CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Enough mammoth binges, give us nuggets of TV gold

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews the Boxing Day TV: Enough of the mammoth binges, give us nuggets of pure TV gold

Detectorists Special

Rating: ****

Death In Paradise Christmas Special

Rating: **

The problem with Christmas is that it all comes at once. All those presents and food, crammed into a mammoth binge.

Long after you’ve had enough, when you’d far rather spread it out a bit, you’re obliged to keep going. And that applies to the telly. too.

On the basis that more is better, Christmas TV specials are always too long. On the day itself, Santa delivered an hour-and-a-half of Call The Midwife, another 90 minutes of Doc Martin, and a full hour of EastEnders — which really does go against the natural order.

The excess continued with Detectorists (BBC2), writer and director Mackenzie Crook’s hymn to the English countryside. This charming portrait of an awkward male friendship was perfect as a series of half-hour episodes, but the main run ended five years ago.

Crook and Toby Jones star as Andy and Lance, a couple of middle-aged history buffs whose favourite pastime is to potter across a fallow field with metal detectors, hoping for buried treasure

In half-hour doses, I could watch Detectorists for ever. Scattered through the script like pottery fragments are clever little jokes, waiting to be found

The prospect of a new mini-series, spread over three weeks, would have been a real splash of festive joy. Instead, the whole story was condensed into a single 75-minute special, which was simply too much of a good thing.

Detectorists has always been one of those shows that, if you’ve never seen it, doesn’t sound like much. Crook and Toby Jones star as Andy and Lance, a couple of middle-aged history buffs whose favourite pastime is to potter across a fallow field with metal detectors, hoping for buried treasure.

Andy is a gentle soul, married to a perpetually exasperated schoolteacher (Rachael Stirling).

Lance is a bachelor, fussy and a little bit pompous, with some surprising depths that he keeps well hidden. The two are happiest when sitting under a tree, comparing notes on the latest round of University Challenge, but the disagreeably emotional business of life keeps intruding.

In half-hour doses, I could watch Detectorists for ever. Scattered through the script like pottery fragments are clever little jokes, waiting to be found.

When Lance and his daughter Toni (Rebecca Callard) peered into a briefcase containing pieces of holy gold, their faces were illuminated by the glow — like gangsters John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction.

And when the boys decided to alert archaeologists to their latest find, Lance remarked on, ‘all that history under the Bodie and Doyle’ — rhyming slang for soil.

‘We ought to call in the professionals,’ agreed Andy. You’ve got to be a certain age to get that joke. The story was shot through with lovely glimpses of animals, insects and flowers — and rounded off with an insight into Biblical history (unless it was just a daydream shared by Lance and Andy).

Death In Paradise (BBC1) committed the same mistake, stretching its perfect hour-long format by 30 minutes and thus losing much of its fun and tension

Death In Paradise (BBC1) committed the same mistake, stretching its perfect hour-long format by 30 minutes and thus losing much of its fun and tension. These Caribbean mysteries rely on momentum to propel us. The plots are so silly, the mechanisms of murder so improbable, that it isn’t safe to stop and think about them.

As long as there’s another twist or a piece of slapstick, with detective Neville (Ralf Little) falling over his own feet, we are carried along. But this story, about a little boy who wandered off in search of Santa on Christmas Eve and disappeared, started going in circles, with repetitive flashbacks.

Les Dennis was unrecognisable as a charlatan psychic with his hair painted black, and the best character — callous ‘true crime’ podcaster Siobhan McSweeney — was bumped off far too soon.

And thanks to wholesale changes in the police station, Don Warrington’s grumpy commissioner is the only familiar face left. Death In Paradise looks to be on its last legs.

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