GOTHIC York York actor James Swanton is reviving his Dickensian Ghost Stories for Christmas trilogy at York Medical Society, Stonegate, from tomorrow.
Soon to appear in the BBC Christmas ghost story Lot No. 249 too, he will be presenting hour-long solo renditions of A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Haunted Man, before transferring to the Charles Dickens Museum, located at the author’s only London home to survive, 48 Doughty Street.
“I’m starting and finishing my run in York a little earlier than usual,” says James. “Mainly because there’s been such demand for the shows in London, 21 shows there from December 13 to 23, so the York run of ten feels fairly relaxed by comparison.
“York’s winding alleyways and tumbledown buildings are so beautifully suited to Dickens that it would have been inconceivable to strike it from my schedule. There really couldn’t be a more fitting venue than York Medical Society.
“Accordingly, I’ll be giving six performances of A Christmas Carol – you can never have too much of it, particularly with this year being its 180th anniversary – and two showings apiece of The Chimes and The Haunted Man, both lesser known but fascinating follow-ups.”
All three stories are richly rewarding, says James: “They brim with Dickens’s eye for capturing the weird, the strange and the odd, from human eccentricities to full-blown phantoms. Dickens’s anger at social injustice also aligns sharply with our own – and of course, there’s a lot to be angry about at the moment.
“But beyond anything, these stories are masterful exercises in theatrical storytelling, with a real sense of joy emerging from the Victorian gloom.”
When did James first encounter A Christmas Carol? “I have a feeling that my first exposure was watching the rather exquisite Richard Williams animation from 1971, though I have no way of proving this. A particularly frightening Marley in that one,” he says. “The Muppet masterpiece won’t have been far behind. Two particularly musical Marleys in that one.”
Picking a favourite screen version of A Christmas Carol, James plumps for: “Alastair Sim’s Scrooge from 1951. The screenplay’s unusually sophisticated – and has the hubris to invent reams of credible Dickens! – but Sim himself is the reason it’s a cut above, because he was primarily a comic actor (and a comic actor of genius).
“It’s tempting to get an ageing Shakespearean titan to play Scrooge, but I think this misses the point of Scrooge, who’s hilarious even at his most wicked. He’s not King Lear – except to character actors!
“In more recent years, the one-man films starring Simon Callow and Jefferson Mays have thoroughly gripped me.”
Assessing why Dickens’s story still so popular after 180 Christmases, James says: “It’s that fool-proof structure that’s protected the material across constant (indeed, ongoing) reinterpretations. Provided you stick with the basic five acts – Past, Present and Yet To Come, as bordered by Scrooge’s before and after – you can play around with the details.
“For all their merits, both The Chimes and The Haunted Man lose their hold on the memory by this structure’s omission.”
Since last December’s run of Ghost Stories for Christmas, James has been hard at work on various filming jobs. “It’s been my year for Christmas ghost stories!” he says. “At the start of 2023, I made two short films, The Dead Of Winter and To Fire You Come At Last, that were indebted to the BBC’s legendary M. R. James adaptations from the 1970s.
“The Dead Of Winter was done in Farnham in January. I’m playing a rough sleeper who becomes a ghostly form of embodied conscience. To Fire You Come At Last was filmed in the wilds of Shropshire in March. I play an alcohol-ravaged wastrel who – along with three equally reluctant men – must carry the coffin of the Squire’s son down the corpse road to the graveyard.
“It’s in black and white and feels like something out of [Samuel] Beckett; the best part I’ve had in years. Both films have been doing the festival rounds, and I know that at least one of them will be getting a physical release before too long.”
A few months ago, League Of Gentlemen alumnus Mark Gatiss asked James to play the ghost in Lot No. 249, his retelling of an Arthur Conan Doyle short story, as part of a cast led by Kit Harington and Freddie Fox.
Television viewers will see James as what the BBC press release calls a “horrifying bag of bones”. Although the precise broadcast time is still to be announced, “this BBC Ghost Story for Christmas coincides very nicely with my ongoing commitment to Dickens’s slightly earlier Victorian Gothic,” says James. “Based on the past few years, I suspect it’ll go out on either December 23 or Christmas Eve itself.
“Obsessed with the Gothic as I am, it was a dream fulfilled to become a part of this great tradition. I’d just performed with Gatiss in a stage production of The Quatermass Experiment. He’s steeped in Conan Doyle, and his adaptation is at once gratifyingly faithful and wickedly surprising.
“I’m encased in particularly ghoulish make-up by Dave Elsey, who won the Oscar for The Wolfman. And I do the most dreadful things to Kit Harington! I’m tremendously excited about it all.”
James points out further opportunities to see him at work this Christmas. “As well as Lot No. 249, my one-man film of The Haunted Man will be streamed by the Dickens Museum again on December 11,” he says. “And my on-and-off colleagues, the York Ghost Merchants, in Shambles, might have a few announcements of their own to come.”
More immediately, James has strategic advice for securing tickets for Ghost Stories for Christmas. “Early on is best. Most of my A Christmas Carol showings are crammed into the first week, and there are seats left for all of them,” he says.
“For reasons that remain unclear, November 30 has been a conspicuously slow seller, so I’ll be gladdened if people book for that! The second performances of both The Chimes and The Haunted Man have all but sold out (as of this moment, a single seat remains for each), but tickets can be procured for their first outings.
“With tickets being only £15 each, this could be the perfect way to kick off your festive celebrations. In any case, I look forward to gathering people together for some heart-warming storytelling: traditional to the bones, but speaking to us just as powerfully as it did 180 years ago.”
What’s coming up for James in 2024? “So far, absolutely nothing!” he says. “My tendency has always been to develop pre-show rather than post-show blues, though, so I don’t find this too daunting. I’ll be glad of a slight rest, and perhaps a chance to read Victorian literature instead of act it.”
James Swanton presents Ghost Stories for Christmas at York Medical Society, Stonegate, York: A Christmas Carol, November 27, 28 and 30, then December 1, 5 and 6; The Haunted Man, November 29 and December 7; The Chimes, December 4 and 11. All performances start at 7pm and last approximately one hour. Box office: 01904 623568 or www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.