It's a dog's life, being Santa. Richard McClure meets some seasonal suf ferers `Most children just snatch the present from Santa's hand' `Child molesters are queuing up for the job'
"I'm not just a whimsical figure in a red suit," twinkles Richard Attenborough, asserting his Santa Claus credentials in Miracle on 34th Street. "I'm a symbol of the human ability to suppress the hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives."

He should try telling that to Chas, a part-time council worker who is earning extra cash playing Father Christmas in Romford's Laurie Walk shopping centre. A child is howling furiously on his knee, while behind his back a pair of 12-year-olds have evadedgrotto security and are about to chuck a water bomb at Santa's head.

"Last week I had a soaking of a different kind," says Chas as his potential assailants are scared off. "A youngster wet herself on my lap. I didn't have time to go and change my costume; I had to grin and bear it."

Nor can Santa turn to drink to get him through the day. "Children notice if you've had a few. I go to the pub at lunchtime, but only for a pint and a couple of cigarettes. If you turn your head slightly and don't breathe over the child, then they can't smell it."

Chas is doing reasonable business despite the presence of a rival Father Christmas in Debenhams next door and his own spartan surroundings. Renovation work in the mall has left his grotto resembling not so much a winter wonderland as an urban wasteland. The sound of drilling competes with the piped carols; breeze blocks are thinly disguised by tinsel; and "Santa Lives Here" has been spray-painted over the grotto's entrance. In the gloom, a token mechanical elf and a flock of nun-like penguin s are the only inhabitants.

At least Chas has two helpers to protect him from the mocking teenagers who plague most Santas. Last year Martin, a 61-year-old actor who wears the red suit when theatre work is slow, was left to fend for himself when handing out presents in an east London shopping centre. "Shopping arcade; schools still in session; gangs of children roaming around. The result: pandemonium," he shudders. "But I never challenged them, however much they baited me. I was extremely lucky, things could have got nasty."

This year Martin is idle, his services having been rejected by Barker's department store in Kensington and Dunkin' Donuts in Oxford Street. Competition for the work is fierce. Last week, Elf Service, the union for Father Christmases, considered strike action after a store manager in Northamptonshire refused to employ its members. But it proved a hollow threat; with so many amateurs willing to work for free.

At King's Mall Hammersmith, Dave, an affable six-foot volunteer with Age Concern, is happy to spend his free time in a cramped grotto that looks more like a suburban potting shed than a North Pole workshop. He has the same malevolent penguins for companyas Chas in Romford, plus a polar bear of somewhat stunted growth. "Ooh, look at the shaggy dog," squeals one mum, queuing to pay £3.50 for a Polaroid.

"I'm in here for seven hours every Saturday, and towards the end of the day all the kids look alike," says Dave. "The worst one I had was a little blighter who spent 15 minutes refusing to have his photograph taken. I really felt like shaking him."

But whatever the provocation, Father Christmas has to hold his tongue. PR departments have kept a close watch ever since a Manchester Santa gave a water pistol to one young youngster, instructing him to "get a real gun and shoot Mrs Thatcher". These day s , most stores carefully screen applicants for the cantankerous and the criminal.

"Child molesters are queuing up for the job," says Les "Mr Partytime" Dee at a firm's private function in a Maidenhead scout hut. A children's entertainer for 50 years, Les incorporates Santa into his regular act of "close-up magic and balloon novelties". Today, though, he has relinquished the role to an eager novice who has organised the party. "Kids have no regard for anything; they just want something for nothing," he observes as most of the children snatch Santa's present from his hand. "There are some real terrors out there today. I did a Japanese company last week and their children were much better behaved. I'm quite relieved when I don't have to be Father Christmas as well."

Not everyone shares his view. With businesses shedding over-fifties by the score, Santa is one of the few professions where they hold the upper hand, and most are understandably protective of their trade. "There was one lady who dressed up in a green suit and called herself Mother Christmas," snorts Geoff Loynes, 60. "That's completely alien to the tradition. There are men's jobs in this world and there are ladies' jobs. Santa is a man's job."

Geoff's talents are promoted through a lookalike agency. His picture appears in an advert in the Stage next to Henry VIII and Richard Branson. "It doesn't really matter if you don't keep up with the latest toys and games," he says. "Children all want thesame thing. This year it's called Nintendo or something. I don't know what it is. I just nod my head and say, `We'll see what we can do.' Power Rangers, that's another one. Haven't got a clue what that is."

Unlike his clean-shaven competitors who have to store away their nylon whiskers after December, Geoff's substantial beard provides him with work throughout the year.

"After Christmas, I work as a Karl Marx lookalike. One Communist chap I knew didn't like me being Father Christmas as well," he says. "He felt I should be more serious about being Karl. I've tried to read his manifesto but it's a bit heavy going. I must admit there isn't a great call for him compared with Marilyn Monroe and Madonna." Maybe he should try his luck as a Richard Attenborough lookalike instead.