One of the oddest things I ever found in a shop came five years ago, during my year living in Abu Dhabi.
Admittedly that year was in itself was a catalyst for a myriad of weird and wonderful discoveries – everything from camel sausages at the local supermarket to the complete Mind Your Language on DVD.
I even stumbled on a copy of As Used On the Famous Nelson Mandela, Mark Thomas’ book on exposing the sale of torture devices to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, sitting proudly on a shelf in the Al Wahda branch of WH Smith.
But none was as weird as finding in mid-January 2013, among the magazine racks of the Abu Dhabi Mall branch of Borders (the UAE somehow being able to successfully sustain not only Borders but the Virgin Megastore and C&A long after their UK demises), was a copy of the Christmas Radio Times.
Somehow, among the copies of imported and slightly delayed UK and US magazines, regionalised editions of Hello! and glossy Arabic fashion mags, the beaming face of the Snowman, the wee boy and his dug were looking out at customers.
Never mind the fact it was more than a week since the last listing would have been relevant, or that it was offering schedules for the London region with sadly no regional variations pages for Al Ain. Whether by accident, design or just practical joke, a lone copy of the Christmas TV listings had turned up for sale in the Middle East a month late.
Sadly, I never bought it – and next time I was at Abu Dhabi Mall the magazine had disappeared off the shelves, presumably either removed by the Borders staff or bought by an even more bemused ex-pat.
But as I’d only been home for a couple of days over New Year that Christmas, and despite the best efforts of OSN and Etisalat to try and generate the Christmas spirit in among Pro League matches and repeats of Muhteşem Yüzyıl, there was a tangible thrill at seeing something as identifiably a signifier of the festive season as the Christmas double issue of the Radio Times sitting on the shelf.
There’s something about the publication of the double issue Radio Times (other TV listings magazines are available) that, far more than advent calendars, stupid jumpers or light displays going up in city centres (incidentally – for fuck’s sake Manchester, Bonfire Night is not the day for a Christmas lights switch-on) that truly marks the holiday countdown for me.
It’s a shared, collective experience that pretty much everyone, regardless of age, creed, gender or nerdery indulges in – sitting with the magazine and a pen, marking the shows you’re planning to watch and when you’ll need to set the recorder for.
EPGs and Sky+ might have made it easier to compile your Christmas viewing without the need for a batch of E180 tapes as fresh as the virgin snow, but it’s still a ritual that folk indulge in in equal parts nostalgia and necessity.
There’s probably a phenomenal opportunity for 20th century cultural archaeology in going through circled copies of the Christmas Radio Times, seeing what people genuinely wanted to watch and what caught the public’s eye over the years.
Anyway, all this is a long-winded way of saying that chum and regular From The Sublime podcast contributor (I’d say collaborator, but in the current political climate that might get him shot), the bold Ben Baker, has a new book out just in time for the holidays, looking at the world of Christmas telly.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a sneak peak of the book, and battered through it on a train journey with a mixture of ‘oh god, really?’ and ‘oh god, I remember that!’
— Ben Baker Books (@benbakerbooks) November 29, 2017
It’s a meticulously compiled double issue’s worth of the weird, wonderful and just downright perplexing programming shovelled off over the holiday season, specifically drawing on the days before multichannel TV and a million increasingly desperate movie channels undermined the battle for broadcasting supremacy on the big day.
There’s some genuine oddities in there – such the 1988 Telly Addicts Christmas special, from the days before Noel Edmonds had gone completely weird, which saw two members of BBC’s management team leading their respective teams. Because nothing says the spirit of Christmas like Michael Grade and Bill Cotton answering questions on Mr Ed.
And extra kudos to Ben for dredging up memories of my favourite throwaway Christmas telly joke of all time in among the listings – specifically this bit of brilliance from the Spitting Image special in 1987.
It also digs into the weird world of New Year telly – something that, as a Scot, is as big, if not bigger, a deal than the Christmas Day listings battles. There’s some amazing curios dug out by Ben from across the years in his research, strung together with his usual mix of commentary, personal insight and bum jokes,
Ben Baker’s Festive Double Issue: Forty Years of Christmas TV is available here, and thoroughly recommended if you need a fun stocking filler, Secret Santa gift or even just something to read on the bog while trying to evacuate day three’s leftovers and half your bodyweight in Quality Street.