Graphic Ripper spin-off finds a certain balance
So, it's the Sunday evening between Christmas and New Year; all the visitors have gone on their merry way and it's finally time to collapse on the sofa with the last of the pink port and an appointment with some gentle, unchallenging drama... or perhaps not.
There was nothing gentle or unchallenging about Ripper Street (BBC One); it kicked straight in with a very bloody street fight and the discovery of a woman's mutilated body spread-eagled in a nearby Whitechapel back alley.
That's hardly surprising, of course, given that this is a fictional spin-off of the Jack the Ripper story, set in 1889 when the killer had apparently ceased his murderous assaults on London's prostitute population.
What did shock was the very graphic imagery, not only of carved-up bodies, but a link to extremely violent early pornographic movies.
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In other hands it could all have been a bit smutty and distasteful, but Ripper Street triumphs from being character-led, tightly plotted, excellently staged, well-balanced, and delivered by a very strong cast.
I quickly warmed to Matthew Macfadyen as the smart and decent Detective Inspector Reid, a rather mature, beat-up looking Jerome Flynn as his loyal sidekick, and Adam Rothenberg as his maverick American surgeon pal, Captain Homer Jackson, with Clive Russell popping in as the retired police chief who thinks the Ripper is back.
In spite of its dark, sometimes brutal nature, this first of an eight-part series had the strangely comforting feel of an edgy Western, transported to the Victorian East End. More, please.
Seeing the new year in with Jools's Annual Hootenanny (BBC Two) is almost as much of a tradition for British music lovers as counting in the bongs of Big Ben. My ideal way to spend Hogmanay would be at an eclectic live gig just like this, but in the absence of such luxury in these parts, Jools's party makes a welcome substitute – even if it is recorded months in advance. This time he had harnessed, arguably, his most extraordinary line-up to date, a menu that touched a myriad veins of contemporary music. It spanned proper veterans – Petula Clark still hitting the notes, the dear Dubliners, Bobby Womack (with Damon Albarn on piano), revivalists like Adam Ant, Roland Gift and Dexy's Kevin Rowland (whatever were they all wearing?), shining chanteuses Paloma Faith, Emeli Sande and Ruby Turner, through to burgeoning young guns like Jake Bugg and Lianne La Havas, with the pipes and drums of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards heralding in 2013 with traditional precision. It did all go on a bit long, though – two-and-a-half hours is pushing it for TV viewers, Jools.
On New Year's Day I managed to catch a delightful story on Nature's Weirdest Events (BBC Two) with the knowledgeable and enthusiastic Chris Packham. The concept is bit of a hotch-potch of random film clips, detailing odd animal behaviour, but he hit on one gem with an account from the frozen wastes of extreme north America where a wild polar bear made a lasting friendship with a pack of huskies. The dogs' owner, who uses them for sled driving, keeps them on long chains outdoors on the edge of the water. One day a big bear strolled in across the ice, intent on a doggy supper; but when the husky responded with a submissive stance, the scene transformed instantly with the pair tumbling and scuffling in a joyful play fight, all captured on camera. The scene is now repeated annually, with the bear bringing his friends, and the whole husky pack joining in. Aaaaahhh.
Miranda (BBC One, New Year's Day), just gets crazier and better as it matures. Sadly, the same can't be said for Midsomer Murders (ITV1, Wednesday) which is so unforgivably weak and predictable without John Nettles that it's not even worthy of that soft Sunday slot. Time to put it out of its misery, methinks.