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10 things we learnt from watching Christmas TV

Downton Abbey, Christmas special

Feature by Rob Carnevale

Here’s what we learnt from watching TV over the Christmas TV period in 2011.

1. If Christmas is a time for celebration, giving and general merriment, why then do the soaps continue to top the TV ratings? As ever, the soaps topped the viewing charts, even on Christmas Day, but they remain hell-bent on bringing us down – EastEnders, with its miserable storylines, especially.

2. Thank Santa, then (or ITV), for Downton Abbey which gave us a Christmas special to remember. Yes, there were cheesy bits involving Dan Stevens’ Matthew Crawley and Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary Crawley but you couldn’t beat the drama, intrigue, humour or Dame Maggie Smith put-downs. Read our review

3. Is it ever a good idea to revive a past comedy favourite? In recent years, even the likes of Only Fools & Horses have failed to recapture the magic of their glory years, so it was perhaps little surprise to find that the Absolutely Fabulous comeback proved ‘absolutely abysmal’. The Christmas Day episode, in particular, often felt (and sounded) like nails being dragged across a blackboard.

4. There were ‘great expectations’ placed upon Sarah Phelps’ bold adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic and it duly delivered. Boasting a star-studded cast and some stunning direction, this spellbinding three-parter offered a festive feast of superb acting and heart-breaking storytelling to keep us gripped throughout. It marked a significant triumph for the BBC. Read our review

5. The BBC also came up trumps with another of its wildlife programmes… just weeks after enchanting us with Frozen Planet, the channel soared (literally) once again with the start of its new series, Earthflight, which offers us a stunning view of the world from the perspective of birds. The series continues every Thursday from 8pm.

6. Channel 5 also weighed in with a Christmas event broadcast of its own – a lavish re-telling of the epic Ben Hur. In casting terms, it may have been reaching out to the Twilight generation with its choice of Vampire Diaries bad boy Joseph Morgan as the central character, but it generally impressed and proved that 5 can get it right when it puts its mind to it. Read our review

7. Whether being given an all-action makeover by Guy Ritchie for the big screen, or being brought forward to the present day by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman for the BBC, there’s still plenty of life in Sherlock Holmes yet! The New Year’s Day return of the BBC’s Sherlock found the great detective growing in stature and going from strength to strength as a series.
Sherlock, BBC, Sunday, 8pm

8. While most top-rated American TV shows take a break over Christmas, some still attempt a seasonal special… and most pile on the schmaltz. Glee‘s festive episode, in which New Directions had to choose between two shows, was a sentimental overload that grated from start to finish despite some nice production touches. It made me feel like The Grinch!
Glee, Sky 1, Thursdays, 9pm (currently on its mid-season break)

9. Big Christmas movies on terrestrial TV are now firmly a thing of the past. While Sky Movies had The King’s Speech to crown its seasonal line-up, there were only a handful of terrestrial premieres of recent blockbusters (Tropic Thunder, Ratatouille) and most of them were buried late at night. Sky now has a depressing monopoly on Hollywood’s finest offerings.

10. If Sky does monopolise the best programmes and films most of the time, at least its no longer averse to commissioning its own ‘epic’ productions, with Treasure Island – featuring a superb and perfectly cast Eddie Izzard – comfortably being added to recent successes such as Mad Dogs (returning soon) and Strike Back.

What did you learn from TV this week? Tell us…