You may recall my encounter with actor Dominic Gerrard, who performed a Halloween series of readings for the Charles Dickens Museum called Ghosts & Murder: Haunting Tales by Charles Dickens. Gerrard is returning for a Christmas line-up of museum events, including his virtual streams of A Christmas Carol and The Chimes.
A Christmas Carol, the beloved tale about miser Ebenezer Scrooge, will stream on December 8, 19, and 22. The Chimes, a lesser known Dickens tale about the plight of Trotty Veck, will stream on December 31. If you can’t visit the London home of Charles Dickens on 48 Doughty Street, these events are a great way to stay involved with the museum’s happenings.
Gerrard called me recently to share details about these virtual productions. An avid reader himself, he also offered his recommendations on Dickens stories and biographies worth checking out. Gerrard’s many theatre credits include appearances at the Royal Shakespeare Company and London’s West End.
If you were like an Ebenezer Scrooge, how many ghosts would it take for you to have a change of heart?
Probably one! I’d only need to [encounter] Jacob Marley to change my ways. I don’t think I believe in ghosts but I’d be so scared if I ever came across one. It wouldn’t take many to break me down!
What’s interesting about Scrooge is that deep down, he knows the truth of everything being said to him. The story isn’t actually about him changing from being an awful person to a good person; all the way through, he is a good person. It’s just that side of him has been suppressed and stifled by the choices he made in his life. The ghosts help him return him to where he should be.
What is your favorite dish during the winter holidays?
My favorite Christmas food is the roast dinner of turkey, gravy, roast potatoes, and all of the trimmings! I don’t eat that kind of stuff very often because I’m trying to cut down on the meat intake for the sake of the planet. If I’m allowed all of it, that’s what I would go for. It’s the one time of the year that I drink different spirits, so I try different ports as well.
Dickens descendants have been active with the museum and in the arts. Have you met any of them?
Yes, I’m very good friends with Lucinda Hawksley. She’s Charles Dickens’ great-great-great-granddaughter. She’s been very supportive of this show, which means an awful lot. You don’t want one of Dickens’ descendants to go, “What have you done to my ancestor’s great masterpiece?!” [Laughs]
She is brilliant and a fantastic writer in her own right. I’ve had a little contact with Gerald Dickens as well.
After we visit the museum and buy our souvenirs, whether in person or virtually, what would you recommend as good reads about Dickens?
Lucinda Hawksley has an excellent book Charles Dickens and Christmas, as well as a biography. Other biographies—John Mullan just put one out in the last year. My favorite biography that I’ve read on Dickens is by Claire Tomalin.
Where did you and director Tim Carroll get the idea to incorporate a puppet into your production?
Tim as a director always likes to give his actors more to do than they might expect. For example, the first show we ever did together, I had a long speech. I remember going to rehearsal having learnt it. Then he wanted me to play the piano and speak the speech to the audience. It ended up being a really good thing, because it’s good for actors to have extra activities to work through whilst speaking.
There are many A Christmas Carol solo shows in existence. We felt a way of making it stand out a bit more was to have the Scrooge puppet that I as the storyteller manipulate at the same time. I think it’s more fun, because the audience don’t often expect it if they’ve booked blind.
What’s challenging about puppets?
Once we started working with the puppet—Mandarava created such a fantastic puppet—it became impossible not to use it. It was so fascinating for me to perform with it because one of the hardest things in solo shows is worrying about how well it’s going. When I’m so absorbed in operating a puppet, I haven’t got a moment or space in my brain to think about that with the audience.
Tim has a lot more experience than I do. We didn’t want people to think for too long that they were watching a puppet. It was always about trying to make the puppet be as human as possible: moving his arms, giving him weight, and to be an independent life from me. What’s brilliant is the audience does a lot of that for you with their own imagination. They are convinced Scrooge’s face changes in the course of the story, although it doesn’t, because of the gestures and voices. After seeing this film version, I’ve been taken under the puppet’s spell a bit.
What’s exciting to you about sharing the film with audiences virtually?
It’s been such a pleasure filming it, so that it can be streamed for audiences. Very often we have followers of the Museum over the years that want to see it, but can’t come over from the States. It’s an excellent way of seeing the show. We’re streaming at different times to be convenient for people in different hemispheres.
What’s very special about this A Christmas Carol is that it bursts through all of the rooms. Every scene you watch is actually in Charles Dickens’ house! When Jacob Marley flies out of Scrooge’s bedroom, that’s Dickens’ bedroom. When you meet the Cratchits down in the kitchen, it’s Charles Dickens’ kitchen. There’s an extra bit of excitement about site-specific drama.
What’s interesting about The Chimes?
I think Dickens wrote The Chimes a year after A Christmas Carol. Too many people who had wealth and power would read A Christmas Carol, be very moved by it, and then not think the book applied to them. In The Chimes, the gloves are off and Dickens is angry. There’s more bite and sarcasm from him. You’re following a poor character, Trotty, [all] the way through. You don’t jump into different households very much. This is the life of the poor.
If A Christmas Carol is like The Wizard of Oz, The Chimes is Return to Oz. It’s darker, more mysterious, and in some ways scarier. What I love about The Chimes is it taps into the same spirit world as A Christmas Carol. The shadows of the end pointing to a possible future for Trotty are kind of in the same realm as the Christmas-yet-to-come. There are fantastic descriptions as well.
Why are you performing a reading of it?
The Chimes is so rare. It’s hardly ever done. It feels like a new story, almost undiscovered to many people. I wanted to have a go at it and get it out there. The Chimes is a New Year’s story, so we’re having it streamed on New Year’s Eve.
Which other Dickens books are worth a read?
He wrote a few Christmas stories. There’s The Holly Tree. The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain is worth a look. It’s an interesting concept where someone has a wish to have his bad memories taken away. He faces the consequences of what that does and has to get them back. It makes me think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s like a first draft of [that film] in some respects.
Are there authors from today that are similar to Dickens?
A modern equivalent would be somebody like Stephen King. He’s very addictive. Sometimes it’s difficult to read, but I can’t put it down. It’s the same feeling about Dickens that when you start to read, you have the compulsion to keep reading.
For more information and to purchase tickets for ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘The Chimes,’ visit the Events page on the Charles Dickens Museum website.