A Tennessee twist on Dickens: behind the scenes of Dolly Parton’s Christmas Carol

Is there anything that Dolly Parton cannot do? Singer, songwriter, actor, author, philanthropist and, in her most generous stab at superwoman status, Covid vaccine-funder, she was also recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was an honour she initially declined, but went on to accept in a respectably metal fashion by donning a black PVC catsuit and duetting with Judas Priest’s Rob Halford in what will surely become known as the definitive version of Jolene.

The country music icon’s latest trick is to go the full yule. Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol sees her staging a full jingle bells-and-whistles show at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, relocating Charles Dickens’ classic tale of redemption and oversized turkey to the East Tennessee mountains where she was raised. Set in the midst of the Great Depression – a decade before Parton’s birth – the family-friendly festive extravaganza features a host of seasonal songs written by Parton. Her original string band score pays homage to the pre-bluegrass sound of 1930s Appalachia, weaving together gospel and traditional country with the singer’s own easy way with a catchy chorus.

While anyone expecting to see Parton treading the boards on the South Bank will be disappointed – she does not appear in the show – the experienced West End cast has been personally signed off by the star, whose third Christmas movie, Dolly Parton’s Magic Mountain Christmas, will also air in the US this December on Peacock. The stage show stars Cold Feet’s Robert Bathurst, who will be following in the footsteps of Alastair Sim, Michael Caine and Bill Murray to play one of literature’s biggest wrong ’uns: Ebenezer Scrooge.

For Dolly, Dickens’ London isn’t a big stretch to what she faced when she was growing up

Robert Bathurst

Bathurst has a string of theatre roles to his name, but he is the first to admit that Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is a new challenge. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and I really liked the idea of that,” he says of his first-ever musical role. So how much on-stage dance experience does Bathurst actually have? “Precisely nil,” he admits. “But that’s what I love about the whole project. It’s a completely left-field, exciting and odd thing for me to do.” It marks Bathurst’s first festive acting gig since the late 1970s, when he was studying law at Cambridge’s Pembroke College and appeared as Widow Twankey in a Footlights production of Aladdin. “I was also a shepherd at my convent school nativity in Ireland,” he adds. “But I remember feeling rather underemployed in that role”.

Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol’s unique “Tennessee twist” and move away from Victorian England also had a bearing on Bathurst’s involvement. “It’s set in the Appalachian mountains, where the Depression arrived early and left late, so in terms of need and want and deprivation – which Dickens was drawing our attention to – it’s all there,” he says.

Born in 1946 and the fourth of 12 children, Dolly Parton and her siblings were raised in a one-room cabin in the hamlet of Locust Ridge. You can visit a replica of the cabin at Dollywood, Parton’s theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge, and see just how small the home truly was. Her parents, illiterate sharecropper Robert Lee Parton and Pentecostal preacher’s daughter Avie Lee, were hit hard by the Depression and many of Parton’s early songs refer to living through extreme poverty.

“So for her, Dickens’ London isn’t a big stretch to what she faced when she was growing up,” says Bathurst. He is also well aware of timely parallels that may be drawn between the source material and the UK’s current cost-of-living crisis, not least in the concept of what he calls a “Scrooge-figure who’s ruling the place in an uncompassionate way”.

Since securing the role, Bathurst has become fascinated with Parton, recently writing an article on her achievements for the Oldie. “I was always aware of the big hits, but I didn’t really know her story,” he says. Cue a near-obsessive period of research and a newfound respect for the country hitmaker and her seven-decade showbiz career. Bathurst took particular interest in her early work, namely Parton’s debut album, 1967’s Hello, I’m Dolly. It featured her first successful single, Dumb Blonde, but Bathurst found himself much more taken with the vindictive I Don’t Want to Throw Rice. “It has some incredibly violent lyrics,” he says gleefully of the song, which sees Parton cheerfully threatening her love rival, who is marrying the object of her affections.

The tunes in the show are gorgeous. They gave me goosebumps when I first heard them

Alison Pollard, director

“This is someone who’s 18, 19, writing about jealousy and rage and betrayal and inhabiting a whole lifetime of experience. She’s saying: I don’t want to throw rice, I just want to throw rocks at her and tie dynamite to her side of the car!” Bathurst says with a chuckle.

With this being a family show, there is much less untrammelled rage in Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol according to the director and choreographer Alison Pollard. “The tunes in the show are absolutely gorgeous,” she enthuses. “Honestly, they gave me goosebumps when I first heard them.” Like Bathurst, Pollard has long been aware of Parton, but only since working on the project has she come to see how multifaceted she is. “I liked her music, but I realised: ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve been a bit ignorant about this woman.’ Until I spoke to lots of musician friends, I didn’t know how in awe people were of her writing skills. She’s extraordinary,” says Pollard, who has squeezed in the show alongside her full-time position as associate director of the London production of The Book of Mormon. “Now I’ve become this crazy superfan.”

Although she has also directed a UK tour of Singin’ in the Rain, productions of Spamalot in Australia and Germany, and secured stints as associate director of London runs of Chicago, Rent, Tommy and Ain’t Misbehavin’, it was Pollard’s work with a wackier show that led to her scoring Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol. “I was approached out of the blue about six months ago by Fiery Angel, a company who I’d directed SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical for,” says Pollard, whose way with a singing sea sponge evidently chimed with producers. “I couldn’t quite imagine A Christmas Carol with Dolly Parton, but the minute I read the script and heard the music, I was completely smitten,” she says.

‘People are in awe of her writing skills’: Dolly Parton.
‘People are in awe of her writing skills’: Dolly Parton. Photograph: Andrés Kudacki/AP

It isn’t just the star Bathurst who has a solid stage pedigree. Olivier award-winner George Maguire (Sunny Afternoon, in which he played Dave Davies of the Kinks) is also involved, appearing as both Cratchit and Marley, while The Bodyguard and The Lion King’s Carole Stennett is the Ghost of Christmas Past. “They’re an extraordinary bunch of West End actors – and they just all wanted to be in a Dolly show,” says Pollard, who is also keen to sing the praises of the six young actors who share the role of Tiny Tim.

A one-night-only introductory appearance at the 2019 world premiere in Boston, replete in a red-and-white Mrs Claus-style outfit, might lead some to hope for a surprise cameo from Parton during the show’s month-long London run. Pollard is giddy at the thought of a one-on-one with the boss she has still never met. “Touch wood it might happen, but I’m sure I’d actually just be speechless if it did,” she says.

“She’s going to be on The One Show dialling in on Zoom,” reveals Bathurst. “But if she turns up, it would be a great treat. Of course, we’d love to see her.”

Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, to 8 January; her Magic Mountain Christmas is expected to air on Sky & Now this month.