And presenting...;Entertainment

17th December 1999 at 00:00
Janette Wolf previews the TV and radio highlights, and Heather Neill checks out live events on offer over the holiday.

What are you planning to do over the holidays? Think very carefully before you add "watching television" to the eating, drinking and being merry agenda. Maybe it's a case of millennial fatigue (the mere sight of BBC1's minute-by-minute countdown to Y2K is enough to challenge anyone's will to live) but there's something about this year's Christmas television schedule that suggests it's been up way beyond its bedtime.

Maybe it's the sheer quantity of repeats that make it look so tired. All right, many of them, such as the 30-year-old Railway Children (Channel 4, December 31, 5pm), are classics, and children are certain to find the combination of Roald Dahl and the Muppets a winning one. But Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory again? (BBC1, December 19, 3.55pm).

Still, there are two Dahl adaptations which are on terrestrial TV for the first time. In Matilda, a bewitching Mara Wilson takes the lead as the sassy heroine who is obliged to develop a neat line in magic tricks with which to vex her odious family (BBC1, Boxing Day, 2.45pm).

James and the Giant Peach meanwhile features a fantastic mix of live-action and animation, and stars Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley as James's ghastly aunts (BBC1, Christmas Day, 11am). Marvellous stuff.

Dahl made a living from casting the grown-up as perpetual villain and children, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather warmed to this approach. But there is one area in which children have to acknowledge that the presence of a grown-up could come in handy, and that's when the hand in question is on the other end of a glove. Well, one with a puppet on it at least.

Puppetry has been outshone lately by the marvels of digitally-enhanced heroes, such as Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear. But this year's Christmas films show that puppets can still hold their own. Disney's Pinocchio may be approaching 60 years old, but he could still give Chip Hazard a good run for his money (ITV, Christmas Day 12.05pm).

Disney's version is followed a day later by a live-action production featuring Dawn French and Martin Landau. The wooden marionette in this is crafted by the infinitely talented Jim Henson's Creature Shop (The Adventures of Pinocchio, Channel 4, Boxing Day, 2.30pm). Then there's the Muppets, who are back again for better or ill with Muppet Christmas Carol (ITV, Christmas Eve 2.50pm) and Muppet Treasure Island (BBC1, December 28, 1.50pm).

Anyone interested in who pulls the strings in this genre should also check out The Wonderful World of Puppets (BBC1, New Year's Day, 3.15pm). It throws new light on megastars such as Andy Pandy, Pinky and Perky, Basil Brush and even the mangled politicians of Spitting Image.

One genuine high point this year is the film-of-the-book adaptation. Barely have we recovered from the taping exertions required to watch both Oliver Twist and Wives and Daughters, than we are having to gird our loins for a further barrage of costume drama.

Rufus Sewell will no doubt quicken a few heartbeats as the stricken Giles Winterbourne in the network premiere of Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders (Channel 4, Christmas Day, 5.40pm). But perhaps Charlotte Gainsbourg and Anna Paquin are just a shade too comely to do justice to the divine plainness of Jane Eyre (BBC2, Christmas Eve, 1.05pm).

There's a bit of a Dickens fest ahead with a lavish two-part production of David Copperfield (BBC1, Christmas Day, 7pm). It fields the obligatory all-star cast, including Pauline Quirk as Peggotty, Maggie Smith as Aunt Betsey and Bob Hoskins as Mr Micawber. The villains are nicely horrid, with Nicholas Lyndhurst in a scary red wig as Uriah Heep and Sir Ian McKellen as Creakle the vile schoolmaster. There's also a vintage version of Pickwick Papers from 1952, starring James Hayter and Joyce Grenfell (Channel 5, December 20, 3.30pm).

Picking a must-watch from this lot is difficult so I'll opt for two films that are almost as old as the century between them. BBC2 provides a chance to see what many believe to be the finest film ever made - Citizen Kane (Christmas Day, 11.45am). If you've never seen it before, for goodness' sake do it now. Then at least you'll know what everyone has been raving about for 60 years.

Then there's To Kill A Mockingbird with Gregory Peck in Oscar-winning form (BBC2, December 22, 3pm). Harper Lee's elegiac tale about two children who lose their innocence against a background of profound racial hatred is, sadly, as resonant today as it was 40 years ago.

The best form of entertainment this Christmas is undoubtedly to be found on the radio. Here there is a mixture of marvellous music, books, plays and poetry for all age groups.

The reopening of Covent Garden has attracted many cries of joy as well as more than a few brickbats. (They spent how much?) Few of us are likely to be able to get in to see the place in all its gilt-edged glory, but if you want to hear Bryn Terfel in fine form - and live - as the lecherous knight from Falstaff, tune in to Radio 3, on December 22, 7.30pm.

Live from the Met brings a new production of Wagner's epic Tristan and Isolde (December 18, 5.30pm) and The Marriage of Figaro (Christmas Day, 6.30pm).

For younger listeners, Blue Peter reappraises Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra with its own version which extends right through the holidays. In the Blue Peter Guide to the Orchestra, presenter Konnie Huq gets to rub shoulders with the BBC Philharmonic and reveals the characters behind the instruments. (Radio 3, times and days vary).

Alison Steadman is one of our finest character actresses, usually at her best when playing someone rather gruesome. In Mrs Pepperpot she finds herself on more wholesome ground, but you can well imagine that Mrs P's prediliction for shrinking at inopportune moments is going to cause Ms Steadman to go into some memorable histrionics. Don't miss it. (Radio 4, December 21, 11.30am).

One of the most enduring stories for children is Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. Radio 4 presents this new, specially-commissioned production with Robert Powell, Bernard Cribbins and 13-year-old Garrett Moore as the star-travelling Little Prince, who comes across a marooned aviator in the Sahara Desert, while on his travels across space. This is sure to be the perfect antidote to the racket that will no doubt be in full swing in most houses, if not on most televisions on Christmas Day (Radio 4, 2.02pm).

Finally, here at The TES we've been championing young writers for many years. Our Young Poet slot has showcased some of the best creative writing to be found in schools. Some of these poems have found their way on to The Deeper Magic (Radio 4, Boxing Day, 4.30pm), a celebration of poetry by young people presented by Michael Rosen. The expression "deeper magic" was coined by C S Lewis, who believed children had a capacity for profound spiritual insights which are denied the rest of us. Now is your chance to hear the proof.

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