Christmas may be long over, but we’ve got a humdinger of a turkey for you – in the shape of a strange film about Charles Dickens. Luke Honey investigates…
In the advent of my late youth, I’ve developed an interest in the life and works of Charles Dickens. I’ve devoured the Peter Ackroyd and Claire Tomalin biographies, wept with Scrooge as he contemplates the failure of his past life, sobbed at the harrowing death of Little Nell, tut-tutted at Nancy’s lack of characterisation in Oliver Twist and chuckled heartily at the antics of the Pickwick Club; except that I haven’t as that elusive fourth chapter of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club remains unread to this day.
I’ve mentioned this to various people I’ve encountered at cocktail parties; and in most cases I’ve met with a similar reaction- glazed eyes coupled with incomprehension and mistrust; Hard Times does exactly what it says on the tin. Could an interest in Dickens be on a par with volunteering the “Slough Trading Estate Railway, 1949-1961” as your special subject on Mastermind?
For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a middle-aged man- it’s always a man- develops interests (and habits) of a peculiar nature. An instinctive urge to catalogue all that there is to know about the mating habits of the Oriental Fruit Moth, American barbed wire of the Victorian period, bee-keeping, Medieval lorinery, or the forgotten pressings of an obscure record label. Not that long ago Radio 4 broadcast a feature about a man who had developed an unhealthy interest in the technicalities and mysteries of the weekly clothes wash.
The world of Dickens encourages neurotic behaviour. I’m reminded of that 1965 Avengers episode, Too Many Christmas Trees, in which Steed and Mrs Peel weekend at the country house of a sinister publisher obsessed with Dickens. And in A Handful of Dust, Tony Last encounters an illiterate Mr Todd in the Brazilian jungle and is forced to read aloud the entire works of Dickens for eternity.
Which brings me to the joy that is Charles Dickens’s England. I’ve recently bought the double-disc documentary on DVD and it cheered up what would otherwise have become a depressing Christmas. This film is fast becoming a classic of cult cinema. Never Was There Such a Turkey!
Our presenter is none other than Derek Jacobi, he of I Claudius fame. Now I am a massive fan of Sir Derek who remains one of my all-time favourite actors, both on stage and screen. He was outstanding in I Claudius and terrific, simply terrific, in Christine Edzard’s Little Dorrit, a beautiful and moving film, recommended to one and all. But I hope, and with the greatest respect, that Sir D would be the first to admit that his performance in Charles Dickens’s England is not akin, say, to his recent triumph as Lear at the Donmar Warehouse.
Sir Derek journeys around England in his Renault Laguna Estate visiting one-by-one any-and-every place connected in any-and-every way with Charles Dickens; an encyclopaedic, chronological love fest brought to the silver screen, in which our hero encounters: literary experts, historians, publicans, politicians, biographers, local councillors, tour leaders, book-sellers, librarians, and doddering Dickensian Freaks, and visits public houses, dockyards, restaurants, hotels, churches, schools, country houses, graveyards, villas, boarding houses, cottages, townhouses, workhouses, blacking factories and hovels associated – at one time or another- with the life and works of the aforementioned, one (Mister) Charles Dickens, Esquire of this parish.
Amongst a parade of fascinating facts we also learn that Sir D is partial to a glass of “Dry Waite Wane” and that Dickens enjoyed swimming in the buff (“like a salmon coloured porpoise”). As Sir Derek continues his quest, there are toe-curling encounters, clearly staged, which, from memory, go something like this:
Sir Derek: “Tell me Dear Boy, (a remarkable fellow! An intelligent fellow!) Are you by any remote chance loafing by the very steps of the dwelling house in which the famed scribe, Charles Dickens lived?”
Loitering Bystander: Nah, second one at the bottom, number eleven mate.
The extended DVD lasts for 290 minutes. That’s almost five hours. And to think it was originally shown at the cinema! And it gets better. Charles Dickens’s England is shot on High Definition video, which despite the “High Definition” tag makes it look like an Open University documentary from the 1980’s or a low-budget travelogue for British Midland. By my calculations, about a quarter of the film (could that really last for over an hour?) is made up with long shots of the Renault Laguna: driving up the ramp on the Isle of Wight ferry, negotiating a tight parking space, indicating to turn left at a junction on the Rochester Road. There’s also a priceless moment when a member of the public blunders into camera during an enthusiastic exchange in Betsey Trotwood’s cottage orné.
During this celluloidic marathon, Sir D delivers his script with bizarre open-mouthed grimaces, knowing looks, dramatic asides and pauses, pregnant with expectation. He’s marvellously fruity. It’s as if he was back on stage at the Cheltenham Rep. It’s never really made clear if Sir Derek is, indeed, a genuine fan of the great writer, or if he’s in it for the money. Half the time, I get the distinct impression that he’s kicking himself for signing up on that dotted line.
But perhaps I’m missing the point. In truth, I’m actually rather fond of Charles Dickens’s England. It’s an endearing film, the antithesis of slick commercial television. Dickens, too, was obviously a well-travelled man of prodigious energies; a documentary about the places Dickens hadn’t visited would have been remarkably short. In Broadstairs (the seaside town where the Rt. Hon. Edward Heath learnt to sail, and Charles Dickens holidayed, and, so it is said, wrote David Copperfield) there is a house with a small plaque fixed to the wall. It reads simply: “Charles Dickens did not live here”.