The Times, 13 December 2006


On Sunday evening, when I was watching the penguin-music-video-cum-eco- propaganda, Happy Feet, I couldn’t help but feel that Christmas films have changed. I’m against over-fishing as much as the next girl (more, probably, as I haven’t eaten fish since the mid-eighties), and obviously a cartoon is as good a place as any to relay that message to the impressionable young, but I still found it rather depressing, at this time of year, to watch a film with the moral: ‘people = bad’. Still, that problem paled next to my difficulties with its narrative coherence, since I have no doubt that were a penguin in a zoo to start dancing, it wouldn’t be sent back to the wild to see if its friends had similar terpsichorean powers, it would be embedded in primetime television till it died, while all-fish diets were recommended in the pages of Heat magazine.

What happened to the more complicated morality of It’s A Wonderful Life, where we learn that suicide is wrong, we’re more important to society than we realise, and that mean, fat people can and will steal from us with impunity? Or the naturalised Christmas movie, The Great Escape, which I hold entirely responsible for the decline in basic civility in the Western world. We all saw it as children, and discovered that courage, achingly hard work, and imagination could set you free. And that manners could send you right back to jail. If Gordon Jackson had simply responded to that treacherous “Good Luck!” with a huffy sigh , instead of a charming, “Thank you very much,” he’d have been a free man. This is a moral message which has been fully absorbed by Oxford St this year.

Perhaps television is filling the gaps for the seasonally sentimental: last weekend, I also watched the Christmas episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new show, Studio 60, and cried copiously at the New Orleans jazz finale. Sorkin has form with making me cry at Christmas – I sincerely believe that anyone who can watch In Excelsis Deo, from The West Wing, Season 1 (where Toby’s old coat is given to Good Will, and thence to a homeless war veteran, who promptly freezes to death overnight, prompting Toby to give him a full military funeral, while The Little Drummer Boy plays over the top) without weeping is a certifiable sociopath, and should be locked up, Minority Report-style, before they can harm the rest of us.

Anyway, as the cinema fails me, I shall be returning to my Christmas DVD collection – I’m currently watching The Bishop’s Wife, the moral message of which is, of course, that when married to David Niven, you may have to have an emotional affair with the angelic Cary Grant to get his attention. I shall then turn to the all-time classic, The Muppets Christmas Carol, indisputably the best film or TV adaptation of Dickens ever made, until the BBC’s Bleak House, although, for me, Bleak House lacks that vital scene where Beaker gives his red scarf to the reformed Michael Caine. I may cry again.