Thursday, 10 December 2015

What the Dickens!







Carol singers, a whiff of chestnuts, frantic last minute shopping, pretentious TV ads for vastly over-priced fragrances. It’s here again, Christmas. But don’t imagine you can relax - there’s the enforced indigestion of the Boxing Day sales to face up to, and no doubt the Easter Eggs are already waiting on pallets in supermarket warehouses.
The great Alastair Sim in the definitive
movie version. Scrooge, 1952.
However, we always have Dickens. What would Yuletide be without A Christmas Carol? It’s been a play, various musicals, and has been filmed fifty times since 1920. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) knew all about poverty, after being a child worker in a blacking factory whilst his parents languished in a debtor’s prison. He began writing his “little Christmas book”, as he called it, in October 1843 and finished it in six weeks, just in time for Christmas.

  

The book was an enormous success, selling 6,000 copies within days of publication. It became an instant hit as a play and musical in London and New York. 10 years after its publication, Charles Dickens gave the first public performance of his abridged version in 1853 in Birmingham’s town hall before a delighted working class audience of 2,000. In America he was the rock star of his day, touring for weeks on end to massive crowds in full evening dress, with a bright buttonhole, a purple waistcoat and a glittering watch-chain. His stage equipment consisted of a reading desk, carpet, gas lights and a pair of large screens to help project his voice. On his tour dates, for breakfast he had two tablespoons of rum with fresh cream, and at tea time a pint of champagne. To limber up for his performance, he would drink a raw egg in a glass of sherry. In the show’s interval, he consumed a cup of beef tea, and later went to bed with a bowl of soup.
His last performance of A Christmas Carol was on March 15 1870 at London’s St. James Hall. After he’d finished, exhausted he told the rapturous audience “From these garish lights, I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.” The crowd went wild, stamping and cheering. Three months later, aged 58, he died.

The superb musical version starring Albert Finney,
1970's Scrooge - sadly a box office flop.
In popularity, Scrooge and the three Spirits of Christmas run a close second to Santa Claus, Christmas trees and turkeys. Yet in his private life Dickens was not always a pleasant man. He treat his wife badly, and his dispute with the original illustrator of The Pickwick Papers, Robert Seymour, led to Seymour’s suicide. These blemishes aside, with stories like Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol he’s been pulling at our heartstrings for almost 150 years. In the Soviet Union Dickens was a literary giant, yet he was no socialist. His simple message was kindness and benevolence. Even in today’s world of banking greed and high finance, there are plenty of recognisable Scrooges around. So this Christmas, with food banks, desperate refugees and the homeless on our streets, let’s remember Tiny Tim’s words;

“God bless us, every one.”


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