Dickens in America

Presented by Miriam Margolyes. Voice of Charles Dickens Nathaniel Parker. Original Music Giles Lamb for Savalas. Camera Tom Hayward. Executive Producer, Lion Television Scotland Colin Cameron. Executive Producers, BBC Andrew Lockyer, Krishan Arora. Series Producer Richard Shaw. Directors Christopher Swann, Sarah Howitt, Richard Shaw. Dickens In America is a Lion Televison Scotland Production. Broadcast on BBC Two on November 21, November 28, December 5 and December 19, 2005.

Review of Programme
Based on Charles Dickens' own account in his book, 'American Notes for General Circulation' published in 1842, Miriam Margolyes re-traces the footsteps of Dickens, aged 29, and Catherine, his wife of 6 years, as they travelled through parts of America and Canada in that same year.

By her knowledge, her great sense of fun and her emotional attachment to Charles Dickens and his work, Miriam Margolyes' joy and enthusiasm is very infectious. And she needs no encouragement to slip into character as say, Miss Haversham from 'Great Expectations' to a captivated High School English class or Mrs Gamp from 'Martin Chuzzlewit', or into Fagin for a lady she met on a train!

As to the series itself, though it wasn't able to stick strictly to all of Charles Dickens' experiences for obvious reasons, it was very educational. There were some wonderful images (not the run of the mill 'tourist' shots) taken at unusual angles and showing off colours and light effects beautifully. But I'm afraid I found almost all of the background music (with the rare exception of say, the Dixie Chicks and Rufus Wainwright) to be a relentless cacophony that was intrusive and irritating in the extreme.

Review of Nat's Performance
Having already earmarked the programme to watch, I'd just settled down into my leather sofa that first evening, dinner balanced on lap, when out of the blue Nat's voice appeared in surround-sound! What a bonus - and what an unexpected pleasure!

Nat has a considerable amount to say, which he does with his usual extraordinarily high standard of animation, drama and sensitivity, of such depth and in such variety of styles and moods that they compliment the visual perfectly. Yet he never overdoes it so as to compete with what we're seeing on screen. He simply enriches the production from his own quiet, professional place.

Review of Book
The book 'American Notes' was such a joy to me. Before watching 'Dickens in America' I had no idea it even existed and as these were Charles Dickens' own thoughts and impressions as basically a travel writer rather than a novelist, I felt I came to know a little of Dickens the man for the first time. And as a first-hand, contemporary account, this book had, I have to say, a far greater impact on me than did the programmes. It's a fantastic resource for anyone interested in American social history of that period.

I loved Dickens' light-hearted and ironic humour as he visited prisons, hospitals, factories, churches and other institutions. At one point I actually laughed out loud as if I were reading a Bill Bryson - not something many people would expect from Charles Dickens..!

His vivid and detailed descriptions make you feel you were actually there and they just bring to life the characters he encountered, and which also brings to the surface his humanity, compassion, insights and great empathy.

One of the highlights in the book for me, and that was featured in the TV series, was Dickens' visit to the Perkins Institute, outside Boston, about which he wrote for page after page. In a quite extraordinary way he has you imagining just what life was like as a blind and deaf child, with no sense of smell and very little of touch, and who even dreams in sign language.

And then there was the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, also visited by Miriam Margolyes, where all prisoners were held in solitary confinement for their entire stay. After describing the unimaginable mental anguish of not being able to hear even the prisoner in the next cell, and isolated from news of home, family or friends, sometimes for many years, Dickens' opinion (and indeed mine) is that it was "a truly, dreadful place.

On a more upbeat note, I think Charles Dickens (and presumably his wife) must have been an extraordinarily tolerant and long-suffering traveller, judging by the varied means of travel that they had to endure! Sharing crowded and potentially explosive paddle-steamers with wretched and desperate immigrants, horse-drawn canal boats and trains - definitely 'no frills'. He described them bouncing, rattling and jolting in stage-coaches for literally hours and hours on end, day and night, over "corduroy roads" (made by throwing tree trunks into a marsh and leaving them to settle)… I felt exhausted at the thought of it!

And finally there was their excursion into Canada, to the Great Falls at Niagara. Through the poetry of his words you can share in Dickens' awe and emotion at the experience; something that, in his narration, Nat does the greatest justice to. Uh! I can well appreciate why Dickens didn't want any other human intruding on his peace as he spent many days looking at the sight from the different vantage points. I'm only thankful he didn't have to see, as Miriam Margoyles described it, the "vulgar, ugly and tasteless" modern-day city of Niagara at his back.

Although he was impressed with many features of American life and met with much hospitality and warmth, Charles Dickens went home after four months a disappointed and disillusioned man; the young republic of America was not the model nation he had, unrealistically, expected it to be, and he became a more serious writer from then on because of his experience.

In 'American Notes', he writes candidly about what he sees to be the nation's failings; the prevalence of chewing tobacco and spitting it anywhere and everywhere by people who should have known better, the contemptible US Press and the failure of laws of Copyright - illustrated by their allowing thousands of pirated copies of 'American Notes' to be sold, by the very newspapers who attacked him, to name but three.

And he devotes a whole chapter at the end in a very direct, forthright and uncompromising condemnation of Slavery, both from his own uncomfortable experience of it and by quoting several contemporary newspapers. These gave accounts, in some detail, of the most appalling injustices and cruelties in the form of amputations and mutilations. He noted the hypocrisy - in the land of Freedom - of
fines being imposed for anyone found "instructing slaves" that were greater than those for maiming and torturing them…

All of which stinging criticisms alienated many Americans; the feeling being that he had affronted their nation that had shown him such generosity. He did return to America 25 years later, but this time decided not to write about his visit.

As far as I know, 'Dickens in America' isn't available to buy, but I can't recommend reading the book of 'American Notes' highly enough. For me it was one of the most surprising and enjoyable books I've read for quite some time and one I'm sure I shall return to.

Published by
Penguin Classics (with very useful explanatory notes)
ISBN 0140 436499
Printed 2004

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