Scrooge in the Scrubs

This report is from Emanuel De Silva, and first appeared in Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees, in February 2017

scrooge-at-the-scrubs-poster

Poster courtesy of Janet Rand

Another Christmas passed within these walls. If it was your first then don’t threat none. You know now, it goes as quick as it comes. Same shit different day. Let us brighten it up eh. Some of us were given the opportunity of creating an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol. Yes, a play in HMP Scrubs. Don’t be negative. It was good. The much acclaimed actor, Simon Callow – you may know him from Four Weddings and a Funeral – was here in the Scrubs, working with those of us involved in the production together with Philip Dundas, a writer and former BBC presenter. No one likes doing time but there can be opportunities, so make the days count, don’t count the days.

So why choose A Christmas Carol written by a Victorian author? Well, it was Christmas. But there is more to it than that. At our first session, Simon Callow explained why Charles Dickens wrote it and his social commitment to draw attention to the dreadful conditions of the poor in Victorian England.

Charles Dickens, I can hear some of you say “Who the blazes is he?” Well, he was the second eldest child of eight, born in February 1812. He was quite familiar with what we are all going through. As a child, he spent time in the infamous Marshalsea prison, where his father was imprisoned for debt. In those days if a man was sent to prison, his family went with him. Dickens’ younger siblings went into prison with his mother and at the age of 12 he was out on the streets; a pretty grim situation for the child that he was. He got a job in a boot blacking factory so that he could be near the prison where he could go and have meals with his family.

Dickens’ father later received an inheritance and he was released from prison, which enabled Dickens to obtain some education and later he worked as a political journalist and court reporter. However, his early experiences left a scar on him and he was haunted by the shame of his father’s sentence and much of his writing emphasizes the pitiful situation of the poor. His knowledge of the tedious and disorganised legal processes feature in many of his works. I am sure many of us have heard of some of his books which these days have been made into films – Oliver Twist, with the cheeky Artful Dodger and A Tale of Two Cities, one of sacrifice for friendship.

The cautionary tale that we were performing, is a damning statement on the love of money over community and compassion. Dickens was widely regarded as a literary colossus of his time. Although written over a hundred years ago, his stories are still relevant today.

So that brings us back to Simon Callow. What was his interest in Dickens and how come he ended up here with us lot? He has been a self-confessed Dickens fanatic ever since his Grandma gave him a copy of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers to read when he had chicken pox as a boy and, in his own words, “it performed the minor medical miracle of stopping me from scratching.” In his book, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World Simon tells us that:

“My relationship to Dickens is a little different to anyone else’s. I have over the years been Dickens in various manifestations, from reconstructions of the Public Readings on television, to being one of Dr Who’s helpers; I have also been involved in telling his life story, through the wonderful one-man play Peter Ackroyd wrote for me, The Mystery of Charles Dickens. Presently, I am involved in performing my solo version of A Christmas Carol. In order to do all of this, I have needed to find out what it was like to be him, and what it was like to be around him. I have immersed myself, on an almost daily basis, over a period of more than 15 years, in the minutiae of his life, above all seeking out personal reminiscences and his own utterances…my primary concern has always been to convey the flavour of one of the most remarkable men ever to walk the earth: vivacious, charismatic, compassionate, dark, dazzling, generous, destructive, profound, sentimental – human through and through, an inspiration and a bafflement…Playing Dickens, and performing his work, has been like standing in front of a blazing fire…”

The organizations Give a Book and Prison Reading Groups who run the monthly reading group in the Scrubs asked Simon if he would consider performing A Christmas Carol here for us. He came in, talked to the staff about what was possible and talked about how, as a result of his childhood experience, the first thing Dickens did on any visit to a town would be to visit its prison. Simon felt that it would be more interesting and more meaningful to put on a show with the men as he felt it would be a show that not only told Dickens’ story but would become something of theirs.

A big thank you, of course, to Simon and Philip who found time in their busy schedules to work with us – but a massive shout is also due to Officers Alan Gourley and Sean Coleman who struggled to overcome all the problems and craziness that happens here with regime changes and lack of staff to ensure that this production really did happen. Keep it real. Thanks a million, Alan, for having confidence in us. Thanks also to Governor Bradford for authorizing what must have been a big disruption on to the regime. We hope we did you all proud.

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