Christmas has been spent in the bosom of my family-in-law. This year’s events made me want to spend the time with my parents: but as I had run out of holiday; as they had come over already in November; and as we all wanted a quiet time with no long journeys; then it was to my Cardiff relations that K. and I went.
On the whole it’s been (occasionally low-key) fun, far away from worries about work and my other ongoing projects: should they be literary, environmental, or social. I’ve eaten too much, of course; although it’s been an odd diet, my first Christmas almost completely without wheat. That’s been rather nice, though, as my seasonal hangovers have been largely limited to headaches.
I’ve also watched more television in a week than I’d previously seen in an entire year. What surprised me this year was the mediocrity of what were intended as the big all-the-family comedies. The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff was as awful and self-indulgent an attempt at a parody of Dickens as you can imagine – precisely what does Stephen Fry, who once railed against Classic FM, think he’s doing? Elsewhere, Felix & Murdo showcased messy, unedited writing and flimsy characterization, and appeared to have been filmed while the director was on his lunch break. That the Radio Times called it “Edwardian Men Behaving Badly” shows that even they had to agree that Simon Nye had basically transplanted the paper-thin ideas remaining from his earlier shows into a poor-man’s steampunk; yet with none of that potentially intriguing and invigorating clash of cultures ever utilized, except when the tottering journey to the next disappointing gag required it.
All of this was eclipsed by the sumptuous Great Expectations, a three-hour three-parter which showed what you can do with actors like Ray Winstone, to whom I wouldn’t normally give the time of day, when you embed them in such clarity of directorial vision, purity of production management, and economy and terseness of scriptwriting. The child actors were remarkable; the sets and costumes the usual, probably slightly anachronistic, baroque and intricate Dickensiana; the plot was measured perfectly across the three scheduled slots, as if that were the author’s original intention.
Such adaptations show that Dickens is almost entirely beyond parody, more clearly than the dreariness of the results of trying to do so. This is so, partly because many of his original themes already display the sharpest of biting satire (and to parody it is to proclaim to the world that you didn’t know that); but mostly because it’s so very, very good. From Christmas, the festival that the man himself did so much to invent with his dedicated stories, it’s only fitting that he emerges utterly triumphant.
I wouldn’t want you to think we’ve been glued to the screen, of course. There’s been much carousing and bottles of wine and cider drained to their last drop. There was even karaoke on Christmas night itself. Marrying into K’s family means that this only child suddenly finds himself in the company of siblings. And while you should never wish yourself a different childhood – who knows, after all, which good aspects of your personality are rooted in what bad aspects of your youth? – I’m glad that I finally have such relations in my life.
Especially sisters-in-law who can belt out Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton like there’s no tomorrow. Pace the opinions of its Victorian founding father, isn’t that what Christmas is really all about?