FEBRUARY 7 2012 and Confidential will be baking a cake. For Mr Charles Dickens, 200 years young on that day. It will probably be a packed-with-plums Christmas cake because Charlie was the man who set the template for how we celebrate that season. And how.
Hence, even before the big day, festive telly and radio have already overburdened us with shallow top-hatted adaptations – the quirky Edwin Drood the exception – and weary spoofs that get off on the vague concept of Dickensian but rarely get to the heart of our greatest novelist.
Simon Callow certainly does. We kicked off our Dickensfest with a trip to see his one-man stage version of Christmas Carol. It was a tender, glorious version of a tale we are overly-familiar with (it was even better than the benchmark Muppet Christmas Carol).
Sadly the run has now finished, but in early January the Ghost of Christmas Past was already kicking in, helping us to an upgrade because Soho’s Arts Theatre was half-empty.
That’s the danger – Dickens Overload. Will a public who enjoyed Gillian Anderson in the glossy BBC production of what I dubbed Dwindling Expectations flock to see Helena Bonham’s rival Miss Havisham in the upcoming movie “thriller” version – or will the Pips start to squeak?
Simon CallowSimilarly will you need a Dickens biog from Simon (back by popular demand) Callow, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World (HarperPress, £16.99), if you spent £30 on Clare Tomalin’s definitive Dickens: The Life?
My advice is be selective, savour. Pull out the plums from the cake but take your time. April brings the World Shakespeare Festival to distract the literati, July the Olympics for the hoi polloi. By then you might have Dickens to yourself in London.
The capital, of course, is the epicentre of the celebrations. No writer has left such an indelible mark on how we view the city, though Rochester, Chatham and Portsmouth are all vying for their share of that cake I keep mentioning.
In London the best place to start is the truly illuminating Dickens and London Exhibition at the marvellous Museum of London. Worth every penny of the £8 entrance fee (£7adv), it’s on until June 10 2012.
We went the day after Christmas Carol, when we were hungry to re-enter Dickens’ imaginative world... and were more than sated.
Not just by the sacred Dickens objects – his chair, writing desk and the much-smudged manuscripts and proof copies – culminating in the annotated script of Oliver Twist used on the late reading tours that so damaged his health.
These are impressive enough, but their impact is enhanced alongside a treasure trove of Victorian paraphernalia from opium pipes to funeral mourning wands, from Punch and Judy puppets and theatre bills to images of long-vanished places that feature in Dickens’ work.
The insomniac author regularly roamed the nocturnal city. His essay, Night Walks, is the soundtrack to William Raban’s 18-minute film of contemporary London by night, specially create for the exhibition. Parallels are made. A thought-provoking climax. You can also view the frocks worn by Gillian Anderson in the BBC’s Great Expectations.
For those eager to see Dickens artefacts, go no further than the refurbished Charles Dickens Museum, at 48 Doughty Street, the author’s only surviving London house. It holds the world's most important Dickens collection with over 100,000 items including manuscripts, rare editions, personal items, paintings and other visual sources.
Dickens lived there from 1837 until 1839, two of his daughters were born here, his sister-in-law Mary died aged 17 and some of his best-loved novels were written here, including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
It offers a Dickensian London Walk, every Wednesday from February 8 until April 4 (5pm. £10 inc entrance to museum and 90-minute walk ending at St Paul’s station, book 020 7405 2127).
For those wanting to celebrate Dicken’s bicentenary birthday in style, the museum is running a Mansion House Dinner on February 7. For £120 a head you get a sherry reception, followed by a three course dinner with wines and Dickensian entertainment led by Sir Patrick Stewart.
It is reckoned there have been more Dickens film adaptations than any other author. You can check out some of the best at the British Film Institute Dickens-on-screen Retrospective on the South Bank, which runs from January 23 to February 28, 2012. This ranges from the unearthed 1922 Oliver Twist with Lon Chaney and Jackie Coogan to Alfonso Cuaron’s take on Great Expectations, set in Florida and New York and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke and Robert De Niro. Or perhaps check out a 1935 Tale Of Two Cities, a novel that makes a better watch than a read, or the screening in their entirety of five TV adaptations.
Elsewhere in London there are exhibitions at the British Library (Dickens and the Supernatural), The Victoria and Albert Museum (showing the original manuscript of David Copperfield) and Charles Dickens: Life and Legacy at the National Portrait Gallery, with prints,drawings and photographs charting Dickens’ life plus images of actors who have portrayed his characters. Until April 22, 2012.
If you literally want to follow in his footsteps London Walks do a two-hour Dickens Walk every Friday at 2.30pm, from the Temple Tube station. Guide Jean is in Victorian costume. The company do private walks, too (www.walks.com).
To drink in the Dickens atmosphere, take in one of the taverns still standing he frequented – The Grapes, Limehouse (he sang there as a child and immortalised it as The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters pub in Our Mutual Friend); The George, Southwark (appears in Little Dorrit, Dickens' life insurance policy is mounted on the wall); Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street (A Tale of Two Cities and The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping (riverside haunt of smugglers, Pepys and later Dickens).
Pickwick in actionThe Dickens Pickwick Club – a clubbable bunch of aficionados who like dressing up – meet at the ancient City hostelry, The George And Vulture, Castle Court EC3 (not the G and V in Hoxton). It’s a jolly spot even without portly, bald folk in frock coats!
Further afield the towns Dickens lived in as a boy with his itinerant father are holding their own celebrations. John Dickens worked at the great Naval Dockyard at Chatham. For events here and at neighbouring Medway town Rochester visit www.whatsonmedway.co.uk. The week between February 4-11 features a plethora of readings, Mr Fezziwig’s Ball, Undressing A Victorian Lady... and on the birthday itself a ceremony in St Mary’s graveyard, Chatham, where the author sourced characters’ names. Rochester is hosting a Dickens Festival from June 8-10.
Chatham’s independent permanent Dickens memorial is Dickens World (www.dickensworld.co.uk) an indoor theme park on a commercial estate in Chatham. I went there four years ago and was underwhelmed by its thrill-free water ride and tame Haunted House, while the roster of costumed Heeps, Dodgers, Nancies and other lovable cockney geezers were just plain annoying (I do though regret being rude to a persistent Bill Sikes).
Dickens’ birth town, Portsmouth (www.visitportsmouth.co.uk) is staging a free exhibition featuring an original Nicholas Nickleby manuscript on loan from the British Library. A Tale of One City at Portsmouth City Museum is open from January 28 until November 4, 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday, as is the actual Birthplace, a modest house at 1 Mile End Terrace now preserved as a museum.
Admission charges apply but entry will be free on Sunday February 5 and Tuesday 7, when there will be a range of activities plus celebrations in the street including musicians, performers, food, craft activities and readings. Free Charles Dickens Guided Walks start at the Victory Gate (entrance to the Historic Dockyard) and finish at the City Museum, Museum Road. Visit www.portsmouthcitymuseums.co.uk or call 023 9282 7261.
My final Bicentenary tip is: read (or re-read) the BOOKS. Four for a start would be Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Dombey and Son and Our Mutual Friend. Essential background reading: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin (Penguin, £30).
Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum, 393 Old Commercial Road, Portsmouth PO1 4QL, www.charlesdickensbirthplace.co.uk/
British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, www.bl.uk/
National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2H 0HE, www.npg.org.uk/whatson/
Neil travelled to London with Virgin Trains, which runs up to 50 trains a day between Manchester and London. For details of services and fares, including special promotions, visitwww.virgintrains.co.uk. For timetable information ring National Rail Enquiries 08457 48 49 50.
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