What do you think of it so far?

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
If you are dreading the perennial repeats from Christmas past, Sean Coughlan has found a few sparkling productions to lighten the festive viewing schedule. What in close proximity to this newspaper has 100 billion neurons working with awesome efficiency? Your brain. And in the next few days how will this masterpiece of biological engineering be treated? Probably with an energetic dousing with alcohol and such intellectual challenges as Stars in their Eyes and Telly Addicts' Christmas Special.

But Christmas television needn't be a coma-inducing parade of celebrities in Santa outfits, slapping each other on the back. If you want a more challenging approach to channel hopping, then there are rich pickings to be had. And although I would only whisper it gently, there is plenty of television that might be of use in the classroom in the distant future of next term.

But back to your brain. If you want to know more about how it works, the Royal Institution's Christmas Lecture (BBC2, December 28) will take you on a "Journey to the Centres of the Brain", to be presented by Susan Greenfield. A neuroscientist, Dr Greenfield will be the first woman to deliver a Christmas lecture at the Institution since its foundation in 1826.

If this seems too harsh an encounter with reality, then perhaps you could begin by considering the films on offer. Here attainment targets can be sent rattling like nine-pins, especially for English literature. No sooner has Martin Chuzzlewit been stashed in the video library, than A Christmas Carol is shown, starring George C Scott (ITV, Christmas Eve, 1.30pm). The BBC Education adaptation of Hard Times (BBC2, Christmas Day, 3.10pm), starring Alan Bates and Bob Peck, is also being screened in what is a rare contribution from schools television to the Christmas schedules. Approaching Dickens from another angle, the series for the disabled, Link (ITV, Christmas Day, 10.15am), asks how Charles Dickens's portrayal of the crippled Tiny Tim has influenced attitudes to disability.

Orson Welles did everything but write his film adaptation of Othello (Channel 4, December 27, 10.35pm), directing, producing and starring in this 1952 classic. Although critically acclaimed, the only copy of the film was believed to have been lost in the mid-Fifties, but in 1989, four years after Welles had died, the reels were found in a New York film warehouse, and are now being shown in their restored state.

Meanwhile, The Shakespeare Revue (Radio 4, Christmas Eve, 5pm), presents a Bard-based show, featuring a selection of the playwright's wit and wisdom performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Opera lovers are also in for a recording time at Christmas. While the populist channels, BBC1 and ITV, battle it out on Christmas Day with big movies and familiar favourites, the minority channels, BBC2 and Channel 4, are jousting with rival operas. A performance of Verdi's Aida (BBC2, Christmas Day, 7pm), from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, opens the line-up, with Puccini's Turandot (Channel 4, Christmas Day, 7.30pm), offering the competition.

No sooner have the bravos died down, than Opera North strikes up again with a new work by Michael Berkeley, Baa-Baa Black Sheep (BBC2, December 27, 3pm), followed by a two-part biography of Verdi (BBC2, December 27 and 28, 5pm). This "let them eat opera" policy continues with Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, performed by Music Theatre London (BBC2, December 29, 7.20pm). And for radio listeners, there is a live broadcast of Mozart's Don Giovanni (Radio 3, Christmas Eve, 6.30pm), from New York's Metropolitan Opera.

If history is your specialist subject, there are a few corners to be explored. Perhaps the first might be television's fascination with its own recent past, as this year sees the repeat of a number of Christmas specials. The Seventies were the heydays of the blockbusting seasonal special, with huge audiences watching the likes of Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies. With the expansion of channels, it's quite likely that audiences for a single television show will never be as big again, and conjuring up the atmosphere of big box-office television in Christmas 1971 is the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special (BBC1, Christmas Day, 10.40pm).

The television history series that swept the United States, The American Civil War (BBC2, December 27, 10am), begins its five-part run, with an opening episode that looks at the causes and protagonists of the conflict. And the story of the Christmas Day in the First World War when the soldiers in opposing trenches stopped fighting and played football is recounted in The Christmas Truce (Radio 2, Christmas Eve, 3pm).

Channel 4, committed by its remit to reflect Britain as a multicultural society, has put its Christmas programmes where its mouth is, with a season devoted to a "Black Christmas". Desmonds, the pioneering black sit-com, opened the season last week with its last ever episode, O Little Town of Peckham (Channel 4, December 19, 8.30pm), and runs through the Christmas period with programmes showing black culture in Britain and abroad.

Among the highlights are The Alternative Christmas Message (Channel 4, Christmas Day, 3pm), in which the Reverend Jesse Jackson competes for the nation's attention with HM the Queen. If it slipped your attention that 1994 has been the "Year of Gospel Music" (who decides these things?), the Black Christmas theme includes A Gospel Christmas (Channel 4, Christmas Day, 11.55am), a concert by gospel choirs at the City Temple in Holborn, London. This venue was chosen as having been the first place in Britain where gospel was heard, when a company of freed slaves from Tennessee sang there in 1878.

Of course, a self-destructive Christmas might be the object of the exercise, saturating those 100 billion neurons, those flickering synapses, with a heavy blast of fibre-free television. If you would rather leave thought unprovoked, then there seems to be more and more on offer, with satellite and cable channels bringing their own beyond-the-grave contributions. Here vintage Terry and June (UK Gold, Boxing Day, 5.55pm), rubs shoulders with The Dukes of Hazzard (Sky One, Boxing Day, 3pm), and Cannon (Bravo, Boxing Day, 6.30pm) and The Sweeney (UK Gold, December 27, 9pm), are still fighting criminals in flares.

It's as if the series themselves were in perpetual orbit, going around and around forever. In fact, it's a bit like BBC and ITV, where all your television life flashes before your eyes, Only Fools and Horses, Batman, Parkinson, The Generation Game, Steptoe and Son, The Flintstones are all spinning through Christmas, forever young, while we get another year older. Happy taping.

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