The Christmas Carol Chronicles
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I’ve always enjoyed that story. As a little boy during the Christmas season during the early 1950s, I listened to the Hallmark Hall of Fame’s radio broadcast of Dickens’ tale. Having grown up before television became an intrusive family member, I spent some of my happiest childhood moments under the bedcovers with my ear pressed to the speaker of my radio. How many comedians, detectives, desperate criminals and spectral visitors have passed into the realm of my imagination through the medium of radio? You can imagine the delight I took when Scrooge was visited by his dead business partner Jacob Marley, forewarning him of the visitation of three spirits. Although I had heard Lionel Barrymore in the role of Scrooge more than once, I never tired of the story. The inevitable finale, when the voice of Tiny Tim declares: “God Bless Us, Everyone!” still infuses me even today with Christmas joy. Over more than the sixty years since that radio broadcast, I’ve seen numerous cinematic and theatrical presentations of Dickens’ Christmas tale
Nearly 30 years ago during the Christmas holidays, my older daughter and I were waiting in line on a Tokyo backstreet to get into the small theater in the basement of a five-story building. When the doors opened, we pushed our way downstairs to get seats close to the stage. We wanted an unobstructed view of the two actors who would perform all the roles of A Christmas Carol.. I opened the theater program and read the thumbnail biographies of Michael Bannard and Stuart Varnam-Atkin — two Englishmen with long and intoxicating histories as actors, narrators and writers. Soon the houselights lowered and, keenly curious, I settled into my seat and watched one of my favourite Christmas plays.
On the bare stage adorned only with a lectern, Michael and Stuart had brought to life the setting and the characters with simple changes of costumes.
Twenty years later I watched another two-man performance of Dickens’ novella — this time James House worked with Stuart Varnam-Atkin. I was just as delighted with this performance as I was with the first one. I applauded, I laughed, and I wept as the two actors unfolded Scrooge’s transformation into an approachable little boy in an old man’s body.
“Nothing unusual about two actors playing all the roles,” Stuart Varnam-Atkin commented later over dinner as we discussed the possibility of adapting the performance into a video production. “Dickens, when he gave readings of the story took on the task of playing every role in addition to humming the background music. A one-man presentation to which audiences reportedly responded with wild enthusiasm.”
“Of course in Japan, Kabuki Actors play all of the roles, including the women,” James House added. “And look at the Takarazuka Theater Troupe. Since 1913, women in the all female troupe have been acting in both male and female roles.”
Soon we started talking about challenges of making a video adaptation. How could we capture the essence and the flavor of Dickens’ Christmas story without making it into a mockery? A challenge complicated by the realities posed by a limited budget. Actors and tech people would have to donate their time and talent.
“Not a particularly good time to quit our jobs,” we agreed. We were giddy with enthusiasm fuelled by copious glasses of wine.
Our first step was to write the script for the video adaptation.
The Morning After
Easier said than done! Produce, shoot and edit a video presentation of A Christmas Carol. Ha! As simple as a snap of the fingers. A walk in the park. Oh, Lord! The consumed bottles of Chardonnay Wine had heightened my delusions and morphed me into a high-powered producer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Stuart, James and I sat around the dinner table eating roast chicken, mashed potatoes and broccoli, which we washed down with liberal quantities of Chardonnay. Before dinner they gave the video script I had written a first reading. As they read, they made deletions and additions. At the dinner table we discussed our strategy for the production.
“Keep it simple!” Stuart insisted. “As simple as the stage production.”
“No need for expensive props or costumes,” James added with equal insistence. “We can make use of the ones we have collected over the years.”
In the script, I had indicated where I could employ high-tech special effects – that would have added at least two million yen ($20,000) to the proposed budget I had in mind.
“I want Marley’s ghost to appear particularly menacing,” I said, as I uncorked another bottle of wine. “And for the Cratchit Christmas dinner in Stave Three, how about if we cook an actual goose? And you know, when the Spirit of Christmas Present first appears, we can transform Scrooge’s dreary room into a room festooned with Christmas ornaments and a large Christmas tree.”
The ideas bubbled up out of my head faster than the white foam of a beer inelegantly poured into a mug. “Now you might be wondering, wherewill we get the money?”
Stuart shot me a sour expression, as if he were encountering a used car salesman. “The thought had crossed my mind!”
At that precise moment, James had just forked another load of mashed potatoes into his mouth. Still, however, he managed to squeeze a few words through the tuberous mass. “Yes, who’s willing to put up the two million yen?”
A glob of mashed potato flew into his wineglass as I was refilling it.
“Very simple,” I replied and refilled my own wineglass. I was primed and waiting for that question. Over the prior few months I had approached people who had money to invest and explained the project. One promising lead came from an attorney friend who said he could raise two million yen within a blink of an eye. When I explained who I had spoken to and who I could approach for money, I looked expectantly across the table at Stuart and James.
The expressions on their faces resembled two people’s whose wine had miraculously turned into vinegar.
“Charles Dickens was not high-tech,” James pointed out. “When he gave a reading of A Christmas Carol, he performed all of the parts. He was Scrooge, he was Fred, he was the three spirits – everyone! All he needed to show to the audience was a simple change of costume. Bob Cratchit? He put on a hat and muffler. Marley’s ghost? Well, he might have wrapped chains around him. Background music for Fezziwig’s party? He hummed it and he used his fingers to demonstrate how the people danced.”
“What James is saying,” Stuart interjected, always ready to interpret what other people were thinking, “we want to keep the video production as close to the stage production as possible.”
“And as close to what Dickens might have been doing in his readings,” James said, reinforcing Stuart’s comment.
In other words, I thought, the production would never reach the big screens.
“Nothing wrong with the small screen,” Stuart said, reading my thoughts. People can watch it on their iPads.
“Keep it simple!” he repeated. “As simple as the stage production.”
James shoved his copy of the video script across the table between the bowel of Caesar salad and the half-empty bottle of Chardonnay. I groaned inwardly. Oh, Lord! Yet another rewrite.
“But what about the budget?” I said and served myself a generous splash of Chardonnay.
“A limited budget.” Stuart said and sliced the chicken breast on his plate into bite-size pieces.
Well, we decided we needed a little cash to get the production rolling, so the three of us plus our tech person Steve Gardner each put in ¥40,000 (US$400 + -). We went from a zero budget to a shoestring budget, and our motto became — “It’s not what you have, but what you do with what you have!”
The Morning After
Hungover the following day, I started typing another script revision, this time with fewer, uh make that, no Star Wars’ effects. (To be continued)