Guest Blog: Mark Twain and Charles Dickens

Over the past couple of weeks the green shoots of Spring have begun to appear outside. Snowdrops, Daffodils and Croci have coloured the dull earth, whilst on trees and shrubs tiny little buds are beginning to appear promising the great explosion of life that is now just a few weeks away.

In my world there are similar signs of renewal as I am starting to work on two projects in conjunction with the Charles Dickens Museum in London, as well as tentatively putting dates in place for my formerly-annual tour of A Christmas Carol. The events for the museum. whilst being online and not performed to a live audience, do at least give me the opportunity to spread my performing wings which are currently rather tightly packed away and in need of excercise!

The first project is based on A Child’s Journey with Dickens, the little story of Charles Dickens’s chance encounter with an eleven year old girl whilst he rode on a train from Portland, Maine, to Boston. The memoir was written by Kate Douglas Wiggin who in adulthood recounted her experience to a branch of the Dickens Fellowship in New York. It is a piece that I have performed on many occasions but this year I had the idea of developing the script to utilise another actor to playing the role of Kate and to perform it as near to the anniversary of the actual event as possible.

As part of Charles’ birthday celebrations in February I was asked to judge a Dickens reading competition and one of the winners was Jennifer Emerson who is based in Massachusetts and a talented actor and storyteller in her own right. I knew that Jennifer would be the perfect person to take on the role of Kate.

In preparing our script I needed to introduce a lot of background material (the little memoir being only short) and I decided to use Dickens’s own letters from his 1867-68 American reading tour as well as some other background material to flesh out the story. One little gem that I was keen to introduce into the script is Mark Twain’s newspaper review of one of Dickens’s first readings in New York City, and it has to be said it wasn’t a particularly positive article: ‘Dickens is a bad reader…..’ ‘Mr. Dickens’ reading is rather monotonous’, ‘his rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads it himself.’ and more. I was anxious to find someone who could record Twain’s voice for the performance so that my woeful attempts at his accent wouldn’t be exposed, and emailed Ohio based actor Mark Dawidziak asking for his assistance. Mark performs and lectures about Twain and is highly regarded as an expert in his field and I was delighted when he responded to my request for assistance in the positive. Not only did Mark agree to provide the voiceover but also furnished me with plenty of information about Twain’s possible motivation for his vicious review. He sent me the text of a paper that he had written entitled ‘Mark Twain and Charles Dickens: Separated at Birth?’ which was fascinating and which I thought you may like to read. So, with Mark’s permission, I am happy to republish that paper in the form of a ‘Guest Blog’:

Charles Dickens and Mark Twain: Separated at Birth?

By Mark Dawidziak

Public speakers often are advised to open with a joke. There is wisdom here, I believe, and keeping that time-honored guidance in mind, let me share with you a joke of my own devising that I once played on a group of my Twain friends. It was like this: We were sitting around, talking about our mutual affection for Twain, when I broke out with the following, “Let me give you a list of reasons why my favorite writer is my favorite writer.” And off I went, offering up item after item, my friends humoring me at first, then wondering why I was belaboring them with the obvious. They were, of course, abundantly familiar with every detail I was piling on – as it applied to Mark Twain. And there was no doubt in their minds that I was describing Mark Twain. I could see them wondering how long this was going to go on. When I felt that their patience had about worn out and that the strain had reached the breaking point, I trotted out the snapper: “Now that we’re through with Charles Dickens, let me tell you a thing or two about Mark Twain.”

The surprise on their faces was delightful. All right, I cheated a little. I failed to mention in the setup that I had two favorite writers. But a little fudging aside, the joke had made its point. These Twainiacs, as Twain scholars like to call themselves, had no idea that the two writers had so much in common. And, indeed, it has been my experience that Dickensians have little sense of the sheer number of remarkable personal and professional parallels between Twain and Dickens.

Remember in the 1960s when we started seeing those lists of strange-but-true connections between the assassinated presidents, Lincoln and Kennedy? Well, a similar Dickens-Twain list makes the Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences seem pale and paltry in comparison. I wish to say I was the first to noticed these amazing similarities, but I think they were first noticed by a wonderful scholar named Edward Wagenknecht, who wrote brilliantly on not only Twain and Dickens, but Poe, as well.

The first substantial entry on the subject was made by Twain scholar Howard G. Baetzhold in his 1970 book, Mark Twain & John Bull: The British Connection. But Baetzhold, as insightful as he was, didn’t realize how deep the similarities ran. Since 1970, the points of comparison have been mentioned only in passing by Twain scholars and not at all by Dickens biographers.

Are the similarities really so striking? Well, in truth, some of the parallels are not as amazing as they might seem at first blush. For instance, it’s undeniably true that each was fascinated with look-alikes and twins, using them for characters and plot twists in key books: Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby; Twain in Pudd’nhead Wilson. And each wrote a historical novel with look-alikes at the center: Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities; Twain in The Prince and the Pauper. Intriguing? To be sure, but it also can be said that Shakespeare was fascinated by lookalikes and twins.

And speaking of Shakespeare, both Twain and Dickens were fascinated by the debate over Shakespeare’s identity. Ah-ha! Another amazing coincidence? Maybe, but then again, it would have been more remarkable if writers of their stature hadn’t been interested in the Shakespeare discussion. The point is, it’s only natural that there would be some similarities between two male writers plying their trade in the same century.

The similarities between Twain and Dickens, though, go beyond those we might deem logical and obvious. So I’m going to try to avoid this becoming the literary equivalent of a parlor trick. And I don’t want this to get tedious, but, starting with childhood, let’s run through just some of the dozens upon dozens of items that link these two literary giants.

Each had a father named John who by any definition of the term was a bad businessman. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Mark Twain, Justin Kaplan describes John Marshall Clemens in terms that certainly could apply to John Dickens: “He was a chronic business failure. . . and his wife and his children were accustomed to being poor.” John Clemens or John Dickens?

Each had little formal education, learning by experience and working as a journalist covering legislative bodies before making it as an author.

Each was jilted by a sweetheart, later making the woman who dumped him the model for a character. For Dickens, this was Maria Beadnell. For Twain, this was Laura Wright (although, as Baetzhold points out in his book, the psychological and emotional scar left on Dickens was far more profound).      

 Each started out primarily known to his nation as a humorist, trying increasingly more serious work that grew darker and darker.

Each first was widely known to the public by a pen name: Charles Dickens as Boz; Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain.

Each’s first book was a collection of sketches, followed by a phenomenally successful second book that established him as literary superstar: for Dickens, it was, of course, Sketches by Boz followed by The Pickwick Papers; for Twain, it was The Jumping Frog followed by The Innocents Abroad.

From these runaway successes, each became his country’s dominant family author during the 19th century, but also was popular across the Atlantic (Twain in England, Dickens in America).

Each created two boy heroes whose names were the titles of beloved books: Twain with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; Dickens with Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.

Each drew strongly on autobiography for major novels about their childhood experiences: Dickens in David Copperfield; Twain in Tom Sawyer.

Each, in addition to being a best-selling author, was a wildly popular platform performer (each managed by George Dolby at different times). This one bears a little special attention. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that a great writer is almost psychologically incapable of also being a great performer. The exceptions are so rare, in fact, they span centuries: Homer, Moliere, and, yes, Dickens and Twain. Professional actress Elizabeth Yates once was so carried away by Dickens’ acting, she yelled at him, “O Mr. Dickens what a pity it is you can do anything else.” Compare that compliment with the verdict handed down by no less than Henry Irving, “You made a mistake by not adopting the stage as a profession. You would have made even a greater actor than writer.” He said this, of course, to Mark Twain.

Each had a brother who repeatedly failed at one calling after another, causing no end of annoyance and constantly asking for loans. For Twain, this was Orion (pronounced by the family Or-ree-on). For Dickens it was, well, take your pick, but probably best to settle on Frederick.

Each had a musical older sister idealized as characters in books. For Twain, this was his sister Pamela (pronounced Pah-meel-yuh), the direct model for Tom’s kindly cousin, Mary, in Tom Sawyer. For Dickens, this was his sister Fanny, the model for Florence Dombey in Dombey and Son, and at least partly the inspiration for Kate Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby and Scrooge’s sister, Fan, in A Christmas Carol.

Each had a child who died in infancy and, during his lifetime, one who died in early adulthood.

Each had a strong-willed daughter who outlived him and left behind memoirs of life with a great author. Each of these daughters had artistic aspirations and married someone in the arts. Dickens’ daughter, Kate, became a painter of children’s portraits and married artist Charles Edward Perugini. Twain’s daughter, Clara, tried a singing career and married pianist-conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch.             Each drew on a relative to create an ever-optimistic, high-talking windbag character destined to become one of his most popular creations, and, yes, Twain’s Col. Sellers (The Gilded Age) could be a first cousin of Dickens’ Mr. Micawber (David Copperfield).

Each wrote novels with lampoons of politicians, wild political plots and an American land scheme (Twain in The Gilded Age, Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit).

Each was subject to fits of depression, towering rages and giddy exuberance.

Each was somewhat nervous in disposition, unable to sit still for long stretches and frequently pacing while others talked (see Paine, page 574). Each loved to take long walks.

Each was fascinated by Carlye’s history of the French Revolution, naming it was one of his favorite books.

Each dressed to catch attention in public: Twain in white suits, Dickens in gaudy vests.

Each was narrow-shouldered, of slight of build and on the short side. Twain was 5-foot, 8½ inches tall. Dickens was 5-foot, 5 inches.

Each was cheered in the other’s country, then wrote a book that momentarily raised ire in the other’s homeland: for Dickens, it was American Notes, for Twain, it was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But each made a triumphant return to the other’s country near the end of his life: Dickens for his 1867-68 reading tour of America (he died in 1870); Twain to receive his Oxford degree in 1907 (he died in 1910).

Each lobbied against the lax copyrights laws that cost him millions in lost revenue on the other side of the Atlantic (Twain furious with pirated editions of his work in England; Dickens speaking out against his works being stolen in America).

Each feuded with almost every publisher.

Each was a cigar smoker.

Each wrote travel books, as well as novels, short stories, essays and humorous sketches.

Each believed the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for keeping Italy and other countries in poverty and ignorance. Strains of anti-Catholicism runs through each’s writings, but each had close Catholic friends.

Each wrote condescendingly and critically of the American Indian.

Each was helped in his writing by a devoted sister-in-law. For Dickens, this was Georgina Hogarth; for Twain, it was Susan Crane.

Each wrote in a secluded study during the summer months: Twain in the octagonal study built for him by Susan Crane at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York; Dickens in the Swiss chalet at Gad’s Hill Place.

Each unsuccessfully tried to write plays, seeing his books turned into hit shows by others.

Each had a brief and unhappy turn as a newspaper editor: Dickens (one month) with the Daily News; Twain (for a year and a half) at the Buffalo Express.

Each had a close friend who also was a major novelist: for Dickens, it was Wilkie Collins; for Twain, it was William Dean Howells.

Each was drawn as a young man to a profession he always would romanticize. For Dickens, this was acting. For Twain, it was piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi River. Each tried to pursue this profession, Dickens arranging for an audition at a London theater.

Each was considered a hero by George Bernard Shaw.

Each had book adapted into a 1930s film by producer David O. Selznick: David Copperfield (1935) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938).

            There are dozens of other similarities, and, of course there are many significant differences.

            Twain was happily married. Dickens wasn’t.

            Dickens had 10 children, eight of whom survived him. Twain had four, only one of whom survived him.

            Dickens burned out and died at 58. Twain made it to 74 (a fine run for 1910).

But the similarities are too numerous and too striking to be brushed aside. As Baetzhold writes: “Both writers had gusto, robustness, and closeness of observation; and, with humor, sentimentality, and social criticism as stocks in trade, both went on to create novels that brought the vernacular idiom and the use of the first-person boy narrator to new levels of artistry.”

We are, therefore, inevitably led to the question, what did Twain and Dickens think of each other? Half of that equation is easy. Dickens never thought of Twain at all. Twain was on his way up when Dickens literally was on  his way out. The Innocents Abroad was published in July 1869. Dickens died in June 1870.

Although Twain once said that the humor of The Pickwick Papers was lost on him, he counted A Tale of Two Cities among his favorite books, and regularly reread it. We also know he read and borrowed elements from Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Cooperfield, Little Dorrit, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Indeed, Twain left behind many scattered comments on Dickens, some sympathetic to his predecessor’s efforts to escape the label of humorist and write serious fiction.

Twain also was conscious enough of Dickens to be mindful not to copy him. He certainly appropriated a device or two from Dickens’ fiction, but Twain knew that both English and American literature was awash with authors trying to write like Dickens. One of his biggest gripes with the writing of Bret Harte was that it became an anemic and obvious imitation of Dickens. So there is no doubt that Twain was aware of just how tall Dickens stood on literary ground. How could he not have been?

They were literary ships passing in the 19th century. They never met. But had Dickens lived just two more years, they undoubtedly would have met when Twain visited England for a lecture tour in 1872. And Dickens’ son and namesake, Charles Jr., stayed with Twain and his family at their  Hartford home while on an 1887 reading tour.

But, yes, for one brief instant, Dickens and Twain were in the same building at the same time. And it was a monumental evening – for Twain.

Twain went to hear Dickens’ 1867 reading at New York’s Steinway Hall on New Year’s Eve. Olivia Langdon had made the trip to New York City from Elmira with her family. Samuel Clemens was introduced to her by Charles Langdon, his friend from the 1867 Quaker City tour of Europe and the Holy Land, which became the basis for The Innocents Abroad. Twain met Livy and her parents at the St. Nicholas Hotel on December 27. Four days later, he accompanied the family to Steinway Hall. “The circumstances of the evening Sam Clemens spent with his future wife were appropriate,” Twain biographer Justin Kaplan wrote in Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. “This was the valedictory reading tour of a towering literary personality, a hero of the mass audience which would soon elevate the newcomer, Mark Twain, also a great public reader as well as an actor manqué, to an analogous height.”

Twain left behind two accounts of the December 31st reading by Dickens. The first was for San Francisco’s Alta California newspaper, and it took issue with the “extravagant praises” bestowed on Dickens by such New York newspapers as the Herald and Tribune. Twain said that Dickens’ voice seemed husky, and he criticized the monotony of his reading. He called the performance “glittering frostwork with no heart.”

“Promptly at 8 p.m.,” Twain wrote for the Alta, “a tall, ‘spry’ (if I may say it), thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his buttonhole, gray beard and mustache, bald head with side hair and beard brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came!” He strode to his famous reading desk “in the most English way and exhibiting the most English general style and appearance. . . heedless of everything. . . as if he had seen a girl he knew turn the next corner.”

Indeed, the early tone of the review seems quite reverent: “But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake.”

From here, though, the tone changes, as Twain professes himself disappointed in the readings from David Copperfield. “He professed to be disturbed, too, by the reader’s seeming inability to enliven his pathetic passages with genuine emotion,” Baetzhold wrote, “a fault which made the ‘beautiful pathos of his language’ seem mere ‘glittering frostwork.’ More specifically, he found Dickens ‘a little Englishy in his speech”; the rendition of Peggoty’s search for ‘Em’ly’ was ‘bad’; and the episodes featuring ‘Dora the child-wife,’ and the storm at Yarmouth in which Steerforth drowned, ‘not as good as they might have been.’ He did like ‘Mrs. Micawber’s inspired suggestions as to the negotiations of her husband’s bills,’ but concluded that whole performance was far inferior to to what Dickens’ repuation had led him to expect.”

This was his reaction in early 1868. Almost forty years later, he gave a very different account of the evening. This was how Twain described it in an October 1907 dictation for his autobiography:

“I heard him once during that season; it was in Steinway Hall, in December, and it made the fortune of my life – not in dollars, I am not thinking of dollars; it made the real fortune of my life in that it made the happiness of my life; on that day I called at the St. Nicholas Hotel to see my Quaker City Excursion shipmate, Charley Langdon, and was introduced to a sweet and timid and lovely young girl, his sister. The family went to the Dickens reading and I accompanied them. It was forty years ago; from that day to this the sister has never been out of my mind or heart.

“Mr. Dickens read scenes from his printed books. From my distance he was a small and slender figure, rather fancifully dressed, and striking and picturesque in appearance. He wore a black velvet coat with a large and glaring red flower in the buttonhole. He stood under a red upholstered shed behind whose slant was a row of strong lights – just such an arrangement as artists use to concentrate a strong light upon a great picture. Dickens’s audience sat in a pleasant twilight, while he performed in the powerful light cast upon him from the concealed lamps. He read with great force and animation, in the lively passages, and read with stirring effect. It will be understood that he did not merely read but also acted. His reading of the storm scene in which Steerforth lost his life was so vivid and so full of energetic action that his house was carried off its feet, so to speak.”

Great force and animation? Stirring? Vivid? Energetic? They are the words found in a rave review. Why two accounts so at odds with each other?

It is my guess, and only a guess, that the second description is the true one – the one of his heart. The first account was that of a young writer looking at the old literary lion he soon would replace in the hearts of the mass audience. He was about to write his first major book

and about to embark on his first major lecture tour. There is, in the 1868 review, the sense of the young writer measuring himself against a giant. How do you measure up more easily? Knock him down to size a bit.

“A number of factors were at work here,” Baetzhold writes perceptively. “Anxiety to impress his Western readers doubtless contributed to the jibes at the New York critics. Those critics, by the way, had also mentioned the huskiness of Dickens’ voice, the result of a current cold, but they had invariably noted that the distraction quickly disappeared as the performance proceeded.” Baetzhold also argues that Twain’s “role of brash humorist” also contributed to the “flippancy” of the review, as well as “the traditional condescension of the American” toward the English and their “Englishy” ways. Twain would prove equally flippant in describing European customs and culture in The Innocents Abroad.

This seems logical. It also seems logical that, by 1907, Twain was completely secure in his place as an American author embraced by England. He no longer had anything to prove as a writer or a platform performer. He could stand shoulder to shoulder to Dickens in every respect. “More important, Clemens no longer felt the necessity either to impress his readers with an appeal to American and Western superiority or to ‘be funny,’ ” wrote Baetzhold. “Hence, the 1907 account may well represent a truer picture of his reaction to the performance than does the contemporary one.”

It also seems more accurate in details. Dickens is described as tall in the 1868 review, which takes more than a stretch of the imagination. He becomes “small and slender” in the 1907 dictation. In this one difference between the two accounts, we may have the long and the short of it, if you will – Twain recalling the evening more clearly almost forty years later than just several days later. Perhaps, too, Twain’s perception was altered by some awareness of just how much he had in common with Dickens.   

Two other things they have common. Each has been portrayed on stage by tonight’s speaker, who has noticed that the people who study these two writers have something in common. They are unfailingly generous, encouraging, welcoming and, yes, fun, in keeping with the great spirit of these two writers. Or as Prof. Joseph McCullough once said to me at a Twain gathering, “You’ve got to figure we have more fun than the Kafka society.” We do.

Over the next couple of weeks I will write more about our show which is scheduled for the evening of Sunday March 28th and describe the journey Jennifer and I have taken to bring the meeting of Kate and Charles to life.

Mark Dawidziak’s website: www.markdawidziak.com

The Charles Dickens Museum: www.dickensmuseum.com

The End of January

Today is the 31st January and 2021 has certainly stumbled into life bringing with it the heavy baggage of uncertainty and misery that we all hauled through 2020. But January has been a positive month for me as I have taken on, and completed, a running challenge to raise funds for an amazing charity.

If you have been reading my previous blog posts you will know that I signed up for the ’50 Miles in January’ fundraising event organised by Maggie’s Centres, an organisation that provides comfort and respite for patients and their families who are facing the battle of cancer together. The idea was to inspire as many athletes as possible to join in, each sporting a bright orange running vest, so that the Maggies message would be vividly seen across the country. In Oxfordshire an active Facebook group was formed and it was soon filled with updates as various peoples’ progress was updated. Most of the participants were at a similar level to me – those more serious athletes seeing a mere 50 miles in a month as too simple – so the motivational messages and words of encouragement that were added every day really meant something. When someone reached a goal the community celebrated together; when someone was struggling we encouraged them; when an individual hinted at an injury words of caution and advice poured in.

When I took on the challenge I was not sure if I would be able to complete it but, as events transpired, I passed the 50 mile mark on 19th January (completing my longest run to date to do so), but I have kept pulling on the shorts and orange vest to push on towards 75 miles for the month, a figure that I passed this morning with a final ceremonial Maggies run of 3miles.

For our fundraising efforts Maggie’s tempted us with medals if we raised over £150. Now call me shallow, but I have often looked enviously at cascades of medals dangling in the houses of friends who have been running for years – bits of metal hanging from a ribbon sporting the logos of various 10k events, half marathons and even the 26.2 mile daddy of them all have filled me with an impressed jealousy, so the opportunity of actually having my own award was too good to miss. I have been so fortunate in the support that I have received and have been astounded by the generosity of those who have been following me which saw me surge past the £150 mark (thereby qualifying me for my medal!) within just a few days of starting. At present I have raised £314 on the Maggie’s Facebook page with another £320 pledged via my JustGiving page, making a running total (excuse the pun) of £634. But of course Maggie’s needs more, much more, for the battle with Cancer is ever increasing, so if you are able to add to the fund please do, even the smallest pledge will be used to help others. Even though the efforts of the many runners, cyclists and walkers who have got out in the rain, wind and snow of January ’21 are coming to an end, the work of Maggie’s Centres is never ending

And so it is time to look for a new challenge to motivate me, to keep my momentum up, and I have found such a scheme: Through the coming weeks I will be running the length of Hadrian’s Wall, with my progress being updated by an app which sends me regular postcards of the views as I make my way from South Shields (not far from the magnificent National Centre for the Written Word where I performed in 2019), to Carlisle. And when I achieve the 90 mile distance I will be sent another medal!

Thank you for your support during January and if you would like to make a donation to Maggie’s centres there is still time. Either visit my fundraising page on Facebook, or follow the link below to my JustGiving page.

Gerald Dickens is fundraising for Maggie’s Centres (justgiving.com)

Maggie’s Run Update

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It is the 15th January and Britain is in the depths of an ever-deepening lockdown which sees us permitted to one session of exercise outside the home per day. Fortunately for me I decided to undertake the ’50 Miles in January’ charity run to raise funds for Maggie’s Centres Cancer charity, and so have motivation to use that daily exercise effectively.

Those of you who read last week’s blog post will know that I came to this project not only as a means of raising money and spreading awareness of an amazing charity, but also to give me a target to aim for to get me back out on the streets. When I signed up with Maggie’s I had no idea if I could achieve the 50 miles or not, but I have been inspired and encouraged by the large community of runners, cyclists and walkers who are attempting the same feat.

So, half way through the month, how is it all going? Well! very well, actually. The weather has warmed up a little since last week and replacing the icy fog is damp mist which is quite refreshing to run through. During week one I was running and walking for about 4 miles per session but us the regularity of the runs has started to have an effect so I have found myself able to run for longer without feeling the need to slow down for a breather. This week my runs have seen me complete 4.16 miles on Monday, 5.02 on Tuesday, 5.05 on Thursday and a painful 5.65 on Friday all without walking.

A few months ago during those balmy Summer days we were all out for a walk when we bumped into a friend who was completing a run of her own. ‘How far have you been?’ we asked, ‘6 miles’ she replied. We looked at her in disbelief, it seemed such a huge distance for someone to cover, especially as I was struggling to achieve 5 k (3 miles) at that time. But now I am approaching that very landmark and feeling fairly good about it. On each run I have tried to imagine a finishing line over which I could collapse in glorious triumph as I have seen the athletes do at the London Marathon. Usually I use a red post box or a particular road junction as my line but on one occasion this week I decided to make my final sprint past the statue of Queen Victoria standing with an imperious air in Abbey Gardens, Abingdon. The Queen has always been a source of amusement to us as a family, our daughters love to run up to her and ask ‘what knickers are you wearing today?’ (this is inspired by a brilliantly irreverent children’s book called The Queen’s Knickers by Nicholas Allan, in which we are granted a glimpse of the Queen’s collection of ceremonial undergarments!)

In the context of the Maggie’s project I have now ticked off over 40 miles leaving me less than ten to complete the challenge, although I will go on running to the 31st to see how high I can raise the bar.

When I am out on the road I am very aware that I am running in the midst of Covid. In one sense the invisible fog of the coronavirus makes being outside more pleasurable in that there is little traffic on the road, but I have to be aware that other pedestrians taking their own exercise may well be nervous so I try to make every effort to keep as far away from anyone else as I can, switching my path early so as to signal my intentions, maybe actually running in the road itself if all is clear. When others afford me the same courtesy I make sure I show them my thanks with a wave of the hand, rather than actually saying ‘thank you’, having noticed that some folk wince as they imagine that they are being engulfed by a miasma of disease.

As an incentive to aspiring runners and fundraisers Maggie’s promised to send every participant a bright orange running vest. The uptake was so big that there has been a bit of delay in dispatching them all (leading to a degree of rather unreasonable grumbling on the Maggie’s 50 group on Facebook.) My own vest arrived yesterday meaning that my last run of the week was the first in which I proudly sported the garish colours, which clash horribly with my red face – but which hopefully diverts attention from my ponderous running style to the real purpose of the run: cash.

I have been so fortunate to have been supported by many very generous friends and family and the pledged amounts are way over my initial targets of £150 (as suggested by Maggie’s), but like any charity the more that is raised the better the work Maggie’s can do and in these current days of overflowing hospitals, the spacious calming centres where cancer sufferers and their families can stay become even more vital.

I thank all of those who have already donated so generously and if anyone else would like to chip into the fund there is still time. You can either visit my Facebook page, or I have also set up a Justgiving page which is at: Gerald Dickens is fundraising for Maggie’s Centres (justgiving.com)

Running for Maggie

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I have never met Maggie. I have met some Maggies, indeed one of my sister in laws is called Maggie, but I have never met THIS Maggie because she died in 1995. But Maggie is shaping the first days of 2021 for me. Let me explain:

As regular readers may remember during the first UK lockdown I began to run, following an app called ‘Couch to 5K’ which encouraged novice runners to gently build a regime that would eventually see them conquering the apparently mythical 5 kilometre barrier. After a slow start with much wheezing and panting, I eventually managed to reach the end of the programme which gave me a ridiculous sense of pride and achievement. However as the year went on and I became more involved in making my film of A Christmas Carol and trying to salvage some sort of ‘tour’ from the ashes of 2020, my runs became more and more infrequent until they petered out again, becoming a distant memory of an extraordinary Summer.

During the weeks running up to Christmas, and because I wasn’t actually performing, I was able to spend some time in the virtual company of audiences conducting some Q&A sessions. One such event was for my good friends at the Mid Continent Library Service in the Kansas City area and one question from an avid reader of my blog dealt with my running: I was asked if the new fitness regime would help me on stage, perhaps giving me greater stamina and strength. I answered (rather guiltily as I wasn’t currently running) that I wasn’t sure, but probably yes. We moved onto another question, but the seed to resume running had been planted and sat in the back of my brain throughout Christmas.

Now, we all know that Social Media, especially Facebook, is controlled by little witches who scan your innermost thoughts and then bombard you with advertisements relevant to them. True to form no sooner had the possibility of resuming running entered my brain than the adverts become to arrive. New trainers! New shorts! New leggings! All were sent to tempt me, but alongside the rigorous commercialism of the sport so a few charities began to appear asking me to ‘Run For….(film in name as applicable)’, one of which was Maggies.

The reason that the Maggies programme appealed to me was that it would be a challenge, a target, but I reckoned which was achievable to one of my abilities: the idea was to run 50 miles during the month of January and if you raised over a certain amount of cash you would be awarded a medal! I have never received a prize for running, indeed for any sporting activity before, so the idea of getting a medal certainly appealed. I signed up.

You may suppose, having read this far, that I had chosen this particular charitable exercise purely for selfish reasons, just to get a medal, but The Maggies Charity is a very special one and Id like to tell you a little a bit about what they do.

Maggie Keswick Jencks was a writer, gardener and designer, highly successful in her field, until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment was initially successful in the short term, but five years after her first diagnosis Maggie was called to hospital to be told that the cancer had returned and that she had maybe three months to live. Maggie and her husband were then given a little time together to digest this bombshell, being ushered to a windowless hospital corridor. No privacy, no comfort, no care.

Maggie was not going to give in easily and signed up for an advanced chemotherapy trial which would prolong her life by eighteen months and that was time she didn’t waste, for working with her medical team she developed an all new approach to cancer care which would see peaceful, comforting surroundings for sufferers to meet and discuss their conditions both with other patients but also with the doctors and consultants who were treating them, so that each individual felt part of their own treatment and future.

Maggie was a positive soul and the day before she died in 1995 she sat in her beloved garden facing the sun and said ‘Aren’t we lucky?’ The first of the Maggie’s Centres was opened the following year and now they are all over the country giving support and comfort to not only the patients themselves but their families too, providing a positive, supportive and uplifting environment.

Cancer has touched everyone’s life, there can be very few of us who do not know someone close to us who has suffered and whilst the big research charities raise vitally needed funds, so an organisation like Maggies which actually makes life better is equally needful and deserving.

The first week of January has been cold and foggy and so has not been conducive to lovely early morning runs, but I was determined to begin on the 1st, knowing that every day I delayed was one less opportunity to chip away at the 50 mile mountain. In launching the ’50 in January’ initiative Maggies created a Facebook group for all those who registered and this is a really motivating place as everyone posts their progress there, as well as encouraging and congratulating other runners on their achievements. We all use running apps (Strava in my case) to log our miles and each day sees a wide variety of stories pop up: ‘I haven’t run for thirty years, just done 2 miles and feel exhausted!’ lots of comments, ‘Wow!’ ‘Keep going, amazing!’ ‘Finding it really difficult, did 1 mile today, I’m not a runner…’ ‘The fact you went running MAKES you a runner! Great job!’ And at the other end of the scale people are pounding the streets for hours on end clocking up 12 miles or so in a single run, making the target achievable within a week (indeed, as I write this on the 7 January a runner has just posted that she has topped 50 already, as well as completing her first week of radiotherapy!)

My achievements are modest but in line with my expectations, in 7 days my total mileage so far is around 21 miles made up from 5 runs. If I keep up this rate I will be able to reach my goal easily, but of course that is all irrelevant if I don’t get sponsorship, so here is the plea: I know that charities are bombarding us in the post Christmas period and I know that many of us have suffered a severe drop in income thanks to the spread of Covid during 2020, but if you are able to pledge a small amount you will be helping to make lives of ordinary folk, possibly like you and me, immeasurably better.

In the meantime I will be pulling on my running leggings, shorts, shirt, jacket, gloves and cap, lacing up my trainers, and heading onto the icy streets of Abingdon. Every now and again I will see another runner in the orange ‘Maggies 50 in January’ running vest and we will exchange a wave and a smile (or grimace, depending on how we are feeling) knowing that we are both running for Maggie, whom we have never met.

To sponsor my efforts go to ‘Gerald’s fundraiser for Maggie’s Centres by Gerald Dickens’ and Thank You

Or go to my Justgiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/gerald-dickens

Byers’ Choice

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Throughout this Christmas season I have been sharing some of my memories of Christmas Tours Past with you, being prompted by my phone’s ‘on this day’ function. I have told you about performing with the Vaillancourts in Massachusetts and at The Country Cupboard in Pennsylvania. I have described trips to Tennessee and to California, as well as the luxury of Williamsburg and the friendship at Winterthur. However there is one venue that I have not shared with you because I wanted to save it until Christmas and that is the headquarters and visitor centre of a company called Byers’ Choice.

Around 15 years or so ago, when I was represented in America by Caroline Jackson, a member of the Byers’ Choice team came to watch me in a show at Hershey PA, with a view to my performing for them the following year. Caroline told me about the Byers family and the company that they had created, she explained that they had a huge network of collectors across the country and to perform for them could be a major development – little did any of us know back then exactly how big. The lady that came to meet me in Hershey was Lisa Porter and obviously I made a positive impression for the following year Byers’ Choice appeared on my schedule. But things were about to change – my contract with Caroline Jackson was coming to an end and I had to make the decision as to whether I would renew it; she wanted a 5 year extension and I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit for that long. In the end I took the decision to retire from travelling to America and it seemed as if my relationship with Byers Choice, fun as it had been, was going to be a very short one.

At this point let me break the narrative a little by explaining who the Byers are and what they have achieved: In the 1960s Joyce Byers was a struggling student in fashion, and despairing at the over-priced and garish Christmas ornaments available at the time she decided to create some Christmas table decorations of her own made from scraps she found in the house. By twisting an old wire coat hanger into a basic skeleton she could created a body by wrapping soft tissue paper around it. Off-cuts of material from her studies became coats or dresses, and Joyce used modelling clay to form features on the figures’ face. To celebrate to joy of Christmas Joyce decided to pose her creations as if they were lustily singing carols, so pinched their mouths into a little ‘o’ shape and from that time the figures became Carollers.

Some of the earliest Carollers

In no time the Carollers attracted attention, friends wanted a set for their own tables and it became apparent that there may be a wider market for them. Towards the end of the decade Joyce’s husband Robert was finding that a downturn in the economy was hurting his construction business but his fine business brain could see that the Carollers had a future, if only he could have his dining room table back (it having become the centre of production each Christmas), and in 1978 the couple employed their first staff: the Byers’ Choice company was formed.

The new company rapidly grew thanks to the American public’s three passions: Christmas, collecting and products that are patriotically handmade on home soil, and soon there was a need to move into new surroundings. The dining table gave way to a barn which eventually was replaced by the magnificent visitor centre and production facility which sits in Chalfont, PA. Joyce still designed each Caroller, Bob still sat at the helm of the business and their two sons Bob Jnr and Jeff, came into the family firm to take it to even greater heights. Christmas was always the vortex around which Byers’ Choice swirled and at some point Joyce included characters from one of her favourite Christmas stories into the range. By manufacturing Scrooge, Marley, the three spirits and the Cratchit clan, the company put into motion the series of events that would lead to me working so closely with them.

Back in the early 2000s I had made the decision to retire from touring in America and when that first Christmas season came around it felt as if something was missing, and I wasn’t sure that I had made the correct choice. But I had made my bed and burnt my bridges, indeed, I had apparently mixed my last metaphor. The process of getting the correct visa had become increasingly difficult over the years, and required a great deal of expertise: nobody would want to take that job on just so I could get on stage again. But a year later I received an email from Bob Byers Jnr asking if I would like to return to America to perform at the company’s anniversary (30th, I think) celebrations. I reluctantly declined and explained that even to perform for a single event we needed to spend months, and a lot of money, preparing a visa application with no guarantee that it would even be approved. What would be the point for a single weekend? I don’t know if Bob Jnr is a fisherman but he should be, for he now gently played me like a salmon in a peaty Scottish river. Maybe we could look at a visa if I would return to perform a few dates the following Christmas season too, that would make it more worthwhile for us all….wouldn’t it? He landed his catch.

Back in Chalfont the production of the Carollers takes place in a huge warehouse, dotted with benches, the open expanse is divided into different areas so as you walk through you can see the wire frames padded with tissue awaiting heads which are being carefully individually painted at other benches. Miniature coats, cloaks, dresses and bonnets are sewn with the the precision and skill of a Saville Row tailor and the whole collection are brought together to produce another completely individual and therefore collectable piece.

But each Christmas when I arrive all of these benches are removed and the warehouse floor becomes a theatre of giant proportions. Bob Jnr loves to think of himself as Mr Fezziwig clearing the warehouse on Christmas Eve ready for the great party!

A large stage is erected at one end and David Daikeler leaves his normal job in sales to become the stage manager, rigging a superb theatrical lighting system and installing state of the art sound equipment. Joyce (still very hands on within the company that) dresses the stage with fine furniture, whilst hundreds of white seats are laid out – I think the largest audience we had in that room was around 900, but we are limited by parking space!

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My dressing room is in a large conference room surrounded by fine American artwork, and I have plenty of space to spread out. The corridors of the office space are filled with plaques, certificates and awards which tell another story about Byers’ Choice: their philanthropy. In 1982 Bob Senior created The Byers Foundation which donates a large portion of the company profits to various charities, local, national and international. This was never a cynical business ploy, the donations are made because the Byers family are good, kind, caring people. I feel it a privilege to have met them and an even greater privilege to continue to work with them.

Bob Byer’s Jnr and his wife Pam construct and manage my tours, generously and thoughtfully, striking long and deep relationships with the various venues I have already written about.

This year of course it was Bob who initiated the idea of making a film and put the funding in place, alongside various other partners, to get it done. Even when orders for the Carollers went through the roof at the end of this year as people were desperate for some joy in 2020 he was always there at the end of a phone, answering questions, arranging the systems through which people around the globe could rent the movie and doing it all with the grace and care inherited from his parents.

I wanted this to be special celebratory Christmas tribute to my dear friends, Joyce, Bob Snr, Bob Jnr and Jeff, as well as all of the artisans who make the figurines, but this week brought sad tidings from Chalfont: Bob Byers senior passed away after a period of ill health. His family had been able to spend quality time with him through recent weeks and were at his side when died on 21st December, in the heart of season during which he had brought so much joy to so many people over the years. You can read the family’s tribute to Bob on the company website, I shall put the link at the end of this post, but I can only say that to me he was a great fun man to spend time with, his passions for fine red wines and vintage cars engaged us in long conversations as he proudly showed off his latest acquisition. During the days of my shows Bob would be running around the factory checking that there was a goodly supply of toilet roll in the bathrooms, and that everything was perfect. He was that kind of man – not expecting anyone else to do something if he could do it himself

I know the family will spend this Christmas mourning a great husband, father and grandfather, but oh what an impression he has left on this earth and what a fine legacy remains.

Bob Byers Senior. 1938 – 2020 RIP.

The Byers Family tribute to Bob can be read here: Bob Byers Sr (byerschoice.com)

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Carol Trivia: The Answers

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Christmas is behind us but, heeding the advice of Charles Dickens, we are going to keep it all the year! Before the festive season reached its climax I set a little quiz based on the original text of A Christmas Carol, and here are the answers:

The Preface:

1: Which publishing house produced A Christmas Carol (even though it was funded by Dickens himself)?

A Christmas Carol was published by Chapman and Hall

2: Who was the illustrator of the first edition?

John Leech

3: On what date was the book published?

19 December 1843

4: How many copies were printed for the first edition?

The first run was of 6,000 which sold almost instantly

5: What is the full title of the book?

A Christmas Carol In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas

Stave 1:

1: Assuming the story is set in 1843, in what year did Jacob Marley die?

‘He died seven years ago, this very night’ Therefore on 24 December 1836

2: Who would have been on the throne at the time of Marley’s death?

William IV reigned until his death on 20th June 1837, when he was succeeded by Queen Victoria

3: What time of day is it when we first enter Scrooge’s office?

The clocks had just struck 3

4: What does the Clerk use to warm himself?

His comforter (scarf) and his candle

5: What is the name of the first visitor to the office on that evening?

Scrooge’s nephew, Fred

4: How many charity collectors come to solicit Scrooge on Christmas Eve?

Two

6: where does Bob Cratchit slide on the ice before going home?

He slides on Cornhill, which sets Scrooge’s office in the very heart of the financial heart of London

7: Where is his home and what connection does it have to Charles Dickens?

Bob Cratchit’s home is in Camden Town, the region in which the Dickens family resided when they moved to London in 1822. Charles was aged 10 at the time.

8: Who built Scrooge’s fireplace?

‘The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago.

9: After Jacob Marley floats through the window who else does Scrooge see?

‘The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they may be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar, with one old Ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.’

10: In my film what Churchyard did I use to film the opening scenes?

The Churchyard of St James’ Church, Cooling, Kent, which inspired Charles Dickens in the creation of the opening chapters of Great Expectations.

Stave 2:

1: What is the second Chapter called?

The First of the Three Spirits

2: What does the Ghost of Christmas Past carry under its arm?

A Great extinguisher’, or candle snuffer

3: What book was the young Ebenezer reading at school?

Robinson Crusoe

4: Who wrote it?

Daniel Defoe, in 1719

5: What did the Headmaster of the school give to Ebenezer and his sister before their journey home?

‘Here he produced a decanter of curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake, and administered instalments of those dainties to the young people….’

6: What country dance did the fiddler accompany at Fezziwig’s party?

Sir Roger de Coverley

7: What was the name of Ebenezer’s fellow apprentice at Fezziwig’s?

Dick Wilkins

8: When Ebenezer is shown the house of his ex fiancée, there is a scare about the baby – what did the family think had happened?

‘The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken the act of putting a doll’s frying pan into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having swallowed a fictitious turkey, glued on a wooden platter.’

9: When Belle’s husband walked past the office window of Scrooge and Marley’s what day of the year was it likely to have been?

As he tells Bell that ‘Jacob Marley lies upon the point of death so I hear’ it is likely to be Christmas Eve.

10: In my film all of the scenes from the past were filmed in the Crypt of Rochester Cathedral – which of Dickens novels does the Cathedral feature strongly in?

The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Charles Dickens’ final, unfinished, novel is set in the fictional cathedral city of Cloiseterham, and also features Eastgate House which also appears in my film as various different locations.

Stave 3:

1: What is the time when Scrooge finally gets out of bed?

1.15 am

2: What does the Ghost of Christmas Present wear around its waist?

An empty Scabbard

`3: Outside the fruiterers’ shop there were ‘piles of filberts’. What is a filbert?

A nut

4: What was Bob Cratchit’s weekly wage?

15 shillings, or 15 ‘bob’

5: How many children did Mr and Mrs Cratchit have?

6: Peter, Belinda, Martha, Tim and the ‘two youngest Cratchits – boy and girl’

6: In my film version of A Christmas Carol I used an an Elizabethan alms house called The Six Poor Traveller’s House to represent the Cratchit’s home. Charles Dickens wrote a short story about the house – what was it called, and why?

The essay was called The Seven Poor Traveller’s House. The house could only accommodate 6 people, but Dickens as the narrator became the seventh

7: Why did Mrs Cratchit’s Christmas pudding smell like a washing day?

Traditionally a Christmas pudding is wrapped in muslin while it steams

8: After leaving The Cratchit’s house the Spirit suddenly removes Scrooge from the city and shows him simple Christmas celebrations in three remote locations: where are they?

A mine, in a lighthouse and onboard a boat at sea

9: According to Charles Dickens ‘..there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as…’ what? (hint, it is NOT Covid19!)

Laughter and good humour

10: What is the answer to Fred’s ‘Yes or No’ game?

Uncle Scrooge!

Stave 4

1: What is the title of Stave 4?

The Last of the Spirits

2: How many wealthy merchants in total does Scrooge watch discussing his own death?

Six

3: What is Mrs Dilber’s occupation?

She is a Laundress

4: How does old Joe keep a tally of how much he will pay each of his visitors?

Keeps a record by chalking figures on the wall

5: When Scrooge sees the vision of a dead body under a ragged sheet, there is an animal in the room also, what is it?

A Cat

6: Scrooge is shown the vison of a husband and wife who are in debt to him – what is the wife’s name?

Caroline

7: What is Mrs Cratchit doing when Scrooge returns to the house?

Sewing

8: Where does Tiny Tim’s body lie in the vision of the future?

In the upstairs room of the house

9: The Spirit leads Scrooge to a churchyard, but what establishment do they pass on the way?

His own house which he notices is occupied by someone else

10: There is an actual grave to Ebenezer Scrooge in the UK – where and why?

In the city of Shrewsbury, where the George C Scott movie was filmed. It was a clause in the filming contract that the stone be left in the churchyard for tourism purposes.

Stave 5

1: How does Charles Dickens describe the ringing of the church bells on Christmas morning?

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

2: How much does Scrooge promise the boy on the pavement if he brings the poulterer back to the house?

A shilling

3: How much does he promise him if returns within 5 minutes?

Half-a-crown

4: ‘I shall love it as long as I live!’ cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. ‘What an honest expression it has on its face!’ What is Scrooge talking about?

The knocker on his door

5: How many times did Scrooge pass his Nephew’s door before he plucked ‘up the courage to go up and knock?

A dozen times

6: What time did Bob Cratchit arrive for work on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas)?

9.18 and-a-half

7: What did Scrooge tell Bob to buy for himself, before he dotted ‘another i’?

A coal scuttle

8: And what drink did he promise him?

Smoking Bishop

9: Who was responsible for filming and editing my film version of A Christmas Carol?

Emily Walder

10: What are the final words of the novel?

‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

I hope that you enjoyed this little diversion, have a very happy and safe 2021

The End of the Tour: Happy Birthday and a Lamb Pasanda

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My extensive 2020 tour of three venues continued and concluded over this weekend as the country was plunged ever deeper into more complicated layers of lockdown.

On Saturday morning I loaded my car with the various pieces of my set (carefully designed to fit into the rear of a Renault Kadjar) and set a course for The Wirral – the beautiful peninsula to the south of the River Mersey. In past years I have regularly performed in the city of Liverpool, specifically at The St George’s Hall where Charles himself gave readings, but harsh restrictions in the city led to a nervousness of many venues to stage events meaning that Lynne Hamilton, the producer who promotes my shows in this region, had to search for alternative sites. With time rapidly running out to organise and market a show Lynne finally came to an arrangement with the Thornton Hall Hotel and Spa, and the date was to be the 19th December, the anniversary of the day that A Christmas Carol had been published in 1843. It seemed as if the stars were truly aligning.

My SatNav set I made the journey north on roads which were very much quieter than in more more normal years of yore. The hotel sits on the outskirts of the very pretty village of Thornton Hough which was originally built as a model village by a mill owner in 1866 before being developed by William Lever as a community for his executive staff working at the Sunlight Soap factory nearby.

Having checked in to the hotel I found my way to the Torintone Suite where I was due to perform. The large room had been set up with a stage at one end and tables and chairs very carefully placed to abide by the strict regulations. Members of staff, all masked, bustled about making final preparations. I introduced myself and received muffled greetings and welcomes in reply, before starting to arrange my furniture on the stage.

Every venue has its own particular challenges and I immediately realised what those would be here: over the stage hung two beautifully designed chandeliers, modern in design, made up of hundreds of glass droplets which dangled from little hooks…unfortunately with the raised stage they dangled to a lower height than 5’10 plus top hat – I was going to have to very carefully navigate my way around.

Soon Lynne arrived and we made the final preparations, the most complicated of which was to arrange my opening music and sound effect to play at the correct moment, for the CD unit was in a completely different room (actually a tiny stock cupboard behind the bar area), meaning that we had to set up a chain of people to allow Zak, one of the staff members, to hit the button bang on cue.

Soon the time for the audience to arrive was approaching so I made some final checks to the stage, before waiting for the start time of 2.30. Although the hotel had not staged any events like this for months they had worked out a system of taking bar orders and serving drinks which they carried out like clockwork. Soon everyone who wanted one had a drink and we were ready to start. Lynne got on the stage and welcomed everyone, who were revelling in a tiny moment of normality in turbulent times, and the show began.

I performed in two acts, and successfully managed to not destroy the chandeliers, the audience responded enthusiastically throughout. After I had finished I chatted to a few audience members (all masked up, of course and from a distance), and learned that many people had seen me perform in Liverpool before and had made the journey across the Mersey to catch up with me this year.

Between shows I went to my room and as soon as I switched on the TV I discovered that the Prime Minister was announcing even tighter restrictions on the country, and the jolly plans that had been put in place to temporarily allow a few household bubbles to meet over the Christmas season were henceforth rescinded. Inevitably Mr Johnson would now be slammed in the press as the PM who cancelled Christmas. It was all too depressing to watch, so I flicked the channel and was instantly rewarded with Alastair Sim skipping around his room in sheer undulated joy: once again A Christmas Carol had come to the rescue.

The evening show was at 7.30 so I had plenty of time to rest before the second audience, slightly larger than the first, took their seats, ordered their drinks and prepared themselves for a dose of escapism to treat the depressing malaise that has spread across the country.

Again the show was a success, and again I was able to chat and pose with some of the fans who had tracked me down!

When I returned to my room the day’s duties were not quite done for I had a Q&A call from America, which was arranged to celebrate the 177th anniversary of ‘The Ghostly Little Book.’ The video session had been arranged by Sandy Belknap, my good friend from Nashua, who has been doing a lot of marketing work to promote the film during the last few weeks. I was to be interviewed by Pam Byers, who would usually be organising and managing my American tour. The whole technical aspect was overseen by Scott, a colleague and friend of Sandy’s. We virtually forgathered in our virtual studio and ran through the running order that Sandy had drawn up and then with a couple of minutes to go Pam and I were left to our own devices, but with Sandy and Scott feeding chat messages to us, guiding the session.

Pam welcomed me and invited me to chat about the gestation and publication of A Christmas Carol, before opening the ‘floor’ to questions, which started to pour in. I was asked if I had a favourite copy of A Christmas Carol and I talked about the ‘reading’ version upon which I based my first show. The volume in question was first published in 1969 with a white cover (and that is the one that was read to me by an uncle – my first experience of the story), then re-published with a red cover (I am not sure when that was), and finally with a green cover which is the copy I have marked up with some of my own performance suggestions from 1993.

Another question was about Dickens development of characters and did he base any on real people, also the names, where did they come from? Of course Charles Dickens was an observer above all things, so his greatest characters were an amalgam of many character traits that he had noticed around him. As for the names, they were very important to him, having to capture the essence of the character in an instant.

I was delighted to notice a couple of questions pop up from ‘Martin at Orgin8 Photography’ Martin is a good friend who took the fantastic still photos for the film’s promotion. Martin’s questions focussed on the making of the film and the challenges I faced in creating it, which was a lovely avenue to go down, and useful in that the point of the session was to stimulate plenty of rentals. I assure you Martin was not a plant and his presence online was a complete, yet very happy, surprise’

Our thirty minutes ran its course, with Pam and I keeping up a dialogue, whilst watching for Sandy and Scott’s comments to guide us. It was a fun session and the whole thing can still be watched online and I will post the link at the end of this article.

I was still buzzing with adrenaline when we finally signed off, and it took quite a while to get to sleep. It had been a fun day and I think we honoured the anniversary of A Christmas Carol in a suitably celebratory fashion.

On the next day I left the hotel after a large breakfast and headed home to be with the family for a few brief hours before setting off to perform my final show of 2020. Once again this was a new venue to me and an unusual one at that! I had been booked by a friend of many years (I was going to say an old friend, but that is ungallant), who works as an event promoter. I had first met Paula when she worked at a theatre in the Oxfordshire riverside town of Henley and had booked me to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and The Signalman. We have kept in touch ever since and this year she contacted me to ask if I would perform A Christmas Carol as a dinner theatre show for her client: The Spice Merchant Indian restaurant. Dickens and an Indian restaurant do not seem to be a natural fit, but there was plenty of enthusiasm for the project and I was very happy to sign off my year in this way.

The drive to Henley from Abingdon is a short one, so I travelled in costume, admiring the beautiful Christmas lights which are adorning Britain more extravagantly this year than ever before. The room I would be performing in was long and narrow with tables on either side, so allowing for distancing I only had a single track to move up and down along.

The guests arrived and ordered their meals, before I performed chapters 1 and 2. As I performed so the waiters were carrying plates of food and drink, meaning that I had to be careful not to send a plate of Lamb Pasanda and Pilau flying with some theatrical and flamboyant gesture. I was however able to include some the waiters in the performance, one unwittingly becoming Dick Wilkins, Scrooge’s fellow clerk in Mr Fezziwig’s warehouse.

After a brief interval I returned to fisnish the story, taking care not to roam too far up the room this time as one table has an elderly and therefore vulnerable lady in their party and had asked Paula if I could not come quite so close to them during my show, a request which of course I honoured.

The show was another great success and after I had finished we spent a little time chatting in an informal Q&A until I packed up my things, said goodbye to Paula and drove away from my 2020 tour, which has involved 5 performances!

To view the online Q&A with Pam Byers visit my Facebook page: Dickens Shows

To watch my film of A Christmas Carol go to my website: http://www.geralddickens.com

Sharnbrook Mill Theatre

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Last Saturday I performed for the first time this year, and what a perfect venue it was to ‘open my account’. At the start of the year The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre contacted me and it was with great difficulty that we were able to find a date in the crowded Christmas season. As 2020 moved on so my diary began to empty with each confirmed booking being consigned to the dustbin with a line stroked through it, but Sharnbrook remained. With the cancellation of my American tour so the diary opened up completely and whilst other venues were falling by the wayside, Sharnbrook asked if they could change dates to one closer to Christmas. There was no problem there, I had plenty of time available!

Britain came out of lockdown but the celebrations of late Summer sent us straight back in again and for a while it looked as if my performances in Bedfordshire would suffer the same fate as the others, but the staff worked on, planning, hoping. Rather than leaving the theatre empty during those long months the volunteers (The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre is staffed entirely by volunteers) began a renovation process and the auditorium was filled with scaffolding as they installed air conditioning units and made much needed repairs to the fabric of the building.

By December the work was finished but there was still no guarantee that I would be able to perform, for the government replaced our second full lockdown with a tier system of restrictions: if Bedfordshire was in tier 3 then there would be nothing we could do. We all listened to the radio anxiously that day – the county of Kent, where I made my film and where I was also due to perform, was in 3 – another date lost, but Bedfordshire was announced as being in tier 2 – the emails started again. I booked a hotel which seemed to be close to the theatre and on Saturday 12 December I packed my car with all of my props and started my 2020 tour.

The theatre is, as its name suggests, in a converted mill building on the Great Ouse river. Having left plenty of time for traffic, I arrived slightly early so decided to drive to my hotel and get checked in. It wasn’t a long drive in any sense of the term, for in fact the two properties were next door to one another and the view from my room was of the rear of the theatre.

Having dropped my bags off I made the long car journey next door where I was welcomed by the extremely enthusiastic, dedicated and professional staff who run it. My contact was Brenda and her husband Gerry (another Gerald, there are not many of us), would be my stage manager for the evening whilst Mark would be running my sound. The stage and auditorium are in a a towering room which, judging by the long ago bricked up windows, was once four stories high. The roof was of wooden timbers which contrasted with the bright metal grid which held the lights. The stage was at floor level with the auditorium holding 187 on a good day (more like 50 in this time of social distancing regulations), rising in a gentle rake. At the back of the stage were flats representing old wooden panelling, which were created for the last production staged – Daisy Pulls It Off, an old favourite of mine that I have directed twice in the past.

I can’t tell you of the sheer sense of pleasure with which I laid out my chair, table, hat stand and stool and began a cue to cue tech rehearsal to ensure that the various sound effects and lighting cues all worked.

I retired to my dressing room, got into costume, checked that my pocket watch was wound and that I had a Victorian penny in my waistcoat pocket and waited for the audience to arrive: all of those little details which give me such pleasure when I am in a theatre.

Out front the staff in their full PPE visors were busily ensuring that the audience were safely admitted having checked temperatures at the door in that terribly aggressive and threatening gun-to-the-head stance that has become part of our lives now. The seats in the auditorium were marked with a cross or a tick and slowly the open seats filled up.

At 3pm I got the nod from Gerry and the show began. It was so good to be on stage again, to be bathed in theatrical light, to have space to move, to hear the response from the small, but enthusiastic audience as I guided them through Ebenezer’s somewhat interrupted night.

At the end of my performance it had been agreed that I would return to the stage to conduct a question and answer session, but before I could do that I had to wait back stage until those that wanted to leave had carefully been ushered from the auditorium. Naturally the pessimistic nature of an actor led me to assume that when I came back into the lights I would be greeted by an empty house so I was most happily surprised to find the large majority of the audience still in their seats. The questions that followed were fun, allowing me plenty of scope to tell my favourite anecdotes – you know the ones by now – but also to discuss the craft of staging the show. One questioner commented on my breaking of the fourth wall, that is talking directly to the audience rather than maintaining the character and scene within the set, and I was pleased that she appreciated this device because it is an important part of the stage show, as well as of the film. In the original text Charles Dickens uses the narrator’s voice in a very personal way, occasionally slipping in little asides as if he is sitting close to the reader guiding them through the story and I have always strived to capture that same approach on stage.

Between the matinee and the evening show all of the volunteers gathered to enjoy a supper of salmon and salad, followed by a delicious citrus polenta cake, all provided by Brenda. It was during this dinner that I learned more about the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre and the amazing team of volunteers that keep it afloat. There was a mill on the site from as long ago as 1086 but the oldest part of the current building was constructed in 1703. Milling ceased in 1969 and the building lay crumbling for a decade until it re-opened as a theatre in 1979.

Sharnbrook Mill Theatre is staffed and run entirely by volunteers who this year were awarded with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, or QAVS. The QAVS is equivalent to the MBE and is the highest award a voluntary group can receive in the UK. Everyone connected with the theatre was justifiably very proud of this recognition but due to the extraordinary circumstances of the year had not yet been able to celebrate, so the day of my show was a perfect opportunity to pat each other on the back and raise a glass.

I felt extremely honoured to be part of these celebrations and to meet so many passionate, committed and utterly professional people. I very much look forward to returning to The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre in the coming months and to performing to a full house in the beautifully atmospheric audiortium.

To view my film of A Christmas Carol visit: http://www.geralddickens.com

Questions. So Many Questions

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Over the last few days I have spent quite a bit of time sitting in front of my laptop in a Christmas sweater (red with snowmen, to be precise) chatting via Zoom about my new film of A Christmas Carol. Yesterday I spent a very entertaining hour in the company of audience members from The Mid Continent Public Library Service in Kansas City who posed some fascinating questions, and I thought it may be fun to air some of them here so that the debate can move onto a larger platform. The answers to these questions are open to interpretation and derive not so much from fact but from a few clues buried deep within the text that was written so quickly in December 1843. I hope you have fun coming to your own conclusions:

Friendship: was Jacob Marley Scrooge’s only true friend?

We know that Scrooge and Marley were close in that they formed a business and ran it together for ‘I don’t know how many years’. The two men presumably shared the same opinions, morals and aspirations and the firm had the name of Scrooge and Marley. Ebenezer, we are told, never painted out Jacob’s name after his death, although that was probably less to do with friendship and more to do with the cost of paint! Scrooge was, as Dickens points out, his sole friend and his sole mourner. So, yes a friendship was certainly there, but does it go deeper?

The opening chapter of the book bears Marley’s name and it is also in the first sentence of the novel, in fact it is the very first word, so we know from the outset that Jacob Marley is important to what will unfold, but just how strong is his influence over old Ebenezer will be confirmed in the following pages. For the rest of the first chapter not a single other character is referred to by their name, even though there is plenty of traffic passing through Ebenezer’s office on Christmas Eve: apart from his faithful clerk who sits in a ‘sort of a tank’, Scrooge’s ever cheerful and faithful nephew comes to call, as do two gentlemen collecting for charity. A carol singer stoops to the keyhole in the hope of making a penny. Not only does Scrooge dismiss all of these individuals but neither he or the narrator refers to any of them by name, they are simply ‘the clerk’, ‘the nephew’ and ‘the gentlemen’. The next time a name is mentioned is when Scrooge is standing in front of his door: ‘Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley since his last mention of his seven years dead partner that afternoon.’ Marley again.

When the ghost eventually appears, the two men, after a bit of ill-tempered banter (‘Can you sit down?’ ‘I can!’ ‘Do it then’, ‘You don’t believe in me’, ‘I don’t!’), fall into a conversation as Marley warns his friend what lies in store and, more to the point, Scrooge listens Ebenezer doesn’t simply call him Marley, but actually uses his first name, ‘Jacob, tell me more, speak comfort to me Jacob.’ Indeed, Scrooge goes so far as to say that ”you were always a good friend to me. Thank ‘ee’.

The chains that Jacob bears belong also to Ebenezer and Dickens uses this imagery to shackle them together in genuine friendship. Unless Scrooge can change, unless he learns from the three spirits, only then will those chains be broken.

Of course Scrooge has little choice but to spend time with the ghosts and indeed he does repent and change his ways and at the end of the book he refers to Jacob just once before he rushes into the streets and visits his nephew whom he addresses as ‘Fred’ upon arrival. The next morning he surprises his clerk and wishes him ‘A Merry Christmas Bob!’ And of his old long deceased friend? ‘Scrooge had no further intercourse with the spirits….’, there is no name, Marley has now become a function, as the mortal characters were in the opening chapter, and is consigned to the skies to continue his long and weary journey – unless by helping his only true friend Jacob is also released from the shackles that bound him to Ebenezer and is allowed to leave purgatory to spend eternity at peace.

A final observation about friendship was pointed out by the questioner in Kansas City: when Fred, the nephew, is pleading with Scrooge he says ‘I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?’ At that point friendship seems to be out of the question but it is obviously an important target for Fred to aim for.

Was Scrooge’s father visited by spirits too, thereby softening his attitude and bringing his son home at Christmas?

When Ebenezer is taken to see his old school by the Ghost of Christmas Past he is saddened to see ‘his poor forgotten self as he used to be’ and can only mutter ‘poor boy’ as he remembers the solitude and despondency of the Christmas holidays when he alone was left in the long bare room. Every other child had been taken home but Scrooge’s father seems not to have cared for his son. When the spirit shows Scrooge another Christmas we can assume that a number of years have passed, for the description of decay is more than might be expected in a single year: ‘Scrooge’s former self grew larger at the words and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell from the ceiling and the naked laths were shown instead.’ We are certainly led to believe that every Christmas that past was the same and young Scrooge was simply abandoned. But suddenly a ray of light bursts into the scene, in the person of Scrooge’s younger sister Fan, who skips and squeals and jumps and hugs before telling Ebenezer that ‘I have come to bring you home dear brother, to bring you home, home, home! Home for good and all, home for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven. He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him again if you might come home; and he said Yes you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you’re to be a man! And are never to come back here; but first we are to be together all the Christmas time long and have the merriest time in all the world!’

I have always assumed in the past that Scrooge’s father only recalled him from school because he is of an age at which he can work and earn his keep, and this is undoubtedly true, but there is more, there is a tenderness in the gesture and little Fan’s words tell a deeper story: ‘Father is so much kinder than he used to be….’, we have to ask ‘how was he before?’ Fan intimates that she used to be scared of him at her bed time, so was he violent and abusive to his children? It is plain that he is looking after the family alone for there is no mention of a mother, so perhaps he was depressed or possibly alcoholic, but now the little girl tells us that ‘home is like Heaven’: a huge change has come about somehow. If Scrooge was simply to be sent to work by a dominant, abusive patriarch it is unlikely that he and Fan would be allowed to be together all the Christmas time long having the merriest time in all the world. Something has definitely altered in the Scrooge household, and it is entirely possible that in this world of ghosts, the spirits have already been at work (later in the book, the Ghost of Christmas Present tells Ebenezer that ‘my time on this globe is very brief….’ – the word THIS suggests that he has plenty of other Christmas days to visit.

A lovely little touch is that little Fan explains to Ebenezer that father sent her in a coach to bring him home and this is mirrored at the very end of the book when he sees the prize turkey and exclaims ‘Why, it is impossible to carry that to Camden Town. You must have a cab!’

The reconciliation of Scrooge and his father is repeated in the reconciliation of Scrooge and his nephew, his only living relation and the only link to his little sister Fan.

Charles Dickens also had a sister named Fan, short for Frances, although she was two years older than he and not younger as in the book, but the difference in their childhood lifestyles was just as profound. Whilst young Charles was sent to work at Warren’s blacking factory and his education was paid scant attention to, his sister was sent to the Royal Academy of Music where she won two prizes. The gulf between the siblings never led to any open jealousy between them although Dickens would confide later in life how much it secretly hurt him. Frances had two sons, one being very sickly and weak – a certain model for Tiny Tim. But unlike the fictional child, Harry would die in 1848, shortly after his mother. They were buried together at Highgate Cemetery.

Frances Dickens

The Charity Collectors

This section is based purely on my invention and I cite little evidence from the text for my conclusions, but there is a question to be asked: who are the charity collectors?

We know that Scrooge is well known in the City of London and that his office is in a most prestigious area close to the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange During the vision of the future Ebenezer is shown other affluent merchants discussing his death as they fiddle with gold seals on their watch chains (an important detail to establish wealth and success), and we are told that Scrooge recognises them. One of the gentlemen says ‘When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met.’ The reason for pointing all of this out is to ask why on earth the charity collectors didn’t know if Scrooge was Scrooge or if he was Marley? If they had any background in the City they would have known that soliciting Scrooge for a donation would have been futile and it would have been much better use of their time to pass by the door and head towards a more benevolent gent.

So, we must come to the conclusion that these particular collectors are new to town and I have invented a scenario in which their other more experienced and hardened colleagues have sent them into the lion’s den as a kind of prank, or possibly an initiation test. Of course they feel the full force of Scrooge’s ire even though they try to convince him with their carefully prepared statements, but leave with nothing seeing that it would be ‘useless to pursue their point’ No doubt they slouch back to the office where they are greeted with huge guffaws of laughter.

Imagine then, only a few hours later, next morning indeed, when old Ebenezer bounds up to them, wishes them a Merry Christmas and whispers that he wants to make a huge pledge to the charity, ‘a good many back payments are included in it, I assure you!’. I imagine they rush back to the office with the news and calmly tell their astounded friends ‘oh, that old Scrooge, he just needed the right approach, that’s all! Simple really, I don’t know what all of the fuss was about!’

I am sure that there are plenty of other scenes in the book which can be disassembled and explored, and I would be fascinated to know of anything that you may have spotted or questioned. The film has given me the opportunity to look at my script, and the original material, from a different perspective and it may well be that come Christmas 2021 the show might have changed a little…..

To view the film go to my website: http://www.geralddickens.com

Winterthur

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In a normal year I would be reaching the last few venues of my tour and over the decades these have tumbled around the schedule in various orders, giving me plenty of choice as to which one to choose from my online memory feed. Today it is Winterthur in the tiny state of Delaware.

The Winterthur estate was originally built by HF DuPont, whose family owned most of Delaware thanks to the fortune amassed through, firstly, gunpowder and then latterly petrochemicals. Nowadays visitors flock to the property and take tours of the house, wondering at the magnificence of life in an age that boasted the Rockerfellers, the Vanderbilts and the Astors, as well as the DuPonts atop the rich lists.

Such is the popularity of Winterthur that it was necessary to build a visitor centre a short distance from the mansion to meet, greet and feed the thousands of guests who flocked there, and it is this building that becomes my home during two days each December. Like so many of my venues I have been visiting Winterthur for many years and have a close relationship with the excellent team there – Ellen, who runs my shows and Barbara, who is in charge of the well stocked shop and whose office I use as a changing room. That office is a real highlight of being at Winterthur as Barbara has the walls covered in little cartoons which always make me laugh.

A visit to Winterthur doesn’t start when I leave the car in the huge parking lot and make my way to the visitor centre, it begins early in the morning, usually in darkness, often in sleet, rain or snow, when I leave my previous venue which has tended to be The Country Cupboard in Lewisburg during recent years. I make my way back along the Susquehanna towards Harrisburg and from there towards Lancaster and into Amish country where rumbling trucks are replaced by fragile looking gigs pulled by ponies.

The icy crags of the Susquehanna valley give way to gently undulating fields studded with silos as I pass through the suggestively named Intercourse (the name most likely came from the fact that the village sits at a cross roads and was therefore a site for meeting and discussions – I was going to write ‘debate’ but feared I would mire myself even deeper into innuendo), and on towards Gap with its quirky lighthouse-shaped clock tower. It is always a happy drive and one that is invariably accompanied by my Christmas playlist.

I drive through Chad’s Ford and passed the Fairville Inn guest house, which is my extremely homely and comfortable lodgings, before crossing the line from Pennsylvania into Delaware and turn off the road to make my way along the serpentine driveway which leads me ‘home’.

The actual venue for my shows is the Copeland Lecture Theatre, attached to the visitor centre, and which is one of the most remarkable rooms I have ever had the pleasure of performing in. It doesn’t have an impressive stage for it is very definitely a lecture theatre, it has some lighting but nothing really theatrical, it doesn’t have a balcony so the auditorium is very long. The hall has no particular history, and Charles Dickens never visited this area, so what makes the venue so special to me? A carefully designed and shaped ceiling, that’s what. The acoustics of The Copeland Lecture Theatre, created purely by the shape of the room, are beyond compare and I can speak in my normal voice from the stage and know that the people sat in the furthest reaches of the room can hear me quite clearly. It took me many years to have confidence in the room and many was the time that I would walk onto the stage and look at the sea of faces diminishing towards a far distant vanishing point and doubt that I could do the show without electronic aids, but I always can.

Of course a perfect hall is nothing without an enthusiastic audience, and the people who come to Winterthur in their Christmas sweaters and warm scarves are always a lively and fun bunch who join in loudly and applaud long.

One particular pleasure of my visits to the Winterthur estate has been the opportunity to view two amazing exhibitions of costumes. During the years that Downton Abbey was popular, Winterthur forged close ties with Highclere Castle (where I also perform), and welcomed Lady Carnarvon on a number of occasions to speak about ‘The Real Downton Abbey’. In 2014 a major exhibition of costumes from the series was opened and early one morning I was able to have a special tour. It was a brilliantly curated exhibit displaying each costume in front of still photography, copies of scripts and video clips. With the ending of Downton so Winterthur turned its attentions to the next big British drama and mounted another exhibition, this time featuring The Crown, Netflix’s drama based on the life of Queen Elizabeth II. Once again I was snuck in before opening and marvelled at the craftsmanship and accuracy of the beautiful creations, ranging from the coronation regalia to Princess Margaret’s swinging 60s dresses.

Maybe one day they will mount an exhibition of costumes from my show, although I do admit they will only need a very small room! At least in my film version of A Christmas Carol I wear two different waistcoats and two different cravats, but I grant you it may not be the most thrilling experience. Perhaps I should just stick to performing in The Copeland Hall where I hope to be in 2021.

To rent my film and to view BOTH costumes, go to: http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html