Going crackers in a cage


TVReview: If our Christmas viewing did anything for us this year - and, to be honest, it didn't do a great deal - it reminded us that there is always someone less fortunate than ourselves during the festive season, like Mary O'Rourke, or Fluffy the Hamster, or, indeed, Mike Baldwin.

All three featured in our carefully selected Christmas Day viewing this year, a schedule that was intended to be jolly, frothy and uplifting, one that would, perhaps, take our minds off the rather testy reaction we received from the parents of the child to whom we had given a chemistry set. "But she's only three months old," they had quibbled, as if it's ever too early to commence learning.

Alas, our viewing schedule proved as much of a let-down as those Christmas crackers we got free with a tank of petrol; it failed to go off with a bang. And, ultimately, the combined experiences of Mary, Fluffy and Mike left us feeling as despondent as we did on bygone Christmas Days when we used to watch The Snowman and ET.

Both The Snowman and ET are, incidentally, now on our banned Christmas television list, largely because of the annual pain they inflict. It never helped that we knew it was inevitable, once the thaw set in, that the Snowman would melt - the sight of his hat and scarf in a puddle of slush always set us off, the tears reaching the flood stage when that tune struck up again at the end. And as for the moment ET says to Elliott "I'll be right here," well . . . we'd be fit for nothing.

Mary O'Rourke, too, has unhappy Christmas memories, although she sensed there might be trouble ahead after her first meeting with Santa, a surly, grumpy individual who, she suspected, really didn't like children. After that, she told TG4's Bréagáin (Toys), Christmas proved to be one big disappointment. "I wasn't a mad doll person," she said, revealing that all she ever wanted was a pair of skates - with ball bearings. "I wrote a very passionate note to Santa asking for them," she said, but then she overheard her parents discussing whether or not Mary-on-skates-with-ball-bearings was a good idea. Her mother was firmly against it. "She's awkward, she'll surely fall off them," she said. Her father agreed.

"So Christmas came and there were no skates with ball bearings," said O'Rourke, who, evidently, is still feeling the pain. "I can actually feel the aching here," she said, pointing to her heart, "that I didn't get the skates, then or now - although obviously I wouldn't get them now." If they'd any heart at all the folk who populate Seanad Éireann would have a pair of skates with ball bearings waiting for O'Rourke in her locker when she returns from her holidays. Only then would the wound heal.

Mercifully the Taoiseach has happier Christmas memories, not least from the year he asked for a farm. He didn't quite get the real thing but he was content enough with the wooden toy version he received. "It was my favourite toy," he said, "I had it for five years." He didn't explain what happened it after that, but he may have sold it on - those, after all, were pre-Common Agricultural Policy days, so without the subsidies his farm may not have been economically viable. Or else his herd of cattle got woodworm.

ANOTHER GUEST FONDLY reminisced about her favourite childhood Christmas present, a doll made out of a potato. Maybe we're misjudging the youth of today but we're taking a guess here that Santa's elves weren't snowed under this year with requests for similar gifts. As the dog waiting outside the pub for his master on Christmas Creature Comforts pointed out: times have changed somewhat.

"The three kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus - frankincense, gold and myrrh - not PlayStation, iPod and I don't know, I can't think of a third one," he said.

It was on Creature Comforts that we came across Fluffy the Hamster, a clinically depressed hamster. Pinned to the side of his cage, because his drunken owner had shoved a giant Christmas cracker through the bars, Fluffy was asked if he had a Christmas message for the world. He did. "Don't worry," he said, "it's only going to be for a week or so, and then you can forget all about it till next year."

By now our Christmas viewing was leaving us as disconsolate as Fluffy, our spirits hardly raised by the predicament of the two unfortunate Creature Comforts bats whose glasses of champagne had a habit of emptying when they hung upside down from the mantelpiece. This was a source of considerable frustration for them but they couldn't quite work out how to solve the problem. Gravity truly is a curse when you're a bat. And then there was the melancholic fox who told us he hoped one day to "recover his love" for Christmas but it just didn't mean as much as it did when he was a cub. And with that he despondently began searching in rubbish bags for some grub. It was another hat and scarf in a puddle of slush/"I'll be right here" moment for our list.

ANY LIGHT RELIEF on Coronation Street? Certainly not. Clearly the scriptwriters have decided if they can't beat EastEnders they should attempt to mimic their habit of making their Christmas Day episodes gloom-laden. And so, Coronation Street on Christmas Day concluded with the sight of Mike Baldwin sitting on the steps of his knickers factory in tears. We could explain why Mike was upset, but you probably wouldn't want to know.

Meanwhile, Carol got drunk at Christmas dinner and proceeded to loudly address her ex-husband's second wife and current girlfriend as "Tart Number One" and "Tart Number Two". Very Christmassy.

Back on the Street, Cilla's oven broke down so she attempted to deep-fry her turkey in the local chipper, resulting in the building being burnt down. Those of you who don't soap-watch now know what you're missing.

What you always get, however, in a soap on Christmas Day is a pregnancy announcement, and this year we had two. Claire told Ashley the good news on Coronation Street, leaving him gobsmacked (which is how he looks at the best of times), while over on EastEnders Sharon accused Dennis of giving her food poisoning with cheese that was past its sell-by date, only to discover when she went to hospital that she was, in fact, pregnant. This came as a surprise to both Sharon and Dennis because she had been told years before that she couldn't have children. Initially Dennis was elated, but having given impending fatherhood some thought, he now seems to wish it had, after all, been food poisoning.

IF DENNIS REGARDS fatherhood as one of The Worst Christmas Jobs In History he should have tuned in to the programme of the same name on Channel 4 on St Stephen's Day. Tony Robinson took us through a list of deeply unpleasant festive tasks people have had to perform over the years - eg playing the back end of a cow in pantomimes - but Prof Ray Laurence's offering beat all: the "puke collector".

Saturnalia was party time for the Romans, a succession of riotous drunken feasts that lasted for a week. Did the Romans, therefore, invent binge drinking? "Well, yes," said Laurence, bringing a whole new meaning to the term "What The Romans Did For Us".

"They developed drinking on an empty stomach for the first time, in the first century AD," he explained, before feeling the need to share with us the fact that "when the drinking got started, the slaves, the 'puke collectors', had to run around clearing up . . . In some households, the man would go for a pee and dry his hands on the hair of the slave," he said.

THIS, ACTUALLY, IS the level of behaviour HRH Günter Grun expects from the Irish, and not the Romans. In his Christmas Message to the Irish nation on Setanta, Günter (aka Barry Murphy) had some harsh words for us. "The land of saints, tribunals and stenographers now trades in deceit and fraudulence and the currency is greed," he said. "The man of the year was clearly the consumer watchdog who, when explaining the rip-off Republic, showed the people of Ireland just howto do it better. And he was everywhere. It truly was an annus hobbilis." In fairness he eased up as he drew to a close, offering us this warm tribute: "The levels of bejanieness and jiggery pokery in government, business, the church, the police force and beyond are in some ways inevitable in a nation of inbred, scheming, self-serving pixie-heads like yourselves, but in the long term what do you gain by not indicating at roundabouts?" A reasonable question, you have to admit.

Hillary Fannin is on leave