In mid-November an Indian chauffeur taking me to Broadcasting House made a detour to show me the Christmas lights in Regent Street. He wished to share the pleasure that they gave him and it was with glee that of the shops he used the terms ‘top class’ and ‘posh’, when to me the street seems almost as tawdry as the ghastly trek from Marble Arch to Oxford Circus. Dissembling, I went through the motions of agreement, thanked him for the treat, and fell into deep melancholy at the thought of yet another Christmas and all that it no longer means to me.
The real Christmas — the Christmas of a Christ Child adored by ox and ass, by humble shepherds and by the Magi with their presages of grief and crucifixion, celebrated with joyful Masses from Monteverdi to Rossini and with Gospels in the language of King James — is an essential and treasured part of my cultural heritage, and it matters not at all that belief now eludes me, for the beautiful liturgy speaks of fundamental human truths and, in the right places, the music touches that part of a man that he may think his soul. The nullifidian jollifications of a Christmas that is not even pagan or animist are contemptible, nowhere more so than on the television screen.
In terms of entertainment we must expect of Christmas television nothing that is aesthetically or intellectually nourishing, and nothing is more predictable than that programmes we know from dire experience to be fatuous, inane or banal (and perhaps all three) will be regurgitated with a festive gloss of snow and ice, red noses and a reindeer. Most such bogus programmes were, no doubt, made months ago in the warm glow of glorious autumn, and everything about them, from the snowflakes to the jollity, was nothing better than the professional conjuring of television executives whose duty it is to suppress imagination and maintain the cliché and the status quo. ‘What must we have?’ they ask themselves, the inevitable answer the mixture as before. Then, ‘What might we have?’ they ask. And finally, alarmed, perhaps even terrified, by the recognition that this year’s Christmas, falling immediately after a weekend, will last at least five days without a break, they ask if there will be enough scrapings in the barrel. That there will not, they need have no fear, for the barrel is so deep as to be bottomless, the layers of sediment unfathomable, with as many barnacles clinging to its staves as to the wreck of the Titanic.
Imagine their dull minds as they range the possibilities of Christmas editions of Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, and earnestly consider the complicated business of songs performed by the deaf and dumb, or the tango and schottische hoofed by prosthetic limbs or from a wheelchair — surely commendable after the Paralympics of this past summer. Should the BBC pay lip-service to the Christmas narrative by dispatching Michael Palin to follow the route of the three Magi or the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt? How many stars might he investigate, how many camels might he mount, and where might he find corn as high as an elephant’s eye (the elephant to be ridden too) to hide them from Herod’s pursuing soldiers? They might even consider his parting the Red Sea until some dimwit researcher from a polytechnic university, checking Wikipedia, discovers that that was done for Moses, not the Infant Christ.
Can there still be a pristine unused plot for Christmas Casualty or Holby City, or fresh formulae for the jejune interview and gossip shows of Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton? Can we imagine an Antiques Roadshow with the girlish Fiona Bruce as Mother Christmas gushing over nothing but Yuletide trivia? Sadly, we can, we can, but even that might be preferable to lending further weight to her status as an expert on paintings by Old Masters and letting her loose on the Christmas story as told by Raphael and Titian, discovering a wholly unknown Nativity by Michelangelo as a bonne-bouche.
Should not all the five main channels make a fuss of food with the Christmas recipes of La Serenissima (Nigella Lawson), Michel Roux and all the other notorious gastronomes, their mothers and their grandmothers — or is that too close to television every day, no matter what the season? The perfect traditional Christmas feast is bound to play some part in a Downton Abbey special — who shall we have breaking a tooth on a lucky silver sixpence in the Christmas pudding? And what of Christmas at The Paradise — will there be roistering in the staff dining room, or are there too few young men in the plot for that? Might it inspire a BBC4 history of the staff canteen? Can we, perhaps, have a calamity Come Dine With Me with John Major, Kirsty Allsopp, Alan Yentob, Michael Portillo and their ilk among the guests?
The sane man dreads such prospects as these, dreads too the clowning of familiar presenters. Have we not wrung the last shred of entertainment from Stephen Fry in woebegone Dickensian fantasy or Wellerish humour? Have we not had more than enough of Top Gear’s presenters in Top Gear, without their pretending to be sages, engineers and scientists in other spheres? Have we not had more than enough of sages, engineers and scientists pretending to be entertainers — are there still legions of silly girls longing to kiss the kissing mouth of Professor Brian Cox and clutch him to their adolescent bosoms? In a medium that most practitioners believe must be presenter-led, the looming face occupying the screen to the near total exclusion of the subject, it is inevitable that at Christmas all must have their turn. Does no one realise that with presenters made invisible, the camera gives us twice as much of the subject?
I am inclined to argue that one of the five main channels should be brave and bold enough to declare itself free from all references to Christmas or, better still, that one should be the dedicated Christmas channel, leaving the other four to be much the same as they usually are, their low-pitched intellectual ambitions not lowered further still. Alternatively I would like a reminiscent channel devoted to straight plays first televised it matters not how long ago, for some of us would be content with Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga or Trollope’s Pallisers, or even runs of Acorn Antiques and Hyacinth Bucket; and there must be something of the grandees of the past fit for resurrection, something by Bertrand Russell, Jacob Bronowski or even Kenneth Clark, whose Civilisation (much though I disagree with it) I would willingly watch once a -quinquennium.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012