Thursday, December 8, 2022

K.A.C. 2022 - T - 17 Days ...

Radio / Audio Adaptations

*A Christmas Carol* (1923)


No one would’ve believed, in the first few years of the twenty-first century, that barely a century ago, one of the most enduring forms of entertainment was the radio. Indeed, while many might remember that radio had dramatic broadcasts only for the legendary panic Orson Welles caused on October 30th, 1938, it happened to be much more than playing the new pop song into the ground or telling us the news (without any pictures?!).

    The radio provided comedy, drama, sports, music, news, and without going into an extended history on a topic I truthfully don’t know much about, I remember reading something Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre about it that struck me as very poignant. I don’t remember the exact quotes, but the general feeling was two-fold:

  1. The radio was a family time, and it allowed us all to sit around in each other’s company, unbothered by conversation, listening and enjoying life.

  2. It gave us a depth of imagination beyond anything films or television could manage.

    The first of these lovely points is something I can just as easily attribute to the Christmas season at its finest. Some of my fondest winter memories are that of sitting with my parents in our living room on the weeks leading up to Christmas, looking at the lights echoing off the decorated tree (below right), listening to the wind outside, to the snowfall batting the house and the front bushes, to the house around us holding steady. We’d look at each other and smile, and sometimes we’d chat for hours, and sometimes we’d read and say nothing. Sometimes a few minutes felt like a wonderful eternity, and when the small quiet party broke to go to bed, it was always a bittersweet comfort under the covers. And, of course, that same feeling came to a head on Christmas morning, after the unwrapping was done, the presents squealed over, the high-energy merriment dispersed to just let the season glow around us.

    The second point is simple enough: before we’d gotten so glutted on the spectacle of filmmaking, the radio could do more than anything the camera could conjure up for us. It’s one of the principles of the scariest horror films (which King knows, and which King utilized): what we don’t see is inevitably going to sink into the soft padding of the mind much deeper than that which we do see.

    As films grew bigger and bolder, the radio still held a great power over home-life, with dramas (such as the first appearance of The Shadow, spanning a pulp legend and paving the way to the inspiration and creation of Batman) getting away with gruesome noises implicating crimes, murders, horrors, and utter absurdities that wouldn’t ever work if we were looking at them. And they were massively popular; they tapped that imaginative well and drew the water from as deep as possible. Limitations became creations unparalleled in the entertainment industry since.

    But then films got bigger, and more especially television came along, and that spelled the death knell for the Golden Age of Radio. It came with its own restrictions, its own limitations, its own explosion of ingenuity.

    There were a great many recordings of “A Christmas Carol,” and why wouldn’t there be? Being such a massive success in every format, it makes sense that it would get its way onto the radios!

    The first of these adaptations is from BBC Radio, on 19 December 1923, featuring R. E. Jeffrey as the leading Scrooge. That’s all I know from Wikipedia. I cannot find a single bit of it anywhere, sadly. Hopefully we have better luck moving forwards!

Scrooge (1928)

    This is listed on Wikipedia as the very first Sound Film of “A Christmas Carol,” and while they are--somewhat--correct, it comes with a HUGE asterisk.

    That asterisk being simply that there is no visual component I can find to this film! (It’s worth noting that there might be a film--or might’ve been, at one point--because of how it was recorded, but I couldn’t find it now.)

    Indeed, this is the first surviving version I can find that has actual audio of a voice of Scrooge, and the result is-- odd, if I may be polite. But first, some context!


Phonofilm, of which I’ve linked a Wikipedia article, was one of--if not the very first--way of recording sound-on-film, created by Lee De Forest (left). The process is one I can sort of wrap my head around, but too complicated to simplify more than just reading the beginning of the article for a better understanding to the specifics. Either way, it premiered around 1919 or 1920 (and, as the article points out, was the basis for Hollywood going into sound-on-film. “The Jazz Singer” wasn’t recorded with DeForest Phonofilm, but it was certainly inspired by it), and, like any new technology, it was relatively primitive in its infancy, though still a milestone. It was used to record live acts, including vaudeville and stage performances--including, in the UK, a fellow named Bransby Williams, performing a one-man version (at least, I think it’s a one-man version?) of “A Christmas Carol”!

    To borrow the specifics from Wikipedia, under the section “Phonofilm in the UK”:

    In 1926, the owner of a UK cinema chain, M. B. Schlesinger, acquired the UK rights to Phonofilm. DeForest and Schlesinger filmed short films of British music hall performers such as Marie Lloyd Jr. and Billy Merson--along with famous stage actors such as Sybil Thorndike and Bransby Williams performing excerpts of works by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Dickens--from September 1926 to May 1929. (In July 1925, The Gentleman, a comedy short film excerpt of The 9 to 11 Revue, directed by William J. Elliott in Phonofilm, was the first sound-on-film production made in England.)”

I’ve left Bransby Williams linked, as he is our Scrooge this time around, and an interesting fellow! I’ll note too that, in the YouTube link to this performance, the description has an extended biography to Mr. Williams, which is a fascinating read that mentions little about “A Christmas Carol”. As it turns out, Williams reprised his Scrooge role in 1950, in a televised live performance!

    As early as 1911 (according to YouTube) and as late as 1940 (according to YouTube comments), and perhaps later still, Bransby Williams recorded and released his version of “A Christmas Carol,” which may have been re-recordings with better sound quality, or just as likely reissues and re-releases by different distributors. The particular version I could find is from 1926, which sounds almost identical to the snippets from 1911 (though with vastly better audio quality! And, you know, with an actual adaptation rather than just Stave V), and makes me curious if there ever was a filmed version of his performance. As it stands on Wikipedia, in the “Adaptations of A Christmas Carol” page, all that is mentioned is that it was a short film done by Lee De Forest starring Williams, shot on Phonofilm. Somewhere in the annals of time, there might’ve been a visual component: for now, I have this audio to judge its merit by--and, now that I think about it, to see what those lost, earliest performances might’ve been like!

    So, with all that said, we have about 12 minutes of Bransby Williams’ voice as Scrooge. It’s-- surprisingly false-sounding to my ears.


"Those tapes are CLASSICS, Kid!"
First however, as the record spins up, we get some static reminiscent of my dad’s weather-beaten cassette tapes (30+ years old and “they sound perfect!” The first time I heard Rod Stewart’s “Some Guys Have All The Luck” not on tape, I was perplexed where the instruments came from, and why it didn’t sound like it was coming through two floors’ worth of shag carpeting. There’s not too much static here, though; listen to 1911 if you want Walt’s tapes--and a much more pinched Bransby Williams), and some stalwart men bellowing out “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen”, accompanied by a curiously single trumpet.

Scarcely have we gotten through the first verse when we hear our first lines from Scrooge. In wonderful character, Williams says, “Out upon you and your ‘Merry Christmas’”, with such exasperated vitriol that you really do sense that he’s been surrounded by idiots his entire life. As it goes, you get the distinct impression too of a face whose frowning lips are getting slowly consumed by jowls.

    In a neat reinvention of the wheel, Scrooge effectively becomes the narrator as much as a character in his own story, necessitated by either the limits of the production (not having more folks cast, for example, one of whom could be the narrator) or by the medium of needing someone to tell, as there’s very little to show besides in one’s mind’s eye. It works--as much as you let it work. There are moments, especially as it moves forward, where you start to get confused if he’s narrating or if he’s interacting with other characters--and what tense fits best, past or present (or Yet to Come?).

    Scrooge exposits to us that Christmastime is humbug!, and that his partner, Jacob Marley died 7 years ago this Christmas, leaving him his sole *very big words I’m surprised to hear kept in and not omitted*. Interestingly as well, Scrooge describes Marley’s passing as “sad,” which is the first time I can recall Scrooge calling it that, or having some indication of emotion this early on. But, as he points out, too, “when I left his graveside, t’was the finest bargain ever Ebenezer Scrooge made in all his life. But still, very sad.”

    I’m guessing the bargain was that Scrooge got the entire business from his dead partner, but it could also be a bargain that “you promise you super-duper won’t haunt me in seven years to show me the error of my ways, right bro?” “...” “No take-backsies! Also hey, I’ll miss you, Jacob.”

    Scrooge relates in past tense narration how there’s so many beggars during Christmastime, and how one called at his office that afternoon.

    “Scrrrooge and Marley, ayee believe?”, an extremely British voice suddenly interrupts, and hearing it, I genuinely don’t know if it’s Bransby Williams contorting his vocal cords or if it’s someone else being recorded. I’m leaning more towards the former, which sort of detracts from it, for me personally. It just takes on an oddly forced quality (if that’s the case), like a vocalized kind of theatrical silent-film acting. But that’s neither here nor there; this version still has a lot of charm, even just as an interesting (and rarely heard) early addition to these adaptations.

    Scrooge’s reply is so extendedly cantankerous to this potential businessman--the beggar having not introduced himself or his reason for coming--that it borders on unintentional comedy. Scrooge surely would lose many clients--even desperate ones--if he behaved like a college maths professor who hadn’t had coffee before their 9AM lecture.

    The beggar, not minding a cantankerous college maths professor, decides to ask for charity in the absolutely slowest way possible, plodding from syllable to syllable like me typing word to word after a muscle relaxant.

    Scrooge apparently becomes so perplexed his voice pinches up again like in 1911. It’s interesting, again, hearing Bransby Williams effectively acting solo--because the “let them die” is initially almost thrown away as casually as saying, “No, I don’t want pickles with my grilled cheese.” In repeating it, more emotion comes through, and it’s a fascinating blend of subtle bitterness and very overt anger in this voice of Scrooge. He also repeats himself a lot, which somehow adds to the sense that he’s a doddering old sinner (who scrapes, grasps, covets, etc).

    Scrooge, slipping back into his narrator perspective, winds up chuckling to himself a lot. He relates a scene from the book rarely shown in the films, although changed here: he encounters Bob Cratchit sliding down a frozen hill with plenty of excited children, enjoying the season (Scrooge doesn’t see this in the book, opting instead to do the equally-forgotten tour of a pub for his supper before his homemade gruel). In this, we get some potential reasoning for why Bransby Williams is doing all of these voices--and why some, such as the beggar earlier, sound so odd. As he relates what Bob does, he relates how he calls out “Merry Christmas!” to each boy, and it seems to be Scrooge’s own crotchety voice mimicking it. It’s followed by a line that does make me chuckle; a little, bitter, “Ptah! Idiot.”

    Nephew Fred goes unmentioned, but the omission allows for the arguments Scrooge uses against his nephew to become part of the extended monologue Scrooge recounts in this early draft: “What is Christmas but a day to find yourself blah blah blah” and “Every idiot who goes about should be given a vampire’s festive send-off.” It’s a neat change--one that services the medium extremely well!

    All of this has apparently been related as Scrooge’s final thoughts on Christmas Eve night, because he’s now yawning and the bells are tolling the late hour… Especially late; the fuzz and scrapes on the old record are drawing in as the sun goes down.

    In an odd-- I don’t even know. Is this a change? A transition? Like-- okay. Here’s effectively what happens:

    The bells toll midnight. I think it’s midnight, because they toll for a darn long while. Scrooge has drifted off to bed, without meeting Marley’s ghost. Except as the bells draw to a close and we see in our mind’s eye night-time descending, Bransby Williams draws up again in a despairing call: “Spirit of Jacob Marley, why do you haunt me thus?”

Oh! So we’re in the present tense, so Marley’s come by finally and--

“Spirit of Christmas Past has (stalked? I think he says ‘stalked’) before me, and shown me me own wasted life.” Scrooge has a bit of a cockney accent, though being an American, I’ve no idea what a real cockney accent sounds like. Scrooge has a bit of that “oi’ve got me money, and it’s oall oi naed” over-accented Britishness! Not too noticeable though; he’s not from Hollywood.

So-- Christmas Past has already come and gone? So Marley’s already gone; it’s not present tense, so the Past is in PAST tense and--

“The Spirit of Christmas Present stands before me, and shows me meself of what I am: a wicked… grasping… clenching old miser! Aohh Spirit, it’s true!” So present ten-- “It leaves me!.. The Third Spirit approaches… the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. This Spirit will show me what may be-- if I do not reform. Yes Spirit… I’ll follow you.”

After being jarred through five changes in tense--present to past to present to future to present--we realize once the whiplash stops that
the majority of the book just got done away with in 40 seconds. Literally, besides mentioning the three phantoms, we don’t have a mention of anything else: no window ghosts, no lines from Marley (or his world-renowned knocker), no mention of Fan--Scrooge’s little sister who I don’t remember being mentioned once yet, always overlooked for Belle’s heartbreak--nor Fezziwig nor Belle herself, nor the Cratchits, Tiny Tim’s God Blessing Us, nor Fred and Mrs. Fred and ol’ randy-goat Topper, nor the lighthouse and the miners, nor Ignorance and Want, nada, zip, nothing. It’s the most haphazard way I’ve experienced going through the story so far--and I don’t mean just of the silent versions I’ve seen for the reviews: I mean of every version I’ve seen and have yet to review. I’m truly perplexed why this is what was cut, when the beggar got to stay, for example.

Like-- I get cutting the ghost sequences more in filming because that’s the part that takes most of the budget (or should--oh, I’ll get to you next, 1935 film), considering that you have the spectral appearances, disappearances, visions, extra locations, etc. But with sound effects, you can just-- let us imagine that. Even with Scrooge narrating as a one-man performance: he can show us the view inside his mind, and relate what the Spirits say the same way he relates, for example, how the beggar talked to him in his office!

I am confusion.

Especially because we rushed through all of that to still have half our time left in the recording. It’s almost funny; every version usually drags the first Stave on and on and on and on and this one it’s going to be Stave IV and V that won’t be as rushed.

At least we get a little bit more of Stave IV this time, with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come bringing Scrooge, as he describes, into a garret (a room just under the roof of a house, reserved usually for the poorest renters) and to a bare, uncurtained bed. An interesting change for Scrooge’s final deathbed--one I rather like, as if his days of being an uncaffeinated grouse actually lost him the fortune he so desperately wanted to save up.

“--upon which lies the figure of a dead miser!”

Oop-- I gave away the twist early, sod it, I’m sorry--

“Unwatched-- unwept-- uncared for.”

For all that I just complained, somehow this adaptation does get the point that the tragedy of Scrooge’s death is more than that he’ll die, but that he’ll die lambasted and alone.

(I did just realize that, in those adaptations earlier on where it says, “He died without a friend!”, it was meant to evoke that same sense that nobody cared. I’d say it wasn’t as effective since it flew over my head then, but I was also on pain meds; I wouldn’t want that on my tombstone, for sure. Marley’s still probably bitter, but that’s nothing new, considering we never get a sense in the book there’s any hope left for his redemption, scarily enough.)

The Spirit seems not to want Scrooge to pull back the bedsheet, as it insists upon but is denied in the book--so on we go to the necessary, lonely graveyard. “I am about to learn his name!”, strikes me a little strangely, as, if it’s narration; it seems more addressed to the audience than as omniscient as previous narration. But that’s just me nitpicking at this point.

“I fear to, but I must.” (My brain sabotaged me into thinking
this was Scrooge and the Spirit, struggling to get him to look at the grim truth.)

In a neat change of bravery from other versions, Scrooge actively asks Yet to Come to stand aside so he can read it, rather than trembling up to the edge of knowledge and flipping over The Tower.

Bransby Williams does an excellent job articulating the mortal despair Scrooge feels, especially emphasizing it less as “oh no, I died!” than “oh God, I was unwatched, unwept, uncared for!” It does edge back into theatrical emotion, but it’s endearingly done.

The Spirit then seems to show him-- well, I’m not entirely sure. He flies into a more terrified groveling cry, asking for mercy! Mercy! MERCY!..

Maybe he was shown how many more adaptations there were to cover.

The Relevant Trumpeter returns, harkening us to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, but with such audio quality as to be borderline incomprehensible with the choir having deeper voices slightly overpowering mixed with Robert blowing the trumpet as much as he darn well can.

And here we are to Stave V, which is very neat to compare with the 1911 recording! It’s all a dream, but one that changes Scrooge’s life. The boy outside the window sounds rather like a goose from some hand-puppet show some guy’s performing for kids on the side of the road, but at this point it’d be more strange to hear an actual boy’s voice.

Because Scrooge never had a little sister in this version, and Fred got Butterfly Effected out of existence, Scrooge muses sadly that there’s nobody to welcome him on Keeblermas Day--but yes there is! There’s poor old Bob Cratchit! Me own pouurr clark. Living on fifteen shillings a week?! I’ll double it--and I’ll double it again--and again--

(My brain, destroyed by memes and jumping track after track, went to that scene of Peter Cushing as Frankenstein saying, murderously quiet, then I’ll have another brain. And another… And another! Another doubled salary!!!)

Scrooge gets the boy to run down and get the prize turkey, aye the one as big as you, aye the one that sounds like you. WALK-ER!

Scrooge muses on taking the turkey to Bob Cratchit, and “making him all happy”

(no comment)

and how people will hopefully see him as a great, benevolent man. “And now, in the words of Tiny Tim in me dream:”

Whomst? Ah, you read the book; you know him well :D

Petite Timothy’s words aren’t actually the final words here though; we get a pleasant ringing of bells, which Scrooge hears and comments on happily. Those dear old Christmas bells.


This is a very interesting adaptation to me, in large part because it is what we get to put against so many sound versions, stage versions, and especially one-man show versions now. It is inexplicable what precisely was cut and why some scenes stayed, but at its core, this is still very recognizably “A Christmas Carol,” just with Bransby Williams making it his own. Bransby Williams’ Scrooge seems a lot more ancient than the other versions so far--weaker in old age and scared and snarling, but more as a curmudgeon than the sharp-minded cruel businessman angle. It’s difficult if you overanalyze it to follow some of the internal logic (like him grumpily addressing the beggar at the start before knowing if it might be a client) and it has moments--especially if another character is speaking with Scrooge--that took me out of it more than involved me deeper in the story.

    Yet, I still find it charming; it’s a lean 12 minutes, very quiet, very bare-bones. It’s a well-done performance (if I may personally consider it over-emotional), and it’s so little-heard that it’s a very cool find to have in the history of all of these over-shadowing adaptations.

    (I just learned from the Wikipedia for the 1935 film: there was originally a filmed version of this performance, but it was a short film that is now lost to time.)

    You can find the audio performance here. Enjoy!




Man, can I relate to this NEXT story! My Mom used to do the same thing to her toy poodles, every year, dyeing them blue (?) for the holidays. People would stop on the street and stare when we went walkies. Not only that, for her holiday party, she would take two loaves of bread, dye one loaf red and one loaf green (with food coloring packs), then have TRAYS of 'festive' egg salad' sandwiches (!!!) that people would avoid like the plague - rightfully so, huh? I'd agree with you, except guess WHO had all that 'festivity' left over to eat? Not the Blue Wonder, fella! My stomach felt like 'The Grinch' here looks after a week or so of those. Folks are up in arms over this coloring catastrophe - what say you?




As much as I'd like to leave you with that image burning in your brain, I'll take the High Road and instead will send you to this link from the Historic Odessa Foundation, located in Odessa, Delaware, as in 2018 they converted a National Historic Landmark House into different scenes from A Christmas Carol. Take a look at the photos, as they are magnificent! I'm hoping they'll repeat this some year as part of their holiday events - that would be worth a Road Trip!




Back tomorrow with more! 

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