The Naughty List is a powerful parental implement oft utilised to elicit good behaviour at this time of year. But what happens if the child in question has a propensity for mischief? Would Santa really withdraw present privileges?
A line from the popular Christmas song Santa Claus is coming to town was the starting point for this festive morality tale by esteemed film maker Richard Curtis. Naughty children take heed of these warning words: “He’s know if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.”
The big question for any errant child is would a benevolent Father Christmas really deny any children? Well, this non-saccharine Santa is about to deliver some tough love.
Richard Curtis has already earned a reputation as an author with a nice line in feelgood festive fables. As the scriptwriter of well-loved British sitcoms Blackadder and The Vicar Of Dibley, of which he has penned “more Christmas specials than I’ve had hot dinners,” he is also responsible for giving Mark Darcy his famously dodgy reindeer jumper in Bridgit Jones’s Diary (and has thus possibly played a significant role in the current proliferation of festive knitwear) and for the seasonal shenanigans of romcom Love Actually.
Curtis is quite the prodigious talent. As well as being a founder of Comic Relief and Red Nose Day, he wrote the screenplay for the Spielberg 2012 film of Michael Morpurgo‘s War Horse, and the memorable Vincent Van Gogh episode of Dr Who. So why write a children’s book? “When I started, I wrote to make my friends laugh,” says father of four Curtis, recalling his days of writing skits for Not The Nine O’Clock News. “Now my children are such a huge thing in my life that writing to please them is logical.”
The result, guaranteed to send shock waves to the legions of children hoping to receive oodles of Christmas presents, is entitled The Empty Stocking. The central protagonists are twin sisters, Sam and Charlie, identical in looks (though Sam always wears plaits, and Charlie has a Potter-esque fork-shaped scar on her cheek) but with polar personalities: Sam is a proper goody-two-shoes, while Charlie is “Very naughty. Not interested in being obedient. Not very fond of telling the complete truth. But very fond of eating sweets.” (Note, she doesn’t always pay for them, either – a discretion Curtis regards not as wanton pilfering, but more as a redistribution of wealth). Considering her misdemeanours, the big question is: will Santa be bringing Charlie any presents this year?
Curtis’s Santa is certainly no push-over: he employs tough love, so Charlie’s stocking – shock, horror! – is left empty. But there is a twist: Santa has confused the twins and it is Sam’s stocking that is left bereft.
And of course, as this is a festive feel-good tale, redemption has to be close to hand. When Charlie awakes in the night, she discovers what has happened and swiftly shares out her own presents, before the rest of the family awake.
This kind act of selflessness sets Santa’s GoodBadOmeter into overdrive and, with no good deed going unrecognised, there’s a special extra gift in store for Charlie on Christmas morning. A self-confessed “goody-goody” as a young boy, how much did Curtis relish depicting a more rascally child? “Generally in a story, there has to be a problem to start with,” he says. “The fact that Charlie is in danger of not getting her stocking, and that she’s the one who gets in a lot of trouble, makes her attractive.”
The warmth of Curtis’s story-telling is matched by Rebecca Cobb’s charming illustrations, with the festive theme being the perfect excuse for some decorative touches, like the pretty end papers that feature a collage of pressies tied up with bows.
“The Empty Stocking is a very funny book but it also has a few tearful moments,” says illustrator Cobb. “I really enjoyed this project, because Richard wanted me to bring my own humour into the pictures.” The result is some hilarious depictions of naughtiness, as Charlie dons some painted spectacles on the family cat and creates general mayhem everywhere she goes.
And, with the clever repetition of the images of Charlie’s misdeeds, readers also finally realise that the hidden side to Charlie’s so-called naughtiness is actually her devotion to her twin sister. “Sometimes the actual reason she was naughty was because she loved making Sam happy.”
Fun fact Santa Claus is coming to town was written in 1932 by Haven Gillespie and J Fred Coots, who initially had trouble convincing anyone to produce it because it was seen as a kids’ song. The big break came when popular American performer Eddie Cantor sang it on his radio show in 1934, and the song became an instant hit. Since then it has become a staple of Christmas, with versions by Bing Crosby, Perry Como, The Four Seasons, The Jackson 5, Mariah Carey, Alice Cooper, the Carpenters, and Justin Bieber. The most enduring version in the modern era is by Bruce Springsteen, who also does a version called Santa Claus Is Fooling Around which is about how Santa will steal your lady if you’re not careful.
Author notes Born in New Zealand to Australian parents in 1956, Richard Curtis, CBE is a screenwriter, producer and film director, known primarily for romantic comedy films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, and Love Actually. He is also the founder of the British charity Comic Relief along with Lenny Henry. In 2007, Curtis received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award, the highest award the British Film Academy can give a filmmaker. Curtis received the BAFTA Humanitarian Award at the 2008 Britannia Awards, for co-creating Comic Relief and contributions to other charitable causes. He and partner Emma Freud have four children.
Since graduating from Falmouth College of Arts in 2004, Rebecca Cobb has illustrated for Guardian Guide, Guardian Weekend magazine, The Independent and Waitrose Food Illustrated. She has also collaborated on three picture storybooks with the Orange-Prize winner Helen Dunmore, et in her native Cornwall, as well as The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson. Her debut solo project, the hugely accomplished Missing Mummy approached the subject of child bereavement with great honesty, senstivity and integrity. She also wrote and illustrated Lunchtime, Aunt Amelia and The Something. Her latest book Snow Day sees her reunited with Richard Curtis.
Photograph of Richard Curtis by Alex Walker