TV UK, Christmas 2001

At Christmas we commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Not.

Dolan Cummings

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At Christmas we commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Not. In fact those who genuinely believe in the Christmas story are considered pretty wacky. Last week’s True Stories: the Battle Centre on Channel 4 followed a year in the life of the Jesus Army, a group which takes the little baby Jesus very seriously indeed.

Refreshingly, the programme was not an expose of brainwashing, sexual impropriety or dodgy book-keeping, like most programmes about so-called cults. Instead, film-maker Leo Regan faced the oddness of his subjects head on. Here is a group of people who find not only solace but hope and joy in their belief in Jesus, Mary and Joseph. For Regan, a lapsed Catholic, this is suspicious but also somewhat enviable.

The individuals profiled all seem to have been a little disturbed before joining, and harmlessly misguided after. The most revealing moment was when they had to get rid of a 17-year-old stray who had attached himself to the ‘Battle Centre’ but failed to show any signs of spiritual awakening. Turning the standard cult horror story on its head, Regan had a go at the Jesus Army for not kidnapping a vulnerable youth. Where was their Christmas spirit?

Like all proper Christians, those of the Jesus Army are a bit thin on that commodity. One of their favourite pastimes is parking their ‘Battle Bus’ outside pubs and praying for the punters to come out and sober up. I blame this lack of festive spirit on the Jesus Army’s hostility to TV, which is the focus of Christmas for worldly sinners like you and me.

It has been suggested that a production of Othello on ITV constitutes a Christmas miracle (Sunday 23 at 9pm). In fact, this would be a pretty amazing drama on any channel. The basic plot and characters are Shakespeare’s; the rest belongs to writer Andrew Davies and his cast. Eamonn Walker plays John Othello, a black cop who has fought his way through the ranks from rough beginnings. After quelling a riot, Othello is promoted to commissioner of the Met over the head of his boss Ben Jago.

Jago, played by Christopher Ecclestone, is the real star of the show. The overbearing ‘issues’ of institutional racism, political correctness and nervous resentment in post-Macpherson Britain are adapted brilliantly to the character’s own personal ends: ‘It was about love’, he keeps saying. And in various ways, it is. Othello and Dessie, Othello and Jago, Jago and himself.

Jago’s talent for manipulation is established early on with a nifty metaphor involving Dessie’s best friend Lulu. From then on, the drama ascends into a gloriously camp celebration of wickedness. Shakespeare’s soliloquies are replaced with the knowing glances, winks and one-liners to camera that Davies perfected in House of Cards. The whole thing is a jolly good wheeze, even if it isn’t very Christmassy.

The People of New York versus Jerry Sadowitz is not much more festive, but is equally intriguing. While Lesley Garrett wanders New York’s sidewalks taking requests for carols (BBC2, Saturday 22 at 8.35pm), the Glaswegian Grouch will be bringing humbug to the troubled city every night from Saturday 22 to Thursday 27 (Channel 5, 11.10pm). God only knows what to expect.

Speaking of God (again), there seems to be a shortage of biblical epics on over the holiday. No The Greatest Story Ever Told, no The Robe, no Ben Hur… The closest thing I could find was an Omnibus documentary on JRR Tolkien (BBC2, Saturday 22 at 6.45pm). I mean, Tolkien is practically biblical, isn’t it? Good, Evil, wise men…goblins, fairies, trolls. All right, I’m a little hazy on the details when it comes to scripture, but you take my point.

Our descent into paganism is further highlighted by Burnt Offering – the Cult of The Wicker Man (Channel 4, Saturday 29 at 12.20am). In this documentary Mark Kermode explores the appeal of the 1973 film about a remote Scottish island inhabited by a pagan cult. The film itself (to be shown on New Year’s Eve) is notoriously more sympathetic to the pagans than to the earnest young Calvinist policeman they torment and eventually sacrifice. So much for good will to all men.

Perhaps only Santa Claus knows the true meaning of Christmas. Mere mortals can only watch TV and pray for enlightenment.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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