Shiny Shelf


By Mark Clapham on 19 December 2006

If there was any doubt that the BBC has a stranglehold on Christmas TV viewing in the UK, it must have been dispelled this year by the way rival broadcasters have moved their festive highlights out of the way of the BBC’s Christmas week onslaught.

Take, for example, this very seasonal two-parter, which has ended up on our screens a whole week before the actual holiday. While it would have been more appropriate broadcast across the evenings of Christmas Day and Boxing Day, you can understand why Sky One – a channel not known for its home-grown programming – didn’t want to see its first quality production ever get steamrollered out of existence by ‘The Runaway Bride’.

‘Hogfather’ has the distinction of being the first live action screen adaptation of one of Terry Pratchett’s incredibly popular ‘Discworld’ novels. ‘Hogfather’ is the story of how the eponymous Discworld equivalent of Santa goes missing due to a complex assassination plot, and Death himself has to step in to take his place. There are some bad guys, a load of wizards and some nasal voiced beings from beyond time. It’s a fun story, playing with the mythology of Christmas in a creative and funny way, and writer/director Vadim Jean’s adaptation gets it just about right.

Perhaps because of the Christmas broadcast, or perhaps because the rights for some of the other novels sit with other production companies, Sky have picked a novel from quite some way into the series as their first adaptation, and as such characters float around with a degree of unexplained backstory. Monster bashing governess Susan (the sharply attractive Michelle Dockery, resembling nothing less than a young Rosamund Pike playing the Bride of Frankenstein) is, for example, the adopted granddaughter of Death, the child of other characters altogether, and this is only fully explained in the second episode. The role of Albert (nominal star David Jason), Death’s housekeeper, is also never quite explained well enough.

The exposition meter lurches in the middle of the story, with the first half barely explaining anything and the second episode rammed with repeated speeches about what exactly is going on. Too many plotlines don’t help – there’s a dash of ‘Harry Potter’ movie syndrome at work, with either Jean, or Pratchett (or probably both) unwilling to cut to the heart of the story, instead including every rambling sub-plot. Some discipline wouldn’t have gone amiss, as the end result could use a little more pace, and a little less novelistic flab.

While the storytelling might not be entirely crystal clear, other elements of the production are sufficiently full-tilt that you can’t quite believe which channel you’re watching. Casting is uniformly excellent. David Jason, released from the dour world of ITV two hour dramas, reminds us all of his excellent comic timing as Albert, while Ian Richardson has exactly the right distant, deadpan warmth as the voice of Death. David Warner has a great cameo as a chief assassin, while Joss Ackland has great fun as the wizard Ridcully. Most entertaining of all is Marc Warren, really cutting loose as demented assassin Mr Teatime. Warren seems to be basing his performance on Woody Allen playing Caligula, which is an odd combination of high pitched American accent and psychotic threat that remains consistently amusing throughout.

Jean (‘Leon the Pig Farmer’ and ‘Beyond Bedlam’) handles his actors well, and also has a great eye for visuals. Big name author and casting aside, Sky One have also been willing to dig into the News International coffers for a decent production budget. Jean utilises a combination of special effects, stylised sets and clever location filming to create Discworld’s rich combination of natural splendour, high fantasy cod-medievalism and Dickensian Englishness.

This is a good drama, on Sky One of all places. That would be a welcome surprise any time of the year, but it’s an especially welcome Christmas present.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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