Song and dance, drama and sch­maltz, that’s what will brighten up your small screen over the hol­i­day pe­riod

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell

‘Christ­mas it seems to me is a nec­es­sary fes­ti­val; we re­quire a sea­son when we can re­gret all the flaws in our hu­man re­la­tion­ships: it is the feast of fail­ure, sad but con­sol­ing,” wrote Gra­ham Greene in Trav­els with My Aunt. And Greene was right — there’s some­thing quite med­i­ta­tive about the next two weeks through to New Year’s Eve.

And there’s some ter­rific TV view­ing too this year, some of it thought­ful and re­flec­tive, and some of it in­tel­li­gently en­ter­tain­ing enough to help you get over that feel­ing of be­ing “over­stuffed and dull and dis­ap­pointed”, as Sylvia Plath put it in The Bell Jar, as if what­ever “the sil­ver and gilt-rib­boned presents ... and the Christ­mas tur­key and the carols at the pi­ano promised never came to pass”.

In fact, you can start with a smile. Net­flix has the orig­i­nal hol­i­day spe­cial, A Very Mur­ray Christ­mas, which de­buted last week. Writ­ten by Mitch Glazer, Bill Mur­ray and Sofia Cop­pola, who also di­rects, this is an homage to the clas­sic va­ri­ety show fea­tur­ing Mur­ray play­ing him­self — as usual — as he wor­ries no one will show up to his TV show be­cause of a ter­ri­ble snow­storm in New York City.

Through luck and per­se­ver­ance, guests ar­rive at the Car­lyle Ho­tel, in Man­hat­tan’s Up­per East Side, to of­fer as­sis­tance, danc­ing and singing in the hol­i­day spirit. The star-stud­ded cast in­cludes Ge­orge Clooney, Paul Shaf­fer, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, David Jo­hansen, Maya Ru­dolph, Ja­son Schwartz­man, Rashida Jones and Mi­ley Cyrus.

Ac­cord­ing to Van­ity Fair, it’s “a charm­ing throw­back to the va­ri­ety spe­cials of yester Yule­tides” in which, re­gard­less of their record­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, each of th­ese guest stars pitches in by croon­ing carols that span mu­si­cal gen­res and moods in­side the plush ho­tel, best known for its ex­tra-large mar­ti­nis.

You might im­bibe sev­eral as you take in some of the fes­tive flicks Fox­tel has pro­grammed across the Christ­mas pe­riod, in­clud­ing Ge­orge Seaton’s Mir­a­cle on 34th Street (Thurs­day, 8.40pm, Fox Clas­sics), ar­guably the great­est hol­i­day movie ever made. Star­ring the young Natalie Wood, this is an in­tel­li­gent, skil­fully plot­ted film about child­hood won­der, trust, and stand­ing up for what you be­lieve.

It’s a drama about how we de­cide what is true, whether based on faith or grounded in prov­able fact, and it con­tains one of the loveli­est sen­ti­men­tal scenes in movie history. There’s also Frank Capra’s It’s a Won­der­ful Life (Fri­day, 8.40pm, Fox Clas­sics), from 1946, star­ring Jimmy Ste­wart and the whole­some but very sexy Donna Reed. Yet, al­though it is of­ten viewed as sen­ti­men­tal, schmaltzy and just a lit­tle corny, Capra’s movie is ac­tu­ally full of darker themes, of moral con­cerns about self-sac­ri­fice, dis­ap­point­ment, the fragility of hap­pi­ness and the Amer­i­can dream.

Capra’s earnest, ide­al­is­tic he­roes, un­abashed pa­tri­o­tism and some­times preachy plot lines are of­ten de­rided as “Capra-corn”. In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, The Name Above the Ti­tle, he ac­knowl­edged his “gee whiz” phi­los­o­phy — but de­fended it. “I al­ways felt the world can­not fall apart as long as free men see the rain­bow, feel the rain and hear the laugh of a child,” he wrote.

For those who love a sin­ga­long, Seven’s Sun­rise’s David Koch, Sa­man­tha Army­tage, Natalie Barr and Mark Beretta re­turn to host the 2015 Wool­worth Carols in the Do­main (tonight, 8.30pm), af­ter making their de­but last year. In a sense it’s one of the last links with va­ri­ety, which was such a part of early TV in this coun­try. Ev­ery pop­u­lar vo­cal­ist of the day seems to turn up — there’s Adam Brand, Sa­man­tha Jade, Justine Clarke, Johnny Ruffo, Jus­tice Crew, Mark Vin­cent, Rob Mills and the cast of The Sound of Mu­sic — as well as all the celebrity wannabes. The in­de­ci­pher­able roll of cred­its that spins across the screen at the end serves only to fur­ther ob­scure who th­ese peo­ple are. (But with those mar­ti­nis flow­ing, who cares?) Koch will do his best to chan­nel Daryl Somers, sum­mon­ing from some­where the panache of a frus­trated show­man, and Army­tage will do her im­pres­sion of the soul­mate sub­ur­ban boys yearn for as she works live in TV’s old­est tra­di­tion. I love it, as it makes me weep­ily sen­ti­men­tal for the care­free days of Gra­ham Kennedy and Bert New­ton, whose in­nate show­man­ship made us feel we too were part of the game of TV; our spokes­men and friends.

There’s more va­ri­ety, al­beit pre­re­corded, with The Royal Va­ri­ety Per­for­mance (Fri­day, 7.30pm, ABC), from Lon­don’s mag­nif­i­cent Royal Al­bert Hall and in the pres­ence of a bearded Prince Harry, this year hosted by award-win­ning ac­tor and comic Jack White­hall. (The host quips dur­ing the show that in hon­our of Harry they will turn the venue into a night­club af­ter the show; at an­other point he looks up at the royal box and says: “It was a te­quila you or­dered, wasn’t it, Your Royal High­ness?”)

The youngest ever host of The Royal Va­ri­ety, White­hall, best known here for his ap­pear­ances on Would I Lie to You?, in­tro­duces per­form­ers in­clud­ing El­ton John, Kylie Minogue and One Di­rec­tion, and a show-stop­ping mo­ment from the cast of Dis­ney and Cameron Mack­in­tosh’s multi-award-win­ning mu­si­cal Mary Pop­pins.

Also fea­tur­ing will be the pop­u­lar girl band Lit­tle Mix; a spec­tac­u­lar wa­ter-based ac­ro­batic per­for­mance from Cirque Du Soleil; a rare ap­pear­ance from Jeff Lynne’s ELO; and more mu­sic from pop favourites Ricky Martin, the Corrs, the Killers’ front­man Bran­don Flow­ers, Josh Groban and Amer­i­can coun­try singer Kacey Mus­graves.

Com­edy comes from Chris Ram­sey, Romesh Ran­ganathan and Matt Forde, who pro­vides a po­lit­i­cal round-up of the year. The cast of this year’s Olivier Award win­ner, The Play That Goes Wrong, will be joined by some sur­prise star cameos, and the queen of Bri­tish soul, Bev­er­ley Knight, per­forms a num­ber from Cats. That should cover all de­mo­graph­ics and tastes, surely.

The ABC also has the Doc­tor Who Christ­mas Spe­cial (Satur­day, De­cem­ber 26, 7.30pm), with Alex Kingston re­turn­ing to Cardiff to re­claim her role as Pro­fes­sor River Song. It’s Christ­mas Day in the fu­ture and the TARDIS is parked on a snowy vil­lage street, cov­ered in ici­cles, await­ing its next ad­ven­ture.

Time trav­eller River Song meets her hus­band’s new in­car­na­tion, in the form of Peter Ca­paldi, for the first time this Christ­mas. “The last time the Doc­tor saw her she was a ghost,” says writer and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Steven Mof­fat. “The first time he met her, she died. So how can he be see­ing her again? As ever, with the most com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship in the uni­verse, it’s a mat­ter of time.”

From Broad­way to La Scala on Fox­tel Arts (Thurs­day, De­cem­ber 31, 7.30pm) might just be the per­fect Christ­mas wind-down show, a 2½hour lo­cal pro­duc­tion blend­ing clas­si­cal el­e­gance with the­atri­cal glam­our, tak­ing us from Puc­cini to Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein; Bizet to Gersh­win; and Verdi to Cole Porter.

This unique con­cert ex­pe­ri­ence, recorded in Novem­ber at the Sydney Opera House, fea­tures many of the great songs, arias and duets of the past two cen­turies per­formed by four of Aus­tralia’s most highly ac­claimed con­tem­po­rary singers, renowned for their charisma, stage­craft and mu­si­cal ver­sa­til­ity: tenor David Hob­son, bass bari­tone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, mu­si­cal the­atre star Lisa McCune and so­prano Greta Brad­man, all un­der the mu­si­cal di­rec­tion of Vanessa Scam­mell. “If I can­not fly, let me sing,” Stephen Sond­heim fa­mously said.

Then to round it all off there’s New Year’s Eve 2015 (ABC, Thurs­day, De­cem­ber 31, from 8.30pm). The in­de­fati­ga­ble team who brought us the Satur­day Night Crack Up presents this ABC spec­tac­u­lar. Count­ing us down to the fire­works at Sydney Har­bour, ver­sa­tile Ed­die Per­fect will guide us through the big­gest night of the year.

Once again it’s a four-hour live show from the fore­court of the Opera House at Ben­ne­long Point, Sydney Har­bour. The pro­gram will fea­ture some of ABC TV’s key net­work tal­ent as well as live mu­si­cal, the­atri­cal and comedic per­for­mances — and will be as hit-and-miss as th­ese things usu­ally are, but at least it will be live.

Happy Christ­mas view­ing from First Watch.

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