Belfast Telegraph

Ebenezer good: Top 5 Scrooge performances

Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol 175 years ago this week - and its lead character, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, continues to be brought to life in film, television, theatre and radio. Martin Chilton picks five of the best performances

Michael Caine
Michael Caine
Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge
Alastair Sim
Albert Finney as Scrooge

A Christmas Carol, which is 175 years old this week, is the most perennially popular festive tale of all. The story sprang to life in the imagination of Charles Dickens in October 1843 as he wandered around "the black streets of London" laughing and weeping while devising the plot for his seasonal novella.

It took him 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. Right now, there are theatrical adaptations of A Christmas Carol at two London theatres, and a new movie set in modern-day Scotland.

Here are our top five Scrooges of stage, screen and radio.

1. Best stage Scrooge: Charles Dickens

In December 1853, Dickens gave the first of over 150 public readings across the UK and America of his Christmas tale.

The performances were reportedly sensational. Dickens narrated and acted out the lead characters in evening dress, with a bright buttonhole, a purple waistcoat and a glittering watch chain. His stage set consisted of a reading desk, carpet, gas lights and large curtains behind him to help prevent echoes. Dickens used special editions of his story, with extra-wide margins, on which he had written down stage directions.

His announcement of the arrival of Scrooge always caused a sensation. Dickens, who practised 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 a pre-performance routine of two tablespoons of rum with fresh cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for supper, and 30 minutes before the start of his performance he would drink a raw egg beaten into a tumbler of sherry. In the five-minute interval, he drank a cup of beef tea. The crowds went wild, especially when he uttered the famous 'Bah, humbug!' catchphrase.

Demand for his shows was so high that the ticket touts of the day made a fortune, even for venues that held more than 2,000 people.

The readings lasted more than three hours and took their toll on Dickens, who even performed a day after having a stroke in 1869.

His last public reading, which included A Christmas Carol, was at London's St James's Hall on March 15, 1870. "From these garish lights, I vanish now for ever more," Dickens said as he left the stage in tears. He died three months later, aged 58.

2. Best radio Scrooge: Lionel Barrymore

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Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge
 

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 version that was released as an album and is still available on Spotify and YouTube.

Barrymore, who also played one of the greatest Christmas film villains - 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.

It was a masterpiece of live radio drama, and Barrymore's voice captures the hollowness of the miser.

Barrymore said he believed most people "had their own ghosts haunting them", adding that it was important to understand the psychological motifs of the story. He said 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 tells his nephew.

3. Best film Scrooge: Alastair Sim

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Alastair Sim
 

There are plenty of big-screen Scrooges, with lots of good comedy portrayals (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 versions (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 tough guy loan shark Eddie Scrooge, in a film set on a London housing estate. The outstanding movie version, however, features Alastair Sim's 1951 portrayal. The Scottish actor 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.

4. Best Scrooge with puppets: Michael Caine

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Michael Caine
 

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

The actor 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.

5. Best singing Scrooge: Albert Finney

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Albert Finney as Scrooge
 

Long before expensive CGI de-aging visual effect techniques became the norm, Finney, at 34, was brilliant as young and old Scrooge. "I did a musical of Scrooge in 1970, and the tricks were done by flat clothes and mirrors," Finney later joked. "I hope the day will come when we don't have to turn up at all."

Finney won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actor in a Musical/Comedy.

Incidentally, he 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.

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