It’s more than an anti-John Lewis advert
Think of Christmas, and you may imagine the version that’s presented to us more or less constantly from November onwards: a vision of excess and consumption given meaning by the time it affords families and friends to celebrate and catch up with one another. Yet for many, even before the pandemic, that vision has never resembled the reality of what can be a difficult, intense time of year.
For Laura Ducceschi, creative director of new performance film Another Christmas, commissioned by Music Beyond Mainstream, The Barbican and Coventry City of Culture Trust, this mismatch between the image of Christmas and its common lived experience demanded creative exploration.
“At Christmas you get quite a singular message from the marketing machine,” she says. “It’s like, ‘This is so great! We’re gonna hug our families. We’ve got loads of money, we’re going to eat so much, drink so much, and I’m gonna buy all these gifts…’ But there’s a flip side to that: people are bloody tired, it’s the end of the year – and stuff like the demand for services for victims of domestic violence go through the roof too.”
The project was initially a response to that disconnect, an attempt to give a voice to those for whom the festive season does not live up to the picture-postcard projection, and extend solidarity to them (“You quickly get called a Bah Humbug type – but you know, if you’ve got no money, no food…”). And although that essential spirit remains at the heart of the work, the project itself has changed a great deal since its inception nearly two years ago. Initially, Another Christmas was to be presented as a stage production – but like so much else, the pandemic put paid to their early plans.
“We started making it as a stage performance,” says Ducceschi. “So we did one workshop, and then Covid knocked us down.” Immediately though, as live streamed alternatives began popping up across the arts sector, Ducceschi knew that a straightforward broadcast version of the show would not be sufficient for Another Christmas.
“As someone in contemporary music, I am not really into this thing of ‘Let’s just stream the show’. Live events are like church – a moment of coming together, and that connection, that intimacy you get in the room is immersive and dynamic. And I think the live music sector has not really got its act together on this. We in music need to raise our game.”
With that, Another Christmas began its transition from a stage production to a film project. Ducceschi had already enlisted some stellar talent for the piece, with songwriters Douglas Dare and Eska both involved, along with actor and musician Camille O’Sullivan, guitarist Duke Garwood, and composers Oliver Coates and Feargal Murray (whose music is heard in the final film, but who do not appear in person). With this wealth of contributors to draw upon, taking the project in a different direction looked not only possible, but tantalising.
Director Samona Olanipekun and dramaturg Patrick Eakin-Young were brought in, and immediately made their influence felt. “They helped ask all the questions that challenged the project,” says Ducceschi. “Like, ‘why?’, ‘what?’ There are lots of other ideas in the mix, and some amazing ones, but they could say ‘This doesn’t make sense’ or ask ‘What is the process here?’.”
The result is striking. As we’re shown snapshots of ordinary life – preparations for religious services, a cabbie driving through his shift, a man setting out for a day of solitary fishing – the performers reinterpret and recontextualise Christmas classics in bold new ways. Eska and Duke Garwood rework ‘Silent Night’ in the middle of an empty, cavernous Brighton Dome; Douglas Dare teases out the melancholy spirit of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’; and Camille O’Sullivan performs a spoken word treatment of The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’. Each rendition lays the essence of its parent song bare, forcing the viewer to consider its message more deeply than before.
“[Early in the project] I started talking to [filmmaker] Sam Simona, and he went, ‘Oh I get it, it’s like an anti-John Lewis Christmas ad.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah – but it’s also for people to see themselves.’ It’s not just a downer. It’s about celebrating difference, about being able to say ‘We’re alright – you’re alright, I’m alright.’”
Eska agrees. “This is sort of billed as a non-Christmassy Christmas, but actually it’s even more Christmassy as a result – by trying to focus on the reality of it,” she says. “Not everyone’s sleeping in heavenly peace right now, but we wish everyone a Merry Christmas, and we wish heavenly peace on people whatever they’re going through.”
Watch Another Christmas via the Music Beyond Mainstream YouTube channel from 8pm on 16 December
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