Looking Back At A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1977) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1977)

Tony’s speeding through Dickens.
The weirdest thing about the 1977 BBC production of A Christmas Carol is probably that until Guy Pearce took on the mantle of Scrooge in 2019, it remained the only time the BBC had covered Dickens’ pivotal Christmas story.

The second weirdest thing is that given the absolutely-top class cast it has, and the BBC’s equally top-class reputation for period drama, the decision was taken not to split the story into episodes, but to do the whole thing… in one hour.


Full marks to Elaine Morgan on dramatization duties, because she’s intelligent enough to rewrite practically none of the scenes as written by Dickens – too many adaptations work on the principle that getting ‘close’ to the story and the dialogue is good enough. For the most part, any version that does that ends up being a less effective drama than the original book. So, as we say, full marks to Elaine Morgan for having the restraint to understand it’s a book written by an absolute master of his craft, and you mess with it at your peril.

That means you get a great deal of pure Dickens here – which in adaptations of A Christmas Carol can only be a very good thing.

You’ll thank your stars for the work of Moira Armstrong on directing duties too, because there’s a genuinely intelligent guiding hand behind the way shots are framed and shot here, that makes you nod in appreciation. Just as an example, the scene after Marley visits Scrooge and leaves via the window, merging into a misty world of wandering, tormented spirits is delivered here in a mostly ‘real’ sequence, with actors seeming to whirl like dervishes at a pillow fight.

When faced with the time limit of delivering A Christmas Carol in an hour, many a director would be tempted to cut the visual of that scene altogether – which would be a trap, because the scene always adds scope and terror to the fate of Marley, from which he’s aiming to save the snappy Scrooge. By keeping it in, and delivering it on a budget but with real movement, Armstrong elevates the production, avoiding the trap and turning it into an asset in the first half of the story – which can also all too frequently feel talky and static.

Incidentally, let’s not minimize the importance of that – this is a Christmas Carol both adapted and directed by women. In 1977. Does that have a great deal of impact on what makes it to the screen? Not especially – there really isn’t the time for this to be any kind of re-imagining of the classic, so simply having women in the driving seats doesn’t get you a particularly feminist Christmas Carol (unlike the BBC’s 2019 version, which deals with some issues of sexual power and politics). But having THESE particular women in control gives you intelligence and a light touch in the approach to delivering the story – as seen in the likes of the solution to that cloud of spirits sequence.

Let’s talk about that top class cast for a minute.
The thing about Scrooge is that the longer you have to show his character, the more you can make him change as a result of the visitation of the four spirits. That means you can have him be more embittered and closed off at the start. You can show how he got to be that way, and you can delicately unpeel the layers of hurt, fear, and self-revolution that make for the ‘trademark’ Scrooge.

Michael Hordern is a superb actor, but he has nothing like the time to take that journey for us. That means while his initial Scrooge is true to the spirit and the words of the book, he’s never the scowling, shut-down man that’s become a social cliché. He’s a miser, yes, but never a humourless one. Dickens gives Scrooge a lively wit in spite of his miserly nature – “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you!” – and Hordern’s Scrooge leans into that heavily, without going far enough that it becomes overt comedy and minimizes the drama or the epiphany the spirits bring him.
John Le Mesurier, absolutely known for his comic performances, plays it absolutely dead straight as the ghost of Jacob Marley, and again, there’s no embroidering around the character or the words in the book. It’s faithfully done, but Le Mesurier, playing so much against his traditional type, sells the performance to the last link of chain.

After that, you can go down the cast list and hit quality at practically every point.

When you can recruit Patricia Quinn as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Bernard Lee (your actual M from Dr No to Moonraker!) as the Ghost of Christmas Present, you’re playing at a high level. Add Clive Merrison as Bob Cratchit and you add a level of dogged, slightly doleful persistence to the usual cheer of the character, a Cratchit strained by working under Scrooge, but nevertheless jolly among his family.

You find those nuggets of performance gold all the way down – Paul Copley (of lots of things, but including Downton Abbey) makes for a believably cheerful Fred. A young Zoe Wannamaker makes you believe in the reasons why Belle lets Ebenezer go. Tracy Childs gives us a Fan who warms our heart in a single scene and shows the alternative potential of the Scrooge genes, just as Copley does as her son Fred.

And we’re by no means done. You get an entirely random Christopher Biggins as Topper, Fred’s friend, back in the days when he was very much as script helper, never demanding all the energy of the scene. June Brown pops up as an almost Shakespearean Mrs Dilber, the woman who steals Scrooge’s shirt and curtains in his unchanged future. John Ringham is the talkative one of the two charity collectors at the start. It’s pure quality from start to finish.
So why is this version of A Christmas Carol so frequently overlooked?

Did we mention that it crunches the story down into an hour?

That really is the main weakness of the piece. It collects top-flight actors, intelligent adaptation and direction, a faithful approach to the dialogue of the piece – and then cuts it far too cruelly to fit the hour of available time. While Moira Armstrong does well to keep the flow working well between scenes and sequences, the pressure of telling such a story of transformation, in which there’s not a single spirit you can cut completely, proves just too much for the team and the time.

The joy is that important sequences like the moment when the two children, Ignorance and Want, are shown to a bewildered, shamed Scrooge are retained, when the temptation would always be to cut them, to the huge detriment of the overall piece. But there’s no getting away from the feeling that what you end up with here is a kind of whirlwind tour through the past, present and future, rather than anything with enough breath left to deliver a believable transformation – without which, A Christmas Carol is all tinsel and no tree.

The things that suffer most are the practical RESULTS of Scrooge’s transformation. The eventual salvation of Tiny Tim is only hinted at by him having enough to eat. The reconciliation with Fred, his family and friends, gets no further than a joyous stepping over the threshold – all the real reconciliation is cut. That means that the end of this version of A Christmas Carol feels unfortunately sawn-off, to the detriment of the satisfaction it can deliver at the transformation of a stunted soul.

That means that while there’s quality in all the performances, and a coherent, intelligent vision behind the adaptation, this version feels like the victim of parsimony – not of money, because the director works easily around her budgetary constraints – but of time. Half a crown more, translated into time to deliver the impacts of Scrooge’s transformation, could have made this a version of A Christmas Carol that could stand among the greats.

Tony  lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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