THEATRE / The final frontier: Kevin Jackson talks to Patrick Stewart, better known as commander of the Starship Enterprise, about his Christmas Carol at the Old Vic

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Bold and fantastical as his imagination was, Charles Dickens's visions of Christmases future surely never encompassed the prospect of a Star Fleet Captain performing one of his novellas at the Old Vic. One hundred and fifty years to the month after its first publication, however, the latest incarnation of A Christmas Carol has landed on the London stage as a one-man vehicle for Patrick Stewart, once well known to British theatregoers for his interpretations of Shylock, Enobarbus, Leontes, Cassius and Launce with the RSC, now internationally famous as Jean-Luc Picard, commander of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This career move from the Final Frontier back to London SE1 may strike devoted Trekkies as a trifle . . . well, illogical, Captain, but Stewart has his reasons. After six years on contract with the series, a final renegotiated seventh year and an agreement to star in the forthcoming Next Generation movie, Stewart is anxious to diversify - 'I don't want Picard to become an albatross around my neck' - and that diversification includes a return to the theatrical work that had previously been his life for more than 20 years. In fact, A Christmas Carol, in which he plays no fewer than 39 parts, has provided Stewart with a lifeline to the theatre over the last few years. During his breaks from filming, he has taken the production around California and to Broadway, where it broke box-office records for a one-man show and wrung fulsome notices even from the most miserly critics.

His interest in Dickens's tale began well before Paramount signed him up, however. In 1985, Stewart was in Derbyshire for the filming of Trevor Nunn's Lady Jane. One morning, his call was postponed, so, having exhausted the newspapers, he searched through the tatty paperbacks in his hotel and found A Christmas Carol. Not only did the book move him far more than he expected, it also provided him with the solution to a little problem: 'I had been asked to do a reading at the parish church of Mirfield, in Yorkshire, in aid of their organ restoration fund, and I didn't know what the hell to do. So I did a quick editing job on the novella, and took it to Mirfield. . . and the people sat there on those hard pews for three hours, absolutely rapt. And I knew it wasn't me they were responding to, it was something in the story.'

Two years later, Stewart's life took an unexpected turn: he was in Los Angeles, spending Mondays to Fridays boldly going where no man (with the possible exception of William Shatner, Leonard Nimmoy and co.) had gone before. 'I'd thought I could just sign up for one year to see how I liked it, but they wanted me for six years. Once I'd realised that the show was proving successful and was not going to go away, I saw that my theatrical life might be over for the foreseeable future, and that the best thing I could do was to develop a one-man show that wouldn't tie me to other people's availability.'

Stewart started to spend his weekends trimming and refining the text down to a two-hour reading script. Before too long, he was trawling a semi- dramatised reading around southern California, and then, after a hurried meeting with a Broadway producer in Lax airport, developed the show into its final, fully dramatised version. This required memorising a daunting amount of text: 'It now runs to about 49 full pages. One of my greatest fears is that somehow, someone might press the 'erase' button in my brain and I'll lose the whole text - exactly the sort of thing that might happen on board the Enterprise. . . '

Quite so; and though the distance between Tiny Tim and the Klingons seems considerably more than parsecs wide, there are deeper connections between the universe of the Enterprise and the world of English letters than Star Trek scholars have thus far realised. For example, while Captain Picard is plainly meant to be of French ancestry - one popular episode of Next Generation, 'Family', took him back to France for a spot of R and R - Picard's literary origins are solidly British.

'Shortly after I'd been cast for the part of Picard, Gene Roddenberry, the producer and creator of the show - who sadly died two years ago - took me out to dinner. And I thought, jolly good, this is where I get my briefing. We had a very pleasant dinner, never mentioned Star Trek or Captain Picard, and at the end, I said, 'Gene, what am I going to do with this part, what do you want me to do?' And he said 'Do you know the Hornblower novels by C S Forester?' Well, of course I did, I'd been brought up with them. And he said, 'Read them. Just read them. I think that's all you need to do.' And when I read them, I got what he meant - there really was a lot of Hornblower in Picard.'

In recent months, Stewart has also come to suspect that Roddenberry may have had another English reference point in mind when it came to designing a principal set for Next Generation. 'I was looking at the bridge of the Enterprise, and was thinking about how very theatrical it is - it actually has some of the classic elements of the Tudor and Jacobean stage: it has a raised area at the rear, it has a main acting area here, there the throne sits - the captain's chair, right in the centre - it has downstage left and right entrances, upstage left and right entrances . . . What you've got there is an Elizabethan theatre.' Moreover, Stewart notes, when visitors come to the set of Next Generation they can look in at the action through the hollow rectangle which, when filming is complete, becomes the Enterprise's view screen - 'so there you even have your theatre audience, too'.

If Gene Roddenberry saw clear connections between Shakespeare and Spock, the American press most certainly did not. 'When they got to hear about my background, the question that was most commonly asked was, 'So, how come a classical, Shakespearian actor is doing this kind of syndicated TV show?' And the suggestion was, 'OK, fine, so you're doing it for the money, but isn't this slumming?' And I got more and more irritated by these questions, which seemed to me quite impertinent. Finally, on some TV show or other, I got really angry and said 'Dammit] All of those years I spent with the RSC playing kings and princes and barons and sitting on the throne of England were nothing but a preparation for sitting in the Captain's chair of the Enterprise]' '

The regal bearing that Stewart brought to the role appears to have appealed to something deep in the popular psyche. The series now attracts some 25 to 30 million viewers a week in north America alone, and Jean-Luc Picard has proved attractive to all but the most diehard loyalists of James T Kirk. During the last presidential election, there was a popular bumper sticker reading 'Picard / Riker for '92' (Riker being the Enterprise's First Officer), and everyone from the military and the police to airline schools and courses in management use Next Generation videos in their classes, holding up Picard's command as a model of excellence.

So far from being an albatross, Picard has given Stewart a great many opportunities - 'including bringing A Christmas Carol here' - that might not otherwise have come his way. He has started to direct episodes of the series, and hopes to follow the example of Leonard Nimmoy by finding employment as a film director. Last year, he also directed his first major stage production, Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, with the Orange County Symphony Orchestra and the cast of Next Generation. And he plans to act on the London stage again next year, in 'a modern play' about which he's reluctant to say more.

First, though, there is the job of playing Picard in the Next Generation film, which starts shooting in March. 'They're still working on the script, but it looks like it's going to be a transitional film, which is what I've been urging them to make ever since they started discussing it four years ago. It will incorporate the original cast and our cast, and will be a kind of handing-on-of-the-baton story. Of course, since the two series are set 73 years apart, there will have to be a time travel element.' A bit of a strained science fiction device, this? Possibly; but a good writer can always get away with it, as Dickens proved 150 years ago when he sent Ebenezer Scrooge off on time travels of his own.

'A Christmas Carol' is at the Old Vic SE1 until 8 January. Box Office: 071-928 7616

(Photograph omitted)