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Where’s The Dickens?

Neil Sowerby’s guide to celebrating the Great Man’s Bicentenary

Written by . Published on January 30th 2012.

Where’s The Dickens?

ON 7 February 2012, 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.

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.

One man who does get there is Simon Callow. 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?

Similarly 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?

Gillian Anderson As Miss Havisham In Great ExpectationsGillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations

My advice is to 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 we 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.

Charles Dickens MuseumCharles Dickens Museum

The insomniac author regularly roamed the nocturnal city. His essay, ‘Night Walks’, is the soundtrack to William Raban’s eighteen-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 recently 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's lived from 1837 until 1839, two of his daughters were born here, his sister-in-law Mary died aged here at age seventeen 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 including entrance to museum and 90-minute walk ending at St Paul’s station, call 0207 405 2127 to book).

For those wanting to celebrate Dickens’ 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.

Dickens Dream By Robert William Buss C Charles Dickens MuseumDickens Dream by Robert William Buss, Charles Dickens Museum

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).

The 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.

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).



More Information


Charles Dickens 2012 is an international celebration of the life and work: www.dickens2012.org

The Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX (020 7405 2127, http://www.dickensmuseum.com

Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN (020 7001 9844, www.museumoflondon.org.uk/dickens)

BFI retrospective: http://www.bfi.org.uk/whatson/bfi_southbank/film_programme/january_seasons/dickens_on_screen

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/


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