Features Published 28 December 2019

A Quease-mas Carol

Leaves you feeling Peaky: Natasha Tripney dissects Steven Knight’s cruelly misjudged Dickens adaptation for the BBC.

Natasha Tripney
Charles Dickens c.1860s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Dickens c.1860s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the collective noun for Christmas Carols? A wreath? A Henson? I ask because there are a lot of them around this year. The Stage reviewed 14 different stage versions of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, but I’m sure there were more. There were Christmas Carols in Bristol, in Edinburgh, in Pitlochry; Theatr Clwyd staged a promenade version. This year I saw two stage Scrooges: at the Old Vic, Jack Thorne’s adaptation returned for a third year, with Paterson Joseph donning Scrooge’s dressing gown (different iterations of Thorne’s Carol are also playing in Dublin and New York) and a version at Wilton’s Music Hall by Piers Torday, that imagined what would happen if Ebenzer’s sister Fan was the surviving Scrooge sibling. I’ll admit to shedding a tear or two during Thorne’s version.

It’s understandable why we’re seeing a surge of Scrooges; we’ve had nine grinding years of Tory government, homelessness and the use of food banks are on the rise and there’s been a resurgence in Victorian attitudes towards the poor and vulnerable (sadly unaccompanied by those about civic responsibility). Dickens’ story endures because it’s about giving, not only of the contents of your pockets, and not merely for the duration of one day, but of yourself, of your heart.

Which brings me to the new BBC co-production by Peaky Blinders‘ creator Steven Knight, starring Guy Pearce as a dapper, if ever so slightly cadaverous version of Dickens’ cantankerous ‘old sinner.’ It’s fair to say that the three hour, three-episode (the Muppets, remember, did it in half the time) ‘gritty’ Scrooge reboot did not sit well with me; not because I think Dickens shouldn’t be tinkered with (I am of the opinion it’s not a proper Christmas until Carol Kane’s Ghost of Christmas Present has slammed a toaster into Bill Murray’s face), not just because Jacob Marley said “fuck” a few times, nor as a result of internal distemper caused by an undigested bit of nutroast, a fragment of an underdone potato or, more realistically, an excess of prosecco, but because in its determination to add grit to Dickens, it fundamentally unbalanced the narrative.

It didn’t help that the pacing was glacial; it’s almost an hour until we meet Andy Serkis’ Ghost of Christmas Past and it’s padded out with so much unnecessary backstory – I doubt anyone has ever read Dickens’ original and thought what it was lacking was subplot explaining how Jacob Marley acquired his chains, but this version gives us one anyway. It was also incredibly heavy-handed in its attempts to demonstrate just how bad a man this Scrooge is. Far more than just an uncharitable grouch, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching” old miser who doesn’t give two hoots for the needy, he’s an uncaring imperialist whose cost-cutting ways lead to the deaths of numerous workers. He regards people as little better than beasts and displays a near-sociopathic desire to test his theories about the lengths to which people will go to survive.

It’s not that Knight’s adaptation was devoid of intriguing ideas. The way Scrooge conducted conversations with Marley’s empty chair was oddly moving, suggesting loneliness and grief were contributing factors to his callousness. There was something admirable in its desire to make it clear that Scrooge and Marley’s acquisitive behaviour has real-world consequences, that they were responsible for the suffering of others, for the ruining of countless lives. There was also something interesting in the rejection of the idea of instantaneous redemption and that a Christmas goose, however large, can atone for years of self-serving behaviour. Or, at least, it might have been interesting if it was more subtly handled.

But subtlety was notably absent. Instead we were presented with the decidedly un-festive scenario of the young Scrooge being pimped out by his own father to his schoolmaster. I suspect even Frank Cross, Bill Murray’s ruthless television exec in Scrooged would have baulked at the idea of throwing in some peadophilia but, no, Scrooge’s lack of compassion stems in part, it turns out, from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. While it’s true that the abused can go on to become abusers, this is a narrative choice that needs to be handled with a level of care not in evidence here, nuance also being in short supply.

Grim as this all was, Knight wasn’t done. He went on to show Scrooge subjecting Bob Cratchit’s wife Mary (Vinette Robinson, transcending the material and bringing real emotional depth to the role) to a humiliating and terrifying ordeal so that she can secure some money for an operation for the sickly Tiny Tim. He makes her debase herself to serve is own needs, justifying it as kind of scientific experiment. It’s hard to convey how repellent this scene was, how hard to watch.

I’ll be charitable (‘tis the season and all that) and suggest that Knight wanted to show how women suffer lasting trauma while men get to fling some money around, make a glib statement about mending their ways while essentially coming out clean – Robinson’s Mary clearly can’t and won’t forgive him – but even if this was the case, it’s still presented by way of a protracted scene in which we see her sobbing with repulsion and fear as she slowly peels off her clothes, a scene which doesn’t spare us a close-up of her bare body to make it clear to how exposed and desperate she is, how naked he has made her. Merry fucking Christmas.

Not only is it an ugly scene, it’s one that’s hard to come back from dramatically. Why on earth should we care about this man’s emotional journey now? In Knight’s hands, the character has become a sort of horrific amalgam of Harvey Weinstein and George Osborne (my apologies for the mental image) and we’re still supposed to be invested in his redemption? And why, once again, is a woman’s pain being used as a catalyst for a man’s salvation? And, more specifically in this instance, why do we need to see a black woman broken solely to serve a white man’s story?

I’m so tired of seeing scenes like this. They are not provocative. They’re not edgy. They’re wearyingly over-familiar and, worse, they’re cumulatively damaging. This imagery accretes. It seeps into the world. As a teenage cinephile I used to adore the films of Robert Altman, but I find many of them difficult to enjoy now because so many include scenes in which women are ridiculed and humiliated. Think of Sally Kellerman’s Hot Lips in MASH, left cowering and naked on the shower floor, or that moment in Short Cuts when Julianne Moore’s character has an argument with her husband while wearing only a T-shirt and naked from the waist down. I did not expect to come away from a BBC version of A Christmas Carol of all things reminded of all the many iterations of this scene I’ve seen on screen and stage over the years. It even made me briefly remember that David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat existed and, trust me, that’s not what anyone wants for Christmas. Can we please just stop with this shit now?

While that was the most egregious addition, Knight’s adaptation does other things that deviate from the original in ways that feel wrong-headed. The decision to have Tiny Tim (engagingly played by Lenny Rush, who also played the role in the Old Vic version) expire, not as a consequence of poverty and hardship – Dickens was inspired by his own childhood experience of debt and his visits to London’s ragged schools – but a tragic accident further muddies things, given that no charitable intervention could have prevented it, no act of benevolence. Other than making for a striking image, what was it supposed to add? The suggestion that Mary Cratchit might have some kind of supernatural, witchy woman powers also feels staggeringly misjudged. Why flesh out a character only to serially misuse her? I’m not opposed to a radical adaption,, but this was ugly stuff.

One of the last scenes sees Marley and Scrooge leaning against two piss-soaked gravestones; this at least feels fitting. The whole thing left me feeling unclean.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.