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Watching and reading at Christmas

‘Tis the season – for watching Christmas movies. Some are good, some are pretty ropey and a few manage to divide opinion, in some cases on the topic of whether or not they can even be classified as Christmas movies. My own view on this is that if there’s a way in which a given film can be linked to Christmas, however tenuously, then why not? I take a similar view with literature – if a novel or short story has a Christmas link, then it can be a Christmas story.

Maybe I’m getting set in my ways in my late thirties, but over the past few years things have evolved to the point where there are four films, a TV show and three (short) works of literature that have to be seen or read at Christmas time.

Let’s do the films first. We start with two old-school black-and-white classics from the 1940s: Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). I tend to prefer the original version of the former which has a lot of charm with the New York department-store Santa called Kris Kringle who seems to be the ‘real’ thing – a role for which Edmund Gwynn won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, while Maureen O’Hara (who died earlier this year, aged 95) is on top form playing a career-oriented, divorced single mother which must’ve been very ahead of its time in the 1940s. The court scene at the end, with the judge worried about re-election and the posties using it as an excuse to get rid of all the letters to Father Christmas that they’ve accumulated, is hilarious every time. On doing some background reading for this film, I was surprised to learn that it was originally released in the summer, with the Christmas element being downplayed in the advertising (20th Century Fox’s logic being that they’d make more money with a summer release).

Less overtly Christmassy is that Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life, set in charming small-town America with Jimmy Stewart’s selfless everyman standing up to the bad guy who comes in the form of the Scrooge-esque Mr Potter. George Bailey may get the girl but the rest of his life gets put on hold in a never-ending struggle on behalf of the less fortunate, and it takes a heavenly intervention when he’s at his lowest to show him how much of a positive impact he’s made on many lives. Yes, there’s a lot of ‘life’ before you get to the ‘wonderful’ bit (it’s actually fairly depressing in parts until the last ten minutes), but it really is a lovely film that shows just how much of a difference one person can make.

Moving swiftly to the late twentieth century and changing the tempo somewhat (although the notion of how much of a difference one person can make remains), it’s time for an action movie and, working on the principle that any movie with a link to Christmas can be a Christmas movie, there is indeed such a thing as a Christmas action movie: Die Hard (1988). Like many a Christmas movie protagonist, New York cop John McClane just wants to spend the festive season with his family (which is why he flies out to LA on Christmas Eve), but first of all there’s the small matter of meeting up with his estranged wife at the Nakatomi Corporation’s office party. If you’ve ever been to a work Christmas do that doesn’t quite go according to plan, be thankful that you’ve not had it interrupted by a bunch of heavily armed terrorists and then sit back and enjoy the mayhem as McClane takes them on without wearing any shoes. This film was so big it spawned four sequels, many imitations and redefined Bruce Willis’s career (before this, he was apparently considered more of a comedy actor) as well as marking out Alan Rickman as an actor who plays the baddies very well.

Finally, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one movie adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and there are many options here with stand-out performances as Ebenezer Scrooge over the years coming from the likes of Alastair Sim and Patrick Stewart. My favourite, though, is the Muppets’ musical version from 1992 which is incredibly faithful to the original source material to the extent of providing much of the narrative word-for-word thanks to having Gonzo as Charles Dickens – a truly inspired piece of casting. Elsewhere, Kermit is Bob Cratchett to Michael Caine’s Scrooge – a rare example of a human character in a Muppet-based film not being overshadowed by the Muppets themselves. I guess I had to have Michael Caine make an appearance somewhere.

While we’re on the subject of A Christmas Carol, the TV show that is required viewing by yours truly is of course Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988) which inverts Dickens’s plot; in this, Ebenezer Blackadder is a nice and generous man who gets taken advantage of by everyone except Baldrick. A night-time visit from the Spirit of Christmas inadvertently prompts him to change his ways. This one’s got quite a good cast; as well as Blackadder regulars – Rowan Atkinson et al – do look out for Robbie Coltraine and Jim Broadbent in supporting roles, as the Spirit and Prince Albert respectively.

On the reading front, I have three perennial favourites which I (try to) read each year. Obviously, there’s A Christmas Carol which blends comedy and horror to perform two roles – celebrating Christmas while highlighting the condition of the poor. 172 years after it was written, the name of the main character is still used to refer to anyone who feels a bit cynical or jaded about Christmas. Dickens, who defined how we think of Christmas to the point where most cinematic depiction of London at this time of year tend to involve snow (despite actual white Christmases in London being few and far between) is one of those authors who seems to have a timeless feel, with quite a few of his books feeling surprisingly undated when compared to some of his contemporaries; Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a reading of the first and best of his Christmas stories.

The other two are – not surprising given my literary tastes – detective stories. Both happen to feature a seasonal plot based on finding out who nicked a precious stone which has been found hidden in a festive food item. In ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson go on the hunt for whoever stole the eponymous diamond which has been hidden in a Christmas goose which somehow finds its way into Holmes’s possession; after some hat-based deduction, their quest takes them from Baker Street to Covent Garden Market (which I always thought used to be a fruit and veg market, but according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle it had traders selling poultry as well). I rather like this one because of the seemingly improbable hat deduction sequence and the confrontation at Covent Garden in which Holmes tricks the trader into revealing where he got the goose from. This story first appeared in 1892 and can be found in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Several decades later, Hercule Poirot – the little Belgian chap with the little grey cells – finds himself staying at an English country house during the festive season in ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’. He’s there to recover another stolen precious stone – a ruby this time – which turns up in some seasonal food (no prizes for guessing what). Needless to say, Poirot is dealing with a criminal who, rather like Hans Gruber, hasn’t bargained for having a detective on the scene. This is one of Agatha Christie’s later works (it first appeared in 1960 in the short story compilation of the same name) and while the identity of the thief is a bit obvious there’s entertainment to be had with talk of pudding-making (with reference being made to the ‘stir up’ collect which was and presumably still is said at church services on the Sunday before Advent, serving as a signal that that was the day on which the pudding should be made) and a fun sub-plot about a fake murder alongside Christie’s extolling of a traditional Christmas at the sort of venue where a lot of her murders took place.

Ah, Christmas stories. Now, where’s that Blackadder DVD?

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