Sunday, December 28, 2014

The BBC's 1977 Adaptation of A Christmas Carol

If you have been reading articles on this site for a while, you are probably aware of how I pick programs to write about for people to read. Not counting the reviews I write which are based on materials given to me by studios to review, the main purpose of this site is to write about randomly chosen episodes of British television series. I use the highly technical process of placing all of the series titles I have in an envelope and choosing the one to watch. One of the items that is in the envelope is a piece of paper that simply says, “Greg’s Choice”. This means that I actually choose what I watch for that week.

It is important to point out that there are a lot of great programs I want to include on this site but have yet to do so because I haven’t yet chosen it from the envelope. So, when this comes up where I can choose the program, it is kind of an honour. Seeing that it is Christmas, I needed to pick something that was in the season and I wanted to have this actually feature the holiday in it, unlike the Lovejoy episode that was chosen last week. There was 3 programs I was interested in looking at for this article. I first thought about watching and writing about The Box of Delights. This would have been the version starring Patrick Troughton from 1984. This would have been fun to do but at this point I was already so far into December, there wouldn’t have been time to watch it all let alone to write proper articles about it. It is six episodes long. The second one isn’t British but The Star Wars Holiday Special. I immediately decided not to do this as I don’t hate myself that much. Christmas shouldn’t be a time for torture. Finally there as something I wanted to write about fir a while and it was perfect for this time of the year. I was going to write about the 1977 BBC adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring Michael Hordern as Ebenezer Scrooge.
A Christmas Carol TX: 24/12/77

I’m not going to waste everyone’s time with a synopsis of the plot for A Christmas Carol. This is one of the most known stories of all time. It is a story of a man’s redemption but it is also a ghost story. I love a good ghost story and when these stories are mixed with Christmas, it seems to be a wonderful combination. The idea of a Christmas ghost story is foreign in the US.
In the US, Christmas is pretty much about the happiness of the season. It’s about doing good deeds and also receiving gifts. It seems less and less about any religion attached to it.  In the UK, the idea of Christmas incorporating ghost stories in its lore had been around for a long time. Some had thought that Charles Dickens was the first to create the tradition of a Christmas Eve ghost story but this tradition pre-dates the Victorian era. On a site that I looked at called Gothic Horror Stories, they have a passage from Washington Irving that speaks of a Christmas Ghost story on Christmas Eve and he wrote that passage in 1819.

One author who was very successful of the Christmas Ghost story is M.R. James. He started to write ghost stories in 1904. The first hardback collected edition appeared in 1931. Many of the tales were written as Christmas Eve entertainments and read aloud to friends. The BBC started to adapt the stories for television in the late 1960s and went into the mid-1970s. These adaptations have been released by the BFI on DVD. I have the DVD boxset and watched a couple but unfortunately for me, it has yet to fully grab my attention. Perhaps I like something that blatantly has a Christmas feel such as A Christmas Carol?
The idea of Christmas traditions going away was a real threat by the time Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. Although the phrase “Merry Christmas” was around in the British vernacular prior to the publication of the novella, the story made the phrase popular which of course is still being said today. What Dickens did add was the phrase bah humbug and the name Scrooge to the English language. Scrooge is almost now less of a name and more of a word to describe someone who is stingy especially around the holiday season. The novella was published on December 19, 1943 and has never been out of print. It has been in continual publication.

A Christmas Carol has been adapted possibly more than any other story. There has been some unique takes on it such as Blackadder’s Christmas Carol which is the opposite of the story as Ebenezer Blackadder starts off good and transforms into evil by the end of it. As an aside note, I was reading on some forums about how some fans of Blackadder loathe this episode. To me, this is perhaps my favourite episode of all time and it’s what got me into that series!
The 1977 version of A Christmas Carol is very much a standard BBC entry for this story. It is exactly what I would expect from a television production from the BBC in 1977. It actually comes across more like a theatrical play than a dramatization. The whole production is studio bound. There is no exterior filming at all. As with a lot of productions of the time, a lot of use is made of CSO. This stands for Colour Separation Overlay. It’s what we would now call Green Screen, everyone else back in the day would call Chroma key. It is the process of placing actors against a blue screen (sometimes yellow, now usually green) where they can be superimposed over something else to give the impression of being somewhere else. This is used to an odd effect in this production. It is mainly used when Scrooge is being led by the ghosts going back to his roots or going to some other location. This is fine except that the images used to show where Scrooge is going are illustrations that look like from a book. I am sure this is an artistic decision but I am not sure if I like it. It gives a very surreal effect. This is used to great effect in Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1973 but that use of it seems to make sense to me.

Radio Times Listing
I think the fact that the entire production is studio bound (including Victorian streets) works in its favour to create the proper atmosphere. The whole production, even shots “outdoors” are dark. Shot in studio, the team has complete control over the environment. There are points throughout the production that are not only bleak but depressing. When Scrooge is being led by the Ghost of Christmas Future and is in Scrooge’s room looking at his dead body, there is an amazing feeling to that room that is hallow, lifeless. It is lit but it is also dead. Basically every room that Scrooge is in is lifeless like that. The downside to this is that the production has such low light that in many of the scenes, the video is noisy. This means that there is almost a grain over the picture instead of the video being crisp. A great mainstream example of what this is occurs on the Doctor Who DVD The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Parts of the original DVD exhibited it because the lighting was so low and this was even after the episodes had been restored. The most recent release and restoration of the story is much better. This DVD of A Christmas Carol has had no restoration or work applied to it at all and it shows. It doesn’t make it unwatchable but the quality is a production of its time.
Michael Hordern does a nice job of being Scrooge. The way he plays it seems, to me at least, he was ready to turn over a new leaf in life even after Marley’s ghost left him. He was convinced from the start that he needed to change his life. The thing about Scrooge is that I don’t think he was ever a bad man. He got caught up in his own goals and was selfish about himself. I would assume the powers that wanted to redeem him knew this about him and that was why he was given a chance to change.

Radio Time 1977
John Le Mesurier plays Jacob Marley. The production starts off very atmospherically with Jacob Marley lying in wake. Seven years passes when his specter pays a visit to Scrooge. The two actors, Hordern and Le Mesurier, never actually act together so to speak. For all the scenes that Le Mesurier appears in as the ghost, he is superimposed in shot so he can be transparent the entire time. It just about works. Le Mesurier as a ghost looks really in rough shape. Of course, we know Le Mesurier as Sgt. Wilson in Dad’s Army. Most of the roles I have seen him play, he is wonderfully aloof. If you have a chance to track down the DVD set to George and the Dragon, please do so. Produced in the 1960s, this series stars Peggy Mount, Sid James and John Le Mesurier. It is fantastic and wonderfully funny. I am a big fan of LeMesurier and even a bigger fan of Sid James!
The role of Ghost of Christmas Past is played by Patricia Quinn. She probably is best known to people for playing Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’ll let you in on a secret. I have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show in my entire life and for those reading thinking I should go, I have no interest in ever seeing this film. I know her best as either Livilla in I, Claudius or Belazs in the Doctor Who story Dragonfire. Now if I had gone ahead and watched The Box of Delights, I would have seen her in that also as Sylvia. The Ghost of Christmas Present was played by none other than Bernard Lee. For probably all of us, he is best known as the original M in the James Bond films playing the role from Dr. No to Moonraker. To me he is the quintessential actor to play that part. It is almost hard for me to get my head around the fact that he would be able to play any other part than M. In an article I wrote in 2011 that I have yet to publish of an episode of Against the Crowd called Murrain, Bernard Lee plays a country farmer that is prejudiced towards a witch and you cannot get further away from the part of M than that! Here he does a good job as the Ghost of Christmas Present. It’s interesting because that ghost only exists in the “present” moment. When we first see the ghost, he has brown beard and hair. By the time he returns Scrooge to his home, his hair is completely white and his existence is almost finished.

The production was designed by Barry Newberry and costumes by Barbara Kidd. This was produced by Jonathan Powell. I point this out because although this isn’t a bad production, it doesn’t have a lot of life to it. The actors are fine but a lot of it feels like they are just reciting lines. Perhaps the production is a touch too technically complex and more time is given to that than to the performances? Out of all the choices out there for A Christmas Carol, probably not a lot of people would pull this off the shelf to watch with the exception of people like me who go crazy over this sort of BBC era archive television production. Jonathan Powell would go on to produce a lot of wonderful things such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley’s People, and Old Men at the Zoo to name a few.
Now what if you wanted to buy this production to see for yourself? How would you go about and do it? Right now, not very easily. In fact, I only found out about it when I was browsing through Amazon UK and noticed it. What I also noticed was that it was a Dutch import. There is no UK release for this production. It seems kind of odd but this is by no means rare.

There is no rule set in stone that a British television series needs to be released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK first but it when it isn’t, it does cause some problems. Let’s take the BBC for a start. BBC Home Entertainment that releases titles in the US doesn’t have to release what the BBC in the UK are releasing or vice a versa. There were a few of examples of Doctor Who titles being released in the US first such as the Key to Time season or even a Blu-ray to An Adventure in Space and Time. There has even been instances where BBC Home Entertainment had commissioned BBC Post Production to restore and make HD masters of The House of Cards series for release on Blu-ray in the US. This was a great opportunity to take advantage of the PR from the Netflix series that was premiering at that time. All of the examples above had been rectified for British consumers by eventually getting a release in the UK, but is that always the case?
In the US alone, I can think of a number of titles off the top of my head that have been released in the US and not in the UK yet. Such titles like Alice Through the Looking Glass from 1973 or Alice in Wonderland from 1986 which a lot of British fans would love to own but has been released only in the US. There are also the existing Douglas Wilmer episodes of Sherlock Holmes in 2010. I personally held off buying this because I was sure there would soon be a PAL release but that never came. I eventually caved in and bought it. And I live in the US! I just prefer my British television in PAL wherever possible. It is a purchasing decision I never looked back on because the episodes are so good. There is talk about this title getting a release in the UK sometime in 2015 from BFI. This would include some of the partial episodes and soundtracks that were not included in the R1 release.

Of course stuff like Are You Being Served? and ‘Allo ‘Allo! was released in the US prior to the UK because BBC Home Entertainment knew these were big hitters because of their successful run on PBS stations. This worked in the US favour in the sense that the episodes on the R1 Are You Being Served? set are uncut while the ones in the UK are cut for various reasons. The release of ‘Allo ‘Allo! in the US has extras and the sets released in the UK by Universal Playback are barebones. Now a days, things will be different because generally one master is made for the discs at the same place for the US and UK just being converted to the country’s broadcast standard. Where this hurt is the original boxset for Blackadder was released in the US in 2001 before the UK. To keep this on topic, it included Blackadder’s Christmas Carol uncut. When the re-mastered set was released in 2009, they included a cut version of the episode where one line “They nailed up the dog.” was cut. This cut version has always beenused on the UK releases. Because these masters are made at the same place and the same time, the US now has the cut version too. This way of created the disc applies only to the BBC discs.
Speaking of Are You Being Served? the follow up series was first released in the US on DVD. Grace & Favour was released in the US in 2004 using the US title on the cover Are You Being Served? Again! Yet , luckily, the episodes themselves have the correct opening titles. In the US, when the series was broadcast, the opening title sequence actually were re-made to say Are You Being Served? Again! I finally decided to buy this set this year when I found out it was released in Australia. It’s not in PAL, in fact it uses the same NTSC masters and DVD menu from the R1 set. Why did I opt for this one? Because it has the proper title of the series with the actually logo saying Grace & Favour on the cover! That is how sad I am. If it comes out in the UK uncut, I will probably buy it again.

Speaking of Australia, Madman released the Tom Baker Sherlock Holmes adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s a wonderful piece of archive television that should have been released years ago. Now it is but only in Australia. Maybe Australians should not worry about releasing that but focus on releasing the Benny Hill in Australia special and the Australian version of Are You Being Served?
The back cover to the DVD of A Christmas Carol in Dutch.
There is a potential backlash when a title is released in another country and not the UK or at least no time frame is given as to when these titles would get a release. Because we have a choice to buy something virtually from every corner of the world, we can get very impatient and buy from somewhere else. I think the Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes is a great example of this. At its best, it is niche television. It can be argued that the people who really wanted it in the UK are a.) savvy enough to know how to buy it in the US and b.) have bought. I would plan to buy this twice but would others? It will soon be 5 years since the original release. Is that enough to time? Someone like myself who is passionately into archive British television seeing this released by someone like the BFI wants to see the range blossom so more can be released but I know that everyone is on a tight budget and cannot afford or want to buy the same title multiple times.

It leads to the recent release of the beautiful Blu-ray of set 1 of the Joan Hickson Miss Marple. This lovingly restored set of episodes from the negatives is what so many people want, yet it is released only here in the US. I have received so many questions after my review if the set is a region-free Blu-ray. There is no word on a release in the UK at the time of writing. My guess is that it will be released in the UK once the new BBC version of Miss Marple gets closer to air. Yet, archive television enthusiasts like myself want to see this stuff and it sucks when it is not released to a wider group. Of course I am on the right side of this conflict but even the people who are ordering this from the UK will want this in its proper frame rate too. I don’t even want to get started on how we have had a lot of Blu-ray releases of British series that have only been released in the UK as DVDs. Such series like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Agatha Christie’s Marple or Prime Suspect with no sign of a UK Blu-ray release. The Granada Sherlock Holmes series was only up until recently available in Spain on Blu-ray. A few of Gerry Anderson production were only available in Japan on Blu-ray and finally Series 5 of The Avengers was only released in the US on Blu-ray in November this year while the rest of the world will need to wait. I am told that it will come out eventually in the UK which those are the sets I will be buying. That will make my tirade here obsolete.
This brings us back to A Christmas Carol. It’s only available in one place. Would anyone notice or care? For the archive television fan, the answer is a resounding yes! I just wish some of this stuff was easier to get a hold of and available to the people who really want it. Bah humbug!

Next week: It will be a Kate O’Mara double feature as we finish up our holiday season with two great episodes of Absolutely Fabulous. Both holiday themed, Happy New Year and Cold Turkey. I will explain why I think Cold Turkey would have been a great way to completely end the series.

Have a great week!
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3 comments:

Willie D said...

This adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" has been out for years in the UK in a Charles Dickens BBC boxset of eight stories - it regularly has a low price. I bought mine for £8 new and direct from Amazon.

Willie D said...

Great review btw, I wstched this for the first time myself just before Christmas and concur with your views on just about every aspect!

Greg said...

Hi,

Thanks for your note. I just found out about the box set from you and one other person. It didn't show up for me when I looked for it yet I feel my point still stands.

I would much rather just own the disc to A Christmas Carol than the whole Dickens set but that is just me. Though perhaps why it isn't readily available on its own may be that it could be a tough sell on its own. That being said, I am still thrilled to own it, I love this style of television.

Take care & happy new year!

Greg