A Die Hard Christmas by Doogie Horner (illustrated by JJ Harrison) – 2017
Now I don’t make a habit of reading illustrated storybooks, much less receiving them as Christmas gifts, but this year in my festive stocking, I found this little marvel from my sister – something that I didn’t even know existed. Having read it and seen the presentation I’m surprised it took so long to turn this genius idea into a reality.
A Die Hard Christmas is based upon the greatest movie ever made* boiled down to thirty pages of rhyming couplets, complete with gorgeous illustrations throughout. There are some instantly memorable visuals that really (somewhat surprisingly) capture the action classic, and the story itself (even more surprisingly) actually works quite well in this condensed form.
Of course, it goes without saying that despite the surface appearance, A Die Hard Christmas is not for children. The visuals are filled with blood, and there’s a choice expletive to end the story, so please don’t mistake this for something written by Julia Donaldson.
I only wish I had thought of the idea first.
* This is not up for debate.
Diff’rent Strokes (1978 – 1985)
Diff’rent Strokes existed at the height of its popularity a few years before I was really aware of it, but the reach of the show – and ironically, that of the diminutive star Gary Coleman – was far and wide. His character, Arnold, became something of a small screen phenomenon back in the early eighties.
In much the same way that The Fonz did not start out as the star of Happy Days, Arnold Jackson was not originally conceived as the focal point of Diff’rent Strokes. His catchphrase, What you talkin’ ’bout Willis? became so ingrained in popular culture in the early eighties that it threatened to overshadow the entire show. And just like Happy Days, Diff’rent Strokes had a very catchy theme tune.
Diff’rent Strokes was about a couple of black kids (we’re allowed to say that, right?) who are taken in by a wealthy white man, and yes, that is just as obvious a plot device as it appears. Credit where it’s due though, the show tackled a lot of heavy subjects that typically weren’t explored in what was essentially a ‘family friendly’ sitcom.
Oh yeah – and if anyone asks…
A Christmas Story (1983)
A Christmas Story is one of those underappreciated movies that has (somehow) been missed by a large chunk of the population, which is a shame because if you asked me to name my favourite festive movie, this is generally my go-to answer.
A Christmas Story is much better than the generic and uninspired title would have you believe. It’s set just after the Second World War and follows young Ralphie as he dreams and schemes his way through the plot in his pursuit of the ultimate Christmas present – an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle. The movie is blessed with great narration throughout, and along the way there are bullies, playground pranks, fudge, and perhaps the greatest lamp ever committed to plastic.
Ralphie: Ohhhh fuuudge!
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said the word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!
Mr. Parker: What did you say?
Ralphie: Uh, um…
Mr. Parker: That’s… what I thought you said. Get in the car. Go on!
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] It was all over – I was dead. What would it be? The guillotine? Hanging? The chair? The rack? The Chinese water torture? Hmmph. Mere child’s play compared to what surely awaited me.
It is this period setting which sets A Christmas Story apart from most other seasonal movies. The movie is funny, touching, and (in one scene) ever so casually racist in a way that only movies made in the eighties seem to be able to get away with. Find it and watch it if you haven’t seen it, and stick it on again if you have.
Last Christmas – Wham! – 1984
Although I would not consider myself a great fan of his, I respected George Michael as an artist and performer. When we lost him this time last year, the legacy of Last Christmas instantly became bittersweet. Twelve months on, and the festive classic by Wham! feels even more poignant. If anything, the song is even bigger now than it ever was.
Although billed as a Wham! track, Last Christmas feels as much of a solo George Michael effort as any of the stuff he did once the group went their separate ways. It seems as though Andrew Ridgeley is just along for the paycheck and the night in the ski lodge.
It’s really Michael’s vocals and the sincerity of his delivery that prevents Last Christmas from descending into schmaltz, because the track (and the accompanying video) is so thick with syrup that it could rot your teeth after a single listen. But what’s a seasonal song without the need for a bucket?
The Client by John Grisham – 1993
Although I have read several of his novels, The Client was my first foray into the world of John Grisham, and it was compelling stuff from start to finish.
Nobody enjoys reading through a twenty-five page contract that could easily be condensed into a couple of paragraphs, so legal thrillers can stand or fall on the ability of the author to take an inherently dry genre and make the prose interesting. Fortunately, John Grisham has a knack for being able to make legal jargon sound palatable and, more importantly, make you want to turn the page. Of course, he is a lawyer by trade, so if anyone can do it, I guess it’s him.
I saw the excellent movie first – something I usually try to avoid because it often stunts the need to use your imagination – but I don’t think I would have picked up the novel had I not watched the story unfold on screen. I have my issues with some of the unrealistic nature of some of the dialogue in The Client – in particular, what comes out of the mouth of the eleven year old central to the plot – but I’m willing to let that slide because the story itself is so much fun.
Child’s Play (1984 – 1988)
No, not the eighties horror movie about the evil redheaded doll, but the British game show from the same decade that became something I looked forward to all week and watched with my whole family every Saturday night.
Child’s Play was hosted by ubiquitous British presenter Michael Aspel, but it really could have been anyone in that seat because this show was all about the kids and their often outrageous and obscure descriptions of regular, everyday phrases and items.
I was only a little older than many of the kids that were featured on Child’s Play. In fact, my sister would have slipped right in to the mix, but I would even have to give her more credit than most of the examples on the show.
It may seem a little odd to have a television show dedicated to what is essentially laughing at children for not knowing stuff, but Child’s Play was often very funny. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but there were millions of others laughing right along with me. These days the PC warriors would have the idea shot down before it even got in front of the cameras.
Love Actually (2003)
Love Actually is a genuinely (sometimes too) sweet movie, set around the festive period, and it was the movie I went to see with my ex-wife on our first date, a week before Christmas in 2003. It wasn’t my choice of course, but what the movie lacks in action set pieces and explosions, it more than makes up for with a great ensemble cast of actors and some intricately woven storylines.
Love Actually ticks all the right first date boxes – it’s romantic, funny, and somewhat cheesy in parts – but the lasting impression it left me was how uncomfortable I felt watching the scenes on the set of an adult film. It’s fine on your own, but when you’re sitting next to a girl you’re trying to impress with your maturity level, who you’ve not yet shared a kiss with… it’s a little bit awkward to say the least.
Love Actually is not a movie I’ve gone back to for repeated viewings, but don’t let that put you off if you’ve not seen it. It’s the kind of movie that feelgood Christmas television was designed for.
Fairytale of New York – The Pogues, featuring Kirsty MacColl – 1987
According to various sources, Fairytale of New York is the most popular Christmas song of the twenty-first century in the UK, which confounds me because I’ve never been much of a fan, and I like to think I have my finger on the pulse of the nation. I have a real love/hate relationship with this song, but there’s also no real doubt that most people seem to love it, so I seem to be in the minority.
On the one hand there should be no doubt about it: Fairytale of New York is a terrible Christmas song. Shane MacGowan has a horrible voice, and the lyrics and story of the narrative – while interesting and clever – are downright depressing. Kirsty MacColl does her best to balance the scales, but even that Irish jig can’t save it.
On the other hand, I genuinely don’t mind listening to it at Christmas (which, in fairness, is the only time it’s played on the radio). In a strange, oxymoronic kind of way, it does put the jingle in my bells… but I’m thankful that I don’t have to hear it other than the month leading up to December 25th.
Real World by Natsuo Kirino – 2003
I remember reading this several years ago and thinking that I really had to hunt out more work by this author, because right from its strikingly sparse front cover, Real World is a terrific and gripping read. I had every intention of going through Kirino’s back catalogue, but I’ve never actually got around to doing it.
Real World is a fast paced thriller about four teenage girls who unwittingly become involved in the murder of a neighbour… along with the teenage boy whom they suspect of committing the crime. The unique selling point of the novel is that the story is told from multiple perspectives, as each of the major characters is afforded at least one lengthy chapter, which adds (literally) a different view to proceedings and affects the way the novel plays out.
Real World is a relatively short novel that has been translated from its original Japanese, something that had the potential to be problematic, but I can’t say I remember there being any issues. The translation is clean (for the most part) and any awkward phrases that may exist don’t spoil the flow at all.
Six Feet Under (2001 – 2005)
Thirteen years ago tomorrow, I met my ex-wife for the first time, and it was on her recommendation that I started watching Six Feet Under. She was already a couple of seasons deep at that time, but it took me almost a full decade to get around to watching it… and I’m glad I did, because Six Feet Under is one of the best ongoing dramas produced this side of the Y2K bug.
A synopsis doesn’t really do Six Feet Under justice. It’s essentially an adult-themed drama about the lives of a family-run funeral parlour… with the dead bodies as background. Of course, death is not just literal here, but also used as a metaphorical device throughout the episodes. The series is not nearly as dark as you may think, given the grim subject matter, and it always maintains it’s very bleak sense of humour. The performances all round are great – especially Peter Krause and Michael C Hall – and the show is loaded with sex to counterbalance the death.
Six Feet Under can also lay claim to perhaps one of the greatest epilogues of any dramatic show of all time. Just watch it and try to tell me otherwise.