‘Professor Branestawm Returns’ review: Old-fashioned yet gorgeously funny

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In what is hopefully becoming an annual Christmas tradition, Harry Hill returns to BBC One as Professor Branestawm in – appropriately enough – Professor Branestawm Returns.

There’s enough deliciously inventive books from Norman Hunter to plough through to give us material for at least a few more years, and those grown up kids who fear that the gorgeously overwrought verbal gags and smartly silly tortured puns might lose something in translation have nothing to be worried about.

Charlie Higson’s adaptation is perfectly pitched, as spiffingly English as bunting and trifle, with a roll call of characters that look like they’ve been cut from a deck of Happy Families playing cards.

Harry Hill is ever more comfortable with the role of the absent-minded professor, but this is a programme with a strong eye on the ensemble cast.

As well as a brilliant central performance from Madeline Holliday as Branestawm’s No. 1 assistant Connie, there are star turns from the likes of David Mitchell as the Professor’s nemesis Harold Haggerstone, and a lovely comedic appearance from Diana Rigg in a sequence that’s the closest we’re going to get this Christmas to a M.R. James ghost story.

Inside No. 9’s Steve Pemberton is the main guest star this year, playing Professor Alegbrain (from an unspecified European country) and getting a cute Back to the Future gag. In fact, there are plenty of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em jokes littered throughout the hour (the suggested name for the vicar’s Sanctuary For Stupid Small Owls) that will occasionally appeal more to the grown-ups than the kids.

If you’re being mean, this is as familiar and as unsurprising as a traditional cream tea. But frankly, why would you want to moan about such a thing?

Pretty much every scene is bookended with music that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1950’s BBC ‘Interlude’, and the finale is a beautifully old-fashioned bicycle chase through a pretty English village that tears through every cliché in the book (annoyed policeman, scared nuns, and workmen carrying a sheet of glass).

It’ll be impossible to watch this hour without beaming throughout: old-fashioned yet vibrant, clichéd yet clever, gorgeously funny … and always inventive.

Aired at 5.20pm on Thursday 24 December 2015 on BBC One.

> Buy last year’s The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm on DVD on Amazon.

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