“Your fat and jolly friend draws near,” sang Elton John in 1973. This was Ho Ho Ho (Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas), a forgettable B-side to – let’s be honest – an equally forgettable A-side. Step Into Christmas was the Ronco hair-remover of the great glut of festive singles from that era, the emergency present you kept under the tree in case the distant, oddball member of the family called round unannounced.
But now this all sounds remarkably prescient. The fat and jolly friend does indeed draw near. Not Santa Claus, but Reginald Kenneth Dwight himself. Every night on TV, we glimpse his chubby, twinkly fingers fluttering over the piano keys. His bulbous diamond earring glistens like the Star of Bethlehem.
Don’t know what to buy your nearest and dearest this Christmas? Let Elt’s earring guide you through the darkness, all the way to the nearest branch of John Lewis. The retail giant are very definitely not a Ronco hair-remover when it comes to Christmas adverts. Theirs are Cecil B DeMille productions, proper events. They’re heavily trailed beforehand then reviewed like the latest high-end dramas. And they’re eminently capable of incurring the wrath of the Church of Scotland.
The Kirk’s moderator, the Rt Rev Susan Brown, has attacked those lavish ads which do not reflect the reality of Christmas for folk who regard it a “long, lonely endurance test”. She’s criticised the “hype” surrounding the festive period and the excessive materialism.
Now, to be fair to John he has not turkey-stuffed the commercial with the images which don’t, for Brown, ring true: “Happy families round a Christmas tree, all smiling and looking like models, the children with a pile of presents ... ”
The ad begins with Elt alone in the house sat at an upright piano in a moment of quiet contemplation. Well, here are some things which really don’t ring true. Throughout his career, he’s always played grand pianos. When he was much more nimble, he’d dance on the lid, or lie on top hammering the keys upside down. And quiet contemplation? If I remember right, his idea of downtime in that notorious hagiography Tantrums and Tiaras was to frantically scribble the week-by-week performances of his records in a big, colour-coded notebook and fret about them.
I don’t want to spoil the “story” for you, but right at the end this joanna is revealed to be the one he rushed downstairs to find wrapped in a bow on Christmas morning as a kid, setting him off on the yellow brick road to fame, fortune and national institutionhood, becoming Sir Elton but forever being known to Rod Stewart as Sharon.
Now I hear what Brown is saying: the yuletide commercials expand the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, portraying the haves as get-even-mores. But this is business: the stores are going to present themselves and their goods and the people who buy their goods in an appealing way. The church on a recruitment drive, seeking to recruit kids to to Sunday School, would use the most attractive imagery it could find. What does Brown want to happen? Perhaps she’s thinking about enforceable limits on the width of the smiles on Christmas morning, the number of presents visible and the jauntiness of the angle of the Santa hats. If so, then maybe festive-themed movies would have to be regulated as well. Good luck with that.
The big concern this year, of course, is not the retailers warping the true meaning of Christmas but Elt himself. Has he not just gone and hijacked 25 December with this ad? Jumped it from behind and knocked it out with a mixture of chloroform and his most pungent cologne, to come round later and discover itself wearing giant fur-framed spectacles and glittery nine-inch platform boots?
Between the opening shot and the admittedly quite sweet pay-off – no football boots or toy guns for young Reggie but his very own ivories to tinkle – what’s being sold here is Elton John. The commercial looks like an Elton John video and isn’t he supposed to “f*****g detest” videos?
These were his words in Tantrums and Tiaras, a documentary shot by David Furnish before they married. He said then that he disliked the format because he disliked the way he looked. Now he’s got actors to play various versions of his younger and more lithe self, most of them sporting much less hair than he does today.
I liked at least one of these incarnations. My wee sister loved him because he wore glasses like her, something she was self-conscious about, and in 1976 I queued for tickets for four freezing hours so I could take her to see him play Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. At a time when lots of other “artistes” were sensitive, serious and anti-show, he put on a great gig which was loads of fun.
Elt is still on the road although he stresses this is his last-ever tour. He said he was retiring as far back as 1977, however, and Rod Stewart – Phyllis to his Sharon – has dubbed the farewell trek “dishonest”. “It stinks of selling tickets,” he says, forgetting for a moment that all tours hope to do that.
Promo for the next leg appeared as soon as the ad aired for the first time so John will be hoping there’s a healthy spin-off on top of the fat fee he’s already been paid. The commercial will do nothing for piano sales at John Lewis – they don’t stock them – though I won’t be surprised if an Elt greatest hits album smashes back into the charts. The question is: which one? There seems to be at least eight in existence.
But I’m sorry, my fat and jolly friend, I don’t want to step into Christmas with you.