Get ready to be part of bicentenary celebrations

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens
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If you didn’t know about Charles Dickens’s bicentenary next week, you must have been holed up in Fagin’s Tavern all year.

Tuesday marks 200 years since the birth of the author of such classic novels as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. And literature lovers everywhere are using it as an excuse to celebrate The Great Inimitable (as he liked to call himself).

Because he was born right here in Portsmouth, the city is at the centre of the action, with commemorative events planned throughout the year. But most of the celebrations take place over the next few days.

At the heart of the attractions is the Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum on Old Commercial Road (the house where the iconic writer was born).

For 2012, the museum has extended its opening hours, which stretch from last weekend right through to November.

From 10am on Dickens’ birthday on Tuesday, there will be a range of attractions inside and outside the museum, including street performers, musicians, food, market traders, penny farthings, craft activities, a wreath-laying by the Lord Mayor and readings and speeches from people like great grandson Ian Dickens. Brian Conley will be making a personal appearance as Fagin and there will be performances of The Ballad of Charles Dickens. Admission to the museum will be free (there will also be free admission on Sunday).

A service of thanksgiving at St Mary’s Church in Portsea will begin at noon on Tuesday with readings from Shelia Hancock and Simon Callow and songs from Oliver! sung by a choir.

Also on the big day, Simon Callow will also be reading excerpts from his book, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, at The New Theatre Royal in Guildhall Walk. There will also be a Dickens-related art exhibition at the New Theatre Royal on Tuesday and a production of David Copperfield also begins its run at the King Theatre in Southsea.

There will be a free Dickens Guided Walk from Victory Gate in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard from 2.30pm on Tuesday. These walks continue every other Saturday until August 18. The walks finish at Portsmouth City Museum.

Here at the museum on Museum Road is a free interactive exhibition called A Tale Of One City. Featuring actual manuscripts, it explores the links between Charles Dickens and Portsmouth and what life was like from 1812 to 1870.

The exhibition runs until November and next Sunday, February 12, there will be a free gallery tour at 1pm. Book in advance on (023) 9282 7261.

Over at the Groundlings Theatre in Portsea (the place where Elizabeth Dickens went into labour), events have already begun with attractions like living museum tours, featuring characters from Dickens’ novels. Tours continue today, Sunday and Monday, hourly from 10am to 4pm, and cost £3.

Tomorrow from 8pm, the theatre hosts Twisted Expectations, a Dickens murder mystery dinner which costs £18.

Then, on Monday from 8pm is a Dickens ball, recreating the dance, which started Elizabeth’s contractions. The Hampshire Regency Dancers will teach ball guests authentic moves and costumes can be hired too, Tickets cost £12.

John Pounds Unitarian Memorial Church, in High Street, Old Portsmouth, is hosting a free Charles Dickens’ 200th Birthday Lecture, by Michael Allen tomorrow at 7.30pm. Book places in advance on (023) 9236 4268.

There are also plenty of more commercial events, such as the Dickens gala dinner at the Hilton Hotel on Eastern Road, Farlington, on Monday.

And, back at the Birthplace Museum next weekend and on other dates throughout the year, visitors can meet the volunteer guides and handle a range of artefacts.

See dickens2012.org for more information.