Friday 30 November 2007


Rehearsals for my new stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' immortal tale, A Christmas Carol continue apace in preparation for next Tuesday's opening night.

Some people -- many, even -- may ask: "What? Yet Another Christmas Carol?"

True, Dickens' seasonal classic is so well-known that it has become part of popular mythology, like a folk-tale that is perennially retold and endlessly reworked in the telling.

Even people who have never read the book, actually believe they have! Just say the word “Humbug!”, and people think of Ebenezer Scrooge; utter the phrase: “God bless us, every one!” and they immediately recall the words of Tiny Tim.

It's got apparitions, transformations and all manner of imaginative scenes from the frenzied delights of a Christmas ball to ghostly goings-on in a graveyard.

A Christmas Carol might almost have been written for the stage and it's certainly been on stage somewhere or other in the world during every one of the 164 years since the book’s publication.

It was in December 1843 that Dickens novella made its appearance and, within weeks, there were no fewer than eight dramatised versions of the story being simultaneously presented on the London stage!

There was one version billed as A Christmas Carol, or the Miser's Warning and another bearing the epic title, A Christmas Carol, or Scrooge the Miser's Dream, or, The Past, Present, and Future. Hardly any of them could be described as being entirely faithful to the original and not a single one paid so much as a penny to the author.

One of the first actors to portray Scrooge was a celebrated Victorian thespian called Mr O Smith, whose performance was described by Dickens as “drearily better than I expected”, adding that he found it “a great comfort to have this kind of meat underdone”,' something which can hardly be said of many of his successors!

A long and distinguished line of actors have portrayed the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” and 'Scrooging' has been a particularly popular pastime among the knights of the theatre with spirited performances, over the years, from Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Michael Hordern.

Theatrical veterans Bransby Williams and Seymour Hicks both played the part first in legitimate theatrical productions, then turned their performances into solo music hall acts and eventually became two of the earliest screen Scrooges, succeeded by the likes of Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Michael Caine and George C Scott.

Indeed there always seems to be a new film-version in the offing - the most recent of which, slated for 2009, will feature Jim Carrey.

Every conceivable medium has been employed in telling Dickens’ story from a mime by Marcel Marceau to an opera sung by Sir Geraint Evans and there have been Ebenezer Scrooges for every possible taste: from the senior partner of Steptoe and Son, Wilfred Brambell, to the captain of the Starship Enterprise, Patrick Stewart; not to mention musical versions starring Anthony Newley and Tommy Steele.

In America, where A Christmas Carol is equally beloved, Dickens' stonyhearted skinflint was portrayed on wireless for many years by Lionel Barrymore and elsewhere by Orson Welles, Basil Rathbone, Frederick March, Ronald Colman and Kelsey Grammer.

Everyone, of course, loves the Muppets’ take on the story, with Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Mrs Cratchit and the Great Gonzo’s unforgettable impersonation of Charles Dickens; but there have been many other animated Carols featuring an interesting role-call of cartoon Scrooges ‘played’ by Mr Magoo, Fred Flintstone, Yosemite Sam and Donald Duck's penny-pinching uncle, Scrooge McDuck!

In fact, there has always been a generous supply of odd-ball versions including a couple of female incarnations of Scrooge and Americanised retellings and updatings with the likes of Henry Winkler, Bill Murray and, in an all-black musical, Gregory Hines portraying Scrooge as the landlord of a Harlem slum.

Despite the existence so many dramatisations of Dickens’ “ghost story of Christmas”, few of them have managed to find a way of retaining the highly personal and strongly present authorial voice.

Of all the memorable characters and events in Dickens’ prodigious literary output, those in this little tale - written in response to the terrible poverty of his day - were created with white-hot zeal and human compassion.

This is one of the reasons why this book has always been so beloved by generations of readers: Dickens the man is heard not just in his wonderful descriptions evoking the rituals of Christmas, but also in the storyteller's intense emotional involvement with the business of saving Scrooge’s soul.

It was this aspect of the book that I most wanted to preserve in dramatising it anew.

As a result, Dickens (himself a talented amateur actor and a celebrated performer of his own works, right) physically becomes part of the telling of the story: not simply as a narrator, but as a character - a convivial host, puppet-master and conjuror - setting the scene, introducing a vast cast of characters (portrayed by a relatively small ensemble group) and leading his audience through the curious events of an unforgettable Christmas Eve...

Reviewing A Christmas Carol in 1843, William Makepeace Thackeray wrote: “It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness.”

Over of a century-and-a-half later, there still seems no reason to quibble with that verdict.


Anonymous said...

We have a Dickens on the Strand Festival here in Galveston TX (about 50 miles south). A most unlikely place for Dickens, but the family comes and makes an appearance every year. Don't know what the nice English gentleman makes of Galveston, Tx., but he is most cooperative. Everyone gets up in costume and strolls around and eats hot chesnuts and various people hawk loot for profit and the city and storeowners all make money. (And if we are really lucky it isn't 75 degrees the entire month of December)

Boll Weavil said...

Back on familiar territory Mr B ! My first CC of the year will be watched tonight - tonight at midnight...the end is drawing near...oops lapsed into character already.The continued universal appeal of 'A Christmas Carol' must surely be in the simplicity of the basic storyline.At its core lies a Victorian ghost story and a timeless pantomime.Add meat onto the bones and you can make it as complex and as relevant as you want to for the times in which we live in.Its potent message only mirrors back to us how little we have done and continued to do for the underprivileged amongst us - both in our own countries and in the wider world.The writing of Dickens is always lavish, often spectacular and sometimes over emotive but in this messages to his own society as well as those that would follow he is spot on.It is a wonder then, that we so little heed them and prefer to re-iterate the pantomimic elements of this immortal story.If he were here today, I wonder how many versions of his work he would accept as capturing its spirit and his own intent.

Brian Sibley said...

SUZANNE (who, for some reason, couldn't get her comment through in the normal way today) notes...

I really enjoy Dickens. Despite that, I loved the film 'Scrooged' and Bill Murray as the modern day Scrooge.

But my favourite tribute of all is in John Irving's novel 'A Prayer for Owen Meany', where pint-sized Owen plays the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and gets his own eery prophecy.

Brian Sibley said...

CHRIS - Thanks for that fascinating glimpse of Mr Scrooge's Texan travels!

BOLL - Well said! And enjoy your annual Carol-fest!

SUZANNE - Yes, 'Scrooged' has many fine moments and I especially love the terrible TV show Bill Murray's character is making based on Dickens' book! And thanks for reminding us about Mr Meany's story...

Laurie Mann said...

There was a neat made-for-American-TV version of A Christmas Carol made in the '50s called "The Stingiest Man in Town." My father still has the LP from that; the music was terrific. I wish someone would relaunch it.

Brian Sibley said...

LAURIE - Yes, I know the show (with Basil Rathbone as Scrooge) and I was pleased to find that the rather good score had been re-issued on CD a couple of years back.

Rankin-Bass later made an animated TV film of this version with Walter Matthau as the voice of Scrooge which is also worth a watch...

Laurie Mann said...

Thanks loads for the pointer - that's now on my Amazon wish list.

On a completely different subject - have you been hearing anything about The Lovely Bones filming? I've been following an unofficial blog, but it's depressing that basically the set is closed and the production team isn't talking much about it. After following all the gory details behind King Kong online, it's sad there's nothing about The Lovely Bones. I'm also frustrated because I live a mere five hours away from the film site! If I had a prayer of watching any of the filming, I'd drive out there.

Brian Sibley said...

LAURIE - Well PJ has always been a 'closed-set' director (maybe because it helps spark curiosity and keep public interest high) so I'm not surprised that it is the same on 'The Lovely Bones'. Personally, I disliked the book so much, I'm not sure I'd cross the street to squint through a knot-hole in the fence at the process of putting it on film...

However, Jackson understands narrative, so maybe he can make something better of what I thought was --- I know, I know, the world in generally disagrees with me! --- an unpleasant little book with a totally unsatisfactory conclusion...

Laurie Mann said...

I love about 88% of The Lovely Bones, though I tend to agree about the ending. However, given the wonderful job PJ & crew did on Heavenly Creatures, I think the potential is there for a great movie version of The Lovely Bones.

If anything, my biggest concern about the movie is the budget (70 mil US). The book is really quite small and intimate. And I felt King Kong was way, way overblown, and was rescued by Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis.

Diva of Deception said...

It was interesting to visit the not-yet-ripe theme 'park' of Dickens World for a second time, in October, and discover that Scrooge is EVERYWHERE there!

Not only do we get versions in the amazing theatre show (the best bit of the adventure for me) and in the Haunted House (which isn't) but they are now have an extremely small cast of bad actors performing the story without warning in the middle of the afternoon in the open courtyard and climaxing it all with a snow storm which means they then have to put out modern plastic signs warning that the floor is now slippery!

I do understand how Laurie feels about the film set; I have positively yearned, for years now, to visit the Harry Potter set which is less than five miles from here.... I'd so have loved to walk down Diagon Alley! And I'd sit quietly and watch and not get in the way,honest!

Brian Sibley said...

DIVA - I'd like to say your description of Dickens World made me want to go... ;-) But, actually, I MUST --- I think it's my duty!

As for you sitting quietly in Diagon Alley, I can't quite visualize that!