A Dickens of a performance

Actor: Gerald Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby
Actor: Gerald Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby

Actor and performer Gerald Dickens bears an uncanny resemblance to the writer of his one man show Nicholas Nickleby - Victorian novelist Charles Dickens.

It’s hardly surprising - the actor and director is a direct descendant of the famous author, his great great grandson, and has devoted much of his life to recreating his ancestor’s art.

He is starring in his one man presentation of his favourite Dickens novel at the Charter Theatre, on Monday, just around the corner from the Bull and Royal pub where Dickens himself once stayed on a visit to our city.

And he’ll be retracing his great great grandfather’s footsteps in more ways than one - he plans to take a look around at the place his relative once rested, even though the rooms are now more or less derelict.

He says: “I will try to pop round and take a look.

“It’s a shame you can’t actually stay there anymore.”

Although he has never visited Preston before, he is very aware of his ancestor’s links with the place - Dickens spoke several times in the city and also publicly slated the Temperance Movement, saying the working man had a right to a drink. Gerald says: “I believe Hard Times is very much based on the Preston area.

“And he wrote in some of his novels and his writings quite strongly about the Temperance Movement.

“He was very much a champion of the working man and, if they needed a bit of a lift up, then that was all good.”

Although he grew up in a family enveloped in the Dickens mythology, the actor was not a fan of his works as he grew up.

Indeed, it was only after he saw a performance of Nicholas Nickleby by the Royal Shakespeare Company as a teenager that he grew to understand his writing.

He recalls: “I’d never really been that keen on the works of Dickens, they hadn’t made any impression on me at all. I had inevitably had one of the novels, Oliver Twist, for O’level and ploughed through it at the age of 14 or 15 or whatever it was, didn’t do anything for me.

“But going to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, it just suddenly made sense to me - because it was theatrical, I got it. All the characters were theatrical, the rapid change of scenes and plots in the novel, it just all made sense.

So that was really what made me look into Dickens more and discover his theatrical side.”

Growing up, his father was a great Dickens expert but never forced the books on his children. Gerald says: “He was always writing articles and giving speeches and following the latest biographies and everything else.

“So the house was always filled with Dickens books and picture and he would be practising for his next speech or whatever. So it was always there but it didn’t really mean anything to me. It didn’t make a huge impression at that time.

“My dad was very good in that he never actually really forced Dickens on us as children. He never made us sit down and read three chapters of Great Expectations before we went to bed or anything. The thing that drove him was that he would support us in doing whatever we wanted to do. and his only advice was always just do it to the absolute best you can.

“Just as a sideline, he would say, ‘You will discover Dickens, you will grow to love Dickens one day. And you’ll find him in your own time. You might be 20, you might be 60, you might be 90, I don’t know, but one day you’ll find him.’ There was never a pressure to conform to the Dicken corporation if you like.

“I’m sure if he had tried to pressurise us into that, we all would have rebelled completely. As it was, he just let us do our own thing which was perfect.

He has retraced his great great grandfather’s steps before - both performing in venues where he spoke and also staying in the very hotel rooms where the author slept.

He says: “My very first event last year was in Shrewsbury and I was staying in a hotel, the Lion Hotel in Shrewsbury where Dickens stayed, and we were put up in his room so that was amazing.

“And of course, everybody the next day asked us, ‘Were you haunted? Did you see anything?’ Which we didn’t!”

It started years ago when a charity fundraiser asked him to give a reading of A Christmas Carol. He says: “It was back in 1993 and that was the 150th anniversary of A Christmas Carol’s first publication so there were a lot of celebrations. And somebody came to me - I was living in Kent at that time - and suggested that I recreate one of the readings that Charles Dickens had done of A Christmas Carol.

“I was very interested in Dickens’ background as a performer, that was the link I felt and it started from there. And as soon as I worked at that first reading - and it was a reading in those days - I just found it so good to perform.

“The characters were so great and the descriptions gave you every clue as to how to perform it. So that’s really what started it.”

He has just returned from America where he got a great reception. He says: “Especially in America, they love the family connection.

“They love the fact that there’s a direct link between the show people are watching and the author.”

Now he performs A Christmas Carol regularly and is also working on a version of Great Expectations. But he does have a favourite. He says: “I love Nickleby, that’s the piece I’m doing in Preston.

“It’s a great great story and because it was Nicholas Nickleby that first inspired me, I still have a very soft spot for it.”

Gerald Dickens performs Nicholas Nickleby at the Charter Theatre on Monday January 7. Tickets from the box office on 0845 344 2012.