Thursday, 27 December 2012

The sound of Christmas

Bogart. Pencil sketch.
Everyone has memories that are linked to times of year; to occasions; to places. Christmas and New Year are hardly unique, but they’re always going to feature highly on any such personal list.

For Nigel Slater, many such memories are inextricably bound up with food – and that includes his festive ones. His memoir of his early life, Toast, is well worth reading.

But while I have memories of Christmases past, food has never been the main part of those – not least, I suspect, because of a strong memory of my mother, sister and me sitting around, waiting for my father to return from taking morning services before we could begin the big festive meal, the crackle of unspoken tension alive in the air.

And turkey was never a favourite meat anyway: bland and less than moist. My mother's stuffing balls – she never actually stuffed the bird – and the sausages were always welcome, perhaps especially when cold, and particularly when accompanying cold turkey sandwiches on Christmas night.

Ah yes: Christmas night in front of the telly, watching the late-night BBC2 classic movie after my sister had gone to bed.

Sometimes you don’t even need things to have been replicated often for them to be linked and lodged in your head.

The sandwiches – brown meat, well salted – were traditional, but I remember just one specific such film, and thus it has become a norm for those times.

It was The Big Sleep; 1946, Bogart and Bacall setting the screen alight with their chemistry. The plot a mystery, but who ever cared?

Films were a vital part of my life; welcome escapism. There would be Saturday evening westerns after Grandstand had finished; an event that made sure my first heroes were not pop stars, but the likes of Jimmy Stewart and, most of all, John Wayne.

But then came that Christmas night and, at something like 13 or 14, a sudden burst of growing up. Wayne became a thing of the past – Bogart, a Christmas Day birthday boy himself, usurping utterly more simplistic tastes.

It was not without ramifications. Destined (according to teachers and, therefore, parents alike) to be a graphic artist, pencils were turned to conveying this new, noir passion. It continued unabated and fed into my O level work.

But that wasn’t the only Christmas Day film that had a lasting influence.

Pick a Pocket or Two – or just skip lunch.
Around much the same time, the BBC screened Oliver! for the first time one Christmas afternoon.

I have no memory of the rest of the family sitting down to watch. They might have. They might not. But memory is an odd beast, and mine is of seeing it in a sort of vacuum of personal delight.

A few years earlier, there had been an attempt to have me learn to play the piano. My mother’s parents had given us one and, when I was considered old enough, one of my father’s church organists was given the task of teaching me.

It was tedious: he lacked any inspirational qualities and I lacked any interest.

By the time the attempt withered, I had learned little more than to recognise middle C on both page and instrument.

But from nowhere came the desire to play. I saved school lunch money for a week or so, pretending I’d eaten but going without, and bought the film score instead.

At home, perched on the long bench, padded, and covered in shining emerald green fabric, the lid raised as neglected ivories itched to be tinkled, I started picking out the tunes.

It drove everyone mad. After such a previous lack of enthusiasm, now I’d happily play away for hours. Not smoothly or flowingly; but I worked at it and learned some of the pieces.

And later, I bought more sheet music. Inevitably, more show scores, although I made attempts – slow and error-strewn – at Beethoven and Chopin.

Many years later, reviewing for the Morning Star, the National Youth Theatre staged Blitz!, another Lionel Bart show. The rest of the media, which never before bothered to review these ‘amateur’ productions, feigned interest – amazed that Bart was even still alive.

Could they have an interview? No, he was not a well man. But 12 months on, when the group staged Maggie May, National Youth Theatre artistic director Ed Wilson, to whom I had told the story of my pianistic endeavours, invited me to the announcement of the new season, and engineered a meeting with the man himself.

“Tell him the same story,” said Ed, “and you’ll have him eating out of your hands”.

It was the final interview Bart ever gave. And setting aside any cynical hackery, I stood transfixed, starstruck even, as, lost in own memories, he regaled me with stories of how, on the opening night of Maggie May, he’d attended the premiere with Judy Garland on his arm.

Judy Garland: oh my.

'I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.'
The Wizard of Oz was never a Christmas film for me, but it came to have a Christmas connotation. One of the earliest films I’d been taken to see at the cinema on a re-release, I’d been terrified by the witch.

At 12 or 13, I played the Munchkin mayor in a school production. Some six or seven years later, I was unexpectedly playing the witch in a production at the Grand Theatre, Lancaster.

I say “unexpectedly”, because there were plenty more senior actors around who could have expected to win the role, and anyway, I’d auditioned for Gloria, on the basis of a combination of age and singing voice.

But I’d been asked to read the witch during auditions for the part of Gilda, the good witch – and had had enough of a ball that I’d been given the part.

A week in December, with matinees – a week to remember, seeing small children slither up the backs of their seats at the front of the stage, scared, but unable to take their bloggling eyes off what was happening under the bright lights as I – as the witch – slowly descended the stairs over the pit and into the stalls.

Oh, such power!

Weeks after, I was with my mother in a shop in Lancaster when a small boy suddenly yelled: ‘It’s her! It’s the witch!’ And that was without the make-up.

But that’s not the only Judy Garland connection in my Christmas memory bank.

Years later, I was helping my mother decorate the house one Christmas Eve (it’s always a last-minute matter) and we had the television on to accompany us. It was Meet Me in St Louis.

My father, late home from a service or a meeting, came into the room, stopped and stared at the TV long and hard, eyes narrowed in intense concentration.

Yes Dad: it's Judy.
Eventually, he said: “It’s The Wizard of Oz.” Well, at least he’d recognised Judy.

But going back to those earlier Christmases, the bumper issue of the Radio Times would have been scoured several times over before any of the programmes aired, just to pick out what films I might hope to see and makes a note of them.

And this was in simpler times, remember, when there were only listings for three channels.

Films, films and more films: I was in love with the Golden Age of Hollywood. Later, the magazine would be plundered for my scrapbooks, carefully-snipped stills joining cast lists and comments of my own.

The Radio Times Christmas edition has continued to be a part of my personal festive season, though to be honest, there seems little more on that I want to watch than there was in the 1970s.

Yesterday, scouring it once again for something to watch on a grim, rain-sodden afternoon, I could find nothing.

Rainy entertainment for a rainy day.
But a thought occurred. On the shelf was a copy of the 60th anniversary BluRay of Singin’ in the Rain. What could be better?

It’s easy to imagine that technological advancement takes us further and further away from the past. That, after all, is partly what this Gene Kelly classic is all about.

But fully restored and on a format that allows the full glory of the original design and cinematography to be enjoyed once more, it snapped into life.

Kelly himself, utterly brilliant – what a dancer; Debbie Reynolds in delightful girl-next-door-becomes-a-star mode and Donald O’Connor showing fabulous slapstick skills – oh, it was as much a joy as ever.

So that’s my Christmas rediscovered: old movies. Classic Hollywood. Glitz and glamour and escapism, and yes, a little sentiment too. Although I draw the line at the schmaltz assault of A Wonderful Life.

I could stand in front of a little bookshop in Lancaster, waiting for the bus home after school, and put names to all the faces on the covers of large studio histories, then linking them according to who had appeared with whom on film.

I never sat down and learned such things; they just stayed put once imbibed.

So what’s up next? Well, it just has to be the BluRay copy of The Wizard of Oz. It too has been on the shelf for some time. This is clearly the moment it’s been waiting for.


  1. Amanda I read this last night and just wanted to say thankyou for bringing back some truly evocotive Christmas memories. Singing in the Rain , The Wizard of Oz how i love these films my dad wanting to watch The Alamo for the upteenth time . Fighting over the Radio Times i didnt realise it was still printed . Now i get to watch my favourite films with my children hopefully creating memories for them. Although they have their own favourites Toy Story and the Harry Potters .

    1. Thank you, Tracey. glad you enjoyed it.

      We both enjoy new films such as 'Shrek' and 'Toy Story' too, but I don't think anything has quite the resonance of those films you saw as a child.