WHAT is Christmas really about? The festive season’s TV sought to answer this in a range of ways, with the Yuletide myth most wholeheartedly undermined by Cunk on Christmas (BBC2, Thursday of last week), in which Diane Morgan’s splendid Philomena Cunk, the world’s most inept presenter, purported to explore the story of Christmas.
As is the way of such satire, her inability to understand anything other than contemporary mass culture contained within it serious grains of contempt for the superficiality of much that passes for documentary analysis, and, as she chronicled the way Santa has supplanted Jesus, much uncomfortable truth about contemporary popular religion.
The season of misrule, with the wholesale subversion of dignity which is today’s version of the Boy Bishop, had two particular outings, both of which, after the first five minutes’ embarrassment, revealed some good material. In The Entire Universe (BBC2, Boxing Day), Professor Brian Cox made a fool of himself by starring in Eric Idle’s attempt to explain the entire range of contemporary cosmological science in an hour — by means of a musical.
Some of the song-and-dance routines that sought to expound complex theories were surprisingly effective — the character who appeared as the Higgs boson; the music-hall vanishing of Schrödinger’s cat — and they worked well. I had not expected, however, the climactic appearance of that ultimate seal of scientific approval: Stephen Hawking.
It was David Suchet who acted the goat as the celebrity storyteller in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (BBC1, New Year’s Eve). Such deliberately disastrous productions, with collapsing scenery and hammed-up acting, tread a fine line between the acceptable and the utterly cringe-making. After a shaky start, this settled down to some inspired slapstick as the cast members, one by one, suffered horrific on-stage injury, saved only by their ineffable armour of self-esteem.
Alan Bennett’s Diaries (BBC2, Christmas Eve) was not about Christmas at all, but fitted well into the general end-of-year valedictory mode. It was shot through with paradox: Bennett fiercely guards his privacy, and yet shares with us his personal diaries; he expresses a low opinion of his “stuff”, and yet is clearly a consummate professional, honing his writing and stagecraft to exacting standards; he nurtures a persona as low-key as possible, and yet is thereby one of the most recognisable — and recognised — of today’s celebrities.
There is a contrast between his place as the darling of the middle class and his fierce contempt for the conservative values of recent decades of British politics, and for what he sees as the deliberate dismantling of a maternal, nurturing state in favour of private selfish greed. It was beautiful and gentle film; but it had a heart of steel.
Of course, if you really want to know what Christmas is about, you have only to watch one short programme: The Queen’s Christmas Message (BBC1, Christmas Day). It contained, as always, an understated and heartfelt testimony to Christian faith, centred on the incarnation.