There have been Christmas lights in Oxford Street since 1959. They failed to appear in 1976 and 1977 due to the recession, but other than that they've gone up every year. As a child I remember coming up to town to see them, and basking in the feeling that Christmas was finally incontrovertibly underway. That would have been in December, before the days when retail Christmas crept unashamedly forwards, and the switch-on date is now much earlier than before. Switch on dates: 5th Nov 2012, 1st Nov 2011, 4th Nov 2010, 3rd Nov 2009, 12th Nov 2008, 7th Nov 2007, 9th Nov 2006, 15th Nov 2005, 15th Nov 2004
This year's lights are being switched on tonight, a full 50 days before December 25th, but not quite so ridiculously early as last year. They're being switched on by Robbie Williams, because he has an album to plug that's released today. Leona Lewis will be there too, and minor boyband Lawson, and the cast of West End musical Scrooge. This extraordinarily middle-of-the-road line-up is being championed by radio station Heart FM, in particular presenters Jamie Theakston and Emma Bunton who'll be hosting the whole event in as upbeat a way as possible. But if you fancy going along to watch the event outside House of Fraser, sorry, you can't. For the first time ever the switch-on will be an exclusive ticketed event, and all the tickets have already gone. Gutted, or what?
I went one year, and was hugely underwhelmed. But there's something especially ghastly about this year's lightshow, which you'll already have noticed from the title to today's post. These aren't the Oxford Street Christmas Lights any more, these are the Marmite Oxford Street Christmas Lights. Honest.
Quite what a yeasty sandwich spread has to do with Christmas is anyone's business, but that needn't matter. Unilever's marketing department have offered more money than anybody else this year, hence it's Marmite's turn to sponsor the lights. Where you might expect to see something seasonal, instead there'll be an illuminated jar of Marmite. Where you might expect to read a festive message, instead the legend reads "You either love it or hate it". And where you might expect Santa to be waving down from on high, instead he'll be munching on a slice of Marmite-coated toast and turning green. If I interpret one particular tableau properly, the animated graphic will show post-Marmite Santa leaning forward to vomit into his hat. How did anyone ever consent to hoist this rubbish above our streets?
Not all of the decorations have been Marmited, you'll be pleased to hear. The same unbranded lights seen every year since 2009 are there too - the sparkly presents, the umbrellas and the stars. In some parts of Oxford Street the branding's not too heavy - indeed east of Poland Street nobody's bothered hanging any lights at all. But it's a different matter outside Selfridges, which hosts additional pizazz in the form of an interactive video screen. Upload a photo to Marmite's Facebook page and your grinning/frowning face could appear for a few minutes, or visit the "interactive bus shelter" outside Bond Street station and record your Marmite expression there. It's clever, and in social media terms it's terribly zeitgeist, but it's not in the spirit of Christmas in any way whatsoever.
The West End's seen highly inappropriate Christmas lights sponsors before. 2010's Oxford Street lights were plastered with plugs for the latest Narnia film, in the hope you'd drag your kids off to the cinema after shopping. In 2006 the lights in Regent Street were sponsored by an Aardman animation set in a sewer, which meant an ugly rash of cartoon slugs, rats and toads strung out across the road. But Marmite? Even if it's the special version containing flakes of gold leaf, there's no possible excuse for branding Christmas lights with Marmite other than commercial greed.
Joanne the PR lady actually said that. What better way to top off 2012 than with Marmite-related Christmas lights. Utter tripe, but evidently convincing enough to get it printed in a number of national newspapers.
You might not mind London's premier shopping street being contaminated by sandwich spread for two months. "It's how things are in Austerity Britain," you might say. "There's not much money around, so we should seek out sponsorship instead of having no decorations at all." But look where that philosophy leads you. The Marmite Oxford Street Christmas Lights. See them and weep.