It goes without saying that this time of year is notable for a gradual withdrawal from the usual duties, and whilst I haven’t consciously taken time out from here, inspiration has dwindled somewhat. I can’t necessarily lay the blame at the festive door, however; when one subject dominates every bleedin’ headline, it’s not so much fear of repeating one’s self – more a certain jaded fatigue with writing about the whole bloody business. Even comparing some of the increasingly bonkers rules and regulations to dystopian fiction can feel like a rather tiresome comparison now; and as for satire, a noticeable absence of compulsion on my part to even try via my sideline video platform reflects the fact that this situation has already satirised itself. When Mark ‘Diwali’ Drakeford, the elected dictator of the People’s Republic of Wales, can make going to work a crime and fine employees £60 for attempting to earn a living in the workplace (and even fine employers £1000 for enticing their workforce back), how can one satirise something so f***ing stupid or declare ‘Bloody hell, talk about Kafkaesque’?!
The fact that the television sitcom is perhaps the most redundant of all the dying TV genres means the traditional Xmas episode viewers looked forward to is now a purely nostalgic treat. ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?’, ‘Porridge’, ‘Rising Damp’, ‘The Good Life’ et al – all produced memorable seasonal specials that remain worthy of wheeling out every December because their collective narrative remains relevant, or at least did do up until last Christmas. In 2020 – and, no doubt, 2021 – there’s an additional nostalgia factor on top of the usual long-dead actors and vintage cultural tropes; the fact that these characters are indulging in a pre-pandemic world of family gatherings, parties and all the other hallmarks of what Christmas meant until this time last year coats them in an extra sentimental sheen that places them even further from the here and now than the mere fact they were produced over 40 years ago.
Even if there were such a thing as an unmissable sitcom today, how could any of the plotlines involving Yuletide scenarios that everyone watching would be familiar with actually be written now? With filming done months in advance of transmission, the first lockdown was characterised on television by characters going about their daily business without social distancing or donning masks or being confined to quarters; it seemed to expose the medium as more artificial than it had ever seemed to the casual viewer before, particularly in the heightened reality of the soap opera, when life in Weatherfield, Walford or Emmerdale suddenly seemed less realistic than it normally does when enacting its gruesome litany of murders, rapes, sieges and spectacular explosions. Any lingering pretence of reflecting real life – or a real life derived from the most sensational of tabloid headlines – was obliterated by the failure of such dramas to mirror the actual drama viewers were experiencing beyond the parallel universe confines of the small screen.
And whilst it could easily have been argued before the world had even heard the word Covid that there hadn’t been a decent Christmas song for over 30 years anyway, to compose such a ditty today would require the ejection of all the clichés that constitute the classic Christmas dirge. ‘Are you waiting for the family to arrive?’ asked Noddy Holder on Slade’s evergreen seasonal smash. Most outside of ivory Tory towers in 2020 would have replied, ‘No; they’re not allowed to visit’. When your granny always tells you that the old songs are the best, she can’t be up and rock ‘n’ rolling with the rest when she’s locked in her care-home and can’t receive any members of her family to dance with. And denied the luxury of driving home for Christmas, Chris Rea would probably have to settle for pulling a cracker on his own whilst he waved to the rest of the Rea clan on Zoom. If he were he still around, George Michael would have to sing about the Christmas before last. Do they know it’s Christmas time at all? Well, it isn’t Christmas time ‘cause it’s been cancelled. Not only can it not be Christmas every day, Roy; it isn’t even Christmas on 25 December anymore.
Nostalgia has always been a crucial element of the Christmas experience as the TV shows, songs and movies that take us back to our formative festive memories are recycled annually for a reason. When exposed to the Christmas hit mix on the supermarket loop, one can almost play a game in one’s head as to who’ll pop up next once one over-familiar standard finishes. Will it be Greg Lake or Mud or Mariah Carey or The Wombles or Wizzard or Boney M or Band Aid or Bing Crosby? Place your bets now. Either way, it’s doubtful any song penned on the subject issued this century will figure on the unavoidable Xmas mix-tape because, as Noddy’s granny reminded us, the old songs are the best – as are the TV shows and the movies when it comes to Christmas. Whether the sitcom seasonal specials or ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, schedulers know what their audiences want and it sure as hell ain’t anything that bears even a passing resemblance to today.
In many respects, with Christmas now reduced to a shadow of its former self, the power of nostalgia is more poignant than ever as the old spirit of the season once intended to be jolly becomes almost wholly past tense. Watching or listening to any pop culture artefact highlighting the peculiar customs traditionally associated with the last couple of weeks of December – as was – is now the same as viewing or hearing any art produced before 2020 which attempts to mirror real life. It no longer mirrors anything resembling the new normal and is therefore instantly as archaic and charming as steam trains or a Jane Austen adaptation or any other reflection of a world that has been transformed into otherworldly not by the passing of time but by the passing of legislation. Look at that grainy old footage all the way back from 2019 – a restaurant or a pub or a concert; punters are packed in like sardines, and some are shaking hands, some are hugging, and none are wearing surgical masks. Like I said, otherworldly.
The 21st century was already a pretty joyless place before Covid came along, but I guess the pandemic is the icing on an especially unappetising cake, albeit one that Mary Berry and all the rest are no doubt currently baking on their numerous festive-themed cookery specials. Boris has had to put his rebooted lockdown plans on ice in order to stave off further backbench rebellions and cling to the remaining vestiges of his lifelong mission to be loved as opposed to loathed by graciously giving the electorate the opportunity to pretend this Christmas can be just like Christmas used to be. And then he’ll probably complement the moves of his devolved despots across the Caledonian and Cymru borders by attempting to impose the same tried, trusted and ultimately failed formulas for combating the coronavirus variants that he’s been imposing for what feels like forever with no discernible success.
I remember the last post on here last year was called ‘Slippery Slopes and Silver Linings’, in which I closed the piece by referencing some of the positive voices of sanity and reason that had gradually emerged as obedience and exhaustion were superseded by exasperation and anger. Neil Oliver, one of those mentioned, has continued to deliver eloquent and incisive observations on where we are throughout 2021, and I ended on a hopeful note by writing ‘And, as long as those voices can continue to be heard in 2021, there is hope that twelve months from now we won’t find ourselves living in an offshore suburb of Riyadh or Beijing, bereft of any proof of who we used to be or who we really are.’ Well, we’re not quite there yet, though it’s not through want of trying on the part of our beloved leaders. Merry Xmas, everybody.
© The Editor