Turning the Scrooge
British screenwriter Steven Knight has reinvented A Christmas Carol for the BBC and FX. DQ speaks to some of the creative team to find out why this isn’t Peaky Blinders meets The Muppets.
Of all the screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic Yuletide yarn A Christmas Carol, a three-part adaptation commissioned by UK pubcaster the BBC and US cable channel FX (which will show it as a movie) promises to stand apart from those past, present and yet to come.
For while screen icons such as Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer and an animated Jim Carrey have all taken on the iconic role of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, not to mention Michael Caine’s iconic performance alongside the Muppets, none were in the hands of screenwriter Steven Knight, the creator of Peaky Blinders and Taboo.
In the first of a series of adaptations of Dickens novels, Knight has chosen to tackle the story of Scrooge, who is visited by four ghosts from the past, present and future on Christmas Eve and taken on a journey through his lifetime to see how his self-interested, penny pinching behaviour has impacted his own life, that of his overworked employee Bob Cratchit and others around him. Is it too late to save himself?
The miniseries was first announced in November 2017, but it wasn’t until the start of this year that producer Julian Stevens (Informer) and director Nick Murphy (Save Me) joined the production, by which time Knight had turned in all three scripts. Production designer Sonja Klaus (Taboo) had already joined the project, with her work to recreate early Victorian London well underway.
But with the drama destined to be on air this Christmas, it meant a quick turnaround to get the show into production and delivered on time.
“Fans of Dickens will know the word ‘Scrooge’ as shorthand for a miser or a measly man. But actually, there’s a lot of information in the novella that Steve has brilliantly brought out,” Stevens says. “We’ll have a Scrooge who’s got a bit of swagger to him, he’s confident in his business acumen, of his ability to gain wealth. It’s not something he should be apologetic for, and that probably chimes well with a modern audience.”
In terms of the plot, Knight has added contemporary relevance to the consequences of Scrooge’s actions. “The universal story of kindness to others still exists but the examples that we’re showing of Scrooge as a businessman will resonate with a contemporary audience. That’s really what appealed to me about it. It wasn’t ‘contemporising’ the story in terms of setting, it wasn’t trying to do a modern telling of that story.”
Murphy describes Knight’s scripts as “phenomenally ambitious,” comparing them to a pimped-up version of Dickens’ story. “He has taken tendrils of the story and inflated them, poured acid on them and given characters a motivation and a depravity they certainly didn’t have in the story,” the director explains. “He’s given all the characters a huge amount of bite. They are fully functioning, aggressive contributors to Scrooge’s journey – that’s where the genius of what he’s written comes out.”
To questions he gets about why he’s making yet another version of A Christmas Carol, Murphy says he responds by stating the story is used as a prism through which to view modern themes such as coercion and control. “In Steve’s story, Scrooge’s greatest crime is not withholding his finance, but his abuse of power,” he continues. “From a director’s point of view, that’s been fascinating. It’s so much more rewarding to explore than just, ‘I should have been kinder.’ The Muppets did that perfectly well, they don’t need us to do it again.
“Steve’s such a muscular writer and this isn’t Peaky Blinders-does-Dickens either,” he adds, referring to Knight’s award-winning gangster drama. “As great as Peaky is, he’s not a one-trick pony but it’s got all the chutzpah you would imagine.”
Stevens began pre-production by bringing Murphy on board, hiring Lucy Bevan and Emily Brockmann to lead casting, and getting location scouting underway. As a relatively youthful-looking Scrooge, Guy Pearce (Jack Irish) leads the ensemble cast alongside Andy Serkis (Black Panther) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Stephen Graham (This is England) as Jacob Marley, Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders) as Lottie, Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) as Bob Cratchit, Vinette Robinson (Doctor Who) as Mary Cratchit, Jason Flemyng (Save Me) as the Ghost of Christmas Future, Kayvan Novak (What We Do in the Shadows) as Ali Baba and Lenny Rush (Old Boys) as Tim Cratchit.
“From a purely practical point of view, one of the main things we realised we needed to do is source some sound stages,” Stevens says. “The way the scenes were written, we had to build sets. You couldn’t really go into locations because walls move and ceilings needed to be taken out. So we had to build sets.”
Filming ran over 10 weeks, with half the time in studios and the rest on location. Houses belonging to Scrooge – complete with wires to allow windows and shutters to fly open – and the Cratchits were both built on stages, as well as a coal mine required for an episode two set piece. A textile mill was also built and later superimposed into a real location.
On location, filming took place around London, most notably near Temple tube station and in the leafy suburb of Hampstead, where the production team took control of a single road for three days and covered it in fake snow to recreate Scrooge’s wealthy neighbourhood. For the Cratchits’ part of the city, an old hospital in Warwick was transformed into a more run-down area.
“With A Christmas Carol, a lot of it is set at night so we were filming [in the summer] when the days started to get longer and the nights started to get shorter,” Stevens says. “We went to Temple partly because it can be closed off and we can film really late. That’s where we put Scrooge and [business partner] Marley’s office. We built the set in the studio then took the front off and put it in a car park, with green screen around it. Then with the magic of visual effects, we created a few streets around it.”
Coming from a background of contemporary dramas, Stevens says managing the balance between special effects on set and visual effects proved to be the steepest learning curve, particularly on a period show infused with the supernatural and with all the costume and design elements that come with it.
“You have to think of everything ahead of time, from the planning of the set build to the costumes and the special effects and visual effects and how they work, as well as the vast amounts of fake snow and even the different types of fake snow,” he explains. “To get your head around what you can do practically and what you can supplement in post-production with visual effects and where the budget is better spent was a huge learning curve.
“We were fighting sunlight and green trees but what it meant most of all was we didn’t have rain very many days, which is really problematic if you’ve got fake snow on the ground. But the way Steve writes, the relatively small cast and few locations meant it was quite a controllable job, which is probably how we managed to get it finished on schedule.”
A Christmas Carol is produced by FX Productions, Scott Free and Hardy Son & Baker, reuniting the creative team behind Knight’s dark period drama Taboo. Production designer Klaus had also worked on that series, and she was among the first to get the call for A Christmas Carol. “[Executive producer] Ridley [Scott] loved Taboo so much – that was an amazing show to do – and because Taboo was very dark, Ridley was very into keeping that [style]. This is not Taboo but there’s a dark side, which was really important to get across,” Klaus says. “Living in England at that time, if you were poor it was pretty shit. It was pretty grim, and you have to show that difference. A Christmas Carol is about that difference between the poor and the rich and the fact Scrooge is given a chance to change his ways and look back and think, ‘Jesus, I was a bit of a shit.’”
Klaus says the opportunity to build so many of the sets meant she could help to shape the characters in their surroundings. Scrooge’s meagre existence, for example, is heightened by the fact that he is presented as a thin, scrawny man in an oversized bed in a large bedroom with high ceilings.
“That’s what it’s about,” she says. “He’s this Johnny-No-Mates who’s got all these people telling him, ‘If you don’t buck up, you’re going to end up in the fires of Hell for the rest of your life.’ You need to emphasise that, so that’s what I did.”
A particular highlight for the designer was discovering Warwick’s Tudor architecture that would be used to create the Cratchits’ world, while scenic artist James Gemmill created many of the backgrounds that would remove the need for CGI to extend the vistas of London.
Klaus continues: “I love Steve’s writing, and he paid me the biggest compliment. He said to me, ‘It’s amazing, I don’t know how you do it. It’s like you’re in my head.’ For a writer to say that to me without having talked to him at all about what it should be, I almost couldn’t take the compliment. I just love his stuff. I love his writing. He’s so inspirational and amazing. For an artist like me, he’s just another great artist I love working with.”
Behind the camera, Murphy similarly had a free hand to interpret Knight’s scripts, which he says carry very little visual description but do specify mood, tone and action.
“I wanted it to be authentic – I didn’t want the fantasy to overtake reality because we have to convince the audience these are real human beings with real problems, and that’s hard to do if you’ve created a falsified Victorian England,” he says. “This is a world in which there is horse shit on the streets and real problems in people’s lives. It’s not a postcard Dickens.”
Therefore, Scrooge’s world is one that reflects the “scoured, bare interior of the soul,” with austere, empty rooms that contradict cluttered, messy London outside. “Then gradually, just as his soul fills up, so the visual world of Scrooge fills up and the emptiness falls away.”
This approach also translated into the director’s composition of Scrooge, with the character initially on screen isolated and alone, while other characters would be squeezed together in frame so they have a feeling of togetherness. “Then we gradually pervert that during the course of the show, so you bring Scrooge into the real world,” Murphy explains. “After that you have very flowery, elaborate language from Steve. His dialogue is phenomenal. But the challenge in there is to deliver such lines in a way that feels grounded. Not overtly modern but not wrapped up in genre.
“So what we’ve ended up with is some really nuanced, painful, beautiful performances from a myriad diverse cast and that is something I’m most proud of – that it hasn’t been buried in the Dickens-ness of it all. However fancy we get, drama is people in a room with a problem. That’s the core of drama, and the human story Guy has delivered is first and foremost one of a human being going through a very painful rebirth, no matter how elaborate those experiences are.”
When it comes to the story’s supernatural elements – enter the quartet of ghosts trying to teach Scrooge the errors of his ways – Murphy was intent on avoiding the kind of visual theatrics you might see in the Harry Potter films.
“On some level, we could argue the whole story is a dream of Scrooge’s own making through guilt, so I feel this could all be the creation of a Victorian magician,” he notes. “It is shadow play – surfaces lying to him and silhouettes – rather than elaborate 3D creatures being made or anything borne of a digital age. My hope is you feel he’s walking through a particularly terrifying Victorian circus. It feels much more in camera. That’s been quite tricky to pull off but that’s part of the plan.”
Despite the focus on in-camera stunts, Murphy estimates there are still about 1,000 visual effects shots in A Christmas Carol, “and that doesn’t even get us started on the snow. I never want to see another ounce of fake snow in my life,” he jokes. “We shot this in June and July. There was acres of the stuff.”
He recalls one moment on set shooting at ‘The Graveyard of Christmas,’ where Marley meets the first ghost at a venue the director describes as “two football pitches of dead trees in the snow with a massive bonfire in the middle.”
“That’s a big undertaking but even filling entire streets with snow and then firing the stuff into the air and hoping it falls right on camera is a very arduous, long-winded process,” he adds. “That’s been part of the challenge as well. We’ve got camels in the show and all sorts of things and, let me tell you, I don’t know much about camels but I do know they don’t like to do anything that you want them to do. The golden rule of being a camel is don’t do what the tall skinny director wants you to do.”
For all the changes and thematic updates made to Dickens’ story, Murphy believes the great author would approve. “Scrooge isn’t wearing a nightcap. He’s not an octogenarian,” he says. “What I can guarantee is he does say, ‘Bah! Humbug!’
“Steve’s not a fool. He respects the books enormously. We all do. We’ve kept in a huge amount of references and inclusion of the story. It’s not just taking the Scrooge character and riding roughshod over it. This is not a distant cousin of Dickens, it’s a punked-up sibling.”
Klaus adds that while there have been a lot of Christmas Carol adaptations, this one stands out for Knight’s focus on the dark side of Scrooge and the dirt and grit of Victorian England. “You do get a sense of that,” she says. “But also there’s a joyous side to it because we have the Cratchits. The audience, when they watch it, will want to go round to their house for Christmas and that is what they should feel. That means we’ve got it right.”
For Knight’s part, he has described his take on A Christmas Carol as a respectful and “timely interpretation of a timeless story.” In any case, the creative talent in front of and behind the camera mean this version will be a unique interpretation of Dickens’ beloved tale.
tagged in: A Christmas Carol, BBC, Charlotte Riley, FX, FX Productions, Guy Pearce, Hardy Son & Baker, Joe Alwyn, Julian Stevens, Nick Murphy, Peaky Blinders, Scott Free, Sonja Klaus, Stephen Graham, Steven Knight, Vinette Robinson