Shiny Shelf

Post of Christmas Past

By Shiny Shelf on 24 December 2010

This is a bit of a cheat, seeing as how it dates from that vintage telly year 2009, but I’m a year behind the times so it still counts.

‘Misfits’ is a show that really shouldn’t work – superheroes with Asbo? Really? – but it’s written and performed with such skill that it turns out to be a pretty compelling bit of comedy-drama. Characters that at first seem like total idiots and scum turn out, in fact, to be quite sympathetic idiots and scum; their powers aren’t just cool stuff they can do, but are Gray-like representations of their flaws and neuroses, so that as they learn about their powers, we learn about them.

Best of all, there’s enough ongoing plot to make you desperate for the next episode, but not so much that the whole show collapses under the weight of its own mythology. As a result, and thanks to 4OD, I managed to burn through the entire series in three days.

‘Misfits’ is basically a version of ‘Heroes’ that’s ditched the pretentious mythic crap and replaced it with jokes, drugs and shagging. Give it a try. Really.  Jonn Elledge

Radio 4’s brilliantly comprehensive Smiley Season came to an end this year; this prompted me to go back to Alec Guinness’ assay of the character of George Smiley in the BBC TV adaptations of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and ‘Smiley’s People’.

Without disrespect to Simon Russell Beale this remains the definitive performance of the role, and the great difficulty in imagining any better screen portrayal adds to the fear surrounding the forthcoming movie version (Gary Oldman?) Guinness inhabits the role, often lending the greatest gravitas to scenes where he has no lines at all (the investigation of the flat of a dead Estonian general in ‘Smiley’s People’ is a particular highlight).

Outside this one stellar performance, these series exist as perfect embodiments of a sort of chilly, damp pessimism that lingers in drama of the seventies and early eighties. ‘Tinker Tailor’s opening scenes of grey communist Czechoslovakia blend almost seamlessly with the achingly cold shots of the home counties house of Oliver Lacon and the rain-streaked streets of London as well as the post-industrial wilderness of Germany in ‘Smiley’s People’.

Christmassy? Perhaps not, but for me these shows have always existed in comfortable contrast with snowy street scenes and rosy-cheeked carol singers. It would be far too easy to speak of their relevance in a world where an authoritarian Russia is rising once again: they are very much creations of a time that has passed. However, as character studies of a particular era they remain of the greatest fascination and they remain the greatest counter-arguments to anyone who claims that Spooks is a good TV show.  Steve Lavington

As I type this I’m watching ‘The Muppet’s Christmas Carol’; this umpteenth adaptation of Dickens’ novella was not a financial success in cinemas but has become one of those hardy TV seasonal perennials over the last twenty years. Perhaps that lack of initial success was down to a combination of the incongruity of the idea and the superfluity of earlier adaptations, most of which were, even back then,  repeated  on an annual basis. Why pay to see a version of something when there are eleventy on over the bank holiday? It doesn’t make sense.

If the guaranteed repeats that Christmas-themed films get were responsible for the Muppets’ box office failure, they’re also what allowed the movie to grow in critical stock and audiences’ affections over the years.  While the incongruity of Kermit playing Bob Cratchit or Sam Eagle as a Georgian school master is part of the point (and indeed there are some fabulous jokes that wouldn’t work without the established personae of the Muppets themselves) there’s also more of the actual text than many, nay most, other adaptations of Dickens thanks to the presence of a narrator and this is one of the two main reasons the film works as a Dickens adaptation as well as a bit of amusing seasonal fluff.

The other important factor in the film’s creative success is Michael Caine. Many a fine actor has made the mistake of playing the unreformed Scrooge as sadistic and cruel; a man who enjoys the horrors he inflicts on others. This is entirely wrong. Scrooge is incapable of enjoying anything.

He’s not a deliberate, calculating, cackling monster, he’s broken. This is why the spirits show him his own pain before that of others. They seek to reawaken his empathy and compassion by reconnecting him with his own suppressed emotions; reminding him of his own miseries so he can understand both the suffering and the happiness of others  - and the whole point of the narrative is that this works.

Caine assays this process, this transformation quite beautifully.  His cruelties are casual, committed without thought, not with evil intent. His later awaking is deeply moving.  This may sound like a ridiculous thing  about a performance given by a man operating entirely against felt manipulated by rods, but that just underscores the scale of Caine’s achievement. His delivery of “Spirit remove me from this place for I can bear it no longer” may be the finest thing Sir Michael has ever done onscreen.

And on top of all that, ‘Muppet’s Christmas Carol’ also contains what is assuredly the greatest cast credit in motion picture history –  ”The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens and Risso the Rat as Himself”. Jim Smith

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By Shiny Shelf

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