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Expect little from this TV spoof

YOU can't beat a bit of Charles Dickens at Christmas.

You can, however, spoof him something rotten, which is what The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff tried to do.

I say "tried to", because while this hour-long romp, spun off from a popular BBC Radio 4 series called Bleak Expectations, pulled out all the stops in terms of parodying Dickens's elaborate character-names, florid dialogue and melodramatic coincidences, it never raised more than a smile.

Robert Webb starred as Jedrington Secret-Past, a cheery, benevolent chap who, on Christmas Eve, finds his family and even his shop dragged off to debtors' prison for failing to pay a debt owed by the grandfather he never knew he had.

The man responsible for the dastardly deed is a lawyer called Malifax Skulkingworm (Stephen Fry), who pretends to be a kindly gentleman reluctantly acting on behalf of a flint-hearted client, but is in fact himself the villain of the piece.

Can Jedrington unravel the truth and rescue his family from jail before London's three "alliterative clocks", Big Ben, Massive Maurice and Tiny Terry, strike 12, or will he lose them forever?

Webb and Fry were backed up by a stellar cast of top bananas, including The IT Crowd's Katherine Parkinson as Jedrington's treacle-addicted wife, Conceptiva; Johnny Vegas as an overage street urchin who never passed the exam to become a vagabond; Pauline McLynn as a toothless old hag, and Webb's comedy partner David Mitchell as an indomitably happy chap called Jollyforth Jollington.

There were a handful of good gags, most of them visual, including Jollyforth's body swelling up like a balloon when he's feeling happy, and Skulkingworm winding up his top hat to make it taller when delivering an evil pronouncement, but much of Mark Evans's script was lame and obvious.

It felt like a 10-minute Two Ronnies sketch that had been stretched to a half-hour, then stretched some more to fill 60 minutes. Inexplicably, there are three more full episodes of this to come in the New Year.

Speaking of things being needlessly protracted, is there any good reason why the final of The Apprentice should run for a punishing hour and 40 minutes? It's ironic that the big finale of a series whose entertainment value lies in watching smartly edited footage of would-be Masters and Mistresses of the Universe making idiots of themselves should be such a drawn-out bore.

First the four finalists were ruthlessly interrogated by a group of business high-achievers. Then they had to deliver individual presentations to an even larger group of luminaries.

Then, and only then, did they sit down to be grilled by Bill Cullen and his sidekicks, and hear which of them had won.

This year's victor was Eugene Heary, whose auction centre idea landed the prize of a business partnership with Cullen and €200,000 of the great man's money to spend on the project. Unless you're a die-hard fan of the series, this was a lot of viewer-investment for a very small entertainment return.

Between the blanket-coverage tie-in with a daily newspaper, the morning-after updates on Newstalk and the follow-up show, this is a very tired cash cow being milked to the last drop.

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Unless someone can find a way to freshen up -- and tighten up -- The Apprentice, the beast will soon keel over, dry, exhausted and dead.

The misleadingly titled Ho! Ho! Ho! featured Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh asking various people, including Mary Kennedy and UCC Irish professor Alan Titley, about their Christmas likes and dislikes.

It was exactly like a programme she presented, featuring pretty much the same talking heads, back in April, only then the subject was the royal wedding of William and Kate.

Is RTE celebrating Christmas or Groundhog Day?