror of the written story. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most difficult of James’ ghost stories to adapt for the screen, and while it does leave something of a chill down one’s spine – George Martin’s screams of a thirteenth juror was truly frightening – it is not the best of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas canon.

Gavin and Stacey (BBC)

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James Corden (Smithy), Joanna Page (Stacey), Matthew Horne (Gavin) and Ruth Jones (Nessa)

Perhaps the most anticipated piece of Christmas telly this year, I like millions of others was ecstatic with excitement at the return of Ruth Jones and James Corden’s brainchild, Gavin and Stacey. A lot was riding on this Christmas special and I cannot even imagine the pressure both Jones and Corden felt about delivering something that could even match the quality of the original series. There is a mixture of joy and dread in fans’ hearts when a beloved show makes a return or ‘reunion’ episode years after its series’ finale, and part of me wondered if the pressure would be too much.

I was, so very thankfully, proven wrong. The 2019 Christmas special of this charming, hilarious and heart warming show felt as though the nine year gap between the final episode and this had never happened – not as in the action had not moved forward, but in that the quality of the writing and the rapport between the cast had remained ever the same.

This is a special that is not too overly reliant on resurrecting tired old gags from the series, but felt fresh and current. Of course there were references to running jokes such as the dreaded Fishing Trip (which was masterfully handled), but this was an episode that never for one minute felt like it was sycophantically pandering too much to its fans. Jones and Corden have kept the integrity of their characters in tact, and with the shocking cliffhanger ending – which literally left my whole family screaming at the telly – there is only one question on my mind.

Will there be a fourth season?

(EDIT: I have a lot of feelings about the use of the ‘f’ word in The Fairy Tale of New York concerning safeguarding the LGBTQ+ community on national TV and using hate speech so flippantly. TL;DR it was unnecessary to use that word in Bryn and Nessa’s rendition of the song as it can so easily be changed into something that does not have so much pain and hurt associated with it.)