I was strangely drawn to Oxford Street last night to experience the switching on of the annual Christmas lights. It was clear that these were going to be unusual lights when I saw a series of black painted gantries stretched across the street at roughly 400 yard intervals. No obvious fairy lights like South Molton Street, no giant cartoon characters like Regent Street, no recycled compact discs like Carnaby Street, just featureless boxy arches with no Christmas theme whatsoever.
By 6pm last night the road outside Selfridges had been barriered off, and then barriered off again. I stood inside the enclosure at the back of the crowd, well above the average height of those around me, and waited for the first celebrities to appear on the platform. Unfortunately we got Jono and Harriet from the Heart FM Breakfast Show instead. They plugged their radio station at regular intervals whilst hyping up the crowd into a state of mild indifference, before Ken Livingstone eventually emerged to orate about the day's Olympic bid. Rather more welcome was young Emma Watson, that nice Hermione girl from the Harry Potter franchise. She was here to boost the number of children in the audience, and because this event was "in partnership" with the new Prisoner of Azkaban DVD (released Friday, as we were constantly reminded). Finally on the celebrity conveyor belt came Sir Steve Redgrave and the 4x100m men's Olympic relay squad. Steve inspired the crowd to shout for the 2012 Games in the same way that Ken hadn't, and then all five sportsmen waved their gold medals about. Tickertape began to fall. 5-4-3-2-1...
On came the lights. Four giant white spotlights were illuminated from the top of each gantry, pointing upwards towards the sky. And then they waved about a bit, and then they pointed along the street, and then they turned four different colours. The crowd failed to gasp in amazement. Four powerful floodlights may look quite pretty dancing in the distance 200 yards away but alas they're virtually invisible directly above your head. These illuminations don't illuminate, they just glow a bit. As you can see from my photograph, the most impressive illuminations in Oxford Street this winter appear to be the traffic lights.
It's not all bad. The four different colours used are the Olympic colours, which is quite clever, although presumably they've had to use London's sodium-orange sky to represent black. And if you stand away from Oxford Street the lights look quite impressive, scanning the sky like wartime searchlights hunting out the Luftwaffe. From Wardour Street, for example, the towering beams perform a blazing ballet behind the rooftops, while from Waterloo Bridge it looks as though a major light sabre battle is being fought in the West End. It's only in Oxford Street itself that the whole performance is a little underwhelming.
As if to prove the point, the last act to appear on stage were 'opera sensations' Il Divo. They crooned, they melted menopausal hearts and they massacred Unbreak My Heart (in Italian). It was all far too middle-of-the-road, so I stepped swiftly back onto the pavement and headed off into the darkness.