Dennis Broe introduces the first instalment of Bro on the Global Television Beat, a new series of TV criticism that covers the best in streaming and Serial TV programmes for British and U.S audiences
Episode 1: Steven Knight’s A Christmas Carol: Dickens in the Age of Neoliberalism
Steven Knight is one of the best writers in the Serial TV era. However, the creator of Peaky Blinders and the even-better Taboo had seemed to regress with See, his Apple TV+ series, 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. It’s his version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a BBC production, available in the US 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 Scrooge, that it had lost all pretenses to laying bare the old man’s greed, which has been replaced instead by a bumbling lack of conscience that if restored would make him whole.
Scrooge the banker and asset stripper
That’s not this Scrooge, called Ebe, business shorthand for Ebenezer. He is not old but in his prime, and 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 by penny-pinching his employees, as 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 in his climb to the top with his now deceased partner (the show begins with a young, impoverished boy urinating on the partner’s grave) is their cutting corners in their businesses, resulting in a mine disaster and a fire in one of their factories, each 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, in a way that suggests the colonial abuse that was a feature of a British empire propelled by slavery – still a covert feature 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 dark interpretation of the traditionally glowing stories dredged from the ‘50s or early ‘60s, eg 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.
In A Christmas Carol Steven Knight, 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, consider Trump’s cutting food stamps in 2019 just prior to Christmas. Or, in France, Macron’s provoking of 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. Trump and Macron are Scrooges in Armani suits, but no less cruel for their effect on their own working-class, immigré and now middle-class Bob Cratchits.
Dicken’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’ 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 plaster 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 rewrites and updates Dickens, while reminding us that the wheels are turning backwards. 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 – only now with the might and weight of government fully behind them.
Exposing the culture of corporate capitalism
Knight’s updating of Dickens to critique contemporary capitalism is reminiscent of part of Alfred Hitchcock’s corpus – the shows he supervised and 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, Breakthrough, and Poison, all available on YouTube.
In the first, Barbara Bel Geddes, who also appears in Hitchcock's Vertigo, is a fastidious pregnant housewife who when she announces that her baby to be is a boy, is met by her cop husband’s demand for a divorce, and he literally turns his back on her, telling 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.
Breakdown has Orson Welles’ mainstay Joseph Cotton as a heartless businessman who complains when an accountant he has fired to cut costs has the audacity to be angry at him. The 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.
Like the other episodes, this one exposes the ruthlessness of a society based on competition, control and confinement, with Hitch gleefully overseeing this critical mayhem and 1950s audiences tuning in rabidly each week to see the underbelly of the society exposed.