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Christmas Past Meets Present

Actor who embodies the characters in Dickens' 'Carol' is not his ghost but his great-great-grandson.

December 19, 1997|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OJAI — Gerald Charles Dickens is having the best of times.

Crisscrossing the United States for the last three holiday seasons, the 34-year-old actor reads from "A Christmas Carol" at posh hotels, libraries and Victorian festivals--much as his great-great-grandfather Charles Dickens once read to worshipful audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

The actor performed the past two nights at the Ojai Valley Inn and will appear at the Regal Biltmore in Los Angeles on Saturday.

In a "Tea With Scrooge" here Wednesday, the lanky, bearded Dickens strode before a crowd of 150 in a blue frock coat, canary-yellow vest and gold-patterned ascot. He did a cowering Bob Cratchit and a trilling Tiny Tim. He gave flesh to the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Most of all, he produced a mean Scroogian snarl:

"Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What's Christmastime to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer. . . . If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!"

Not a soul in his audience agreed. There was no scowling into the teacups or muttering of "Bah, humbug!" into the finger sandwiches.

"I thought it was wonderful," said Kathy Hannifan of Westlake Village after the 90-minute solo show. "It's my favorite spirit-provoking performance."

The audience was as rapt as it was in Charles Dickens' day, although the author had been less than thrilled with his American encounters.

He railed against the national habit of spitting. "In every barroom and hotel passage, the stone floor looks as if it were paved with open oysters," Dickens observed with disgust.

His train passed through bleak hamlets "where the wild impossibility of anybody having the smallest reason to get out is only to be equaled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in."

American greed infuriated him. "This is not the Republic I came to see," he sadly wrote a friend. "This is not the Republic of my imagination."

Fast forward 155 years: Gerald Dickens is downright pleased with his lot in the States, even a bit surprised that people are paying such attention. After all, he is just another famous name in a land that is loaded with them.

"The first time I came across to the U.S., it was very cold in England, the phone bill needed paying, the car needed fixing," he said in a recitation of Dickensian woes. "But on this side of the Atlantic, everyone wanted my signature, they wanted to meet me, to take me to dinner."

Growing up a Dickens was nothing terribly special.

"He was an historic figure I happened to be related to," Dickens said.

Charles Dickens' eighth child was Henry Fielding Dickens. Henry was a lawyer, whose son Gerald was an admiral, whose son David is a publisher, whose youngest child, Gerald, is vigorously narrating the story of Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption to the ladies and gents in Ojai:

"Oh! But he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!"

"A Christmas Carol" has become as much a part of the season as traipsing through the mall. When Charles Dickens died in 1870, a little girl is said to have asked: "Does this mean Father Christmas is dead as well?" The slim volume, which hasn't been out of print since Dickens published it in 1843, has been the source of countless school plays, the centerpiece of Christmas pageants and the germ of innumerable spoofs--but mainly in the United States.

"It's not nearly as big in England as it is here," said Gerald Dickens. "Maybe it's because the story is a great window into the Victorian era, and people here seem to hold that very close to their hearts. Or maybe it's that the U.S. is so multicultural, and 'A Christmas Carol' sums up the spirit of Christmas without being tied into a particular religion."

As Gerald Dickens grew up, an uncle would gather the family for readings from "A Christmas Carol" every Christmas Eve. But the Dickens phenomenon never meant much to Gerald until he was asked to read at a Dickens festival a few years ago.

"I got to know him as an actor," Gerald Dickens said. "Dickens was a very keen actor, very theatrical. He loved to throw big parties and get all his friends on stage for huge events. When I found that out, it made his books easier to read."

Gerald Dickens is not the first of his clan to tread into the limelight. Before her death in 1992, Monica Dickens, Charles' great-granddaughter, wrote more than 50 books--a task made particularly forbidding by her famous ancestor.

"Dickens was God," she once said. "It was like someone coming along after Christ and saying they were Christ too."

But the long shadow of great-great-grandfather Charles will not fall over Gerald Dickens this Christmas.

If he isn't snowed in at Minneapolis, he will touch down in London at 6 a.m. Christmas Day. Then he will motor to his new home in the little Sussex village of Burwash, where he will dive into the plum pudding with his girlfriend, Lucy, and her two children.

And will there be a reading of "A Christmas Carol"? Will Gerald Dickens evoke the spirit of Dickens past with one last raising of the eggnog and a final, tear-jerking "God bless us every one"?

"No, it won't be anything special," Gerald said. "Maybe someone will nudge me when I start snoring."

Times correspondent Rob Selna contributed to this story.

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