It was mid-winter 1935 that I turned my back on the opportunity to become a great actor.I was just a few weeks away from being 12 when selected above all others to play John Peerybingle in The Cricket on the Hearth, the great Christmas story written by Charles Dickens – and for years far more popular and highly acclaimed than his Christmas Carol and the salvation of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Dickens, always prolific, wrote five Christmas stories: The Carol in 1843, The Chimes in ’44, The Cricket in ’45, The Battle of Life in ’46 and The Haunted Man in ’47. The Cricket was the best-selling of all five with early sales double those of the first two. Only the one appears to be remembered these days, and that courtesy of the brilliance of British film makers and actor Alastair Sim’s incredible Scrooge.
I was personally selected for my role by English teacher John Francis Bacon – better known to the student body as “Flitch” – a man of obvious perception and, as his Christian names suggest, from a literature loving family. He was not, as some irreverent friends suggest when noting my advanced years, the original John Francis Bacon of the 1500s.
It was years before I learned why Mr. Bacon selected me from a throng of other dirty faced would-be Thespians. The script called for someone who could portray “a carrier, a lumbering, slow, honest man.” Courtesy of my grandfather’s training, I could harness a horse to a cart and could handle a pony and trap, so I qualified as a “carrier”. And, my mother always said of me, usually with a sigh: “He’s a good lad, but clumsy” which I suppose is a mother’s way of saying I “lumbered.” As for “slow”, well, chores certainly had a braking effect on me although I was pretty fast when it came to games and pleasure. And I was honest – except for apples swiped from the Vicar’s orchard, which we called “scrumping” because we knew stealing was dishonest; and the occasional cigarette lifted from my Uncle George’s open pack for smoking in the dark of a Saturday afternoon movie. I can’t remember how I justified snitching an uncle’s “fags” but I’m sure my 11-year-old reasoning was sound.
Anyway, there I was; John Peerybingle type-cast perfectly and hoping that Marjorie Barnett would get the nod as Mary Peerybingle. She was a few months younger but that’s what the script called for – a “much younger woman” – for John’s wife. She, for reasons known only to Dickens, is referred to as “Dot” throughout the story and was suspected at one time of being over amorous with the lodger Edward Plummer.
I was rooting for Marjorie because she was extremely good looking – and her parents ran a pie and pastry shop on Abbey Street. What better dreams could an 11-year old have just before Christmas?
The plot of The Cricket was typical of Dickens. John and his young wife Mary (Dot) are supposed to be of modest means but have a live-in nursemaid for their baby. The nursemaid (a “great clumsy girl” is called for) has the gorgeous name of Tilly Slowboy. The nine-member cast is rounded out with an old toymaker, Caleb Plummer, who is bullied and treated with contempt by his employer (known only as Tackleton); Bertha Plummer, Caleb’s blind daughter; a friend of the family May Fielding and her irritating mother; and the lodger who at play’s end turns out to be Caleb’s son, long presumed lost or dead in South America.
Ah, and one other character, never seen but playing the title role – the Cricket. The Cricket chirps advice from the hearth and at one tearful point (there are many) assures John that Dot isn’t having it off with lodger Edward, who is really in love with May Fielding whom the evil Tackleton is determined to marry.
As in the Carol, Dickens uses dreams and disembodied voices to enhance his plot. I could hardly wait to see how John Francis let me handle Peerybingle “as he soberly and thoughtfully puffed at his old pipe, and as the Dutch clock ticked, and as the red fire gleamed, and as the Cricket chirped; that Genius of his Hearth and home (for such the Cricket was) came out, in fairy shape, into the room, and shaped many forms of Home about him….”
As in all Dicken’s stories, whatever the tragedy in the body of the tale, truth and justice eventually prevail. In The Cricket, Tackleton is turned from darkness to light by the Christmas spirit and graciously allows May to marry Edward; there’s a strong hint that Caleb’s blind daughter gets her sight back; and John and Dot, all suspicions allayed, rejoice in each other’s arms.
I was looking forward to that – but it never happened. At third rehearsal I was cut. Couldn’t remember my lines. John Francis said he was sorry and told me why I’d been hand-picked for the role. “I had hoped,” he said “you would be as good in the role as your brother Tom who was so wonderful as Peerybingle three years ago.” Upstaged by my big and talented brother.
And that’s how stage and screen lost a star extinguished before his first strut on Manor Park School stage. But there it was. Opportunity knocked and I didn’t – couldn’t – open the door. But as another Christmas season slides into the past and another New Year pops up on the calendar, I can still gaze into a glowing fire and listen for a Cricket on the Hearth to tell me what might have been – and maybe what happened to Marjorie Barnett whom I coveted almost, but not quite as much as, her parents’ jam tarts and mince pies.
(And thank you to the many friends and readers who remembered my 94th birthday and wished me well. May you all have a Peerybingle future.)