The Extraordinary Mr Dickens

The story behind the ‘About the Readings’ micro-documentary by Lucinda Horrocks.

The Reluctant Producer

I had never been much of a Dickens fan.

I found his writing convoluted and impenetrable. As I saw it, he sacrificed plot every time to indulge his detailed, unnecessary characterisations. I was a frustrated and impatient reader, skipping over paragraphs to get to the next part of the story. I often gave up early in a book attempt. Jary, on the other hand, is a huge admirer, and revisits at least one Dickens novel a year.

So I had mixed feelings when invited in 2009 to see a production of ‘Charles Dickens Performs A Christmas Carol’, with an eye to creating a video promotion. (Jary, needless to say, was delighted).


Seeing a Play

I shouldn’t have worried. I was enthralled.

The performance, directed by James Adler and featuring Phil Zachariah as Dickens, was an authentic re-enactment of Dickens’s own public reading of A Christmas Carol (which, true to form, I had only ever read the first few chapters of). Zachariah performed each character, as Dickens by all reports did, with such life and spirit I lost track of all time. To me, watching the play was a revelation and I realised I had misunderstood Dickens. The characters are everything. Skip them and you lose the essence of Dickens.

The Performance is the Thing

Charles Dickens last reading

For Dickens, performance and theatre was everything. Image courtesy Liam Quin

Seeing the play also helped me realise these characters of Dickens are made to be performed.

Dickens’s Public Readings were the first time an author read his work as if it was a performance: Dickens injected life and spirit into each of his characters in a way the audience had never seen. As Simon Callow points out in his excellent and readable “Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World”, Dickens’s love of theatricality permeated his writing: it is no accident that his novels are so performable.

So we Make a Film

We did make a promotional film about the play for Eagles Nest Theatre, which you can read about here.

But we were so inspired by the intriguing history of the Readings that we decided to also make a micro-documentary about it. The thread of interest for us was that neither Jary nor I had known that performance was such a strong aspect of Dickens’s professional life. This, we thought, was a story worth sharing.

It was a big decision to make the film: it was the first three-minute micro-documentary we would attempt, and we would do it for nothing. But on the other hand it was a perfect topic: we had access to Dickens experts, a clear story to tell, and nothing to lose (apart from our precious time) by telling it.

We over-prepared, as you will in a new endeavour. Jary spent hours figuring out lighting configurations, testing the audio and making sure our brand-new Sony Z7 camera was up to the job. I buried myself in research, reading Ackroyd’s lengthy ‘Dickens’ and a lovely illustrated companion loaned to me by Phil Zachariah. We got Phil to come up to Ballarat for the day and I interviewed him in our back studio as Jary recorded.

Many People Love Dickens

Then as Jary began the edit I started collecting historical images from places around the world. Royal Holloway, London, gave us permission to feature the beautiful Fildes painting of Victorian London. I discovered the wonderful Library of Congress digital picture archive. An enthusiast in Canada who scans engravings from rare books let us use his images for free in return for a thank you in the credits.

The way the content came through was quite magical, and showed me there is a lot of love of Dickens and goodwill in the world for low budget film-makers trying to tell an authentic story.

Buying Tickets

We were given access to great content – this contemporary engraving, grammar included, is from the Library of Congress.

The Film

I was proud of the film we produced. I still am. I think Jary’s editing brought out a simple story told well. Phil’s passion for the history and for theatre draws you in, and the archival images are beautiful.

Digital Dickens – an Afterthought

It strikes me as apt that the film, from research to production through to distribution, is entirely digital.

If it wasn’t for the digitisation of images, for digital film technology and editing, and for email, we wouldn’t have been able to make the film.

I suspect Dickens would entirely approve of the digital era. He relished his connection to his audience, and he was such a showman. If Dickens was alive today he would be blogging, he would be tweeting, he would be making his own vodcasts about social issues of importance and he would be vivaciously engaging in debate with his readers. He would have loved this time.

Writes the Dickens convert.


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