Gilbey on Film: Season’s greetings

An alternative Christmas film guide.

In a Pavlovian response to Christmas, I find myself in receipt of a copy of the double issue of the Radio Times, even though my entire television viewing this year has dwindled almost to the length of a commercial break. It's all those channels, all that choice – that's the problem.

In response, I bring you today both a practical solution to this profligacy and a way to carve out for yourself a week of film watching that doesn't adhere to what the schedulers would have you believe constitutes seasonal viewing.

Avoid the clichés of Christmas film viewing. Flee from The Great Escape! Say "Goodbye, yellow brick road" to The Wizard of Oz! Beg to differ with the assertion that It's a Wonderful Life! And step into the New Statesman's Alternative Christmas Film Guide . . .

Christmas Eve
Festen (12 midnight, Sky Arts 2)
Dreading that family get-together? Stomach knotted at the thought of all those resentments being dredged up over a banquet of excessively boiled veg? After watching Thomas Vinterberg's Festen, the first Dogme95 film, you can content yourself that at least your clan isn't that screwed up.

Christmas Day
The Remains of the Day (4.25pm, Channel 5)
Carrie (12.10am, Channel 4)
Why has no one thought of pairing these literary adaptations in a double-bill? The repressed passion of Merchant/Ivory's best film, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker-winning novel, will sit nicely when followed the same day by the operatic splurge of Brian De Palma's Stephen King-inspired hormones-and-horror tour de force.

Boxing Day
Return to Oz (11.55pm, Sky Family)
The scariest movie screening on television over Christmas, and an abrasive companion piece to the already freaky original. It begins with Dorothy receiving ECT and later features a headless queen flailing around in a chamber full of her own screaming heads. Not sure how on earth this ever got greenlit, but thank goodness it did.

27 December
Dogtoothand Wasp (1.35am, Film4)
More slices of warped family life. Dogtooth is a Greek one-off about parents who have gone to unusual lengths to subdue and control their adult children; it's shot with a crisp, formalist precision that lends its harrowing moments a refrigerated air. Wasp is the Oscar-winning short by Andrea Arnold which inspired her second feature, Fish Tank.

28 December
The Shooting Party (11pm, BBC4)
In between La Règle du jeu and Gosford Park, there was another brilliant "country house" drama, though this one is more often overlooked. James Mason (in his last cinema film), Edward Fox and John Gielgud star. Pour yourself a sherry and watch the upper classes in decay.

29 December
Fahrenheit 451 (3.20pm, Sky Classics)
Not because book-burning will be on your mind after clueless relatives bombard you with celebrity biographies – but because Nicolas Roeg's zinging cinematography is a treat for the eyes. You also get two Julie Christies for your money.

30 December
Primal Fear (11.20pm, TCM)
A friend once pointed out that Richard Gere has two expressions, which can be summarised as: "Where are my keys?" and "Oh, that's where my keys are". Any limitations are put to good effect here in his performance as a blinkered, narcissistic lawyer stumbling upon the case of a lifetime. Excellent support from Laura Linney and Frances McDormand, and with a star-making turn from Edward Norton.

31 December
Fly Away Home (3.10pm, Five)
The writer-director Carroll Ballard made one of the greatest children's movies of all time in 1979 with The Black Stallion. Then he did it again 17 years later in Fly Away Home, about a motherless girl (Anna Paquin) who gets to play mum to orphaned goslings. You might find you have something in your eye by the end.

1 January 2011
Roman Holiday (5.05am)
Whether you're stumbling through the door in the first breath of the New Year, or unable to sleep because you're still up compiling resolutions, there can't be many more inspiring starts to 2011 than the sight of Audrey Hepburn tripping around Rome.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times