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This Charming Dickens…

2013 September 19
Michael Slater’s recent work, The Great Charles Dickens Scandal, brilliantly opens with a selection of the various headlines that Dickens-based news stories have run in recent years. Predictably, they mostly relate to his relationship with Ellen Ternan, and range from the dramatic (‘THE DARK SIDE OF DICKENS AND THE LOVE THAT DESTROYED HIS MARRIAGE’) to the salacious (‘DICKENS’S ROMPS WITH NAUGHTY NELLY’) to the somewhat bizarre and creepy (‘DICKENS KEPT A KEEN EYE ON FALLEN WOMEN’).[1] With the approaching release of the film adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman (scheduled for 7th February 2014, and probably a rather unwelcome 202nd birthday present for the man himself), it seems this broader public perception of the dark, ‘naughty’ Dickens will continue: a still released from the film earlier this year shows Ralph Fiennes looking suitably frowny and tortured (and, although it might just be my eyes associating him with Voldemort, also mildly sinister).
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In anticipation of this new screen Dickens, I’d like to celebrate in this post some of the more interesting, amusing, bizarre, and brilliant representations of ‘the Inimitable’ on screen over the years. Dickens pops up as a character in cast lists surprisingly frequently: his first film credit is in a silent version of Oliver Twist from 1916, in which he is played by the rather Dickensianly-named Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke. Unfortunately the film has been lost, so it is impossible to find out exactly how substantial the role was, but this notion of Dickens appearing as a character in productions of his own stories recurs repeatedly, from a television production of A Tale of Two Cities in 1953 to multiple adaptations of A Christmas Carol, on top of his appearances in historical dramas and biographical pieces.[2]
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Over recent weeks, I’ve been sifting through these representations to think about how we imagine Dickens as a character on screen, and the ways in which he is presented in relation to his work, his life, and his legacy. Whilst many representations stick to the saint/sinner dichotomy,[3] others are surprisingly inventive and subversive. In true Top of the Pops fashion, then, I give you a countdown of my Top Five Best Screen Dickenses:
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5. Mark Heap in Desperate Romantics (2009): Whilst this series wasn’t particularly successful in its attempts to uncover the ‘private lives’ of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, one of the highlights for me was the occasional random appearance of Dickens in proceedings. The realisation was often hilariously clunky, with characters making comments along the lines of ‘Wait, isn’t that…CHARLES DICKENS?’. But whilst Mark Heap’s performance here owes much of a debt to his similar portrayals of various oddballs in comedy shows such as Green Wing and Friday Night Dinner, the snotty and snivelling pomposity he brings to Dickens here feels unusual, refreshing, and, to some extent, accurate —particularly in capturing Dickens’s initial response to the Pre-Raphaelites’ work. His line ‘a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand’ (in reference to Millais’s ‘Christ in the House of his Parents’), which is somewhat sanctimoniously delivered for the amusement of admiring onlookers, is in fact lifted verbatim from his raging article in Household Words on the subject in 1850.[4] This is Dickens at his most Daily Mail-ish: a facet of his character often underexplored in popular culture.
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4. Richard Lintern in Fire (2012): Fire is a short film produced as part of the Dickens 2012 project, and despite being only six and a half minutes long, paints an intriguingly unique portrait. In contrast to roles where Dickens commands the attention of a crowd (as in Desperate Romantics), in this film he is almost completely silent (apart from one rather melodramatic yell). Instead, the power of speech, and the credit for one of the most famous lines in Great Expectations, are given entirely to Ellen Ternan, who narrates the piece and details ‘her’ side of the relationship. The notion of a silent, helpless Dickens gives Ellen an agency in the relationship that has not often been suggested before. It may be somewhat wishful thinking on the filmmaker’s part (especially considering Dickens’s meticulous control of Ellen’s residence and movements), but for its interest in Ellen’s autonomy, and its boldness in divorcing Dickens from language, his ultimate tool, I found it a fascinating new approach. The film appears on director Chanya Button’s showcase page here (be warned: it gets a little risqué in the middle!).
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3. The Great Gonzo in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): I’ve written at length before about how much I love The Muppet Christmas Carol, but I must again emphasize what a perfect choice Gonzo is to represent Dickens in this film (despite him being, as Rizzo points out, ‘blue’, ‘furry’ and one who ‘hangs out with a rat’). His exuberance, his playfulness, his conceit, his lack of self-awareness, but most particularly his command over the narrative, and his enthusiasm and pride in its construction, all point towards the Dickens of the public readings, most recently delineated by Malcolm Andrews in his brilliant book on the subject.[5] Personally, I also enjoy the manner in which ‘Dickens’ shoehorns poor Rizzo into being his assistant throughout (I like to think Rizzo is Forster, perpetually in awe of his dazzling friend).
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2. Simon Callow in Doctor Who, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ (2005): No discussion of representing Dickens on screen would be complete without mentioning Simon Callow. To many viewers, he is Dickens: he’s played him in everything from his own stage show to the animated adaptation of A Christmas Carol to, most recently, an episode from the first (rebooted) series of Doctor Who. The Dickens of this episode, written by Mark Gatiss, is something of an action hero: initially sceptical about the alien threat and disappointed to discover he knows much less about the universe than he thought, he ultimately saves the day with a handy brainwave at the climax of proceedings. I find this portrayal fascinating mainly for Gatiss’s ability to uncover in us the impulse that really wants Dickens to be like this: as viewers we cheer and laugh along as he dodges zombies and hides from ghosts, and feel somehow amusingly certain that this is exactly how he would have acted in such a situation. It’s an interesting impulse, and one perhaps linked to Dickens’s status as cultural icon: in a sci-fi world of ghosts and aliens, his appearance here is familiar and comforting, and his heroics thus completely fitting within the context of the story.
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1. Mathew Baynton in Horrible Histories (2013): I could write at length about the brilliance of the Horrible Histories team, and the joy and wisdom they bring to everything they touch, but I’ll be brief: their video of Dickens singing in the style of that other notorious misanthrope, Morrissey, is truly, truly inspired. If you haven’t seen it yet, do watch it here now. To the tune of ‘This Charming Man’, with a bit of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ thrown in for good measure, Dickens laments everything from his miserable childhood to his money-grabbing family to the poor sales of Martin Chuzzlewit (with an excellent falsetto thrown in on ‘Wackford Squeers’). Melancholy Dickens is another persona not frequently witnessed in the popular imagination, and his repeated, perpetual gloom is brilliantly teased out here within the wider context of his life story. I also love the performative nature of this lament: as this Dickens strikes hilariously self-conscious ‘miserable’ poses, I was again reminded of the ‘public’ character Dickens cultivated in the pages of Household Words.
What I admire about all five of these representations is their willingness to step outside the established ‘Dickens’ heritage persona and instead present this culturally familiar figure anew, moulding his identity into whichever form their story requires. Indeed, this very pliability in Dickens’s ‘character’ is fascinating: all five representations are wildly different, yet to varying degrees feel ‘right’, indicating the wide-ranging and continuing hold Dickens retains over the popular imagination.
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The only thing we’re yet to see is a screen representation of him as a young, attractive man, á la Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love. But what with being a benign genius, a conservative pedant, a tortured lover, a blue furry bird, a zombie-fighting action hero, and a melancholic misanthrope, maybe this is, finally, one imaginative stretch too far!
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Emma Curry is a PhD student at Birkbeck College, where she is researching Dickens’s representations of bodies, body parts and fashion accessories. You can follow her on Twitter:@EmmaLCurry

[1] Daily Mail, 11 September 1999; Sunday Sport, Autumn 1990; Sunday Times, 1 July 2001, all from Michael Slater, The Great Charles Dickens Scandal (London: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 1–2.
[2] See here for a full list.
[3] The 1970s BBC series Dickens of London, for example, which exhaustively documents Dickens’s life in thirteen hour-long episodes (yikes!), takes the quintessential ‘Inimitable’ line, tastefully erasing the separation from Catherine and any hint of Ellen Ternan. Dedicated Dickens fans can find all thirteen episodes available on YouTube here.
[4] ‘Old Lamps for New Ones’, Household Words, 12 (1850), pp. 12–14.
[5] Malcolm Andrews, Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves, Oxford: OUP, 2006.
2 Responses leave one →
  1. Gabrielle Malcolm permalink
    September 19, 2013

    This is a great post! Where else would you read about Gonzo as Dickens, Rizzo as Forster, and have Professor Malcolm Andrews all mentioned in the same paragraph? Kudos, Emma!

  2. Wendy Parkins permalink
    September 19, 2013

    I couldn’t agree more about the Morrissey-Dickens but, alas, the link has been removed!

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