Battle for the remote control

18th December 1998 at 00:00
One of the more confusing by-products of digital television is that planning what to watch takes ages. As for planning what to watch over Christmas, well, you're looking at a very long time indeed.

It used to be so simple. Christmas Day: carols at 10am, Queen at 3pm, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at 5, and Morecambe and Wise at 8. Sorted. No wonder it was called "family" entertainment. There was nothing else for the family to watch. Now, however, there is a terrifying spectrum of choice, which means hours of homework and internecine strife.

What we really need are handy themed listings. So "five-hanky weepies" would give us Casa-blanca (BBC2, Christmas Day, 3.10pm), Little Women (Channel 4, December 28, 5.35pm) and Brief Encounter (ITV, Christmas Eve, 12.20am), while "blood and gore" might include Alien (ITV, New Year's Day,11.15pm), Anaconda (Sky Moviemax 2, December 30, 10pm) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (BBC1, December 29, 10.30am).

In the interests of education, though, what might we find under "literary classics"?

Let's start in imperial Russia, with a dusting of snow on the minarets and Sean Bean swishing around in yet another military overcoat to the strains of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique". Anna Karenina (Christmas Eve, Sky Premier, 8pm) has Sophie Marceau as the tragic heroine with flawed taste in men, to Bean's Vronsky.

Bean also crops up in the latest version of that equine tear-jerker Black Beauty (ITV, New Year's Day, 5.30pm), with David Thewlis, Peter Davison and Eleanor Bron. Beauty describes (or rather Alan Cumming does it for him) how life in the Elysian fields of his colthood descends into Dickensian awfulness.

Animals are everywhere this Christmas, possibly to assauge our guilt at eating so many of them. The BBC has Dick King- Smith's marvellous Babe (Christmas Day, 5.55pm), in which the surreal sunsets and slickly dubbed livestock will have many adults wondering whether it was just sage and onion in the stuffing and not something more exotic. Children, though, will be unfazed as they probably think this is what real life is like anyway.

Slightly less surreal but no less magical is the Gloucestershire village of Slad, the setting for Laurie Lee's incomparable Cider with Rosie. John Mortimore wrests Lee's elegy on village life on to the screen (ITV, December 27, 8.45pm) and, it is hoped, finds room for some of the chaotic carol singing from the original: "I One by one they came stumbling over the snow, swinging their lanterns around their heads, shouting and coughing horribly."

One children's classic new to the small screen is Peter Hewitt's version of The Borrowers (Sky Premier 2, December 21, 1pm), in which digital technology magically compresses the Borrower family into the gargantuan domestic landscape of the Lender's house. The marriage is an eventful, chaotic and endearing one, thanks to the likes of Celia Imrie, John Goodman, Hugh Laurie and Ruby Wax.

Less successful is Swallows and Amazons (Channel 4, Christmas Day, 10am).This book was once considered essential reading for would-be adventurers.This 1974 version, though, is not likely to spawn many Ranulph Fienneses or Blashford Snells.

Disney's bash at the paean to American boyhood, The Adventures of Huck Finn (ITV, December 28, 12.30pm) has a bit more zip about it, due in no small part to those superior villains Jason Robards and Robbie Coltrane (King and Duke, respectively). Elijah Wood is the artful hero.

Tales from the dark side are well catered for. Christmas Eve, for some reason, will be a cross-channel bloodbath of hauntings, disembowellings and murder most horrid, capped by Vincent Price as the cheesed-off actor who murders his critics with a Shakespearean flourish (Theatre of Blood, Channel 4, 3.15am). More cerebral chills emerge from the marshes, in that great saga of man versus monster, Beowulf (BBC2, December 23, 7.30pm). The Welsh National Opera brings us the Grimms's spookiest fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, with music by Engelbert Humper-dinck (Channel 4, Christmas Day,6pm), and Laurence Olivier's Hamlet is as tortured a Prince of Denmark as ever there was (BBC2, Boxing Day, 9. 50pm).

Although it is standard procedure to moan about the number of repeats on television, at least it gives us the chance to see films so old that some of us never knew they existed. A gem from over 50 years ago is Alexander Korda's The Thief of Baghdad (Channel 4, December 22, 12.30pm). This is a corking tale of Eastern magic and mayhem and far ahead of its time in its use of colour and special effects. It has been described as "Arabian Nights meets Star Wars" and influenced many later efforts along similar lines. Another cracker is Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from 1954, in which James Mason stars as the mysterious Captain Nemo, who imprisons Kirk Douglas and co in his sub-aquatic gaff (BBC2, December 29, 10.30am).

If all this leaves you feeling over-indulged, there is a televisual Alka-Seltzer in the shape of The Simpsons (BBC2, Christmas Day 2.45pm). Cunningly pitched against HM The Queen, the world's other best-known dysfunctional family will be gathering round to celebrate the festive season in idiosyncratic style.

But if you really are hung over and even Bart is beyond you, there is only one solution: Christmas morning with the Teletubbies (BBC1, 9.30am). After that your mind should be sufficiently anaesthetised to allow you to pick up the outsized Radio Times without panicking.

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