A female Scrooge: author Piers Torday on adapting Dickens for today’s stage

PIERS TORDAY, writer of the acclaimed Last Wild series of children’s novels, has adapted Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for Wilton’s Music Hall. Here, he explains why his version, Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale, reimagines the familiar story, placing Ebenezer’s sister Fan at the heart of the action…

When Charles Dickens published his ‘little Christmas book’ in 1843, it took just six weeks for the first adaptation to reach the stage. It played in London for more than forty nights before transferring to New York. In the year of publication alone, there were nine separate theatrical adaptations, including the first-ever musical version. Dickens himself was famous for his own public readings of the story, giving over 127 such recitals in England and America. And the process of retelling has continued for 176 years. From stage to screen, cartoon to musical, from the RSC to the Muppets, there are nearly thirty published adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and dozens more are written every Christmas. There was even a mime version by Marcel Marceau in 1973.

So why another? Well, whilst the tale has been retold for puppets and toys, and Scrooge performed by men young and old, the central role has remained resolutely masculine. What happens when we re-examine this classic fairy tale from a woman’s perspective, and reimagine the complex central character? And why?

The book is, at heart, a story about injustice. Dickens was horrified by the desperate destitution, especially in children, that he witnessed on his many legendary walks through industrial London. He initially drafted a political pamphlet in reply to an 1843 parliamentary report on working-class child poverty. But the Carol made his point more plangently.

Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale | Want (Chisara Agor), Meagre (Yana Penrose), Ignorance (Joseph Hardy) | Wilton’s Music Hall, 2019 (photo by Nobby Clark)

Yet he was also no saint. It is perhaps telling that Catherine, his long-suffering wife (who was also a writer), titled her sole publication What Shall We Have for Dinner? She endured twelve pregnancies, bearing him ten children. These took their toll on her body, about which Dickens was privately offensive, and on her mind. Catherine was afflicted by what appears to have been severe post-natal depression, and Dickens responded by first taking up with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, then trying to persuade a doctor that his wife was insane, and should be put away in an asylum so he could continue his philandering unhindered.

Charles Dickens’s daughter Katey said that her father never understood women, and some of his excessively sentimentalised young female characters, like Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop, or the long parade of unattractive or damaged older women, such as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, do not offer a very compelling counterargument to this analysis. But he was also a product of his age, a time of unstinting male power that frequently marginalised the voices of the poor, the indebted, the weak, the vulnerable – and women of all classes.

Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale | Sally Dexter as Scrooge | Wilton’s Music Hall, 2019 (photo by Nobby Clark)

Christmas Carol is set in an intensely patriarchal society. The most powerful member of it, Queen Victoria, may have been a woman, but she also thought her own sex ‘poor and feeble’, and called for suffragists to be whipped. Her female subjects were expected to put ‘home and hearth’ before all else (often including any education and professional advancement). When she married, the rights of a woman were legally given to her husband. He took control of her property, earnings and money. If he wished to spend her money on his business or his debts, he did not require her consent. In exchange for this, she took his name. And until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, divorce allowing remarriage was only possible by the passage of a private act through the Houses of Parliament.

Early nineteenth-century daughters, like the Fan Scrooge that Dickens imagines, were meant to get in line behind their brothers, like Ebenezer. In Dickens’s version, Fan dies early, leaving Ebenezer distraught.

But what if it had been the other way around? What if Fan Scrooge had tried to make her way in a man’s world of power and profit? What would have happened to Fan then?

Dickens wrote this enduring and uplifting story to try to heal the divisions of his own age. He yearned to create ‘a better common understanding among those whose interests are identical and who depend upon each other’. He wanted, in other words, to bring all people together, at a precious time of year, united in a love of the common good. And so do we. Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one.

Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale | Want (Chisara Agor), Ignorance (Joseph Hardy) and the Fezziwigs (Yana Penrose & Edward Harrison) | Wilton’s Music Hall, 2019 (photo by Nobby Clark)

Tamara von WerthernFrom the Nick Hern Books Peforming Rights Manager: Piers Torday’s version of A Christmas Carol is a particularly wonderful offering for amateur theatre companies. By putting a woman centre-stage as Scrooge, and swapping the nephew for a niece, he creates two central roles to be played by women. And it’s not just a matter of cross-gender casting – we’re talking about rich and varied female characters who can (in this version) only be played by women. It sticks closely to the spirit of the original, while questioning the historical treatment of women and children (and even animals). I went to see it with an 11 year old, who thought it was brilliant too, and remarked, ‘It’s really clever that Fanny Scrooge actually exists in the original’.

The first production had a cast of 5 women and 3 men, but this can be extended to a very large cast, and one that is weighted towards female performers.

So, if you’re after a fresh take on Dickens, one that celebrates the spirit of Christmas and remints the familiar story so that it speaks directly to us now, this is for you!

If you want any further information, do contact me and my team here, or tel. +44 (0)20 8749 4953.

Tamara von Werthern, Performing Rights Manager, Nick Hern Books

Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale by Piers Torday is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 plus postage and packing (20% off the RRP), visit our website.

Christmas Carol is at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, until 4 January 2020. Buy your tickets here.

Production photos by Nobby Clark. Author photo by James Betts.

Charles Dickens’ THE HAUNTING: I Wants to Make Your Flesh Creep!

Hugh Janes , author of The Haunting

Hugh Janes

Hugh Janes’ spine-tingling play The Haunting is adapted from several original ghost stories by Charles Dickens, and toured extensively throughout the UK in 2010/11. Here, the author explains how the play was inspired by Dickens’ long-held fascination with the supernatural…

Whether we believe in them or not, ghosts appear to be everywhere: in churches, cemeteries and a great many theatres. The composer Ivor Novello has frequently been seen sitting in the stalls of London’s Cambridge Theatre. A woman sometimes glides along the catwalk seventy feet above the Shaftesbury’s stage. And the ghost of 19th-century actor and theatre manager John Baldwin Buckstone appears at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, when a play is about to become a big success. Patrick Stewart apparently saw him at recent revival of Waiting for Godot. I wonder if Buckstone gave the same spectral thumbs-up when the play first opened in the fifties?

Ghosts are a part of ancient culture, as both superstition and belief. They also feature in early literature in works like the Hebrew Bible, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Odyssey and Iliad of Homer who describes a ghost vanishing as ‘a vapour, gibbering and whining into the earth’.

It is the Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers who says ‘I wants to make your flesh creep’, and this is the desire of any storyteller entering the world of the supernatural. It is an opportunity to play with the fear that lurks in our imaginations and is conjured from the twilight and shadows. The slightest suggestion of something lurking in the dark can be as powerful as any ghostly sighting.

THE HAUNTING: Charlie Clements (David Filde)

Charlie Clements (David Filde). Photo: Keith Pattison

Charles Dickens always loved ghost stories. His childhood nurse filled his young mind with these tales and he later wrote about his love of her ghoulish tastes. As a teenager he became fascinated by the illustrated horror stories that appeared in the ‘penny dreadful’ magazines. When he grew older, his curiosity about death, spirits and psychic phenomena increased as the same fascination in things spiritual gripped the public interest like a Victorian X Factor. In one of his short stories he wrote ‘There is always life in the night. Listen for it in bed in a darkened room, or look for it even in the comfortable firelight at dead of night, when the warm coals will conjure wild faces and figures… and as the gentle breeze turns into the howls of demons, the crackle of logs the cackle of witches, and then you can fill the house with noises until you have a noise for every nerve in your nervous system.’

His ghost stories appeared either as independent pieces or were included in his novels; there are five in The Pickwick Papers. He may have written them purely for his own pleasure and then published when he needed to meet a deadline. Or he may simply have felt these tales would fascinate his readers and provide them with an unusual diversion from the main plot. He often introduced a character in a book merely to impart a ghostly tale.

THE HAUNTING: Paul Nicholas (Lord Gray)

Paul Nicholas (Lord Gray). Photo: Keith Pattison

Dickens was fascinated by spiritualism and often visited mediums. Even after he learned the nature of their gimmickry he continued to visit. He loved trickery and was a very proficient magician himself. He describes how he and a friend entertained a large gathering of children at Christmas with ‘wonderful conjuring tricks. A plum-pudding was produced from an empty saucepan, held over a blazing fire kindled in Stanfield’s hat without damage to the lining.’

In my play, The Haunting, I have blended five of Dickens’ short ghost stories with a story I was told some years ago. One of my uncles was an antiquarian book dealer in Brighton and he visited an old Sussex manor to value some books. As he was looking at the collection in the cellar a woman appeared. She watched him for a while, apparently interested in what he was doing, and then vanished; he knew she was a ghost. He returned to the manor on several occasions hoping to find out more about her but she never reappeared.The Haunting (£8.99)

Cinema has been fertile ground lately for all things paranormal but there are still very few ghost plays. Yet all that is needed is the dead of night and an isolated, crumbling mansion high on the moors where a storm is gathering. Then a high-pitched scream followed by the sound of fingernails scraping on glass and the scene is set to begin the haunting of our imaginations.

Nick Hern Books publish The Haunting (£8.99) – adapted by Hugh Janes from five short stories by Charles Dickens. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). Offer available until 31st December 2011.

This play will be great fun to perform, with lots of potential for stage trickery such as books flying off shelves, creepy sound effects and a ghostly apparition. And the good news is – it is immediately available for amateur performance.

Please let me know if you would like to be sent a copy of the playtext on an approval basis (free for up to 30 days, at the end of which the script can either be bought, or returned to us in mint condition), or if you need any more information, by emailing me directly on tamara@nickhernbooks.demon.co.uk.