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Royal Christmas tree

01 January 2016


THE year’s most explicit and compelling testimony to Christian faith and practice did not disappoint. The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast (BBC1, ITV, Christmas Day) was based on heavyweight theology: the Fourth Gospel’s theme of the darkness of this world being overcome by Christ’s light. The hook on which the Queen hung it was the Christmas tree and its lights, neatly linking her great-great-grandfather’s popularisation of the tree with her great-grandchildren’s sharing in dressing her own tree, a domestic concern that ties the past with today and the future.

ITV followed the broadcast with Cameraman to the Queen, a tribute to the work of her official videographer, Peter Wilkinson. The post was created after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, as a way of keeping the press-pack at bay. One cameraman, funded by a press consortium, would be allowed intimate access, and his footage syndicated to all.

This seemed likely to be saccharine Christmastide fare, but it immediately revealed a far harder core. Mr Wilkinson was chosen not because of his obsequiousness, but because of his unparalleled professional credentials: he is a uniquely lauded news cameraman, and has sent to our TV screens some of the most iconic, tough, and troubling images of our times: Bloody Sunday, the fall of Saigon, the Ethiopian famine, and the murders in 1988 of off-duty soldiers in Belfast.

His expertise in getting the best footage is underpinned with serious reflection on how, if emotional involvement is not kept in check, the larger task cannot properly be fulfilled; and how the sensitivity to local protocol and custom, which he learned when filming tribal peoples in the Amazon, relates to giving proper space to the monarch. Because she has grown to trust him, she is now less guarded; so, paradoxically, he is able to capture and broadcast far more relaxed and personal images than we ever used to see.

Dickensian (BBC1, Boxing Day onwards) is a series of highly trailed 30-minute episodes of seasonal romp with just enough intellectual bite to allow you to persuade yourself you are watching something worthy. The great man’s novels all have a back story — previous events and relationships that set up the narrative that we actually read — and here we have a fantastical mash-up of the characters and plots, linking every one of them to a single, original chain of events: the fall that requires subsequent redemption.

It is Inspector Bucket’s (Bleak House) first case, seeking who murdered Jacob Marley (Christmas Carol). Was it Little Nell’s father (The Old Curiosity Shop) or Bill Sikes (Oliver Twist)? Meanwhile, Miss Havisham (Great Expectations) is about to be jilted, while the Barbary sisters (Bleak House) will shortly have their fate sealed: for one, unmarried motherhood; for the other, stern cruel duty.

It is all great fun — a Christmas quiz of recognition and picking-up of clues — but, for me, it does not stay the course. Solecism abounds, undermining the period detail. Everything is mid-Victorian, not, as it should be, late Regency; and “Stille Nacht” would not cross the Channel for decades. I’m sure the Queen knows that.

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