The tone of Steven Knight’s A Christmas Carol is set from the opening frame, in which a raven croaks its portent of doom in a wintry cemetery. Moments later, a young boy addresses the grave of the late Jacob Marley: “You skinflint old b*****d!” he cries, before promptly taking a wizz on his mortal remains. Six feet under, Marley himself (Stephen Graham) is rudely awoken from his less-than eternal sleep by the warm drip, drip of urine. By which point the message really couldn’t be clearer: if you’ve come looking for Albert Finney dancing along to Thank You Very Much, or Kermit the Frog singing ‘Tis the Season, then you’re very much barking up the wrong Christmas tree.
Perhaps the real surprise, though, isn’t the Peaky Blinders creator’s decision to re-tool Dickens’s classic morality tale as a full-blooded horror story, but the fact that more people haven’t done it before; certainly all the elements are there in the source material, from hooded phantoms rising from the mist to the crumbling faces of the putrefying undead – even if they are ultimately used in the service of a feel-good festive fable.
Guy Pearce is a revelation in the lead role: a pallid, blue-grey husk of a man, he may be younger (and, beneath all that make-up, prettier) than your average Ebenezer Scrooge, but he gives every indication of having old, brittle bones. He’s no cartoon villain, either: starting and flinching at every noise in the street, and haunted by a deep trauma in his past, he’s clearly a very damaged individual.
Stephen Graham, too, is reliably magnificent, capping an incredible year (The Virtues, Line of Duty, The Irishman) with a roughneck take on Scrooge’s late business partner that, a decade ago, would have made the part a shoo-in for Ray Winstone. And yes, it should be noted that both Pearce and Graham’s performances have something of a menacing gangster quality to them. Peaky Misers, if you will.
Andy Serkis ratchets up the threat level still further as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Though the long white hair, topped by a crown of thorns, is more Gandalf than Gollum, with his baleful, milky blind eye and blood-and-thunder pronouncements (delivered, for some reason, in an Irish accent) this is no kindly wizard.
Knight has also fleshed out Bob Cratchit’s character. As played by the terrific Joe Alwyn, the usually meek and mild clerk boils with barely suppressed rage, and there’s a thrilling tension to the (much expanded) scenes set in Scrooge’s counting house – with the sense, perhaps, that the older man is interested in seeing how far he can push his young wage slave before he either breaks or bites back.
Even the saintly and stoic Mrs Cratchit, who in the book is celebrated for her plum pudding above any other qualities, is gifted an intriguing hinterland in the form of a secret she’s keeping from her husband. Which is just as well, as you don’t hire an actor as good as Vinette Robinson – who brought such quiet dignity to Rosa Parks in Doctor Who last year – just to have her serve dinner.
In places, Knight’s screenplay feels more Shakespearean than Dickensian, (albeit with more effin’ and jeffin’). “That man, that object in the shape of a man, that thing, with black ink in his veins, is 94 per cent gravel and rubble,” rails Marley of Scrooge. (The other six per cent, if you’re wondering, is “his stupid hair”.)
Director Nick Murphy’s approach is entirely sympatico with Knight’s vision. Forget Victorian Christmas card scenes: this is a London of dank fog and shadows, where even the snow is as thin and grey as gruel; where gas lamps flare and shatter, children’s sing-song laughter carries on the wind and a clammy sense of dread precedes every ghastly apparition.
But it’s not just a horror story, of course. I’m sorry to raise the deadening spectre of “relevance”, but this is a Christmas Carol that’s very much of the moment. “Scrooge and Marley Investments” suggests the penurious pair could be anything from loan sharks to hedge fund managers, and there’s explicit talk of life “since the financial collapse”. We also see the scalded, screaming victims of an industrial accident, and Scrooge’s attempt at the inquest to blame everyone from sub-contractors to the workers themselves resonates uncomfortably in post-Grenfell Britain.
You might ask why all this is necessary, and this grisly, gritty take on such a well-loved seasonal staple will surely prove divisive. But then what would be the point of doing it at all, if it turned out to be just another cosy re-tread? In Steven Knight and Nick Murphy’s hands, this familiar story feels vivid and vital and new. Though quite how they’re going to handle the warm-bath, “God bless us, every one!” ending remains to be seen. Better start praying for Tiny Tim.
A Christmas Carol begins on Sunday 22nd December at 9pm on BBC One and continues on Monday 23rd at 9:05pm and 9pm on Christmas Eve