TRIED & TESTED / Christmas With A Bang: As essential as mince pies or just a rip-off? We look at crackers

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The Independent Culture
Forget the tacky plastic gifts that break when you try to use them, the snap that doesn't make much of a bang, and the hat that disintegrates before the end of Christmas dinner. There are plenty of high-quality crackers on the market which aim to offer a more sophisticated experience. We asked a panel of fun and style experts to test out six brands of luxury cracker, not suitable for children, to see whether or not they live up to their promise. Read on, to find out which to choose for your Christmas dinner table.

THE PANEL

Jonathan Rutherford-Best, director of party planners Urban Party Culture; Donna McPhail, stand-up comic, currently preparing for her tour starting on 29 January; Caryn Franklin, presenter on the BBC Clothes Show series; Jonathan Coleman, reporter on ITV's London Tonight programme and the Virgin 1215 Rock 'n' Roll Breakfast Show.

THE TEST

Testers gave the crackers a mark out of five for their looks, the quality of the gifts and hat, the motto or joke, how well they pulled apart and banged, and value for money. Scores were converted into star ratings.

***MARKS & SPENCER

Fleur-de-lis design, pounds 19.99 for six (typical gift: camera, ear-rings)

Best buy, despite no laughs

These crackers got top marks on almost all criteria and testers thought they were way ahead of the rest of the pack. 'Good packaging, great hat, good gift,' said Jonathan Rutherford- Best. But they fell down in one important respect. Instead of the usual corny joke, M&S has opted for the trivia question, described by Caryn Franklin as 'a humour-free zone'. Our testers were disappointed by this departure from tradition. None the less, Jonathan Coleman said the crackers were good value and he'd buy them himself, 'but only if they open the shop early just for me'.

**PAST TIMES

Tartan de luxe party crackers, pounds 14.95 for six (typical gift: toy car)

Best for jokes

These crackers, which were supposedly inspired by the Victorian passion for all things Scottish, scored highly on one tradition - the groan-making joke. 'Superb bad taste jokes]' said Donna McPhail. 'The one about a spotty sister and a revolving door is bound to start a huge argument at the table.' As an extra, you get a balloon in each cracker, although according to Caryn Franklin, 'they could not be persuaded to grow beyond the size of an average yellow melon.' She didn't think the packaging was festive enough either, but Donna McPhail said she liked the 'simple tartan with no fussy frills'. These crackers got very poor marks for the hat which 'fell apart before even reaching the head,' said Donna McPhail.

*HOUSE OF FRASER

Six luxury table crackers complete with co-ordinating dinner napkins, pounds 19.99 for six (typical gifts: corkscrew, perfume)

Good gifts, otherwise low score

Whether you like the look of these crackers, with the curtain material- type design of flowers, berries and leaves, is a matter of taste. Jonathan Rutherford-Best and his friends hated it, 'especially the napkins - Laura Ashley on a bad day', but Caryn Franklin thought it was 'tasteful'. Jokes didn't score as well as those in the Past Times crackers, despite being made by the same manufacturer. Like the Past Times crackers, they also have a balloon but, said Caryn Franklin, 'the balloon situation was

even more tragic than the Past Times one'. The gifts scored well, but the hat was again rated very poorly indeed. Jonathan Coleman, an Australian, complained nostalgically: 'Another major let-down in the hat department. Whatever happened to those good old happy days of post-war Britain when crackers had proper hats, as worn in black-and-white Brit films? Ask Sir Dickie - he may have the original plans.'

**SAINSBURY'S

Super de luxe crackers, priced at pounds 14.95 for six (typical gift: napkin ring, brooch)

Attractive looks

Most of our testers liked the crackers' packaging - rated almost as highly as the M&S ones - and thought they had quite good-quality gifts inside. But they didn't think much of the hat: 'Like a bad excuse for school canteen ladies' headgear,' said Jonathan Coleman, while Caryn Franklin thought the burgundy, cream and green diagonal stripes on the hat looked a bit dated. 'The jokes weren't great, but there was an interesting fact on the other side,' said Donna McPhail, although Jonathan Coleman protested: 'I don't want info and facts on Christmas Day.'

*TESCO

Luxury crackers, pounds 19.99 for six (typical gift: ear-rings, pen)

Reasonable gifts inside, but otherwise mediocre

The design of the crackers, which have a little wreath with a bell suspended from them, was again a matter of taste. Jonathan Coleman and his friends loved it, but they were in a minority. 'Very ugly crackers indeed. Wreath ideal for funerals,' said Donna McPhail, while Caryn Franklin said: 'Drab exterior, dull colours.

Extras like tinsel or the green pipe-cleaner in the middle do nothing to improve matters. On a design level, very sad.' Most testers thought the gifts, such as a solid brass picture frame, were good quality. The jokes got the thumbs down: 'I know they are supposed to be bad, but not that

bad,' said Donna McPhail, while Jonathan Rutherford-Best, who couldn't find anything good to say about these crackers at all, said the jokes were all 'incomprehensible'.

**JOHN LEWIS

Christmas crackers, priced at pounds 14.50 for six (typical gifts: shaving brush, necklace)

A less traditional style, good scores

These crackers, made of metallic gold and silver paper, have a different look to the red, green and gold of the others in the test. Caryn Franklin liked the packaging: 'My kind of presentation. Bold Op-Art-ish in a small shoebox- sized container. But John Lewis lost an opportunity to make a statement in the millinery department by relying on traditional two-tone red and green for their hats.' Donna McPhail and Jonathan Coleman, though, didn't like them on the grounds that they didn't look very Christmassy. The crackers scored pretty well on all criteria, although as with all those surveyed except Marks & Spencer's, the testers didn't think much of the hat.

(Photograph omitted)

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