And so draws to an end the first decade of the 21st Century. While all over social media, people are gratuitously summing up their achievements of the last 10 years, for me it’s the last 10 days that loom largest in my consciousness. Or perhaps, conscience. Because, dear reader, it appears that over this last Season To Be Jolly I’ve managed to upset quite a number of people on Twitter. One person even blocked me, hilariously, as he did it quickly before I could do something to deserve it. Rather like a small child in the playground running to teacher, just in case the child he’s just biffed thinks of biffing him back.
The A Christmas Carol Question
So what did I do to inspire such fear and loathing? Er, well, I expressed an opinion. Like, you know, the other 330 million Twitter users. What about? Oh, just a TV programme. A mini-series. Well, a Classical Serialisation in fa – look, it’s not my fault that the A Christmas Carol Question raises its snowy head every year, is it? Competition among theatre, film and TV companies, from the humblest to the loftiest in the land, as to who can make the biggest mess of Charles Dickens’s great 1843 novel has become a national sport. This time last year I cavilled at the liberties taken by the RSC in their production; I can now say these fade into the tiniest speck of candied fruit in Tiny Tim’s plum pudding compared to the monster served up by BBC 1 over three (three!) evenings in Christmas week.
I was willing to give it a go. Honest. (Just as I gave Andrew Davies’s Sanditon a go, all the way to the end of Part 1, when an appalling piece of very unAusten writing and characterisation spared my enduring the next 7 episodes.) But the stretching of Dickens’s slim novella into 3 hours of television didn’t bode well.
Sweary, gloomy and with no narrative drive
Say what you like about Dickens, he knew how to write a cracking good story. The lessons that mean old Scrooge has to learn never slow the pace of the action, while the reader is drawn into the worlds of Christmas joy and plenty, past regrets and sorrows and the very real poverty and want Scrooge has ignored all his life. In other words, narrative drive is what matters if you want your audience to stay with you, and this was exactly what Stephen Knight’s ‘adaptation’ (‘rewriting’, I’d call it) lacked. Tectonic plates move faster than Knight’s scene setting, and when the first 15 minutes established nothing more than a grumpy, sweary (oh yes, the F word. A lot. Why?) man chuntering around a bare office in Gloomy Victorian London, sniping at his clerk, I gave up. Where Dickens writes with crispness, a quick wit and a sense of mystery, this production steamrollered its way along, ponderous and boring beyond words.
Worse, Knight felt the need (like David Edgar) to add backstory and plot alterations to the original – only his additions were much sillier. It’s not enough, for instance, for Marley to haunt Scrooge as a warning: he has to be properly motivated. Enter the Roman Catholic doctrine of the afterlife: Marley’s motive for saving Scrooge is to spare his own soul years in Purgatory.
Dickens, a traditional Anglican living in highly Protestant Victorian England, would have been appalled at this solecism, and the fact that Knight could cheerfully shoehorn it into Dickens’s literary and religious world shows how little he cares about the original work.
Back to Twitter. Well, The Sunday Times journalist India Knight (no relation I hope…. Gulp) happened to ask the Twitterati what they thought of the production and I – among many others – gave my view, adding that for a truly splendid adaptation, people should look no further than The Muppet Christmas Carol. While I’ve never received so many Likes for a tweet before, a few readers, as mentioned, took it badly. What baffled them – to the point where they could barely spit out their sarcasms – was that I should rate a film starring a bunch of puppets headed by a Green Frog, that faithfully told Dickens’s marvellous story, over a slow, turgid, foul-mouthed 21st century steampunk version, that didn’t.
Personally I’d call that muppetist.
(From an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog.)