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Last Updated: Monday, 16 April 2007, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
Great expectations?

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The Great Expectations boat ride at Dickens World
Will your children thrill to the words of the master?

A Charles Dickens theme park opens in Kent soon, promising an authentic taste of the novelist's Victorian world. But is it wrong to "Disney-fy" the nation's greatest author?

The great American amusement park pioneer, George C Tilyou, once said: "What attracts the crowd is the wearied mind's demand for relief in unconsidered muscular action."

So it's inevitable that Dickens World conjures a degree of scepticism among those not ready for a theme-park tribute to one of the most popular novelists in the English language.

Housed in a modern, aluminium-clad hangar on the Chatham Maritime estate in Kent, its creators promise a flavour of "dark, smoky, moody London, full of smells and mist".

Workmen are hard at it, creating the rickety backstreets and miasmatic waterways of urban, Victorian England. The overall effect is rather like Disney painted brown and plunged into twilight.

Charles Dickens
Most of us come from Dullborough who come from a country town
Charles Dickens
On his childhood haunts

Its recreation of the world of Dickens is decked out in hand-painted, brick-effect plaster fascia and promises to smell just as his world would. It doesn't yet. Solvent aromas fill the nostrils as the building work continues, ahead of the delayed opening at the end of May.

Dickens World is faithful to the London of the period in the same way that Disney's Cinderella Castle is faithful to gothic chateau architecture. Ish.

Visitors to the £62m, privately-funded attraction can sample the Great Expectations boat ride, themed around the escape of the convict Magwitch and featuring dyed-brown water.

Debtors' prisons

There's the Haunted House of Ebenezer Scrooge, Quilps Creek, Newgate Prison and the Britannia Music Hall, while children can sit in the Dotheboys Hall Victorian classroom and be shouted at by an angry beak.

And if you tire of the world of debtors' prisons and runaway prisoners, you can always pop next door to the Odeon multiplex.

Dickens spent part of his childhood in Chatham, while his father worked as a clerk in the Navy pay office at the dockyard. Nearby Rochester has always made hay of its Dickens connections. The man himself referred to his childhood stamping grounds as Dullborough.

Abel Magwitch from a 1960s adaptation
Magwitch inspired a boat ride

"Most of us come from Dullborough who come from a country town," he wrote.

Chatham remains a microcosm of the world of the English provincial town. Lacking in purpose since the naval dockyards closed 20 years ago, it's turning to tourism as part of its efforts to avoid becoming yet another commuter dormitory town.

Dickens World was the dream of the now deceased Gerry O'Sullivan-Beare, a theme park designer who worked on Santa's World and the also-literary Andersen World, among others. Its backers hope to pull in 300,000 visitors a year.

Managing director Kevin Christie has a glint in his eye that only momentarily dims at suggestions that this experience is not 100% authentic Dickens.

"We think of the books as mostly about poverty and misery, but we tend to forget this was the great age of the Victorian supremacy - there were big things going on," he says.

'Ultimate showman'

"The Dickens Fellowship have been on board on a daily basis. Their passion for Dickens means Dickens World is going to have a focus of attention which pleases them.

"Everything we reproduce and say and do is faithful to some element of his life."

Those that fancy a drink in Dickens World can sup at the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters bar. Gruel will not feature.

Dickens described "a tavern of dropsical appearance... long settled down into a state of hale infirmity" with "corpulent windows in diminishing piles". Not quite a branch of Harvester then.

Dickens World central square
Brown dominates Dickens World

Christie has a weary, rehearsed tone in his voice when dealing with the allegation of Disney-fication of the Dickens legacy.

"He was the ultimate showman. He was the populist. He wrote in soap form for newspapers. When his own career hit the rocks he took his show on the road, travelled up and down the country, reading his books off the stage. The short answer is he would have loved it.

"Somebody once said if Shakespeare was alive today he would write plays, if Dickens was alive today he would have written for TV. Every episode ends on a cliffhanger. He was a great story writer, he has got great characters."

But to the aficionados, Dickens is more than just an author. The word Dickensian refers not just to the novels, but also operates as a multi-purpose description of social blight. There are Dickensian slums and Dickensian conditions in jails and sweatshops.

'Bumbling'

Former Dickens Fellowship joint secretary Thelma Grove has worked as a consultant on the theme park. She is adamant it is the right path to take for an author who is as relevant today as he was 150 years ago.

"A lot of the social concerns are still a problem for us today, with these young people going around shooting each other," she says.

Grove delights in the international appeal of Dickens, with more branches of the fellowship in the US than UK and a Tokyo branch going strong since 1970. But there is also a certain quintessential Englishness in the writing of the master.

Far East sweatshop
Dickens campaigned for factory workers
"You cannot imagine Mr Pickwick coming from any other nation, bumbling with good intentions that don't work out. People tend to feel a sort of proprietorial interest in Dickens."

Race equality chief Trevor Phillips caused a minor furore in 2004 when he said immigrants should try Dickens if they hoped to integrate.

"What we should be talking about is how we reach an integrated society, one in which people are equal under the law, where there are common values of democracy rather than violence, the common currency of the English language, honouring the culture of these islands, like Shakespeare and Dickens," he said.

Dr Peter D McDonald, English literature tutor at St Hugh's college, Oxford, worries that with theme parks, banknote appearances and English iconhood, the real meaning of Dickens is being lost.

"They are moves that can obscure aspects of Dickens maybe people don't really want to see, to tame and domesticate him.

"People want Dickens to represent some idea of Englishness. It is making him too domestic and homely. The humour is deeply cruel and vicious. He is a massively powerful and disturbing figure."

But English or global, amiable or cruel, it's likely the legend of Dickens can endure a little Disney-fication.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Lets assume this isn't aimed at the literary elite who, (judging by some of the coments here), seem to be very smug with themselves about their knowledge of Dickens. Seems to me the target group here are more parents who want to get their children thinking beyond Video Games, reality TV, and c list celebrities.

I see nothing wrong with that, and suggest maybe some of those being pompous about this should try and remember what childhood is all about!
Tony, Cumbria.

If the Great Man were alive today I can tell you he'd be greatly in favour of such an enterprise, providing he got his cut. I don't know whether I'd visit the place. The real Dickens experience is in his writings and to the uninitiated I can only say skip quickly over the boring bits, because most of Dickens is worth reading.All writers (myself excepted) pad their works out with waffle and that includes Shakespeare.
Edward James Wilkes, Southport, England

The nation's greatest author? I thought that was Thomas Hardy - now that would be a great theme park with yokels in smocks & smoking pipes, learning to harvest wheat with a sickle, stacking hay with a pitchfork & cafes serving pasties and cider accompanied by music from the village choir - horse drawn wagon rides by Hatchard, sheepdog trials with shepherd oak...
andrew fleming, swanage

I take umbrage at the insinuations that Rochester and Chatham are making tenuous connections to Dickens. The area incorporating these two towns did play a role in Dickens'life and many local places and establishments feature in his novels. He even chose to live in Kent and he ended his days locally too. I believe that the 'showman'in Dickens would welcome such a tribute to his life and times. Any comparison with Disney is derogatory. Keep it British and do it our way is my opinion. The 'proof will be in the pudding'. The Medway Towns certainly deserve a boost to the local economy so lets be positive and I wish Dickens World every success.
Mrs Wadhams, Chatham

The only response to this is to quote another writer: 'The horror, the horror!'
Andrew Crick, Oxfordshire, UK

I am a literature graduate now, but when I was at high school finding any enthusiasm for Dickens' work was very gradual due to the style of teaching. I skipped the entire middle of Great Expectations because the drawn out lessons bored me. I think any attempt to bring Dickens to life for children can only be a good thing.
Tamara, southend on sea, Essex

How fun, sampling poverty, misery, despair and death for a few hours befoer stepping back into the sunshine. Surely it's trivalising the social condtions Dickens wrote about? And how are they going to represent Dicken's very real, very complex characters? Mind you, I'm a Dickens nut, so I'll probably go. But i'll hate myself for it.
MEB, London

Hmmm, they where going to do a Tolkien based theme pub in the area of Birmingham that he lived in. It met with some amount of criticism and disbelief. 'would you like some shire sauce with your baggins burger?', hmmmm I cant really see this working as a disney-esuqe world either.
Tony, Birmingham

Agreed - it does homogenize and "dumb-down" Dickens a bit to present a confined experience like this - however if it rekindles interest in his works for adults, and perhaps encourages a school-age child to pick up Our Mutual Friend or Great Expectations - is any harm done? I'm all for an Elizabeth Gaskell theme-park next!
Marian Todd, Chicago, USA

This will be another blight on the landscape around here. Rochester itself is dying and no amount of Dickens themed projects will make it any better. The proposed £68M this has cost would have been better spent regenerating the area; visitors will only have to spend time in Chatham itself to get a dickensian theme going.
Scott, Rochester, Kent

Ouch. A Dickens Theme Park? Just seems like a bad idea from the start. Disneyland works because the four 'lands' are romanticized. The pirates are not vicious cut-throats, but colorful adventurerrs. The cowboys in Frontierland are not murdering European invaders but heroic Americans. Tommoroland represents all the wonderful possibilities the future has to offer. Fantasyland doesn't bother with the Brothers Grim. It's plastic and bright and happy and sanitized. It's also incredibly fake. Dickens is not. Looking over his work, I don't see a whole lot of inspiration for rollercoasters.
Sean, Naperville, US

Had the concept of Theme Park existed at the time, Dickens would have been right in the middle of it doing advertisements.
Lokkii, Dallas, Texas, USA

What is wrong with your correspondants. One of the best ways of regenerating an area is the provision of tourist attractions! Surely this attraction will bring Dickens to the attention of the current generation of children and young adults and some of them might read the books. I and my family aged 22, 20 and 16 will be visiting as soon as possible.
Doug, Emsworth

When I tell people that Dickens World is being built in Medway they laugh thinking that it is a joke. Clearly 300,000 visitors a year is very wishful thinking. The Dickens festival is a worthy way of celebrating the towns links to Dickens without the need of a theme park. The £62 million spent on it could have been more wisely spent on other worthwile projects that will benefit those who live in Medway rather than wasting it in the hope that people will actually want to come here.
Rhys, Gillingham, Kent

Dickens World already exists and is being expanded - it's called the Thames Gateway.
Paul Jones, Gillingham, Kent




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