Saturday, 25 February 2012

In Which I Learn About Charles Dickens

We have 2 wonderful  independent bookshops in Bath, both of which organise regular events with authors.  A few weeks ago I went to Toppings' website and saw that they had an event with Simon Callow, speaking about his new book, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. I've never actually been a huge Dickens fan - I was put off by having to read 'Oliver Twist' (very, very slowly) at school. I've read 'A Christmas Carol' (In fact, I read it most years, in the run up to Christmas) and 'A Tale of Two Cities', and I enjoyed the recent BBC production of 'Bleak House'.

And then, I went to see Mr Callow's one man show 'Dr Marigold and Mr Chops'  last year (I blogged about it here) and that made me want to hear what he had to say about Dickens.

The event was held at a church near the bookshop - it was built in the late 18th Century (and has other literary connections - Jane Austen's parents were married there, and her father was buried there, although the marriage, at least, was in the earlier church). It took me a little longer than I'd expected, so the church was pretty full by the time I arrived, and I ended up sitting up in the side gallery, rather than in the body of the church. However, the acoustics were good, so I had no trouble hearing what was said, although I could only see by leaning forward and peering round a pillar!

Mr Callow started by telling us that he always looked for a local Dickens connection before a talk, but that when he Googled "Charles Dickens" and "Bath" the result he got was "Simon Callow"! He went on, however, to tell us that this showed that Google doesn't know everything, as Bath does have a Dickens connection - He took  the name "Pickwick" from a local Carriage Builder here!

He then went on to talk a little about how he became interested in Dickens, first from having been given a copy a of 'The Pickwick Papers' by his grandmother while he was in bed with Chicken Pox as a child, and then later appearing in 'A Christmas Carol' in Lincoln, in 1973, which included a memorable and inadvertent fall through a trapdoor, as Mr Fezziwig. (He commented that the Victorian costumes provided enough padding to prevent himself and Mrs Fezziwig from suffering and serious injury) and, later, as the cast was decimated by illness, a performance when he had to unexpectedly take on the role of Scrooge, despite not knowing the lines, and his role was taken by the boyfriend of one of the other cast members, who had called to see her!

Having spoken a little about his own experiences with Dickens (and yes, he did mention the Doctor Who episode) he then spoke about Dickens himself, and in particular, his involvement with the theatre, and the theatricality of his readings.

I knew that Dickens gave public readings, that these were very popular. I had not realised that he also enjoyed acting, and was considered to be a very good actor - apparently he persuaded Wilkie Collins, who was a friend of his, to write a play for him, in which he performed. The audience on the first night included Disraeli, Tennyson, half the Cabinet, most of the London critics... and then Queen Victoria came on the 2nd night!

Mr Callow also spoke about how well written Dickens works are, and about the challenges of performing them.

He then took a few questions - one of which was from a student teacher asking about encouraging children to enjoy Dickens. The response was to point out that the books were not written for children, and can be daunting, but he suggested both introducing the stories, in whatever format, before moving on to the books, and also suggested reading aloud, as they tend to be work better that way.

In response to a question asking whether he would recite a favourite passage from Dickens, he read the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes, from Oliver Twist, (and did it extremely well, needless to say!)

It was a fascinating peek into Dickens' life, and I was very glad that I went.

At the end of the evening, I was able to get my shiny new copy of the book signed, and to let Mr Callow know how much I had enjoyed 'Dr Marigold and Mr Chops'

All in all, a most successfully evening.  I see that Simon Callow is appearing in 'Being Shakespeare' at the Trafalgar Studios for the next 4 weeks, but sadly I don't think I shall be able to make it up to London to see it - not enough free time or spare money, which is a shame. I shall have to hope that he takes it on tour, later in the year.

Meanwhile, if you have the opportunity to hear him talk about Dickens, take it. And if you down, read the book instead. I've just started it, and it's very interesting.


spacedlaw said...

Sounds like a lovely and very interesting evening.
I love Dickens. Funny enough, my first reading of his was also The Pickwick Papers and it was also a gift from my grandmother.
I did nto know he acted, though.

Marjorie said...

No, it was a surprise to me, too. I think the book looks at that particularly,so will be very interesting to see what else comes up.