The best anti-capitalism Christmas films

24 12 2010

As Tom Lehrer once said: “Christmas is the time when we all get to reflect on

The Christmas holiday season can be big business for the movie industry

The Christmas holiday season can be big business for the movie industry

what we most truly and sincerely believe in. I’m referring of course to money”. Like him I suspect that most of us view the commercialisation of Christmas at best as a mixed blessing. However it’s become an inescapable fact that the modern holiday season has become a huge exercise in generating cash. Hollywood was typically quick to jump on this bandwagon and over the years has produced literally hundreds of Christmas-themed movies. Here then is my list of the five of the best that aren’t trying to sell you anything, and put the boot into capitalism as well.

 1) It’s a Wonderful Life

On the face of it this isn’t the most cheering of films, featuring as it does James Stewart attempting to commit suicide, but I can’t think of a better anti-capitalism Christmas movie than this. The villain of the film, Mr Potter (Boo! Hiss!) is a stock broker and for extra topicality it also features a run on the banks.

2) Die Hard

Not the most obvious choice for this list but it’s set at Christmas so it counts. Money-obsessed baddie Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman doing his best German accent) attempts to rob a huge Japanese corporation by invading its head offices during the Christmas party and taking the staff hostage. His plan is foiled by plucky cop Bruce Willis. Initially armed with just a vest and a couple of iconic one-liners he defeats the bad guys and wins his estranged wife back at the same time, while she learns that family matters more than her corporate career.

3) Miracle on 34th Street

Not the horrible 1994 remake (Richard Attenborough should have known better) but the 1947 original. Here a department store Santa turns out to be the real thing as he teaches those around him the true meaning of Christmas. One of the few films where the hero is saved at the end by the US Post Office.

4) The Muppet Christmas Carol

Who would have thought that the Great Gonzo would turn out to be the definitive Charles Dickens of his generation? Almost every year someone attempts to make their own version of Dickens’ classic tale, as the book’s themes are truly timeless, but this is one of the better attempts. Scrooge has spent a lifetime accumulating wealth and power only to discover that money can’t buy him happiness. While there are many fine versions of A Christmas Carol, this is one of my favourites as it’s both a musical and features talking animals.

5) Scrooged

Yet another Dickens’ adaptation, this time starring Bill Murray as an evil TV executive who is visited by the three ghosts. This is a gleefully satirical attack on pretty much every Christmas institution you care to mention and features Lee Majors as a machine gun armed Santa. Classic stuff.

And just for balance here is the worst Christmas movie of all time:

The Star Wars Holiday Special

Few of you will ever have seen this monstrosity as George Lucas, in a rare moment of wisdom, has banned it from ever being shown again and used his vast wealth to destroy all copies. However, thanks to the wonders of modern technology it’s been preserved on YouTube as a terrible warning to future generations. Made just after the first Star Wars movie, this TV film features Han Solo and friends attempting to get Chewbacca to his home planet to celebrate Christmas. No one wanted to appear in this but were forced to due to their contracts. It’s hard to choose what is the worst part but here are some of the more cringe inducing: Harrison Ford visibly drunk, Princess Leia singing, Jefferson Starship turning up to help out. The Star Wars Holiday special is quite possibly the most cynical movie ever made and a naked attempt to extort money from gullible fans.

Dr Matthew Ashton is based in the Division of Politics and Sociology in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences





Pantomime and national identity

22 12 2010
Lifting the curtain on a very British art form

Lifting the curtain on a very British art form

Each country around the world celebrates Christmas in its own way with traditions unique to that location. For instance, in Britain nothing says Christmas to me more clearly then the bumper double issue of the Radio Times, brussels sprouts for dinner, and the annual showing of The Great Escape on BBC2.

I saw in the paper recently that the USA have just discovered the joys of the uniquely British institution of pantomime, and are attempting to stage one in Los Angeles.

While I applaud their efforts I have doubts about how successful this venture will be. Pantomime is a very British art form and whenever I’ve tried to take American friends to see one they’ve always come away more bemused than entertained.

Here then is a quick run through of some of the main features you’d expect to find in the perfect panto:

Cross-dressing

Apparently my American friends sat through the entire first half of Dick Whittington without realising that the young lady playing the hero was actually meant to be a man. “But she’s wearing tights and a mini-skirt”, they protested. “If she’s playing a guy surely she should at least be in trousers”. I had to explain that in pantomime the hero is always played by a woman, as is the heroine. The fact that the hero’s mother, the Dame, was also played by a man only added to the confusion. They later commented to me in the pub afterwards that they didn’t realise cross-dressing was such a big part of British culture.

The non-human characters

While most of the characters in pantomime are played by humans the best ones are usually the non-human performers. A few years back I saw Basil Brush playing the chief of police in Aladdin at the Nottingham Theatre Royal. I use the word playing in the loosest sense though. While the other actors made at least some effort to look like they were from an Arabian country, Basil was still dressed like an English country gentleman. Whether it’s Keith Harris and Orville, Basil Brush or Sooty and Sweep, every good pantomime should have a talking puppet (or non-talking in Sooty and Sweep’s case). Of course, the best thing to have from a comedy point of view is a pantomime horse, but they’re depressingly rare these days.

The jokes

A good pantomime is a weird mixture of contemporary satire and ancient music hall routines. Hence there has to be lots of thigh slapping, lashings of innuendo and some truly terrible puns. For example “A boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat” or “A bicycle can’t stand on its own because it’s two-tyred”. A lot of modern pantomime jokes are straight out of a Tommy Cooper routine from 1974 and that’s half the charm.

The audience participation

Unlike most forms of theatre where the audience has to just sit back and watch the action on stage, pantomime actively encourages everybody to get involved. This can range from shouting out well known catch phrases; “Oh no it isn’t” and “She’s behind you” to singing a song towards the end. For some reason this is usually “Row, row, row your boat”, and the audience are split into sections to sing the different parts. If they do well they’re usually rewarded by having sweets thrown at them. You don’t get that with Chekhov!

Dr Matthew Ashton is based in the Division of Politics and Sociology in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences





Christmas horticulture

21 12 2010

Some information, tips and gardening advice on the plants associated with Christmas.

Caroline Wright – lecturer in horticulture at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal Rural and Environmental Science

To speak to Caroline, call the University Press Office directly on 0115 848 8785 or email christmas@ntu.ac.uk.





The psychology of games

16 12 2010
People will be out to prove their superiority at the games boards this Christmas

People will be out to prove their superiority at the games boards this Christmas

Christmas is perhaps the one guaranteed time of year that families up and down the country get together and play games. I don’t know about you, but it is one of our family traditions to play inter-generational games for hours on end on Boxing Day afternoon.

Most of us love to play games – especially if we win! I like nothing better than an afternoon at the Scrabble board – but even if I lose, I have usually had a good time along the way. So what is the fascination with games? Why do we play them? How are games categorized? And what makes some games so successful and others not?

Why do we play games? Game playing is a free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement bounded by precise limits of time and space as well as what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “a world building activity”. Sigmund Freud was one of the first people to concentrate on the functions of playing games. He speculated that game playing provided a temporary leave of absence from reality that reduced individual conflict and brought about a change from the passive to the active. More modern thinking is that people play games to concentrate on a limited stimulus field, in which they can use skills to meet clear demands, thereby forgetting their own problems and separate identity.

Games provide the opportunity to prove one’s superiority, the desire to challenge and overcome an obstacle and a medium by which to test one’s skill, endurance and ingenuity. Games, unlike some activities (including life itself!) tell us whether we have won or lost. Sociologists have argued that in the context of a competitive and materialistic culture that has become increasingly regimented and standardized with little room for individual creativity and personal achievement, games offer the illusion of control over destiny and circumstance.

How are games categorized?  Perhaps the best categorisation of game types was formulated by the French anthropologist Roger Caillois who listed four classifications. These were: agon (games involving competition), alea (games involving chance), mimicry (games involving simulation) and ilinx (games involving vertigo – such as children spinning round and round). In the context of games like chess, poker, Scrabble and Monopoly, alea and agon are crucial in that they offer a combination of skill, chance and luck.

Most people desire opportunities to test their strength and skill against an adversary, and those games that offer a component of skill or talent combined with luck and chance provide the most favourable conditions. This is particularly prevalent in males who are deemed “masculine” if during the socialization process they show (socially) important traits such as courage, independence and bravery. Another interesting observation is that in games involving winners and losers the real prize is often status as opposed to positive material gain. Thus, by taking risks, reputations are built and winners gain social rewards.

What makes a successful game? Nearly all successful games (e.g. chess, Scrabble, backgammon, card games, various video games, etc) share fundamental similarities. These factors determine whether games become firmly established or simply fade away and include the capacity for skill development, a large bibliography, people to play against (including competitions and tournaments), and, in contemporary culture, corporate sponsorship and advertising. Let’s look at these briefly in turn.

All good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. I would therefore argue that the capacity for continued skill development is important for an activity’s continued popularity and future existence. Secondly, for games of any complexity there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die. The sheer number of monthly game magazines on the market again demonstrates how healthy the game industry is! Thirdly there needs to be people to play with or against. At the serious end this will include competitions and tournaments. Without somewhere to play and likeminded people to play with there will be little development within the field over long periods of time. This is very much linked to the capacity for skill development as the best players in any activity will want competitive arenas in which they can demonstrate their dexterity, prowess, physical and mental reaction time, problem solving ability and overall game play. Finally – and very much a sign of the times – no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship and advertising of some kind.

So when you are playing Monopoly with Auntie Cheryl and cousin Frank on Boxing Day afternoon, just remember that there is more to games than the sheer enjoyment of playing.

Professor Mark Griffiths is the Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University





Political skills for a perfect Christmas

15 12 2010
Be sure to sit family members who don't like one another at opposite ends of the dinner table this Christmas

Be sure to sit family members who don't like one another at opposite ends of the dinner table this Christmas

They say being a politician is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but personally I’d argue that hosting the perfect family Christmas is much more difficult. In order to cope without losing your sanity, the following political skills are vital:

Resource management

This is not just about making sure everybody receives an equal number of roast potatoes at dinner. Gift giving is a complex process of working out how much you can afford to spend and then trying to find the perfect gift for less. At the same time though you have to make sure that whatever you give is of roughly equal value to what you expect to receive in return. Spend too little and you look mean, spend too much and you could potentially embarrass the other person. One thing all parents should remember is to have a good supply of batteries handy, otherwise the expensive new electronic toy you’re bought for your offspring will be useless until the day after Boxing Day when you can find a shop that sells them.

Diplomacy

If Christmas is about anything it’s about not offending people. Therefore you need to make sure that members of your family who don’t like each other are seated at opposite ends of the dining table. Equally, it’s important to be able to listen with good grace to the advice of the 101 people who will try to tell you where you’re going wrong while you’re cooking the dinner (but won’t actually offer to help you prepare it).

The power of persuasion

A vital quality, especially when you’re woken up at 6am by over-excited children demanding to open their presents. The eloquence needed to convince them to go back to bed for a few hours’ much needed sleep might strain even Obama. It’s often just as difficult to persuade the same children to stop playing their video games so that an elderly relative can watch the Queen’s speech.

Tact

The ability to say, “Yes Grandmother, of course I like this sweater”, when she hands you something horrible, green and orange that is clearly four sizes too big and made out of the itchiest wool known to mankind.

Bravery

This is being able to wear the said sweater outside on the customary post Christmas lunch walk, despite the mockery of other members of your family.

Dr Matthew Ashton, lecturer in politics in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences





The Christmas carol

14 12 2010

A 1582 manuscript of the Latin carol Personent hodie.

The history of Christmas carols is not very detailed, however, we do have some basic information that has been passed on through the ages regarding their origin.

It is still disputed by many historians and music specialists as to when or where they originated from, but there seems to be substantial evidence that the first set of carols date back to 4th century Rome, as hymns with a Latin text.  During this time and over the next six or seven centuries these hymns were looked upon as Pagan songs and were sung generally at Winter Solstice celebrations.

For many years carols were only ever written in Latin and because a lot of people simply couldn’t understand them, they didn’t become very popular.  It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the Christmas carol started to develop and become more popular within societies and Christianity.

St. Francis Assisi played a major part in the development of the carol with the introduction of his Nativity plays in Italy.  Songs within these plays were sung to narrate the story and were often performed in a language other than Latin so that people could understand and even join in. This style of music soon became increasingly popular and rapidly spread throughout Europe.

It is thought that the word ‘carol’ – as we know it now – originates from the French word ‘caroler’. This is interpreted as dancing in a circle, or joyful dancing accompanied by music.  In France within the 12th century if you were ‘to carole’, you would be known to be singing and dancing, proclaiming the coming of Spring.

Within the 15h century the carol started to become internationally accepted as a song related to Christmas, and new carols around this time were being based upon the story of Mary and Jesus. Throughout England, carols were often only sung by wassailers who went from home to home performing in the streets, and were sung not only at Christmas, but at Harvest time as well. There were still no performances that we know of within the Church and it was quite some time until they were specifically associated with Christmas and the birth of Jesus.

After the Reformation, however, carols became increasingly popular, especially within the Protestant churches located with Northern Europe.

Then, in 1647, Oliver Cromwell banned the singing of Christmas carols along with the celebration of Christmas.  Although quite a few people carried on singing them in secret, the Christmas carol pretty much died out until the Victorian era, at which time they became extremely popular again in England and other parts of northern Europe.  The majority of carols written around this time, such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, are the traditional carols that you still hear choirs and congregations singing in churches and concerts today.

The video below shows a performance of Ding Dong Merrily on High, by Nottingham Trent University’s Chamber Choir.

Matthew Hopkins, Director of Music at Nottingham Trent University

To speak with Matthew directly, please call Nottingham Trent University’s Press Office on 0115 848 8785 or email christmas@ntu.ac.uk





Christmas is cancelled

14 12 2010
Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

One lesser known result of the civil wars in mid-17th century Britain and Ireland was the abolition of Christmas.

At the end of the First Civil War in England (1642-1646) the victorious English and Welsh parliament was dominated by Presbyterian MPs supported by their Scottish allies in the war against King Charles I.

This powerful alliance has allowed for the disestablishment of the Church of England and the creation of a national Presbyterian church (similar to the Scottish Kirk). A Directory of Worship set out the liturgy and order of service to be followed across the country. Although the new church was established in 1645, during the war, it took until the end of the fighting for the impact to be felt across the country. Anglican church festivals, which were felt to be too similar to Roman Catholic ceremonies, were abolished: one of these festivals was, of course, Christmas.

As early as 1645 there was a popular anti-Christmas movement and some shop keepers in the capital opened their shops during the holiday, but the full effect of the prohibition was really only felt in December 1647. Parliament ordered that there should be no holiday and shops should stay open on 25 December. No one was to decorate their houses with evergreens or celebrate in any way. The whole ceremony of Christmas, which still to a great extent was a twelve-day long festival, was anathema to the new religious regime, which invoked God’s blessing through Sunday-observance and regular fasts, rather than great blow-outs of over-eating.

Popular support for the ban ebbed away as the regime itself lost favour and in several towns there were major riots over Christmas 1647. The mayor of Norwich ignored both petitions for and against the Christmas holiday, but he did nothing to prevent unofficial festivities. Canterbury people too placed holly bushes at their doors in direct contravention of parliament’s orders. Puritan ministers were pelted with mud as they went through the town and aldermen driven from their homes. In London, shops closed for the day, evergreens were hung in the doorways of the town and the mayor’s attempt to disrupt the celebrations were resisted violently. In Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, youths armed with spiked clubs patrolled the streets to keep the shops closed.

The celebration of Christmas in 1647 quickly became political and the defeated but unbowed royalists seized on the unrest and turned some of the celebrations and riots into demonstrations of support for the imprisoned King Charles I. By the spring of 1648 this unrest had turned into renewed fighting and the second civil war.

After the second civil war, Presbyterians in parliament were largely marginalised and the republican regime, established after the execution of King Charles I (30 January 1649), was less hardline on the celebration of Christmas. During the Commonwealth (1649-1653) and Cromwell’s rule (1653-1658) Christmas was neither officially sanctioned nor suppressed: all the shops remained closed on Christmas Day until the 21st Century and holy and the ivy were hung from the rafters until replaced by Christmas Trees and tinsel in the 19th.

By Professor Martyn Bennett
Professor of Early Modern History and one of the UK’s leading Oliver Cromwell experts

To speak to Professor Bennett, call the University Press Office directly on 0115 848 8751 or email christmas@ntu.ac.uk.