Cardiff City Hall and the Winter Wonderland in 2005
With it being that festive time of year, I’ve been thinking back to my childhood in the late 1970s / early 1980s. The last 15 years or so we’ve had the staple of the Winter Wonderland outside Cardiff’s City Hall, which is a wonderful event, and one in stark contrast to the annual festive event I was shipped off to as a child, the BT (or British Telecom as it was back then) Christmas Children’s Party in the Assembly Room at City Hall.
My gramp worked for BT back then, he used to plant telegraph poles and connect phones all around South Wales for a living. He’d tell us stories about his adventures around the valleys, most famously how he ended up at Tom Jones’ house to install his phone line. Tom was there wandering around in his fluffy dressing gown, looking over my gramp’s shoulder as he worked. When the job was finished, Tom looked at my gramp and said something along the lines of “I suppose you want an autograph now?” My gramp looked him up and down and said “Not really”, and was on his way…
But I digress, as well as his wonderful stories about his work, his employment by BT meant that every Christmas I would be dumped off at City Hall on a Saturday afternoon to attend the dreaded BT Children’s Christmas Party. I’m sure I complained, but my gripes were ignored and I was told I would enjoy it, so crack on. These were the seventies, so children knew how to look after themselves from a young age, which was why my family had no concerns about dropping me off with 100s of unknown children and a small army of adults not concerned by modern softly, softly discipline.
I think I must have been around 7 or 8 when I started going, I definitely went three times year on year, and I never enjoyed it once. I was quite shy back then (and still a bit even now), so being thrust into a room with 100s of strangers was always taxing. The Assembly Room at Cardiff City Hall was a spectacular venue (there’s a couple of nice shots here), I remember being impressed by the space even as a youngster. However, any admiration of the impressive room was quickly subsumed by the need to survive the afternoon’s party mayhem.
At the beginning of the event, the big hall was divided in two, at the stage end were rows of seats laid out theatre style and a large 8mm cine-projector waiting to go. There were wooden panels bisecting the room behind which were long table rows filled with pineapple and cheese on sticks and sausage rolls, ready for all us ravenous kids. We’d have to wait for the food though, as these events always started with a bit of entertainment first.
People today complain about children being babysat by their iPads and Phones, but really it’s the logical conclusion of the sort of things done to entertain us as kids back then. I mean, what do you do with a couple of hundred feral youngsters, hopped up on Christmas excitement and thrown together in one of the most lavish rooms in Cardiff? Party games? Educational activities? Cerebral challenges? Nope, stick some cartoons on and make them sit quietly and watch. Has it really changed that much? Just the means of delivery has changed, but essentially it’s sit down, shut up and don’t bother us adults, and that was generally what the first half of the party entailed.
Ok, we loved cartoons so in theory that was a great way to waste an hour whilst awkwardly not making friends with the children around you. However, this wasn’t the prime cartoons that are still popular today (thinking of the Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry), no what we got was the stuff that’s pretty much forgotten today. We got the interminably dull Dick Tracy Show and those unfunny Disney cartoons that attempted to be Looney Tunes and failed miserably. I didn’t like either as a kid, so it was torturous having to watch them with no idea of when we could at least get to the food.
It used to feel like an age as dull Dick Tracy after dull Dick Tracy spooled off the reels. You can bore yourself with an example here if you’re interested, I couldn’t make it past the opening credits with a shuddering memory of being bored silly by them. Occasionally the projector would break down and then there’d be unrest in the make-shift aisles, but generally the cartoons would last about an hour, and then, it was time for the food.
Now, party food in the late seventies was a tasty joy, vol-au-vents, curled corner tinned ham sandwiches, sausages on sticks, crisps and angel cakes galore. I loved all that grub as a kid, but at these parties it never seemed to take long before someone sat in your proximity started using the cocktail sticks to stab the kids around them, much to my terror. I remember being sat next one of these vicious little shits and taking several sharp stabs about my person, with no one near by to help or stick up for me. I’m sure I put on a brave face at the time, but I really was upset, and something similar happened every year.
I can’t recall what happened after food, I think it was back to more Dick Tracy show, or maybe there was a make-shift disco. I never danced as a kid, I was not into it at all so would sit on my own on the side, watching everyone else and counting down the clock. There may have been some musical chairs as well, which I did love, but with that many kids I don’t recall ever getting far. They’ve all sort of merged into one a bit and my memory is hazy. I recall the cartoons and food mentioned above very vividly though!
And then that was it, the lights went up and it was time to go. On the way out of the Assembly Room we were filed past a makeshift Santa, who sat off to the side of the exit, in the doorway of a little room off of the hall. He would hand us each a parcel as we were ushered past at haste, and out onto the lavish upper landing of City Hall. I remember the present given by the BT Santa being quite decent, but not quite good enough to remove the lingering disquiet of the previous two hours.
Seeing Santa was always the highlight though, as it meant everything was done, no more cocktail sticks, no more boring cartoons, no more crackers and paper hats and no more trying to enjoy myself. It was time to return to the bosom of the family, putting on a smiling face so as not to seem ungrateful for the unwanted frivolity. I’d meet my gramp out on the landing and head off down the staircase, looked over by the many statues that lined the balustrade and out into the winter air to see if the fountains were going or not.
Now, I don’t want to seem ungrateful about what for many of the children there was really a wonderful party. I also don’t want to be negative about the generosity and time of those who arranged it, and I certainly don’t want to disparage my family for sending me! However, that said, the memory of those events have left and indelible mark on me, and it’s not a positive one I’m afraid.
I’m sure if I’d have gone with a friend or two for company than it would have been a blast and we’d have got up to as much mischief as some of the other reprobates there. In fact, writing this reminded me that I went to a Post Office party with my best mate who lived opposite on Stacey Road, and it was a great laugh. But for the BT one I didn’t have a companion and that just made it all the more worse.
I still have so many vivid remembrances of the Assembly Room and the festivities, more so than pretty much else Christmas related from that period of my life. Even attending the Winter Wonderland today, I look across to the City Hall and shiver. But not as much as when I see a wooden cocktail stick, they really do put the fear in me. On which cheery note, Happy Christmas all!