There are times when I wonder if repeated exposure to television has done some kind of permanent damage to my sensibility.
Just as workers in the chemical industry find that accumulating toxins can leave them with numbed fingers and bleared sight, I think it's possible that dose after dose of reality formats has impaired my ability to distinguish between good and... well... maybe evil is over-stating it, but something less than admirable anyway. I was an awful long way into Channel 4's Bad Santas, for example, before the dubious ethics of the enterprise first struck me.
"I know," someone had said, thrashing around for a new twist on the My Fair Lady transformations television loves so much. "Why don't we offer the unemployed and borderline unemployable the chance to work as a Christmas Santa?" Notionally, this idea belonged to James Lovell, who runs a company called Ministry of Fun, which specialises in promotions and PR stunts and also supplies Santas for the seasonal market. "We have the best Santas that money can buy," said James, proposing the interesting concept of a mercenary version of a famously unmercenary figure. And notionally all this was about charity.
James himself had been at a low ebb in his acting career when a short-term hire as a supporting elf turned his life round and pointed him in a new direction. Now, he said, he wanted to reach out a white-gloved hand of succour to others facing difficulties. So, with the wary agreement of his business partner Matt ("It must be wonderful being that optimistic... But he's insane"), James planned to audition a number of men with less than glowing CVs to help fill the Christmas grotto order books. "I don't normally enjoy Christmas a lot," said one sepulchral candidate. Another, a former time-share salesman called Steve, who now struggles by on disability benefits, hoped to reconnect with his family. And Johnny looked as if he was prepared to do pretty much anything to fund the next bottle of Bacardi.
To bring them up to speed for the challenge, the men were sent to a Father Christmas boot camp for tuition in ho-ho-hoing, went off to Toys R Us to get a sense of the current toy market (Santa must be careful not to promise something that it's beyond the power of parents to deliver) and took part in a grotto simulation exercise at Santa school. It didn't go entirely smoothly. "We haven't got a letterbox," said one pretend brat, after it had been explained that the absence of a chimney wouldn't be a problem. "Then you're fucked," the wannabe Santa replied.
Does the Santa school really exist, though? Or had James just obligingly put it together for the film cameras? He's in the business of laying on stunts after all. And even if it hadn't been, isn't there something tasteless about making the long-term unemployed leap over a holly-decked set of hurdles like this? The upside might be real – and you can bet your life it will be heavily flagged up in the edit – but the downside involved beaten and troubled men taking their latest disappointment in public. Not sure what we've done to deserve stuff like this, but I think we must have been very naughty.
If a friend pitches up at your door with a misshapen Christmas cracker made out of filo pastry and turkey mince mixed with Cointreau-soaked cranberries, then blame the Fabulous Baker Brothers, who implausibly suggested that this would make the "perfect edible gift" in their Christmas special. Also mooted as "perfect" gifts were nut brittle with added chilli and rosemary, a gingerbread house and a large slab of fish. "What could be nicer," a Baker Brother asked, "than to give away as a present a side of salmon you've smoked yourself?" I fear that my answer to that question was not the one the Baker Brothers were fishing for.