A Kempmas Carol

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[click here for last year’s Christmas special — Jim Davidson’s adult panto]

A Christmas Carol must hold the record for the single most adapted piece of literature, with countless feature films and stage shows, and TV episodes borrowing the premise for Christmas specials. While many, particularly the most well-loved, pull their take straight from the page for that Victorian nostalgia of the id, Dickens’ moral fable is often updated for the modern era, demonstrating people’s ability to be miserly in a variety of settings. Aside from the classics, with Alastair Sim or Albert Finney dourly striding through 19th century cobbled streets, it’s been told with Muppets and Smurfs, Mr. Magoo and Fred Flintstone, and in a televised Carry On, with Sid James’ Scrooge battling Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula. Though the original Scrooge was a money-lender, he’ll sometimes be transposed into another self-centred profession, as in Bill Murray’s television executive, or in any one of the fifty Lifetime versions they seem to churn out every year, as some sort of evil cupcake magnate. How then, would ITV interpret the material, for their Christmas 2000 extravaganza, featuring the new, scowling face of the channel, Ross Kemp?

A man so round and smooth, he seems entirely made from buttocks, Kemp was aggressively poached from the BBC in 1999, in a 2-year deal reported at £1.2m. Viewed as the franchise player around which to build a channel, his early ITV output is… of a type. There’s Ultimate Force, where he starred as an SAS hardman, Without Motive, as a hardman police detective, and In Defence, a hardman barrister. Let’s examine, for a moment, the strange accepted wisdom of this hardness. Ross Kemp is not a trained fighter, nor can I recall ever seeing him throw a punch, outside of the comedy scuffles in Eastenders. He’s not jacked, with the stocky, potato-like build of a forklift driver who’d be out of breath after chasing a mugger down a single flight of stairs, and there’s not even a whisper of stories about behind the scenes hellraising. In fact, in a Christmas Carol scene where he raises a glass of lager in toast, it (unintentionally) goes fucking everywhere, dripping down his fingers at the edge of frame like he’s never held one before. This is assuredly a man who’s tucked up by 9pm with both hands well above the covers.

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Though he’s since proven himself in his Sky One shows, getting guns pulled on him in warzones without squeaking out even the tiniest fear-fart, 2000’s rep of this well-spoken drama-school boy was built purely on a bullish expression and bald head, at a time just before men started freely shaving them, when such a look was associated with thuggishness. It’s this reputation which ITV and Kemp were clearly unwilling to puncture, to the hilarious detriment of one of literature’s greatest classics. Consequently, the pitch for this sounds exactly like something from Alan Partridge’s dictaphone, when Dickens’ most famous creation is reborn as council estate lone shark, Eddie Scrooge.

The modern reimagining was thought up by Ross Kemp himself, back in his days as a drama student in 1980’s Peckham. While mucking out public toilets (“it was disgusting”) and walking amongst a council estate, “the idea of a contemporary version of A Christmas Carol came to mind, with Scrooge as a loan shark.” Eddie Scrooge was the role he’d been dreaming of for twenty years, and he’d pitched it to a BBC drama producer while still on Eastenders. When the producer jumped to ITV at the same time, they were able to get a greenlight. While he didn’t pen the screenplay, the initial treatment was written by Kemp, who described the 90-minute TV movie in an interview at the time as “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

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But the reason A Christmas Carol still resonates is because of its timeless message of hope, told through a simple structure, with much of its events taking place over a single night. It doesn’t matter if it’s a gender-swapped Edwina Scrooge, Year 3000 robot grump, E-B Screwz, or set in the sewers with surly anthropomorphised turd Ebenezer Poop; stick to the basic story, and it’s a can’t miss. Unless, say, you decide to toss that out, by plundering from an altogether different Bill Murray film.

It begins traditionally enough, with the choral strains of Silent Night, as the camera sweeps across the grey vista of a filthy tower block adorned in fairy lights. Then, the man we’ll come to know as Jacob Marley swaggers into a piss-stained lift. Thinking he’s being followed, he calls out into the darkness — “Eddie?” There’s nobody there. A gunshot rings out, as Eddie Scrooge lurches awake from his nightmare. Get used to that, as half the running time features Ross Kemp gasping into frame, like a great egg rearing down on you, with the rest, him waddling around carrying a massive TV.

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An introductory Christmas Eve walk amongst his community introduces us to A Kempmas Carol’s urban brutalism; the archetypal council estate described in The Sun articles about benefit scroungers and feral youths. This, you see, is a rough area, 90% comprised of graffiti-stained stairwells. Every inch, every surface, has been scribbled on by louts, beneath the loud, rhythmic clack of a nearby train track. Dickens’ urchins have been given a ‘chav’ makeover, racing round on stolen supermarket trolleys to vandalise shop windows. One bad-blud tears a decorative snowman down from a lamppost with a tea-towel wrapped around his head, like a bastardised Virgin Mary. As Kemp passes through, he raises a sneer at the carollers, catching the disapproving eye of Jacob Marley’s grieving mum, before a very subtle visual, where we follow the path of a single snowflake down from the sky and into her bucket, to lay among its feeble smattering of two and ten pence pieces.

Kemp’s the big man about town, a notorious money lender both taking advantage of and exacerbating the rampant poverty. He lives in a grotty underpass, in a padlocked, minimalist lair with a nuclear bunker aesthetic, where stark concrete walls are propped up by iron girders, all lit in post-apocalyptic near-dark shadows. Constantly shaking people down, he’s accompanied by Bob Cratchit, reimagined here as Scrooge’s snivelling accountant-cum-press-agent, on hand with a calculator or simpering word of encouragement to sobbing clients. Eddie’s repossessed your television? “There’s still books!

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The first of three regular customers is introduced via hard cut to Kemp growling “no cash, no telly!” as he unplugs the TV of a single mum with crying kids. Then there’s a man in desperate need of a ticket to Australia, to see his daughter “one last time,” to which Kemp offers him a £700 loan, to be paid back at £10 a week for 10 years, which by my (likely terrible) maths, is roughly 750% interest. But Scrooge could probably do with the cash, considering the finances on display when London’s most successful loan shark collects from sweet old lady, Liz Smith, counting out pennies with her arthritic fingers, but coming up short. “It’s £5, Joyce,” grunts Kemp, “like it always is.” All that hassle running around with Cratchit for a fiver?! Even in year 2000 money, they’re not clearing minimum wage. Kemp talks Smith’s husband into handing over the £2 he’d hidden in his sock, rather than saving it up for the stairlift they need. Don’t spent it all at once, Eddie.

In what’s soon to become a familiar sight, Kemp grimly struggles through town carrying an enormous old telly, before laughing at a woman who falls into a big pile of Christmas trees. Trailing behind, the single mother begs for compassion, unable to have a traditional Christmas without a TV. He responds by committing perhaps the most evil act of any of the Scrooges, by gleefully chucking it off the edge of the tower block and causing her to miss Noel’s Christmas Presents. Didn’t he take that so he could sell it? Also, after running it back half a dozen times to check, you can definitely hear the sound of the prop TV safely hitting the airbag half a second before the SFX of it smashing.

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Incidentally, every time somebody addresses Ross Kemp as “Mr. Scrooge,” which is a lot, it’s never not funny. This is a man who is forever, eternally, Ross Kemp, or at best, Grant Mitchell, especially in his Grant Mitchell outfit of baldy head and leather jacket. Incredibly, there was talk at the time, in that bastion of truth, Matthew Wright’s showbiz column, that he was considering hair plugs for the role, or even a ponytail “in a nice shade of tobacco yellow.” As often with his non-Eastenders acting work, he seems at constant war with his accents, with his real, posher voice constantly breaking through the cockney, like the sudden ‘help me’ of a possessed little girl who’s been growling like a demon. As if the general poor quality wasn’t clue enough, you’re constantly reminded it’s an ITV production with background cameos by their other shows, from the credit sting of Crossroads, to the dire Friday Night’s All Wright playing in his living room, and even The Raggy Dolls showing on a TV he’s repossessing. If it’d been shot two years later, while Mr. Scrooge was been cuffing an urchin round the ear, behind him through the window of Dixons, Ant and Dec would be retching as a cold pint of alligator cum spilled down the chin of Dean Gaffney.

But at this point, we’re following the traditional plot beats, with everything still in place. Cratchit asks for Christmas day off, Kemp chases some scabby-faced homeless teens from outside his front door, and rejects his policeman nephew’s invite for Christmas dinner; so far, so Scrooge. But then we start to get that extra ITV seasoning, like Kemp being angry at posters offering a reward for Jacob Marley’s murder, injecting a mystery into proceedings. Then they finally give us what that coward Dickens refused to; a horny Scrooge, as Kemp makes sex-eyes at a lady across the bar at the local. This, it turns out, is his ex, Bella, though she refuses his offer for a drink, and he storms out into the cold night at the approach of a conga line, turning back for a last wistful look.

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It’s Christmas Eve night, and as Scrooge heads home, we too know exactly where we’re going. After yelling at a Big Issue seller to “get a job!” Kemp experiences the first supernatural happenings, when one of Jacob’s posters says his name before catching fire. Soon, he’s hearing a clank of chains, and turns to see his dead friend standing in the kitchen. Unlike the great Marleys — Alec Guinness’ pale, ragged spectre, ravaged by his eternal torment; Scrooged‘s John Forsythe with a mouse coming out of his head – here, it’s a cockney in a football manager coat. As he must, he warns Kemp of three coming visitors, and urges him to change his ways. But he also seems to imply that Eddie Scrooge was behind his murder, adding a well-gritty subplot to an established classic to definitely make it better.

Flickering lights signal the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past, who appears in the snowstorm static of Kemp’s television. Other than what a stone-cold banger it is, one thing that keeps me returning to this story is seeing how each version interprets the visual design of the ghosts. In the book, Past is a sort of angelic candle-man, and the most ethereal of the visitors; translucent and androgynous. And Eddie Scrooge’s spectral harbinger? Alf Garnett. Well, Warren Mitchell, playing Kemp’s dead dad, and punching his way through the screen before clambering out of the TV like that girl from The Ring, if she’d slipped on a Radio Times in her warden-assisted home.

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Daddy Scrooge walks Kemp to the scene of his mum’s funeral when he was a lad — huge missed opportunity not casting a bald child — where he berates his dad for not comforting him. He’s forced to watch Papa Scrooge’s bad-dadding, as a boozing, absent father, before being taken to the early days of he and Bella’s courtship. In that old romantic story, they met when he was chasing someone into the hospital she works at as a nurse to give them a kicking, and romanced her at the end of a night shift by setting up a posh table with champagne and flowers next to the bins. In another huge waste, they fail to put a wig on the younger Kemp, even as we flash forwards to her dumping him for being obsessed with money, as he proposes with a big sparkly ring. In one of many great/terrible witticisms of misanthropy, Kemp tells his dad “happy’s a painkiller for losers, and I ain’t a loser!” before he vanishes.

I did a quick Google to see if the lad playing the younger Kemp had gone onto greater things, but found only a 2012 news story about being jailed after committing burglary to fund his drug habit. No doubt from the shame of having this on his credits. Just watching, I personally developed a crippling ketamine addiction around twenty minutes in. As Kemp blames his visions on “bad cider from Rasheed,” we await the next visitor, yes? Nope. It’s Christmas Eve again, as he emerges into an identical re-run of the previous day. Did ITV okay a remake of “that Bill Murray film,” but someone’s wires got crossed? Kemp’s no worse off from his experience, getting an even bigger laugh at the lady falling into the trees, and having a whale of a time hoying the TV off the balcony again, while freaking everybody out by predicting what they’re going to say, and nonsensically threatening the Big Issue seller with “I’ll Big Issue you from one end of the road to the other!

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Possibly because it contains much of the hard nut aura, at no point does Eddie Scrooge take his leather jacket off. Not when he’s taunting no-showing ghosts with “come on then!” Not when he’s sleeping. He gasps himself awake from another nightmare about Jacob – who says “I was supposed to meet Eddie down here,” before getting capped by an offscreen shooter — to find the Ghost of Christmas Present laying beside him. Who have they cast to enact this iconic role? Geoff Capes? Big Ron in a glowing green tracksuit? An eight-feet-tall Zak Dingle? You wish. It’s Jacob Marley, again, wrapped in fairy lights and pulling double duty. To compound the laziness, he kicks off the Christmas Day ghost-tour with an actual “It’s showtime!

Jacob leads him through a series of festive tableaux to clunkily illustrate how he may be rich in fivers, but when it comes to love, he’s wearing a barrel held up with braces. Liz Smith sips sherry with her husband; the single mother plays with her kids; Australia-dad unwraps the present of a boomerang. In perhaps the only intentionally good moment, the latter’s called back to, with a fleeting appearance in a later hospital scene where he’s nursing a bloody nose, inferring the boomerang came back a little too hard. It’s the classic Christmas Present rounds for Scrooge, loitering at his nephew’s as he toasts “lonely old Uncle Eddie,” watching Tiny Tim wheeze with Cystic Fibrosis in hospital, and listening to Bella mope how he would have been the one, if he wasn’t so greedy. In one final scare, the two homeless show up as ghosts; a brother and sister who’ve just died from hypothermia, which must have taken them very suddenly.

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Kemp jerks awake again, now into his third consecutive Christmas Eve. Though he’s yet to meet the final ghost, he’s got a new attitude this time. Well, kind of. He does give Cratchit the week off, and gifts the single mother a video recorder, though with a yell of “IT’S A PRESENT, YOU STUPID LOSER!” And while he’s popping tenners into charity tins with a grin, he bundles one client to the ground, violently stuffing the unwanted payment in their mouth like Ted DiBiase. The eventual, inevitable face turn is sorely diluted by this weird half-turn, where he’s a bit less of a bastard, but not fully nice yet. I daresay the original would have lost some of the magic if Alastair Sim had bought the big turkey, only to yell “you’re as stupid as your son!” to the mother of a recent murder victim, as in this version. Anyway, then the woman falls into the trees again.

Up until now, my favourite badly-dated tech reference was that Busta Rhymes Knight Rider song where he’s “cruisin’ to the sound of my enhanced CD-ROM,” but Kemp finally bests it, when he shows up to hospital to give a gravely ill, unconscious Tiny Tim a football. He reassures Tim’s dumbfounded mum that “scientists are always coming up with new things, and now they’ve discovered DVD, disease could be a thing of the past!” But still Bella refuses to take him back, even after bragging of giving a “sick kiddie” some football boots, in a pre-courser to those inspiring viral videos of some ‘stay humble’ twat filming themselves buying a homeless person a meal, under the sound of Westlife’s You Raise Me Up.

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Speaking of homeless, in a copy of the bit from Groundhog Day where Bill Murray tries to save the tramp, Kemp displays his new-found Christian charity by aggressively grabbing the Big Issue seller and yelling “I NEED A WORD!” like he’s about to kick his head in, before embarking on a terrifying footchase. As the guy’s sister lays dying on the concrete, Kemp runs to the pub to get Bella, who performs fruitless CPR as Kemp berates the dying girl for not asking for help. They’re just lazy, aren’t they? She can’t even be bothered to come back to life as Kemp shakes her corpse while purple-faced screaming at it. Ironically, the ambulance wouldn’t come to the estate “without a police escort” because of the way he’s made things.

Incredibly, dragging her out of a pub to watch him scream at a fresh cadaver isn’t enough to win back Bella, and he returns to his bunker to see off Christmas Eve v3.0 alone. Jacob emerges from his fridge, now just appearing willy nilly, telling him he needs to make real amends, starting with the murder. Kemp confesses that, while he wasn’t the shooter, it was “Ricky Styles,” who he’d sent to shake down Jacob, but who went too far. “I hate being me,” says Scrooge, as Jacob disappears. Kemp makes a run for it, emptying his safe into a holdall, as a strange boy appears in the back seat of his car, and at last, on what’s now Christmas Day, the final ghost has come.

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The silent boy-ghost leads him down a wreckage-strewn underpass, into the hospital, where a nurse boxes up Tiny Tim’s things on an empty bed. A slow on the uptake Kemp asks “has Tim gone home?” Kind of? If home is a wormy grave. He’s forced to watch, wet-eyed, as the Cratchits mourn in the hospital chapel, with poor old Bob having found “a smashing spot” for the dead lad, leading to my favourite line, “vicar was a lovely bloke… he was bald, but very nice with it.” Ross Kemp had creative input, you say? Unfortunately, to top off the dead kid, Bob then gets the boot from his wife for choosing Eddie’s work over family, left to weep “what about me?” alone in the chapel.

Though we do get the classic scene of locals rifling through a car boot sale of tat from a mysterious unnamed figure who’s just died, we’re robbed the sight of Ross Kemp tumbling into his own grave, as his breaking point comes with slow motion screams of “Nooooo!” at a mound of dirt. A Christmas Carol has an odd kinship with revenge flicks like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, where the audience rides out the main character’s horrible suffering, knowing it’s all leading to the moment the baddie’s penis gets a four-colour biro shoved up it. In Scrooge, we see a bloke acting the misery-arse for 90 minutes, but the worse he behaves, the more we enjoy that moment when he sees the light. So much of its power lies in the catharsis of the eventual turn.

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A Kempmas Carol’s anti-hero has no such release, nor any real catalyst for change, in fact, right before he’s pawing at his grave, he sees his ex and nephew together at the cemetery, and angrily assumes they must be fucking. There’s no revelatory moment; no hard cut to Ross Kemp dancing a child-like jig round the bedpost in sheer joy at being alive; no “Boy, what day is it?” I’d love to have seen them fully embrace it, but he merely jolts awake for the millionth time, and gives himself a little smile in the mirror. Seemingly just to keep his hard nut image strong, we’re left with a deflating mash-up of Dickens, Groundhog Day, and the terrible gangster stuff in Eastenders.

Finally a changed man, he goes out into… Christmas Day? Nope. Christmas Eve #4. He runs through the good deeds, buying Australia Dad a ticket, carrying the homeless girl into hospital (and looking like a big toughie lugging her in his arms), and stopping the woman falling into the trees. But even now, clearly worried that audiences will think “he looked a bit camp with all that being nice, didn’t he? Maybe he’s a woofter?” they can’t hold back the hardman stuff. He relieves Cratchit the stress of work, not with shorter hours or a raise, but by sacking him and chasing him off while yelling that he’s a useless idiot.

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He still hasn’t really changed, giving his nephew, a policeman, the name of Ricky Styles, even telling him where the killer keeps his gun, but not putting himself in the frame. He says he found a conscience in his stocking, though evidently not enough to turn himself in for conspiracy, or accessory to murder. The ghosts should be putting him through years of Christmas Eves until he learns, and hopefully he gets striped by the spectre of ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser for being a grass. But that’s only the beginning of his new-found charity, which becomes so ludicrous, it genre-hops into outright fantasy.

When Bob turns up at the hospital to break the news he’s been sacked, his wife says it doesn’t matter, as, in another brilliantly dated reference, they’ve won £50k on the premium bonds. Kemp somehow found time in the two hours since he woke to fake and send the letter himself, having it be delivered (during the post office’s busiest day) and the cheque not be from Eddie Scrooge’s personal NatWest account. Also surprising, is a man who runs around chasing fivers from old ladies and lives in a pissy underpass having a spare fifty grand.

That night, he sneaks into hospital to gently leave presents for the homeless brother and sister, who’re ADULT SIBLINGS SHARING A SINGLE HOSPITAL BED, curled up together asleep, in a moment that so ravaged my already Kemp-rotted brain, I had to take a fifteen minute break to regather myself. Bella catches him in the act, and they kiss and make-up, triggering an instant and violent blizzard.

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There must be serious festive magic in that snow, as evidenced by the final montage of Kemp’s Christmas Presents. A limo drives through the now-snow-covered estate, taking Australia-Dad to the airport (where the flight will surely be cancelled). The single mother awakes on Christmas morning to find piles of presents beneath the tree, including a new bike, which he must have had to break in to put there, and break into a shop to steal, considering he didn’t turn good until Christmas Eve night. He also found the time to break into Liz Smith’s house without her hearing and silently install two stairlifts. Say what you will about the beefy bastard, he must be light on his feet.

Now the kindest man in all of Olde London Towne, he takes Bella to lunch at his nephew’s, but it’s a nut roast as they are vegetarians ha ha; imagine tough old Ross Kemp having to eat poofy weedy old nuts and not tearing raw meat from the bone with his teeth and slathering the blood all over his big bald head until it resembles the doorknob to the underworld. Anyway, it ends with a flash-forward, with Kemp in studious spectacles to denote aging, seeing as they can’t make him grey or balder, as he and Bella mug to an unseen cameraman while slipping about on an ice rink. ‘They’ put the camera down, stepping into frame to reveal it’s their son, the Ghost of Christmas Future, and smile for a family portrait. Clearly, he didn’t do prison time for Jacob’s murder, and the lesson of Dickens’ morality play as interpreted by ITV, is that rich white men can buy their way out of any crime. A timeless story indeed.

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It’s all well and good me sat here sneering for clicks, but A Kempmas Carol attracted an audience of 9 million, and is seemingly incredibly well-remembered. Though the single, unanswered question on IMDB’s FAQ is a rather pointed “Why is Ross Kemp in an adaptation of A Christmas Carol?” the user reviews are a litany of 10/10s. “Amazing,” says one viewer, “This version is a must!!!” Another invites jealous burglars with a brag of “I managed to get a hold of a VHS copy and treasure it.” And witness this comment from an American viewer: “I just happened to click on one of the local public stations out of Long Island and immediately became transfixed.” They don’t make ’em like Kemp over there. Imagine The Rock if he was an uncooked sausage.

Tragically, it’s not available on Amazon as a DVD or Blu-ray, with no videogame adaptation or action figures, but there is an extensive range of Ross Kemp merchandise, including key-rings, coasters, and a lovely wall clock. I shouldn’t mock. For a recent birthday birthday, in my role as a terrible disappointing son, I made this for my mum (a diehard Kemp fan).

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If the Patreon subs don’t pick up soon, I might have to open an Etsy store, so get your orders in early for next year, and we’ll all have a very Merry Kempmas!

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

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~ by Stuart on December 19, 2018.

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