Tim Dowling: I've recorded a Christmas song for charity. What could go wrong?

Tim Dowling
·4-min read

It’s a cloudy Friday morning and I am standing on a disused golf course somewhere in London, trying and failing to pick up a dog turd. I’m having trouble opening the biodegradable poo bag because of the white gloves I’m wearing. I’m wearing white gloves because I’m dressed as Santa.

The dog is pulling at the lead as I hunch over the wet grass. In the distance an onlooker is standing on the fairway, watching this disturbing scene unfold. He is also dressed as Santa. By the time I get the poo bag draped over my gloved hand, there is another problem.

“Now I can’t find it,” I say.

“It’s to your left,” the director says, looking up from his monitor.

“When I look down, all I see is beard,” I say.

“We can’t see the turd in the shot,” he says, “so maybe just pretend to pick it up.”

“I have some experience of that,” I say.

When the band I’m in played its last gig in March 2019, we had no future plans beyond our year off. At the end of the night I thought to myself: maybe this is it. But by the start of 2020 our diary was full: spring gigs, summer festivals, an autumn tour. And then all of a sudden it wasn’t – everything got cancelled. We couldn’t play in front of people, and then we couldn’t even practise. When gigs that were postponed until 2021 got postponed again, I thought: maybe this really is it.

The idea of a Christmas charity single arose partly out of frustration, but the process itself was frustrating. The song was written and arranged largely by email. Every updated version was in a different key. It was recorded between lockdowns, in shifts, over two days. It turned out better than we could have hoped in the circumstances, but a charity song needs a video, and a video needs an idea. Unfortunately, I had an idea.

In the course of my work as a journalist, I once attended Santa school, so I know how lonely and humiliating spending hours dressed as Father Christmas can be, especially when you’re in the midst of 20 other Santas – some of them with real white beards – who are prepared to stay in character all day. In the morning I watched two of them shake hands across a desk.

“I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name,” one said.

“It’s Santa!” the other said.

“Of course!” the first said. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” I thought: screw this.

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I make a terrible Santa: stooped, thin, wary, dead behind the eyes. My arms are too long for most regulation Santa sleeves, and the big belt hangs round my knees. They let me graduate from Santa school that day – I keep my diploma safe, so I never have to resit the exam – but I was definitely bottom of the class.

So the video idea was simple: lonely people getting on with their soul-crushing daily routines, but dressed as Santa.

“Why is that funny?” my wife said.

“It’s not, it’s hugely depressing,” I said. “The perfect message for a pandemic Christmas.”

“I see,” she said.

“Anyway, it’s for charity,” I said.

The next thing I know, I’m being sent a shooting schedule, a couple of pages of social distancing protocols and directions to a golf course. I hate it when people say, “You’ve got no one but yourself to blame.” I always think: there must be someone.

“That was good,” the director says. “Maybe look around after you’ve picked it up, sort of defeated.”

“I can do that,” I say. My dog pulls at the lead to get away from me, because I’m dressed as Santa.

“And a bit slower on the walk up this time,” he says.

“What about the glasses?” I say. “Does it look weird with me wearing glasses?”

“The glasses are good,” the director says. “The glasses are funny.”

“I don’t have a sense of humour about myself, so…”

“Come on!” a voice shouts. I turn to see the accordion player standing 20 metres away. He is also dressed as Santa, accompanied by a dog the size of a reindeer. His arms are folded across his round Santa belly, which shakes when he laughs, like a bowl full of jelly.