Magazine article The Spectator

Screen Burn

Magazine article The Spectator

Screen Burn

Article excerpt

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 cliche 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. …

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