A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Neil Brand

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BBC Radio 4, 20 December 2014

Available on the BBC website


There might be a tendency amongst reviewers who have done this job for a time to approach the prospect of another Dickens adaptation with a certain amount of weariness; what else can adapters do to make familiar texts interesting?

If this is the case, then David Hunter’s version, recorded in front of a live audience, more than admirably fulfilled our expectations.  A co-production between BBC Radios 3 and 4, it featured a starry cast collaborating with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers.  The orchestra provided a continuous musical accompaniment, not only illustrating in musical terms the basic themes of Dickens’s tale, but using particular themes to foreshadow certain scenes.  Moments of tragedy were signalled through mournful trumpets; happier interludes – such as the sound of snow falling on the ground – were marked by triangles.  The aural effect was very different from other forms of musical drama – for example, a musical; in Hunter’s production the music had the effect of summing up what was to happen, rather like a Brechtian gestus.  Once we were aware of the mood of a scene – as signalled through the music – we could concentrate on the characterisation.

The Brechtian echoes of this production were also evident in the way the BBC Singers were used, either to sum up the mood of a scene, or to introduce another scene.  Through such strategies adapter Brand and director Hunter reminded us of the fact that we were not listening to an imaginative recreation of nineteenth-century London, but a production that consciously drew attention to its artificiality.  Hence we could reflect on its politics.  This might seem an eccentric statement to make about a fundamentally good-hearted tale, but it was certainly evident – especially at the beginning, when the intelligent use of voices and isolated street-cries conjured up a teeming world of mid-Victorian London, in which poverty was a very real presence.  Not everyone, it seemed, could enjoy the advantages of a Christmas dinner sat round the fire; many citizens were just glad of a bit of warmth.  This deliberate attempt to remind us of the story’s socio-historical origins put Scrooge’s (Robert Powell’s) stinginess into perspective; by dismissing Christmas as “humbug,” he was inadvertently perpetuating the misery that, for most Londoners at that time, was a way of life.

Hunter’s production made intelligent use of multiple narrators (Tracy-Ann Oberman, Paul Heath and others), who stepped out of character to keep the story going.  Much of the narrative was lifted straight from the Dickensian text; as recounted by the various actors, it helped to reinforce the sense of a teeming London world in which individuals weren’t really important.  What mattered more was the community spirit; the feeling that everyone, both rich and poor, should have the chance to indulge in Christmas cheer.  This is what made Scrooge seem such an outsider, not only unwilling to recognize Christmas, but feeling himself incapable of being part of a community, if only for a couple of days or so.

Stylistically speaking, this production had strong echoes of Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf, in which music assumed an essential role within the drama.  The action unfolded in a continuous present – even the scenes involving the Ghost of Christmas Past (Sophie Thompson) appeared to take place in real time, rather than being a dream conjured up for Scrooge’s benefit by Marley’s Ghost (Ron Cook).  Through this strategy Hunter made us aware of the arbitrariness of the divisions separating past, present, and future; they might seem important to human beings, but at Christmastime, when everyone is supposed to remember Christ’s birth, they simply do not matter anymore.  Scrooge’s “dreams” and the “real” world surrounding them are treated as one; the distinction between the two no longer means anything.

The only criticism I have to make of this wonderfully intelligent adaptation is that perhaps Scrooge’s transformation seemed a little too arbitrary.  Powell was in fine voice as the miserly Scrooge, responding to every suggestion about Christmas with the epithet `Humbug!”  When the Ghosts presented the visions of past, present and future in front of him, his voice altered radically; some of his piteous cries recalled those of a spoilt child.  The transformation might be justified by arguing that the biggest bullies are often the most immature people; but it did seem that Scrooge might have tried to preserve a little of his self-respect, rather than being so radically transformed by the visions.

Nonetheless, this was a revelatory reading of the Dickens text in its quasi-Brechtian approach.  I congratulate the efforts of everyone involved, including the cast, the director as well as adapter Neil Brand.