Bah! Humbug! The Mystery of Charles Dickens performed by Simon Callow



A Night-In at the Theatre…




the mystery of charles dickensIt’s a measure of Dickens’ greatness that so many of our best writers and actors remain fascinated as much by the man as by his writing. The flamboyant showman side of his nature is a gift for dramatic presentations of his life. And Simon Callow’s exuberant and flamboyant style is a perfect match for Dickens’ own.

Written as a vehicle for Callow by Peter Ackroyd, Callow describes this one-man performance as a ‘living biography’. Ackroyd, of course, has written a huge ‘proper’ biography of Dickens. Unfortunately, it is so tedious detailed that I gave up on it when Dickens had only reached about the age of 10 by page 180 or so – and that was the abridged version! However, it does mean he knows his stuff about The Great Man’s life, and having to meet the requirements of a running time of roughly an hour and a half seems to have concentrated his mind wonderfully.

‘Heads, heads – take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash – knock – children look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in – head of a family off – shocking, shocking!’

For Dickens’ geeks like myself, there are no great revelations in this. It’s a fairly standard run-through of Dickens’ life – the blacking factory, the marriage, the death of the sister-in-law, the writing success, his separation from his wife, Ellen Ternan, his reading tours. If it were only a biography it would be worthwhile and interesting. What brings it to life is Callow’s performance of excerpts from the various books in the first half and, in the second, the flavour he gives of what it might have been like to have attended one of Dickens’ own performances.


There’s a good mix of comedy and tragedy in the readings – from Mr Jingle of Pickwick Papers and Mr Crummles of Nicholas Nickleby, to poor little Oliver Twist, made marginally less simperingly nauseating than usual by Callow’s performance of him as he leaves the workhouse, and a stunning performance of the Bill Sykes and Nancy murder scene at the end, modelled on Dickens own performance of it. Along the way we pop into Bleak House, get a quick blast of Uriah Heep, a nicely judged physical depiction of Sairey Gamp etc etc.

The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.

Simon Callow

Filmed in front of a live audience at The Albery Theatre in London in 2002, the DVD itself is pretty basic. There are no subtitles and the only extra is a very brief snippet of Callow talking about the play. But the combination of Callow’s brilliant performance and Dickens’ immortal words makes this a wonderful night-in at the theatre. Remember to order interval drinks before the performance starts, then sit back and… Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

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26 thoughts on “Bah! Humbug! The Mystery of Charles Dickens performed by Simon Callow

  1. FictionFan – It does sound like a great combination of a fascinating person’s life and a talented actor. And when you’ve got that, you don’t need a lot of ‘frills.’ And I must remember that term ‘Dickens geek.’ I love it! 🙂


    • Simon Callow is great, and like Patrick Stewart he’s become one of these names you associate with Dickens. I like these one-man/woman performances – you really get to see the acting talent on display.


    • He does it really well, in fact – as well as Miriam Margolyes playing Mr Bumble! I’ve never seen him in a top hat though…

      Of course, Twain has written his own autobiography…(did you add that to your TBR?)


        • He should!

          Yes – I can even get to your blog! (Mine’s a Kindle Fire though – a tablet, as opposed to just the e-reader.) I can do comments though I find the tiny keyboard too annoying to want to, and at a push could even do a post – but I find the laptop so much easier that it never occurs to me. However I quite often read other people’s posts via the Fire. I can also watch TV and films through it, or attach it to the TV and watch on the big screen. But it won’t surprise you to know that mainly I use it to read…


          • I’ll tell him.

            Wow… This sounds like something the professor should look into. Does it hurt the eyes to read on the screen? And could you use a little pen-like something to do the typing? (Maybe you should do a blog post about it?)


            • Then the answer to your questions are:

              I find it very easy on the eyes. You can adjust the brightness of the screen to suit personal preference and I actually find it less tiring on the eyes than reading a book.

              Yes, you can use a stylus…

              But…the Kindle Fire works for me because I buy most of my books/audiobooks and music via Amazon. It might not be the best tablet for the Professor and I’m really not knowledgeable enough to advise. I reckon the Kindle range is mainly for enthusiastic readers….perhaps an iPad would be better or a Google Nexus or a Samsung Galaxy…they don’t lock you in to Amazon as much as the Kindle.


            • Thanks for this info! The professor is going to have to do some thinking–which gets dangerous.

              It does get vexing. All the different makes and decisions. I do think they should invent The professor’s tablet. Or something like that.


            • I agree – I felt the Kindle Fire was designed specially for me though! 😀

              Perhaps the Professor should look at the iPad Mini – more expensive than the Fire, but it would communicate beautifully with his new Mac, and reviews look good…


            • So am I, but you learn quite a lot by accident when you hang around with Amazon reviewers – I fear most of them are either bookaholics or techie geeks.


            • Well, if it’s any consolation, I suspect that’s one of the reasons I enjoy chit-chatting with you. *whispers* Talking about books all the time can get a bit dull – and if I never get caught in the middle of another fight between warring Android and Apple fanboys I shall die a very happy woman!


            • Well, in all the time the professor’s known you (this reminds me of a Steely Dan line, but I digress), I’ve found you always a nice, caring, and supportive…woman, lady, or girl. I’m not sure which you’d like to be at the moment.


  2. I didn’t know this was available on DVD. It will definitely be going in The Bears Christmas stocking. Simon Callow is a great favourite of theirs. Have you read Gaynor Arnold’s ‘The Girl in the Blue Dress’ which looks at Dickens from the point of view of his wife? I wonder if you would like it?


    • Hope you enjoy it – I’m sure you will. 🙂

      Hmm, I’m not sure about the ‘Girl’ – I’m funny about fictionalised biographies. Though Dickens really deserved to have his story told by his wife – not the pleasantest aspect of his character!


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