Tag Archives: Christmas

Dear Father Christmas…

In which The Author regrets having
the chimney demolished

Or ‘Santa Claus’, as people insist on calling you nowadays. I’m not surprised. You’re operating on a multinational basis these days, and the US dominates everything from nuclear weaponry to the very language we use. All the same, I hope you don’t mind if I use the name I knew you by when we first got acquainted, back in the late sixties. I expect it makes a nice change for you these days.
It’s not a long letter this year. I expect you’ll be glad to know that, as I’ve left it until last minute to write (again!) I thought maybe this year you’d get it quicker if I put it online, rather than posting it. The Royal Mail is unreliable at the best of times, and they even stung me for a couple of quid in Aberdare last week. You’ll probably find this quite funny.
My friend Barbara and I had sold a couple of copies of Bernard Baldwin’s book Mountain Ash & Penrhiwceiber Remembered in Old Photographs to people living in England. I took them to Aberdare Post Office and they charged us £2.16 each to send. We sold our third copy early this week and I took it to my local office around the corner. This time, an identical consignment cost only £1.23. Apparently I’d been charged Packet Rate instead of the (correct) Large Letter Rate. Could you have a word with them while you’re passing? I’m fairly sure your elves double-check the weight and the size of packages before despatch. That’s one of the benefits of outsourcing, isn’t it? Come to think of it, I’d hate to imagine the size of your mailroom. It must make Amazon’s warehouse in Swansea look like a phone box.
Anyway, back on topic. I’m not going to ask for world peace, cures for AIDS, cancer and malaria, an end to poverty, or any of the usual clichés that Miss World finalists always go on about. I’m not even sure whether you should bother visiting me at all. I have to confess that I haven’t been a very good boy this year. I’ve argued with my family, cut myself off from friends, and spent far too much time and money in various pubs. I’ll sure you’ll forgive me this last indiscretion, though. You’re quite partial to the odd glass of sherry, aren’t you?
I haven’t even trimmed up the house – that’s five years in a row, isn’t it? Do you remember that Boxing Day night when I threw the whole Christmas shebang into the wheelie bin – tree, tinsel, cards, baubles, angel, everything? It was nothing personal, but when I found out how ill Dad really was, it sort of destroyed Christmas for me. I didn’t even regret it when the bin men came and took the lot away the following morning. I did get a momentary pang when I heard the lorry coming past, but it wasn’t guilt. It was more my inner sensible person saying, ‘Oh you daft cunt, you could have had the plug off those lights and used it again!’
I don’t want a lot in the way of material things as usual. While I like technology, I don’t see the point of constantly upgrading for the sake of it. Most products have their problems during the first phase of consumer usage (witness the number of students I know who’ve had trouble with their Blackberry phones!) I’d rather hang on for a while and get something that’s gone through beta testing. A new mobile phone would be nice, just because I liked the one that got half-inched in the Glandover during the summer. I was able to put ringtones and pictures on it. Just something I could customise would be cool.
Some clothes would be nice. I don’t do designer labels or brand names, but something new for my wardrobe would be pretty decent of you. Actually, a few complete new sets of gear – some male and some female – would be awesome. I can feel a skirt coming on again soon. Not in this weather, though!
I’d also really appreciate a memory upgrade. Not for the PC or the Netbook – for me. As I’m getting older, I find my ability to recall information that I’ve known for years is on the wane. I know that happens to everyone, but there’s a lot of bad stuff I could quite happily forget without a moment’s notice or a second thought. If the space freed up in my brain could be re-allocated to store new information, I’d be confident to apply for Mastermind and Brain of Britain with no fear of falling. My pal James was on The Weakest Link a couple of months ago and totally lost his nerve in the second round. I’d hate it if that happened to me.
This next one’s a bit trickier. I know they’re in the very early stages of development, but an invisibility device would be awesome. Rest assured, I don’t want it for nefarious purposes. I’d only use it for good reasons, like avoiding idiots in pubs and hiding from a certain psychotic ex-girlfriend if we’re both in town at the same time.
Which brings me to the next item on the list. I know you don’t approve of people trafficking, but this isn’t quite in that category. I’d like a proper girlfriend. I’ve had my fill of mental bints, and I’ve had more than enough near misses over the years. Meeting someone who didn’t just ‘like me as a friend’ would be fantastic. It’s a big ask, I know. Even so, I’m not especially fussy about her age, looks, height, build, nationality, ethnic background, or whether she’s got children from a previous relationship.
I’d prefer a redhead, but a brunette would do if you’re running short. At a real squeeze I’d settle for a natural blonde, but an everlasting supply of hair dye would make a useful stocking filler. As long as she’s really kinky, that’s the main thing. I’m talking hardcore BDSM, not just the odd bit of Ann Summers underwear on birthdays and Valentine’s Day. If she could also hold an intelligent conversation, was interested in books, films, theatre, and had decent taste in music (i.e. no thumpy-thumpy stuff) it would really be appreciated. I’ll leave it to you.
I would also like a puppy. I know a dog isn’t just for Christmas, but since I’ve been walking Stella regularly I’ve remembered just how much I loved having a dog when I was younger. It wouldn’t have to be a big one, just one with loads of energy and bags of personality to match, so that we could go exploring for hours. If you could throw in a supply of food and treats as well, that would be great. Don’t worry about providing a collar and lead, mind – I’ve got that pretty much covered already.
Finally, I’d love a pair of Sennheiser HD 21-1 II headphones. They’re the ones TV engineers and air traffic controllers use, as they’re so effective at noise-cancelling. I know I said I wasn’t into technology for its own sake, but there’s a really good reason for asking for these. I’d be able to take them everywhere, and wear them whenever there was a singer or a band in the pub, or just when the place was full of idiots. That way, I could concentrate on reading or writing or working online without having to contend with the background noise.
Thanks in advance.
Best wishes for 2012,
Yours faithfully,
Steve (aged 45¾)

Location, Location, Location

In which The Author wonders why TV companies make such heavy weather of outdoor filming

If television production is the art of artifice, nowhere is this more obvious than in programmes which are filmed on location.
Until I decided on a change of direction, I worked in Waterstones bookshop in Cardiff, on the corner of The Hayes and Wharton Street. Directly opposite our upstairs counter, the window looked out onto Howell’s department store and the old library; further up the street you could clearly see Cardiff Market and St John’s Church. It’s a fairly distinctive scene, and one of the few areas of the city which hasn’t been homogenised into one identikit plate-glass and neon shopping arcade.
I remember listening to John Peel’s Radio 1 show back in the 1980s, when I’d spent my first first year living in Uxbridge and travelling into London fairly regularly. His car was in for a service, so he’d caught a double-decker bus to get to Broadcasting House. He was rambling on about the way the journey had given him a new perspective on the city.
Sitting upstairs, one sees the details of the original architecture and the real structure of the buildings, instead of the standard window displays which one sees at street level. I often thought the same when we had a double-decker bus to bring us back from Cardiff in the evenings. St Mary Street has some extraordinary buildings, but you never notice them when you’re walking around.
I went to Bath a couple of years ago, for the first time in a decade or more, and was very disappointed by the way the city centre has become just the same as every other city centre. There’s a big and fairly well-stocked Waterstones, of course – and an HMV, a W.H. Smith, Boots, Marks & Spencer, Dorothy Perkins, Top Shop, Peacocks, Next, Debenhams, BHS, McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, J.D. Wetherspoon, Costa Coffee, Starbucks, banks, travel agencies, opticians …
All the shops, in fact, that you’d find in Cardiff. The ranges are the same, the prices are the same, and even the windows and in-store displays are designed by anonymous retail ‘experts’ at Head Office. The independent, interesting, quaint, quirky treasure troves that used to make Cardiff, Bristol, Bath, Swansea and all the cities I used to enjoy visiting when I was in my twenties have been squeezed out by spiralling rents and the advent of a new style of shopping.
Whereas specialist retailers like Spiller’s Records (open since 1894, and only very recently relocated from the site it’s occupied for as long as I can remember) and Chapter and Verse (a small chain of long-vanished bookshops) used to carry the offbeat, left-field and marginal items aimed at a discerning clientele, now the Internet has stolen their thunder. The ‘long tail’ model of economics, popularised by Chris Anderson in his book of the same name, is slowly but surely forcing the likes of Spiller’s to the wall, and forcing their customers to shop on websites where the goods can only be bought unseen.
The large chains are taking over the high streets, and this means that towns and cities are becoming largely interchangeable. The New Economic Foundation did a survey into ‘Clone Towns’ a while ago, and I remember Exeter came top (or bottom, depending on your perspective).¹ It’d be interesting to go back to Bath when the weather improves and redo their survey for my own interest.
Of course, the spin-off effect of this is that TV companies don’t have to do an awful lot of work in order to make one place look like somewhere else entirely. I’m sure all Doctor Who fans know that the series has been made in and around Cardiff since its return to our screens.Torchwood, of course, is explicitly set in Cardiff. Both shows have done wonders for the tourist scene in South Wales.
And yet, for all that, only two Doctor Who stories have taken place in Cardiff – both in the Ninth Doctor era. One was set in Victorian times (‘The Unquiet Dead’) and the other in the present day (‘Boom Town’). There were also a couple of exterior scenes during the Tenth Doctor era (Captain Jack’s return in ‘Utopia’ and his farewell in ‘Last of the Time Lords’) in which Cardiff was allowed to play itself.
Other than those, Cardiff has stood in for just about everywhere else instead. I was working on 24 July 2006 when The Hayes, Wharton Street and St Mary Street were transformed into the West End at Christmas for the filming of ‘The Runaway Bride’. Howell’s (as usual) was turned into Henrick’s, and the neighbouring shops – ourselves included – all dug out their Christmas decorations for the occasion.
The giant Santas and snowmen were clearly visible outside the old library. Fake street signs were fitted over the real City of Cardiff signs, to give the illusion that the scene was actually London. We watched from our upstairs window as the Doctor and Donna ran up and down the street umpteen times, surrounded by background artists in their winter clothes on one of the hottest days of the year.
The cashpoint which the Doctor sonics in one exciting scene was (of course) a false front, erected over our goods-in entrance, and powered by umpteen extension cables running through the shop. It was stocked with fake money – the £10 notes bearing an portrait of David Tennant, and the £20s with that of producer Phil Collinson. Stylesy managed to pinch a handful of the fake notes, and I’ve still got one of the £20s locked away. Sarah even ran out into the street during working time to get a photograph of herself with David Tennant! It was a bit of a mad day, all in all.
In the completed episode, the observant viewer will spot a Cardiff bus driving past the end of Wharton Street at one point. If you freeze-frame the Waterstone’s window display, you’ll see the Summer Reading campaign titles amongst the tinsel. You can never paint out all the giveaway features, it seems.
Over the past five years Cardiff has doubled for Ealing (in The Sarah Jane Adventures), central and south London on numerous occasions, the fictional village of Leadworth (filmed in the suburb of Llandaff), and even Captain Jack’s home planet (bizarrely, shot behind a pub in Cardiff Bay against a painted-in landscape). It’s a far cry from the disused quarry in Kent of the Tom Baker days.
This came to mind today when I was watching a new BBC drama called The Silence. Perhaps uniquely among recent British crime thrillers, it isn’t set in London. Maybe the commissioning editors have become as fed up as I am of moody lingering night-shots across the capital’s skyline, with the Gherkin and St Paul’s Cathedral and Canary Wharf all lit up, and tube trains snaking into the middle distance. It’s actually set in Bristol, a point which is referred to several times in the dialogue.
But it wasn’t filmed in Bristol. Far from it – it was actually shot on location in Ireland. The olde-worlde side streets and solid Georgian terraces of Dublin can pass as a convincing substitute for Bristol at first glance, I suppose.
Bristol, meanwhile, has been the home of the long-running BBC Saturday night drama Casualty practically since its beginning many years ago. Indeed, there was an outcry when plans were announced to relocate the filming to Cardiff. But Bristol doesn’t play itself. Even though everyone can recognise the Clifton Suspension Bridge, St Nicholas Market, and the long views over the city centre in just about every external scene, it is to all intents and purposes the fictional city of Holby.
Finally, one of the funniest films in recent years is the brilliant Waking Ned. Set in a remote Irish village, this comic gem was in fact filmed on the Isle of Man. Maybe, completing the circle, the BBC should film a series set on the Isle of Man and try to convince the viewer that it’s actually meant to be Cardiff. That would be worth watching …