The secret life of the office party

Tis the season to drink three bottles of cheap wine (each), fall asleep on a bus, wake up somewhere you've never heard of, and the next day (after you've called in 'sick') to remember that you snogged the dishy one in accounts - you hope. Or not? Our intrepid team donned their gladrags to find out how Britain really parties
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The sales team

Event Compuware Slough-based computer software company. Northern European team Christmas celebration

Venue Belgo Centraal, Covent Garden, London

Thirteen colleagues descend from Manchester, Liverpool, Ireland, Denmark and Slough for mussels, steak, Fruli beer and wine, as well as crackers and paper-hat wearing amid reminiscences about the glory days of ostentatious parties before the crash.

There is even a "Secret Santa" with a £5 price limit (could they have been inspired by that Slough-based stationery firm?) Appropriate presents included spa-stones for vice-president Amina West and a golf-ball-monogrammer for the global sales director Ian Clark, who "has been known" to do business on the course. The reaction of the recipient of an alarm clock, who spends 10 minutes running round the table adamantly telling everyone that she is never, well rarely, late for work, is definitely worth a fiver.

As the banter descends into good-na tured bickering about who has the best software accounts on the team, hopes that next year's Christmas lunch may be held in Cape Town and thoughts of the pantomime to be performed by staff for colleagues' children on 21 December, there is murmured griping that the meal is self-funded at £30 a head.

Then there is the question of inappropriate kissing. "In smaller groups you are not going to have any unlikely kissing or office flirting. And three-quarters of the people here are married," Zoe Smith, a technical advisor, says. "But then again, maybe I just haven't noticed." One of her colleagues sounds more enthusiastic at the thought, saying he won't mention names or talk about affairs, but all the usual vices apply. But he ruins the image of getting sweaty over software with his less plausible suggestion, "wife-swapping".

It's a fairly civilised affair - but with enough Christmas spirit to fuel the team to continue drinking in a bar. Number of people returning to the office: one. Number of people checking their BlackBerries: one (Amina West checks hers in the toilet halfway through). Number of festive kisses: none.

Genevieve Roberts

The bosses

Event Marks & Spencer executive directors' bash

Venue Groucho Club, Soho, London

There's more to celebrate than just Christmas for the big bosses at Marks & Spencer. After a bumper year, bubbles are flowing in the private rooms at the Groucho Club, where the top team are celebrating.

Stuart Rose, the snappily dressed chief executive who is coming to appreciate the virtues of Marks' suits, as opposed to those by Richard James, his beloved Savile Row tailor, is here, as is Steve Sharp, the marketing director. He is the brains behind M&S's glitzy new image, epitomised by those ads starring Twiggy and, especially for Christmas, the James Bond take-off starring Shirley Bassey.

To describe the guest list as highbrow would be an understatement - you have to be on the retailer's operating board to be invited to this bash. But that doesn't mean the banter is all shop. The 27-odd directors who have shown up (all men bar a couple, as is so typical in the City) "really open up".

After dinner - no, M&S turkey was not on the menu - the room is treated to some stand-up by Jimmy Carr, the comic who starred in one of their menswear campaigns earlier this year.

Carr aside, the main highlight is the Secret Santa present handout; each director has had to come up with a goodie for one of their colleagues. Rose is given a Darth Vader mask, complete with voice-changing function, which slows his normal gabbling pace somewhat. Sharp gets a James Bond greatest hits album and a couple of Catherine Tate DVDs - and promptly shows his appreciation by mimicking the comic. But the pick of the bunch are some 30-year-old knitting patterns for Kate Bostock, the womenswear director. She takes it well, or so it seems.

Susie Mesure

The students

Event London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine year party

Location Spice of Life, London

Downstairs in a Soho pub, MSc students from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are having their Christmas party. Barbara Carasso, the party organiser, a 6ft blonde in Dutch national dress, explains the theme: "There are 26 nationalities on the course so we decided that everyone should dress up as their national stereotype and bring some music from home."

Festivities start at 7pm and guests are welcomed by Barbara, who is standing next to a table groaning with punch. It looks set to be a long night. "The bar gave us an extension until 1am on the condition that we got food," says Barbara. "I'm not sure if it was because they wanted more money or because they were scared of what might happen if we didn't eat."

It's a multicultural crowd - there are cheerleaders, Rhine maidens, African queens, Indian princes, rockers, toffs and football fans. Students from America, Germany, Canada, India, Africa and Japan are going crazy on the dance floor to the theme from Fame and a roar goes up when the DJ puts on "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls, and Hattie Begg - the Brit dressed as Ginger Spice - vanishes to the dance floor. Later, at the bar, Hattie is buying a vodka and Diet Coke. Her costume is a Union Jack dress with tinsel-covered hoop earrings. "I tried to paint Union Jacks on my face but it was too difficult," she says. "I've just done red, white and blue stripes but everyone keeps asking me why I've got the Dutch flag on my face. That's the problem with studying with an international crowd." Hattie is one of the younger party-goers. "Most of the people here have spent years working in developing countries," she says.

At 8.30pm, the food arrives - a buffet of pizza, samosas, salad and potato wedges. Suddenly, everyone is either eating, dancing or both. The music pumping out isn't just pop - TA Garraghan, a British blonde, lets out a cry as a Latin American tune blares out. "I love this song - it's the theme tune to my favourite Chilean soap opera." The food disappears and the punch is drunk - it's 10pm and a Viking is stripping in the middle of the room. Off comes his tinfoil helmet and home-made axe - things are definitely hotting up. Selina Gann, a mini-ninja, is chopping and high-kicking. "It's time to get extra drunk!" she exclaims. Everyone seems to be following her advice. By 12.30am, some of the crowd are tiring. "Oh god I've got classes tomorrow morning," says TA. One thing's for sure - these health workers know how to party.

Rebecca Armstrong

The youth workers

Event Connexions agency youth workers' Christmas party

Venue Revolution Bar, Manchester

It's 10pm and drizzling when a group of suited twentysomethings scurry past and make a beeline for the welcoming glow of a nearby bar. Over the road, a sprawling man is being helped off the ground by a friend, who props him messily against a bin while he tries to hail a cab.

No such alcoholic antics are on the cards for our 12 new friends, all youth workers who spend their professional lives dealing with binge-drinking and other social ills.

The group, a diverse slice of Mancunian society, features people of all cultures. They chose a Spanish restaurant for their low-key meal - arranging their own do instead of attending a big company bash - and shunned turkey and tinsel for patatas bravas and olives. Still, they would have liked crackers like other groups in the restaurant.

By the time they get to Revolution Bar at Deansgate Locks they're already flagging, with several heading home. It's a tame night in comparison to others in the same venue. At a nearby table, a small man in a grey suit is drinking vodka-Redbulls on his own and slurring nonsense to anyone who looks at him. His group, who work in recruitment, came in more than five hours ago but now he's the only one left.

Youth worker Pamela Whitworth, a striking brunette in a dark dress, looks around as she sips her half-pint of lager. She grins: "We're all so boring! We're all sober and enjoying ourselves quietly rather than coming out to get wasted. I think we're probably conscious we're working tomorrow. But it's also to do with our job."

Ciara Leeming

The artists

Event Barford Sculptures party

Venue The O Bar, Camden, London

"We're all very drunk. The lightweights were too wasted and had to leave, and we're the remaining hardcore. The dress code this year is Tube stations. Can you guess what I am?" So says Will Fausset, 29, a sculptor's assistant, clutching a blackened plank of wood. "I'm Burnt Oak! And her with the leaves - she's Royal Oak! Some of us made more effort than others."

There is no doubt that an office Christmas party is under way at the O Bar at 8pm on Thursday, December 13. Empty Champagne bottles sit precariously close to the edge of a low mahogany table, among an assortment of empty glasses. Fourteen young men and women, dressed in various guises, are strewn over a sofa, stools and each other. There are wigs, braces, a costume comprised of synthetic leaves, and a lot of banter.

The O Bar was selected for after-dinner drinks due to both its fine selection of beverages, and its proximity to Daphne's, a family-run Greek restaurant where Barford employees traditionally have their Christmas dinner (no turkey, no stuffing, but plenty of calamari, dolmades, spanakopita, souvlaki and crackers).

By 9pm, there is absolutely no sign of this party letting up for the main players, though various others are flaking off in ones and twos. This might explain why the entire office has arranged to have three days off following the party. It's quite possible that such a recuperation period will be needed.

Charlotte Philby

The retail workers

Event Currys Staples Corner Christmas lunch

Venue Chiquito, Staples Corner, London

Christmas is battle fought at the tills these days, and at Staples Corner retail park, within Tarmac-trembling distance of London's North Circular, the beleaguered sales staff trudge wearily through the wind-whipped car park towards Chiquito, a Mexican-themed chain restaurant. A girl in a faux-fur hooded jacket roles her eyes at the sound of "Samba Santa" piped tinnily over the zebra crossing. It's not exactly merry mariachi. But trenches camaradarie breaks out once the coats are unzipped in the reception area, as groups queue to be seated for their "£17.50 for three-courses Christmas special". A group of nine from the huge Currys warehouse opposite hit the bar. "So I said to this lady customer that phoned up..." says one young man, "I said 'Ho-ho-ho!' and she gets all aiiirreeeayted. An' I was just trying for some - y'know - Christmas spirit. And she says 'Don't you be callin' me no ho' and I said 'No, no, no, that's not what I...'"

The bartender leans forward in her "Sassy Señorita" T-shirt to take their orders. A senior chap puts a credit card behind the bar. The bar girl jokes about a discount on a vacuum cleaner. The order reflects the mixed tastes of the group: a daiquiri, a "Screaming Oooo" cocktail, two pints of lager, a cola and a bottle of white wine.

"So we've got a £20 allowance each, right?" calculates one of the white wines. "So if the meal's £17.50, we're all going to have to put some money in ourselves or that won't cover drinks." The cola points out that he's still within the corporate limit.

Two girls from a local printing firm nip away from their fajita-laden table for a fag at the bar. "He always does that when he's had a drink," complains one, "I hate him. But I think Dave knows what he's like and he really stepped up to pull my cracker rather than letting him get close with me. Eww."

Manuel, 31, is from a company that provides "cleaning and security for the Inland Revenue an' dat". "Last year we did Chinese for Christmas. We like to make it international," he says. "And we have a rule not to talk about work. We are all talking about gambling." There are cheers and toasts and jokes about the menu's promise of "Christmas Breasts". But the festive spirit doesn't extend to dogs.

Mitch Johnson, 40, a voiceover man for the Beeb, is having his car serviced and thought he could pop in for a quick drink with his dog. But glossy-coated Alfie is denied entry. So the pair stand in the car park while Mitch sips on a seasonal cranberry juice and Alfie considers pouncing on the balloons tied to doors. "People seriously come here for their Christmas party?" boggles Mitch. "God."

Helen Brown

The broadcasters

Event BBC 'Today' programme Christmas party

Venue Institution of Civil Engineers

Where else would a former spymistress be introduced by a Government minister to a Turner Prize-winning transvestite potter?

The party hosted by Radio 4's news programmes is the annual must-have ticket for the London "chatterati", where regular contributors to "Today", "The World at One", "PM", "The World Tonight", "Broadcasting House" and "The World this Weekend" are thanked for their punditry.

So it seemed natural that Ben Bradshaw, the Environment Minister, should at one surreal moment drag Grayson Perry, resplendent in a vivid blue number, to meet Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, the former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

This year's reception took place in the magnificent surroundings of the Westminster headquarters of the Institution of Civil Engineers, with its part-marble walls and elaborately painted ceiling commemorating its members' valour in the First World War.

The fare offered to the 300 guests during the four-hour bash was modest - tiny pizzas, mini-fish and chips, and onion bhajis with a choice of red and white wine, beer and soft drinks.

At least four Cabinet ministers were on hand - more than can often be seen in Government soirées - including deputy leadership rivals Alan Johnson and Peter Hain, John Reid and Lord Falconer.

David Davis and George Osborne flew the flag for the Tories, while Sir Menzies Campbell toured the room breezily. They were rubbing shoulders with Piers Morgan, the former editor of The Mirror, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, Major General Patrick Cordingley, the "Desert Rats" commander during the first Gulf War, and actor Timothy Bentinck, better known as David Archer.

Nigel Morris

The bankers

Event HSBC cash managers' lunch

Location All Bar One, Canary Wharf, London

This lunchtime, the pub is bursting with Christmas cheer. The hedge fund managers have their bonuses, the admin girls have their sparkly tops on, and everyone has a drink in their hand, a paper hat on their head and a silly grin on their face.

Amid the festivities, the HSBC cash fund managers are preparing for their second office party this week. "This is just the warm-up, really," explains John. "The hors d'oeuvres before the main course."

Last Friday was the department's Christmas party, where Paul (the joker) spent the entire evening dancing with a cardboard cutout of Austin Powers. Tonight is the fancy meal and disco. Most years, they tell me, people drink too much, make a fool of themselves on the dancefloor and end up in the wrong hotel room.

Just as Dave (the boss) starts ribbing Dan (the lothario) about how he'll "probably snog an ugly bird tonight", 10 more pints of lager and 10 large lamb burgers arrive at the table. Apparently "Two Pints Tony" gets drunk the quickest, but this is why they've ordered burgers - to soak up the alcohol. The only one not drinking is Simon, 29, who is playing rugby tomorrow morning.

As the beer flows, the ties loosen and the boys pose for the camera by shoving chips on their top lips. John, 47, tells me that things are very different since he started 26 years ago. "Back then you'd have thought nothing of having a couple of pints at lunchtime. Now you're lucky if you get to have a sandwich. A good Christmas party engenders camaraderie and friendship - it's important to let your hair down, spend some time together and, most importantly, reduce the amount of money in your boss's pocket."

Sarah Harris

The print firm

Event Paper Hat office Christmas party

Venue Room by the River, South Bank, London

Organising the Christmas bash has been a headache for Nicola, the HR manager at print firm Paper Hat. The boss suggested a dinner in a smart Thai restaurant, but that was vetoed by younger employees who wanted a night of drinking and dancing. In the end, she was fielding individual requests from all corners of the office. On the night, however, tequilas are being downed at 9pm and most of the party are singing along to the rhinestone-studded Elvis impersonator.

The 38 employees sit around four tables in a marquee, the Room by the River, on London's South Bank. The bosses have coughed up £95 a head for a champagne reception, three-course meal and unlimited booze, and Nicola is happy that everyone is getting a good deal. The huge venue is feeding and watering more than 600 revellers tonight, and while some Paper Hat employees think it's too impersonal and formulaic an option, others are happy to spread their wings away from the office gossips and mingle. Once the disco and casino are underway, there are grumbles that free alcohol is getting harder to come by, but almost everyone in the party sticks it out to the end, well after midnight. The hard core decamp to a nearby bar until past 3am. They know the boss is away and they can sneak in a few hours late tomorrow.

Sophie Morris

The estate agents

Event CB Richard Ellis, real estate firm, Christmas lunch

Venue Chez Gérard, Covent Garden, London

The team of 15, who have already had one larger party at Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon, dine on turkey, sea bass and steak, accompanied by red and white wine, on their company per-head Christmas celebration budget.

Everyone seems stone-cold sober, but an intruder - with a notepad - possibly has that effect. And, perhaps for the same reason, this seems to be the happiest group of workers in town.

There is no "office talk" - except praise for the company. The words, "The firm rewards us for our effort, it makes you feel valued," are said with no trace of irony. The idea that they might, occasionally, slag off competitor companies is rebuked with: "We don't focus on the opposition. Like football, you should concentrate on your own team first."

But Andrew Lucas, a senior director, assures me that no one has plans to return to the office and they will probably go on to the nearest pub.

And people relax as they talk about their children's roles in the school nativity play, a charity boxing match that valuation surveyor Tom Kelly will be taking part in next year - colleagues are invited to "watch him get his head kicked in" - and a flatmate's weeping over Forrest Gump.

Amid the pleasant conversation, I am aware that my presence may have created a monster: the most politically correct party in town. So I leave the real estate agents to have some real fun.

They're scarily well-behaved - but then who can let go when there's a gatecrasher at the Christmas party?

Number of people returning to the office: None

Number of times people criticise their company/the weather/anything at all: None

Number of festive kisses: Are you joking?

Genevieve Roberts