There is usually a delicious, almost transcendental moment during the Christmas holidays where I sit down and realise that I have nothing but an empty day in front of me. No pressure, after all, it is Christmas, and I can sit guilt-free and do just what I like. One year I spent my aimless post-Christmas mornings travelling the world in eighty days with Michael Palin. Another year I got up to some money-making hi-jinks with the Trotter family.
There are a galaxy of box sets out there, and my suggestions are not intended to be a 'best of' list. How could you make a 'best of' and not include Only Fools and Horses or David Attenborough or The Sopranos or a hundred more? I've tried to mix it a bit by picking a crime series, a series currently showing, some comedy, a bit of classic BBC and something out of leftfield. Here are some boxsets you can get through over the long Christmas weekend.
The Killing may not have been the start of Nordic noir, but it went a long way to establishing it in our consciousness. Set in a harshly-light, twenty-first-century city under heavy skies we know immediately that we are in a not so wonderful Copenhagen. The Killing tells the story of a hunt for the killer of a young woman who has been raped and murdered. Not typical seasonal fayre I know, unless you're used to Christmas episodes of EastEnders!
Each 50-minute episode covers one day of the investigation, and there are twenty episodes, so it's a long haul. I thought when I started the series that either the story would run out of steam or I would, but that isn't the case. What we get is much more than a police procedural story and a more in-depth look into how the shock waves and grief from a murder shatter the lives of the victim's parents. Quite unexpectedly, there is a profound impact on local government as the murder threatens to bring down one of the candidates running in the mayoral election.
When The Killing was being made, scripts were given to the cast at the last minute. Nobody knew the identity of the murderer until it was finally revealed at the end of filming. This may account for the edginess you feel from the characters as you watch the story playing itself out. In twenty episodes you have invested in these people, and there is something disquieting about one of them being a murderer.
The Killing (Danish Version) is available to buy on DVD or Amazon Prime.
It is difficult to define Hunters as it doesn't slip readily into a specific genre. There is a comic book, superhero feel to it, it's part revenge thriller and part black comedy. The action is set in a beautifully recreated New York in 1977, and the whole thing is cool and smart and chugs along self-confidently. The plot is about Nazis trying to establish a Fourth Reich in the USA while being hunted and executed in 'appropriate' ways. One is gassed in her shower by a group of Jewish vigilantes. They are all being hunted by the FBI.
The Nazi hunters are a group of oddballs seemingly taken straight from the type of 1970s film where someone has had to assemble a crew of 'specialists' to do a job. Amongst them, there is an electronics whiz, a combat expert, and a master of disguise. They're all led by Al Pacino, playing the money and brains man. Pacino's quiet underlying rage holds the story together, and he chews hardly any furniture. Thrown in are 1970 style graphics and moments of fantasy from the main character, Jonah, a young maths genius, which owes more than a little to Quentin Tarantino.
There has been some criticism of Hunters, although I don't find it offensive. The flashback scenes from a concentration camp are moving and do not distract or diminish the horror.
Hunters is currently free for Amazon Prime members on Amazon Prime Video.
The Trip has been around for a while, but, for me, is always worth another watch. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play what has been commonly stated as 'fictionalised versions of themselves.' I guess this means Steve Coogan isn't usually as egocentric, and that Rob Brydon isn't always as affable. And the pair of them don't endlessly bicker and try to outdo the other in theatrical one-upmanship with hilarious impressions thrown in.
That is the premise of the programme, and they do this while touring restaurants in northern England (series 1, 2010), Italy (series 2, 2014) Spain (series 3, 2017) and Greece (series 4, 2020). Most of the dialogue is improvised, and although it could have ended up a terrible self-indulgent mess, each series has received high praise. Writer and Director Richard Curtis even described it as (and this was at the 2013 British comedy awards, so his tongue was probably firmly in his cheek) "One of the greatest television programmes of all time". Maybe not, but it is certainly very funny, and the locations are great to look at.
The Trip to Spain and the Trip to Greece are available on Sky One.
All four series are available to buy on Amazon Prime.
Poldark (1975 or 2015)
I loved the first series with Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza in 1975, but then I loved the second with Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson when it came out forty years later. For me, Aidan and Eleanor, plus some rugged Cornish seascapes, just edge it, even though Robin Ellis had been in the first episode of Fawlty Towers two years before becoming Ross Poldark.
As is frequently said, this is the type of Sunday evening drama that the BBC do beautifully. There is something about costume dramas that fit so well into one's Christmas viewing. Winston Graham's stories are crammed with action (although in both versions I started to feel jaded by the middle of the third series) and, while compelling, they don't demand a lot from the audience.
However, the series is set during a time of social upheaval- the Cornish mining industry is in decline, and poverty is becoming widespread. Industrialism and the power of the banks are creating a new ruling elite. Poldark is in many ways a reworking of the Robin Hood story, as the protagonist comes back from the wars and finds his old life usurped by a ruthless new order.
The first four series of Poldark 2015 are available on Netflix.
Poldark 1975 is available to buy on Amazon Prime.
Spartacus-Blood and Sand
If you are not a lover of the slightly ridiculous, this one's not for you. Massively removed from the 1960 Kirk Douglas version, Spartacus- Blood and Sand (it must have been ten-to-five on Friday afternoon when they came up with the name) is my 'guilty pleasure' selection. So guilty in fact that you'll probably want to watch it in a locked room in case someone who is not in on the joke catches you.
If you asked a couple of ragingly hormonal teenage boys to remake the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, this is what they'd come up with. Spartacus was made following the success of 300, and the fight scenes raise a bloody helmet to it featuring the same slow-mo blood spurts and splatters. The plotlines are a bit thin but whenever things slow down, and that's a lot, there's fight or an orgy to keep you interested.
John Hannah does well as Quintus Lentulus Batialus, the owner of a gladiator school, and Andy Whitfield (who tragically died after making the first series) is excellent as the suffering Spartacus. Just to balance my opinion, a Guardian critic described it as "a terrific show – compelling, smart and funny". There, if you like some gladiator action with your turkey and mince pies, give it a try but Ben Hur it ain't.
Spartacus – Blood and Sand is available to buy on Amazon Prime.
What are you watching this Christmas?
Do any of our suggestions grab your attention, or will you be sticking to festive movies and the soaps?
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