What do you need for a successful theatre show? A helicopter landing on stage? A huge revolving set that transforms itself into French Revolution barricades? Well, you can make a pretty engaging show from just one man and a lectern - as An Audience with Charles Dickens proves.

It helps, of course, that the man in this case is Simon Callow. Of all our contemporary actors, he is perhaps best equipped with the pyrotechnics to conjure up the fiery oratory that made Dickens the most popular live performer of the 19th century.

In his BBC2 performances of "Sikes and Nancy" (from Oliver Twist), A Christmas Carol "The Trial from Pickwick" (from Pickwick Papers), and "Doctor Marigold", Callow reinforces Dickens's relish of language. He throws himself whole-heartedly into, say, the description of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol: "Oh, but he was a tight-fisted, hard-at-the-grindstone was Scrooge, a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner."

Speaking between rehearsals for a gala show with Danny DeVito, Callow affirmed the raw energy that a rattling good yarn can generate. "It's very salutary for those of us who work in the theatre to learn how little you need to create a compelling show," he observed. "You suddenly realise how redundant hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of lighting and design can be. The more the set and the lights and the technical wizardry do for a production, the less the actors will feel compelled to find variations within themselves. The naked experience of standing on stage with nothing but yourself and the audience is a great education."

The old cliche is that had he been alive today, Dickens would have been working his marvels on a television soap opera. There is no doubting that his novels are soaked in drama. "Deep in his veins, Dickens was an actor," Callow contends. "He conceived his characters as performers. The narrative is so brilliantly unfolded in terms of character and gesture, it is almost as though he had written them to be performed - which he hadn't."

Dickens turned to reading out his work in public when he was undergoing what Callow calls "a mid-life crisis. He thought that he had run out of inspiration as a novelist, so he sought other means of expression. He felt he wanted more contact with his audience. He had a more direct relationship with his audience than any other novelist, and he wanted to consolidate that. He wanted to come to them - and, my God, they wanted to come to him. It was like a Papal procession at his readings, people wanted to touch him. People knew these novels by heart. When he started to read out particular characters, there would be a round of applause like there is when Frank Sinatra sings `My Way'."

The audience at the Ambassador's Theatre, London - drawn from Dickens appreciation societies and dressed in period costume - seems to have a similarly rapturous reaction to Callow. "Dickens was clearly a great actor, the most popular solo performer of Victorian times," says Tom Kinninmont, producer of An Audience with Charles Dickens. "Simon Callow is uncanny as Dickens, and really makes you feel what it must have been like to be there 130 years ago."

He certainly looks the part in a wispy beard, which had to be applied bristle by bristle, and a curly wig over hair held down with Sellotape and Clingfilm. He bears a distinct resemblance to that chap on the banknotes.

But why does this flamboyant writer of florid tales from the last century still exercise such a fascination over us? "At the heart of it is enormous emotion," says Callow. "Dickens had huge compassion, and a great longing to believe in goodness and the possibility of change personally, socially and politically. His writing is so unaffected that one continues to be moved by it.

"People used to be enraged by the overkill and theatricality of it, but having passed through that dip in his reputation, Dickens now seems more extraordinary than ever," he concludes. "In an age which exists in inverted commas, there is a goodness of heart and optimism about human life in Dickens that is immensely refreshing."

The five parts of `An Audience with Charles Dickens' are screened Mon 23 Dec to Thur 26 Dec and Mon 30 Dec on BBC2 at various times

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