O come all ye tasteful

With the Christmas frenzy now well under way in the capital, Liz Farrelly raises a few points on the poor judgement behind the lights bedecking the West End.

I’m usually out of the country by now, joyfully avoiding all the “seasonal” bullshit by sitting on a beach. This year, however, I’m being exposed to a London Christmas, and I already wish I wasn’t here. A few questions: kick-off is October now, is it? Why are Spiderman and Caspar the Ghost featuring in the Oxford Street lights… when did they join Santa’s grotto gang of festive characters? Can I say something about the calibre of minor celebrities drafted in to switch on said lights… why has it sunk so low? Peter Andre doing the honours in Oxford Street and a jockey flicking the switch in Regent Street might appeal to pre-pubescent fans and bookies I suppose. Finally, what is the exact connection between Yves Saint Laurent (as featured, very large, on Regent Street) and baby Jesus?

Frankly, if the Oxford Street and Regent Street lights must look so lame, then why bother at all? It’s not only that the lights are blatantly commercial but, with no redeeming features, hints of creativity, imagination or seeming effort expended, the end results are so “so what?” that it’s just plain sad. Bedecking over three miles of grey London thoroughfare is obviously an expensive enterprise, and said sponsors (Fox Kids Network and, you guessed it, YSL) should be acknowledged. But for such institutions – the Regent Street lights have been a real joy for 54 years! – to be reduced to mere branding opportunities speaks volumes about rampaging commercialisation. Spiderman with a little sign saying “Fox Kids Network” does not inspire “good will to all men”, not in me at least.

Can it get any worse? Did anyone involved in this process ever stop to think: is this relevant? Or even consider that the public might feel short-changed and not at all impressed? Or is it simply a matter of taking the sponsors’ money and anything goes? The fact that the French manufacturers of the 12 YSL logos decided to make each one 30 per cent larger than specified on the plans submitted to Westminster Council, because “they considered the size to be more aesthetically pleasing” (quote from the Regent Street Association’s press release), hints at a decidedly hands off attitude by said association.

Westminster Council wasn’t slow to spot the deliberate mistake when, on 10 November, they were switched on. They declared the logos “unlawful” and gave the RSA until 1 December to rectify their oversight. Apparently, the French are to remake the signs at their own expense, and replace them “in the dead of night” (quote from RSA spokesperson). Fine, but that means the larger-than-life versions will have been winking away at all those happy shoppers for almost three weeks – that’s half the run up to Christmas – before they mysteriously shrink. Why the grace? Why didn’t Westminster Council take the offending lights down, there and then?

And why bother having a system of planning regulations if those who break them are able to continue going about their business, “unlawfully”, until it’s convenient for them to comply? Apparently, “there’s no provision under law to make them remove the signs” (quote from Westminster Council press office). But the council declared them “unlawful”? I’m confused. Excuse me while I construct a teepee on the front step of my flat and see how long it takes my local council to declare it unlawful, and tear it down…

While I might wish to question Westminster Council’s consistency, I’m no Scrooge. I do like pretty, glittery things, including the seasonal displays staged by various West End retailers which spectacularly outshine the efforts made by the two associations. Funny that the retailers, who en masse fund those associations and make extra voluntary payments for the lights, put so much more effort into their own decorations. Perhaps they’re only really interested in out-shining each other.

With all the competition from suburban mega-malls (Thurrock and Milton Keynes aren’t so far away), you’d think the West Enders would seriously offer their customers something more than just a seasonal flourish. They may be able to rely on tourist income, no problem but, when shopping in Oxford Street becomes too unpleasant, then those with an alternative will go elsewhere. The pavement widening exercise proves that traffic can go elsewhere, so why not ban it completely? Please. That would be a Christmas gift worth receiving, and giving.

And with Vittorio Radice’s spectacular re-invention of Selfridges turning out to be more than simply PR hype, its promise of an “entire shopping experience under one roof”, might just drag me through the throng for a spot of retail therapy, I mean Christmas shopping. If I must.

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