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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.