Saturday, 22 December 2012

CHRISTMAS TV PREVIEW: Loving Miss Hatto, Doors Open etc.

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 22nd December 2012.

Sunday, BBC1, 8:30pm

Thursday and Friday, BBC1, 9pm

Boxing Day, STV, 9pm

Christmas Day, BBC1, 5:15pm

Christmas Day, BBC1, 7:30pm

Christmas Day, STV, 8:45pm

Paul Whitelaw

If history's taught us anything, it's that if you stick Alfred Molina in a cardigan and ask him to play a hapless, well-meaning man, the pathos he exudes will make a mountain weep. Support him with a script written by Victoria Wood, and, well, resistance is futile.

In LOVING MISS HATTO, Wood's captivating account of the biggest fraud in classical music history, Molina plays William Barrington-Coupe (aka 'Barrie'), an ambitious dreamer who fooled the world into believing that his terminally ill wife, Joyce Hatto, was one of the greatest living concert pianists. And all of this orchestrated from a semi-detached in Hertfordshire.

His ruse – achieved simply by passing off doctored recordings of other pianists as works by Hatto – was eventually exposed following Joyce's death in 2006, although he maintains to this day that she had no involvement in the scheme. Wood understandably opts for a different view - how could Joyce not have known what was going on? But although she depicts them as complicit, she never passes cruel judgement. Instead, she delivers a sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of an ordinary couple who resorted to desperate measures in order to gain the recognition they felt they'd been denied.

Joyce was actually a promising concert pianist in her youth, with Barrie – despite his propensity for getting into what he called “muddles” - an idealistic and committed supporter of her fledgling career. But, for various reasons, fame never arrived – at least not until decades later when Barrie discovered the hoodwinking potential of the internet.

Wood frames this remarkable story as a touching love affair between two thwarted people with nothing to lose. Barrie, who's still alive, should be pleased with her depiction of him as a decent man who only broke the law out of love for his frustrated wife. And Wood's witty, poignant, thoughtful screenplay, together with charming performances from Molina and Francesca Annis - and Rory Kinnear and Maime McCoy as their younger selves - ensure that their scam never feels like anything more damaging than a romantic “muddle” that got out of hand.

Adapted by William Boyd from his own novel, RESTLESS is perhaps the most aptly titled thriller I've ever seen. It doesn't so much test one's patience as suffocate it. Curiously inert and stilted, it charts the interminable saga of a female Secret Service agent, both during World War Two and in the 'present' of the 1970s: so that's two stubbornly paced and flabbily plotted narratives running concurrently. It's supposed to be a compelling puzzle. It feels like an endless, boring game of Risk.

The problem may be that Boyd is so attached to his source material, he was loath to cut it (both episodes are feature-length). He also fails to invest his central character with an interesting inner life; he simply gives us no reason to care about her. It also doesn't help that her daughter – who plays a key role in the '70s segments – is played by Michelle Dockery, alias Lady Mary from Downton, an actress so stiff she makes the average corpse look like a whirling dervish on a hotplate.

The very definition of an insubstantial, middling bit of fluff, DOORS OPEN is an Ian Rankin adaptation which couldn't be further removed from the gritty world of Rebus if it was set in Atlantis. Produced by Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig – she also co-writes – it follows three friends as they undertake a benign art heist.

Millionaire Mike (Douglas Henshall) is doing it for memories of his ex-lover (Being Human's Lenora Crichlow, in a thankless role); Allan (Kenneth Collard) because the paintings are owned by the heartless bank he's just been sacked from; and Professor Gissing (Fry) believes he's liberating the ineffable soul of art from the clutches of commerce. Bathed in a vaguely knockabout, overbearing sheen, it tries desperately to pass itself off as an Edinburgh-set Hollywood romp. But it's the sort of thing you forget about even while you're watching.

Preview copies of this year's DOCTOR WHO Christmas special were unavailable at the time of writing, but as fans such as myself have come to expect little from these invariably underwhelming festive outings, maybe this year we'll be pleasantly surprised. I know, I know, forever the optimist.

If I'm being charitable, the cloying sentiment of CALL THE MIDWIFE is slightly more palatable in a festive setting. But only slightly. Inevitably, the Christmas Day edition of this mechanical period drama serves up the heavily symbolic spectacle of a baby being born in a lock-up, and shoves the midwives-as-angels angle further down our throats than ever before. Oh, and hapless Miranda is involved in a sub-plot involving the local nativity play. Of course she is.

If we're talking about sumptuous Sunday period dramas, then DOWNTON ABBEY obviously can't be beaten. But whereas Midwife is earnest, Downton is a frantic conga-line of ludicrously watchable toot. Previews weren't available, but we're promised a Christmas trip to Scotland during which, I dunno, Carson and a stag get stuck up a chimney. Probably, it doesn't matter. Merry Christmas, everyone! 

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