Friday, July 8, 2005


"Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas; carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero."
[While we are speaking, envious time is fleeing; seize today, place very little trust in tomorrow.]
Odes 1.11

It was Charles Dickens' ruminations upon his life and his feelings that it was a failure, and his later exhultation that Life - and he himself - still had so much to offer, which sold me on declaring the tele-fiat that Simon Callow's should be the official portrayal of "The Great Man" on Earth Prime-Time.

But there have been other actors who have assumed the role over the years, and they should not be discounted. (Although I have eliminated those actors who portrayed Dickens in the movies.)

For the most part, these other Dickenses (Dickensii?) appeared in biographical presentations which all covered the same ground, so I have no qualms in dispersing them to be Dickensian doppelgangers in different dimensions.

Chief among these would be Anton Lesser, who has two productions to his credit in which he appeared as the author. One of these was a very noble effort - the multi-part PBS production which examined Dickens' life as well as his works.

Should Mr. Lesser ever do so again on Television, he might present serious competition to Mr. Callow for the prime prime-time position. But it would have to be within the framework of a fictional storyline which must really knock my block off (or even sink my battleship). And having seen Simon Callow do just that in the 'Doctor Who' episode "The Unquiet Dead", I find it hard to believe it can be done.

When it comes to one-man shows about Charles Dickens, Simon Callow was not the first out of the gate. Emlyn Williams achieved acclaim for his lauded Broadway production transplanted to TV in 1983.

As for other actors who played the role in biographical TV movies, Roy Dotrice divvied up Dickens with Simon Bell and Gene Foad in 1976's 'Dickens Of London'. In 'The Great Inimitable Mr. Dickens' from 1970, Anthony Hopkins depicted Dickens long before he digested kidneys.

I'd be curious as to how the author of "A Tale Of Two Cities" fared in a third - Berlin, - when "Ein Weihnachtslied in Prosa oder Eine Geistergeschichte zum Christfest" premiered in Germany with Peter Arens as Dickens.

Dickens stature as an author is secured, but his stature as a man seems to fluctuate in the TV Universe. Even without the elevator shoes he wore in 'The Munsters', Fred Gwynne was of an imposing height. If 'The Land Of The Giants' dimension had their own version of this literary giant, perhaps we can place "Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby Is a Friend of Mine" in that realm.

Tony Jay is also a very tall actor, but his performance as Dickens on the TV series 'Sisters' was a figment of Teddy Reed-Margolis' imagination. His appearance as a towering spirit guide was more than likely influenced by Teddy's personal evaluation of the Great Man.

But of all the various "Charles Dickens" who have appeared on TV, there is one whom I now consider a charlatan.

On 'Bonanza', Jonathan Harris played him in the episode "A Passion For Justice". The author had come to Virginia City, Nevada, during his American speaking tour (1867-68) and while there he became embroiled in a legal dispute from which the Cartwrights had to extricate him.

A Passion for Justice
1hr 0min
When the Virginia City newspaper begins serializing Dickens' latest novel without his permission, the author arrives in town to register a protest-and gets arrested and fined for his troubles. Despite Dickens' imperious refusal to pay the fine or speak in his own defense, Dickens' cause is championed by four of his biggest fans--the Cartwrights.

"A Passion for Justice" originally aired September, 29 1963. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

When I first saw this episode back in 1999, I was all set to proclaim it as a major showcase for Dickens in the TV Universe. (I've always enjoyed seeing the fictional versions of historical figures interact with those TV characters who were totally fictitious.)

Jonathan Harris certainly looked the part, although his beard was quite modest in comparison to its look in the Real World. But then, physical similarity has never been an over-riding factor in many programs. (Judith Light as Ryan White's mother in is a good example.)

Even Simon Callow didn't look exactly the same when playing Dickens in 'Doctor Who' as he did in 'The Mystery Of Charles Dickens'. But I have a splainin......

Although presented on Television first, 'The Mystery Of Charles Dickens' takes place AFTER the 'Doctor Who' episode. Having survived the attack by the Gelth, and the consumption of gas, and being forced to wrap his mind around the idea of the TARDIS itself, Charles Dickens was understandably aged by the entire experience. And sadly, it led to his death in the middle of the following year -- 1870.]

Playing fast and loose with historical record doesn't present a problem for me as a Toobworld caretaker either. This episode of 'Bonanza' certainly does that, as Dickens never got past the Mississippi River during either of his speaking tours here in the Real World America. (He had been to the United States twenty years earlier in 1842.)

But I'm willing to accept that he did so in Toobworld. (Hell and damnation! I'm more than willing to accept that Mark Twain boarded the starship Enterprise in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'! And of course, it was Dickens' interaction with the Doctor and the Gelth in "The Unquiet Dead" which triggered this treatise!)

Here's how the chronological conundrum was addressed in a 'Bonanza' timeline website:

November 9, 1867:
British novelist Charles Dickens arrived in America for a speaking tour. The westernmost city he visited was Buffalo, New York. He left for England on April 22, 1868.

[Either “A Passion For Justice” is entirely fictitious or Ben wrote a very persuasive letter of invitation to Virginia City because Dickens was in poor health at this time and the Transcontinental railroad was more than a year from completion. Of course Dickens made the tour because of his need for money and Ben was a remarkably generous man…]

"A Passion For Justice" can't be entirely fictitious. I may be willing to bend the rules on a lot of things, but I have to stand fast with one dictum: If it's broadcast, it's part of Toobworld. (And even then, no one said I couldn't tweak that rule of thumb a bit.)

Having declared Simon Callow as the official Dickens, I can't very well just pack off Jonathan Harris and his interpretation to some other dimension as I have done with all of the others. Because that would mean I was sending off the TV show 'Bonanza' as well. And I'm not about to excise such a great component to the make-up of the TV Universe!

As you might expect, I have a splainin. Jonathan Herris was not appearing as Charles Dickens, but as a confidence man. He was capitalizing on the author's well-publicized speaking tour across America. Plain folk out on the plains might never have known that Dickens was never getting past the Big River; they probably never even considered looking into his claim to be the real deal when "Dickens" finally showed up in Nevada.

This poseur was there in response to a request by Ben Cartwright and the town council to regale them with his lecture tour. More than likely, he somehow intercepted that letter before Dickens could learn of it. This man - perhaps Dickens' business manager for the American tour? - then decided to impersonate his boss and reap the rewards for himself.

I've got to hand it to this confidence man; he certainly was a master of his grifter craft. Because while he was there near the Ponderosa, a man framed him for a crime for which "Dickens" was more than prepared to take a stand. He maintained the illusion that he was the Great Man in order to protect his good name. Some other trickster might have just cut his losses and run.

But then again.... He probably had not been paid yet for the lecture and he wasn't about to leave without that money; not after all the work he put into the scam.

If this idea that the fake Dickens of 'Bonanza' worked for the "real" (that is, the tele-version) Dickens seems plausible, then it means he was working for the character as played by Simon Callow.

And that means.... a hypothetical link between 'Bonanza' and 'Doctor Who'!

Think where that might have taken us in the idealized TV Universe....

Little Joe romancing Susan Foreman

Leela mistaken for a woman of the local Indian tribes

The TARDIS struggling under the weight of Hoss as a passenger!

Fanfictioneers, start your engines!


Charles Dickens was portrayed in the TV Universe by the follwoing actors:

Peter Arens
. . . Weihnachtslied in Prosa oder Eine Geistergeschichte zum Christfest, Ein (1960) (TV)

Alan Badel
. . . Secret of Charles Dickens, The (1979) (TV)

Simon Bell [as a boy]
. . . "Dickens of London" (1976) (mini) TV Series

Marshall Borden
. . . Christmas Carol, A (1982) (TV)

Simon Callow
. . . 'Doctor Who' (2005) TV Series
. . . Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale (2001) (TV)
. . . Mystery of Charles Dickens, The (2000) (TV)

Roy Dotrice
. . . "Dickens of London" (1976) (mini) TV Series

Gene Foad [as a young man]
. . . "Dickens of London" (1976) (mini) TV Series

Fred Gwynne
. . . Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby Is a Friend of Mine (1982) (TV)

Jonathan Harris
. . . "Bonanza" (1963) TV Series

Anthony Hopkins
. . . Great Inimitable Mr. Dickens, The (1970) (TV)

Anton Lesser
. . . Dickens (2002) (TV)
. . . London (2004) (TV)

Michael Maloney
. . . "Let's Write a Story" (2003) TV Series

Michael Redgrave
. . . Mr. Dickens of London (1968) (TV)

Emlyn Williams
. . . Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens (1983) (TV)


Rowdy Theologian said...

Regarding your May 13 post:
I found a copy of that old Star Wars/Burger Chef commercial and have uploaded it to my site for folks to see.

Toby said...

Rowdy Theologian... what a great screen name! Reminds me of Basil Exposition in a way.