Ho ho ho? Not on TV this Christmas...

Toby Martin isn't inspired by the festive schedules

Anybody who hasn’t been too busy watching a failed singer eating kangaroo spleen on ITV, or seeing Kirstie and Phil find increasingly more desperate things to do to perfectly decent houses on Channel 4, will have been subjected to the BBC’s barrage of Christmas previews, which seem to focus almost entirely on its comedy offerings.

With John Bishop’s increasingly grinning face being pulled off a DVD shelf about five times every minute, it is obvious that Christmas is a time that draws people to comedy.  Perhaps it’s the thought of having to spend more time with one’s family, maybe it is the prospect of a ball-shrivellingly cold, recession-hit, public-sector-job-cuts-filled few months… but there is certainly something about the winter season that makes us all look for something that can cheer us up.

So will this Christmas present us with some comedy crackers, or will we be pudding up with humourless turkeys completely lacking in myrrth?

An initial browse through the TV listings suggests that the comedy on offer over Christmas will be about as funny as the puns in the previous paragraph.  The scheduling on the BBC, which of course holds a proud tradition of ‘quality’ Christmas programming, makes me feel about as excited as a depressive narcoleptic at a Snow Patrol gig. 

The BBC’s Yuletide offerings resemble the tangerine at the bottom of your Christmas stocking, or the Christmas-jumper-wearing boring uncle who you don’t want to get cornered by at the family gathering for fear the he might tell you the same old story about an incident that happened to him and Aunt Hilda back in 1973.

In other words, it is as dull, repetitive and dated as jokes about Christmas-jumper-wearing boring uncles.

The latest BBC trailer features just one new show: David Walliams and Matt Lucas’ Come Fly With Me.  Despite being new material, it continues their tradition of character-over-content sketches and will, I’m certain, yield nothing fresh.  Long gone are the days when the skit was the fundamental part of any sketch show; if you look back to Python or, more recently, The Sketch Show which was written by Lee Mack, Tim Vine, Jim Tavare, Karen Taylor and Ronni Ancona, characters were barely ever even given names and scarcely repeated.  Little Britain has ushered in an age where the characters seem to be created first, and then placed into a variety of different scenarios.  Come Fly With Me will, I’m sure, be in the same vein.  In this respect, it fits into the Christmas schedules very well as it will not be groundbreaking, it will perhaps raise a few chuckles, but will be instantly forgettable.

Accompanying it will be a variety of Christmas Specials from ‘much-loved classics’.  Naturally there will be a one-off of The Royle Family, a programme that isn’t good enough to produce fresh new series but somehow warrants an episode every Christmas.

Added to this will be The One Ronnie in which comedy pygmy Ronnie Corbett will perform some self-referencing sketches containing a multitude of in-jokes, as well as a few pieces to camera.  If a programme of this variety is going to be made, nobody more deserves it than Corbett who has delivered decades of wonderful material.  However, the very nature of the programme is unimaginative, uninspiring and a waste of BBC funds that could be spent on something new and exciting.

Having finally repeated Only Fools and Horses enough times to start looking like the Comedy Gold channel, the BBC will also be airing a one-off of Rock & Chips – Only Fools and Horses’ own Phantom Menace.  The programme’s main problem, apart from the fact that there is absolutely no demand for a prequel to one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, is that it stars the person who is simply known to everybody as ‘Jay from The Inbetweeners’, and when you keep expecting a young Del Boy to start banging on about ‘clunge’ and delivering frequent and decreasingly funny explicit jokes, it somewhat ruins any other impact the show might have.

When you take into account one-off specials from My Family, John Culshaw and Shooting Stars, it all starts to feel like a more nostalgic experience than a night in with Peter Kay

So what could have been done differently?  Why must we cling to the one, solitary Charlie Brooker special in order to receive our fix of cutting humour?  There must be some way that the die-hard comedy fan could be catered for every bit as much as the casual Christmas viewer. 

How is it possible that no BBC bigwig thought of commissioning a Christmas special of Rev, surely the only recent comedy that by its very nature lends itself to a festive special?  Hands up who would like to see how Malcolm Tucker spends Christmas?  How about asking some of the successes from the Fringe to write a pilot and feature them in a season that promotes new talent?  After all, they are supposed to be the leaders in their field, yet the most that they ever seem to be offered is a Radio 4 series. 

To borrow an analogy from Stephen K Amos, perhaps Kevin Eldon can only be offered his own show once Ricky Tomlinson dies…  But it would be a breath of fresh air to be able to tune in this Christmas to see what the likes of Russell Kane, Greg Davies, Josie Long or Roisin Conaty could come up with.  Unfortunately, the same old ‘national treasures’ get wheeled out with increasing inevitability, leaving no room in the schedules for anyone else.

With such a dearth of decent comedy on TV this Christmas, it’s no wonder that stand up DVDs are selling so quickly.  As supplies of original, inspirational Christmas comedy programming dwindle to the last remaining reruns of Absolutely Fabulous and The Vicar of Dibley, consumers are sagely panic buying from the supermarket shelves.  And why not?  With releases from Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Lee Mack, Tim Minchin, Rhod Gilbert and many more, it seems like the perfect solution.

If you delve deeper, even more riches can be found.  A brand new edition of cult comedy mag Mustard, with cover starlets Lee & Herring, would be the perfect comedy stocking filler, as would the new book from excellent comedy podcast Answer Me This.  The gentle humour of the film adaptation of Tony Hawks’ Round Ireland with a Fridge would perfectly suit a lazy winter afternoon.  The film, which contains familiar faces such as Josie Lawrence, Sean Hughes and Ed Byrne, has ridden a rocky road towards release and, shamefully, never got a cinematic release, but has been conveniently put onto DVD in time for Christmas.

Despite all the televisual sludge on offer this Christmas, comedy fans should be able to enjoy rich and entertaining offerings.  It would just be nice if we didn’t have to look so hard for it.

Published: 10 Dec 2010

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