Tuesday, December 20, 2022

A (Long Forgotten) Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

Hot potatoes!

What's it about?

Tonight's waltz into the obscure is "A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas" (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1977). I won't insult your intelligence or cultural knowledge by recounting the events in this, probably the best selling, most dramatized, and most mass-produced story in the history of western culture (besides, I already did that in my review of "The Muppet Christmas Carol" a few weeks previous). So why cover this version out of the literal THOUSANDS of filmed versions of this particular story? Because it is another obscenely nostalgic piece of my childhood that I wanted to share.

If "The Star Wars Holiday Special" was one of my earliest persistent memories, this version of "A Christmas Carol" is one of the very first television programs that I remember in detail.

Every morbid detail.

According to IMDB.com, it was only ever aired twice, once in 1977 (which I was too young to recall) and once in 1979 which is probably when I saw it, rebroadcast on the American Public Broadcasting System. Needless to say, it was VERY hard to track it down, and I am forever grateful that someone had the gumption to upload it to the internet for all to see.

Because it is one of the first versions of the Charles Dickens' classic that I ever recall seeing, it has remained one of my favorite Christmas programs of all time, and even now in my twilight years it is still so.

Utterly flawless, right? Right?

So it must be good, right? Well…

Time for some bitter truth.

Masterless transfer.

There are things we need to discuss. Let's start with the transfer: It's ugly. Boy, is it ever ugly. I'm not faulting the person who made the digital copy: The original was made for PAL regions back in a time before high-definition digital video, and has a very distinct low-resolution look because of this.

We're not budgeted for this.

Second, this is an exceedingly low-budget production. There are very few set locations, and the crew makes up for this by swapping drawings (not even matte paintings) for establishing shots. This doesn't really mesh with the dark and dank aesthetic of the rest of the physical sets, but it does make it look unique.

Seriously BBC, who do you think you're foolin'?

Just get it over with, already!

This version of the story also seems to be very rushed. The dialog zips at a brisk pace while the dramatic beats are streamlined to cram it into an hour (without ads), but this also means that it's an easy watch.

"Jesus Fred, how many cups of coffee did you have before walking in here?"

That being said, it still manages to keep some more obscure aspects of the story intact (such as Scrooge's time in school and the "children of men" bit). Just recognize that you're not getting the full dialog or everyone's best performances, but it's hard to say that it overstays its welcome when it's half the length of a typical feature.

All great actors. Well... mostly great actors. Okay, a few great actors.

Even when truncated, the acting is fantastic; performances are unimpeachable (with the possible exception of Timothy Chasin as "Tiny Tim," who seems to be as mentally deficient as his character is physically.

I don't want to pick on the kid, but... something ain't right.

That seems cruel, but I stand by it; he's terrible in this). Veteran actor Michael Hordern plays Ebeneezer Scrooge as more of an ignorant egotist bordering on stupid rather than the exceedingly and needlessly cruel depiction that we usually get. It's honestly a refreshing take and (I feel) makes him a bit more sympathetic; he's not cruel for cruelty's sake, just socially awkward (I can relate). A cast of established actors ensures that anyone who has seen British movies and television from the era will probably recognize a few familiar faces that they will still struggle to place.
June Brown (as Mrs. Dilber), just died this year (2022). She had been playing old ladies since at least 1977. Think about that.

Put your hand over your broom and say, "UP!"

I say, double-oh seven!

Won't you be my PAL?

If you are someone who has ever watched BBC television programs from the 1970s to the early 1980s you know that all of their programs have exactly two looks: Weird-looking PAL region cool-toned 50 frames-per-second analog video and warm-toned 24 frames-per-second film. BBC's studios typically used the video for interior shots and would shoot exteriors using film, meaning programs often switched framerates, tone, and audio mixing depending on the location of the scene. This production was filmed entirely inside the studio, so it has this bizarre and almost ethereal look to the video quality throughout.

Combined with the stage lighting, ghosts are all the more creepy in PAL video.

The special effects are typical video fare for the time.

Just because you're filming on a budget doesn't mean that you can't have great effects.

Matte layering techniques are crude compared to today's, but here's the thing, and the reason why I recall this version above all others:

Chills on the back of my neck.

The video quality, framerate, simple video effects, and gritty sets combine to make this one of the spookiest versions of the story that I have ever seen. It gave me nightmares as a child, and even today this ghost story looks a bit chilling, and I personally feel that it is worth something.

All these years and hundreds of depictions later, and this is the ONLY version of this scene that I find genuinely scary.

This man was in HUNDREDS of movies and television, and THIS is what I remember him for.

Where can you find it?

"A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas" is supposedly streaming on Britbox (via Amazon video), but you can also find it for free here at this link.

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