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The enduring relevance of A Christmas Carol

Dickens' Christmas story is one we really need this winter

Paterson Joseph in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic
© Manuel Harlan

It would be easy to explain A Christmas Carol's enduring relevance by understanding it as merely another of the season's countless traditions firmly taking hold – watching specific productions, listening to (generally hideous) music or enduring certain films. These activities fill people with warmth by reminding them of happy memories from years gone by.

It is not particularly controversial to suggest that such seasonal institutions rely more upon their association with festivity rather than objective merit. Thinking about the £375,000 that Mariah Carey reportedly pockets each year in royalties for her ubiquitous Christmas single, it does not take a genius to recognise when the majority of her streams and radio time occur. The idea of a career based on a singular Christmas hit was of course the premise of Nick Hornby's About a Boy and the book really struck at a truth about the strange relationship between people and theatre, music or film in December. What percentage of the public is listening to "All I Want For Christmas Is You" six months later for the enjoyment of the composition?

Saskia Ashdown, Ewan Donald and Taqi Nazeer in An Edinburgh Christmas Carol
© Mihaela Bodlovic

The most obvious exception to this argument is A Christmas Carol, a story that has become inextricably entwined with the season it depicts. This relationship alone does not nearly account for its prolonged pertinence however – the story transcends literature and its characters have become reference points for human emotion itself. A fortnight ago when Jeremy Corbyn told Boris Johnson that he would leave a copy of the book under the PM's tree so he could better understand the character of Scrooge, the point being made is obvious even to those that have never watched a production or read the text.

The story's appeal makes that quite an unlikely circumstance however, as theatres across the country consistently produce their own interpretations of Dickens' classic novella during December. Jack Thorne's adaptation has become something of a tradition at The Old Vic in recent years but the sheer number of productions played as far and wide as Edinburgh to Brighton are too numerous to list.

Paul Greenwood and Ryan Kopel in The Astonishing Times of Timothy Cratchit at the Hope Mill Theatre
© Phil Tragen

A Christmas Carol has inspired interpretations by The Muppets and Disney, as well as large scale Hollywood films with actors as famous as Bill Murray (Scrooged, 1988). In one of the more interesting reimaginings this year, Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight has developed a three-part miniseries of the story for the BBC, starring Andy Serkis and Tom Hardy, which will be released on 19 December.

Lessons of kindness and charity have never been more relevant in a country where food banks are braced for record-high demand this winter. Neither does Dickens sugar coat the depths of Scrooge's cruelty, making his resurrection all the more moving. His journey to empathy is surely one of the most affecting character arcs in literary history.

Is it the greatest Christmas story of all time? Keep your Gavin and Stacey special, I'll take Dickens any day.