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Tweed, tramps and Lycra

Christmas TV reviewed.

Christmas TV
Various channels

Are you Downton, or Midwife? Officially, I’m neither. Call the Midwife is dumb and Downton Abbey is dumber. But at Christmas, one must make an exception, or risk looking like even more of a snooty bluestocking than usual. So I’m going to say Downton (Christmas Day, 8.45pm, ITV1), on the grounds that, this year, Lord Snooty (Julian Fellowes) really has pulled out all the stops, having decided to send his toffs up to Scotland for a spot of shooting at Duneagle Castle, the home of Shrimpie Flintshire (Peter Egan) and his wife, Susan (Phoebe Nicholls).

We are promised much tweed and heather – and, presumably, the news that the drippy Matthew has finally managed to get Lady Plank well and truly up the duff. It sounds a bit like Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding, only minus the wit, and I think I can probably cope with that, assuming I’ve had enough sloe gin.

If you’re going to be all refusnik about this, there are classier offerings elsewhere. In Loving Miss Hatto (23 December, 8.30pm, BBC1), Francesca Annis plays the dying woman whose husband, William Barrington-Coupe (Alfred Molina), duped the world into thinking she was a virtuoso pianist; and in The Girl (Boxing Day, 9pm, BBC2 ), Sienna Miller is Tippi Hedren to Toby Jones’s Alfred Hitchcock in a film about obsession and the destruction of a young career.

The BBC is also dishing up a two-part adaptation of William Boyd’s spy thriller Restless (27 and 28 December, 9pm, BBC1), starring Hayley Atwell and Rufus Sewell. All are likely to be good, though Loving Miss Hatto will probably nudge it, both for the sympathetic writing (it’s by Victoria Wood) and for Rory Kinnear’s performance as the young Barrington- Coupe (a faultless impersonation, in other words, of Alfred Molina).

If there are children in the house – and perhaps even if there aren’t – you will want to watch Mr Stink (December 23, 6.30pm, BBC1), a glorious adaptation of David Walliams’s novel of the same name, with a cast to die for: Hugh Bonneville, Sheridan Smith, Johnny Vegas. It’s about a tramp who befriends a lonely girl; Bonneville, having thrown off all that itchy tweed, is the tramp. Aha, you’ll think. So he can still act, after all.

As for comedy, Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash are, it seems, determined to keep flogging the dead horse that is The Royle Family (Christmas Day, 9.45pm, BBC1). In theory, their sitcom should speak to the times, one of its primary themes being the ever-shrinking household budget. But somehow, it doesn’t. It’s hard to laugh at lazy git Jim Royle, scrounger extraordinaire, in the age of the benefit cut. So I will be watching Miranda (Boxing Day, 9pm, BBC1) instead. Such fun!

ITV1 has a comedy drama called Panto! (27 December, 9pm), in which John Bishop, the man with the most Liverpudlian face I have ever seen, stars as a local DJ who takes part in a disastrous production of Dick Whittington. It might be worth a try on the grounds that his costars include Sheridan Smith (again) and Samantha Spiro (last seen as Simon Amstell’s psychotic aunt in Grandma’s House), both of whom are reliably fantastic. For those who can stand it, Outnumbered (9.35pm, BBC1) makes its appearance on Christmas Eve (it inclines me towards murder, which is unhelpful when you’ve a house full of people).

I’ve looked hard for some documentaries to recommend and thought I’d found just the thing when I saw that BBC4 was to screen Days of Glory (New Year’s Day) about creaky British war films such as Reach for the Sky and Carve Her Name With Pride. But then I noticed it was presented by Simon Heffer, late of the Daily Telegraph, so perhaps we should rethink that one. Let us make do instead, then, with Queen Victoria’s Children (New Year’s Day, 9pm, BBC2), on the grounds that she more or less invented Christmas.

Finally, those with a really sour turn of mind will want to tune into Charlie Brooker’s 2012 Wipe (New Year’s Day, 10pm, BBC2), but since he will be giving us his “take” on the Olympics, I will have to avoid it like the plague. I loved the Olympics and can’t wait for Superstars 2012 (29 December, 6.45pm, BBC1), in which two teams of British medal winners (one male, one female) will compete in eight different disciplines. Mo Farah, the Brownlee brothers, Nicola Adams, Jade Jones and Lizzie Armitstead are all promised, and their grit and pluck and Lycra should ensure that it is at least, ooh, 10 January before I break all my New Year’s resolutions.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.