I’m glad to see people started watching television again this Christmas. Perhaps it’s because there’s a nationwide shortage of Nintendo Wiis.
In a rare moment of organisation I purchased a family Wii back in November. As a result, for the last five days the television hasn’t had a look in, so I haven’t been able to share the nation’s preoccupation with the new love scandal in Albert Square, or see Kylie turned into an echo in Doctor Who. While record numbers were tuning into BBC1, we had family tennis tournaments, boxing championships, and, the ultimate theatre of war called Guitar Hero. My children now have photographs of their seriously overweight dad clutching a plastic imitation guitar doing his best Clapton impersonation. It’s not a pretty sight.
Television is a great national festive pastime, like gluttony and queuing at the Boxing Day sales. I made a Christmas special exactly 21 years ago. It took me six months to make and cost three million dollars, which probably makes it the most expensive hour of television ever made. Called Fire and Ice, it starred the skaters Torvill & Dean, and it has gone into television legend, largely because London Weekend Television lost so much money on it.
It started out as a bold idea by John Birt, the director of programmes. Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean were our golden couple at the 1984 Winter Olympics, so John decided to give the nation a Christmas treat and commissioned an ice ballet for them. It was going to be sold around the world, and a deal was already in place for America – hence the enormous budget. I was asked to write and direct it, and Carl Davis composed the music.
It was a dream job: the entire thing had to be written, rehearsed and filmed abroad, for Chris and Jayne were on a world tour. So Carl and I traipsed round the world like ice groupies, writing and composing scenes as we went. Then with an international company of skaters we rehearsed for three months in a German ski resort.
Eventually we built the world’s largest ice rink in a huge gymnasium near Stuttgart. One hundred and thirty British technicians came across the Channel in a fleet of trucks. Half the show was shot on a massive “Fire” set, with thirty foot high flames, then we shot all the scenes in the “Ice” kingdom.
Everything went fine until the final day of shooting when John Birt arrived with the money men. During the break John came over and tapped me on the shoulder. His face was white.
“Tom, we have a problem”, he said. “Apparently you can’t show buttocks in America”.
Now the entire plot revolved around the “Fire” Prince falling in love with the “Ice” princess, and the Fire people wore very little. Christopher Dean in particular sported a rather fetching thong.
“Can’t you shoot them from the front?” John suggested. I explained that this was a somewhat impractical solution as ice skaters generally spend their time spinning round in little circles, and therefore Dean’s buttocks would be revealed to the camera approximately twenty times a second. “I suppose you can’t fix it in post-production?”, he asked in desperation.
That’s why despite receiving lots of international awards, to this day Fire and Ice has never been shown in America. And that’s also why London Weekend Television has given up commissioning expensive Christmas specials.
As I write this, sitting in my office beneath a framed photograph of me with Chris and Jayne on the infamous ice set, my eldest son has just come in clutching last night’s evidence of Dad playing Clapton.
OK, I give in. The two photographs say it all. 21 years of Christmases have taken their toll. My New Year’s resolution is staring me in the face. I’m losing 21 pounds by Easter. Promise.