If television is the idiot's lantern then the subjective opinions of someone unqualified to write about television must surely be the idiot's lectern.
Christmas at the Riviera
Christmas Eve, ITV1
It’s Christmas Eve, a comedy cast of thousands and the promise of some rip-roaring farcical entertainment. What could be better? The answer is almost anything if "Christmas at the Riviera" is what’s on offer. It stars, in no particular order, Reese Shearsmith, Alexander Armstrong, Warren Clarke, Pam Ferris, Anna Chancellor, Katherine Parkinson, the Nazi captain who couldn’t say "Heil Hitler" in Allo Allo, the vague teenage boy from Lead Balloon, one of the dads from Citizen Smith, that tall guy who is in lots of comedies but you never catch his name and a flock of angry swans which would represent the only decent joke in the whole play if it wasn’t for the hour and bit leading up to the joke. But more on that later.
The set up is that Reese Shearsmith (I’ll use actor’s names rather than complicate matter with character names) is the assistant manager of a bland hotel in Eastbourne. The manager’s dad has a stroke on Christmas Eve (he could’ve had an amusing injury to keep the mood light but no, he has a stroke because this is a comedy and strokes are funny apparently) so Reese is left in charge. None of his staff think he’s up to it and Peter Vaughan undermines him at every opportunity. He proves his ineptitude by organising a carol concert which climaxes when half the guests walk onto the frozen pond and the ice cracks.
Alexander Armstrong is a high flying vicar type person and is in line to become a bishop. Only trouble is that the Daily Mirror are going to lead with a story about him having an affair with Katherine Parkinson ("IT Crowd" babe). There is nothing the Daily Mirror likes more in this day and age than a clergyman who has a bit of extramarital sex with a woman. They think it makes a nice change from reality TV stars, footballers and pop singers with drug problems. His wife – Anna Chancellor – is an alcoholic who finds out about the affair because she’s wearing her husband’s coat and he gets a flirty text message which, rather than claim has been sent to the wrong number, he owns up about.
Sam Kelly and William Boyd are father and son six months removed from the death of their wife and mother. Sam Kelly is still grieving and carries the urn around with him and talks to it as if she were still alive. The ashes come to an undignified end when the cleaning girl (supposedly East European but played as if she is the mentally handicapped victim of a botched plastic surgery operation) inexplicably took the urn away with the breakfast tray. The ashes get accidentally knocked into the turkey stuffing mix and are almost served up as Christmas dinner. This is where the swans come in – the stuffing is salvaged and when our two grieving relatives scatter the ashes they are actually scattering lumps of stuffing which attract passing swans. Sadly, about twenty minutes before this we had Sam Kelly tearfully telling us that he helped his wife die because she was in so much pain that she begging him not to feed her or give her anything to drink. Another rich vain of comedy mined to perfection.
Warren Clarke is an ex-police officer who is given a wide range of unappealing personal characteristics. He’s an all purpose know-it-all, bully, pompous oaf, health and safety nut and bastard. We find out that his son lies to him every year about going abroad for Christmas just so he doesn’t have to spend time with his dad. They make sure there is no comic mileage in their accidental meeting on the sea front by (a) showing us a few minutes earlier that the son was lying and (b) making the whole confrontation so nasty and awkward that you just want everyone in it to go away and leave Warren Clarke alone. We knew he was a bit of a bore but this was far too much. He didn’t deserve it. This wasn’t a man getting his just deserts – this was cruel for cruel’s sake.
So Anna Chancellor – someone I’ve always found hugely attractive going back to Four Weddings and a Funeral where, incidentally, Hugh Grant’s character was insane to choose Andie McDowell over Anna Chancellor because the latter is so obviously hotter in every way – finds Alexander Armstrong locked in a sauna with a young lady and takes it the wrong way. John Cleese and Connie Booth used to use rolls of wallpaper when working out the sequence of events in Fawlty Towers. I think this play used Post It notes for the same purpose. Instead of A leading to B leading to C leading to D leading to E leading to F leading to G leading to Basil being found in a cupboard they just went straight from "Don’t let me catch you with a girl" to "I’ve caught you in the sauna with a girl". It saves so much time when you don’t do things properly.
Armstrong desperately tries to convince Anna to give him another chance. Eventually she does after he fakes a heart attack. She puts on some sexy underwear, he has a change of mind and decides to leave her, she passes out, he decides to set fire to a sheet of paper for no reason and goes to be with Katherine Parkinson in a nearby room. The piece of paper sets light to the hotel, Armstrong has a real heart attack and the fun really begins.
Elsewhere, Pam Ferris is an overly made up woman apparently on the hunt for a bit of sauce. She flirts outrageously with William Boyd and seems desperate to get in his trousers for a bit of pulling the cracker. What could be more amusing than your classic comedy mutton-dressed-as-lamb throwing herself at younger men? Well, let’s really show you how lonely and miserable she is for a start. We have her opening her only Christmas present – a bottle of port from her cat. The scene went especially well with the "Christmas Careline" message that was flashed on screen during the play. But that’s not enough – loneliness and misery won’t get the laughs flowing so let’s give her cancer. Two years to live if she’s lucky.
The fire rages throughout the hotel and everyone except Warren Clarke has made it out. He’s still in bed for no immediately obvious reason. Apart from to give Reese Shearsmith a chance to become a good hotel manager instead of a bad hotel manager by saving his life of course. Everyone congregates in the undamaged dining room and the Blitz spirit takes over.
Meanwhile, Katherine Parkinson is coping with Alexander Armstrong’s heart attack by driving him to hospital rather than the traditional calling of the ambulance. She runs out of petrol and leaves him. He crawls from the car and sits on a bench, clutching his heart and having agonising spasms. Two police officers happen upon him and immediately jump to the conclusion that he’s a flasher because there is a nurse’s hostel nearby. We don’t find out what happens to him by the way. I think we’re meant to think he deserves to either die of a heart attack or be arrested as a sex fiend because he’s had an affair with a rather nice young curate (possibly a deacon) after his wife’s alcoholism became too much to bear. The male bastard.
So we’ve had alcoholism, cancer, a stroke, euthanasia, a son coldly hating his father and a grieving husband who is mentally disturbed after an apparently untreated breakdown but now it’s all ok because everyone is pulling together following the fire. They’re playing charades and one of the characters even says "This is the best Christmas ever". They’ve all learned something about themselves you see. A happy ending. Anna Chancellor and William Boyd bond over the hand he hurts punching a Daily Mirror reporter who is harassing her. Warren Clarke starts being nice to his wife and the ghastly children of an inconsiderate family also staying in the hotel. Even Peter Vaughan stops undermining Reese Shearsmith and proudly declares that he told head office that their acting manager is a safe pair of hands.
The warm and cosy ending can’t hide the fact that this was a miserable two hours of television. Miserable in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. There was no comedy in this comedy drama and no drama in this comedy drama. We had some two dimensional characters taking it in turns to either do a scene about something entirely unfunny or having something farcical happen to them without any build up or pay off. They put together a very good cast, they gave it a very good time slot and they gave me Anna Chancellor in stockings. But they gave the cast an extremely poor script, they gave the viewers a depressing trudge through relationship break ups, terminal illness and grief, and didn’t give me enough of Anna Chancellor in stockings.
I didn’t know television could be this bad.