Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts

Monday, January 13, 2014

Should we move Christmas?

Last Tuesday I celebrated Christmas with my family. 

A fortnight late, I know, though not according to my Serbian builder. Zoric (his real name is Velibor, but everyone calls him by his surname) observed his Christmas on Tuesday as well. In Serbia they use the Julian calendar, so his celebrations are always two weeks late, a bit like his building work. 

While Zoric was supposed to be chopping down an oak branch and spreading straw on the floor of his house (a Serbian tradition I doubt he transposes to his flat in Tottenham) I was a few miles away in the Groucho Club, surrounded by children, presents and bemused celebrities.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Best Christmas Present Ever

Well, that wasn’t too bad. I can’t believe I’ve reached Christmas Eve without completely tearing my hair out. 

I put it down to two factors: first, our wonderful and generous neighbours Dick and Linda have invited us (and Mum) for lunch on Christmas Day, so for once I’m not panicking about whether the turkey is the right size, or whether I’ve remembered the goose fat, because now we don’t need either. Thank you so much, Linda. I just hope we’re still friends after the charades. 

Oh, didn’t I tell you about that? Mum, who’s nearly 92, has to play charades on Christmas afternoon.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Dog Is Not Just For Christmas

One good thing about the world coming to an end this Friday is that we needn’t worry about last-minute Christmas presents.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bah Humbuggery!

Oh no – Izzy has found out about Hanukkah gifts. 

As my daughter is half-Jewish, we couldn’t really expect to keep it from her. But, seriously: 8 nights of presents? Whereas Santa’s flying visit happens just once a year, the Jewish equivalent takes eight whole evenings, on each of which a child is supposed to receive a little gift. Izzy can’t wait.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy Holidays

Nobody says Happy Christmas anymore in the United States. Instead they’ve cleverly swept up Christmas, Boxing Day, Hanukkah and New Year into a generic and optimistic “Happy Holidays”.

What a misnomer: how could this time of year ever be described as a holiday? The word holds the promise of chestnuts and roaring fires, Santa and smiles; it suggests rejuvenation and reconciliation, the comfort and happy familiarity of close family; it conjures up images of carol singers and giant reindeer and polar bears lit up on neighbours’ homes, the scent of mulled wine and free mince pies in large, welcoming department stores. “Holiday” means grannies will be smiling as giggling children tear open their beautifully wrapped presents and scream with delight at thoughtful wooden toys and hand-knitted jumpers. Holiday is a time without dissent, politics or strife.

They’ve obviously never spent Christmas in our household. This year my wife actually got things incredibly well organised, and did most of the Christmas shopping in October. Despite this, we still managed to spend an entire December week stuck in traffic jams in Newcastle’s absurd “no car” driving lanes, and queuing in even longer lines for department store checkouts, with Izzy screaming for attention and home.

In our final few days of panic-buying, we turned to the internet for help, and consequently spent hours waiting in for courier companies to honour guaranteed next-day delivery, then more hours driving through industrial estates looking for courier company warehouses after their drivers put “sorry you were out” cards through our neighbour’s door.

Fearing a champagne drought, we carefully emptied all the local supermarket’s shelves of its half-price bottles, yet today, New Year’s Day, our wine rack is completely empty, and we still have a houseful of people. I’ve been scrambling hangover-curing eggs at the rate of two-dozen a morning. That’s over 300 broken eggshells since Christmas Eve.

The best thing about American holidays is that they are mercifully short. People work on Christmas Eve, Santa arrives on time, and everyone is safely back in the office by Boxing Day. Our celebrations started on the 21st, my eldest daugher’s birthday (“Just a few close friends, Dad, and I’m sure they’ll all bring sleeping bags”), and we still have a houseful of cousins. For two weeks we haven’t seen our sitting room floor for the piles of wrapping paper, bows and discarded cardboard. Our nice new sofa has been introduced to various vintages of red wine.

We had turkey, brisket (my wife is Jewish, so we celebrate Hanukkah as well as Christmas), roast lamb for 14 and giant stews for 30, and I’ve personally consumed so much chocolate I swear I’ve turned completely spherical. So far no one has ended in casualty, though at 3am on Christmas morning Izzy woke up and announced she was about to be sick. Her prediction proved completely accurate, so, instead of a present-filled stocking, Santa had to bring her clean sheets and pyjamas. Three times.

I can’t wait for Wednesday and the excitement of sending emails from my nice quiet office. So what did you get for Christmas? my team will ask. I will proudly point to my new watch, a perfectly timed gift from my wife. I will tell of a lovely book about Northumbrian gardens, a most thoughtful offering from my Mum. I will mention various useful gadgets for my kitchen and my own garden, without which I can’t imagine how I’ve survived the last few years.

However, I will certainly not refer to the Borat mankini, given to me as a joke by my nieces. They have dared me to wear it next week and send them a photo. Even without the effects of the chocolate I wouldn’t be seen dead in it. For next week this spherical columnist will be on the other side of the world, basking on a sun-kissed beach. I’m taking a holiday to recover from the holidays. And, boy do I need it.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hunt's Folly

The entire audience was hushed: the play had reached its climax. Suddenly the silence was pierced by a lone shrill voice: “Daddy, I want a wee-wee”. Izzy was enjoying her first live theatre show.

Northern Stage’s slick, fun production of “Shhh…A Christmas Story” managed to hold an audience of toddlers spellbound for well over an hour. Izzy’s eyes lit up from the moment she saw the lights, moving scenery and jolly actors.

She sat transfixed, apart from one unscripted moment when, fascinated by some prop snowballs that had been flying around the stage, she ignored our pleas to sit down and strode onstage to retrieve one for herself. The actors merely paused, watched her walk round them, and then carried on. I’d love to have a video of that precious moment.

I guess that’s the sort of home video that will be the mainstay of Jeremy Hunt’s new local television plans. I can’t imagine what else we’ll be watching. Last week the Secretary of State announced that Newcastle had been chosen as one of the first “pioneer” cities to be awarded licences for local stations. Quite why he thinks there’s any demand for this in Newcastle is beyond me. None of the people who are capable of making local television work have agreed to get involved. Perhaps some wannabes have been seduced by the lure of showbusiness. They are about to get a rude awakening.

Jeremy Hunt’s plans are based on his mistaken belief that if cities like Birmingham, Alabama have their own thriving local television stations, then so should Birmingham, West Midlands. And Newcastle, Tyne and Wear. Evidently our Secretary of State doesn’t know how American television actually works. Over there all the successful local stations, which do have strong local news outputs, are owned by or affiliated to the main networks, which supply them with expensive and highly profitable primetime programming. Every big city has at least 5 local stations, carrying shows like Dancing With the Stars and the X-Factor. They transmit network daytime shows and high budget “syndicated” talk shows. They also carry local news in the morning, early evening and late night.

Sounds familiar? We’ve actually had that system in the UK since the 1950s. It’s called ITV. Until it was systematically ruined by Thatcher’s disastrous reforms, we had good local programmes through our own Tyne Tees Television, which also carried all the hits of the ITV network. Sure, it was regional, not local, but at least it gave our area a sense of identity, was independently owned, and supplied us with quality regional news.

In 2010 the Labour government tried to turn regional into local, by creating a local news pilot scheme. The concept was simple, and probably economically sound: give the ITV regional news to new local providers to create an integrated operation working on a regional, local and hyper-local level. In the North East, the licence was won by a consortium that included the daily newspaper I write a column for: The Journal. The newspaper’s newsroom would have become multi-media, enabling users to enjoy not only better regional news on ITV, but also enjoyed layers of information in print, on the web and on your mobile phone – you could even type your postcode into a computer and find information about your own community.

It was a 21st century solution that would also have been sustainable. As in America, network shows would have driven audiences to the regional output; just two commercial breaks around the regional news would have funded most of the cost and the service would have been built around a proven and profitable newsgathering operation. Good journalism requires investment, training, rigour and professionalism. You are reading the proof of this right now. Sadly, Jeremy Hunt stubbornly axed this bold experiment and replaced it with his own harebrained, old-fashioned plan for local stations.

I can’t imagine a single advertiser supporting an amateur station with cheap low-quality videos. Shots of Izzy running onstage to collect snowballs may be fun viewing for me, but it’s hardly going to compete with Strictly Come Dancing, is it? Without expertise, viewers or advertisers, Hunt’s Folly is bound to fail.

Friday, June 17, 2011

My Worst Christmas


The BBC has announced the sale of one of Britain’s most iconic buildings: Television Centre. For me that vast circle of studios, like a giant question mark topped by glass-fronted offices, stirs up mixed emotions. Set in the wasteland of Shepherds Bush, within spitting distance of QPR’s football ground, it was the scene of the highest points of my BBC career, and also the lowest. For this was where, in 1971, I spent the most miserable Christmas of my life.

As a student desperate for any start in television, I’d secured a vacation job in the mailroom. They put me in a section called “Incoming Mail”. There were 15 middle-aged women and me. Our job was to open every letter sent to the BBC.

Quite why we had to do this, we weren’t sure. Nobody actually told us to look for anything – like evidence of communists, Payola, or ITV headhunters. We just opened the envelopes, stapled them to the contents, and put them in mailboxes to be delivered by men with trollies round long the circular corridors. This repetitive job turned out to be a perfect career springboard. For, by surreptitious reading of the mail, I soon identified all the key producers. All I had to do was meet them.

The head of the mail service, a man called Mr Beasley, with a voice of gravel and a heart of gold, took me under his wing and let me play the “lost post” game. If I spotted a letter to a person I wanted to meet, he let me hold it back from the mail run and go upstairs to deliver it myself. In this way I met the man who gave me my first proper job after university.

In the 1970s ‘TC’, as it was called to all who worked there, was the most exciting place in the world. The circle comprised 8 busy studios – 4 large, 3 small, and, at the bottom of the question mark, behind the familiar BBC Television Centre sign, the biggest studio in Europe, a cavernous space full of lights, cameras and memories called TC1. In my meal breaks I would rush upstairs to the observation galleries and watch the filming of Top of the Pops and Doctor Who. Sometimes friendly studio managers let me inside to see some of the most famous names on television performing their stuff: from Morecambe & Wise to The Two Ronnies.

10 years after I joined the mailroom, I became the director of the General Election, the largest programme ever produced from the building, which simultaneously utilised every studio except TC1. That had been reserved for an entertainment series called “The Hot Shoe Show”. I was the producer of that programme too.

This was undoubtedly the high point – the following year I handed in my resignation and started my own company. But, back in 1971, my enthusiasm for life in this incredible building was marred by an unfortunate incident involving, as happened all too often in my life, a beautiful woman.

At university I had fallen in unrequited lust for a blond first-year called Nicky. Having pointedly shunned my advances all term, one day she asked if we might share a flat in London over the holidays. As the only ‘flat’ we could afford was a single-roomed bedsit, I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d be sharing a room with the most beautiful girl in the world: it was the best Christmas ever.

Sadly, on the first night, my world disintegrated. Paul, tanned and Australian, lived in the room next door. It took him less than 20 minutes to seduce my Nicky. The walls were very thin. On New Year’s Eve they stayed in for a night of romance and I trudged, in freezing rain, to seek solace in the bar at Television Centre. It was shut.

By 2015 it will have closed forever: but the memories remain.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Travels with Izzy - Part Two: Christmas Is Cancelled

So that’s Izzy’s childhood fantasy blown. There’s no way she’ll ever dream of sleighbells and reindeer now – she’ll be hiding under the covers every Christmas Eve praying that Santa is just a bad dream.

It’s all the fault of an absurdly smart shopping mall we visited in Newport Beach, an hour south of Los Angeles. They have the tallest Christmas tree in America, a 100 foot giant with over 17,000 ornaments and lights. Beneath it lies Santa’s Village: in fact, it’s just a little Swiss mountain hut, but I guess to a two-year-old it could be a village and it was Izzy’s first chance to meet Santa.

There was no queue at all, quite astonishing for a large mall a week before Christmas. The recession has hit America hard: department stores were advertising sales, restaurants were half empty and bored assistants were chatting to boyfriends on cellphones. We walked up to the mountain hut and peeped inside. There, sitting silently in a huge cream wing chair, was Santa.

I know a 58-year-old isn’t supposed to believe in this stuff, but I’ve never seen a less fake Father Christmas. He had real white whiskers and his eyes twinkled as he stared at us. He didn’t speak or move. He was absolutely, overwhelmingly terrifying.

There were three other people in the room: a bedraggled mother was trying to coax her tearful daughter to have her picture taken by Santa’s official photographer, who had flown down specially from the North Pole with offers of a full Rudolph digital package for $47.95 or maybe just a Prancer ($17.95 for a couple of prints). The kid was having none of it. Older than Izzy by at least a year, the more her mother reasoned with her, bribing with cookies and promises of gifts to come, the less keen she became. Eventually Mom pointed at us: “Look, that little girl isn’t scared – watch her go sit on Santie’s lap”. We had to save the day.

I confidently prised Izzy from her comfy pushchair, sprinkled with chocolate brownie crumbs, and carried her towards the monster. It looked at us and raised one bushy eyebrow. “Good luck, mate,” I said to him jovially, then paused. Aren’t parents supposed to address Santa with more respect? Maybe I should have given a little bow? This was all too casual.

He didn’t react at all, grey eyes piercing through white eyebrows. No “Ho-Ho-Ho, and what do you want for Christmas, little girl?” The beard bore no sign of join or adhesive, and the round face attached to it looked a thousand years old. He looked like a man who’d been glued to his seat since Thanksgiving, despite repeated calls to his agent that he should be back on some nice Hollywood film set.

“Izzy, this is Santa”, I said more slowly, “ and you’re going to see quite a lot of him in your life.” Then I asked, “Should I put her on your lap?”

I stopped myself. Oh God, perhaps they aren’t allowed to do that anymore. I didn’t want to get Santa arrested for indecency. Santa’s right hand, resting on his giant thigh, twitched a weary finger towards his knee.

As I handed her over, Izzy’s eyes opened in surprise. Then she turned and looked at me as if I was completely mad.
The mouth opened, the eyes welled up, and five seconds later a scream blew the doors off Santa’s Village shattering several baubles on the giant Christmas tree. If looks could speak, it would have been “You’re Kidding Me – Get Me Off This Man Right Now!”

“Oh my goodness”, said the photographer through the din. “Told you so”, wailed the three-year-old to her Mom. “Maybe next year”, I apologized to Santa. “Maybe not”, I thought I heard him mutter through the beard.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Careful What You Wish For

Having just penned several hundred words on the joys of a snowy winter, as if to show I had no idea what I was talking about, yesterday evening the icybars cascaded on Northumberland with two feet of powdery stuff: the farm looks as though a giant bailer of icing sugar has been emptied all over it. The cars are completely covered - you can't even make out the roof racks. We've been stranded in this white paradise since New Year’s Eve – I’ve photographs of our garden that would grace the lid of any biscuit tin. The whole valley is silent and the cattle in the neighbouring fields are shell-shocked. The bull is particularly grumpy and stands apart from his cows, who are huddled together round the empty feeding trough up to their rumps and sirloins in what looks like a sea of horseradish. Or maybe that’s my fantasy: our freezer packed full of sheep, the prescient gift of a local farmer. We’ll be baa-ing at each other in a few days if we can’t get out to the shops. I could murder a nice rib eye.

The dogs absolutely love it: they bounce through the powder, picking up giant snowballs of ice on their ears and legs. After a couple of hours' sledging down the big field, with dogs weaving giant spidery trails through the snow, we've spent the af
ternoon picking iceballs out of Truffle and Mabel's ears and trying a general dogmelt beside the Aga. Now it's time for Dorothy's Christmas Cake, iced by the children, and mulled wine with the neighbours. This must be how they celebrated Christmas in Victorian times, before global warming and Doctor Who. With the uninspiring Christmas television schedule rejected by the whole family, for the first Christmas holiday I can recall we’ve begun to open the board games we’ve given each other. Our most bizarre one is called The Clinic: it analyses whether you’re mad or not. I most certainly am, apparently. I don’t recommend it.

I’ve been trying to remember the last time we had a winter like this in the northeast. I can clearly recall my sense of wonderment at seeing the concrete emerge in the playground at Cullercoats Infants School after weeks of icy entombment. That must have been in 1957. It’s funny how snow brings back childhood memories.

It's quite nice being marooned, although Mum is due back from the South tomorrow, and Mother-In-Law flies in from L.A., so somehow I'm going to have to get out of here or they'll be staying in the Premier Inn. Bizarrely, Mum decided to book herself on the bus, rather than take the train or plane. She's travelling with her best friend Biddy. Should be a long trip - not least for the other passengers. The Volvo is daring me to take it down the lane, despite my nearly wrecking it on the ice last year. I wonder if Morpeth has a snowplough taxi service? Quite how we get out of here to pick any of them up from airports and stations is a mystery.

Best open another bottle of wine, throw a log on the fire, and let tomorrow fend for itself.

Speaking of log fires: I’m rather relieved the snow forced us to miss our friends’ New Year's Eve party. Apparently it was quite a momentous evening.

Just as Jools Holland was hooting his nanny, they suddenly heard what sounded like an earthquake inside their chimneybreast. A chimney fire is an alarming and potentially disastrous event at any time, but it’s particularly scary at 11 o’clock on New Year’s Eve. Especially when the fire engine rings to say it can’t get through the snow. Everyone rushed through the house with jugs of water to douse the flames (at one point they even tried Perrier). A solitary fireman managed to trudge through the drifts and arrived just after midnight. First footers are supposed to arrive with a piece of coal, which was the last thing they needed, but this one didn’t even have a hose. Luckily house and family survived.

I guess it made the party go with a bit of a swing, and it's certainly a talking point for the village. Make note to find a local chimney sweep. Or small boy with plenty of hair. Isn't that what they used in Victorian times?

Monday, December 31, 2007

Torvill and Dean's buttocks

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.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas with Mr Grumpy

I would have composed a witty description of our Christmas lunch, but I see that Mr Keith Hann, who joined us for the celebrations, has already published one on his blog.

If he thinks my cooking is that good, he mustn't get out a lot. Which his blog seems to suggest is true.

However, the meal added about six pounds to both our waistlines. Hence the next couple of contributions. Not that I'm obsessed by my size, or anything.