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Miriam’s Dickensian Christmas review – Margolyes is as punchy and rich as a boozy pudding

The lifelong Dickens fan is an absolute joy to watch when she’s reading from his work – and at one point you’ll wish she was our queen. But this show needed more fury about poverty

Finding the festive spirit … Miriam’s Dickensian Christmas. Photograph: Channel 4

Miriam Margolyes does not like Christmas. It’s the expense, the stress, the hypocrisy: “People buying presents for people they don’t like, with money they don’t have.”

The excess is obscene, she says – these days, it’s all about Christmas jumpers and John Lewis adverts. “When it comes to Christmas, I wonder if I am a bit of a Scrooge.”

It wasn’t part of her Jewish childhood, though she remembers her mother did cook a turkey and invite people round. Can, then, a ghost of Christmas past – her beloved Charles Dickens and the template he set for the season of goodwill – get her feeling festive for a Christmas future, and find the joy in a Christmas present? Miriam’s Dickensian Christmas (Channel 4) is one such attempt.

I should say that I adore Margolyes, and would watch her doing pretty much anything. This programme, though, is like a cracker with a disappointing bang and a bit too much tat inside. Which is not to say it’s all bad. It’s a great idea for a show, and Margolyes is a lifelong and knowledgable Dickens fan. I loved her reading from A Christmas Carol, punchy and rich as a boozy pudding. When she visits his house in Doughty Street, now a museum, and sits at his desk in the room where he wrote Oliver Twist – the first of his works she read aged 11 – she is overcome with emotion. “Why does it make me cry? Because my whole life has been irradiated, delighted and enriched by this man,” she says.

I could have done with triple helpings of Margolyes on Dickens. Instead, we got a bit about Victorian food – mock turtle soup made from a calf’s head, mainly for the ick factor (“it’s revolting,” says Margolyes, eyeball to eyeball with the skinned, tongue-lolling horror). Then a visit to Pollock’s toy museum, where they still make cardboard toy theatres of the type the Dickens children had (this bit was charming, actually). And Margolyes did some crafting, making “Dickensian” decorations out of a bit of paper and some ivy. “I think it looks fecund and festive,” she proclaims, somewhat over-generously.

Back at the museum, Margolyes is shown a lost portrait of Dickens, which neatly brings us on to child poverty in the writer’s time. Its artist, Margaret Gillies, also illustrated a damning report into child labour, which described children as young as four working in mines. “Some are so young, they go in their bedgowns,” reads Lucinda Hawksley, a descendant of Dickens. “Margaret Gillies told Dickens about this when she was painting his portrait, which inspired him to write A Christmas Carol.”

Dickens, who had grown up in poverty – as a child, he worked in a shoe polish factory – never forgot what it was like to be poor, Margolyes points out. I know it’s meant to be fun and festive, but this programme could have gone deeper at a Christmas when food banks are overrun and families are choosing between heating and eating. It doesn’t feel enough to reel at the obscenity of a £1,000 box of crackers at Fortnum & Mason – “What about all those that don’t really have that much?” wonders Margolyes – when Dickens’s book is all white-hot fury at the treatment of the poor.

There’s more later, once Margolyes hosts her first Christmas lunch (no mock turtle soup here) with surplus food collected and cooked by someone from the Felix Project, a charity which cooks food for those in need using food that would otherwise go to waste. “It’s incredible that we waste all this food, and yet 400,000 children in London every day don’t have a proper meal,” says Leon, the charity’s head chef. Dickens would have approved, says our host, sitting at the head of the table, wearing a crown, and not for the first time making me think how great it would be if Margolyes were queen.

Has she discovered some festive spirit? Well, she enjoyed her party, and she is reminded of Dickens’s “message of hope and redemption, and above all, to be kind.” Not that it appears she’s wholeheartedly taken this on. She remembered those childhood Christmas lunches her mother invited lonely people to, who Margolyes describes as “boring” and “sort of lame ducks.” For true Christmas spirit, maybe she should have looked closer to home.


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