Henry Lewis as the Archangel Gabriel
Henry Lewis as the Archangel Gabriel © Mischief Screen Limited / Gary Moyes

This time of year brings a special dispensation for corny humour (“Behind you!”). For a brief period, jokes can be stale, scripts threadbare, puns terrible and costumes shoddy, and no one minds. Not that the Cornley Dramatic Society, the fictitious theatre troupe of The Goes Wrong Show, is putting on anything so lowbrow as a panto; their Nativity is deadly serious. Given everything we know about previous productions, the lighted candle on top of Chris the director’s piano is a terrible omen. 

Broadshaw Corporate Finance has stepped in to fund the production: “Even Jesus loves cash!” Before their heavenly visitor arrives, Mary and Joseph consider a small business loan for their carpenter’s shop. There’s plenty of pathos to go with the bathos. Trevor (Chris Leask) has built an ingenious set, a large book whose pages (usually) open to form vivid pop-up scenes. The daring mid-air appearance of the Angel Gabriel is poignantly close to being awe-inspiring. 

Cornley’s lead man, the booming-voiced Robert (Henry Lewis), approaches every role as though it’s Henry V. On the other end of the thespian scale is humble innkeeper Dennis (Jonathan Sayer). There was nothing the testy Chris could have done about the recalcitrant Donkey, or the Shepherds having to double as Wise Men, but surely it was unwise to cast Sandra (Charlie Russell) as both Mary (nervous side-eye at the line “I can’t bear a child, I’m a virgin”) and a seductress in Herod’s palace. Jonathan (Greg Tannahill) clutches the part of Herod, and his throne, with both hands to avoid tumbling off the stage altogether. It’s a romp. ★★★★☆

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In contrast, the Christmas special of Ghosts can summon up no more than the odd wan smile, despite the combined talents of the Horrible Histories team. Alison and Mike Cooper live in a mansion alongside several centuries’ worth of spooks, which she can see and he can’t. Mike’s dreading the arrival of his family for Christmas: mum, dad and two sisters — one with a baby. The obliviousness of one half of the cast to the other leads to some awkward crowded room/empty room juxtapositions. The boisterous Coopers seem to have wandered in from a different sit-com, and nothing quite gels. 

Each character gets a mere sliver of attention in a packed half-hour. Thomas (Mathew Baynton) is waiting to be kissed under the mistletoe, while Lady Fanny (Martha Howe-Douglas) wants a decent tree and Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) yearns to sing carols. Only sweet 18th-century maiden Kitty (Lolly Adefope) really gets into the spirit. Kiell Smith-Bynoe plays it straight as irritable Mike while the tenuous plot meanders its way towards Christmas harmony and intergenerational understanding. I can’t help thinking Chris and Trevor would have done it better. ★★★☆☆

‘The Goes Wrong Show: The Nativity’ airs December 22, 7pm on BBC1; The Ghost of Christmas’ airs December 23, 8.30pm on BBC1

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