Q&A, Bharat Nalluri: Dickens liked Christmas, religion not so much

By Jim Slotek

“I always try to do something opposite to the last thing I did,” says Bharat Nalluri, director of The Man Who Invented Christmas, a fable-within-a-fable about Charles Dickens’ troubled creation of A Christmas Carol.

So it is that Nalluri - who directed episodes of the BBC series MI5 (originally titled Spooks) and helmed the 2015 big-screen spinoff with Kit Harington and Peter Firth – got as far away from terrorism and espionage as he could with his latest project, a Canadian co-production written by Susan Coyne.

And though literature tends to be awash in hyperbole, it is not far off, Nalluri says, to say the Christmas we know today, is the creation of Dickens and a few other writers of the 19th Century.

 Director Nalluri talks over a scene with Scrooge (Plummer) and Dickens (Stevens)

Director Nalluri talks over a scene with Scrooge (Plummer) and Dickens (Stevens)

Indeed, Dickens may even have invented the notion of a “white Christmas,” having spent his childhood at the end of the three-century global cooling period that has been dubbed, “the Little Ice Age.”

“It is true that, for the first 10 years of his life, Dickens had a white Christmas every year,” Nalluri says. “That would change.”
It’s changed a lot, I offer, judging by the carnage and state of emergency that’s declared now whenever the U.K. gets even a few inches of snow. “Yes,” he says with a laugh. “The Brits don’t handle snow well anymore. But it wouldn’t be A Christmas Carol without snow.”

As the story of The Man Who Invented Christmas has it, Dickens childhood – including his time as a child-labourer while his father sat in a debtor’s prison – merged with his awakening to the social ills of the time and his desperation to break a severe case of writer’s block. The result was the ghost-story/yuletide mash-up that has become one of history’s most beloved pieces of literature.

In the film, Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) plays the young family man Dickens, trying to break out of a string of literary flops. As pieces of legend and the uglier realities of London coalesce in his consciousness, the characters become real, nagging him at his home office, the leader of the needlers being one Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), who gleefully calls him a hypocrite at every opportunity.

“There are accounts of Dickens being heard noisily acting out chapters of his books,” Nalluri says.

“I think memories of his father’s imprisonment had an affect on Dickens, in that he had a great fear of debt. At the same time, I think he suffered from the same champagne socialism that so many of us do. He liked spending his money and having a good time and all the rest of it.

“But unlike a lot of those he could actually make a huge difference with his work and really was motivated to change the world.

“He once went up to Manchester to do a speech at the Athenaeum about poverty in the streets. And (Friedrich) Engels was in the crowd, and (Benjamin) Disraeli was also making a speech there. And the three of them kind of became a triumvirate to change the law of the land and improve the lot of the poor. Engels took him on a tour of Manchester and he saw all these kids, which I think affected him deeply.”

So how exactly did he invent Christmas itself with the tale of a misanthropic miser who finds his soul through the visits of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future?

There is a line in the film, wherein Dickens’ publisher rejects the pitch for A Christmas Carol, declaring Christmas, “a minor holiday.”

“Christmas had certainly had its ups and downs to that point in England. It was celebrated, and then it got very bacchanalian and was an excuse to get drunk for three weeks in a row. Then (Oliver) Crowell kind of banned it. It was all over the place.”

And those same Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in the U.S., I offer. “Exactly,” he says. So Christmas hadn’t had a good rap. There were a few voices, including Scott (Sir Walter Scott, whose poetry included Christmas In The Olden Time) that pushed back on the holiday.

“But the genius of Dickens was he turned it into a thing about other people. (A Christmas Carol) gave it its core value again. Whatever religion you are, whatever language you’re reading that book in, you get it. It’s a very redemptive thing about us as human beings.”

Ah, whatever religion. I point out that Christ himself is not mentioned in the movie, a point which might rankle self-proclaimed War-On-Christmas warriors. “Well, I didn’t because Dickens didn’t. Dickens technically was Anglican at the time, but he was not a churchgoer. He never referenced a religion overtly in any of his books.

“Moreover, he didn’t much like people who kind of wore their religion too proudly.”

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a Canadian production in the sense that it was written by a Canadian, with post-production in Canada. And of course, Scrooge is played by Canadian legend Christopher Plummer, a man much of the world thinks is British.

“In the interviews I’ve been doing, I have informed several people that Christopher Plummer is, in fact, Canadian,” Nalluri says.

The director admits he was, “a little bit star struck” at working with Plummer. “I think I spent the first three days just peppering him with questions about The Man Who Would Be King. But he took to Scrooge so effortlessly, I couldn’t believe he’d never played him before.”