THIS weekend, Charles Dickens returns to Darlington’s Central Hall.

A production of Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is being staged in the hall by the Civic Theatre in conjunction with a touring theatre company and a cast of 30 local actors.

Dickens is returning to the hall because, more than 150 years ago, the great man himself put on a “polyphonic” performance on the self-same stage.

From being a boy, Dickens had always loved theatre, well known for his recitations and impersonations. As a young man, he seriously considered becoming an actor but instead chose to pursue journalism.

Journalism led to serialised, fictional story-writing, although facts were still important to him. For instance, for his third major story, in February 1838, he ventured up the Great North Road to Scotch Corner where, in a blizzard, he turned down the trans-Pennine turnpike (now the A66), to research the notorious practice of “boyfarming”.

He’d heard that boys unwanted by their wealthy, city families were sent to “Yorkshire schools” – large, remote houses where they boarded in insanitary conditions overseen by uncaring schoolmasters. He stayed one night at Greta Bridge, looked in on William Shaw’s academy in Bowes, and then went in to Barnard Castle, staying at the King’s Head and collecting evidence aplenty for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

His notebooks full, he began his homeward journey by catching the stagecoach to Darlington, where he awaited in the King’s Head for a connecting coach. In the refreshment room, his eye alighted on a paragraph in the Durham Advertiser (now part of the D&S Times’ stable) about himself.

The article chronicled his rise to fame, from a five-guinea-a-week reporter whose first major novel, The Pickwick Papers, had earned him £3,000. Now, it said, he was earning £3,000 every year plus £1,000 for editing a magazine plus 20 guineas-a-sheet for every article he wrote.

Dickens was outraged. He ordered a pen, ink and paper from the King’s Head staff, and immediately wrote a letter of complaint to the editor. He said he had not been on five guineas a week, he had not earned £3,000, he was not earning £3,000-a-year, nor £1,000, nor 20 guineas-a-sheet.

He signed it: "Your most obedient servant, Charles Dickens."

He handed it to a postboy, caught his stagecoach and left for York.

The Advertiser editor must have been surprised to receive the letter, but he printed it in full the following week – it was, after all, a free exclusive by one of the highest-paid writers in the land.

As well as his writing, Dickens dabbled with acting – Queen Victoria remembered him for the greatest performance she had ever witnessed in a theatre – and he was in an amateur company which played in Newcastle and Sunderland in 1852.

He also did public readings of his novels, initially for charity. But the readings developed into theatrical performances – he was brilliant, his face framed by the gaslight, he transformed himself into his characters as if he were possessed by them.

As the 1850s wore on, the success of his writings turned him into the most famous man in the country, and so the demand for live performances grew. Dickens realised there was money to be made and so, in 1858, he turned professional and, like a pop-star, embarked on a tour.

And, like a pop-star, he worried that scandal might diminish his audiences – in May 1858, he ended his marriage of 22 years and took up with a 19-year-old actress.

But his celebrity transcended the scandal, and on his autumn tour, he performed his Christmas Carol 72 times in 48 towns to packed houses.

The most expensive tickets for the Darlington show on Tuesday, September 21, were five shillings; the cheapest at the back were one shilling. All could be bought from bookseller Robert Swales, whose shop was on High Row where, for the convenience of patrons, he had a plan of the seating.

Dickens arrived from Manchester in what he rather rudely called “little Darlington”. Despite the town’s smallness, he seems to have had difficulty in finding Central Hall which, only 12-years-old, it was the biggest building in the town centre other than St Cuthbert’s Church. This put him in a bad mood, because he liked to check the acoustics of a hall before a show.

Still, he appeared punctually on the stage at 8pm before “a large and highly respectable audience”.

“After a few introductory remarks, in which he desired the audience freely to express the emotions which might be raised in their breasts by his reading, he forthwith proceeded to renew his acquaintanceship with Scrooge and Marley,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times the following Saturday. “The versatility of Mr Dickens as a writer is only equalled by his powers as a reader.

“Without the least apparent effort, he conveys by the polygraphic facilities of his voice, a clear idea of a miserable, greedy, uncompromising and uncharitable old miser, or of an honest, straightforward, but sharp and irritable woman, or of a dubious young cockney who is not backward to call out “Walker” to a gentleman.

“Whether in giving the gruff stolidity of old Scrooge at his desk, or the sheepish humiliation of Scrooge’s clerk, or the childish surmises and surprises of the said clerk’s offspring, or the pathetic condition of Tiny Tim, or the bluff heartiness of Scrooge’s nephew, or the love chase after the plump girl under the semblance of blind man’s buff, or the mysterious movements of the phantoms, he was equally at home – natural to a nicety.

“As in his writings, so in his readings, he never exhibits the least coarseness or vulgarity of manner. And never does he exaggerate his style for any morbid motive, when his audience was moved to tears or to bursts of irresistible laughter, which oftentimes occurred during the reading.”

The D&S might not have approved so resoundingly of Dickens’ performances in the 1860s as he ended them with the scene from Oliver Twist in which Bill Sikes murders Nancy, clubbing her time after time after time until ladies in the audience fainted.

The Central Hall performance finished promptly at ten o’clock. “On every hand, the audience expressed themselves as high gratified,” concluded the D&S Times. “The receipts exceeded £60.”

From Darlington, Dickens progressed to Durham, where he performed the following day in the new town hall. The audience was described as “numerous and fashionable”, and while the author was impressed by their interaction, he didn’t like the civic speeches and again commented on the size of the place.

He wrote to a friend: “At Durham, we had a capital audience, led by Dean and chapter, and humbly followed up by Mayor and local bores – but the hall not large enough and the city not large enough for such a purpose as your friend’s.”

From Durham he walked the 13 miles to Sunderland. He liked to walk between venues, enjoying the solitude and soaking up the atmosphere of the district – he paid attention to the east Durham mining communities. After reading in the Theatre Royal, he walked the 12 miles to Newcastle, where he appeared at the new town hall in the Bigg Market on Friday, September 25.

He stayed overnight in the Station Hotel, performed a matinee reading of Dombey and Son, and then caught the train to Edinburgh.

Dickens finished is Autumn 1858 tour on November 8 in Brighton, and at the bottom of his schedule wrote: “The End – Thank God!”

However, he carried on touring in the 1860s, when he finished his act with the murder scene from Oliver Twist in which Nancy Sikes is clubbed again and again and again by Bill Sikes until she is dead – he made it so graphic that ladies often fainted.

He put so much into his performances that they would exhaust him physically and mentally, and the toll they took may have contributed to the stroke he suffered in 1869 which led to his death the following year at the early age of 58.

  • The Touring Consortium Theatre Company is presenting a promenade performance – ie: there’s no seating as the audience walks back and forth from Paris to London – of A Tale of Two Cities at 2pm and 7.30pm in the Central Hall today and tomorrow. Tickets are £18. Box office 01325-486555.