Monday, 13 December 2021

A Christmas Carol - 1970, television


Title:
A Christmas Carol
 
Format:
Illustrated reading
 
Country:
UK
 
Production company:
Anglia Television, for the ITV network
 
Year:
1970 – shown at various points by several different ITV regional companies that Christmas season
 
Length:
48 minutes
 
Setting:
Victorian
 
Background:

Anglia Television, based in the city of Norwich, were the East of England regional contractors for the ITV network in the UK, going on-air in October 1959. Although they relied heavily on the network output produced by the larger ITV companies for much of their prime-time output, they were also a fully-fledged TV station and production company in their own right, producing a large number of programmes across a range of genres. They became something of a cultural institution in their region, particularly across much of Norfolk, the county where they were based.
 
They still exist, too, although these days pretty much just as the ‘ITV Anglia’ regional news service for the east. They are still based in their original Anglia House home, however, having disposed of many of its extensions and other buildings they occupied in Norwich down the years. Anglia House must surely be the last 1950s television studio still operating in the UK – the story goes that as a condition of the lease, they have to return it (the old Agricultural Hall) to the condition in which they found it should they leave, which is allegedly why ITV have surprisingly not yet downsized the operation.

 
Although many of Anglia’s programmes made during their glory years were purely designed to be shown in the eastern region on Anglia only, they also produced a number of wider-interest programmes screened on the network – they were particularly successful with their wildlife series Survival, their quiz show Sale of the Century and with a number of dramas down the years.
 
A Christmas Carol is another example of an Anglia programme which was clearly designed to have potential network appeal, with no particular regional ties. It’s an interesting affair; when I was kindly given a copy by James, a reader of this blog, he told me that it was animated, but that isn’t actually – bar one winking face and one moving clock hand – the case. It’s more of an illustrated reading, akin to a long episode of Jackanory in which you never see the narrator. It’s made up of an abridged version of the story, read over a series 150 or so still illustrations, with the cameras panning across and zooming into them at various points.
 
What I found especially interesting about this is that, although I’m no technical expert, it’s pretty clear that there wasn’t a rostrum camera or any film involved. The smooth pans and zooms, the occasional camera wobbles and the clean cross-fades all show that this was an entirely video production, with the artworks shot on studio video cameras and the production assembled on videotape.
 
The Transdiffusion TV history website has an article giving some of the background to this production, although it’s not clear where their information comes from. It seems that A Christmas Carol was one of a series of such productions made by the same team at Anglia in the late 1960s and early 70s, following on from a serialised adaptation of The Wind in the Willows and an original serial called The Winter of Enchantment, and followed by four further serials, including an adaptation of Treasure Island.

 
This doesn’t appear to have gained Anglia a network showing at Christmas 1970, but it seems as if it was broadcast by several of the different regional companies of the ITV network at some point or other over that festive season. Southern and Border both showed it on Christmas Eve, at 11.15am in Southern’s case and midday on Border; Anglia themselves put it out at 3.25 on Christmas Day in the afternoon; London Weekend Television at 9.20 on Boxing Day morning; Westward in two parts, at 10.40 on Boxing Day morning and 1pm on Sunday the 27th. There may have been others too, but those are the ones I could find in The Times’s Christmas TV listings.
 
Cast and crew:
There are just two people mainly responsible for the vast majority of the work on this version. One of them is Paul Honeyman, who produced it, wrote the abridged adaptation, and also performed it for good measure as well. And the other is John Worsley, the artist who produced all of the illustrations which make-up the visual part of the production.
 
Worsley had had a fascinating life; an official war artist during the Second World War, he was evidently the only one to be captured as a prisoner-of-war. He’d also work for famous comics such as the Eagle, and evidently his Carol illustrations for this production also saw release as a large-format children’s book version of the story.

"Come on mate, time to go..."
 
Honeyman was a staff producer for Anglia in Norwich, who had served in the army before joining Tyne Tees Television as an announcer. Moving to Anglia in 1968, he was initially a reporter for their About Anglia news programme, before moving up the ranks to become a producer and eventually Head of Features and later Assistant Programme Controller. Even through these promotions he continued to work on producing and narrating these children’s productions. He died in July 1978, at the age of just 41, shortly after finishing work on another of his children’s serial collaborations with Worsley, The Whisper of Glocken.
 
Aside from Honeyman, there are one or two sound effects used here and there, and also some other voices to give occasional background chatter or laughter. However, the other main presence is the music – by Peter Fenn, who was evidently Anglia’s Head of Music at the time. He employs the services of the Choir of Norwich Cathedral, to give the soundtrack an appropriately festive air.
 
Director John Salway had worked at Anglia for some years, including on the the previous Honeyman / Worsley children’s efforts. Like Honeyman, he also died young, in 1972 which production on their version of Treasure Island.
 
Underdone Potato:

In spite of the fact that this is an abridged version of the text to fit the running time, we get something here which you get hardly anywhere else – Dickens’s little preface about hoping the story will haunt the readers’ houses pleasantly, which is a nice touch.
 
Aside from that, though, while most of the best-known sequences are all present and correct, most of them have been quite heavily cut down in some way or other. Fred’s best dialogue, the “other creatures on other journeys” bit, is gone, and the two charitable gentlemen also pay little more than a flying visit.
 
The gravy pun is retained during Marley’s visit, however.

 
Early on, as we sweep across Worsley’s vision of Victorian London with the dome of St Paul’s dominating proceedings, there’s a pub sign for The Bell in the foreground – coincidence, or perhaps a deliberate reference to one of Norwich’s best-known watering holes…?

Past:

Worsley does a decent job of trying to render Dickens’s description of the Ghost of Christmas Past as both old and young at the same time, although there’s an odd effect given by the shadowing of its face early on which makes it look rather like it has some bushy black beard. It also looks as if it’s carrying a document folder, given how the cap its holding looks when we first see it, giving it a rather officious, middle-management-ghost sort of appearance.


The transition of Scrooge and the spirit being outside the school to inside the schoolroom is a nice effect that works well, although there’s no Fan at the end of the school sequence. Fezziwig, however, gains a first name in this version – Algernon – and in the break-up with Belle scene the young Scrooge gains some fairly extraordinary-looking yellow trousers.

"How can you possibly not want me, with my magnificent yellow trousers, Belle?"

Present:

While the Ghost of Christmas Past appeared oddly bearded on its first appearance, here Worsley goes against tradition and while depicting Christmas Present as the large, robed figure of Dickens, he has no beard in this version.


Another surprising inclusion, given all the tightening up elsewhere, is lingering on the Christmas fare for sale and retaining the mention of “Norfolk biffins” – which, for those like me who had to look it up, are a type of apple. Bless Anglia Television for flying the flag for their region and being possibly the only people in the history of Carol adaptations to keep that mention in. Indeed, so surprising was it that I actually had to check the original book to make sure it was there and not something Paul Honeyman had added in!

 
We get the educational point about the bakers cooking people’s Christmas lunches for them because they didn’t have their own ovens, but the only ‘main’ scene included is the visit to the Cratchits’ house. There’s no dropping-in on Fred and his house guests and party games in this one.
 
Yet to Come:

This is the most unfortunate section, and probably the reason – or at least one of the reasons – why this version isn’t better-known, and is unlikely to get another run-out on television today.
 
The reason being is that there’s a concentration on the Old Joe scene here, which is fair enough. But sadly, Old Joe himself is depicted as a very Fagin-like figure, in the worst possible sense; as every inch the offensive stereotype which Fagin has so often been played as being in the past.
 
While there are arguments to be had about Tiny Tim and the representation of the disabled, for a piece of literature written in 1843 by an author who had known prejudices, A Christmas Carol is pretty much free of such baldly offensive material, which makes it all the more disappointing that nearly 130 years later Paul Honeyman and Anglia Television saw fit to introduce it here.
 
The visit to the Cratchits is changed here, so that Bob isn’t coming back from visiting the site of Tim’s grave when he arrives home, but actually coming downstairs from his deathbed. To tell the family that Tim’s just died, which makes it seem a bit weird that they weren’t all up there with him.

Es are good, apparently...
 
There’s a common spelling error on Scrooge’s gravestone here, with Worsley adding an extra ‘e’ to label it ‘Ebeneezer Scrooge’.
 
What’s To-Day:
This is the only section which actually contains any of what you might call animation; firstly as Marley’s face on the knocker gets a reprise, giving a wink as it appears again, and secondly at the end when Scrooge watches the clock for Bob’s late arrival at work on Boxing Day, and we see the hand move through the minutes.


This is probably the section which departs most from the original; not massively, but there is a bizarrely, Disney-ish diversion when Scrooge laughs to himself at the change which has overcome him, as he does in the original. In this version, however, we see illustrated and are told about the birds on the windowsill outside being surprised to hear this noise from him, and they gather there to hear it.
 

We get the main sections, as per usual – meeting one of the charitable gentlemen, going to see Fred, and then playing his trick on Bob at the end.
 
Review:
When I first began watching this, I did wonder how well it would hold the attention. I’ve nothing against a reading of a book, but usually - unless it’s some sort of performance of the type Dickens himself used to give – you’re not also watching it at the same time. Honeyman’s reading would work equally well as an audio book without the illustrations, although it would fall down on not being a complete version.
 
The illustrations are nice, though, and director John Salway does a decent enough job of not just keeping them statically in frame the whole time, but keeping the cameras moving across and into them.


Worsley doesn’t try to ape John Leech’s original illustrations and has a style of his own, albeit one which feels very in-keeping with the Victorian setting. He’s also good at creating mood and atmosphere, with Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come both being particularly effective in this regard.
 
Honeyman does well as narrator, too – I found a review in The Times from the time of the original transmission crediting him for not attempting to go over-the-top in acting it, but rather giving a good reading instead, and I think there is indeed a difference. It’s just a shame about the Old Joe sequence, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and means this can’t, in all good conscience, be recommended as a highlight in the Carol canon.
 
In a nutshell:
This isn’t a bad version by any means. It’s well-read, and the illustrations are nice – it’s just that there are better-read unabridged versions if that’s what you want, and more exciting versions visually, making it hard to think of a particular reason to recommend it.
 


 

Friday, 25 December 2020

Scrooge - 1951, film


Title:
Scrooge
 
Format:
Black-and-white feature film
 
Country:
United Kingdom
 
Production company:
George Minter Productions
 
Year:
1951
 
Length:
87 minutes
 
Setting:
Victorian
 
Background:
The first major British version of A Christmas Carol since 1935’s Scrooge, this version from sixteen years later appears to be influenced by the 1930s effort, and not simply through having the same title. There are particular sequences – not ones featured in the book – which seem to have been inspired by the 1935 version.
 
George Minter Productions, the company which made the film, and Renown Pictures, which distributed it, were both run by the eponymous Mr Minter himself, with Renown having been active since the 1930s. The year after Scrooge they followed up its success with another Dickens adaptation, The Pickwick Papers, scripted by Scrooge screenwriter Noel Langley and this time directed by him as well.


Cast and crew:
Director Brian Desmond Hurst was an Irishman, born in Belfast, and has been acclaimed as one of the most successful film directors to have come from that island. A veteran of the First World War, where he’d fought at Gallipoli, Hurst had moved to Hollywood in the 1920s where he’d learned the filmmaking craft from noted director John Ford. He moved back across the Atlantic to London in the early 1930s where he went on to work with Alexander Korda. He directed over twenty films, although Scrooge is probably the best-remembered of his work today.
 
Scriptwriter Noel Langley was a South Africa, although he later became a naturalised American citizen. He’d moved to the UK after graduating from university in the early 1930s, where he became a playwright and novelist, before making the move to Hollywood towards the end of the decade. There he was one of the co-writers of one of the most famous feature films ever made, The Wizard of Oz. After the Second World War he returned to working in Britain, where he wrote a series of screenplays for UK-made films, before later returning again to the USA.
 
Alastair Sim’s role as Scrooge is regarded as the definitive part of his career, and although he also had popular success elsewhere – such as in the St Trinian’s films – it’s by far and away the role for which he is best remembered, with some regarding him as the definitive screen interpretation of the part. Sim and his Marley, Michael Horden, would return to their roles for Richard Williams’s animated version of the tale in 1971, with Horden eventually earning a promotion to the Scrooge part himself when he starred in the 1977 BBC television version.

 
Other notable names in the cast list are those of the two actors who play the younger Scrooge and Marley – George Cole and Patrick Macnee, respectively. Both would go on to enjoy huge success later in their careers with popular television drama series; Cole as Arthur Daley in Minder and Macnee as John Steed in The Avengers. Cole was a protégé of Sim’s, and also appeared alongside him in the St Trinian’s films.
 
Kathleen Harrison and Jack Warner, who were well-known for co-starring in the Huggetts trilogy of films, appear as Mrs Dilber – in an expanded role for that character, so much so that Harrison gets second billing after Sim – and an original character called Mr Jorkin, who in this version is Scrooge’s employer after Fezziwig. Speaking of whom, future Carry On star Hattie Jacques is another familiar face putting in an appearance, here as Mrs Fezziwig.


Underdone Potato:
Fairly unusually, although by no means the only diversion this version will take into its own original territory, we begin with Scrooge not in his counting house, but at the exchange. Here he has a brief discussion with the two businessmen who will later be seen in the Yet-to-Come section, discussing his death.
 
We also see Scrooge dismissing someone who owes him money pleading to be allowed more time, and being dismissed with the assertion that it makes no difference what time of year it is, and the money would still be owed if it were a hot day in August.


When Scrooge finally does make it back into the office and we begin to pick up the start of the book, the order of Fred’s and the Charitable Gentlemen’s visits have been swapped around, and indeed the latter two are already waiting for him when he arrives. Which makes you wonder a bit about exactly what their conversation was with Cratchit when he admitted them and allowed them to wait, as they still enquire when Scrooge arrives whether they’re addressing him or Mr Marley.
 
They are dismissed in the usual manner, with the film running pretty close to the book for a while here, although when Fred turns up a lot of the dialogue is changed and the exchange is shortened. Particularly, Scrooge’s disapproval of Fred having got married is made a bit stronger, probably for reasons to do with things we’re going to see shortly in the Christmas Past section.

As this film seems to have been influenced by the 1935 version,
so it in turn would seem to have influenced the 1970 musical with
this bit of Tim peering into the toyshop window

There’s a rare showing of Scrooge having his meal in a tavern on his way home, and a new bit for the film gives a further demonstration of his miserliness when he calls for more bread, the waiter tells him it’s a halfpenny extra and he dismisses the man with a curt, “No more bread!” as if it were the waiter himself who had suggested it.
 
When Marley turns up, Horden’s performance is more on the sad and mournful side than the urgent and accusing tone which Jacob is often given, although I wouldn’t say that either decision was necessarily right or wrong. The Marley sequence stays very faithful to the book, even going so far as to include the lines about the toothpick which are hardly ever included in any other adaptations.
 
Past:
The Spirit doesn’t quite capture the strange, old-youngness of that described by Scrooge, nor its candle-like qualities, but overall it isn’t a bad attempt at trying to do a fairly faithful Ghost of Christmas Past, but more on the definitely older side.


Initially, this section stays faithful to the scenes as shown in the book, although with some changes and additions which particularly stand out. At the school, when Fan comes to collect Scrooge he tells her that she must live forever as she is the only person who has ever shown him any kindness, which rather seems to lay things on a bit thick with its attempting to foreshadow and make all the more impactful what is to come.
 
The ages of Scrooge and Fan have also been swapped around – we learn from an exchange between the older Scrooge and the Spirit as they watch that Scrooge’s mother died giving birth to him, just as Fan will evidently die giving birth to Fred, which is given as a reason why Scrooge’s father disliked him and why he disliked Fred.
 
We then go back to the book a bit more for the Fezziwigs’ part, at which as usual a version of the Belle character is present. I say ‘a version’ as she has been renamed Alice in this version, and from here we spear off into a lengthy sequence of original events not present in the book, although sometimes present and perhaps even copied in other adaptations.


Probably the most substantial new character created for this film is Jack Warner’s Mr Jorkin, who attempts to buy out Fezziwig, but the latter refuses. Jorkin is portrayed here as the face of then ‘modern’ industrial capitalism, interested only in making money and bringing in ‘machines’. Fezziwig is portrayed as the more paternalistic embodiment of an older era, who sees value in the past ways of doing things even if they may eventually drive him out of business.
 
Scrooge goes to work for Jorkin, who eventually does indeed get hold of Fezziwig’s business. It’s in Jorkin’s employee what Scrooge first meets Marley, and we see that the work together for many year before eventually taking over the company when it is found that Jorkin has embezzled the vast majority of the money from it. We also have a scene of Scrooge at his sister’s bedside as she lays dying, with him leaving the room – making clear his disgust at her husband and baby – too soon, so he doesn’t hear her ask him to look after Fred, which the older Scrooge now sees.
 
During all this, there’s a brief diversion back to the book where we get a version of the original Belle scene as Alice leaves Scrooge. Despite us then later going to the day Marley died, there’s no version of Belle’s other scene showing Alice happily married – although she does return again a little later in the film.

 
It’s in the section dealing with Marley’s death that we meet Mrs Dilber early in this version, made the charlady rather than the laundress here and hurrying to the offices of Scrooge & Marley to tell Scrooge that his partner is dying. Scrooge is unmoved and doesn’t go there until close of business – when Marley seems to be having a deathbed repentance for the way he has lived his life, although none of this means anything to Scrooge.
 
Present:
The Ghost of Christmas Present is shown as in the book, although he doesn’t age through the course of the sequence. There’s an interesting addition here where Scrooge already seems regretful, but despairingly tells the Spirit to go and redeem “some younger, more promising creature,” as he feels that it is already too late for him.

 
For a version which diverts so greatly from the book so often, it’s surprising that it also includes various original moments hardly ever present in other adaptations, and there’s another example of that here as we get a version of the visit to the miners. The Cratchit scene is also present reasonably faithfully as might be more expected, although Bob’s couple of references to “Martha, my dear” in the script here might put a certain section of the post-1960s audience more in mind of The Beatles than of Dickens.
 
The scene at Fred’s Christmas party is fairly short, not including any games so there’s no opportunity for Scrooge to join in with any of them. We also have an original sequence for this film showing what Alice is up to in the present, working with the poor – something which perhaps inspired the makers of the 2001 animated version to have their Belle doing the same.
 
Ignorance & Want are included, before Scrooge is left alone with the mocking, reproachful words of the Spirit ringing in his ears, waiting for his final ghostly visitor.
 
Yet to Come:
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is as you’d expect, although with a human hand being the one emerging from its sleeve to point at what Scrooge needs to see. Once again, as he did with the previous ghost, Scrooge insists that he is too old, but he is led along on his journeys nonetheless.


There are three main visions presented to Scrooge here, all of them taken fairly faithfully from the book but interestingly presented in the reverse order of how they appear in the original. So we start with the Cratchits mourning Tim, before we then go on to a pretty much complete version of the Old Joe scene, complete with the undertaker present as well as Mrs Dilber and the laundress – although tweaked, as mentioned, as Mrs Dilber was the laundress in the original.
 
We then have the two businessmen Scrooge spoke to at the very start of the film discussing his death, before the Spirit takes Scrooge to the graveyard and shows him his grave.
 
What’s To-Day:
In a scene pretty clearly inspired by the 1935 version, when Scrooge awakes it’s with Mrs Dilber coming into his rooms, and being very confused and indeed alarmed by the change in him. It’s with her in this version that Scrooge has his “what’s to-day?” exchange, and I must admit that she and Harrison play the whole scene very well, with Mrs Dilber seemingly worried she’s going to be assaulted by the manic Scrooge.


The boy below the window is still present in slightly reduced form here, however, with Scrooge calling down at him to go and buy the turkey – with his authentic original reply of “Walk-er!” also included. This version doesn’t make the change others often do of Scrooge going to see the Cratchits, but we do have a scene of them receiving the turkey and wondering who sent it – with Tim suggesting that he feels it must have been Scrooge.
 
There’s a rather sweet little addition which I do like when Scrooge goes to see Fred. In the book, he paces up and down outside before eventually going to the front door, whereas in this version the hesitation comes after he’s already been admitted by the maid, lingering in the hallway, afraid to make his presence known. The maid – perfectly played by Theresa Derrington in one of only two small film parts she ever had – gives him an encouraging little nod to go in, which is such a tiny thing but one of the film’s nicest moments. It seems I’m not the only one who thinks so, either.

 
It all wraps up with a version of the closing narration, and a well-again Tim running up to his Uncle Scrooge.
 
Review:
I’ve been a little hesitant about including this film on the blog. I was always going to get around to it eventually, of course. My aim is to try and review as many different adaptations of the story as I possibly can, and it’s not as if this one is in any way awful.
 
It’s just that it’s a film I know a lot of people love and hold very dear, but one which I don’t think justifies that adoration. Perhaps it’s all to do with context. Had I seen this film as a child, knowing nothing about it, perhaps I would have enjoyed it far more than I did. But I didn’t actually see it until I was in my late twenties, when I was already a big fan of the Carol, had seen various versions I enjoyed very much, and knew that this had the reputation for being the definitive screen interpretation.
 
Well, I’m sorry to say that in my view I don’t think that’s the case.


Having heard for so long about what a faithful version it was, I was very surprised when I eventually saw it to see just how much it monkeys about with the story. Now, I know that some of you who’ve read my other reviews will say, “But you forgive that in The Muppets or the 1970 musical!” Which is true. But both of those have the defence of being heightened realities of puppetry or musical. And, frankly, both of them still stay closer to the book than Noel Langley does with his screenplay here.
 
I think some of the problem I have with Langley’s changes is a similar reaction to that I had to the 2019 television version – they just seem to make the whole thing more pointlessly miserable. Not that this film is anywhere near as bad as that particular adaptation, I hasten to add. The sections where it sticks to the book are indeed excellent – and Sim in particular is very good.
 
It’s not an awful film by any means whatsoever. It’s just that it does put in a lot of stuff which isn’t present or even hinted-at in the book, and the vast majority of it doesn’t really add anything in particular to the story. You have to credit them for attempting to do some new and different things with a story which was even by then over a century old and incredibly well-known, but
 
But for me, its reputation can’t help but lead to disappointment, especially when you compare it to the 1970, 1999 or Muppet versions. There’s a very fine cast here and there are some very good bits. However, I’m afraid that if you’re looking for a definitive screen version of the Carol – if such a thing is even possible – then this isn’t it. But it is amiable enough, and there are certainly far poorer versions to be had.


In a nutshell:
It doesn’t live up to its reputation. While there are some nice performances in it, there are better adaptations of the Carol out there.
 
Links:
Wikipedia
IMDb

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Scrooge - 1970, film


Title:
Scrooge
 
Format:
Colour musical feature film
 
Country:
UK (although made with American money)
 
Production company:
Westbury Films, for Cinema Centre Productions
 
Year:
1970
 
Length:
113 minutes
 
Setting:
Victorian – specifically, 1860


Background:
In 1968, Dickens’s work had seen enormous success on the big screen with the release of Oliver!, a literally all-singing, all-dancing colour spectacular, adapted from the equally-successful stage musical version of 1960 by Lionel Bart. The success of Oliver! must have made the idea of creating a musical film from another of Dickens’s best-known works almost irresistible, although in this case the film was made directly for the screen. In fact, in something of a reversal of the way in which these things usually work, Scrooge was adapted into a stage musical in the early 1990s, and has often been revived since.
 
While Scrooge didn’t go on to achieve quite the same impact as Oliver!, it was certainly successful, being nominated for four Academy Awards. This included a nomination in the Best Original Song category for the showstopping Thank You Very Much, which is probably the song from the film which made the biggest impact and is its best-known number. The film itself turns up on British television every Christmas, often on one of the major channels, and is probably one of the most widely-known and best-loved versions of the story in the UK.
 
As is not uncommon with adaptations of the Carol, although this was made in England with a British cast and crew, the film was backed with American finance and produced for an American company. This rather works in its favour, though, having the authentic feeling of something made in the Carol’s home country, but with the budget to provide the spectacle you’d expect from a full-scale Hollywood musical.
 
Cast and crew:
One of the reasons for the great success of the film and its standing the test of time is surely down to the fact that it contains some of the absolute cream of British acting talent available at the time.
 
The cast is led by Albert Finney as Scrooge – as he was only 33 here, he’s aged-up surprisingly well for most of the scenes, but is also able to play the younger Scrooge in the Christmas Past section more convincingly than is usually the case when the same actor does both. Finney had come to prominence as part of the ‘Angry Young Man’ new wave of young British actors of the 1960s, starring in the likes of The Entertainer, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and Tom Jones. One of his co-stars in the latter was Dame Edith Evans, a three-time Academy Award nominee and a Victorian by birth herself, who here appears as a rather different, matronly interpretation of the Ghost of Christmas Past.


There are some hugely esteemed names in other ghostly parts as well, with none other than Sir Alec Guinness seeming to enjoy himself hugely with a rather sarcastic and mischievous Marley. The Ghost of Christmas Present is played with the customary gusto by Kenneth More, who’d been the foursquare hero of black-and-white war films such as Reach for the Sky and Sink the Bismarck, as well as the acclaimed Titanic drama A Night to Remember. A major UK star of the fifties and early sixties, More was just past the peak of his movie fame here, but had recently enjoyed something of a renaissance as one of the leads of the enormously popular BBC television adaptation of The Forsyte Saga.
 
Speaking of British television, many of the supporting parts are filled with faces which will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of some of its most popular programmes of the late 20th century. David Collings is well-remembered for his supporting roles in a huge number of popular drama series, including the likes of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, and his recurring part of Silver in Sapphire and SteelCatweazle’s Geoffrey Bayldon appears as toyshop owner Pringle, while renowned comic actor Roy Kinnear is one of the two Charitable Gentlemen.

 
Anton Rodgers appears as Tom Jenkins, a character not featured in the book, a hot soup seller who owes Scrooge money. Rodgers would later achieve TV fame as the star of sitcoms Fresh Fields and May to December, but his role here in Scrooge stands out as it’s he who gets the memorable Thank You Very Much number.
 
In fact, you could name pretty much anyone who has a speaking part as being a memorable turn from some other British film or television programme – Mary Peach, for example, as the wife of Scrooge’s nephew, who these days is well-remembered by Doctor Who fans for her role as Astrid Ferrier in the serial The Enemy of the World
 
Behind the cameras, Leslie Bricusse was responsible for the music and lyrics and also for the film’s screenplay as a whole. By this point, Bricusse had a strong reputation for his success with musical feature films. He’d provided the songs for the 1969 musical version of Goodbye, Mr Chips, and as with Scrooge had taken on screenplay duties in addition to the songs for the 1967 version of Doctor Dolittle. Bricusse won an Oscar for his work on Dolittle, and had also co-written the James Bond themes Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice – so he certainly had the sort of pedigree needed for the job of turning one of English literature’s best-loved stories into a musical.
 
Director Ronald Neame was by this point nearly sixty, and had enjoyed a long and successful career in film, initially as a cinematographer and then a producer. In the latter role he had experience of success with Dickens adaptations, having produced David Lean’s versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in 1946 and 1948 respectively. Neame had turned to directing in the 1950s, notably helming the war film The Man Who Never Was, and after Scrooge went on to direct the Hollywood disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure. Coming into Scrooge, his previous film had been The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which had won a Best Actress Oscar for Maggie Smith.
 
Underdone Potato:
One issue with making a musical version is that you have to compress some of the other elements to make way for the songs. While there is nothing major or important missing from this version of the story, some nice bits are slimmed down – for example, the visit of Scrooge’s nephew, Harry in this version, loses some of the best bits of dialogue from the book.


Right from the very off, however, Finney’s, snivelling, sneering, meticulously coin-counting performance as Scrooge dominates and delights. It could, perhaps, risk falling into a kind of cartoon caricature, but Finney is far too fine an actor for that. All the little bits of business around his coins and his keys and his safes simply add flourishes, rather than detracting or distracting from what’s at hand.
 
David Collings makes for a much more charming and less wet and insipid Bob Cratchit than is often the case, and the same can be said for Richard Beaumont’s performance as Tim, who while having a boyish innocence to him is again stopped from being too sickly both by the acting and the scripting. He gets an early appearance in the story here, joining his father and one of his sisters on the walk home, a song number through the Christmas shopping. The walk home’s a bit harsh on Mrs Cratchit though, as we see him buying a Christmas pudding rather than her own home-made one being a triumph as described in the book. When Bob first meets them they are busy peering into the window of a toy shop, in a scene which makes me wonder if it may have been inspired by Tim also doing so in the 1951 version.

If you think fourpence is a bit steep for it, then you ought
to have let your wife make one like she does in the book!
 
Scrooge also gets a song on the way home, a journey upon which he checks up on various of his debtors. Even against the Christmas Carol opening and Father Christmas taunting of him by the carol singers, his song is perhaps the best of the opening section. It seems an odd choice in an uplifting Christmas family musical to have a song called I Hate People, perhaps, but it feels appropriate particularly to a British audience as you can easily imagine the song being performed by the main villain in a traditional festive pantomime.
 
Scrooge encounters the charitable gentlemen on his walk home rather than in the office on this occasion, but his dialogue with them is substantially similar. We then get one of the big name actors in supporting parts, as no less than Alec Guinness turns up clearly enjoying himself immensely as quite a darkly comic and at times even camp Jacob Marley.


Past:
Edith Evans is, of course, absolutely nothing at all like the Ghost of Christmas Past as described in the book. But her performance as the gently nagging, matronly ghost is such good fun that I find I can forgive it.

 
The school scenes are comparatively brief, although there is an interesting change in that one of the children happily leaving the school for the Christmas holidays is Scrooge’s sister, Fan, which makes you wonder how they’d both been sent away to the same school together, and then she was allowed home but he was not. We do then get the scene from a later Christmas where she comes and takes him back home. She refers to him here as “Ebbie”, which is mildly distracting if you’ve seen a later version where that’s the name of a female Scrooge!

Much of this section, however, concentrates on the Fezziwig party, with a riotous depiction of the festivities at their Christmas party accompanied by the jolly December the 25th song. As is common – almost usual, really, for adaptations – Belle is present at the party. Less commonly, she’s also made the Fezziwigs’ daughter in this version – it a rare but not absolutely unheard-of change, with Jack Thorne also having done it in his stage version, for example.

 
Belle is actually referred to as Isabelle throughout, and there’s a bit of a cheat here – we drift away from the Christmas party to see Scrooge’s memories of being with her at sunnier times of year, boating and carriage-riding. Much of this is in the presumably chaperoning company of Mr and Mrs Fezziwig, presumably standing in for the function of the second Belle scene, which isn’t present – showing Scrooge the married life he could have had through their example, rather than through Belle’s actual marriage to another man.

 
Having Finney young enough to play the young Scrooge is a definite example here, and works particularly well in the scene where Belle eventually leaves him. Finney’s putting on a voice for the older Scrooge, and is half-way to it in the scene where she leaves him, giving a more convincing link between the older and younger versions than is often the case in adaptations where it’s a different actor involved – or where you’ve got Seymour Hicks trying to get away with pretending to be several decades younger than he actually is!


Finney also does a terrific job as the Scrooge saddened and even crushed by what he’s seen, telling the Spirit to remove him from the place where Belle has left him as he can stand it no longer. He has some heavyweight competition from the likes of Caine and Stewart, of course, but it’s possible he could be the best actor ever to have portrayed Ebenezer on screen. I would go that far.
 
Present:
Speaking of terrific actors, however, we’re treated to another one as one of the great British film stars of the mid-20th century, Kenneth More, pops in for a turn as the Ghost of Christmas Present, looking and being introduced pretty much exactly as described in the book, at the head of a enormous pile of Christmas treats and delicacies.


There’s a longer sequence than in the book of the Spirit and Scrooge within Scrooge’s rooms before they go out and about, due to the Spirit – unlike the past – having its own musical number, I Like Life, which is great fun and one of the more memorable songs from the film. He also has a line I’ve always really liked which is specific to this film and not in the book, where he calls Scrooge a “weird little man” – something about the way More delivers this always tickles me.
 
After they do eventually get out and about, we have the two main scenes usually present in this section, of the Cratchits’ Christmas and Scrooge’s nephew’s Christmas party. There’s an interesting line, given, the circumstances, added here about the nephew being “haunted” by his Uncle Ebenezer, which is technically true in this instance! They do a really good job of showing it to be the jolly party of the book, however, relating what Dickens describes as Scrooge’s excitement at joining in with the games being played.


There’s then a touch of what comes out on a few occasions through the film and works very effectively, even after his later redemption – the melancholia of Scrooge, when he’s shown the error of his ways. The time and the opportunities wasted, and the inability to ever get those chances back again, shown here as he drifts off into a reverie about those long-ago Fezziwig Christmases as his nephew’s guest say their farewells at the end of the evening.
 
There’s no reference to the ageing of the Spirit, and Ignorance and Want do not appear, although there is a nice bit of new dialogue from the Spirit where he tells Scrooge that you can’t do everything that you want in life, but it’s important to do as much as you can in the time that you have.


Yet to Come:
There’s a decent little scare from the figure of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come being suddenly and silently present in Scrooge’s rooms, with its sleeves covering its arms so that even its traditional pointing finger does not emerge, rendering is very mysterious and enigmatic indeed.


We’re transported to the future, and to perhaps the best-known moment of the film and certainly its best-remembered musical number. Tom Jenkins, the hot soup man who was one of several characters we met near the start who owe Scrooge money, leads an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular chorus in the anthemic Thank You Very Much – which sounds cheery enough when you hear the song in isolation, but of course in the context of the film they’re all delighted that Scrooge has died. So I suppose really it’s an alternative to the scene of the relieved young couple in the book.


After that, there’s the comedown of a visit to the Cratchits, although no Bob – instead we travel to the graveyard to see him tending Tim’s grave, before Scrooge is shown his own. There’s a bit of a misstep here as the intended jump scare reveal of the Spirit’s skull face and skeleton hands as Scrooge falls into the grave looks more comic than anything, the Spirit looking a bit too much like a cheap Halloween toy.
 
There’s a radical departure from the novel here as we see Scrooge’s descent into hell, where Marley and a lot of sweaty, muscular, topless devils carrying his chain are waiting for him. It’s perhaps a bit much, but when you have as big a star as Alec Guinness then I suppose of course you want to make the most of him. I do like the way he does the same little wave through the closing door as he did when leaving Scrooge’s room earlier in the film.


What’s To-Day:
The final section is a sort of ‘Greatest Hits’ of reprises of some of the big hooks from earlier in the film – Father Christmas and of course Thank You Very Much, although when Scrooge first awakes from his night with the Spirits he has a nice, slower number about having the chance to begin again.
 
The boy who Scrooge meets – standing at his doorway rather than shouting down from the window on this occasion – gets a slightly bigger role here, having a sled with him on which he helps convey Scrooge and his purchases around the snowy streets on the way to the Cratchits’ house. With all the song-and-dance numbers there’s no time for a visit to his nephew’s house before the end of the film, but there is a meeting with him and his wife in the street, when he says he’ll come for dinner later – and he charitable gentlemen get their donation, too.

 
After buying a Father Christmas costume and half a toyshop, Scrooge finally arrives at the Cratchits to deliver their gifts. It may be pathetically soppy of me, but I always get a little twinge at the moment where he pretends to have forgotten a toy for Tiny Tim – then gives him the carousel he’d been admiring in the toyshop window near the start of the film. Nice line from Tim, too, again just about undercutting any sickliness – “you didn’t steal it, did you?”
 
I do also love the very end of the whole thing, which unlike most versions doesn’t go for some sort of version of the book’s closing passage as narration. Instead, as the singing and dancing continues off into to the distance, an exhausted but happy Scrooge steps away towards his house, and the melancholy feeling the film offers up at various moments returns. Scrooge is redeemed, and happy, but there is a kind of bittersweet moment to it. He gives an earnest, almost desperate-seeming “Merry Christmas!” to those around him who no longer seem to have any consciousness of him as they dance and whirl away.
 
There’s a sense of the regret, and the wasted years… But there’s still that happiness in it all, as he puts his Father Christmas hat and beard onto the doorknocker and tells Jacob Marley that they finally made a Merry Christmas after all.

 
Review:
I have to admit that this wasn’t exactly an adaptation I was coming into blind. It’s a version of A Christmas Carol which I have watched many times and loved ever since I first saw it when it was shown on BBC1 one Christmas when I was a very young child – I can’t say for sure exactly how old, but it must have either been the 1991 showing on the 22nd of December when I was seven, or perhaps even the 1989 Boxing Day showing when I was five.
 
Either way, in my young mind it became – along with the 1984 George C. Scott version – one of the two default ‘proper’ versions of the Carol, and I’m not sure I’ve ever quite shifted from that opinion. For one thing, it perhaps has the greatest cast of any adaptation yet made. Finney is wonderful as both the miserly Scrooge and the one full of joy at the end. The breadth and depth of the casting is perhaps shown by the scene in the toyshop after Scrooge’s redemption, with Geoffrey Bayldon doing a superb job as the bemused toyshop owner and Finney throwing himself into it as the manic Scrooge who seems obsessed with buying up everything. Both star turn and bit-part player actors of great calibre, and the whole film is absolutely stuffed through with such quality.


However, if I wasn’t coming into it blind, nor am I absolutely blind to its faults. It does some of the things I’ve always been critical of other versions of the story for on here, namely making changes that seem to be for change’s sake, rather than for any particular reason. So, setting the story in 1860 rather than 1843, and calling Scrooge’s nephew Harry instead of Fred. Why?
 
Something more substantial which you could genuinely take exception to is Marley’s reappearance towards the end, with Scrooge’s descent into hell. But for some reason, I have a hard time getting upset about this. Perhaps because it’s nice to have a chance to see Alec Guinness pop up again as one of the best screen Marleys. But perhaps it’s also because – as with the Muppet version – when the whole film is taking place within a heightened reality anyway, in this case as a musical, it’s perhaps easier to forgive the story being messed about with than it is in a supposedly ‘straight’ adaptation.


Speaking of it being musical, while not every single song is a classic, there are plenty of anthemic numbers to really lift you up – particularly the opening Christmas Carol overture, and I Like Life, and the justly-lauded Thank You Very Much, which has very much become the film’s signature song. Bricusse hits just the right festive note with the songs, Neame has assembled an absolutely stellar cast, and on the whole this is a terrifically cheerful and uplifting Christmas film. A joy from the first peel of bells to the closing title card.
 
In a nutshell:
Obviously it depends on whether or not you enjoy musicals. But if you do, then this is very much one of the finest and most enjoyable adaptations of the Carol that you could possibly hope to see.
 
Links:
Wikipedia
IMDb