200 years on, it's still a Dickensian world

The first words of "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens gave us one of the greatest opening lines ever written: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."

And on Tuesday, Dickens' bicentennial, CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips visited London to deliver a few words himself about the author.

The bells rang out over London where a congregation gathered to commemorate the birth 200 years ago not just of a man, but of the language he created.

Charles Dickens works have been turned into more movies and stage plays than any other novelist. His themes of poverty and social injustice made more real perhaps because of his own rags to riches story. Dickens himself was sent out to work in a child labor sweatshop because he father was sent to debtors prison, or so says his great, great grandson.

"These characters are still there, the writing is still there," says Mark Dickens, adding that often unhappy imagery accompanies the phrase "Dickensian."

"He was of course a great social reformer," Mark says.

U.K. celebrates Charles Dickens' 200th birthday

He was also a great marketer. His work published in cheap serial form, drawing in the masses, a model for modern TV writers like Armando Ianucci.

"In fact, people would queue up outside the doors to get the latest monthly edition of David Copperfield. And they would queue at the docks in America waiting for the episodes of, oh, 'Curiosity Shop' to come," Ianucci says.

And he hooked them in around the world, with people from Korea to Azerbaijan celebrating Dickens' work in a 24-hour read-a-thon.

"There's a fellow called Mertle, Mr. Mertle, in little Dorrit, who is this banker. And he runs his own bank, and the whole world puts their money in Mr. Mertle's bank, and of course it collapses and no one saw it coming. So it's still relevant today," Ianucci says.

This may explain why Charles Dickens' books have never been out of print.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips returned to the CBS News London bureau as a correspondent in 1993. He has covered many major stories since then, including the war in the Balkans, the death of Princess Diana and the weapons inspection conflicts in Iraq.

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