BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Own Correspondent
Father Christmas School
By Jane Labous
Producer: Simon Coates
As excitement mounts, Jane Labous visits an improbable school for Father Christmases to discover the dos and don'ts of the job and why too much ho-ho-ho can be frowned upon.
I push open a door marked Ministry of Fun and follow the sound of voices along the corridor, then emerge, blinking, into a spotlit studio. Smiling cheerily at me sits a row of very ordinary-looking, clean-shaven gentlemen of varied ages and appearances. The clue is the costumes in the corner; bright scarlet winter coats with white fur trim, robust leather belts and a line of fur-trimmed, repurposed firemen’s boots. On a hat stand, four red bulges that I realise aren’t sacks, but fake tummies. And holding a white beard aloft with a theatrical flourish, there is James Lovell.
James was once a struggling actor who, on a career path that I learn is fairly standard for this industry, took a job as an elf and graduated as Father Christmas. He now runs a Santa Claus agency which trains and deploys elite Father Christmases to some of the UK’s poshest department stores. Throughout our email correspondence he has without fail signed off with: toodle-oo. Today, jobbing actors Paul, 35, Tommy, 42, Jim, 36 and Olly, 59, all already fully DBS-checked, are here to learn how to be outstanding Father Christmases.
School starts with a run-down of basics: How to say happy Christmas in French, German and Japanese, and the names and personality traits of all nine reindeer. Then there are the rules: Be prepared for anything. Never make promises. “I’ve seen parents go white with terror when a child asks for a pony,” quips James, who is as shrewd as he is funny. And never assume it’s mum and dad. “It’s happened to me. I said, let’s ask mummy and daddy, and the child went: ‘That’s not my dad!’ You can’t recover from that.”
On a white board, James outlines the FC patter – intro; themes (reindeer on the roof, lists, chimneys); and encourages the actors to bring their own sprinklings of magic to the role. James believes this is the reason that, in our digital age of cynical, all-knowing children, the institution of going to see Santa to discuss ones Christmas presents still endures. “Kids come to see Father Christmas for one thing,” he emphasises again and again. “Magic.”
And there is something magical in the room as the four actors change into their Santa suits and transform, suddenly, into four beaming figures of festive jollity. Olly, a single dad who’s been acting for 35 years ‘for stage and the telly’, and jobs as Santa because of parenting commitments, seems entirely comfortable with his newfound rotundity, and mucks around with Jim for the camera. Tommy, a children’s entertainer who - with his tattoos and thick-set shoulders - looks in real life more bouncer than Santa, sticks on a moustache with theatrical wig tape. It’s fiddly, but once he’s decked out in the beard and wig, the vermilion coat, the boots, wire spectacles and the merest pop of blusher, the transformation is splendid. Aged by around thirty years, Tommy’s all twinkly eyes, flaming cheeks and Christmas merriment. As if unable to resist, he ho, ho, hos at me with genuine delight. I ask him if he ever has a bad day while playing Santa, but he shakes his head. “I don’t want to sound cheesy, but there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing the kids go away happy.”
Paul is a presenter for shopping channels, and spent last week being Shaun the Sheep at Bluewater. He hitches up his newly-rotund tummy as he tells me about the horrendous jobs he’s had playing Santa Claus; terrible pay, tacky costumes. ‘You get sent a beard through the post, this big poof of fluff you have to stick to your face. I always felt a bit of a fraud.”
“When I was an elf, I worked with a few awful Santas,” he adds. “Some forced presents onto children because they’d got a deal with the store on that toy. I thought, I can be more magical than this.”
We are, suddenly, into serious grotto simulations. James and his employee, Tamsin, play the queue of children with uncanny aplomb, expertly capturing that awkward hopefulness of an eight year-old who knows that Father Christmas exists, but is trying to play it cool. There’s little Ronnie, posing awkward questions, and shy Daisy, who refuses to speak to Santa until he makes her laugh.
Jim, a theatre actor who teaches Shakespeare at the Globe, is brilliant at this. He’s never played Santa before, but his spiel is laugh-out-loud good, and he brings a thespian’s flamboyance to the role. After a flight of fancy involving Lapland United football team and Rudolph catching the ball on his antlers, he gets told to calm it down; it’s not a competition to be the funniest. Just concentrate on the child, advises James.
“It’s nerve wracking,” Jim whispers to me afterwards. “I’m doing it in front of my peers, so I’m trying to entertain the room, dropping gags for them.”
It dawns on me and the Santas that this is a test. In the room, the tension rises. The Santas fidget their hands as they wait to go up. Olly’s moustache starts to fall off and he messes with it nervously. Tommy’s face is flushed, his forehead glowing a little too much, even for Santa Claus. I feel like we could all do with a drink.
On his second go, Paul gets told to be jollier. Don’t go so fast, critiques James. Then Olly’s up. A talented actor, he aces the role-play – but admits it’s tense. “I worked at Selfridges last year,” he confides. “The elf did everything and I just gave out chocolate. This is loads more pressure, like an audition.”
Afterwards, the Santa school alumni and I stand outside, saying our goodbyes. They’re still flushed with the morning’s jollity, still a little in character. Then I watch them disperse into the blue winter cold, and I could swear there’s a sparkle in the air, the tinkle of sleigh bells, a distant ho, ho, ho… See you soon, Father Christmas…