Pretty much immediately after the airing of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott in 1984 on CBS TV, it became the go-to version of the classic in my house when I was growing up. Every Christmas Eve, in the afternoon, my brother and I would put it our old worn VHS tape, containing that special and several others recorded off-air one enterprising Christmas, and watch the great American actor sit down to a scenery feast. In its dark shadows and serious tone, I discovered a whole world of English gothicism, and realized that these old stories, previously shown to me only in “child-friendly” incarnations had heft and weight and real dramatic gravity. It’s still my favourite live-action Christmas special.
Produced in the UK, with period sets and realistic grit on the streets, this version was directed by British industry veteran Clive Donner, who had been working in the British film and TV industry since the 1950s. (In fact, he had worked on the 1951 film Scrooge starring Alastair Sim.) It comes during an era when TV and film production was increasingly moving to the UK, mainly for the usual reasons (tax breaks, expenses), but the deep level of talent and craftsmanship that it employed was an unplanned bonus. Films like Aliens, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, the Superman films and countless others were bringing US money to UK talent and reaping the rewards. On TV in the UK, there was also a trend towards realism, particularly in its period pieces, getting away from the artificiality of productions in previous decades. A show such as Granada TV’s Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett (which started its run in 1984) is a perfect example, with world-class acting, writing and production brought to bear on the small screen. They say that all films are period films – the period in which they are made. It’s to the great credit of both Donner’s team on A Christmas Carol and the talent that produced Holmes that even today, one can watch these shows and see very little “1984” in them.
When you think about it, it’s a little odd that Dickens’ original 1843 novella ever became a piece of entertainment directed towards children. Of course, lots of European folk and fairy tales are horrific and violent in the original forms, but Dickens’ story is essentially one of psychological torture. Torture meant to bring about a moral shift in a person of wealth, of course, so one could argue that the end justifies the means. (But in December 2014, that’s a rather shaky ethical argument.) The story is firmly in the classical tradition, with parallels in the old Testament, but we shouldn’t lose track of how dark and twisted the essential tale is. Dickens was also demonstrating a strong contemporary interest in social justice, once again with values firmly anchored in the Enlightenment and the Age of Liberty, very recent history for Dickens. Pretty heavy stuff for a “children’s story”.
Donner’s film pays Dickens the compliment of taking him seriously, not reducing anyone to a cartoon, and urging his central actor to play this role as straight as anything he had ever done. Adapted by Roger O. Hirson, a writer more known for musicals and novelizations, the narrative is the same as always. Miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge (George C. Scott) is visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve, who show him his past, his present and his future in order to convince him of the value of charity and generosity. Their essential weapon is fear, especially the Ghost of Christmas Future, who literally scares Scrooge straight. But the previous two ghosts had appealed to his humanity, reminding him of how he was as a young man, full of dreams of romance and family, and the social situation of the present day, with all its unfairness and inequity. By moving at a reasonably slow pace (I’ve seen this whole story told in 30 minutes, and this version runs to 100), Donner allows Dickens to earn that final moment, when Scrooge’s heart melts and he jumps up and down on his bed, singing Merry Christmas. (George C. Scott commits fully to that and every other scene.) The journey is at times fairly horrific.
The cast is excellent, with David Warner (a regular of stage and screen, and frequent Star Trek guest) as Bob Cratchit, Roger Rees (also a familiar TV actor) as Fred Hollywell, and three superb actors (Angela Pleasance, Equalizer Edward Woodward and Michael Carter) as the Ghosts. (If you look close enough you can even spot Michael Gough in the background.) Frank Finlay’s turn as Jacob Marley is utterly terrifying, and completely right.
Warner is a revelation, usually cast as a villain, he is wonderfully warm and loving as Cratchit (Mrs Cratchit, by the way, is played by Susannah York). Of the three Ghosts, Edward Woodward steals the most scenes, with his rich rug of chest hair and bearded charisma to spare.
George C. Scott, on the other hand, is disturbingly authentic as Scrooge. At this point, the great actor was on the downswing of his career, appearing in many films that were beneath his dignity. (This was a decade in which Exorcist III was a professional high point.) And frankly, even here you can smell the Christmas cheer on Scott’s breath. It only adds to his presence as Scrooge. Scott creates a whispering, intense, deadly serious Scrooge, who uses sarcasm and meanness in place of big speeches and loud humbugs, which is the lazy man’s of playing the role. Scott goes right for the heart of it, utterly convincing and frightening. His eyes channel every disapproving parent, every High School Principal who has ever looked down their glasses at you, every disappointed spouse. The haunting image, early in the film, of Scrooge sitting alone in his crumbling apartment, lit by a low fire and a single candle, sipping beef broth: one feels almost uncomfortably like a voyeur in those moments. That’s as much a tribute to Scott as to Donner.
Scott has to essentially play witness to what occurs for the rest of the story, and how an actor watches and listens is always the true of their talent. Scott is truly a master, watching in a way that draws attention to himself, even if he isn’t moving a muscle. He’s fully engaged, fully committed to this story: there must have been something in the moment that rang horribly true for him. Scott’s least convincing moments, ironically, are the big ones when, near the end, he’s begging for his life and then comes back to life. He’s better when he’s underplaying, and luckily that occurs very rarely in this telling.
If you’re looking for a great, cinematic and grown-up take on A Christmas Carol, this is the one. And as luck would have it, the whole thing is on YouTube.
Enjoy, and Happy Holidays from my cat William the Bloody and I to all of you!