Monday, December 18, 2017

Saturday Buddha at Christmas - Christmas Island

Mario Lanza, Christmas


It is the medium of television by default that provides the most effective portal for the diffusion of so much cultural memory and recall today. This in diverse respects too such as the regular passing nowadays of celebrities from childhood times gone by like The Partridge Family's David Cassidy and The Likely Lads' Rodney Bewes of late. Likewise for reflections upon particular periods of life transition that spring forth automatically from hearing certain and often obscure theme tunes again - Man Alive, The Family,  World in Action, Take Another Look, The Waltons, Robin's Nest and Sorry for myself personally.

Even long lost regional television station iconography such as the classic Thames Television and LWT logos, the concurrent Knight statuette and Golden Hind on Anglia TV and Westward Television respectively or even UTV's mighty "Antrim Road" start-up transmission music can often overwhelm the senses.

Children's television from the Sixties and Seventies alone is another huge self-contained world of delights from Catweazle's capers down at Hexwood Farm to such timeless American imports as Scooby Doo Where Are You, The Banana Splits and HR Pufnstuf. And then of course for so many people in their forties, fifties and sixties today there are the misty recollections of Christmas television in Britain.

There is a wonderful and comprehensive 25-part overview of the Radio Times and TV Times editions from the Seventies and Eighties to be found over at the MAWH  blog that is guaranteed to bring back so many warm and fond memories of those days. All of them - even the overviews from the Eighties - seem so distant and from another world now. This alike when I look at black and white pictures of the thriving Belfast of the Fifties and early Sixties I never got to see and enjoy before it was pointlessly destroyed.

Britain in the Seventies of course had a rich multiplicity of complex political and economic problems afoot and indeed the decade was more than likely the pivotal era when our national decline ramped up several gears. However like many other people I look back to a childhood that entailed so much fun and laughter from so many quarters year on year - from the music, confectionery and cinema to the toys, comics and football. Most important of all our course were the people of those days  - so many of whom have left us.

Returning to television I have one strange memory long-lodged in my mind of Christmas programming. It was definitely the very late Seventies and I remember opening my Christmas presents one morning in my living room back in Belfast. I assume it was the ITV channel on the television in the background showing an animated version of the bible story. I recall at one point in the narrative John Henry Hopkins' We Three Kings of Orient Are was playing in concord to the visitation of the cartoon wise men. Just for a moment - and a moment I oddly enough can never quite forget - I felt that all was totally right with the world.

This particular hymn was included on the one collection of Christmas music I have been listening to every year since a child - Mario Lanza's Christmas Hymns and Carols. This 1969 compilation of festive songs on the RCA Camden label   - which includes wonderful versions of I Saw Three Ships, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel - is either a reissue of a 1951 original release of seasonal sacred music Lanza Sings Christmas Carols, the recompiling from 1956 with new versions of some songs added or the full 1959 re-recording. Incidentally another beautiful version of The First Noel was recorded by the great Mario Lanza fan Elvis Presley on his second Christmas album released in October of 1971 - this also contains one of the great lost Presley classics If I Get Home on Christmas Day.

The Philadelphia tenor and star of such movies as The Great Caruso and Serenade - who had his own life demons with alcoholism and overeating - died of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of only 38. During his 1958 European tour he performed at the King's Hall in South Belfast on March 29th and stayed in Royal Avenue's Grand Central Hotel. I could clearly see the King's Hall building across the city from the back bedroom window of my family home in North Belfast when I was growing up and it would be the music venue where I attended the best concert of my life in 1984 - the late great Stuart Adamson's Big Country on their Steeltown tour. The hotel in turn would become a base during the Ulster Troubles for the British army from 1972 onwards and was subsequently attacked over 150 times by terrorists. An interview with the late Belfast comedian Frank Carson on youtube includes his recollections of meeting Lanza during this visit.

Lanza's deliveries on the Christmas album are not just impeccable but literally awe-inspiring at times. The singer once said that "I sing each word as though it were my last on earth"  - here the power of the complex Christian message never sounded more crucial and genuinely humbling.  This year - with both Britain and Northern Ireland enveloped in a labyrinthine compound of irreversible political problems centred around Brexit and historical revisionism - I will be listening to it in another European country far away from Belfast and those Christmas Days of long ago.

In the meantime - and although looking back to our shared past brings more than its fair share of melancholy - at the same time we must remember that what backbone, character and decency still remains in our society was put there in the first place by the working people of our country alone. This remains the last and most immutable archetype we have left to fall back upon nowadays and cannot  ever be taken away by any degree of stealth from the falsest of friends around us.

Sincere best wishes to all readers and Twitter followers of Saturday Buddha for Christmas and 2018.

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