Tag Archives: Dickens

Programming Note For Those With Taste

The David Letterman Christmas Spectacular — which isn’t the official title of the last new Letterman show before Christmas but absolutely ought to be — is airing this Friday night. Please check your calendar, set your DVR, wind your watches, block your hats, and nog any eggs whose palatability could be improved by such a procedure.

This show is a beloved holiday tradition in my house. For decades, the show’s followed this same template:

Paul Shaffer tells the story of a Cher Christmas special that aired in the 70s, and then does his impression of Cher singing “O Holy Night”:

Jay Thomas comes on and goes into what Dave has endorsed as The Greatest Talk Show Guest Story Ever Told:

And then Jay and Dave compete in the Late Show Holiday Quarterback Challenge. They take turns chucking footballs at the meatball on top of the Late Show Christmas tree until one of them knocks it off.

“Why is there a meatball on the top of the tree?” you may well ask. You may also ask why it’s on top of a souvenir Empire State Building that’s on top of a large cheese pizza. The original reason for it is no longer relevant because, like all family traditions, the correct answer is now “Because it’s Christmas. And at Christmastime, we always put a cheese pizza on top of the tree, and then cover the top spiky branch with a souvenir of the Empire State Building, and then plop a giant meatball on top of the whole thing.”

Then there’s a guest, and then there’s the moment the whole show has been building towards: Darlene Love sings “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)”.

There’s such obvious joy on every square foot of that stage. Chorus, strings, extra horns, the blonde curly-haired keyboardist who supplements Paul in the keyboard pit every time an arrangement on the show calls for four hands (I can’t believe I couldn’t find her name on Google), the fake snow, the special lighting…it’s obvious that the whole show derives enormous pride and pleasure in these three or four minutes. As well they should!

[Edited to add: reader Tim Schwab suggests that the band’s second keyboardist is Bette Sussman. Yup.]

Am I spoiling it for you by embedding all of these clips? Of course not. Is it spoiling your family Christmas party to know in advance that your Aunt is going to play “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” on a concertina, that your grandfather will wear the same Santa tie that he wears every year, and that your Mom will be bringing those mini pecan pies that she bakes inside muffin tins? Of course not. I look forward to this for weeks for the same reason why I usually order the same sandwich at my favorite diner. I loved it the last time and I know I’m going to love it the next time.

I’m informed that Jay Thomas won’t be telling his story or hurling a pig product at a cow product this year. Dash it. Well, I’m sure that they’ll find a way to use that time that will provoke Letterman fans to say “Hey, remember that one Christmas when they…” for many years to come.

I’ve always felt some sympathy for the one “normal” guest booked for that show. Everyone else on that stage has an established, eagerly-anticipated part to play. The guest probably feels like they’re joining their boyfriend or girlfriend’s family Christmas dinner for the first party. Should they join in on the traditions, or wait until they feel entitled?

This year, they’ve got Kristen Wiig, who clearly knows how to make some funny in any situation. Actually, by this time in the “Anchorman 2” promotional campaign, I reckon she can make some funny and plug the movie in any situation up to and partially through the Biblical apocalypse. If Dave got raptured during the interview, she’d probably slide into the empty chair and use some of her anchordesk material, barely even noticing the angels as they cleave their way through the audience with swords of purifying fire.

(You have to admit: we’ve been hearing an awful lot about this movie for a very long time.)

When Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” he intended to document and popularize ways to celebrate the holiday. It was like one of those Martha Stewart Christmas magazines, only the polar opposite of smug and insufferable. The sole downside of that book is that it’s probably guilted a lot of people into trying to honor the Dickens tradition instead of anticipating and enjoying events and celebrations that have some personal relevance.

I do not go caroling, I don’t cook a goose, and though I’ve attended lots of Christmas parties, I’ve never polished and buffed my calves in advance in hopes that they would “shine like moons”, as Old Mr. Fezziwig’s did.

But I do watch the David Letterman Christmas Show. I’m keeping Christmas my own way and am made quite glad of it.

“A Christmas Carol” (performed by Patrick Stewart) Amazon Advent Calendar Day 20

Album Art

A Christmas Carol

Patrick Stewart

A Christmas Carol

Genre: Audiobook

Boy, oh, boy. Patrick Stewart’s one-man dramatic reading defines “A Christmas Carol” for me. It gets straight to the heart of the original, as I see it. Scrooge isn’t healed by the Christmas spirit…he’s healed because he’s forced to evaluate the bad choices in his life and to confront the ugliness inside him. Christmas, and the Spirits, don’t do anything to him; at the end of the story, he’s a better man because he chooses to become one…and all of that requires effort and honesty.

Patrick Stewart’s performance as Scrooge makes it clear that we’re meant to cheer Scrooge on.

Could we even go so far as to describe Scrooge as the hero of “A Christmas Carol”?

Hmm. It depends on whether or not you think it’s heroic to rescue yourself, as opposed to saving, say, Lois Lane, Marion Ravenwood, or Christmas.

I say “yes.” Scrooge examines his own behavior and ultimately, he decides to move away from a position of safety and comfort (the purpose of self-delusion is generally to trick us into feeling safe and comfortable, after all). He veers off into something more dangerous and uncertain. That might not be heroic, exactly, but at the very least it’s brave. And that’s why, when this story is adapted and performed as well as it’s done by Patrick Stewart, we like Scrooge and want him to succeed.

“Rubbish!” you say. “Scrooge is no different at the end of the story than he was at the beginning! Marley showed Scrooge that he was ultimately going to be damned to wander the earth bound by iron chains! And the Ghost of Christmas Future showed him that he’s going to die next Christmas Day if he doesn’t change! Scrooge is just trying to save his own skin!”

“Hogwash,” I reply.

(Though I applaud both of us for not going for the cheap laugh, and saying “Humbug.” It shows a lot of restraint and class.)

Marley’s visitation scene makes Dickens’ intentions clear. Marley’s true burden isn’t the hundreds of pounds of chains and steel cashboxes he has to drag around everywhere: it’s his unrelenting remorse. Only after his death has Marley become aware of the depth of the suffering among the disadvantaged in the city. He’s eager to aid…but as a formless spirit, he’s powerless to interfere. All Marley can do is watch, and remember alllllll of the times during his life when he walked straight past the same kinds of people without paying them the slightest notice, and think about how he could have lifted them out of their desperate situations by applying the slightest effort. An eternity of compassion and remorse: that’s a tidy vision of hell.

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour, by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! Such was I!”

As if to firmly dot that particular “i”, Dickens ends the scene with the view of the street from Scrooge’s window. The streets are filled with spirits, many of them known to Scrooge during their lives as fellow members of the 1%:

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

We come to learn that Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t a baddie. He just made the mistake of responding to disappointments by growing more cynical and suspicious of other people as the years passed. Eventually, he grew suspicious of Humanity in general. Ultimately, he distanced himself so completely that he withdrew from the whole system. Time and time again, he angrily demands to be left alone. He doesn’t even attempt to interfere with the good works of others, and (to my recollection) doesn’t even act in a meanspirited way. A thoughtless one, yes, but is he ever actively hostile? He wants the men collecting for the poor to go away. He doesn’t want to be roped in to his nephew’s Christmas party. He wishes that the carolers would just leave him the hell alone.

In doing so, Scrooge failed to understand that you’re part of the human race whether you want to be or not. Therefore, the only choice any of us have in the matter is whether to play a positive role in human society or a selfish one.

By the time Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Future, he’s already realized the mistakes he’s made and the damage he’s done to himself and the people around him through his indifference and his total lack of empathy. And so, when he sees his name on the tombstone, he doesn’t plead with the Ghost because he’s desperate to save his skin. I think it’s clear that he was eager to finally use his resources (his money and his time on Earth) to become a positive part of society, and thought that the cup was being slapped away from his lips. He was like Marley in that moment: wanting to alleviate human suffering, but denied the ability.

So there!!!

I could move on to a long debate about whether or not a desire to help others is, in fact, a selfish desire. But I’ve just checked carefully and it turns out that this here is a blog post and not a page of dialogue for Dr. House.

Patrick Stewart’s reading preserves Dickens’ perspective on Scrooge. Which is why it remains, for me, at the very top of the heap of “Christmas Carol” re-interpretations, topping the Alastair Sim version and the Season Three Christmas episode of “WKRP In Cincinnati.”

Another win of this audiobook: it doesn’t shortchange us on the Christmas Day scenes. It wouldn’t be very satisfying if Scrooge woke up, undocked his iPhone from the nightstand charger, confirmed the date, PayPal-ed a bunch of money to some good causes, and then went back to sleep.

Patrick Stewart doesn’t hold anything back. There’s a smile on Scrooge’s face and a gleam in his eye that comes through even in audiobook form. And yet, he doesn’t go overboard and destroy the effect of all the hard work that preceded that scene. The word to describe Scrooge’s emotions would be “grateful” rather than “manic.” We should be grateful that we have the time and the means to do something positive.

This is a scene from the 1999 Hallmark made-for-TV movie. It’s a good’n; so good that it…no, no, surely not.

What the hell…it’s Christmas: it’s so good that I can even completely forgive Hallmark for bankrolling “Riding The Bus With My Sister.”

No matter how good Stewart’s movie is, though, I can’t prefer it to the audiobook. Stewart has been regularly performing his abridged “Christmas Carol” as a one-man show since 1991. He does every voice! I invite you to wonder, as I do, how he compresses his rich, impressive King Lear-esque baritone into a charming Tiny Tim. I can assure you that he does. And when he plays female parts, it’s about as far away from a Monty Python pepperpot lady as one can get without leaving this planet.

Oh, how I love this audiobook. I can’t possibly exaggerate how I feel about it. I first bought it on cassette at a salvage store. Since then, I’ve bought it on CD and on Audible. There’s no set date during the holiday season when I move it from my iTunes library and onto my iPhone. But it’s early. The Indianapolis 500 starts with a voice on a loudspeaker calling “Gentlemen, start your engines.” For me, the holiday season begins with Patrick Stewart intoning “Jacob Marley was dead…”

And when I hear those words, I feel pinpricks at the back of my neck and I am very, very happy. There have been years when I simply never got around to setting up the tree. Sending out holiday cards? I like to design those myself, which means that it only happen when I think of an idea early enough to have the cards made, and get the cards made early enough to address and mail them.

But there is never, ever a year when I don’t listen to Patrick Stewart’s dramatic adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” at least twice. Patrick Stewart’s career is filled with  indispensable work and even so, I would quickly choose “A Christmas Carol” the least-dispensable thing Patrick thing he’s ever done.

So you should definitely get yourself a copy of this. If your holiday weekend plans involve driving all over creation making merry, you can choose no better car audio than this.

Me? I bought and ripped the CD. That’s the highest tribute I can pay to any commercial audio. If an album’s good, I’ll buy a track or three. If it’s very good, I’ll buy the whole thing.

If it’s as good as “A Christmas Carol,” though, I want the CD. I want the recording at its highest, uncompressed quality. I want it in an unlocked format that I can rip and then install on any playback device I own now or will ever own in the future.

Buy “A Christmas Carol” from Amazon. As usual, my Amazon Associates ID is embedded in that link and any purchases you make on Amazon after clicking it results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits…which I will spend on delightful foolishness.

Er…I mean, food for hungry orphans.

“Reviewing The Situation” (Rowan Atkinson) – Amazon Advent Calendar Day 1

Album Art

Reviewing the Situation

Rowan Atkinson

Oliver! (2009 London Cast Recording)

Genre: Soundtrack

Day One of the 2010 Advent Calendar. I should warn you newcomers: there will be show tunes.

I love this song. I also love the mechanics behind this song. “Reviewing The Situation” is from the classic category of Show-Stopping Numbers. In a novel, you just write whatever the hell you want. In movies, the script passes through several hands and the finished product ultimately cowers to what can be physically accomplished, given the film’s budget and the limited wilingness of the public to just sort of shrug off a production-related death or three.

In live theater, there’s another factor: a real actor is involved and he has to be engaged with his performance every single night for months. He’s going to want to have something to do besides set the expositional table for other actors.

PG Wodehouse — certified by all right-thinking people as One Of The Greatest Damned Novelists Who Ever Lived — wrote a lot of theater in his early days. He said that he used much of the same kinds of thinking when writing the novels. He regarded each character not as a living, breathing person, but as a living, breathing actor who would be performing that role; if, for some reason, the story seemed to drag, he pictured one of his actors complaining that the rest of the cast has all of the great scenes and that his character does practically nothing but stand around holding a tennis racquet and saying “Gosh!” until Act Two.

So Wodehouse, after assuring himself and his actor that the character is way too important to be cut, would make sure that the actor has plenty to do and that he or she has at least one moment in which they’re indelibly in the spotlight.

I often think of this when I’m watching live theater or listening to a soundtrack and I come across a number like this. If you were trying to cut a half an hour from this show for the Las Vegas cast, this would be one of the first numbers to go. It isn’t one of the big hits and though it gives Fagin a little added depth, that whole hunk lifts straight out cleanly. I know nothing about how “Oliver!” was written but I can so easily imagine the producers commissioning this number late in the game, when they realized how well their Fagin was working out, and how eager the preview audiences were to see more of him.

“Reviewing The Situation” is such an perfect four-spotlight moment for Rowan Atkinson’s talents that I had to check to make sure that the song was, in fact, part of the original 1960 production and not something new for the 2009 revival. Still, it’s clear that after the producers signed Atkinson they added a new line to the anticipated runthrough time: “Minute-long ovation after Fagin solo.”

How’s his singing? Okay, agreed: clearly, the lucrative seduction of television and stage comedy didn’t rob the music world of an exciting new talent. But mere technical perfection is a low goal for any singer, particularly in musicals. Hitting every note perfectly (and still having air in your lungs with five minutes down and one more minute to go) isn’t what lifts the audience out of its seats. It’s the performance. Atkinson isn’t singing the song…he’s acting it. Brilliantly.

Don’t take my word for it. This is a recording of a live performance of the show and you can hear how well the number’s going over. Can’t you picture what Atkinson is doing to sell every line?

I really wish all musical cast albums were recorded this way. There’s an energy here that probably wouldn’t have come through in a studio. It’s sort of like the difference between footage of a pro basketballer dunking during a real game in which every point matters, and the footage of that same athlete doing the same move on an Electronic Arts motion-capture stage.

It’s still early to tell whether this 2009 recording will stand the test of time. I can say something right now: it’s withstood the test of AppleScript. Yesterday, I spent a little time building some scripts to automate the posting process. I highlight a track in iTunes, click a script from a menu, and whoosh: a block of CSS-formatted HTML is ready to be pasted in, complete with the track info, and a properly-resized version of the album art is ready to be uploaded.

But my programming skills rely heavily on the Braille Method. I need to feel my way around it before my code does what I want it to. I must have listened to this track ten times in a row before I got everything working.

Did I get sick of it? Hell, no. I went out to dinner and listened to it three more times on my way to the restaurant.

Preview “Reviewing The Situation” on the Amazon MP3 Store.