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.)

Secret Cinema Presents Stranger Things

I have always wanted to go to an immersive event.

I love dressing up. I love role playing (keep your minds out of the gutter). And I love being a part of a story that is being told well.

As such, I have wanted to go to a Secret Cinema event for years. I first heard about them while I was researching immersive film events in preparation for a similar event I was helping to programme and produce. Their work has been of a consistently high standard and many of my friends have recommended their experiences from previous events.

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Myself and my friend outside the secret venue

So when Secret Cinema Presents Stranger Things was announced, I knew I had to book my ticket. I am a huge Stranger Things fan and I was very curious to see how Secret Cinema would execute an event that was focused on a television series. Film is a much easier medium to translate into a four hour event purely because it is usually a singular, linear narrative that can therefore be easily translated into a theatrical event. For this event, Secret Cinema would have to translate three whole seasons’s worth (approximately twenty five hours) of content into a single evening’s long narrative.

A worthy challenge for a production company with such a sterling track record.

As any seasoned Secret Cinema goer knows, your experience begins well before the night of the event. As with their previous events, you are designated a character, and in this case your character is built around a particular genre of music which was popular in the late-70s to the mid-80s.

To keep this review as spoiler free as possible, I’ll give as few specific details as possible. The setting for the event is inspired by the 4th July fun fair in Stranger Things 3 with the collective motive of meeting for the Hawkins High School reunion of 1985. The story lines that unfold are heavily based upon the events of Stranger Things 3 and they are masterfully executed by a highly talented cast and crew.

The attention to detail on the sets and costume are second to none, and the performances given by the Secret Cinema cast of Stranger Things characters are uncanny to the original performances. Particular cast highlights for me were given by the actors who played Hopper, Joyce, Murray and Alexei – not only were their resemblances to the original actors spookily similar, but their precise character studies of David Harbour, Winona Ryder, Brett Gelman and Alec Utgoff’s performances were phenomenal.

There are so many references within the sets and performances to keep every fan happy, but even for those who aren’t too interested in the minor details, there is a lot on offer to keep you entertained. While you can participate in the event-original mystery story line, following clues across the numerous settings in the venue, you can just as equally enjoy dancing to some 80s tracks, drink some craft beer, or perform some era-appropriate karaoke.

While I only ate and drank a hot dog and root beer float, what I consumed was of a very high quality and reasonably priced (for London prices at any rate). There is plenty of different American style food stuffs available, including veggie options, and there are a selection of non-alcoholic soft drink options. Perhaps the most immersive food stuff on offer is the ice-cream from Scoops Ahoy and while I didn’t have any scoops on their own, the ice-cream in my float was of a high standard – they don’t skimp on your scoops!

Even if you come to the event at a later booking time, there is still a lot to experience, as the finale event is a 20-30 minute 360 degree sensory spectacular, combining live performance and clips from the original show. This performance in itself is worth the price of the ticket. There are plenty of West End shows that offer half the quality of the experience given by this performance for double the price.

If I were to have one criticism it would be that the event isn’t particularly friendly for people with hearing difficulties. If you want to participate in the mystery story line of the evening, make sure you are with someone who has the hearing of a mouse. Myself and the friend I went with both have minor hearing loss and it was extremely difficult to uncover certain clues as a result.

My advice for those who want to participate in the mystery story line would be to follow the clues as quickly as you can. There are time constraints as to how late you can move forward in your mystery solving whilst not missing key events taking place in the main performance areas.

This said, I had an absolutely amazing experience. It is well worth the money you spend on the tickets and given the quality of what you get, as well as how much content is packed into the evening, it is worth going more than once – which is what I am planning on doing.

Whether you’re a die-hard Stranger Things fan or not, Secret Cinema Presents Stranger Things is a fantastic evening of 80s themed, science-fiction inspired, Americanophile brilliance!

Star Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

 

Looking Back and Forward

New Years is upon us, and it is the season when people are reflecting upon the year which has passed and contemplating the new year yet to come. It is very appropriate, therefore, that January is named in honour of the two-faced god, Janus, who looks both before and behind him. We recall the things we have done and, for many of us, we consider how we can do better in the new year stretching out before us. Maybe we will manage to maintain our gym membership, and maybe this will be year that we finally get those shelves up in the spare room, or… maybe not.

For me, I want to reflect upon the slices of creativity I have enjoyed this past year, from films, to theatre, to books. I also want to take a brief look at what 2019 has to offer in all these realms too, so here goes nothing!

Top Book: The Passion of the New Eve by Angela Carter

I have been sadly slacking with my reading this year, much to my own distress. 2018 has been an incredibly hectic year, having begun with an Italian theatre tour where I was either too exhausted or too busy sight-seeing to get some proper reading done, or I was desperately searching for jobs between periods of manic rehearsals on the other side of the country. It’s been a marvellous year in many ways for just these reasons, but alas, my personal library has been neglected.

However, one novel I did manage to read was Angela Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve. I had received the text on my 25th birthday, being a big fan of Carter’s work already – I had studied The Bloody Chamber in Sixth Form and The Magic Toyshop in my first year at university. What prompted me to start reading this particular work, however, was a book club I had recently joined with friends from my drama school. The Passion of the New Eve was chosen as the book club’s choice of November’s theme, Feminist Science Fiction, though to me, Carter has always dwelt more in the realm of sci-fi’s cousin, fantasy.

I think the best way to describe this 1977 work is a post-apocalyptic, semi-absurdist adventure which tackles the issues of gender and gender politics in Carter’s familiarly visceral, disturbing and darkly comical manner. For me, there are many similarities in the tone of this novel to J.G. Ballard’s dystopian works such as High-Rise and Concrete Island where the post-war industrial world of the mid-20th Century begins to crumble under its own extravagance. Yet, Angela Carter’s magical realism is unique to her. Her strange and bizarre look at the world is so individual to Carter and her premature death from lung cancer at the age of 51 is one of the greatest losses to literature in recent times. The Passion of the New Eve is not an easy read, but then none of Angela Carter’s works are – it will leave you unnerved, uncomfortable and thoughtful, which to me, is the mark of the best kind of science-fiction.

Honorable Mentions:

Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. As You Like It by William Shakespeare.

 

Top Film: Hereditary (Ari Aster)

I do love a good horror film but good horror films can often be hard to come by, particularly ones which strike a chord as becoming perhaps a new icon in the genre. However, when I saw Ari Aster’s Hereditary in the cinema, I knew I was watching something which stood out within the extensive genre that is horror.

I love Toni Collette, being a fan of Murial’s Wedding and Little Miss Sunshine, and I wanted to see her latest venture into what looked like a thoroughly disturbing film. Hereditary’s trailer achieved what many film trailer’s fail to do these days – entice their audience without giving away every facet of the film’s plot. It was just the right amount of frightening whilst giving very little indication as to what the plot’s ‘monster’ actually was, and this element of dreadful mystery is sustained in the film itself.

There is a sense of dread which pervades the film, fostered in part by Colin Stetson’s soundtrack. A mother/grandmother has recently passed away, and there is a moment early on in the film where you think the horror of this film lies in the realms of a haunting. However, the terrors of this film are not quite so simple or predictable. It has been called The Exorcist for a new generation, but Hereditary is a very different kettle of fish. The horror is at times all too real with grief and guilt being a centre piece of the film’s tensions, but the supernatural element delivers a resounding blow in the final act of the film. The last ten minutes of Hereditary are like a horrorfest overload of jump scares, gore and monster reveals. It does seem an awful lot to pack in to the final act, but for me it was a glorious pay off to two hours of building tension. Toni Collette and Alex Wolff give particularly powerful performances as a strained mother and son, and Ann Dowd plays a wonderfully menacing wolf in sheep’s clothing. In all, Hereditary gets right what many horror films get wrong.

Honorable Mentions:

A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper). Annihilation (Alex Garland).

 

Top Theatre Show: Sunrise by Jessie Cave (Soho Theatre)

Like my reading, my theatre viewing has been lacking this year. After returning from my job in Italy, I made the decision to move back home to Somerset from London. While I love my home county, the theatre scene is not as vibrant as that of London or even Manchester which has made me realise more than ever the vast disparity there is between London and the rest of the UK when it comes to theatre and other creative arts.

But I digress – my change in living conditions and financial situation limited what live theatre I was able to see. One show I was determined to see, however, following it’s run in Edinburgh, was Jessie Cave’s Sunrise. I, like many people, know Cave primarily through her performance as Lavender Brown in the last three Harry Potter movies, and this year I started following her Instagram. It was there that I became aware of Sunrise as well as her illustration business – she’s a delightful artist as well as a breath of fresh air in the world of social media where the sun always shines and nothing could go possibly wrong. What I love about Jessie Cave is her honesty; honesty about the messiness of life, honesty to herself and about her own life.

This honesty, for me, is what makes Sunrise such a powerful piece of theatre. This autobiographical one-woman show illustrates the complexities of love, the messiness of grief and the joyous, painful fractiousness of motherhood. Cave is invigorating to watch, having a natural flare for comedy but also an endearingly self-deprecating air. She discusses incredibly personal subjects with such candour and a charming sense of humour. I laughed, I cried and I was enthralled, so it’s honestly no surprise to me that Sunrise made The Guardian’s Top 10 comedy shows of 2018 – a well deserved recognition, in my opinion!

Honorable Mentions:

King Lear by William Shakespeare (Chichester Festival Theatre/Duke of York’s Theatre). When It Happens by Rachel Causer (Maiden Speech/Tristan Bates Theatre).

 

Top TV Series: The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)

As I have already established, I love the horror genre. I love it for the invigorating adrenaline rush that fear brings, I love it for the mystery and the tension, but I also love it for the way horror can examine the taboos of society through a lens that allows for a more general acknowledgement by the public. Indeed, Mike Flanagan reinvention of Shirley Jackson’s ghost story achieves all of the things I love about horror.

We really are living in the golden age of television, and the binge watching nature of Netflix has created a somewhat different experience of how television is watched and received. I think now audiences are more accepting and accustomed to watching long story arcs in one sitting and, in a sense, I think TV series are beginning to supersede film’s ability to examine broader plot lines because of its longer running time. Film, in my opinion, is restrictive for many book adaptations, and while The Haunting of Hill House is a re-imagining as opposed to a faithful adaptation of the original 1959 novel, it still benefits from being a TV series as opposed to a film. The subject matters and the intricacies of the plot Flanagan creates are far better suited to the format of a TV series, particularly one which can be binge watched.

Hill House uses the lens of horror to explore themes of grief, loss, mental illness, trauma and family. It is an extremely well crafted piece of drama and the cast are brilliant, with particularly heart-breaking and powerful performances from Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Siegel and Victoria Pedretti. I thought the re-imagining of the primary characters of the novel into a family unit was genius, bringing with it some brilliantly executed tropes which reminded me of ghost stories like The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and The Conjuring. In a sense, the haunting element of the story comes from how a family is marked by a tragic event, supernatural or not, and it is the emotional anchoring of the Crain family which made Hill House so compelling to me. They are our eyes and ears in a world where ghosts are real and houses are alive, and it is their heart which makes this show emotionally impacting.

Honorable Mentions:

American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (FX). The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu).

 

Looking Forward to 2019

There are many things to look forward to in 2019. The final season of Game of Thrones is on its way while the second part of the latest Avengers film will be hulk-smashing it onto the silver screen. Despite the oncoming tensions of Brexit and the underlying fear of what stupid thing Donald Trump will do next, there are things to be excited about.

Here are the books, films, theatre shows and TV series I’m looking forward to in 2019!

Books

  • The Guilty Feminist by Deborah Frances-White.
  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller.

Films

  • The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos).
  • Hellboy (Neil Marshall).
  • It: Chapter Two (Andy Muschietti).

Theatre Shows

  • Betrayal (Harold Pinter Theatre).
  • It’s True, It’s True, It’s True (Breach Theatre/UK Tour).
  • When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other (National Theatre).

TV Series

  • The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Season 2 (Netflix).
  • Stranger Things Season 3 (Netflix).
  • Good Omens (Amazon Prime).