Sunday, 29 December 2013

Des O'Connor in a Santa hat

I did this piece about Christmas TV for last week's New Statesman.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, kitsch Christmas television seemed as timeless a tradition as wassailing. But it seems I was part of the first generation to be so blessed. Browsing the TV listings for Christmas 1963, 50 years ago, I am amazed how unfestive they look. Alongside a few familiar staples like Billy Smart’s Circus and Christmas Night with the Stars, there are run-of-the-mill episodes of Z Cars, University Challenge and Emergency – Ward 10. On Christmas Eve, ITV did not even bother to start until mid-afternoon, and by Boxing Day the schedules were almost back to normal.

Then, in 1969, a miraculous birth brought joy to the world: the first Christmas double issues of the Radio Times and the TV Times. Their separate covers – the Radio Times a tasteful montage of ribbons, wintry scenes and carol singers, the TV Times Des O’Connor in a Santa hat – seemed to encapsulate the cultural differences between the BBC and ITV. But they each inaugurated an era of three-channel colour TV in which every sitcom or quiz show would have its own Christmas special and the cathode-ray tube would fizz with fake snow and winter woollies for a fortnight.

The moment from this halcyon era that has entered folk memory is 8.55pm on the evening of 25 December 1977, when 28.5 million people are alleged to have arranged themselves in front of a TV to watch The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show - and this despite the fact that theirs was always the least Christmassy show in the schedules, with barely a slither of tinsel in sight. What no one now remembers is that ITV’s Christmas programmes in 1977 were so unappetising that, when the schedules had been announced a few weeks earlier, several advertising agencies complained that they would have no audience for their commercials. On Christmas night, ITV showed Sale of the Century, Stars on Christmas Day (a special edition of Stars on Sunday with ITV personalities singing carols) and the film Young Winston. To have detained half the nation for an hour and ten minutes with this on the other side was not, perhaps, such a historic achievement.

It was, in fact, a recurring motif throughout the 1970s that Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas show was not as good as last year’s. The 1977 show was not one of their best. Starting with a lame skit on “Starkers and Krutch,” it finished not with that triumphant “There is nothing like a dame” number from South Pacific, but an oddly flat scene with Elton John playing piano in an empty studio while Eric and Ernie, dressed in drag as cleaners, looked on. Les Dawson, interviewed by the Daily Express a few days later, felt that “the ending didn’t quite come off”. The DJ John Peel found them “extravagantly unfunny” and thought “their best work in several years was the current television commercial for Texaco”.

But even if Morecambe and Wise were never as funny as they used to be, it is touching to learn how much neurotic care went into their Christmas shows. Their writer, Eddie Braben, took five weeks to write each one, working 16 hour days including weekends, driving himself close to a breakdown. Morecambe was such a perfectionist that, when he watched the show with his family on Christmas night, he would cough strategically to distract them from any slight fluffs left in the edit.

It is customary to mourn the lost capacity of TV to create these shared moments that seem to matter so much to both performer and audience. Christmas TV, meant to be watched ritualistically en famille, especially inspires such lamentations. The announcement of the BBC’s Christmas schedules this year produced the usual complaints about its falling back on tired formats like Open All Hours and Strictly Come Dancing. But as the recent Channel 4 series Gogglebox suggested, many viewers still turn on the set in search of familiar rituals they can enjoy together. Despite all those predictions at the start of the digital era about the imminent demise of “linear viewing,” we are not all deserting the living-room set to watch Netflix on our iPads.  

The media historians Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz once compared the mass viewing of television to the seder, the Jewish ritual marking the start of Passover. Jews celebrate the seder in their own homes with their extended family, and yet these millions of synchronised, homebound microevents assume the existence of a symbolic centre, a sense that the Jewish diaspora is celebrating together at the same time. Dayan and Katz saw television, at its great collective moments, as a similar kind of “festive viewing,” a powerful social chemistry bonding society together.

You might think this too heavy a responsibility for the Christmas Day edition of Mrs Brown’s Boys to bear. But TV’s defining quality remains that it can be viewed by lots of people simultaneously. And since it is an undemanding form of togetherness that asks little of those who sign up to it other than that they are all watching Doctor Who or Downton Abbey, it can create a sense of commonality among people who have little else in common. This attachment to the communal nature of watching TV has survived a post-Thatcherite market logic which prefers to see us as individual, rational consumers. In fact, I have a vision of the diasporic television community of fifty years hence, assembled in twenty million living rooms from Lerwick to St Helier. Everyone is flicking through the Christmas edition of the Radio Times, with its time-honoured small-display ads for walk-in baths and garden sheds at the back, looking for something familiar to watch.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Skating away

In her book Skating to Antarctica, Jenny Diski writes:

'My feet haven't retained the memory of skating, but then it isn't a natural experience for feet to be constrained in an unbending boot from sole to ankle and raised on a quarter inch of steel blade so that they never actually touch the ground. Feet don't skate, but they experience skating. You sense the solidity of the ice through the blade in a way that is quite different from being on any other hard surface. Concrete doesn't feel as ungiving and absolute as ice. You slide over its surface, but there is no engaging with it, no sense, as you get even with concrete, certainly with rock and paving stones, of surface texture, of tiny undulations, of there being earth beneath. Rink ice is a solid block, whose depth you sense as you slick across its surface, as a swimmer senses the fathoms beneath them buoying them up. But the sea moves, engages with the body of the swimmer, while the ice is enigmatic, separate from the skater.

And yet, to skate is magical, as you find yourself coasting free and frictionless. The clear distinction between yourself and the ice you are on strengthens the sensation of your own body and its capacity both for control and for letting appropriate things happen. And for all the perception of physical mastery, skating is still strange and dreamlike. Dreams of flying are the nearest you get to the feeling of being on the ice.' (pp. 15-16)

Nowadays every British town and city seems to have at least one open-air ice rink at Christmas time. With the addition of fairy lights, and in a spectacular location like the Brighton Pavilion or Winchester Cathedral, these can be quite magical, although the ice rink in Liverpool One is a pretty unenchanted affair.

The town-centre Christmas ice rink seems to have entirely replaced the phenomenon of wild skating. According to Sue Clifford and Angela King, in their wonderful book England in Particular, it was common until recently to skate on the lakes and tarns of the Lake District. In his Guardian Country Diary, A. Harry Griffin described how in 1929 the railways ran excursions from London and other cities to the 'Lakeland ice carnival', where 'there seemed as many people on and around the "toe" of Windermere as on a busy summer's day in Blackpool'. In one memorable edition of the ITV regional programme About Anglia in January 1963, in the coldest winter of the century, the presenter Eric Joice presented the programme from Wroxham Broad in Norfolk, sitting at a desk perched on the frozen water while reporters skated round him under the arc lights. But Clifford and King report that 'since the 1950s land drainage schemes have meant that many of the safe places for skating – flood meadows – are no longer available'.

I like the idea of skating, but I won't be doing any of it this Christmas, as the only time I have tried it felt as unnatural an experience as Diski describes it, and I never got to the coasting free and frictionless stage because I kept being stuck in the falling over stage. But like Joni Mitchell, I sometimes wish I had a river I could skate away on.

Anyway, a Merry Christmas to anyone who reads this blog, whether you have a river to skate away on or not.