In the Beginning

‘I am very anxious, dear children, that you should know something about the history of Jesus Christ…’

Sometime between the years of 1847 and 1849 my great great grandfather, Charles Dickens, dipped his pen into his inkwell and wrote those words.

They were not part of a novel, nor where they part of an angry letter fired off to a newspaper.  For a man who lived in the limelight, these words were intensely personal.

Dickens wrote The Life of our Lord for his children, to explain in a way that they could all fully understand a simple story about a simple man.

Charles never quite trusted any organisation that was regulated by the human race.  He saw corruption in government, banking, welfare and medicine (ah, plus ca change!) and so, was suspicious of any particular Church instructing his children.  However he devoutly believed the teachings of the New Testament and reckoned that if his children abided by its rules they would not go far wrong.

And that is where we came in.

For almost 100 years The Life of our Lord remained a private family book until my great grandfather, Henry Fielding Dickens made his final will and testament. Henry was a highly successful lawyer and senior judge in London; he was also the last of Charles Dickens’s children alive and believed that after his death the family should be allowed to publish the book if they wished.

Poor Henry: just before Christmas of 1933 he was crossing the road on the Embankment in London (not far from where his father had worked in a blacking factory).  Heavy motorised traffic was still anathema to a gentleman raised in the Victorian era, and the old man strode into the road, waving his walking cane as a warning to the mechanised masses that he was crossing.  Alas a motorcyclist either did not see him, or did not have time to react, and struck him, inflicting terrible injuries.

My father, not yet ten, was spending the day at Henry’s London home and remembered it vividly:

‘At about lunchtime there was an unexpected ring at the door.  Diffused in the stained glass panel of the front door was the unmistakable outline and blue bulk of a large London policeman.  There were urgent, furtive, whispers and I was bundled away out of sight and hearing.  Pan-Pan had been crossing the road and had been knocked down by a motor cycle.  He was now lying critically injured in hospital.  He died a day or two later.

‘It was a dreadful tragedy.  Gentle old Pan-pan had been deeply loved by everybody….’

While they mourned, the Dickens family held a conference and decided that The Life of our Lord should be published, in accordance with Henry’s wishes.

Rather than producing a grandly bound edition of ‘The Dickens you’ve never heard of’, it was decided to publish it simply in a  newspaper, as the original novels had been published.  So in 1934 The Daily Mail in London began a serialisation of The Life of our Lord.

It can never be said that the Life of our Lord is as rich, earthy and exciting as any of Dickens’s novels; but then again it shouldn’t be.  If it were filled with characters boasting ridiculous names, and situations that make you weep with laughter, it would be a proof that Charles was writing with one eye on his public.  No, The Life of our Lord was definitely for the children:

‘You never saw a locust, because they belong to that country near Jerusalem, which is a great way off.  So do camels, but I think you have seen a camel.  At all events, they are brought over here, sometimes; and if you would like to see one, I will show you one.’

The book is a harmony of the four gospels and tells the story of Christ from his birth to the resurrection; before finishing with a firm reminder to always follow Christ’s teaching and his examples.

To Begin With

For many years I ended my Christmas tours of America at the St Paul Hotel, in Minnesota.  I would stay there for three or four days, doing two shows a day and the atmosphere would be such fun.

The audience would come in their Christmas sweaters and bring gifts to give to friends.  The park outside the hotel was always under a blanket of snow and the hotel served a lavish English tea.

My stage was in the middle of the room and we all celebrated the Christmas season together.  They were certainly happy times.

Every year a theatre producer from Minneapolis, Dennis Babcock, would come to one of my shows.  Dennis is a keen Dickensian and always brought his first edition of A Christmas Carol to the event, so that the audience could see it.

Dennis and I became good friends and each year he would say: ‘one day we must work together, I will find a show that you can do.’ And I filed the promises away in that optimist place that all actors have – the one that never seems to get reopened.

But a few years ago I had a call from Dennis, out of the blue, telling me that he was coming to London and could we get together?  He had someone he wanted me to meet and a project he wished to discuss.

I was, naturally, intrigued.

In London Dennis introduced me to a writer, Jeffrey Hatcher, and then began to outline his new dream: a play based on The Life of our Lord.

It must be said that Dennis’s inspiration for the play was not merely that of a producer trying to cash in on a little-known Dickens story: his love of the story was very very personal.  As a devout Christian he wanted to share Dickens’s faith with audiences.  As a theatre man he wanted to stage a great, entertaining show.

The initial plan was for Jeffrey to chat to plenty of people about the book and to see the places where Dickens wrote it, so that he could come up with a framework for the story.  Immediately it was obvious that just dramatising the book was a non-starter, but there could well be a biographical slant to the script.

I left the meeting wondering if I would hear any more about the project, but excited by the ideas that we had all thrown around.

Silence reigned for a year.

Dennis is nothing if not persistent: when he gets his teeth into an idea he clings on like a terrier, and he had been working hard behind the scenes to secure the beginnings of a budget, so that ‘Faith’ could move forward.

Jeffrey had created a script based on Dickens coming up with the idea of creating The Life of Our Lord, using Charles’s holiday home on the Isle of Wight as the main setting.

Dennis had taken Jeffrey to visit Winterbourne House, and they had discovered that the Swinburne family lived next door.  ‘So,’ thought Jeffrey, ‘what if Dickens had encountered the young Algernon Swinburne during his visit?’

Algernon was known to be a precocious and troubled child.  What would Charles Dickens have made of this flame-headed firebrand…..?

The next stage was to try the script out, at a series of performed readings and try to get feedback from audiences.

I flew to Minneapolis and ‘performed’ the script over a weekend and after each show Dennis, Jeff and I sat on the stage and listened as the many comments came in.  Some wanted more of Christ’s story, some wanted more of Dickens, some wanted more Swinburne.  Some thought it was too preachy, some thought it did not have enough theological content.  Some liked the name.  Some didn’t like the name.

Everyone, however, had an opinion and that was a huge relief to all of us, for it meant we had something worth working on.

After our time in Minneapolis we repeated the exercise in London, once again performing in front of interested parties and gauging their feedback.

One comment that was made over and over was to do with the title.  ‘Faith’ didn’t quite seem to sum up the biographical nature of Jeff’s script.  Could we find a title that shouted ‘DICKENS’ but also maintained a relationship with the Bible?

It was Dennis’s British theatrical advisor, Paul Savident, who came up with the perfect solution: ‘To Begin With’ which has echoes of the first line of John’s gospel: ‘In the beginning there was the word….’, as well as quoting the opening line of Dickens’s most famous work: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’

Armed with a new title, the production team returned to America and began working to create the final version of the show.

Things moved slowly for a while, as Dennis laboured hard to secure investors.  Suddenly, however, it was on!

The Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis was booked for a three week run.  A designer was already working on set, costumes and wigs (I’m sorry?  Did you say wigs…..?)

Jeff was signed to direct his own piece and I was asked to find a rehearsal venue in Britain.

A final script arrived and as soon as I had finished my Christmas season I began work on the line learning.

The learning process was an interesting one:  usually I have written my own scripts, so much of the structure and language is already in my mind.  But ‘To Begin With’ was someone else’s work and I was really starting from scratch- although much of it was unchanged from our public readings, so there was a certain sense of familiarity.

I have written about my line learning process before: it requires constant pacing and movement.  As I was learning in the depths of an English winter I could not avail myself of the garden, so had to pace from kitchen to living room and from living room to kitchen.

‘Disagreeable evening.  Lost an argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God….’

‘Within an hour I was on the ferry to Portsmouth, then made my way to the Theatre Royal and discovered, upon entering, great chaos and commotion….’

‘This is something I wrote so as not to forget: ‘When my father’s debts had set him to penury, it was proposed that I should go into the blacking warehouse at a salary of six shillings a week….’

‘The Miracles!  I wished to impart and  impress upon them, that the miracles Jesus performs are not magic tricks, for they have all of them been to the Hippodrome and seen the illusionists there…’

And so on.

At the start of February Dennis and Jeff arrived in England and we began to work on the show itself.  For the first time in over twenty years I had director telling me what to do, where to stand, how to deliver this or that line.

I have to say it felt very strange at first but as the week went on I realised how exciting the whole process was.  Jeff was brilliant at ‘seeing’ the show and creating all of the different scenes within the set design.

We discussed text and tone, and created light and shade which made the performance so different to the rather bombastic readings I had given last year.

When our week ended I had to get back to the script to tidy my lines up and make sure that everything was firmly cemented into place.  The paraphrasing that I permit myself in my own scripts, has no place here.

And now there is little over a week to go.  On Friday I fly to Minneapolis and will spend plenty of time in the theatre with Jeff and Dennis bringing the show up to yet another level ready for our previews on February 19.

And then it is opening night!

To Begin With will run at The Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis from 20 Feb until 8 March and tickets are available right now

I know I have readers across America and I hope that some of you will be able to make a trip to Minneapolis and be part of this story, right at the start of its life.

Our plan is to then bring the show to London for a short run, before mounting a series of tours throughout the USA in the coming years.

I will keep you updated on the final week’s preparations: the set, the costume and the wig (oh yes, the wig).  It is certainly an exciting time for me and I can’t wait for the house lights to dim and for the stage lights to come up….

‘Disagreeable evening……’

Tickets for ‘To Begin With’ are available at:

http://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances

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