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Joe recently did an interview with The Times — read the full interview below:

Sometimes the best Christmas presents are the ones we don’t think we need; a new Christmas Carol, for instance. Indeed it may be indicative of a certain unappreciated vacancy around the Christmas tree that in discussing the BBC’s new version of the Dickens classic both its director and leading man refer back to The Muppet Christmas Carol made way back in 1992.

“I was sent the script,” admits Nick Murphy, best known for directing the Rebecca Hall ghost movie The Awakening, “and my first thought was, ‘For God’s sake! The Muppets! They nailed it. What’s the point?’ ”

Joe Alwyn, who plays Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit in the BBC three-parter, has meanwhile posted a trailer on Instagram with the caption: “Hard to fill the shoes once worn by Kermit. But I tried.” The self-deprecation was quickly “hearted” by the singer Taylor Swift, who is the actor’s girlfriend and who will be watching the mini-series with Alwyn and his family in London in the final days before Christmas.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with The Muppet Christmas Carol. It is probably in most people’s top three adaptations of Dickens’s masterpiece (alongside, I would say, Alastair Sim’s 1951 version and Scrooged). Its endurance does suggest, however, that it may be time someone did something a bit more serious, a little darker and a touch more grown-up with a tale that excoriated Victorian neglect and associated Christmas with the relief of poverty for ever more.

And this is exactly what Nick Murphy has achieved with a bracingly fresh script by the Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. Guy Pearce’s Ebenezer Scrooge is still a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”, but since Pearce is only 52, there is rather less of the old. At the end of the novel, Dickens wrote that “ever afterwards” — that is after Scrooge’s Very Bad Night — “it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well”. That is rather more of an achievement when, as in this version, you may have 40 Christmases, rather than a couple, left to you.

Equally remade is Cratchit, who in Alwyn’s incarnation is far from the bashfully gulping frog thanking his master for granting him Christmas Day off before scampering back to Miss Piggy’s fleshy arms. Although Alwyn grew a rough beard for the part, his is also the best-looking Bob Cratchit you have seen. As the actor and I talk at the Picturehouse Central cinema in London, I find him as mesmerising off screen as on.

“Bob is trapped by Scrooge,” Alwyn says. “He’s abused by him. He’s not treated fairly. He’s there only because he has to be. He’s treated like shit.”

I’d say there’s a definite feeling in their shared scenes that Bob might just snap and hit Ebenezer over the head with a poker. “That was the intention. He’s at breaking point. He’s pushed right to his limits and Scrooge, I think, relishes winding him up. All Bob can do is hold his ground and fight back as much as he can — but he isn’t such a sap in this version.”

Scrooge and Cratchit’s relationship so much resembles an unhappy marriage that the niggling, bitter exchanges invented by Knight, with very little reference to Dickens’s dialogue, resemble Steptoe and Son rewritten by Strindberg. The easy contrast would have been with the Cratchits’ poor but happy marriage, but this too comes under scrutiny. There is an acknowledgment of the challenges a disabled child can bring to a household, and it is somehow emphasised by Tiny Tim being played by Lenny Rush, an extraordinary young actor, aged ten, who has a rare form of dwarfism called spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita, the same condition as Warwick Davis.

“It really mattered to me that nobody was photo-fit,” Murphy says from a studio where he is dubbing the last episode. “Bob Cratchit is always a winsome, put-upon nice guy and the Cratchits themselves represent this idea of an ideal, working-class, lovely family. So we looked into their relationship on the page and there seems a genuine tension between Bob and his wife. Things are hard. It isn’t easy to have no money and a disabled child, and they lean on each other and they’re not straight with each other and there is a genuine antagonism between them.”

Knight has written into the narrative a family secret that connects the Cratchits to Scrooge. The secret belongs to Mrs Cratchit, played by Vinette Robinson, whose part is greatly expanded; indeed, the novella does not even grant her a first name, although the Muppets, and other adaptors, opted for Emily.

“Inevitably the secret begins to surface and cracks appear in the family,” Alwyn says. “Something has to happen. I think what Steven has done is take the story and drill deeper. He hasn’t taken too much liberty. It’s not bending the truth too much from what Dickens would have wanted. Or I hope not.”

Murphy insists that worthwhile adaptations of classic texts should be “edgy” and have “a good bite to them”. “If you absolutely don’t want any variation from the book then I strongly suggest you sit in a corner at Christmas and read it again. But if you want to see it used as a prism through which we can see a broader and slightly different subject explored, then this one’s for you.”

Alwyn’s performance is part of the iconoclasm. “Joe’s instinct as an actor is always to push away from the obvious and into ambiguity,” Murphy says. “He’s very quietly spoken. He’s not brash at all. He’s a gentle, intelligent guy, but he just simply wasn’t interested in fitting a Dickensian cliché.”

“I’ll take that,” Alwyn says when I pass on the compliment, having not considered his technique in such terms. He is 28 and would probably accept that he is best known for two facts: the first is that he is Taylor Swift’s boyfriend; the second that, aged 25 and with no professional acting experience, he won the title role in an Ang Lee movie.

He is from north London, the middle of three sons. Their father is the television documentary-maker Richard Alwyn, renowned for making The Shrine about the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death.

“He was away a bit,” Alwyn says. “He made quite a lot of films in Africa when I was growing up. He was often in Uganda, Rwanda at one point, South Sudan. So he’d come back with stories and artefacts from all over the place. He made a great documentary in Liverpool during the World Cup about two kids on an estate growing up there.”

His mother, Elizabeth, is a psychotherapist. So, I say, although his family were comfortably off and he was sent to the fee-paying City of London School, he knew something of other people’s lives?

“All different kinds of people, all different kinds of stories,” he says. “Obviously, she couldn’t share them with me in the same way that Dad could, but both their jobs take an interest in other people and are about how to empathise, understand, and listen to stories and tell stories. I suppose it’s not a million miles away from an actor’s job; listening to other people, understanding them, trying to tell stories.”

I ask about the contemporary political resonances of A Christmas Carol. I cite the wealth of certain members of his profession and of Swift’s. Only the other day I have read that she has a private jet so she can visit Alwyn on a whim. He promises me that 99.9 per cent of what the press write about them is false, and this is an example.

I ask if he finds it embarrassing.

“Find what embarrassing?”

The disparity between the amount some people earn and the wages of workers in, say, Amazon fulfilment centres.

“I saw something in The Guardian the other day, I think, saying that the top six richest people in the UK accumulate the same amount of wealth as the poorest 13 million. I think that was the figure,” he says.

And politics today?

“It’s bigger than Scrooge, but it’s the same thing amplified; not being able to see beyond yourself, building walls, cutting yourself off from other countries. If there was ever a story to counter that, featuring someone who epitomises that and then who remembers who he is as a human being, it is A Christmas Carol.”

Unlike the young Dickens, Alwyn was not a boy to stand on a table and sing and dance. As a child he auditioned to play Liam Neeson’s son in the Richard Curtis film Love Actually, but didn’t get it. He harboured ambitions to act, but pursued them only later at the University of Bristol, where he took plays up to the Edinburgh Fringe. One night he acted before an audience of one: the writer’s mother. Undeterred, he went on to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, joining the scramble at the end to find an agent. Weeks later, his new agent rang to say that Ang Lee was working on a new film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and wanted to see an audition tape.

“I got some mates to film me in a lunch break and then my dad filmed another scene, and we got a call that night saying, ‘He wants to meet you this weekend. He’s saying, we’re going to put you on a plane and take you out of school. Come for the weekend. Learn these scenes.’ ”

As Billy, a young US Marine fêted for killing an enemy assailant in Iraq, Alwyn was painfully believable; a virgin solider returning home to be exploited for an act that had devastated him. The film did not do well, mainly because it was shot at a hyper-reality frame rate that few cinemas had the technology to show, but Alwyn was on his way.

“Things only evolve by change and people taking risks,” he says. “And Ang Lee is someone who I admire for that. None of his films are the same. Maybe thematically they draw on the same things, but he’s always pushing the boundaries.”

The same can be said for A Christmas Carol and, even more, about Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, in which Alwyn appeared alongside Emma Stone and Olivia Colman. It applies less so to his other recent films, Mary Queen of Scots, Boy Erased and now Harriet, a faithful biopic about the slave liberator Harriet Tubman in which he played a slave owner’s son. What he has managed to do consistently is work and learn from some seriously good actresses — Colman, Stone, Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Erivo. “I know. I am targeting them,” he jokes.

I tell him my daughters have insisted I ask if he minds Swift writing songs about him (whole albums, actually, but check out London Boy if you are in search of a little cringe). “No, not at all. No. It’s flattering.”

Does it matter to him that the press — it’s a bit metatextual this, I admit, for I’m probably doing the same thing — make it obvious that they are as interested in his girlfriend as they are in him? “I just don’t pay attention to what I don’t want to pay attention to,” he explains tolerantly. “I turn everything else down on a dial. I don’t have any interest in tabloids. I know what I want to do, and that’s this, and that’s what I am doing.”

The boyf, described only the other day as “mysterious” in one of those tabloids, is no mystery at all. He knows what he wants for Christmas, and it is the career he is already forging.

A Christmas Carol begins on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday



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