Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Forgottten Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol has not only seen several film versions, but several television adaptations as well. A few of these television versions of the classic tale, such as the 1984 adaptation starring George C. Scott, have become annual events on cable television channels. Among these adaptations was an animated version produced by Air Programs International (API for short), an animation studio from Australia. It was produced in 1969 and first aired in the United States on CBS on 13 December 1970.  It would air annually on American television for well over a decade.

API established itself as an animation studio with the television series Arthur! And the Square Knights of the Round Table. Produced in 1966, it became the first Australian animated series to be successfully syndicated worldwide. It was in the late Sixties that API embarked on the project for which they may be best remembered, a series of animated television specials based on literary classics called Family Classic Tales.  From 1969 to 1984 API regularly produced specials in the series, based on such classic books and stories as Treasure Island, The Prince and the Pauper, and From the Earth to the Moon. The very first special in the series was their adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

API's version of A Christmas Carol was produced and first aired on Australian television in 1969. It was directed by legendary animator Zoran Janjic. Zoran Janjic began his career at Zagreb Film, the well known Croatian animation studio. In 1960 he emigrated to Australia and he went to work for API. At API Mr. Janjic directed Arthur! And the Square Knights of the Round Table. He also served as a background artist on episodes of the 1966 animated version of The Lone Ranger, an American series produced by Format Films which aired on CBS Saturday mornings from 1966 to 1968. After he directed A Christmas Carol, he would go onto direct other entries in Family Classic Tales. In the Seventies he became the head of Hanna-Barbera's Australian division, and he served as a producer on such Hanna-Barbera series as The New Scooby Doo Movies and Wait Until Your Father Gets Home. In the Eighties he started his own company, Zap Productions, which produced animation for commercials in Australia.

API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol also featured impressive voice talent. Ron Haddrick was the voice of Scrooge. The actor had appeared in television adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest, and he also appeared in such Australian series The Stranger and The Hunter. He would go onto appear in the shows The Lost Islands and Home and Away, as well as the movie Quigley Down Under (1980).  Bruce Montague played the voice of the ghost of Bob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Present, as well as various incidental voices. He appeared on the TV show Crane and guest starred on The Saint and The Baron. He went onto appear on the shows The Link Men, Fair Ground!, and Butterflies, as well as such movies as Sextet (1976) and George and Mildred (1980).  John Llewellyn provided the voice of Bob Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Past. He had appeared in the films The Vanquished and Long John Silver, as well as the TV shows Consider Your Verdict and Hunter. He would go onto appear on the shows Division 4, Homicide, and Juliet Bravo.

Given the talent involved in API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol, it should be no surprise that it holds up well today, particularly for television animation. While not on the level of a feature film, it is still well ahead of the limited animation of the average American, Saturday morning cartoon of the Sixties. Zoran Janjic did a very good job of directing the television special, with his use of light and shadow being particularly impressive at times. Perhaps the best part of API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol may be its backgrounds. These are not the sparse backgrounds of Saturday morning cartoons or even animated television specials of the era, but lavish backgrounds the evoke Victorian London quite well. Running only around fifty minutes, API's version of A Christmas Carol does omit portions of the novel, but for the most part it is very faithful to the novel, down to using dialogue straight from Charles Dickens.

API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol, as well as the rest of Family Classic Tales would make their way to the United States. Jack Thinnes, Media Director at Sive Advertising in Cincinnati, Ohio saw a two minute demo of API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol. This led him to think that a series of animated special that adapted literary classics might be suitable for his client, toy manufacturer Kenner. The result was Famous Classic Tales, which aired on CBS on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, as well as the early evening on weekdays, usually around holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the 4th of July. Famous Classic Tales ran on CBS throughout the Seventies and into the early Eighties. The very first entry in the Australian Family Classic Tales and the American Famous Classic Tales (very nearly Family Classic Tales under a different name), A Christmas Carol, proved to have a bit of longevity on American television.  It ran for 15 years on CBS. After the run on CBS, Famous Classic Tales were syndicated to stations across the United States, so that API's A Christmas Carol would have a long run after leaving the broadcast network.

API's version of A Christmas Carol is rarely seen today. Although a somewhat poor copy can be found on YouTube, it is not currently available on DVD. In some respects this is sad. API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol was well done and in some respects more faithful to the original novel than the feature film versions. Regardless, I rather suspect that most Americans who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties have fond memories of API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol and, in fact, it may have served as their introduction to the Charles Dickens classic. 

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