Haunted by Dickens's tale of Christmas past

Patrick Stewart, now starring in his one-man show based on A Christmas Carol, reveals how he first fell in love with Dickens's story.

In December 1985, I was on a film location at Haddon Hall in the Peak District. I was on a "will notify" one morning, which meant that I waited in the small country hotel that housed actors, director and production staff,

for the call to come to go out to the location.

Having finished breakfast and read all the newspapers, I sat in the residents' lounge, a dreary, uncomfortable room, although many times more pleasant

than the upstairs cell that was my bedroom.

The hotel had the ubiquitous oak book-shelves lined with previously owned paperbacks, which seem to come from

some central global depot, as the same paperbacks crop up in small hotels all over the world.

Not knowing how long I would have to wait for my call, I pulled from the shelves the slimmest volume and found that I was holding Charles Dickens's Christmas Stories.

The bulk of the book was taken up with A Christmas Carol.

Of course I knew the story from many different adaptations. Who doesn't know A Christmas Carol? I could even quote from it. But had I read it? All the way through? Not me. But I turned to the first page and there by the bookshelves I started reading.

"Marley was dead to begin with."

Time passed and I went on reading. I sat down and, still reading, the morning went by.

I ordered coffee. No call came from the film set. The hotel restaurant announced lunch, but I wasn't hungry. Outside, a heavy Derbyshire rain had began to fall and indoors my eyes were moist and my throat choked with emotion.

"And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us everyone."

I closed the book, awash with feelings and somewhat irritated that I should find myself so upset. As I read, I had coolly acknowledged the sentimentality of the story, the all-too-obvious way in which Mr Dickens sought to pull at my heartstrings.

But nevertheless, there I was, my heartstrings unequivocally pulled and with a yet deeper sensation that this simple story reverberated in a way

much more profound that I had imagined, and certainly more potently than any stage or screen adaptation I had ever seen.

I could not perceive then that it was not only the death of Tiny Tim, nor the misery of Jacob Marley that had moved me, but I had connected with a very ancient theme; a man's journey from the darkness of hurt and anger into the light of redemption and joy.

In the years that were to follow as I read and re-read the story, I came to realise that A Christmas Carol had entered my life at a time when I was most in need of it and most susceptible to it.

A few days after this event, I was invited to perform something as a benefit for the organ-restoration fund of the parish church I sang in as a choirboy in the West Yorkshire town of Mirfield.

It was very short notice, but being just before Christmas and with the memory of A Christmas Carol still present, I did a hurried editing of the story to serve the purpose of a simple reading.

In fact, I had not edited enough, as the poor congregation had to sit for almost three hours on wooden pews in a Victorian Gothic church in the depth of winter. But sit they did, not a soul leaving, and I was struck by what I could only believe was the power of the story to hold an audience's attention under such conditions.

Three years later, I found myself in

Los Angeles, part of a successful TV series, wondering how I could keep

my stage muscles in condition as I

spent all my days in front of a film camera. It was then that I turned

again to A Christmas Carol and, over a period of three months, spent my weekends happily investigating if and how this story could become a stage show for one actor.

Luckily, I had the encouragement and wise counsel of a Shakespeare and Dickens scholar, the late Prof Al Hutter. And it was in the living room of his house in Santa Monica, a long way from that Derbyshire hotel and Yorkshire church, that one October evening I gave, for a small group of mutual friends, my first crack at performing A Christmas Carol.

That location is also a long way from St Martin's Lane and this, our second London run.

But one thing is plain: the power of this story to hold audiences transcends time and place, like the Ancient Mariner.

I am compelled once more to tug at elbows and insist "Marley was dead to begin with."

Patrick Stewart's one-man A Christmas Carol

is at the Albery Theatre, London, until December 31.