Defining Roles – Gillian Anderson

h_1359557531_2821001_58468169f0 For the second in my series of Defining Roles posts, after starting with Benedict Cumberbatch, I wanted the next post to focus on an actress who I’ve admired for most of my life and who continues to do brilliant and varied work and that’s Gillian Anderson. So…here are my ten defining roles of her career so far.

1. Dana Scully – The X-Files (1993 – 2002 & 2008) ldn2pzy7ixv1yzin

It’s the role she is most recognised for and a character that I so admired as a teenager, so Special Agent Dana Scully still sits at the top of Gillian’s roles for me. Not the studio’s desired choice for Scully, but championed by Chris Carter, this was her first mainstream television role. Taking on the role at 24, who’d have imagined it would still be so iconic 20 years later! We were able to see Gillian grow as an actress over the course of The X-Files, in a role that allowed her to play so many emotions, from the sceptical scientist, to the more open minded Scully of later seasons. She was such a strong female character and I certainly grew up admiring her intelligence and determination and that’s all down to Gillian. I’ve selected my favourite episodes here.

2. Lily Bart – The House of Mirth (2000) Gillian-Anderson-and-Eric-Stoltz-in-The-House-of-Mirth

I was very excited to see this on its release and thankfully my local art house cinema was showing it. It is a rather tragic story, as we see Lily go from the high levels of society to losing everything she knows. However what still impresses me years later is Gillian’s performance. She is fantastic as Lily, playing her naivety and vulnerability perfectly and I admit I shed a tear by the end.

3. Blanche DuBois – A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic Theatre, 2014)

Gillian Anderson is superb as Blanche This production of Tennessee Williams’s play is one of my highlights of the theatre year (read my full review here) and Gillian deserves all the praise and awards she is already receiving for her role as Blanche. We see Blanche slowly spiral out of control over the course of the play and as her character gets more and more desperate, Gillian gives absolutely everything to achieve an incredibly moving performance. If you are able to see an encore cinema screening or the upcoming Broadway run, then you shouldn’t hesitate.

4. Lady Dedlock – Bleak House (BBC TV, 2005) Lady-Dedlock-gillian-anderson-667007_300_436

Outside The X-Files, this is possibly the role in the UK that brought Gillian wider respect and recognition as an actress. I certainly had family and friends who never watched her as Scully but were impressed by her performance as Lady Dedlock in this Dickens adaptation. Her history is somewhat a mystery throughout, slowly being revealed piece by piece and her desperation and heartbreak are very believable. I must rewatch this drama again soon.

5. Det. Stella Gibson – The Fall (BBC TV, since 2013) The Fall

Series one of The Fall was a highlight of 2013 television, despite being pretty damn scary. I admit to fast forwarding through some of the scarier moments, but I certainly had to keep watching for the fantastic Stella Gibson. She is quite a mystery and unlike many female characters in drama at the moment. I loved her strong, independent attitude and although nervous about catching up on series two, wouldn’t miss learning more about her.

6. Miss Havisham – Great Expectations (BBC TV, 2011) article-0-0EE5E7B900000578-76_634x809

Another Dickens classic adapted for the BBC saw Gillian taking on one of his most famous characters, that of Miss Havisham. Although a younger version than I’ve seen before, Gillian brilliantly captures her madness and despair. This was also where she met Vanessa Kirby (who plays Estella) and it was wonderful to see the pair reunited to play sisters in Streetcar this year.

7. Nora – A Doll’s House (Donmar Warehouse, 2010) Gillian-Anderson-in-A-Doll-s-House-gillian-anderson-6310128-1200-1657

I’d been longing to get a chance to see Gillian on stage and finally had my first opportunity in 2010 when she was cast in this Ibsen play. With a great cast including Toby Stephens and Christopher Eccleston and in such an intimate venue (only 251 seats), Gillian brings Nora to life superbly. She is both childlike and playful, but also secretive and eventually far stronger than you think her capable of being. Not as impressive a performance as Streetcar, but it clearly highlighted Gillian’s growing confidence on stage.

8. Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier – Hannibal (NBC, since 2013) 9b46567a2bc5411861f6d4dd2e1f56f8

I’ve still yet to watch series 2, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first year of Hannibal and was thrilled when Gillian joined the cast as Dr. Lector’s own psychiatrist. She plays the part so well, never giving too much about herself and her past away, while still giving you a sense of her history with Hannibal. I’m looking forward to catching up on what happens to her in advance of series three starting next year.

9. Loretta Lee – The Mighty (1998)

Gillian-in-The-Mighty-gillian-anderson-9580341-1280-768 I still have a soft spot for this indie film, which was one of Gillian’s first roles after The X-Files made her a more well known name. It’s only a small role, but Loretta is certainly memorable and as the film was relatively well received, gave her more credibility in these earlier years of her career.

10. Dana Scully (The Simpsons: The Springfield Files – 1997)

tumblr_n3oxb2JsLp1rn3d69o1_500 For my final choice, I had to include this Simpsons cameo by David and Gillian as Mulder and Scully. It demonstrated at the time just how popular The X-Files had become and it’s a fantastically funny episode, which allows Gillian to show another side of her acting talents, with some comedic and deadpan voiceover work.

So that’s my list. Is there anything you would have included in yours?

Coming next – another actor whose career I have followed for a long time now – David Tennant.

Film review – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) – One last trip to Middle Earth!

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So, we have finally reached the end of our magical journey in to the world of Middle Earth as imagined by Peter Jackson. I was very excited to see this Hobbit finale – The Battle of the Five Armies, but this was also mixed with a feeling of sadness that this will be the last December when I can look forward to a new Peter Jackson/Tolkien film. After adoring all three Lord of the Rings films, An Unexpected Journey had felt a little underwhelming two years ago but I’d loved The Desolation of Smaug and so had high hopes that this final hurrah would be the pinnacle of a truly incredible filmic achievement that began over a decade ago.

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Smaug descends on Lake-town

The Battle of the Five Armies wastes no time in picking up where the last film ended, as Smaug sweeps in to Lake-town to wreak death and vengeance on the townsfolk. The sequences of the destruction of the town are incredibly impressive as the full power of the dragon is witnessed. There are also some wonderful human moments, as Stephen Fry’s horrid Master’s cowardly escape is contrasted with the bravery of Bard as he races to try and honour his ancestors in destroying Smaug. I admit I was a little surprised just how quickly this part of the story is tied up (don’t expect lots of dragon in the film) and I would’ve quite liked a bit more of Smaug than we get here. Benedict Cumberbatch is great again and the visual effects and artists involved in creating such a real and frightening creation should be very proud indeed.

Dragon dispensed with, the main thrust of this final film begins, as Thorin begins to be consumed by the “dragon sickness”, becoming more and more distrusting, dark and twisted by greed, as all forces in Middle Earth set their sights on the wealth of the mountain (both monetary and geographically). What is referred to in just a few pages in the third from last chapter of the book by Tolkien, the battle between the armies of elves, dwarves, men, orcs and eagles, becomes a hugely spectacular visual feast in the style we have grown accustomed to in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films.

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The forces of evil march on the Lonely Mountain

We see huge swathes of land covered in marching orcs and evil creatures and the graceful, fluid army of Thranduil, who seem to move as if one entity, as everything comes together at the base of the Lonely Mountain. It’s incredible to watch and an impressive combination of visual effects, live action and sound as we see the biggest battle of all six films unfold. However, for me, although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I did find myself missing some of the awe I had in 2002 and 2003 on seeing the Battle of Helms Deep and the Battle of Pelennor Fields for the first time. Perhaps I have become so used to Jackson’s spectacle and the high quality he achieves that it cannot quite stun me the way it used to. However I cannot imagine anyone else bringing such sequences to the screen.

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One of my favourite scenes – the fight at Dol Guldur

The vast amount of the film is based on the action sequences and battles and I felt there was a less emotional core than there had been in Desolation of Smaug. However there are some wonderful character moments throughout. Martin Freeman has grown in to the role of Bilbo as the films have gone along and his performance is a lovely one, as Bilbo witnesses Thorin’s dramatic change, feels the conflict of what best to do and steps up to show more bravery than he (or anyone else) ever thought him capable of and his last few scenes in the film are wonderful to see. Luke Evans is also fantastic as Bard, who becomes the inadvertent leader of the Lake-town survivors, showing bravery, honour and true leadership. He also has some brilliant stunts in the film (that made me think of both Aragorn and Legolas in the original trilogy).

Orlando Bloom’s Legolas feels a bit lacking for me. I loved him in Desolation, but a few of his fight scenes here felt a bit too ridiculous for me and can’t live up to those of a decade ago. Personally, I hadn’t really invested much in the love story between Tauriel and Kili, which still lacks something for me, but the actors play their scenes well and it’s fantastic to see Evangiline Lily fiercely taking on the orcs. Ian McKellen is, as usual, super as Gandalf the Grey and one of my favourite scenes of the whole film is at Dol Guldur, as we see Radagast, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel come to his aid against the growing darkness of Sauron. I wish this thread of the story had been longer, as the scenes were exciting, impressive visually and incredibly dark and creepy, with superb performances, setting up what we know is to come in The Lord of the Rings.

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Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)

Then there is Richard Armitage as Thorin, around whom the film is weaved, as we see him lose himself completely to greed and selfishness in the early part of the tale, which reminded me very much of Bernard Hill’s Theoden when under Sauron’s spell in The Two Towers. The scene in which Bard attempts a negotiation with him is beautifully framed through the hole in the gates of Erebor and Armitage gives a very theatrical performance throughout, particularly as Thorin disappears in to his mind, before regaining his sense of who he is and his honour and the character certainly needs an actor of his calibre to make him believable.

Throughout, the other character of Middle Earth is as glorious as ever and that’s Howard Shore’s iconic musical scoring, which perfectly captures all the moments of the film and add to the scale and emotion. It’s hard to imagine this world with any different soundtrack.

Overall, this film is a wonderful farewell to an adventure in Middle Earth that began for me, like many others, in December 2001. I’ll never forget how awestruck I was by the opening prologue to the Fellowship and the incredible cinematic moments that followed in the original trilogy. For me, The Hobbit, although a gorgeous piece of film, can’t quite match the mastery of The Lord of the Rings. However, The Battle of the Five Armies is a fitting end to Peter Jackson’s team’s work, in bringing more of Tolkien’s world to life. It has incredible battle sequences, while still hitting the emotional beats that make you care about the characters you have grown to know so well. Plus the ending is a perfect way to bring the films full circle and it made me want nothing more than to go home and watch The Fellowship of the Ring! Decembers certainly won’t be the same without these magical films and I’m very jealous of anyone who is yet to experience them for the first time!

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is now on general release in the UK and opens in the United States on 17 December and you can watch the trailer here.

A Doctor Who Christmas – Looking back at the Christmas episodes of New Who.

DOCTOR WHO Christmas Invasion

Christmas is coming and in 2005 a new festive British tradition was born, which is now a staple part of Christmas Day – the Doctor Who Christmas Special! I honestly cannot imagine the day without it now, as the Doctor always brings an added magic and fun on a day all about families being together. I have to say though, some years I have been left feeling rather disappointed by the seasonal trip in the TARDIS. So as we get ever nearer to Peter Capaldi’s first Christmas as the Doctor, I thought I’d look back on the Christmas stories of New Who and rank the ten episodes we’ve seen so far. I wonder where Last Christmas will fit in this list? I’m looking forward to finding out!

1. The Runaway Bride (2006)

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For anyone who has read my choice of festive television episodes, you’ll be unsurprised to see that my top choice for the Doctor Who Christmas episode is The Runaway Bride, in which we first meet Donna Noble. At the time we couldn’t have predicted that Catherine Tate would return, but what made an impression on me when I first watched this was how fantastic the chemistry was between David and Catherine. They bounced off each other effortlessly. It’s also filled with magical moments – the TARDIS on the motorway (complete with superb score from Murray Gold) is a particular highlight of mine. It was also always going to be difficult to handle the Doctor’s first adventure after losing Rose and having this follow immediately when he is still grieving was a lovely choice, as we see how wounded he is and the end moment as he says “Her name was Rose” gets me every time. I’ll definitely be watching this again this month.

2. The Christmas Invasion (2005)

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A very close second is the first Christmas Day special of New Who, in which we were properly introduced to David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. It’s one of Russell T Davies’s best episodes for me as it has the perfect balance of comedy, emotion, action and scary moments (well for children not me). It’s fun to have Jackie and Mickey involved (especially being attacked by a Christmas tree!) and quite bold to have the focus of the episode be on Rose, while the Doctor sleeps. Only once there is no hope left does the Doctor appear to save the day – and in his pyjamas too! In a short space of time we see this new Doctor is full of exuberance, is flirty, funny, but capable of taking a more serious stand if required. It left me very excited for a new era.

3. The Snowmen (2012)

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The Snowmen is by far my favourite of the Christmas specials under Steven Moffat and quite honestly was a relief after a few years of disappointment. The Doctor is yet again struggling to deal with the loss of close companions after we said farewell to Amy and Rory, but through this story his sense of who he is is reawakened by the bold, feisty Clara Oswald. Victorian era Clara is such fun and more than a match for the Doctor and their rapport is wonderful. We also see some gorgeous images – the TARDIS on a cloud and the Doctor and Clara climbing the stairs to reach it is lovely. It’s also a great story, with a brilliantly scary monster in the form of the Snowmen (an inspired choice for winter time!) and Richard E. Grant is suitably creepy. Plus we even get Ian McKellen’s voice too! I sincerely hope Last Christmas is at this end of the scale of Moffat Christmas episodes.

4. The Voyage of the Damned (2007)

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It may get a fair amount of criticism but I quite enjoy the 2007 festive offering, which pulled in the highest ratings for New Who (with an impressive 12.2 million viewers tuning in on the day alone). I was certainly intrigued to hear Kylie Minogue was to guest star and I thought she was a fun addition to the story. Astrid’s cheeky personality and bravery were ideal for a companion and you could have imagined her and the Doctor having great adventures together, but it wasn’t to be. Yes, it’s a bit too similar to The Poseidon Adventure (more so than Titanic despite the ship’s name), as the survivors make their way through the crippled vessel, but the ensemble are fun to watch and David Tennant is on fine form (at a time which personally must have been very difficult for him after the loss of his mother). Plus we get our introduction to one of my favourite characters of New Who – Bernard Cribbins’s Wilfred Mott. It’s funny to think that not even the cast and crew at the time realised what that character would go on to do!

5. The Unquiet Dead (2005)

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Not a Christmas Day special, but technically the first Christmas episode of New Who is this trip by the Ninth Doctor and Rose to Victorian Cardiff! We also get our first historical TARDIS trip of this new era and Charles Dickens was a wonderful place to start. Simon Callow is perfect in the role and I loved seeing the Doctor be genuinely excited about meeting one of his idols (similar to when he first arrives at the Globe in series three). There are some lovely moments between the Doctor and Rose, as their bond grows ever stronger and Eve Myles makes her first appearance in the Doctor Who universe (it’s great this is referenced later in series four’s finale). This is still Mark Gatiss’s best Doctor Who story in my opinion.

6. The End of Time (2009)

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In 2009’s festive season we said farewell to the Tenth Doctor in this two part, bonkers story. It’s by no means the best story of New Who and I did find the duplication of The Master a bit ridiculous and the Naismiths rather wooden and dull. However, despite its weaknesses, there’s still so much I love about The End of Time. First and foremost the acting by David Tennant and Bernard Cribbins is first class, raising the story to a higher level. All their scenes together are incredibly moving and beautifully written. John Simm also does a great job as the resurrected, totally insane Master and his stand off against the Doctor in Part One is a great scene. I think Part Two is better than Part One for me, as the stakes are raised before the Doctor sacrifices himself for Wilf and although I know some people are frustrated at the multiple endings, I think it’s a great way to say goodbye to the team of Tennant/Davies and Gardner. Plus, as someone lucky enough to get to watch the filming of the Doctor’s final trip to Rose’s estate one cold night in May 2009, it will also always conjure up happy memories for me!

7. The Next Doctor (2008)

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My least favourite of the Russell T Davies Christmas era had to be The Next Doctor. There is much to enjoy here I know. David Morrissey is excellent as Jackson Lake, the would be Doctor, as we see his sense of fun and adventure as well as his vulnerability as he remembers his own past. It’s also lovely to have him and David Tennant acting together again (I’m a big Blackpool fan) and they clearly loved making this episode. Their final scene at the end of the story is truly lovely and one of my highlights of New Who. However, despite the positives, I’m just not a fan of Dervla Kirwan’s performance as Miss Hartigan, which I find rather weak, which only gets worse once she becomes the Cyber Controller. Throw in the ridiculous giant robot and I always feel that I have swapped channels to a Power Rangers episode! Not the worst but definitely not the best.

8. A Christmas Carol (2010)

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A new era of Christmas specials began in 2010 with the first offering from Steven Moffat and Matt Smith. On original transmission I was incredibly disappointed by this story, although it has grown on me after a few repeat viewings over the last four years (and possibly due to other festive offerings annoying me much more!). Matt Smith is fantastic here, coming down the chimney covered in soot, having fun with the young Kazran, marrying Marilyn Monroe and facing off to Michael Gambon (who is also a brilliant Scrooge-like character). For me though, Katherine Jenkins is a bit of a weak link in terms of acting ability and I also couldn’t really take the singing to a shark conclusion seriously (it had the same effect on me as the giant robot did two years before).

9. The Time of the Doctor (2013)

I will always be angry about The Time of the Doctor, as for me it’s one of the worst episodes of New Who and Matt Smith deserved much better for his final story. I preferred the Tenth Doctor, but I still loved Matt and thought his Doctor was a wonderfully quirky interpretation, who suffered from too many weak stories during his time in the TARDIS. Why do I dislike this so passionately? It just seems to be a jumble of scenes that don’t really fit together and too many plot strands hanging in the air for years were “tied up” in a couple of sentences by Tasha Lem!! It felt very rushed and lacking in thought. Also did we really need another strong, older woman, with whom the Doctor had a flirtation so soon after River Song? There are some lovely moments between Matt and Jenna, including the initial phone call and her return to Christmas at the end (although why on earth their lovely cracker scene had to have Murray Gold’s Four Knocks playing over it I do not know, something else that annoyed me!) and the last ten minutes are fantastic as we see a Doctor thrilled at regenerating, before the beautifully poignant goodbye by number eleven to Clara, Amy and the audience and our introduction to Peter Capaldi. However an episode where I could skip the middle 30 minutes should not have been Matt’s finale.

10. The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe (2011)

Although I am probably more angry about entry nine above, 2011’s special had to take the bottom spot, as it is in my opinion the weakest of all the Christmas episodes. I liked the idea of climbing through an object in to a snowy woodland (although I guess I have C.S Lewis to thank for this rather than Steven Moffat), the little boy Cyril is wonderfully played by Maurice Cole and never fails to make me smile and Matt is on fine form as the Doctor. However the story is very weak and wooden (and that’s not just the boring trees), with inclusions that seem unnecessary, for example, the rather pointless cameo by Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir’s team preparing to spray the forest and by the end I just didn’t really care. I certainly hope Peter Capaldi’s first Christmas outing is a lot better than this!

So that’s my order of Christmas New Who. I’m curious to know how similar / different it is from yours!

My Top Television Christmas episodes

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Photo from: electricsistahood.com

So to mark the start of December, I selected my favourite festive films, those that it wouldn’t feel quite the same without. Following on from that, it also occurred to me how many of my favourite television shows have featured some lovely episodes set at Christmas. This certainly seems to be something US shows do far more than UK ones (well except soaps) and although they can be overly sugary, there are some which are perfect entertainment for this time of year.

So, here are my favourite ten Christmas episodes of some of the television shows I return to again and again.

1. In Excelsis Deo – The West Wing (series 1, 1999)

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This series one episode remains one of my favourites of the whole series (you can read my full list here) and it’s certainly, for me, the best festive episode of The West Wing as well. There is the comedy of President Bartlett wanting to go Christmas shopping, the sweet scenes between Josh and Donna as she hints at gifts and then receives one from him that is an early demonstration of just how much they care for each other. Then there is Toby, who becomes determined to honour a deceased veteran who received his donated winter coat. It’s writing of the finest kind and full of all the elements Christmas should be.

2. The Runaway Bride – Doctor Who (Christmas Day 2006)

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The Doctor Who Christmas Special is now a staple of Christmas Day television and although more recent ones have been lacking for me, there are earlier ones that I return to again and again no matter the time of year. Above all the others, my favourite is The Runaway Bride, in which we first meet Donna Noble and a wonderfully comedic partnership is born, although back then I never expected she’d be back! It’s a bonkers story but this is Doctor Who after all, but more than that the acting of David Tennant and Catherine Tate is superb as their chemistry is so clear. Also, it’s more than a comedic hour, as David so beautifully conveys the Doctor’s very immediate grief at losing Rose. Whether it’s his heartbroken look at watching a blonde woman dance and the truly sad ending as he is finally able to say that her name was Rose, as he chokes back a sob. It’ll take a lot for a TARDIS Christmas to beat this for me.

3. A Scandal In Belgravia – Sherlock (New Year’s Day 2012)

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I accept that not all of this Sherlock episode is set at Christmas, with the story spanning a far greater period of time. However some of the most memorable moments for me are the Christmas scenes and as a result I always think of it as a Christmas episode. As my favourite Sherlock story to date, there is so much I could say about it (maybe that’s for another post!), but the writing is Steven Moffat at his finest, weaving an intricate plot that ultimately all makes sense and reaches a satisfying end. We also get to see 221b at Christmas and how hurtful Sherlock can be when showing off. Louise Brealey is wonderful as Molly in the scene in which she comes for Christmas drinks with her gifts. It’s also a brilliant moment as we see something unheard of – Sherlock genuinely sorry for hurting someone. I do still wonder what her gift was!

4. Noel – The West Wing (series 2, 2000)

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Another festive trip to the White House, although there is little cheer here, as we see just how dark a place Josh is in following the Rosslyn shooting. It’s a phenomenal performance by Bradley Whitford (which earned him an Emmy) as Josh is forced to admit how much his near fatal experience is continuing to affect him. It also contains one of my favourite scenes from any television series, as Leo recounts the story of the man in the hole whose friend comes to his aid. If anything emphasises what friendship should be about, then this is it.

5. The Christmas Invasion – Doctor Who (Christmas Day 2005)

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It’s incredible to think now how much of a novelty and possible risk for BBC bosses giving Doctor Who a Christmas special was and Christmas Day 2005 saw not only the start of a tradition, but also the proper introduction of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. I still think Russell T Davies is better at capturing the balance of fun, emotion and action for a Christmas episode and this was a brilliant start. By having the Doctor unconscious for most of the story, we see the events from Rose’s perspective and see how she has grown over series one to be a strong force in her own right and it’s only when there is no hope left that the Doctor can return to save the day – and in his pyjamas too! The moment Tennant appears in the TARDIS doorway, confident, cocky and full of joyous exuberance is a highlight of New Who and I knew he’d be brilliant. Not only is this a fun family story for Christmas, but it also manages to move the Doctor and Rose’s relationship forward for a new series.

6. Blue Christmas – Ally McBeal (series 3, 1999)

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Ally McBeal could always be relied upon to honour the festive season, but series three’s Blue Christmas will always be the highlight for me. The usually carefree Elaine discovers a baby in a manger and falls in love, determined to keep him. Seeing her interaction with the baby is delightful and helps us to see a different side of her. Then there is the usual shenanigans in the bar, this time seeing Ally don her Santa outfit to sing a sexy Santa Baby to a stunned Richard, Billy and co! For more nostalgia about Ally McBeal, you can read my favourite episodes here.

7. How The Ghosts Stole Christmas – The X-Files (series 6, 1998)

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Probably not a series you’d expect to do a festive story, this episode of Chris Carter’s brilliant show (I’ve already selected my favourite episodes of it here) is a fun addition to this list. Fox Mulder can think of nothing more festive than dragging his partner to a haunted house in the middle of nowhere, at which pairs of lovers are rumoured to have killed themselves over the years, following the death of the original occupants of the house centuries before. What follows is a gothic, yet darkly fun story, which sees the two ghosts (played by the brilliant duo of Edward Asner and Lily Tomlin) have their annual fun, trying to convince a couple to kill each other. David Duchovny revels is playing this more crazed side of Mulder and Gillian Anderson is fantastic as Scully becomes genuinely frightened of her partner. Fun and not your usual festive television, I still love this one.

8. Nine-One-One – Ally McBeal (series 5, 2001)

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Christmas 2001 was always going to be difficult following the recent terrorist attacks and Ally McBeal’s festive offering that year managed to do its part to honour the sacrifices made in reality through the story of a town banning Christmas due to a recent accident resulting in a number of deaths in the community, including its firemen. John Cage’s speech about the need to share the love of Christmas this year clearly had a deeper meaning not lost on its audience. The episode also saw the return of Josh Groban (whose beautiful voice I only discovered through Ally McBeal) and I never fail to be moved by the final scenes as his character sings To Where You Are in church in memory of his lost mother.

9. The Office U.K Christmas Special finale (2003)

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I wasn’t a regular watcher of The Office at the time but even I remember sitting down to watch its Christmas finale. Yes David Brent is his amusing and entertaining self, but the heart of this story is whether Tim (Martin Freemen) will finally get the girl of his dreams Dawn. After so much speculation, I started to think maybe a happy ending wasn’t to be, but the lovely scene in which she opens his heartfelt gift in the taxi and then returns to the party to kiss him is one of the most heartwarming moments of television I’ve seen. We’d all love to experience a moment like this in our lives (go on, you know you would)!

10. The Christmas Show – Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2006)

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It may have only lasted one series, but I grew quite fond of Aaron Sorkin’s post West Wing series and although some episodes were a bit nuts, The Christmas Show is one of the highlights for me. Matthew Perry’s Matt Albie is determined to pull off a festive spectacular, despite the efforts of his writing staff to debunk all things Christmas, while Bradley Whitford’s Danny Tripp fights to deny his growing feelings for Jordan. The scene in which he finally declares he is falling for her is perfect for his character, as he tells her he is coming for her. It shouldn’t be romantic but for these two it just works. There is also the lovely tribute to the people of New Orleans, following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, as the musicians of that city take to Studio 60’s stage to play O Holy Night. It’s not a conventional festive episode, but I still find myself smiling by the end of it.

There are others I could have selected, including festive offerings from E.R, Brothers & Sisters, more from Ally McBeal (special mention to series 2’s Making Spirits Bright), Doctor Who (The Snowmen is pretty good) and The West Wing (particularly Holy Night and Impact Winter).

Are any of your favourites included? Feel free to share in the comments.

Defining Roles – Benedict Cumberbatch

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I had the idea for this new series of posts after reading a number of reviews of The Imitation Game, which declared Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing as the performance of his career to date. I found the comment interesting as, although I thought he was excellent, as a fan of his work for a number of years now and after perhaps having seen almost everything he has ever done, I could think of roles which, for me, were worthy of just as much attention and accolade as Turing.

So, I’ve decided to start a new series of posts, under the header “Defining Roles” in which I’ll discuss the performances of some of my favourite actors / actresses across their careers, not just on screen but across all mediums.

Therefore there seemed no better place to start than with Benedict Cumberbatch himself and below are my 10 favourite roles from his career so far. For me, these are his defining roles, as they capture the range of such a versatile actor, both emotionally, physically and tonally, but also across stage, screen and radio. I can certainly say it’s been a tough choice!

1. James – Third Star (2010)

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A simply heartbreaking role as James. Photo Source: Pogobear on Tumblr

For me, this remains the most powerful role of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career to date. With his star on the rise, it was great that he was involved in this small independent film. James has terminal cancer and has a wish to once more visit Barafundle Bay with his three lifelong friends. It’s a beautifully moving film, as we see over their journey secrets confessed, feelings addressed and how important strong friendships are in life.

Benedict superbly brings James to life, as he deals with the anger, fear and sadness at not having more time, while also being determined to treasure each and every moment he has left, with those he cares about most. It is a performance that makes me laugh and cry and appreciate the joy of true friendships. If you have yet to see Third Star, you really need to do so.

2. Stephen Hawking – Hawking (BBC TV, 2004)

It still astonishes me a decade on that this incredible performance of Stephen Hawking did not win Benedict a BAFTA (this was his first nomination). The 90 minute BBC drama takes us through Hawking’s life, from the age of 21 to the completion of his PhD on the revolutionary idea of The Big Bang two years later and was the first time I’d ever considered his life as a young man, rather than the image we all have of him as he is today. To deliver such a strong, powerful performance so early in his career should have left no one with any doubt that he would go on to be a success.

Over the course of the drama we see Hawking’s illness begin to take a firmer hold on him as he carries on with such fierce determination. Everything about this performance is impressive, its physicality, wit, intelligence and vulnerability are all so realistically conveyed that by the end I’d almost forgotten I wasn’t watching Hawking himself. I will certainly be curious to see how Eddie Redmayne’s upcoming portrayal compares to this one.

3. Christopher Tietjens – Parade’s End (BBC/HBO, 2012)

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Adelaide Clements as Valentine with Tietjens

If asked in interviews what his favourite role has been to date, Benedict himself has singled out Christopher Tietjens and I can understand why, as it’s a truly stunning character and performance by him. I’ve tried to read this novel in the past and never made it to the end (I must try again in 2015) and having it brought to life in Tom Stoppard’s incredible adaptation was fantastic.

He is not a straightforward character and through the role we see a man caught in no man’s land between old and new England and his struggle to do what is right according to his moral compass, even when at odds with those around him and possibly at the expense of his own happiness. The scene in which he describes the trenches to Silvia is heart wrenching and truly highlights how the experience affected the brave men who were there. Then there is his relationships with Silvia and the forward-thinking Valentine, with whom his chemistry leaps from the screen. Utterly beautiful from start to finish.

4. Sherlock Holmes – Sherlock (BBC, since 2010)

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Undoubtably his most well known role remains that of Sherlock Holmes, which has helped propel his rise of recent years up the Hollywood A-list. I love the show and am thrilled at both its success and the success that has followed for its superb ensemble cast. Growing up with the image of Sherlock as an old Victorian figure, Cumberbatch’s portrayal has revitalised the character for a new generation. It enables him to showcase his ability to tackle drama, heightened emotion, comedy and even action through an incredibly interesting and multi-layered character and it is certainly one of his defining roles, which I hope will carry on for years to come.

5. David Scott-Fowler – After The Dance (National Theatre, 2010)

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The superb Nancy Carroll as Joan with Benedict in After The Dance

After The Dance will forever have a special place in my heart and remains my favourite of all the theatre productions I have seen to date. It was also my first experience of seeing Mr Cumberbatch on stage and I’m so pleased I was able to see it twice over its limited run.

At its heart, the play is about love – the sadness of loving the wrong person, loving someone who you do not think loves you or to whom you dare not admit your true feelings or loving someone enough to realise the best thing for them is to walk away from them. It is this aspect of the play which has such an impact on me and very few pieces of theatre I have seen have moved me quite so much.  I still find it incredible how Benedict seems to transform into someone so much older than himself in this role. As David Scott-Fowler he not only looks older, but through his voice, mannerisms and the way he holds himself, you cannot quite believe it is the same person. The final act requires a great deal of emotion from him and he conveys it all superbly and you can’t take your eyes off him for a moment. You can read my full review here.

6. Jimmy Porter – Look Back In Anger (The Royal Court’s Playwright’s Playwrights season at Duke of York’s Theatre, 2012)

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Director Polly Stenham with the Look Back In Anger cast

Another stage role that truly impressed me and again made me appreciate the joy of live performance was Benedict’s involvement in the Royal Court Theatre’s Playwright’s Playwrights one off rehearsed reading of John Osbourne’s Look Back In Anger, in which he played the lead role of Jimmy Porter, alongside Rebecca Hall as his wife, Anna Maxwell Martin, Matt Ryan and Julian Wadham. For anyone yet to experience a rehearsed reading, the actors simply sit on the stage, script in hand and read the play, this time with only a day to prepare. There is some physicality depending on the role and the actor but no set, costume and limited props and it’s an interesting experience for anyone with a love of theatre to see.

What made this a defining role for me was that it wasn’t a role I’d imagined him playing, but yet by the end I would have signed up to fund a full production! All the cast were excellent, particularly Rebecca Hall, whose chemistry with Cumberbatch made the prospect of Parade’s End even more exciting at the time. However Benedict truly made this more than a reading. He didn’t have a bound, hardback script and was constantly on his feet, folding the pages over on his paper copy, giving as much performance as there could be, bringing a depth to the deeply unlikeable Porter. He is cruel, hurtful and treats those around him dreadfully and yet Cumberbatch was able to bring out the more vulnerable side to him as well. It highlighted yet again how talented he is and how he doesn’t need all the trimmings of a production to create very real, powerful characters.

7. Alan Turing – The Imitation Game (2014)

2014, THE IMITATION GAMEIt may not be the performance of his career for me, but his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game is still superb and worthy of the praise and attention it is receiving from critics and filmgoers alike. It is certainly a role which I cannot imagine any other actor of today being able to play.

Having little to go on as to Turing’s voice, mannerisms etc. the role needed an actor capable of creating something completely believable and true to the man being portrayed and Cumberbatch does this so perfectly. His Turing is a loner by nature, uncomfortable with social interaction and far more at ease focussing on logic and statistics. One of the skills he is always able to bring to a role is the ability to convey so much internal emotion and thought with little or no dialogue. There are moments in The Imitation Game where you simply look in to his eyes and can see everything Turing is considering, discarding, confused by or struggling to cope with and this certainly makes you care about the man himself. You can read my full review of the film here.

8. “John Harrison” – Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

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When it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch was to be the villain in the new Star Trek film there was excitement and some uncertainty as to whether he was the right fit for a blockbuster action film of this scale. I thought this film was brilliant and that his portrayal of “John Harrison” lifted its overall quality level. This isn’t just a two-dimensional villain and Cumberbatch is able to convey the rationale for his actions in such a way that the audience actually begins to understand his motivations. It’s also a brilliantly simmering performance, as you are constantly waiting for Harrison to erupt and Benedict is able to sustain this anticipation as his calm, clinical villain bides his time until his full rage emerges. A smart, mature role in a genre where you perhaps weren’t expecting it.

9. The Monster – Frankenstein (National Theatre, 2011)

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There were aspects of Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein that I didn’t like (some of the script and certain supporting characters felt weak and wooden), but the central performances by Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, combined with the clever idea to have them swap roles each day, lifted this production to be better than in lesser hands it perhaps could have been. I managed to see both versions live and although both were enjoyable, it was the “Cumber Creature” that impressed me the most and that’s a testament to Mr Cumberbatch seeing as I saw the very first preview performance. It’s always thrilling to be among the first audience to see a new play and there was certainly lots of anticipation in the Olivier that night. The role of the Creature is undoubtably the tougher of the two, requiring the actor to effectively move through all stages of life over the course of the evening.

Watching Benedict emerge from the cocoon on stage and spend the next 20 minutes convincingly embodying a newly born creature, twitching and testing its limbs and vocal chords was simply astonishing (and no that’s not because of the lack of clothes, which must have been daunting for both actors!). He achieved a difficult task in the role, in that I sympathised with the Creature and despite his later horrifying actions, was still able to see how the prejudices of those around him ultimately led to what he becomes, from the innocent newborn of 90 minutes before. It’s wonderful that through NT Live Encore more and more people have been able to see this production.

10. Captain Martin Crieff – Cabin Pressure (BBC Radio 2008 – 2014)

056Making my final choice was a difficult one, with so many other impressive roles to pick from. In the end I have chosen a role vastly lighter in tone, in the form of Martin Crieff in John Finnemore’s wonderfully entertaining Radio 4 comedy series Cabin Pressure. Beginning in 2008, I only discovered it in 2011 and was lucky enough to go along to a recording of it in London that year. The hilarity is set at MJN Air, a one-plane charter airline run by Carolyn Knapp-Shappey (Stephanie Cole). Alongside her in this venture is her crew of Crieff and First Officer Douglas Richardson (the superbly talented Roger Allam), not to mention the hopeless Arthur (played by Finnemore himself). The series was a success in its own right but unsurprisingly, the growing attention on Cumberbatch has also brought a whole new audience to this radio drama (ticket requests for the recording of its final episode broke records). It’s a refreshing change of tone and pace for him, which allows the thrill of live performance but the benefit of repeat takes.

Finnemore’s writing is witty, sharp and heartfelt as MJN Air is ultimately a little family unit with all the usual family dynamics and it’s lovely that Benedict has made sure he continued with it until the very end, highlighting that it’s not just about Hollywood movies for him. Being able to see this recorded live was a real treat and as I’ve sensibly saved some episodes for later listening, meaning I still have a few hours left of Cabin Pressure to enjoy leading up to the final episode, to be aired on BBC Radio 4 this Christmas. If you want something to make you laugh and raise your spirits I can’t recommend it enough.

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So…..that’s my list. Those that almost made it include Patrick Watts from Starter For Ten (2006), Wallace from short film Little Favour (2013), Little Charles from August: Osage County (2013) and for something very different Smaug from The Hobbit series.

I’m sure people will have there own views, which will no doubt differ from mine, but that’s one of the joys of an actor capable of great range and variety. I’m also sure this list will continue to evolve over his career, with already some exciting prospects on the horizon (Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Hamlet on stage – see my fantasy cast here and Richard III for the BBC Hollow Crown series to name just three). I look forward to hearing your choices!

Coming next, one of the actresses I have admired for years and whose career seems to only keep going up – Gillian Anderson.

Film Review – The Imitation Game (2014) starring Benedict Cumberbatch

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It may have taken me a couple of weeks, but thanks to having friends willing to wheel me to the cinema, I finally saw The Imitation Game this week and I’m certainly glad a broken ankle didn’t get in my way! I had been anticipating this film ever since it was announced, as I’ve always found the insights in to such a significant part of our world history incredibly interesting and although I was aware of Enigma, like many others I did not know much about Alan Turing, his life and his achievements. As a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch for many years now, his involvement was the icing on the cake.

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The Imitation Game (also the title of one of Alan Turing’s academic papers), is based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges and reveals how a small group of individuals, followed Turing’s vision to create a machine that could crack Enigma, through which all German messages were sent. However the film delves deeper and further than simply cracking Enigma, as we see insights in to Turing’s childhood as well as seeing how, as a homosexual, he faced conviction for indecency and was subjected to hormonal treatment, ultimately committing suicide in 1954 at just 41 years old.

The film is superb, capturing the terrible time of war and how men and women from different backgrounds came together at Bletchley Park to do all they could to contribute to victory. The flashes to wartime images of battle and casualties means that you are always conscious of what all their hard work was for and helps the film maintain a momentum. I also found it incredibly interesting to see what happened after Enigma was broken – something I’d never really considered and realising that by finally cracking the code, that didn’t mean the work of Turing and his colleagues ended. It’s incredible to think that such an achievement was not only kept secret from the public for decades, but that at the time, some of the most powerful individuals in the government and military were not even aware that a select few extraordinary people now decided which attacks could be prevented to aid victory without giving away to Germany that Enigma was no longer an impossible obstacle for the Allies. It was this part of the film that made me truly understand the incredible contribution and sacrifices made by Turing and those in Hut 8 and what a pressure it must have been to remain silent about it then and in the years afterwards.

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Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) with his machine Christopher

The acting of the core characters is excellent, which is to be expected when a film contains so many of Britain’s finest acting talents, from Charles Dance as Commander Alastair Denniston, determined to be rid of Turing from the start, right through to Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of the police detective, who inadvertently brings about Turing’s arrest and prosecution. Mark Strong is also fantastic as MI6’s Major General Stewart Menzies, whose admiration of Turing’s talent and commitment is clear. It’s also lovely to see the relationships between Turing and his colleagues develop, from hostile to of one of a friendship of sorts and I particularly liked Matthew Goode’s portrayal of Hugh Alexander, whose willingness in the end to take a risk and support Turing, ultimately helps turn the others around too and there is a lovely warmth between them on screen.

In a strong supporting role is Keira Knightley, who I admit to not always liking in films. However she is the perfect choice for Joan Clarke, who it seems was far more modern than the time she grew up in. She wants to do something meaningful with her life and for her work to matter in a man’s world and her friendship and affection for Turing is a moving part of the film. They have a connection that provides support and comfort to both of them and this shines through between Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch.

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Keira Knightley, Mark Strong & Benedict Cumberbatch. Source: Empire

The focus of The Imitation Game was always going to be on Benedict’s performance as Alan Turing and he is unsurprisingly excellent, in a role which I cannot imagine any other actor of today being able to play. Having little to go on as to Turing’s voice, mannerisms etc. the role needed an actor capable of creating something completely believable and true to the man being portrayed and Mr Cumberbatch does this so perfectly. His Turing is a loner by nature, uncomfortable with social interaction and far more at ease focussing on logic and statistics. One of the skills he is always able to bring to a role is the ability to convey so much internal emotion and thought with little or no dialogue. There are moments in The Imitation Game where you simply look in to his eyes and can see everything Turing is considering, discarding, confused by or struggling to cope with and this certainly makes you care about the man himself.

Many reviews have commented that this is Cumberbatch’s finest screen performance of his career to date. I’m not sure I agree with that. However, perhaps it is because as I have seen most of his earlier work, that personally I can think of other roles where he is just as strong as he is here, if not more so – Third Star perhaps remains for me his most breathtakingly beautiful performance, or his astonishing portrayal of Stephen Hawking in 2004 for the BBC. Regardless, he is a superb actor, from whom high standards are simply expected and he is outstanding here, whether showing Turing’s harsher, more isolated side or his moments of true kindness or loneliness.

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There has been some criticism that his relationship (albeit platonic) with Knightley’s Joan has more focus than his homosexuality. I felt the personal struggle Turing had regarding who he could love in his life was clear and very moving, which carried right through to the film’s end. There has also been comments that not enough is included of his post war years, when he contributed so much to computer science. This is true. However, I don’t need a film to spoon feed me each and every fact and detail. What this film should achieve, and for me does so, is that it engages the audience in the subject matter in a way that makes you want to go and learn more about it for yourself.

Alexandre Desplat’s score brings the right balance of quiet emotion and tension throughout the film and I thought the decision of the writer, Graham Moore, to move between the three eras of Turing’s life (his time at school, his time at Bletchley and post war) throughout the film was the ideal way to enhance our deeper understanding of the man and ultimately as strands knitted together, create a much more emotionally resonant ending.

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Charles Dance & Benedict Cumberbatch

As Knightley’s character says in the film, it is lucky for the world that he wasn’t someone viewed as normal. His ability to imagine what a machine could be capable of, not only helped shorten the war (experts estimate by at least two years, saving over 14 million lives), but also laid the foundations for the study and invention of the computer age. In interviews Benedict Cumberbatch has repeatedly said Turing should be taught in schools and be someone who is much more known to the world for his incredible contribution and after watching this film I completely agree.

This is beautifully made film, which will no doubt earn some deserved nominations during the awards season. Above all though, it is an incredibly important one, in terms of the recognition it finally gives to work thus far overlooked by the world. I’m sure I won’t be the only person keen to learn more about Alan Turing and these incredible men and women after watching it.

The book on which the film is based – Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges is available at all the usual book stockists and you can learn more about Bletchley Park at its website: http://www.bletchleypark.org.uk

The Imitation Game is currently on general release at UK cinemas. You can watch the trailer here: http://youtu.be/S5CjKEFb-sM

Festive films – Christmas wouldn’t be the same for me without these movies!

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Photo from: RPL Up Front blog

So now it’s December the festive season can start to begin properly and despite being unable to get out and about this year to see all the lovely London Christmas lights, markets and general seasonal sights due to my accident, I thought I’d bring some Christmas spirit to my blog instead and festive films seemed to be a good place to start. Everyone has their favourite Christmas movie that they watch every year and no doubt each person’s choices will be personal to them, holding memories from years past. Below is my own top 10. I may not get time to watch all ten every year, but they are the ones they never fail to make me smile at this time of year.

1. Home Alone (1990)

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It’s not Christmas for me until I’ve watched Home Alone. It was a big part of my childhood and will always bring back special memories. On release it captured the imagination of a generation and I’m sure has continued to do so over the last 24 years.  Fun and exciting (didn’t every kid in the 90s who saw it sort of want to be Kevin?!), with brilliant central performances by Macaulay Culkin, Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci and a timeless score by John Williams, no Christmas should be without it.

2. Love Actually (2003)

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I know it’s like marmite, but I really like Love Actually and think it’s a perfect festive film. Yes it’s cheesy and sentimental, but it’s also funny, poignant and quite romantic and has something we can all relate to through it’s different strands that all manage to interlink. I love Hugh Grant’s dancing, little Thomas Sangster and the romance between Colin Firth and his Portuguese housekeeper, but the most moving for me is Emma Thompson’s performance and her Joni Mitchell scene gets me every time.

3. Die Hard (1988)

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A true classic and a perfect alternative Christmas movie, doesn’t everyone love seeing poor John Maclane battle terrorists at Christmas in just a white vest? Plus it also includes one of my favourite lines from any film – “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho.” Bruce Willis proves to be the ultimate action hero and I always enjoy the blend of action and humour.

4. While You Were Sleeping (1995)

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This is a gem of a film that’s perfect for a rewatch this Christmas if you haven’t seen it for a while. Sandra Bullock is wonderful as the woman whose fantasies about a passenger she serves every day at the train station lead to the most unexpected of romances. The ensemble cast is also wonderful and I always find myself smiling by the end.

5. Home Alone 2 (1992)

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Not quite as good as the first, but the Home Alone sequel still easily makes this list. Not only is there an incredible toy store, that amazing hotel suite and the brilliant trio of bandits and Kevin again but there’s also the fantastic Tim Curry! I’ll definitely be watching this again in December.

6. The Holiday (2006)

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I’ve never been a Jude Law fan so I was surprised when I first watched this film and actually enjoyed it. It’s totally ridiculous but is great romantic escapism at Christmas and Jack Black is lovely in it and it’s always satisfying to see the decent guy get the girl.

7. Serendipity (2001)

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I must be a romantic at heart as I’ve always loved Serendipity, the film in which two people who meet in New York at Christmas leave it to fate to see if they are meant to be together. I’m sceptical this would ever happen but like all good festive films, it’s nice to escape to a more hopeful reality where sweet stories like this are possible!

8. Meet Me In St Louis (1944)

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The story may take place over a year but the lasting image I have of this film is the destruction of the gorgeous snowmen by little Tootie, as a way of expressing how much she loves her home and doesn’t want to leave. Filled with wonderful songs, I’ll always love this classic Judy Garland film.

9. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

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I didn’t read the books as a child so this story was relatively new to me when the film was released and I was surprised how lovely it actually is. Jim Carrey is the perfect Grinch and his relationship with Cindy Lou Who is very sweet to watch.

10. Nativity! (2009)

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I wasn’t sure the Nativity films would be my cup of tea, but I found both (I’ve yet to see number 3) to be surprisingly fun. The original is still the best in my opinion. Martin Freeman is super at playing exasperated, playful, funny and heartfelt and the children are excellent. I was even more impressed on learning these films have no scripts, with the cast ad-libbing each scene to achieve the overall plot points.

Special mentions have to go to: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), through which I learnt this classic Dickins tale; Gremlins (1984) as I adore Gizmo and The Lord of The Rings/Hobbit films which, although not festive, have been a key part of Christmas on the years each has been released.

I’d love to hear your choices!

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