Gary Raymond finds a surprisingly low-key come-back in the Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special.
The overnight figures are in, and 11.5 million people cannot possibly be wrong. The Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special has its place in history, doing something most TV execs had thought was a thing of the past, or even a myth handed down from tribal elders, harking to stories of times when families would gather around the television after the turkey was ransacked and the sherry cork was popped. But apparently there is still room in the hearts of the British public for the unifying TV festive special, something the generations who grew up with helpings of …Fools and Horses and Morecambe and Wise took for granted. Gavin and Stacey has managed to do something politicians have pretended to want to do all year, and that’s bring the country together.
Of course, this is only really true if you consider the country to be only 11.5 million people full. But the will/love of the people is something to be claimed rather than proved. Nobody needs everyone in order to profess unity. And so the BBC are very happy with the impressive stat, the best Christmas Day viewing figures for a single show in a decade. Another entity that is equally as happy, but one certainly less tangible, is that of Team Wales. Team Wales is a nebulous secret society that works out of the old underground Torchwood set in Cardiff Bay, and its main purpose is to pretend Wales is a global superpower. It doesn’t matter to Team Wales that the success of Gavin and Stacey, at least in part, has always been in the portrayal of Welsh people as simpletons. The exception, of course, is writer Ruth Jones’s now iconic character of Nessa, to many a sharp-tongued no-nonsense modern woman who knows how to get what she wants, but who is in actual fact just an updated version of the Welsh slag found in the slanderous Blue Books of the nineteenth century. Stacey herself is little more than an airhead, a glassy-eyed Barry Island cardboard cutout. Other Welsh characters don’t quite have that same depth. One saving grace is that the creators of Gavin and Stacey have always seemed to have the same affectionate contempt for cockneys as they do for the Welsh.
Here we have the same old faces back in their spots, almost entirely unmoved as characters, apart from some unavoidable children added to the mix who seem here like the inconvenient result of earlier plot points. But other than that Gavin and Stacey has no interest in trying out anything new. Not a step is made to trace outside the lines. And that may be why it is ultimately such a damp squib. No great cameos, no great set pieces, no outrageous heights, and no heart-wrenching lows. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever that is special about this Special.
It is strange that a show as hotly anticipated by an army of people still cawing “Wasss Occurring?” to each other all these years later, is such a disappointment. There was genuine excitement about its return, and some of the main figures involved in the show have now gone on to much bigger things off the back of it. Ruth Jones herself has become something of a matriarch of Welsh comedy, one of those celebrities who if Wales could give people a key to the country would have had it by now. Rob Brydon is a ubiquitous light entertainment presence, and is undoubtedly one of the few people in that current televisual landscape who never outstays his welcome. James Corden, of course, has conquered America and now does carpool Karaoke with the likes of Michelle Obama. (It is notable that Corden, hitherto one of the most obnoxious faces on television, gives a subtle, understated, and quite sweet performance in this Christmas special).
In fact the two who have really failed to use Gavin and Stacey as a springboard to greater things are the eponymous lovers. Hardly surprising, given the startling lack of charisma in both roles, and here their story is the least interesting. The spark has gone out of their marriage, as it has for much of the rest of the show. There are a few cracking lines (the towels like Ryvita, for instance), and the last thirty seconds have some heart, but as a climax to a show that’s been gone for so long, it’s hardly the fireworks a fan might have hoped for.
The Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special is, overall, decidedly undercooked. There is a moment when we think we might finally find out what happened on that fishing trip between Bryn and Jason, but the confession is scuppered by nagging kids. But the sad thing is, we don’t care anyway. Elsewhere, as the show continues its peculiarly dated relationship with queer issues, Bryn and Nessa duet at Karaoke on “Fairytale of New York”. In a wink at subversiveness, Bryn, of whom it has been constantly insinuated is a closet homosexual since episode one all those years ago, is given the “faggot” line to sing, originally Kirsty MacColl’s lyric. It is a strange moment, when it seems the show’s creators are trying to say something, but what it is remains unclear. Is it about Bryn? Is it about censorship? Is it about language? Is it about working class attitudes to LGBTQ issues? Whatever it is, it is half-hearted, half-baked, and the message, water it might be, is lost. The vultures of Twitter have given the show a good pecking around this subject, and they have a point. But rather than homophobic, the moment feels symptomatic of a show that has come from a place of lukewarm enthusiasm for the project as a whole from the people at the centre of it. It’s difficult not to feel Jones and Corden, the co-creators and writers, are up for the nostalgia trip but ultimately have more important things to be getting on with. The show has no new ideas, nothing new to say about the characters. That is partly because the characters were flimsy to begin with, but perhaps it also has something to do with Team Wales’s greatest failing, and that’s a problem with shouting out that our emperors are sometimes in the buff.
The Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special is available now on BBC iPlayer.