With the triple-whammy of Covid-19 disruption, the surge in popularity of the streaming sites during the most severe lockdown period and the general air of worry regarding resources, Christmas 2020 was never going to be easy for broadcasters such as RTE and the BBC.
This year’s line-up won’t go down as an especially memorable one, yet there are still quite a few gems, including a handful of fine Irish documentaries in there.
So off you go and happy Christmas viewing.
Mackenzie Crook scored a big hit last Christmas with a smart revival of an old scarecrow and he returns with more of the same in Worzel Gummidge: Saucy Nancy (BBC1, 5.55pm). The titular lady is a carved ship’s figurehead, played by Shirley Henderson, whom Worzel must help get back to the coast.
Rather more rooted in reality (if not in truth) is Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse (Sky 1, 8.15pm). It’s a feature-length comedy-drama starring Dawn French as the middle-aged Beatrix Potter, whose popularity and sight are both fading. She gets a surprise visitor, an anxious grieving young boy by the name of Roald Dahl (Harry Taylor).
In case you won’t be getting enough cake this Christmas, The Great Christmas Bake Off (Channel 4, 7.40pm) features favourite bakers of seasons past competing.
Miranda’s Games with Showbiz Names (BBC1, 9.45pm) is a daft game show for couples, hosted by Miranda Hart and based on a US show featuring her namesake Kevin Hart.
Not even Christmas can give us a break from the overexposed pairing of Romesh Ranganathan and Rob Beckett. One Night in Hamleys (Channel 4, 9pm) finds them, plus Tom Allen, larking around in the famous London toy store.
Brian Reddin of Dearg Films has carved out a niche with a string of excellent documentaries about Irish screen stars, including Richard Harris, Niall Toibin, Ray McAnally and the tragic Constance Cummings.
His latest, Maureen O’Hara: Banrion Hollywood (TG4, 9pm) is a fascinating look at the career of the Ranelagh-born star of The Quiet Man, one of five films she made with John Wayne, whose son Patrick is one of the contributors here.
It’s the standout terrestrial channel offering on a Christmas Day which, bar a couple of nice new animations, Angela’s Christmas Wish (RTE1, 5.15pm) and Quentin Blake’s The Clown (Channel 4, 7.40pm), is more or less a repeat of last year’s.
All the usual suspects are here: Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1, 4.45pm); Britain’s Got Talent Christmas Spectacular (UTV 8pm); Call the Midwife (BBC1, 7.40pm), and Mrs Brown’s Boys (RTE1, 9.45pm; BBC1, 10pm), in which Mammy enters a Radio Times competition (which, incidentally, you can’t if you live in the Republic of Ireland) to perform an alternative Queen’s speech.
It’s saying something when the best light entertainment show of the night is a compilation of 1980s comedy clips. Victoria Wood: The Secret List (BBC2, 9.10pm) is a two-parter featuring more than 20 sketches chosen by much-missed Wood as her favourites from her first solo TV series, As Seen on TV. Russell T Davies, Ken Loach and Joan Armatrading are among the friends and fans talking about why the series was a watershed moment in British television.
Speaking of watershed moments, Netflix has one of its own. For the first time ever, the streaming service launches a new series on Christmas Day. It’s Bridgerton, a much-hyped costume drama from Shonda Rhimes set in Regency London. Derry Girl Nicola Coughlan is among the cast.
If the traditional broadcasters needed a Christmas wake-up call about the shape of things to come, here it is.
Fans of stage musicals are in for a bumper-sized treat today with 25th-anniversary performances of two massively successful shows. Les Miserables (Sky Arts, 6.05pm) was recorded in London’s O2 Arena in 2010 and features Alfie Boe, Nick Jonas and Matt Lucas joining the regular cast.
It’s immediately followed by the 2016 production of Miss Saigon (Sky Arts, 9pm), based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, recorded in the Prince Edward Theatre.
The Repair Shop (BBC1, 6.45pm) might not seem like the most Christmassy of programmes, but this heartwarming special features the painstaking restoration of four old toys that hold deep emotional significance for their owners.
If your most fervent wish has been to see a TV show in which mystery celebrities (a liberal use of the term) sing while dressed as sausages, seahorses or unicorns, your dreams have been answered this Christmas. Irish viewers finally get a taste of The Masked Singer (UTV 7pm).
The annual Big Fat Quiz of the Year (Channel 4, 9.05pm) is always ideal sprawl-on-the-sofa-like-a-jellyfish viewing – although I imagine the question setters had to work extra hard in a year defined by Covid-19 and Donald Trump.
Wondering where that big new drama was this Christmas? Here it is, better late than never: Black Narcissus (BBC1, 9pm), a three-part adaptation, continuing Monday and Tuesday, of Rumer Godden’s darkly sinister novel about a group of nuns, including Gemma Arterton’s Sister Clodagh, running a school in the Himalayas in the 1930s.
Sexual tensions come to the boil with the arrival of a handsome handyman (Alessandro Nivola). Will it challenge the classic Powell-Pressburger movie version, though?
With Covid-19 causing the postponement of the 2021 series, Dancing with the Stars: Putting on the Glitz (RTE1, 6.10pm), highlights from previous years will have to do fans for now.
Baz Ashmaway heads for Dingle in Fungie’s Kingdom (RTE1, 7.30pm), a bittersweet documentary about the adorable dolphin whose recent disappearance sent the nation into a fit of despair.
Back to the 80s with Lenny Henry (Channel 4, 9pm) unearths clips of TV misses and hits from the decade. Jim Moir, aka Vic Reeves, presents more tomorrow night.
John Wilson’s Hollywood Rhapsody (BBC4, 7.05pm) is a celebration of movie music from the Royal Albert Hall.
Soul (Disney+, 106mins)
It’s hard to put one’s finger on it, but for all the technical brilliance of Pixar’s last three or four films, for me they have lacked something the company used to specialise in — call it heart, or soul. There was something slightly glib and over-slick about Coco’s journey to the land of the dead, Inside Out got a little lost in its own cleverness, and Onward, released this spring, laboured the whole father-son dynamic and was not all that nice to look at.
To be fair, one is harshly judging Pixar by their own sky-high standards, but none of their recent releases are in the same league as Up, say, or Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo or WALL-E.
Soul is. When I first heard about the concept for this animation, I feared it sounded too like Coco and risked disappearing up its own aperture. How wrong I was because Soul feels as fresh and natural and effortlessly exceptional as Toy Story did when I first saw it in the mid-1990s. From the opening scene to its credits, brisk storytelling, sublime animation and a jazzy soundtrack elide seamlessly to create something truly satisfying and special.
Jamie Foxx provides the voice of Joe Gardner, an amiable music teacher who spends his days coaching mainly tone-deaf 12-year-olds, but nurses secret dreams. Joe is a jazz lover, a talented pianist whose big break somehow never came. He’s middle-aged but unmarried, and when he’s told he’s been made permanent at the middle school where he teaches, it sounds to Joe like a death sentence.
Then, something unexpected happens. A former student who’s now a successful jazz drummer calls Joe to tell him a spot has opened up on the prestigious Dorothea Williams Quartet. The legendary sax player’s pianist has fallen ill and when Joe auditions, Dorothea is impressed. He gets the gig and is elated — at last, his chance has come.
Then, with typical Pixar cruelty, he’s on his way home to get ready when he falls down a manhole and breaks his neck. Joe, now a little squiggle with a jazz hat, awakes in ‘The Great Beyond’, and joins a line of souls who are filing dutifully towards a gaping hole in the sky. But Joe rebels, and tells the organising afterlife functionary Jerry: “I’m not dying today, not when my life just started.”
So Joe makes a break for it, falls down another hole and ends up in ‘The Great Before’, that is, the place where unborn souls prepare for life on Earth.
Though Joe, as a dead soul, has no right to be there, he poses as a famous psychiatrist and lands a gig as mentor to ‘22’ (voiced by Tina Fey), a remedial soul who’s never managed to graduate as Earth-worthy despite going through a stellar group of mentors, from Copernicus and Mother Teresa to Einstein. “I’m gonna make you wish you were never dead,” 22 tells Joe, who hopes she’ll be his ticket back to life.
This type of high-concept story is nothing new to Pixar, who’ve brought toys to life, guided a boy through the land of the dead and personified the inner workings of the human mind. But the commitment and assurance with which director Pete Docter and his co-writers attack this project make it seamless, coherent entertainment: like the jazz soundtrack that sweeps elegantly in and out of the action, Soul never misses a beat.
Like all the best Pixar films, it’s very funny: “you can’t crush a soul here,” 22 tells Joe at one point, “that’s what Earth is for”. And back on Earth, one of Joe’s students quotes Orwell when describing state-sponsored education as “the rattling of a stick inside a bucket”.
But the great Pixar movies also have heart and in Soul, it comes via the initially fractious relationship between Joe and 22. He loves jazz, but she loves nothing, and her reluctance to graduate to Earth is based on fear. When she gets there though, through hilarious mishap, she sees everything with fresh and wondrous eyes, making even Joe feel jaded.
There are some lovely voice performances: Graham Norton enjoys himself playing a hippie shaman, and Richard Ayoade is hilarious as the rather glib astral arbiter ‘Jerry’. The film looks gorgeous, from the earthy, jazz-inspired journeys around Manhattan to the starkly graphic vistas of the afterlife. Soul is a wise film: it will also make you feel good, and God knows we all need that right now.
Rating: Five stars
Also released this week…
Safety (Disney+, 112mins)
Based on a true story whose hard edges have been pleasantly softened, Safety stars Jay Reeves as Ray McAlrathbey, a young man whose future seems bright when he’s accepted on a sports scholarship at Clemson University. The South Carolina college is famed for its football team the Clemson Tigers, and Ray is rising to the challenge of making the grade when he gets a worrying phone call from home. His mother has gone back into rehab, and his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) is staying with some dodgy friends and seems in imminent danger of being taken into care.
Unsure what to do, Ray decides to smuggle Fahmarr onto campus and take care of him without anyone finding out. Of course they do, and the boy soon plays havoc with Ray’s football career, his psychology studies and his blossoming relationship with journalism student Kaycee (Corinne Foxx). Inevitably, despite the odd baddie (like the football team’s chippy captain), Ray’s teammates become a kind of extended family, but the fact that this is a true story makes Safety more moving than it sounds, and Reginald Hudlin directs this entertaining little film inventively.
Rating: Three stars
The Midnight Sky (Netflix, 118mins)
George Clooney directs and stars in this earnest sci-fi drama as scientist Augustine Lofthouse, who’s alone in an Arctic research facility when an unspecified cataclysm devastates the Earth.
Lofthouse has devoted his life to finding a new home for humanity and, to that end, various space missions are combing the galaxies for a suitable planet.
One of them has discovered a habitable moon, K-23, near Jupiter and is returning home when they receive garbled communiques warning them to turn back. Lofthouse, meanwhile, is self-medicating a terminal illness when he finds a little girl hiding in the station’s kitchen.
Keeping her alive is now added to his problems as he sets out across the Arctic wastes towards another base with antennae powerful enough to successfully contact the returning vessel’s crew.
This is gloomy stuff, ponderous and convoluted, and while Clooney’s lack of vanity here is to be commended, growing a fright-beard and losing 20lbs do not of themselves constitute a performance.
Rating: Two stars