Wednesday 2nd January 2008
Here’s the first poster for the forthcoming film. Strangely, my name doesn’t appear to be on it. Click here for the official website.
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Why is A Christmas Carol still so popular?
Sunday 23rd December 2007
George Orwell said that the best test of literary merit is survival and, by that standard, A Christmas Carol must rank as one of the greatest works of literature ever produced. Scarcely a December has gone by since it first appeared in 1843 in which a stage adaptation hasn’t been performed somewhere in London — there’s currently a production at The Young Vic by a South African company — and it has been made into countless films, the latest being Robert Zemeckis’s which is due for release in 2009. If Dickens had written just this one story and no other, his immortality would still be guaranteed.
Yet set against his body of work, A Christmas Carol seems like pretty thin gruel. For one thing, it runs to only 74 pages in the Oxford University Press edition. Contrast this with the same publisher’s edition of Bleak House which runs to 914 pages.
Nor was it written in circumstances likely to produce great art. Sales of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens’s latest novel, were beginning to fall off in the autumn of 1843 and his wife, Catherine, had just become pregnant with a fifth child. A Christmas Carol was conceived as a quick money maker. He wrote it in just over six weeks, making sure it was ready in time for the Christmas market, and published it himself, calculating that his share of the profits would be greater than any fees he might get from a publisher. Admittedly, as Dr Johnson pointed out, only a fool doesn’t write for money, but few authors can have been as mercenary as Dickens when he sat down to compose A Christmas Carol.
Of course, these facts alone don’t mean it isn’t any good, but even his most generous critics wouldn’t rank it in the first tier of Dickens’s work. It embodies the same sledgehammer sentimentality that Oscar Wilde complained of in The Old Curiosity Shop. Tiny Tim, who bore “a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame”, is a character unworthy of the novelist who created Mr Micawber and Mrs Havisham. As Margaret Oliphant put it, A Christmas Carol is the “apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding”.
How to account for its longevity, then? The answer is simple: it has become inextricably bound up with Christmas in the public imagination. It has survived for the same reason that ‘Rudolph The Red-Nose Reindeer’ and ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ have survived — not because they’re any good, but because they’re guaranteed to get an airing every December. I’m not saying that there’s something about Christmas in particular that robs people of their judgment, only that if a piece of work can attach itself to an annual festival, it’s place in the canon is guaranteed.
Orwell was wrong. Survival, by itself, isn’t proof of literary merit. Provided a piece of work can become a seasonal staple, it can stand the test of time and still be second rate.
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Friday 21st December 2007
Channel 4 Film has just posted a piece about the forthcoming adaptation of How To Lose Friends & Alienate People and you can read an interview with the director, Bob Weide, here. Scheduled release date in the UK is October 3, 2008.
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Is it curtains for Alan Ayckbourn?
Sunday 16th December 2007
Is Alan Ayckbourn still capable of putting bums on seats? Last Tuesday saw the West End opening of Absurd Person Singular, his 1972 comedy about three couples whose marriages are in varying states of disarray. It has an excellent cast (Jane Horrocks, John Gordon Sinclair, Jenny Seagrove, David Bamber, Lia Williams and David Horovitch), but will that be enough to guarantee commercial success? Or is Ayckbourn’s 40-year-run as Britain’s most performed living playwright finally coming to an end?
There’s no doubt that Absurd Person Singular is extremely dated. In one scene, the character played by John Gordon Sinclair tells his wife that he’s leaving her for another woman, but expresses the hope that they can still have sex from time to time. She doesn’t say anything in response and he becomes so infuriated by this that he threatens to “take a swing” at her. In a contemporary play, such behaviour would put this character completely beyond the pale — it would be a way for the dramatist to convey that he’s an out-and-out monster — but Ayckbourn stops short of this. The husband is not supposed to be sympathetic, exactly, but Ayckbourn expects us to be pleased for his wife when, in the following scene, they’re reconciled. So much for discouraging women from remaining in abusive relationships.
To get around problems like this, the director has decided to set the play in the decade in which it was written, but that is only a partial solution. There’s a more fundamental issue, which is that Ayckbourn’s style of comedy seems out of date, too. Absurd Person Singular is no door-slamming farce, but a large percentage of the gags are of the slapstick variety, with the characters suffering a wide variety of accidents. The problem isn’t that physical comedy has ceased to be funny — just look at the opening scene of There’s Something About Mary — but that it no longer works on stage. It is simply too unrealistic.
For instance, there’s a scene in which the character played by David Horovitch gets electrocuted while trying to fix a broken light fitting. He does his best to fizz and pop authentically, but no amount of artistry on his part can make it look convincing. Back in the 70s, when Absurd Person Singular ran on Broadway for 591 performances, audiences were willing to suspend disbelief. They were accustomed to things not looking real on stage and they were willing to accept it. Today, audiences have higher standards. The widespread use of special effects in film and television has raised their expectations. Unless an illusion is completely seamless, they’ll be too busy noticing its shortcomings for the scene to achieve its dramatic effect.
I enjoyed Absurd Person Singular and I hope it’s a hit. But I suspect that Ayckbourn’s time has passed.
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How to Lose Friends: The Radio Play
Saturday 15th December 2007
Last year, Al Murray appeared as me in the radio adaptation of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. You can download this by clicking here.