PBS Show explores life of Charles Dickens
The author was complex and secretive.
By JUDITH S. GILLIES
There are more than a dozen theatrical film versions of "A Christmas Carol," including one made in 1910, a Muppet version and another starring Mickey Mouse.
And there are more than two dozen made-for-TV movies of the classic, including those with Mister Magoo, Bugs Bunny and the Flintstones.
"At this time of year I've noticed that you're going to begin to see every 'Christmas Carol' ever made," said Jac Venza of Thirteen/WNET, New York's PBS outlet. "So it seemed a good time to be reminded of Charles Dickens," who wrote the original story.
The life and literature of the complex and secretive English author will be explored in "Dickens," premiering at 8 tonight on PBS Channels 45 & amp; 49.
The program, which was written and hosted by Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd, was produced by the BBC and Opus Arte and aired in Britain last year.
"Dickens" combines documentary and dramatic styles. Actors portray Dickens and people who knew him, including family members and friends, and novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.
They discuss Dickens' childhood and the hardships he wanted to keep hidden, including his being sent at age 12 to work in a blacking factory where shoe polish was made, and having seen his father sent to a debtors prison.
He later drew upon these personal experiences for his writings and he used his fiction to make points on the side of social reform, Ackroyd said.
The documentary approach is used when the actors talk about his career, family life, adult relationships, and clandestine meetings with a young actress.
"I thought the idea of using witnesses and actual quotes -- or what they might have said ... worked very well in this case," said Venza, director of arts and cultural programs for WNET, who was instrumental in bringing the series to PBS.
Ackroyd said he tried to use the actual words of Dickens whenever possible, "but sometimes I invented words for him -- or other characters. I believed I knew Dickens so well I thought I could reproduce his sentiments and nothing would jar with his historical personality."
The program took about six months to write and an additional six months to film, with most of the scenes shot in London, Ackroyd said. The series concentrates on the writer's personality.
"What made him what he was? The mysteries of his life are very important. He was very secretive, kept things private and misled people to a great extent. As a man, he wasn't much like his work. He was a very stern disciplinarian who could be cold and forbidding. He was a bad parent and a bad husband -- but that all goes with him being the greatest novelist."
The contradictions in personality most impressed and challenged British actor Anton Lesser, who portrays Dickens. "People were passionately attracted to him or would be averse to his company. He was such a mixture. I came away not knowing whether he was a man I would like to spend time with or not."
There also were contradictions in Dickens' writings, Ackroyd says in the program: "In 'A Christmas Carol' and the Christmas stories that succeeded it, there is a constant opposition between light and darkness, between the warm interior and the open streets, between the poor and the rich, between the sick and the well. In these contrasts, Dickens was touching upon the anxieties of his age."
"A Christmas Carol" -- which had ghosts of Christmas past, present and future visit Ebenezer Scrooge to persuade him to change his miserly ways -- made "bah, humbug" part of a curmudgeon's vocabulary and Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family holiday icons.