Not strictly Christmas, but near enough, and in content as Christmas as it gets: The Making of a Lady. Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote the strange novella 'The Making of a Marchioness' followed by 'The Methods of Lady Walderhurst' which, several years behind 'The Secret Garden' have finally made it to the screen. On the page, they read as an uneasy mix of light social commentary and high melodrama. Television does us proud, therefore, by ditching the former and playing the latter with the straightest of faces. Poor-but-respectable Emily Fox Seton (Lydia Wilson) marries unpromising-but-rich Lord Walderhurst (Linus Roache) and after the briefest of good starts - sex is ok and he's teaching her to swim, by Gad - he takes off to India for the Honour of the Regiment and leaves her at the mercy of his scheming cousin Alec Osborn (James D'Arcy) and Alec's wife Hester (Hasina Haque). With the help of Hester's elderly ayah, Ameera, they plan to poison Lady W before she gives birth to an heir, thereby inheriting the house. As stuffed with TWNH moments as your average turkey is with chestnuts, but fabulously daft fun.
Last night we were Loving Miss Hatto. Penniless chancer William Barrington Coupe (Rory Kinnear) meets promising pianist Joyce Hatto (Maimie McCoy) in 1953 and is smitten with both her and her potential. They try to overcome the disadvantages of a lack of contacts, her stage nerves and her vicious mother, but after some success they go no further and settle for a life of suburban quiet, natural history programmes and buns for tea. When older William (Alfred Molina) manages to fake a CD of one of Joyce's recitals well enough to fool her and fans on an internet forum, he takes it up in earnest, to bring her the acclaim she deserves, and soon Joyce (Francesca Annis) is being sought by the likes of Radio 3 and Gramophone. All of this, of-course, brings the fraud closer to the surface. As with 'Housewife 49', Wood writes with candour, humour and ease about 'ordinary' Englishmen and women battling life's odds. Drama for audiences with Dysons, written about people who could never have them. Dare we say thank heavens for the much-maligned BBC?
Tomorrow there's a good helping of 'Call the Midwife' followed by lashings of 'Downton Abbey'. The only spoiler alert necessary is that of their combined effect on a digestion loaded with Christmas dinner and pudding is likely to be messy.
P.S. It was messy. The Workhouse Howl of one morphed into a wail for the insufferably good Matthew in the other. Heaven forbid there should be real surprises on Christmas Day, so news of Dan Stevens wanting to exit was publicised some while ago....
The Girl. Hadn't got around to watching this on Boxing Day. Cups overfloweth etc. We were busy watching the below. So, a few days late, we watched the drama chronicling the making of 'The Birds'. Toby Jones is a wonderfully slimy, sinister Hitchcock while Sienna Miller is rather less mannered and vacuous than Tippi Hedren always appeared in both 'The Birds' and 'Marnie'. The material is discomforting, both because of its nature and because of the fact that it's been the subject of intense conjecture for decades, so while this offers nothing new in the way of knowledge, it offers a very definite take on the events during filming - Miss Hedren's. Maybe it's as near to the truth as dammit, and maybe we shouldn't care, so long as it offers 90 minutes of entertainment, but... we suspect a full-blown biopic of Hitch could fill almost as many hours as his life, and the real and the lurid imaginary would be almost indistinguishable. Maybe the best and only insight into the strange talent that was Alfred Hitchcock is his string of films.
Restless - Half of us have read the novel this was based on, by William Boyd, and that half was pre-disposed to like this adaptation. The other half felt it was a tad cliched.
British agent turns out to be a double agent working for the Russians, who sets up his colleague and lover to further the ends of his Soviet masters. She evades death, and him, for some thirty years but is always conscious of being on the run. It was a fun watch (says the non-book half) with the likes of Hayley Atwell, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon and Charlotte Rampling all acting their woolly socks off, but sometimes it was woolly elsewhere too. No doubt all these points are explained in the book, but here it wasn't clear: Why did Romer (Sewell, later Gambon) choose to set up Eva (Atwell, later Rampling) assuming she would be anti-Russian despite... being Russian? How did his assumption that she wouldn't follow orders and would discover the terrible forged Nazi maps help him? Why did she send her daughter Ruth (Michelle Dockery, swapping flapper for hippy) to meet Romer when she could surely have found the information without revealing her true identity and thus putting herself in danger again? What did she have on Romer to make him kill himself? And while the Russian phone books, not to mention coffee table books on Matisse, may be full of Delectorskayas, it sounds like a highly unsubtle way to promote her delectability as the heroine.
Still heaps better than 'Charlotte Gray' though, if nothing else for the message that espionage will leave you permanently paranoid.
Panto - obviously we were too busy watching 'Restless' to have seen this when originally aired. Coming to it on 4th January, we conclude it was best watched in a festive haze. It shouldn't have been a stretch for John Bishop to act the part of a feckless and fun-loving DJ but he suffered from the same affliction that Jerry Seinfeld did when acting his own comedy script: smirking when he should have been showing any other emotion. Harmless fun but no surprises beyond perennial villain Michael Cochrane playing an "accc-TOR" reduced to being a (wonderful) pantomime dame.
Ripper Street, so-named in case you forget that this is 1889, dramatizes a range of stories which are, of necessity, not nearly as interesting as that of Jack the Ripper. To be fair, it'd be hard to film anything set in 1889 with a modicum of atmosphere without resorting to cliche. So we're in the grimy (though mercifully not foggy) London streets with strutting prostitutes and an early entrepreneur leading Whitechapel Walks. Nearby, men in severe need of a bath are foaming at the mouth at a bout of bare-knuckle fighting involving Jerome Flynn. (He comes by way of the RSC and Soldier Soldier, dear viewers). Altogether it's sold almost as a Western, with the beleaguered cops battling shady types in a lawless town.
The discovery of a victim with the hallmarks of the Ripper involves Detective Matthew McFadyen and his ex-boss, Fred Abberline, who has been dragged in from reality as the lead investigator of the Ripper crimes in 1888. Our hero McFadyen suspects this is not the Ripper but has been made to look like it. Think 'Whitechapel' with corsets and say 'copycat'. Say also 'modern sexual sadism projected onto a historical past'. No doubt akin to 'City of Vice' and 'Garrow's Law' this will feature other modern preoccupations in its run. There is a posh baddie with an ugly moustache, and prostitutes treated as expendable actors in pornographic violence. MyAnna Buring rounds off a busy year as a Madam, while Amanda Hale who played the mad wife in 'The Crimson Petal and the White' remains trapped in bustles as the detective's wife.
It's alright, in a 9pm Sunday sort of a way, but was probably more fun to make than it is to watch.
Dan adds: For me, this was a 1970s cop show in fancy dress. The plot was very 1970s (porn, snuff movies), and the cops beat up suspects and charged around doing what they wanted; as with Life On Mars the BBC managed to make a 1970s cop show in disguise, this time taking it 90 years earlier. I'm not complaining, but why can't they just do one in modern dress for a change?
Ali adds: C'mon Dan, they do endless cop shows in modern dress! Don't forget it's harder to mix in real people in modern shows. Mob leader Lusk turns up in episode 2. We're holding out for Queen Victoria....
Remember 'The Paradise' and thinking idly how it was probably based on a department store like Selfridges? (More Galeries Lafayette, since it was Zola, but hey). Well here it is, the supposedly real story of the Oxford Street favourite, and the best ad they could ever want. Mr Selfridge has the love interests, the love of retail (yawn), the ambitious sales girl (Aisling Loftus, who has yet to put a foot wrong in her career), the leaden script and the handsome Frenchman from 'Spiral' (Gregory Fitoussi as artist Henri LeClair). The only things it lacks are the yellow bags and the hordes of tourists. It's so like 'The Paradise' though that even the archetypes are present: there's a Miss Audrey type (Amanda Abbington), a bitchy sales assistant jealous of our ambitious heroine etc. Soon we'll be asking where the Miss Audrey is in any department store we visit.
The first 90-minute-minus-ad-breaks episode covered the building and opening, but like 'The Paradise' (TP) it's less of a rags-to-riches story than an already-fairly-rich soap opera. Jeremy Piven as Harry Gordon Selfridge declaims every line as though to a theatre audience. If true, this must have been very tiring for his long-suffering wife (here played by Frances O'Connor), even more so than his dalliance with a music hall artiste, Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper). Sam West, Tim Woodward and a barmaid from Corrie turn up to befriend or use our Mr S, who proves his many hidebound critics wrong and opens a stunner of a store on the 'dead end of Oxford Street'. These were, lest we forget, the days before Primark when, errr, Tyburn Gallows wasn't quite quoshed in public memory and shoppers presumably hadn't cottoned onto the existence of either Liberty's or Whiteley's.
It seems as we leave the turn of the century behind that we're increasingly turning back to the turn of the last one for comfort telly. OK, so the direct competition in the schedules is Ripper Street, which isn't exactly comfortable viewing, but the choice is between the swishing fabrics and gilt elevators of the 1900s West End and the nasty, brutish and short lives of (in episode 2 at least) some nasty, brutish and short villains in the grimy, gaslit East End. Children in 1889 may have been victims, forced to work like slaves or join a gang and murder people, but at least it was all a long, long time ago. In the light of the Savile investigation, no-one who watched 'I Love the 1970s and 1980s' series can still think of light entertainment figures as eccentric but essentially benign men with terrible dress sense. The 1870s and the 1880s are much safer viewing.