Christmas TV crackers
Your editor, MARTIN SPAIN, could have taken these two pages to discuss issues of note, but instead I have compiled a festive guide to the best and the worst of the TV on offer this Christmas for all you couch jockeys.
Channel 4 has a fresh adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (Christmas Eve, 5.20pm), starring Patrick Stewart (Star Trek's Captain Picard) and Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I). Instead of visiting strange new worlds, Stewart is the decidedly more Earthly Ebenezer Scrooge, who faces not aliens but the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. Grant plays Bob Cratchit, the working class butt of Scrooge's miserliness (complete with crippled son for added tear jerking) who benefits from Scrooge's newfound benevolence. If only IBEC were so easily brought into line.
The BBC has high hopes for its Christmas drama highlight, Lorna Doone, a two-parter (BBC1, Christmas Eve, 6.05pm & 26 December, 7pm). The blurb says this is a love story, a breathtaking adventure and a 17th century whodunnit suitable for all the family. The BBC rarely do this kind of costume thing badly but the magic was somewhat spoiled by the director's claim that this is ``West Side Story for the 1670s''. Say again?
On Christmas Eve, the cast of RTE's Bull Island present their Christmas special (RTE1, 10.30pm) including Bertie's Christmas address outlining the year to date: ``I have shifted, I have shunted, I have shafted.'' Nuffsaid.
I've always found Ronnie Barker hilarious. Channel 4's Heroes of Comedy (28 December, 9pm) tribute to him promises to be a must-see and as an added bonus, it is preceded by the movie version of Porridge (28 December, 7.15pm).
On BBC 1, the Give My Head Peace cast are in the Big Apple for their take on A Fairytale of New York (Thursday, 21 December, 10.35pm). Da and Cal win the opportunity to join the St Patrick's parade, Billy the RUC man is travelling to take part in an FBI training course, while Uncle Andy and Big Mervyn launch their US crusade to ``win St Patrick back for Ulster''.
The Royle Family at Christmas (Christmas Day, BBC1, 10.10pm) is a must-see. When I'm accused of being a slothful telly addict I just point to this series and how much craic can be had from the safety of the couch/armchair.
On Channel 4, Da Best of Ali G (St Stephen's Day, 10pm) is a no-brainer. If I'm in, it's on, but after a whole two days with the extended family, I'll probably be out.
On Network 2, the entire cast of Den 2 will be broadcasting from Lapland on Christmas Eve. The kids will love it and the adults will get a laugh or two from Dustin., spared the oven for yet another year (although we in turn are spared a Christmas album).
The plot for Olive the Other Reindeer (Christmas Eve, Channel 4, 4.25pm) is so original and enchanting that this Thirtysomething will be tuning in, even if it is a children's animated show. Here's the deal. Olive, a dog, hears the tragic news on the radio that Blitzen the reindeer has been injured and that Christmas may have to be cancelled. The bulletin says that Santy will now have to rely on ``all of the other reindeer'' to pull his sleigh.
Go on, say it out loud. ``All of the other reindeer!'' You gottit yet? Yes, Olive misinterprets this as ``Olive, the other reindeer'' and sets off for the North Pole to do her bit. Yagottaluvit.
Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire looks like a great bet for family fun on Christmas Day (12.40pm), a 3D animated adventure in which Robbie attempts to gain a place on Santy's sleigh team. A host of stars do the voices.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang can be found on TV3 at 3pm on St Stephen's Day, for Thirtysomethings who want to relive their childhoods through their children and the following day, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory pops up on Network 2 (11.30am).
The life of Seán Ó Faoláin is celebrated by Pat Butler In Sing No Sad Songs for Me (RTE1, 10.20pm) to mark the 100th anniversary of the novelist's death.
The career of Clint Eastwood is explored, from B movie actor to Oscar-winning director, in Arena - Clint Eastwood: Out of the West (Christmas Eve, BBC2, 10pm, Christmas Day, BBC2, 9.20pm). In this two-parter, peppered with extracts, Eastwood, in a rare interview, discusses his life and career. He believes that ``there are only two great contributions to the culture of the 20th century which are uniquely American - jazz and the Western''.
One of the more memorable English documentary series of the 1980s featured a North of England steeplejack by the name of Fred Dybnah, who specialized in demolishing the redundant high chimney remnants of the Industrial Revolution and worshipped old steam engines as a hobby. Fred's unusual job and his homespun philosophy were fascinating and as part of the BBC's Victorian week on 2 January, we catch up with the man himself in Fred Dybnah's Victorian Heroes, when he pays homage to great Victorian inventors like Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Network Two has a series of documentaries around the Titanic theme on 22 and 23 December but I find the morbid fascination with the whole thing incredibly boring, so that's all I have to say on the matter.
TG4 offers a look at the live of one of Ireland's most talented and apparently self-destructive songwriters, Shane McGowan. In Scéal Shane McGowan (Lá Nollag, 10.20pm), the great one discusses a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, loneliness, North Tipperary and the music.
It falls on this lesser leadership figure (observer status on the Ard Chomhairle, no less) to unilaterally declare an end to the republican fatwah (OK, grudge, but fatwah sounds impressive) against Boy Band heartthrobs Westlife. The lads inadvertently got caught up in a Poppy Day event and have been under fire from some of our verbal snipers ever since, although the Sligo contingent, led by the biggest Boy Band fan of them all, Mayor Sean MacManus, never lost faith. The fivesome (quintet to you) perform in a Christmas special on RTE One (Christmas Eve, 8.25pm) in Westlife - Home for Christmas.
RTE's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has proved to be almost as tight as Joe Cahill's wallet (a holy grail reputed to be of finest leather, bulging with Communion money). I have watched it and the English version and there is no doubt that the Irish questions appear to be much harder than the English version, and contestants have struggled to get a decent cheque. Maybe the questions are harder because we are smarter as a nation, or maybe Eircell can't afford any million-punt payouts until the share price climbs back a bit. Apart from being cheap, the fact is that Gay Byrne is a poor host, his supercilious personality ill-suited to the job. Conversely, Chris Tarrant, a man best known before Millionaire as a presenter of the cheapest tat, like TV outtake shows, has thrived in the hot chair and made it his own.
Network 2 caters to GAA fans on Christmas Eve with a Breaking Ball Christmas Special (7pm), a compilation of the best of the GAA action covered by the series in 2000. The show also features interviews with famous personalities, including Frank ``Christian'' Hogan, a landmark at GAA stadia throughout the country. You all know him as the John 3:7 man. Last year he went vertical instead of horizontal after his original sign was swiped at Croke Park when a brief desertion of the sign to answer the call of nature coincided with a Dublin thief acting with religious intent.
Apres Italia `90 (29 December, Network 2, 8.30pm) should be worth investing in a four-hour videotape. The hilarious comedy team, who have often rescued a show after a bad match, take a quirky look at that most amazing of years for soccer fans, when the Irish team made the quarter finals of the World Cup and the nation went collectively mad with excitement and bonhomie. It probably says a lot for me that I can't remember where I was for most of the big political events of my time, but I know I was in the Clarence Hotel in Dublin when David O'Leary scored a heart attack-inducing penalty to beat the Romanians. Get that nostalgia down ya son.
RTE, as usual, has an impressive movie lineup for Christmas. The Santa Clause (RTE1, 23 December, 6.30pm) stars comedian Tim Allen as a divorced father whose life takes a turn when he becomes the new Santy. I saw this on the big screen when it first came out in 1994 and found it imaginative and enchanting, one for all the family to enjoy.
On Christmas Eve, there is the premiere of Mousehunt (RTE1, 8pm), a slapstick comedy featuring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans as two brothers outsmarted consistently by a cunning rodent. The big movies on Christmas Day are the talking animal extravaganza featuring a sheepherding pig (Babe, 2.40pm), and an overlong epic about the big boat, an iceberg and Leonardo DiCaprio's even bigger stardom (Titanic, 5.15pm). On St. Stephen's Day, the station screens Pat O'Connor's adaptation of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa (9.50pm), featuring Meryl Streep and Michael Gambon. The Peacemaker (RTE1, 27 December, 9.50pm) didn't get great reviews when it came out, but George Clooney fans, suffering serious withdrawal since he departed the small screen, will be hogging the remote like drowning Hollywood stars (see big ship above) to get their fix.
The only movie that really stands out for me on Network Two is one I haven't seen and am therefore mentioning with a health warning. It could be quirky and hilarious or it could be awful rubbish, but it looks worth a flick to see one way or the other. The Craic (28 December, 10.20pm) stars Jimeoin and the plot blurb reads as follows: ``Fergus and Wesley flee the troubles in Belfast and head for Australia, only to find themselves on the run again from immigration officers, secret commandos and a mad terrorist''.
TV3 rolls out the heartwarming 1946 Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart on Christmas Day (11.10am).
On Christmas Eve, UTV has an afternoon showing of The Bridges of Madison County (1.40pm), a romance starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. No car chases there though, so moving right along, also on UTV at 6pm, Arnold Schwarzennegger and the late great Phil Hartman (you may remember him as the voice of Troy McClure and many others in The Simpsons) star in Jingle All the Way. This is a comedy about a workaholic father who tries to make up for his absence by getting his child a `Turbo Man', the most popular and hardest to get Christmas toy, which proves as easy to find as this year's must have, Playstation 2.
On Channel 4, War of the Buttons (23 December, 11am) is a great movie about rival gangs of rural Irish kids that teaches a larger lesson. The same station's Christmas Day premiere is Hilary and Jackie, the story of the talented but troubled English cellist, Jaqueline Du Pré and her relationship with her sister, starring Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths. Solid drama for grownups.