Bend me over ...

backwards on me Hostess trolley, writes Gary Day, who waxes lyrical about Victoria Wood and Botticelli

December 31, 2009

I hope we don't have to wait another year before seeing Victoria Wood on television. Her Midlife Christmas (BBC One, Thursday 24 December, 9pm) was a joy. It made me forget, for one blissful hour, snow, Santa and how much the daughter's present had cost.

One of the best sketches was a parody of those adverts promising to teach you a foreign language. "Always wanted to talk rubbish but don't know how? Well, now you can become fluent in pointless banter in a matter of hours."

There followed a picture of a blonde struggling to master such essential phrases as "tell me about it", "don't even go there" and, of course, the indispensable "at the end of the day". "Don't you think that's funny?" I asked the daughter, who was busy on MSN. "Yeah, whatever," she grunted.

Wood's own linguistic invention was at its most brilliant in Let's Do It, probably her best-loved song. It draws all the elements of her comedy together: wit, bathos and an unmatched observation of ordinary life. She is Philip Larkin with a sense of humour. The song is about a middle-aged couple, Barry and Freda. You imagine them living in a semi-detached house because they are semi-detached from life and each other.

She wants sex, he doesn't. And she won't take no for an answer. Barry's increasingly desperate excuses as Freda becomes ever more insistent are a treasury of evasions. My favourite is his pathetic: "I'm imploring: I'm boring. Let me read this catalogue on vinyl flooring." It rhymes, it's funny and it captures the spiritual desolation of a vanished sexuality.

The song was dedicated to all the middle-aged couples who have been together a long time, and for whom the spark may have gone out. "No, of course that doesn't apply to us my darling. Did we not 'roll in gay abandon on the tufted Wilton' only 18 months ago? How time flies." Victoria had altered some of the lyrics to take account of important advances in science, like Viagra, but it would take more than that to get Barry up and running.

We saw him on the sofa with Freda. He wore a brown zip-up cardigan, she a pale blue housecoat. They were like a pair of cushions. As the song started they began to shift from side to side. The next moment they were on their feet. And then they were in the studio, with lots of other Barrys and Fredas, doing a Busby Berkeley tap routine in bright blue underwear as Victoria bounced excitedly up and down on the piano stool. Barry cut some moves that suggested that the "rafters" may yet "ruck". A splendid way to end a splendid show.

Most of Christmas Day was spent trying to avoid a boy who wanted me to play on his Wii. But you can't stay locked in the toilet for ever. I tried bribing the daughter. Gadgets are more her thing. She was having none of it. "He's 11," she said slowly and contemptuously. It all seemed a long way away from the Christmas message.

For that you had to watch Private Life of a Christmas Masterpiece - The Mystic Nativity (BBC Two, Friday 25 December, 6pm). It was John Ruskin who gave Botticelli's painting its name because of the strange inscription at the top. A chance glance at a catalogue in the National Museum of Rome showed that it derived from one of the sermons of Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican priest and leader of Florence who preached against art and luxury. The three kings, for example, are shown without their crowns and nor are they bearing gifts.

But it is the painting's beauty that gripped the talking heads. There must be something wondrous about it, for they all seemed deeply moved by the image. Luke Syson of the National Gallery seemed dazed, as if he had danced with the angels in the painting. They circle around underneath the entrance to heaven. It is a graceful, golden, sweetly uplifting picture, one of the most rapturous works of Western art. And yet there are premonitions not just of Christ's death but the end of days. The sheet on which the infant Jesus lies is like a burial shroud while devils shrink in terror as saints fill the sky.

It was an absorbing history of one of Botticelli's last great paintings, a moment of quiet contemplation amid crass celebration. The same could not be said of The Story of Slapstick (BBC Two, Saturday 26 December, 10.15pm). "It's as old as television itself," chirped narrator Miranda Hart. Still, she can't be blamed for the script. About a third of the programme was taken up with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer hitting each other with frying pans. Sadly, they didn't do any permanent damage.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

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