Not Going Out Christmas special review: Old-school festive chuckles

It’s been a tough year for everyone and, as with many a TV show this year, the realities of 2020 have bled into the fictional world where Lee (Lee Mack) and Lucy (Sally Bretton) play host to their parents and friends on New Year’s Eve for an evening of festive games. Only instead of reflecting on the difficulties of this year, Lucy’s father Geoffrey (Geoffrey Whitehead) is nostalgic for the solitude of lockdown. “It takes a moment like this to make you realise lockdown wasn’t really all that tedious after all”, he moans as the group bicker their way through their first get together in months.

As the party guests make their way through a fraught game of ‘Head’s Up’, with each person assigned a famous figure that they must guess written on a post-it note on their forehead, it becomes clear that many of the guests have somewhere they would rather be.

Anna (Abigail Cruttenden) laments missing a son et lumière at Hampton Court in favour of watching their friends guess what is stuck on their forehead, while her husband Toby (Hugh Dennis) fanaticises about getting lost alone in the Hampton Court maze. Geoffrey, meanwhile, is doing his best ‘withering despair’ face as his wife Wendy (Deborah Grant) falls about the sofa, wine glass in hand, slurring her words and laughing at the most inopportune moments.

BBC/Avalon/Mark Johnson

And what Christmas family get together would be complete without someone making inappropriate jokes? Bobby Ball returns as Frank, Lee’s hands-off father, who is finding the concept of yes/no questions more than a bit difficult to grasp as he sits with a post-it reading ‘Hank Marvin’ on his forehead, making flirtatious comments to Wendy who is slumped in the sofa next to him giggling.

With Bobby Ball’s passing in October 2020 after a diagnosis of COVID-19, this will sadly be the last Not Going Out Chistmas special that will feature the veteran comic. While we will see some more of Bobby Ball’s cheeky character Frank in the sitcom’s 11th series, due to air on the BBC in January 2021, it is particularly poignant to see his character making trouble and causing a stir as usual at the end of an unprecedented year that the actor himself tragically will not see.

Described at one point as a “Poundland Jimmy Krankie”, Ball is on top form as Frank, who finds his naughty, tongue-in-cheek gags criticised by the other guests at the party, who then decide to work their way individually around the room to assign New Year’s resolutions to each other (what could go wrong?). Lucy, desperate to see in 2021 without the endless squabbling, threatens to throw trifle at anyone who pipes up. According to Adams family tradition, the group must wait until midnight to eat the dessert. It really is one of the most unappealing looking trifles you ever did see – it’s hard to imagine why anyone would challenge the wait.

The special delivers some much-needed light relief and a healthy dose of schadenfreude (that wonderful German term meaning ‘pleasure derived from the misfortune of others’) as we watch a fictional family descend into arguments, accusations and underhanded comments. Ah, Christmas! At least it’s not just my family, eh?

The world of Not Going Out still has its humour firmly rooted in the 1970s, with ‘old ball and chain’ jokes aplenty and enough ‘ooh-err missus’ quips to see you through to 2021. There are some points when Anna and Toby’s relentless mutual despair just feels a little sad, though. Surely a couple must really hate one another to relentlessly throw such cruel remarks in each others’ direction?

Fresh and challenging comedy it is not, but it’s clearly still a hugely popular format, as the show has also been given the green light for a 12th and 13nth series. It’s also the best time of year for a little bit of throwback comedy. We’re all popping on sitcom classics as we eat our 17th mince pie, and Not Going Out’s festive special will fit in nicely with the festivities. Even when the gags occasionally dry up in favour of general name-calling, it’s ultimately got its heart in the right place.

Not Going Out will return to BBC One in the new year – check out our guide to the best Christmas TV for 2020 or see what else is on with our TV Guide