Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Some underwhelming Christmas comedy... and a little gem

(written for The British Comedy Guide)

If you're anything like me, Christmas isn't just food, drink and family - it's also poring over the Radio Times double issue, geekily circling all the comedy specials and getting your hopes dangerously high. And with Victoria Wood, The Royle Family, Catherine Tate and Outnumbered all getting a festive outings this year, the red pen certainly got a good workout.

Victoria Wood's first new sketch show for nine years led the way on Christmas Eve - not the big day, allegedly much to Wood's chagrin - and, if anything, it was the programme I had been most looking forward to. I'd laughed my way through the 90 minute documentary which rightly celebrated her the week before, and the repeat of the 2000 special had reminded me just how brilliant and uniquely gifted she is. How disappointing then, to find myself struggling to raise a smile during her 'Mid-Life Christmas'...

There's no doubting that Wood can concoct the most sublimely ridiculous turn of phrase for her characters, and that was still in evidence here, but several of the sketches misfired completely. The 'have you been injured in an accident?' parody was a good few years out of date, there was too much of Bo Beaumont and I still can't quite make up my mind about the updated 'Let's Do It' - I adore the original, of course, but did its inclusion suggest a lack of new ideas...?

The Royle Family.Perhaps another wonderful female, northern comedy writer would live up to expectations. Caroline Aherne's The Royle Family got the prime Christmas Day slot, and for the first half hour that was completely warranted. Reclining contentedly in their usual positions on the sofa, Jim, Barbara et al provided us with the sort of warm, naturalistic humour that has rightly brought the programme 'classic' status. But when the action moved to a rainy caravan park in Prestatyn, these usually endearing characters began to grate, and I eventually found myself more interested in tea and Twitter than their incessant squabbling. So far, so so-so then.

Catherine Tate's Christmas Carol parody wasn't all that bad, I suppose - there were a couple of nice cameos from Ben Miller and the ubiquitous (not that I'm complaining) David Tennant - but it was essentially panto. Plus, I suspect I viewed it less harshly than Wood and Aherne's offerings because I came to it with rather less reverence for her previous comedy work...

Outnumbered. Image shows from L to R: Ben (Daniel Roche), Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey), Sue (Claire Skinner), Karen (Ramona Marquez), Pete (Hugh Dennis). Image credit: Hat Trick Productions.Thank goodness, then, for the chaotic charm of the Brockman household; thanks to some predictably brilliant performances from adults and kids alike, Outnumbered was Christmas 09's comedy highlight. You could take your pick of favourite moments: Ben's announcement that Osama Bin Laden is 'cool', perhaps, or Karen's questioning of Grandad's very Scottish friend Mac ("it's not that I want you to talk like me... just why don't you?"). It's warm, it's truthful, it's intelligent and it's unique - all of those British Comedy Awards were utterly deserved.

Luckily, away from the new programming there were a couple of other gems made for comedy anoraks just like us. The Story of Slapstick did more than it said on the tin and charted the history of physical humour as a whole, thus providing a magnificent hour's worth of people getting hit over the head with a frying pan, from Buster Keaton to Vic and Bob. And meanwhile, the raucous, satirical sketch show Not The Nine O'Clock News got the documentary treatment, reminding viewers just how outrageously brilliant Rowan Atkinson is, if nothing else.

Not a classic comedy Christmas then, but then I'm too busy checking out Chaplin and Not The Nine O'Clock News DVDs on Amazon to care...

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One comedy that I didn't mention - simply because it didn't quite 'fit' - but which provided me and all the Lowmans with rather more laughs than Ms Wood and all the Royles combined, was A Child's Christmases In Wales. Hidden away on BBC Four (until a repeat on BBC Two being aired as I speak), the hour long family comedy is based on a Dylan Thomas short story and written by none other than Mr Mark Watson. That all bode pretty well of course, but this time expectations were met - completely charming and stuffed full of great lines and performances. Snuggle up with a cuppa, and have a watch.

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