The Canadian filmmaker Bob Clark might legitimately lay claim to having had the oddest career in mainstream cinema. In his 67 years, he practically invented the slasher genre (with 1974's Black Christmas), oversaw a colossal, industry-changing hit (1981's Porky's), and wound up directing two of the worst reviewed movies of all time in the Baby Geniuses films. (His final credit was on 2005's The Karate Dog, starring Jon Voight alongside a post-porn, pre-Red Rocket Simon Rex.) Somewhere in there - 1983, to be precise - he made A Christmas Story, an enduring festive entertainment about a child's desire to get his hands on a gun. (Only in North America.) What screenwriter Jean Shepherd drew from his novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash was a detailed recreation of the kind of suburban backdrop Steven Spielberg had just converted into a stage for boffo box-office in Close Encounters and E.T., only with a fresh period twist. A Christmas Story would be set in the consumerist 1950s, formative cradle of the babyboomers, when pestering your folks for a particular toy - as young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) does for his idealised Red Ryder BB gun - still had a certain innocence. Fast-forward a decade or so to the Turbo(man)-capitalism of 1996's Jingle All the Way, and the same set-up begins to look awfully cynical.
It's not the most tightly plotted movie you'll ever see, forgetting all about the gun for an hour to instead conjure up a succession of generally well-remembered moments, layers of nostalgia you can wrap around you on the shortest, darkest, coldest days of the year. These are perhaps an American equivalent to those cosy Peter Kay or Michael McIntyre routines where every bit starts with a "d'you remember?": mom (Spielberg favourite Melinda Dillon) wrapping Ralphie's weakling brother so tightly in coats and scarves that the poor lad can't put his arms down, dad (Disney veteran Darren McGavin) stuffing the electrical sockets and ruining the turkey, one of the cinema's great grotto scenes, complete with integral helter-skelter. It is identifiably the work of the director who'd just followed the patchy Porky's with the even patchier Porky's II: The Next Day - particularly a very dubious, mood-spoiling scene with some Chinese carol singers - but a great part of its charm is that it looks as if it was shot in and on actual snow rather than amid a California summer, and Billingsley is an agreeably spacey child who barely seems to have realised that he's been set before a camera. Bright, peppy, undemanding, it's one of those films that has perennially worked well on TV over the holiday season, something to have on in the background as you frost the cookies and dress the tree. Indeed, though Clark and Shepherd turned in a sequel a decade later (1994's It Runs in the Family, with Kieran Culkin as Ralphie, and Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen as the folks), its legacy wasn't necessarily cinematic but televisual: that run of sitcoms centred on nuclear families with prodigal, precocious or reassuringly ordinary sons, which scattered their gags as Ralphie does BB pellets - and, once a year, came up with heartwarming Christmas stories of their own.
A Christmas Story screens on BBC2 at 10am tomorrow.