Gail Williams is your festive guide to some highlights from Christmases past, all with a very British flavour...
I grew up in an era when there was no getting way from Christmas specials - Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies to name just two - there was always a Christmas special on. Move a few years on and there was the inevitable Only Fools and Horses specials, and of late we haven’t been able to avoid the Doctor Who specials, not that some of us have tried very hard.
Since I’m mentioned Doctor Who, I have to say that ‘The Runaway Bride’ was my favourite (and yes Donna Noble was my favourite Nu-Who companion too). On the other hand, you can keep every single one since ‘A Christmas Carol’ - makes throwing up sounds! I can’t tell you how much I wish ‘Last Christmas’ had been Clara’s last episode, with its tacked-on ending to bring her back it was one of the worst. But don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually looking forward to this year’s Christmas special.
To The Manor Born
Those of us of a certain age, or those who have seen it on the re-runs on Drama, may remember the To The Manor Born Christmas special. The Manor was always to provide the crib for the church, though with Audrey out of the manor, it is down to DeVere to provide said crib. Of course this is a comedy of manners, but it’s a beautifully crafted one, and Audrey’s final comment as she promises to teach DeVere how to play sardines is so her. While they hide, she tells Mrs Poo and Marjory to ‘Count… to one thousand.’ What happens in the broom cupboard… well… stays in the broom cupboard.
Oh, and like a lot of classic British comedies they just couldn't resist and reunited for a new Christmas special 25 years after the series had ended - avoid this at all costs. Don’t watch it. It will ruin your memory of what was a lovely series.
Then there’s them as weren’t born with a silver spoon and ’ad to go steal it, ending up at Her Majesty’s pleasure doing Porridge. Admittedly this goes back to 1975 and 1976, but they do stand the test of time. The first was ‘No Way Out’ when Fletcher discovers that fellow inmates are trying to escape, by tunnelling out. When he falls through the weakened tarmac above one of the tunnels, Fletcher ends up in the infirmary with a broken ankle, with the final scene he shows yet again how Fletch is so much smarter than the ‘screws’. When bribed with a small bottle of whiskey, he explains to Mackay that they got rid of the excess soil, ‘by digging another hole and putting it down there.’
The Good Life
There again, there’s those who just don’t have a lot, but still make it The Good Life. ‘Silly, But It’s Fun’ is one of my favourite specials, the home made feel of the Good’s Christmas in comparison to the delivered-on-the-back-of-a-van Christmas, is sweet and cute, and Jerry’s political chicken pox is a surprise acted out so beautifully on Paul Eddington’s face. I love Margot’s reaction to the Oh-Ah bird being so called because it lays square eggs, this is funny not only because Penelope Keith plays the incomprehension so well, but because the other three are so child-like in their reactions. As for the way Tom persuades Margot to behave ‘by threatening to kiss her’ it’s a joy.
For a slightly posher special of the Christmas variety, try Downton Abbey. They've done a few - there was Bates’s arrest, a trip to the Highlands, abandoned babies, scandalous revelations from upstairs and down, life and death. If refinement is your thing, you’ll enjoy them, and as they bow out with one final Christmas special this year, best make the most of it.
The Vicar Of Dibley
Check out The Vicar of Dibley for a special Christmas. In ‘The Christmas Lunch Incident’ Geraldine, who clearly loves her food, has at least three invitations she just can’t turn down - what she does with a sprout will make your cheeks ache with laughter never mind hers. ‘Merry Christmas’ takes on a new meaning when Geraldine offers midnight mass after three bottles of wine, one of the best ways to enjoy midnight mass I’ve found. Then in ‘Winter’ the suitably heavily pregnant Alice plays the Virgin Mary in the annual nativity, taking the realism just a little too far by giving birth in a barn before the congregated audience.
Taking a break from the Christmas sit-com, why not try the likes of Midsomer Murders. Well, yeah, the title kind of gives it away, but at least here while you can guarantee a minimum body count, it’s still rather gentle in comparisons to some killer showers. These specials are worth watching, and apparently Les Dennis is actually now working as a department store Santa in Liverpool! Spooky.
Of course if you really want a bloody Christmas, check out any Christmas episodes of Casualty or Holby City. Presents, turkey, blood!
Ever Decreasing Circles
Back to the sit-coms for one Christmas special I really enjoyed, the Ever Decreasing Circles special from 1989. This was a wrap up to the series that showed Martin (Richard Briars), the world’s most boring man, his frustrated wife Ann (Penelope Wilson - yes Harriet Jones from ‘The Christmas Invasion’ DW special, and Isobel Crawley on Downton), and their eclectic set of neighbours in beige suburbia. Yet this boring man says some things so touching, I was near to tears, mind you I was at a point a hat drop could bring me to tears when I re-watched it for this article. Still Martin does tell Ann he only does his job for the ‘pleasure of giving you things’, and what woman doesn’t want to hear stuff like that from her hubby. This episode is gentle, sometimes infuriating and at the end of it all really rather touching. And it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas. Which, sometimes, is exactly what you need at this time of year.
If you want to check out the tenuous, try Sherlock ‘His Last Vow’ in which Sherlock tries to deal with Charles Magnussen, who is played like a virtuoso by Lars Mikkelsen, fantastic casting and acting. The Christmas link is that the end of the episode takes place at Christmas, a family Christmas for the Holmes family (and I for one love the fact that the actors playing Sherlock’s parents are Benedict Cumberbatch’s real life parents). There’s also the arc of the Watson’s growing family who are beautifully drawn together just in time for Mary to pass out in her husband’s arms. I also love that this is another one of those very British episodes where the brothers Holmes actually prove that, despite what you might think as a casual observer, they actually love one another, and isn’t that really what Christmas should be about?
Blackadder's Christmas Carol
Now to bring us back to the traditionally Christmassy, or maybe as far away from it as it is possible to get, there is one special that stands alone. Blackadder's Christmas Carol. For anyone who has already watched this, that’s probably enough said. But for those who haven’t seen it, see it, it’s so funny. For a start Ebenezer Blackadder isn’t a Scrooge, he is in fact the nicest man in England. Then the Ghosts appear and show him so much. In the case of Baldrick’s posing pouch, we definitely see way too much. Basically this is “A Christmas Carol” in reverse, and it is well worth a watch.
In other words, when it comes to Christmas specials, the UK can offer something for every taste. I hope you find a few to ring your sleigh bells this season.
Gail Williams lives in her own private dungeon populated with all the weird and
the wonderful she can imagine. Some of it’s very weird, and the odd bits
and pieces are a bit wonderful. Well okay, she lives in Swansea with
her husband and daughter. And the world’s most demanding cat. To find
out more about Gail, check out www.gailbwilliams.co.uk - Dare you!