Christmas is specific. You don’t eat mince pies at any other time. Or wear enormous sweaters indoors, or decide that what your house really needs is a lot of multicoloured flashing lights, or erect a dead tree in your front room and mock it with comedy ornaments as if to say, “See how we have defeated you and all your kind – now wear these amusing bells!”
Or watch Doctor Who not on a Saturday.
It’s amazing how fast tradition is, isn’t it? Christmas, as we know it, only came along with the Victorians, Santa’s outfit was popularised by Coca-Cola, and I remember only a few years ago Russell T Davies pointing out all the papers referring to the traditional Doctor Who Christmas special – “It’s only the second one!” he laughed.
Ah, was the world ever so young?
We’re days away from The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, the Doctor ‘s seventh Christmas visit, and I’m wondering just why this feels so right.
I think, when I was little, the Doctor and Father Christmas lived in the same place in my head – kind, funny lunatics, who looked like grown-ups but definitely weren’t.
There are relatively few punch-the-air moments in a telly writer’s life, but when I thought of Matt Smith’s first entrance in last year’s special I could have decked a low-flying pigeon.
“Down a chimney,” I told my wife. “Down an actual chimney! On Christmas Day! The Doctor climbing down a chimney, on Christmas Day!”
And if Sue wasn’t quite so impressed (“Very nice, dear, very clever, what shall I do with that pigeon?”), that was probably because it was a hot summer day and Christmas wasn’t exactly on her mind.
That’s the problem with Christmas being so specific – how do you get into that frame of mind in July or August? Last time round I was stuck in roasting-hot LA, in a darkened hotel room with the air conditioning turned up and Christmas carols playing at full volume.
I was going to head out into the streets to ask some urchins to sell me their chestnuts, but worried that conversation might spiral out of control.
This year, it was even madder, and I’ll be honest, I almost completely lost it. There were 13 episodes of Doctor Who (well, 14, if you count the above-mentioned Christmas special) straight into three new Sherlock TV movies (if I’m allowed to mention The Other One) and then straight into this year’s Christmas special.
At which point, I made a terrible mistake – having handed in the first draft of the script, I did the one thing that no sane person on a difficult schedule should ever, ever do – I TOOK A DAY OFF.
Now this might seem a perversely grim message to give you at this time of year, but please listen – I exhort you, I plead with you, I grasp your shoulders, look you in the eye, and say these words: “Never take a day off!”
Oh, I just collapsed! I got four colds simultaneously. I lost my ability to speak or reason or count my feet. I couldn’t find the front door without being led by the hand by my children.
And I was still in this state a few days later when Piers Wenger (outgoing executive producer of Doctor Who) and Caroline Skinner (incoming executive producer of Doctor Who) arrived on the Baker Street location of The Other One, to discuss the script I’d just handed in.
We moved off to a hotel round the corner, and as ever they were incisive and brilliant and full of great ideas – and I couldn’t actually form sentences. I was completely incoherent!
I couldn’t remember anything about the story, what I was supposed to be doing, or nouns. And I could see Caroline, looking at me, thinking, “I’ve agreed to work with this writer for ages, and he doesn’t know any words at all.”
Now the script was in good shape (I think, I hope), but it did need that extra push, as they always, always do. And as I plodded back to Baker Street, I worried about how I could get that Christmas feeling back at a time of year that can only be described as late August.
And then help came from the most unexpected source and possibly the least Christmassy man in all fiction. It started to snow in Baker Street. Not real snow (not even real Baker Street, if I’m honest), but really good pretend snow, for the Christmas Day scene in A Scandal in Belgravia.
And as I stood there watching it fall, shivering with Mark Gatiss (because pretend snow gives you real shivers) at the magic and madness of television, I got it all back. Christmas carols in my head! Blazing shops on cold nights! Coloured lights and shiny presents and mince pies and “Come here, boy, let me buy your – no, never mind, move along!”
Phew! A few more drafts and we were there. And, nervous as ever, I so hope you all agree.
This Christmas the Doctor will try to save the hopes and dreams of the Arwell family, and possibly some trees, but between you and me, just this once and quite unexpectedly, the Doctor might have been saved by Sherlock Holmes! God bless us, every one.