A Dickens of a Good Time?

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The proper presentation of History is always a ticklish business, especially when that presentation is for the masses. It appears that a theme park based on the work of Charles Dickens is encountering predictable controversies as to the depiction of Victorian England.

Certainly the period was rife with difficulties and hardships…but how exactly do you depict disease, famine and poverty in an exhibit originally designed to enchant visitors with the more charming aspects of a topic or period?

I suppose one could try to allow for “equal time” for the darker elements, but how would you balance them, exactly. Inevitably it seems like the exhibit about hunger in the slums of London would end up next to the concession stand.

So what attractions should be added to make the park more “accurate” to both the glory and the grunge of Dickensian England? The Bill Sykes “Do The Trollop To Death” Target Game? Mr Bounderby’s Whirligig of Labor Oppression? Little Nell presents The Wonderful World of Consumption?

Sometimes, we must accept that a person’s introduction to a complex topic, such as Victorian history, is by necessity a bit bowdlerized. After all, a somewhat shallow understanding is better then no understanding at all.

The following originally appeared in The Star.

Dumbing down Dickens, Disney-style

TheStar.com – News – Dumbing down Dickens, Disney-style

London’s literary classes say humbug over park that repackages author’s bleak Victorian era

CHATHAM, England–The Artful Dodger lurks in the shadows, poised to pick the pockets of a launch-day crowd stunned momentarily by a salacious streetwalker’s open invitation: “Anyone fancy buying me a drink? Two pennies and I’m yours for the night.”

One patron takes the make-believe bait, winking at his wife and children as he reaches into his pocket for coins: “Hang on, luv. I’ve got 50-pence here. Will that get me the whole month?”

A moment of impromptu street theatre ensues, the nature of which surely would make Walt Disney rush to cover the ears of his beloved Mickey Mouse.

But in the end the Artful Dodger gives back what he takes, the bodacious lady of the evening surrenders nothing more than politically incorrect banter and the giddy crowd shuffles happily onward into a Victorian time warp that today can be called the world’s unlikeliest theme park.

Such was the scene at Dickens World, a $133 million fantasy destination that opened its doors on the weekend replete with the ghosts of Ebenezer Scrooge, a re-creation of grim Newgate Prison, a Victorian schoolmaster who heaps abuse on all comers and a sewer-boat ride through the squalid sights, sounds and smells of 19th-century London.

Themed around the life, work and times of Charles Dickens, the two-hectare indoor complex stands on edge of the Thames River Estuary at Chatham, an hour outside London, where the famed author spent much of his childhood. Nearby is the Royal Historic Dockyard, where Dickens’s father once worked as a payroll clerk.

Dickens World has not been an easy build. More than 20 years in the making since it was conceived by late British theme park king Gerry O’Sullivan-Beare, the project at one point was destined for Canada, and later the London transit hub of King’s Cross, before soaring property prices pushed it to where it now stands.

Several well-publicized construction delays these past two years have also given London’s chattering classes ample time to pre-emptively humbug the concept, with some pundits fretting over the Disneyesque exploitation of British culture. Just as London’s once-idiosyncratic high streets have been homogenized by the onslaught of globally branded franchises, the fear holds that Britain’s greatest storytellers may now, one by one, become dumbed-down fodder for fun family outings.

Dickens World managing director Kevin Christie rolled his weary eyes at these warnings during an opening-day interview with the Toronto Star. Sleepless from overseeing a binge of last-minute construction, Christie is more concerned about getting his animatronic rats up and running – the robotic rodents at Dickens World still need some software tweaking – than commodifying the rest of European culture.

“Personally I wouldn’t dream of trying a Charlotte Bronte World or a Victor Hugo World or a world built around anyone else for that matter,” said Christie.

“The reason the concept works with Dickens is that we’re working not only with someone who is probably England’s greatest storyteller but with a very compelling period in history.

“People say, `How do you make a visitor attraction out of squalor and poverty?’ But this is Dickens World, not Dickens’s books. What we’ve tried to do is build something that is really about Empire – Victorian England – which Dickens wrote about so evocatively.

“It really was the best and worst of times. It was the richest and most powerful nation on Earth and contained within it some of the most deprived people on Earth at the same time. That is the landscape we’ve tried to create.”

It is hard to imagine a more antiseptic setting, ironically, than the one Dickens World has found for itself. This corner of the Chatham docklands has been virtually clear-cut of its history, with the theme park flanked on one side by a multiplex theatre and the other a newly built outlet mall. Just a few blocks south, Chatham’s depressed town centre hints more convincingly toward the hunger and hurt of the Dickensian era. Those who go to his world, however, are unlikely to see it.

But what’s inside Dickens World is what matters, said Christie, who oversaw the audition process of 850 applicants for the 50 acting roles that enable visitors to have face-to-face encounters with the likes of Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist and Little Nell.

“The acting staff range in age from 17 to 74, some professional actors, others not – but all chosen for their energy. The focus is to make people believe they have entered the Victorian era rather than just having them come to wander about a series of attractions.”

What would Dickens make of it? Some point to his dying wish that no shrine be created in his name as evidence the author of Great Expectations had every expectation his world would be left untouched.

But Dickens was also a showman in his own right. As many as half of his greatest stories came as serialization in newspapers – in effect, soap operas of the Victorian era. Later in life, he took his show on the road, renting theatres with his own money and reading his stories from the stage.

“He was a pop star of his time and he loved it. And it is true he never wanted a shrine, but I would hardly call what we’ve built a shrine. I would hope it speaks more to the showman in him,” said Christie.

“So at the end of the day, what is so terrible? The worst thing that could happen is we refocus Dickens as an icon and perhaps eventually one of his books will be put back on the British national school curriculum, where it hasn’t been in a very long time. We can’t force people to read, but we will definitely stimulate interest.”

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