Wednesday 22 February 2017

Television: Christmas with a typical family? Not quite.

* Back In Time For Christmas, BBC 2
* South Park, Comedy Central

Published 19/12/2015 | 02:30

Ghosts of Christmas past: the Robshaw family took part in festive traditions from the 1940s to the 1970s
Ghosts of Christmas past: the Robshaw family took part in festive traditions from the 1940s to the 1970s

One of the surprise sleeper hits of the year was Back In Time For Dinner, which saw an English family trying to live and eat as people did in the past.

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Of course, given the immediacy and disposable nature of popular culture, the phrase 'in the past' could mean anything that happened before last week, but that programme was an enjoyable diversion as the oh-so-modern Robshaw family gurned and moaned about all the deprivations people suffered in the 1950s.

Given the success of Back In Time For Dinner, it was inevitable that there would be a Yuletide special and the fact that Back In Time For Christmas was split into two parts shows that the BBC reckoned they have found their equivalent to Gogglebox's Steph and Dom - endearingly middle-class fops who seem to exist in a world of their own.

Repeating the successful format of their first TV outing, we saw the family transported to a succession of different period houses as they recreated a typical Christmas from every decade, starting with the 1940s up to the present day.

Even those of us who love Christmas - it's probably my favourite time of the year - accept that the whole festive period can be a stressful time and even the happiest and most well-adjusted family can find themselves going all Eastenders on each other as the pressure builds.

We've all seen it happen - things seem to be going perfectly smoothly until the gravy goes wrong and before you know it, cutlery is flying through the air and the turkey has been thrown in the bin and everyone storms off to their own room.

So, when you take away all the time and labour-saving devices, how would a very modern - and lazy - family cope with life in the dark ages?

It's a cliche to say that we've never had it so good, and there's something undeniably delightful about seeing people who are used to having all mod cons at their fingertips having to live the way their grandparents did.

In much the same way as the original series, the unwitting star of the show is the mother, Rochelle, who seems to have been born with a face made for scowling.

Everything she did seemed a hassle for her and it wasn't surprising to hear her say that the "best part of Christmas is when it's over".

Such unseasonal sentiments may make for a perfect Grinch, but even she learned a degree of humility when confronted with the typical 1940s Christmas - complete with visit to a bomb shelter and the rather unappetising prospect of a stuffed ox heart for dinner.

We all revel in other people's discomfort, of course, and few people do discomfort quite like this woman manages.

An example of how thin-lipped and superior and, ultimately, unbearably smug, some people can be, came with the 1970s Christmas when her 11-year-old son, Fred, was given a toy gun as a present.

This went against Rochelle's modern instincts, because we all know that any kid who plays with guns is going to become a mass killer - well, so goes the popular theory, anyway - but as she pouted and disapproved, it was interesting to see both father and son struggle with each other to get to play with it.

Sure, modern manners may dictate that we shouldn't give children toy weapons, but human nature is immune to the ever-changing currents of popular prejudice and no matter how much Rochelle may have fretted about the morality of allowing her kid to have a toy gun, it was a timely reminder that boys like guns - they always have and they always will and no amount of trendy finger wagging is ever going to change that fact.

But by the end of the second part, even Rochelle seemed to get into the spirit of things although her simpering realisation that life is better now than it was in the 1940s or 1950s would have come as a surprise only to someone who lives with their head in a bucket.

In fact, as the family droned on about how we have "lost the meaning of Christmas" and everything has become too commercial, nobody pointed out the obvious - the traditional Christmas of those decades may have been more family oriented, but they were a time of poverty and genuine hardship.

Call me shallow, but give me a vulgar, trashy celebration with too much food and drink before a Christmas dinner of ox heart any day of the week.

Interestingly, the Robshaws were described in the production notes for this programme as a "typical" modern family.

That's all very well and good, but the father, Brandon, has actually written more than 20 children's novels and already had his own agent. That's certainly a new and interesting take on what a 'typical' family is.

South Park has been the best piece of pop culture satire for more than a decade and this season saw the writers go to war with the suffocating culture of modern political correctness.

Taking down everything from Caitlyn Jenner to the ludicrous notion of 'safe spaces', there were moments of sheer genius.

But there was one main problem - anger sometimes gets in the way of humour and while this season saw them slaughter every sacred cow they could get think of, there were times when the jokes got lost in the furious polemic.

It's still the best thing on telly, though.

Irish Independent

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