HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
Boxing Day, BBC 1
GOODBYE MR CHIPS
Boxing Day, ITV1
THE REAL DEREK AND CLIVE
Christmas Day, Channel 4
PETER COOK: AT A SLIGHT ANGLE TO THE UNIVERSE
Saturday, BBC 2
ON THE COLD night air, an eerie sound floats - an indistinct cry, more animal than human. What is this unearthly banshee wail, which chills the blood of tardy wayfarers, and quickens both pulse and tread as they hasten nervously homeward? It is your reviewer, who has just sat through Hound Of the Baskervilles, and can express his response only by sticking his head out of the window and howling like a Carpathian timber wolf.
The Christmas schedule is traditionally larded with soothing Victoriana, comfort telly for an age ill at ease with itself. But this truly was the plum in the pudding, so overripe and purple that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have murmured for restraint. The rain which lashed down upon the sinister stone boars at the gates of Baskerville Hall could not have delivered anything more thorough by way of hogwash.
It started well, with its revisionist Holmes, a terse, brittle and louche junkie detective. I can pinpoint the moment it all went downhill: an exterior mock-up of rail carriages passing St Paul's, which would have had Ivor the Engine's pre-school audience in derisive stitches.
Once I had regained the sofa and my composure, I was treated to a series of increasingly ludicrous vignettes held together by old rope. My mind wandered to Dr Watson's luckless patients, from whom he fled so willingly at Holmes's bidding that I began to question his ethics. “I won't shoot an unarmed man in the back,” Watson declared, remembering his Hippocratic oath at last.
Like its eponymous digitised dog, this Hound resembled Scooby Doo on a bad hair day. In a shameless act of ham cannibalism, Richard E Grant cribbed his entire stock of villainy from Antony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter. The crowning touch of inadvertent farce was brought about by Conan Doyle's choice of name for the mysterious and close-lipped manservant, Barrymore. Never mind the hound, Sir Henry - just be sure to steer clear of the Baskerville Hall swimming pool.
There was further familiar, antiquated inanity in Goodbye Mr Chips, a myopically rosy and bland reading of the public school housemaster's tale. Goodbye Mr Chips nodded to social progress the way a duke might nod to a hotel doorman. It suggested that under a firm but kind guiding hand, British public schools - and all their weird, sadistic ritualism - might become an ideal of justice and gentility, paternally bestowing civilization upon the oiks of this world from above.
As it rolled gently and inevitably to its conclusion, like a steam train settling onto the buffers, I rumbled Goodbye Mr Chips as a canny piece of subversion on behalf of the British class system, aimed at viewers too stupefied by leftover vol-au-vents and Baileys
Irish Cream to notice anything more insidious than Martin Clunes being awfully, awfully nice. It would probably have worked on me too, if I hadn't watched it in a state of complete and grudging sobriety.
On the plus side, only the world of Mr Chips could have produced a Peter Cook. Cook's talent came from the gods, but his sense of the ridiculous was nourished in the musty, arcane byways of the dying empire.
In the usual way of things, broadcasters are now queuing up to laud a man they often considered too unwieldy to deal with while he was alive. Cook's unwieldiness was, of course, the whole point of him. His mind was uncontrollable; nobody knew what he would do next because he didn't know either. Making him stick to the script would have been as counterproductive as depriving Cezanne of his palette and instead equipping him with a single brown crayon.
Everything Cook touched turned to comedy. Even the stereotypical fashion in which the networks carved up Cook for Christmas was notably droll; Auntie got the white meat, and salty Channel 4 took the gizzards, giblets and unmentionables.
Between them, The Real Derek And Clive and Peter Cook: At A Slight Angle To The Universe gave a fair account of a subject who necessarily outshone them. The first concentrated on Cook's astonishingly crude and frequently hilarious 1970s double act with Dudley Moore, which superseded the cute and cosy Pete and Dud.
The disturbing Derek And Clive skits are not the dirty ones, ie. all of them, but the aggressive ones. “Clive” laid bare a savagery in Cook which had been, if not concealed, then at least artfully wielded (“You know nothing,” he told his second wife. “Keep it to yourself.”)
Once Cook's greatest joy in the partnership was to tease Moore into corpsing. Now he turned on Moore with the verbal equivalent of a sawn-off shotgun. Fed up, Moore went away to Hollywood and became a film star. Cook followed, not a little enviously, but his sojourn in LA was miserable. During the second program, we glimpsed his state of mind in an unsettling piece of art which might have been knocked up between victims by a serial killer: back-mounted columns of Polaroid portraits defaced with a lighted cigarette.
Both documentaries alluded to the notion that Cook's career ended in failure; but this is to take far too narrow a definition of success. Cook's very existence was a triumph; his occasional chat-show turns and impromptu radio phone-in appearances, posing as a lovelorn Nordic trawlerman called Sven, produced some sublime humour. That these cultishly revered fragments will outlive cuddly Dudley's movies, I have no doubt. Moore had enormous charm, but charm is ephemeral. Cook had genius. Even sunk deep into a cesspit of loathing, or drinking himself to death out of boredom, he couldn't turn it off.
Bait may merit a prize as the least Christmassy piece of Christmas scheduling ever. The bleak story of a man who uses an unwitting girl to snare his daughter's killer, it started out at a glacial pace and gradually built up to the speed of a slightly reckless snail. This proved very effective, as did the paucity of exposition, meaning that we knew no more about the characters than they knew about each other.
As a thriller, Bait left much to be desired - particularly in terms of plausibility. Its real power lay in the way it went eyeball to eyeball with loneliness, grief and loss, which were etched across John Hurt's face like weathering on a haunted ruin.
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