THE CHIMES Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony Fyler hears a ringing in his ears.
When you write A Christmas Carol one Christmas, and change what that season means forever, you might think you’re entitled to rest on your laurels.

Mind you, when you’re Charles Dickens, and by the time you WRITE A Christmas Carol, you’ve already given the world The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge, it’s probably fair to assume that you’re not going to rest on your laurels until you’re dead.

So – how did Charles Dickens follow up A Christmas Carol the following festive season?

He wrote The Chimes, that’s how.

Now, The Chimes is often called “Dickens’ Forgotten Tale” – which is a little unfair. It’s not so much been forgotten as eternally eclipsed by the story of Scrooge and his four spirits of repentance and changed destiny.

That makes a certain sense in terms of mass appeal, because Scrooge is such an archetypal grind-the-noses-of-the-poor villain, and he’s so identifiable at the start, a mass audience recognises him in its bosses. We intrinsically WANT to see him given a metaphysical kick up the attitude, we want him to change, and we want to see him taught the lesson of societal interconnectedness that means the rich have a duty to help out the poor.

There’s also a joyously straightforward structure to the thing – ghosts and spirits were commonly understood, both as the shades of the dead and as the representatives of moods, seasons, and phenomena. The progression from past to present to future is the essence of linear storytelling, so even though Scrooge is taken out of time, the structure makes sense.

That, the lessons it teaches, and the fact that Scrooge is a changed man at the end, ready to keep Christmas in his heart the whole year round, is what makes A Christmas Carol such a perennial favourite.

The Chimes has a great deal in common with A Christmas Carol, but it’s a more difficult mass audience read or listen, because to some extent, it flips the script on its head.

Set in the year 1840 – a particularly crushing time when the division between the rich and the poor was at least as cruel as it is right now – the story unfolds not at Christmas, but at new year. The chimes of the title are at least nominally the chimes of the church bells of London, that ring out one year and ring in another. And if the wealth disparity of 1840 is intensely recognizable from 2022, the thing that makes the time perfectly right for a retelling of The Chimes is the degree of gaslighting the rich aim at the poor in both periods.

The notion that people are poor because of their own moral defects, or a lack of backbone, or just need to “get a better job” (guess which period THAT’s a quote from?), or – to quote a recent Prime Minister, simply need to do “a bit more graft” is soaked all the way through The Chimes, in the voices of several leading figures of the just-about-Victorian age – the ambitious Alderman Cute, who aims to put every social evil he sees down and crush it underfoot, the lip-serving economist, Mr (absolutely no relation) Filer, who props up economic theories of the moral degeneracy of the poor, and Sir and Lady Bowley, the MP and his wife, who patronise the poor and demand their pound of, if not flesh, then certainly forelock-tugging abasement for the bowl of soup they dole out at new year.

These are absolutely our technical “baddies” in The Chimes – it’s been observed that in his new year tale, Dickens aimed to do to the whole of society what he’d so successfully done to one miserable old skinflint in A Christmas Carol. To show either the villains, or more importantly the readers, the error of their ways in supporting a system that debased everyone involved in it.

But rather than have them all undergo a mass haunting and change their ways, in The Chimes, Dickens goes down the other path. He gives us the story of “Trotty” Veck, an old personal messenger, and his family.

Trotty and his daughter Meg are poor. Bare bones poor. But because of the nature of his job, Trotty regularly comes into contact with the nobs who drive compassion for the poor under their heels and keep society in a chokehold.

Meg has a swain named Richard, who’s equally poor but who wants to marry her on new year’s day. And on the night we first encounter him, Trotty meets up with a man named Will and his niece Lillian. Will is wanted for crimes directly related to his poverty, and Trotty takes them both home for the night to give them friendship, sustenance, and a breathing space from the distinctly hostile environment outside.

Trotty’s a man who has always found a certain solace in the chimes of new year, but this year, he’s listened to too much hatred and scorn from the high-ups. Too many voices telling him that the poor are inherently criminal. That they’re a waste of resources. That they’re – not to put too fine a point on it – anti-growth, and ought to be swept away. Tonight at new year, when the chimes ring out, Trotty thinks he hears them calling him, and he goes to obey their summons, and (spoiler alert) dies.

From which point on, The Chimes becomes a kind of significant precursor to It’s A Wonderful Life. If the scenes of what will happen now he’s no longer alive are taken from a Victorian version of Threads.

Things get worse without Trotty there. And then worse again. And then, just when both he and we are shouting “No, really, enough now,” Dickens makes them worse again.

Imagine a version of It’s A Wonderful Life where, with George Bailey gone, his wife Mary marries a drunk, where ZuZu, their daughter, turns sick and pale and embarks on a life selling all that she has to bring in money, then the drunk husband dies, and the landlady who lets Mary stay rent-free marries an unscrupulous man who turns her out on her ear, and –

You get the picture?

In the absence of Trotty Veck, life for his family and friends goes spectacularly downhill, racing towards depravity, drunkenness, and early death – and all while the nobs learn nothing about the despicable nature of their souls.

It would be spoilering you to tell you how it ends, but the message of The Chimes is essentially to the poor – however grim it gets, don’t try suicide. Stick around. You’re valuable. You’re important. You’re holding more together than you know.

Admittedly, there’s also some Doctor Whoish bits with vaporous goblins, the Chimes of Time, and assorted other oddnesses – but hey, we’re breaking you in gently.

The combination of the goblins and the sliiiight sense of a by-then-rich man lecturing the poor on their need to take whatever comes could well be why The Chimes never took off in quite the same fanatical way A Christmas Carol did.

But you have to admit, based on what we’ve told you, it’s a tale whose time has come.

And so, it’s come.

Average Romp is a gloriously silly name for a bunch of significant talents that have come together to pull off a faithful, weird, wonderful rendering of The Chimes, just in time for Christmas and new year when we need it most.

Talents? How about Toby Jones in the lead role or Trotty? Always an actor with a gift for dancing on the razorblade lines between pathos and power, Jones’ Trotty is presented to us here as a good man at the end of an impossibly long tether. There’s one jarring moment, but it’s faithfully transposed from the book, because it’s jarring in there too.

When Trotty, seemingly welcoming the strangers in on a cold December night, begins to hear the call of the chimes, he almost instantly seems seized with the will to go and answer them – which is to say, to commit suicide. But from then on, Jones makes a more convincing penitent than Jimmy Stewart ever does in It’s A Wonderful Life, and you want so badly for him to go back to his body and avert the oncoming disasters, he’s up there with many of the best cinematic Scrooges.

Lucy Speed as Meg is an acting class in her own right. Before the terrible fate befalls her father, when her life is hard but has prospects of love and warmth in it, there’s a youthful juiciness of hope in her voice, and she plays with the young waif, Lillian, as though she’s brought the best of gifts into her home just by smiling at her. And as we spool forward through new years after the death of her father, you hear her voice harden, strain, and crack as fate deals blow after blow to her life.

Matt Devereaux gives Alderman Cute a very punchable personality right from the off, and has a voice like Jacob Rees-Mogg, if someone put 50,000 volts of animation through his top hat. He’s worth the price of admission alone, just because he sparks enjoyable warm fantasies of precisely where you’d stick your cattle prod, given half a chance.

Howard Carter, long of Big Finish as well a whole lot else, delivers a score that elevates The Chimes far above its presence on the page, and seems to do justice for once to a story that often loses readers by virtue of its sometimes mangled messages.

Speaking of Big Finish, The Chimes is adapted by enormously skilled BF alumnus Jonathan “More, Please” Morris, and directed by Lisa “Makes Everything Better” Bowerman, who does double duty here, also starring as the gloriously clipped Lady Bowley.

Between them all – with fantastically believable support from the likes of David Horovitch, David Shaw Parker, Laura Aikman, and Duncan Wisbey – what they’ve done is nothing short of miraculous.

We’ve said that a couple of the main reasons why The Chimes has been convincingly overshadowed by A Christmas Carol over the years is that 1) it lands differently in terms of where it puts the responsibility and the change to be learned by a central character, and 2) it’s a bit WEIRD, even by Dickens’ standards.

What Average Romp has achieved here is a version of The Chimes THAT WORKS AS WELL as the best Christmas Carol you’ve ever seen. Yes, even the Muppet one.

It gives us characters we root for, breaks our hearts about 17,000 times on the way to the end, delivers the weird bits with a cleverly-balanced mixture of narration (Thank you, Mr Horovitch), sound design, and vocal effects, and turns the whole thing into a journey with which we’re familiar from the better-known First Dickens Seasonal Tale, but with important differences of tone.

It actually DELIVERS on that apparent intention of the dandy chronicler of poverty – it shows that cabal of vested interests for what they are, and it delivers us the Kool-Aid that it’s all the fault of the poor and their moral degeneracy, then goes on to smash the looking glass of working-class self-loathing time after time after time. It leaves you feeling clear, and furious, and blessed in what you have, and furious some more – which feels about the right balance for the piece.

It’s trite to say that this version of The Chimes could have been written yesterday. In practical terms, it more or less was. But in combining the Dickens original with alllll the allegorical parallels you could wish for, Average Romp has entirely belied its own name. There’s nothing average about this release. And at just £10 (what’s that this week? Three boiled kettles or 20 minutes of heating?), it’ll give you something to keep you focused and hot with fury this holiday season.

Hear The Chimes. Remember you’re important. And learn from the best – both Dickens and Average Romp – who’s responsible for how you feel.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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