Two decades after it originally aired, A Word writer Bowker reflects on his modern adaptation of the Dickens classic and reveals the twist the cut didn’t make
Thursday 24th December 2020, 9:00 a.m.
There were many, many screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol: Alastair Sim gave us a legendary Ebenezer at the legendary Scrooge in 1951, Kelsey Grammer sang “Humbug!” In a 2004 television musical, and of course 1992, the Muppets delivered one of the best versions of Charles Dickens’ novella There Is No Interpretation, however, much like ITV’s A Christmas Carol from 2000 – now two decades old – plays Ross Kemp as “Eddie” Scrooge, a boorish loan shark who gets a rude awakening
If you’ve never seen it before, you might poke fun at the idea of transporting Dickens’ story to a modern London estate, with an ex-EastEnder cast as our stingy protagonist, but the one-off drama received a warm welcome and achieved great ratings Nine million voted when it was announced on Jan. It aired December 2000
“I have to say that part of the joy was for me – obviously because it was Ross and ITV and it was modern, before people heard about it, everyone was a little sniffing and a little scornful But it went down really well, ”writer Peter Bowker told RadioTimescom.“ The ratings worked really well. And the reviews – there was a review in The Guardian where they said, “I saw how I thought it was going to be s ** t and it was brilliant””
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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 dying to pursue his “passion project” all in one to play modern version of Scrooge’s story
“I remember he did a couple of things [before] – the first thing he did was play a lawyer, which was quite a stretch!” Says Bowker, “Sally Haynes and Laura Mackie, who I started my career with – they were both screenwriters on Casualty, my first assignment was in 1992, maybe a casualty in 1991 – and they were very successful on the BBC and now on ITV, and they came up to me and said, “Ross Kemp has this passion project”
“He was dying to do this, and ITV [who signed a ‘golden handcuff’ contract with Kemp after he quit] was dying to keep him … I mean, they were more or less like, ‘We’re going to give this the go-ahead without to see a script ‘so it was an attractive offer anyway! And I had a lot of time for Ross in EastEnders and just thought, you know, modern day Scrooge, that’s great because that’s what he does best. It’s what he did best. ”
With his lead and the modern setting, Bowker began “looking for small details” to “walk” with to reinvent and reinvigorate a familiar narrative “In a way, because A Christmas Carol is one is an incredibly familiar story, you have a little more leeway to ripple over it. Just like with [Director] Nick Murphy’s version of last Christmas [aired on BBC One], you get the freedom because it’s part of our Christmas story DNA ”
Bowker’s innovations included a Groundhog Day-style twist where Kemp’s Eddie lived the same day over and over again until he learned from his mistakes and improved “I can remember reading A Christmas Carol, to prepare for treatment by just thinking, ‘God it could be the making of Groundhog Day’ – it structurally reminded me in some ways, so it seemed like a playful thing in a narrative way, it’s very attractive having to prove yourself over and over again under the same circumstances I think this is really redeeming behavior, while the other way and the sudden conversion and “I’ll be nice from now on” are not “go back and do it all over again” seems to me a far more authentic exploration of what it means to redeem yourself ”
The sequence in Dickens’ story in which the ghost of the Christmas past forces Scrooge to ponder his broken commitment to his beloved Belle has also been expanded, with Eddie’s relationship with Nurse Bella (Angeline Ball) making up an integral part of the drama ” I liked the idea of someone falling in love with him once and seeing a side for him that we don’t see anymore, “explains Bowker.” It felt too good to really not have a gift and you know we were just blessed with this cast, right? They’re All Just Extraordinary From Ray Fearon [as Marley] to Michael Maloney [as Bob Cratchett] ”
Mina Anwar (as Bella’s girlfriend Julie), Lorraine Ashbourne (as Sue Cratchett) and Warren Mitchell (as Eddie’s dead father) of Till Death Us Do Part were cast, as was Liz Smith (as a pensioner Joyce) opposite Kemp) “Me was just in awe of Liz, “recalls Bowker.” I remember her saying one thing – we were reading through it and she just said, “It’s nice, it’s cute” and I thought, “That’s enough! “That’ll work ‘”
A twist in Dickens’ story, however, was shot down by ITV – a reinvention by Tiny Tim that would recast the sick kid of the original story as a graffiti artist in a wheelchair. “My main concern was the character of Tiny Tim, I wanted this offensive version of Tiny Tim not I remember going to [writer] Andrew Davies about it and he just said, “No, you can’t have such a simplistic Dickensian nobleman”
“So at the treatment level, I had a far more radical reinterpretation of Tim who had a big boy, a wheelchair user who was doing graffiti on the street, and he would be Tiny Tim. And Laura and Sally were very happy – but ITV, them were too nervous. You wouldn’t. ”(The drama would eventually feature a version of Tim, played by Ben Tibber, who lived with cystic fibrosis)
Bowker was working with director Catherine Morshead on A Christmas Carol – the couple would work again six years later on the 2006 BBC drama Viva Blackpool – and said they had “shared a vision” of what the project might look like, “She’s got understood the humor so from the moment we met I felt in safe hands.She had a good vision for this and how to make it work visually and how – you know, Warren comes out of the TV for example, I’m pretty sure that was Catherine. And her dealings with the elderly couple [Smith’s Joyce and Charles Simons Eric who owe Eddie] and how she got us both to see it was fun but personable – that embodies her touch as a director. It’s just wonderful ”
After Joshua St Johnson previously produced the one-off ITV thriller Hero of the Hour with Kemp, he was hired to play the same role on A Christmas Carol He’s now a writer on shows like Deep State and Grantchester. “Josh quit producing but he was just so intelligent and empathetic and he’d worked with Ross before, so Ross really trusted him. There was an awkward meeting with Ross because it was one Was kind of a passion project and he said he wanted hair extensions for the part! And I sat there thinking, “Attached to what exactly?”
“I’m sure he doesn’t mind if I bring it up after all this time I was very discreet But it was pretty funny I remember thinking, ‘What ?!” ”
Of course, Kemps Scrooge finally sees the mistake of his behavior, saves the lives of two teenagers living on the street, dismisses his unwilling accomplice Bob (who pays his debts) and buys the murderer of his business partner Marley into the police and ends his life Reign of Terror over a London estate (shot on location at the Alexandra Road estate in Camden) He wins Bella back, with the Christmas Future Ghost (Ben Inigo Jones) who had previously haunted Eddie apparently taking the form of the couple’s future son
Long after the success of the initial ratings, A Christmas Carol remained a staple of ITV’s festive dates and was re-aired on an ITV channel every Christmas for several years. Although it was never released on DVD, the drama can now streamed for the first time on BritBox
“I passed a hairdresser about five Christmas ago and they had it on TV in the corner of ITV2, about four in the afternoon on Christmas Eve – that was a good moment!” says Bowker, who created the award-winning series Blackpool, Capital and The A Word, and wrote, “I think people who saw it remembered it with great fondness. In fact, I was dating Jimmy Nesbitt and this neurosurgeon a few years ago Leeds wrote my series Monroe – all he ever really wanted to talk about was A Christmas Carol! He was our advisor and played the hands of Jimmy Nesbitt in brain surgery and whenever he got me in the car he just wanted to talk about A Christmas Carol I would look for Monroe in my script and I would look it up and he would say, “Do you know what I really liked? A Christmas carol! ‘”
A Christmas story can now be viewed on BritBox Find something to watch with our TV guide or our guide to the best Christmas TV this year
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A Christmas story
Weltnachrichten – GB – Peter Bowker looks back on ITV’s Christmas story, 20 years later: ‘It was Ross Kemp’s passion project’