On the box of delights
Dan Carrier casts a blurry eye over this year’s festive TV schedules and unearths some gems that you won’t want to miss
21 December, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Sandra Bullock in Gravity – see December 23
BACK in the days before cable TV, film channels, and online movie services, the Christmas TV schedule was eagerly anticipated. While we have a smorgasbord of cinematic delights beamed straight into our sitting rooms on a nightly basis, terrestrial TV stations still pride themselves on putting together a Christmas programme to encourage the family to gather round the gogglebox – or stay up on your own with no work in the morning and watch a classic.
Saturday, December 23
Mildred Pierce (above)
Joan Crawford stars as the pie-baking, chicken-cooking entrepreneur who has to do battle with a horrible ex-husband, a shyster of a boyfriend and a daughter whose loyalty doesn’t lie with her mother. The novel by James M Cain shows the versatility of his writing, his ability to spin a yarn, and Crawford excels.
It was with a huge sense of sadness that the troupe of actors who brought such joy and splendour – and knowledge – into thousands of homes decided that, after a good decade or so of raucous entertainment, to bring the TV series Horrible Histories to an end. So for those who’d laughed and learned through series after series, the news they were making a film telling the story of the “lost years” of William Shakespeare was welcome news. They don’t disappoint – this rude, fun, boisterous and hilarious film shoehorns delight in into every scene. Helen McCrory puts in a turn as Queen Bess, and the usual gang of Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas and Jim Howick pop up in a host of different guises.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in this space thriller about a mission that goes awry. She is the doctor on her first mission, he a gnarled veteran – and when their craft gets into difficulties their mission becomes one merely of survival. The real star is the special effects team, who won an Oscar for its efforts.
Alan Parker’s extraordinary musical hasn’t dated and the songs are special. The Prohibition adventure about gangster Fat Sam taking on rival mobsters lead by the suave Dandy Dan and his splurge gun-wielding hoodlums is something to behold. An absolute gem.
It wouldn’t really be Christmas without one of the main stations broadcasting the best version of A Christmas Carol – namely the 1952 version starring the great Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, the Victorian miser who is asked to see the error of his ways through the visit of ghosts from past, present and future. Look out for a young George Cole as Scrooge in younger and happier days. Christmas perfection.
The Great Gatsby
It seems somehow fitting that the king of freaky bling Baz Luhrmann should have been given a mega-budget to bring F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age tragedy to life, and he does so with bells, whistles, fireworks and the rest. With Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of the mysterious, love-lorn Gatsby, and Tobey Maguire as the narrator Nick Carraway, this looks like Bollywood on acid at times, and fries you with its sheer exuberance – losing, perhaps, a little of dark heartbreak at its centre. But for sheer spectacle, you can’t go wrong.
This writer’s favourite Charles Dickens book is again brought to the screen and while not perfect, this Mike Newell adaption is slick with Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch and Helena Bonham Carter as the creepy Miss Havisham. Worth watching, if only to remind you to re-read the book again in 2018.
Singin’ in the Rain
The late Betsy Blair, who lived in Belsize Park, once recalled spending a summer at the Californian home she shared with her husband Gene Kelly – and being slowly driven mad by the actor and this film’s musical director Stanley Donen playing the refrain to the title song over, and over and over again as they tried to get it right. She said she was sick of it by the time the film was released, and wished it wasn’t shown so often on the TV – which, surely makes her the only person in the world who feels this way. It is the ultimate film about the film industry and the glory of the silver screen, with the amazing Debbie Reynolds co-starring.
Lionel Bart’s musical is fantastic – and with Oliver Reed as a proper grumpy Bill Sikes, this film version has plenty of Cockney menace. But it is, of course, Ron Moody’s turn as Fagin that everyone quite remembers.
Shaun the Sheep (above)
Every Christmas we are treated to some genius from Aardman Animation, with such heroes as Wallace and Gromit becoming staples of our festive TV cheer. Shaun the Sheep is an off-shoot of W and G’s adventures, and here earns himself an adventure to himself. Shaun wants to earn his flock a day off but as with all Aardman flicks, things go wrong and then escalate to chaotic proportions as their farmer goes AWOL in town and they have to send out a rescue team. The imagination of this British studio seeps off each scene.
We’ve never exactly fallen out of love with Michael Bond’s cuddly creation, so to say this lovely film, directed by Paul King, has led to him being rediscovered isn’t quite true. However, it does manage to introduce the bear to a whole new generation using exactly the same charm that won us over the first time round. Ben Whishaw provides the voice, Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville, his adopted parents, and Nicole Kidman oozes evil as a taxidermist with designs on the creature.