Do I still adore The Crown (Netflix, from 8 December)? Yes I do, and not only because, as I write, Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), the future Lord Snowdon, has just bounded onto the scene in his snug-fitting trousers, and metaphorically free-flowing silk scarf.
Granted, the new series begins on something of a pause: Suez, for all that it’s a major crisis, even a turning point in terms of how Britain will in future see its place in the world, feels at one remove on screen, and in any case the Queen (Claire Foy, as authoritatively brilliant as ever) is more preoccupied with Philip’s busy sex life than with politics, having discovered evidence of his latest infidelity in his briefcase (this is not a euphemism).
If the sadness of the first series had an epic quality – a King died, and an old Queen – the misery now is of a more quotidian kind. But every scene continues to offer its own discrete pleasures; those dizzying moments when you suddenly think you really know how it must have felt to pad around the luxuriantly carpeted floor of this particular gilded cage.
Peter Morgan’s writing may be a little more expository than before, and perhaps some of his dialogue’s emotional content is in danger of being a touch anachronistic – or even just plain wrong; it isn’t that I struggle to believe Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) would tell her sister to her face that her marriage to Philip appears “chilly”; it’s more that I can’t think that she would have recognised such an atmosphere in the first place.
While most commentators see the Royal family either as entitled or dutiful, Morgan grasps that it’s possible to be both. By his telling, then, Prince Philip (Matt Smith) is a whining, whinging brat – “those godawful moustaches trying to infantilise me” – and an obedient servant of the Crown.
In the 21st century, there’s something outrageously provocative in the sight of a grown woman standing stock still while a dresser peels off her silk evening gloves. But there’s also something oddly affecting when that same woman is all the while struggling not to cry (Elizabeth is just home from the ballet, where she has been required to watch her husband’s latest mistress perform Giselle).
When the Queen kneels by her bed to say her prayers, I still feel grateful for Morgan’s determination to get some, if not all, of the small things right, even when they have no impact whatsoever on the action. (God, alas, is not listening to Her Majesty’s requests, neither in the matter of her husband nor Anthony Eden.) Morgan doesn’t necessarily deal only in facts, but his script has all the truthfulness of a good novel.
If The Crown is utterly reliable, a series to be hoarded for the holiday like chocolate pennies, the Christmas TV schedules are rather less so, this year. First, the BBC pulled its big Agatha Christie adaptation, Ordeal by Innocence, following allegations of sexual assault by one of its stars, Ed Westwick; then ITV announced that Hatton Garden, Jeff Pope’s four-part drama about the 2015 jewellery heist, starring Timothy Spall and Kenneth Cranham, had been postponed until next year.
It is to be replaced by Bancroft (from 11 December), a predictable sounding cop show starring Sarah Parish, previously slated to be screened only on ITV Encore. Desperate Christie fans can always tune into Channel 5, which will screen a new adaptation of Crooked House (17 December) starring Glenn Close and Terence Stamp ahead of its theatrical release. Even better, the BBC, keen to compete with Netflix and Amazon, has announced that it will bring several box sets to its iPlayer over Christmas, among them Line of Duty, Wolf Hall, Happy Valley and the first three series of Peaky Blinders.
A few highlights. I’m looking forward most to Bette and Joan (BBC Two, 16 December, 9pm), a drama about the feud between Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) from the producers of The People vs OJ Simpson; to the return of The League of Gentlemen (18-20 December), 20 years after the inky comedy was first screened, in three new specials on BBC2; and to Al Murray’s “Make Christmas Great Again” (ITV, 22 December), when the Pub Landlord will likely fail catastrophically in his attempts to pour oil on troubled British waters. But Christmas does tend to bring out the misanthrope in me. Those looking for something a little sunnier will not want to miss the BBC’s adaptation of Little Women (BBC One, 26-28 December), in which Angela Lansbury will star as Aunt March, nor Victoria (ITV, Christmas Day), when Prince Albert’s Christmas tree will doubtless prove to be the biggest of them all.
Excitement and high cheekbones look set to be the order of the day in McMafia (BBC One, 1-2 January), an adaption of Misha Glenny’s bestseller about global crime starring James Norton, while David Walliams bestrides children’s Christmas television like a colossus with an adaptation of Grandpa’s Great Escape on BBC One (1 January), featuring Tom Courtenay and Jennifer Saunders, and of Ratburger on Sky One (with Sheridan Smith). Culture? My pick would be ballet, in the form of Matthew Bourne’s marvellous interpretation of Cinderella (BBC Two, 26 December), set in London during the Second World War. And of course, on Christmas Day, the 12th Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi, will become the 13th, in the form of Jodie Whittaker – a remarkable moment not only for girls everywhere, but also for fans like me who grew up thinking the best we could ever hope for in life was to play the devoted assistant.
Rachel Cooke’s TV of 2017
Motherland (BBC Two)
Sharon Horgan and Graham Linehan’s savage comedy: a (gin and) tonic for women everywhere, whatever their maternal status.
Queers (BBC Four)
Eight monologues curated by Mark Gatiss to mark the anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories (BBC Two)
Nick Willing’s superb and unblinking Grierson Award-winning film about his artist mother.
Peter Kay’s Car Share (BBC One)
Love in a red Fiat 500: is there a viewer alive who doesn’t long for John and Kayleigh to be together?
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu/Channel 4)
Praise be. Timely adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, starring Elisabeth Moss.
Big Little Lies (Sky Atlantic)
In which the perfect lives of three Monterey moms unravelled with dizzying speed, and with no help at all from their gargantuan kitchen islands.
Three Girls (BBC One)
Nicole Taylor’s drama about child abuse in Rochdale: sensitive, sad and deeply chastening.
The Keepers (Netflix)
Careful but nonetheless addictive documentary series about the unsolved murder of a Catholic nun in Sixties Baltimore.
Back (Channel 4)
Simon Blackwell’s excellently dark comedy about two “brothers” and the pub they inherit, starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb .
This Was My Dad: The Rise and Fall of Geoffrey Matthews (BBC Four)
Bad Dad: Morgan Matthews’s epic and almost unbearably moving portrait of his flawed father.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special