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7 December 2022

Ian Hislop’s Diary: Getting the choir back together, remembering John Sessions, and what politicians forget about A Christmas Carol

If Jeremy Hunt is “playing Scrooge”, he should give a free goose to every household.

By Ian Hislop

I love Christmas stories but it does irritate me when people forget how they end. It has happened twice already this year. The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, declared in his Autumn Statement that he was going to “play Scrooge” this Christmas. So we had a programme of grim austerity with freezes and cuts and unmitigated gloom. But that is not the point of Dickens’s morality tale. If Hunt is really going to enter into the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge he will be visited in the night by the ghost of Christmas Past looking like George Osborne, and the ghost of Christmas Future looking vaguely like Rachel Reeves. He will then decide that Christmas Present is too miserable, wake up on Christmas Day and announce huge pay increases for clerks, increased benefits for all disabled Tiny persons called Tim, and a free goose for every household in the land. If this hasn’t happened by the time you read this, then he hasn’t “played Scrooge” at all.

Similarly Mick Lynch announced that he was “not the Grinch”, and that he wasn’t going to steal Christmas. But the Grinch doesn’t steal Christmas. He thinks he can ruin the festivities in Whoville but then he realises that Christmas will happen anyway and the Whos will carry on singing merrily whatever he does – so he puts it all back. Therefore, if Lynch is serious about not being the Grinch, he will swap his “sour Grinchy frown” for a big-hearted smile and announce that all the trains are being put back to normal and that he will be personally handing out complimentary turkey sandwiches in the buffet to all small travellers called Cindy Lou.

Singing like a king

The Whos of Whoville do like to sing at Christmas and I am very much with them on this. I help organise a charity Christmas carol service and during the Covid years we missed out on the pleasures of communal singing. This year people like me can return to singing loudly and badly, flattered into imagining we can hold the tune when accompanied by a fabulous choir.

I am looking forward to “Good King Wenceslas”, which I always used to tell people was my favourite carol because it inspired my favourite Christmas cartoon in Private Eye. It was a drawing, by the brilliant cartoonist Kathryn Lamb, of a wintry scene in which a poor man is gathering fuel. He sees the Bohemian saint from afar and asks, “How are you Wenceslas?” to which the King replies, “I’m good.” She has produced a joke for this year’s Private Eye Christmas issue that makes me laugh even more. It shows a woman turning her back crossly on the King during an argument and saying, “Oh well Wenceslas, it’s your look-out.”

The poem and the damage done

The only thing missing from this year’s carol service will be my friend John Sessions reading one of the lessons or poems. John died in November 2020 and is sadly not around to rejoin all the actors and celebrities who do the readings in the service. Brian Blessed once read the poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, and it would be fair to say he gave a typically exuberant performance. You could hear it a couple of streets away.

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John, a brilliant actor and comic, was extremely competitive and decided that he should read this poem the following year. Determined to outdo Blessed, he gave a fabulous rendition of the “merry elf” and then with a final flourish charged down the aisle shouting “happy Christmas to all, to all a good night”. It was a splendid exit marred only by the fact that he knocked over the mayor of London’s historic and priceless mace, specially placed on its own stool, and caused significant damage to the 17th-century treasure. As one of the other actors put it comfortingly, “It’s all right John. No one is going to remember Brian Blessed now.”

Letters of note

At Christmas at the National Theatre, Private Eye takes its best comic material of the year and turns it into a live stage show. The pandemic has stopped this happening since 2019 but we are now back, although also without John Sessions. He excelled as Sir Herbert Gussett, the fictitious elderly letter-writer to the Daily Telegraph. During 2022, a frantic year of three Tory prime ministers, a new King, a European war, a cost-of-living crisis and accelerating climate change, Sir Herbert was writing furiously to his favourite newspaper complaining about the amount of sex in the second series of Bridgerton. There wasn’t nearly enough of it.

Ah well, this joke will have to remain on the page, undelivered by Sessions, but I mention it lest auld acquaintance be forgot…

“Private Eye Annual 2022”, edited by Ian Hislop, is out now 

[See also: David Baddiel’s Diary: Shouting at the World Cup, a timeout from Twitter, and why Jews still don’t count]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special