Every year around this time, there are articles about which recorded version of A Christmas Carol is "the best." Usually it comes down to the films that starred either Alistair Sim or Reginald Owen. Some may say it's the most recent one with Patrick Stewart. Or any of the many others.
Nope, they're all wrong. It's this one. An audio version done for, I believe, the BBC, in 1960. It's quite wonderful and as good an adaptation of the story as I've come across. It stars Sir Ralph Richardson as Scrooge, and Paul Scofield as Dickens, the narrator. Casts don't get much better than that. (That's Richardson on the left. You can probably figure out who's on the right.)
Radio station WFMT in Chicago has been playing this every Christmas Eve for many decades. I first heard it as a kidling, listened to it every year, recorded it so that I could hear it when I wasn't in Chicago, and then found it on audio tape. I've listened to it annually for decades. Some years I think, nah, this time I'll only put it on for a few minutes for tradition's sake, but after the first sentence it has be sucked it. And the moment the first sound effect rings in around the 2-minute mark, I'm as close to my speaker as the spirit is to Scrooge's elbow.
There are four reasons why, for me, this is far and away the best version.
First, the acting is as good as it gets. Scofield is crisp and emphatic,and almost every creak of his voice draws you in to the world, and Richardson is a Christmas pudding joy. But everyone does a wonderful job. Second, being radio, you aren't limited by budgets to create the Dickensian world. Most movies do a respectable job, but here your imagination fills in every lush and poverty-stricken, nook and cranny -- and ghostly spirit, aided by moody sound effects and violins. Third, the adaptation sticks more closely to the Dickens tale than most of the movies, and Scrooge comes across more realistic, rounded-person than as a mythic icon.
And fourth, and most of all by far, unlike any of the other version, this includes...Dickens. While the story of A Christmas Carol is beloved, its Dickens' writing that makes it as vibrant as the story is. And that's all lost in the movie versions, down even to the legendary opening line, "Marley was dead, to begin with." Or any of the other classic narrative lines. Or the richness of Dickens setting the mood and tone and description of the gritty and ephemeral and emotional world. But that's here in this radio adaptation, and Scofield's reading of it is some of the most joyously wonderful and most memorable material here. For many, this will be A Christmas Carol unlike any other you're aware of, giving it a meaning and richness you didn't realize was there. The ending of the tale is so much more moving and joyful here, as we listen to Dickens' own words, that begin with "Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more," and soar from there, to perhaps my favorite passage about the new Scrooge and the "good old world."
If you have the time or inclination, give it a listen. If only for five minutes to at least get the flavor. You might find yourself sticking around. Let it play in the background, if you have other things to do. It runs about 56 minutes.
(Side note: speaking of Dickens, if you know the original cast album of Oliver!, the actor here who plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, Willoughby Goddard, was Mr. Bumble on Broadway and in the original London production.)
When you hit the Play button, it might take a little longer than usual to buffer and start up, because the audio file is so much longer. But if you're lucky it'll start up right away, and you'll hear it, as Dickens wrote here, before you can say Jack Robinson.)
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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