“Always winter but never Christmas,” said Mr Tumnus when explaining the White Witch’s icy grip on the wintry kingdom of Narnia. It’s a quote that evokes a desperate sadness, a snowy landscape that no longer captivates with its untouched, velvety beauty but instead torments and imprisons, injecting a deathly cold into the shivering core of every living thing. ‘Christmas’ is nothing but a whisper evaporating in a cloud of foggy breath.
The despair and numbing joylessness of Jadis-era Narnia was a key theme of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s ‘The Magical Journey’ at The Belfry, which recently served up a half-arsed vision of Christmas that left some visitors to his festive attraction feeling sad. SAD! Like how you might feel after watching a Yuletide screening of Cathy Come Home. He didn’t manage to deliver a convincing winter either, with reports of bags of fake snow sitting on pallets at the entrance to the site. MERRY CHRISTMAS, KIDS!
Prior to the opening of his winter wonderland (“an entertainment production the likes of which has not been seen before in the UK”), LLB had been all over the press, occasionally arriving for interview by reindeer-drawn sleigh. “There is nothing like smelling reindeer to really make you feel Christmassy,” he said to one journalist, providing a festive reimagining of Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore’s napalm speech in Apocalypse Now. Jumping off the sleigh and throwing back his mane of jet black hair, he then set the scene: “When children and families come to The Magical Journey, it will be like being in a film. It’s not just an event where you walk around and meet Santa. Visitors are at the heart of a mission which will keep them intrigued and motivated; they will realise that they are critical to the whole journey.”
The film version of LLB’s Christmas starred a Santa who was “in his 20s and weighed about nine stone” and a cast of elves (‘Buddy Twinklesocks’ and ‘Pudding Sparkletoes’ to name a couple) who’d been tasked with slowing down families walking through the woods in order to manage the queues for the various Santas. The ‘mission’ that LLB alluded to was for visitors to help search for ‘Rudi the Reindeer’ who had gone missing, which was announced by ‘Mary Holly-Berry’ (aka Mrs Clause) shortly after families had trudged past a set of reindeer antlers on display in Father Christmas’s Museum. It’s to be hoped that no tearful children drew their own dark conclusions as to the fate of Rudi.
Unsurprisingly, after a dismal opening day and an avalanche of complaints from disgruntled parents, the event director of The Magical Journey, Paul Dolan, decided to close the event for three days to allow for crucial improvements to be made. He was subsequently interviewed by Eddie Mair on Radio 4’s PM and was asked what was being done to improve the attraction before the grand reopening.
“We’re putting the magic into it right now,” said Dolan, confidently.
“Are you adding the magic as we speak?” asked Mair, in his familiar wry style.
“If you could hear what I can hear, I can hear a snow machine blowing in the distance,” responded Dolan excitedly.
Paul Dolan was so contrite and refreshingly honest about The Magical Journey’s failings that I would probably vote for him if he went into politics. However, the grating sound of a generator farting a load of dry foam snow into the air is no more magical than the distant sound of one of Laurence Llewelyn Bowen’s workmen having a thunderous shit in a tinselled portaloo.
Opening a festive attraction on November 22nd has nothing whatsoever to do with creating a magical experience and everything to do with maximising profit and getting as many people through the door as possible. I’m surprised it didn’t open in late October to capitalise on Halloween as well. LLB could have had ‘Elfie McLeatherface’ chasing terrified families through the woods with a chainsaw to delay their approach to Santa’s cabin. Or perhaps the little girl from The Ring could have crawled out of a glittery, enchanted well to offer candy canes to passing children, simultaneously haunting their dreams forever.
I only have one memory of visiting Santa’s grotto as a child – Hamleys, Regent Street, 1984 – but I wouldn’t remember it at all if it wasn’t for a fading Polaroid of the event. Conforming strictly to our gender stereotypes, I picked up a bag of plastic soldiers from underneath the Christmas tree, and my sister grabbed a Barbie-style doll. We then sat on Santa’s knee for the obligatory photo, which captured the moment his fake beard slipped from his clammy upper lip. It’s difficult to tell from the picture, but Santa is either looking off-camera because he’s bored, or staring lasciviously at my alabaster complexion. Our happy faces show that we hadn’t clocked either scenario.
I also remember Santa coming down our street every year in the early 80s. He was usually sitting atop a balsa wood sleigh decked out with fairy lights and a clunky PA system blaring out Christmas carols as a slow-moving Austin Ambassador towed it along. The levels of excitement in our house instantly spiked as soon as we heard the unmistakable hubbub of Santa approaching in the distance. I can’t remember if he gave out presents, but I remember running out with my sister and parents to wave.
I believed in Santa till about 1986 (when I failed to get to sleep on Christmas Eve and realised that my dad had been the one leaving a Christmas stocking on my bed every year), so I wonder what I must have thought of the exciting, but slightly naff, interactions with Santa in my early childhood. Did I think they were merely harmless tribute acts preparing us for the arrival of the Big Man himself? Or did I care less about the authenticity of the Christmas scene and more about the free presents?
I saw a man in his early 20s yesterday dressed in an ill-fitting Santa costume. He was holding a placard for Domino’s Pizza and was chatting on his mobile phone, presumably checking that the elves had managed to get a large Meatilicious pizza and a side order of Chicken Kickers out on the delivery bike. Santa is everywhere. For me, I think the most exciting Santa is the one that you can’t see. I don’t mean he should have optical camouflage like Predator (or that he should hunt children – naughty or nice – for sport), but the best Santa is one that you should only see hints of. One who leaves a tantalising trail of physical evidence that sends children into a frenzied excitement.
I remember a white Christmas in about 1980 when my mum and dad created footprints, hoof prints and sleigh marks in the fresh snow. And like every year, an empty sherry glass, a half-eaten mince pie and some nibbled carrots had been left on the mantelpiece. To this day, it stands out in my memory as the most magical Christmas morning I’ve ever had. I’m going to do the same for my son when he’s old enough to appreciate it. And even if he insists on remaining glued to the NORAD Santa Tracker on the iPad on Christmas Eve, I’ll make sure that we spend time in the garden staring at the stars as well.
“Was that him?” my son might say, pointing skywards.
“Possibly, it was definitely too bright to be a star,” I’ll reply, with a heavy sense of dread that, one day, he won’t believe in the magic that my wife and I will spin around Christmas.
We’ll probably take him to some tacky winter wonderland grottos as well (à la The Magical Journey). But hopefully, only the magic that we create will linger in his memory rather than the nightmare of being chased through snow-blasted woodland…by Elfie McLeatherface.