Look, I know this is a family magazine, but I’m afraid the following article is age-restricted. If you’re under ten years old, the editor of Radio Times – and your mum and dad, who deserve your respect even more than he does – has decreed that you stop reading right now.
Right? Have they gone? Good. Well, I’ve come for a job interview. The vacancy? Santa Claus. OK, I’m not applying to be the real Father Christmas, but a shopping-centre Santa. I’m told there’s good money in it: a top-notch Santa can rake in up to five grand over the festive season.
Not that I’m in it for the cash. What attracts me is that it’s the only job outside sumo wrestling and opera-singing in which my big, middle-aged belly is a career advantage. My interrogator is James Lovell, MD of a company called the Ministry of Fun that over the past 15 years has supplied around 300 Father Christmasses to stores, shopping centres and corporate events.
I’ve not got off to a good start. James, who has only just met me, is wagging his finger. “A lot of people think being Santa is easy. There’s a great misconception that all you have to do is put on a suit and say ‘ho-ho-ho.’’’ No, no, no. “It’s not easy sustaining a three-minute conversation with a child sitting a few inches away from you.” He’s right. As the father of a six-year-old and a three-year-old, I’ve seen some ropey Santas in my time.
I’m here because this year James has taken on some unusual trainees, for a new programme on Channel 4. The premise of Bad Santas is simple: a group of middle-aged and unemployed men from troubled backgrounds were selected to train with James. If they successfully graduate from Santa school, they’ll be allowed to join his roster of Father Christmasses.
This is not entirely a stunt. The men who succeed will get real bookings with real clients and earn cash by being a “real” Santa Claus. James believes that the experience of getting paid work will help future employment prospects.
Only three of the candidates pass muster – one of whom, Frank Prosper, spent 17 years in jail and has convictions for burglary, handling stolen goods, drugs offences and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
Hold on a moment. Don’t you need to be checked with the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) for a job like this? “Yes you do,” says James. “They’ve all been CRB-checked. Whatever came up, there was nothing to prevent then working with children.” So it’s fine to be an armed robber, but not a sex offender? “You can phrase it like that, which sounds bad. Or you could also say anyone who’s working with us has turned their life around to such an extent that we’re happy to be working with them.”
Anyway, I’m not here to pass judgment. I’m here to learn how to be a good Santa. James takes his business seriously, and there are some strict rules. He glances at my belly. Am I fat enough? “Not bad”, he says. Not quite there either. “We may need a bit of extra padding. Anyway, I wouldn’t use the word ‘fat’. Father Christmas is chubby. Jolly. Portly,” he says as he hands me a special strap-on belly enhancer.
Time to get dressed. The red-and-white outfit is handmade and, he claims, worth almost £1,000 (though the label on the beard states: “Synthetic Material. Made in China”). I slip on the jacket and trousers, the beard, hat and oversized boots. James applies a bit of white make-up to my eyebrows and a bit of red to my cheeks. Instantly, I’m full of bonhomie. I can do this Santa thing, no sweat.
It’s time to practise a “ho-ho-ho”. Without even thinking about it, a voice emerges from the bottom of my diaphragm. It’s deep and booming and somehow comforting. Think Brian Blessed. “HO… HO… HO…!”
The trick is not to say the word “ho” but to almost cough it out. Then it sounds like a genuine Santa laugh. I’m delighted to say that James is quite impressed. “Now you’ve got to think about the language you use,” says James. “A good Santa says ‘splendid’, ‘marvellous’, ‘wonderful’. Don’t say ‘OK’ or ‘ain’t’. One of the Santas on the show came out with the word ‘cushty’. Never!”
Now it’s time for some role-play with James, who takes on the part of a troublesome child. My job is to effortlessly answer his beastly questions.
“Are you the real Santa?” he asks. “Well tell me, Tom, are YOU the real Tom?” “How do you get into a house without a chimney then?” “Haven’t you heard of Santa’s magic key?” “So what are your reindeer called?” “Donna, Blitzen, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub.” (I think I might have to work on that last one.) “And then,” reveals James, “about once a week you get the most awful question: ‘Can Mummy and Daddy be back together again for Christmas?’ It’s heartbreaking. But you have to do what Santa always does – dwell on the positive: ‘Don’t worry, wherever your mummy and daddy are, they both love you hugely. And I love you too!’”
The lesson is not quite over – James fills me in on the history of St Nicholas (“the patron saint of Russia, parish clerks, pawnbrokers, little children. And Aberdeen”) and the toys I might be asked for. But the difficult stuff – the look, the laugh, the ability to talk upbeat nonsense without sounding like a local radio DJ – I can manage.
Without wishing to be immodest, I can reveal that James is impressed. “I’m excited by your Santa, Vince,” he says. “I’d definitely take you on.”
Bad Santas is on tonight at 9:00pm on Channel 4