It is the mid-eighteen hundreds, and Christmas time has come around to Victorian London once again, with a chill in the air and snow on the ground, but even these icy conditions are no match for the frozen heart of Ebenezer Scrooge (voiced by Alastair Sim). He is a miser who makes his money off the poorer folk, and no one is poorer than his sole employee Bob Cratchit (Melvyn Hayes) who meekly requests a holiday on Christmas Day. Scrooge is deeply unimpressed and with extreme reluctance and no shortage of admonishment agrees, and when his nephew (David Tate) arrives to wish him the compliments of the season, the old man is having none of it, turning down his invitation to spend a festive dinner with him in order to get back to his office for more work; charity raisers are similarly dispatched. Will nothing melt Scrooge's heart?
Charles Dickens' story A Christmas Carol is the most adapted, and parodied, of all time when it comes to screens big and small, so you would wonder what even in 1971 a further version would have added. What many a variation did not have was the animator Richard Williams on directing duties, and he was already one of the most respected in his field which made it only fitting that he should be awarded an Oscar for his troubles, though this short premiered on television, which was where it earned its greatest exposure after being repeated for decades as a staple of the festive schedules. He went back to the original illustrations from Dickens' book for inspiration, and the results were something genuinely spooky, even in those scenes that were supposed to be heartwarming and cheering.
Williams and his producer Chuck Jones brought back Sim from the most celebrated live action incarnation of Scrooge to voice the character, and to support him a selection of theatrical thesps such as Michael Redgrave (who narrated) and Michael Hordern (who voiced Marley, Scrooge's deceased business partner). The director was not above going for scares, as many of his drawings were of a macabre nature as befitting the text, with the ghost of Marley's jaw memorably hanging like a gallows or the twin children of Want and Ignorance clinging like spectres to the coat hem of the Spirit of Christmas Present (Felix Felton). Christmas Past was a wavering, indistinct girl (Diana Quick) showing Scrooge where he went wrong, and Christmas Yet to Come was a hooded figure, utterly silent but reminiscent of many a phantom seen by the unwary in the middle of the night.
Obviously with just around half an hour to fill, Williams was not going to be able to include every detail, and there was a sense he was rushing through the classic tale, simply offering the edited highlights rather than anything that explored the themes to any great degree. But those eerie visuals assisted in presenting enough of the meaning of the piece to be judged a success, as the essential endorsement of charity from those who can afford it to those who cannot was preserved as Scrooge's apparitions bring him around to the notion that by helping his fellow man - and woman, and child - it will not only improve their lot in life but his as well. This was better than some vague teaching about being nice to people for one day of the year, and circumvented the grumps who wondered aloud why we were not nice to everyone every other day as well, therefore believed cynicism was a better use of your emotions at that point. Again, this was a little skimpy, but Williams' roving point of view and haunting imagery made up for it, though for the full effect Sim's unbeatable reading of the character in 1951 was the one to plump for. Music by Tristram Cary.