“Let’s play charades!” might be the most divisive sentence in the English language. The warring tribes of Brexit and Remain seem like kissing cousins when compared to game-lovers and game-loathers. In fact, across the UK this Christmastide several million introverts are already faking Omicron in order not to play Pictionary with swivel-eyed relatives. The issue can divide otherwise placid households: my husband and older son would rather drink Dettol than play Cluedo, while my younger boy and I will leap at any game on offer like stoats after a vole.
My husband has an excellent excuse for his game-phobia; he’s an only child who wasn’t raised to thirst for victory over weaker beings (aka siblings) like Genghis Khan marauding over central Asia. He once told me the saddest part about being raised solo was having a table tennis room, but no one to play with. The experience disheartened him for life. I, on the other hand, was brought up with two brothers and two sisters in a country pub with a darts board, shove-ha’penny, ping-pong, a croquet set and around twenty battered packs of cards. In our family quarters we had every board game WH Smith stocked and our very own roulette wheel, played with loose change from the pub. If a family member didn’t want to play a game with you, a regular customer could be cajoled into participation.
But no one loved a riotous games session more than my mother. Although she looked rather like a kindly lady vicar, mum was a fiend when it came to Monopoly. And we all recall the legendary game of Snap where children were elbowed out by mum and granny, as they both vied to be Supreme Empress of the Game Sphere. Although nothing brought the knives out like Racing Demon. If you’ve never come across this insanely competitive card game – which requires every player to have their own pack of cards and loosened morals – then it’s hard to describe the swift-paced carnage. I’ve seen street brawls that are kinder and less foul-mouthed. In essence, it’s a form of competitive Patience where you win by slapping down your cards ahead of other players. It one made an old schoolfriend’s anaesthetist husband cry when he was forced to join in.
So, Christmas with the Pelling family was a whole heap of fun, or living hell, depending on your perspective. Either way, there was no escape from the enforced festivities. I only found out quite recently that my Aunt Helen absolutely hated coming round for Boxing Day tea and being forced to indulge in some form of am-dram. We were particularly fond of the Adverb Game, where the “guesser” leaves the room while all the other participants decide on an adverb. Suggestions invariably include adverbs such as “charmingly”, “tragically”, and, under the circumstances, “cringingly”. When the guesser returns they have to ask members of the group to mime an activity, such as making a cup of tea, “in the manner of” the adverb, so they can guess try and guess it. You haven’t lived until you’ve mimed brewing a cuppa “sluttily”.
“Consequences” was a game that the most unlikely people could turn into an artform: “Ed Oldfield met Allegra Stratton in a cupboard under the stairs. He said to her, “This isn’t a party!” She said to him, “No, it’s a business meeting.” Which takes us to one of the best diversions of all time, Sardines, where one person hides and everyone else sets out to find them…
There was no escape from these games even on the Public side of the bar. Many of our customers were frustrated thespians and we, the Pelling offspring – like a terrifying version of the von Trapps – would rope them into a hil-ari-ous self-written panto featuring disrespectful caricatures of them all. Only with the benefit of maturity do I see that it was borderline sadistic to portray one barstool-hogger as incredibly boring – and too mean to buy a round. The pub’s leading actor would be charged with playing my father, which involved yelling his favourite insults at cherished locals: “Bugger off the lot of you!” “Fathead!” and the landlord’s favourite, “Haven’t you lot got homes to go to?” Dad had been born in 1910 and belonged to the Edwardian era, so the performance might be rounded off with a dirty ditty he’d learnt in the army and devotedly taught us all: “It was Christmas in the harem/ The eunuchs standing round/ A hundred beautiful women lay stretched out on the ground/ The big fat Sultan came in/ Looked round his marble halls/ Said, “What do you want for Christmas, lads?”/ The eunuchs answered… Good tidings of comfort and joy!”
Just to add to the jollity, my crop-haired little sister, Dorcas, who’s eleven years younger than me, might wander into the bar, aged six or seven, and say to random punters, “Am I a boy or a girl? If you lose, you give me 50p.”
In adult life, nothing quite matches the joyful mayhem of those game-heavy pub Christmases. They also mean I’ve long carried the knowledge that the most unlikely people can turn out to be sharp mimics, skilled bluffers or more literary than you lazily assumed, turning Consequences into an art form. For example: “Ed Oldfield met Allegra Stratton in a cupboard under the stairs. He said to her, “This isn’t a party!” She said to him, “No, it’s a business meeting.” Which takes us to one of the best diversions of all time, Sardines, where one person hides and everyone else sets out to find them. Once discovered, you join the hider under the bed, or in the loft, which (if you’ve carefully engineered things) can end in a hasty teen snog. Sadly, this was one game we couldn’t play at the pub. It was simply too small and crammed full of people. And now Covid-19 may have stopped such frivolous, giggling pleasure for a generation. Except at No 10 Downing Street, where the charades go on.
Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review