Malcolm McLaren 1946-2010
Malcolm McLaren - The Ghosts of Oxford Street (1991)
Although today it’s a pale shadow of its former self, Oxford Street in London’s West End was long a mecca for shoppers from around the world. Built on the site of the Roman Via Trinobantina which ran from Essex to Hampshire via London, it was known as Tyburn Road in the Middle Ages and was the site of the notorious public hangings of prisoners in Newgate Prison – it’s also where Kevin Francis got the name for his minor 70s British horror production company Tyburn Film Productions. Towards the end of the 19th century it began its long transition from largely residential buildings to the world-famous retail heart of London. For many it still holds a romantic mystique, despite the fact that many of the larger and most famous shops have long since closed up their doors and in 1991 former Sex Pistols manager, clothes designer and entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren was the unlikely creator of a Christmas Day love letter to the road. McLaren had long harboured a love for the street, having made an earlier film about it as part of a never finished arts project while studying at Goldsmith’s College in 1970.

There’s not much of a plot here to speak of. The always annoying McLaren (who wrote and directed as well as hogging most of the screen time) wanders around Oxford Street and the neighbouring roads, telling tales of the buildings and people that used to stand or live there. Characters from the street’s past are brought back to life if only briefly though we never really get any sense of what they make of how much the street had changed. It covers a lot of the more unusual aspects of the famed thoroughfare and some of the tales are more interesting than others, though all might have benefited from someone – anyone – else telling them.

Along the way we get a decent helping of musical interludes and these provide some of the films most memorable moments. Tom Jones is on fine form as George Selfridge, founder of the famous department store, belting out top notch renditions of The Beatles’ Money and the blues standard Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out; The Happy Mondays give us a typically idiosyncratic version of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive while re-enacting the Tyburn hangings; Sinéad O’Connor gives us a beautiful, haunting version of Silent Night; and McLaren himself offers a number of tracks, the best being Magic’s Back. But the real highlight is a spirited rendition of The Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, already something of a Christmas staple just four years after it was released. To be fair though it isn’t about London at all (the clue is right there in the title) and given that The Pogues had several songs about the city it seems a rather odd choice.

And that brings us neatly to the idea of The Ghosts of Oxford Street being a “Christmas film.” You won’t have to go far on the internet to find its admirers holding it up as an offbeat alternative to the usual Yuletide fluff, something they wheel out every year during the festivities. Watching it though, you’d be hard pressed to claim it as a bona fide seasonal offering. Sure it was first broadcast by Channel Four on Christmas day 1991 and there’s the perennial Fairytale though it feels shoe-horned in as a way of giving the film a more festive feel. There’s plenty here to keep your attention, everything from ballet to street rap from Rebel MC, from questionable tales McLaren’s family to fascinating glimpses of an Oxford Street that has already changed almost behind recognition. And the Christmas angle is certainly there (thanks mainly to the songs) but it’s not exactly front and centre, wandering in and out of the narrative as McLaren remembers it. Which is maybe why it’s so well loved by its admirers. The Ghosts of Oxford Street is certainly intriguing and like everything else McLaren was involved in it may annoy you but it’s never boring. But it’s hardly enduring attempt to create a new Christmas television mainstay. --