A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens
Published by BBC Worldwide Limited
Read by Tom Baker
Do I really need to explain what this story is about? Well, okay, this blog has had occasional hits from places like Dubai, Morocco, India and other places not particularly known for their public celebrations of various Christian holidays, but since most visitors are from English-speaking countries, I think it is safe to assume that most of my readers know the story well. I came across a list of films based on A Christmas Carol (originally published under the concise name A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas possible because Dickens had run out of shorter names to use) which claimed that there have been twenty movies and short films based on this story. That does not count approximately one million satires and TV episode adaptations – every sitcom, and at a few dramas have had Christmas episodes that were effective writers’ holidays in which they were able to display to all and sundry how unimaginative they could be. Seriously, some of them barely changed Dicken’s dialogue (although most sitcoms do not have the main characters saying that the poor should die and therefore “decrease the surplus population” as Scrooge himself does.) and just substituted their own characters for Scrooge and the various ghosts… oh and threw in a few spit-takes and cheap comedic stumbles… Dickens stories are not known for their spit-takes, although I have no trouble imagining Scrooge spitting out his gruel when Marley barges in on him.
The part of Scrooge has been played by everyone from Jim “Mister Magoo” Backus and Mel “Bugs Bunny” Blanc (not as Bugs, though) to Patrick “Make It So” Stewart and Rowan “Mister Bean” Atkinson. And it is not just men who have played the part. So along with Lionel and John Barrymore, Orson Welles and James Earl Jones (I find your lack of faith disturbing…) we have to include Susan Lucci, Tori Spelling and Vanessa Williams among quite a few others to the list. Actually you can find such a list here.
Okay, quick synopsis, just in case; A Christmas Carol involves the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his redemption by the intervention of several ghosts one Christmas Eve. Alternatively, it involves the outstanding entrepreneur and money lender, E. Scrooge (think of all those commercials that start out “Do the banks keep turning you down?” Visit Don Corleone for a friendly, “Family” loan!) who suffers a breakdown and is brainwashed by a pack of socialist spirits. Your choice. In any case, his treatment involves traveling to the past to see how he spent Christmas ad a child and young man, mixing good and happy times, to the present to see how all London is celebrating, and finally one year into the future when he, himself has died (possibly of hypothermia from being too cheap to burn a few logs in his fireplace. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe that everything of importance in his life happened on Christmas Eve, including the death of his former partner and, in the future his own death, but then in real life both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (second and third presidents of the USA) died on July 4, 1826 (the 50th anniversary of American Independence), and that is a coincidence no honest writer would try to use in his stories (well, except for A. Bertram Chandler who would have a character blithely say that more incredible coincidences happen in real life than any author would dare to use to cover the fact he had done just that). In the end, Scrooge has a Bobby Ewing moment (well, to be accurate it was Pam Ewing’s moment, but if we remember the reference at all, it is finding Bobby in a shower a year after his supposed death) and wakes up to find it has all been a dream. However, he takes the dream to heart and spends the rest of his life (one year?) as a philanthropist, beloved by many.
The story, as I said, has been told and retold, but to be quite honest only the original has any literary merit. As a kid I recall versions of it read to us in elementary school and being forced to read it for myself in high school (well, it was easier to get through than Great Expectations). Also this is the story that popularized the phrase “Merry Christmas.” Before that the Victorians told each other to have a nice day (with yellow smiley faces, I suppose), so maybe this story really is part of what makes a modern Christmas season.
Two years ago I reviewed Jim Dale’s reading of this story, which I liked very much and as I recall, I said that it was the only one I had listened to since reaching adulthood that I truly enjoyed. Well, Jim Dale’s reading was masterful, but I have to say, Tom Baker just blows him away.
If the name Tom Baker is only vaguely familiar to you, perhaps you are more familiar with him from when he looked like this;
and if he still does not sound or look familiar, it means you are not a fan of the long-running British science fiction series, Doctor Who. Indeed, while Tom Baker played the Fourth Doctor, he was the first Doctor seen by most American audiences and became so iconic in the role, viewers were shocked when the next Doctor (played by Peter Davidson) not only did not wear the trademark mile-long scarf (actually there were several scarves of various color combinations and lengths though the one in the picture is the one most remember) but actually unraveled it in order to have a trail to follow. The scarf, by the way, which has recently seen a re-emergence on a different character in the new series, was only worn by Tom Baker’s version of the Doctor, but Americans, not having yet seen the previous Doctors, did not know that. For the American audience, Tom Baker was The Doctor.
Anyway Mister Baker is proof positive that an excellent actor can star in a children’s show and still continue to have an excellent career (I particularly loved his guest role in the Blackadder series as Captain Redbeard Rum. He played a great Sherlock Holmes too) at least in Great Britain. Since his tenure as the Doctor, actors have been queuing up for the chance to play that part in fact.
One things about his reading of this story; I have frequently complained about readers resorting to funny voices in order to delineate the characters. They are annoying and usually hard to listen to. However, listening to Tom Baker do the same thing I suddenly realized that not only did it work for him, but that how he made it work was what all the others were trying to do and falling sadly short. Baker has a delightfully flexible voice that he bends creatively to each character.
He also reads with genuine emotion, always coming close to the line of “Over the top” and yet never actually crossing it. In short, his performance was masterful. So, find a copy of this one and listen to it. It’s great!