It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…ah, yes, Dickens truly understood the meaning of Christmas! So in the lead up to that wonderful season of conspicuous spending, gross commercialism, gluttony, over-indulgence and family feuds, I say along with The Great Man himself – Bah! Humbug! (I’ve always loved humbugs, don’t you?)
Scientific tests (carried out by yours truly) have shown that the only way to survive the approaching Season of Goodwill with anything approaching the requisite amount of jolliness is to cut off all contact with the outside world for a while and curl up with a good Dickens (and a box of chocolates, of course). Then, when Santa suddenly arrives down the chimney, you should be able to offer him a glass of sherry and a mince pie with not just equanimity but actual joie de vivre!
So here goes for the first instalment of…
Have a Dickens of a Christmas!
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A Christmas Carol narrated by Patrick Stewart
I had the great privilege some years ago of seeing Patrick Stewart’s one-man show of A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic theatre in London – one of the theatrical highlights of my life. At the time I was aware of him as Jean-Luc Picard of the Star Ship Enterprise and knew that he’d been a ‘proper’ Shakespearian actor before that. But seeing him perform Dickens’ wonderful story live was a revelation. This audio version is based on that performance.
“They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing.”
A Christmas Carol must surely rate as the best ghost story of all time, and be on the shortlist at least for best short story. Dickens’ exuberant and larger-than-life style is perfectly suited to a tale of this nature, and it in turn is perfectly suited to the message of Christmas. We see Scrooge first as a mean and miserly old man, measuring out his clerk’s coal and objecting to losing a day’s work for Christmas. Our introduction to the ghost of Marley is truly scary – the clanking chains, the face on the door-knocker, the chimes of the clock; and who can forget the gaping jaw as Marley removes the kerchief tied around his head? The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come lead us through a turmoil of emotions as we see the lonely little boy, the young man who lost his one love, the gradual sinking into loneliness and miserliness, and the horror of what might be to come. But Dickens does redemption like no-one else, and he leads us away from the despair of Ignorance and Want towards a joyous and uplifting ending, where Scrooge gains his salvation through learning that to give to those less fortunate than himself brings him the pleasure and happiness he had forgotten could exist.
Stewart’s performance is superb. There’s no music, no sound-effects – he performs the whole thing completely with his voice, creating different personas for each character, each fully realised and totally individual. It is his voice that gives us the bells, the chimes of the clock – it’s through his voice that we hear the fear, the horror, the hope and finally the wondrous joy. When Scrooge learns to laugh at the end, I defy anyone not to laugh with him. When he sings a Christmas carol for the first time in years we hear his voice go through the stages from creaky and rusty to a full-scale boisterous bellow. And when he gives us Dickens’ last sugary-sweet line, he makes it so tender that even the cliché becomes truly moving.
This is an abridged version, running at just under two hours, but it’s so skilfully done I’m never really aware of what’s missing. It’s a once a year must-listen for me and I love it just as much each time. A masterly performance of a masterpiece, and guaranteed to boost your festive stock of goodwill to all men. Have a Dickens of a Christmas!
“…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”