Noel’s Christmas Presents

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[More Noel: Noel’s HQFirst & Last: Noel’s House PartyThe Live, Live Christmas Breakfast ShowWhen Noel Tried to Crack AmericaHouse Party Hell Playlist]

With my distressing fixation on Edmonds, Noel’s Christmas Presents is one of those suggestions that comes up a lot, and I almost went there last year, only to decide against it at the last moment. How could I possibly write about the cultural byword for kind-hearted event television which left its audience weeping, and to this day, remains embedded in our national psyche, both as entertainment and as the most powerful Christmas spirit Broken Britain had to offer? Noel’s only desire — like Scrooge on Christmas morning — was to bring a little joy to the needy and unfortunate, asking for nothing in return, and I’m supposed to blunder in with my observations; my cynicism and jokes about spunk; over the real tears of real people?

But then, in returning to the idea, I was reminded how every second of these shows was filtered through the singular creative vision of one of the oddest men who’s ever lived. With decades now passed since they first aired, time has splattered these hours with comically unwieldy tech and unimpressive gifts; with horrid fashions and naff celebrities, and the unique presenting style of Noel himself, all of which slightly dulls the edges of the endless parade of horrific sob stories, making them easier to view objectively.

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With the benefit of hindsight, to 2020 eyes, Noel’s Christmas Presents plays like a cross between House Party‘s Gotchas and those viral videos where someone’s filmed themselves buying a homeless man a meal, selecting a soppy soundtrack that’s just right before posting it on all their socials. While the conceit is philanthropic, essentially it’s Noel taking his pathological need to prank and surprise; to put people on the back foot; but using it for good instead of evil. The whole thing turns on that imbalance of power that he so loves; Noel Edmonds off the telly and Bob the photocopier repairman from Nottingham — only one of them’s got a microphone, and only one knows how this is all going to go.

Christmas Presents slotted firmly in a genre which was incredibly popular in its time, as also seen in Cilla Black’s Surprise Surprise, of making the Great British Public cry by springing a lovely video message on them, from a cousin they’ve not seen for 25 years after they emigrated to Australia, only to reveal that’s not the real surprise, before bringing the cousin out in person. The head of its class, Noel’s take became a festive tradition, as much a part of the British Christmas as turkey blow-offs and your grandma tutting when Lenny Henry came on a trailer for the Boxing Day line-up.

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The series of annual specials ran for a decade from 1989 — 1999, ending when Noel left the BBC after the cancellation of Noel’s House Party. Sky One would bring it back in 2007 for a six year run, but randomly shoving them out in the week leading up to the big day — missing the whole point of sitting down to watch right after the Queen was done talking — and perhaps with audiences more savvy to the cynical manipulations of television, the magic was gone. 2012’s final effort wasn’t even hosted by Noel, with Corrie‘s Sally Lindsay taking over for a rebranded All Star Christmas Presents.

Unthinkable, isn’t it? His thundering vehicle with someone else at the wheel. There’s a line at the end of Bill Murray’s Scrooged, after his character Frank Cross makes the babyface turn, and James Cross remarks “my brother, the King of Christmas!” In the nineties, there was only one man on that throne, and it’s the role he was born for, in perhaps the ultimate example of nominative determinism — “The First Noel, the Angels did say…” For nineties kids, he was basically our Santa. He even looks like an anime Father Christmas. We’ll be diving in with King Noel at the height of his powers, for an episode which aired in 1996, of course, on Christmas Day.

Festivities take place in the grounds of a medieval castle. A huge, war-like banner hangs from a tower, reading NOEL’S CHRISTMAS PRESENTS, as he emerges for the live crowd, flanked by dancers and dressed like a Victorian mayor. It’s so cold, you can see his breath as he takes his place in the audience beside a burning brazier, and tells us it’s ten years since the explosion at Chernobyl; “the result was an atomic cloud, spread across the countryside.” Merry Christmas! As we’ve learned on these pages, Alan Partridge comparisons are an unavoidable side-effect when delving into the hell of light entertainment, and Noel invites a powerful one right out of the gate.

Evidently, the people of Lancashire formed a tight bond with their radioactive brethren in Belarus, becoming pen-pals, and very occasionally, flying them over to the UK for in-person visits. This first present really sets the tone, and they each have the precise energy of Noel pulling someone out of the audience on a Saturday night, to answer embarrassing questions before getting covered in slime. As everyone’s waiting at the airport with gifts to be put on the plane for their friends, who should walk in but Noel bloody Edmonds; snazzy jumper, mic in hand — “they weren’t expecting to see me!” Everything’s a prank with him, and he tells them they’re all off to Belarus too, along with ten tons of aid he’s got secretly stashed in the aircraft’s hold.

The captain’s intercom fills with wheezing as Noel announces another surprise, with “someone who’s very popular in Belarus, and extremely committed to children’s charities.” Come on, any guesses? Norman Wisdom’s big in Albania, isn’t he? Or maybe Bono? Christopher Biggins? No, it’s — “…please welcome, Chris de Burgh!” Fucking hell, any spare parachutes? Never mind, I’ll go bareback. Truthfully, the people of 1996 are thrilled, one woman sinking into her seat with an orgasmic “oh my God!” and as friends from Minsk and Lancashire embrace, they’re serenaded by de Burgh’s rendition of Silent Night. Incidentally, do you think the words “the Chris de Burgh please, my good barber!” have ever been spoken?

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The presents are broken up by interludes at the castle, with dancers dressed as medieval jesters or harlequins, prancing all hey-nonny-nonny with Venetian ball masks while lip-synching to a warbled backing track of The Holly and The Ivy. It feels like the entertainment laid on for Joffrey Baratheon to sneer at on his wedding day, before ordering all their arses to be cut off and fed to a wolf. This strange mix of eras, with Victorian Noel in the Middle Ages, confirms his role as transdimensional trickster, ungoverned by the rules of time, and leaping through centuries to dispense presents/pranks.

His next double-cross centres on a recently widowed old lady, who’s been putting money on the horses to try and win the airfare to see her cousin in Canada. As if appearing in a cloud of sulphur, Noel’s suddenly behind her at the bookies, pulling a mic out of his jacket, with a look on his face that permeates the show, a look that says “yes, it’s me, off the telly, with you, who isn’t off the telly… let that sink in.” Noel’s other trademark bombshell is casually dropping the mark’s name – “Hello, Maureen…” “How do you know my name?!” But she’s enraptured by our BBC Puck; “ooh, he’s lovely,” and just like her grandson, “…exactly like him. I wish I’d have brought a picture for you!

Celebrity helper for this one is John McCririck, notably dialled down from the post-Big Brother years, and not once mentioning great big women’s tits, or eating a single bogey. Noel breaks the news he’s jetting her off to see cousin Dexter, whom she hasn’t seen for 72 years, as Enya’s Orinoco Flow kicks in on the soundtrack — “sail away, sail away, sail away…” Where Christmas Presents truly excels as saccharine emotional sob-fodder is in its musical choices, and I’ll be fastidiously keeping track of all the brilliantly on-point needle drops.

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The elderly cousins reconnect, but Noel’s the fucking Columbo of gift-giving, always with “just one more thing,” dropping surprise on top of surprise. Though she can’t stop gambling, the lady’s never been to a race, so Noel takes her, but I guess it’s off-season, as they just have a couple of horses ride by in an empty, rainy stadium. Amid all the globetrotting family reunions, there’s still room for smaller, if no-less emotionally devastating stories. One has a children’s dance teacher perform onstage at the West End with Anthony Newley, while another centres on a little girl who survived the car crash which killed her brother, with the other driver unidentified and still at large. Noel surprises her with a Father Christmas, revealed to be — thank God — her grandpa, flown over from Australia.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that most of the presents involve Noel gifting someone a holiday and tagging along, as the amount of countries he visits in a single hour of television put Michael Palin to shame. For Ted and Rita, just meeting the man is surprise enough — “Well I’m blowed. A Gotcha, is it? Strewth, Noel Edmonds, of all people!” The BBC appear to miss an unbleeped “shit” when the old boy learns they’re flying 6,000 miles to see his brother in South Africa. In a rather cruel jape, Noel spears this emotional moment with a casual “all we need are your passports,” to a sad reply of “we haven’t got one…” No worries, he takes a pair out of his pocket. Is that legal?! The pre-911 world was a different place; “Hello, British embassy? It’s me, Mr. Blobby’s dad, Noel Edmonds. I’d like to register passports in the names of two strangers without them knowing. No, no, I’m not a terrorist…”

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They can’t just meet though, and needlessly, long-lost brother Bob reports to a yacht club to record a video message for Ted, who hides as Noel plays producer, repeatedly butting in like it’s Trigger Happy TV, while elderly Ted very slowly walks up behind. Even after they’ve reunited, the pranking will not stop, having the lads pose for a portrait while they sneak in another dozen family members Bob’s never met (moving soundtrack: instrumental cover of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother).

My favourite present goes down at the annual reunion for the ladies of the Royal Artillery who served in WW2. Noel interrupts a mayor to introduce a brass band, brought in on the back of a truck with NOEL’S CHRISTMAS PRESENTS written on it, playing Colonel Bogey, or as most people know it, Hitler’s Only Got One Ball. But there’s an enormous gift-wrapped box on the back too, and in a moment which genuinely floors me, Gloria Hunniford punches her way out of it. Not even a singer, Hunniford serenades the old soldiers with We’ll Meet Again, cut together with b/w footage of British women during the war — “everybody wave your flags!” Nigel Farage’s VHS of this must be fucking unwatchable by now.

The patsy is Vera, who wrote a book about the exploits of the war ladies, but couldn’t find a publisher. Pre-Amazon, if you wanted to get your work out there, the only route was through Noel surprising you with a contract with Harper Collins, as he does here. Out in time for Christmas, with the foreword by a Mister N. Edmonds, we see shots of it rolling off the printing presses (needle drop: Paperback Writer), and it’s still available on Amazon today (used) under its title Sisters in Arms.

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The year’s finale is the most outrageous stunt of all. Alerted by a letter from her mother, Noel targets a girl with a rare genetic condition, who’s written a poem about world peace. He meets the family on an open-topped bus touring London, but can’t just say hi, instead masquerading as a tour guide named Trevor who speaks in a Mr. Bean voice. After dropping the act, he has the bus pull up in Downing Street, and takes them into Number 10, right into John Major’s office. Luckily it’s not a single parent family, or Major would’ve kicked the girl straight out of the window. Even though he’s still a Fucking Tory, in today’s climate, it’s strange to see a leader behaving all professional and statesmanlike, rather than accidentally-on-purpose getting his foot caught in the fireplace to appear endearingly bumbling, or parroting whatever PR slogan’s been decided on for the day like a broken robot. Major, who’s name-checked in the poem, has her read it to him — in a shaky little whisper that seems on the verge of tears, in a terrifically awkward moment — before Noel takes the family off to Disneyworld, in a classic double-surprise.

Mickey gives her an enormous key to the Magic Kingdom (with the top shaped like his own head, rendering it very, very penisy), while I wonder who’d win in a fight out of Pluto and Blobby. But it’s Noelception, with surprises all the way down, and he interrupts their holiday with a second trip; to Washington DC, where they’ll be meeting President Clinton. In one of the more surreal moments ever to be televised, Hillary Clinton asks the girl who she’s brought with her to the White House, to the reply “my brother, my mum and dad… and Noel Edmonds.” Noel in the Oval Office, a dream come true! Try to imagine that happening today. Any scenario where Trump’s given a poem by a special needs child from the UK ends with Whitehall launching the nukes. Noel would probably end up Secretary of Defence, mowing down protesters with a gunge cannon.

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Despite the promises of Major and Clinton after reading the poem, world peace was not achieved, but in every other respect — wringing audience tear-ducts dry while Noel looked tremendously pleased with himself — Noel’s Christmas Presents 1996 was a resounding success. So then, onto the 1999 edition. The final year has a markedly different feel, with Noel and the BBC on the outs, after House Party was acrimoniously taken off air the previous March. Presumably contractually obligated, this would be his final appearance for the Beeb, until a one-off presenting gig seven years later, followed by a public boycott of the licence fee, and threatening to buy the BBC, like when Vince McMahon bought WCW solely to publicly destroy it. Running out his contract, accordingly there’s a more lo-fi feel, significantly cutting down on the air-miles, and even the run-time, down to 50 minutes from the usual hour. Pretty harsh, if you recall the words of his own IMDB bio, which he definitely didn’t write himself.

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With no audience, we open in media res, with Noel strolling round the corner of a country manor, past a pile of chopped up logs, arms laden with pre-wrapped gifts. Is this meant to be where he lives? Because it’s definitely not Crinkley Bottom Manor. Maybe that place came with the job, like a lighthouse keeper. No House Party, no home! “As you can see,” he says, “I’ve got my Christmas presents. Hope you’ve got the box of tissues!” What’s in those boxes, grumble mags? Apparently, this year’s got a “watery theme” — oh yeah, I’ve seen that category on xhamster.

Establishing the stripped-down feel, the first present’s announced via message written in Comic Sans on the cluttered desktop of a Windows 95 PC. ‘Santa’ shocks the kids by unbearding, with a falsie on top of his real one like Jeremy Beadle pretending to be a traffic warden, before sending them to Universal Studios, where Fred Flintstone gives them a new computer, with a CRT monitor so unwieldy, the plane home probably crashed. To save money, a second giftee’s been flown to Universal too, on the pretext of winning a contest. She’s not seen her dad for over 50 years — though it turns out he was an American GI, her mum was married, and he scarpered. Noel accosts her for a random interview, needling round to the subject of her old man. Even talking about it upsets her, so it seems unnecessarily cruel when he reveals that dad’s been sat at the next table the whole time, leaving her convulsing with sobs.

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Every segment’s over very quick, with no post-gift interviews, and even the music budget’s been slashed, reducing the backdrop of lighter-raising chart toppers to maudlin stock piano. Instead of dancers, intermissions see Noel prepping for Christmas in his mansion. It’ll be a lonely one this year, traipsing round the east wing by himself like a weekend dad who’s weans have been turned; huge table laden with a banquet that’ll mostly end up in the bin. “This will make you laugh,” he promises, raising a glass of sherry to his lips, but cutting away before he drinks.

To be fair, it does go full Beadle’s About, with Noel clomping into a women’s clothes shop dressed in flippers and full scuba gear, to take a man who’s been crippled in a motorcycle accident to the Seychelles for diving lessons. Noel’s Free Holidays– I mean, Christmas Presents next sees him marching up a driveway in Cheshire, doubling over with laughter as he rings a doorbell only to read a sign “please knock, bell not working!” He’s here to give a boy with cystic fibrosis a trampoline, which crazily, is such a wild dream in 1999, that you have to ask for one off a celebrity. Nowadays, there’s loads of freebies just laying about in the street after a blowy night. So, Noel’s bouncing up and down with the lad, asking if he’s pleased… and? Go on, say it; “we’re taking you to NASA so you can bounce in a rocket!” Nope, no extras. Just a trampoline.

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I must touch on the deeply strange way that Noel reacts whenever a member of the public engages with his small talk, particularly when he’s chatting with children. Anyone responding with even minimal banter leaves him utterly aghast, hands on his thighs and looking at the camera with an expression like “my goodness, they’re not even off the telly and they can think; they can speak! How precocious!”

But Noel won’t be happy until every severed familial bond or lost friendship has been reconnected, taking an octogenarian to meet the Icelandic trawler captain who fished him out of the sea when his ship got sunk by a German U-Boat in WW2. His reaction is a genuinely heartwarming “today?! Is my wife coming with me?” Although the reunion is deeply moving, the trawler captain is now 100 years old, with the meet consisting of a very old man shouting directly into the ear of a very, very old man, sat right next to each other, but effectively on satellite delay. There’s a jarring shift when we cut from the misty-eyed chap reciting Ode of Remembrance as he tosses roses into the ocean, to Noel switching on the Christmas lights in Exeter, “in front of an enthusiastic crowd!

Mic in hand like a buzzing cattleprod, nobody can relax for a second as he plucks more victims from the audience. The wife of an ex-copper who nursed him through a battle with Parkinson’s gets a new handbag, with tickets for a VIP tour of London inside. Not bad, I guess, but they won’t be needing their passports. Would you feel a bit swizzed if you wrote to Noel for, say, a new bike, and he just gave you a bike, and didn’t ‘surprise’ you with a holiday for you and him to Italy, to try it out on the Appian Way while giving backsies to Sophia Loren? Noel ends the segment by telling her to look after her handbag, “as it’s a bit tough in the city,” implying she’ll be violently mugged. Fa-la-la-la-la!

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Even speaking as a husk, the reunions are generally quite affecting, but there’s an undercurrent that makes me uncomfortable, with normal people thrust into hyper-emotional situations, often (like the GI father) with complex backstories, reduced to the need for a hug and some tears that can be soundtracked by the key-change in a power ballad, and all under the glare of the camera, while a gleeful puppetmaster prods his mic into the maelstrom. This really crosses a line inside a cramped Northern pub for “a double whammy reunion.” A frustrated Noel pokes away at Ray, who misses the point when asked three times if he’s with the family for Christmas — The whole family? All the relatives? — only to repeatedly says yes. Eventually Noel just tells him, “no, you’re not,” and it’s the old ‘sister in Australia for 30 years’ deal, so he brings her out. Back then, everyone had a family member who emigrated to Australia solely for the purpose of being wheeled on TV as a surprise decades later.

As Ray and sister Carol share the teary hug, Noel tells Carol he knows a lot about her. She went to Australia aged 21, after having to give up a daughter for adoption. Oh, Christ. He won’t, will he? Not here? Everyone holds their breath as he reminds Carol of what she already knows; that she hasn’t seen that child since giving it up — “until now! Come out and meet mum!” Having pulled the pin on a hand grenade of feelings, Noel casually wishes them a very, very Happy Christmas and leaves them to pick up the pieces. After donating musical instruments to a special needs school and giving one boy a ride home in his helicopter, there is but one final present. A bloke called Chris — who we soon find out is dying from cancer — has only one wish, to go halibut fishing with his cousin Danny, who lives in Seattle. Enter Noel, collaring him outside a restaurant before rather sharply admonishing him for taking a step off his mark; “don’t keep walking away!

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Fittingly for the last at the BBC, it’s your classic Christmas Present, with a double-surprise of two trips; one to meet Danny, and another taking them both to Canada, where halibut’s still in season. They make a gag out of Noel being dragged along too, taking to the water with slo-mo footage of seals and bent fishing rods, and Noel looking cool with his hands in his pockets in a red mac and Gorilla Monsoon tinted lenses. Noel flails from the splashback as Danny lands a 50lber, and the entire music budget kicks in, in the form of Westlife’s Flying Without Wings.

The last ever real Noel’s Christmas Presents closes, as it should, with an absolutely textbook image of Christmas; Noel Edmonds in an armchair, surrounded by festive finery; tree, roaring fire, glass of sherry, Christmas pudding dripping with custard, a posh tray overflowing with Ferrero Rocher. Notably, two stockings hang above the fireplace, the other, we must assume, for Mr. Blobby. Knowing it’s the end of an era, Noel wishes us goodbye “for the final time,” with a sudden jarring close-up that really made me laugh.

We’re played out with Come Oh Ye Faithful by a completely deaf organist (like Daredevil?), living out his dream of performing at Liverpool Cathedral, which Noel informs us is the largest organ in Europe. Subscribers to my OnlyFans may disagree. Accompanied by his granddaughter, they use three combined hands on the keys, like that scene in NCIS where two people stop a hacker by using the same keyboard at once.

Would this show work today? Not in its most-beloved form. Though there are some right thickos about, people are generally more paranoid, and we’re all besieged by scams on a daily basis. Won a ‘contest’ for tickets to the zoo that you didn’t remember entering? Fuck that. Probably gonna get jumped by Dark Web gangsters who’ll suck the Bitcoin straight from our anuses like they’re syphoning petrol. Or worse, Edmonds is gonna leap out at the lizard house and make us all go on holiday together. The analogue world of Christmas Presents was heavily based around family reunions, but now we’ve got Facetime and Zoom, if there’s a relative you’ve not seen or spoken to in thirty years, it’s probably because they’re a prick.

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I guess that’s why modern takes on the ‘surprise’ genre rely on celebrities, bringing out someone’s favourite athlete or actor, or if they’re lucky, Gloria Hunniford punching her way out of a box. That’s nice and all, but I don’t know if it carries the simple emotional weight of two siblings meeting for the first time in decades. Through a modern lens, Noel’s Christmas Presents is in turns genuinely moving, cloyingly manipulative, and weird as hell, and at its worst, it’s just more of Noel’s pranking but with a toy at the end, like a bearded Kinder Egg. It works best when packed away with all the other halcyon memories of Christmas past, along with the big film premiere, circling things in the Argos catalogue, and yellowing photos of a much smaller you, sat on the floor in pyjamas, surrounded by He-Man figures and tapes for your ZX Spectrum. Sure, looking back will evoke feelings of comfort, warmth, and better days, but if a game took 14 minutes to load today, you’d probably just sling it in the fire.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on December 22, 2020.

One Response to “Noel’s Christmas Presents”

  1. […] including Mike Reid, John Inman, Windsor Davies, Tony Blackburn, and most crushing of all, Noel Edmonds. I imagine this is what they based Mario Kart on, with Frank Butcher dropping a banana skin onto […]

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