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Deck the halls with Hallmark films

In praise of a genre that is both beloved and maligned

Artillery Row

Cozying around a glowing TV set at this time of year, many of us nestle into festive favourite films such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone and Die Hard. Nostalgic classics are Christmas comfort viewing. However, a more shunned variety of Yuletide fayre could offer an even more enchanting experience. I speak of the made-for-TV movie.

For the uninitiated, this genre includes, but is not limited to, the screen translation of the canons of Danielle Steele, Barbara Taylor Bradford and Catherine Cookson. The genre also extends in the more modern era to Christmas films. Starting in November each year, and aired on such networks as Hallmark, Lifetime and the UK’s Channel Five, an anonymous but no doubt mostly female audience quietly enjoys a festive feast of viewing.

Created not by the Mozarts of the motion picture world but the Salieris, what sets these movies apart is their magnificent mediocrity. If the more classic festive films are a mug of cocoa, made-for-TV Christmas movies are Knorr cuppa soups, full of powdery goodness.

That said, it would be a misunderstanding of the genre to describe them as “so bad they’re good”. I speak with some authority, as a fan for going on twenty years, though my expertise pales to that of my sister who is a foremost connoisseur of all things film — including movies with frugal budgets.

So, what makes the genre so distinctive? First, do not expect a famous cast. Even ardent fans like my sister rarely recognize the stars. Nor are the production values very remarkable. Scenes often rely on viewers’ imaginations to compensate for the modestly designed sets. The craftsmanship in the scripts and storylines also lacks notable brilliance. After watching a few, these Christmas films often merge into a gentle, low-wattage glow.

What small-screen movies have, in reassuring abundance, is a soothing predictability. They share an underlying, universal grammar from start to finish. Like a televisual uncanny valley sans creepiness, life is simpler, speech is plainer and the plots are agreeably off-beam.

Typically, in a triptych arrangement, these Christmas stories begin when something sad, extraordinary or (in the more comedic varieties) silly happens to the female lead — who is usually called Holly. Again, the viewer is invited to exercise their imagination. Though this character is usually depicted as a great beauty in her late 20s, actresses cast as the Holly figure tend to be pretty, though unmemorably so, and mostly on the wrong side of 40 (or let’s call it 38).

Owing to a predictably unexpected predicament, they are thrown together

Soon, Holly bumps into her leading man, who is also better than average in the looks department but no George Clooney. Here again, because the duo typically has no on-screen chemistry, it falls on the viewer to imagine the romantic connection. The fated pair get off on the wrong foot. Owing to a predictably unexpected predicament, they are thrown together and soon charm the pants off each other — though not literally. There is no raciness in made-for-TV-Christmas romances — no ribbons of silk sheets and entwined limbs to enthral viewers, such as in Danielle Steele films. Instead, in the denouement, Holly and her man are destined to share a sexless snog under the mistletoe.

This formula was faithfully observed in a recent Saturday viewing marathon. My sister selected three Christmas movies to chaperon us from bleak November daylight to bleaker afternoon dusk: A Christmas Charm, Christmas in Scotland and Christmas Reservations.

In A Christmas Charm, the Holly figure was this time on a zealous mission to find the owner of what looked like a rather cheap charm bracelet, one that might have been bought in Claire’s Accessories. Soon reporter Greg appeared on the scene. Employed at the Hallmark equivalent of The Washington Post, Greg is eager to interview Holly for his “Holiday Heroes” feature. Operating at the top of his game, Greg finally nails the interview. “You know, your eyes light up when you talk about your jewellery,” he observes. Holly tells him, “Well … my dad owns an engagement ring store, and he says that jewellery should tell people something about you that they don’t already know.” Says the Carl Bernstein of this parallel universe:“That is a good quote. I might just use that.”

If the dialogue is featherlike, delivering it only demonstrates the talent of the cast. Forget about the bard, just as shopping channels are the toughest presenting gigs on TV, only the most capable thespians can cut it in the made-for-TV Christmas genre.

Again, budgets play a big role in pushing the actors, and their viewers, to peak imagination. In Christmas in Scotland, the leading lady is a visiting American who specialises in interior design and putting up Christmas decorations. Because the grumpy local laird is a grinch, villagers soon call on her talents to bring some cheer to their community. Wary of this American blow in, but soon won over, the laird’s somewhat charming son starts to fall for her. After some mini highs and lows, the movie culminates in a jolly ceilidh supposedly hosted in the laird’s highland castle. Here again, the viewer is invited to enter an alternative world, for it is no exaggeration that the backdrop resembled a Holiday Inn with a bit of Poundland tinsel.

Advent can be a time of anxiety. Threats of impending family get-togethers, reunions with in-laws, and the utter melancholy of missing loved ones can all take a toll. Best enjoyed in brushed cotton and slippers, accompanied by a buffet of petrol station snacks, made-for-TV movies help offer an antidote to merry-season anguish.

So, instead of boozing, turning maudlin or nursing yet another festive hangover, do yourself a favour: relax with the eggnog of escapist entertainment. Switch on the TV, and deck the halls with Hallmark.

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