If you’re an intelligent actor who also writes books primarily about the theatre – rather good books, as it happens – then reading from your own work must be less difficult than for an author unused to the spotlight. Simon Callow’s contribution to this year’s major bicentenary is Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World which, appropriately enough, examines Dickens’ life and work through the sheer theatricality of these.
Nowadays we all know a great deal about Dickens’ life, his books and journalism, his friendships and love affairs, his marriage and the succession of public readings which engaged him frenetically up to the end of his life. Callow puts this into his own personal context –¬ being terrified by a stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol when he was seven, the mishaps of a Lincoln Theatre Royal staging of the same book at the beginning of his own acting career through to his re-creation of Dickens’ readings and adaptation of Mr Cops and Dr Marigold.
Callow has a marvellous chameleon quality about him, which makes one want more of the flashes of Jingle and the courtroom scene from The Pickwick Papers, not to mention the notorious murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes. He makes clear how Dickens’ own love of things and people theatrical became so closely entwined with the traumas of his boyhood and the frustrations of his middle age. Theatre is an escape route. It’s also a safety valve. Dickens, as Callow makes clear, was not always a good person. But he had genius.