CHRISTMAS — it’s all about the children, right? The proper response is, of course: No, it’s all about the Child; but much of this Yuletide’s most impressive and thought-provoking TV derived from children’s classics. Two animations — The Tiger Who Came to Tea (Channel 4, Christmas Eve), and the very beautiful The Snail and the Whale (BBC1, Christmas Day) — brought a serious message alongside their sheer delight.
But, unexpectedly, best of all was Worzel Gummidge (BBC1, Boxing Day and 27 December). Mackenzie Crook wrote, directed, and starred as the scarecrow — and, if that sounds like a vanity project, nothing could be further from the truth. This — especially the first episode — tapped ancient springs, its contemporary climate-change anxieties melding seamlessly with Shakespearean resonance, the seasons out of joint exactly as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the urgent quest of how to restore nature to its proper course not feeling for once like a desperate nod to fashion but entirely consonant with the heart of the original.
It was not over-sweet: the scarecrows were weird, and scary, Worzel himself was awkward and curmudgeonly, Aunt Sally was cutting and acerbic. I found more professional linkage: the huge mystical crop-mark that saves the day is, by moonlight, marked out by the scarecrows in a kind of joyful, bumbling liturgical dance; this parable of healing concludes with Gummidge returning to his true place, climbing up to his tree and stretching wide his arms. Perhaps this luminous production is even more an Easter than a Christmas parable.
If children’s entertainment is one appropriately seasonal genre, the other end of the spectrum is the ghost story. BBC1 may have hoped to cover both bases with its lavish new three-part version of A Christmas Carol (22, 23, and 24 December). To strip away any treacly sentimentality choking and obscuring the urgent moral message of Dickens’s fable and restore his fierce denunciation of economic and social justice are admirable aims, but this was thumpingly misconceived, and an endlessly extended parade of modish concerns made the story really boring — an impressive achievement.
For supernatural menace, Channel 5 demonstrated a far surer touch with Susan Hill’s Ghost Story — The Small Hand (Boxing Day). We had a house haunted by past and present adulteries, a drowned child who takes your hand in his and pulls you into the water — it was all just a little too stretched out. In contrast, Martin’s Close (BBC4, Christmas Eve) was a masterclass in brevity — and in obliqueness. Judge Jeffreys tries and condemns a young aristo who had wronged and then murdered a poor serving maid: the horror lay in the slow build-up of the wretched woman’s enveloping presence from beyond the grave.