Very jolly transatlantic laughter interrupted my conversation by phone to London with Gerald Charles Dickens, the great, great grandson of the famous Charles Dickens. So much laughing, it’s hard to imagine him playing the role of Scrooge. But he does, along with the other characters so familiar to all of us from the holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol — Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley, old Fezziwig, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-to-Be, plus at least 20-something more in his one-man show, which takes place on December 12, at Villa Victoria Academy Theater in West Trenton. Dickens recreates all these characters with a minimum of costume adjustments and a few props. He has performed here in America on a number of occasions, following the lead of his great great grandfather, who famously read “A Christmas Carol” to U.S. audiences in 1867.
Gerald Dickens first stepped forward with his own performance in 1993 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the book’s first publication. “It wasn’t my idea but I was asked to do a reading for a charitable event. I just used the version that Charles Dickens had used himself, one he had edited down from the original story to a workable length script.”
Of course he had always known about his famous ancestor. But just imagine, as a young boy on a Sunday afternoon watching a story on television, maybe “A Tale of Two Cities” or “Oliver Twist” and at the end, “There was my name on it. It was incredible.” This is how the progression goes: Gerald’s father, David, was in publishing; his father, Gerald, was an admiral in the Royal Navy; his father, Henry, was a lawyer; and his father was Charles Dickens.
Since that first performance, Gerald Dickens’s enactment of the famous Christmas tale has become a cottage industry with performances at theaters, schools, art and literature festivals, and even on cruise ships. Many are the feature of a charitable event. The December 12 performance at Villa Victoria Theater benefits the Foundation for Student Achievement — “whose mission is to provide an exceptional Catholic education for the students of the Diocese of Trenton.”
Christmas has always had a special significance for Gerald Dickens. He remembers as a child of five or six listening to his father and his uncle sharing duties reading the family treasure, “A Christmas Carol,” to him and his cousins. It was part of their seasonal ritual. “I could tell you absolutely everything that would happen on Christmas Day at our home. It always followed the same pattern — just like the Cratchit family. And we always had turkey and Christmas pudding. Mum would set it on fire with flaming brandy. If she could carry it into the dining room and all around the table without the flames going out, that foretold a very special year ahead.”
Christmas time also marked the eureka moment when Gerald decided to become an actor. When he was around seven years old, his school put on a holiday pageant, a nativity play told from the point of view of the animals outside the stable. “I was a very shy young boy and didn’t want to talk much, but everyone in the school had a part. I was cast as a rooster. My parents were given the job of making my costume so my dad built a this huge rooster 20 times the size of the other animals.” When young Gerald made his entrance in the play, the audience burst out laughing. He immediately decided: “This is it. This is the life.” From then on, he tried to get into every school play and did, then expanded to local theater. He’s been acting ever since.
He went to college in Kent for two years where, although it wasn’t a theater school, he studied drama. He admits, “I didn’t have a spectacular academic career.” Again, he is laughing. Giving up on academia, he performed with a theater troupe in England. “We did a lot of comedy, but aimed for some variety as well, performing some musicals, a little Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, as well as some things we wrote ourselves.” Almost everything he does now is Dickens related. “I’d love to act in some other things as well. But this is where I am now, maybe later.” He is 46 years old. There’s time. In addition to “A Christmas Carol,” he performs other Dickens projects including one-man shows of “Mr. Dickens Is Coming,” “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Sketches by Boz.”
“My goal with ‘A Christmas Carol’ is to make sure people have a good time. I try to not make it too serious, something to be revered. It’s just a good story. When the audience comes at the beginning they’re coming to see a show. At the end, they’re part of a show. That’s what I try to achieve. Everybody is traveling through this story together.
“I have a different take on Scrooge. The important thing about him is that he has to be recognizably the same character at the end as he was at the beginning. You can’t have a complete villain at the start who turns out to be a saint. You have to have the same man 12 hours later — that’s the span of the story. In the early stages there has got to be this glimmer that he can change. And at the end there has to be a glimmer that he is still a very hard-driven person. He is above all an incredible business man. He’s got a successful finance business in the leading world economy at that time. So he must have been quite clever. He can’t just be a cartoon character for the story to really work.”
Recently Gerald took his 10-year-old son Cameron to see the new Disney movie of “A Christmas Carol.” He says, “It’s a story he loves and has seen performed many times. His opinion of the film was not exactly favorable. Cameron Dickens will surely carry on the family tradition.
In an article written by Bruce Weber for the the New York Times in 1998, when Gerald Dickens was making one of his first forays in a performance schedule in the United States, he quoted the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis regarding the message of “A Christmas Carol.” “By the end, Scrooge has come ‘round to believing we must have, if not socialism, then a great deal of social democracy. It’s fascinating that audiences embrace a notion from a 19th-century British writer. If a 20th-century American writer said the same things, he’d be viewed as left-wing fringe.”
Charles Dickens’s writing spoke to his concerns about the social ills of England in his time. However, there are a lot of Scrooges still among us, Wall Street wheelers and dealers who are now finding the finger of guilt pointed at them as the world struggles with the economic downturn. Gerald Dickens says, “‘A Christmas Carol’ was exceedingly relevant when it was written. That’s why it was so successful.” Then, with a somber tone totally erasing all the previous laughter, he adds, “Today is it unbelievably relevant to do.” (He stresses the word unbelievably.) “We haven’t actually moved on at all.” In his writing, Dickens dealt with many different issues. But thinking of today, Gerald wonders what his great great grandfather would make of it all.
On a brighter note, “A Christmas Carol” is generally noted to be the number one fund-raising event for schools and non-profit theaters in America. I think Charles Dickens would be pleased by that.
A Christmas Carol, Diocese of Trenton, Villa Victoria Academy Theater, 376 West Upper Ferry Road, West Trenton. Saturday, December 12, 7 p.m. One man show featuring Gerald Charles Dickens of London to perform in his great-great-grandfather’s classic tale. Benefit for Foundation for Student Achievement. Register. $25. 609-406-7400 or www.dioceseoftrenton.org.