Meet Gerald Dickens cover

Meet Gerald Dickens

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WHEN Gerald Dickens was at school it wasn’t so much pride he felt at being a great great grandson of the revered Victorian novelist - it was guilt.
“I hated Dickens at school,” he admits. “I had no interest in ‘Oliver Twist’ or any of it. I didn’t feel proud that my great great grandfather wrote the books they were trying to get us to read - I felt guilt because my classmates had to read it. I had no interest in Dickens whatsoever.”
Thankfully, things have changed.


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Meet Gerald Dickens

Guilt

WHEN Gerald Dickens was at school it wasn’t so much pride he felt at being a great great grandson of the revered Victorian novelist - it was guilt.

“I hated Dickens at school,” he admits. “I had no interest in ‘Oliver Twist’ or any of it. I didn’t feel proud that my great great grandfather wrote the books they were trying to get us to read - I felt guilt because my classmates had to read it. I had no interest in Dickens whatsoever.”

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist

Image by James Mahoney (1810-1879).

Growing up in England - he now lives in Abingdon just outside Oxford - Gerald never dreamed that one day he would make his living bringing some of Dickens’ greatest works alive to a worldwide audience, some of whom, no doubt, arrive harboring much the same sentiments as he did as a boy.

By the end of Gerald’s 1 1/2 hour performance of the classic seasonal morality tale any lingering intimidation at the reputation of one of history’s pre-eminent novelists will have evaporated in laughter, absorbed by his beguiling, animated retelling of his ancestor’s Xmas masterpiece.

I caught up with Gerald after the third of four sold out performances in the delightful Rogers Gardens

- renown as ‘America’s Most Beautiful Home and Garden Center’ - in Corona Del Mar, Southern California.

A rare, blustery November day a mile or so from the Pacific coast, the audience was moved under cover from the outdoor amphitheater to a marquee, but Gerald was soon dripping with perspiration as he breathed new life into each of the 26 plus characters that debuted with ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843.

A Christmas Carol

London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. Title page.

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech.

Gerald’s own Dickensian epiphany came after he was dragged along as a “grumpy teenager” to an 8-hour performance of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ by the Royal Shakespeare Company at London’s National Theatre.

“It was on New Year’s Eve and I couldn’t believe my bad luck. An 8-hour production in two parts! I was dragged along with little choice. Then literally 5 minutes into this very long show I was hooked. I absolutely loved it and never looked back after that.”

After a standing ovation when Gerald finished his Rogers Garden show with Scrooge redeemed and Tiny Tim’s salutation ringing in our ears, “God bless us, Every One!”,

he signed copies of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and we retired to his dressing room to talk before his evening performance.

Gerald didn’t formally train as an actor, but it was in his blood. “From the age of nine when I was in the nativity play I was involved in the theater,” he explained. “I wasn’t formally trained; I tried to learn as much as I could be watching and seeking advice. I kind of did it on the hoof and in a way I think that has helped me with what I do now because there are no rules.”

As a young actor he had no intention of making a career out of his ancestry, but just like the Victorian novels of which Dickens was a master, fate took a hand.

On the 150th anniversary of the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1993, he was approached and asked to do a reading for a fund-raising charity event with a nod to the writer’s own energetic and hugely popular readings of the 1860s.

In Character

In Character

“I decided to do it and I used his script and his edit,” said Gerald.

“I sat down and started working from it and decided I had to pep it up a bit for a 20th century audience. At that time I was holding the book in one hand and telling the story. It was a case of re-inventing the art of Victorian storytelling, or so I thought.

I purposefully stayed away from researching how he went about telling the same story to an audience. Afterwards, when I looked into how he did it I discovered I hadn’t re-invented anything at all. I found out that he had done very much the same things as I did.

“He read from a podium but all his characters had very distinct faces and personalities.”

By 1996, Gerald was touring both in the UK and the United States, a tradition he continues to this day.

He will be criss-crossing the States going everywhere from Ohio to Nebraska, from New Jersey to the Deep South.

It was on just such a tour that his act took a decisive turn away from his great great grandfather’s readings.

“I was on a tour in the United States and performed a 3pm afternoon show and then headed straight off afterwards by car for the next date at a library in Alabama. But when I got there I realized I’d left my book behind it Tennessee. I had no choice, I had to wing it.

“I was terrified at first but I knew it started off with Marley’s death, there were three ghosts and it all ended up happily on Christmas Day so it couldn’t go too badly.

As it turned out, I discovered I knew it by heart. Every line led to the next, that was the way he’d written it and it worked so well after previously being encumbered by having to hold the book with one hand. However, it did take me a little while to adapt.

One woman came up to me after a performance and said to me, ‘I’m full of admiration that you can do what you do with your medical problem.’ It turned out that because I hardly moved the hand that had previously been holding the book she thought I’d suffered a stroke!”

Gerald, 42, comes from the only remaining direct family line that still has the name Dickens.

Dickens (1812–1870) had 10 children before leaving his wife, Catherine, for his actress mistress Ellen Ternan.

One of his sons was named Henry Fielding Dickens (1849-1933) (he had a penchant for naming his children after other great authors!), who was a lawyer and a respected judge at the Old Bailey.

He in turn had a son Gerald (1879–1962), who was an admiral in the Royal Navy, and his youngest son, David (1925–2005), an editor of medical books, had a son he named Gerald after his own father.

The Family

The Family

The Dickens family with friends, 1864

Gerald also performs his edited versions of ‘Great Expectations’, which is his favorite Dickens novel, and ‘Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens third and perhaps most episodic novel.

His Great Expectations show is two hours long and he admits that many in his audience are devotees of the novel, often described as one of the greatest ever written.

He also performs some Dickens short stories such as ‘Doctor Marigold’ and ‘The Signalman.’

Asked whether he’d ever been tempted to try and complete Dickens’ last, unfinished novel, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood,’ Gerald suggests his wily relative knew the end was nigh even as he was writing the novel. “He put in so many red herrings it’s impossible to guess what was going to happen,” he laughs.

The mystery may have been solved before it began had it not been for Queen Victoria.

“Shortly before he died, Dickens met Queen Victoria and she told him how much she was enjoying reading ‘Edwin Drood’ and so he said to her, ‘Would you like me to tell you what happens?’

Portrait of Queen Victoria of England, Empress Victoria of India 1887 (1882)

But she said no, she was content to read the book and find out that way. So, of course, we never got to know.”

Part of Dickens’ enduring popularity is down to how beautifully the books can - and have been - adapted for film and TV.

“Some people come up to me at signings after the shows and tell me,’ I’m a big Charles Dickens fan - I’ve seen all the movies!’

“But that’s why he is still so popular after all these years; the books really are terrific reads.”

**There is more information about Gerald on his website www.geralddickens.com.