The newest television version of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" is no holiday greeting card.
The Hallmark Entertainment production, airing Sunday at 8 p.m. on the cable network TNT, makes a bid to become a holiday standard, but not a feel-good yuletide card.
Executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. began discussing a "Carol" production with Patrick Stewart while he was filming last year's "Moby Dick" with Stewart as Captain Ahab.
Halmi also invited Stewart to share executive producer duties, "meaning I could help develop the vision of `A Christmas Carol,' " said Stewart.
And who better to take the lead role than Stewart? He won the New York Theater Critics Drama Desk Award for solo performance in his one-man stage version of the Dickens novel, a play he began developing in 1988.
"The first priority," said Stewart, "was what should be kept in and what should be left out from the book. Having worked on the book for more than 10 years, I knew it well. I knew what scenes were critical to my vision of the story."
The "Christmas Carol" storyline is a familiar one. Stewart plays Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly, mid-19th-century London businessman totally devoid of the cheer associated with the approaching holiday. His long-dead partner, Jacob Marley, appears to him and foretells the coming of three Christmas spirits who will help him discover the joy of a more charitable life before it is too late.
Stewart and Halmi were aided by the presence of writer Peter Barnes, who grew up in the East End of London and knows the area where the story is set. He has written for the large screen ("Murphy's Law," "The Soloist") and for Hallmark's television productions ("Merlin," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Noah's Ark"). "He's one of the most outstanding writers in Britain," said Stewart.
David Jones, who directed the English-born Stewart in the late '60s when he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has the reins here.
Among the players, Joel Grey does a turn as the ghost of Christmas past, and many of the rest of the cast are British actors who may be most familiar to "Mobil Masterpiece Theatre" viewers. Desmond Barrit and Tim Potter are the other spirits and Bernard Lloyd portrays Marley. Richard E. Grant plays Scrooge's impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit, and Saskia Reeves is his wife.
The goal of this assemblage was to replicate Victorian London, warts and all. "I wanted to see how the Cratchits lived," said Stewart, "not wholesome, happy children, Christmas-card children. . . . I had seen adaptations I found altogether too sweet and sentimental, too picture-postcardy, if that makes sense."
And the poor neighborhoods of London in that era were not postcardy places, especially if you were poor.
"London in the mid-19th century was believed to be the worst possible city to be poor in in Europe," said Stewart. "Conditions were appalling for those who were unemployed. Dickens writes about it graphically."
The program is reinforced by contemporary television special effects. "We knew we'd have access to technology not available before," said Stewart. "One aspect of `Christmas Carol' is that it's a ghost story. We wanted to represent Dickens's representation of these ghosts as well as we could."
In the end, the production may be judged most heavily by Stewart's well-practiced portrayal. Can Stewart, so familiar to TV audiences as "Star Trek's" Capt. Picard, be convincing as Scrooge? The familiar Dickens lines, from "Humbug!" on, seem to be a part of him.
Television has offered at least 10 versions of this story over the years, with George C. Scott etching the medium's most indelible Scrooge in 1984.
"I've watched all of them over the years," said Stewart. "I thought he made an extraordinary Scrooge. Personally, the 1951 film version with Alastair Sim was the richest Scrooge I've ever seen. It was extremely sentimental and may not have been a great film, but his performance was extraordinary."
TNT is doing all it can to establish this piece as a holiday centerpiece, for this year anyway. It repeats Sunday at 10 p.m. and midnight and has airings Thursday and Saturday and on Dec. 12, 18, 19 and on Christmas Day.
"I hope we've caught something that would make people want to return to it," said Stewart. "The show-business world is so transitory, so insubstantial, sometimes you wonder what you're going to leave when you're gone. We'd love to have this one be the one people take off the video shelves at Christmas."