Christmas cheer with chestnuts all round
LOOK, let’s be honest. This show looks like a bit of a turkey, stuffed with cliches, old gags and comic business that should have died in vaudeville. But it’s just the thing for Christmas night when you’re feeling a bit wobbly yourself.
Who needs edgy drama, postmodernist comedy or another cop show crowded with child abusers, prostitutes and serial killers after a day of rancorous family confrontations and too much red wine when there are still dishes to wash?
It’s Christmas Eve at the Riviera Hotel in Eastbourne, a place of such sagging melancholy that Tony Hancock might have invented it. Assistant manager Ashley Dodds ( The League of Gentlemen ’ s Reece Shearsmith), a young man of desperate buoyancy and the hotel’s resident hare-brain, is excited to be unexpectedly left in charge at last.
He’s determined to make it the best Riviera Christmas ever for his guests. Unfortunately the brandy butter is rancid, the cook threatens to resign, and unruly children create mayhem. Soon, half of the guests have nearly drowned in the frozen fish pond and the other half have hypothermia.
There’s man-eating divorcee Avril ( Pam Ferris), forbearing Rita ( Barbara Flynn) and her tetchy ex-policeman husband Maurice ( Warren Clarke), and randy reverend Miles Roger ( Alexander Armstrong) and his alcoholic wife ( Anna Chancellor), about to be embroiled in a sex scandal. Then recently bereaved Dennis ( Sam Kelly) and his son Tim Dunn ( Darren Boyd), who both want to be anywhere but home this Christmas, arrive with mum’s ashes in an urn.
This star-studded Christmas special is written and directed by Mark Bussell and Justin Sbresni of The
Randy rev: Alexander Armstrong as the philandering vicar Roger Miles Worst Week of My Life fame. That show, also built around the conceit that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, was larcenously hysterical and should have been banned for its sheer comic effrontery: it was outrageous, provocative and often offensive. This team is good at targeting those inconsistencies in individual behaviour often mistaken for hypocrisy; they do comedy of mortification almost as well as Ricky Gervais does.
Their style is kind of brusque, knockabout, often risque, with the occasional insinuated wink that Benny Hill might have applauded. They are alive to that niggling, humiliating side of life that none of us really welcome but have to accept. And if we are to accept it, we may as well do so with laughter.
All right, I know it’s not Alan Ayckbourn; not one of those British social comedies that, still lighthearted and rather silly, reach a higher plane of real human emotions that most so-called farces miss.
But even if most of the jokes are old, this Christmas turn does occasionally surprise with both its pathos and bitterness. Now that’s hard to pull off.