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Dickens on the Web 'Scrooge Blues' and 'Not So Tiny Tim'

'Scrooge Blues' and 'Not So Tiny Tim'
By Nicholas McInerny
BBC Radio Four, December 2002

Review by Robert Giddings

Reprinted with permission of the author

Dickens's fiction has always lent itself to dramatic treatment, and recently there's been a craze for singling out a character and providing new adventures for them. John Sullivan attempted, with admittedly so-so results, to resuscitate Micawber for television last year in some brand new adventures starring hard-working David Jason. BBC Radio Four offered two seasonal dramas last December -- Scrooge Blues and Not So Tiny Tim -- drawing on characters from the immortal Christmas Carol by prolific radio dramatist, Nicholas McInerny.

In effect, these were two short morality plays that deployed characters from A Christmas Carol. The characters constituted the strongest link with Charles Dickens, for although quite satisfying seasonal radio dramas with uplifting themes, effective dialogue and splendid sound effects, they lacked the vitality and indeed the electrical comicality of their great original.

In Scrooge Blues we find the reformed Ebeneezer (David Hargreaves) a year after the night of his ghostly life-changing visitors, seemingly happily married to Mary (Gillian Goodman). He sits by the fire, roasting chestnuts, swilling mulled wine waiting for his Christmas guests arrive for a celebration. This was a comic touch, as - on the face of it -- the guest turn out to be his old pals Christmas Past (Christopher Ashley), Christmas Present (Sean Connelly) and Christmas Yet To Come (a non-speaking role).

Jollifications ensue with a fiddler twiddling as they all dance a roundelay. Scrooge has indeed become the best employer in all of London, with a reputation for charitable works. But things are not all they seem. Mary is plotting a surprise. She deliberately plied the old man with booze and raised his excitement to a pitch. She mutters to Bob Cratchit, waiting in the wings, that Ebeneezer is now ready for plucking.

Bob comes on the scene with Tiny Tim. In just twelve months Tim has improved beyond all imagining. He's thrown his crutch away and now nips about with just a cane. And he can dance! He joins in. Scrooge is delirious with excitement to see the living proof of his benevolence. But Tim overdoes it and passes out. Scrooge is stricken with anxiety. The moment is ripe and Bob Cratchit produces a pair of letters for Scrooge to peruse. It is bad news. The firm is bust; the only way out is to sign it all over to Bob Cratchit. Ebeneezer has been stitched up, but drink and jollity have done their stuff and he can't see it. A scratchy signature is scrawled. The deed is done.

As Scrooge, brooding on his ill luck does his best to console himself, Mary pays off the actors who assumed the roles of the visiting spirits. There's a brief moment of comedy as they complain they have been paid less than they'd agreed. Mary will stand no nonsense. The money changes hands and that's that. Not So Tiny Tim takes place fifteen years later. Tim (Ian Pepperell) now heads a very thriving company and is poised to become the most powerful businessman in London. Mary, Scrooge's ex, turns up, now a drunken woman of the streets. Her purpose seems to be to remind Tim of where he's come from and to check his pride and arrogance. He seems impervious. The drama came alive at this point in one of the best scenes in these plays. Tim's intentions gradually become clear - he's going to stop the payments to the charities for crippled children. Mary is horrified at his callousness. Tim is adamant, ruthless and unmoved. The atmosphere changes when Tim is on his own again. Dragging chains signal the unexpected and frightful prospects of a ghostly visitor. The ghost of Scrooge has returned from the grave, dragging his memory chain with him, to warn Tiny Tim of the consequences of his money grasping way of life.

The basic ideas of the two dramas were sound enough and I had expected much from them. But in the event I was disappointed. It seems to me there might well be several justifications to take Dickens's characters and work them up in a new context. A master of pastiche could make a good entertainment of it. With good story lines, crackling dialogue and effective production Scrooge Blues and Not So Tiny Tim could have been really entertaining radio drama. A skilled dramatist might use he material to point up a modern parallel or relevance in the modern world. (I'm thinking here of Brecht's Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg). Dickens's story does not need rewriting or modernizing to make its point.

A modern stereo radio production that pulled out all the stops, played up the melodrama, rascally comicality and spookiness of Dickens's source material might have brought this off, but the direction by Peter Leslie Wild was routinely adequate. The big trick in A Christmas Carol is that it's melodramatic and comic at the same time, often in the same breath. Nothing is funnier than the way Scrooge relishes his own wickedness and warms his rascally old heart with it all. This tale is central in understanding Dickens's genius. It's no accident that it featured so strongly in his reading tours. Slight it may be, but the prose is charged with unique electricity. Don't forget his comments about its composition: He wrote in a letter dated 2 January 1844 that he "wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition; and thinking whereof he walked about the black streets of London fifteen and twenty miles a night when all sober folks had gone to bed." Little of that vitality here I'm afraid.

The fact is, like a true classic, A Christmas Carol needs no updating. Like a myth it always means what it says. It makes its statement and speaks to us across the years.

Robert Giddings
Bournemouth University

Robert Giddings teaches in the School of Media Arts and Communications at Bournemouth University, Poole, Dorset