Christmas 1977

After a particularly exhausting runup to the holidays I've spent more time passively consuming Christmas TV than usual this year.

I've forgotten much of it already, but as a long time MR James fan I enjoyed Mark Gatiss' adaptation of The Tractate Middoth and the Jamesian gloom (with reference both to MR James and Henry James) of The Thirteenth Tale. A nod also to Death Comes to Pemberley, which got me through a rather nasty cold.

All of the above demonstrated that the BBC is still most certainly on home turf when it comes to remote rural settings, country houses, dark secrets, shrouded figures, Victoriana and death. (I look forward to Sherlock this evening.)

But the programmes I enjoyed most moved me somewhat less further back in time, to the 1970s. Both somehow found new things to say about two already exhaustively documented bands from the period, Abba and the Sex Pistols. I tuned in with unashamed interest: over time Abba: Greatest Hits and Never Mind the Bollocks have moved to the top of my Spotify playlist, getting me through some otherwise unendurable weekday afternoons, not least over the past couple of months.

Up north

Never Mind the Baubles: Xmas '77 with the Sex Pistols, directed by Julien Temple, was an affectionate portrait of late 1970s Britain, uncovering the little known story of a 1977 Christmas Day benefit concert the band put on for the families of striking firemen in Huddersfield. Previously unseen footage of their performance was interspersed with images of John Lydon and co dispensing Christmas cake to the strikers' children, interviews with some of those who were there, and clips from that year's Christmas TV. All very nostalgic for me: I'm old enough to just about remember the clouds scudding overhead on that overcast Christmas Day; at that time I was living in Middlesborough, another unremarkable industrial town just to the north of Huddersfield.

John Lydon serving Christmas cake, Huddersfield, 1977 (Image: BBC)

As time has passed the Sex Pistols have gradually been woven into the fabric of British culture, and have attained something like national treasure status. But back then their notoriety was such that they couldn't find a concert venue in the UK willing to let them play. Temple's documentary was a reminder that they were actually quite nice people, even then. And also of how straightforwardly exciting their music was and is: a huge, unpretentious, cathartic, wholly satisfying noise. I play it with discretion in the office, and very, very loudly in the car, poor old fool that I am.

Further north

The Joy of Abba was a fascinating little documentary that highlighted a little discussed but fundamental element of all of the most appealing pop music: melancholy. Consider, for example, world weary, nostalgic tone that suffuses so many of the best Beatles tunes, and the clouds that occlude The Beach Boys' Californian sunshine.

So it is with Abba. Without getting overly serious the programme probed the darker side of some of the band's best songs, starting with the minor key modulations of the fabulous SOS, the first of the groups tunes to suggest that there was more to them than (enjoyable) early froth like Waterloo indicated. (An interesting detail about SOS: the aforementioned Sex Pistols stole one of the song's riff for the opening bars of Pretty Vacant.) Dancing Queen followed shortly afterwards, a classic not only for its infectious joy, but also the unmistakeable undertow of sadness, its acute self-awareness that the fantasy lasts only as long as the song itself. The Winner Takes it All, a story of relationship breakdown within the group, must be one of the saddest songs to top the charts, and the title song of their final album, The Visitors, goes further yet: a gloomy slab of northern European electronica about a Russian dissident fearing a knock on the door from the KGB: not quite what one immediately associates with the group who supplied the music for Mamma Mia.

So, pretty heavy stuff. But a due sense of perspective was maintained. As the band themselves acknowledged there was more than one laboured lyric, words often shoehorned into the most dubious couplets to meet pressing studio deadlines. And the director of the band's infamous promo videos laughed off suggestions that the close ups of the singers' faces characteristic of so many of them was some kind of homage to the cinematography of Ingrid Bergman. As regards the stage costumes, there was only a half-hearted attempt to deny that they were prejudicial to the group's cause.

All in all then, most entertaining. I look forward to returning to my Abba playlists with fresh ears, and turning up the volume on the Sex Pistols even further.