Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is not only the most famous Christmas story outside of the birth of Jesus, but it is one of the most renowned stories ever written. The tale of a stingy businessman’s redemption through spectral visitors during the Yuletide season has produced myriad film, television and stage adaptations over the last 166 years. But how often have you read the original text from the novella itself? Or heard it read aloud during a one-man show?
Charles Dickens’ great-great grandson Gerald Dickens is helping to keep his ancestor’s legacy alive by doing just that. Known for his readings of various Dickens works and biographical shows based on the author’s life, Gerald tours annually with his one-man A Christmas Carol show in America. He’ll be on the road again between November 28th and December 13th. Charles Dickens himself was known for very theatrical readings of his own works throughout his career.
Prior to departing for the States this month, Gerald Dickens spoke with A.D.D. from Oxford, England about his performances, the magic of A Christmas Carol and keeping his great-great grandfather’s oral storytelling tradition alive. He provided many illuminating answers to questions about the meaning behind and influence of this legendary tale.
Now that storytelling has become more of a packaged product — in the form of big budget movies, YouTube videos and Podcasts — how do you see the traditions of oral storytelling and spoken word performances being affected by the digital revolution?
You’re absolutely right, it has changed a great deal. In one way it makes what I do all the more exciting because people rediscover the art of telling a story, and that is something very special, from childhood or when you sit down and read a good book or when you watch a play, whatever it is. The thrill of being told a story is something very special. I think that’s why audiences really enjoy this kind of format. It’s half theater — it’s a one-man show — but it’s also storytelling. It’s like at bedtime when you’re a child and someone is telling you a story. I think that the passion for good oral storytelling is alive and well, and there is certainly a need and a desire for it.
Obviously A Christmas Carol is famous the world over, but I think that more people have undoubtedly seen a film, stage or television presentation of it than have actually heard or read the original story. What kind of reaction do you get from audiences when you’re performing it?
Normally the audiences get very involved in the story because of the facts of what you just said. Everyone knows the story through other mediums, but suddenly they are hearing the original words and the original language in which it was written. They don’t feel alienated by it because they feel comfortable in knowing where the story is going, what’s going to happen and who the characters are. Audiences get wrapped up and very involved in the whole process of traveling through the story with Scrooge. You’ll find people laughing, you’ll find people crying, people will be cowering in fear, all the emotions that come through from the novel. It normally ends up — well, I hope it works like this, it’s what I try to do — that when people come in at the beginning of the evening, they think they’re coming in to see the show. When they leave at the end of the evening, they’ve been part of it. They’ve shared the whole thing and then become part of the atmosphere of the story.
Despite the fact that they’ve been spoiled with big budget movie effects, modern audiences still seem willing to spend their disbelief when they’re seeing a play or musical in order to become involved in a performance. How hard is it for you to take on multiple characters, change voices and change mannerisms throughout the telling of a story?
I absolutely adore it. The characters are so strong and are so well written that it’s very easy to change very quickly from one to another, and without the need of any lighting or costume changes or anything like that. It’s just a change of voice or a change of the way I stand or walk or the expression on my face, and a new character is there. Dickens wrote them so well that it’s actually an awful lot easier than I should probably admit to.
The year A Christmas Carol was first published (1843) was the same year that Christmas cards were first introduced into England. What stories have been passed down to you from that time period, and what do you think your great-great grandfather would think of the way that Christmas is celebrated today?
I think he would be horrified by the sheer commercialism of it, which bizarrely I think he went into a certain way of creating. At that time, the whole celebration of Christmas was changing massively. People were beginning to send cards, [along with] the idea of decorating your house and bringing a tree into your house. It was all changing, and Dickens was doing what he did so well, which was reporting. He was a great journalist and a great observer and had a fantastic talent for putting that into words. He was really just reporting what was going on at the time. He loved the idea of big celebrations, of lots of families being around, lots of food, lots of drink, lots of fun. That side of it is what he adored. That’s what he tried to get across in his big scenes in A Christmas Carol. You’ve got Fezziwig’s Christmas party, you’ve got the Crachit’s Christmas party, and even though they’re very poor it’s still a wonderful celebration. There’s a big party that Scrooge’s nephew has. He loved that idea of togetherness and having these big celebrations.
I have to confess to not being a big fan of running around buying tons of presents for people. I look forward to seeing my family and friends more than anything else around Christmas.
That’s why I love Thanksgiving in America. We don’t have any equivalent [in England], and it always strikes me as very much a family holiday. It’s not an overly commercialized holiday at all, not in the way Christmas or Halloween is. It’s a very down-to-earth, celebratory family time, and I’ve always loved being in America over Thanksgiving. It’s a lovely holiday.
Are there other ideas that you would like to explore? Are there other projects that you would like to get involved with?
I’m always open to anything. The thing I’m working on a lot at the moment is audio books, for download or on CD, and that’s a lot of fun because it’s a whole new skill. You suddenly lose the ability to use expression on your face or your way of standing. It’s all got to come through the vocal side of it, and that’s great fun to do. I enjoy that a lot.
Which of the film versions of A Christmas Carol do you like the best?
There are three. The best classic telling of it has got to be the Alastair Sim version from the 1950s. That’s an absolute classic telling of the story. It’s brilliant. I loved when George C. Scott played Scrooge in the Eighties. Not so much the whole movie — it was a bit Hollywood and a bit schmaltzy — but his portrayal of Scrooge was fantastic. He was this big, brash businessman, flinging people out of his way. He was not the small, pathetic, weassely Scrooge. He was a big businessman. If you think about it, Scrooge was a major business person in the major economy of the world at that time. He must have been an incredible businessman. Then, of course, there are The Muppets, which you can’t beat really. That’s got to be the one.
I’ve read that you think that Scrooge gets a bad rap because people tend to remember him before his transformation. Don’t you think it makes a statement about how we view redemption and the idea that it’s great that he made the change in the end, but it took him literally his whole life to get to that point? Do you think people aren’t sympathetic to that, or do you think it’s because the Scrooge concept is something that people have dealt with and felt in their own lives more strongly?
I think one of the reasons that A Christmas Carol works so well is that you can see all of the characters within yourself. You can identify with all of the main characters. At Christmas, everybody has had enough. You said it earlier — you don’t want to go out and buy presents or be rushing around the day before Christmas trying to buy the last things. You just want to get on with it and [be with] your family. There is this reaction against that side of Christmas, and that’s what Scrooge is saying at the beginning. Yes, he’s a businessman, but he’s saying, “Why do we have to shut down everything every year? Why can’t we carry on working? All I’m trying to do is do my job. My taxes go to support the poor and needy, and that’s what they’re for. I work very hard, I pay taxes, what’s the problem? It’s not my problem, it’s obviously the government’s problem.” So you can identify with that. But you can, of course, also identify with Bob Cratchit. You’re undervalued, you’re underpaid, you want to spend time with your family and can’t. You want to get the family everything you can. So you identify with that. Then there’s Scrooge’s nephew Fred, who just loves life and has a wonderful family and lovely parties. You want to be like that — you want to enjoy the time. I think you can identify with every character in A Christmas Carol, and it all means something. All of those characters come to their own conclusion somehow, whether it’s Scrooge going through the main journey of the story and coming out the other end a reformed character, or Bob Cratchit, who is incredibly loyal to his employer and comes out the other end a completely changed person, or with changed circumstances anyway. Suddenly he gets a raise and becomes a valued member of the firm. It’s a story that’s a journey for all of them.
As far as the stories that have been passed down about your great-great grandfather, have you heard any that have perhaps changed your opinion about him as you’ve gotten older?
There were very few stories that you could say have been passed down through the family because he was such a celebrity in his lifetime that everything is in the public domain. There are no secret family stories. Everything was known about him at the time and catalogued and written. The tabloid newspapers would have a field day with him today. The thing that comes across about him is his immense energy. He was always on the go. He was always writing, always performing and visiting prisons or factories or hospitals or schools to try to see how things could be improved. When he came to the United States, especially the first time, he was really just there to see how the nation was developing and how it worked, but within that he was always [going] back to the prisons and back to the factories to see how the same system worked in America and how that could be taken back to England and improve things here. He was always on the go. There was this massive drive to him constantly.
There are so many books, plays and films that are mass-produced so quickly today, and it makes me wonder if our era’s storytelling is going to have the longevity of some of Dickens works.
In the Victorian era or before that, there was a lot more to storytelling because it was introducing you to a whole world you knew nothing about. Because of the Internet, TV and film, we all know everything now. If I hadn’t traveled there, I would know what New York looks like. I would feel very comfortable knowing what New York City looks like. Yet in the Victorian time Dickens visited New York, and when he wrote about it that year, the only image they had of it was what he was saying. So the imagination had to work. It had to lift things from the page and build pictures and create a world, whereas now we know what that world is. We’ve seen it a million times.
Which of the characters in A Christmas Carol is your favorite to play?
Probably the Ghost Of Christmas Present. He’s so big and joyful and wonderful and all the scenes are lively and fun. He’s good fun. But the completely opposite part of that is the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come, who is somber and dark. From an acting point of view they’re two great opposites.
Are there any parts of the book that you have not seen portrayed in film or television that you would like to see?
No. I think in most of the versions most of the bits have been done. There are some parts — Marley’s face in the knocker and especially Tiny Tim — that have almost become clichés in themselves now. There seems to be a definite way of doing Tiny Tim — he’s so sweet and cute. Poor Tim is horribly, horribly ill and very crippled. Dickens was very clever with the children in his stories because he knew that all of these audiences and all of his readership had probably suffered this, had probably gone through some tragedy involving a child in the family. So to introduce one into the story you’ve got your readers straightaway because you’re identifying with a situation that they have gone through. Although Tiny Tim is today a sweet character instead of a real tragedy within the family.
It sounds like you’re having fun keeping the Dickens legacy alive.
I’m having a lot of fun.
Are you going to pass it on?
I hope so. My son comes to a lot of the shows, and he loves it. I don’t think he’s desperately theatrical. He gets very shy, but the nice thing is that at the age of 10 he’s fascinated by the life of Charles Dickens and is always asking questions. That’s nice because you’re passing something on there.