Hate Christmas movies? Unable to stomach their revolting mixture of exhausted iconography and sentimental platitudes? Tempted to suspect that most Christmas movies and/or TV specials are so staggeringly bad that they must be fiendishly disguised satires, made by people who secretly consider their viewers to be dribbling simpletons? Unable to get excited about the prospect of watching yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens’ second worst novel? Wondering if this year the makers of EastEnders will achieve what is clearly their dearest desire and start a wave of Christmas Day suicides across the nation? Dreading the prospect of all the ordure adumbrated above yet simultaneously unable to contemplate surviving the “festive” season without the merciful presence of the gogglebox? Tired of rhetorical questions?
Okay then, here’s Jack’s Alternative Christmas Playlist....
The Lion in Winter (1968)
Christmas is a time for family arguments. You know how it is, everybody stuck together, desperately trying to get on and have fun… it’s a recipe for disaster. But nobody had a Christmas quite like the Plantagenets’ in this film.
Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole are the warring married couple, King Henry II and his older Queen Eleanor, who spend Christmas 1183 tearing great lumps out of each other with a non-stop mutual barrage of staggeringly vicious barbs, taunts, insults, paradoxes and lies. Add their three ruthlessly ambitious sons to the mix – the brutal Richard (Tony Hopkins), the cold-blooded Geoffrey (John Castle) and the cretinous John (Nigel Terry) – and Christmas (which comes complete with hilariously anachronistic trees and wrapped presents) becomes an excruciating familial apocalypse of plots, schemes, murder attempts, humiliating revelations and heart-shredding passions.
Ultimately, this film is only superficially about a struggle for the crown. The crown, the lands, the money, the power… these are the playing pieces in a game that is really about a family eating itself alive over lost love, sour love, delusional love, destructive love and the lack of love. When Kate Hepburn’s Eleanor says that “we” are the cause of history, she doesn’t mean royalty, she means we humans. At the season of love, as she watches her family attack itself, and watches herself join in, she wonders aloud why they can’t just love each other. “We have so much to love each other for,” she says, “we have such possibilities.”
It may be Albee-lite (and Anouilh-liter) but it’s still amazing, moving stuff, entirely uncontaminated by sentimentality… and guaranteed to put your own family squabbles into some kind of perspective.
Shooting the Past (1999)
Stephen Poliakoff’s masterpiece (from before he turned into an utter wanker) begins with Christmas lights. Christmas is something happening in the outside world. Within the peculiar space of the Falham Photo Library, time works differently, as does value and history and emotion. The modern world (in the form of an American corporation) buys this little island and starts to invade it, planning to sell it off and turn it into some piffling corporate ballsup… their interest in the gigantic library of old photos being precisely zero. Until, that is, they start to be absorbed into the alternative world of the photographs and their off-kilter guardians.
Tim Spall delivers his greatest performance as Oswald Bates, an unhappy and heroically annoying man who has been left behind by modernity, who wants to live within his photos and his own thoughts, away from the crass commercialism and humourless dedication of the professional and the self-professedly ‘real’… none of which has as much human reality as the tragic and resounding stories to be found in the still and sepia past.
Die Hard (1988)
Holiday carnage. Bells jingle and Christmas songs tinkle as people are eviscerated by sprays of bullets and their corpses are arranged wearing Santa hats.
Whether they knew it or not, in Die Hard, Hollywood created a sort-of-anti-capitalist revenge fantasy. The Japanese corporate boss asks Rickman (who has invaded his skyscraper with a gang of armed men) if “this is all about our project in Indonesia?” before protesting that they (i.e. his corporation) want to develop not exploit that region. Rickman says, apparently sincerely, that he believes this. Thing is… this is 1988… and they’re setting up in Indonesia… which means they’re in business with General Suharto, who was responsible for arguably the worst act of genocide committed in the 20th century apart from the Holocaust. Said corporate boss later ends up with his brains splattered all over a set of glass doors, which is very satisfying; you don’t often get to see corporate imperialists get exactly what they deserve in a big-budget Hollywood actioner. What’s happening here, you see, is that the Nakatomi Corporation is being confronted by its own values; Rickman and his gang turn out to be ruthless thieves rather than ideological enemies… though, having said that, the film’s beef with capitalism seems to be that sometimes there are Japanese capitalists who come over to America and lure married American women away from their wifely duties with promises of careers, independence, executive bathrooms and Rolex watches. At the end, Mrs Bruce Willis has to symbolically sacrifice her Rolex watch and reassume her clean-cut hubby’s name in order for him to finally defeat the beardie foreign baddie.
The film is also a pioneering gay romance, depicting the mutually-supporting and fulfilling love that blossoms between two men. At the end of the film, Willis gets to consummate his over-the-radio relationship with beat cop Richard Veljohnson in a hysterically romantic clinch, accompanied by music that sounds almost like that bit of Tschaikovsky that lovestruck couples in films always hear when running towards each other on beaches. Veljohnson (who has been deskbound after accidentally shooting a kid) gets to regain his male potency and ‘climaxes’ by emptying both barrels (so to speak) into one last terrorist, thus proving that Willis’ love has made him whole again… or whole enough to kill someone… which is this film’s idea of the highest male self-expression.
Joyeux Noel (2005)
One of the problems the people running World War I (on all sides) continually had to face was the sheer reluctance of their troops to kill the ‘enemy’. They would deliberately fire above the heads of the opposing soldiers, etc., behaviour that had to be stamped on ferociously. Everyone knows about the Christmas truce of 1914… well, this moving film depicts that truce and its consequences, from the perspectives of the French, British and German soldiers themselves. We see not only the eagerness of the ordinary soldiers to stop killing each other, and their fraternisation, but also the horror at this behaviour evinced by the generals. We see a Bishop preaching the virtue of killing Germans to British troops… after the soldiers of all nationalities held mass together in Nomansland.
First, let’s go through what it isn’t. It isn’t set in the future. It isn’t set in a totalitarian society. It’s set now (we’re still “somewhere in the 20th century”). And it’s set in our world.
Ducts and pipes and paperwork and the 1940s still dominate our world; our world abducts and interrogates and tortures people; our world is run by family men who love their children and give their workmates Christmas presents and file reports on how many dissidents they’ve interrogated this week. Our world is still a stifling miasma of filing cabinets and sociopathic bureaucrats and malfunctioning technology. Our world is still a place where the surface glitz of wealth and commercialism covers reservoirs of corruption, confusion, incompetence, cruelty, systematised madness and emotional frustration. And this is never truer than at Christmas, which is when this story is set. The shopping malls and fake snow and gift wrap are the garnish on a state gone mad. You feel that this place always pretends to be in the middle of festivities. One gets the sense that it’s always Christmas where Sam Lowry lives, which brings me to…
Death in Santaland (2007)
Jon Ronson visits North Pole, Alaska, where every day is Christmas Day. While retaining his customary air of amiable innocence, Ronson reveals this concept to be every bit as ghastly as it sounds. A place invented solely for the Christmas industry, the decorations stay up all year long. Ronson perambulates his way through this horrifying tinsel-laden dystopia, becoming increasingly incredulous.
The adults here all claim to really believe in Santa – even to the point of going into denial about their local Santa Claus (name legally changed to Kris Kringle, god help us) being killed in a car accident. Meanwhile, the local school kids are dragooned into answering the thousands of letters that arrive addressed to ‘Santa, North Pole’, like unpaid elves in a festive sweatshop. The teenagers, driven to distraction by the lunacy around them, carry guns and plot school massacres. To we Who fans, it might recall ‘The Happiness Patrol’.
In any case, if you want a window into the planned neo-liberal millennium, look no further. Schools voluntarily training dispirited children in the ideology of consumption and P.R., populations of happy drudges smiling through the crushing alienation, communities enslaved to consumer tat and mindless kitsch, people driven mad by the banality… and anybody who dares to notice the madness dubbed a freak. Watch this and save yourself the trouble of having nightmares brought on by too much accelerant-steeped pudding.
What Would Jesus Buy? (2007)
Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir tour just-before-the-recession America, hoping to cure people of their addictions to credit and consumerism, exorcise the sweatshop-running demons of Starbucks and stop the ‘Shopocalypse’ – a term of Rev. Billy’s own devising that the vacuous, tittering TV News anchors (who treat this particularly astute brand of satire/performance/comedy/activism as nothing but a jokey novelty) are unable to pronounce.
On his way through the privatised, mall-dominated USA, littered with monolithic cathedrals of consumption, the Reverend Billy gets himself arrested for declaring that Mickey Mouse is the Anti-Christ, sets up a booth on the streets for taking people’s ‘Shopping Sins Confessions’ and exhorts congregations to hold up their credit cards (“magnetic strip facing Reverend Billy”) and tear them up.
(As you can tell, this protest has religious overtones… but that’s okay with me. Reverend Billy prays to “the Fabulous Unknown”, which I believe in. And, in any case, I’m sick of being told - by supposed progressives - that the biggest problem with America is its religiosity and that the American faithful are all right-wing, which is bullshit. The left-wing Christians just don’t own megabuck media churches. Besides, religion is the spirit of a spiritless situation, etc., etc.)
Disneyland (corporate sociopathy expressed as architecture) gets invaded by the choir. Wal-Mart gets a trouncing. Roast in Hell, Penn & Teller. (Pardon me, but I can no longer say the words “Wal-Mart” without also saying “Roast in Hell, Penn & Teller”.)
On our way with him we encounter shop assistants who’ve been spat on by old ladies because they’ve run out of X-Boxes, miniature dogs with their own Christmas wardrobes and more evidence of a culture driving itself insane with the worship of stuff. Meanwhile, the antics of the Reverend and his choir are as amusing and moving as their chosen foe (Christmas capitalism gone mad) is terrifying.
A Life in Pieces – with Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling (1990-91)
Also terrifying (to me) is the realisation that it was twenty years ago… that’s TWENTY YEARS AGO… that I was first paralysed with laughter watching these twelve short interviews with the inimitable Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling.
In each interview, the heroically straight-faced Ludovic Kennedy presents Sir Arthur with a chosen gift and then quizzes him about his life. The various gifts (the first is a partridge in a pear tree… and I’m sure you can guess the rest) start Sir Arthur off on a number of interesting reminiscences. The three French hens remind Sir Arthur of his days in Brussels, attempting to devise the “Single European Hen”. The five gold rings remind him of when he ran for Barbados in the 1936 Berlin Olympics at the special request of Hitler (whom Sir Arthur remembers as “not the practical joking type”). Nine drummers drumming gets Sir Arthur started on how he was recruited as a “deep level mole” at Cambridge. The ten pipers piping remind him of his former friend Peter Piper, who was such a cricket enthusiast that he actually took a group of crickets on tour so that paying audiences could hear them rubbing their legs together. And so on, through such topics as cannibalism, the use of goats to raise children and secret farming.
As for Christmas itself, well Sir Arthur thinks it was “great fun in the old days when it was just an orgy of commercial excess, but now I find that people are tainting the whole thing with a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo.”
But what about Christmassy Who, you ask? This is supposed to be a Who blog, isn’t it?
Oh, okay. But I’m not enthusiastic. I mean, look at the forthcoming Christmas Special. A version of A Christmas Carol. Hmm. Written by a man with all the political savvy of Jan Moir and all the genuine progressive feeling of Vince Cable. C’mon, it’s bound to be shit. Alison Graham (absolutely no relation of any kind whatsoever, I hasten to add) has already given it a rave review, which is never a good sign.
A Christmas Carol (the book, I mean) is already a problematic text. Yes, there are wonderful bits where Dickens has his spirits inveigh against “the insect on the leaf proclaiming there is too much life amongst his hungry brothers in the dust” and revealing the huddled symbolic children Ignorance and Want… but, ultimately, it’s just a plea for capitalist bastards to be bit nicer to their staff and make charitable donations. After all, when Dickens warns that Ignorance and Want will bring downfall if ignored, this is a warning that he wants his world – the bourgeois Victorian imperial world – to heed and profit from.
That’s why I love Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, which ruthlessly inverts Dickens’ tale and, in the process, undermines his every sentimental bromide and his every hypocritical appeal to the goodness of the Victorian bourgeoisie. Ebeneezer Blackadder, at the end of the story, is the kind of successful Victorian gentleman who really made that era… it’s just that, in reality, people like him knew how to talk the charitable talk and lecture the poor on morals. (I only failed to include Blackadder’s Christmas Carol above because everyone’s seen it 48 billion times.)
Of course, Who has done a (sort of) version of this story before. Let the Ghost of Series’ Past transport you back to 2005, to the third episode of the first season of RTD’s glorious revival, ‘The Unquiet Dead’. Sadly, what Elton and Curtis did knowingly and with irony, Mark Gatiss did apparently accidentally and in all seriousness. By the end of this wretched episode, we are actually supposed to be inspired by Dickens’ transformation from a miserable old sourpuss into a newly-invigorated happy-chappy… but Dickens’ life-changing encounter with festive spirits is somewhat different to Ebeneezer Scrooge’s. Where Scrooge learns that charity is a moral obligation and empathy a human benefit, Dickens learns that empathy and kindness towards those who are desperate is dangerous folly, to be resisted on pain of self-destruction.
It’s perhaps unfair and unreasonable to be too harsh. After all, every single televised Christmassy Doctor Who story (with the exception of the largely enjoyable ‘Christmas Invasion’) has been scarcely-endurable ordure.
I don’t normally *do* Big Finish here, but I’ll make an exception because they’ve managed a bit better.
Rob Shearman’s ‘The Chimes of Midnight’ is a lovely, angry Christmas ghost story with dialogue that – in places – is so calculatedly absurd and so laced with inner savagery that it verges upon the Pinteresque. A story of servants as endlessly-usable chattels in the service of a cynical master that needs to feed on them to survive. While one might kvetch over the idea that a drudge’s life is made bearable by simply knowing that she has the respect of one member of the middle classes, this doesn’t really matter all that much because, like much of Shearman’s work, this is less political than it is a meditation on parents and children. The relationship between Charley and Edith is clearly the embodiment of a longed-for motherhood… and the presence that becomes the Doctor’s antagonist is a child that demands life at the expense of parents it feels entirely entitled to abuse.
And then we have Marc Platt’s mighty ‘Spare Parts’, which is easily the finest Cyberman story made in any medium and also manages to be an emotionally haunting Christmas story of families gathered around scraggy old fake trees, while outside the cold draws in… and in… and in… Politically, Platt’s story flirts with the Trekish mistake of making the emotionless cyborgs into an expression of collectivism (with Thomas Dodd as the dodgy but preferable embodiment of free enterprise)… but it isn’t long before the story has a crowd of ordinary people protesting outside the palace, resisting police brutality and opposing a People’s Committee that has become a tyranny. If the Committee are “the champions of the proletariat” then it’s only in the same way, and to the same extent, as Stalin.
Gareth Roberts’ and Clayton Hickman’s ‘The One Doctor’ is a thoroughly enjoyable bit of space comic-opera, as long as you don’t start sharing their impression that they’ve satirised anything… and as long as you don’t worry about the fact that so much of it seems so reminiscent of the second season of the Hitch Hiker’s radio series.
Of course, there’s always one at every Christmas party isn’t there… one that spoils things for everybody else. In this instance, it’s Jonathan Morris’ ‘Flip-Flop’, a revolting Daily Mail-ish parable about the horrific dangers posed by dishonest, power-hungry immigrants. The immigrants in question are (adding insult to injury) giant slugs with bad eyesight and a wheedling, faux-humble Uriah Heapesque manner. They complain of prejudice and discrimination, explain that no human can comprehend their “ethnic experience”, call themselves a downtrodden minority despite covering nine tenths of the humans’ planet (“being a minority is a state of mind”) and, all the while, they’re scheming to take over and make the humans their slaves… which is achieved – and the story is quite explicit about this – through “positive discrimination”. The alien boss is called the “Community Leader”, which is one of those terms that tabloids use whenever they want to preach to Muslim communities about how they should do more to combat ‘extremism’. The aliens even want to ban Christmas. I fucking ask you.
I’m not saying anything about Jonathan Morris. I don’t know the man or anything about him. He might be the cuddliest pro-immigrant liberal there is for all I know. But ‘Flip-Flop’ is an egregious piece of shit and everyone involved in making it should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
Besides, the time travel paradox doesn't work because the Doctor, Mel, Stewart and Reed don't bump into alternative versions of themselves when they go back to the night of President Bailey's assassination. So there.
Actually, I’ve been a bit hard on televised Who. I forgot about one story. It’s isn’t a “special” and it wasn’t broadcast on the 25th December… but it’s certainly a bit Christmassy and is one of the best episodes of the 21st century series. I’m referring, of course, to RTD’s miraculous ‘Turn Left’. Not only is it a reworking of It’s a Wonderful Life (with Rose earning her wings by giving Donna a chance to see what the world would be like without the Doctor) but it also has an entire ‘act’ set at Christmas. Donna and family spend the holidays in a hotel room, waited on by a maid who, it is implied, is a foreign worker. From their holiday retreat, the Nobles (who are really the commoners) witness the explosion that destroys London and turns them into refugees.
As Simon Kinnear pointed out in DWM 410, although ‘Turn Left’ is “not per se a story about recession, the parallels – unemployment, homelessness, a military presence on the streets – are exactly what scaremongering media pundits are anticipating is going to happen this summer.” He was writing in early 2009. Things aren’t quite as bad here yet as they get in ‘Turn Left’, but..
Well, there you have it. Bah humbug, Changealujah, Seasons Greeblings, and a very Merry Christmas to all of you at home.