- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2007

CHATHAM, ENGLAND

In Dickens World, rat catchers hunt vermin on London’s cobbled streets, pickpockets roam the alleys — and visitors line up for an artful dodge into the past.

A new theme park inspired by the work of Charles Dickens aims to transform a 70,000-square-foot warehouse near London into a teeming — and family-friendly — corner of Victorian England.

Literary purists may balk, but the attraction’s backers are confident.

“Would Dickens approve? Yes,” said Thelma Grove of the Dickens Fellowship, a global association of the writer’s fans. “He loved to see people enjoy themselves, and he had a very sharp eye for the latest fad.”

In more than a dozen sprawling novels, including “The Pickwick Papers” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” Dickens created a rich tapestry of 19th century England, peopled by struggling workers, aspiring clerks, jaded lawyers, ambitious orphans, rogues, runaways and thieves. Still in print after more than a century, the books have inspired numerous film and TV adaptations and a popular musical, “Oliver!”

Dickens World’s backers say they are trying to capture that vibrant landscape in their $125 million theme park. They insist it is “based on a credible and factual account of Charles Dickens’ works and the world in which he lived.”

“You can’t Disney-fy Dickens,” said Managing Director Kevin Christie, “because he was better and he was first.”

The indoor attraction includes a central square of cobbled streets and crooked buildings, where staff dressed as pickpockets and wenches will mingle with the crowds. Visitors who pay the $25 admission charge ($15 for children) will have the chance to see the Ghost of Christmas Past in Ebenezer Scrooge’s haunted house, be hectored by a schoolmaster at Dotheboys Hall — the dismal school from “Nicholas Nickleby” — and peer into the fetid cells of notorious Newgate Prison.

Tourists can also have a meal in the cafeteria, which has resisted the temptation to offer “Please, sir can I have some more?” 2-for-1 specials. The little ones can play in Fagin’s Den, an area for preschoolers named — alarmingly, some might think — after the gangmaster of the band of thieves in “Oliver Twist.”

There may be a whiff of kitsch in the air at Dickens World, but its supporters include some serious Dickens buffs.

“It’s like a dream come true,” said Ms. Grove, who acted as an adviser on the project.

She helped ensure that everything from the names on the faux shopfronts to the pharmacy offering “syrup of squirrels” was true to the Victorian period.

“People who don’t know their Dickens won’t know whether they are authentic or not,” she said. “But I want to be above criticism.”

At the moment, Dickens World is a work in progress. A planned opening this week was postponed at the last minute until May 25 due to a glitch with the “4D animatronic theater show” about Dickens’ life and work.

As journalists toured the site Wednesday, hard-hatted construction workers unfurled a banner featuring a Victorian skyline across the front of the hangarlike building in Chatham, 35 miles southeast of London.

Promotional literature for Dickens World promises the “sounds and smells” of the 19th century. For now it sounds like a construction site and smells of sawdust and fresh paint.

“It’s going to be a few weeks, but you can see we’re getting there,” Mr. Christie said.

One aspect of the attraction is inarguably authentic — Dickens’ links with this corner of southeast England run deep. The writer spent several years of his childhood in Chatham, where his father worked as a clerk at the Royal Navy dockyards, and he returned to the region late in life. The nearby marshland was memorably evoked in “Great Expectations.”

Chatham’s docks are long closed, and Dickens World — sandwiched between an outlet mall and a multiplex cinema — is part of the region’s attempt at redevelopment.

Management and staff alike are embracing the project with enthusiasm.

“It’s a living experience where you can go back in time,” said Eddie Sampson, who plays rat catcher and “gentle rogue” Ned Fiendish, one of several characters who will wander the streets of Dickens World adding Victorian color and dispensing directions to visitors.

Mr. Sampson has taken to his work with gusto, creating an elaborate biography for his character. He says Ned never knew his father, fought at the battle of Waterloo, supplements rat catching with a bit of housebreaking but has a good heart.

“I invented the entire story,” Mr. Sampson said with pride.

Managers hope the staff’s enthusiasm will rub off on visitors. They want Dickens to be thought of as fun.

Asked for the park’s mission statement, Ms. Grove quotes the admirable Mr. Sleary from Dickens’ “Hard Times”: “People must be amused, squire, somehow. They can’t be always a-working, nor yet they can’t be always a-learning.”

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