First published in 1844, the year after A Christmas Carol, The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In tells the story of Toby, also known as Trotty, a ticket porter who is constantly told by newspaper headlines, and the economists, politicians, and the rich that he meets, that the poor are morally corrupt, in the state they are in because of their own fault, and would all be fine if only they worked harder. Not only does he believe them – they are, after all, his betters – but so does his daughter Meg, who was to marry the next day but instead seriously considers calling the whole thing off.
During a fit of despondency Toby is drawn to the chiming bells of the church. He follows the sound up to the tower, there to discover the bell’s goblin attendants. Told he has slipped and fallen to his death, Toby is forced to see what happens to those he loves. Needless to say, it does not go well, and Toby realises that if he had been alive he could have made a difference and, importantly, that it is an unjust society, and not the natural depravities of the poor, that so often leads to their suffering. When he is returned he immediately starts to change his outlook and ways, and it’s a happy ending.
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The cast in this new audio production from Average Romp are wonderful, providing enjoyable characterisation without ever going the full Van Dyke. Toby Jones takes the lead, and it’s hard to imagine a better piece of casting. Other members include Lucy Speed giving us a warm rendition of Meg, Toby’s daughter, whom listeners will want to protect and hug. Jack Forsyth-Noble plays her suitor Richard, and does an excellent job, managing to bring a vulnerability and noble humanity to a character who could all too easily have remained two dimensional. Also worth noting amongst a strong cast are Victoria Alcock, who plays the warm-hearted Mrs Chicken Stalker, and David Horovitch, who holds it all together as the Narrator. The director, Lisa Bowerman – who also plays a part herself as the self-righteous Lady Bowley – knows her business, managing to avoid the pitfalls of flat dialogue or unnatural overexpression that so often haunt audio dramas.
A refrain often heard by artists is ‘Don’t bring politics into it’. Sportspeople and actors are told to stick to their job when they comment on the world they see around them. But Charles Dickens – known as The Great Reformer – wrote not just to make money, but with an obvious and focused agenda. He wanted to change the world he lived in. Expecting to hear a story from someone of whom Karl Marx said they “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together” without talking about political context would be odd.
As writer and producer Johnny Morris has not shied away from these elements in his excellent adaptation of the book, hoping that this review might not discuss the political message becomes wholly naïve. To even the most passive observer, the original story’s message of a narrative being pushed by the media and elites to convince the working classes to believe things that go against their own best interest is one that rings as clear and true now as the bells of the title. This was a political piece when it was first published, and it’s a political piece now.
During the story every member of that elite blames the poor for the predicament they find themselves in. Whether it be Mr Filer, scorning the decadence of the poor eating tripe and reminding the modern listener of Pratchett’s Sam Vimes “Boots” theory of socio economics, or Alderman Cute, a man whose arrogance allows him to believe he doesn’t just know what’s best for the poor – inevitably harsh punishment as they can’t be helped – but in fact knows the ‘common man’ better than that man knows himself.
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Even the rich who think they are helping – Lady Bowley and Sir Joseph – are in reality treating the poor like children who know no better, in their petty fiefdoms of charity. No matter which member of the upper classes Toby meets, that person knows that the poor aren’t just useless, they are responsible for every aspect of their own predicament and continually try to make the poor believe it. These days the equivalent might be a meme of a well dressed businessman warning a poor white person that an immigrant is coming to take the one biscuit they have, whilst sat on a mountain of their own.
But surely there’s a difference between protecting your own power by divide and conquer and actively believing that poor people are poor because they deserve it? That’s not how the world works any more. For anyone who thinks these Victorian views are no longer relevant in a modern society, let’s not forget that less than ten years ago a special advisor to the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, wrote that a child’s educational performance has more to do with genetic makeup than the standard of his or her education. That special advisor was Dominic Cummings, the man generally seen as the power behind the 2019 Tory landslide victory.
As recently as February this year Gove, now Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, was happy to say that he has “a deep reservoir of affection” for Cummings. When the minister responsible for community cohesion, race equality, and urban regeneration has affection for a proponent of eugenics, we’ve all got to worry. Indeed, Liz Truss, our former (barely) Prime Minister, is on record as saying that the reason poor people are poor is because they need to put in more “graft”. In short, the ghastly, elitist, Victorian blinders worn by the cartoonish grotesques Dickens wrote about in 1844 are still very much in place in 2022’s ruling class. This is a timely production.
Popular when first released, The Chimes has since been eclipsed by A Christmas Carol. In part it’s because of a darker, grimmer tale. A story that opens with a young mother committing suicide/infanticide is unlikely to be remade with a cast of Muppets, but there might be a deeper reason. By bringing about Scrooge’s salvation by showing him what he is missing out on, Dickens’ story makes it all too easy for us to see the world with rose tinted glasses. Scrooge is shown a world where people are able to make the best of a bad lot, where Christmas is able to bring joy to almost everyone, with a notable exception being the death of Tiny Tim. But that also means many of the broader points are easy to forget, especially when many of us have only heard the story through retellings. Originally the Ghost of Christmas Present makes it clear how Dickens feels about the great and good within his society.
“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived.”
This exchange is missing from almost every adaptation made. But in The Chimes there is no way to dodge the hard look in the mirror we must all endure, no way to imagine that the story is a hard rebuke to the obvious and clear hypocrisy present within our society. Yes, it has a happy ending, yes it encourages us all to revel in what we have, but it requires far more of the listener. Dickens wanted us to look around at the world we live in, a world where we allow an out of touch few to decide who among the ‘deserving poor’ are worthy of charity delivered on their terms alone, and ask ourselves ‘Is this right?’ In A Christmas Carol we’re reassured that things will work out, that Tiny Time did not die. Here Toby is told by a spirit that “The future is not yet written, it is up to you to write it.” We’re reminded that things will only change if we want them to; if we make them change.
180 years ago Dickens was able to shine a light on the gross injustices in society. A Christmas Carol may be the Dickens story we want to hear this time of year, but The Chimes is the Dickens story we need to hear this time, this year.
The Chimes is out now from Average Romp.