YORK horror actor and ghost storyteller James Swanton returns to his familiar haunt of York Medical Society from tomorrow (29/11/2022) with his most ambitious schedule of Charles Dickens stories.
This past Outstanding Performing Artist winner in the York Culture Awards is reviving Ghost Stories for Christmas, complementing 12 shows in York with 20 more around the country.
James’s hour-long solo renditions of A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Haunted Man will play select dates in York from the earlier-than-usual opening date of November 29 to December 20, as well as transferring to London’s Charles Dickens Museum in the run-up to Christmas.
“I’m delighted to once again be acting in my home city of York, and I’m rarely happier than at the authentically Dickensian location of York Medical Society on Stonegate,” says James.
“I’ve had a busy year on the film front, which means I’ve been variously transported to the Netherlands, Los Angeles, Serbia and Italy across the last 12 months. All very exciting, but Christmas is a time for home.”
James has never given more performances of A Christmas Carol than this year – eight alone in York! “I’m greatly looking forward to all of them, as they’re reliably cheerful experiences at what’s often the most stressful time of the year,” he says.
“However, the two lesser-known stories, The Chimes and The Haunted Man, are also very suited to our times. The Chimes is absolutely hilarious, yet it overbrims with anger at the injustices done to the least fortunate in society; The Haunted Man is a chilling supernatural tale but also a portrait of a man struggling with his mental health.
“These subjects have been much on our minds in recent years, and Dickens attacks them in a fashion that’s not only powerful but intensely hopeful.
“A Christmas Carol, of course, is one of the greatest things ever written. I’ve found there’s little that’s more rewarding to perform as an actor. And there’s certainly no story that audiences are more eager to hear to the end.”
Despite the successful run of Ghost Stories for Christmas last December, James has not been seen on a York stage this year. “Although the world’s opening up and theatre’s getting back to normal, 2022 has been a year of film work – horror film work, specifically, which is what happens when you have a face like mine.”
As well as the Netherlands, Serbia and Italy, James was even whisked off to Los Angeles for “a mad couple of days”. “Annoyingly, most of these projects I’m not allowed to talk about yet – although I did make a feature film of The Haunted Man that streams through the Charles Dickens Museum’s website on December 4. So that’s a viable alternative for those who are still hesitant about attending live shows.”
As usual, the York run of Ghost Stories for Christmas is selling quickly, prompting James to offer strategic advice for securing tickets. “The best availability is at the start of the run, particularly the first few performances of A Christmas Carol and The Chimes in late November and early December,” he says.
“In defiance of the cost-of-living crisis, I’ve kept the ticket price exactly the same as when I last gave the shows. £14 a ticket is a snip these days, so if you’re looking for an activity for a large party, these ghost stories might be the perfect solution.
“In any case, I look forward to gathering people together for an hour of truly heart-warming storytelling. God knows we need it.”
James Swanton, Ghost Stories for Christmas, York Medical Society, Stonegate, York, November 29 to December 20. A Christmas Carol will be performed on November 29 and December 1, 5, 6, 7, 12, 19 and 20; The Haunted Man, November 30 and December 10; The Chimes, December 8 and 13.
All performances start at 7pm and last approximately one hour. Tickets: 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.
CharlesHutchPress asks the questions to dig out the stories behind York’s gothic storyteller supreme, James Swanton
Why does the York Medical Society so suit ghost-storytelling events, James?
“The building’s a properly ancient pile, festooned with dark wood panelling, open fireplaces, gilt-framed portraits and obscure implements in glass cases. It feels entirely plausible that it might host a ghost or two.
“As I constantly point out, the site offers complete atmospheric immersion: approaching the front door by that tapered alleyway leading off Stonegate feels just like approaching Scrooge’s house on Christmas Eve. And let’s also remember that a former director of York Medical Society was a social acquaintance of Dickens.
“The building could scarcely be more magnificently haunted, so I was glad to see that my on-and-off collaborators at the York Ghost Merchants made use of it over Halloween.”
For those yet to see The Haunted Man, why should they do so?
“The Haunted Manis an overlooked Gothic chiller that often plays like a ghost-infused dress rehearsal for Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. The narrative is steeped in quintessential Victorian gloom yet also feels peculiarly modern, in that it explores its protagonist’s poor mental health.
“It’s all very dark and deep – the most difficult of the three pieces to act, but perhaps the most rewarding when it clicks. That said, there remain only three tickets for its York showings, so interested parties might be better off reserving places for the filmed version being streamed by the Dickens Museum on December 4.
Likewise, for those yet to see The Chimes, why should they do so?
“The Chimes is a remarkably strange riff on the Christmas Carolformula. The first half is a scathing social critique, at times less story than soapbox; then the second half plays out like a more demented take on It’s A Wonderful Life.
“The whole story comes thrillingly close to falling apart under the sheer weight of its own ideas, but Dickens manages (just) to keep it all together. There are goblins too: many, many goblins. The Victorians were fascinated by goblins – and I think we should be too!”
Given the bleak chill afflicting so many lives in 2022, with society more divided than ever, does A Christmas Carol strike you as being even more resonant this Christmas?
“I believe its message rings out with as much urgency as it ever did – though perhaps ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ now seems a little less fitting than ‘God Help Us, Every One!’.
“The spectres of Ignorance and Want are obviously keenly felt at a time when an individual as grotesque as Matt Hancock can be forgiven his sins by simply appearing on television. (All that uncritical publicity for the measly appearance fee of £400,000).
“Scrooge has to go through hell to find redemption; if only our current ruling masters were forced to face a bit of the same. They never do, of course. Dickens would have heartily despised them – and no doubt pilloried them in his seasonal ghost stories. Merry Christmas.”
What has prompted you to do even more performances this winter in York and beyond?
“Essentially, I really enjoy doing them – provided my voice and limbs hold out! – and even though the earliest of the stories, A Christmas Carol, turns 180 in 2023, public demand for it seems to grow year on year.
“Even last Christmas, with so much Covid hesitancy surrounding live theatre, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the shows sold.”
What was the filming process for The Haunted Man that will be streamed through the Charles Dickens Museum. Was it a filmed version of your stage performance or were there new elements to it?
“Over the lockdown years, the Dickens Museum started to create these ingenious little streamed films, usually starring seasoned Dickensian actor Dominic Gerrard (his podcast Charles Dickens: A Brain On Fire is required listening for enthusiasts).
“I was keen to do the same with The Haunted Man as it’s one of the very few Dickens stories of any substantial length that’s never been filmed. The results are faithful to the stage version – it’s just me telling the tale, after all– but with lots of appealing bells and whistles: a magical coloured lighting palette, an ambient soundscape and a few low-key special effects, not least of which is everything being filmed within Dickens’s actual London house.
“I’m indebted to Jordan Evans-Hill at the Dickens Museum for pushing for it to be made and to Alex Hyndman for doing such a beautiful job on the filming and editing.
“It streams via Zoom at 7.30pm on Sunday, December 4, with tickets available on the Dickens Museum website. Here’s a handy link: https://dickensmuseum.com/blogs/all-events/the-haunted-man-virtual
You can’t say much about filming in the Netherlands, Serbia and Italy this year, or being whisked to LA for a mad couple of days, but can you say at least a little more about them?!!
“I really can’t! I’m in non-disclosure agreements up to my eyeballs! What I will divulge is that I’ve been playing two parts that provide a most vindicating extension on a part I’ve already played in York.
“Even within the demands of a 48-hour round-trip to Hollywood – quite the most preposterous thing that’s ever happened to me – I have therefore been honouring my northern heritage! And as a dyed-in-the-wool horror enthusiast, I was thrilled to be involved with these films in particular. Announcements and releases to follow in 2023, I hope.”
You have kept the Ghost Stories for Christmas ticket price at £14. Why, when everything else is going up?
“I want people to see the shows without being deterred by yet another price hike. It’s worth pointing out that Dickens took special measures to ensure that people in every income bracket could experience his public readings.
“He wasn’t always successful, what with ticket-scalpers being a crafty breed, so, in that respect, I’m fortunate not to be a global celebrity (one man was actually killed in a fight over a ticket to see Dickens).
“Given that the main thrust of A Christmas Carol is anyway to spread the wealth around, it struck me as self-sabotage to charge more at a time when things only appear (just like every year) to be getting worse.”
What’s in the pipeline for you in 2023?
“I have nothing planned other than complete nervous collapse. I continue to pray for Richard III, though I expect I’ll be weary enough come January that I’d only convince as the version lying peacefully beneath that car park in Leicester.”
Ghost Stories For Christmas, part two: James Swanton, York Medical Society, Stonegate, York, select dates from November 29 to December 20, 7pm
REVIEW: The Chimes, James Swanton’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, York Medical Society, Stonegate, York, 8/12/2022
YORK’S gothic ghost storyteller supreme and film actor to boot, James Swanton, is part way through his most ambitious Dickensian schedule yet, with 12 shows back home and around 20 more around the country, transferring to London’s Charles Dickens Museum in the run-up to Christmas.
Ghost Stories For Christmas is made up of Swanton’s hour-long solo renditions of A Christmas Carol (eight performances) and the lesser-known The Chimes and The Haunted Man (two nights each).
Tonight (13/12/2022) is the second chance to hearThe Chimes, subtitled A Goblin Story Of Some Bells That Rang An Old Year Out And A New Year In. In Swanton’s nutshell, the first half is like music hall, the second more like Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, only more miserable.
Swanton, in immaculate Dickensian attire topped off by the most dapper of hats, greets you at the door, passing brief, apologetic comment on the non-Victorian scaffolding outside, but he is the master of atmosphere at the flick-off of a switch.
A single dim light picks out his face, sometimes enhanced by lamplight to emphasise his elongated features, his wide mouth, his narrow frame, gaunt pallor and impossibly long fingers. All this physicality goes into his storytelling, as important as his chameleon voice in creating character and tone as he spins Dickens’s tale with humour, intrigue, coloratura and just the right depth yet economy of detail.
First published in 1844 as the second in Dickens’s series of Christmas novellas, The Chimes was inspired by his year-long stay in Italy, and in particular by the clamour of the Genoese church bells.
At the heart of the story is Trotty, an elderly messenger, and in no time Swanton has evoked myriad characters, from daughter Meg and fiancé Richard, to pompous Alderman Cute (your reviewer’s favourite) and ostentatious charity-dispensing MP Sir Joseph Bowley, poor countryman Will Fern and his orphaned niece Lilian.
In the church bell chamber, Trotty encounters the spirits of the bells and their goblin attendants, and here is where It’s A Wonderful Life comparisons fall into place as he is scalded for losing faith in man’s destiny to improve. So much more unfolds in a series of visions, portrayed so eloquently and ingeniously by Swanton in a night so chilling yet warming.
Ghost Stories For Christmas runs until December 20 on various dates. All performances start at 7pm and last approximately one hour. Tickets: 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.