In the BBC's A Christmas Carol, you might notice two unusual things about the Ghost of Christmas Present. Firstly, she is played by a woman; and secondly, she is Ebenezer Scrooge's dead sister.
Described as "an original take on Dickens’s iconic ghost story," Steven Knight's three-part adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic Christmas tale has put a new spin on the well-known character.
The Ghost of Christmas Present who visits Ebenezer Scrooge is now reimagined as his sister, "Lottie", played by Charlotte Riley – and she wants him to change his miserly ways.
"The character Lottie represents is usually played by that Father Christmas-y type character," Riley tells RadioTimes.com. "So I liked the opportunity to play a sibling, which you don’t often see portrayed on-screen. And there’s a lot of depth to sibling relationships."
While the Ghost of Christmas Present is usually illustrated and acted as a male character, the original text actually refers to all the "spirits" who visit Scrooge with the gender-neutral pronoun "it".
Dickens calls the Ghost "a jolly giant" with eyes that are "clear and kind", writing: "It was clothed in one simple deep green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice... Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air."
In the novel, we also find out that Scrooge did have a sister, once upon a time: when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back in time to his childhood, we meet "little Fan". She was a loving sister, kind-hearted but delicate; and she grew up to have a son (Scrooge's nephew) before she died.
Knight seems to have taken this tidbit from the novel as inspiration for "Lottie".
"Anyone who has a sibling knows it can be bliss or hell and I think it brings a really interesting dynamic," Riley says.
"It functions really well in terms of showing a huge amount more about Scrooge than you would get from the way it’s portrayed in the novel. I think it’s a really smart device that Steven [Knight] has come up with and it’s what attracted me to play the character.”
She adds: "The question was asked ‘If she’s on the other side, so to speak, why is she coming back?’ That was the biggest question for me, like: If she has passed over and we are assuming she’s witnessing what he’s going through, why does she come back?
"Obviously the reason for that is love and her relationship with him and the fact she probably feels she’s one of the only people who can push him - she can hold a mirror up to him and his ways... she’s definitely showing a more dynamic side of herself, which is: ‘You need to get your backside in gear, this is what people are experiencing of you and you need to change or you’re gonna be damned for the rest of your life’.”
Screenwriter Steven Knight, whose previous shows include Taboo and Peaky Blinders, explains: “There’s a lot in this that isn’t in the book, obviously, but what I’ve tried to do is a forensic examination of the text and find some clues and some implications in it that I could explore. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve added that doesn’t have a taproot within the book."
He adds: "Everything has its challenges. To approach a classic like this you have to do so with a great deal of reverence, which I have done even though there’s a lot in it that is new and hopefully surprising.”
A Christmas Carol begins on Sunday 22nd December 2019 at 9pm on BBC One
Interviews by Simon Button