I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it’.
So runs Dickens’ comforting preface to his Christmas Carol. It’s full of bonhomie and Dickensian word play. Dickens hopes that the reading of his Carol will be a pleasant experience. One in which the whole family will perhaps gather around the average Victorian fireside, whilst mother reads the Carol aloud to her bright-eyed, eager-eared children. There the middle-class Victorians sit, as mama conjures up the grotesque but comical caricature that is Scrooge…….old, frosty, pointy-nosed, skeletal, miserly Scrooge.
Enter Scrooge 2019, as I sit in front of my fake Victorian fireplace, powered by electricity, not by child labour at the coal face. 2019 Scrooge is young, tall, menacingly handsome, and looks as sexy as hell (a place he’s about to re-visit) in his Victorian frock coat, his long hair slicked back over its collar. It’s like Heathcliffe strode off the pages of Wuthering Heights and somehow ended up in a counting house in London. Only Scrooge no longer inhabits a dingy counting house. This time he’s in investment (Oh, the evils of capitalism) and continually paces about in a still dingy, but cavernous workplace. Mostly talking to himself, but occasionally conversing with a rebellious Bob Cratchit, whose resentment simmers just below the surface.
The Beeb’s A Christmas Carol, by Peaky Blinders Steven Knight, was not a story to tell around a cosy Christmas fireplace. That Victorian mother would have had to open her pleasant, though cautionary, tale, thus:
Listen carefully children and I’ll begin. It was a dark and stormy night (‘oohhh!’ the little ones would shiver delightfully in anticipation.) So dark that you could barely see a thing. We are in a graveyard (again a shiver) and snow is on the trees, and on the ground, and on the headstones. In front of one headstone stands a boy. He’s not like you my dear, pampered, middle-class children. He’s an urchin, a guttersnipe, his face filled with the resentment and hatred of the labouring classes. Do you know what he does next? (No, breathe the 19th century kiddiwinks.) He takes a fucking piss on that headstone.
I am a stranger to Peaky Blinders, intentionally so. I abhor violence dressed up as entertainment. Had I been Victorian, I’d have similarly avoided the dog fights and the bare-fist fights and all the other equally revolting ‘entertaining’ pastimes the 19th Century Brits went in for. I’m, therefore, also a stranger to Steven Knight, author of Peaky Blinders. (Apparently, back in the day, he helped create ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ Such are the absurdities of life.)
Nowadays Knight likes to shine a light into the dark places, forcing his viewers to confront what’s there in the hidden depths (no thanks.) But A Christmas Carol is my favourite tale, so I had to go there.
The latest A Christmas Carol was all shot in black and blue, like a painful bruise. A definitely dark and dingy place, so that I had to stumble around my TV screen trying to catch a glimpse of what was going on, and had I gone deaf? Worrying ever so slightly that I’d experienced sudden sensorineural deafness, I continually pushed the volume button on my remote control, until it reached the dizzying heights of 33. My usual ‘loudness’ threshold is 12, much to the husband’s consternation.
Knight forsook all of Dickens’ original dialogue (save for a few sacred lines) and forsook most of the story too. In Knight’s version the women were all-powerful (unlike in Dickens, famous for his overly reverent characterisation of women as meek, mild and highly domesticated, with a propensity to die prematurely.) So powerful is Mary Cratchit that it turns out she’s one of the Furies no less. Those Greek Goddesses hellbent on vengeance. Also, the guardians of Law, when the Greek state did not intervene. And the state rarely intervened in the good old Victorian times either. So, Mary calls on Justice to teach young, sexy Scrooge a lesson. Mrs Cratchit, that bit-player in the original Carol, becomes the orchestrator of Scrooge’s fate, by summoning the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future – hell hath no fury like a mother scorned.
But this was also as much Jacob Marley’s story as Scrooge’s. The pissing boy woke young Marley up in his too early grave. And Marley swung into working class hell, where a blacksmith was busy forging the souls of the victims of capitalism into endless iron chains. One such chain he threw around Marley’s neck and then sent him on his way. Dragged through a deserted snowy landscape, filled with non-decorated Christmas trees, Marley wound up at a gigantic bonfire where the ghost of Christmas past was chucking cherished items from Marley’s innocent past into the flames. Can Scrooge and Marley rise from the ashes of their own bonfire of the vanities?
Marley only wants to rest in peace, for hasn’t he rung the bell and repented? The pagan ghost of Christmas past wants more than just empty words, however. He wants real repentance in action. To this end he ties Marley’s fate to Scrooge’s. If Scrooge truly repents then Marley will RIP.
Interestingly, the original Carol is free from the religious fervour which dominated Victorian life. For sure, Dickens gets in the occasional reference to Christ and, most famously, has Tiny Tim utter his God bless us everyone! But mostly the Carol is a surprisingly modern tale, as the three irreligious ghosts take Scrooge on a journey through his own psyche. No wonder it has lent itself to numerous interpretations.
Sexy Scrooge isn’t a repenter; he’s far too independent and knowing for that. Whereas Dickens’ Scrooge began to repent in a hasty fashion (A Christmas Carol is after all a short novella) Knights’ Scrooge takes three one-hour episodes to get around to it – and is his cold, realistic heart fully thawed?
Cool Scrooge is also too clever for religion – it’s all bah and humbug. Why would Bob, his clerk, believe that 25th December was really Christ’s birthday? There’s no mention of it in the bible. There’s no snow in the middle east. How silly, thick and stupidly sentimental are the working class. Scrooge is a Nazi overlord, a Dr Evil. A cold scientist for whom the underclass provides a disposable resource for his experiments in human behaviour – like so many lab rats trapped in their impoverished cages.
The homeless. The laudanum addicts. Those in the workhouses. They’re sub-human to the capitalists.
Why does Knight’s Scrooge conduct psychological experiments on the ‘human beast?’ This wasn’t made clear. Did it afford him a sense of control after a childhood of despair inflicted by controlling adults? The abuse he endured at the hands of a teacher, aided by his own father; the abuse inflicted by that father at home; the death of two precious things he loved – a white mouse with a bell (named Erasmus meaning beloved) and his sister – would turn anyone against the human beasts. Best not to care. Best to talk to yourself. Who else can you trust?
2019 Scrooge is as set in his human hating ways as Dickens’ Ebeneezer, but this time around he’s too fully self-aware; too OCD; too devilishly handsome and young to let the ghosts completely win him over. For that reason, one of the ghosts had to be his sister. Not his sister Fan in the book, of whom Dickens tells us very little, beyond the fact that she was yet another meek and mild young woman who died young. Sexy Scrooge’s sister is Lottie, who strides around looking like a highway(wo)man and was a scientist. She takes Scrooge to church, where we meet the pissing boy from the graveyard. Turns out he was part of a mine disaster caused by Scrooge and Marley’s capitalistic, cost-cutting ways. But still this Scrooge doesn’t completely cave in to the ghosts’ guilt fest.
The deadly ghost of Christmas future drops by as Tiny Tim drops through the ice, whilst ice skating without permission. Down he drops, through the ceiling of Scrooge’s office, and Scrooge is helpless to save him.
The silent pall bearer, that is the ghost of Scrooge’s future, shows Scrooge his own grave and there Scrooge sits, alongside the ghostly Marley, in the cold, cold snow. Scrooge knows he’s done wrong. The ghosts, and the Cratchits, have taught him their lessons so thoroughly that he doesn’t care that he will die unmourned and unloved – it’s all he deserves. This Scrooge isn’t Dickens’ cowed and pleading old man, begging for forgiveness. Sexy Scrooge is still defiant in the face of lessons learned, still too self-aware, excepting that he now cares for one of the human beasts. He wants Tiny Tim to live and to this end he averts the ice skating disaster. Does Tiny Tim appeal to Scrooge’s own lost and damaged inner child? Suddenly Marley and all three ghosts melt away, like the ice around Scrooge’s heart. Scrooge and Marley have been granted redemption.
Knight’s version did away with Fezziwig and Scrooge’s forsaken girlfriend and the altogether happier elements of Scrooge’s youth. It also did away with the reconciliation with his nephew Fred. Instead Knight gave us a back story of abuse so unremittingly bleak that I understood Scrooge’s hatred of mankind and his obsessive behaviours, designed to protect himself from the madness of others. Despite his sister’s insistence that his past offered no excuses, I didn’t quite believe her. That’s where Knight’s re-imagining of Scrooge failed. This Scrooge had suffered too much. He deserved as much help and kindness as the Cratchits.
The Greek fury that was Mary Cratchit ended the piece with a direct look at camera, instructing us all that there is still much to be done. There was no joyous dancing around a la Alastair Sim. No sending around of a ginormous turkey. No second fathering to Tiny Tim. There was very, very little in the way of the comfort and joy Dickens brought to his original classic story. No unbridled optimism. Just Scrooge, as ‘knowing’ as he’d been at the beginning, promising to do the best he could, whilst stopping short of a full yuletide transformation. And the Cratchit family showing absolutely no gratitude at all for the £500 cheque he forced upon them (and why should they? But it’s a damn sight better than a turkey.)
As Tiny Tim didn’t observe: ‘God bless us, everyone! But Scrooge can go to hell in a handbasket.’