Dickens hosts Christmas (& a book launch…)

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Tonight I’m officially launching Hark! The Biography of Christmas in London’s glittering just-to-the-east-of-West End. I’ve particularly chosen the nearest bookshop to Dickens’ house and museum – because where better than within sight of “the man who invented Christmas”…

If you’ve not been to his house/museum, I thoroughly recommend it. I pondered it as a venue for the launch itself – though sole hire was a little pricey for little ol’ me, so the Blackwells/Caffe Nero a couple of streets away seemed as good a place as any.

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Charles Dickens (accurate depiction)

In tribute to, as Tolstoy called him, “that great Christian writer” (even though, yes, Chuck D’s version of Christmas almost pushed out the Christian Christmas – with values of charity, family and snow dominating most festive households), here’s a sample from the book that’s all Dickensian, like. Through the book I’ve pinpointed the 12 dates of Christmas becoming more like our current Christmas, so…

 

…On our ninth date of Christmas… (London, 19 December 1843)

As Mr Dickens steps into the London street, he can almost feel the snow beneath him – except this year he’ll have to imagine it. Sadly the weather has not played snowball with his wintry novella; London’s Christmas 1843 is the tenth mildest December on record. Still, the seven-degree day means that the streets are busier, and more are out seeking his book on its day of release. Perhaps as they read they’ll hark back to white Christmases of yesteryear – after last year’s even warmer winter, those wintry days may be behind us for good. Thankfully for us, Charles’ first eight Christmases were white ones, so for him and his generation, that’s what a Christmas should be, even if they’ve become rarer as he’s grown older.

The writer cannot help but smile as he hears a boy advertise his wares: that he has stock of Mr Dickens’ latest work, A Christmas Carol. He’s well-known but his star has been fading a little – perhaps he spent a little too long touring America. The written works too may not have quite delivered as promised. The recent Martin Chuzzlewit left Dickens and his publisher out of pocket after sales failed to match the success of Oliver Twist.

So Dickens is self-publishing this new book, hoping that a cut of the profits will prove wiser than taking a lump sum. Those printing costs have been high though, so this book needs to sell well to turn a profit. The look of this edition appeals to Charles, ever the perfectionist: the red cloth cover and golden pages reflect the colours of Christmas – far better than the ghastly olive endpapers originally printed. It was only finalised two days ago.

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Many are parting with their five shillings for a copy. Profiteering aside, Charles’ travelling has given him a new perspective on his career – more cultural commentator than writer-for-pleasure – and this is the first major publication since adopting this new role. He has campaigned against slavery in the United States, and following trips to Cornish tin mines and impoverished industrial Manchester, he has been determined to make a difference. In particular, Charles wishes to provoke his middle- and upper-class readers into action by highlighting the social injustices under their noses. After a faltering start turned this passion into a political pamphlet, Dickens has instead opted for a Christmas ghost story, a genre with “twenty thousand times the force… [of] my first idea”.

Christmas is a family occasion for Charles, and he’s looking forward to the two official days off next week with his four young children, wife Kate, and Kate’s sister Georgina who lives with them to support the house. What better time to commune with the family than Christmas, when the children can enjoy a parlour game or be baffled by his latest magic trick? One of Charles’ sons will later write that he adored this “really jovial time… my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on… And then the dance! There was no stopping him!”

He passes house after house, where later carollers will doubtless be reviving their tradition of singing for money. Charles smirks: he has a carol of his own. His novella is fully titled A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas. He’s no composer or lyricist, but was keen to add his voice to the carol renaissance of late, and he’s even written “staves” (or stanzas) instead of chapters.

The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from miser to philanthropist is a deliberate morality lesson of warmth amid snow, of hot turkey and family cheer. There are glimpses of a middle-class Christmas with party games like Snap Dragon and Blind Man’s Buff, as well as a barely struggling working-class dinner with a roast goose and Christmas pudding. There’s even mention of a mulled wine called “Smoking Bishop”, made from port, red wine, citrus fruit, sugar, and spice. Dickens enjoyed a glass or bowl of Bishop at the upper-middle-class Christmases of his youth, even as a child; after all, alcoholic punch is a safer bet than drinking water.

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This bishop is smokin’…

The book features nostalgic trips to past Christmases – essential in this fast-moving world of railways and factories – as well as a timely reminder to be truly present at our family festivities. There are, of course, ghosts; perhaps the Christmas ghost story will become a trend. Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present is based on the Roman god Saturn, figurehead of their Saturnalia festival.

Dickens is fond of pacing these streets. While creating this story, he walked “fifteen or twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed”. He wrote obsessively, starting just two months ago, and while writing, “I wept and laughed, and wept again.” Six weeks later the book was complete, with the last pages finished in early December. Already he is mulling discussions for New Year stage adaptations – several different productions will crop up within the month, with his backing or not.

Charles is recognised by one well-wisher out delivering an envelope via the new “Penny Post” system, established just three years ago. Perhaps one day Charles’ books may be delivered by similar means – though surely not for a penny. Dickens wonders if that envelope contains one of the brand new Christmas cards, on sale just a few streets away in Sir Henry Cole’s art shop. Time will tell if the enterprising experiment works. By Christmas, Sir Henry will sell 1,000 at a shilling each, while today alone, A Christmas Carol will sell six times as many for five times the price. Selling out in a day, more books will be printed to keep up with Christmas demand.

For now, Charles enjoys his walk through London. Next week he will take his young family through these streets to the toy shop in Holborn, for their annual custom of choosing one present each. Hopefully the book will sell well – Kate has a fifth child on the way. If he were visited by a Ghost of Christmas Future, he could be told that within a few years they’ll have ten children.

As for the book, its influence will be immediate. Within a few months, The Gentleman’s Magazine will attribute a boom in charitable giving to A Christmas Carol. One American factory-owner reads it on Christmas Eve and closes his factory the next day, instead giving a turkey to each employee. Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray says of the book: “A Scotch philosopher, who nationally does not keep Christmas Day, on reading the book, sent out for a turkey, and asked two friends to dinner – and that is a fact.”

 

I adore A Christmas Carol. I know it’s early in the season, but plan to read that between now and Christmas. Oh, and plan to read this.

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The Brief(est Things about the) History of Christmas

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I’ve been blogging about the history of Christmas since, well, long before it was acceptable to even talk about Christmas. It might have even been August.

See the other rest of this blog for longer posts. But for those (like me really) with goldfish-sized attention spans, here’s a countdown of my 12 favourite brief-as-poss things I learned about festive history:

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12. Traditional Japanese Christmas dinner is KFC.

11. Corporal Hitler refused to join in the Christmas Truce, and stayed in his trench.

10. Turkeys used to be marched from Norfolk to London, each wearing leather boots to protect their feet.

9. Before he sold Coca-Cola, a red-wearing Santa advertised ginger wine.

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Ho ho hic.

8. In the Vietnam War, ‘White Christmas’ was the warning alarm for troops to get out of Saigon.

7. ‘Jingle Bells’ was written in a Sunday school, for Thanksgiving. It was the first song in space, sung by astronauts pranking NASA by pretending they’d spotted Santa’s sleigh.

6. As King George V sat to broadcast the first British royal Christmas message, he fell through the seat of his chair.

5. The cover of the first Christmas Radio Times featured a family turning their backs to the fireplace, but turning to the radio.

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…and now, the Only Fools & Horses Christmas special. Again.

4. The first personalised Christmas card was sent by celebrity sharp-shooter Annie Oakley.

3. The writer who popularised St Nicholas among New Yorkers, and spread the idea of the cosy English Christmas, also created Rip Van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow, the Knickerbocker Glory and Gotham City.

2. Due to a theological disagreement, St Nicholas punched a priest in the face at the Council of Nicaea.

1. King Herod had a wife called Doris.

For longer festive historical nuggets, see the rest of this blog, or better still, buy the book.

Keep mum(ming)…

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Last night at The Keep pub in Guildford saw the local leg of the launch do for my new book, Hark! The Biography of Christmas. We carolled, we caroused, we conquered. There was much (early) festive rejoicing – plus for good measure, a pub landlady who hates Christmas (especially on October 2nd). If you’d like to join for the London version of this, it’s on Wed 11th October 2017, and you just need email to be on the free list – details here.  For the London book launch, I’ve picked the nearest bookshop to Dickens’ house. Seems apt.

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Singer Majella Yorston played some Christmas songs; Paul Kerensa waffled away about Christmas and plugged his book like it was his launch or something…

Why did I pick The Keep pub for the Guildford event? Well, it’s in the book. In researching the history of Christmas, I discovered that King Edward III celebrated Christmas 1348 in Guildford, from Halloween to Candlemas (a.k.a. Groundhog Day), with a vast Roman Saturnalia-themed season-long party. There were masks and costumes for eighty people, dressed in animal skins and a generous amount of cross-dressing. Guildford hasn’t changed much.

Alright, Edward III didn’t celebrate at The Keep pub as far as we know, but he did enjoy a medieval mummers play. Who doesn’t love a bit of mumming? These ancient plays are still performed today, so if you pick the right pub near you, you can find a local performance of one this very Christmas, possibly on Twelfth Night. Go see! And that’s where The Keep comes in.

It was on Old Twelvy Night this year that I visited The Keep (or I could have visited The Star, The Royal Oak, The Angel Hotel…) to witness The Pilgrim Morris Men perform Guildford’s own mummers play. As to what a mummers play is exactly, well maybe we’ll find out on the next blog post. This time, here’s my summary of events that evening, back in my local on January 6th this year, and every year…

✧ WASSAILS NOT JANUARY SALES… The High Street may look like a commercial jungle, but look to the pubs and you’ll and the community. They vary nationwide, but in the Surrey town of Guildford, the mummers’ play tours five pubs each Twelfth Night, a half-hour performance in each. Most pub-goers have no clue what’s about to happen; in ours, a policeman thinks his retirement party has booked it all just for him.

✧  VERY FANCY DRESS… In the summer, they’re Morris dancers; in midwinter, they’re mummers. Replete with rainbow-coloured costumes, from Mad Hatter to a green Father Christmas, dozens of dressed-up (often well-oiled) wassailers fill the pub. It’s a health and safety nightmare: sloshing alcohol, flammable costumes, the odd candle, a packed pub… in fact many can’t fit in and shiver outside like the little match-girl – but at least they’ll be first in the next pub.

✧  PANTO MEETS PUB CRAWL… Most are following rather than performing, but they sing heartily and quaff from tankards they’ve brought specially. Ours is their second pub of the night, and some stops have variations. The first pub, The Star, saw the Twelfth Cake shared out; I’m told that Colin found a bean in his slice, crowning him Colin II, King of Misrule for the next few hours. The third pub features extended carolling, and I get the impression that by the fifth pub, The Royal Oak, the play will have evolved from The Star’s sober performance.

✧  DRINKHAIL!… The wassail bowl is passed around. I of course take a sip, much to the eye-rolling of my wife, already fearing whatever seasonal virus we’ll all share, before she takes a drink too.

✧  I KNOW THIS ONE… The half-hour pop-up performance is like an ancient flashmob, opened, closed, and middled with carols. Some have familiar words, some do not. None have familiar tunes. Yet the regular mummers (some of whom may have enjoyed eighty or more Old Twelvy Nights) don’t waver. By the eighth or ninth verse, I nail the tune too. I couldn’t sing “As I Sat on a Sunny Bank” to any other tune now. I’m surprised to see so much Christian tradition: even unfamiliar carols feature Jesus and Mary, as well as yes, holly, ivy, the wassail bowl, and a maid in a lily-white smock. Oh my.

✧  ANCIENT AND MODERN… The wassailing shows no signs of waning. Smartphones and our love of tech may keep many of us at home, but we still crave community. As we sing, selfies are taken, group photos are posted to Instagram, and there’s the joyous sight of a face-painted, bearded seventy-year-old in tinsel hat and outlandish outfit, reading the half-millennium-old “Boar’s Head Carol” from his illuminated iPad.

✧  THE PLAY’S THE THING… As for the play itself, like all mummers’ plays it’s a variation on a theme. The words may change, but the characters and loose storyline are pretty much the same. Overacting is essential, cheers and jeers from the crowd are encouraged, and if you can see or hear what’s going on then that’s a bonus (or not, depending on the acting). I’ll be there again next year. Wassail!

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Some medieval mummers. Or giant animals. You decide.

So cheers to The Keep, the other pubs, The Pilgrim Morris Men and all those that keep the tradition alive. And maybe after the London leg of the book launch, right by Dickens’ house, we’ll explore something of Mr Dickens himself.

Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available in all good online bookstores, my car boot, and hopefully some shops, priced £7.99

Charity & ITV’s Victoria (plus Chris Rea & speed-eating)

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On last week’s episode of ITV’s Victoria, Doctor Who companion Clara Oswald (who has been guised as the Queen in this several-series length spin-off, presumably since The Doctor abandoned her in 19th century ITV-land) found that the divide between rich and poor was becoming tricky for Vicky. Her Maj chose to have a ball to support London’s poor merchants; London’s poor merchants thought she was having a laugh. Her realisation that regal pomp clashed with the impoverished everyday lives of millions was a very real historical issue, with outcomes that paved the way for the welfare state and charitable causes today.

So as I clumsily blog about Christmas history when it’s not really Christmas (still very awkward as I write in September – but I do have a book that’s now available and I wish to urge you to buy by reading these blogged words), I thought it might be good to zoom in on the wealth gap and ensuing charity that came in during Victoria’s reign, which then swiftly attached itself to the festive season.

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Victoria – with a special sceptre encrusted with ‘itv’ at the top.

A year prior to taking the throne, Victoria was so moved by a visit to a gypsy camp that she urged her mother to send for provisions and blankets. She later established a Christmas tradition of handing out hampers at Windsor Castle, providing a ton of bread and half a ton of plum puddings, as well as plenty of beef, potatoes, and coal.

But when she dined, she didn’t skimp on portions herself. Ignore the size of actress Jenna Coleman – Big Vic Regina was a big eater, and a fast one too. Her Majesty could put away a seven-course dinner in just half an hour. Unfortunately for her guests, custom was that once the Queen had finished a course, everyone’s would be cleared. So hundreds of guests attended, only to find that many weren’t even served their food before the Queen (served first) had finished eating hers. In such a vast hall, inevitably many didn’t eat. There was a side table at least, for anyone peckish between courses (if you had courses at all), plus a public gallery where any public could watch this gorging spectacle. But do we really want to just watch someone else eat? Let them (watch me) eat cake…

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Anyone for Victoria sponge cake?

The Victorian era changed Christmas more than any other period of history. And the biggest influence? Not Dickens, nor crackers, cards, charity, Christmas trees, Victoria nor Albert… but industrialisation. It created a middle class, and it made people flock from country to city. There were a million Londoners in 1800 and nearly 7 million by the end of the century, making London the world’s largest city. City life has benefits in terms of employment, but at the cost of community spirit – so our olde Englishe Christmassy customs – wassailing, orchard blessing, mummers touring the village, the parish priest blessing each family home – all were under threat, and largely absent from city life. In the country, more effort went into decorating the village church; urbanites instead decorated where they lived – with whatever their low incomes could afford. Public feasting became private feasting.

The home itself, rather than the house, was becoming a new phenomenon of its own. While the workhouse was in no way a good place to be, advancements in heating, plumbing, and eventually electrics soon meant that for many, evening and winter had the potential to be enjoyable like never before. (Just wait until radio and television.) The domestication of Christmas was the festival’s biggest leap for a millennium. Now customs didn’t belong to the community but to the family.

With the workforce gravitating towards cities, there developed the idea of returning home for the family Christmas. In the past, villagers had but a short walk to see relatives; now hordes of city-dwellers made that seasonal exodus back home, like the holy family for the census. New modes of transportation made this possible: trains, or even the omnibus. As the railways spread, people could move further from their birthplace to find work, meaning that a Christmas family reunion was something to anticipate, compared with a stroll over a field to say hello to Mum. To this day, we’re still moving – as recently as the 1990s, the average Brit lived five miles from their birthplace; at the time of writing, that’s now 100 miles.

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With a new middle-class (thanks to new technology and employment) came aspiration. Before it was serfs and royals – now the middle-class could look to the Queen, while the working-class could look to those middle-class types looking to the Queen. Social mobility wasn’t easy – but it was at least an idea.

Then along came Dickens. More of him and A Christmas Carol on another blog post – but suffice to say his trump card was painting Scrooge as the hardest of hearts, showing that even he could become the humanitarian of the book’s finale. This ushered in a new charitable connection to Christmas, his contemporaries quick to recognize that this was one of the few books to improve the behaviour of those who read it. Just a few months later, The Gentleman’s Magazine attributed a boom in charitable giving to A Christmas Carol. One American factory-owner read it on Christmas Eve and closed his factory the next day, instead giving a turkey to each employee. Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray noted that, “A Scotch philosopher, who nationally does not keep Christmas Day, on reading the book, sent out for a turkey, and asked two friends to dinner – and that is a fact.”

Charity had been associated with Christmas for many years. In 1667 Samuel Pepys reported in his diary that he “stopped and dropped money at five or six places, which I was the willinger to do, it being Christmas”. For many years churches had rattled their boxes and monarchs had rewarded their poorer subjects. Bosses emptied their charitable boxes to employees the day after Christmas – though this custom faded away in the later Victorian years, just as she encouraged ‘Boxing Day’ as an official holiday – so at least it would be a day off for workers, if not ready cash in a box.

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Whether inspired by Dickens or not, four years after A Christmas Carol Victoria ensured extra funds for Christmas dinners at workhouses across the country. So that’s nice. Hopefully she didn’t turn up too – otherwise she’d finish them all off in thirty minutes, knowing her.

Another time, we’ll look at her husband Albert’s festive contributions (from the Christmas tree to paper decorations and German markets), and another time still, far nearer Christmas, we’ll get all Dickensian.

For now, buy the book. Thanks.

The book’s out today! …and other festive PR events (including Batman & knickers)

It’s out today! Apparently. It’s very difficult to tell in a world of Amazons and Kindles and 24hr e-bookshops. So I thought we’d enjoy a brief history of festive marketing.

Some folks have asked me why a Christmas book is coming out so early. All I can say is a) the publishers have decreed it, b) I guess they need a month or two to get it out there, and to bookshops, and to people, in time for Christmas proper, c) part of the joy of the book is to read it in the run-up to Christmas – ideally you should reach Chapter 9 (Dickens) at your most Christmassiest, about a week before Christmas – so you’ve got to get the rest read before that. And e) Tesco’s have been stocking mince pies for weeks, so I’m allowed to have a Christmas book out, surely.

Get yours here, or if you’re looking for it in stores (good luck), this is what you’re looking for…

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Whenever you get your hands on it, navigating the choppy (and grubby) waters of P.R. can be troublesome but rewarding. Of course for years, Christmas has been dominated by commercialism, and the very act of things being marketed, and things being sold.

Our festival found a merry home in nineteenth-century department stores – notably Macy’s of New York, boasting the first Christmas window display, the first in-store Santa, and the first money-back guarantee. Gordon Selfridge imported similar ideas to his new London store, then Harrods began outdoing Selfridge’s displays, starting earlier, going bigger… Christmas creep began.

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But midwinter marketing crept in centuries earlier. For Christianity to promote its festival, it gave the people what they wanted, absorbing pagan customs from Anglo-Saxon wassailing (daubing orchards with cider every Twelfth Night) to Yule evergreens. Holly may have started as a Norse winter-defying evergreen, but it came to represent Christ’s crown of thorns; the Danish still call holly ‘kristtjørn’ – ‘Christ thorn’. For centuries, holly’s spikes were thought to repel evil – even baddies hate being pricked by shrubbery (which may explain why supervillains wear gloves).

As for the rosy English Christmas, that was marketed to the masses not by Dickens, but by his favourite American writer, Washington Irving. Irving was the world’s first international best-selling author, penning Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. On his European travels, he spent Christmas in Birmingham at the house of James Watt (yes, namesake of the 40 Watt lightbulb). Irving fictionalised this homely English Christmas into legendary tales of fireside games and family warmth, harking readers back to an aspirational Christmas that never really was. Oh, he also inspired the word ‘knickers’ (from the fake author he made up, Diedrich Knickerbocker) and ‘Gotham City’ (named after a village in Nottinghamshire he visited, applied to New York as a nickname, then borrowed by Batman). Knickers and Batman, eh? Christmas history is weird.

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Irving’s biggest marketing feat? Taking every Dutchman’s favourite saint St Nicholas and sending him global. St Nick was a Turkish bishop (like Christmas stuffing, he started in Turkey) and patron saint of sailors, who took his legends to the Netherlands. Dutch settlers brought him to America (England’s Father Christmas didn’t make the jump thanks to the American Revolutionary War), and Irving brought him to his readers, writing of “riding over the tops of trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children”. Half a century on, Santa made his Macy’s debut.

No time to tell of Father Christmas’ marketing role in returning the banned Christmas to Puritan England, or how the mince pie changed from coffin-shaped to circular to flout the law, or how a picture of Prince Albert sold Christmas trees to America (his moustache was photoshopped out to make him less German).

For that you’ll have to buy the book, out now, apparently, priced £7.99, to be found in all good bookshops, on all good websites, and in all good Christmas stockings.

The summer origins of the Christmas classics

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It’s tricky trying to plug a Christmas book in September. But I did say I’d blog from the book leading up to its launch on Sept 15th, and into the festive season, so here’s everything summery that I can find…

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It’s long-known that the media industry gears up to Christmas in August. As you’ve been enjoying time by the pool, a team hired by John Lewis have been faking snow and throwing loveable animals into it, hoping to pull on the heartstrings this December if accompanied by a plinky-plonky cover version of a song we used to like.

What’s less well-known is the summer origins of these Christmas classics:

 

THE CHRISTMAS SONG:

Allegedly the world’s most performed Christmas song, this was written in – and inspired by – the sweltering summer of 1945. Sick of roasting in the open sun, lyricist Bob Wells wrote four wintry lines about chestnuts and carols to take his mind off the heat. Perhaps he could (snow-)drift off into these words, of Jack Frost nibbling at toes, Yuletide choirs and kids dressed up like eskimos.

His collaborator, noted jazz singer Mel Tormé, saw the scribblings and forty minutes later – poolside – they had their song. Nat King Cole recorded it but knew he could improve on his first rendition, so insisted on a new version, with the now famous string arrangement. Shame about the ageist lyrics – excluding a Merry Christmas for anyone below the age of one or over the age of ninety-two. Tut tut.

 

LET IT SNOW! LET IT SNOW! LET IT – oh what is it again, oh that’s right – SNOW!:

The same hot summer of 1945, just up the boulevard (it was Hollywood), this snowy favourite was written. Dean Martin made it his own, with a voice as warm as mulled wine. But really it was written in a city far hotter.

 

SLEIGH RIDE:

Perhaps aware of the previous summer’s festive inspiration, Sleigh Ride was penned during the equally sweltering summer of 1946 – apparently again as a distraction from the unbearable heat. Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like a Hollywood heatwave.

 

WHITE CHRISTMAS:

Even the best-selling song of all time has warmer origins than many think. Writer Irving Berlin never warmed to Christmas – not only because he was Russian Jewish, but because his young son had died on Christmas Day years earlier. While others were celebrating, Berlin was working, on the soundtrack for Holiday Inn. He normally wrote a song a day, but this one was something special. To remind himself of his snowy family mountain home back in Colorado, Berlin was inspired by the mild Hollywood December to write a song he knew would be a classic. He didn’t write musical notation himself, so told his secretary (who did it for him), “I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written – heck, I just wrote the best song anybody’s ever written.”

Its missing first verse gives it the warmer Hollywood context:

 

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA
But it’s December the 24th
And I’m longing to be up north

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know…

(Hear it here)

When Bing Crosby travelled the world performing for WW2 troops, he’d be requested it even in the height of summer, to remind them of cosy home – he resisted to start with, then swiftly relented.

The song was also played out of season at the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. Operation Frequent Wind’s evacuation plan was triggered when American Forces Radio broadcast the code: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising…” followed by Bing’s song. The theory was that the enemy wouldn’t spot it as a Christmas song – but that those who ought to leave would be shocked at hearing it and race to the helicopters.

 

As for other summery Christmas nuggets, well, Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ was written in August, especially to cheer up working Brits in the politically and economically murky 1973 – making Britain’s first Christmas-themed Christmas number one.

Miracle on 34th Street was a summer film. I know. What? The film about an in-store Santa called Kris Kringle? The studio thought that no one would go to the cinema at Christmastime, so opted for a May release – and tried to downplay the Santa references in all the publicity. So this poster’s a tad misleading…

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1816 was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’ aka ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’. It was so bleak that Byron’s summer break had to be kept indoors, so he challenged his guests to write a horror story: Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, William Polidori wrote the first vampire story. Not very Christmassy… but the cold year meant thick December snowstorms and the end of the Little Ice Age, which were part of eight consecutive white Christmases for the young Charles Dickens, which meant that he associated snow with Christmas forever more – even though it rarely snowed at Christmas when he was an adult. And thanks to his snowy backdrop of A Christmas Carol, we think of Christmas as snowy to this day.

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That’ll do. I’m all summered out. Can’t wait to talk about Christmas though…

Hark! The Biography of Christmas is priced £7.99, out Sept 15th and pre-orderable right on that link there.

 

King Herod: The Forgotten CV

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Right. I know it’s barely September, but it’s back to school – and I’m steadily unwrapping the history of Christmas betwixt now and, well, probably Christmas. So no time like the present. (Speaking of presents, imagine the joy of giving a loved one Hark! The Biography of Christmas as a gift, And buying a copy for yourself… Alright, I’m pushing it. But that’s my job. To push it. Now, to Herod’s job…)

We’ve got a long way to go till Christmas, so we won’t get too festive just yet – and we’ll start with one of the kickstarters of Christmas: King Herod. You know the fella. The snarly one in the Nativity story. Maybe you even played him in a school play, if you were effectively the school bully at the time, or looked like one.

As he’s top brass, he’s one of the few Nativity elements that can be verifiably checked against the secular history books. He was one of Rome’s ‘client kings’, delegated to rule on Rome’s behalf, since the republic had become so vast and unruly. Well not that unruly. Because Herod ruled it.

So what do the history books tell us of the “great” ruler (he named himself Herod the Great, but I ain’t buying that descriptive term)? Firstly, and perhaps crucially, he was raised Jewish – not common for Roman rulers. It meant that Rome decreed him “King of the Jews” in 40 BC. And no one was going to take that title away from him – especially not a baby. Even without his role in the Nativity story, he was known as a fierce tyrant, whose answer to everything was pretty much “Just kill them.”

  • SECRET OF SUCCESS… Herod prospered thanks to fierce ambition, ruthless tyranny, and his swift and fickle change of allegiance to whoever was Rome’s winning side.
  • MARRY ME, MARIAMNE… Herod had ten wives (not all at the same time), including a Cleopatra and two Mariamnes. His first wife had the earthier name of Doris.
  • BIG SPENDER… Herod was noted for rash spending, trying to win favour by ordering huge building projects, from harbours to fortresses to the Second Temple. The locals didn’t buy it though, largely because he was also busy…
  • KILLING PEOPLE… The execution of all Bethlehem boys under two, known as ‘the Massacre of the Innocents’, is in the Scriptures but not the history books of the day. It’s entirely likely though, in keeping with a tyrant who killed anyone in his way, including three of his own sons. He drowned his teenage brother-in-law at a party, and once made his mother-in-law testify against his wife, her daughter – before killing them both.
  • THE INNOCENTS… The massacre has been estimated at no more than twenty boys, since the order was gender-, age-, and location-specific; Bethlehem was little more than a village. It’s still awful, mind you.
  • SAFETY IN NUMBERS… If you ever wondered why no one killed him off, Herod had 2,000 bodyguards.
  • MISS ME?… The threat didn’t vanish when he died. Herod was gravely paranoid, and feared that he wouldn’t be mourned. So he ordered the mass executions of various distinguished and well-liked citizens, to take place between his death and funeral. That way his people would have something to cry about. Thankfully his next of kin chose not to carry out this wish. Herod died of kidney disease and gangrene – reportedly an excruciating exit.

So there you have it. All the stuff they leave out of the school nativity. Maybe one year they’ll do a Herod origin story – with a parental warning, I imagine…

Hark! The Biography of Christmas is published by Lion Hudson and priced £7.99, out Sept 15th 2017.

My 12 Dates

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Alrighty, I’m writing this on a sweltering August Bank Holiday… but I’ve got a Christmas book to put out there next month! Needs must. (It is, have I not mentioned, called ‘Hark! The Biography of Christmas, and incredibly pre-orderable by clicking here.)

So please forgive while I start to veer towards that festival at the end of the year. You know the one. Crimbo. Xmas. Yule. Saturnalia. Winterval. I’ve already heard some vicars call it ‘the C word’, which hardly seems fair. I guess they get busy.

But we won’t get too snowy just yet. Plenty of time for that when the wind changes.

Instead, a light introduction to the chapters of the book. Each details what I’ve conveniently decreed the 12 dates when Christmas became our current Christmas. So here, exclusively (if that’s what passes for an exclusive nowadays), are the 12 dates ‘n’ chapters…

(Prologue: It’s Norse Yule and quite Games of Thronesy. It’s a story of ice and fire. And winter is definitely coming. There are no dragons but there is a burning log. (Oh, and it’s not so much ‘prologue’ as ‘prologos’, ‘before the Word’ or ‘before Christ’ as the Greeks would call it. Too early for ancient Greek wordplay?)

On my 1st date of Christmas, it’s approx May 20th, 4BC. Jesus is born. In May? Well, shepherds wouldn’t be watching many flocks by night in December. We take a look at all the key players: Mary, the shepherds, the angels, the many-not-three wise men, the non-innkeeper, the non-donkey and King Herod and his wife Doris.

My 2nd date of Christmas is December 17th, 33AD. Saturnalia! Roman festival of gift-giving, turning the world on its head, and general outrageous partying: ancestor of the office shindig. It’s 33AD because post-Christ, Jesus’ followers’ movement muddled in with other Roman religions, from Judaism to Mithraism. Emperor Constantine chose Christianity, and the rest is history. Oh, and at the Council of Nicaea, Constantine met one Bishop Nicholas, so that brings us to our…

3rd date of Christmas: December 6th 343, deathday of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. He gave out goodies, especially getting 3 bags of gold into 3 stockings by a fireplace (in another life, he’d make a mean NBA basketball player). And he lived in a town called Myra, named after myrrh. In Turkey, which sounds like turkey. You see?! St Nicholas is Christmassier than you thought, even before he becomes Santa Claus (spoiler).

Our 4th date is our first December 25th, in 1213. We zoom in on King John’s epic Christmas feast, including 16,000 hens and 10,000 eels. The medieval Christmas feast ties the season to gorging on birds from crane (chewy) to peacock (pretty but tough) to, oh yes, turkey. Later, even KFC, the Japanese Christmas tradition since the 1970s.

Our 5th date is a day short of a decade later: Christmas Eve, 1223. Francis of Assisi stages the first live Nativity scene, with genuine animals and a stone Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Soon, every fashionable home in Europe has their own crib scene. Meanwhile Francis is busy writing the first carols to be sung not in Latin but local languages – so people finally understand what they’re singing.

Chapter 6 zooms in on Christmas 1643 and those just after – or as Puritans preferred to call it, ‘The old Heathens’ Feasting Day, the Profane Man’s Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day, the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day…’ – that’s fasting not feasting, folks. Christmas is cancelled. Father Christmas is recruited as a political activist, mince pies became round to get around the law, and ‘the Christmas hoop’ loses the holy family icons, to leave simply mistletoe. Then there’s plum pudding, panto and candy canes – but Christmas is out of fashion. Did the Puritans win?

Our 7th date is one of my favourites. The Silent Night: December 24th, 1818. Some hungry mice, a church organ, a forgotten poem and a few panicked hours on Christmas Eve help create the world’s most performed Christmas song. Plus how Handel’s Messiah was written for Easter, how Jingle Bells was written for Thanksgiving (and became the first song in space, as part of a prank), and why While Shepherds Watched was the only legal carol for a hundred years.

Just four years later, in Chapter 8… now we’re talking. It’s December 23rd 1822 and Dr Clement Clarke Moore has written a poem, absorbing tales from Dutch New Yorkers about their favourite saint, Nicholas. Washington Irving (writer of Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow and inventor of the words ‘knickers’ and ‘Gotham City’), has brought St Nick into popular fiction. Moore runs with it: “Twas the Night before Christmas…”

December 19th, 1843: a biggie. Dickens stepped out of his home to see street-sellers launch his tale of Scrooge, charity, family, mulled wine and humbugs. The same week, the first Christmas card appeared. The same year, O Come All Ye Faithful appeared. The same decade, Christmas trees and crackers appeared (with sweets in). The new middle classes meant aspiration. The new railways meant far-away work, which meant returning home for Christmas. The new postal system meant cards and parcels and thankyou letters.

Our 10th date is December 24th, 1880 in Truro, Cornwall, as the first Nine Lessons & Carols service lures drinkers out of pubs. Commerce sees window displays, grottos, and a telephonist’s light-up desk inspires coloured Christmas lights. There’s a Christmas truce, a kickabout, and a grumpy corporal Adolf Hitler refusing to join in.

Date 11 is Christmas Day 1932: the first British royal Christmas speech. We’ve a stockingful of early broadcasting joy, from the world’s first ever radio entertainment show (being One Lesson & Carol) to the bumper Radio Times and the Queen’s first TV Christmas message, which was rudely interrupted by a cross line from a police radio, saying: “Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee.”

Finally, our 12th date is Christmas Day 1941, as Bing Crosby debuts White Christmas just days after Pearl Harbor. There are the strange summer origins of Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! and The Christmas Song. There’s John McClane. There’s a film of a Yule log that repeats every 17 seconds. There’s Alan Partridge in a Christmas jumper. There’s the unwatchable Star Wars Holiday Special. There’s Bob Geldof bumping into Gary Kemp outside of an antiques shop and starting Band Aid.

Then there’s today – somehow the summation of all this. Well, I say ‘today’. Today it’s a sweltering August Bank Holiday Monday. So enough about Christmas. For now…

Buy the book!

 

Hark! Do you hear what I hear…?

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Oh my, it’s been while since I blogged here.

Two and a half years since I posted here about the end of Miranda and Not Going Out – so what’s happened since?

Well Not Going Out has come back, in a new scenario. We’re writing the umpteenth series of it now. As for Miranda, there are rumours in the paper every few weeks that it’s coming back, every time one of the cast breathes and it sounds a bit like ‘We’re in talks’. Who can say…

As for me, I’ve been gigging a-plenty (including a new medically biographical stand-up show I’m performing at Camden Fringe this weekend as I write this – tickets available folks! Come on down, Sat 26th/Sun 27th Aug 2017…).

And I’ve been writing for more TV, including TFI Friday, Buble at the BBC, The BBC Music Awards, and a rollercoaster series of Top Gear: a crazy five months under the spotlight of the tabloids, culminating in everyone on the bus voicing opinions on the precise ideal volume of Chris Evans’ voice/T-shirt. I arrived with Chris and left with him. Amazingly, given the press interest at the time (even making the front pages, as well as countless Murdoch media grumblepieces), I’ve not had one journo get in touch asking for my experience on it. They were delightfully printing how “an unnamed source told us Presenter #1 shouted at people in this meeting” and “another unnamed source told us Presenter #2 doesn’t share food and his favourite food is sandwiches”. I’m astounded that no one’s even bothered to get in touch to ask if any of it was true. Then again, who needs truth once the article’s out?

Ah, speaking of articles, that’s why I’m here.

Another thing I’ve been doing is writing a Christmas book. For a couple of years now, I’ve been researching and writing Hark! The Biography of Christmas – you can of course pre-order it by clicking on its title just there in the line above. Would you? Thanks.

It’s simply the history of Christmas, told via the 12 dates of when I think Christmas became a bit more like our modern version of it. The whole of Christmas is here: origins of crackers, tinsel, turkey, holly, White Christmas, panto, Scrooge, Santa, carols… Why we think of our Christmas as a snowy time (it’s to do with the ice age, the young Dickens and Frankenstein), a time for charity (it’s to do with Boxing Day, the older Dickens and Cornish tin mines), and a time for family (it’s to do with trains, Gotham City, and the word ‘knickers’). There is of course plenty of church (a Nativity with no donkey, no innkeeper and possible dozens of wise men) and plenty of commerce (the world’s first Santa’s grotto? East London). There’s even a farting jester, The Simpsons, Daphne Du Maurier’s scary dad, and Englebert Humperdinck (not that one).

In fact I don’t think there’s anything of Christmas I’ve left out. I’m waiting for someone to read it and tell me what’s missing.

The book’s out mid-September, but as I say, very much pre-orderable now. I’m having two (I know, greedy) book launches – in Guildford on Sun 1st Oct and Holborn, London on Wed 11th Oct. If you’d like to come to either, email this special email address for details to get on the list – it’s free but ticketed, and both will include festive nibbles and a whistlestop tour through Christmas history from yours truly. Oh, and book signings galore of course. “Perfect stocking-filler!” Not my words – the words of Miranda Hart.

So.

The reason I’ve resurrected this blog…

To drip-feed Christmassy articles/extracts between now and Christmas. Festive delights a-plenty will follow in subsequent posts. For now, it’s still August, so I’ll have some respect for the season and not start till September. But come September 1st, the festive floodgates will open… and the blog’s going to be the Christmassiest place on the planet.

Merry Summer!

Hark Final Cover

Miranda’s now Not Going Out: A blog post about the end of 2 sitcoms (spoilers hidden)

(If you’ve seen neither show’s ending, spoilers below are hidden in backwards text…)

Eight years ago, I was sitting in a small office off Oxford Street with Lee Mack, Andrew Collins, and a rogue smell that we eventually pinpointed to a half-drunk cup of coffee hiding behind some scripts from months earlier (before I joined, I hasten to add).

We were writing the first series of Not Going Out, and partway through we turned our attention to casting ideas for some guest parts, including a scary acupuncturist character. I’d seen Miranda Hart on sitcom Hyperdrive (and didn’t know her apart from that), so threw her name into the ring. She got the part, and returned as an apparently-different cleaner character next series. In an entirely unrelated series of events, she got a BBC Radio then BBC TV sitcom of her own, called Miranda.

What I’m saying is: she owes me her entire career.

…Alright she had a good deal to do with it too, as well as a few powers-that-beeb.

I should add you may loathe either or both shows. That’s fine. Some like ’em, some don’t. Comedy’s that weird beast, where, like horror with it’s oohs and arghs, it requires a visceral response to work, and if you don’t laugh, you see it as a failure. Thankfully both have found an audience – the stars aligned.

And the two sitcoms have been oddly synchronistic, ending at the same time. I’ve written on both teams since episode one, and both shows have been written by its star performer, playing a version of themselves with their own name, American-style. Both ended up as BBC1 studio sitcoms, at a time when it looked like The Office had killed off the laughter track. (Not Going Out’s first episode aired the night after a BBC2 documentary about how the studio sitcom was dead; one theory has it that in recessions, people want cheering up so lean towards silly studio audience fare (hence the rise of Mrs Brown’s Boys et al), while in boom-time audiences go for darker shows (Nighty Night, Green Wing etc). Whatever the reason, Not Going Out and Miranda have lasted till now… and alas only till now.)

Both shows have ended within 8 days of each other. The latest series of Not Going Out ended on Christmas Eve, and while Lee has said he’d like to do more, it’s all rather well wrapped up, so we presume for now that that Not Going Out is probably now not going out. I hear from the man on the street that though there was a Tim-sized gap since Mr Vine left, Hugh Dennis has been a great addition, and that a Lee/Hugh double act in the show has plenty of legs yet, were it to return – but seven series may be our lot.

Miranda finished just over a week later, on New Year’s Day. Handily that means the show can say it ran from 2009-2015. Six glorious years (just)! MH has said that that’s it, so again we assume that is indeed it. Hollywood’s calling, as well as midwives. Much as I like to think we’ll get annual Christmas reunions a la Only Fools, The Royle Family and (it looks like) Mrs Brown’s Boys, I suspect that we won’t be popping in to Gary’s bar for Christmas turkey every twelve months. Miranda, Stevie, Penny: it’s been such fun.

To those who’ve been kindly asking how my bills will get paid now both have finished at once, I thank you, but we’re not in America… Auntie Beeb doesn’t pay like Uncle Sam does, so worry not, the difference is negligible. What the shows have done is opened doors to more gigs and more writing opportunities on other shows, so I thank them heartily for that. I’ve a couple of sitcom writitunities for early 2015, on a couple of shows that will hit screens later in the year, so God-willing the viewing public will take to them like they did to Lee the lousy flatmate and Miranda the lovable shop-owner… although I know lucky breaks don’t come along all the time.

But really this already far-too-long blog (which is why both shows have editors) is to reassure anyone who’s seen both NGO/Miranda finales that any similarity is entirely coincidental. Without giving away spoilers if you’ve VHS’d those bad boys, both shows wrap things up in fairly similar ways. (Alright, I’m spoilerising via backwards text: htoB swohs dne ni sgniddew, htiw etaudarG-elyts etal slavirra retfa a dam hsad, sa llew sa tseug soemac morf srats ohw deraeppa a seires ro owt kcab. sulP noisufnoc revo s’ohw tseb nam. dnA skcabhsalf.)

Not my doing! I arrived at the script to spruce up with funny lines after these bits were well and truly embedded. And while in the past I’ve accidentally submitted the same joke for two different shows airing on the same night on the same channel (see chapter 8 of my book So A Comedian Walked Into A Church, available on Amazon and other less-tax-dodging websites), on this occasion it was well beyond worth me mentioning the similarities to anyone. Both had these facets deep in the story structure, and to be honest both were the best (and really only) ways to round off either series. It’s telling that both chose the same route – but that’s what the public want, and it’s satisfying. Sitcom is all about resetting the set-up each week – seeing our characters back at square one. On this occasion both needed to move on, and give our lead characters some plot resolution. That meant… this – a ceremonial tying-up of things.

As the only person involved in both shows on these final episodes, I have no idea if I was the only one to know the similarities in advance. Did someone at Beeb Towers oversee all this, and read both scripts, and know we’d have a bit of a crossover? Or did no one really know until the day of each show? And where are Beeb Towers now they’ve stupidly sold the doughnut building at White City? Who can say.

Equally, has anyone else noticed? Was I the only one to spot the similarities between the Christmas specials of Black Mirror and Doctor Who? Both are lightly comedic sci-fis, both within a week of each broadcasting one-offs set in a mysterious snowy North Pole research station, in both cases occupied by characters who, when pressed, didn’t actually know what they were doing there, until it unravelled that (backwardly-written spoilers again) htob erew gnirrucco ni rieht suoicsnocbus. Both used familiar glam rock Christmas anthems (Slade’s and Wizzard’s) in a macabre fashion: in one case to drive someone insane in a dream-world, and in the other to save someone from having their brains eaten by a dream-crab. Small world, ey? But then both used these elements to markedly different – and brilliant – effect. So perhaps I’m worrying over nothing about similarities: like the wise man said, you can use the same ingredients to make an omelette and a trifle, if you just add a few and take some away (the wise man was an awful cook).

So I hope any similarities didn’t affect your enjoyment of either send-off. I think both worked well. And if you didn’t like it, well that’s the last you’ll see of it anyway.

Happy New Year! And Happy New Sitcom.

When is a gig not a gig?

I’ve been lucky of late. Comedy gigs I’ve done have largely had good tech, stage, publicity, even audience members (which of course is thanks to the publicity). It helps that I’ve been doing a vast amount of solo shows, in arts centres, churches, school halls… All fully equipped with everything you need: seats facing the right way, quality PA, and in many cases a regular loyal crowd.

A couple of days ago I visited what can only be described as a beautiful circuit gig: Moonrakers in Devizes is the perfect low-ceiling, huddled eager audience in a basement bar. Throw in a brick-wall backdrop and you’d be in a US comedy club in its heyday… but with the unmistakably British pubness there in all the right ways.

But a Great British pub does not a great comedy club make. At a recent gig, I walked in to hoping to find a function room, or an encouraging sign reading ‘Comedy upstairs’. Instead you see the speakers set up next to the toilets and your heart sinks.

No ticket price
No lights
No stage
No seats facing the (non-)stage, no front row

…At some gigs, for whatever reason one or two of these might need to be the case. For a great gig, you obviously want all of these things to be intact, though I’ve had lovely gigs at places that unfortunately don’t have a stage, or where the audience haven’t paid to get in. But when every item on the checklist is lacking, there is no chance, and no gig.

So at the recent gig (non-gig), where there the audience hadn’t paid to be there (so had no vested interest in the night, and valued the show at £0 – in fact many were just there for a drink), with no lights or stage (so there was little to draw focus to us), with no front row, just seats around tables as a normal pub night (so the few who did want to listen had to really strain to see the comedian)… it was the perfect storm. It was the nearest I’d come in my stand-up career to refusing to go on. Some gigs (non-gigs), just aren’t worth putting yourself (and the ‘audience’) through twenty minutes of shouting jokes in the hope someone may hear them.

Perhaps I should have just left. But I gave it a pop. In part, yes, I wanted to get paid. But also, you think “Well you never know, we might get something going…”.

The MC went on and got the attention of two tables, but he had to roam and pace to grab just their attention. I went on and quickly realised that I just couldn’t be heard. Banter, jokes, you try the lot and it’s a losing battle. There was no heckling – oh for some heckling – just ignoring of the comedian even being there. I got laughs from the handful listening and applause when I left, only to find then that the headliner had done what I’d thought about – he’d gone home early. If roles were reversed and I’d seen him vying for attention from a Friday night pub that just wanted to be a Friday night pub, maybe I’d have done the same.

Some gigs aren’t gigs. If you’re running a show, you need to make sure there’s a mic and lights and sightlines and a stage and a ticket price. If you absolutely vitally need to not have one of these things, the others absolutely have to be in place – and even then you might find the show’s a non-starter. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, but you do need the eggs to begin with. Tell a comedian to just stand by the Ladies toilet and start talking at everyone in the pub who’s trying to have a drink, and you’re making us just look a bit weird. There’s a reason Live At The Apollo has lights, sound and a stage, and isn’t filmed by a pub loo. If not, you might get an episode when Michael McIntyre hosts it saying, “Apollo, please welcome your headline act… Oh no he’s gone home.”

19.55 Things You Could Know About Secret Cinema’s Back To The Future (without spoilers)

Doc: “It works! Ha ha, IT WORKS! I FINALLY invent something that works!

Marty: “You bet your ass it works

…And my, how Secret Cinema’s Back To The Future works. When new versions of a film are released, there’s often talk of watching it “as the film-makers wanted it to be watched”. I think last night’s BTTF love-in surpassed how the film-makers ever thought it could be watched – but it was joyous.

Things got heavy for Secret Cinema last week when time circuits failed them, and they cancelled a week’s worth of shows. This event is ambitious in the extreme, and it looks like they just took too much on. I really hope that if you’re reading this and were one of those unfortunates who just clicked the wrong date when buying your tickets, that you can reschedule. Hill Valley is finally ready: A Nice Place to Live. We happened to book tickets a week in… which miraculously became the opening night.

I’ll keep this spoiler-free (although we’ve all seen the film, so there aren’t really any spoilers. And if you haven’t seen the film, this probably isn’t the way to see it for the first time, as you’ll be largely confused for a few hours). But there are a few pointers, that if you’re going you might like to know to get the best out of the event. Secret Cinema’s missives have been wilfully obtuse, so this may help clear the manure from the windscreen. Conveniently, there are 19.55 points I have to make. (I couldn’t muster 88)…

1. Mill around, embrace the experience. There are genuine shops, recreated experiences, and drama school graduates doing pretty solid accents. You can interact with your favourite characters, be told you’re a slacker, or a butthead… but if you can’t stand that sort of thing, they won’t trouble you if you don’t want it. You can be as involved as you like (well not that involved – you can’t drive the Delorean, no matter how many lines you quote at them). You’ll spot the ‘actors’ – they look like everyone else, except their 50s apparel looks actually good.

2. Soak up the Hill Valley atmos, but before too long make sure one of your group has reserved some turf. My pitch would be near the very front, ideally on the left. Forget about a good distant view to take in the screen. If stuff happens for real up front, you’ll want to be near it. But even if you’re at the back on the right, they’ll make sure they bring the show to you at some point.

3. The list that Secret Cinema have sent out telling you what to bring… (well a list would have been helpful – instead it’s titbits gleaned from clicking on various links they’ve hinted at) …Don’t break your neck trying to find it all. Photo of me as a kid? Photo of favourite movie star? 3D glasses? Homework? None of it used. I’m sure if you end up in the right part of the square at the right time, then it might be, but I didn’t need any of mine.

4. On that, if you want to get really involved, listen out for announcements about reporting to certain shops, school etc if you work there. You can go if you like, and get some interaction with characters, and maybe even get to march in the parade. Just make sure your friend is still reserving that pitch on the grass (front left, remember?)

5. The grass. A blanket etc might be nice, but it’s astroturf not real grass, so you won’t get muddy. Maybe just check the weather forecast before you go (but whatever it says, expect lightning…)

6. 1955 Hill Valley is a delight. But don’t miss out on the secret 1985 space they’ve hidden there. You’ll have to go looking for it.

7. To unparaphrase Huey Lewis, “DO need money, DO need a credit card to ride this train…” Bring cash. There are cashpoints there, but with a queue and possibly a fee. Beer and wine is available at a premium cost. Food is available at very-much-non-1955 prices. You can get a souvenir T-shirt, and most of the shopfronts aren’t just shopfronts: so if you want to have a 1950s haircut, buy some comic books or even a red puffer jacket, you can do so. Just bring oodles of cash. And if someone quotes you the price in $, they mean £- don’t go asking about exchange rates.

8. On the red puffer jacket… You will see a few. The rare folks who’ve come dressed as 1985 Marty McFly, or Doc Brown, stick out like sore thumbs. Your best bet is to make a 1950s effort if you like – or just wear white T-shirt and jeans if you’re a guy. Can’t be bothered? Not a problem. Wear your normal clothes. But if you can make an effort, do.

9. My advice: Eat at 4:30 before you get there. Maybe you’ll want something later too, but expect a loooong queue for any food in there. You want to bring your own? That’s forbidden. Buried in your bag? Well it would have to be right at the bottom. But wouldn’t security check your bags? Yes, a quick look at the top of the bag sure. You’re still thinking of bringing food? Oh well just eat it discreetly. Maybe wait till the film’s about to start and the square’s full of people. Bring in wine or beer at your peril – security will nab it, and drink it, and there’s nothing worse than a drunk security guard.

10. You will have a long time to meander before the film starts. You don’t need to rush around all the sights in an hour. Give yourselves two. Or three…

11. Secret Cinema have been strict in their instructions about leaving phones at home or in the car. Or in your pocket. That’s another option. You can check it in at the gate, but many brought theirs in. If you do though, just keep it in that pocket. Security will spot you if you take it out. Plus as m’good friend Owen pointed out, the advantage of a phones-free event was that people actually, you know, talked.

12. Of course the real reason they don’t want phones is they don’t want cameras. (Although at the end of the night, people were taking their phones out and snapping away.) Well guess what? They also sell cameras on site. For £6 you can buy a disposable one with old skool wind-on function. You can’t check the picture once taken, and there are only 24, but I look forward to seeing how mine turned out, when I get the snaps back from the chemist in 4-6 working months.

13. While it’s delightfully phone-free, it’s impossible to ignore other 21st century invasions. The giant John Lewis sign hanging over Hill Valley Telegraph looks odd, as does the clock tower being situated within eyeline of the Olympic velodrome, but hey, any minute a Delorean’s about to appear, so so what if everything’s ‘outatime’?

14. Make sure you spend at least 10min in Hill Valley High School. And only be in the middle of the school hall if you really know how to dance.

15. When the film does start, you’ll find yourself cheering and booing at things you never thought possible. You’ll know if you’re sitting near hardcore fans, as they’ll try and cheer/boo before everyone else, at things like Huey Lewis’ cameo (in the film – he’s not there live).

16. Then there are the drunk fans. The three-hour build-up means people will be doing some drinking. Pace yourself. The prices will help with that. No one got out of hand that I could see – the worst it got was that the guys near us were drunk enough to be yelling, “Do it Marty!” every time Marty’s mum comes onto him. (But maybe they yell that when watching it sober.)

17. Secret Cinema implied it could go on till 12-12:30am – Our ended by about 11:20, with not much you need to stick around for. So I think that means you have one tube train you can still catch, if you pace it on a bit (it’s 15min back to the station).

18. If you’ve brought a hoverboard, you will get looks. Wrong film.

19… Watch the screen. Enjoy the movie. But take a look around every so often. If the scene on the screen is in Lou’s Diner, maybe dart a glance to Lou’s Diner…

… .55. My biggest tip of all, is that once you’ve enjoyed it, and months have passed and you’re starting to miss it, and it’s approaching August next year… then that would be a great time to look up my forthcoming Edinburgh Festival stand-up show (for 2015), ‘Back To The Futon pt 2’. I will be there, with Delorean, hoverboard and more jigawatts than you can shake a stick at.

And just to prove my credentials, here’s are two short video inserts from the 2007 show I took to Edinburgh festival that was a kind of stand-up tribute…

“Libyans!” – my version of the chase scene… https://vimeo.com/102323127

A flying Delorean that ended the show… https://vimeo.com/102323666

Your friend in time,

Paul Kerensa