IT WOULD be hard to produce a more thoroughgoing demonstration of the current British seasonal attitude, best expressed as “Let’s not spoil Christmas by dragging religion into everything,” than ITV’s Sunday evening offering: Alexander Armstrong’s Best Christmas Ever.
A quintet of celebrity guests were invited to nominate their favourite Christmas highlights, and an enthusiastic studio audience had the final vote. In advance, I could easily imagine the list of topics: Most Moving Midnight Mass; Favourite Carol; Funniest Nativity Play Mishap; Most Humbling Experience of Christmas Charity; and Which Speaks Most to Me — the Matthaean or the Lucan Birth Narratives?
I was somewhat wide of the beam. The categories were: Food, Games, Presents, and Music — the last of which turned out not to be a tussle between Messiah and the Christmas Oratorio, but, rather, between seasonal popular songs (none of which I’d heard of).
Armstrong is our wittiest, best-informed, most musical, ironic comic presenter, but his impeccable church background — chorister at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, Choral Scholar at Trinity, Cambridge — counted for nothing. Successive deans and chaplains must have hung their heads in shame: did all our preaching and teaching have no effect on the promising youth? The programme sought to discover “the beating heart of Christmas”. The nation’s favourite Yuletide food is, apparently, stuffing. Quite.
There was plenty of religion, by contrast, in Death and Nightingales (BBC2, final episode on Wednesday of last week), if only in the form of frequent blasphemous imprecation by all the main male characters. One of the key elements in the plot was, supposedly, the visceral struggle between Roman Catholic and Protestant in this tale of domestic violence, thwarted passion, and doomed innocence, set in 19th-century Ireland.
Despite splendid acting and highly evocative screenplay, far more was promised, and rather heavily signalled, than was actually delivered. What should have been a shocking climax almost ground to a waterlogged halt as our pregnant heroine, having drowned her faithless lover in the lough, shivered in the arms of her abusive stepfather, reciting chunks of the Nicene Creed all the while.
Monday evenings are enlivened by a further series of People Just Do Nothing (BBC2), the mocumentary depicting the progress (invariably downwards) of a north-London pirate radio station. This is a joyous collection of clowns and knaves, impervious to the slightest sense of their incompetence and failure; they are utterly vain, callous, and self-absorbed.
A serious purpose can be discerned: it is a kind of morality play, with most of the deadly sins acted out before our eyes. There is sad truth, too, in the entirely undeserved loyalty accorded to the preposterous lead rapper, especially by his adoring wife. All his neglect of her and indifference to their child simply fuels her devotion. It is a terrible portrait of failing lives, a slow-motion social car crash. It is very funny indeed.