Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Year Two. Day Twenty-Four: "CBS Radio Mystery Theater: A Christmas Carol" (1975)

T'was the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring as they are all enraptured by this charming radio production from 1975.

To mark the final day of my advent challenge, I decided that I would do something I had never done before and review my first ever radio play while I finish the last of my Christmas baking, and what an enjoyable way to experience it it was.

Scrooge is played by veteran American TV actor E. G. Marshall, who also acts as the narrator and presenter of the tale. His clipped radio presenter voice and spot on English dialect are matched by his riotous performance to which he has committed with all of his heart.

The cast is superb across the board but what really stands out is the marvellous script, which is mostly a faithful retelling of Dickens' story but slimmed down and written to be accessible to an audience who have only their ears to rely on and less than an hour in which to do it.

It is a gentle, rewarding 45 minutes of audio enjoyment, with the story unravelling at a decent pace. It is quite remarkable just how much of the story is compressed into this slender running time and how at no time does it feel rushed in enfolding its story.

It is a sumptuous, rich feast of a play that I cannot recommend highly enough and it is a fitting way to finish my second year of reviewing 24 more adaptations of the greatest story ever told.

The only question that remains is can I make it for a third year?

I think I can...

As festive as spending a Christmas Eve writing my blog.

"CBS Radio Mystery Theater: A Christmas Carol." (1975)  5/5

P.S. Thanks to everyone who has been following my blog. It has been an utter joy to write and I can only hope that you have enjoyed it too.

Merry Christmas! God bless us every one!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Year Two. Day Twenty-Three: "The Odd Couple: Scrooge Gets an Oscar" (1970)

"The Odd Couple" began its life as a 1965 stage play that was later turned into a popular 1968 Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon movie vehicle. This series, takes the original premise; two divorced bachelors, deciding to live with each other after many years of growing apart and the myriad of humourous situations that would arise when this mismatched duo are forced to share their living space. It was a hugely successful sitcom that gave birth to the house-share format for TV comedy that lives on today in "The Big Bang Theory" and "New Girl."

Tony Randall stars as Felix, a friendly, responsible man with a penchant for neatness, while Jack Klugman plays the role of Oscar, a grouchy slob of a man who has a good heart, but doesn't always know how to show it. Unsurprisingly it is the latter of this pair who is on Scrooge duties for this charming episode.

Christmas is fast approaching and Felix has gathered his friends to put on a play for the local children; an adaptation of "A Christmas Carol." After several failed attempts at finding a Scrooge, the men elect that there is only one person who could possibly play the role. Unfortunately Oscar point blank refuses, until he falls asleep in front of the TV and dreams that Felix comes to visit him as the ghosts of Christmas, here to show him the error of his ways.

This is a brief but sparkling episode from the first season of this winning show. It is a joy to see how ably the actors have fleshed out their characters, whilst the show itself has already found its feet. The "Christmas Carol" elements are fun and fast and the script is light and funny in a classic old-fashioned sense, replete with canned laughter (it wasn't until season two that the format was switched to a live studio audience.)

This may not be remembered as one of the best or most faithful adaptations of the text, but it's likable enough to be a very welcome 25 minutes of well meaning joviality, with a sweet message at the end of the importance of that most difficult of subjects - friendships between men.

As sparkling as a breakfast bucks fizz.

"The Odd Couple: Scrooge Gets an Oscar." (1970)  4/5

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Year Two. Day Twenty-Two: "Rich Little's Christmas Carol" (1979)

So often I find myself watching TV, particularly American TV and feeling depressed by the overwhelming stench of cynicism it evokes. Whether it's sneering at Honey Boo-Boo's family, watching dreams crushed on "The X-Factor" or feigning mock shock at the latest thing a Kardashian has been up to, so much of the entertainment we consume has a streak of nastiness running through it - jostling us in the ribs to remind us we're in on this joke, asking us to look down on people who have never done us any harm.

It is only when something like this wonderful gem from 1979 surfaces from the mire of pessimism that I am reminded of a time when television was brave enough to show sincerity, to celebrate real talent and not ask us to judge our fellow man. This Christmas special is all these things and even more; it is as close to perfection as anyone could hope for.

Rich Little is an American comedian and impressionist who is still working today at the age of 75. This adaptation puts his extraordinary talents to use by having him play all of the central roles of "A Christmas Carol" each of which is itself a spot on impression of a cavalcade of familiar voices from the 70's. We have Jonny Carson as Fred, Edith Bunker as Mrs. Cratchit and Truman Capote as Tiny Tim. In any sane world, this shouldn't work yet somehow it completely does.

Rarely have I been so enchanted by anything. Rich Little as W.C. Fields as Scrooge is a particular stand out, but each of his impressions are so lovingly crafted you will forget that it is a single man playing them all. Overall there is a sense that this is a labour of love from a single man with the kind of talent and desire to do nothing but entertain. It is so rare to find such an earnest thing in these cynical times.

From its laugh out loud comedy, catchy songs and incredible spirit of kind heartedness, this is an absolute treat from start to finish. I adored every single frame of it.

As old fashioned as wassailing on Christmas Eve.

"Rich Little's Christmas Carol." (1979)  5/5

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Year Two. Day Twenty-One: "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" (2009)

The sub-genre of non-Christmas set adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" is a weird but fascinating area. This year I have already reviewed a Halloween and a Valentine take on the story. This adaptation doesn't use a calendar date at all and instead, hangs its plot around a wedding.

Matthew McConaughey plays the Scrooge role in this wildly irreverent version. He is Connor Mead, a womanising photographer who does not believe in love or marriage. In the real world, somebody's rejection of assumed societal norms is not a problem, least of all as in this case, nobody is being harmed by Connor's beliefs except for (possibly) himself. However, this is a Hollywood movie and any deviation from the norm is seen as a terrible malady that must be fixed.

On the eve of his brother's wedding to Gretchen Wieners from Mean Girls (the always fetch Lacey Chabert,) Connor is visited by the ghost of his departed uncle and told he will be guided through the evening by the spirits of past girlfriends who will take him to the past, present and future to help him understand the error of his ways and how he can truly find love with Jennifer Garner.

The main problem with this movie is that Connor is such an odious, lecherous pig that we have no desire to see him find happiness or to get the girl in the end (after a tedious race-to-the-airport climax.) Matthew McConaughey plays this man as such a vile, donkey-face misogynist that he comes across as borderline sociopathic. How are meant to root for him?

Worst of all are the woman-hating, slut shaming, homophobic string of non-jokes that are somehow meant to make us regard Connor as a loveable rascal. He is nothing of the sort and by the time his redemption comes around (complete with window-flinging-open scene) you'll be hoping that his supposed true love will finally see some sense and get as far away from him as she can.

Despite that, McConaughey is surrounded by a cast of far, far more talented actresses who flesh their characters out fully in ways that the script itself has mostly denied them. It is never explained why all of these smart women are falling to their knees in front of this disgusting excuse for a man (save for the creepy wish fulfilment story the two male writers were no doubt in search for.)

As hard on the stomach as a Boxing Day hangover.

"Ghosts of Girlfriends Past." (2009)  1/5

Friday, December 20, 2013

Year Two. Day Twenty: "The Simpsons: 'Tis the Fifteenth Season" (2003)

As far as adaptations go, this festive special takes an approach that is not unlike rebuilding a listed house - as long as one of the original walls remains standing, then it still counts.

This is perhaps the loosest interpretation of "A Christmas Carol" I have thus far seen, and there is probably a fair argument to be made that this is more of an ode to TV Christmas specials than a take on the classic tale - but I love "The Simpsons" and it's just close enough to the story to count as far as I'm concerned!

This episode finds Homer in a particularly selfish mood. After buying key rings for all of his family, he spends his new found fortune on an expensive, unnecessary astrolabe for himself.

It takes a late night in front of the TV, watching an animated version of "A Christmas Carol" on TV (at which point, Homer realises that the story is "like me if I were a cartoon") for him to see the error of his ways. As the adaptation draws to a close, he understands that he has become a Scrooge and elects to become "the nicest man in town."

This is a very enjoyable episode that has plenty of fun with TV adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" - particularly the splendid "Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol." Unlike those versions, Homer's redemption story goes beyond mere generosity and actually becomes a rival to his neighbour, Ned Flanders.

It may not be anything close to a faithful adaptation, but it is knowing enough and aware of its own ties to the original tale, that make this a very enjoyable tale - that is only tangentially related to "A Christmas Carol."

As loosely hung as tinsel.

"The Simpsons: 'Tis the Fifteenth Season." (2003)  4/5

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Year Two. Day Nineteen: "A Christmas Carol" (1969)

"A Christmas Carol" has always leant itself well to animation. Whether it is the trippy 1971 Oscar winning version or the technically impressive, but emotionally muted 2009 version, this simple tale with its promise of visual treats has been a delicious prospect for many faithful adaptations.

This made for TV version from 1969 has not been as fondly remembered as the 1971 version, not least of all because that adaptation featured Alastair Sim in the lead role - a man who was already acknowledged as the greatest on screen Scrooge of all time thanks to his 1954 performance. Ron Haddrick cannot hope to live up to that example, but this adaptation does have its own unique charm.

The animation style is serviceable, if a little flat. However, if you are as fond of the 1979 animated version of "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" as I am, then you will find plenty to enjoy in the visuals. The voice work is good, if a little over-baked in a handful of moments and the design of the ghosts, particularly that of Christmas Past, are quite striking.

Unfortunately the only terms I can use to describe this version are ones which will damn it with faint praise. It is adequate, it is competent, it is passable. At a running length of 45 minutes it is longer than many other animated versions, allowing the story to have a little time to breathe and even some space for a handful of songs, all of which are performed very well.

While it runs, it never threatens to outstay its welcome and is diverting enough fun until it ends. However, the reason why it is not fondly remembered today is most likely not for any negative aspects of its production - it just is not special enough to be remembered at all.

As easily forgotten as a Christmas turkey in the oven.

"A Christmas Carol." (1969)  3/5

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Year Two. Day Eighteen: "It's Christmas, Carol!" (2012)

Deep in the bowels of the Hallmark Channel headquarters there must be some deeply complex machine, programmed to spit out a script for yet another female-centred, modern day American adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" - just in time for the holiday season.

All of these films are essentially the same. Single, childless business woman; sassy friends who make bitchy comments about her over cocktails; forgettably handsome love interest. Moreover, they all seem to come to the same conclusion - that this shrew needs to stop busting balls at the work place and get herself a nice man and a brood of TV-cute sprogs.

After rolling my eyes at the title, I discovered that "It's Christmas, Carol!" is so firmly within this well-established mould, I did worry at first that perhaps I had already seen it and had to scroll back through my blog to confirm I hadn't.

It concerns the fate of Carol, played with bland efficiency by Emmanuelle Vaugier. She is a hard-nosed business woman who owns a publishing firm in a Chicago that consists solely of stock footage of the Willis Tower and Wacker Drive. After forcing her staff to work Christmas day (which, you may remember, not even Scrooge stooped to) she is visited by the ghost of her former employer, Eve (yes, I rolled my eyes at that too) who will be playing the roles of all of the ghosts throughout Carol's redemption tale due to "cutbacks." Thankfully, Eve is played by Carrie Fisher, so this is no bad thing.

What is peculiar about this adaptation is that it is set in a world in which "A Christmas Carol" already exists as a novel. In fact, in one scene Carol, (who calls herself a fan of Dickens) has to look up the plot of the book to find out which ghost comes next. At the same time, there are a couple of bright nods to the original and to the great man himself (plus a fun reference to Star Wars in one of Carrie Fisher's scenes.)

Throughout her voyage to her past, I did not understand what we were supposed to be feeling. We were offered no reasons as to why this idealistic young woman went from champion of classic literature to ruthless capitalist in pursuit of the next best seller at all costs - that is, until I realised that the film is not so subtly trying to say that it was being a businesswoman itself that turned her into an unspeakable churl. Nice one Hallmark, I'm sure this a fantastic message to send to your almost exclusively female audience.

Carol's redemption is only partly owing to her new found generosity, what really saves her is that she is finally worthy of love with a man, whereupon she will presumably settle down and give birth to the tribe of children her alternative future had promised her.

This would all be unbearably offensive - and easily the worst adaptation I have seen so far (save for that awful, awful Kelsey Grammar musical version I saw last year) but the one shining light in its favour is the ever welcome presence of Carrie Fisher, who is enjoying every second of this hokey claptrap - and seems to be the only one who is.

"It's Crap, Carol!"

"It's Christmas, Carol." (2012) 1/5

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Year Two. Day Seventeen: "Xena: Warrior Princess: A Solstice Carol" (1996)

Sometimes I think I have seen everything that can be done with "A Christmas Carol" and that there is simply nothing left to do with it any more, then along comes something so bizarre it's almost impossible to quite put into words.

This episode of "Xena: Warrior Princess" finds our heroine in a strange land with a cruel king who has outlawed the winter solstice and levies huge fines against those who dare to celebrate it.

At the suggestion of her friend/assistant/lover Gabrielle, who sees the good in the miserly old man, Xena elects that rather than overthrow this king, she will try an elaborate ruse in which she plays the ghosts of solstices past, present and future and lead the King through his past; to his failed relationship, to the suffering of an orphanage that is stacked full of grubby children and to the future where he is remembered as a tyrant.

Things don't get truly out of control until the last ten minutes whereupon an extended battle scene sees everything from hula hoops, marionettes and custard pies utilised as weapons, a woman is unmasked as a former lover of the king and a donkey is handed over to some weary characters who may or may not be Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.

It's insane but enjoyably so. Were I
familiar with the Xena universe, I might be more captivated by the tale but unfortunately this episode probably isn't the most accessible as far as a newbie such as myself is concerned.

Lucy Lawless is terrific, of course and the writing is light, fluffy and fully aware that it is kind of nonsense. Moreover, the sapphic elements that made this show a hit with gay women across the world are played with just the right level of ambiguity to keep matters enjoyably vague.

As crazy as an eggnog induced dream.

"Xena: Warrior Princess: A Solstice Carol." (1996)  2/5

Monday, December 16, 2013

Year Two. Day Sixteen: "Shower of Stars: A Christmas Carol" (1954)

"Shower of Stars" was a popular CBS variety show which ran between 1954 and 1958. Part platform for familiar talents of the time, part vehicle for the show's sponsor, Chrysler, "Shower of Stars" was one of the first programmes of its kind to be broadcast in colour - and their 1954 adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" is believed to be the first colour version ever made, (unfortunately, the only versions which survive are in black and white, meaning that this very standard retelling of the story has lost the only facet that would make it of interest historically...)

Show regular Frederic March plays Scrooge and does so satisfactorily, bereft of flourishes of overacting, nor any particular insight into the character. That said, after a series of increasingly bizarre adaptations I have sat through in these past few days, it was a welcome relief to get back to Scrooge's counting house and the snowy streets of (a very stagy looking) London.

Basil Rathbone plays Marley with as much aplomb as would be expected. Rathbone will forever be known for his wildly popular portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, but his career was hugely diverse, long and acclaimed. His appearance as the first ghost is enjoyable yet sadly brief.

This adaptation features a handful of songs which was an unwelcome addition. I love a good musical, but this is not a good musical and the songs do nothing but slow down a story which already has only 50 minutes to fill. The musical interludes range from the forgettable to the unbearable, with one song appearing to go on for an interminable length, despite seeming to consist only of the word "merry" sung over and over again, another song is so shriekingly high pitched I had fears it would cause my dog's ears to bleed.

Proceedings are repeatedly stopped to allow for extended commercials for Chrysler's range of cars - It would seem they were unable to slip them into a Dickensian adaptation itself. These do little to help distract from the choppy, discordant play we are watching.

It isn't a terrible adaptation, just one where it feels as if everyone, from the actors, to the director, the writer and the songwriters are all aiming for "good enough" - or, to quote a scene from "30 Rock" where Liz Lemon, having performed an onscreen piece of product placement for a mobile phone, looks directly into the camera and asks "Can we have our money now?"

As ruthlessly commercial as opening shop on Boxing Day.

"Shower of Stars: A Christmas Carol." (1954)   2/5

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Year Two. Day Fifteen: "The Real Ghostbusters: Xmas Marks the Spot" (1986)

Perhaps suffering slightly from Christmas Carol fatigue, today's installment of my challenge was one I was looking forward to as it seemed to feature a clever take on the old story, I was not wrong.

This episode of the popular cartoon series, features the four Ghostbusters being hurled back in time to Victorian England, and into the pages of Dickens' novel, whereupon they promptly "bust" the ghosts of past, present and future and save Scrooge from his night of self reflection.

Upon returning to the present, the four men realise their mistake: thanks to Scrooge staying forever the miser, all the world now regards Christmas as a "humbug" and it is up to them to return to the past in order to set things right.

This gleefully smart episode has a lot of fun with the source text and happily assumes that its young audience is familiar enough with the tale without having to explain it to them. Scrooge himself and his trio of ghosts are presented in accordance to their descriptions in the book and even some of Ebenezer's dialogue is lifted directly from the page.

This is a brief, spirited adventure that unfortunately allows itself to become rather convoluted towards the end whereby it's unclear if the Ghostbusters themselves were in anyway a help or a hindrance throughout this exploit. That said, it has a neat twist in the closing minutes whereupon it seems that Scrooge wasn't the only one for whom the ghosts were sent to save.

I very much enjoyed that this adaptation acknowledged the massive impact that "A Christmas Carol" had upon the way in which we celebrate Christmas and that without it we may not celebrate it at all. It's a nice touch that many of these loose retellings of the tale are oft to forget.

As fun and as messy as a mince pie covered in brandy cream.

"The Real Ghostbusters: Xmas Marks the Spot." (1986)  3/5

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Year Two. Day Fourteen: "Fame: Ebenezer Morloch" (1985)

"Fame" was a TV spin-off series from the movie of the same name that enjoyed a healthy run of six years between 1982 and 1987. I have vague memories of watching this series as a child of the 80's and the 1985 Christmas special may very well have been the first ever adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" I ever saw - not that I would have known it at the time.

The series followed the lives of a group of dance and theatre kids at an academy of performing arts in New York. It was notable for featuring a diverse cast of characters of different races and backgrounds (although oddly, every one of the boys at this theatre school appears to be straight...)

This adaptation of the book has one of the teachers in the school - Quentin Morloch in the Scrooge role. He is found far from the spirit of Christmas and is miserly cutting back costs to the school and depriving people of their Christmas bonuses.

In the grand tradition of US teen drama, the original text upon which this story is based just happens to be the one the students are studying in their English class, thus begins Morloch's time travelling journey to salvation, with a particular emphasis upon heart break and lost loves helping to explain how the teacher came to be so mean.

Scattered amongst the story are a handful of song and dance numbers, which may try the patience of those not especially fond of choreographed routines from the '80s - but I am not one of these tedious people and I loved every high kicking frame of them.

Ken Swofford as Morloch is an enjoyably grumpy Scrooge and his performance is full of campy charm and pantomime villainy. By the time the all singing, all dancing epiphany arrives, it's a real treat to see him swept up in the spirit of joy and giving.

Unusual for TV series which features a "Christmas Carol" episode in which they take one of the regular characters, change them for the better then have them back to their old ways come New Year, "Fame" was unique as this marked Swofford's last ever episode as Quentin Morloch, after which he presumably was so swept up by the magic of Christmas he redeemed his ways for good and skipped off into the sunset to spread festivities wherever he went.

As toe-tapping as "I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday."

"Fame: Ebenezer Morloch." (1985)  4/5

Friday, December 13, 2013

Year Two. Day Thirteen: "Roseanne: Halloween IV" (1992)

Just in case things appeared to be looking a little too much like Christmas, here comes Roseanne with one of her famous Halloween specials. Why does a Halloween episode make it into my list of Christmas Carol adaptations? Because believe it or not, this is an adaptation of the classic story.

It's Halloween night and Roseanne isn't feeling in the spirit. Despite it being her favourite annual celebration she hasn't even managed a single prank throughout the day.

After falling asleep on the sofa, Roseanne wakens to discover that it is not trick or treaters at the door, but the Ghost of Halloween past, who takes her back to her childhood in hopes of reminding her of the true spirit of the holiday.

This is a fun, frothy treat of an episode, gleefully dismembering and cherishing its source in equal measures. Roseanne herself is as noisy and obnoxious as ever, but that was always the charm of the series in the first place.

The ghosts of past, present and future are joyfully shambolic in their amateur costumes as they guide our heroine to her inevitable conclusion: Christmas may be for sharing, but Halloween is all about revenge!

As Christmassy as a jack-o-lantern.

"Roseanne: Halloween IV." (1992)  4/5

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Year Two. Day Twelve: "Ms. Scrooge" (1997)

Despite viewing a plethora of made for American TV contemporary remakes of "A Christmas Carol" they have pretty much presented exclusively a very white Christmas. Therefore I was quite intrigued to see a version featuring a largely African American cast.

Cicely Tyson plays the role of Ebenita Scrooge - a cruel and ruthless woman who seems to have given up on everything in her life, save for her vast wealth.

Ten years before, the first person to ever see potential in her; her former boss Maude Marley died suddenly - and it is Christmas Eve upon which Marley decides to give her former employee a visit.

Despite being a contemporary take on the book, this is a surprisingly conventional adaptation, with all of the sets reminiscent of Victorian London and the script clearly informed by the original. It is also the first adaptation in a while in which the ghosts are presented as genuinely frightening, with some inventively spooky effects deployed to capture their sudden, unwelcome appearance.

Cicely Tyson plays her role wonderfully. She completely inhabits the bitter, greedy miser and her transformation is slow but rewarding, with some truly touching moments scattered among historic horrors of the lives of black people in 1960's America.

I was well prepared to give "Ms. Scrooge" a perfect score, until the story began to veer unfortunately towards a somewhat evangelical conclusion; with Scrooge's epiphany and redemption being more about saving her soul than it is about saving the lives of those around her, particularly Tiny Tim.

The heavy handed religious overtones left something of a bad taste in my mouth as I've always seen "A Christmas Carol" being a secular tale of Christmas (or to quote Danielle Chase from "My So-Called Life", "Do we have to talk about religion? It's Christmas!")

Still, the performances are solid and the film is made with care and precision and Scrooge's shutter flinging Christmas morning has a sense of real beauty about it.

Depending on your tolerance for a certain strain of fire and brimstone preaching, this is flawed, festive fun.

As dense and rich as a Christmas cake.

"Ms. Scrooge." (1997)  4/5

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Year Two. Day Eleven: "A Jetson Christmas Carol" (1985)

Last year I reviewed the highly enjoyable "Flintstone's Christmas Carol" so this year, it seemed only right to watch their futuristic counterparts attempt to do the same.

The Jetsons was a moderately popular animated sitcom from the Hanna-Barbera studio responsible for hits such as Yogi Bear, Scooby-doo and the aforementioned Flintstones. In fact, it was the huge sucess of the Flintstones that encouraged the company to invest in another time shifted family sitcom that could be broadcast in the prime time slot, although this time, rather than existing in the past, The Jestons lived in the future.

At only 21 minutes running time, this adaptation has little time as it is to speed through the story, however, it has to use at least ten minutes setting up the story's b-plot, concerning the family's dog, Astro, who is feeling mortally ill. In many ways, this was a necessary failing, as otherwise the Jetsons themselves may not have appeared in their own Christmas special.

Meanwhile, the father of the family is working late on Christmas Eve and is informed by his boss, Mr. Spacely, that he must work Christmas Day as well.

What follows is a somewhat rushed but clear retelling of the classic tale, with Spacely visited by the the three ghosts who whip him through his past, present and future exploits in an attempt to redeem the miser.

This is a light, mostly entertaining skip through Dickens' tale that manages to fit a surprisingly large amount of plot into its miniscule running time (The Flintstones were given twice as long for their version!) However, it manages to hit neither highs nor lows in an attempt to appeal to the masses, with cheap jokes and even cheaper looking animation that conspire to ruin what could have been an adventurous, touching retelling of the story that was completely in keeping with the spirit of the original.

As quick as Santa's sleigh.

"A Jetson Christmas Carol." (1985)  2/5

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Year Two. Day Ten. "A Christmas Carol" (1949)

This oddity from 1949 was a made for TV Christmas special featuring none other than Vincent Price - a man who would go on to be known as one of the all time great horror/comedy actors as the narrator of this very conventional adaptation of the novel.

Price plays the role of kindly narrator well, putting his classically train chops to good use as he sits down in an armchair to bookend this tale. Stripped of the trappings of horror cliches, he has a surprisingly warm, avuncular air and his voice, distinct and crisp as ever is a welcome addition to this otherwise unmemorable version.

At only 25 minutes long, this version is a necessary brief skim through the highlights of the book, which nevertheless manages to hit the right notes of charm and whimsy in its closing act.

Our Scrooge is played by Taylor Holmes, whose performance is hammy but likably so, conjuring memories of stage performers adjusting awkwardly to the smaller limitations of TV and the lack of a need to emote to the back row. The rest of the cast veer from wooden to inexplicable, with some of the most bizarre deliveries I have thus far seen. Sometimes it feels as if the actors are having their lines held aloft on cards, just out of frame.

That said, after so many wild and wildly different versions of the book, it was very nice to return to a good old fashioned, straightforward retelling, complete with shutters being thrown open and presents aplenty for the Cratchit children, and news of a miracle doctor for Tiny Tim ("Who did not die," Price informs us with incredible warmth in his voice.)

Sadly, the ghosts are presented as somewhat cheap looking creations in poorly made costumes, which to be fair, is likely more owing to the limitations of budget and the (possible?) fact that this may have been transmitted live.

Without the presence of Vincent Price, this would be an entirely forgettable rendition of the tale, but to have him here makes this version a peculiar oddity that is well worth a look.

As warm as a glass of mulled wine.

"A Christmas Carol." (1949)  3/5

Monday, December 9, 2013

Year Two. Day Nine: "A Valentine Carol" (2007)

So vast is the world of Christmas Carol adaptations the festive season alone is not big enough to withhold it. Meaning that other annual events have been given their own versions of Dickens' tale - and that this is merely the first odball version I shall be reviewing this year: (coming soon, ANOTHER Valentine's Day adaptation, a Halloween Carol and even a US Independence Day...)

Despite the change of calendar date, all the plot points of the original are intact. This time, our Scrooge is Emma Caulfield's
Ally Sims, a seemingly ruthless radio personality, who dishes out no-nonsense relationship advice while her own love life crumbles around her.

On the eve of her wedding (on Valentine's Day, no less) she is visited by the ghost of her friend (Jackie Marley) who guides her through a whistle stop tour of her past and present relationships, in hopes that she may reconsider her future.

While the chemistry between the two reunited friends is fun and lightly written, what really lets this movie down is the boyfriends she must revisit. Each is a blandly handsome white man with a reasonably well paid job, good teeth and thick hair - each is indistinguishable from the other.

More troubling is the overall message that the movie seems to be pushing by the time it comes to its conclusion - that if you want a happy marriage, women should allow their husbands to be themselves rather than nagging them away from following their dreams (the women of course, are required to sacrifice their careers altogether...)

Still, there are some fun subplots and supporting characters, particularly Barbara Niven as Marley and Jill Morrison as Gillian, Ally's long suffering work colleague (who I had to resist screaming "She doesn't even go here!" whenever she was on screen. Yes, it's the girl with lots of feelings from "Mean Girls"!)

As bad a taste in the mouth as a brussel sprout.

"A Valemtine Carol." (2007) 2/5

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Year Two. Day Eight: "Sabrina, The Animated Series: A Witchmas Carol" (1999)

This animated spin off series from "Sabrina The Teenage Witch" (itself, based on an a comic book series) ran for two years, concurrently with its live action equivalent.

It concerns the fortunes of Sabrina Spellman, a teenager who is dealing with all the expected trials of adolescence, with the added complication that she is a witch.

The live action series was always fun and surprisingly well written, with a neat skill at overarching story lines that ran across several episodes and its animated cousin seems to be a much similar offering.

This Christmas special episode finds Sabrina's rich, snobbish school rival, Gem Stone in the role of Scrooge, who seems to value nothing but commercial gain over the festive season.

Inspired by a sock-puppet performance of "A Christmas Carol" on TV, Sabrina and her friends decide to teach Gem a lesson about the true spirit of Christmas by performing the roles of the classic story; starting with Salem, Sabrina's talking cat taking the reigns as Jacob Marley.

Gem Stone seems less than impressed by their efforts and is surprisingly blasé about the appearance of the spectres at her bedside. What this episode does quite brilliantly is invert the story so that by the end of her evening, Gem Stone is just as selfish and greedy as she ever was, saved only by a last minute intervention of a thoughtful gift from our teenage witch.

This is a wittily written, enjoyable episode but it is unfortunately very shallow, with perhaps too much fear of alienating its young, possibly quite jaded audience with any real sense of sentimentality.

As snappy as a Christmas cracker.

"Sabrina, The Animated Series: A Witchmas Carol." (1999)  3/5

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Year Two. Day Seven: "A Christmas Carol" (2000)

For all the modern day retellings of A Christmas Carol to come out of America, there has been a surprising dearth of similar versions in the UK.

This made for ITV 2000 version goes some way to redress the balance, which despite having a fantastic central performance from Ross Kemp, yields only mixed results.

Kemp plays Eddie Scrooge, a ruthless loan shark who preys upon the poor and vulnerable by offering loans with such merciless interest they are almost impossible to pay off. This part of the story works very well and I thought it was both clever and important to show how for so many, many people, Christmas is neither a time of joy or abundance; but an anxious and fearful one where parents worry how they will manage to make ends meet as the financial demands of Christmas take hold.

The ghost of Jacob Marley here is represented by another loan shark who once worked alongside Scrooge and was killed under suspicious circumstances the year before. The tangent into the death of Marley was rather an unwelcome one, but mostly this is owing to me enjoying the story when it is kept as simple as possible.

Marley also plays the Ghost of Christmas Present while Scrooge's father and a silent boy are Past and Future respectively. The roles of "Ignorance" and "Want" are a pair of homeless siblings who play a far larger role in this retelling.

The major flaw in this retelling, and it is a HUGE one, is that after each of his encounters with the ghosts, Scrooge awakens on the same Christmas Eve and must relive the day over and over again, Groundhog Day style. Each day he attempts to make things better and remedy his past mistakes, slowly thawing as Christmas day draws closer.

This change to the text is fundamentally unsatisfying as it robs us of the euphoria of Scrooge's redemption. Watching him become slowly more compassionate may be more believable but a fable such as this does not dwell in the realm of authenticity.

The love story between Scrooge and Belle (or Bella as she is called here) becomes a central part of this adaptation which feels unnecessary, but it's sweetly told and doesn't feel too shoehorned in as it has in other versions I have seen.

The greatest asset this version has in its favour is Ross Kemp, still best known as Grant Mitchell from Eastenders, he's often underrated as an actor, as most soap actors are, but here he offers a compellingly dark portrayal of a man who is gradually learning that he still has a conscience, despite trying to keep it quiet for so long.

Despite the changes to the format and overcomplicating the plot, this version did manage an ending that was both sweet and festive which promised not only hope for the future, but that a time may come when the UK makes a truly great modern day adaptation of the story.

 As gritty as a lump of coal on the fireplace.

"A Christmas Carol" (2000) 3/5

Friday, December 6, 2013

Year Two. Day Six: "The Energy Carol" (1975)

If I have learnt nothing else from two seasons of adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" it is that this simple, almost fairytale like story is so incredibly flexible, it can almost be pulled into any shape or form, provided that enough of the original details remain.

This also means that there are some truly odd adaptations out there, one of the oddest being "The Energy Carol" - a propaganda piece from the Canadian Office of Energy Conservation.

Rather than the selfish miser we have come to see him as, Scrooge here is almost the inverse. He is wasteful and irresponsible, inefficient and thoughtless. Upon Christmas Eve he is visited by the ghost of his former colleague, Jacob Morelight who has been chained to a giant toaster (yes, I did say this was a weird one!)

Through his interactions with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, he learns the wastefulness of his ways and how his unsustainable behaviour will damage the future.

At this time, most of the world was bereft of worries of global warming and the impact of energy waste upon the future, so this brief film serves as something of an early example of fears being articulated. While this would be a noble cause, it does somewhat fluff the ending because rather than become a beacon of energy saving and responsibility, he turns into something of a lunatic, replacing light bulbs with candles and hurling appliances out of a window, whilst declaring that his work colleague will be working "twice as hard for half the pay."

Such a shame that the ending spoils would could be a unique adaptation of the tale, and a valuable lesson for the future.

As efficient and speedy as Santa's sleigh.

"The Energy Carol." (1975) 2/5

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Year Two. Day Five: "All American Christmas Carol" (2013)

The realm of American set adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" is a surprisingly dense one, with two new US versions being released in back-to-back years. As with the other adaptation "It's Christmas, Carol!" (to be reviewed later this December...) - this interpretation of the text has a female "Scrooge" in the lead, a habit which is true of almost every American adaptation, for some strange reason.

The main problem I have had with these female centred adaptations, such as "A Carol Christmas" and "A Diva's Christmas Carol" is that the films so very often are thinly veiled shots at businesswomen. The almost exclusively male writers of these movies seem to be predominantly expressing animosity towards their leads, not for being miserly or wicked but for daring to succeed in a male dominated world. Even "Ebbie's Story" - one of my favourites from last year, spent a fair amount of its brief running time having its protagonist bewail the fact that she had invested too much time in her business, rather than starting a family.

It was this experience that lead me to watch "All American Christmas Carol" with a sense of trepidation, but from the opening scenes, I was to be proven wrong.

This movies' "Scrooge" is Cindy, a trailer park living single mother on a low income job and with two children born of different fathers; the latter of these two fathers, Jake Marley, has recently been killed during an irresponsible round of paintball.

It is just before Christmas, that Jake returns in ghostly form and warns Cindy that she will be visited by three ghosts and... well, we all know the story from here.

One of the more appealing facets of this adaptation is that it does not require us to pity or to judge Cindy (who is played to perfection by Taryn Manning, last seen as the terrifying, religious zealot Pennsatucky in "Orange is the New Black.") In the hands of a different writer or director, Cindy would be an object of laughter, even disgust. However, here she is seen as a product of her world and of a few poor decisions that have left her overwhelmed by her very existence. It would have been so utterly against the spirit of the original to mock the poor, and this film handsomely manages to create sympathy and warmth for her plight, rather than sneering derision.

With the help of a school friend who died one Christmas, many years before, an ageing rockstar and the ghost of her deceased mother, Cindy is lead through her own history, to better understand why she is the way she is and how she can better her future and those of the ones around her.

Her final epiphany is not one of consumerist irresponsibility. I was fearful that the solution to her predicament was going to be that this penniless woman would have to spend, spend, spend to make Christmas better. Instead, a novel and touching approach is written, allowing her to use her talents and her ingenuity to brighten the lives of those around her.

This is a surprisingly well made and moving interpretation of "A Christmas Carol." It has moments of diamond-in-the-rough beauty and a savage sense of humour. I found myself absolutely enchanted.

As surprising and as festive as a kiss beneath the mistletoe.

"All American Christmas Carol." (2013) 5/5

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Year Two. Day Four. "A Christmas Carol" (1977)

Despite its richly deserved reputation for lavish and faithful adaptations of classic literature, the BBC has only adapted A Christmas Carol once for television.

This 1977 version stars Michael Hordern - a highly acclaimed actor, who had twice previously played the role of Jacob Marley in earlier adaptations. His Scrooge is a ferocious, barely contained beast with a particularly withering regard for his fellow men, particularly over the Christmas period.

This traditional version is very faithful to the book, and despite running at just under an hour, manages to retain a good deal of the original text, without seeming too rushed or chaotic.

Perhaps this adaptation would be more fondly remembered had it not been so evidently made on the cheap, with the BBC doing its best to keep costs down by utilising tacky looking green screen effects for all exterior scenes, while filming the interior scenes so closely it feels as if the sets aren't large enough to accommodate even the small cast this version features.

It's a real shame that the BBC, already proud of its status as a world leader in period drama, did not lavish this adaptation with a bit more money. Perhaps taking the spirit of Scrooge to heart, the finished product looks very much like it could have greatly used a few pennies more spent upon it, limping onto the screen looking as tired and weary as poor Tiny Tim.

Most of the scenes are filmed in long, static shots to give the whole thing a sense of a stage production, which serve the slender cast and their performances well; allowing interactions to play out naturally, yet at the same time giving the whole thing a rather dull and lifeless air.

Never is there much of a sense that we are in a vibrant, important city. London seems to consist of a handful of people, dashing about between one another's houses, rather than the overpopulated, overwhelming mess of chaos that so many other adaptation have so ably bought to the screen.

Perhaps, one day the BBC will look over its back catalogue of Dickens adaptations and decide that the time has come to give "A Christmas Carol" another go - and that their adaptation will be every bit as polished and exquisite as we have come to expect from them.

As mean as a Christmas present from Scrooge.

"A Christmas Carol." (1977) 3/5

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Year Two. Day Three: "Dora's Christmas Carol Adventure" (2009)

For the first time in two seasons of writing this blog, I have found myself utterly floored by my viewing experience - simply because more so than any other adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" this one is resolutely not aimed at me, at all. Not one bit.

Dora the Explorer is an American educational show aimed at the under fives which attempts to teach basic principals of language, reading and interaction.

Being a thirty-two year old man with no children of my own, this poses something of a quandary for me. How am I to judge the quality of something that has no interest in whether or not I enjoy or understand it? Well the same could be said for many of the previous adaptations and that didn't stop me then, so I shall try my best.

Dora is preparing for Christmas with a Nochebeuna party - a Latin American Christmas Eve celebration. I'm not entirely sure who she is, or what she is doing without parents or guardians at Christmas, nor why her only friends seem to be animals and a talking backpack.

This version's Scrooge is a mischievous creature of indiscernible origin named Swiper, who decides to steal the star from the top of the Christmas tree and in doing so, earns himself a spot on Santa's "Naughty List."

It's up to Dora to travel back in time, and to the future to save her friend from the ire of Father Christmas, with a handful of songs, lessons and cloyingly repetitive interactions.

Young children will probably love this, but as far as Christmas specials go, I can't help but think it is clearly lacking in quality as far as animation or writing are concerned. Shows primarily aimed at a similar audience such as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, have consistently proven that just because your primary audience is young girls, it doesn't mean that your product has to be rubbish, cheap looking - or even worse, a cynical cash in for parents to buy in the build up to Christmas.

That said, it's innocent and innocuous enough to while a precious hour of childhood away on and it's just possible that the sickly sweet morals and rudimentary life skills it attempts to instil might somehow be doing some good in the long run.

As repetitive as an advent calender.

"Dora's Christmas Carol Adventure." (2009) 2/5

Monday, December 2, 2013

Year Two. Day Two: "An All Dogs Christmas Carol" (1998)

This sequel to the moderately well remembered 1989 movie "All Dogs go to Heaven" is a made for TV canine retelling of the tale, with each of the roles being filled by one of the original film's characters.

This adaptation begins in heaven, with a bunch of puppies (whose no doubt tragically young deaths are never explained) who are sitting down to be read a story - the perennial seasonal classic which provides the inspiration for this film.

From thereon in, it is clear that this is not a standard retelling of A Christmas Carol, and not simply because it is told through animated dogs, but because it features a witch, spell casting, mass hypnosis, a climactic finale aboard rooftops in a thunderstorm and any number of strange and confusing sub-plots.

It follows a greedy pit bull, Carface, who is gleefully collecting upon his debts on a Christmas Eve in San Francisco. That night he is visited by a series of dogs, the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, who attempt to appeal to the dog's generosity and to save Timmy, a sickly puppy whose family can no longer afford to look after him.

This is not a good adaptation at all. Aside from featuring some of the most mirthless and unmemorable musical interludes and a story so convoluted as to be almost impenetrable, this version's greatest crime is to inject a rather ugly kick of evangelism towards the end - tedious enough in most stories, but unforgivable in an adaptation of a completely secular fable which is not about generosity for the sake of avoiding hell, but for the sake of it being the right thing to do.

In fact, the only time this movie demonstrates any sense of conviction, is when it is telling its young audience of the realities of hell and reminding them that they shall go there too if they do not learn the same message that Scrooge, or in this case, Carface does. This kind of emotional hostage taking is inexcusable in any adaptation of a book which demonstrates such a sense of generosity of spirit towards all people.

This tedious, preachy and visually grimy adaptation of the great book is in many ways, the worst I have ever seen. Mean in spirit and devoid of any sense of magic, this lifeless version serves only the purpose of indoctrinating young
minds, and making a few grubby bucks on the side.

As joyful as a dead dog in the snow.

"An All Dogs Christmas Carol" (1998) 1/5

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Year Two. Day One: "Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol" (2010)

T'is the season, yet again, for my Christmas Carol challenge, and I have returned with 24 more versions of the classic Christmas tale.

I shall warn you, that as most of the well loved and notable versions were covered last year, this time around, things are going to get rather peculiar around here, with some very bizarre adaptations!

For my first day of the challenge, I watched this absolutely splendid version, which is hard to describe as an adaptation, more as a new story inspired by Dickens' tale.

Michael Gambon is the Scrooge-like antagonist of this version, Kazran Sardick; a seemingly heartless miser who harvests the frozen bodies of those who are indebted to him as "collateral," in a huge underground crypt. As one of many nods to the original, he describes these people in stasis as "the excess population."

Meanwhile, a huge spaceship with over 4,000 people aboard, is hurtling towards earth, with only the sympathy of Sardick to save them - that is, if he can ever find his heart.

The Doctor is on hand to lead Sardick back to his childhood, through labyrinths of memories of his cruel father, a vicious flying shark and a beautiful woman who has been frozen for years in an underground capsule.

Amy Pond, appears as a hologram to serve as the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present and she, along with the Doctor, gradually find ways to thaw this unkind man's heart.

To say anymore would be to ruin a genuine Christmas treasure. This story plays homage to its source but is not bound by it (there are no flying sharks in the original, more's the pity!)

With a truly moving ending, that is completely in the spirit of Dickens' book: that anyone, regardless of how wicked they may seem, is capable of redemption and deserving of a second chance. It may not be one of the most faithful adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but it is a haunting, beautiful tale of long lost love and that most overlooked of traits: simple human kindness - and that there is no such thing as an "uninteresting person."

As festive as snow falling on Gallifrey.

"Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol." 5/5