Once upon a time, the words “Christmas telly” conjured up a whole universe of delights: festive specials from televisual titans such as The Office and The Royle Family, each of them born ready for the comedic canon.
All told, though, it’s been a rather paltry year on that front. Sure, we got Downton Abbey and Doctor Who specials, but there wasn’t much sense of occasion to either of them, was there? And the less said about the fact Mrs Brown’s Boys was the most-watched TV show in the UK this Christmas, the better.
Where are the lavish, ambitious epics? Well, right there on BBC last night, as it happens. The Beeb has long been adept at delicious and grandiose period productions, but Mapp and Lucia marries a look at genteel British 1930s society with a smattering of bitchery and mischief. It’s Brideshead meets Mean Girls.
In the three-part dramedy, Miss Mapp (Miranda Richardson) rents her village house to Ms Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas (Anna Chancellor) over the summer, thus sparking a rivalry between both women. Against the backdrops of bridge parties and garden fairs, both grapple for oneupmanship and social standing in a small town packed with eccentrics and frightfully proper characters.
Adapted from the 1931 novel of the same name, Mapp and Lucia was also brought to the small screen by Channel 4 in 1985. Fawlty Towers’ Prunella Scales played Miss Mapp with wild abandon (Geraldine McEwan, as Lucia, played it relatively straight).
This time round, the ever-dependable Miranda Richardson is a pure delight as the eccentric and passive-aggressive Miss Mapp. Chancellor has the sort of ladylike sangfroid that’s perfect for these period roles. Bringing up the rear is League Of Gentlemen writer/star Steve Pemberton as Lucia’s flamboyant BFF Georgie. Pemberton – whose other writing credits also include Doctor Who, Shameless and Happy Valley – co-wrote the adaptation of Mapp and Lucia. His is a safe pair of hands, but don’t expect the surreal high jinks of League Of Gentlemen or the onyx-black comedy of Psychoville. Instead, this is a straight, subtle and faithful retelling.
True to form, Mapp and Lucia is a feast for the eyes, and while it’s a long hot summer of strife for the characters, the drama’s tone is gentle and pleasant. Sadly, it’s lacking bite and the delicious tang of explosive one-liners. Fans of Downton’s quintessential Britishness will find plenty to like here – even if Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess provides way more bang for one’s buck.
Meanwhile, A Disconnected Rhythm turned out to be an unlikely jewel in TV3’s festive offerings. At the curious crossroads of art and science, this documentary followed the experience of Ian Wilson, who had been commissioned by the National Centre for Arts & Health to create a piece of music inspired by the experience of Parkinson’s Disease.
He duly takes up a residency at Tallaght Hospital and observes patients, families and those colliding every day with the degenerative condition. Initially coming up against a group of patients reluctant to cooperate on-camera, Wilson and his collaborator Leontia Flynn soon earn their confidence. The quiet brutality of Parkinson’s Disease is laid bare, right down to the everyday difficulties patients face. It may not sound like a fun festive watch, but the stoicism of Tallaght’s patients makes A Disconnected Rhythm a truly affecting and touching production.
Mapp and Lucia ***
A Disconnected Rhythm ****