Simon Callow on Dickens as a performer

Simon Callow discusses Charles Dickens’s performances, his abilities as an actor, and the impact of his readings upon his audiences and the wider public. How did they help make him “the most famous man in the world” during his lifetime? Filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

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Dickens was very unusual among novelists in that he read from his own work. Other people had done this before but it was a rather tepid, tame business. But Dickens had always wanted to be an actor and finally now he felt that he had the chance to do it. It started with him reading all of the Christmas Carol in 1853 in Manchester, Birmingham actually, and it was a huge huge huge success and he became excited by the idea of doing other readings. And so he first of all did them for charity but eventually he did them for money - he did big tours, both of the British Isles and of America. And these tours were unbelievably successful. They were like rock concerts. People, literally in one case, killed in order to get a ticket and he played in huge huge halls and it wasn’t, he didn’t dress up at all, he wore evening dress and he stood at a lectern and he read from books, from adaptations, from various of his novels, and he was absolutely brilliant. Even the greatest actors of the day said, Dickens – had he not wanted to write novels, would have been a genius of an actor. And he made people scream with laughter and he made them sob with tears and in the case of ‘the death of Nancy’ in Oliver Twist, he terrified people, he scared the living daylights out of them. People fainted, people screamed, it was an absolute phenomenon. I mean neither as a novelist nor as an actor had there ever been anything like it before, and it bound him closer and closer to his audience, to his readers, and he felt his relationship with them was more important to him than probably anything else in life and they responded likewise. He was the most famous man in the world during his lifetime. He was the most admired, the most loved author and the fact that he had this personal contact with them, performing directly to them, was a unique phenomenon and made him into a sort of a god for people, especially working class people for whom he felt that he was the spokesman and they cheered and cheered and cheered for him whenever he appeared.

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