Stuck for fun? Rent a Santa

Sophie McBain speaks to a professional Santa about the highs and lows of the job.

When I meet Santa he’s wearing an orange baseball cap and tucking in to scrambled eggs in the self-consciously trendy rooftop café at Shoreditch House in east London. I feel relieved that Santa – or Damian Samuels, as he’s known for 11 months of the year – gave me his number beforehand. I’d felt confident I would be able to pick a professional Father Christmas out from the crowd, but Samuels is only 40, and has salt-and-pepper stubble rather than a long white beard.

Less unexpected is that the modern jobbing Santa has a PR representative, who has warned me that he doesn’t want to “spoil the magic” – as if my elder cousin Simon hadn’t done just that some time in the early Nineties. It was around this period that Samuels first put on a Father Christmas suit, having been promoted from an elf in the Selfridges grotto. He was just 21.

“The irony is, it’s almost a young man’s game being Santa, because you need the energy and performance,” he says. “It’s really hard work, you sweat profusely, and you’re knackered. When you’re doing a three-hour shift you have to be as jolly at the beginning as you are at the end.”

For most of the year, Samuels, like many professionals in this line of work, is an actor. Since setting up his own firm, Rent-a-Santa, five years ago, he has been in charge of a small troupe of Santas, and says he prefers to hire trained actors, who are more convincing than untrained lookalikes. Unsolicited job applications start trickling in from October. “There are a lot of average Santas out there,” he warns.

A few weeks ago he held auditions for which he invited candidates to dress up, belt out a convincing “Ho, ho, ho” and read “The Night Before Christmas” to an elf pretending to be a child.

“As an actor, you forget that what you say in an audition really sticks and I’ve never been on that side of the table before,” he says. “You can say one thing that really puts people off.”

One hopeful lost the gig when he mentioned he suffers from nosebleeds, another when he confessed to swearing a lot.

Being a professional Santa is not a bad job for an out-of-work actor. Samuels didn’t want to disclose exactly how much members of his team are paid, but says it’s never less than £175 for an hour’s work. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t make money out of this, but you do make people’s day. I’d much rather do this than work in a call centre.”

A successful Santa can expect to get some exciting invitations. Samuels’s most memorable experience was performing at Paul McCartney’s Christmas party. “I had Paul McCartney singing ‘Jingle Bells’ at me. One of the Beatles, singing ‘Jingle Bells’ at me! Then McCartney, who I’m a massive fan of, was taking pictures of me. It still freaks me out now,” he says.

There are unusual requests, too – the couple who asked for a Santa to bhangra-dance into their Indian wedding, the men keen for him to disturb them as they proposed to their girlfriends, or the parents who ask for Father Christmas to walk past their window to give their kids something to boast about in the playground.

When he’s dressed in his finery – a costume made by a tailor who specialises in priests’ cassocks – Samuels feels he’s spreading joy wherever he goes. “If you’re walking in the street as Santa, everyone hoots their horn. Cab drivers wave, bus drivers wave, the coolest kid on the street will wave,” he says.

Yet nothing quite spoils Christmas like playing its principal character. “I think I say the word ‘Christmas’ around a hundred times a day from August,” he says. “The last appointment on Christmas Eve is the best, because everyone’s really happy and I’m really happy. I get into my Addison Lee car, rip off my beard and think: ‘I don’t have to do this for another year.’” 

Santas in London. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.