Few festive figures are as notorious as Ebenezer Scrooge.
We all know the tale of the mean-spirited, Christmas-hating old man who is visited by ghosts to teach him the error of his ways.
This Christmas, though, the BBC are giving us a new exploration of the character. Steven Knight, creator of the hugely popular Peaky Blinders, has adapted Charles Dickens’ iconic ghost story – originally published in 1843 – for a three-part special, A Christmas Carol.
He’s assembled an impressive cast, including Guy Pearce as Scrooge. “What I really loved about Steven’s writing was just that real detail about behaviour and psychology,” says the Australian actor. “He’s such a beautifully poetic and yet brutal writer, that I just felt I was made to feel really uncomfortable, but at the same time really, utterly heartbroken by what Scrooge had experienced in his life, and how it was written about.”
In this adaptation, The Ghost of Christmas Present is a woman – played by Charlotte Riley, whose husband, Tom Hardy, is also an executive producer on the TV drama. The County Durham-born star, was also excited by the fact she’s Scrooge’s older sister. “It allows the whole different side to Scrooge,” she says. “You get the impression from the scripts that she was a little bit of a mother figure to him – she took care of him.”
Another change is Knight’s approach to Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham), Scrooge’s deceased business partner – a chained and tormented ghost in the classic novel. “It’s going to go a little bit more into the importance that Marley has to Scrooge, and their friendship,” says Liverpudlian Graham. Elaborating on the story, he adds: “He’s got this massive undertaking straightaway of trying to get the message across to Scrooge that he has to alter his ways, which he sees himself as a thankless task.”
Discussing the appeal of Knight’s writing, Riley is impressed by the fact he’s not scared of crafting lengthy scenes. “People on TV often shy away from that,” she notes, “because they just think, ‘Everybody wants to see moving, moving, moving all the time’.”
The Ghost of Christmas Past is played by Andy Serkis, who starred in films such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He describes the ghost as “a pagan traveller stuck in a purgatory” who carries this “unbearable” burden. “We came up with the idea that he is a rather sinister figure who, 200 years before the story happened, committed murders and is atoning for his sins.”
Asked why Knight’s re-telling is unique, he says: “It’s an anatomy of what it is to be selfish. In this version, Scrooge has created his own moral relativism and can excuse all the bad things he’s done. Ultimately human beings are selfish, and why not acknowledge that and believe it to be a good thing – that idea of greed is good?”
So why do the themes of A Christmas Carol still resonate with us today? After all, the original story was written in the middle of the 19th century. “It’s a tale of humanity, that good will out, and I think we all particularly hope that at Christmastime. I don’t know why, but we do,” says Riley.
“And there’s that, ‘Oh, come on, humans are not so bad’ – and we’ve got a lot of that at the moment, haven’t we? There’s a lot of stuff going on that we all despair of, and I think it’s a story of redemption. We all just hope that humanity can be redeemed.”
Graham, who had a star turn this year in the BBC’s Line Of Duty, agrees and says the story feels apt right now. “It’s one of those stories where we have a chance and an opportunity to really reflect on ourselves... what we’ve done, on the decisions we’ve made with our lives and how we strive to be better people. And, do we try to go through the day without causing any harm, or make it a better place for everybody else? You can only do that by starting with yourself. But it’s that reflection on society: how do we treat each other?”
Pearce – who started out on Aussie soap Neighbours before heading to Hollywood to star in films like LA Confidential – says people often ask if his father, who died when he was very young, has ever visited him as a ghost.
“I don’t feel like he has but, of course, occasionally – and particularly now I have my own son – I feel like my father is present,” he explains. “But obviously I’m projecting that myself and manufacturing that in my own head, I get that.
“But I do believe in the spirit world, and I very much believe the energy that inhabits all of us still exists when we die, and that it just moves around and reappears in various other forms – whether that’s in a reincarnated version of oneself or whatever.
Graham has never met a ghost, but chooses to believe there’s “something different” out there. “My auntie passed away not long ago, and I felt her presence at one particular time. I personally feel that was her coming back to me to just say, ‘I’m all right, don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine’.”
A Christmas Carol begins on BBC One tonight (December 22) at 9pm.