After an outcry that would have made Lucy proud, the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Christmas specials will be broadcast on TV after all.
Both the Thanksgiving version, which will run Sunday, and the iconic Christmas classic, slated for Dec. 13, will run commercial-free on PBS. That’s fitting for the noncommercial network, as well as the anti-commercialism ethos of Charlie Brown himself.
“Look, Charlie, let’s face it,” Lucy says in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”
Actually, it’s a big western one: Apple, which bought the rights to the “Peanuts” TV specials for its streaming service. But the California company realized it risked being cast as the Grinch (another haloed holiday classic), so it allowed the specials to also run on traditional TV — something particularly important at a time when COVID-constricted families need to hold onto every holiday tradition they can.
Even if it’s watching TV. Or the commercials, in the case of the British Arrows Awards, an annual compilation of commercials (or as the Brits often call them, adverts) that feature adventurous storytelling using humor, pathos, special effects and especially good writing.
These top spots, which are often as entertaining (or more) than the shows in which they appear, have become a Walker Art Center holiday tradition. But the pandemic has made this year’s version a virtual, retrospective one. (To buy tickets, go to https://bit.ly/WalkerArrows.)
Be they cheeky, chic, or in-between, the ads on the reel are really popular at the Walker, where more than 30,000 viewers paid to watch commercials last year.
“The screenings are bespoke to the Walker and a few selected cities around the U.S.,” Arrows Co-Chair Jani Guest said in an e-mail exchange. “As to why it’s been so successful, we think that British advertising is unique in its ideation and storytelling. Obviously humour has played a large part in this over the years but even the more serious work is distinctly British in its approach: unforgivingly direct, often challenging, and able to reflect the breadth and depth of our audience.”
And the breadth and depth of Brits themselves, a society that’s shifted significantly since some of the first Arrows quivers.
For example, a sly 1976 Parker Pen ad, “Finishing School,” shows upper-crust London girls learning “how to spend daddy’s lovely money.” Fast-forward 43 years and “Finishing School’s” monochromatic cast yields to a kaleidoscope of cultural and racial diversity that defines today’s London in a 2019 Nike spot, “Nothing Beats a Londoner,” in which athletes boast about how tough their sport (and they) are.
Yet despite the changes, some events span and withstand the test of time to make a nation, and the United Kingdom is no different.
Events like those depicted in an ad where a lad is sent out to buy a loaf of Hovis bread. En route he runs through turbulent turning points in Britain’s 20th Century: a poster for passage on the Titanic; a suffragette rally; conscripts marching off to World War I horrors, which all too soon (in the spot and in history) turns into images of the Blitz, with Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech broadcast amid bombed buildings.
The more festive ascension of Queen Elizabeth II is depicted next, followed by the mod ’60s, celebrations of England’s 1966 World Cup victory, nascent Asian immigration that would soon make modern London much more mosaic; a Thatcher-era labor strike and millennium fireworks over London, which by 2000 was a world capital, not just a British one.
The Hovis ad was from 2009, before the reactionary rejection of London-style globalism that manifested itself in the still-unresolved Brexit, and the current COVID-19 nightmare that has hit Britain — including its afflicted prime minister, Boris Johnson — particularly hard.
And yet based on the current work on the Arrows reel, marketers have punched back at the pandemic, not with a glass jaw but with a stiff British upper lip.
It reflects “that we Brits retain a sense of ingenuity and humour when faced with adversity,” Arrows Co-Chair Clare Donald said from London via e-mail. “We weren’t about to let a lockdown limit our ideas and ability to story-tell.”
Indeed, the ad industry didn’t, as evidenced in a silly spot for Yorkshire Tea that uses an absurdly long spout on a “Social Distancing Teapot” as office workers labor to mind the gap between each other.
Others reflect lockdown life, like a super spot from supermarket Tesco that shows vignettes of video chats in which Brits dedicate their kitchen creations to loved ones. It’s emotionally touching, especially amid a time when physical touching is a luxury.
Of course, not all such virtual visits go so well, as Heineken’s “Connections” spot shows. It’s a compilation of the thoroughly current missteps of this era: dropped calls, dropped computers and phones, bad connections with those we want to so badly connect with. To the tune of “That’s Life,” it makes light of the “you’re-on-mute” moment much of the world is going through. Replete with beery toasts, the ad ends with the tagline: “It’s not the best get-together. But it’s the best way to get together. #SocialiseResponsibly.”
Which is what watching the virtual version of Arrows Awards ads and the commercial-free broadcast of the Charlie Brown specials does. No, it’s not the same as over the river and through the woods, but to grandmother’s house we don’t go, at least if one heeds the CDC.
So some may indeed find solace in the Arrows, which features a 2012 Christmas spot from retailer John Lewis. The scenes will seem familiar (spoiler alert!) in “The Long Wait” — a boy experiencing the excruciating countdown to Christmas. But when Dec. 25 finally arrives, he runs right by Santa’s bounty to get the gift he’s been anxiously waiting to give his mum and dad.
Or they’ll be cheered by Charlie Brown’s sincere quest for Christmas meaning, which was answered by Linus’s Luke 2:8-14 quotation, done with a clarity that cuts through the clutter of commercialized holidays.
Having a “Peanuts” script with scripture was considered risky at the time, but the special is timeless because of its unflinching understanding of “what Christmas is all about.”
Charlie seemed to appreciate it, too. “Linus is right; I won’t let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas,” he says, picking up his scraggly tree.
Of course, Good Ol’ Charlie Brown hadn’t screened a holiday version of the British Arrows Awards. Even he may have appreciated that commercialism, when done artistically, might actually enhance, not ruin, the season.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.