As you might expect with a Jack Rosenthal script, there are so many sparkling dialogue moments scattered throughout the episode. But it also contains a very downbeat story thread which won’t be resolved until the New Year. Ena’s daughter, Vera, is terminally ill (Ena knows this, but Vera doesn’t).
The episode opens with Elsie attempting to push a little more food into her already stuffed friend, Dot (Joan Francis). Dot tiredly declines before Elsie moves on to contemplate a sausage lying on the floor. “You know there’s been a sausage lurking underneath that table just before dinner time. He knows I’m not going to shift it and it’s not going to shift itself so we’re just sitting here, staring each other out”. Dennis’ first stab at a fancy dress costume for tonight’s contest (Biggles) is good for a laugh.
It’s heartbreaking to watch Ena attempt to care for Vera, but the mood is lightened when Minnie turns up (she’s come dressed as Old Mother Riley). I love the way Minnie enthusiastically recites Christmas is Coming when she’s on the other side of the Vestry door. Once Ena opens it and Minnie claps eyes on her stern face, the singing gradually tails off ….
Any Ena/Minnie interplay is always welcome, although this brief scene is the only time they meet during the episode. The way that Violet Carson could machine-gun through her lines so rapidly is something that never fails to impress. A good example of this is when Ena caustically wonders why Minnie has decided to go to the party dressed up as her own mother.
A visit to the Ogdens is always a Christmas treat. There’s Stan, puffing away on a large cigar without a care in the world, whilst Hilda does all the work (although heating up frozen food possibly wasn’t the most taxing chore ever). Meanwhile their daughter Irma (by now married to David Barlow) delights in sitting on the sidelines, sniping at both her parents whilst David attempts to act as a peace-maker.
As the episode progresses more fancy dress suspects turn up. Len and Jerry as Batman and Robin raise a smile – especially for the way a bashful Jerry attempts to hide his costume under a mac (leaving a perplexed Jack Walker to wonder if they’re actually wearing anything underneath). Len stirs the pot by saying they’ve got nothing on but fig leaves ….
Ken, as Lawrence of Arabia, appears to be narcissistically proud of how dashing he looks, whilst Val is a fairly sedate Nell Gwynne. Hilda hasn’t made much of an effort, instead she spends her time sniping at Elsie, who’s sporting a suitably vampish outfit. Dennis also comes dressed as Batman, so there’s a brief Bat-off between him and Len.
Pride of place has to go to Annie though. She arrives quite late, but doesn’t disappoint – as Queen Elizabeth I she’s impossibly regal (perfect casting for Mrs Walker). As Elsie says to Len: “I don’t think she’s pretending. I think she’s always been Queen Elizabeth dressed up as Annie Walker.”
Who will be judged best in show? By the way that Annie casually calls the whole contest just a bit of fun, you can just tell that’s she’s incredibly keen to walk away with the prize (inconsequential though it is). So when Jerry is declared the winner it’s no surprise that she begins to storm out, sporting a face like thunder.
But all is well when Annie is then awarded a prize as the best dressed female (all her bonhomie comes flooding back). She quite happily shares her spoils – a box of liqueurs – and harmony is restored.
This is a lovely one. As touched upon before, it zings with so many incisive lines (we can forgive director Michael Apted for the way microphone booms often pop into shot – given the production treadmill, it often happened). Although most of the episode is very light, the spectre of Vera’s illness does cast a pall over proceedings, even though it’s only a minor plot-thread today.
In years to come, a death would be grist to the Christmas soap mill. It’s interesting to observe that back in 1966 it wasn’t something which was allowed to interfere with the optimistic post-Christmas tone.