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Black Christmas (1977)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Black Christmas (1977)
BBC Birmingham for BBC2, tx. 20/12/1977
50 minutes, colour
DirectorStephen Frears
ProducerTara Prem
Script EditorPeter Ansorge
ScriptMichael Abbensetts
PhotographyJohn Williams

Cast: Carmen Munro (Gertrude); Norman Beaton (Bertie); Shope Shodeinde (Renée); Stefan Kalipha (Herman); Janet Bartley (Dolly); Linda Goddard (Lily)

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As Christmas approaches, Gertrude gathers her family around her. But the perfect Christmas Day that she dreams off seems destined to turn to disaster.

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A bittersweet drama on a familiar theme - the frictions forced to the surface during a Christmas family get-together - Michael Abbensetts' Black Christmas is an understated and affecting study of relationships, unexpressed pain and a tormented nostalgia for a distant home.

The drama begins with a picture of domestic happiness and racial harmony, as mother Gertrude is assisted by her white neighbour, Lily, in preparing a traditional West Indian black cake. But the idyllic Christmas that Gertrude wishes for with childlike anticipation seems a remote dream in what follows.

Gertrude's attempts to ensure the perfect Christmas are challenged by her troubled and uncooperative family: husband Bertie, a good-humoured but idle armchair philosopher, full of empty observations about life, peppered with half-understood vocabulary gleaned from his thesaurus, but blind and indifferent to the pain of those closest to him; daughter Renee, bitter and unhappy despite her educational and career success, and burdened with an unwanted pregnancy; brother Herman, a shameless womaniser with a penchant for 'white chicks', whose shallow charm barely disguises a cruel selfishness, and his bundle-of-nerves wife, Dolly, whose only solace lies in her Bible and her memories of the kinships she left behind in the West Indies.

Directed with subtle sensitivity by Stephen Frears, Black Christmas largely avoids overt racial messages - the only white character is Lily, who is clearly relaxed and comfortable with this black family, and who is a reluctant subject of Herman's predatory desires - but the feeling of living in an unwelcoming society is conveyed by the uniform diet of bland white 'family entertainment' offered by the ever-on television set.

Stronger is the sense that something important has been lost in leaving behind old ways: Dolly complains that "West Indians don't care about any of us like we used to back home", while Bertie wonders, without much concern, whether "the capitalists have taken the Christ out of Christmas". To Gertrude, though, such wistful nostalgia is pointless - as she says, in the drama's most tragicomic line, "England to me now is home - I grin and bear it." In the end, it is Gertrude whose force of will somehow transcends the bickering and self-pity. Her insistence that the family abandon the television and unite for a 'sing-song' (her choice, with heavy irony, is 'Silent Night') seems finally to win for this ramshackle family a glimmer of hope for unity and happiness.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Christmas Eve (2:29)
2. 'White chicks' (2:06)
3. 'What a Christmas!' (3:21)
4. Mother and daughter (1:39)
5. 'Everybody happy at Christmas' (3:51)
Season's Greetings (1986)
Abbensetts, Michael (1938-)
Beaton, Norman (1934-1994)
Frears, Stephen (1941-)
Munroe, Carmen (1932-)
Black TV Writers
The Television Play