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There was understandable cause for concern. John Lewis, the festival of Christmas, and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020: it’s a combination that had ripe potential to produce a TV advert so cloying, so mawkishly cringeworthy, so of the moment that watching it to the end might have given you the urge to call Pfizer directly and politely tell them really not to worry about your dose because, frankly, you’re just done.
I had imagined a few possible scenarios in advance, using the storied John Lewis Christmas Advert Formula as my guide, if only to mentally gird myself. Before we jump into the real thing for 2020 (you can watch it below), I will share these with you now.
1) Scene: In hand-drawn stop-motion animation, we open on a snow-covered garden in Bedfordshire.
The sun is rising. An oboe cover of The Proclaimers’ ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, sung like a whale getting out of a chair by James Arthur, yawns into life.
An incredibly old man, wearing a blazer with military medals affixed, comes into view. He is hunched over a walking frame, trudging through the snow, doing laps. (Due to a legal threat from Captain Sir Tom Moore’s family, he is never named). We see the old man do this daily, in montage, while a child in the house next door watches on and occasionally waves. The man never waves back.
The child is seen trying to build some sort of bike out of Lego but fails, repeatedly. Eventually he is seen nagging his parents about something over dinner. They just sigh and look at each other like, “If it shuts him up, fine.”
Christmas morning comes. The old man opens the back door for another shuffle, only to see a huge present on the lawn, with the boy and his family standing next to it.
“Open it, then!” they urge. So the man does, and it is a Peloton bike. He looks at it blankly, then to the family, then back at the bike. “It’s a Peloton! We couldn’t watch you do more laps out here, you should be exercising inside, with real-time performance metrics and 24/7 access to all the workouts you need!”
The man stares at the boy. “I’m not doing this for my bloody health,” he growls. “It’s for charity. What the f*** is a Peloton anyway? And get more than six feet away from me, there’s a pandemic on.”
Cut to black. A closing title card. “John Lewis: It’s the thought that counts.”
2) Scene: A street of terraced houses, somewhere in Middle England.
It is 8pm on a Thursday in lockdown. A glacially-slow, harpsichord cover of The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’, sung by Jorja Smith, starts up.
Wearily, families gather on doorsteps with pots and pans, banging or clapping while fake smiling at one another. One kid is absolutely loving it, though. This repeats, as weeks turn into months, and whatever dregs of enthusiasm were left in the neighbourhood visibly ebb – apart from the kid, who is as keen on loudly drumming on a wok as ever. The neighbours hate him, but they especially hate his parents, who definitely went to their second home in Padstow over Easter and then denied it to anyone who asked.
The weekly clap ends. The boy is sad and looks out of his window dolefully, because there has to be a period in a John Lewis advert in which a child is sad and looks out of his window dolefully. To boot, his parents have taken back the wok.
Christmas morning. Sad kid again. He refuses even to open his presents, because he’s a bit of a brat really. The doorbell rings. The boy rushes to open it. There, gathered, are all his neighbours. One of them is holding a present.
The boy unwraps it and it’s… a recorder! He roars with pleasure, then turns around to show his horrified parents. At that moment, the neighbours all put their middle fingers up at the parents and walk away.
Cut to black. A closing title card: “John Lewis: Don’t Let Them Get Away With It”
3) Scene: Just a tight shot of Rishi Sunak, who is dressed in an unnecessarily fitted, £4000 Prada Father Christmas outfit.
In the background, an a cappella version of Pitbull’s ‘I Believe That We Will Win (World Anthem)’ begins. The camera holds on Sunak, who just smiles maniacally for 2mins 49 seconds.
Cut to black. A closing title card. “John Lewis: You Would Not Believe The Government Bailout We Got For Letting Him Do This.”
Cut to black again. Rishi Sunak’s signature appears on screen.
Onto the real deal
Well, imagine my relief to discover that the 2020 John Lewis and Waitrose (it’s a joint event again this year) Christmas advert is actually nothing like any of those. It’s somehow… quite good? Or maybe my expectations were just extraordinary low. No, I’m sticking to it. It’s a good one.
Animals, people, live action, animation, fantasy, realism, multiple people and storylines: it’s as if the creative agency read out a list of options and the John Lewis executives just waited for them to finish and said, “Yes.”
We begin, conventionally enough, with a close-up of a pigeon. A boy and a girl appear. The boy’s football is stuck in the tree, it seems. Soft piano starts. One of the children, a girl, attempts to dislodge the ball by throwing her umbrella at it, which works. Right, you think, I guess we’ll wait for this little storyline to devel–
Oh right, OK, we’re off. To a hand-drawn animation of a man giving his snowman a balloon, taking the snowman to a fantasy world in which snowpeople are the dominant species. He immediately changes a tire for a stranger, who, for reasons that haunt me, are driving a car made of snow, which is a little like us riding a jet ski made from human flesh.
Anyway, no time to dwell on that, we’re off again. Now, a voyeur gets his Waitrose shopping delivered and is instantly caught spying on his teabag-dipping neighbour. To prove he isn’t a creep or anything like that, he unfurls his enormous Christmas cracker and wangs it across their shared garden. The neighbour gives it a tug and boom, a great explosion of joy bonds them.
Next up, a barber giving a child with a heart-shaped head a new fringe. Said child then puts a giant illuminated heart on their Christmas tree, because if you have a weird, heart-shaped head, I guess you’d better make hearts your thing or suffer. Now to a sad hedgehog who just wants to be as cool as a gang of pigeons (unclear if earlier pigeon is one of these pigeons) who wear jeans and leather jackets.
The hedgehog then gets in a plane (?) with the pigeons, who can surely fly without the assistance of an engine, and now suddenly we’re on a bus, where a girl who looks like a new potato has broken her glasses. A stranger fixes them for her, which – and breathe – sees us return to the kids from the first scene. Title card: “Give A Little Love.” Fin.
It’s like being on mushrooms in Clinton’s Cards, and thank God for that. No mention of the pandemic, no clap, no Captain Tom, no John Lewis Christmas advert clichés (all right, a couple), and, finally, an original song in the form of Celeste’s ‘A Little Love’. It’s different, for once. It’s also mainly for charity, which means you’re morally obliged to like it.
As ever, John Lewis and Waitrose have stiff competition. Aldi’s ‘Kevin the Carrot’ saga continues with a Jim Broadbent-starring epic in which Kevin the Carrot – who is a carrot – finds himself flying some kind of plane (where does he need to go?), crash-landing in a forest, then meeting a kind hedgehog, then getting a lift with Jim back home, where Kevin’s carrot children are waiting to start a Christmas meal they either consume (in which case literally everything is bigger than their entire bodies), or personally participate in as a dish (in which case, are Aldi promoting familial suicide pacts?). I like it. Dark.
Coca-Cola, on the other hand, has spent the GDP of a small nation on their 2020 effort. Actual Hollywood star Taika Waititi directs a story about a wind farm worker who misses the last post to send his daughter’s letter to the North Pole, so abandons both his colleagues and duties in order to commandeer a small boat, before making the most unnecessarily arduous and indirect journey overland to hand-deliver the note.
Father Christmas has obviously been hit hard by the pandemic, because he’s taken the government’s advice to retrain, so is now a lorry driver. He picks up the father and takes him back home, where it’s revealed all the daughter wanted was for him to come back anyway. It might have been useful if she’d told him that herself, earlier, but whatever, it’s done now.
And then there’s McDonalds. If anybody is feeling let down by John Lewis’s change of direction, take heart in the fact they have clearly sold the patent to their advert generator to the fast food chain. Middling British singer Becky Hill performs a ghostly version of Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’; a sulky child is sulky; there is a heartfelt Christmas reunion with his mum… It’s just a John Lewis advert, albeit with a brief scene involving a Filet-O-Fish.
But of course, it isn’t a John Lewis ad, because John Lewis (and Waitrose) has moved on. New decade, new ad, new direction, who dis? Just don’t expect to understand it.