Hit and miss

Television - Andrew Billen settles down on the sofa for a surfeit of Christmas drama and comedy

Were we led all the way to Christmas 2000 for a birth or for a death? There certainly was a birth - Jennifer Saunders's Mirrorball (BBC1), a pilot for a reincarnation of Ab Fab. It was as if Edina had got lost in a 30-minute dream sequence in which everyone had been recast as failing luvvies. Saunders donated good lines all round, but kept the best for herself. Watching a German rival audition for Angela's Ashes - the Musical with "Show Me the Way to the Next Whisky Bar", her character, Vivienne, hissed: "I should have done Brecht." "It's Weill," Joanna Lumley's Jackie corrected her. "It's verking," scolded Vivienne. There were plenty more classy gags where that came from, but Saunders had nothing very new to say about actors or acting, which bestowed a dilatory timelessness on the satire. In contrast, Absolutely Fabulous was a comedy so necessary to its time that if Saunders had not written it, someone else would have had to.

The death? That would be the three-part The Last Fast Show Ever (BBC2), a variable demise with a period of flat-lining in part two. As always, the pleasure came from seeing the care normally applied to drama lavished on the merest comic caricatures, even if they came perilously close to outstaying their welcome. Determined that each and every one of them should die hard, Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse had fun breaching the first convention of their theory of running gags by setting up several finishing posts. Unfortunately, their punchlines proved that it is often better to travel hopefully. Simon the Competitive Dad's own boorish father turned up to humiliate him. Rowley Birkin QC told a perfectly coherent story about being sober. The yokel who calls everything "bollocks" declared of sweetbreads: "I like them." Ralph and the widowed Ted came out. As in Anglia's old Tales of the Unexpected, each twist was predictable. Only in our memory (and in repeats) will Ralph, Ted, Rowley and Swiss Toni live on in gloriously unresolved purgatory.

The League of Gentlemen, mercifully, remained in its unfathomable prime. A triumphant one-hour Christmas special on BBC2 showed it to be The Fast Show's natural successor. Taking three characters' back stories, it had particular sport with Herr Lipp, whose predatory homosexual designs on an English exchange student were nothing like as sinister as the vampirish tendencies of his German choristers.

Meanwhile, the veterinarian Magnus Purblind's incompetence with the animal enema turned out to be a hereditary curse. The stories were exquisitely filmed, hugely atmospheric, and in the worst taste. My sister, from the comfort of her sofa, complained that it wasn't particularly funny: I'd say that the League had simply moved from the ridiculous to the sublime.

The rest of the BBC festival contained minor, forgivable disappointments. In the Christmas Day Victoria Wood With All the Trimmings (BBC1), the trimmings were Pete Postlethwaite, Derek Jacobi, Alan Rickman, Richard E Grant and more stars than Eric and Ernie could have shaken a stick at. But the format, a complicated parody of the BBC's ambition to split itself into multiple channels, meshed oddly with astute yet out-of-date parodies of Brief Encounter, Wives and Daughters and Brassed Off. It was followed by The Royle Family at Christmas. Here, the plot was lost by introducing Antony's in-laws to the cast. The Kavanaghs turned out to be a version of the insufferable "considerably richer than yow" invented by Harry Enfield years ago: too loud, broad and unoriginal for this small comedy of manners.

Outside the giggle factory, little gems shone more brightly than the set pieces. Lorna Doone (BBC1) was a bore, missing out (presumably for meteorological reasons) Lorna's famous blizzard rescue and retaining or, worse, inventing dialogue such as "I don't need lessons from you in who to love" and "Have you been to London before?"/ "I've been to Torquay". In a supine role, Amelia Warner, speaking Lorna's lines in the estuary-meets-Rada vowels common to most young actresses, was, well, supine. The performances of Michael Kitchen as Judge Jeffreys, Peter Vaughan as Sir Ensor and Honeysuckle Weeks as Annie Ridd briefly lit up the screen but, for the most part, this was doomy stuff.

So congratulations to those who, with more modest budgets, created bigger effects: David McVicar for his imaginative production of Glyndebourne's cocaine-sniffing La Boheme (C4); Susanna White for her reassessment of The Real Joan of Arc (C4) as an anorexic, bourgeois ur-Thatcherite; Christopher Lee for his dead creepy narration of M R James's ghost stories (in which the telling, not the tales, was dramatised); and to the producers Stephens Franklin and McGinn for tracking down the guilty men, such as the designer of Scalextric, in I Love a Seventies Christmas (BBC2). The thing about the TV personalities of that era is, even now, you cannot tell if they were serious. Tony Blackburn's comment on Basil Brush all but defined inscrutability. "Basil Brush has done more for foxes in this country," he opined, his voice just perhaps losing confidence in the material sent down by his brain, "than any individual puppet."

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.