Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas Specials for Flagging Christmas Spirits

I've intended for weeks to post something about recommended Christmas music, as I have a shocking number of CDs and now downloaded Christmas classics and new, alternative songs, but December and Christmas just seemed to appear suddenly after October (and I would have included Loudon Wainwright III's song Suddenly It's Christmas). Even though here in England, you have Boxing Day and celebrate the 12 days of Christmas so might still tolerate carols and the like for a while, we Americans find much of that distasteful after the 25th and see it as bad luck to still have our decorations up on New Year's Day, so I think I'll leave the massive music discussion 'til next year. But as several people are still celebrating Christmas with a houseful of guests that they need to entertain, I thought I might as well highlight a few things worth watching in the spirit of Christmas, which you might already have in your DVD collection, or can download or try to get for next year.

In an effort to get myself in a Christmassy mood last year, given that I rarely feel it anymore, I pulled out all the DVDs I had with a Christmas theme, be they Christmas specials of sitcoms, films set around the Christmas period, or the special animations I grew up loving, most of which I had to source from the States. It occurred to me that some of you might find such a list useful so I thought I'd share. [Given the original purpose of my list, it excludes most of the more recent holiday films that might, for instance, star California Governors or Jim Carrey (sorry but I can’t stand him), or shows like The Royle Family, which have never appealed to me, or things I don't own like The Good Life, which is shown regularly enough on television.]

In no particular order other than sitcoms first, then films, then animated Christmas specials (more or less)....

Knowing Me, Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge – This is included on the DVD of the Knowing Me, Knowing You series, which is absolutely worth getting. As you can imagine, Steve Coogan’s most famous character Alan fronts a Christmas special where everything is awkward and most things go wrong for him, so it’s all delicious.

Ever Decreasing Circles: Christmas Special 1984 (on second series DVD). Martin is put out when Ann agrees to put up 23 of Paul’s guests over Christmas, including Paul, until he gets stuck into organising the challenging sleeping arrangements. Almost nothing happens, just that, so it isn’t worth seeking out, nor is it that Christmassy, but it’s an excuse to revisit the fond old characters if you happen to have this.

Father Ted: A Christmassy Ted. This is fortunately getting a great deal of rotation on the telly, principally More 4, but if you have the series on DVD, which you should, it appears on the Series 2, Part 1 disc. Although there isn’t an awful lot that is Christmassy about it, it is just a total joy to watch, with the usual outstanding characters, a fun plot where Ted wins an award for helping a group of priests escape from a lingerie department where they’d accidentally found themselves and thus avoid scandal, and a mysterious stranger who turns up to steal his award. All brilliant as always, definitely one to enjoy at any time of year.

To The Manor Born: 1979 Christmas Special, on the Series Two DVD. There was also, of course, a 25th anniversary Christmas special in 2007, but that is not included in the box set. In this earlier episode, Audrey tries to ensure that she carries on with her traditional duty of providing the Christmas crib at the church, whereas Richard also plans to provide one as the vicar told him the job goes with the manor. His is a bit gaudy and new, and nothing too much happens, but if you like the sitcom, this is just more of the same.

The Office Christmas Specials – Of course, this two-parter is a modern classic. The way you end up longing two characters will get together Jane Austen-style, the little scares the writers create when it seems like it can never happen, and the happy endings for several of the characters….it’s not just funny but warm and fuzzy at Christmastime.

Watching—The first series ends with Seasoning¸ broadcast in 1987, where Emma Wray’s character Brenda tries to celebrate Christmas with mother’s boy boyfriend Malcolm with difficulty. Liza Tarbuck, looking oddly much older (and fatter) 21 years ago than she does now, plays Pamela who is still with her slimy married boyfriend, who arranges for Malcolm to get a cheap dodgy Christmas tree. It's just good to enjoy the characters again, and it's strange that only two series of the programme, which I understand always enjoyed high ratings, have been released so far.

Butterflies: Christmas with the Parkinsons (1979). I don’t seem to have the DVD of the second series, but I seem to recall there was something about Ria, as usual, feeling guilty about her relationship with Leonard at a time of year when people apparently should be particularly honest.

Poirot – I have always been an Agatha Christie fan, and I’ve always enjoyed the television adaptations featuring David Suchet as Poirot—more so the older ones than more recent productions. The Christmas episode that is normally shown this time of year is, understandably given its title, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1994). Whilst an entertaining enough story centred around the murder of Simeon Lee and his houseful of relatives who hated him, it doesn’t have that much to do with Christmas, other than Poirot has been asked to spend Christmas there and in the last scene, everyone has remarkably recovered from the tragedy and is pictured smiling around the tree with loads of carollers in their home. I prefer the more Christmassy The Theft of the Royal Ruby (1991), which is not as dark and features Christmas trees, Christmas puddings, singing Christmas carols at a Christmas church service, a happy family playing charades at Christmas, and so forth. Delightful fun, with a good cast including Stephanie Cole (Waiting for God), Frederick Treves—who also stars in one of my favourite Miss Marple stories, The Sleeping Murder—and Helena Michell, who stars in another Marple favourite, At Bertram’s Hotel—and of course I mean the outstanding ones starring Joan Hickson and not the more recent destructive adaptations with a badly cast Miss Marple. Nigel Le Valliant (Dangerfield) also stars in this Poirot, and I never fail to smile at the brilliantly played civil servant Jesmond by David Howey.

The Vicar of Dibley: I admit I feel a bit Dibleyed out; the programmes seem to be on the cable channels so often I know them too well. Still, it’s worth revisiting at this time the first series’ Christmas episode, The Christmas Lunch Incident, when Dawn French’s character has, out of the kindness of her heart, accepted a Christmas lunch invitation at apparently every household in the parish and has lost the ability to explain why she might not want to consume every last course, but it’s light-hearted, enjoyable enough stuff. I’m sure I prefer that episode to the later one in 1999 (Series 3: Winter), where Alice, playing Mary in a Nativity Play, really gives birth. There were other specials from 2004, by which time I’d lost touch with the series, and you can get the DVD A Very Dibley Christmas, which contains Merry Christmas, where the parishioners celebrate Geraldine’s 10 years in Dibley and give her a chocolate fountain, which she oddly dives into before being surprised by the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Happy New Year, which isn’t exactly jolly as it focuses heavily on the Make Poverty History campaign. The episode shown on Christmas day in 2006, The Handsome Stranger, where Geraldine gets engaged to the new Richard Armitage character, scored the highest ratings of any Christmas day programme in the UK by that time.

Diner – It’s not about Christmas, but it’s set at Christmastime, and it’s a truly excellent film with an Oscar-nominated semi-autobiographical script by director Barry Levinson (this was his directing debut), with a killer soundtrack of pieces from the period (1959) and an amazing cast who were almost entirely unknown at the time, including Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin (in her first film), Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly and Paul Reiser. Daly's character returns to Baltimore to meet up with his school friends, and the character-led piece shows us a groom who insists the bride must pass a quiz about his favourite sports team before he'll go ahead with the wedding (in the theme of the team's colours), a gambler who plans in desperation to use his friend's wife horribly to win a bet, an accidental pregnancy with an independent woman refusing marriage, a mother who chases her lazy son around the table with a knife, a man who values his music collection and how it is organised more than his wife, an intelligent heavy-drinking wastrell disowned by his wealthy family, and a great deal of subtle raise-a-smile comedy throughout. It’s absolutely worth watching any time of year, one of my all-time favourite films.

While You Were Sleeping (1995) – Not strictly a holiday film—it’s enjoyable at any time of the year—but it does take place at Christmas and is very much a Cinderella story where a lonely Chicago subway worker without family works on Christmas as usual when she sees the passenger on whom she’s had a crush mugged and pushed onto the tracks. She (Sandra Bullock) saves him and visits him in hospital where he lies unconscious, and his boisterous big family visit him and mistake her for his fiancée, thus welcoming her into their home at Christmas. She meanwhile starts to accidentally fall for the coma guy’s brother, played perfectly by Bill Pullman, just when the coma guy, Peter Gallagher, wakes but believes his lack of memory about Sandra Bullock’s character is down to his accident, so plans to go ahead with the wedding. She’s drawn into all this not because she’s deceitful, but she’s alone in life and was suddenly accepted so warmly by this family, and she fell for the family. The great cast also includes the late Peter Boyle (better known now as the father from Everybody Loves Raymond), Jack Warden and Glynis Johns. A definite feel-good film, with a holiday spirit.

Holiday Inn—A 1942 Irving Berlin black/white film where the original performance by Bing Crosby of White Christmas came from. That song wasn’t expected to be the big hit, but it topped the chart in October that year and stayed there for 11 weeks. The film starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and another well-known Christmas song, Happy Holiday, plays over the opening credits. The international hotel chain was apparently named after the film. Beware that the film was colorised in 2008…..

White Christmas – A delightful Irving Berlin musical starring Bing Crosby, the amazing Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney (who I grew up thinking of as the fat woman who advertised paper towels, but in this is still the smoky famed 50s singer, and now is perhaps better known as George Clooney’s auntie), and the lovely, leggy Vera-Ellen. Great fun, naturally a bit silly at times, some marvellous, fun songs including the title song, Snow; Sisters; What Can You Do With a General; Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army; and Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me, with some great dance numbers as the four stars are not only stage performers but end up putting on a big show at the end….in snowy Vermont, where they have a white Christmas, of course. The film was meant to be a loose re-working of Holiday Inn, and Fred Astaire refused to play the Danny Kaye part when he saw the script, so the magnificent Donald O’Connor was brought in but had to give up the part owing to an injury. Kaye fits in brilliantly though, and it’s bound to help with your Christmas spirit particularly if you’re into old Hollywood musicals.

Elf – I didn’t see Jon Favreau’s 2003 comedy until last year, and I thought it was fairly good fun, bearing in mind it’s directed at children. Will Farrell does a wonderful job as the naïf who was raised at the North Pole and returns to New York to search for his father, the unwilling character played by James Caan. Ed Asner is Santa, the legendary Bob Newhart is Papa Elf, and Mary Steenburgen and Amy Sedaris also take part, with Zooey Deschanel playing the elf’s love interest and treating us to some of her singing skills. A ‘feel-good’ film, as they say.

Bad Santa - It’s difficult to know who the audience is for this film, as most of it is completely unsuitable for children, rude and disgusting and sometimes evil and violent, but then there’s a gooey warm story that shines through in the end as though it’s aimed at children, and it can be funny. I seem to recall wondering what I got myself into initially, but enjoying it in the end. The film has a lot of winning elements, produced by the Coen brothers, starring the immensely talented Billy Bob Thornton, featuring the now late Bernie Mac and the late John Ritter (in his final role) and the terrific Cloris Leachman. It’s worth a viewing in the right company, but it’s no Miracle on 34th Street.

It’s a Wonderful Life – I hadn’t watched Frank Capra’s classic in years as I felt I’d memorised it, but it’s worth seeing again when you can—so much content, and much darker moments than you might recall. That bad guy doesn’t even get punished for his hugely damaging theft in the end, and these black parts might be why the film wasn’t a hit until, years later, someone forgot to renew the copyright so it was shown loads on television and won over a later audience. Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played the young Bailey child, Zuzu, continues to promote it every Christmas and has recently been talking about her unhappy life, having lost so many loved ones including her parents in her teens and later her son to suicide, but how the film soothes so many with its message of hope and learning to appreciate what you really have.

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence – Don’t be fooled by the title; I'm probably recommending against watching this if you're trying to find Christmas spirit. Despite those words at the end being uttered by a doomed man, there is little jolly or Christmassy about this 1983 Nagisa Oshima film. I loved it when I saw it as a young teenager on late night cable, but reduced my opinion slightly when I finally got hold of the DVD a trillion years later. Still, it has much that is interesting: Tom Conti being fantastic in his role as a senior officer imprisoned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, David Bowie being the rebel rebel and getting buried up to his neck in sand, composer/musician Ryuchi Sakamoto as the heartless head of the prison camp, some occasional decent music, the score by Sakamoto, including the gorgeous Forbidden Colours, although I seem to recall that only the instrumental plays over the end titles although the version with outstanding vocals by David Sylvian of (ironically?) Japan appears on the CD/vinyl soundtrack.

Love, Actually—I seem to recall a big Christmas link in the Martine McCutcheon story at least, but I loathed this so much, I can’t say more and can't even be bothered to pull out the DVD to see even if the cover confirms that. But I realise I’m apparently the only person in the world who thought this was shocking tripe. Unfortunately, I buy many DVDs before seeing the film, but this may be one you own that you would like to revisit.

An Irish Christmas – I got this DVD some years ago because it included Brian Kennedy, but I found it painful to watch. I have to add that when I finally saw it a year or so later, I felt I’d been perhaps too harsh, but it does have a very cold feeling and needs some background music or something. Basically, several Irish artists are seated around a Christmas table hosted by Phil Coulter, and they discuss such things as their past Christmas memories. But it’s all awkward, it has a distinct feel of having been filmed in August, the room they are in looks like cold and empty with a round table placed in the centre, the conversation is very forced and prompted in an obvious manner by Coulter, there is little warmth, the lack of some sort of audible music during the conversational parts makes it dry, and it the editing makes it look ridiculous as it is pieced together out of sequence—one minute they’re eating their dessert, then they’re taking mouthfuls of meat around a carved turkey, then the turkey’s being served whole to them—that sort of thing. In between the stilted conversation, we see clips of the guests doing what they’re famous for in what seems to be a dark neighbouring room that sometimes at least has a better dressed set. Kennedy, thankfully, sings, as do the Celtic Tenors (who weren’t invited to dinner apparently), a frosty Jean Butler, an original Riverdance star, dances, and fine singers Moya Brennan and Maura O’Connell also step out to sing, though much of it isn’t terribly Christmassy to the average person. Frank McCourt is one of the guests and he reads the kind of gross passage of Angela’s Ashes about the pig’s head, which you can also hear on the CD of the same name. But as I said, I think my original judgement was largely down to disappointment and perhaps too harsh. Although it doesn't feel Christmassy to me, it’s another holiday programme of sorts, in any case; it just could have been done better.

The following are true classics that are always shown on television at home in the States and I’m astonished that they haven’t been adopted over here. I strongly suggest you get a multi-region DVD player (or plays these on a laptop perhaps) and get the Region 1 DVDs from the States until they are released here, although a few finally have been. Christmas isn’t Christmas without them….

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) - An American friend was kind enough to send years ago the box set of the Peanuts specials that we all grew up watching, for Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween. This special might be to us the same way that The Snowman is to the English, in that perhaps its appeal is that you saw it as a young child so the tradition more than the content means something to you (I just don’t get the appeal of the Snowman, other than the song). But it’s warm-hearted and has the usual fuzzy messages about not taking for granted the important things around you, and it memorably helps an unwanted, tiny tree…. Time Out recently recommended the programme, though, so perhaps you don’t have to have watched it in the States all your life to enjoy it, and they say it’s downloadable, too (at )….. Definitely younger children should enjoy it, as does this 42-year-old child.

Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) -- The live action version starring the awful Jim Carrey cannot--nor could anything truly--replace the original fine animation in any case; it’s a true classic, and still enjoyable. Dr Seuss’ clever rhyming, wonderfully smooth and colourful animation before the days of CGI—outstanding, really, by Chuck Jones, a catchy song, narration by Boris Karloff, a cute long-suffering dog wearing fake antlers….it’s just grand. The DVD also contains the great non-Christmas story, Horton Hears a Who! This is now available on Region 2 and is selling it for only £5.

Frosty the Snowman – From 1969, another Rankin/Bass Christmas animation classic. An evil magician tosses away his magic hat when he thinks it’s failed, but it brings a snowman to life (voiced by Jackie Vernon), and the schoolkids who made him feel he needs to be taken to the North Pole so he won’t melt. The trouble with that is, children don’t do as well in freezing temperatures. A “storm of adventures” ensues, with the evil magician and his cute rabbit in hot pursuit now that he realises his hat really has powers. Warm and fuzzy, an essential part of Christmas. There is music, not just the famous title song on which it was based, and the narrator is Jimmy Durante, who also sings. They have included on the DVD Frosty Returns, which was made in 1992 with John Goodman as Frosty and Jonathan Winters narrating, but that’s just awful, choking us with a fixed environmental message showing that a whole town’s free use of de-icer on their windscreens is destroying the planet and Frosty, or something like that. It was disappointingly dire, even though I’m generally supportive of teaching youngsters the climate change message, but the original cartoon on its own is worth the price. Actually, a £4 version appears to be available in the UK now; go for it.

Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town (1970) – Another Rankin Bass musical treat, this time stop-motion animation with figures, but it’s wonderful to watch. It never seemed to be featured as much as the eminently popular Rudolph, but has some fun (and some soppy) songs, is narrated by Fred Astaire (who also sings), features Mickey Rooney voicing the lead character Kris Kringle and Keenan Wynn as Winter. It creates an explanation for Santa Claus and several Christmas traditions with quite an adventure as the evil Burgermeister bans toys from the town, the woods that Kris must pass through are guarded by a winter warlock, and there is a love interest. All good fun, heartwarming stuff. On the same DVD is The Little Drummer Boy, a 1958 stop-motion animation that was much jerkier, with a much darker feel to it. I used to find it a bit depressing as a child, particularly as a beloved lamb gets run over, and there’s slavery of sorts…..but I braved watching it again last year and it wasn’t anything like as bad as I recalled, it's just not the brightly coloured, all-happy gentle stuff we had in my (later) day, and perhaps I hadn’t watched it through ‘til the happy ending because I was so upset about the lamb. Greer Garson narrates a bit coldly, Jose Ferrer as Ben Haramad, and the Vienna Boy’s Choir provides some music, including the title song of course. But it’s worth seeing; it was a very early production, after all, so some sharp edges can be forgiven, and it's based on a Biblical story rather than a happy Christmas song or fairytale stuff. Still, it has songs and cute animals. There is a Region 2 version of this DVD available in the UK.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – This is the ultimate Christmas special. They showed it over here in the UK once that I recall, tucked away one morning on Channel 5 or something, and I really can’t understand why it’s not a prime time feature every year. Everybody must see it. Again, it is Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation, this time from 1964, with cute talking reindeer, catchy songs, and a real adventure, although this is more of a feature-length special than the quickies like Frosty. Rudolph is bullied because of his glowing nose, so he runs away and bumps into an outcast elf who just wants to be a dentist, so the two ‘misfits’ runaway together and come across the land of misfit toys and the terrifying abominable snowman before eventually returning home just in time to save Christmas, which is almost cancelled because of the blizzard….you know that bit. Burl Ives narrates and sings. Seek it out somehow, you really must have it in your Christmas collection, but make sure you don’t accidentally get the 1998 film or 1953 special. This is essential.

Happy Christmas!

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