Steven Knight’s ‘A Christmas Carol’: Dickens in the age of neoliberalism
Steven Knight’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

There is more evidence today than ever of the eternal relevance, and not just on the holidays, of having a capitalist Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and Alfred Hitchcock’s persistent critique of the hypocrisy of 1950s corporate values.

Steven Knight is one of the best writers in the Serial TV era. The creator of Peaky Blinders and the even-better Taboo had seemed to regress. His Apple TV+ series See, just renewed for a second season, is a gimmicky, post-apocalyptic, highly masculinized show depicting a pre-feudal world where everyone is both blind and warlike.

Much more to the point, and a return to the capitalist savagery of Taboo, is his latest effort, his version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a BBC production, available in the U.S. on FX. The tale has been softened so much in recent retellings and in repeated holiday broadcasts of Capra’s watered down version It’s A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart’s confused and curmudgeonly lead character in the place of Scrooge, that it has lost all pretenses to laying bare the old man’s greed—replaced instead by an array of Scrooges with a bumbling lack of conscience that if restored would make them whole. Although Lionel Barrymore’s banker in the Capra version is much closer to Dickens’s Scrooge, it is the Stewart lead character who is visited by the three ghosts of Christmas, sees his life unfold in front of him, and decides to change. Stewart’s decent but depressed Everyman is in the structural position of Dickens’s Scrooge, and therein lies the softening of the tale. Knight’s retelling could not be more up-to-date and less “Christmasy” with Scrooge restored to his original savage vigor. His cold calculations remind us of Jeff Bezos whose wealth increased by $8 billion dollars recently but who paid no income tax last year and regulates his workers’ bathroom breaks.

That’s not this Scrooge, called “Ebe,” business shorthand for Ebenezer. He is not old but in his prime. We understand through the course of the three episodes how this buyer and stripper of companies, much like today’s hedge fund managers and investment bankers, acquired his wealth. Penny-pinching his employees, he orders his accountant Cratchit to put in a full day on Christmas Eve, one of the few times Cratchit spends with his family. Much worse is his climb to the top with his now deceased partner. The show begins with a young, impoverished boy urinating on the partner’s grave, and we find out their cutting corners in their businesses, resulted in a mine disaster and a fire in one of their factories, killing many of their workers. Scrooge and his partner’s only concern is how to avoid liability, that is, any chance of being sued.

This is on the social level. On the personal level, we learn Ebe has in his past humiliated and sexually abused Cratchit’s wife, played by an Afro-British actress. We know that colonial abuse was a feature of a British imperialism propelled by slavery, which was still a covert part of the empire in the 1840s when the show takes place. We also learn that the personal source of this evil was Scrooge’s own sexual abuse as a kid, sold by his father to a boarding school headmaster in exchange for free tuition.

Everywhere on Serial TV these days there is this darkening of the traditionally glowing stories often dredged up from the 1950s or early ’60s, as evidenced even in DC’s Titans, where the teenage superheroes and their older teachers struggle with sadism, alcoholism, and a broken-down family structure. The neoliberal age of precarity is a meaner age than the recently passed Fordist era of guaranteed incomes and pensions, and there is a resulting strain on all kinds of social relations picked up on contemporary TV. It’s impossible even to do a teen superhero show, in comics once the most innocuous of genres, that will attract an audience without taking up the pall that is cast over the lives of this current generation.

Knight brilliantly, in A Christmas Carol, as he did in Taboo with the villainous British East India Company, takes us back to a more savage era of capitalism, that of the rise of the industrial economy fueled by men like Ebe, whose only morality is money. Today we have the same mentality, but the greed has a smiling face. If you think the Scrooge tale is outdated, witness Trump’s cutting food stamps in 2019 just prior to Christmas. Or, in France, Macron’s provoking a strike by proposing to drastically cut the pension system, which forced many workers to spend their Christmas holiday on the picket line instead of home with their families. His retort to this cruelty was to ask for a truce, at the exact moment when the strike, now a limited weapon at best, would have maximum impact, claiming that he, the impoverisher of working people’s families, was a family man himself and their friend. These two are Scrooge in Armani suits, but no less cruel for their effect on their own working class, on an underclass of immigrants, and now also on middle-class Bob Cratchits.

Dickens’s version was too sentimental at the end, and in Knight’s retelling, Scrooge repents but is not forgiven by Cratchit’s wife. Not all ignominy is redeemable. Knight does point also to the liberal reformism that was also part of Dickens’s worldview. Scrooge is told that love is the answer—in this case, meaning the way that those oppressed by the system endure—and as such is the antidote to revolution. A stronger way of saying this, and of breaking out of the left neoliberal bind where the solution is to put a tourniquet on the wound, is instead to maintain that changing or overturning a cruel system is to practice love.

For the most part, though, Knight’s exquisite writing and Guy Pearce’s unrelentingly hardened Scrooge rewrite and update Dickens, reminding us that the wheels are turning backward in this more vicious era of capitalism. Naked greed over ever-decreasing resources returns us to an earlier no-holds-barred era of corporate Scrooges, but now with the might and weight of government fully behind them.

An interview with Knight can be viewed here. The trailer can be viewed here.

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Speaking of eternal returns, an often overlooked part of Alfred Hitchcock’s corpus is the shows he supervised and a few of which he directed in the 1950s anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The master would dryly introduce and conclude what he referred to as “our story tonight,” often insidious critiques from the inside of ’50s America, all ending in a bitter twist and some calling attention to a society whose repressed contradictions could not but come to the surface. Three stirring examples of the latter, all of which Hitchcock directed, are “Lamb to the Slaughter,” “Breakdown,” and “Poison,” all available on YouTube.

In the first, Barbara Bel Geddes, who the same year starred in Vertigo, Hitchcock’s consummate masterpiece, is a fastidious pregnant housewife. When she announces that a midwife has pronounced her baby-to-be a boy, she is met by her cop husband’s demand for a divorce. He literally turns his back on her and tells her he has met someone new. She slays him with a frozen leg of lamb and then, in the most delicious way possible, watches the police dispose of the evidence with a contented look on her face.

Barbara Bel Geddes in ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’

“Breakdown” has Orson Welles mainstay, Joseph Cotten, as a heartless businessman who complains when an accountant he has fired to cut costs, who had worked for him for years, has the audacity to be angry at him. Cotten’s corporate manager terms this a breakdown. Driving home from his Miami vacation, on a backroads detour, he becomes the victim of a prison crew accident, paralyzed and unable to speak, but narrating to us his plight as he is assumed to be dead. His contemplating being buried alive causes his own breakdown in a way that allows him to feel what the accountant, suffering a similarly symbolic fate, was going through.

Finally, “Poison,” set on a plantation in the Asian tropics, is a nasty half-hour as the owner with a possible poisonous snake on his belly under the covers sweats in front of his co-owner. His partner, who wants both the business and the other man’s girlfriend to himself, tries to convince the beleaguered victim that he is delusional, that this is just the effect of delirium tremors from the alcohol the partner has been forcing on him as a way of getting control of the company.

This episode points out, as do the others, the ruthlessness of a society based on competition, control and confinement. Hitch gleefully supervised this critical mayhem, and 1950s audiences eagerly tuned in each week to see the underbelly of the society exposed.


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.