Hold the Sunset Christmas special, review: Ridiculous, nonsensical and harmless – The Independent

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Hold the Sunset Christmas special, review: Ridiculous, nonsensical and harmless – The Independent

Watching Hold the Sunset, John Cleese’s first BBC sitcom since Fawlty Towers ended 43 years ago, is like watching your grandma chatting with a friend she’s just bumped into. You’re not particularly interested, or invested, in any of it, but it’s all so gently amiable that you don’t resent waiting around for it to finish.

Case in point: the first scene of this year’s Christmas special, which follows the show’s successful (though critically disparaged) first series earlier this year.

“Ahh, Christmas shopping, eh?” says Cleese’s Phil to his neighbour, Mr Dugdale (Peter Egan).

“Unavoidable,” smiles Dugdale.

“If we don’t shop, the sun won’t return, right?” says Phil. They both politely chortle.

It is such anodyne small talk that you might file the scene alongside the current slew of so-called “slow TV”; shows in which, in an effort to disengage from the stress of 21st-century life, you watch a train chug along a track, or a washing machine whirring, or paint dry.


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Unlike in Fawlty Towers, then, you won’t see any manically inappropriate goose-stepping or frenzied corpse hiding in Hold the Sunset – a show in which two widowed neighbours, Phil and Edith (Alison Steadman), fall in love – but it would have been futile for Cleese to even try to emulate that.

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1/10 10) Save Me

Lennie James’s missing-child thriller Save Me looked as though it might be a paint-by-numbers affair. Instead it was a gripping start to Sky Atlantic’s impressive run, with James taking the lead as Nelly, the womanising bum who gains a new lease of investigative energy when his estranged daughter Jody vanishes. A smart script kept us guessing right up to an ending that denied us the closure we had expected. A second series has been commissioned.

Sky

2/10 9) Cunk on Britain

How much you enjoyed Philomena Cunk’s history of Britain depended on how funny you find Diane Morgan’s resting confused face. I find it hilarious. Her interviewees are kind of in on the joke but clearly briefed to take it as seriously as possible. They’ll be mid-flow and she will cock her head and drain all the interest from her face. “What’s the most political thing that’s ever happened?” she asked Robert Peston, who did his best to answer with a straight face. Co-producer Charlie Brooker’s fingerprints are everywhere in the way Morgan’s vain, poorly informed, easily distracted Cunk operates within a ruthlessly satirical production, which sends up the tropes and cliches of every dodgy documentary and history programme. She might not be the comic creation we need, but she is the one we deserve right now.

BBC

3/10 8) Sally4Ever

You either love Julia Davis or think her sick filth ought to be banned. Sally4Ever proved yet again that there is nobody working today – or at least nobody with the same platform – with a blacker sense of humour. Sally (Catherine Shepherd) was already surrounded by monsters: her loser of a boyfriend (Alex MacQueen) and tricky colleagues played by Julian Barratt and Felicity Montagu. Then Emma (Davis herself) arrived, a tornado of sex and bad intentions. Beneath the shagging, drugs, excrement, manipulation and malice were pockets of tenderness, but you had to look pretty hard to see them. Luckily there were also gales of laughter. N.b. If you have yet to see it, please do not watch it with your parents or children on Boxing Day and then write in to complain.

Sky

4/10 7) The Little Drummer Girl

This was a spiritual successor rather than a sequel to The Night Manager. It was still a Le Carré adaptation on the BBC sprinkled with famous faces, but the differences were as pronounced as the similarities. Park Chan-Wook, the Korean auteur, directed with a high sense of style. Florence Pugh was dazzling as the ingenue actress Charlie, recruited for a dangerous mission across Europe, ably supported by Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Shannon as her spook handlers. Some viewers switched off after the first episodes, which took time to set the scene. They missed out on a vivid, beautifully told thriller.

BBC

5/10 6) A Very English Scandal

Hugh Grant… can act? That was the first surprise in this smooth, stylish BBC retelling of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal. He burst convincingly out of the charming fop mould he has slept in so comfortably for thirty years. What have we been missing all this time? The other shock was remembering how recent it all was. The government is still up to a lot of nonsense, but the days of this kind of cover-up, for these reasons, is surely over. Or is it?

BBC

6/10 5) Patrick Melrose

Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels have the kind of precisely drawn interiority that makes any kind of adaptation seem doomed to fail. Instead, the Sky Atlantic series brought them convincingly to life. It is not a happy tale. In flashback we saw Patrick’s childhood in the shadow of his monstrous father David (Hugo Weaving), and the decades of self-loathing and substance abuse that followed. At the centre of all this was Benedict Cumberbatch, as good as he’s ever been. His Patrick could be brilliant, witty, cruel and pitiful, sometimes in the same smack-addled sentence. Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh as David’s wife Eleanor and Pip Torrens as his ghastly friend Nicholas Pratt all put in memorable performances, too.

Sky

7/10 4) Dynasties

At an age where most of us are long past doing anything, David Attenborough is still changing our expectations of what a nature documentary can do. Like The Rolling Stones, he has been on his farewell tour since about 1970, but unlike Jagger & Co, the returns are not diminishing. Is he fuelled by anger at the world’s response to climate change? Or simply driven by some massive internal dynamo, a soul-quest to improve our ability to relate to penguins? Whatever the motivation, Dynasties was wonderful, telling complex stories of the animal kingdom with beautiful photography.

BBC

8/10 3) Killing Eve

It’s unusual for a TV writer to attract more attention than the stars or director. Perhaps the world is changing. Or perhaps it’s simply that the writer of Killing Eve was Phoebe Waller-Bridge, star of Fleabag, Star Wars and one of the country’s outstanding new talents. Here she turned her hand to a spy thriller, an adaptation of Luke Jennings’ novels about a beautiful assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and the MI6 agent given the task of hunting her down, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh). Both leads demanded attention: Comer the magnetic murderer, Oh the harassed but brilliant spy. The script swerved between comedy, action and drama often enough to keep everyone guessing.

BBC

9/10 2) England vs Colombia

Yes, the national team have played on television in a World Cup before, but I’m including this because the outcome, an England penalty shoot-out victory, was so unusual as to count as a whole new format. At a time when we all watch things at different times, here was something unmistakably live. We watched Gareth Southgate’s men knowing that the rest of the country was, too, poised in living rooms and pub gardens, ready to bury their heads in a sofa or throw their pints in the air. No other TV programme sold as many waistcoats.

Rex Features

10/10 1) Succession

The ageing patriarch and his scheming children. Not an original concept. Trust, the drama about the last days of Getty family, proved that it was possible for a series built on this premise to have actors, scenery, direction, script, etc etc, and still somehow fall short. Succession, by comparison, felt alive. If US production values and ambition gave it its scale, its heart was dark and British. We can thank Jesse Armstrong, co-creator of Peep Show, and his all-star line-up of British writers, including the Lucy Prebble, Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett. They made the Roy family expats themselves, and you could hear the old aristocratic froideur in every withering put-down. But we cared for them, too. One of the many TV professionals I consulted for this list thought Succession was so much better than everything else this year that the top 10 should just have it listed in bold and then nine blank spaces. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s certainly at the top.

Alamy Stock Photo


1/10 10) Save Me

Lennie James’s missing-child thriller Save Me looked as though it might be a paint-by-numbers affair. Instead it was a gripping start to Sky Atlantic’s impressive run, with James taking the lead as Nelly, the womanising bum who gains a new lease of investigative energy when his estranged daughter Jody vanishes. A smart script kept us guessing right up to an ending that denied us the closure we had expected. A second series has been commissioned.

Sky

2/10 9) Cunk on Britain

How much you enjoyed Philomena Cunk’s history of Britain depended on how funny you find Diane Morgan’s resting confused face. I find it hilarious. Her interviewees are kind of in on the joke but clearly briefed to take it as seriously as possible. They’ll be mid-flow and she will cock her head and drain all the interest from her face. “What’s the most political thing that’s ever happened?” she asked Robert Peston, who did his best to answer with a straight face. Co-producer Charlie Brooker’s fingerprints are everywhere in the way Morgan’s vain, poorly informed, easily distracted Cunk operates within a ruthlessly satirical production, which sends up the tropes and cliches of every dodgy documentary and history programme. She might not be the comic creation we need, but she is the one we deserve right now.

BBC

3/10 8) Sally4Ever

You either love Julia Davis or think her sick filth ought to be banned. Sally4Ever proved yet again that there is nobody working today – or at least nobody with the same platform – with a blacker sense of humour. Sally (Catherine Shepherd) was already surrounded by monsters: her loser of a boyfriend (Alex MacQueen) and tricky colleagues played by Julian Barratt and Felicity Montagu. Then Emma (Davis herself) arrived, a tornado of sex and bad intentions. Beneath the shagging, drugs, excrement, manipulation and malice were pockets of tenderness, but you had to look pretty hard to see them. Luckily there were also gales of laughter. N.b. If you have yet to see it, please do not watch it with your parents or children on Boxing Day and then write in to complain.

Sky

4/10 7) The Little Drummer Girl

This was a spiritual successor rather than a sequel to The Night Manager. It was still a Le Carré adaptation on the BBC sprinkled with famous faces, but the differences were as pronounced as the similarities. Park Chan-Wook, the Korean auteur, directed with a high sense of style. Florence Pugh was dazzling as the ingenue actress Charlie, recruited for a dangerous mission across Europe, ably supported by Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Shannon as her spook handlers. Some viewers switched off after the first episodes, which took time to set the scene. They missed out on a vivid, beautifully told thriller.

BBC


5/10 6) A Very English Scandal

Hugh Grant… can act? That was the first surprise in this smooth, stylish BBC retelling of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal. He burst convincingly out of the charming fop mould he has slept in so comfortably for thirty years. What have we been missing all this time? The other shock was remembering how recent it all was. The government is still up to a lot of nonsense, but the days of this kind of cover-up, for these reasons, is surely over. Or is it?

BBC

6/10 5) Patrick Melrose

Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels have the kind of precisely drawn interiority that makes any kind of adaptation seem doomed to fail. Instead, the Sky Atlantic series brought them convincingly to life. It is not a happy tale. In flashback we saw Patrick’s childhood in the shadow of his monstrous father David (Hugo Weaving), and the decades of self-loathing and substance abuse that followed. At the centre of all this was Benedict Cumberbatch, as good as he’s ever been. His Patrick could be brilliant, witty, cruel and pitiful, sometimes in the same smack-addled sentence. Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh as David’s wife Eleanor and Pip Torrens as his ghastly friend Nicholas Pratt all put in memorable performances, too.

Sky

7/10 4) Dynasties

At an age where most of us are long past doing anything, David Attenborough is still changing our expectations of what a nature documentary can do. Like The Rolling Stones, he has been on his farewell tour since about 1970, but unlike Jagger & Co, the returns are not diminishing. Is he fuelled by anger at the world’s response to climate change? Or simply driven by some massive internal dynamo, a soul-quest to improve our ability to relate to penguins? Whatever the motivation, Dynasties was wonderful, telling complex stories of the animal kingdom with beautiful photography.

BBC

8/10 3) Killing Eve

It’s unusual for a TV writer to attract more attention than the stars or director. Perhaps the world is changing. Or perhaps it’s simply that the writer of Killing Eve was Phoebe Waller-Bridge, star of Fleabag, Star Wars and one of the country’s outstanding new talents. Here she turned her hand to a spy thriller, an adaptation of Luke Jennings’ novels about a beautiful assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and the MI6 agent given the task of hunting her down, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh). Both leads demanded attention: Comer the magnetic murderer, Oh the harassed but brilliant spy. The script swerved between comedy, action and drama often enough to keep everyone guessing.

BBC


9/10 2) England vs Colombia

Yes, the national team have played on television in a World Cup before, but I’m including this because the outcome, an England penalty shoot-out victory, was so unusual as to count as a whole new format. At a time when we all watch things at different times, here was something unmistakably live. We watched Gareth Southgate’s men knowing that the rest of the country was, too, poised in living rooms and pub gardens, ready to bury their heads in a sofa or throw their pints in the air. No other TV programme sold as many waistcoats.

Rex Features

10/10 1) Succession

The ageing patriarch and his scheming children. Not an original concept. Trust, the drama about the last days of Getty family, proved that it was possible for a series built on this premise to have actors, scenery, direction, script, etc etc, and still somehow fall short. Succession, by comparison, felt alive. If US production values and ambition gave it its scale, its heart was dark and British. We can thank Jesse Armstrong, co-creator of Peep Show, and his all-star line-up of British writers, including the Lucy Prebble, Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett. They made the Roy family expats themselves, and you could hear the old aristocratic froideur in every withering put-down. But we cared for them, too. One of the many TV professionals I consulted for this list thought Succession was so much better than everything else this year that the top 10 should just have it listed in bold and then nine blank spaces. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s certainly at the top.

Alamy Stock Photo

In the first series, Phil and Edith’s plans to run off (or at least, shuffle off) into the sunset, and escape to the Mediterranean island of Gozo, were scuppered when the latter’s son, 49-year-old man-child Roger (Jason Watkins) left his family and moved back in. In the Christmas special, Roger is as obliviously irksome as ever, attempting to haul a preposterously large Christmas tree into his mother’s modest home, a farce accompanied by a plinky-plonk score. This is Roger’s entire plotline. It’s still too much Roger.

Phil, meanwhile, during a sudden break from the show’s low-stakes brand of comedy, sees his dead wife Celia reflected in a bedroom mirror. He seems remarkably unfazed by the apparition. “Does it have to be like that?” he asks her. “I mean, it’s a bit of a cliché.”

As they natter away, the couple’s cleaner, Mrs Gale (Anne Reid, doing a bad Cockney-adjacent accent) overhears, and concludes that Phil is losing his marbles. Low-key chaos ensues. A scene in which Wendy (Roger’s ex-wife, played by Rosie Caliero) and Sandra (a typically brusque Joanna Scanlan) are discovered hiding in Phil’s wardrobe and attempt to lie their way out of it – by pretending that Wendy was trying to cure her claustrophobia – provides one of the episode’s few chuckle-worthy moments.

Later, Phil casually announces to Edith, “Something odd happened; I discovered Wendy and Sandra in the wardrobe.” Edith doesn’t believe him, and suggests that it might be a good idea for Phil to “go and see someone”.

Just as you start to wonder if the tale will take a dark, gaslit turn, the episode ends. Nothing is resolved. It is as if the writer (Charles McKeown, Oscar nominated for Brazil, which he co-wrote with Terry Gilliam) put down his pen midway through crafting an hour-long special, decided that half an hour would do, and shoved in a heart-warming Christmas singalong to end things instead. It’s ridiculous, nonsensical and harmless.

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