'I kept a book hidden under my costume'

Simon Brett was the highly evolved life form at the BBC who commissioned the initial "pilot" of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He later wrote the radio and television series After Henry and also the "Charles Paris", "Mrs Pargeter" and "Fethering" detective novels. His latest humorous offering, On Second Thoughts, is on a bookshop shelf near you.

None of these successful enterprises cut any ice in the labour exchange in Sutton, south London, mainly because they were in the future when recent graduate Brett presented himself towards the end of 1967. "Do you have any qualifications?" asked the woman on the other side of the desk. "A first-class degree in English at Oxford," replied young Simon. " There's not much call for that round here," said the woman, "but Shinners are looking for a Father Christmas."

Brett went straight over to this now demolished department store and found Santa's Grotto, just opposite Ladies' Furs. After a brief audition - "I did a couple of 'ho, ho, hos' for the buyer" - the job was his and a seamstress ran him up a snazzy red number for his 22-year-old frame. For the first three weeks he padded out this costume to make a convincing Father Christmas-style girth.

"Business was very slack for the first few weeks; I kept a book under my costume. Then it became very busy. There was a shift system of two Father Christmases, but the other one was sacked for stealing a double bed and I had to do the last Saturday before Christmas by myself: eight hours in one go. The previous year, one of the Santas, an old actor, had been sacked for keeping a bottle of gin under his robes.

"There was a continuous queue of children.They were aged from two to 12; adolescence came later in those days. They came belting through a tunnel into the room and sat on your knee." Those, of course, were more innocent days.

Brett would then ask "What do you want for Christmas?" If the answer was something costly like a bicycle, he would make a carefully non-committal reply. He was more reassuring when an anxious child asked, "We're staying at granny's. Have you got that address? And she hasn't got a chimney, just central heating."

What he could definitely offer was a "musical ball from Hong Kong" or a similar trifle from the "Girls' Box" or the "Boys' Box". A lugubrious photographer hung around to capture the happy moment for parents prepared to pay for a snap. There is one problem with being Santa: "The work is by its nature seasonal."

Fortunately he landed a job at the BBC, starting on 1 January.

'Mother Goose' by Simon Brett is at The Theatre, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, until 5 January

jonty@jonathansale.com

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