Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Santa Delivers

Very late on Christmas night, I realised that the sliced roast chicken I use to bribe my cats to take their tablets had just passed its sell-by date, so I decided to go put it out near the back garden for any passing foxes to enjoy.  I was surprised, when I opened my front door, to find that someone had partly pushed through my letterbox a small gift-wrapped present—bigger than a jewellery box but smaller than the average book.   
This was particularly curious as I really don't know anyone in the town where I live, which is effectively a suburb of London.  As a commuter who used to live in central London, I've made my friends in town and meet up with them there, and they tend to live in other home counties, far away from my home.  My life since I moved there (dragged by my ex when we were still married) has been pretty much a matter of walking from the train station to home, and from home to the train station, with occasional excursions from home to the shops.  Other than that, I'm happily holed up inside, for far too short a time before returning to the train station to head to town….
I know my neighbour downstairs, but we don't exchange gifts and in any case, she and her child had left for relatives earlier that morning if not the previous night.  I know my elderly neighbour next door, whose door faces mine but she's on the ground floor whereas I'm on the first, as she kindly often takes in my packages, of which there are far too many as I unfortunately get a bit click-happy when online in the middle of the night, so much so that Amazon would probably declare bankruptcy if I mended my errant ways.  But that dear neighbour had left earlier when her son came to get her, and she had already thoughtfully given me a box of chocolates to thank me for returning her rubbish and recycling bins to their usual place after their contents have been collected each week, which I do as I return my own as I figure it takes me less time than it would her.
I know by sight the newish young neighbour who lives above her, although I mostly think of him as the guy who decimated my Weeping Birch (no wonder it's weeping) so that he could get better satellite reception, and I'm certain he wouldn't give me any gift (other than the flowers he handed me as an apology for the tree destruction, which annoyed me more than anything, but that's another story involving, amongst other things, my hatred of men who think 'give her some flowers' will fix anything upsetting a mere woman).  He's good for a laugh only in that I scared the life out of him the other night, which had me laughing for hours, and in fact the memory of it has started me off again now, which is embarrassing as I'm typing this in Starbucks and people nearby seem to think I'm a bit mad, sitting here guffawing on my own (how rude!) 
In order to get it out of my system, I shall now briefly wander off on that tangent before returning to the mystery of the anonymous gift.  About a week before, I was doing exactly the same thing, ie going outside to put out the unused old chicken for the foxes at an unreasonably late hour.   It was probably about 1am, but I had only just remembered before going to bed and didn't want the chicken to get any older, lest I make any foxes or neighbourhood cats ill or lest they refuse it so I'd have to go back and pick it all up, which would be gross once it was all mangy and covered in outdoor gunk.  So, at 1 am, I decided to go outside and since I live in a first floor maisonette, I have to go out the front door and downstairs and to the side of the house, between mine and the aforementioned neighbours' identical dwelling, to the back where I have a path to my back garden.  No simple matter of popping out the French windows.  Nor could I throw it out the back window as the chicken slices would undoubtedly land on my downstairs neighbour's conservatory roof or her child, which would probably annoy her.
So I put on my coat just in case the personal alarm that was in the pocket came in handy, given the late hour, and that coat was long, black and cloak-like.  The light beside the front door did not go on when I began descending the stairs as the sensor was aimed further down the path towards the front gate, but I knew the way and could manoeuvre it in the darkness, with a faint sliver of dim light from a far off street light behind the house.
The rest of the Close was pretty much dead, everyone long since tucked up in bed.  It was astonishingly windy, I dumped the chicken and swirled round to return to the house.  As I did so, the fierce wind blew my black cloak-like coat high up behind me parallel to the ground, and I rushed quickly towards the front to reach the stairs so I could return to the warmth inside. 
Just then, the aforementioned young newish male neighbour came into view, having entered the Close after a late night and walked along the dark pavement undisturbed by anything save the wind, and no doubt fully expecting to pass his front garden as he was now doing and then turn onto the pavement that led to our doors and climb his stairs in a peaceful and uneventful manner, no doubt believing he was the only person for a mile who was still awake and outside at 1 am.
Instead, he was surprised—clearly VERY surprised—not just to see some movement coming from our generally deserted back gardens and bins area, but something moving extremely quickly towards him that, with a black cloak flying behind her in the severe wind, no doubt resembled a vampire rushing towards him.  Now, I am glad to say I have never personally caught a deer in the headlights, but this absolutely must be the effect they describe in that saying.  

He went from bumbling along casually without a care, mostly staring at his feet, to bolting upright in a nearly violent fashion.  His body went stiff and unbelievably rigid with a quick jump, and in doing so he appeared to grow two feet taller.  His spine abruptly flattened and the whites of his eyes seemed to completely fill his face.  Then, in this new, odd position, he absolutely froze.  Seriously, just froze in that stiffened state, looking like a terrified plank of wood wearing Ichabod Crane's head.  I gave him a disinterested glance, rushed up my stairs, turned on my porch to open my front door and headed inside, noting then that he still remained in that frozen position out front on the pavement.  I half wish that I'd let out one of my comically evil cackles as I moved along, just for my own amusement.  I then shut and locked my door and found myself doubled over in laughter, and I continued to laugh solidly for a good two hours.  I suppose it makes a rubbish tale, but it was a hilarious sight to behold.
But back to this anonymous Christmas present.  Stuck to the front was a white label that said, "From one pet owner to another. Enjoy."  None of the owners other than those I mentioned knew I had cats, and the female neighbours I'm on good terms with would not have sent it anonymously.  Some neighbours who are home during the day might have seen me take the carriers into the rental car when I went to collect the cats from the rescue centre or taking the carriers to the taxi during our recent trips to the vet.  Or someone who walked as far as my house might notice that one of them sits in the window most mornings.  Other than that, no one else would know.
And it said pet owner, rather than cat owner.  Wouldn't you say "cat" if both owned cats?  There are two known dog owners who constantly scowl and certainly wouldn't give me a gift.  There was an older woman who used to walk her sweet looking dog but I fear he's long gone as I've not seen them for a year or so, but I doubt she knew which house was mine. My next-door neighbours on the other side do own pets, including a cat and parrot,  but they are loathsome people who illegally converted their loft so that it sounds like I have an elephants aerobics class going on directly over my head 24 hours a day even though I'm on the top floor, and that caused cracks all over my ceiling, and after the 10 months of unbearable DIY noise such as electric drills even late at night and on holidays, they then installed a home cinema in it, or so I'm guessing, given that it sounds like I'm living in the lobby of a loud Cineworld, but without the comfort of popcorn.  Then they had the gall to complain that my boiler was noisy, now that they illegally chose to lay their heads beside it in what should be a storage area.  Not that I'm bitter.  But you'll surely agree it's unlikely they'd give me a present unless it was ticking.  Plus I think they would know that they could open the porch door and leave the gift on my porch rather than just pushing it through the letterbox, so that might rule them out completely.
A very sweet elderly couple have seen me take a cat to the vet when I took the taxi that they couldn't use once, but sadly the man had been taken to hospital that evening (he seems to be back and well, bless him), and I don't think they have pets, so it couldn't have been them.
So I'm really at a loss.  I opened it expecting it to be cat food that someone didn't want, which I would not have fed my cats as I couldn't trust its origin.  But it was a small book about cats.  I actually haven't looked through it as I just opened enough to see the spine of the book. 
Having on some occasions been the target of deeply unwanted attention, I was hugely creeped out by this.  I don't like anonymous gifts at any time, not even flowers on Valentine's Day.  I then took some reassurance from the fact that the gift appeared to have been re-wrapped, as though someone had received a gift they hated and decided to pass it on right away to someone they thought might like it.
That is more soothing and somehow more acceptable.  After all, there is a long tradition of 'spitbacks', or recycling unwanted gifts, in my family, principally heralded by my grandmother.  No matter what you give her, how hard you work to find something she might enjoy, you will rarely see it enjoying life in her house.  No, in fact, as was the case with the Charlotte Church tape I gave her back when she was a little known recently- discovered sweet young classical singer, you might even get said gift back as a present from her a few years later, when her record-keeping fails her.  And really, there's something admirable about recycling in this way, rather than keeping the clutter out of guilt as I do, or selling it on E-bay as many people do, ie profiting from your acquaintances' kind thoughts.
So some unknown person in the Close who somehow knows I have cats decided to pass on this gift.  Sweet?  I don't know.  There is possibly one other candidate, a man perhaps in his 60s who I greet when passing, and we both feed the birds out front sometimes, but I didn't think he had any pets.  He was home on Christmas and would have seen my lights that night.  I hope he didn't think I was home alone and pathetic and lonely, so he thought he'd sacrifice a gift in case I didn't have one.  Kind thought, but unnecessary as that wasn't the case.
So, what is the answer to the mystery? I don't know, and the mostly-wrapped gift remains on the bookshelf near my front door, as though I feel unwilling to completely accept it without knowing where its provenance. If it's the thought that counts, what exactly were the thoughts behind it?
Perhaps there really is a Santa Claus?!  It always did seem unlikely that the fat man would slip down chimneys, particularly with so many blocked up these days, and no doubt like the Council requiring us to put all our bins out front for collection in order to save the workers time, he has decided to increase his productivity by simply pushing prezzies through letterboxes instead. It makes perfect sense to me.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas Specials for Flagging Christmas Spirits

I've intended for weeks to post something about recommended Christmas music, as I have a shocking number of CDs and now downloaded Christmas classics and new, alternative songs, but December and Christmas just seemed to appear suddenly after October (and I would have included Loudon Wainwright III's song Suddenly It's Christmas). Even though here in England, you have Boxing Day and celebrate the 12 days of Christmas so might still tolerate carols and the like for a while, we Americans find much of that distasteful after the 25th and see it as bad luck to still have our decorations up on New Year's Day, so I think I'll leave the massive music discussion 'til next year. But as several people are still celebrating Christmas with a houseful of guests that they need to entertain, I thought I might as well highlight a few things worth watching in the spirit of Christmas, which you might already have in your DVD collection, or can download or try to get for next year.

In an effort to get myself in a Christmassy mood last year, given that I rarely feel it anymore, I pulled out all the DVDs I had with a Christmas theme, be they Christmas specials of sitcoms, films set around the Christmas period, or the special animations I grew up loving, most of which I had to source from the States. It occurred to me that some of you might find such a list useful so I thought I'd share. [Given the original purpose of my list, it excludes most of the more recent holiday films that might, for instance, star California Governors or Jim Carrey (sorry but I can’t stand him), or shows like The Royle Family, which have never appealed to me, or things I don't own like The Good Life, which is shown regularly enough on television.]

In no particular order other than sitcoms first, then films, then animated Christmas specials (more or less)....

Knowing Me, Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge – This is included on the DVD of the Knowing Me, Knowing You series, which is absolutely worth getting. As you can imagine, Steve Coogan’s most famous character Alan fronts a Christmas special where everything is awkward and most things go wrong for him, so it’s all delicious.

Ever Decreasing Circles: Christmas Special 1984 (on second series DVD). Martin is put out when Ann agrees to put up 23 of Paul’s guests over Christmas, including Paul, until he gets stuck into organising the challenging sleeping arrangements. Almost nothing happens, just that, so it isn’t worth seeking out, nor is it that Christmassy, but it’s an excuse to revisit the fond old characters if you happen to have this.

Father Ted: A Christmassy Ted. This is fortunately getting a great deal of rotation on the telly, principally More 4, but if you have the series on DVD, which you should, it appears on the Series 2, Part 1 disc. Although there isn’t an awful lot that is Christmassy about it, it is just a total joy to watch, with the usual outstanding characters, a fun plot where Ted wins an award for helping a group of priests escape from a lingerie department where they’d accidentally found themselves and thus avoid scandal, and a mysterious stranger who turns up to steal his award. All brilliant as always, definitely one to enjoy at any time of year.

To The Manor Born: 1979 Christmas Special, on the Series Two DVD. There was also, of course, a 25th anniversary Christmas special in 2007, but that is not included in the box set. In this earlier episode, Audrey tries to ensure that she carries on with her traditional duty of providing the Christmas crib at the church, whereas Richard also plans to provide one as the vicar told him the job goes with the manor. His is a bit gaudy and new, and nothing too much happens, but if you like the sitcom, this is just more of the same.

The Office Christmas Specials – Of course, this two-parter is a modern classic. The way you end up longing two characters will get together Jane Austen-style, the little scares the writers create when it seems like it can never happen, and the happy endings for several of the characters….it’s not just funny but warm and fuzzy at Christmastime.

Watching—The first series ends with Seasoning¸ broadcast in 1987, where Emma Wray’s character Brenda tries to celebrate Christmas with mother’s boy boyfriend Malcolm with difficulty. Liza Tarbuck, looking oddly much older (and fatter) 21 years ago than she does now, plays Pamela who is still with her slimy married boyfriend, who arranges for Malcolm to get a cheap dodgy Christmas tree. It's just good to enjoy the characters again, and it's strange that only two series of the programme, which I understand always enjoyed high ratings, have been released so far.

Butterflies: Christmas with the Parkinsons (1979). I don’t seem to have the DVD of the second series, but I seem to recall there was something about Ria, as usual, feeling guilty about her relationship with Leonard at a time of year when people apparently should be particularly honest.

Poirot – I have always been an Agatha Christie fan, and I’ve always enjoyed the television adaptations featuring David Suchet as Poirot—more so the older ones than more recent productions. The Christmas episode that is normally shown this time of year is, understandably given its title, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1994). Whilst an entertaining enough story centred around the murder of Simeon Lee and his houseful of relatives who hated him, it doesn’t have that much to do with Christmas, other than Poirot has been asked to spend Christmas there and in the last scene, everyone has remarkably recovered from the tragedy and is pictured smiling around the tree with loads of carollers in their home. I prefer the more Christmassy The Theft of the Royal Ruby (1991), which is not as dark and features Christmas trees, Christmas puddings, singing Christmas carols at a Christmas church service, a happy family playing charades at Christmas, and so forth. Delightful fun, with a good cast including Stephanie Cole (Waiting for God), Frederick Treves—who also stars in one of my favourite Miss Marple stories, The Sleeping Murder—and Helena Michell, who stars in another Marple favourite, At Bertram’s Hotel—and of course I mean the outstanding ones starring Joan Hickson and not the more recent destructive adaptations with a badly cast Miss Marple. Nigel Le Valliant (Dangerfield) also stars in this Poirot, and I never fail to smile at the brilliantly played civil servant Jesmond by David Howey.

The Vicar of Dibley: I admit I feel a bit Dibleyed out; the programmes seem to be on the cable channels so often I know them too well. Still, it’s worth revisiting at this time the first series’ Christmas episode, The Christmas Lunch Incident, when Dawn French’s character has, out of the kindness of her heart, accepted a Christmas lunch invitation at apparently every household in the parish and has lost the ability to explain why she might not want to consume every last course, but it’s light-hearted, enjoyable enough stuff. I’m sure I prefer that episode to the later one in 1999 (Series 3: Winter), where Alice, playing Mary in a Nativity Play, really gives birth. There were other specials from 2004, by which time I’d lost touch with the series, and you can get the DVD A Very Dibley Christmas, which contains Merry Christmas, where the parishioners celebrate Geraldine’s 10 years in Dibley and give her a chocolate fountain, which she oddly dives into before being surprised by the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Happy New Year, which isn’t exactly jolly as it focuses heavily on the Make Poverty History campaign. The episode shown on Christmas day in 2006, The Handsome Stranger, where Geraldine gets engaged to the new Richard Armitage character, scored the highest ratings of any Christmas day programme in the UK by that time.

Diner – It’s not about Christmas, but it’s set at Christmastime, and it’s a truly excellent film with an Oscar-nominated semi-autobiographical script by director Barry Levinson (this was his directing debut), with a killer soundtrack of pieces from the period (1959) and an amazing cast who were almost entirely unknown at the time, including Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin (in her first film), Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly and Paul Reiser. Daly's character returns to Baltimore to meet up with his school friends, and the character-led piece shows us a groom who insists the bride must pass a quiz about his favourite sports team before he'll go ahead with the wedding (in the theme of the team's colours), a gambler who plans in desperation to use his friend's wife horribly to win a bet, an accidental pregnancy with an independent woman refusing marriage, a mother who chases her lazy son around the table with a knife, a man who values his music collection and how it is organised more than his wife, an intelligent heavy-drinking wastrell disowned by his wealthy family, and a great deal of subtle raise-a-smile comedy throughout. It’s absolutely worth watching any time of year, one of my all-time favourite films.

While You Were Sleeping (1995) – Not strictly a holiday film—it’s enjoyable at any time of the year—but it does take place at Christmas and is very much a Cinderella story where a lonely Chicago subway worker without family works on Christmas as usual when she sees the passenger on whom she’s had a crush mugged and pushed onto the tracks. She (Sandra Bullock) saves him and visits him in hospital where he lies unconscious, and his boisterous big family visit him and mistake her for his fiancée, thus welcoming her into their home at Christmas. She meanwhile starts to accidentally fall for the coma guy’s brother, played perfectly by Bill Pullman, just when the coma guy, Peter Gallagher, wakes but believes his lack of memory about Sandra Bullock’s character is down to his accident, so plans to go ahead with the wedding. She’s drawn into all this not because she’s deceitful, but she’s alone in life and was suddenly accepted so warmly by this family, and she fell for the family. The great cast also includes the late Peter Boyle (better known now as the father from Everybody Loves Raymond), Jack Warden and Glynis Johns. A definite feel-good film, with a holiday spirit.

Holiday Inn—A 1942 Irving Berlin black/white film where the original performance by Bing Crosby of White Christmas came from. That song wasn’t expected to be the big hit, but it topped the chart in October that year and stayed there for 11 weeks. The film starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and another well-known Christmas song, Happy Holiday, plays over the opening credits. The international hotel chain was apparently named after the film. Beware that the film was colorised in 2008…..

White Christmas – A delightful Irving Berlin musical starring Bing Crosby, the amazing Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney (who I grew up thinking of as the fat woman who advertised paper towels, but in this is still the smoky famed 50s singer, and now is perhaps better known as George Clooney’s auntie), and the lovely, leggy Vera-Ellen. Great fun, naturally a bit silly at times, some marvellous, fun songs including the title song, Snow; Sisters; What Can You Do With a General; Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army; and Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me, with some great dance numbers as the four stars are not only stage performers but end up putting on a big show at the end….in snowy Vermont, where they have a white Christmas, of course. The film was meant to be a loose re-working of Holiday Inn, and Fred Astaire refused to play the Danny Kaye part when he saw the script, so the magnificent Donald O’Connor was brought in but had to give up the part owing to an injury. Kaye fits in brilliantly though, and it’s bound to help with your Christmas spirit particularly if you’re into old Hollywood musicals.

Elf – I didn’t see Jon Favreau’s 2003 comedy until last year, and I thought it was fairly good fun, bearing in mind it’s directed at children. Will Farrell does a wonderful job as the naïf who was raised at the North Pole and returns to New York to search for his father, the unwilling character played by James Caan. Ed Asner is Santa, the legendary Bob Newhart is Papa Elf, and Mary Steenburgen and Amy Sedaris also take part, with Zooey Deschanel playing the elf’s love interest and treating us to some of her singing skills. A ‘feel-good’ film, as they say.

Bad Santa - It’s difficult to know who the audience is for this film, as most of it is completely unsuitable for children, rude and disgusting and sometimes evil and violent, but then there’s a gooey warm story that shines through in the end as though it’s aimed at children, and it can be funny. I seem to recall wondering what I got myself into initially, but enjoying it in the end. The film has a lot of winning elements, produced by the Coen brothers, starring the immensely talented Billy Bob Thornton, featuring the now late Bernie Mac and the late John Ritter (in his final role) and the terrific Cloris Leachman. It’s worth a viewing in the right company, but it’s no Miracle on 34th Street.

It’s a Wonderful Life – I hadn’t watched Frank Capra’s classic in years as I felt I’d memorised it, but it’s worth seeing again when you can—so much content, and much darker moments than you might recall. That bad guy doesn’t even get punished for his hugely damaging theft in the end, and these black parts might be why the film wasn’t a hit until, years later, someone forgot to renew the copyright so it was shown loads on television and won over a later audience. Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played the young Bailey child, Zuzu, continues to promote it every Christmas and has recently been talking about her unhappy life, having lost so many loved ones including her parents in her teens and later her son to suicide, but how the film soothes so many with its message of hope and learning to appreciate what you really have.

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence – Don’t be fooled by the title; I'm probably recommending against watching this if you're trying to find Christmas spirit. Despite those words at the end being uttered by a doomed man, there is little jolly or Christmassy about this 1983 Nagisa Oshima film. I loved it when I saw it as a young teenager on late night cable, but reduced my opinion slightly when I finally got hold of the DVD a trillion years later. Still, it has much that is interesting: Tom Conti being fantastic in his role as a senior officer imprisoned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, David Bowie being the rebel rebel and getting buried up to his neck in sand, composer/musician Ryuchi Sakamoto as the heartless head of the prison camp, some occasional decent music, the score by Sakamoto, including the gorgeous Forbidden Colours, although I seem to recall that only the instrumental plays over the end titles although the version with outstanding vocals by David Sylvian of (ironically?) Japan appears on the CD/vinyl soundtrack.

Love, Actually—I seem to recall a big Christmas link in the Martine McCutcheon story at least, but I loathed this so much, I can’t say more and can't even be bothered to pull out the DVD to see even if the cover confirms that. But I realise I’m apparently the only person in the world who thought this was shocking tripe. Unfortunately, I buy many DVDs before seeing the film, but this may be one you own that you would like to revisit.

An Irish Christmas – I got this DVD some years ago because it included Brian Kennedy, but I found it painful to watch. I have to add that when I finally saw it a year or so later, I felt I’d been perhaps too harsh, but it does have a very cold feeling and needs some background music or something. Basically, several Irish artists are seated around a Christmas table hosted by Phil Coulter, and they discuss such things as their past Christmas memories. But it’s all awkward, it has a distinct feel of having been filmed in August, the room they are in looks like cold and empty with a round table placed in the centre, the conversation is very forced and prompted in an obvious manner by Coulter, there is little warmth, the lack of some sort of audible music during the conversational parts makes it dry, and it the editing makes it look ridiculous as it is pieced together out of sequence—one minute they’re eating their dessert, then they’re taking mouthfuls of meat around a carved turkey, then the turkey’s being served whole to them—that sort of thing. In between the stilted conversation, we see clips of the guests doing what they’re famous for in what seems to be a dark neighbouring room that sometimes at least has a better dressed set. Kennedy, thankfully, sings, as do the Celtic Tenors (who weren’t invited to dinner apparently), a frosty Jean Butler, an original Riverdance star, dances, and fine singers Moya Brennan and Maura O’Connell also step out to sing, though much of it isn’t terribly Christmassy to the average person. Frank McCourt is one of the guests and he reads the kind of gross passage of Angela’s Ashes about the pig’s head, which you can also hear on the CD of the same name. But as I said, I think my original judgement was largely down to disappointment and perhaps too harsh. Although it doesn't feel Christmassy to me, it’s another holiday programme of sorts, in any case; it just could have been done better.

The following are true classics that are always shown on television at home in the States and I’m astonished that they haven’t been adopted over here. I strongly suggest you get a multi-region DVD player (or plays these on a laptop perhaps) and get the Region 1 DVDs from the States until they are released here, although a few finally have been. Christmas isn’t Christmas without them….

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) - An American friend was kind enough to send years ago the box set of the Peanuts specials that we all grew up watching, for Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween. This special might be to us the same way that The Snowman is to the English, in that perhaps its appeal is that you saw it as a young child so the tradition more than the content means something to you (I just don’t get the appeal of the Snowman, other than the song). But it’s warm-hearted and has the usual fuzzy messages about not taking for granted the important things around you, and it memorably helps an unwanted, tiny tree…. Time Out recently recommended the programme, though, so perhaps you don’t have to have watched it in the States all your life to enjoy it, and they say it’s downloadable, too (at http://www.tiny.cc/brown )….. Definitely younger children should enjoy it, as does this 42-year-old child.

Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) -- The live action version starring the awful Jim Carrey cannot--nor could anything truly--replace the original fine animation in any case; it’s a true classic, and still enjoyable. Dr Seuss’ clever rhyming, wonderfully smooth and colourful animation before the days of CGI—outstanding, really, by Chuck Jones, a catchy song, narration by Boris Karloff, a cute long-suffering dog wearing fake antlers….it’s just grand. The DVD also contains the great non-Christmas story, Horton Hears a Who! This is now available on Region 2 and Amazon.co.uk is selling it for only £5.

Frosty the Snowman – From 1969, another Rankin/Bass Christmas animation classic. An evil magician tosses away his magic hat when he thinks it’s failed, but it brings a snowman to life (voiced by Jackie Vernon), and the schoolkids who made him feel he needs to be taken to the North Pole so he won’t melt. The trouble with that is, children don’t do as well in freezing temperatures. A “storm of adventures” ensues, with the evil magician and his cute rabbit in hot pursuit now that he realises his hat really has powers. Warm and fuzzy, an essential part of Christmas. There is music, not just the famous title song on which it was based, and the narrator is Jimmy Durante, who also sings. They have included on the DVD Frosty Returns, which was made in 1992 with John Goodman as Frosty and Jonathan Winters narrating, but that’s just awful, choking us with a fixed environmental message showing that a whole town’s free use of de-icer on their windscreens is destroying the planet and Frosty, or something like that. It was disappointingly dire, even though I’m generally supportive of teaching youngsters the climate change message, but the original cartoon on its own is worth the price. Actually, a £4 version appears to be available in the UK now; go for it.

Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town (1970) – Another Rankin Bass musical treat, this time stop-motion animation with figures, but it’s wonderful to watch. It never seemed to be featured as much as the eminently popular Rudolph, but has some fun (and some soppy) songs, is narrated by Fred Astaire (who also sings), features Mickey Rooney voicing the lead character Kris Kringle and Keenan Wynn as Winter. It creates an explanation for Santa Claus and several Christmas traditions with quite an adventure as the evil Burgermeister bans toys from the town, the woods that Kris must pass through are guarded by a winter warlock, and there is a love interest. All good fun, heartwarming stuff. On the same DVD is The Little Drummer Boy, a 1958 stop-motion animation that was much jerkier, with a much darker feel to it. I used to find it a bit depressing as a child, particularly as a beloved lamb gets run over, and there’s slavery of sorts…..but I braved watching it again last year and it wasn’t anything like as bad as I recalled, it's just not the brightly coloured, all-happy gentle stuff we had in my (later) day, and perhaps I hadn’t watched it through ‘til the happy ending because I was so upset about the lamb. Greer Garson narrates a bit coldly, Jose Ferrer as Ben Haramad, and the Vienna Boy’s Choir provides some music, including the title song of course. But it’s worth seeing; it was a very early production, after all, so some sharp edges can be forgiven, and it's based on a Biblical story rather than a happy Christmas song or fairytale stuff. Still, it has songs and cute animals. There is a Region 2 version of this DVD available in the UK.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – This is the ultimate Christmas special. They showed it over here in the UK once that I recall, tucked away one morning on Channel 5 or something, and I really can’t understand why it’s not a prime time feature every year. Everybody must see it. Again, it is Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation, this time from 1964, with cute talking reindeer, catchy songs, and a real adventure, although this is more of a feature-length special than the quickies like Frosty. Rudolph is bullied because of his glowing nose, so he runs away and bumps into an outcast elf who just wants to be a dentist, so the two ‘misfits’ runaway together and come across the land of misfit toys and the terrifying abominable snowman before eventually returning home just in time to save Christmas, which is almost cancelled because of the blizzard….you know that bit. Burl Ives narrates and sings. Seek it out somehow, you really must have it in your Christmas collection, but make sure you don’t accidentally get the 1998 film or 1953 special. This is essential.

Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Last Minute Gift Recommendations

I thought I would randomly (and hurriedly) witter about a few last minute gift suggestions that might be of use to someone or other.

First, the Sony E-book Reader…..I’d had my eye on it for over a year, and it was the e-book reader of choice in all the reviews (particularly as the Amazon Kindle initially had no hopes of being released in the UK, and even though it might be in 2009, the Sony usually outclasses it, although it does not have some Kindle features such as allowing you to subscribe to newspapers electronically, though the UK might not offer the same). I could already read e-books on my smartphone, so why did I need this? But temptation won me over, John Lewis delivered it the next day, and it came with a CD full of 100 classics that I’ve either always wanted to read or would love to read again.

The e-book reader can hold 160 amounts of books at once, although I added a memory card to expand its capacity and also put work reports on it to read on the train without the weight of bundles of paper. You can take just this light, slim thing on holiday with you, or if you find yourself on the train or in the park suddenly craving a bit of humour instead of the Agatha Christie you’re reading, or you can’t wait to start that newly released novel, then you can switch around. You can bookmark pages on a number of books at once then select from a list which one you want to return to, or chose your book from other menus by pressing the corresponding button. It isn’t perfect (eg you can’t search reference books or add notations) but it is extremely comfortable and light to hold in one hand when you’re on a packed train, easy to turn pages, and the screen/ink technology is much easier on the eyes than a PC. Get this for the bookworm you love (or treat yourself), and they can download books onto their PC and transfer it through a USB lead. Ebooks cost about the same as a paperback, though some classics are cheaper and some are even free on certain websites.

The Sony is tied to Waterstones, but you can download books in the Adobe format and I have found other sites offering a much wider selection and with a better search facility (I think I used Fictionwise, Powells and/or even W H Smith online). It’s only about £160, and you don’t have to give up real books, but this is so much lighter to carry around with you. You can view demonstrations on You Tube, or just read more at http://www.sony.co.uk/hub/reader-ebook .

For the Stephen Fry or Jeeves and Wooster fan who has trouble getting out of bed….
Voco Clock has a ‘Good Morning, Sir’ talking clock, which looks like a tasteful black carriage clock with roman numerals (although it’s actually plastic and a bit basic—it has an old-fashioned ‘alarm hand’ so, unlike digital clocks, you can’t be ultra-precise about the alarm time, and there is no snooze!), but when the alarm goes off, you first hear birdsong, which is soothing, then Stephen Fry acting like your butler Jeeves waking you with one of several dozen different rotating messages, as though you were a wealthy man of leisure (he says ‘sir’), which makes your ears perk up as you want to hear what humorous thing he says. Then follows a sufficiently irritating beeping tone that will get you out of bed. http://www.voco.uk.com/ I got mine at City Organiser (at Bow Lane, and ordered another online at http://www.cityorg-pdq.co.uk/acatalog/Original_Gifts_Over__10.html ), where they also have an alarm clock that will go off, then fall onto the floor and roll away so that you have to get up and chase it. The Voco Clock is listed at £39.95 (which is what I paid) but City Organiser is currently selling it for only £25.

The clock also comes in a ‘Good Morning, Madam’ model, where the butler addresses a female boss, but has flowers on its face and costs a bit more. That’s not as easy to find as the ‘sir’ version.

For someone in, say, their early 40s who loves music, the book Best of Smash Hits—the 80s is about £12 and includes loads of articles from the old music magazine where the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant used to work, some written by current Word magazine supremos Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, I seem to recall. It is great fun to read interviews with ‘the next big sensation’ Adam and the Ants and the like, and the book is a good size for its price. That will keep them quiet, smiling and reminiscing on Christmas day. You can view the details here though obviously at this stage you will probably need to support your local bookstore, which is no bad thing:

A book for a young woman perhaps living on her own: Savvy!: The Modern Girl's Guide to Doing It All Without Risking It All. I thought this would be naff and haven’t read it all yet, but so far I’ve found it to contain some practical advice, and I thought I knew everything. Presenter Fiona Bruce and Jacqui Hames, who is one of the police officers who appears on Crimewatch, have clearly set out numerous things one can do to be safe, to safeguard one’s possessions, to just be a bit street-wise. I thought I knew everything but there is plenty of helpful information, and practical details of such things as where you can log all the Serial Numbers of your possessions in a secure online database so you’ll be contacted if they’re found after a burglary (like microchipping your things!). Again, you can get it by actually walking into a bookstore, but details are here at the great Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Savvy-Modern-Girls-Without-Risking/dp/0593059891/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1230107833&sr=1-1

World Wildlife Fund (WWF): you can adopt an animal for just £3 per month, which is an excellent gift for only £36. Choose a tiger, polar bear, elephant, dolphin, orang-utan etc for the wildlife lover, the environmentally aware, or a young child who might then grow up being more aware of the importance of saving these animals and curbing climate change and destruction of habitats. The recipient will be sent an adoption pack, which I believe includes a stuffed animal, and details of the particular animal they’re sponsoring. http://www.animal-adoptions.co.uk/wwf.aspx . That’s also a good gift when you’ve not shopped in time.

So is a subscription to a magazine, such as Time Out, which is obviously preferable for Londoners or people not averse to commuting in for events, as it is full of listings of fun things to do. However, some people do subscribe overseas just to keep in touch, and it does have enjoyable articles. But ideal for the Londoner who wants to get out more and be notified ahead of time of events and exhibitions (although they have a New York and other versions). http://www.timeout.com/magazines/london/ , although you can also order it via subscription websites and apparently at W H Smith . http://www.whsmith.co.uk/CatalogAndSearch/ProductDetails-Time+Out+Magazine+Subscription-90005893.html

Another good last minute thing where you can give the people a card about it now and don’t need to worry about delivery: a year’s membership to a museum. Someone once gave me Tate membership http://www.tate.org.uk/members/ , which gives you discounts on special exhibitions, a regular magazine on art and events at all the Tate galleries, a discount in the gift shop, apparently a special Member’s room at the Tate that I never tried out (a friend said it was unimpressive at the non-London one he visited)—that sort of thing. I actually ended up using mine quite a bit.

Something from Molton Brown, REN or LUSH, and most have men’s things as well. I won’t take the time now to go through the benefits of each, but there’s plenty of stuff in these shops that you can pick up last minute and still impress the recipient, as they are special, not your run-of-the-mill toiletries from Boots. If they bathe, get bath bombs from LUSH (though be warned, the shops—such as in Covent Garden and less so in Liverpool Street Station have truly overpowering scents so you’ll have to hurry). If they shower or bathe, Molton Brown does a particularly fine shower/bath gel called Heavenly Gingerlily. REN’s Moroccan Rose Otto Body Wash is legendary, and you don’t end up smelling flowery, but it’s lovely while you’re washing and should ensure your skin is not left dry. http://www.renskincare.com/product-REN-Moroccan-Rose-Otto-Body-Wash-REN523RC.htm They all have websites but given the lack of time, you’re best hunting out one of their shops or going to a department store (such as John Lewis or perhaps House of Fraser, or the bigger ones) where their products are sold.

A great stocking stuffer for the artsy very young child or the person in eg their 40s who played with this as a kid is the Hypotrochoid Art Set.
Costs less than £2 from Lakeland (formerly Lakeland plastics), though you’ll need to get to one of their stores (or find it elsewhere) at this late stage. We called these Spirograph when I was a kid, where you use something like a round protractor and put your pen in a hole in a flat plastic disc, and move it around to create laser-light looking colourful designs on your paper.

Without getting too involved into best of the year music recommendations or ideal gift CDs (or downloadable songs), I’d say a few sure-fire recommendations for someone who likes acoustic singer/songwriter stuff, ie the kinda thing that is often found under the ‘folk’ section but has nothing to do with wavering voices and verse-filled sea shanties, try the outstanding Roddy Frame’s Abloom, Luka Bloom’s The Platinum Collection (good price!), Boo Hewerdine’s Thanksgiving or A Live One, Dar William’s Out There Live . Most of them have also released albums this year that are worth getting, but I’ve recommended sure-fire winners or (live) best-ofs. …. Ron Sexsmith is another truly excellent singer/songwriter but is the one of these recommendations that doesn’t win people over every time, though it baffles me. His albums from 1999-2004 are probably my favourites, particularly Ron Sexsmith, but he’s generally worth hearing.

As for DVDs, the Father Ted box set is perfect for most people who like to laugh, if they love slightly surreal comedy, even if they thought they never wanted to bother to tune into some sitcom about priests on an island. This makes me laugh even when I’m unbearably down. One of the writers, Graham Lineham, of course now does the IT Crowd, and has his own enjoyable blog: http://whythatsdelightful.wordpress.com/

The US version of The Office, know as The Office – An American Workplace (starring Steve Carell), grew on me once I bothered to sit down and really watch it, and became quite impressive once it got out from under the feet of the UK version and developed its own characters and plots. I’d recommend that as a gift, or How I Met Your Mother box set of Season One good for light, subtle group-of-friends comedy.

Some light humour books by loved legends have been released, such as Bob Newhart’s I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This (also available in e-book form for E-book reader) and Peter Falk’s Just One More Thing. I’m sure I saw dear Falk, of Columbo fame amongst so many other things, promoting the latter earlier this year and was sad to read that his daughter recently filed court papers saying that he suffers from Alzheimer’s and can no longer look after his own affairs.

Someone who likes rockabilly/big band combo music might be interested to know that the Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer still performs with a big band and has released endless albums, many also downloadable now from Amazon or other sites (or you can listen to samples that way), and most seem to be delightful though I’m only recently re-discovering them myself.

An excellent book for people who like to dream or plan special weekends away, or just to stay in special places when they are travelling around the UK (or in France, for instance; there are other versions) is Alistair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay series, eg special hotels, special B&Bs, special pubs etc….. Have a look at his site for samples, but I recommend the books, for flicking and dreaming and for making your trips that much grander. These aren’t all exorbitant places like the Ritz; sometimes they’ll be a historic small house in the middle of the west country where George Washington lived for a few years, and only a couple rooms are offered to guests….that kinda thing. http://www.sawdays.co.uk/ .

Those are just a few things that come to mind. Have a lovely Christmas, everyone who celebrates it! Though I hope to post more before the day arrives, particularly recommending some Christmas music and DVDs, a bit last minute, as always.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Strictly Come Christmas

While I’m definitely not a fan of Strictly Come Dancing (!!)—though I did see a bit of the American version because 82-year-old firecracker Cloris Leachman was a contestant (and can kick her legs higher than I can and I’m half her age, plus she was tremendously entertaining)—and I’m sick to death of this format and wish the Beeb would employ some screenwriters for a change--I was amused by the enormous amount of coverage the John Sergeant controversy got even in respectable broadsheets. And now things have become even more insane, as John Sergeant will now be releasing a Christmas single. I suppose in these days of download, such a last minute thought has a chance.

More precisely, the single will be Let’s Not Fight This Christmas with BBC1’s The One Show presenters Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakely, a fellow former Strictly participant.

The song was written by Squeeze songsmith Chris Difford (apparently with Kevin Malpass), so whilst I have not yet heard it, that gives it a real chance. Plus novelty Christmas songs often do well, though I imagine this one will be more likely to appear in future in one of those shows a la Fifty Worst Ever Christmas Moments rather than highly sought-after Christmas compilations. After this odd hype has passed (though it kinda already has), people will wonder in future why a political correspondent and sports presenter bothered to release a single. But again, I’ve not yet heard it; maybe it's the new White Christmas.

I have the chance tonight at 7pm when the video will be launched on The One Show, and I will tune in in hopes of seeing the great Chris Difford and perhaps other fantastic collaborators of his recent past such as Boo Hewerdine, though I’m sure that’s too much to hope for.

And before I go, just a few comments about that whole dance competition business….I never before watched Strictly and certainly would not phone in to vote (why would anyone trust the BBC with their money now after all the scandals, and what kind of value for money is that kind of purchase anyway?). But, if you are going to have a show where the public’s vote counts for half the final score, then clearly it is not solely a dance competition but an entertainment show. The judges in the UK at least get a final word of sorts, with the dance off, which doesn't happen in the US version--the lowest scores are announced following the inclusion of the phone votes, and it's good-bye to that couple.

What disturbed me most, the more I read about it in the press, was how Sergeant, a perfectly amiable, intelligent and capable man, was getting slated when he had done nothing wrong. He was just turning up every week and presumably doing his best, which wasn’t enough for the judges, and they ended up being blatantly rude, viciously critical and effectively bullying him out. He wasn’t cheating or spouting evil or tripping the others or anything wrong. He was not campaigning for votes, to my knowledge. He had no control over the situation whatsoever, so why was he blamed and almost persecuted? When his life became a bit too surreal when the newsman became the news story and he had photographers on his doorstep, he chose to withdraw, which I suppose teaches the judges and others that bullying is an effective means of achieving what you want. It also kicked his Russian dance partner out of the competition when she was trying to make a name for herself here during her first UK programme, and it must have been awful for someone in a competitive field to just give up and drop out. (Does she get paid for the full series now or what?)

I suppose the Beeb loved the whole thing as a huge audience, which I’m sad to say included me as I’m an occasionally curious one, tuned in to watch his last dance. (And rugger star Austin Healy is quite the hoofer, surprisingly, but I still don’t see what the big deal is about the show; at least that ice skating show can cause serious injuries to the participating celebrities, to use the term as loosely as these shows do. Yet this is the most watched programme in the world, with its many local variants).

That edition of the show was particularly sickening owing to the ridiculous hypocrisy of the judges, the head one called Len saying he was “so sorry John had decided to leave the competition” when the judges had done their best to push him out, and they certainly weren’t sorry. The following week, I saw the American version, Dancing with the Stars, which features two of the same judges (Len and Bruno, whose carbon footprints—feetprints?—must be shocking, flying back and forth twice a week for the shows), and Len pronounced with great glee and a huge beam that a huge American football player who reached the semi-finals was not, perhaps, a great dancer, but he sure provided entertainment, and that’s what the show was about, so he awarded him relatively high marks. How curious; that doesn’t seem to be his impression of what the UK version of the show is about.

But now I’m scared because I’m talking about Strictly Come Dancing and must cease immediately. Other than to add that I saw the judge Bruno (the most endearing one) that weekend elsewhere, during one of VH1 Classic’s fun all-80s weekends when they showed Elton John’s I’m Still Standing from 1983, where everyone is bouncing around a beach. One of the bouncing beach bums in worryingly tight red trousers is Bruno as a youngster, well, 20 years younger, and then when people are dancing as though making love to the beat (thankfully behind shields of sorts), horribly out of sync as far as synchronised lovemaking-dancing goes, Bruno is the one closest to the camera. I believe you can view it on YouTube (http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=6lK-0wfHutk ) if it’s of interest…..

Anyway, I hope that the Sergeant/OneShow single proceeds go to charity, in which case I might just download a copy and would recommend you do the same. (I have just learned that the single is not only, understandably, download-only, but some proceeds do go to Children in Need, so I would advise getting a copy in any case. Plus it would be fun to see John Sergeant, and of course Chris Difford, on the revived Top of the Pops at Christmas!) Don't forget that Amazon.co.uk is finally selling MP3 downloads now, too, so perhaps you can get the single there.....go quickly for some amazing album deals as well (£3 each for some best sellers).

.....A QUICK UPDATE, having just watched the premiere of the video. The song is basically a Chris Difford song, that is, he's the one singing the verses, and it typically Diffordly touches on day-by-day matters in one's life, so it's absolutely worth the money, with a lovely message for the family. There is the inevitable choir of schoolchildren, with a bit of a sickly build-up to the chorus, but the several One Show presenters and John Sergeant are only really visible in the video; you wouldn't be too aware of their presence without the visual aid. And the John Sergeant mention was clearly just a sensible ploy to drum up press interest; he appears in the video for just as long as, say, the all-round wonderful Dan Snow--about 2 seconds--and I believe there was some arm movement, but no shuffling across a ballroom floor, which is never a bad thing.

But do buy it; it's apparently download only. I fear it's only available from iTunes, though, which rather limits access and so diminishes the possible buyers, and I tend to boycott anyone who sells DRM-ridden songs in favour of Play.com or now Amazon.co.uk and others (and principally stick with CDs!). But needs must, and I recommend it....it's festive, it's for charity, and it's Chris Difford. What's not to like?