‘Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.’ When I walk onto a stage and the lights come up as the sound effect bells toll I can launch into that memorable opening line with sheer confidence that I will be able to spend the next 90 minutes telling the story of A Christmas Carol in a professional and effective manner. For over 25 years I have lived with the book and pretty well know every nuance and mood within the text. It may be boastful, but I think I am quite an expert on performing A Christmas Carol.<!– /wp:paragraph —
But recording it? Videoing it? That was a whole different field of expertise and a field that I had not yet entered – indeed I was struggling to even find the gate!
When the opportunity to film A Christmas Carol was presented to me it meant that I had to learn quickly and that is something that always excites and challenges me. Initially the plan was to film the show as it appears on the stage, which would be quite simple to do – probably the work of a single day. I was introduced to a talented young videographer, Emily Walder, who specialises in the filming of stage shows and she confirmed that the project would be a relatively simply one. A couple of cameras at most, a sound engineer, a couple of takes to capture a few close ups and different angles, and then patch it all together in the editing suite. Emily’s talent lays in editing and she has even been part of a project that won an Oscar, so I had absolute confidence in her to bring my show digitally to life.
My first job was to find locations and, as I mentioned in my previous post, I was originally looking for beautiful theatres. The architect Frank Matcham was renowned for his spectacular interiors and even though his work came after Dickens’ death, a number of his finest creations still exist and would suit my purpose exactly. I approached a few and received encouraging messages back; during the period of lockdown theatres were shut up, dark, locked, so the opportunity to breathe some life back into them, and receive a small income too, appealed to managers.
But then the project took a turn: initially it started by thinking about using different scenes within the theatre space – brick walls back stage could be suitably bleak and sparse, maybe a bar or box office space would be warm, plush and welcoming. Perhaps we could use exterior walls……and that is when the search for locations widened.
Encouraged by Liz to think further and further outside whatever box my mind was in, I started imaging fantastic backgrounds for the story. Although I know a lot of people didn’t approve of it but much of our inspiration came from the latest BBC2 adaptation staring Guy Pearce which was premiered in the UK last Christmas. There was plenty wrong with the production but the darkness and bleakness of many of the scenes appealed and I was keen to take that tone.
My first location idea was Highgate Cemetery in North London, where I have performed a couple of times. Not only does the site boast a wonderful array of gothic gravestones and monuments, but a little chapel would suit the interior scenes as well. The mood board started to overflow with pictures of dark, lichen-covered, higgledy-piggledy gravestones with slips of grass rising like fingers from the graves below, and my script became a confusion of angles and views which would challenge the viewers’ minds
But Highgate Cemetery wanted too much money
It was then that my thoughts came around to Rochester and the various venues that I described in my last blog post. With clear images of the scenes in my mind I started re writing the script again, complete with costume changes and lighting effects and sound effects and long tracking shots and tight close-ups. It was at this stage that I received a very polite, if somewhat nervous, email from Emily reminding me that when I’d contacted her I had asked her to attend a theatre and film a couple of run throughs of my show: The project seemed to have changed somewhat and she wanted me to understand that what I was asking for may not be possible with a crew of 2.
Emily is completely professional and of course her concerns were valid for when I looked back at the script I realised that I would need a crew of 700, with a budget in the millions and the end film may just be ready for Christmas 2021…..
We agreed to use my complicated script as an extension of the various mood boards that I had created and I began to pare things down until I had another, albeit simpler, version of the text.
We met for the first time in the crypt at Rochester Cathedral. The lighting and the arches formed the perfect confusing background for Scrooge’s memories, but we instantly had to come to terms with modernity: Exit signs, fire alarms, electric outlets, stylish glass doors with carefully designed logos etched into them – all seemed to be in the back of every shot we wanted. However we soon managed to find the spaces we needed and began to work.
Without too much discussion we quickly fell into a routine which served us well throughout all of our shooting days: I would say which scene we were to film and suggest any ideas I may have had when working on the script (filming over shoulder, close up of face etc), and then I would actually run through the scene allowing Emily to walk around me searching for suitable shots and angles.
The first scene to be filmed was Scrooge waking up as The Ghost of Christmas Past visits him. I had made a decision not to actually physically portray the spirit (it is an impossible challenge anyway as Dickens describes it as an ever changing form: ‘For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.’) My idea was for the ghost to be an indistinct presence represented by its voice coming from a different place each time it spoke. The echoes of the low stone vaulted ceiling only added to the mystery and eeriness of the scene.
I was delighted that Emily immediately bought into my vision and filmed the action from all sorts of obscure angles, whilst the sound engineer Jordan wielded the unwieldy sound boom as effectively as he could so as to counteract the natural echo.
We filmed all of the ‘past’ scenes in various settings around the Crypt: Scrooge on the road, at school, losing Belle and seeing her later in domestic bliss. The vergers and staff in the Cathedral couldn’t have been more welcoming to us and allowed us to film uninterrupted all morning.
Our next venue was the tiny, cramped 6 Poor Travellers’ House, which would become the Cratchit’s home – it seemed apt that the happy, close-knit family should be housed within the comforting walls of a charity alms house.
Once again our first job was to move as many indications of modern life as we could before finding suitable angles to film, which was in some ways easier in the cramped confines of the room than it had been in the cavernous crypt – here we just didn’t have much choice! In fact the space was so small that we decided to shoot some of the scenes through the tiny windows, which not only gave us an extra perspective but also a sense of Scrooge being apart from the action, and a slight feeling of voyeurism in the way that Alfred Hitchcock used so effectively over and over again,
At 5pm we had everything filmed that we had planned for the day, which was just as well for in a couple of days the curator of the 6 Poor Travellers’ House was due to leave the grey of Britain and head to Portugal for the winter months, meaning we would not be able to return until the Spring, which would be rather too late for our purposes.
We re-grouped a week later to continue the filming. Due to the constraints of the various locations’ availability we were filming out of sequence, so it was a good thing that I have become so completely familiar with every scene of the story over the years, meaning that it was easy to pick up the various emotions as we went on.
Our first location was at St James Church in Cooling, out on the marshes, looking over the rivers Medway and Thames towards the county of Essex. It was 7.30 in the morning and a beautiful clear sunrise was bathing the scene in an amazing light so Emily and Jordan unpacked their equipment quickly in order that we could begin as soon as possible.
A tiny quiet village church in the midst of remote marshes: what could possibly interrupt us at that hour of the morning? The answer, everything. Nearby is Cooling Castle, now owned by a famous musician who obviously doesn’t like the marsh’s resident crows gathering on his roof for he, or one of the farmers nearby, had installed a bird scarer, which went off with a loud retort every twenty minutes or so, meaning we had to time our shoots carefully.
We were not only battling with the shotgun, but as the church is situated on an s-bend, a sort of chicane around the graveyard, we also had a series of cars dropping down gears as they approached it, and then accelerating away again on the other side. As time passed so a very large tip-up truck, whose traditional signwriting proclaimed it was the property of GORDON’S, rumbled and rattled past, only to return ten minutes later with a full load. Rattle. Bump. Grind of gears. Whining transmission. Surge of diesel engine. Rattle. Bump. After a few of these drive pasts the driver of Gordon’s truck would give us a cheery wave of apology each time he guided this monster along the little lane.
The supposed silent idyll was also punctuated by horns from far away ships and the odd executive jet screaming overhead!
We were joined on the second day by our very good friend Martin Smith who is a superb photographer and had offered to come along to take a few stills for publicity purposes. It was Martin who introduced me to Emily as they have worked together on various theatrical shoots on many occasions. As Emily, Jordan and I picked good locations for various shots, so Martin hovered in the background recording the scene.
Our first shots were filmed on a couple of pathways across the marshes, which eventually will form the opening and closing of the story. Charles Dickens loved to walk in this very countryside, so the idea of the narrator of the book striding across the fields as he talks seemed like a good way to begin. The light was beautiful, so were the clouds, although the strong wind made recording the sound a tricky proposition (not to mention bird-scarers. aeroplanes, cars and ‘Gordon’.)
Having captured the open countryside shots we then moved into the churchyard itself, where we spent a good couple of hours filming a number of scenes in different corners. The obvious ones: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’ and Scrooge being shown the vision of his own death were filmed at various ancient stones, whilst we also recorded shorter patches of narration which may, or may not, be used at other points in the story.
The appearance of the terrible visions of Ignorance and Want was filmed against a gnarled old Yew tree in which the bark seemed to form into the grotesque faces of generations of starving children.
When we finished at St James’ we loaded all of the equipment into our cars and headed back into the heart of Rochester and to Eastgate House, our final location for the day.
Our first job was to reconnoitre the entire building and decide which rooms to use for the various scenes that would be filmed there: Scrooge’s office, Scrooge’s home and nephew Fred’s party. It took a while to come to a final decision but eventually we set up in a small oak panelled upstairs room, with my clerk’s desk next to an empty fireplace. The stool which would represent Bob Cratchit in the scene I placed in a little alcove with light streaming in, suggesting the ‘little cell, a sort of a tank’ which Dickens described in the original.
Having run through the scene a couple of times and tried various angles, during which Martin had got some fantastically dramatic photographs, we decided to go for a take.
I concentrated on the lines, Emily concentrated on getting the shot, Jordon kept the boom mic out of sight and Martin…well Martin slid down the wall! Suddenly we aware of a scraping of furniture on the floor and I suppose our first thought was that he had simply leaned against the cabinet which moved, but it was more serious than that. Martin had fainted and as we watched he slowly tumbled to the floor (ever the professional he somehow managed to fall in such away that he didn’t crush any of his expensive and heavy photographic equipment which was hanging from a harness strapped to his body.
There was a moment when time stopped – just a moment – and then Emily, Jordan and I rushed over to him, and made sure he was comfortable. In just a few seconds his eyes flickered open and he gradually became aware that the little room was at a different angle than the last time he saw it. We explained what had happened and slowly he began to remember feeling as if ‘everything was was swimming’. We took him downstairs and into the fresh air where we gave him a glass of water, but he was still not feeling 100% and we thought it may be best to call an ambulance, just so that he could be checked over.
The paramedics arrived in a few minutes and were fantastic (God bless the NHS!). They chatted, asked questions, tested blood pressure and heart rate, and came to the conclusion that the fainting was simply a result of a very early morning and not enough sustenance.
The team in green phoned their findings back to head office and while they waited for the official advice to come back down the line they asked us about our work and were terribly impressed by our various theatrical endeavours. One of the paramedics said, rather forlornly, that he wished he had an exciting job, to which we all chorused ‘What? Saving lives every day is a pretty amazing thing to do!’ The modest reply maybe didn’t install a huge amount of confidence in any of us but perhaps not in Martin the most: ‘Oh, actually I don’t save the lives of about 85% of the people I see!’ I think he meant that most cases he saw were mundane. I hope that is what he meant.
When Martin was given the all clear, our new friends packed up their equipment and bade us a cheery adieu with a parting reminder to ‘drink more water!’
Somehow it didn’t feel right to continue filming now and as we had got some amazing footage in the can (or megapixels on the chip), we took the decision that it had been a valuable and productive day and that we would re-group in a week’s time to finish up.
Martin and I found a dainty café where we had a restorative lunch of quiche and a little salad, and then went our separate ways.
Another week on and Emily, Jordan and I were back at Eastgate House (Martin had decided it may be better not to make the trip this time), with a long day ahead of us, but what we did not have to do was spend lots of time trying to work out where to shoot.
We set the little office space up again and picked up with the scene we had been filming before. Spookily, eerily (and the house is about 400 years old so perhaps not surprisingly), at the very moment we reached the point in the scene where Martin had fainted the week before, so one of Emily’s lights failed. We all looked at each other, but chose to press on in spite of whatever spirit floated around us in that confined space…..
We finished all of the scenes in the office, then moved to another very sparse room on the top floor in which we filmed all of the scenes in Scrooge’s home, including leaning out of the window and shouting to the little boy on Christmas morning, much to the surprise of the residents of Rochester.
When we had finished the filming upstairs it was almost 1 pm, so learning the lessons from the week before we decided that it was time to eat and drink water.
In the afternoon we had one more location – a bright large room, where we re-created Nephew Fred’s party, and had plenty of space for the lascivious Topper to flirt with the niece’s sister. For the game of Blindman’s Buff I tied one of my cravats over my eyes and managed to complete the scene without bumping into anyone or anything.
With all of the scenes completed we tidied up all of the rooms we had used and returned them to the state they had been that morning, and then made our way outside to film a few exterior ‘linking’ shots that would be used to join some of the scenes together. The sun was beginning to go down and we had to work quickly against the rapidly fading light, but he golden glow was beautiful on the honey stone of the cathedral and even as we walked back to our cars Emily was filming a few extra scenes to have in reserve should they be needed.
And that was that. a wrap. No hugs or handshakes in our masked socially distancing world, just thanks and goodbyes.
Now it is time for Emily to work her Oscar-winning magic over the show as she stiches all of the scenes together in an order that Charles Dickens would recognise. The next time I write my 2020 version of A Christmas Carol will be ready to view.