When Dickens, in his eternal fable of goodwill and socialism, wrote those immortal words “no cheeses for us meeces”, how was he to know that those “meeces” would one day mean paying members of a theatre audience and those “cheeses” would mean ‘substantive stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol“?
There’s nothing too wrong with Patrick Barlow’s version. He brings the same lo-fi fun and knowingly am-dram aesthetic that he brought to The 39 Steps and Ben-Hur. A cast of five plays all the roles and there’s no attempt to hide any of the cracks in its theatricality. But there are no Muppets. Puppets, yes. Muppets? No. No Muppets. This seems to be a persistent problem with stage, and even most film, adaptations of A Christmas Carol.
Because the thing about having a Muppet or two is that they don’t devalue the story in any way whatsoever. In fact, they make the story even more potent. They serve as a comic counterpoint to the soulful and melancholy story of a man who has a cheese dream about meeting three phantasmagorical incarnations of Jeremy Corbyn, learns to disavow capitalism and, along the way, finds his heart.
Dickens was a bit of a comedian himself: “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you lol!” Scrooge jeers at one of the spirits (Notice how Old Ebenezer only mocks the Corbyn of Christmas Past because he knows that if he mocked either of the other two he’d get gut-punched into the fucking afterlife. Seriously, I wouldn’t try cracking a joke with the Corbyn of Christmas Future. He doesn’t even have a face. He probably ripped it off himself in a bar brawl in heaven just to prove how fucking hard he was to all the other angels and Jesuses and ghosts).
But even Greatest-Living-Author-Of-All-Time-(Even-If-He-Did-Write-Really-Long-And-Often-REALLY-Boring-Books-But-I-Guess-They-Can’t-All-Be-Hits)-Dickens’s acid wit is nothing in comparison to the sense of humour that Muppets have. Just look at them! They even look funny! Some of them have funny noses and one of them’s a frog and one’s a pig.
And amid the raillery of the furry Muppets, Michael Caine makes the greatest career decision of the whole of his career bar none – not even the bit where he blows the bloody doors off or the bit where he ‘won’t bury another Batman’ – and decides to play Scrooge completely straight. Wow.
‘Michael, you’re surrounded by bits of fuzz and cloth with fingers poked up their felty little bums so you can be as silly as you like. You know, just have fun out there, just enjoy yourself.’
‘No, Brian (the director). This is a serious role. Do you think Christmas is a joke? A farce, folly, jape, bagatelle, caprice, trifle, triviality, stuff or nonsense? Do you, Brian (the director)?’
‘Sorry Michael you’re absolutely right. In that case I shall ask the men with their fingers in the Muppet bumholes to tone down the humour there too?’
‘No Brian (director)! Have you been listening to a word I said? The funny Muppets serve as a comic counterpoint to the soulful and melancholy story, ok? They’re fine, leave them be, but I’m doing it straight. Got that?’
There’s a subtlety there that’s missing from, well, all of his other roles. In that final revelation by the Ghost of Corbyn Yet To Come that the headstone is – no way! – Scrooge’s own grave, Caine is genuinely moving. Barlow’s adaptation erases that bit. Which is fine, I suppose. You know it’s important for an author to feel like they own the story espesh when you’re meddling with CHARLES MOTHERTOOTIN DICKENS. If you can’t beat them (‘them’ being the Greatest Great British Author of All TIME) then still try to beat them but pretend it was all actually a joke.
‘Do you think someone should rewrite A Christmas Carol and change the ending?’
‘HAHHAAAHAA no obviously not that’s a ridiculous idea Patrick! It’s a perfectly written morality tale about Conservative greed and if you rewrite it you WILL fail.’
‘Haha yeah I was joking too.’
Wait. Wait a sec. What?? WHAT???!!! Where’s the grave scene Patrick Barlow? Broadbent don’t do this! Where’s the grave scene? Oh look, Broadbent, they all suddenly say, it was all a play all along! The people who were pretending to be stage-hands and changing the wobbly sets and doing all the puppets (no, I said puppets, not Muppets. There are NO Muppets in this one) were actually actually stage-hands!!! Broadbent does a dance and then everyone forgets about that bit and does the final scene like it never happened.
Now, as I have explained, Michael Caine acts straight alongside the funny little Muppets. Broadbent doesn’t. That’s fine, that’s ok. Nothing wrong with it. He isn’t nasty or scary or moody or even that miserly. He spends money on gimmicks in his office to draw in the punters – like a phonograph that plays those tinny Christmas carols you hear on T-Mobile customer services hotline when you’re trying to negotiate more free data because you’ve used it all up that month because you’ve been streaming the YouTube video of Beaker singing Carol of the Bells on a loop since Advent started. Broadbent chuckles a lot. ‘Haha!’ he says in every single line. ‘Haha!’. And the holy trinity of Corbyns makes him exasperated more than penitent. Like he only has a change of heart because we know he has to. Just to do the plot properly.
So what I’m saying is that the potency of one of the greatest fables of all time is diluted by flippancy, deliberate clumsiness and a disgraceful lack of repentance. And I just don’t think that would have happened if there had been a Muppet. Even like one little Muppet, just a small one. Even just one of the meeces who have no cheese because George Osborne has taxed mouseholes so the mouse family has had to cut back on cheese in order to be able to pay.
So there are two Christmas messages this year: 1. Muppets. 2. Remember: it’s not just Jere-ME Corbyn. It’s Jere-YOU and Jere-WE Corbyn too. Happy Christmas.
“Spirit,” said George, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”
“No, no,” said George. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
George hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.
“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
George bent before the Ghost’s rebuke, and trembling cast his eyes upon the ground.