By Robert Ham
Some 32 years after it was filmed and shown to viewers in the U.K., it is easy to scratch our collective heads at how something as borderline surreal as the Kate Bush Christmas Special had a chance to see the light of day, let alone in 1979.
But looking at the history of Bush's career, it makes perfect commercial sense. By this point, she was already a phenomenon in her native England at the tender age of 21. Her first single, "Wuthering Heights," shot right to the top of the U.K. singles charts, and the two albums she released in '78— The Kick Inside and Lionheart—were top 10 successes as well. By the spring of '79, Bush embarked on a six-week tour of the U.K. and Europei that cemented her reputation as a singular talent, having helped design everything from the costumes to the set to the choreography that ran through the whole affair. And, as it is here in the
States, Christmas is a big deal, culturally speaking. So, why not tap the bony shoulder of one of the biggest stars at the moment and ask her to film a 45-minute compilation of performances both live and lip-synched for the holiday season?
On paper, all of this fits the narrative of a European pop star quite comfortably. But who on Earth could have predicted how quickly and continuously Bush touched a nerve in a commercial marketplace as capricious and downright cynical as that of the U.K.? This is after all a region of the world that helped the theme song to the terrifying children's program "Mr. Blobby"iireach the coveted Christmas #1 on the singles charts in 1993.
Yet, right from the start, Kate Bush had the U.K. in her power. "Wuthering Heights" hit the sweet spot where the aspirational intelligence of the Britons that had already been stroked by a 1978 BBC TV adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's novel met with a '70s Europop world softened and sweetened thanks to ABBA. In no other universe could the singsong chorus that never seems to resolve have lit such a fire.
Can you imagine Bush trying to sell her wares to an American populace suffering from a full-blown case of "Night Fever"? You don't have to imagine: just listen for the overly polite applause that followed Bush's performance of "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" on a 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live.iiiCompare that to the rapturous reaction that greets every song in Bush's U.K. Christmas special. Everything from her putting on a beard and Russian peasant's garb and dancing with a man in drag and another gent dressed up like an infant to a stage full of dancers dressed up like cellos. Or the strange version of "Them Heavy People" that for some reason involves bashing chairs on people's heads. All met with thunderous applause and cheers.
What makes the Kate Bush Christmas Special seem even more incongruous is how little of Christmas there is to it. Outside of a nice version of her song "December Will Be Magic Again" (released as a one-off single a year later), there is no mention of the holidays at all. Indeed, Bush seems to purposefully avoid all of her most beloved material, sticking instead to album cuts, including a few from her yet to be released third LP Never For Ever. "Wuthering Heights" is only heard as the credits roll (a capitulation on the part of the BBC, surely). Her sole guest in the program, Peter Gabriel, follows suit, eschewing his top 20 single "Solsbury Hill" or anything from his second self-titled album in favor of a particularly moving rendition of "Here Comes The Flood" and joining with Bush for the special's most effective moment: a version of the Roy Harper song "Another Day."
Perhaps we should be giving more credit than ever to the U.K. for their tacit embracing of such unusual commercial fare like Kate Bush, The Mighty Boosh (featuring Noel Fielding who paid tribute to Ms. Bush and the video she did for "Wuthering Heights" as part of a Comic Relief benefitiv), and the fever dream children's programming of Teletubbies and Boobah. I would hate to think of Ms. Bush's musical career dying on the vine in the '70s and how different my teenage angst would have felt without songs like "Running Up That Hill" and "Love And Anger" on my mental mix tape.
Frankly, I'm guessing that the U.K. audiences (besides the ones watching the performances as they were being taped) were pleased with what they saw. Still, search as I might, there was no information to be had about this Christmas special other than a cursory mention on the BBC Four website around the time they re-aired it in May of 2009.v Even contemporary interviews or reviews of Bush's most recent album, the holiday/winter themed 50 Words For Snow, don't bring it up at all. In fact, when I put out a call on Facebook/Twitter to see if anyone had actually seen the thing when it aired, all I got back was a lot of befuddled responses from people who didn't know of its existence.
Now that Network Awesome has a hold of it, maybe we can drum up enough support for this esoteric bit of British television greatness and get it into regular circulation on the BBC. Turn it into their version of the A Charlie Brown Christmas or something that gets aired right before their annual screenings of Bugsy Malone.vi At least until episodes of the lost Scott Walker series finally bounce back to the world from outer space.vii