My favourite Christmas things

 

From pixabay.com

 

This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.

 

 

Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.

 

 

In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.

 

Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.

 

© Vintage

 

Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.

 

Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!

 

© BBC

 

Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)

 

© BBC

 

As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?

 

Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.

 

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

 

So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.

 

Alternative Hurt

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

And so another prominent feature of the cinematic and televisual landscape that’s surrounded me since I was a kid has gone.  I’m referring to the legendary English actor John Hurt who died late last month.

 

Hurt had many famous roles and managed for six decades to keep his profile high among the film and TV-viewing public.  He played the flamboyant Quentin Crisp in Jack Gold’s TV comedy-drama The Naked Civil Servant (1975); the luckless Max in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978); the even more luckless Kane, who becomes an unwilling incubator for the nightmarish H.R. Giger-designed beastie in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979); the noble but deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980); and that great everyman of dystopian fiction, Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (1984 – yes!).

 

Later, while the highbrow performances kept coming – as scabrous Tory politician Alan Clark in the TV mini-series The Alan Clark Diaries (2004-2006), Quentin Crisp again in Brian Laxton’s An Englishman in New York (2009), Corkery in Rowan Jaffe’s Brighton Rock (2010), Control in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (2011) – he also appeared in several internationally-popular franchises: as Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies; Bruttenholm in the Hellboy movies (2004 and 2008); Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); and the War Doctor, the militarised black sheep of the Doctor’s many incarnations, in the fiftieth-anniversary special of Doctor Who (2013).

 

The role that made the biggest impression on me, though, was the very first one I saw Hurt playing – in Jack Gold’s TV mini-series I Claudius (1976), based on the novels by Robert Graves, where he was the simultaneously deranged, ludicrous and terrifying Roman emperor Caligula.  Actually, thinking now of the scenes where Hurt harasses the limping, stuttering future-emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi), I can’t help but think of another demented tyrant who likes to mock the physically afflicted.

 

© BBC

© BBC

 

But for this tribute, I thought I’d write about some items on John Hurt’s CV that have received less attention – films he appeared in that have vanished off the radar and / or ones in which he had supporting roles.  Here’s my pick of the Alternative Hurt.

 

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Based on the case of real-life 1940s / 1950s serial killer John Christie, Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place remains a gruelling watch today.  This is largely due to a performance by the normally cuddly and loveable Richard Attenborough, who brings Christie to life in a balding, pot-bellied, cardigan-wearing, tea-sipping, lisping, ingratiating, manipulative, quietly lecherous and homicidally perverted fashion that makes your skin crawl.  What’s even worse is the knowledge that Christie evaded capture for several years by having his third and fourth murders, of neighbour Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson) and her infant daughter Geraldine, wrongly pinned on Beryl’s husband and Geraldine’s father Timothy (Hurt).  After Timothy Evans was hung for the crimes, Christie killed four more times.

 

As the thickly Welsh-accented Timothy Evans, Hurt manages an impressive balancing act.  His character is slow-witted, boastful, occasionally violent and generally unlikeable; but nonetheless he elicits enough sympathy for the audience to be shocked when he gets condemned to death through Christie’s duplicity and the police’s stupidity.  (Attenborough, it’s said, agreed to do the film because he felt it justified his abhorrence of capital punishment.)

 

The Osterman Weekend (1983)

In the final movie made by maverick director Sam Peckinpah, Hurt plays a CIA man who enlists the help of investigative reporter Rutger Hauer to bust an alleged spy ring.  Mainly, this involves rigging Hauer’s house up with surveillance equipment before the conspirators are invited over for the weekend.  The reality, though, is not what Hauer thinks it is…  A collision between a twisty, hi-tech espionage thriller and Peckinpah’s signature crash-bang-wallop, slow-motion, blood-spurting action set-pieces, The Osterman Weekend doesn’t always work.  But its cast (Hurt, Hauer, Meg Foster, Craig T. Nelson and Dennis Hopper) keeps it entertaining.

 

And a scene where Hurt, speaking to Hauer via a two-way video / audio link, suddenly has to pretend to be a TV weatherman when the wrong person appears in Hauer’s proximity, is very funny.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Palace Films

 

The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears’s The Hit features John Hurt as an assassin and a young Tim Roth as his apprentice.  They capture a retired gangster, played by Terence Stamp, and transport him across Spain.  Long before, it transpires, Stamp turned Queen’s evidence against some criminal associates and now it’s payback time.  What lifts this crime-drama-cum-road-movie out of the ordinary is its characterisation.  Stamp is surprising philosophical about his impending fate, Roth is endearingly gormless and Hurt gives a glorious study in world-weariness.

 

The Field (1990)

A tragic drama about an obsessed Irish farmer (Richard Harris) who gradually loses his mind when a precious piece of land slips through his fingers and into those of a rich American property developer (Tom Berenger), Jim Sheridan’s The Field ends up in King Lear territory – with Harris as the diminished monarch and Hurt as his loyal Fool.  In fact, Hurt’s performance as Bird, Harris’s daft, cackling and excitable side-kick, adds a few slivers of comedy to what is overall a powerful but grim film.

 

Rob Roy (1995)

Having played a Welshman in 10 Rillington Place and an Irishman in The Field, Hurt completed his Celtic hat-trick with his performance as an evil Scottish nobleman in Michael Caton-Jones’s Rob Roy.  The film suffers from the fact that its star, Liam Neeson, fails to convince as the Scottish Highlander Rob Roy MacGregor – every time he opens his mouth, a Ballymena accent comes out.  And excitement-wise it never quite sets the heather alight, especially compared to the same year’s barnstorming, crowd-pleasing Braveheart.  Its strongest feature is its outstanding trio of villains: Tim Roth (again) as the bastardly dandy Archibald Cunningham, Brian Cox as the venal factor Killearn and Hurt himself as the purringly malevolent Duke of Montrose.

 

© United Artists

 

Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is a demented psychedelic western about an innocuous accountant who becomes the quarry of bounty hunters.  It also boasts an astonishing cult-movie cast headed by Johnny Depp.  Hurt appears as a vinegary aide to the great Robert Mitchum who, in one of his last film roles, plays the rich, powerful and barking-mad businessman who sets the bounty hunters on Depp’s trail.

 

At one point, Hurt also shares a scene with Lance Henrikson and Michael Wincott, who between them have appeared in four other Alien movies – which makes this quite an Alien-actors convention.

 

The Proposition (2005)

While Alien contains the ultimate John Hurt death scene, John Hillcoat’s violent, grubby Australian western The Proposition gives him a pretty memorable way of shuffling off the mortal coil too.  As the raddled but eloquent bounty hunter Jellon Lamb, he expires quoting some lines by the Victorian author George Borrow: “There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on a heath…”  That’s just before he gets a knife the size of a shovel-blade rammed through his chest and a bullet in the head.  Well, Nick Cave wrote the script, so what did you expect?

 

© Zentropa / Memfis Film

 

Melancholia (2011)

The Lars Von Trier-directed Melancholia is both a study of clinical depression and an account of the last days of earth before it has an apocalyptic collision with another planet.  But the mood is thankfully lightened when John Hurt makes a cameo appearance as the gregarious, party-loving old reprobate who’s father to Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

An arty, languid but likeable vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive sees Hurt working again with Jim Jarmusch.  While most of the film focuses on vampire lovers Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, Hurt provides good support as the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, who didn’t actually die in 1593 but – surprise! – got vampirised instead.  Four centuries later, he lives as Swinton’s avuncular and quietly blood-drinking neighbour in Tangiers.

 

Snowpiercer (2013)

Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer has an imaginative premise.  The earth has been decimated by a new ice age and the last human survivors live in an oppressively hierarchical society on board a super-long train, which is in perpetual movement around the snowbound globe.  Unfortunately, the film is all over the place in terms of tone, unsure whether it wants to be a gritty sci-fi actioner, a slice of Terry Gilliam-esque surrealism or a darkly humorous Roald Dahl-type fantasy.  Hurt at least brings some levity to the proceedings, playing the leader of the train’s rebellious proles.  Unsubtly, his character is called ‘Gilliam’.

 

Incidentally, one John Hurt movie I haven’t mentioned here because I’ve never seen it in its entirety is 1978’s The Shout, also starring Alan Bates, Susannah York and Robert Stephens and based on a short story by I Claudius author Robert Graves.  People whose opinion I respect say it’s very good; and from the opening minutes, which are up on Youtube, it certainly looks intriguing.

 

© First Look Pictures