During my recent adventures at the Rochester Dickens Festival my thoughts turned, as they annually do during the three days, to my father.
My dad had always studied the works of Dickens with the fascination of a family member and with the intensity of a scholar. He knew his stuff without a doubt and loved to share his knowledge. Unfortunately for him, none of his children showed the slightest interest in the life and works of our great great grandfather.
But Dad didn’t mind. He wrote articles, gave speeches and told us that ‘one day you will discover Dickens. It may be when you are 20, it may be when you are 70 but one day it will happen. In the meantime just do what you want to do, but do it well. Be the best as you can at whatever your chosen field is.’
He put no pressure on us, we weren’t sat down with a bowl of gruel to read 5 chapters of Hard Times before bedtime. He supported us. He advised us. He encouraged us.
My chosen career was not a traditional, or a safe one but dad had loved performing in his youth and was always taking me to rehearsals and giving me advice and feedback after a show. I used to talk far too quickly until he gave me the best piece of advice that any actor could wish for: ‘Always finish one word before starting the next.’ It is brilliant in its simplicity.
In 1993 when I was approached and asked to recreate one of Charles Dickens’s readings of A Christmas Carol I tentatively asked him if he knew of any books that I could read on the subject and this was when I realised how much he had restrained himself over the years. He burst like a balloon, and all of the knowledge, research, contacts and opinion came pouring out of him. He was like an excited child who had been keeping a secret until Christmas morning.
He told me which books to read, which scholars to speak to, where to find the version that Dickens himself had performed. However he advised me not to try and do it AS Charles Dickens, I should do it as myself. And of course there was the old mantra: ‘Do it well. Be the best you can’
Whenever I performed in Rochester Dad would be there, as anonymous as a man who looked just like Charles Dickens could be in the Medway Towns at festival time. He stood outside the room I was to perform in, marshalling the audience to their seats.
He, however, never sat. He was too nervous for me and would stand at the back of the room, his hand deep in his pocket, jangling his change. From my vantage point on stage I could always tell how nervous he was getting by the sound of the bullion shifting. He would get furious looks from audience members but he would never stop jangling. I really don’t think he knew he was doing it.
Over the years I performed a number of Charles’s own readings, with Nickleby always being a favourite, as well as shows that I created myself: ‘Sketches by Boz by Dickens’, ‘A Tale of Two Speeches’, ‘Mr Dickens is Coming!’ and others.
And then one year I realised that I didn’t have any new material to perform at the festival. Dad, of course, had advice: ‘You should try Doctor Marigold; it would suit your style with the fast sales patter. People will love it.’
You would have thought that by now I might have realised that Dad knew what he was talking about but on this occasion I became an opinionated know-it-all son and completely disregarded his advice. Instead I put together an awful programme of short readings from various novels that had no theme, no coherence, no style and by the end practically no audience either. I was so depressed at the end of the festival that I was on the point of giving it all up.
Fortunately I didn’t and bounced back the following year with some other show – but Marigold lay buried deep at the back of my mind, irrationally associated with my failure of the previous year.
The years passed and I loved being a performer, which is all I’d ever really dreamed of. New shows came, some stayed, some went but Doctor Marigold remained stubbornly unperformed.
In 2005 I received a great honour when I was invited to become President of The Dickens Fellowship, as my father had been before me. Dad was so proud and once again gave me plenty of advice.
The Presidency is officially bestowed at the Fellowship’s annual conference which in 2005 was in Canterbury, a city with strong Dickens connections, thanks mainly to David Copperfield.
On the Saturday night banquet I gave a speech, and in it paid huge tribute to the influence of my father and, as requested by him, sent his best wishes to his many friends in the room. The applause for him was warm, affectionate and genuine.
As I left the dinner I switched on my mobile phone to receive the dreadful news that, almost as I had been speaking, Dad had suffered a heart attack and died.
I rushed straight to the family home, in costume, to be with Mum. It is silly the things that you remember, but I’d promised Dad that I’d prune the massive wisteria climbing over the front of the house so on Sunday morning, wearing the Victorian garb from the night before (I had nothing else with me), I climbed the ladder and did the pruning in waistcoat and cravat. He would have enjoyed that!
Dad left me many memories and many things, but above all else he gave me my career, he inspired and supported me throughout. He let me make mistakes and helped me to understand them and, of course, he suggested that I should perform Doctor Marigold.
I don’t recall which year it was, maybe the following summer, but once more I arrived at Rochester with nothing left in my repertoire and for the first time in years I began to think about Doctor Marigold.
If truth be told I’d never actually read the piece and knew nothing about it. Dad had mentioned the fast paced sales patter and I couldn’t quite understand why a Doctor would be doing that. It all seemed a bit silly to me.
Oh, how I should have listened to my father. Oh, I should have trusted him. Doctor Marigold is such a beautiful tale. It is moving, tragic, uplifting and such fun to perform.
The central character is a market trader, a cheap jack, and was christened Doctor in honour of the doctor who was called to assist at his birth.
The story had first appeared in the 1864 Christmas edition of Charles’s magazine ‘All the Year Round’ and in the following year Charles included it in his now prolific public reading tours where it became an instant success.
Charles had two categories of readings, the long major performance, which usually came from one of the main novels (Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield and of course A Christmas Carol), and the shorter, often comic pieces to finish the evening off. The fact that he, as a great showman, decided to include Doctor Marigold as one of his major pieces, suggests to me that he wrote it purely with a view to performing it.
The style of the reading is certainly different to his other major pieces in that the performer becomes the character and addresses the audience directly, rather than acting as a narrator. This was brave of Dickens, for much of his success was built on his ability to swap between characters quickly, giving each a different voice and personality. In Doctor Marigold there would be no opportunity to show such flair; he was chained to a single persona.
Marigold himself is a gentle, positive and resilient man, bouncing back from a series of tragedies that life has imposed on him.
A piece like Marigold you can rehearse as often as you like but it won’t be until an audience is present that you can discover how the reading really works. As soon as I began to read in Eastgate House on the Friday afternoon of the festival the show came alive.
I experienced a phenomenon which is astounding for an actor and that is to discover a complete empathy with the character you are playing. No, even that doesn’t capture the experience I had. Having an empathy suggests that I, Gerald Dickens, fully understood he, Doctor Marigold and that doesn’t come close to what I experienced. I WAS Doctor Marigold, I was feeling his feelings, suffering his pain and rejoicing in his successes.
I have had these experiences before but, due to the nature of my shows, if I have identified with a character so completely, it is only for a portion of my performance. With Marigold I got to be him for the entire show.
The reading was well received and the praise was fulsome, much of the audience’s delight coming from the fact that they did not know the piece and so had no idea where the plot was taking them.
After the Festival was over I thought to myself ‘why have I never performed this before?’ Sorry Dad!
And now, whenever I could, I performed Doctor Marigold. I wanted as many people as possible to see this unknown reading, and I relished any opportunity to inhabit his persona.
One such performance was for the Rochester and Chatham Branch of The Dickens Fellowship who meet at the Dickens World visitor attraction, located near the Chatham Dockyard where Charles’s father had worked in the pay office.
The performance was still a reading but I was moving closer and closer to memorising it completely and therefore having no script in my hand to hamper the characterisation.
During the show I found that I was hardly referring to the page at all and it was then that I made my decision: the next time it would truly be an unencumbered Doctor Marigold talking directly to his friends.
Off The Book
It so happened that I was off on a cruise ship soon after and decided to use that opportunity to try the new format out.
Before leaving I spent a great deal of time finding pieces of costume that would work together. It was another interesting insight into Doctor’s character: he lives in a cart on the road, but is neat, clean and tidy. The costume could not be ragged and torn but must adequately represent his itinerant lifestyle.
Cruise ships are great places to blood new shows as there is so much opportunity to rehearse. I usually find a piece of deck and go up to it early in the morning and pace and mutter and mutter and pace until the words are second nature.
On that cruise I started out with two of my usual shows, to build up a following among the passengers before announcing that the next programme would be Doctor Marigold, bigging it up as much as I could.
The promotion worked and there was a good audience in the theatre. I stepped out onto the huge stage, completely empty with the exception of a little wooden stool. I made a few remarks of introduction and finished them with the words that Dickens used when he performed it: ‘And now, it’s time to let Doctor Marigold speak for himself’
“I am a cheap jack. My own father’s name was Willum Marigold…..”
I went through the whole story, all of the humour and the despair. All of the tragedy of his marriage and the huge emotional highs with his adopted daughter. The audience were spellbound and rapt with attention. They laughed and cried and clapped and cheered. At the end I was exhausted but knew that the show had changed completely and it would never, it could never, be a reading again.
Later in the Summer I was performing at a Dickens conference in California, ‘The Dickens Universe’ based at the University of Santa Cruz. It is a majorly scholarly affair with lectures of great depth and insight. If I struggled to understand the lectures themselves, they were nothing compared to the questions afterwards.
The group started discussing Dickens at 8.00am and continued all day until 10.00 pm. During the coffee, lunch and tea breaks the individuals broke off into little huddles and relaxed by discussing Dickens.
Each day there were three main lectures and the rest of the time was taken up in smaller discussion groups, led by young, intense undergraduates.
And there was I, in the middle of this vortex of knowledge and opinion, called upon to perform Doctor Marigold. Among the scholars there was one who had edited a recent edition of Marigold and knew every nuance, every comma, every interpretation. Gulp.
I rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed some more. I am sure that I have been more nervous in the past but I can’t quite call to mind when that might have been. I had to get this right; there was nowhere to hide as I would be living with all of these people for the next few days.
The night of the show arrived and the delegates arrived, in their droves. The hall was full and noisy and excited. Miriam Margoyles was there in the front row. Miriam is a Dickens lover and has performed her brilliant one-woman show ‘Dickens’ Women’ for many years. She was attending the conference not as a celebrity but as a passionate fan.
“I am a cheap jack. My own father’s name was Willum Marigold……”
God bless him! He did it again. The hall loved it. They cheered and whooped and stood. Miriam was clapping her hands in delight.
The next morning everyone wanted to talk about the show and how much it had affected them. Those that knew Doctor Marigold well, including the scholar who had worked with it for so long, said that they had seen it in a completely new light and that previously unnoticed depths of the man’s character became clear when he laid himself bare in front of his audience.
The fact that the story seems to work better in the flesh than it does in print certainly convinces me that Charles Dickens had a live performance in mind when he sat down to start writing.
I have spent a little time detailing a few of my experiences of Marigold to try and demonstrate what an extraordinary power the show has over many different types of audience.
A New Era
And now, a new chapter has opened in the story. When I performed for the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Fellowship there was a special guest in the audience, Patrick James, who has a background in television as a producer of documentaries. After the show Patrick approached me and asked if I would like to film Marigold for DVD distribution. I agreed, with the feeling that, like so many promises in this business, it would probably come to nothing. I had, however, not appreciated how dedicated Patrick was to the project and how that, when he gets his teeth into an idea, he doesn’t let go, like a terrier with a stick.
Suddenly we had a date for filming, we had 2 cameras, we had costumed characters from the Fellowship branch who would be Marigold’s crowd, we had a venue: the magnificent central square at Dickens World.
The day of recording was a fascinating one for me, being essentially a stage actor, as there is much to be learned about the process of filming. Once more, however, Doctor Marigold weaved his spell over the assembled ‘audience’. The people there had all seen me perform it before but as the story unfolded they were hanging on to every word as if they were hearing him tell his tale for the very first time. There were sobs and tears once more.
The setting was marvellous, dressed and prepared by my old friend David Hawes, a theatrical costumier, with superb attention to detail. He even found me a cap to wear as apparently the top of my head was causing trouble from a lighting point of view….
Months passed and editors pored over the video output from the two cameras, and sound engineers mixed the audio. Designers came up with the DVD box design, an old leather book with a photograph of me in character, under the heading: The Charles Dickens Performance Collection. Patrick sent me copies to review and comment on, and eventually we were all happy with the end product.
It is extraordinary to think that Doctor Marigold now lives in the electronic world and people all over the globe can discover this ‘unknown’ Dickens and share the emotions of those who have seen it on stage and those who have read it on the page.
Already the first copies have been sent out and it has become clear that the magic translates to the more modern format:
“I watched it last night and was absolutely captivated by it.”
“I laughed at the comic moments and fought back tears at the heartbreaking revelation of the child’s death “
“Charles Dickens would have been very proud of his great, great grandson Gerald Dickens, as his performance of the story was superb.”
It would be remiss of me to not use this forum as a marketing tool, and I sincerely hope that you will take the opportunity to make friends with Doctor Marigold yourselves. The DVDs are being sold at every one of my shows and online; I have given the contact details at the end of this post.
But before I end, let me return to where I started.
My father never saw me perform Doctor Marigold and that is a huge source of regret to me. I know how much he would have enjoyed it and I know the sense of pride he would have felt.
Whenever I begin:”I am a cheap jack. My own father’s name was Willum Marigold”, I think of Dad and know that he is watching with a smile, jangling his celestial loose change. I think of his support, his advice. I know that I am an actor because of him and I love the fact that I am performing the piece that he wanted me to perform.
I try to imagine what he’d be saying and whatever it is I know that it would never be: ‘I told you so!’
So let me finish with 2 very important thank yous:
Thank you to Doctor Marigold.
Thank you to David Kenneth Charles Dickens: My Dad.
To order copies of the Doctor Marigold DVD contact either:
Ross-Barry Finlayson said:
Another excellent post Gerald. A delight to read. Your Father would be immensely proud of you. I so hope a trip to Japan becomes a reality.
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