Screen burn

The sane man dreads Christmas television

15 December 2012

In mid-November an Indian chauffeur taking me to Broadcasting House made a detour to show me the Christmas lights in Regent Street. He wished to share the pleasure that they gave him and it was with glee that of the shops he used the terms ‘top class’ and ‘posh’, when to me the street seems almost as tawdry as the ghastly trek from Marble Arch to Oxford Circus. Dissembling, I went through the motions of agreement, thanked him for the treat, and fell into deep melancholy at the thought of yet another Christmas and all that it no longer means to me.

The real Christmas — the Christmas of a Christ Child adored by ox and ass, by humble shepherds and by the Magi with their presages of grief and crucifixion, celebrated with joyful Masses from Monteverdi to Rossini and with Gospels in the language of King James — is an essential and treasured part of my cultural heritage, and it matters not at all that belief now eludes me, for the beautiful liturgy speaks of fundamental human truths and, in the right places, the music touches that part of a man that he may think his soul. The nullifidian jollifications of a Christmas that is not even pagan or animist are contemptible, nowhere more so than on the television screen.

In terms of entertainment we must expect of Christmas television nothing that is aesthetically or intellectually nourishing, and nothing is more predictable than that programmes we know from dire experience to be fatuous, inane or banal (and perhaps all three) will be regurgitated with a festive gloss of snow and ice, red noses and a reindeer. Most such bogus programmes were, no doubt, made months ago in the warm glow of glorious autumn, and everything about them, from the snowflakes to the jollity, was nothing better than the professional conjuring of television executives whose duty it is to suppress imagination and maintain the cliché and the status quo. ‘What must we have?’ they ask themselves, the inevitable answer the mixture as before. Then, ‘What might we have?’ they ask. And finally, alarmed, perhaps even terrified, by the recognition that this year’s Christmas, falling immediately after a weekend, will last at least five days without a break, they ask if there will be enough scrapings in the barrel. That there will not, they need have no fear, for the barrel is so deep as to be bottomless, the layers of sediment unfathomable, with as many barnacles clinging to its staves as to the wreck of the Titanic.


Imagine their dull minds as they range the possibilities of Christmas editions of Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, and earnestly consider the complicated business of songs performed by the deaf and dumb, or the tango and schottische hoofed by prosthetic limbs or from a wheelchair — surely commendable after the Paralympics of this past summer. Should the BBC pay lip-service to the Christmas narrative by dispatching Michael Palin to follow the route of the three Magi or the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt? How many stars might he investigate, how many camels might he mount, and where might he find corn as high as an elephant’s eye (the elephant to be ridden too) to hide them from Herod’s pursuing soldiers? They might even consider his parting the Red Sea until some dimwit researcher from a polytechnic university, checking Wikipedia, discovers that that was done for Moses, not the Infant Christ.

Can there still be a pristine unused plot for Christmas Casualty or Holby City, or fresh formulae for the jejune interview and gossip shows of Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton? Can we imagine an Antiques Roadshow with the girlish Fiona Bruce as Mother Christmas gushing over nothing but Yuletide trivia? Sadly, we can, we can, but even that might be preferable to lending further weight to her status as an expert on paintings by Old Masters and letting her loose on the Christmas story as told by Raphael and Titian, discovering a wholly unknown Nativity by Michelangelo as a bonne-bouche.

Should not all the five main channels make a fuss of food with the Christmas recipes of La Serenissima (Nigella Lawson), Michel Roux and all the other notorious gastronomes, their mothers and their grandmothers — or is that too close to television every day, no matter what the season? The perfect traditional Christmas feast is bound to play some part in a Downton Abbey special — who shall we have breaking a tooth on a lucky silver sixpence in the Christmas pudding? And what of Christmas at The Paradise — will there be roistering in the staff dining room, or are there too few young men in the plot for that? Might it inspire a BBC4 history of the staff canteen? Can we, perhaps, have a calamity Come Dine With Me with John Major, Kirsty Allsopp, Alan Yentob, Michael Portillo and their ilk among the guests?

The sane man dreads such prospects as these, dreads too the clowning of familiar presenters. Have we not wrung the last shred of entertainment from Stephen Fry in woebegone Dickensian fantasy or Wellerish humour? Have we not had more than enough of Top Gear’s presenters in Top Gear, without their pretending to be sages, engineers and scientists in other spheres? Have we not had more than enough of sages, engineers and scientists pretending to be entertainers — are there still legions of silly girls longing to kiss the kissing mouth of Professor Brian Cox and clutch him to their adolescent bosoms? In a medium that most practitioners believe must be presenter-led, the looming face occupying the screen to the near total exclusion of the subject, it is inevitable that at Christmas all must have their turn. Does no one realise that with presenters made invisible, the camera gives us twice as much of the subject?

I am inclined to argue that one of the five main channels should be brave and bold enough to declare itself free from all references to Christmas or, better still, that one should be the dedicated Christmas channel, leaving the other four to be much the same as they usually are, their low-pitched intellectual ambitions not lowered further still. Alternatively I would like a reminiscent channel devoted to straight plays first televised it matters not how long ago, for some of us would be content with Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga or Trollope’s Pallisers, or even runs of Acorn Antiques and Hyacinth Bucket; and there must be something of the grandees of the past fit for resurrection, something by Bertrand Russell, Jacob Bronowski or even Kenneth Clark, whose Civilisation (much though I disagree with it) I would willingly watch once a -quinquennium.

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  • Paul Edwards

    Cheer up!

  • MinnieOvens

    Great rant. Feel better now?

  • Vuillard

    I’ve just had the misfortune to watch a programme about the eminent Simon Sebag Montefiore, somewhere along the line, in passing, I think he mentioned Rome.

  • Christian

    Bang on the money as usual Mr Sewell. I myself had the ‘pleasure’ of watching the masses running hither and thither like headless chickens yesterday, determined to buy shit they don’t need to quote that great philosopher Tyler Durden. Be you atheist, agnostic or believer, surely the sight of rampant consumerism makes the heart sink at this time of year. Or indeed any other. As Nietzsche observed, now that people believe in nothing they will engage in any activity that prevents them from pausing to look into the dark abyss.

  • JMckechnie1

    I’m depressed now. Cheers.

  • http://veesblog.wordpress.com/ VeroniqueD

    Perfect rant. Suits me down to the ground. Well done Mr Sewell. I feel totally uplifted and will now pour myself a glass of red wine – ’tis the season to be jolly after all. Hahaha.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.hollett.9 Jim Hollett

    An amusing little parody of ‘disgruntled from Tunbridge Wells’. Christmas is a time to catch up with friends and family, only sad people spend it watching T.V.

  • La Fold

    As Half Man Half Biscuit once sang, ” Its a cliche to be cynical at Christmas”

  • http://twitter.com/Harry_ca_Nab The Elderking

    How depressing. How true.

    Thank God I am in France. I will watch the now obligatory A Christmas Carol and shed a sentimental tear but otherwise try to avoid TV altogether whilst stuffing our faces with “Pintade Farcie Morilles et Vieil Armagnac”, with a roaring woodburner and the scent of pine.

    May even go to church. http://bit.ly/XyUvnW

    Christmas seems to have largely died in the UK, just tat, crowds and stress. The only way is to shut the door, pull out the plug and try to forget what is going on – invent your own Christmas.

    About 1/3 of the way through “Outsider” so that should see me into Christmas Brian – you naughty, naughty boy!

  • Corbus

    Knowing me knowing Yule, Alan Partridge’s Christmas Special. Follow that with a dark Dickens, a good black and whiter, say Oliver Twist (1948 – Alec Guinness) or Scrooge/A Christmas Carol (1951) menaced by Alastair Sim. Then, just to throw the whole day over the abyss-edge, clutching port decanter in one hand, club sarny in t’other, settle down with Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz; all 15 hours of it..yeahhhh.

  • Baron

    Switch the bloody box off then, put on a couple of classical CDs, talk to friends, it helps, trust Baron, he’s done it.

  • paulus

    I would assume the GP would be willing to prescribe sedatives and tranquilisers because of your stately age. And christmas will become an exotic mixture of sedation or lobotomy, and has the added advantage of lobotomizing yourself instead of the TV.

  • http://twitter.com/millree millree hughes

    Oh dear Clark and Bronowski: passing down the ‘truth’ from on high to us poor ‘umble believers. “Enry Moore, the Piltdown Man our knuckle dragging predecessors ‘explained’ to us by the great and the good. I’ll take the BlackAdder Xmas Special on Netflix instead thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alvin-Marcott/100002089370135 Alvin Marcott

    *does that hand motion* you know the one 😉

  • timinsingapore

    All true – one remembers the day when about the only concession to Christmas made by the BBC was some ‘themed’ ornament around the mast-head and page listings of the Radio Times. Anyway, if you think UK television is tawdry be thankful you are not shopping at the supermarkets of Singapore, where endlessly repeating loops of cheap Yuletide dronings (yesterday I heard a crudely synthesised carol tune tacked on to an electronic reggae beat) have been destroying the sanity of customers and staff alike since the beginning of November …

  • Anonymous

    Some people can be so miserable at Christmas.

  • Eddie

    C’mon Bwian, cheer up! May never ‘appen!

    An there’s always online porn an all y’know to put some lead in the old pecker! Eh? Eh? Nudge nudge wink wink…
    The wunnderful ting bout the modern age, is that we have the internet, DVD box sets: I have 1970s classic comedies, classic movies like Some Like IT Hot, and the classic ‘Civilsation’ – plus multichannel TV with channels such as Yesterday or ITV 4 for repeats of classic series and the usual Agatha Christie easy-gawping dramas.
    You don’t actually HAVE to watch the crap on terrestrial TV at all – and I make sure I miss most of it. I have the radio on – Classic and classical mostly – and then make the food, drink myself silly and get out the DVD box sets!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Simon-Fay/1127268875 Simon Fay

    Excellent. Craig Brown is a master of parody.

  • HarryG

    So they didn’t ask you to do the arts programme then?

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