Northern Male on Festive Entertainment and Vampire Teeth

It doesn’t seem a year since I was last whingeing about our modern Christmas. Let’s do some more.  

Anyone sending round robin letters about how wonderful their year has been to uninterested folk they never see should have their chestnuts roasted on an open fire. Dressing your pet in festive attire and posting their photos on social media should be illegal – and having to pretend to like parsnips. Ugh.

I feel for poor souls whose birthday coincides with the birth of Jesus Christ. Twelve months of nothing then two lots of presents and cards in one day. So I’d like to suggest a ban on all sexual activity between March 15th and the 31st.

Oh, and the use of the word Xmas instead of Christmas. Why?

Unsurprisingly, my favourite seasonal story is by Charles Dickens. In the 70’s I watched Leonard Rossiter define Scrooge to a standing ovation at Bradford Alhambra.

Born for the role, he epitomised the unforgiving miser visited by Jacob Marley and the three ghosts. I loved the line Marley delivers when Scrooge asks him about the chain he was weighed down by and how big his own might be.

“They’ve had to take on extra devils at the foundry.”

At the other end, last December Vicki Michelle played Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty at Castleford Civic Centre. Even her amazing legs couldn’t rescue that dire production. This year her agent sprinkled fairy-dust and she’s in York as the Wicked Queen in Snow White – whilst Aladdin in Castleford has been cancelled. I love a happy ending.

Even if your children are grown up, making pantomime part of your festive celebrations is important. It throws an annual lifeline to regional live theatre – and gets you out from in front of that opiate for the masses.

Today the vast majority become aware of classic stories through film/TV adaptations. Few see them live on stage and even less read the actual words which is a shame. I was lucky.

As a bored teenager on a wet 70’s caravan holiday in Cromer with my parents, I disappeared into Middle Earth for a fortnight thanks to the imagination of JRR Tolkien.

Then I read Henry James’ “The Turn of The Screw” in the school library. Sitting alone removed from endless study I was enveloped in quiet horror. I progressed to Dracula.

Written in diary form this is one seriously scary book (which along with Dickens’ festive masterpiece) will be getting a BBC makeover this Christmas. Bet you haven’t read either.

Incongruously, the most famous vampire of all ends up in Whitby after Bram Stoker’s visited to this Yorkshire seaside town. I’m right there.

Dracula stumbles out of his coffin with the sun setting after his long sea journey from Transylvania wandering confused and hungry amongst the amusement arcades, souvenir shops and fish & chip takeaways.

“D’ya want red or brown sauce on yer chips mate?”

“Er, red please”.

Without copyright issues Hammer Films also ran fast and loose with Stoker’s book. Christopher Lee’s Count bared his plastic teeth and Peter Cushing ordered his stake. It broke box office records across the world.

Recently I was backstage in the storage area of the National Media Museum in Bradford where the guide opened a drawer and took out the actual teeth prop complete with fake blood syringe. Apparently Lee couldn’t speak once inside his mouth.

A 1977 BBC 2 TV adaptation has long been considered the best. Louis Jordan delivered a chilling performance. Jonathan Harker leans out of his bedroom window to see Jordan hanging to the wall as a bat just below the ledge. I could be wrong. I was behind the sofa. They didn’t stop there.

Remember “A Ghost Story for Christmas”?  In the 1970’s BBC 2 screened a series of remarkably scary late night films. In charge was Aubrey Singer (described as the best Director General the BBC never had).

Their interpretation of Dickens’s “The Signalman” was very creepy. A series of masterpieces by MR James followed and sent me to bed with the light on. The darker side of the festive season crept upon me.

As a result I’ve an admission to make. I’ve never seen the seasonally uplifting “It’s A Wonderful Life”.

Interestingly, the BBC will screen fresh versions of Stoker and Dickens’ classic works this Christmas. Guy Pearce will play Scrooge in a new one-off drama. No pressure there then. Peaky Blinders’ creator, Simon Knight, is behind three feature length episodes of Dracula they are calling “unique and original” which is semaphore for “we’ve messed about with it”. I expect there might be blood

Every year this masterpiece by director Frank Capra is screened but I’m always frantically dealing with seasonal nonsense. As a former movie critic I feel guilty not watching James Stewart as George Bailey receiving the greatest Christmas gift of all (whatever that is). Phillip Van Doren Stern wrote this in 1943 after reading “A Christmas Carol”. No-one would publish his work so he sent it to his friends in festive cards. One of these pamphlets came to the attention of RKO pictures and 1943 they purchased the rights for $10,000. It performed poorly at the box office. Capra was judged to be past his best by the studios. How wrong they were.

Northern Male on Festive Entertainment and Vampire Teeth  It's a Wonderful Life, a film by Frank Capra starring Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life

“It’s a Wonderful Life” went on to be judged one of the greatest films ever made and remains a seasonal classic outliving all its forgotten competitors. It was also Capra’s personal favourite which he’d screen for his own family every Christmas. Dickens would have approved.

I also have a tradition. On Christmas Eve I’m usually on the road to be with my daughter and her family. At 3pm I turn on Carols from Kings on Radio 4 and listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons. That’s when Christmas starts for me.

For the crew of Apollo 8 it began on the 24th December 1968 when they saw Earth-rise whilst orbiting the moon. In an emotional moment they each took turns to read from the book of Genesis. We on our Blue Planet hung in the inky blackness of space listening in wonder.

So maybe this festive stuff has something. A reformed Scrooge said “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year”. Perhaps we all should. Tiny Tim summed it up.

“God bless us. Everyone.” Merry Christmas.

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