Notebook - Rosie Millard

Remembering your worst ever Christmas can unexpectedly rekindle the festive spirit

The TV clip show is the yin to the yang of the TV reality show, its equally ubiquitous cousin. If the reality show purports to show life unedited and unscripted, the clip show is utterly scripted and tailored. It bears as much likeness to reality as does a couture gown to a dressing gown. This week, I was invited to take part in one - no, I don't know why either. This wasn't Grumpy Old Women, or even I Love the 1980s, but a clip show around that key event, the Christmas present.

A week earlier, I had been e-mailed a list of questions. The idea was that everyone think up witty answers to the questions. Once edited together, it would look as though you and the other participants, who must naturally include a Premier League footballer and Bill Oddie, were having a hilarious chat around the same topic.

The Christmas-present questions were grouped under subsections such as species of bird: Extravagant, Worst, Strangest, Most Romantic, Children's, and so on. Within each subsection there were specifics: what is the most you have ever spent on a present? (£1,000); have you ever bought your pet a present? (not for 30 years); have you ever received a sex toy for a present? (er, no). Then there was a whole sub-list of others: best Christmas ever, worst, New Year resolution, embarrassing memory, and so on. Presents crept in here, too: best wrapped, worst received, best received. It was thorough, to say the least.

Naturally, I failed to inspect this list properly until I was on my way to the studio. Then I panicked. I realised that every single memory of Christmas had been erased from my memory bank - every present, whether welcome or otherwise, every embarrassing moment, every sex toy waiting for me under the tree. Mercifully, a variety of Millard Christmas facts then started to reassemble themselves. The fact that my father always vacuums the house on Christmas morning. The fact that my mother always gave us an educational book in our stockings. The Christmas I was given a piano. The Christmas I was mugged.

The "studio" was a hotel room in west London. The Premier League footballer had been in. Bill Oddie had been in. "We've had ordinary people, too," said the producer. "Oh yes, ordinary people with great Christmas stories. We had a brother and sister just now. He had split up from his girlfriend, but his sister had given him a romantic balloon ride for two with 'Together For Ever' emblazoned on the balloon. So he had to go on the ride all on his own. He was so cross about it."

We started off on our list of 85 questions. Some of the answers could last only ten seconds, to run in the ad breaks (UK Living, in case you are setting the recorder). I confessed I loved satsumas. Apparently these humble items have been voted least favourite Christmas fruit. I know, what rot. Yet by the time we were discussing best relation around the table (my brother), best carol ("Hark the Herald Angels Sing") and best present (charity goat), a spell had been cast. Everyone wanted to chip in, to tell how much they loved their family at Christmas, how important the food was, how great the board games, how vital the decorations on the tree. By the end, the studio was so full of sparkly Christmas love for all man, even close relations, that I half expected Hugh Grant to walk in and tell us the whole scene was a set-up for a Richard Curtis film.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Apartheid