Special to the star
Charles Dickens is one of the world's great storytellers and his novels have been adapted for both screen and stage
Yet my 10-year-old godson George had never heard of him. "Charles who?" he asked. The answer, I decided, was to take him to Dickens World
, a new theme-style attraction that opened in Chatham, Kent, last year.
It is part of a $124-million waterside development in the historic town (a 40-minute train ride from London's Victoria Station) which is downstream on the River Thames from London. Dickens spent part of his childhood there and his father worked at the local naval base.
The split-level attraction is built around a gloomy, 19th-century London courtyard (more down and dirty East End than posh West End) – complete with a pawnbroker and blacking factory.
Betty, a 20-something dressed as a Victorian flower-seller, appeared to give us an introductory tour.
"Do you know what insomnia is?" she asked in a cockney accent.
"No" replied George.
"It means you can't sleep – and Charles Dickens had it so he used to walk London's streets at night. Back then, London at night was a dangerous place full of thieves, beggars and villains."
A worried look entered George's eyes.
"Streets like these," she added menacingly.
We stopped outside the ``Crime and Punishment'' area. "Back in those day you could be sent to a debtor's jail if you owed money," she said. "And Charles Dickens' dad was sent to one because he owed just 200 quid."
"That's a lot of money," piped up George.
"It was even more then," she replied wryly.
At Peggotty's Boathouse (of David Copperfield fame) you can watch a 4D animated-style movie about Dickens' travels to Europe and North America.
What's 4D? Dickens, it seems, didn't take to America's Wild West and it's not hard to see why: The film cuts to a saloon. A cowboy spits and water sprays in your face.
"That was cool," said George on the way out.
The Great Expectations Boat Ride takes you on a 200-metre journey along Dickensian London's filthy waterways which meander between all-too realistic waterside inns and warehouses. "Watch out for the `brown fish,' if you know what I mean," warned Ned the Ratcatcher with a chuckle as he cast us off.
We entered a "sewer" and our boat was dragged up an incline on to a rooftop-high viaduct before tumbling down the "Fall of Death."
After visiting the Haunted House – where you meet Little Nell, Miss Havisham and Oliver Twist among others – we adjourned to The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters (Our Mutual Friend) tavern for a bite to eat. I was torn between "Fagin's Last Supper" (half a loaf of bread with beef) and a Victorian-style steamed steak and kidney pudding.
Hunger satisfied, we headed for the Britannia Theatre where animatronic figures of Dickens, and Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller (The Pickwick Papers) starred in a show explaining the story behind some of the author's best-loved characters such as Fagin and Nicholas Nickleby.
Finally, we reached Dotheboy's Hall, the notorious boarding school in Nicholas Nickleby. A strict teacher in mortarboard and gown prowled the floor as George and I played a computerized Dickens-style version of snakes and ladders at our desks.
Despite answering several questions correctly, George's score failed to impress his interactive tutor who ordered him to "stand in the corner."
"Do I have to?" asked George.
"Silence!" barked the teacher, sending a shudder through the classroom.
Dickens purists may object to the author getting the Disneyworld treatment, but Dickens World is a careful and accurate reflection of the source material. And it really does bring alive the man and his stories.
The visit certainly fired up George. On the way out I asked him if he could name any Dickens novels.
"Oliver Twist... Great Expectations," he replied.
"Er. Edward Copperhead?"
It was progress ... of sorts.