H.E. Bulstrode

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Bah! Humbug!

Quite how many times Ebenezer Scrooge’s catchphrase echoed through the living-rooms of viewers across the UK as they looked on in tooth-gnashing disbelief at the BBC’s latest adaptation of A Christmas Carol can only be guessed at. All that can be said with any certainty, is that their number is likely to have been legion, for what we were served up with here was far removed from the festive fare that many would have anticipated. Gone was any trace of Dickens’s customary humour, with even the Cratchets reduced to a state of miserable domestic degradation in which their love for each other was supplanted by the sort of deep-rooted simmering resentment that  characterises the annual Albert Square misery-fest of Eastenders; gone also was any trace of geniality in the Ghost of Christmas Present, transformed from a masculine embodiment of festive revelry – a green-robed variant of the archetype of Father Christmas – into Scrooge’s dead sister, who showed him precious little of the merrymaking of others at this time of year. Also notable by their absence were this ghost’s two terrifying child companions huddled about his feet: Ignorance and Want.

The plot too differed in many significant ways, with Ebenezer Scrooge, it seems, never having experienced a single moment’s joy in his life – no Fezziwig, and no warmth shown for his former sweetheart. The BBC’s A Christmas Carol was a cold and dark beast that touched upon certain repellent taboos, but never once made reference to that contemporary taboo of taboos – ‘the surplus population’ of which Scrooge was so apt to make remark (far better, apparently, to substitute nut roast for your goose or turkey so as to defer the inevitable Malthusian day of reckoning for a decade or two).

That, in sum, might constitute a summary of the major gripes aired by those who disliked this production so much, but if we look upon this offering in its own right – as a story inspired by Dickens’s A Christmas Carol rather than an adaptation – then it has much to commend it. For those wishing to view a genuine adaptation, and an excellently entertaining one at that, then I would recommend the 1951 film – Scrooge – starring Alastair Sim, Michael Hordern and George Cole, amongst others.

Marley came to the fore far more in the 2019 version of the story, being engagingly portrayed by Stephen Graham, coming across as Scrooge’s slightly more humane and junior sidekick, who required no further prompting to see the error of his ways. His awakening from deathly slumber by a scurrilous shower was the sole laugh afforded during the entire three hours of viewing, the act of the visitor to the dead man’s grave aptly summing up the general public ‘regard’ for both the deceased, and for Scrooge himself.

In this reworking, Scrooge’s childhood was far darker and more sinister than previously imagined, providing an explanation for his imperviousness to human affection, and chilling disregard for the emotions of others. For some indefinable reason, he at times put me in mind of Chris Packham’s estranged and evil brother (it must be said here that to the best of my knowledge, Chris Packham has, thankfully, never had such a brother), possessed of an intellect finely honed to his specific compass of interest – the calculus of profit and loss – the profit being no sweeter than when it was to the considerable loss of others. This theme – of the obsessive accumulation of capital for capital’s sake, without regard for the human suffering thereby incurred, and without any goal other than the further accumulation of capital – was strongly carried over from Dickens’s tale; its critique of the worst practices of early-Victorian capitalism being equally applicable to the destructive asset-stripping model of capitalism so favoured in both the UK and the US since the advent of Thatcherism and Reaganomics.

The look of the production was striking, with set pieces in the street, the mill and the colliery, being handled atmospherically and imaginatively. Andy Serkis stomped around like Odin in Narnia, consigning belongings and memories to an all-consuming fire amidst a snow-covered forest of Christmas trees, providing us with a chilling vision of festive purgatory. Until the very last moments, this was the place to which Guy Pearce’s Scrooge appeared undoubtedly bound, as he paused en route to hell (it has to be said that his performance was particularly good).

All in all, this was a highly-entertaining, albeit rather dour and miserable, three-part ghost story based upon the concept of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but to describe it as an adaptation would be misleading, for far too little of the original remained, and much additional material had been inserted. I, for one, enjoyed it, but think that it should be judged upon its own merits rather than compared to other adaptations. If you come to it expecting Christmas pudding with brandy, be prepared to content yourself with a helping of cold Stollen and cream instead; both are good, but quite distinct. What this interpretation did not provide, alas, was any sense of festive cheer. In this respect, the spirit of Dickens himself had been exorcised from his own creation, and been supplanted by a far chillier creature altogether, with the consequence that despite Scrooge’s redemptive change of heart, it seemed that the Cratchets’ home remained something of a bleak house.

Two of H.E. Bulstrode’s festive ghost stories are included in Anthology: Wry Out West, available in both paperback and Kindle.

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