Christmas: the most vulnerable time of the year. I heard ‘A Winter’s Tale’ by David Essex on the radio the other day and, oh boy. It was Noël Coward who wrote, in Private Lives, that smart little line about the strange potency of cheap music. It is a truism never more apparent than at Christmas, when we allow the gaudy and sentimental access to our hearts with only the most cursory of security checks. Songs that would never make it past the bouncers in May are whisked directly into the VIP area come December.
A quick google confirms that ‘A Winter’s Tale’ was released in the run-up to Christmas 1982, which means I was nine years old when it was first released. I can’t separate its pale domestic mopery from dusky, melancholic, snow-scattered drives home from my primary school in Inverness to our nearby village. In the lyric lamenting ‘one more love that’s failed’ I must have heard an echo, or an intimation, of the unhappy house in which I was living. ‘A Winter’s Tale’ is nothing if not dignified. It is a self-deprecating shrug of a song, and something in its quotidian sadness felt very grown up to me. I amplified its significance accordingly. The tinny synthesised orchestrations swelled to an epic crescendo in my heart.
‘A Winter’s Tale’ was written by Tim Rice and Mike Batt. Batt is the Barnes Wallis of pop’s emotional stealth bombers. As the mastermind behind the music of the Wombles, he is responsible for the most heart-rending tinsel-tune of them all: ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’. Look beyond — or perhaps deep inside — the cheesy saxophone, knocked-off Glitter Band guitar riff, shouty Slade chorus and sub-Beatles harmonies. There is dark magic in the very bones of this song.