Review: The ghost of a Dickens past is now present ... for $80 a show

Gerald Dickens was so unenthusiastic about the works of his great great grandfather Charles, that he failed his O level studies in Oliver Twist. Now he charges $80 a head to Americans who queue to watch his performance as Scrooge. Cameron Docherty joins in the spirit of Dickens present.

"Humbug!" cries Gerald Charles Dickens, bringing the assembled gathering to a dead silence.

An elderly lady from Pasedena, so enthralled by the proceedings, stops munching on her cucumber sandwich to savour the spectacle. "Humbug to Christmas and all those who celebrate it."

"This is intense," whispers a well-to-do woman seated beside me, visibly moved. This is pure theatre, Hollywood style: Dickens reciting Dickens at the Regent Biltmore Hotel, the most elegant surroundings Los Angeles has to offer.

In a "Tea With Scrooge" the tall, bearded Dickens - the great great-grandson of Charles Dickens - performs a stirring rendition of A Christmas Carol to 160 Californians in a blue frock coat, canary yellow waistcoat and gold-patterned ascot.

Earlier, they feasted on finger sandwiches and pastries, drank earl grey tea from china cups and prepared the grandchildren for what they were about to see. This is what Americans call culture, listening intently to the cultured voice of an Englishman, also called Dickens, reciting a Christmas classic.

It's what the British call brass-necking it, but having witnessed the performance, you have to admire the gall of Gerald Charles Dickens, a part-time actor/driving instructor from Burwash in Sussex. They lapped it all up; his cowering Bob Cratchitt, his timid Tiny Tim. He brought to life the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, sweeping between the tables with chains for effect.

Above all, he offered a wickedly scrimping Scroogian snarl:

"Merry Christmas! What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer. If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with "Merry Christmas" on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!"

The appreciative audience was as enthralled as it had been in Charles Dickens' day, although the author was less than thrilled with his American encounters than his great-great-grandson. He hated the place and observed of the bleak hamlets through which he passed: "The wild impossiblity of anybody having the smallest reason to get out is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in."

One hundred and fifty-five years later, Gerald Dickens couln't be happier with his Stateside welcome. "The first time I came to America it was very cold in England, bills needed paying, the car needed fixing," he said in a recitation of Dickensian woes. "But on this side of the Atlantic, everyone wanted to meet me, to touch me, to take me to dinner."

In England, he added, growing up a Dickens meant very little. "He was an historic figure I happened to be related to." Indeed, such was his disdain for the works of his famous ancestor that he studied Oliver Twist for his O level English and failed miserably!

Tracing the lineage from Charles Dickens to his 34-year-old great-great grandson requires some patience. It begins with Charles Dickens' eighth child, Henry Fielding Dickens. Henry was a lawyer, whose son Gerald was an admiral, whose son David is a publisher, whose youngest child, Gerald, is busy captivating his audience with Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption at the Regal Biltmore:

"Oh! But he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!"

The act began in 1993, when a neighbour in his Sussex village suggested he combine his acting skills with his family heritage and perform A Christmas Carol at a charity fundraiser.

At first, Dickens balked at the idea. The family had always avoided making money off their ancestoral roots. However, when he discovered that his great-great-grandfather had performed readings of his work, he relented and gave it a go. When the family was invited to a Dickens festival in Galvaston, Texas, in 1995, Gerald filled the role of guest of honour after his father was unable to attend. "I expected to do a dinner with 20 or so Texans and recite A Christmas Carol," he recalls. "Instead I was amazed at the big turnout. People were so excited and grateful and the hospitality was first class."

He soon hooked up with an agent in Houston who spotted his potential and before long the Gerald Charles Dickens' tour of America was born. In November, he arrived in North Carolina with his Victorian garb and has been slowly criss-crossing the United States delivering what he calls a "hammy, over the top performance, to some over-excitable Yanks."

The works of Dickens are especially popular in California, where enthusiasm for anything quaint and English is undiminished. Nearly 400 people paid $30 for the privilege of having afternoon tea with Gerald Dickens last weekend, while 120 others joined him for dinner at $80 a head for readings of Great Expectations and The Pipwick Papers.

"Maybe it's because the story is a great window into the Victorian era, and people here seem to hold that very close to their hearts," he muses.

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