Sunday 25 November 2012

"In my box are such delights..."

I'm in the midst of an annual tradition: watching The Box of Delights, during the 6-week countdown to Christmas, and thought it only appropriate to repost this timely (timey-wimey) review from 2010!

Guest post by Daren Thomas

‘Christmas Time, don’t let the Bells ring’ So sung Justin Hawkins, he of Freddie Mercury spangled jumpsuit fame and the once frontman of ironic 70s rock influenced, XFM-loved, combo ‘The Darkness’ on their Xmas Offering. Ahh… The Christmas songs: the weird, the wonderful, the pure cheese and the novelty. Whether it’s Shaky in his woolly jumper in Lapland, George Michael mooning over girls in Switzerland (ooh the irony) or those vaguely suspect looking 70s kids trying to join in with Roy Wood and Wizzard. Yet in spite of attempts to record a new yuletide three and half minutes of ‘fun’ (yes Chris Martin I’m looking at you), it's funny how the same ones are still rolled out year after year. Any such new ‘efforts’ only leave you wondering the same things: A) Who the hell is this? B) Why? No, really, I mean. Why? And C) When is some proper Crimble fest like ‘Walking In The Air’ coming on? And cue: some overweight snowman yanking a kid by just one arm (no, that’s not a euphemism) as they both fly, albeit improbably, in the sky towards the North Pole (or Toys R us if you are still living in the 1980s).

What’s the point of such musings you may ask? Well, apart from Christmas and apart from the very kindly Mr. Hood allowing me some space (the fool, the fool), it got me pondering about how nostalgia is so important at this time. Not just the times of our youth, the parents, family (and above all presents), but to a TV and fantasy geek like me, a time to revel in all that’s good and nerdy in the film and TV fantasy world. And I’ll go further to suggest it’s the same for all of us, not just the fans, but even the dyed in the wool ‘I don’t watch fantasy it's for kids’ types. Give them Christmas and all of us are connecting with their inner child and recalling the past, Christmas full of magic and delights… In my case a whole Box of them.

So, as I sit down on Christmas Eve for the marathon viewing of The Box of Delights, I lament on leaving it so late every year (as a three hour session isn’t the ideal way to reveal this episodic yuletide heavy treat). Then again I never seem to watch it any other way. Why? It has Christmas magic and fantasy oozing from its very spools (alternatively insert a modern day DVD equivalent phrase here). With snow aplenty and a retro CS Lewis like Xmas setting (god, they knew how to do Christmas in those ‘olden days’). It also boasts an ex-Doctor Who, old school animation and wonderful clunky blue screen. What’s not to like? Its always great to see young plucky ‘jolly hockey sticks’ Kay Harker attempting to fight off the wolves with a magical box and going head to head with camp uber-villain Abner Brown and his talking rat. This is positively a tradition I can’t live without and one of the many shows I religiously watch every Christmas, without fail. It makes me wonder, am I alone in this? If not, what’s on your list of must watch?

I blame Dickens. Damn his perfect Christmas. Apparently, modern historian types seem to agree that his take is the reason we all long for a White Christmas (no doubt with every Christmas card we write). But who can blame us? A Christmas Carol sums up the very spirit of Christmas and yet gives us an emotional cracking yarn with a fantasy twist, complete with scary ghosts that hark back to the Victorian’s love of a good Christmas ghost story. But you can keep yer singing and Dancing Albert Finney or Jean Luc Picard’s worthy, almost Shakespearian Ebenezer. Only one man is Scrooge: Alistair Sim. His portrayal has never been bettered for me.

The comedy world has given us various takes on this familiar idea too. Most recently Catherine Tate’s Nan was joined by yet another ex Doctor (who took the turn like a camp Russell Brand). Bill Murray’s Scrooged transposes Ebenezer as the unfair miserly head of a TV network (I couldn’t possibly comment). But top of my list each year is the funny delight of Blackadder’s clever reversal of the story, it’s a present that can be used again and again and again (so sue me Richard Curtis).

Even the day job at TV’s most famous fake hospital doesn’t get let off so easily, it too has had its twist on Dickens, complete with genuine ghosts that took us back to the great 86 storm and forward to a hospital in L.A. This came the year after its homage to It’s a Wonderful Life, which had Richard Briers in the Clarence role, in a bizarre fourth-wall-smashing-format-breaking one off story. Well, it's Xmas, anything is possible. Maybe.

The Dickens treatment has its long-overdue take up by this years Drew special… Whatever happened to that online fan idea of David Morrissey being a miserly alternate future Doctor who is visited by a Doctor of the past (McGann) and Doctor of the present (Tennant)? Ahh, you gotta love fans (but maybe not too much). But, as Drew is the fantasy family drama on TV right now, its place at Christmas is obvious and a seasonal must. So much so, its weird to think with its millions of viewers, its still a relatively new addition to the Christmas Day schedule. I even found myself nostalgically reaching for The Christmas Invasion to watch this year, like it was a long lost Christmas classic. Well, I suppose it sorta is. That said, if you were an old Who fan like me, as a kid, the show may have taken a Christmas break, but the toys and annuals always made it key in my celebrations.

Fantasy and Christmas have always been there and with obvious reason. That’s right, kids, I’m talking to you. The man with the beard who comes down to bring presents at Christmas time..? No. Not Noel Edmonds. Oh never mind. Anyway, there was only one must watch Christmas film for me as a kid: The Wizard of Oz in all its black and white to full hand painted Technicolor glory. Actually I lie. The great and glorious Oz didn’t come alone. Oh no. Christmas also needed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. For my Sister, it was always Digby, the biggest Dog in the World (you know - the one with Doctor Nookie in it). Then we had occasional treats like Pufnstuff or Laurel and Hardy’s Babe’s in Toyland. All of which were inspiringly fantastical and magical over the holidays.

Naturally, Christmas films and TV don’t just stop with the fantasy-led ones. Where would be without The Great Escape or The Italian Job or The Sound of Music? I hear you cry. Ah. That great melting pot of Xmas TV: The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise and take your pick of Minder or Poirot on the Orient Express. But even the safest, most well-known of these would then seemingly dip their head into the bizarre and fantastical: In Only Fool’s and Horses, Rodney has a nightmarish flash forward and who could forget the bizarre edition of Two point Four Children which still haunts me to this day (that and the sit com So Haunt Me – but that’s a whole different story). In recent years one of the best examples came in Lark Rise To Candleford. Yes. You heard me correctly. A beautiful snowy festive tale with the sad story of a lost ghost, which turned out to be… Wait for it… A real ghost! Whoda thunk it?!? It was a real genuine treat. This year UK TV’s best drama Misfits had its own take on the proceedings and Howard Overman’s superb writing once again gave us a funny, endearing and fantasy drama with great comedic timing (just don’t watch it with Nan and Grandad after the Turkey).

So whether you are one of the ten odd million tuning in for Katherine Jenkins and Karen Gillan… Sorry, I mean Matt Smith and Michael Gambon (naturally) in this years Drew, or whether it’s the ghost story re-working of Whistle and I’ll Come for You, another Harry Potter, or even a re-showing of Sky’s Pratchett.. Planned or not. Just by being with others, especially children, siblings or friends, or just getting into the Xmas atmos, you will become that inner child once again. So, you won’t get away with the old ‘I don’t do fantasy’ adage. It doesn’t wash at Christmas. All bets are off. So, come on, embrace it (as you know you will). Don’t worry we won’t tell. Promise…

As Stevie Wonder sang

‘Everyone’s a geek at Christmas Time’

I think that’s what he sung. Didn’t he?

Daren Thomas is a budding writer, whose day job in television has been diverse, from Assistant Directing on ‘Eastenders’, to looking after roof-jumping free-runners on a French action movie ‘Les Fils Du Vent’ and pretending to be Michael Kitchen on ‘Foyle’s War’. He has worked for several years in the script/story department within the BBC’s continuing drama ‘Holby City’.

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