From Charles Dickens to Michael Caine, here are the five best Scrooges

As the character of Ebenezer Scrooge is brought to life by Guy Pearce in BBC's 'A Christmas Carol, Martin Chilton picks five of the best character's appearances

Saturday 21 December 2019 09:00
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Michael Caine insisted on not playing Ebenezer for laughs in ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’
Michael Caine insisted on not playing Ebenezer for laughs in ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’

A Christmas Carol, which celebrated its 175th birthday in 2018, is the most perennially popular festive tale of all. The story first sprung to life in the imagination of Charles Dickens in October 1843, as he wandered for 20 miles or so around “the black streets of London”, laughing and weeping while devising the plot for his seasonal novella.

It took only four weeks to finish the tale of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, a name similar to one he had spotted on a tombstone, and when it came out in December, his tale of Christmas redemption sold 6,000 copies in three days.

The character of the “cold-hearted, tight-fisted, selfish” Scrooge still mesmerises the public – and on Sunday, the BBC will be screening a new adaptation starring Guy Pearce as the greatest Christmas villain-hero of all.

Here we pick the best five Scrooges to have appeared on stage, screen and radio.

Charles Dickens, who performed ‘A Christmas Carol’ many times 

Best stage Scrooge: Charles Dickens

In December 1853, Dickens gave the first of what would be more than 150 public readings, across the UK and America, of his famous Christmas tale. The performances were reportedly sensational.

Dickens narrated the tale and acted out the parts of the leading characters, wearing full evening dress, with a bright buttonhole, a purple waistcoat and a glittering watch chain. His stage equipment consisted of a reading desk, carpet, gas lights and a pair of large curtains behind him to help prevent echoes. Dickens used special editions of his story, with extra-wide margins on which he had written stage directions.

His announcement of the arrival of Scrooge always caused a sensation. Dickens, who used to practise his facial expressions in the mirror, would transform into an old miser, speaking with a slow, gruff voice, as he drew his face – according to one review – “into his collar like an ageing turtle”.

Dickens had his own pre-performance routine. He would take two tablespoons of rum with fresh cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for supper, and 30 minutes before the start of his performance would drink a raw egg beaten into a tumbler of sherry. During the five-minute interval, he drank a cup of beef tea.

The crowds went wild at his theatrics, especially when he uttered the famous catchphrase “Bah, humbug!” Demand for his shows was so high that “speculators” – modern-day ticket touts – made a fortune re-selling tickets, even for venues that held more than 2,000 people.

“Dickens had always wanted to be an actor and finally now had the chance to do it by reading A Christmas Carol,” said Simon Callow in 2012. The actor, who is reprising his own one-man version of the tale at the Arts Theatre (until 12 January), added: “Dickens had a huge, huge success with his stage version. His reading tours were like rock concerts. One person was even killed trying to get a ticket. The greatest actors of the day said Dickens – had he not wanted to write novels – would have been a genius of an actor.

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“He made people scream with laughter and he made them sob with tears. People fainted, it was an absolute phenomenon. I mean neither as a novelist nor as an actor had there ever been anything like it before.”

Only one person seems to have been disappointed by Dickens’s performance of A Christmas Carol and that was the famous American author Mark Twain, who said Dickens was “a little Englishy” in his speech.

The readings lasted more than three hours and took their toll on Dickens, who even performed one a day after suffering a stroke in 1869. His last ever public reading, which included A Christmas Carol, took place at London’s St James’s Hall on 15 March 1870.

“From these garish lights, I vanish now for evermore,” Dickens said as he left the stage in tears. He died three months later, aged 58.

American actor Lionel Barrymore would play Scrooge on the radio in 1939 

Best radio Scrooge: Lionel Barrymore

Among the famous radio portrayals of Scrooge are those by Basil Rathbone, Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier. But the finest came in 1939, when Lionel Barrymore played him in a brilliant version that was later released as an album, and which is still available on Spotify and YouTube.

Barrymore, who memorably played one of the world’s most famous Christmas film villains as Mr Potter in the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, took on Scrooge three years later, in a version produced and narrated by Orson Welles.

“Lionel Barrymore is the best loved actor of our time in the best loved Christmas story of all,” Welles told the audience of a show which was sponsored by Campbell’s Soup, and broadcast on Christmas Eve. The adaptation is a masterpiece of live radio drama and Barrymore’s mean-spirited voice captures the hollowness of the miserly businessman.

Barrymore said he believed that most people “had their own ghosts haunting them,” adding that it was important to understand the psychological motifs of the story. He said that the Ghost of Christmas Past was Scrooge’s memory, the Ghost of Christmas Present his intuition, and the Ghost of Christmas Future his imagination.

Seven decades on, Welles’s adapted version remains relevant: “I wonder you don’t go into parliament… you talk enough nonsense,” Barrymore’s Scrooge says to his nephew.

Alastair Sim brought out the author’s poetry in the 1951 film

Best film Scrooge: Alastair Sim

There are plenty of big-screen Scrooges to pick from, with lots of good comedy portrayals of Scrooge (including Bill Murray as a selfish TV executive in 1988’s Scrooged, and Sid James as a cackling cheapskate in Carry On Christmas), and dozens of heavyweight representations (Reginald Owen, George C Scott, Derek Jacobi, Ernest Borgnine, Buddy Hackett, Patrick Stewart, James Earl Jones and Henry Winkler among others).

In 2000, Ross Kemp played him as tough guy loan shark Eddie Scrooge, in a film set on a Holborn housing estate. There was even an “adult adaptation” of Dickens’s famous tale: in 1975’s The Passions of Carol, Mary Stuart starred as Carol Scrooge, the owner of a pornographic magazine who is shown “a sleazy version of Christmas to come”. She utters the rather un-Dickensian line “Spirit, I don’t understand any of this. It’s just a cheap hooker picking up some creep.”

The outstanding movie version, however, features Alastair Sim’s 1951 portrayal of Scrooge. The Scottish actor was a master of elocution and brings out the poetry in Dickens’s words, while his hangdog face and sinister gestures capture the wretchedness of Scrooge’s soul. “The cold within Scrooge froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice,” wrote Dickens.

Sims, who was 50 when he played the role and went on to star in An Inspector Calls, is a flawless Scrooge.

Michael Caine and Meredith Braun in 1992’s ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’

Best Scrooge with puppets: Michael Caine

There have been plenty of animated Scrooges – including those drawn for the characters Mr Magoo, Fred Flintstone and Scrooge McDuck – but one of Britain’s most famous actors faced the unique challenge of acting as a real-life Ebenezer alongside the Muppets. In 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol, Michael Caine told director Brian Henson that he would be playing the role totally seriously because otherwise it would not be funny.

“I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company,” Caine told Henson. “I will never wink; I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.”

The actor says he is still proud of the role and reminds his grandchildren that he got to sing with Kermit the Frog, who plays Scrooge’s beleaguered clerk Bob Cratchit.

Albert Finney was both young and old in the 1970 musical film version (Getty)

Best singing Scrooge: Albert Finney

Long before expensive CGI de-aging visual effects techniques became the norm in Hollywood, Albert Finney, at 34, was brilliant as both the young and old version of Scrooge. “I did a film, a musical of Scrooge in 1970, and the tricks were done by flat clothes and mirrors,” Finney joked. “I hope that the day will come when we don’t have to turn up at all.”

A musical follow-up to 1968’s Oliver!, the film had impressive sets, including fully reconstructed Victorian streets. The posters for the movie included the tagline “What the dickens have they done to Scrooge?”, designed to head off any criticism of an all-singing, all-dancing old skinflint.

The music was first class, with composer Leslie Bricusse (the man who wrote “What Kind of Fool Am I?”, “My Old Man’s a Dustman”, and “Goldfinger”) ably supported by Ian Fraser, who earned an Oscar nomination as conductor, orchestrator and musical supervisor. Fraser, who went on to arrange the later Bing Crosby-David Bowie duet and to be the musical director for Bill Clinton’s two presidential inauguration galas, helped draw a fine vocal performance from Finney. His vibrant performance included a droll version of the caustic song “I Hate People”, and he went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actor in a Musical/Comedy.

Finney said he wanted to play Scrooge in his own way. “Scrooge’s eyes dart about continually looking for where he can make a few shillings,” he explained. “I have tried to make him strong. He is not decrepit, he is a rather tough old man.”

Alec Guinness also appears as Jacob Marley, while Edith Evans plays the Ghost of Christmas Past. The film received four Academy Award nominations in all, including for best original song for “Thank You Very Much”.

Incidentally, Finney was not the only 20th-century acting maestro to sing as Scrooge. In 1978, Walter Matthau voiced Scrooge in the animated film The Stingiest Man in Town. Matthau sings lines such as “What does that fool want?” in a voice of pure curmudgeonliness.

A Christmas Carol begins on BBC One at 9pm on 22 December

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