There have been many, many screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol: Alastair Sim gave us an iconic Ebenezer in 1951’s classic Scrooge, Kelsey Grammer sang “Humbug!” at the top of his lungs in a 2004 TV musical, and – of course – in 1992 the Muppets delivered one of the very finest versions of Charles Dickens’ novella. There is no interpretation, though, quite like ITV’s A Christmas Carol from 2000 – now two decades old, it stars Ross Kemp as ‘Eddie’ Scrooge, a boorish loan shark who gets a rude awakening.
If you’ve never seen it, you might scoff at the idea of transporting Dickens’ tale to a modern-day London estate, with an ex-EastEnder cast as our miserly protagonist. But the one-off drama earned a warm reception and scored big ratings, with nine million tuning it when it aired on 20th December 2000.
“I have to say that part of the joy for me was – obviously, because it was Ross and it was ITV and it was modern, before, when people heard about it, everyone was a bit sniffy and a bit sneery, but it really went down well,” writer Peter Bowker tells RadioTimes.com. “It did really well in the ratings. And the reviews – there was a review in The Guardian where they said,, basically, ‘I watched this thinking it was going to be s**t and it was brilliant’.”
The impetus for this latest twist on A Christmas Carol actually came from Ross Kemp himself – his exit from EastEnders as hardman hunk Grant Mitchell had aired in October 1999 and the star was keen to pursue his “passion project” of starring in a modern-day version of Scrooge’s story.
“I remember he’d done a couple of things [previously] – the first thing he did, he was playing a barrister, which was quite a stretch!” Bowker says. “Sally Haynes and Laura Mackie, who I’d started my career with – they were both script editors on Casualty, my first commission was a Casualty in 1992, 1991 maybe – and they’d been very successful at the BBC and they were now at ITV, and they approached me and said, ‘Ross Kemp’s got this passion project’.
“He was desperate to do this thing and ITV [who had signed Kemp to a “golden handcuffs” deal following his soap exit] were desperate to keep him… I mean, they were more or less saying, ‘We will greenlight this without seeing a script’, so it was an attractive offer anyway! And I had a lot of time for Ross in EastEnders and I just thought, you know, the modern Scrooge, that’s bang on, because it’s what he does best. It’s what he did best.”
With his leading man and the modern-day setting set, Bowker began “looking for little details” that he could “run with” in an effort to reinvent and reinvigorate a familiar narrative. “In a way, because A Christmas Carol’s an incredibly familiar story, you’re given a bit more latitude to riff on it. Just as with [director] Nick Murphy’s version last Christmas [aired on BBC One] – you’re given the freedom because it’s kind of part of our Christmas story DNA.”
Bowker’s innovations included a Groundhog Day-style twist, with Kemp’s Eddie living the same day over and over again until he learns from his mistakes and mends his ways. “I can remember reading A Christmas Carol in preparation to do the treatment just thinking, ‘God, it could be the genesis of Groundhog Day’ – it reminded me of that on some level structurally, so that seemed a playful thing to do. There’s something very attractive, in narrative terms, in having to prove yourself again and again in the same circumstances. I think that is truly redemptive behaviour, whereas the other way and the sudden conversion and ‘I’m going to be nice from now on’ isn’t. ‘Go back and do it again’ seems to me a far more sort of authentic exploration of what it is to redeem yourself.”
The sequence in Dickens’ story in which the Ghost of Christmas Past forces Scrooge to reflect on his broken engagement to his beloved Belle was also expanded, with Eddie’s relationship with nurse Bella (Angeline Ball) forming a major part of the drama. “I liked the idea that somebody once fell in love with him and saw a side to him that we’re no longer seeing,” Bowker explains. “It felt too good a gift really to not have. And you know, we were just blessed with that cast, weren’t we? They’re just extraordinary, all of them. From Ray Fearon [as Marley] all the way through to Michael Maloney [as Bob Cratchett].”
Mina Anwar (as Bella’s friend Julie), Lorraine Ashbourne (playing Sue Cratchett) and Till Death Us Do Part’s Warren Mitchell (as Eddie’s deadbeat dad) were also cast opposite Kemp, along with The Royle Family’s Liz Smith (as pensioner Joyce). “I was just completely in awe of Liz,” Bowker recalls. “I remember she said one thing – we were at the read-through and she just said, ‘It’s nice, it’s cute’, and I thought, ‘That’ll do! That’ll do.'”
One twist on Dickens’ tale, though, was shot down by ITV – a reinvention of Tiny Tim that would’ve recast the ailing child of the original story as a wheelchair-using graffiti artist. “My main concern was the character of Tiny Tim, I didn’t want this offensive version of Tiny Tim. I remember I went to [writer] Andrew Davies about it and he just said, ‘No, you can’t have that kind of simpering Dickensian noble cripple’.
“So at treatment level I had a far more radical reimagining of Tim, which was having a big lad, a wheelchair user, who was going round the street graffiti-ing, and he was going to be Tiny Tim. And Laura and Sally were very happy – but ITV, they were were too nervous of it. They wouldn’t do it.” (The drama would eventually feature a version of Tim, played by Ben Tibber, who was living with cystic fibrosis.)
Bowker worked with director Catherine Morshead on A Christmas Carol – the pair would collaborate again six years later, on the 2006 BBC drama Viva Blackpool – and says they “shared a vision” for what the project could be. “She got the humour, so I just felt in safe hands from the moment we met. She had a good vision for it and how she could make it work visually and how – you know, Warren coming out of the television set, for instance, I’m pretty sure that was Catherine. And her handling of the elderly couple [Smith’s Joyce and Charles Simon’s Eric, who are in debt to Eddie] and and how she got us both to see it was funny but be sympathetic – that epitomises her touch as a director. It’s just glorious.”
Having previously served as producer on the one-off ITV thriller Hero of the Hour, also starring Kemp, Joshua St Johnson – now a writer on series including Deep State and Grantchester – was hired to fill the same role on A Christmas Carol. “Josh gave up producing, but he was just so intelligent and sensitive, and he’d worked with Ross before so Ross really trusted him. There was one awkward meeting with Ross, because it was kind of his passion project, and he said he wanted to have hair extensions for the part! And I was sitting there thinking, ‘Attached to what, exactly?’
“I’m sure he won’t mind me bringing it up after all this time. I’ve been very discreet. But it was quite funny. I remember thinking, ‘What?!’.”
Kemp’s Scrooge does eventually, of course, see the error of his ways, saving the lives of two teenagers living on the streets, firing his unwilling accomplice Bob (clearing his debts in the process), shopping his business partner Marley’s killer to the police and ending his reign of terror over a London estate (shot on location on the Alexandra Road council estate in Camden). He wins back Bella in the process, with the Ghost of Christmas Future (Ben Inigo Jones) who’d earlier haunted Eddie revealed to have taken the form of the couple’s future son.
Long after its initial ratings success, A Christmas Carol remained a fixture of ITV’s festive schedules, getting a repeat airing on an ITV channel every Christmas for several years. Though it was never released on DVD, the drama is now available to stream for the first time on BritBox.
“About five Christmases ago I was walking by a hairdressers and they had it up on the telly in the corner on ITV2, about four in the afternoon on Christmas Eve – that was a good moment!” says Bowker, who went on to create and write the award-winning series Blackpool, Capital and The A Word. “I think it’s remembered with great fondness by people who saw it. In fact, I wrote my series called Monroe a few years ago with Jimmy Nesbitt, and this neurosurgeon from Leeds – all he ever really wanted to talk about was A Christmas Carol! He was our adviser and he played the hands of Jimmy Nesbitt when doing brain operations. And whenever he got me in the car all he ever really wanted to talk about was A Christmas Carol. I’d be looking at my script for Monroe and I’d look up and he’d go, ‘Do you know what I really liked? A Christmas Carol!’.”