Q&A with: Gerald Dickens, From Scrooge to crowing roosters, Christmas puddings to The Muppets …

Photo of Gerald Dickens By © Ian Dickens
Story By Randy Gross – rgross@harrisburgmagazine.com 

Editor’s note: actor, director, and producer Gerald Dickens, the great-great grandson of author Charles Dickens, has been bringing his one-man theatrical performances of “A Christmas Carol” to stages around the world (including Pennsylvania) for decades. The spirit of both his acclaimed show and the season moved me recently to sit down with him for a virtual Q&A.

RG: You created your very first one-man performance of “A Christmas Carol” back in 1993. Were you making your living as an actor before that, or did you have a different occupation?

Gerald: (laughs) I was an actor before that. I can’t say I was making a living of it. I’ve always been involved in theater ever since I was a kid. At seven years old, I was in a Nativity play at school and got absolutely hooked by being on stage. There was never anything else I ever wanted to do – other than being a world champion Grand Prix auto racing driver, but that never happened. Yeah, that’s always been my background. But ever doing one-man theater before in the way that I started doing then, I never even considered that possibility.

RG: Charles Dickens certainly populated his stories with a tremendous number of characters, and all of them with very unique traits (and very unique names, too). How challenging was it to not only take on so many different roles, but also condense the story into such a finite time frame?

Gerald: Well, I’ll take the second part of that first. The condensing the story into that timeframe was very easy because Charles Dickens had already done it for me. In his lifetime, he went on the road and he gave readings of his works and the most popular performance he did was of “A Christmas Carol,” and he edited it down very, very carefully understanding that his readers knew the story so there was a certain amount of give and take between performer and audience. So that was my starting point. When I did it in 1993, it was to celebrate the 150th anniversary of “A Christmas Carol” being published. I was asked to give a reading in the way that Charles Dickens had done it to raise money for a local charity in Britain, and I knew nothing about Dickens’ readings at that point. So, I took his script and then looked at it and I thought, “well I can’t just stand and read a Victorian novella for ninety minutes … This is an audience that gets their entertainment from movies and television and drama so I’ve got to perk it up a bit.”

So, I started working on all of the characters to give them all very distinctive personas and the first one has to be Scrooge because he’s at the center of the whole story. The first description of him in the book is, “he was a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! He was hard and sharp as flint … he was secret, and self-contained, solitary as an oyster.” So, you just get to the end of the sentence and you’ve become him. You can’t help it! And that is the brilliance of Charles Dickens, that he gives you these characters fully formed. They’re there on the page, all you have to do is read. My dad gave me a bit of advice back then. He said, “You don’t need to try too hard because Dickens has done the work for you.” And he’s absolutely right. So, that’s where that came from. My input into that was to making sure the voices were different enough from each other so that it’s very clear to the audience who is talking, and you can play a few theatrical tricks with that as well, by which way you’re facing, and how you’re standing, and what your hands are doing, and all these sorts of things. So, it was just a question of building slowly level upon level and finding each of these characters, but on the whole, as dad said, Dickens had done all the work for me.

RG: How long did the process take from when you first started?

Gerald: It’s still going on! Its wonderful. I’m still playing with it. Every time I get up on stage I think, “well maybe I can just try and do that a little bit different.” It’s always evolving, and that’s why it still is exciting to do it 26 years on as it was when I first started. I was performing yesterday and I tried a few little new things that I thought might work, and yeah, it’s always exciting. 

RG: It’s apparent to anyone who’s studied Charles Dickens that he had a love for theatre, and a strong desire to be an actor. Do you feel, in a sense, that you are fulfilling your great-great grandfather’s dream of making a living on the stage?

Gerald: I don’t see it like that, but I think he’d be delighted that a member of the family is still performing his works because he did fulfill that dream. For the last five years of his life, or a little bit longer, he was almost a full-time performer. In the years between 1865 and 1870, he didn’t write a single novel. He was just on the road giving these performances. He toured extensively in Britain, he traveled to America and performed over here as well. So, you wouldn’t say it was an unfulfilled dream of his. It actually was fulfilled. As a young man he wanted to be an actor. That was his big ambition, and writing sort of almost happened accidentally. It sort of stopped his theatrical ambitions in their tracks a little bit, but as soon as he could come back to that, he did. 

RG: I, for one, am glad that he didn’t give up his writing for his acting.

Gerald: There’s a lovely quote: a stage carpenter in London was heard to say, “Mr. Dickens,” he said, “it was a great loss to acting when you took up writing.” (laughs) I think we’re glad we had him as a writer. 

RG: Is there a character in “A Christmas Carol” that you wish had been fleshed out more by Dickens? If I had to choose one myself, it might be somebody like Dick Wilkins, Scrooge’s co-apprentice at Fezziwig’s.

Gerald: There are so many little questions that can be asked. You’re right, Dick Wilkins we know nothing about. He comes in and Scrooge says, “oh he was my fellow apprentice, he was very fond of me” and that was all we know. So, that would be interesting. The other character that fascinates me, and you can’t say this character isn’t fully formed because he takes center stage for a large chunk of the book, that’s the Ghost of Christmas Present. And as he is about to disappear, just before he brings Ignorance and Want in, he says, “my life on this globe is very brief. It ends tonight at midnight.” I want to know what happens in all these other globes!

RG: Yeah, exactly.

Gerald: He very specifically says, “my life on this globe.” So, there’s a big story to be told there about the Ghost of Christmas Present. The other backstory I’ve invented for myself, and there’s no basis in fact on this, is the charity collectors. They come to Scrooge’s office on Christmas Eve and are surprised when he says “I am not giving you anything, go away, I pay my taxes, I’m not interested, let them die, let them go to prison, let them do whatever, I don’t care.” Now, why are these charity collectors surprised? Because presumably, this happens every year. Presumably, everybody knows Scrooge. So, my feeling is that these guys are new in town and people in the charity have said, “okay, you take that one … you take Scrooge and see how you get on, because we’ve all been trying.” So, they go in and they get slammed in the face and they go, “oh, okay, I see what they mean.” But next morning, Scrooge finds them out and says, “look, actually, Merry Christmas. I’m sorry, I apologize, here is all my wealth, take it!” You can imagine those two swaggering back into the office and saying “well, I don’t know what the problem is.”

RG: (laughs) Yeah, you can kind of picture them every year drawing straws for who’s going to be the ones to approach him. 

Gerald: And then these two guys come and do it for the first time and then suddenly get it. (laughs) The other interesting one is the nephew, Fred, who we know little about. But what we do know about is his mother. We are told about his mother by the Ghost of Christmas Past. That’s interesting because Scrooge has such an affection for her. Then when they’ve seen the vision of her as a little girl, and the ghost is questioning him about her and says, “she died a woman and had, I think, children,” and Scrooge says, “she has one child, my nephew.” And then suddenly, that connection, that guilt. So, I think Fred is left fairly two-dimensional on purpose. 

RG: Yeah, I think you’re right. In your stage version of “A Christmas Carol,” you portray more than thirty different characters. I’ve heard you say that Scrooge is probably your favorite role. Is there a second-most favorite character? And which character do you find the most challenging to pull off?

Gerald: The only reason I say that Scrooge is the favorite one is that he is the only one that undergoes a process of change. And you’re with him through the whole journey. As an actor that’s the biggest challenge and therefore the biggest satisfaction is taking him from beginning to end but making him recognizably the same person. You can’t just have a completely different persona at the end than you had in the beginning. I mean, only twelve hours have gone by. He’s got the same voice, he’s got the same frailties, he’s got the same physicality. That’s the challenge from Scrooge. I’ve got lots of favorite characters for different reasons. I find the Ghost of Christmas Present fascinating because he actually changes quite a bit as well, from being this bonomi, cheerful, jolly giant in the beginning. He becomes very dark by the end of his visit and is tormenting Scrooge, and teasing him about Tiny Tim dying. “Well so what?! If he dies, let him! That’s what you want.” And then he almost becomes a ghost of the future as well. He suddenly starts looking into the future saying “if these shadows remain unaltered” then this will happen. So that’s an interesting character. 

Did the others sort of just pop in for their little cameos and out again? No.  I love doing Mrs. Cratchit. Mrs. Cratchit is lovely. She’s panicking about her Christmas pudding, God bless her, and whether it’ll cook or not or whether anyone has stolen it, or whether it’s broken. And the lovely thing about that is, as an Englishman, every mother, on every Christmas day, has that panic because if you’re cooking a Christmas pudding traditionally, you start it back in the summer. You start it in August, that’s when you mix everything. And then you steam it, and you wrap it in cloth, and you hide it away in a dark closet. Then on Christmas morning, you take it out still wrapped in a cloth and you put it in water and you steam it for about six hours. And then you unwrap it just as you’re about to eat it. So, when you unwrap it, the last time you saw it was in August. You have no idea if it’s gone bad or moldy, or it just hasn’t worked. So, an English mother panicking about a Christmas pudding is absolutely genuine. So, I love Mrs. Cratchit going through that because I can identify my mom doing exactly the same thing. 

RG: Makes you wonder if maybe you shouldn’t prepare a backup pudding in case the first one goes bad.

Gerald: Very few people do it properly now. We all go and buy a ready-made one from the local store and put it in the microwave. 

RG: Yes, everything is instant now. You certainly have a knack for using both your vocal and physical talents to bring so many different characters to life. Have you had any special training that prepared you for your very demanding performances?

Gerald: Not particularly. When I started in theater, I didn’t go to a formal drama school, but what I did was make sure I got involved in any production that was going. Whether it was a school production, or an amateur production, or semi-professional, or professional, and I just watched.  If I wasn’t in the show I just sat back in the theatre and watched and worked out what you could do. Someone asked me this the other day, he said “what do you like about being an actor?” The answer I came out with was rather alarming. It was “I like manipulating people.” That’s sort of the truth, you’re manipulating their perception of what they’re seeing. They’re seeing one person on a wooden stage in a big room, but what they are, they’re in Victorian London and they’re in the slums or they’re in a wealthy merchant’s house … and that’s all down to how you can use the language and to control. That’s what I meant earlier when I said it’s still evolving because you’re always learning new things. When I very first started, the performance was a reading. The thing about that was if it’s a reading, you have a book in your hand. That hand is tied up, you can’t do anything with that … with my left hand. Everything has to come from the right hand. And I developed, in those very early readings, different ways of using my hands to create the different characters. Scrooge is slightly arthritic and, “bah, humbug,” … so he’s harsh. Marley is not quite skeletal, but it’s also quite light, it’s sort of floating, it’s ethereal. The Ghost of Christmas Past is completely ethereal and is never quite in one shape or the other. So, it’s always on the move.

Going back to Marley, he never looks at Scrooge … so I never let him have eye contact with where Scrooge is on the stage. He’s always looking somewhere else even though he’s talking directly to him. Whereas Scrooge is always looking directly at this figure. That’s something I concentrate very hard on as well: placing the different characters on the stage so if there’s a dialogue between them it’s very obvious who I’m talking to and how tall they are. The three gentlemen on the street in the future scene, the three businessmen who are having a conversation at Scrooge’s death, I have them as three different sizes, and the last one is very tall and is sort of looking down on the others. So, you can create all sorts of little pictures like that. Just using your body and your eyeline and all these things just helps create little tricks, helps create the picture.

RG: You’ve been performing “A Christmas Carol” for nearly 30 years. In all that time, what is the most unique or out-of-the ordinary venue or locale that you’ve performed at? I imagine that Byers’ Choice, with its immense factory floor, might rank high on your list?

Gerald: Oh, it’s a wonderful venue and it’s one of the biggest venues I do in my entire year. It’s beautiful to perform at Byers’ Choice. The lovely thing is so many of the audience are just coming back year on year and it’s become part of a big family tradition. Other venues that are very special to me are venues where Charles Dickens himself performed. To actually stand on the same stage and say the same words, that’s quite remarkable. 

RG: Is that only in the U.K. or in America too?

Gerald: No, over here as well. Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, I’ve performed there twice … and there’s a lovely story about Dickens performing there. Mechanics Hall is a very beautiful hall, but it’s on three levels. So, you come in on street level and on the next floor up there’s a fairly basic hall, and on the top floor that’s the Grand Hall with the stage where Dickens performed. Worcester, at the time Dickens was there in 1867 or 1868, was very rural farming community. Dickens was due to perform on a Friday night, and on Saturday there was to be a poultry sale in the city. So, all the farmers came in and brought their chickens, and their roosters, and their ducks with them and these all housed on the second level, the basic hall. Dickens was performing on the top, everyone came in, they were all in their beautiful clothes. Eight o’clock arrived, which is the time his shows always started. He used to travel with his own gas lighting rig. So, just before eight o’clock, his gas fan would come on and open the valves and the lights would start to glow. Because they shone down through the floor boards, all the roosters in the whole below thought it was morning. So, as Charles Dickens walked to the stage, he was just greeted onto the stage by this cacophony of roosters calling. He couldn’t start the show for a while until everything calmed down. (laughs) The first time I performed there the organizers found an audio soundtrack of roosters crowing and then played that as I came onto the stage. (laughs) So yes, anywhere Dickens performed is very, very special. 

RG: That would make a great scene in a movie about Dickens’ life.

Gerald: Wouldn’t it! I’m surprised they didn’t use it in “The Man who Invented Christmas”

RG: Your great-great grandfather certainly was an advocate for the poor and downtrodden. Do you believe that advocacy was the primary motivating force for writing “A Christmas Carol” and also self-funding the story’s initial publication?

Gerald: Yeah. Very much. He was campaigning very strongly throughout that year on the issue of children of poverty-stricken workers. So, we had the industrial revolution surging into life. A lot of the employees in the mills and the factories were living under very, very difficult circumstances. Dickens realized that, yes, we’ve got to look after them, but we might be too late. What we’ve got to do is look after their children because if we don’t provide for that generation then we’re lost. So, he was campaigning on the rights of children of the workers, and he was making speeches and he was galvanizing lots of other famous people to join the campaign. In October of 1843, he was making a speech in Manchester, and he stood up and as he was talking he suddenly thought, “Why, I could do so much more. What is my skill set? I am one of the most popular novelists in the country! If I can turn this into a novel, that is going to get the message out much, much more effectively than just writing political pamphlets and giving speeches.” So, almost straight away he went back and he started writing “A Christmas Carol” and he wrote it in about six weeks. Now, if you’re ever lucky enough to get to New York and to see the original hand-written manuscript, which is in the J. Pierpont Morgan Library, you can see the energy, and the pace with which he wrote, and crossings out and little notes in margins – he was absolutely passionate about it. 

There’s also the fact that he was quite scared at the time that his current novel, which was “Martin Chuzzlewit,” wasn’t selling well. Dickens had an absolute fear of financial ruin because that’s what he’d experienced as a child through his own father. Now, he was very wealthy, he lived in beautiful houses, but that was an expensive lifestyle, and suddenly seeing his popularity decline, he thought, “I need to get something out there to get myself back in the frame again.” So “A Christmas Carol” also did that, it also helped put him back into the spotlight, but the real driving force, as you say, was this wish to highlight the plight of the downtrodden and the poverty-stricken, and the characters of Ignorance and Want shown by the Ghost of Christmas Present are the central core theme of the book. If we leave children ignorant, if we leave them in want of food, education, money, health, whatever, we lost. And it’s interesting, Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Present “are they your children?” He says, “no, they’re man’s but they cling to me because the present is all they’ve got, they have no future, so they cling to the present.” And the present is fading away. By that time, he’s almost gone. So, yeah, that’s a very important part of it. And it worked.

RG: It’s very admirable that he did that. Undeniably, there are a lot of film versions of “A Christmas Carol” – some estimates have the number at 135. Is there one, in particular, that is your favorite? And any that you feel missed the mark?

Gerald: I’ve never seen one that misses the mark. It’s fascinating, because the story itself is just so perfect. If it’s a film version of “A Christmas Carol,” you can’t go wrong. You can upset purists with the way they treat some of the characters, or what they include or what they leave out, or what they add, but the absolute central idea of the story always wins through. So, whether that’s Mr. Magoo or Bill Murray, it always wins through. The BBC did a new adaptation last year which was very dark, and very bleak, and had lots of profanity and swearing, and it was really unpleasant, but it was another telling of the story and it was very effective. Now, purists hated it. I liked it for its theatricality. I’m probably more of a purist theatre man than I am a purist Dickensian. But I thought it was very effective. Back to your main question, I don’t really have one favorite, I have three, for different reasons. 

The first one is the Alastair Sim one, which is just a classic telling of the story. You can’t go wrong with it. If you just want to sit down and have your “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment, then watch Alastair Sim. The second one is George C. Scott as Scrooge. Not so much the whole film … there’s a lot about it that’s a little bit too sweet and Hollywood for me. George C. Scott as Scrooge I think is brilliant because he plays Scrooge as a real businessman. A real tough businessman, which he would’ve been. He would never have been a pathetic, weaselly, weak character. And the other one, and I don’t say this in any way, in any affectation, to get a cheap laugh, but that’s The Muppets version, which is such a great telling of the story again. Because by using The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens and Rizzo the Rat next to him, they are able to narrate the story. And they really do stick truthfully to the book. They take whole chunks of Dickens’ original work to tell the story. Okay it’s a green frog and a pig, but who cares … It’s such a good telling of the story and it introduces the works of Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” to a whole new generation. 

RG: Yeah, who cannot like the Muppets? You mentioned Mr. Magoo, which leads to my next question. Everywhere you turn during the holiday season, there are depictions of Ebenezer Scrooge – from magazine ads to TV commercials, and even cartoon embodiments ranging from Mr. Magoo to Scrooge McDuck. If Charles Dickens were still alive today, what do you suppose he would make of such depictions, as well as the continued popularity of “A Christmas Carol”?

Gerald: He’d be delighted by the popularity. He was nothing if not a good businessman, so he’d by very pleased with that. (laughs) I’m not quite sure about the, well you know [cartoons] … He probably is a purist Dickensian, the purest of the purist Dickensians, so I don’t know quite what he’d make of some of the adaptations. But I think he’d be delighted that the story is still so popular that people want to do this and want to keep retelling it. But I always feel very sad for Ebenezer Scrooge that he went through all that … Christmas 1843, he went through that whole journey, and underwent such a process of self-examination and then reformation, and yet all we remember is the mean old Scrooge. (laughs) Poor guy. He might as well say, “why did I bother? All anybody wants is the old Scrooge. I’ll go back to doing that.”

RG: You now have a film version of your one-man show produced and available for rental. And I see that you have a variety of other one-man shows in your repertoire. What other adventures does the Ghost of Christmas Future say Gerald Dickens has to look forward to?

Gerald: I don’t know. I just take each opportunity as it comes. Making the film version was purely thanks to Covid. Thanks to the pandemic, I couldn’t travel last year. A lot of audiences, especially over here, wanted their little fix of “A Christmas Carol.” And there was a brief window in Britain between lockdown periods where I could film. So, I hooked up with a videographer and editor who had been recommended to me by a mutual friend of both of ours. We were originally just going to film my show on a stage and I then I thought “this seems a bit of a waste, let’s try and do something else.” So, I sourced a number of locations, all of which are featured in Dickens’ books, not necessarily “A Christmas Carol,” but in other of his books. That became the center of the film. We filmed a lot of it in a church yard that inspired Dickens to write the opening chapters of “Great Expectations,” when little Pip meets the convict. That gave us some really nice, dark, Gothic sort of background to do the narrative from. And then some other lovely buildings in and around the cities of Rochester and Chatham and where Dickens grew up as a child and where he then moved back to at the end of his life. So, I would’ve never had done that if the bizarre Covid-19 situation had never presented itself. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. If you’d talked to me two years ago, I never would’ve thought I was gonna make a movie of it. Who knows? I just wait for an opportunity to arrive and then follow it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s an exciting way to go about it.

RG:  I watched the trailer of your film. I really want to check it out. 

Gerald: We’ve got to get it back up for rental this season, but we will, and then link it to my website. 

RG: Do you care to close things out with your favorite quote from “A Christmas Carol” – and maybe one that you feel speaks most to our contemporary society?

Gerald: There are two. First, Marley’s words to Scrooge when they’re talking. Scrooge says to him, “but you were always a good man of business,” and Marley says, “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business.” And that’s so important … especially in these days. You know, we can see how fragile we are as a population now. We’ve been shown that, so we need to look after each other.  Again, Marley says, “the spirit of every man should walk abroad among his fellow men, and if he goes not forth in life, he is condemned to do so after death.” To share, to be one, to drop these barriers, to be a fully functioning society, not a fractured society! So, those words of Marley’s. And then, Scrooge is at the end, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year round. I shall live in the past, the present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me.” Again, it’s opening eyes, it’s “I will, I will try, and embrace what you’ve taught me. What you’ve shown me.” So, I think probably those two. 

RG: That’s very fitting especially considering how divisive American society is right now.

Gerald: If this isn’t a sign to us that we all need to pull together … We really do need to pull together. A pretty big sign.

Where to see Gerald’s show this December:
• Country Cupboard, Lewisburg, PA – 12/7 
• Winterthur House and Gardens, Winterthur, DE – 12/8-12/9
• Shakespeare Festival, Lewes, DE – 12/10
• Byers’ Choice, Chalfont, PA – 12/11-12/12 (www.byerschoice.com/dickens-weekend)
Keep up with Gerald’s future tour dates and book releases here: www.geralddickens.com