Happy New Year, I hope you had a lovely Christmas! I know that various things including finances, strikes and the weather all conspired to make things difficult, and the economic woes will continue during this coming year, but I hope you were able to enjoy the festivities in whatever way your circumstances allowed.
Fortunately, despite my recent redundancy, my mother and I are in a comfortable and stable position, so we were able to enjoy Christmas in the same way we do every year. I went out to see a musical and a variety of festive displays, and at home there were plenty of things for us to eat and watch.
It hasn’t been entirely without issues though. The railway strikes and the snow in December prevented me from going down to Devon to see my ex-colleagues for a Christmas meal. And now, in early January, my mother and I have finally caught Covid, after 3 years of successfully swerving it. I’ll write more about it in a later post, once I’m sure we’re clear of it, suffice to say being fully vaccinated has clearly helped, as we’re recovering pretty quickly. Plus I’ve still been able to put together the traditional video that accompanies this post.
So let’s get into it. This is an epic bumper post, as festive roundups tend to be, and none of it’s sponsored or gifted. I hope you enjoy!
- Christmas Outings & Celebrations
Christmas Outings & Celebrations
Lights & Sights
After not being able to do so for a couple of years, and as I had so much free time on my hands, it was wonderful to go out and see a lot of London’s Christmas displays in the weeks leading up to the big day, as well as a few other bits and pieces.
There was just one week where I couldn’t go out at all because of the snow and ice, which looks beautiful but is very hazardous when you’re visually impaired, as my friend Emily Davison explained in an article during the month. It was very unusual to see it lingering for an entire week, given that in previous years it’s always melted away within a day or two at most. But when the weather was nicer, I went out regularly to a variety of locations across the city.
So below you can see a selection of clips in the video I posted on Christmas Day, followed by a slideshow with an image from every location I visited. Then there’s a long list of all those places, in which the bold links take you to each photoset on my Instagram (where you can scroll through up to 10 photos each time), plus a couple more related Youtube videos.
- Oxford Street – Including lots of lovely teddy bears at John Lewis, and the tasty window displays at Selfridges.
- Regent Street – Including some of the toys and displays at Hamleys that appeal to the big kid in all of us!
- South Molton Street – With its stunning blue archways covered in stars and lights.
- Brunswick Shopping Centre – With a beautiful tree that looks like a fountain spraying up out of the ground.
- Leicester Square Christmas Market – Plus a quick wander through Chinatown next door.
- The Ever After Garden – A beautiful and peaceful garden of remembrance in Grosvenor Square, full of illuminated roses that people have dedicated to loved ones, whilst raising money for the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.
- Carnaby – Celebrating 25 years of their Christmas lights and decorations with a Greatest Hits selection of their best displays.
- St Giles Square – A little area next to Tottenham Court Road station.
- Seven Dials – The shopping district with 7 streets converging on a central plaza, where the excellent Matilda musical takes place at the Cambridge Theatre.
- Covent Garden – With their impressive tree and market, plus a small shopping district called The Yards on the other side of Long Acre from the Tube station.
- The Ivy & St Martin’s Lane – Including the gold pheasant and monkey outside the famous restaurant.
- Trafalgar Square – With the annual tree donated by Norway, as thanks for the refuge and support the UK gave them during World War II. It gets a bit of stick from some people, as it’s never the most amazing tree in the capital, but it’s a very generous gift and it does look nice once it’s lit up.
- The Strand – Including the beautifully animated Tree Of Kindness by the Social Bite homeless charity (of which I’ve also posted a Youtube video), plus the luxury Savoy hotel. The caption for that Instagram post is a silly parody I wrote of the classic song about the street (a track that has been covered by Blur among other random artists!).
- Bond Street – Including some of the posh shops they have down there.
- Fortnum & Mason – With their lovely Christmas windows showing festive food being prepared.
- St James & Piccadilly – With a beautiful big Christmas tree outside the 5-star Sofitel hotel.
- South Bank – Including the decorations in Hay’s Galleria and festive market stalls next to the River Thames.
- Tower Bridge Lift – Having checked the lifting schedule on their website, I was able to time my South Bank walk perfectly to catch one in action, surprisingly the first time I’ve got around to doing so since I moved to the city. So I got to see the HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën (F802), a huge air defence and command frigate belonging to the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN), sailing under the bridge and up the river. I’ve also published a Youtube video of the ship passing through, which has been quite popular, and the commenters there suggest it was likely here on a diplomatic mission, as there were other ships from the same fleet here too. It was very impressive to look at in any case, as was the majestic sight of Tower Bridge opening up.
- St Pancras International Tree – The impressive 33-foot structure at the big railway station, made up of lots of 2D representations of buildings and landmarks drawn in black on white card, with all sorts of little details including people, phone boxes, landscapes, lights behind the windows, Christmas decorations, and Santa flying over the top with his reindeer. It was built to support youth charity The Prince’s Trust. While exploring the station I also went upstairs and found the statue of Sir John Betjeman & an impressive sculpture called The Meeting Place as well.
- King’s Cross Station – With its very large Christmas tree inside and the market outside, plus the nearby Coal Drops Yard with its own tree and stalls.
- Battersea Power Station – Recently redeveloped to become a new shopping and leisure destination, they had lots of decorations and activities to put people in the festive spirit.
Lastly, if you have an Instagram account you can also skim through the story streams in my profile here, here & here, which include several images from the above posts, but also some alternative shots for a bit of variety.
The Book Of Mormon
As lovely as all of those walks were, my favourite outing of the month was a theatre trip with a couple of my fellow visually impaired friends who were visiting London for a day. We didn’t attend an audio described performance on this occasion, but we were able to see and hear enough, thanks to a nice close view from our front row seats, to understand what was going on. And there was a lovely lady at the Prince Of Wales Theatre who led us to our seats and thoroughly enjoyed looking after my mate’s guide dog during the show, even bringing him back to say hello to us during the interval.
The Book Of Mormon is written by South Park creators Trey Parker & Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez who co-created Avenue Q – so if you know either of those shows, you’ll know what type of humour you’re in for. Suffice to say it’s quite rude sometimes! My friends and I knew that would be the case going in, as well as being aware of the basic story synopsis. But beyond that we hadn’t looked into the plot in any detail, and we hadn’t listened to any of the songs in advance, because we didn’t want any spoilers (and I’m not going to give any here). All we knew is that the show is massively popular and has scooped up a ton of awards, so we took a gamble and booked it to see what all the fuss was about. And it paid off, because it’s incredible.
The story is basically about a couple of Mormon missionaries from The Church of Latter-Day Saints, who are sent to an obscure little village in Uganda, to try and persuade its inhabitants to join their faith. But the locals have things like famine, AIDS, sexual abuse, genital mutilation and an evil warlord to be dealing with already, so aren’t exactly in the mood for Bible-bashing visitors.
It hardly sounds like a rich mine for comedy and music, and may even sound controversial given the themes mentioned there. But any assumptions or uncertainties you may have going in are blown away immediately, it’s actually done really well. It’s nothing like South Park for starters. There is a fair amount of crude humour and strong language, sure, but it’s not excessive and not delivered in an unnecessarily offensive manner. Instead it’s consistently funny, and has some nice callbacks as the show progresses. There’s also a proper story with a good message underpinning it all, where you feel empathy for the missionaries (especially the great pair at the heart of the story) and the tribe they meet, and there are some genuinely moving moments. So this isn’t just a string of rude gags shoehorned together for no good reason, there is a properly constructed narrative with a purpose.
Above all, the songs and the choreography are spectacular. There’s so much detail and variety in the cleverly written lyrics, entertaining musical styles, elaborate dancing and gorgeous costumes. Even within individual songs, there are surprising changes that can appear out of nowhere, yet still feel natural and appropriate. It’s all delightfully unpredictable, and when you stop to think about how much effort must have gone into devising, planning and rehearsing some of the numbers, it’s quite mind-blowing.
It’s clearly a show that would reward multiple viewings, because even if you’re fully sighted there will be details you miss first time around, or will have forgotten about by the time you see it again because you can’t retain it all. There are lots of cultural references for instance, from the blatant to the very subtle – and that includes respectful nods to other musicals, with my mates and I readily agreeing that one song reminded us of Defying Gravity from Wicked, for example. So it does feel truly epic sometimes, and the cast have an abundance of energy and talent that drives it forward superbly. Everyone involved clearly loves doing it, and the effort they’ve put into it really shows.
So it’s a great deal of fun, we’re very glad we went to see it. I’ll have to go to one of their audio described performances at some point (there’s one in March 2023 for instance, and hopefully more will follow), to immerse myself in the show even more. I can see why it’s so highly recommended now.
After the show my friends and I walked down to the South Bank of the Thames, and along to the Doggett’s Coat & Badge pub at Blackfriars, as it’s a place we’ve enjoyed going to a few times before. It was very busy, as expected, but we managed to grab a table for ourselves, and found it very easy to order our food and drinks online by scanning the QR code there. It was all served pretty quickly too, and I had a lovely plate of fish and chips, followed by sticky toffee pudding with custard, all washed down with a nice pint of cider. So it was a good way to finish the day with some great company.
Food & Drink
As usual my mother and I have eaten very well over Christmas. But I do appreciate that there were more people than ever who were struggling to get just the basics they needed, so I hope all those who needed help and support were able to get it. It’s just traditional for me to write about the things we’ve been eating each year, as there are people who like to read about it.
Firstly I went to Marks & Spencer several times, as they had a great selection of festive goodies and other general groceries as always. We also got our meat order from them again this year, this time picking up a turkey crown for Christmas and a three bird roast for New Year, so we had lovely big roast dinners with all the trimmings.
I’ve also signed up for their digital Sparks loyalty card, which has already given us some nice discounts on food in store and clothing online. I’ve chosen Guide Dogs as the charity they donate to every time I shop with them, as it was the most obvious choice from their list, so that’s an extra good incentive to keep using it.
Meanwhile Sainsbury’s have always been reliable with our weekly grocery deliveries, and we do enjoy treating ourselves to things from their Taste The Difference range. M&S food is always better by comparison, but the stuff we get from Sainsbury’s is still lovely. We were also able to get quite a bit of money off our Christmas delivery, thanks to the Nectar points we’d accumulated through our shopping, coupled with the bonus points we’ve earned via their Nectar app. By letting the points build up over a few months at a time we usually get decent discounts around Easter, our birthdays and Christmas, so it works well.
Those were the main two shops we focused on. I did pop into Waitrose a couple of times as well, but there wasn’t so much in there that tempted me, and their stuff isn’t cheap. I did pick up some nice mince pies and biscuits though, plus they stock Charlie Bigham’s ready meals (as do Sainsbury’s), which are quite expensive compared to supermarket own brands yet so much better, so I like to treat myself to one or two occasionally.
I also had a bit of alcohol to drink with our big dinners, as I received bottles of red and white La Vita wine from my former employer with a thank you card, which was a very nice surprise! Mum did try a little bit, but they were a bit strong for her, so I had them instead. And for lazing around in front of the TV at night I got myself some Strongbow cider as well. I only tend to drink alcohol on special occasions like this and when socialising with friends, but I don’t have it much at all otherwise.
As for cakes and confectionery, we overindulged in various ways this month, as is traditional, including:
- Advent Calendars – A chocolate one from Lindt and a chocolate biscuits one from M&S. The latter was better, as the biscuits were a generous size, whereas the Lindt chocolates were quite small, but still nice.
- Mince Pies – Including puff pastry, iced topped, lattice topped and cookie cup varieties from M&S (they easily had the best selection), as well as mince pies from Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. We always get these as soon as they start appearing in the shops, which is always several weeks before all the other Christmas treats. You can never have too many of them!
- Tunis Cakes – A buttery sponge cake topped with a layer of thick chocolate and marzipan fruits. They’re always a bit trickier to find than other goodies, as they come out close to Christmas and only for a few days. But they’re a tradition I like to have, and I did manage to get a couple from M&S and Sainsbury’s this year.
- Chocolate Yule Logs – M&S had big ones in their Christmas bakery and dairy desserts sections that were amazing, and Sainsbury’s had a Taste The Difference one that was almost as good.
- Fruit & Nut Stollen – Mum enjoyed having one of these, as I’m not a fan of them myself.
- Chocolates – A tub each of Celebrations & Cadbury’s Heroes that we bought ourselves, and some absolutely lush M&S Belgian Chocolate Flake Truffles that I got a discount on with my Sparks card. And we got all that without knowing that my Aunt was going to bring us a tub of Quality Street and a Nestlé Winter Collection box of dairy chocolates as well! So we had more than enough to dip into! Incidentally, my Aunt also gave my mother and I a jumper each and some money to spend for our Christmas presents, which was nice.
- Crisps – Tyrrells, Pringles & Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference varieties, all very nice to nibble on at different times during the month.
There were various programmes on about famous places in London, nearly all of them with a festive theme. We didn’t watch them all, obviously, but my mother and I looked at a few that interested us the most, as they were interesting to have on while eating our dinners together in the run-up to Christmas.
- Big Ben Restored: The Grand Unveiling (Channel 4) – This gave a fascinating glimpse into the 6-year process of repairing Parliament’s iconic clock tower, which has finally now reopened. The amount of work and expertise involved in dismantling, repairing and reassembling thousands of complex components of the clock faces, the mechanism and the surrounding structure is mind-blowing. But it was all explained well, and it was amazing to see it all being taken apart and worked on. The episode was actually the last in a 4-part series about the restoration that has been sporadically broadcast since 2017, and at the time of writing you can watch them all on All4. I think I’ve seen one or two of those older episodes before, but I haven’t revisited them on this occasion, as this year’s episode gives a great overview of the whole restoration process anyway, and is therefore perfectly fine to watch on its own.
- New Year Fireworks (BBC One) – Following its restoration, it was of course a great joy to see Big Ben proudly chiming in 2023, kicking off a stunning fireworks and drones display around the London Eye. It included a beautifully rendered tribute to The Queen, celebrations for our footballing Lionesses and the 50th anniversary of Pride, a supportive nod to Ukraine, and a general message of love and togetherness. Granted, it wasn’t always easy for me to see what images the drones were forming, but having watched it back again since I have now figured it all out. It all looked really impressive, and the different elements were cleverly and perfectly timed with the soundtrack. So it was fantastic to see our traditional New Year celebrations returning in such triumphant style.
- Lighting Up Christmas (Channel 4) – This looked at the extensive preparations for this year’s lights and displays in Kew Gardens, John Lewis in Oxford Street, Blackpool, Longleat & Chessington. Just like the shops above, this highlighted the impressive work involved in getting getting everything just right.
- London Zoo At Christmas (Channel 4) – This was a beautiful insight into the zoo’s work for this festive season. It was lovely to see the staff giving out lots of nice treats to the many different animals they look after, especially the adorable baby creatures for whom this was their very first Christmas, as well as setting up Santa’s grotto and the decorations for the human visitors. But the highlight was undoubtedly the arrival of handsome silverback gorilla Kiburi, who has been settling in well. I’ll have to pop down there to see him at some point, as I want to make good use of my membership if I can.
- Westminster Abbey: Behind Closed Doors (Channel 5) – The final episode of this year’s series, focusing on the Christmas preparations at the abbey, as they put up their trees, made decorations, got everything ready in the shop, did rehearsals with the choir, dealt with a leaky roof, and so on. We’re not bothered about seeing the rest of the series, we just wanted to watch the festive episode.
- The Savoy At Christmas (ITV1) – The concluding episode of last year’s series about the posh hotel on The Strand. We’re not interested in seeing the rest of this series either, we just thought we’d look at the Christmas edition to get a sense of how the other half live at this time of year!
Also, thank you to my friend Claire for pointing me to the RobsLondon channel on Youtube, where Rob posts vlogs about interesting places and history relating to the city. In particular he recently had an extensive look around the Museum of London before it closed in December (in preparation for their move to West Smithfield), while nice examples of other videos include the London Transport Museum depot, a beach by the Tower of London, the smallest house and the oldest tea shop.
As well as attractions like those above, there are also various programmes every year about how different shops are preparing for Christmas. Mum and I don’t often watch them, but we checked out a few this year while having our dinners, because it was nice to see how the places we shop at have been trying to tempt customers back after the dark days of the pandemic. Sure, they are glorified adverts at the end of the day, but they were very interesting, giving you a great appreciation for how much planning and effort goes into the festive products, displays, marketing, decorations, lights, etc, starting months in advance, as you do rather take it all for granted when you see the final results. So we enjoyed watching a small selection of them:
- Inside M&S At Christmas (ITV1) – New for this year, this is the first time M&S have allowed cameras to go behind the scenes for their festive preparations.
- Waitrose At Christmas (Channel 4) – Also new for this year.
- Christmas At Sainsbury’s & Liberty (Channel 4) – A double-bill from last year.
TV & Film Classics
Apart from the above stuff with Mum, I also watched a couple of other documentaries by myself:
- The Snowman – The Film That Changed Christmas (Channel 4) – To celebrate the iconic animation’s 40th anniversary, and to mark the passing of author Raymond Briggs earlier this year, this was a lovely and very interesting insight into how his book was brought to life for TV. It included new interviews with original animators Hilary Andus & Joanna Harrison, composer Howard Blake and singer Peter Auty, as well as archive footage of Raymond himself. And naturally I also watched The Snowman and its sequel The Snowman And The Snowdog, for what was actually the first time in quite a while. After all, I don’t watch them every year (likewise for the related Father Christmas cartoon, which I also watch occasionally, though I didn’t this year as I was focusing on the Snowman specifically). So it was lovely to see them again to mark the occasion, as they’re still beautiful, sweet and moving little films. Plus the documentary pointed out some nice details in the visuals and music score of The Snowman that I would have missed otherwise. And Channel 4 rolled out a celebratory ident as well – after all, they were celebrating their 40th anniversary too, as the Snowman has been shown since their first Christmas.
- The Unofficial Science Of Home Alone (Sky Max) – It goes without saying, but the first 2 films in the Home Alone franchise are brilliant Christmas classics (while the later sequels are best ignored), and are particularly memorable for all the sadistic traps that Kevin sets for burglars Harry and Marv (The Wet Bandits). But it’s obviously very cartoon-style violence, as they would never survive them in real life. We all know that, and there are quite a few videos online explaining it already (e.g. here & here). But this special was still a great light-hearted way of looking at it, as comedians James Acaster and Guz Khan, with the help of engineer Zoe Laughlin, explored the injuries that would really be caused, and found ways they could prepare in order to avoid them. Meanwhile, super fan and Last Leg co-host Alex Brooker travelled to Hollywood, where he got to interview Daniel Stern (who played Marv) & Troy Brown (the stuntman for Joe Pesci), and then went to Chicago to have a quick look at the McAllister’s house and local church. So it was all good fun.
I’ve taken part in a variety of accessibility research studies this past year, and have been paid for my time with either money or gift vouchers. And in a couple of cases I received vouchers that I was able to convert into credits in the Google Play store. So I treated myself over the Christmas period, by using some of those credits to rent a few movies I’d either never seen before or hadn’t watched for some time, which I could then watch via the Youtube app on my big screen TV.
Get Santa (2014)
This is a British comedy starring the perfectly-cast Jim Broadbent as the jolly red man himself, who tries to rescue his reindeer in London after crashing his sleigh, but ends up in prison because nobody believes he’s the real deal. The only person who has faith in him is a child called Tom (very well played by 9-year-old Kit Connor), who desperately tries to persuade his dad Steve (Rafe Spall) to help him save Saint Nick from the nick. And that’s not easy, because Steve is understandably sceptical about his son’s claims, and has only just come out of the same prison on parole, so is rather keen to avoid being sent back there, plus he’s no longer trusted by Tom’s mother Alison (Jodie Whittaker in one of her lesser-known pre-Doctor roles).
But Tom won’t let the matter go and is also keen to bond with his father again. So Steve ends up working with him to track down the reindeer (who have an unusual way of communicating!), and they figure out a way to break Santa out of jail, with help from inmates Sally (Warwick Davis) and the barber (Stephen Graham), as well as Santa’s elves from Lapland. It’s all really good fun, with lots of laughs, some sweet moments and the obligatory happy ending, just like any good festive family film.
This is the modern version of the classic story by Roald Dahl, about a group of children who find golden tickets to win a tour of the legendary factory owned by mad genius Willy Wonka, getting much more than they bargained for. I naturally saw the 1971 film when I was a kid, though I don’t remember much of it now of course, but I hadn’t seen this later adaptation directed by Tim Burton before.
It’s totally bonkers, inevitably, but good fun, with Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka and Freddie Highmore as Charlie Bucket, both of whom are great in their roles. The chocolate factory looks wonderful, and it’s amusing to see all the stuck-up kids getting their just desserts, with the Oompa-Loompas performing a song each time. And the ending was very sweet too, pun intended. Having not read the original book or seen the first film since I was little, I can’t make any comparisons to those, but I enjoyed the movie on its own merits.
It was also nice to recognise faces like David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter & Christopher Lee among the other actors. And it was surprising to see the kid Mike Teavee using the word ‘retard’ at one point (which I gather often gets censored on TV broadcasts, as do one or two other lines e.g. “like hell”). It befits his character’s attitude, and he’s suitably punished later in the film, so I wasn’t offended. But if the film had been made today you can guarantee they’d have written that line differently!
I know there’s also a Wonka prequel film due for release in December 2023, starring Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka, and people like Matt Lucas, Olivia Colman and Rowan Atkinson among the rest of the cast, so that might be interesting to see as well in the future.
Top Gun (1986)
Had to, right? Given that the Maverick sequel currently seems to be very popular, it’s only right and proper to revisit the classic original first. It’s been quite a long time since I last saw it, so I had forgotten some parts of it, but that helped it to feel fresh and exciting. And despite being 36 years old now, it holds up very well and is still fun.
If you somehow don’t know what it’s about, then basically Top Gun is the school where the most elite naval fighter pilots are trained, and Pete Mitchell (call sign Maverick, played by Tom Cruise) is one of the new intake. He’s an excellent young flyer, but he has a reputation for defying orders and being a bit of a show-off, plus he falls in love with an instructor, all of which are distractions that threaten to end his career if he doesn’t control himself. And then a major shock during one of his flights forces him to re-evaluate and focus much more clearly.
Ultimately it’s a good story, and the action scenes in the air still look really impressive, even though as they’re quite fast moving I have to rely on the dialogue to be sure exactly what’s going on sometimes. Plus there’s plenty of good humour and the amazing soundtrack. So I enjoyed seeing it again after all this time, and I will watch the sequel at some point.
This month I bought The Book Of John by Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert on DVD. To say that he’s been through the mill is an understatement, with losing his parents, having a mini-stroke, struggling to have children, and being diagnosed with forms of ADHD and dyslexia. And lately he’s been recovering from cancer treatment and preparing for gallbladder surgery, which means he’s had to postpone the rest of his tour and hasn’t been able to advertise the show he recorded for DVD and online release. So other comedians have been kindly promoting it for him, including Rob Brydon, Jimmy Carr, Sarah Millican, Jason Manford, Angela Barnes, Michael McIntyre, and so on. It’s wonderful how they’ve all rallied around him.
I hadn’t seen much of Rhod’s stand-up comedy before, but I loved him on Series 7 of Taskmaster, I’ve enjoyed seeing his occasional appearances on things like Live At The Apollo and comedy panel games in the past, and the clips of this new show looked good. So I got the DVD to try him out, and it’s great.
The show, filmed at the Wales Millennium Centre, is about an hour and a quarter long, and in it Rhod explains why he had to hire a personal driver called John, who it turned out had a very weird way of looking at the world (a little bit like Karl Pilkington for those familiar with him). So Rhod shares some of their conversations that he kept a record of, as well as telling other stories. There’s a particularly long and very funny routine about giving a sperm sample, for instance, and among other things he also talks about his stroke, meeting John, frozen prawns, George Michael, a decapitated head, driving to his mother’s funeral, and getting a shock while filming his documentary on shyness and anxiety.
It all worked very well, because he’s got a great angry energy, he’s a very good storyteller, and he’s consistently funny. He’s released other stand-up DVDs in the past as well, which could be fun, so I might try and get them at some point too.
This month BBC One broadcast a new special by Jason Manford called Recent Nostalgia, filmed in September at the Sheffield City Hall. The title of the show refers to the fact that the recent lockdowns already feel like a long time ago, and we’ll be talking about them for the rest of our lives. So his routines here are largely about that period, including Zoom gigs, homeschooling, the silly arguments that resulted from being indoors with his partner 24/7, wearing masks, etc. It’s all stuff we can relate to, and it’s good to look back at it with laughter like this, as goodness knows it made us need comedy more than ever. Plus there are a few other things as well, such as a story about embarrassing himself in front of Peter Kay at an early gig many years ago, and his recollections of a Northern Irish teacher he had at school.
Because it’s from his recent tour, I’d seen the material before at a gig he performed at Folkestone in July (along with other jokes that he didn’t have time to include in the hour-long TV special of course). But that didn’t matter, as Jason’s always really funny and the audience interactions are naturally different at every show, so he’s always worth rewatching.
One thing that has certainly stuck in people’s minds is the ending of every show, which is also in this TV special, where Jason has everyone singing along to a rave medley of school assembly songs. We may not remember all the maths, history, science, etc we were taught, but everybody seems to perfectly recall the words to tunes like This Little Light Of Mine, He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands, and Give Me Oil In My Lamp, having sung them so many times as children!
That finale proved to be so popular during his tour that Jason released a medley of Assembly Bangers as a single in November (along with a karaoke version). He then followed it up in December with an Assembly Bangers album containing seven songs in full, plus a Christmas Bangers medley that was also available as a single. It’s all catchy and entertaining, and thus much better than how we used to do these songs at school. And most importantly it’s all raising money for food bank charity The Trussell Trust, who really shouldn’t have to exist in the first place, but with the state of things right now they’re sadly necessary, and they’re doing exemplary work in helping lots of people in desperate need.
Incidentally, as a quick aside, Youtubers LadBaby also released a single for The Trussell Trust yet again this Christmas, and in doing so set a record for becoming the first act to have 5 Christmas Number 1 songs. I’ve written about them in previous years as, despite their other songs being very silly and requiring autotune to work overtime to assist them, they’ve been for a good cause and were amusing enough as novelties to get away with it. But this year’s single, Food Aid, which is a reworking of Band Aid’s festive classic with serious lyrics of their own, just falls flat for me really, as it doesn’t have the same spark and feel-good vibe to it. That’s totally understandable given the subject matter, but covering that song doesn’t feel right somehow, and Jason’s Assembly Bangers are much more fun and lively. Still, fair play to Mark & Roxanne for raising more awareness of the cause with their many subscribers, and congratulations on getting to Number 1, I don’t begrudge them that. It just wasn’t particularly inspiring for me personally this year.
Other Stand-Up Comedy
Apart from Rhod and Jason above, I also watched these gigs on TV:
- Rob Beckett: Wallop (Sky Comedy) – This was Rob Beckett’s first ever stand-up special, filmed at the Cliffs Pavillion in Southend in November this year. So I thought I’d give it a go, having enjoyed him on Taskmaster and a few panel shows in the past. And it was pretty funny, with routines about his big teeth, the Covid lockdowns, posh in-laws, doing a work-in-progress gig in Uffculme, his family, food at weddings, smokers, marathon runners, getting his prostate checked, his father having a cataracts operation, discovering he needed to lose weight and his disproportionately long legs. He also had a good time chatting to the audience, especially early on before he focused more on his scripted material, including a man who works with terrorism insurance, some latecomers, and a couple who have been married for 40 years. So while it’s not a show I’d buy to keep, it was still an amusing way to kill an hour.
- Katherine Ryan: Missus (Sky Comedy) – This is Katherine Ryan’s latest stand-up special, which was recorded at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Again, this isn’t a show I’d buy to keep particularly, but it’s still funny. The bulk of it is about living with her high school sweetheart Bobby Kootstra, whom she married in 2019 after they were reunited while she was filming Who Do You Think You Are? in her hometown. They’re both Canadian, but he had never been to the UK before, whereas she’s lived here for quite a long time. So the huge cultural shift for Bobby when relocating to Britain, along with the fact that 2020 forced them into lockdown together, has given her a lot of material to work with. She also talks about her judgemental teenage daughter, and giving birth to a son in 2021 (and, incidentally, this December she’s just had her third child). Plus there’s material about straight white men (including a bit of chat with a policeman in the audience), being overheard having sex and being burgled. And she finishes with an important message for all about self-empowerment, knowing your worth and enjoying life.
- Live At The Apollo (BBC Two) – While the series in general doesn’t draw me in as often as it used to, this year’s festive line-up wasn’t bad. Rosie Jones was a very capable host as expected, doing a fun routine about her cerebral palsy, being in Nativity plays, how her year’s gone, having a girlfriend, and getting awards. And then she introduced two comedians I wasn’t very familiar with, having only seen them occasionally on panel shows, but they were both alright. Cally Beaton spoke about her animal-loving autistic son, her daughter, being menopausal and dating, while Eshaan Akbar told the audience about being deaf, using the trains, parents of toddlers, Christmas adverts and Asians in adult movies.
- The Christmas Comedy Club (ITV1) – Lost Voice Guy (Lee Ridley) hosted a seasonal special again this year, where he was joined by ventriloquist Paul Zerdin (with his puppets Sam and the baby), stand-up comics Josie Long & Dara Ó Briain (the latter doing a bit of material I saw at his live show in October), and an improvising rapper called Abandoman (who was clever but it’s not my type of music). So there was a nice variety of comedy on the whole.
Apart from watching some of the old Christmas specials from my favourite sitcoms on DVD as usual, I also watched:
- The Young Ones: 40th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray) – This is a remastered and uncut release of the classic anarchic sitcom, with a ton of new extra features, including deleted material, studio footage, insights into the making of the show and other fascinating rarities. So I’ve absolutely loved going through it all. Check out my very in-depth review for all the details, which got a very kind response and a generous retweet from the Blu-ray producer Richard Latto himself!
- The Cleaner – This show stars Greg Davies as Paul Wickstead (affectionately called Wicky), whose job it is to clean up the mess at crime scenes after the police have finished their investigations. Each episode features him working at a different location, and meeting different people as a result, which gives it variety. I had mixed feelings about it when the first series aired in September 2021, because it was ok but nothing amazing, compared to other shows I much prefer watching. But I thought I’d give the Christmas special a chance anyway. And on the whole my opinion hasn’t changed, in that the episode had a few amusing gags and sweet moments, but it isn’t something I’d watch again or buy on DVD. However, it was still wonderful to see an autistic character being played by neurodivergent actor Robbie Curran, who was also invited to be on the writing team to ensure the representation of autism was authentic. I don’t have any personal experience or knowledge of autism to make a well-informed comment on it, but he seemed very good in his role, and a lot of people have remarked on social media that it was an accurate and enjoyable portrayal. It was also fun to see James Bolam doing a little cameo as Wicky’s father at the end as well.
- Family Guy (ITV2) – It’s long past its glory days, sure, but this adult animated comedy is still amusing enough for me to keep watching it. They had their latest festive edition on from Season 20 this year, with Brian accidentally destroying the town’s nativity scene, while Happy Asking Pandas made by the Chinese were stealing everybody’s personal information.
Together, while having our dinners, Mum and I watched a few old Christmas specials of Family Fortunes that people have posted on Youtube, and by herself she saw the festive editions of Richard Osman’s House Of Games on BBC Two, as well as a few other shows on Challenge.
But apart from that, I also personally watched the usual funny games that I like:
- Taskmaster (Channel 4) – It’s become traditional for the show to present us with a New Year Treat, featuring a line-up of non-comedians for a one-off edition. It’s an enjoyable way of featuring other celebrities who wouldn’t be available or perhaps entertaining enough to take part in a full series, and as such has a slightly different feel to a regular episode. For this third annual special, the most exciting and impressive participant was obviously the world-class athlete Sir Mo Farah, who was a great sport and easily won the episode. But everyone else was good too, as the other 4 participants ended up tied in second place. I was familiar with presenters Carol Vorderman and Greg James, but I didn’t know musician Self Esteem or Youtuber Amelia Dimoldenberg at all (and I’m not interested in checking out the rest of their work either). And now we just need to wait for the next full series in 2023, which I’m very much looking forward to as always.
- 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown (Channel 4) – Despite the sad absence of the late great Sean Lock over a year after his passing, this year’s Christmas special hosted by Jimmy Carr was still very funny, as it had a good line-up of guests in the form of Jon Richardson, Jack Dee, Lee Mack and Rose Matafeo, plus the traditional random appearance by Joe Wilkinson. Even the guest in Dictionary Corner, Stevie Martin, wasn’t too bad either, as she did fairly amusing routines about emojis and selfies. So it was a pretty good episode overall, and we’ve since had a further new episode in January, so hopefully more will follow very soon.
- The Big Fat Quiz Of The Year (Channel 4) – There was also a decent bunch of comedians on this annual pub quiz style show, where Jimmy Carr posed questions for Stephen Merchant, Katherine Ryan, Richard Ayoade, Maisie Adam, Jonathan Ross & Rose Matafeo. Sometimes they have one or two people who are rather irritating to put up with for a 2-hour show, but they were all great this time. As well as the traditional involvement of Charles Dance reading from a book and the kids from Mitchell Brook Primary School recreating a news story, there were also guest appearances by Millie Bright (one of our England Lionesses who won the Women’s Euros this year, much to Maisie Adam’s delight in particular), Subwoolfer (Norway’s bizarre Eurovision entry), Jerry Dyer from Big Jet TV (who went viral when commentating on planes trying to land during Storm Eunice) and Johannes Radebe (a Strictly dancer who descended from the ceiling like a Top Gun pilot). So it was all a lot of fun as usual.
- QI (BBC Two) – At long last the BBC finally put on the extended edition of last year’s festive special this December (which I was in the virtual audience for), as well as the XL version of this year’s Christmas episode, which included blind comedian Chris McCausland (who I saw live earlier this year) alongside Aisling Bea, Gyles Brandreth and Alan Davies. And there are more new QI XL episodes from the current T series during January, which is great as I’d been waiting for those.
- Would I Lie To You? (BBC One) – This was a funny Christmas special to kick off their latest series, featuring Gloria Hunniford, Guz Khan, Christopher Eccleston & Sophie Willan. The stories often result in great banter and generate amusing imagery in one’s mind, regardless of whether they’re true or not, such as Sophie fighting as an elf, Guz walking into a classroom with the Rocky music, or Lee throwing a satsuma into a tuba!
Other TV Comedy
- Christmas Carole (Sky Max) – The famous Dickens novel A Christmas Carol has been adapted countless times in a seemingly endless variety of ways, but this new comedy drama manages to give it an interesting modern twist. It’s about a lady called Carole (played by Suranne Jones), who is obsessed with making money by selling lots of tatty festive goods, and is on the verge of selling her company for a ridiculously huge amount of money, even if that means making all of her employees redundant and ignoring her family to meet the buyers. But she’s visited by 3 spirits who take her on a journey to try and persuade her to change her ways, culminating in big revelations for her at the end. The ghosts of Christmas Past were Morecambe & Wise, played by tribute act Eric & Ern (Jonty Stephens & Ian Ashpitel), and the portrayal of Eric in particular was very lifelike. Then the ghosts of Christmas Present and Yet To Come were Jo Brand and Nish Kumar respectively, who weren’t quite as entertaining but they did have a few nice moments. So it was fairly good overall, with a nice mix of humour and emotion, and beautiful visuals of London too. Worth seeing as a one-off at least, though I probably won’t rush to watch it again. Incidentally, I did also try The Play What I Wrote about Morecambe & Wise on BBC Four, but gave up during the first half as it just wasn’t holding my interest. I’ve got all the surviving original shows by Eric & Ernie on DVD anyway, as I discussed last month, so I don’t need to watch long tributes to them.
- BBC Radio 4 Comedies – The latest series of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue finished this month, swiftly followed by the new series of Just A Minute, which began with an episode about Christmas topics. Mum and I enjoy listening to the new editions of those shows together while having our dinners, and we’re still going through lots of old editions of Just A Minute on Audible as well, bit by bit.
- Olive, Mabel & Me by Andrew Cotter – My friend Claire very kindly bought me this audiobook for Christmas, which is narrated by the author himself. Andrew Cotter is a sports commentator, but naturally that work completely dried up when we went into lockdown. So just for a laugh he posted a video online commentating on his labradors eating their breakfast, and to his complete surprise it went viral around the world, leading to a whole series of popular clips on his Youtube channel. They’re often funny and cleverly done, but he also posts simple videos of Olive & Mabel just being their cute doggy selves without amusing additions. So there’s a great variety there, and this book is the story of how that all developed, as Andrew tried to come to terms with all the attention he was suddenly getting, and how he tried to satisfy people’s cravings for more content. It’s really sweet and full of good humour, it gives you a great appreciation of how much thought and effort went into the videos, you get a nice insight into how he developed his love of dogs in the first place, and overall you can tell how deeply he cares about his adorable canine companions.
And, at long last, that is it! Thank you very much for looking through this extensive update, and well done if you read it all! I never expect people to enjoy absolutely everything in these posts, but I try to include a variety of bits and pieces, so I hope there were at least some things of interest to you amongst that lot.
I don’t know how much I’ll be doing in January yet, as I haven’t got anything major booked until later in the year, and obviously I need to make sure that Mum and I have got over our Covid episode (we’re nearly there, touch wood!). I’ll keep you updated anyway. In the meantime, take care of yourselves, and I hope your year’s got off to a more comfortable start than ours!