❉ This assured production is a fresh addition to the canon of seasonal, supernatural, vintage yarns.
“As he stood upon the ledge
Looking out, he thought he saw a crock
And he hollered: Look, there are the bells
And he said: Now, here come the bells”
Lou Reed – The Bells
We’re all familiar with ‘A Christmas Carol’, Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s journey of salvation that continues to be enjoyed every winter, as a fireside read, or brought to life in various iterations and interpretations ancient and modern, whether fronted by Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Bill Murray, or Michael Caine alongside assorted Muppets, or given a timey-wimey twist in the form of Doctor Who’s 2010 Christmas special of the same title.
What’s less well known to most people, is that following the success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote another festive story, The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (usually referred to as The Chimes). The modestly-monikered production studio Average Romp have exhumed this little-known novella originally published in 1844 and given it a lovingly recreated audio drama adaptation that makes for a fresh new addition to the canon of seasonal, supernatural, vintage yarns to cosy up with, alongside the annual re-visits of The Box Of Delights, The Woman In Black and BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas.
What we have here isn’t so much a sequel to A Christmas Carol as a companion piece to the better-known winter tale, cut from a similar cloth yet comprised of sufficient unique ingredients to be notable on its own merits. Indeed, as producer Jonathon Morris (best known for having written many acclaimed Doctor Who adventures in print and audio) observes in the liner notes, the tale is more of an uncannily prescient forerunner of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, as it sees our defeated protagonist – Toby ‘Tolley’ Veck, played by Toby Jones (The Detectorists, Infamous, Berberian Sound Studio) – as he prepares to take his own life one bleak midwinter, crying “No use to anyone… a burden to society… What use am I?” only to find himself receiving a celestial visitation, going on to bear witness as a spectral spectator at his own funeral and the events of new years to come in his absence, seeking signs of goodness in the world.
With its talk of workhouses, debtor jails and pauper’s graves, The Chimes leaves the listener in no doubt whatsoever that this lesser-known fable is from the pen of English literature’s original Social Justice Warrior, once again casting his eye over not just the systemic inequality of Victorian society through the lens of social commentary but also the endless hypocritical piety of the lords and masters who perpetuate such cruel and unfair conditions under the guise of ‘personal responsibility’.
In The Chimes, the mouthpiece for the upper class is Duncan Wisbey as Sir Bowley. It’s not hard to see why bringing this story to life in the current climate of austerity rhetoric, as we witness with helpless despair the social contract being dismantled before our eyes now the lunatics have taken over the asylum (RIP Terry Hall), must have appealed so strongly to its producer/scriptwriter Jonathan Morris, whose real-life politics are liberal progressive. When Sir Bowley waxes lyrical about “the dignity of labour” and the virtues of “abstinence and prudence” while enjoying stately balls and banquets, or bemoans that “all this charity doesn’t address the problem, it just encourages dependence”, it’s not hard to imagine such sanctimonious platitudes falling from the lips of the likes of one-man Victorian Theme Park Jacob Rees-Mogg, giving the production an added layer of satirical bite and relevance.
A simply story told simply, via a blend of narration (delivered with suitably Dickensian stentorian benevolence by David Horovitch) and dialogue drama, benefiting from easily discernable and distinguishable characters thanks not only to its well-cast ensemble including the always dependable Lucy Speed (EastEnders, The Archers, Unforgotten) as Toby’s daughter Meg but also the assured direction of Lisa Bowerman – now established as a safe pair of hands having triumphantly directed numerous Big Finish ranges including Jago & Litefoot, Torchwood, Sapphire & Steel and Blake’s 7.
Fellow Big Finish alumnus Howard Carter makes a significant contribution to the production with his twinkly, Christmassy score and magical, atmospheric sound design conjuring up ethereal sounds for the titular ‘chimes’ – ethereal and gaseous, imp-like wraiths (described as “the eyes of time” by a booming David Shaw Parker channelling his best Stephen Thorne impression) – as well as ambient SFX (crows, horse carriages…) evoking the period setting with all its trappings.
As Toby Veck’s thoughts turn from regret and resignation to redemption and renewal, full of the joys of life once more, this festive fable draws to a close at the dawn of a new year in a heart-warming ending with (jingle) bells on, full of rollicking rousing speeches, and ending with an enigmatic, lingering question mark over the presence of the ‘ghost light girl’ Lilian (Laura Aikman).
Whether this tale is fresh to your ears or you’re a fully paid-up Dickens scholar, The Chimes is a well-above average romp. This is an accomplished production that can be enjoyed any time of the year.
❉ Adapted by Jonathan Morris and directed by Lisa Bowerman, ‘The Chimes’ is an Average Romp Production available from https://averageromp.com/the-chimes/
❉ Jay Gent is editor of We Are Cult, a graphic designer and digital marketing & social media freelancer, and theatre critic for Wales Arts Review. Jay has contributed to a number of magazines, websites and books including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die and Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television in the 1980s and edited (with Jon Arnold) charity anthology Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon).