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17 December 2001

“I need a bit more time to deliver“

The New Statesman Christmas - Quentin Letts meets new Labour's original guru, with his peer

By Quentin Letts

A peeling “Vote Labour” poster was displayed in the grotto window. Outside, a 7 Series sleigh had been parked badly in the chief executive’s space, a Greenpeace sticker on its bumper.

Father Christmas’s PR pixies had at first snorted at the request for an interview. “Impossible! Try Easter.” But Peter Mandelson had a friend who had a friend and the guys at Freud’s also put in a word on the customary quid-pro-quo basis. The call came a few hours later: “Lapland, 11.30 tomorrow morning. But don’t expect too much.”

Don’t expect too much: this shrewd approach to public service has long been the root of Father Christmas’s success. We know stockings are going to be full of tat, but we enjoy them none the less, as our expectations are low. It is a philosophy he has encouraged his politician acquaintances to adopt, though without success. The guy’s a legend. “Pure magic, unbelievable,” to quote one retail analyst. His logistics skills are the envy of big business and his household penetration figures put even the Reader’s Digest prize draw and the mail-order firm Boden to shame. Everyone in the trinket trade, from the National Trust to Tate Modern, wants a slice of his pie.

Previous interviewers have tried to “get behind the beard”, and a couple of years ago an undercover Channel 4 crew filmed illegal immigrant gnomes in the grotto’s despatch warehouse. The controversy only passed because “FC”, as his aides call him, is so charming.

Impertinent questions are met with a deep “Ho ho ho!” and a jingle of sleigh bells. There have long been rumours about his private life – Mother Christmas is as invisible as Mrs Colombo – and US internet chatrooms have raised questions about the motives of an old man who tiptoes into children’s bedrooms at dead of night.

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An elf was now escorting me into the Christmas presence. We found Father Christmas wrapping a selection of cheapo toys made by child labour in Indonesia. “Come in!” he hollered. “I still like to do some of the wrapping myself. Keep in touch with the sharp end of the business. Chris Haskins and I are as one on this.” The belly is Falconeresque, the flushed cheeks and blue-veined nose more evocative of Milord Irvine. And the accent? “Great to see ya!” Estuary, with just a hint of Scots.

I begin by asking what he preferred to be called. Santa? Papa Noel? St Nicolas? “Couldn’t give a toss,” he says. “Dyslexic kids call me Satan.” If he sounds tense, it may be that his previous meeting has gone badly. “I invited Consignia to a mail summit,” he says. “Children used to be able to post their letters up the chimney and I’d get them the next morning. Now it takes weeks. Radical private-public reform is needed.”

The anthrax scare has not helped. Letters have had to be searched and sniffed. “Three of our people went down with anthrax poisoning in the sorting room last week. Nearly copped it. It’ll take time, but we’ll get the goblins responsible.”

“You have a political poster in your window,” I say. “Are you new or old Labour?”

“Well in many ways I’m a traditionalist, but I do believe in Tony. He and I share many opinions. Stealth taxation, for instance. And the Lottery. The poorer the suckers are, the greater proportion of their income they waste. It’s got me where I am today. Consumer spending, be it on school fees or health insurance or crappy knick-knacks, is vital to the economy.”

The Yuletide rush starts “earlier every year”, and he now gets shopping centres on the telephone as early as mid-November asking for grotto visits. “You wouldn’t expect me to say too much but, yes, we do contract some of the work out.” Substitute Santas are heavily vetted. “We have a zero-tolerance policy on pervs, but sadly the system is open to abuse,” he says.

He’s been at it for “more years than I like to recall” and admits that the work gets harder every year. “Scepticism is more widespread and happens at an earlier age. The materialism of many of the youngsters these days is disgusting. Where once they’d settle for tangerines and a bag of marbles, nowadays everything needs to have batteries or have a brand name – Tommy Hilfiger, Conran, FCUK.”

Wrapping started last week. He’s “a little behind schedule, but the recession should help us this year – people aren’t going quite as mad”. He’s confident of hitting the national targets, which were set by himself in liaison with Derek Wanless. “We will deliver a first-class service to the customer,” he avers.

Have there been failures? “We made a bad strategic mistake in the early years not guarding the trademark more jealously. All kinds of shite ends up with my image on it.” He also accepts that the whole Santa operation is “too white” and has swapped notes with Greg Dyke on diversity programmes. “But, for Chrissake,” he argues, “what can I do about the colour of snow?” A cuckoo emerges from the clock and advises us that the interview is over. I ask him: “How about you? What would you like for Christmas?”

He looks surprised. “No one has ever asked me that before,” he says. “I guess the answer is a little more time to deliver.”

And another Santa, page 76