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Thursday 23 December 2010

The Christmas TV Tradition

Cover of "A Charlie Brown Christmas"Cover of A Charlie Brown ChristmasChristmas TV has always been a mishmash of old well-worn now traditional favourites demanded by viewers year after year, and a slew of mainly awful new festive viewing experiences. Among the movies, both festive and not, shown at this time of year there is a creation we call the Christmas Television Special. The criteria for inclusion in my list is stupidly simple: it must be made for Christmas and it must be made for television. The special bit is the rather superfluous part that designates this episode is different from others. Isn't every episode supposed to be? The Christmas part doesn't necessarily mean it has to have a Christmas theme, it just needs to made and scheduled for a Christmas release, but the television part is an absolute rule even though certain Christmas specials, such as the "Kung Fu Panda Christmas Special" and the "Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas", are clearly spin-offs from popular movies.

Christmas specials, as we know them, started with "Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol" in 1962. Before then they were either one-off adaptations of Christmas stories or the Christmas edition of a variety show. Variety shows, although not my preferred childhood or even adult TV watching, resonate with me due to my circus heritage. I now look back on them with a warm sense of faux nostalgia, thinking back to a time when my family's circus held a prime time TV slot on Christmas Day with a production of their show.

Since then Christmas specials have varied from awful sappy sanctimonious renditions of some tale or another about Santa Claus having problems delivering presents to the most long-winded and protracted series finale I have ever had to experience: "Dr Who: End of Times". Before this lengthy affair with perhaps the longest dying sequence ever created for fiction, we had already had two false starts with David Tennett apparently on the verge of regenerating. I just found myself shouting "Get on with it!"

Below is my list of Christmas specials that I would happily re-watch each year. They are not in any particular order.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

I think this is perhaps the most beloved of all the Charlie Browns bar the original feature length film, "A Boy Named Charlie Brown". Its appeal comes from its honesty and simplicity. Like a lot of Schulz's stuff, it might have been written for children, but there is plenty on offer to appeal to the adult viewers. The central focus is on the way Christmas has become commercialized and the real message has been lost. Looking back it has many of the trappings of a Christmas special I have grown to loathe and its ending is surprisingly un-Charlie Brown. Nevertheless, it is beautifully produced and somehow works with its use of metaphor - Charlie Brown seeing the beauty in the most wretched of Christmas trees. There are also some very witty lines delivered by most of the cast. This stands as the classic, but in many ways the 1992 "It's Christmas Again, Charlie Brown" is superior. Not only do we get the inclusion of Peppermint Paddy and Marcy, but it ends in typical Charlie Brown fashion.

South Park: A Very Crappy Christmas

Since its inception "South Park" has had a firm tradition of lampooning Christmas specials. The first two precursors to the show were Christmas themed episodes, "The Spirit of Christmas ('Santa versus Frosty' and 'Santa versus Jesus')". After that every year's episode seemed to be a different way to send up the Christmas message. "A Very Crappy Christmas" saw the return of their unique Christmas character, Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo (originally introduced in an episode named after him in season one) with his drunk wife and odd children, and it had a direct pop at "A Charlie Brown Christmas", even turning the special's message on its head by the time the end credits rolled.

Only Fools and Horses: Time on our Hands

"Only Fools and Horses" is the most beloved British sit-com in history. They have also had a steady stream of Christmas specials, which have since been inherited by "Rock and Chips" a more serious prequel of sorts. Many of us looked forward to each year's special, as David Jason, who played the chancing Peckham wheeler/dealer "Del Boy" Trotter, and Nicholas Lyndhurst, who played his clueless younger brother, Rodney, began to take on other projects. Eventually the writing was on the wall as the regular series ceased and the only thing left was the Christmas Specials. By the time this one, the third part of a trilogy released that very Christmas that also consisted of "Heroes and Villains" and "Modern Men", was released the show had long since past its prime. It was this desperation to satisfy customers, but ultimately ruining the product that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant would acknowledge when they called it a day for two of their popular TV sit-coms with Christmas specials. Nevertheless, this trilogy was a surprise and stands out as one of the best since the days of Granddad and the early episodes featuring Uncle Albert.

"Time on our Hands" does what every finale should do. It brings closure on everything, changing the dynamic by the end so much that it would seem mad to go back again. The ending is satisfactory and the laughs keep coming until the very end. Sadly five years later the first of three annual Christmas specials would attempt to bring back the magic and pretty much prove it should have been best left alone. This is how the whole story should have ended.

The Office Christmas Special

Before Ricky Gervais became an egotistical parody of his own creations, disappeared up his own backside with some of his solo projects and ceased being funny, there were these great days. "The Office" introduced mainstream viewers to the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant dream team. Not since Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge had British comedy been so awkward and yet so cool. They somehow presented flawed human beings, regularly exhibiting every type of mortal weakness, and laid it bare for us to love. The Christmas Special pretty much demonstrated the art of restraint. It absolutely concluded the series, which had only had two seasons. Gervais went on record to say he was disappointed by the way other great comedy franchises had milked the Christmas special tradition to farcical lengths and he didn't want to do that with his creation. Instead he sold The Office concept to the USA who have promptly murdered it from the first episode onwards and still milking it for all its worth after the seventh season!

Anyway, the two-part extended episodes that Gervais and Merchant produced seamlessly tied up all the loose ends left from the end of their last season in a most satisfactory way. There was a good-feel ending, although it is completely believable and humour on the way was superb. It also gave us the opportunity to finally see characters like Gareth in a position of genuine authority and for David Brent to drop lower than ever in every respect made for excellent role reversals. Everyone gets an opportunity for revenge and change. Gareth gets humiliate David. David finally gets to tell Chris Finch, a man he suffered putdowns from and desperately tried to emulate, to "f*** off". As for Tim and Dawn, well that is also very satisfactory.

Extras: Christmas Special

Gervais and Merchant scored almost as impressively with "Extras" as they did with "The Office". "The Office" Christmas special did touch upon Z list celebrity fame to a certain degree, as David Brent ended up appearing on a humiliating celebrity Blind Date live show, failed as a pop singer and tried to use "The Office" series to impress future dates. "Extras" takes us through the life of Andy Millman, a persona not unlike Ricky Gervais, who wishes for fame and fortune, but can never get the balance. The single extended Christmas episode is more thought-provoking than any of the fabulous two seasons that preceded it, with Gervais pretty much highlighting the same message that runs through the excellent movie "Swimming with Sharks"; what is it that you really want?

The episode is not short on laughs, as Stephen Merchant's equally funny performance as Millman's now former inept agent is spot on. His various attempts to see Millman who has desperately tried to break away from him, evoke both pathos and lots of laughs. It seems mad that despite this show's sharp and wry observations the exploitation continues without any subtlety. There doesn't seem to be any slowing down of celebrity-making factory shows like "Britain's Got Talent" and "X Factor". The same can be said for the humiliating reality shows starring celebrities that have slipped down the rung of success. All of this stuff is sent up in the finale of "Extras" and Millman's announcement on "Big Brother" about it being no different from a Victorian freak show is very apt.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Blue Carbuncle

It was pretty handy for Granada Television, producers of "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a Christmas short story adventure for his most famous creation. Granada timed the release of this episode perfectly during the Christmas of 1984. This was a particularly festive year in my memory. It was the year of "Gremlins" the perfect anti-Christmas film, although I would have to satisfy myself with audio books and toys until the film made it to video as I was too young to see it at the cinema. It was also the year of "The Snowman", perhaps one of the most beloved Christmas TV movies in Britain, and the cosy six-part children's TV series "The Box of Delights" that will spell out Christmas to many of my generation.

"The Blue Carbuncle" looks well produced three decades on with Jeremy Brett is fine form as the best onscreen Holmes in television and cinematic history bar none. Some of the Granada series took great liberties with Doyle's original work, but they were more loyal than most. This is such an example with some entirely justified changes that make for a better visual ending. For the record Peter Cushing also played Holmes in an adaptation of this story in the 1960s series.

The League of Gentlemen: Yule Never Leave

Although the third series of "The League of Gentleman" certainly had its moments and also used an interestingly different concept, this Christmas special ended the best days of Royston Vasey. It plays homage to the Amicus horrors of the '60s and '70s with an anthology of creepy stories set around Christmas and featuring the main characters from the TV series. The vampire story starring Herr Lipp is the standout piece, although it is tight competition with the origin of the curse ill-fated vet, Mr Chinnery. This latter story is recounted again in a very spooky version of Jackanory on the DVD's special features.

Blackadder's Christmas Carol

There have been enough adaptations of Charles Dickens's famous Christmas story to make you shout "bar humbug!" at the top of your lungs. Most are dismal and lazy. However, this one written when Richard Curtis and Ben Elton were at the height of their Blackadder powers, set to give us the fantastic final series "Blackadder Goes Forth", ranks alongside the Alistair Sim 1951 classic and the Muppets' brilliant version. Here the story is set on its head with a Victorian Blackadder, Ebenezer, being the most hospitable and kind-hearted man in Christendom. Unfortunately his good natured personality leads to him being taken advantage of on a regular basis, particularly at Christmas. He takes it all in his stride as the familiar "needy" characters of the story strip him of all his festive treats. However, that night a Christmas ghost visits him to show him the sins of his ancestors at Christmas and what might happen in the future. It's a wonderful opportunity to re-visit the Blackadder of Queen Elizabeth I's court and the Blackadder who was butler to the Prince Regent in the two preceding series. All of this of course teaches Ebenezer Blackadder an important lesson: "Bad guys have all the fun!"

Well, there's my round up of ideal festive TV fun. As we live in an age of digital TV and DVDs it's great to think we don't have suffer the nonsense they churn out each year. Happy Christmas!
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