Small-Screen Jabber 16-22 December

Drama

feud bette joan

The enmity that existed between two of Hollywood’s leading ladies is well known, but Feud: Bette and Joan (Sat, BBC2, 9pm) is a gutsy dramatisation of what happened when Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – at loggerheads for years already – were both cast in trashy 1960s horror flick Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? You guessed it: the atmosphere was poison, with the behind-the-scenes bitchiness threatening to destroy the production. Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange play Davis and Crawford, backed by a cast just zinging with A-listers – Stanley Tucci, Catherine Zeta Jones, Alfred Molina, Kathy Bates and more. It was nominated for 18 Emmys, and is being broadcast here in four double episodes that crackle deftly with camp, glamour, gender politics and emotional pain. In among the acres of seasonal fluff to come, this is undoubtedly the finest original drama on offer this Christmas.

shamed

The damage wreaked on personal lives by social media is explored in Shamed (Tues, C4, 9pm). Nathan (Nick Blood) is about to get married, so when he comes to in a grim basement handcuffed to a chair, he thinks it’s a stag party joke. That is until Sarah (Faye Marsay) turns up with James, her second kidnap victim. Sarah is out to avenge the pair, who humiliated her teenage self a decade earlier by posting mobile phone footage online. They must both understand and pay for what they did and the pain it caused her. Unexpectedly timely, in the wake of so many allegations of sexual abuse by men to women, it’s a little patchy and not fully formed, but its merit lies in trying to tackle the issues raised about how social media reduces accountability and responsibility, and reflects gender inequalities.

Factual

judi dench my passion for trees

Judi Dench has planted a memorial forest in her back garden in Surrey and it’s dedicated to actor friends who have passed away – a new tree is planted each time. In Judi Dench: My Passion for Trees (Wed, BBC1, 8pm), she explains how she began this very personal project with her late husband Michael Williams and why trees have fascinated her since she was a child. This charming documentary also moves beyond Dench’s garden, where she meets assorted experts who use the latest scientific tools to reveal secrets, such as how trees communicate with each other.

Current affairs

I’m popping Word of the Year (Sat, C4, 6pm) in this section, because the selections so often reflect the shifts in both politics and society. This year’s winner has already been announced as youthquake, defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”, but the rest of the shortlist – including broflake, antifa, hatfish and milkshake duck – will be dissected by Jo Brand, Sara Pascoe and other comics, while vocabularist Susie Dent oversees the debate.

putins revenge

There’s not much new about the story so far of Russian cyberhackers targeting western democracies, but Putin’s Revenge (Fri, 9pm/10.15pm) is a compelling examination of Russia’s president came to view the USA as an enemy and decided to destabilise it. The focus of this two-parter (showing back to back) is the 2016 presidential election that propelled Donald Trump into the White House. There’s some incisive in-depth reporting from Moscow and Washington, D.C. and this documentary also draws on the investigations by the FBI and Congress into the role Russia played in the election, and features dozens of interviews with diplomats, intelligence officials, political leaders, journalists and primary sources.

Music

Controversial Irish stadium rockers U2 put in an exclusive performance in U2 at the BBC (Tues, BBC1, 9pm), which was filmed at the legendary Abbey Road studios. They perform some of their biggest hits, backed by a live orchestra and choir, plus new tracks. There are also some (blandish) interview segments with Cat Deeley, who goes on tour in Brazil with the four Dubliners, in which they talk about playing to 3 million fans and how they feel about their 40-year career.

fairytale of new york

For many people it’s the definitive Christmas song, so while The Story of Fairytale of New York (Wed, BBC4, 10pm) is a repeat from 2007 it’s well worth tuning into discover how the Pogues teamed up with Kirsty McColl to create this 30-year-old classic. Ten years ago, all eight members of The Pogues returned to the studio where they recorded it with Steve Lillywhite, who was McColl’s husband, to discuss how they made it. Also revealed is the background to the video, which nearly saw the band arrested until cameo star Matt Dillon stepped in. Nick Cave and Jools Holland contribute, while Richard E. Grant narrates.

Comedy

the league of gentlemen

Twenty years on, the return of The League of Gentlemen (Mon-Wed, BBC2, 10pm) is a real treat, with Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton reprising their various multiple characters who inhabit the surreal world of Royston Vasey. There are three episodes to relish this week.

Entertainment

Star Wars fan? Then tune into the BBC’s Star Wars Night (Thurs, BBC4, from 8pm). It kicks off with the John Williams Film Prom (first shown earlier this year), which includes a good chunk of tunes from the franchise. Tribute is paid to the UK’s immense wealth of behind the scenes talent in The Galaxy Britain Built: Droids, Darth Vader and Lightsabers (10pm)- a look at the costume and set designers, the props specialists CGI experts. Lastly, Hollywood’s Master of Myth: Joseph Campbell – the Force Behind Star Wars (11pm) looks at the visionary writer whose stories inspired the films.

Christmas cheer

the alternativity

Graffiti artist Banksy and film director Danny Boyle have teamed up to create a different take on the Christmas story in The Alternativity (Sun 17th, BBC2, Xpm). After Banksy opened his Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, in Israeli-occupied territory, he decided to stage this in the town square, said to be the birthplace of Jesus. Boyle follows Banksy over a six-week period as he recruits Palestinians to help create the show, and deals with multiple security restrictions to make it all happen. The result is a challenging and provocative production that reflects the tensions in modern Israel.

If you’re still stuck for ideas for next week’s big feast, Jamie’s Italian Christmas (Tues, C4, 8pm) may inspire you. Roast potatoes done in balsamic vinegar is a twist too far for me – he does better with Italian classics like porchetta and a tiramisu I’d happily pay to plunge my face into. Plus he’s on hand with ideas for jazzing up the turkey.

jamies italian christmas

And you can’t really have Christmas without a glass of fizz, as Ab Fab actors Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders attest in Joanna and Jennifer: Absolutely Champers (Thurs, BBC2, 9pm). The pair like a bottle of the Bolly off-screen as much as on, and here they head to France’s Champagne region, glass in hand aboard the Eurostar, to learn how it’s made. It’s a bit of light-hearted fun at best as you won’t learn a huge amount about how to pick the best bottles on a budget, but the pair have great off-screen chemistry and it’s hugely entertaining.

Sport

Johanna Konta, Lewis Hamilton and Anthony Joshua are the top three contenders for Sports Personality of the Year (Sun, BBC1, 6.45pm). Realistically, Konta’s unlikely to win after a dip in form following her meteoric rise up the tennis rankings, while Hamilton is seen as too divisive, so my money’s on the heavyweight boxer. Clare Balding, Garry Lineker and Gaby Logan present live from the Echo Arena in Liverpool.

Louise Bolotin is Screenjabber’s TV critic. She has a penchant for quality drama and quirky documentaries, slums it with EastEnders and pities people who watch reality TV, which might be why she never writes about The X Factor.

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