The reviews of Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol have been mixed. That won’t stop me heading to the South Bank this weekend for the Tennessee Songbird’s take on Dickens. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without some version of his “ghostly little book”.
I am not the only one. My producer at Times Radio, Ollie Cole, is another Carol fan. He also felt obliged to take in the Smoky Mountain show the other night. He texted afterwards: “Best watched with a lot of wine.” Carolaholics who don’t fancy Dolly’s version have lots of other options this Christmas. There are a dozen live shows playing this Christmas in the London area alone. There are serious thespian productions at The Old Vic, The Bridge, The Rose, the New Wimbledon and the Middle Temple. Simon Callow is otherwise occupied this year narrating The Nutcracker in Birmingham, leaving John O’Connor to don the mantle of Dickens for a dramatic reading at the Greenwich Theatre. Such is the original story’s mythical status, there are also pastiches aplenty: A Pissedmas Carol at the Leicester Square, A Sherlock Carol in Marylebone, Scroogelicious in Peckham and A Christmas Carolish in Soho.
Then there are the films – which, after print, occupy the medium which seems to work best for this story. I find that stage versions tend to drag a bit and struggle with the supernatural elements, no matter how resourceful the staging may be.
A Christmas Carol has proved irresistible throughout the history of cinema. There have been dozens of live action versions starting with Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost, a British black and white silent short dating from 1901. Alastair Sim had a perfect combination of dither, menace and regret to play the miser in Scrooge, released in 1951. This film is still considered one of the best adaptations of the classic. Sim’s scene at the window, still in his nightshirt after his ghostly visitations, calling “You there, Boy! What day is this?” is an improvement on the original which has been copied ever since, including by George C Scott and Albert Finney and on The Simpsons. In the text Dickens actually wrote:
“What’s today?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder
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“What’s today, my fine fellow?”, said Scrooge.
“Today!”, replied the Boy, “Why. CHRISTMAS DAY.”
Dickens was happy to revisit his works himself with improvements. The sentimental reassurance “and Tiny Tim who did not die” does not appear in the original manuscript and was added while the first edition was at the printer.
Bill Murray returned to the screen in 1988 with Scrooged, ending a lengthy hiatus following, appropriately, Ghostbusters. Updated to the world of TV in New York City, Murray’s character, Network President Francis Xavier “Frank” Cross, is spoiling his underlings’ holiday season by ordering an extravagant live broadcast of A Christmas Carol. But he undergoes the same ordeal of visitations by Christmases Past, Present as any Scrooge, leading to his redemption live on air.
My own absolutely favourite Christmas movie, let alone favourite Christmas Carol movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol, is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this month. Disney + have put out a spruced up version, including the song “When Love is Gone” which missed the original cut.
The Muppet version succeeds because it is understated. It sticks in spirit and narrative line to Dickens’ template. Even Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog are contained in cameo roles as Bob and Emily Cratchit. Handsome, twinkling Michael Caine is not obvious casting for Ebeneezer Scrooge but inhabits his character with his flat London vowels. The supernatural nature of his ordeal, which is effortlessly delivered by the Muppets, is emphasised because he is the only real person. Disbelief remains suspended because Caine is committed fully, or rather as laconically committed as he always is.
This Monday marks the 179th anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol on 19th December 1843. Dickens was hard up and needed a hit on the rebound from a disappointing reception for Martin Chuzzlewit, one of his personal favourites. A Christmas Carol was an immediate success. The first small red covered books sold out and went to a numerous reprints. It has never been out of print since. Within weeks there were theatrical adaptations on stage and illicit editions being sold. Dickens did not make as much money from it as he had hoped, in part because he was left with hefty legal bills after successfully suing a pirate publisher, which then went bankrupt.
A Christmas Carol was Dickens’ second attempt at a Christmas story. In spite of trying with an annual Christmas story in the years immediately following 1843, he did not hit the jackpot again with his subsequent attempts such as The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth.
Adults started to treat it as a children’s book. The edition I have with me is branded as a Puffin Classic. Instead A Christmas Carol owes its longevity largely to performance, including by the author himself. Dickens gave 127 performances which included abbreviated versions of the story between 1853 and his final reading in 1870, the year of his death.
Because he wrote A Christmas Carol Dickens is sometimes called the man who invented A Christmas Story is also a brilliant, simple story packed with classic tropes, told by a master wordsmith. “Bah humbug!” alone is a mark of genius. It is a horror story and a ghost story but also, as the reader finds in the Second Stave of Christmas Past, a bildungsroman of the child becoming a man and an unrequited love story with the broken engagement with Belle. The story has a happy, sentimental ending. Above all, the short novella is built around great characters: the downtrodden Cratchits, victims of modern times, juxtaposed against the miser in the counting house, self-righteously profiting from exploiting them. What’s not to like?
Christmas. This century there has been a book and a film, starring Dan Stevens, with that title. In reality the trappings of what we now see as a “traditional” Christmas – trees, plump roasted poultry, carols, alcohol, public holiday – had been coming together since the end of the eighteenth century. Dickens captured the zeitgeist of “Merry Christmas”, blending it with the sprits of the times – urbanisation, industrialisation and increased levels of affluence – which made a commercial festivity possible. As Dickens highlighted repeatedly in his writing, prosperity also brought inequality and poverty. His particular concerns, on which he campaigned publicly, were child poverty and the exploitation of children. Tiny Tim and the “fine”, “remarkable” boys outside Scrooge’s house are no accident. In the year he wrote A Christmas Carol, Dickens was horrified by seeing the conditions of children working in Cornish tin mines and he had just come from a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of the charities trying to fight ignorance, illiteracy and want.
Dolly Parton has her own rags to riches story. Like Dickens she celebrates her humble upbringing and supports literacy charities – just nearly two hundred years later. It is easy to see the resonances she picked up first adapting A Christmas Carol for performance at Dollywood, her theme park in the Smoky Mountains. Even if the London production could be better, with A Christmas Carol Dickens will again “bless us every one”.
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