The Ghosts Of Oxford Street: The Ultimate London Christmas Film?

The Ghosts Of Oxford Street: The Ultimate London Christmas Film?
A grinning Malcolm McLaren
Image: fair use

There's one vintage Channel 4 Christmas film we should all watch every single year.

It's flecked with childhood nostalgia, the sorcery of things springing to life on the stroke of midnight, and oh, that music! I'm talking, of course, about Malcolm McLaren's The Ghosts of Oxford Street — part 'Secrets Of', part jukebox musical, part not-the-foggiest-what's-going-on-right-now-but-I-love-it-anyway.

"Christmas was meant to be great, but it's horrible..." sneers the erstwhile Sex Pistols manager in the opening gambit of this 1991 paean to the notorious retail thoroughfare, as his be-cloaked/be-hockey masked shadow scampers through Dickensian backstreets with the monolith of Centre Point glowering down, and Charles Brown's lugubrious Merry Christmas Baby rolls around in the background.

The late McLaren wasn't shy of blowing his own trumpet, and in The Ghosts of Oxford Streets he indulgently assumes the role of roguish ringmaster in a story that rootles around his own anarchic childhood (he claims he once dressed up as Santa and started ladling out toys in Selfridges), bewails the 'misery, boredom and loneliness' of Oxford Street (can you imagine Love Actually kicking off with a similar diatribe?), and has him conjure up the spectres of the lost souls who drift along the street, unseen — for an after-hours ball in M&S, no less.

All those spectres are played by rock stars, by the way; in which other Christmas film will you find Shaun Ryder moonlighting as highwayman Jack Sheppard, and rasping out Stayin' Alive, while legs dangle beneath a mock-up Tyburn Tree? Or Sinéad O'Connor cooing Silent Night in the guise of a young 19th century prostitute, stalked by opium addict Thomas de Quincey (played here by John Altman aka 'Nasty Nick' from EastEnders)? Ladies of the night are something of a recurring theme in The Ghosts of Oxford Street; the late, great Kirsty MacColl is transformed into Kitty Fisher (said to have been so offended by the mere £50 note left to her by the Duke of York, that she ate it). There follows a rendition of perhaps the great Christmas song — Fairytale of New York — with Shane MacGowan looking like a cross between a Tsarist foot soldier and Dennis the Menace. It feels like you've swallowed one too many whisky macs, but just go with it.

A red double decker bus drives down Oxford Street, London, with Christmas lights hanging overhead
Photo: Shutterstock

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger this ain't, but McLaren's ode to the infamous shopping street does receive a heavy sprinkling of festive sprinkling magic, too, and — like all best Christmas films (well, Elf and Home Alone 2) — revels in the enchantment of deserted department stores. Two department stores, in fact; Tom Jones transforms into the cursed retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, belting out Money (That's What I Want) with a chorus line of shop assistants, in what must be Jones's second most uncanny role, after the one in which he catches a London bus to Lake Havasu City. Then it's over to the M&S lingerie department — McLaren making quite the entrance — for the unexpected denouement of what is one of the best 55 minutes you'll spend this Christmas.

Sobbing into your Celebrations in front of The Snowman each December is not to be sneered at, but for something with as much weepy nostalgia — not to mention a darn sigh more Londony nous — The Ghosts of Oxford Street should become a yearly tradition. And if you happen to find yourself on Oxford Street over Christmas — being barged into left, right, front and back by Primark bag-wielding maniacs — maybe, just maybe you'll be able to appreciate the place with a newfound level of festive curiosity.

The Ghosts of Oxford Street is currently available to stream for free on Channel 4.

Last Updated 18 December 2023

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