Dickens, other tales to brighten holidays

Seasonal TV offerings include a rich variety of documentaries and dramas for the family.

Television tries to be inclusive this time of year with specials, movies, and documentaries designed to encourage tolerance and promote goodwill.

True, there's a lot of sentimental mush on the tube, but there are plenty of good works, too. From a PBS documentary about a legendary Egyptian singer to a bunch of specials on Discovery, Nickelodeon, and elsewhere, to an excellent retelling of a great Dickens tale, this is a good time for family entertainments.

Dickens at Christmas. Of course. Whether it's "A Christmas Carol" on video (preferably the 1951 version staring Alastair Sim) or the newest version of David Copperfield (TNT, Dec. 10, 11, 8-10 p.m.), Dickens goes with the season. This telling of his classic coming-of-age tale stars the gorgeous young British actor Hugh Dancy in the title role, with a strapping, funny performance by Sally Field as his great aunt Betsy Trotwood.

But the real score for acting points goes to Anthony Andrews as the most despicable stepfather ever. And Eileen Atkins as Mr. Murdstone's sinister sister, Jane Murdstone, is a close second. Are they nasty!

Davey is born to a young widow shortly after her husband's death. His great aunt Betsy arrives in time for the birth, but hastily departs upon learning that the child is a boy (only to reappear later in the story as Davey's rescuer).

The first nine years of Davey's life are happy until his mother remarries and the evil Murdstone enters their lives - hounding Davey's mother to the grave.

Davey is sent to work in a horrible factory where the only peace he experiences is in the company of his landlord, Mr. Micawber (played too much like his "Seinfeld" character "Kramer" by Michael Richards) and family.

Eventually, the child runs away to Aunt Betsy, who saves him from Murdstone.

The rest of his childhood is happy. He grows up to fall in love with the wrong woman, marries her, and loses her before he marries the right one. But it's all the characters that swirl around his life from the unctuous Uriah Heep to David's dishonorable friend Steerforth to his old nurse, Peggotty, that enrich this brilliant story so poignantly.

David grows in wisdom and stature as a man principally by observing the bad behavior of others. His own mistakes are mistakes of a good but undiscerning heart. He arrives at wisdom without ever losing his innocence.

"I have a favorite son, and his name is David Copperfield," Dickens wrote, and the novel is his most autobiographical. The educated, but perpetually financially pinched Micawber is based on Dickens's father, and young Charles spent some horrendous time in a boot-blacking factory that emotionally scarred him, but also opened his eyes to the suffering of the poor and to the rampant child abuse of his time.

Special Delivery (Fox Family Channel, Dec. 10, 8-10 p.m.): A new baby is to be delivered to his adoptive family in time for Christmas. But an incompetent baby courier loses the child at the airport. When the courier must tell the Beck family about the baby (which is duly accounted for), the mother and daughter take the courier in instead of despising him. Only dad Beck is outraged.

Andy Dick is often hilarious and sometimes tiresome as the baby courier in this intermittently entertaining film. The rest of the cast act as if they didn't have enough rehearsal time and the writing is often too silly. Still, there's something about Dick's physical humor that works well. And as an innocent orphan himself, he's rather appealing. It's a good choice for younger family members since the physical schtick will amuse them - and the child actors are adorable.

Livin' for Love: The Natalie Cole Story (NBC, Dec.10, 9-11 p.m.): Based on the singer-songwriter's autobiography, "Angel on My Shoulder," the film exposes Ms. Cole's struggle with drug addictions and her eventual triumph over them.

We meet her as a little girl who loses her famous father, Nat King Cole (James McDaniel), when she is 16. Her power struggles with her rather rigid mother, Maria (Diahann Carroll), are more understandable by the end of the film.

Ms. Cole narrates the tale and though some things go unspoken, revealing this much about one's past does take some courage. Directed by Robert Townsend, the story is strangely heartening as it chronicles one woman's journey back from the brink. And to hear her sing "Unforgettable" as a duet with her father's voice is worth the time all by itself. Nat's "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" is just as lovely as ever.

Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt (PBS, Dec. 18, 10-11 p.m.): Umm Kulthum was the most revered singer of the Arab world when she died in 1975, as popular as Elvis in the West. To this day, her influence continues to spread. To hear and understand her music is to open doors to a distant and complex world. The people who speak of her tell how she changed their lives and what she has meant to them. Narrated by Omar Sharif, this provocative, grippingly well-made film airs during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

For the children in the house: It's not, strictly speaking, holiday material, but the outstanding Discovery Kids documentary, Blast Off! (Discovery Channel, Dec. 10, 11 a.m.), presents the real experiences of young would-be astronauts in space camp, and it's joyful enough to raise anybody's holiday fervor. Kids from around the world are divided into teams and compete to prove who is "mission ready." It really is a blast.

A Walk in Your Shoes (Noggin and Nickelodeon simulcast, Dec. 17, 6 p.m.) is a different kind of reality TV. Two girls, one Jewish and one Roman Catholic, switch places at their respective religiously based summer camps. Learning about and respecting each other's traditions, even when they don't share beliefs, is an important part of children's education in our ever-shrinking world.

Nickelodeon offers new holiday episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants, The Wild Thornberrys, 100 Deeds of Eddie McDowd, and Pinky and the Brain. Check local listings.

For the Home & Garden Television crowd, there are plenty of goodies to help plan for a spectacular holiday season. Everything from making decorations, planning parties, choosing inexpensive, but creative gifts, and glue-gunning your way through wreaths and topiaries is available on air. Some of the best shows to look for are HGTV's Country Home for the Holidays (Dec. 17, 2-3 p.m.); Modern Masters Holiday Special, featuring gifted artists of glass, silver, wood, and steel (Dec. 13, 10-11 p.m.); and All in Good Taste: Our Holiday Best (Dec. 17, 5 p.m.).

And then there's the Christopher Lowell Show: Holiday Occasion (Discovery Channel, Dec. 20, 3-4 p.m.). Funny and creative, Lowell offers viewers great tips for shopping and decorating on a budget.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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