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Philip: Prince, Husband, Father, and A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint

Benjie Goodhart / 15 December 2021

Archival footage and talking heads offer a look back at the life and legacy of the late Duke of Edinburgh on ITV, and BBC Two sees a return to the traditional Christmas ghost story with MR James' The Mezzotint.

A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint
A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint, BBC Two. Nisbet (Nikesh Patel), Williams (Rory Kinnear), Garwood (Robert Bathurst).)

Philip: Prince, Husband, Father, Tuesday 21st December, 9pm, ITV

It’s not been a vintage fortnight in our household. We had managed to stay resolutely Covid-free throughout the pandemic, in spite of having two kids at school. But a couple of weeks ago, my wife and daughter tested positive, and two days later, I did the same. None of us were particularly ill, thankfully – although we all lost our sense of smell and taste, which is surprisingly tedious – but it was particularly galling, because the period in question included my wife’s 50th birthday. Not to mention a long-awaited spa weekend at a luxury hotel, WITHOUT THE KIDS!!!

As far as missing out on milestone birthdays goes, however, it was nothing on the Duke of Edinburgh. For so long a feature of public life, it seemed he would go on forever, so when he passed away in April just eight weeks before his 100th birthday, it felt like a real blow. In yet another fairly grim year, it would have been nice to have something to celebrate. And it would have answered the age-old question – would he have received a telegram from his missus on his birthday.

Now, as the end of 2021 approaches, we have this hour-long documentary from ITV, distilling a lifetime of public service into 60 minutes of archive material, talking heads, and interview footage with the Prince himself. And it is a suitable, albeit brief, tribute to a life lived to its fullest, and one dedicated to the service of his wife and his nation.

The story is a familiar one, particularly to anyone who has watched The Crown. There are no major revelations here – we don’t discover that the Duke of Edinburgh was secretly The Stig, or moonlighted at weekends as the fellow inside the Mr Blobby suit on Noel’s House Party. Instead, this is a respectful look at a serious and dedicated man, and one who was often badly treated by the press.

Among those interviewed are royal correspondents and authors like Penny Junor, Wesley Kerr and Roya Nikkha, friends of the Duke, including Gyles Brandreth and Martin Palmer and – for absolutely no discernible reason – Joanna Lumley. I bow to no-one in my adoration of Ms Lumley, but the level of insight she is able to offer here is roughly similar to what you’d get from a corgi – and at least the corgi would have met him.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating look through the archives, charting Philip’s extraordinary life, encompassing his eccentric childhood, his glittering naval career, his adjustment to the role of royal consort, his relationship with his children, and his extraordinary work ethic in aid of the causes he espoused.

His grandfather, the King of Greece, was assassinated before he was born. When he was a young child, his parents were exiled from Greece, and forced to live in ‘relative’ poverty in Paris. His parents separated, and his mother had a breakdown, and was institutionalised. It was, by any standards, a difficult childhood.

Nevertheless, from the fires of adversity was forged a man with boundless energy, a zest for life, and an incontrovertible sense of duty. His own experiences of exile made him realise that a monarchy has to adapt and stay in step with its people, and as such, he was the driving force behind modernising the royal family. He was the first royal to understand the importance of television, presenting a documentary in 1957 and becoming the first member of the family to be interviewed on TV, in 1961.

The programme does not shy away from the occasional hiccups in his relationship with the rather more sensitive Charles, or from his occasional gaffes, and it even touches, albeit obliquely, on the rumours of a marital rift in the 1950s. But overall, this is a sober, respectful and appropriate memorial to a man whose record speaks for itself, and who dedicated his entire life to serving his country.

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A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint, Friday 24th December, 10:30pm, BBC Two

Christmas telly is undeniably feelgood, which is no bad thing, considering the world appears to be heading, once again, to hell in a handbasket. At the time of writing, omicron seems to be doing its damnedest to stick a large, Covid-shaped spanner in the festive works – I never thought I’d feel quite so much animosity towards the Greek alphabet. But it’s worth remembering that we have done all of this before, and we can do it again, and we’ll come out the other side, probably a bit fatter, but definitely stronger and more appreciative of life for the experience.

In the meantime, thank heavens for Christmas telly, with all of its ridiculous happy endings and relentless festive cheer.

That said, who doesn’t like a bit of grit in their oyster? Actually, nobody likes grit in their oyster, but you get the idea. And Mark Gatiss has been providing just such grit for a while now, in the form of his Christmas ghost stories on the BBC. This is his fifth such offering, an adaptation of M R James’ classic story, written in 1904.

Edward Williams (the consistently brilliant Rory Kinnear) is an academic, and curator of a University museum. He is also the possessor of a rather marvellous moustache, which is not germane to the plot, but is worth noting nevertheless. He is sent a mezzotint, an artwork engraved onto a copper plate, which he initially dismisses as being a rather indifferent picture of a grand house and its sweeping lawn.

However, when one of his colleagues examines the print that evening, he disagrees, saying that the moonlight is well done, as is the figure who seems to be just emerging from the undergrowth onto the lawn. This is a surprise to Williams, who professes to have noticed neither the moonlight nor the figure in the picture.

I will say no more about the plot, because I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but what follows is a gloriously sinister half-hour of television, featuring satisfying turns from luminaries including Frances Barber and Robert Bathurst. It is, of course, ludicrously silly – it’s a ghost story after all – but silly in an enjoyable, atmospheric, skin-crawly sort of a way. And for those of you who think you are familiar with the story, Gatiss has added a magnificently sinister twist at the end.

I also loved the fact that the whole thing was over and done in 30 minutes. In an era when film-makers seem determined to make everything more grandiose and exhaustively long, having a neat, self-contained mini-drama lasting half-an-hour makes a welcome change. And, on Christmas Eve, there will be other matters to attend to, particularly for those of us with small people and stockings to consider.

Which brings me to the final aspect of genius relating to this programme. Many of you will be familiar with the difficulty of getting enough shuteye on Christmas Eve. The problem is that the children, in a state of high excitement about the day to come, have a habit of coming down at least five times during the night, to check if it’s time to get up. (Note to children: 2:30am is definitively NOT time to get up). So I suggest that, this Christmas Eve, you sit down with them to watch The Mezzotint. They will, of course, be scared rigid. But they’ll then spend the rest of the night lodged firmly underneath their duvet, too terrified to move. Admittedly, there may be some long-term psychological scarring, but you’ll have had a lie-in on Christmas Day. It’s all about priorities, right?

The bestive, the festive, and the restive:

Saturday 18th December

Strictly Come Dancing – The Final, 7pm, BBC One: It’s been a vintage, and ground-breaking, series of the long-running light-entertainment staple this year, with John Whaite and Johannes Radebe the first all-male couple, and Rose Ayling (partnered by Giovanni Pernice) the show’s first deaf contestant, both making it to the final, where they will compete against AJ Odudu and Kai Widdrington. It should be a memorable finale to a fabulous series.

Madonna at the BBC, 9pm, BBC Two: Interview and performance footage from the popstar over four decades, from her first appearance on Top of the Pops in 1984. Followed by a screening of Desperately Seeking Susan.

Paul O’Grady’s Saturday Night Christmas Line Up, 9:30pm, ITV: the scouse comic is joined by guests Joan Collins, Julian Clary, Paddy McGuinness and Sunetra Sarker for festive chat, games and silliness.

Sunday 19th December

Sports Personality of the Year, 6:45pm, BBC One: Gary Lineker, Alex Scott, Gabby Logan and Clare Balding round up a remarkable sporting year that has seen the Olympics and the European Championships, before awarding the coveted trophy to (presumably) Emma Raducanu.

The Royal Variety Performance, 7:20pm, ITV: Alan Carr presents proceedings live from the Royal Albert Hall, with an array of performances from pop stars, West End musical casts, and comedians.

The Girl Before, 1/4, 9pm, BBC One: Stripped over the next four nights, this disconcerting psychological drama follows a creepy architect (played by David Oyelewo) who rents out a modern, minimalist house to two women, at different times, on different timelines. But does he have an ulterior motive? Co-starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jessica Plummer.

Beauty and The Beast: A Pantomime for Comic relief, 9pm, BBC Two: An all-star cast, led by Lily James, Guz Khan, Sian Gibson and Miranda hart, come up with their version of a classic fairy story for the whole family.

Michael Bublé’s Christmas in the City, 10:15pm, ITV: Some delightful Christmas crooning from the Canadian great, who will be joined by a host of special guests.

Monday 20th December

Mary Berry’s festive Feasts, 7:05pm, BBC One: The culinary legend helps three novice cooks prepare special festive meals for their respective mothers.

Christmas University Challenge 1/10, 8:30pm, BBC Two: The annual celebrity version of the academic quiz gets underway, with alumni from the University of Edinburgh taking on their counterparts from Leicester University.

Cruising with Susan Calman 1/2, 9pm, Channel 5: The diminutive Scot, always an enjoyable screen presence, helms this two-part series about cruising around Norway and up into the Arctic Circle.

Tuesday 21st December

Celebrity MasterChef Christmas Cook-Off 1/4, 8pm, BBC One: Some of the more memorable celebrities to have taken part in the cookery competition return to the MasterChef kitchen one last time for another crack at victory. Tonight’s celebs are Su Pollard, Joey Essex, Judi Love and Neil Ruddock.

Wednesday 22nd December

The Great British Celebrity Sewing Bee 1/2, 8pm, BBC One: Yet ANOTHER celebrity special, this time in the Sewing Bee studio, where new host Sara Pascoe welcomes competitors including Rev Kate Bottley and Anneka Rice.

The Hairy Bikers Go North for Christmas, 8pm, BBC Two: Dave and Si get all festive – does that mean tinsel on their bikes? – as they prepare some Christmas delicacies. Which is all well and good, but Roast Pork for Christmas dinner? Really?

Our Victorian Christmas, 9pm, Channel 5: One brave family moves into an authentic Victorian house to experience Christmas as it would have been 150 years ago, complete with candles on the Christmas tree (yikes!)

Thursday 23rd December

Blackburn Sings Christmas with Gareth Malone, 8pm, BBC Two: The brilliant choirmaster turns his eyes to the staff of the Royal Blackburn Hospital, the focal point for an area badly hit by Covid. As he forms and trains a choir among the staff, he hears tales of community and selflessness.

Ghosts Christmas Special, 8:30pm, BBC One: The consistently brilliant sitcom returns for a one-off festive treat, with Christmas once again approaching at Button House. But who is the strange homeless man with the long white beard living in the garden? Guest-starring Jennifer Saunders.

Friday 24th December

Royal Carols: Together at Christmas, 7:30pm, ITV: The Duchess of Cambridge hosts a carol service from Westminster Abbey. Should be just the thing to get the Christmas spirit in full working order!

Top Gear: Driving Home for Christmas, 8:30pm, BBC One: Christmas high-jinx from Paddy McGuinness, Freddie Flintoff and Chris Harris, including making delivery of a very large Christmas tree, and a round of Secret Santa with a difference.

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