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