It's been a very Dickensy week here at Ye Olde Crumbling House of Bookes. Not Dickensian, thank goodness - we've all been getting three square meals and wearing actual shoes most of the time. Admittedly, you might catch my children looking doe-eyed and pathetic when asking for a fourth bowl of cereal (four bowls the other morning! I might as well serve it in a trough!). And if you've been following the other blog to which I contribute, you might detect a scent of Scrooge in our posts about drinking one's way through the holidays.
But, you know, I don't hate Dickens. No, nope, I don't. I hate fake Cockney accents, Barbie(™) in A Christmas Carol, I hate animatronic carolers and a hell of a lot of things that are inspired by Dickens, but I will give the man his due. Although a run like this past week is pushing it:
NUMBER ONE RECENT DICKENS MOMENT:
Last weekend my husband finally talked me into screening the 1968 movie Oliver! for our children. This musical is completely embedded in my husband's and my cultural vocabulary - no fewer than five of his siblings participated in high school productions of it, and I was in it twice. Bob thought it would be wise to show the children exactly why, whenever the word "food" is uttered in their Aunt Mary's presence, she belts out "hot sausage and mustard!" I, on the other hand, thought maybe that should remain one of the enticing mysteries of Bob's gigantic family.
So... did you know? Oliver! is like 37 hours long. It comes with an overture which is only music, and an Intermission. On the DVD. We re-started it three times wondering why there was no picture. The musical numbers are stretched way past the point of breaking. During the intermission, Milo observed, "I like the songs, but why do they have to sing them five times?" "As Long As He Needs Me," the song Nancy sings after Bill Sykes smacks her a good one across the face, nearly drained me of my will to live.
But! Oliver Reed was a marvelous menace in that movie. Look at that coat. I think the animal might not have even been dead when he carved that coat off its body. Lapels like that could kill a man - he doesn't even need the stick. A glare like that could kill a man. I think even his facial hair could kill a man. Even when Bill Sykes is kneeling on the floor rooting under the bed for just the right crowbar with which to threaten wee Oliver - an undersung comic moment, by the way - and Nancy is flailing around claiming that she won't do whatever dastardly thing it is that they want her to do, you want to tell her to shut her yap, because he's going to vault across the bed like a hyena on a spring and tear her throat out if she keeps it up. After all, you know and I know and he knows she's gonna do whatever it is - Nancy is one of musical theater's greatest flip-floppers.
And Fagin was played by Ron Moody, a slightly-less-caricaturish Marty Feldman, all sidelong glances and storky legs. Everybody always gives that role at least a whiff of the moneylender, but in the movie, Fagin is full-on Shylock, with a flat hat, pointed beard, Yiddish accent, and a long scarf clearly meant to evoke a tallit. So, that's pretty offensive. Moody does a gorgeous job though, especially on the klezmer-inflected "I'm Reviewing the Situation," one of the highlights of the movie.
And: Here's something interesting: the kid who played Oliver Twist, Mark Lester? He's an osteopath now. How cool would that be, to be a grownup in a respectable profession, with that in your past. "Oh yes when I was a kid I did a couple of movies." My kids' dentist, he totally should have been the kid on H.R. Pufenstuf. (Wow, my brain is smarter than I am. The kid on H.R. Pufenstuf was the Artful Dodger in Oliver!)
NEXT DICKENS MOMENT:
The very next night, we attended The Christmas Carol (sic), put on by a church theatrical group in our area. It was very nice. It was! It was also 37 hours long, but not because they sang things over and over and reprised them, but mostly due to some rather abstract montage sequences during which the ghosts dragged Scrooge around the auditorium while sound effects took the place of, er, scenery, action, dialogue, etc.
Our old pal Friend the Girl played Belinda Cratchit, and her brother Juicy played Tiny Tim. It's been a long time since Juicy was given the blogonym Juicy, and he's no longer a drooly little toddler with giant blue long-lashed eyes. He is a handsome second grader with giant blue long-lashed eyes. He looks like this:
but not so sad, and he was born to play Tiny Tim. Both kids projected and knew their lines and seemed quite comfortable on stage, but Friend the Girl had I kid you not the high point of the show. She came out all urchined up in a tweed cap and sang an a capella solo of "I Saw Three Ships" to Scrooge, who crabbed at her to go away. She lingered on stage, kind of saucily singing an extra couple of lines even after he'd started hollering at her, then giggled and ran off stage.
THE THIRD DICKENS THING THIS WEEK:
The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright, illustrated by Barry Moser
Both of my children read Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright's new book. It's been getting quite a lot of very positive press, and has made both Kirkus's and SLJ's lists of best books for 2011, but I am in the middle of a very time-consuming side project and I knew I'd never get to this book (plus there is my pesky Dickens allergy) (did I say I didn't dislike Dickens? I kind of lied), so I encouraged the boys to read it. Encouraged. I brought it home from the library and left it on the coffee table and like that! it disappeared. Within a week they were ready to tell me all about it:
Zhou: The Cheshire Cheese Cat is really good. I like how both the two main characters, Pip and Skilley, are different than their usual kind. They're not what you'd expect. I like how their secrets are revealed later in the story, like Pip's secret is finally revealed by Skilley and Skilley's secrets are revealed by Pip.
So do they know each other's secrets in the beginning?
Z: No no definitely not.
What are the consequences of each one having secrets?
Z: They don't trust each other. Then gradually they do.
Who are these characters actually?
Z: Skilley is a tomcat from the streets and I think was discarded from some type of cheese factory.
Z: Because of his secret.
Ok, and Pip is?
Z: Pip is a mouse who was already in the Cheshire Cheese, that's the inn where they live, when Skilley came, to be the mousecatcher. Pip is like a pet of Nell, the innkeeper's daughter.
I can see why they wouldn't trust each other.
Z: Yeah, sure, of course. Cat and mouse, that's famous. Cat chases mouse. But in this book, it's not so much cat chases mouse.
Sounds to me like The Cricket in Times Square.
Z: No they're living in England actually. London. They're living on Fleet St. and Skilley knows a cat named Pinch, who is lethal and really mean. The terror of Fleet Street.
But I mean like the mouse and the cat that are friends. Like Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse.
Z: Yeah but in this book they aren't friends at the beginning. It's all about them becoming friends.
Milo, from the other room: You have to put that the writing is really good! The parts about describing the inn, and the hallways. And it's really about the raven.
Milo: I don't want to give it away. There's a raven. They have to get the raven back to the Tower of London.
Why doesn't it just fly?
Milo: Are you sure you aren't going to read it?
Ok fine don't tell me.
And to cap the whole thing off, I have just read this item that might explain the embarrassment of Dickens we've been experiencing lately:
Opening tomorrow at the Museum of London is a major exhibition tying into the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth in 2012. Dickens and London runs from 9th December-10th June 2012 and includes handwritten manuscripts, costumes, paintings and a specially commissioned film of London at night.
Well, all right. Guy is 200 years old. I guess it's going to be a Dickens of a year.