Tourists have reimagined and reinvented the landmarks, streets, and alleys of Dickens’s London for more than 150 years.
Take, for example, A Muppet Christmas Carol, the 1992 reimagining of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starring the famous characters in surroundings which may, at first, seem far removed from the muppets’ usual brand of technicolour sketch comedy. In this extract from Dickensland, Lee Jackson explains how the filmmakers recreate a fictionalised version of Dickensian London to connect with and delight their contemporary audiences.
The stark gloom of David Lean’s Oliver Twist and the extravagant technicolor world of Oliver! have undoubtedly both proved influential. Take, for example, another much-loved Dickens musical, Brian Henson’s A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), a film whose popularity has steadily increased since it first appeared thanks to repeated seasonal showings on television (as I write, a cinematic re-release testifies to its longevity). Henson’s ‘Dickens’s London’ amounts to a compact set of streets and alleys, much like in Oliver!. These streets, likewise, host a musical number (‘Scrooge’) which introduces us to the city and its denizens, albeit within a considerably smaller space and a cast composed largely of muppets. Instead of Reed’s cast of washerwomen, policemen, butchers and so forth, we meet groups of talking vegetables, pigeons, cats, beggars, mice, horses and Christmas carollers.
We first see (Muppet) ‘Dickens’s London’, however, via a panoramic view of rooftops and chimneys, which appears beneath the opening credits. This owes something to Lean’s model rooftop panorama in Great Expectations, but simultaneously the vista is bright, the music jolly, with the rooftops pleasingly drizzled with snow. The half-timbered facades of many of the houses hark back to Bentley’s era and the fascination with a quaint Tudor ‘Old London’. But Henson also brings his own whimsical aesthetic. This townscape in the title sequence is overwhelmingly a rich brown and the buildings have a stylised, slightly primitive finish. This snow-capped panorama, in fact, looks very much like a vast collection of elaborate gingerbread houses, mouth-wateringly edible, dusted with icing sugar. One of the rooftops that appears as the camera pulls back over the vista even has festoons of beaded garlands, ostensibly part of the stonework but resembling the sort of looped festoon piping that used to be fashionable on wedding cakes. We are promised a veritable treat.
Likewise, when we get down to the streets, (Muppet) ‘Dickens’s London’ contains a familiar checklist of Victorian/Dickensian signifiers – gaslights, damp cobbles, quaint mullioned glass in the windows, crooked steps, cast-iron bollards – but the overall scenic effect remains, very deliberately, a charming ‘chocolate box’ vision of the Victorian metropolis. That said, there are three exceptions. Most noticeably, there is the street outside Scrooge’s house. We see it in the first half of the film, situated in a dark and gloomy corner, illuminated only by a narrow shaft of light that highlights the staircase which leads down to this miserable place (true enough to Dickens’s own description of ‘a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard’). Then there is the street where Bob Cratchit lives, whose tilting rickety Tudor houses have their own surreal (and comical) distorted geometry, redolent of a fairground funhouse. Both these places, in their own way, reference Lean’s expressionist vision of‘Dickens’s London’: the darkness, the flight of stairs descending into darkness, the strange misshapen buildings (albeit the latter are nowoddly cheerful). Finally, there is the dark future presented by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, where the previously bright and cheerful sets are now all tinged ashen grey (much like the colourless workhouse world at the start of Oliver!).
Drabness, gloom and lack of colour, of course, have themselves become a visual clue that we are in ‘Dickens’s London’ in film and television.
About the author
Lee Jackson is a well-known expert on Victorian London. He is the author of Dirty Old London, Walking Dickens’ London, and Palaces of Pleasure. Lee has lectured on Victorian topics for libraries and museums throughout London and is an academic advisor to the Dickens Museum.
About the Book
The intriguing history of Dickens’s London, showing how tourists have reimagined and reinvented the Dickensian metropolis for more than 150 years.
Lee Jackson traces the fascinating history of Dickensian tourism, exploring both real Victorian London and a fictional city shaped by fandom, tourism, and heritage entrepreneurs. Beginning with the late nineteenth century, Jackson investigates key sites of literary pilgrimage and their relationship with Dickens and his work, revealing hidden, reinvented, and even faked locations. From vanishing coaching inns to submerged riverside stairs, hidden burial grounds to apocryphal shops, Dickensland charts the curious history of an imaginary world.
‘Jackson paints a vivid and detailed picture of the city as it was…Dickens, who was no stranger to the instructive and comedic joys of pedantry, would surely have approved.‘
Ann Alicia Garza, Times Literary Supplement