Didn’t I Have a Lovely Day, the Day I Went to Whitby!

One of the best parts of doing what I do is that I get to visit places I have never visited before. Some venues are hidden gems that I’ve never heard of and others are places that I’ve always wanted to travel to.

 
I well remember my excitement on discovering that steam really does come from the manhole covers in New York City; being amazed at the scale of the Mall in Washington DC; being so moved at standing on the same stage as Charles Dickens had stood upon in the St George’s Hall in Liverpool, not to mention walking through the front door of Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen.

 
Although not quite matching a childhood dream of meeting the monarch, I have always wanted to visit the seaside town of Whitby on the coast of Yorkshire and last year I received a request from the Whitby Fine Arts Association to perform for them. Of course I accepted the invitation.

 
On Tuesday this week I set off for my trip. Whitby is situated at the mouth of the River Esk in North Yorkshire and rises on opposing banks of the river. The natural harbour has made it a centre for fishing and shipbuilding over the centuries. In around 1746 James Cook made his way to Whitby and served his seafaring apprenticeship on Whitby Colliers (a very specific flat-bottom design of ship, which require great seamanship to navigate), before joining the Royal Navy and discovering Australia.

 
My day started off as a normal run. A34, M40, cutting across past the Silverstone Motor Racing Circuit before joining the M1 to head north. It is once you are on the great North-South artery that is the M1 that you feel as if you are really going somewhere. As I drove I could see road signs directing me to many towns where I have performed before: Birmingham, Coalville, Leicester, Newark, Nottingham, Lancaster, Liverpool and more.

 
As I passed the landing lights of the East Midlands Airport at Kegworth, I thought about the horror of the day in 1989 when a crippled airliner tried to make an emergency landing there but crashed into the Motorway embankment instead. Unbelievably there was no traffic on that stretch of the road that night.

 
As you travel further north, the scenery changes and gentle lowland meadows begin to swell and grow, providing ever more dramatic vistas. In Derbyshire the magnificent Bolsover Castle stands proudly on its hillside overlooking the road below.

 
I stopped for lunch near Barnsley, a town that brings me more happy memories of meeting and interviewing the great cricket umpire, Dickie Bird, who has lived there all his life.

 
Once past Leeds my route took me slightly to the East, skirting York, with a tantalising glimpse of the magnificent Minster and away towards Pickering where the most beautiful part of the trip begins.

 
If I were to have followed the A64 I would have driven to Scarborough where I would have turned left and followed the coastline to Whitby but by taking the A169 in Pickering I was taken over the beautiful North York Moors: a stunning wilderness of heather, bracken and hikers.

 
I passed the signs to Goathland (something was filmed there: All Creatures Great and Small? No, that was in the Dales. Last of the Summer Wine? No, that was in Holmfirth which also hosted the Tour de France last week. Hmmmmm, let me think about it: I’ll come back to you later).

 
Another memory was stirred as I passed signs at the roadside promoting the Ryedale Festival. Way back in 1994 I wrote my show Mr Dickens is Coming, and a good friend Paul Standen, who was a superb director and advisor, suggested that we form a company and take the show on the road.

 
So we rented a van, hired some theatrical lights and set off for Yorkshire. Unfortunately I hadn’t really learned how to perform a one man show properly at that time and my performances were not altogether memorable, but the trip was fabulous.

 
The strange thing is that I was now returning to the area with basically the same show. I took the opportunity to send a message to Paul via Facebook and drove on.

 
The road rose up and up and up until, like a roller coaster, it tipped me over the top and there was my first view of Whitby, with its ancient Abbey ruins standing proudly above the town.

 

Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey

 
The route took me through the village of Sleight where I was actually to perform and on into the town of Whitby itself. I easily found my way to 22 Esk Terrace, a stunning Georgian five story house owned by Ruth Darling, the organiser of my event. Ruth was pottering in the front garden as I pulled up and smilingly welcomed me to her home.

 
No. 22 was built as a seafarer’s house (as were all the other houses in the terrace) and has a commanding view over the estuary. Ruth showed me to my room on the very top floor where I was able to admire the river below before descending two flights to join Ruth for tea in the living room.

 
We chatted about Dickens, about Whitby, about the moors. She told me about the many tourists who come from all over the world simply to visit the locations of Heartbeat (Ah, yes, of course! That is what was filmed in Goathland). We talked about Captain Cook and the whaling industry in the town. We discussed the Beeching cuts of 1963 which closed the rail link from Whitby to Pickering. The line has now been renovated by the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and runs an evocative steam service throughout the season.

 
As I had made such good time on my journey Ruth suggested that I should walk into the town for a quick explore.

 
Whitby is a small town which is dominated by the river Esk, at the mouth of which two serpentine harbour walls protect the town from the North Sea. As I walked along the quayside I was amazed at the huge amount of boats offering rides, including a replica of Cook’s Endeavour offering ‘The Genuine Captain Cook Experience. 25 minute trip.’ Maybe not THAT genuine, then.

 

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The Endeavour Sets Sail for Lands Afar (back in 25 minutes)

The Endeavour Sets Sail for Lands Afar (back in 25 minutes)

 
The smell of the British seaside, you can’t beat it: The salty smell of the sea, mixed with the smell of diesel, mixed with the smell of fish and chips and salt and vinegar. And then there is the sound of the seaside: Voices everywhere, the slow chug chug chug of the fishing boats, the bells and electronic cacophony of the amusement arcades.

 
In Whitby there stands The Dracula Experience which is ‘a unique tour through the Dracula story and the connection to Whitby. As you enter a dreadful fear will come upon you. The Count’s mysterious appearance and frightening warning will make you wonder if you should have come to Whitby!’

 
I decided to give it a miss.

 
Instead I walked up a steep hill to the statue of Captain James Cook, who stands proudly looking out to sea. No doubt there is a glint in his eye as The Endeavour passes beneath him, giving thirty holiday makers ‘The Genuine Captain Cook Experience.’

 

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook

 
I still had plenty of time in hand, so walked across the swing bridge which connects the two sides of the town. The streets here are narrower and cobbled, the buildings crooked and bent through hundreds of years of subsidence and being beaten by the ravages of the North Sea.

 
I found the White Horse and Griffin pub, which is where Charles Dickens is reputed to have stayed when he visited the town, and around the corner the Old Town Hall which seems to have been built in miniature, with a miniature market square in front of it.

 

The Town Hall

The Town Hall

 
I wound my way through the streets, completely charmed by them.

 
It had only been a brief look around but I had seen enough to know that I would very much like to return one day to be one of the tourists. If I do return then I can visit the photo shop and avail myself of the opportunity of having my portrait taken in Victorian costume….

 
I returned to Ruth’s house for a short lie-down before making my way back to the village of Sleights. In my room I decided to make myself a cup of coffee and it was now that I discovered quite what amazing attention to detail Ruth has towards her guests: my mug had ‘Bah Humbug’ emblazoned across it.

 

Attention to Detail

Attention to Detail

 
At 5 o clock I was due to meet Brian Oxley, a member of the Dickens Society from the nearby town of Malton. Charles Dickens had a good friend in Malton – Charles Smithson the local solicitor – and a group of enthusiasts, headed by Brian, have made a small museum in his office.

 
As I pulled up outside the Sleights Village Hall Brian and his colleague John were waiting for me. We walked down the hill to The Salmon Leap for a coffee but it was closed, so we turned tail and walked back up the hill (which seemed to have become much steeper during the last five minutes) to pile into Brian’s car to drive to another pub.

 
For half an hour or so we sipped our coffees and chatted about Charles Dickens, the museum and my shows. It was a very nice way to relax before the show.

 
At 6 o’clock we went back to the hall and I started setting up the stage for Mr Dickens is Coming: reading desk, screen, chair are all placed. The white fluffy cat is hidden behind the screen. The glass carafe that belonged to Charles Dickens and has his monogram etched onto it, sits unnoticed on the desk.

 
As 6.30 approached I started to change into my costume. The probability of a large audience was not great; with thirty minutes to go there were six members of the committee, Brian and John and the caretaker of the hall. Not promising.

 

 

Messy Dressing Room

Messy Dressing Room

 
However as the clock ticked on things started to improve. One of the nicest sounds for an actor is the hum of an audience gathering and as the 7 o’ clock starting time approached I could hear more and more people coming in. Ruth popped her head in to my room every now and then to keep me posted; at just after the hour she made her announcement and I was up.

 
Mr Dickens is Coming is a biographical show concentrating on Dickens’s theatrical side. It uses lots of short passages from novels and plenty of characters. It is not a heavy lecture, but designed to be light-hearted and fast moving.

 
Audiences always like to be told of any connection between Charles Dickens and their own area and my research had uncovered the fact that Whitby is only mentioned in one novel: Dombey and Son. Further investigation showed that Dombey and Son was dedicated to the Marshioness of Normanby, whose home nearby Dickens had visited. Even better is that the mention of Whitby comes from the lips of salty sea dog Captain Cuttle. It cannot be coincidence, I told the audience, that Dickens gave him an alliterative name which mirrors that of Whitby’s favourite son, Captain Cook. Tenuous? Massively. Appreciated by the audience? Hugely.

 
The first half went very well and the Whitby Fine Arts Society loved it and clapped for a long time before grabbing their refreshments and settling down for act two.
Those of you have been following my blog this year will know Doctor Marigold already and this is the performance I gave for the second half. Gratifyingly the piece worked beautifully, and everyone seemed to enjoy it immensely.

 
The performances done, I changed, loaded up the car and drove back into Whitby, where Ruth and her husband Tony had laid on a wonderful late night supper: local pork pies, allotment-grown lettuce, beautiful Yorkshire cheese, Yorkshire Curd Tart, pickles and wine. We chatted and laughed and relaxed.

 
It was a superb end to a superb day.

 
Yes, I certainly had a lovely time in Whitby.

The Carnegie Forum, Abingdon

Let me start with a statement of arrogance:

At my shows I am the centre of attention.

There! I know it, I like it, that is why I do it. I love the feeling of being on a stage in front of an audience and knowing that everyone is there to see me. Hopefully, if things go well, they will applaud and cheer and go home talking. Talking about me.

But last week I attended an event at which I was a very minor cog in an impressive, stimulating and positive wheel.

Through a series of connections, the main one being that my next door neighbour is on the organising committee, I had been asked to attend the Carnegie Forum event in my home town of Abingdon.

Each year the Carnegie Medal is awarded to the best Children’s Book of the year. There is a panel of important, worthy and seemingly anonymous judges, who ponder the merits of eight shortlisted novels before choosing the award winner.

At the same time as the ‘real’ judges are making their decision, so across the country a series of shadow judging is taking place and this is by the books’ target audience, the youth of Great Britain.

In Abingdon the Carnegie Forum is a celebration of educational unity, bringing together six schools from the town to work together for a day of literature. The wonderful thing about the project is that the schools involved are all totally different: there are comprehensive state funded schools and single sex independent fee paying schools, yet by the end of the day all differences will be forgotten as the students work towards a common goal.

The event takes place in the Abingdon Guildhall and at 10.00 the students begin to arrive. Each block is guided in by their teacher, or school librarian and at this time of the day the economic and educational distances are still very clear. If you were to look at the hall from above you would see 6 distinct blocks of colour, depending on the various school uniforms.

At 10.30 the event is ready to begin. The schools represented are: The John Mason School, Larkmead School, St Helen’s and St Katharine’s School, Abingdon School, Fitzharry’s School and Our Lady of Abingdon School.

The event organiser, Rob Baron gets up and welcomes the group and like any good teacher addresses the students (all in the 14-15 age bracket) confidently, efficiently but with no hint of condescension. Like cabin crew on an aeroplane he goes through the evacuation procedures for the building and introduces the judges for the day. Lastly he introduces me.

I have a miniscule part to play in the day, as I intimated at the start this is an occasion that really has nothing to do with me, but each year a speaker is invited to give a short talk to inspire the students.

I don’t know if I do that or not, but I talk about performing Dickens and how a great author gives all the clues a performer may need to discover a character and bring him to life on a stage.

When my 15 minutes are up the main action begins to assess the merits of the shortlisted books

The eight titles on this years’ list are:

All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry
Blood Family by Anne Fine
The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks
The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper
Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Roof Toppers by Katherine Rundell
The Wall by William Sutcliffe

The day’s events are in two concurrent parts. Firstly students from all of the schools have studied the novels and written reviews about each of them. A panel of judges will sit and discuss all of these reviews during the day before choosing the best and a highly commended runner up for each title.

While the judges are tucked away in The Bear Room at the Guildhall, so the students are getting down to work on the second part of the proceedings.

In the run up to the event each student has selected one of the novels to work on. Once all of the selections had been collated ten groups were formed (two books getting enough support to merit two groups). The groups are by necessity mixed, using students from all of the schools, who have never worked together before and probably have never even met.

The idea is to create a 4 minute scene about the book and to convince the rest of the attendees to vote for their particular novel.

I have been involved with workshops before during which students improvise and act scenes: they usually end up a horrendous free for all, often a brawl, all of the actors turned inwards, audience forgotten, words inaudible, point lost. To avoid this mayhem each group has a ‘facilitator’(oh, please!), to ensure that the scene is controlled and clear. However all of the creativity, all of the ideas, all of the direction comes from the students themselves.

While the ten groups start their first fumbling discussions, the judges are getting down to work and it is with them that I spend the day. Actually I could quite easily have gone home after my bit but the latent energy of this event, the sense of creativity and commitment makes me want to stay and watch. Actually I just want to be a part of it all.

The judge’s debate is fascinating, the more so because I have read none of the novels, so the only information I have is from the student’s reviews. The panel is made up from 6 people all involved in the book industry: authors, booksellers, publishers, librarians and teachers: people who know their subject.

The chairman of the judging panel, voted by a quick show of hands, is Mark Thornton, who runs a superb independent book shop in Abingdon. Mostly Books is everything that a local bookshop should be, with a good stock and a superb ordering service, allied to great knowledge of his product, things that an online bookseller can never achieve.

The deliberations begin with All the Truth that’s In Me and moves on through each title. Some of the reviews are simply a regurgitation of the plot and some are very personal:

WOW! This is a fantastic read…..The short chapters drew me in, so that I was forever saying to myself ‘just one more chapter! Just one more!’ It meant that I finished this in record time

Each judge had made notes about the reviews and as the process went on it became clear what each was looking for. They pulled out memorable phrases, decried ‘listy’ reviews, liked the personal touches:

‘Rooftoppers’ is so good that I went over my bedtime by three hours just so I could finish it.

Some reviews give good advice:

I think this book should be for 11+ as it includes more adult themes like abuse and addiction which can be quite scary.

Some, harsh criticism:

I didn’t enjoy reading this book. It was tedious and the plot was dragging itself along……I felt that I had to force myself to carry on reading as it soon became boring and uninteresting.

And some reviewers got carried away in their own enthusiasm:

Who ever reads this [the review], I hope HAS read the story, for I have spoiled it now! But if you have, I hope you think my review very accurate to the story, and enjoyed reading Ghost Hawk! I believe that Susan Cooper made fantastic twists, and wrote the book brilliantly. Thank you for reading my review!

As the discussions carry on clear frontrunners appear and Mark makes notes on an incredibly complicated looking cross reference system, comprising of tables, letters and numbers.

After half the books have been discussed we break for a while to take a look at the groups working on their presentations which are in various stages of preparation. Some are still in the discussion stage whilst some are already in rehearsal.

What is clear is that each group has become a fully homogenised unit, with lots of input from each member, although inevitably some natural leaders are appearing.

The event carries on until lunchtime, during which the judges work on the second set of reviews, while the students have a picnic lunch in the nearby Abbey Grounds.

After the break it is time for the performances themselves. We all take seats in the main hall as each group gets up to perform in front of their peers.

The scenes vary in their success but all are carefully thought through and ‘sell’ their books well. Some are a bit confusing, some are very simple, some send chills down the spine.

In many of the groups natural performers shine through, whilst others are so shy and nervous that they are scarcely audible and it is these who get my huge respect for the sheer nerve they have to stand and perform and not to let their colleagues down.

After the ten performances are done, the judges retire to consider the result and everyone else eats cake.

Finally it is the prize giving and Mark, having checked and rechecked his tables, gets up to announce the decisions. There are winners and highly commended awards from students representing every one of the schools at the event and, amazingly, those were the genuine results. No tweaking had to be done to make sure that each establishment was rewarded.

Of the scenes two stood out: one performing Bunker Diaries and one for The Wall. It is the latter that gets the nod.

The day has run absolutely to schedule and the unified group begins to break up into its component parts which in turn return to their own schools.

Maybe new friendships have been forged or maybe the status quo will be maintained but whatever happens one thing is very clear to me: the future of reading, the future of books is in very very good hands indeed.

Links

http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/carnegie/

http://www.mostly-books.co.uk/

http://www.johnmason.oxon.sch.uk/

http://www.larkmead-school.com/

http://www.fitzharrys.oxon.sch.uk/

http://www.shsk.org.uk/

http://www.abingdon.org.uk/

http://www.olab.org.uk/

Dad and Doctor Marigold

Dad

During my recent adventures at the Rochester Dickens Festival my thoughts turned, as they annually do during the three days, to my father.

My dad had always studied the works of Dickens with the fascination of a family member and with the intensity of a scholar. He knew his stuff without a doubt and loved to share his knowledge. Unfortunately for him, none of his children showed the slightest interest in the life and works of our great great grandfather.

But Dad didn’t mind. He wrote articles, gave speeches and told us that ‘one day you will discover Dickens. It may be when you are 20, it may be when you are 70 but one day it will happen. In the meantime just do what you want to do, but do it well. Be the best as you can at whatever your chosen field is.’

He put no pressure on us, we weren’t sat down with a bowl of gruel to read 5 chapters of Hard Times before bedtime. He supported us. He advised us. He encouraged us.

My chosen career was not a traditional, or a safe one but dad had loved performing in his youth and was always taking me to rehearsals and giving me advice and feedback after a show. I used to talk far too quickly until he gave me the best piece of advice that any actor could wish for: ‘Always finish one word before starting the next.’ It is brilliant in its simplicity.

Dad

Dad

In 1993 when I was approached and asked to recreate one of Charles Dickens’s readings of A Christmas Carol I tentatively asked him if he knew of any books that I could read on the subject and this was when I realised how much he had restrained himself over the years. He burst like a balloon, and all of the knowledge, research, contacts and opinion came pouring out of him. He was like an excited child who had been keeping a secret until Christmas morning.

He told me which books to read, which scholars to speak to, where to find the version that Dickens himself had performed. However he advised me not to try and do it AS Charles Dickens, I should do it as myself. And of course there was the old mantra: ‘Do it well. Be the best you can’

Whenever I performed in Rochester Dad would be there, as anonymous as a man who looked just like Charles Dickens could be in the Medway Towns at festival time. He stood outside the room I was to perform in, marshalling the audience to their seats.

He, however, never sat. He was too nervous for me and would stand at the back of the room, his hand deep in his pocket, jangling his change. From my vantage point on stage I could always tell how nervous he was getting by the sound of the bullion shifting. He would get furious looks from audience members but he would never stop jangling. I really don’t think he knew he was doing it.

After a show in Rochester

After a show in Rochester

Doctor Marigold
Over the years I performed a number of Charles’s own readings, with Nickleby always being a favourite, as well as shows that I created myself: ‘Sketches by Boz by Dickens’, ‘A Tale of Two Speeches’, ‘Mr Dickens is Coming!’ and others.

And then one year I realised that I didn’t have any new material to perform at the festival. Dad, of course, had advice: ‘You should try Doctor Marigold; it would suit your style with the fast sales patter. People will love it.’

You would have thought that by now I might have realised that Dad knew what he was talking about but on this occasion I became an opinionated know-it-all son and completely disregarded his advice. Instead I put together an awful programme of short readings from various novels that had no theme, no coherence, no style and by the end practically no audience either. I was so depressed at the end of the festival that I was on the point of giving it all up.

Fortunately I didn’t and bounced back the following year with some other show – but Marigold lay buried deep at the back of my mind, irrationally associated with my failure of the previous year.

The years passed and I loved being a performer, which is all I’d ever really dreamed of. New shows came, some stayed, some went but Doctor Marigold remained stubbornly unperformed.

Canterbury 2005
In 2005 I received a great honour when I was invited to become President of The Dickens Fellowship, as my father had been before me. Dad was so proud and once again gave me plenty of advice.

The Presidency is officially bestowed at the Fellowship’s annual conference which in 2005 was in Canterbury, a city with strong Dickens connections, thanks mainly to David Copperfield.

On the Saturday night banquet I gave a speech, and in it paid huge tribute to the influence of my father and, as requested by him, sent his best wishes to his many friends in the room. The applause for him was warm, affectionate and genuine.

As I left the dinner I switched on my mobile phone to receive the dreadful news that, almost as I had been speaking, Dad had suffered a heart attack and died.

I rushed straight to the family home, in costume, to be with Mum. It is silly the things that you remember, but I’d promised Dad that I’d prune the massive wisteria climbing over the front of the house so on Sunday morning, wearing the Victorian garb from the night before (I had nothing else with me), I climbed the ladder and did the pruning in waistcoat and cravat. He would have enjoyed that!

Dad left me many memories and many things, but above all else he gave me my career, he inspired and supported me throughout. He let me make mistakes and helped me to understand them and, of course, he suggested that I should perform Doctor Marigold.

I don’t recall which year it was, maybe the following summer, but once more I arrived at Rochester with nothing left in my repertoire and for the first time in years I began to think about Doctor Marigold.

If truth be told I’d never actually read the piece and knew nothing about it. Dad had mentioned the fast paced sales patter and I couldn’t quite understand why a Doctor would be doing that. It all seemed a bit silly to me.

Oh, how I should have listened to my father. Oh, I should have trusted him. Doctor Marigold is such a beautiful tale. It is moving, tragic, uplifting and such fun to perform.

The central character is a market trader, a cheap jack, and was christened Doctor in honour of the doctor who was called to assist at his birth.

The story had first appeared in the 1864 Christmas edition of Charles’s magazine ‘All the Year Round’ and in the following year Charles included it in his now prolific public reading tours where it became an instant success.

Charles had two categories of readings, the long major performance, which usually came from one of the main novels (Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield and of course A Christmas Carol), and the shorter, often comic pieces to finish the evening off. The fact that he, as a great showman, decided to include Doctor Marigold as one of his major pieces, suggests to me that he wrote it purely with a view to performing it.

The style of the reading is certainly different to his other major pieces in that the performer becomes the character and addresses the audience directly, rather than acting as a narrator. This was brave of Dickens, for much of his success was built on his ability to swap between characters quickly, giving each a different voice and personality. In Doctor Marigold there would be no opportunity to show such flair; he was chained to a single persona.

Marigold himself is a gentle, positive and resilient man, bouncing back from a series of tragedies that life has imposed on him.

A piece like Marigold you can rehearse as often as you like but it won’t be until an audience is present that you can discover how the reading really works. As soon as I began to read in Eastgate House on the Friday afternoon of the festival the show came alive.

I experienced a phenomenon which is astounding for an actor and that is to discover a complete empathy with the character you are playing. No, even that doesn’t capture the experience I had. Having an empathy suggests that I, Gerald Dickens, fully understood he, Doctor Marigold and that doesn’t come close to what I experienced. I WAS Doctor Marigold, I was feeling his feelings, suffering his pain and rejoicing in his successes.

I have had these experiences before but, due to the nature of my shows, if I have identified with a character so completely, it is only for a portion of my performance. With Marigold I got to be him for the entire show.

The reading was well received and the praise was fulsome, much of the audience’s delight coming from the fact that they did not know the piece and so had no idea where the plot was taking them.

After the Festival was over I thought to myself ‘why have I never performed this before?’ Sorry Dad!

And now, whenever I could, I performed Doctor Marigold. I wanted as many people as possible to see this unknown reading, and I relished any opportunity to inhabit his persona.

One such performance was for the Rochester and Chatham Branch of The Dickens Fellowship who meet at the Dickens World visitor attraction, located near the Chatham Dockyard where Charles’s father had worked in the pay office.

The performance was still a reading but I was moving closer and closer to memorising it completely and therefore having no script in my hand to hamper the characterisation.

During the show I found that I was hardly referring to the page at all and it was then that I made my decision: the next time it would truly be an unencumbered Doctor Marigold talking directly to his friends.

Off The Book
It so happened that I was off on a cruise ship soon after and decided to use that opportunity to try the new format out.

Before leaving I spent a great deal of time finding pieces of costume that would work together. It was another interesting insight into Doctor’s character: he lives in a cart on the road, but is neat, clean and tidy. The costume could not be ragged and torn but must adequately represent his itinerant lifestyle.

Cruise ships are great places to blood new shows as there is so much opportunity to rehearse. I usually find a piece of deck and go up to it early in the morning and pace and mutter and mutter and pace until the words are second nature.

On that cruise I started out with two of my usual shows, to build up a following among the passengers before announcing that the next programme would be Doctor Marigold, bigging it up as much as I could.
The promotion worked and there was a good audience in the theatre. I stepped out onto the huge stage, completely empty with the exception of a little wooden stool. I made a few remarks of introduction and finished them with the words that Dickens used when he performed it: ‘And now, it’s time to let Doctor Marigold speak for himself’

“I am a cheap jack. My own father’s name was Willum Marigold…..”

I went through the whole story, all of the humour and the despair. All of the tragedy of his marriage and the huge emotional highs with his adopted daughter. The audience were spellbound and rapt with attention. They laughed and cried and clapped and cheered. At the end I was exhausted but knew that the show had changed completely and it would never, it could never, be a reading again.

Later in the Summer I was performing at a Dickens conference in California, ‘The Dickens Universe’ based at the University of Santa Cruz. It is a majorly scholarly affair with lectures of great depth and insight. If I struggled to understand the lectures themselves, they were nothing compared to the questions afterwards.

The group started discussing Dickens at 8.00am and continued all day until 10.00 pm. During the coffee, lunch and tea breaks the individuals broke off into little huddles and relaxed by discussing Dickens.
Each day there were three main lectures and the rest of the time was taken up in smaller discussion groups, led by young, intense undergraduates.

And there was I, in the middle of this vortex of knowledge and opinion, called upon to perform Doctor Marigold. Among the scholars there was one who had edited a recent edition of Marigold and knew every nuance, every comma, every interpretation. Gulp.

I rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed some more. I am sure that I have been more nervous in the past but I can’t quite call to mind when that might have been. I had to get this right; there was nowhere to hide as I would be living with all of these people for the next few days.

The night of the show arrived and the delegates arrived, in their droves. The hall was full and noisy and excited. Miriam Margoyles was there in the front row. Miriam is a Dickens lover and has performed her brilliant one-woman show ‘Dickens’ Women’ for many years. She was attending the conference not as a celebrity but as a passionate fan.

“I am a cheap jack. My own father’s name was Willum Marigold……”

God bless him! He did it again. The hall loved it. They cheered and whooped and stood. Miriam was clapping her hands in delight.

The next morning everyone wanted to talk about the show and how much it had affected them. Those that knew Doctor Marigold well, including the scholar who had worked with it for so long, said that they had seen it in a completely new light and that previously unnoticed depths of the man’s character became clear when he laid himself bare in front of his audience.

The fact that the story seems to work better in the flesh than it does in print certainly convinces me that Charles Dickens had a live performance in mind when he sat down to start writing.

I have spent a little time detailing a few of my experiences of Marigold to try and demonstrate what an extraordinary power the show has over many different types of audience.

A New Era
And now, a new chapter has opened in the story. When I performed for the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Fellowship there was a special guest in the audience, Patrick James, who has a background in television as a producer of documentaries. After the show Patrick approached me and asked if I would like to film Marigold for DVD distribution. I agreed, with the feeling that, like so many promises in this business, it would probably come to nothing. I had, however, not appreciated how dedicated Patrick was to the project and how that, when he gets his teeth into an idea, he doesn’t let go, like a terrier with a stick.

Suddenly we had a date for filming, we had 2 cameras, we had costumed characters from the Fellowship branch who would be Marigold’s crowd, we had a venue: the magnificent central square at Dickens World.
The day of recording was a fascinating one for me, being essentially a stage actor, as there is much to be learned about the process of filming. Once more, however, Doctor Marigold weaved his spell over the assembled ‘audience’. The people there had all seen me perform it before but as the story unfolded they were hanging on to every word as if they were hearing him tell his tale for the very first time. There were sobs and tears once more.

The setting was marvellous, dressed and prepared by my old friend David Hawes, a theatrical costumier, with superb attention to detail. He even found me a cap to wear as apparently the top of my head was causing trouble from a lighting point of view….

Doctor Marigold

Doctor Marigold

Months passed and editors pored over the video output from the two cameras, and sound engineers mixed the audio. Designers came up with the DVD box design, an old leather book with a photograph of me in character, under the heading: The Charles Dickens Performance Collection. Patrick sent me copies to review and comment on, and eventually we were all happy with the end product.

It is extraordinary to think that Doctor Marigold now lives in the electronic world and people all over the globe can discover this ‘unknown’ Dickens and share the emotions of those who have seen it on stage and those who have read it on the page.

Already the first copies have been sent out and it has become clear that the magic translates to the more modern format:

“I watched it last night and was absolutely captivated by it.”

“I laughed at the comic moments and fought back tears at the heartbreaking revelation of the child’s death “

“Charles Dickens would have been very proud of his great, great grandson Gerald Dickens, as his performance of the story was superb.”

It would be remiss of me to not use this forum as a marketing tool, and I sincerely hope that you will take the opportunity to make friends with Doctor Marigold yourselves. The DVDs are being sold at every one of my shows and online; I have given the contact details at the end of this post.
But before I end, let me return to where I started.

My father never saw me perform Doctor Marigold and that is a huge source of regret to me. I know how much he would have enjoyed it and I know the sense of pride he would have felt.

Whenever I begin:”I am a cheap jack. My own father’s name was Willum Marigold”, I think of Dad and know that he is watching with a smile, jangling his celestial loose change. I think of his support, his advice. I know that I am an actor because of him and I love the fact that I am performing the piece that he wanted me to perform.

I try to imagine what he’d be saying and whatever it is I know that it would never be: ‘I told you so!’

So let me finish with 2 very important thank yous:

Thank you to Doctor Marigold.
And
Thank you to David Kenneth Charles Dickens: My Dad.

To order copies of the Doctor Marigold DVD contact either:

butterflywingsproductionsltd@gmail.com
or
geralddickens@hotmail.com

The Rochester Dickens Festival

Every year I attend the Rochester Summer Dickens Festival. Throughout my performing career this has been a staple part of my calendar. As the poppies start appearing in the hedgerows and fields so my stomach has traditionally gone into knots as I recognise the fast approach of the end of May.

It was at Rochester that I first performed many of my current shows. Sometimes things have been a triumph and sometimes a disaster, but it has always been fun, friendly and ever so slightly political!

In 2014 the Summer Dickens, as it is known, runs from Friday May 30 – Sunday June 1. Let me bring you along and introduce you to many old friends as I make my way through the crowds.

Arrival
My hotel for the duration is in nearby Gillingham, it is not plush, 5 star or luxurious. The Premier Inn, Gillingham Business Park is a very standard motel, with a corporate style pub attached but I have been staying here for the last few years and it is perfect. The staff here are always friendly and the fact that I can enjoy good pub fare next door makes it very easy.

I arrive on Thursday evening and am soon in ‘The Honourable Pilot’ looking at the menu. I rather fancy Fish and Chips and I find two possibilities: ‘Hand Battered Fish and Chips, served with Tartar Sauce and Garden or Mushy Peas’ or ‘Hand Battered Cod and Chips, served with Tartar Sauce and Garden or Mushy Peas’. A conundrum! I ask at the bar and am told the difference between the two is that the Cod and Chips is made with cod. OK, I’ll have that one then.

The fish comes wrapped in paper, as is traditional, with a good serving of thick fluffy chips (translation, for American readers: fries) and the garden peas are fresh and tasty. Having finished it I decide to revert to childhood and order a Banana Split for desert. It is ridiculously decadent, with vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream melting beneath the banana and cream. It is so rich but so good.

Preparation
I sleep well and wake at around 7am ready to approach a major job for the day. For the past few weeks I have been performing Great Expectations and my golf show, Top Hole, both of which require a more, shall we say, shaggy look with the result that my beard has been allowed to grow wild. At Rochester I am not only performing but am also very much on show on behalf of the Medway Council so Grizzly Adams is not a good look. The beard must be trimmed, there is nothing else for it.

Poor Premiere Inn staff, I think I do this to them every year. I line the sink with tissue paper to catch as many of the clippings as possible, peer at the tangled morass attached to my chin and start to snip. It is a delicate yet somewhat ruthless operation. I have to be careful that I don’t take too much from one side, thereby forcing me to match it on the other. If that happens the danger is that I over compensate thereby meaning that I have to go back to the first side and trim that further. Taken to extreme my face would end up looking like a sheet of sand paper, so concentration is vital.

I finally reach a point where I am happy. The bathroom is a mess. Do the little bits of hair just fall softly into the sink like a winter’s snowfall? No, they do not. Freed from the shackles of my skin they take off, fly, spread themselves around, leap, frolic, gambol and eventually attach themselves to every surface in the bathroom. There is a good reason that I only do this in hotel rooms.

Having showered (thereby attaching more hairs to the inside of the shower curtain), I climb into costume and get ready to leave for Rochester. As I walk along the corridor I try not to make eye contact with the girl who is cleaning the rooms on my floor: guilt waves through me.

The ladies at the front desk are very excited as they realise that I am related to Charles Dickens and we spend a little time talking about the Festival etc. before I get to my car and head towards the ancient City of Rochester.

Rochester is recognised as the home of Dickens, in the same way that Stratford upon Avon is the home of Shakespeare. The odd thing is that Charles never actually lived in the city. He spent his childhood in the neighbouring town of Chatham and towards the end of his life he lived at Gad’s Hill Place, just outside Rochester, but technically in Gravesend. However, Rochester and its surroundings loom large in many of his novels.

The members of the Pickwick Club make their first journey from London to Rochester and stay at The Bull Inn (still here). The opening scenes of Great Expectations take place out on the Cooling Marshes nearby. Miss Havisham lives in Satis House, based on Restoration House in the City. Uncle Pumblechook lives on the High Street and Pip is indentured to Joe Gargery in the Guildhall. Edwin Drood is set in and around the Cathedral precincts and John Jasper’s home, above the ancient gatehouse, still guards the approach to the house of God. All of these buildings are real and were ancient even when Dickens walked these streets. It all makes for a very atmospheric weekend.

Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Cathedral

The Festival
Each morning, as I drive in to the City, other participants are also arriving, mostly in Victorian costume. Here is an elegant lady sat on the tailgate of her 4×4 car hoisting her skirts over a massive set of hoops and bloomers (the hoops are massive, I would never be so rude to suggest that the bloomers are). There is a suited gentleman incongruously pulling a modern shopping bag on wheels behind him, presumably filled with props for a show, or display. Everywhere folk are meeting up, laughing, chatting. We are all friends and have been for many years.

I park my car on the Esplanade, the muddy, tidal River Medway swirling with eddies and currents around the pylons of Rochester Bridge. High above me rears the ancient walls of Rochester Castle, a Norman structure, still standing proud above the river.

Castle Gardens

Castle Gardens

As I walk towards the High Street I am greeted by stewards and council staff as if it were only yesterday that we were talking last.

I have an hour in hand before the first parade of the day takes place so I walk slowly along the High Street, looking in shops, meeting old friends, nodding and tipping my top hat to other respectable folk and sharing banter with Fagin, Pickwick and other assorted characters.

Towards the bottom end of the High Street is Eastgate House, an Elizabethan structure that features in both Pickwick and Edwin Drood. Eastgate is about to undergo restoration and sympathetic development, thanks to the efforts of many volunteers who rightly see it as one of the gems in Rochester’s crown. It used to house a Dickens museum, filled with marvellous scenes from the books along with animatronics and holographic figures, bringing the world of my great great grandfather to life. Many years ago the museum was closed and I was furious, I stamped my foot and refused to attend the festival again. And, I didn’t. For a year.

Opposite Eastgate is Rochester Library, which is a modern building, but the venue for the Rochester Dickens Fellowship’s stand. Manned by branch members, the table sells books, CDs, DVDs, postcards etc and in the midst of all of the hoopla and celebrations, is actually about the only genuine Dickens stall at the festival. This year it has been called the Dickens Hub, hopefully to act as a resource and information centre too.

I am the President of the Rochester Branch of the Dickens Fellowship and very proud to be so.

I have arrived just in time to listen to one of the members give a reading from David Copperfield. The audience is sadly small but Colin Benson has done a wonderful job editing 3 different scenes from the novel into one reading. He reads very well, capturing the humour, pathos and hopelessness from the passage.

There is a strange moment during his reading when something outside the window catches my eye. A 20 ft high Charles Dickens puppet passes the window, briefly casting a shadow and then moving on. It is as if the great man himself is checking to see all is being done well and then, satisfied, goes off to check something else.

The reading finished all of us in costume start to make our way to the end of the High Street to form up in the first parade of the festival.

I get to walk at the front with the Mayor and his wife, just behind the Rochester bagpipe band. I love bagpipes, it must be my Scottish blood.

Minute by minute the serpent’s tail to the bagpipes head, gets longer and longer. It is a magnificent sight: everyone in costume, rich mingling with poor, respectable with debauched, young with old. Charles would have loved it.

Preparing to Parade

Preparing to Parade

The whole thing is orchestrated by Carl Madjitey, a big, solid, deep voiced man, always smiling with a huge bark of a laugh who has been doing the same thing as long as I can remember. Carl’s position is The Events Manager at Medway Council so, in effect, is my boss for the weekend. He greets me with a bone crushing handshake, my hand disappearing into his huge one. A bear hug follows and then he announces to anyone who’s near: ‘LOOK: HERE IS THE GREAT GREAT GREAT GREAT GREAT GREAT GRANDSON OF CHARLES DICKENS!!!!!’ It’s a long running joke.

With Carl

With Carl

Precisely at 12.00 the pipes in the band wheeze and then burst into tune. The snare drums start their ratttatatatt and we are off.

These parades follow a well trodden path, quite literally: a path that runs the length of the High Street. The crowds wave and we wave back. I always try to include as many people as I can, including those residents who live in the upper stories of the buildings, way above the road. Many lean out of their windows to view the proceedings and it is great to include them with a big wave.

And then there are the children.

Let me share an anecdote with you. The scene is Brands Hatch Motor Racing Circuit in 1970 or 71, I don’t quite recall which. I am a shy,spindly, little 6 or 7 year old standing behind a wire fence watching the Grand Prix heroes of the day bringing their cars back to the paddock area. I am having a glimpse into a world that I can never be a part of, it is glamorous and exciting. As I watch, Graham Hill drives past. His helmet is off and his long hair (too long for a man of his age if truth be told) is blowing in the breeze. He is past his best and struggling in an uncompetitive car, probably he should have retired from the sport already, bowed out while still at the top. Graham Hill however was a hero with his David Niven style moustache. He had survived an era of racing that had claimed the lives of many of his contemporaries and won 2 World Championships into the bargain. Oh, yes, he was a hero.

And then he waved at me. Me! He looked across, saw the shy boy gazing at him, he made eye contact and waved to me. I waved back feeling suddenly as if I now was part of that glamorous exciting world.

Many years later I read Hill’s autobiography and in it he said that when he was signing autographs he would always make sure that he looked to the back of the crowd, for the shy children who had been pushed back by the more confident, bigger lads and that is how I felt on that day, as if he really cared about me, no one else, just me.

You will have gathered that Graham Hill’s attitude made a lasting impression on me and now, as I walk along Rochester High Street I try to look out for every child in the crowd and wave to them.
The reaction of the children is fascinating. There are the kids who will NOT wave on any account and with no amount of cajoling from their parents. They scowl and stand with their arms firmly crossed.
Then there are the enthusiastic ones , waving at everyone, grinning, laughing and dancing to the music, usually with faces painted.

And then there are the shy ones, often being held, or clinging to a parent’s leg. The noise of the band, the sheer scale of the parade is intimidating and they are not sure. When I wave at those children their parents try to encourage them to join in. Some do, some don’t. Occasionally they catch sight of a bearded man in a top hat looking at them and waving to them, and their faces break into a smile and they wave back. Never is there a better moment in the parade!

We walk slowly on through the lined streets. The character of Fagin walks alongside the band master using an old broom like the official mace, the crowd love it. The Mayor and his wife come next, with me tagging along. Behind us are the members of The Pickwick Club and the Dickens Fellowship and all of the other costumed characters.

At various points along the route we stop and Carl encourages the crowd to give three loud cheers for the Mayor and they join in lustily.

There is one point on the route where I always take my hat off. Opposite the Princes Hall is a drain grating in the pavement. When my parents attended the festival it became a standing joke that they always stood near that grating to watch the parade go past. Each year they would meet another couple on this spot and together they would cheer and wave and laugh as all of their friends went by.

My father died before my mother and for a few years she didn’t come to the festival but one year her live- in carer brought her to Rochester and she watched us parade by, standing near to that drain grating and all of the characters in the parade doffed their hats and made a huge fuss of her. She died the following year and now I always remove my hat to the memory of my smiling, laughing, cheering parents. Never has a humble grating held so much emotion.

The parade now makes its way to the far end of the street, the crowds peter out here and the waves are now for shopkeepers and drinkers lounging outside various pubs, but still the band plays and still we smile and banter before turning left alongside the Medway.

Up a long final slope and into the Castle Gardens where the crowds are waiting for us in the arena. Under a tented canopy there is s small stage and the Mayor’s party, myself included, make our way onto it. The rest of the parade gather in a roped off area in front of the stage and it strikes me once again how many people love getting into costume, assuming a character and entertaining the crowds, simply for the sheer enjoyment of doing it.

Carl acts as the master of ceremonies and whips up the crowd as he introduces the Mayor to say a few words. The Mayor of Medway is installed at the end of May so this is always his or her first official engagement. Some are wracked with nerves and stutter into the microphone, some treat it as an opportunity to make a political speech, others fancy themselves as stand-up comics and try to do a routine (always cringe worthy).

This year’s incumbent is Councillor Barry Kemp and he is none of the above. He speaks clearly and with brevity, welcoming the crowds on a beautiful weekend to Rochester.

With the formalities completed the characters disperse around the city. All of them will be stopped in the street and will pose for photographs. Many will sit and try to eat a hotdog or ice cream and the cameras will fire. A surreptitious Victorian mobile phone call will be captured.

As far as I am concerned, after a bite of lunch, I need to get ready for my show. This year I am performing one of the readings that Charles prepared for his own tours: the Trial from Pickwick.
In the novel of The Pickwick Papers, Mr Pickwick gets himself into trouble trying to explain to his landlady, Mrs Bardell that he is going to take on a manservant. She gets completely the wrong end of the stick and assumes that he is proposing marriage. She faints into his arms, just as his friends come into the room.

Things go from bad to worse and the legal double act of Dodson and Fogg come onto the scene. They are the equivalent of a modern day ‘No Win, No Fee’ legal firm. They immediately serve notice on Mr Pickwick that he must appear in court as defendant in the action of breach of promise of marriage.

The entire episode was an immensely popular part of the book and culminates in The Trial itself and it was this scene that Dickens edited for his reading.

My performance uses the script as he prepared it. The Trial was one of his shorter readings, so to bring it up to time I have prepared a short ‘lecture’ to prove how much Dickens liked it. Of all the readings in his repertoire he performed the Trial more than any other.

The venue is the amazing chamber in the Guildhall, which itself stars in Great Expectations. The room is ornate with ancient portraits looking down into it, a beautiful plaster ceiling above, and a high bench behind an ornate wooden rail. It is a perfect setting for a court room drama.

The Guildhall Chamber

The Guildhall Chamber

At each of my performances throughout the weekend the room is full, with standing room only and the performance is well received by everyone who came. It becomes apparent that the pre amble, the lecture, is too long, with too many numbers so I gradually pare that part back every day.

The reading itself is great fun. The main part is Sergeant Buzfuzz addressing his jury. My Buzfuzz is positively Churchillian, his first never: ‘Never…’ could take us into the reading or into the Battle of Britain ‘Never in the field of human conflict’ speech.

All of Dickens’s experience and knowledge of the law is utilised in the reading with clever lawyers twisting the witnesses’ words until they are babbling incoherently. It is great fun to perform.

Outside the windows the Festival continues, laughter, sounds of a far away band, the noises of the huge funfair as the galloping horses rise and fall at the bidding of their barley sugar poles. A folk duo start to sing on a nearby outdoor stage. Throughout the ancient city people are partying and celebrating in the name of my great great grandfather.

The performance finished, the bows taken and the audience drift away and I have a little time to calm down, to cool down, to wind down. Ice cream!

This year the council have hired a fleet of vintage (meaning from the 1960s and 70s), ice cream vans so I avail myself of a ‘99’ and resign myself to the fact that people will love the opportunity of a photographing a Victorian gent with ice cream on his moustache.

Vintage Ice Cream Van

Vintage Ice Cream Van

The day ends with a final parade, quieter than the first. Some of the older costumed characters have called it a day and many of the visitors have returned to their coaches or their homes. But the Pipes and drums are there, the Mayor is there, the Dickens Fellowship are there, The Pickwick Club are there. And we wave and they cheer and I remove my hat at the grating and so the day winds to its close.

These scenes are repeated for three days every year and the sense of fun and energy and vitality shroud the castle, the cathedral and the buildings. An energy and vitality that so capture the personality of Charles Dickens.

Perhaps he’s standing watching us all, standing in a crowd, he turns to those next to him and says ‘What Fun!’ and the couple smile back at him, ‘yes, what fun!’ as they all 3 stand on a drain grating.

Top Hole 2

In my previous post I explained how I originally had the idea of performing Top Hole! and how I prepared the script.

Now I will try to lead you through the production and rehearsal minefield…..

In the past, when I have written a new script, I have been used to writing, rehearsing and performing it. My only worries being ‘is it any good?’ and ‘will anybody come to see it?’

When first preparing the Wodehouse script it suddenly struck me that of course there may well be an issue with performing rights this time. That is an area that I have never had to consider before and had no idea how to approach it.

I put my ‘Dickens’ hat on and tried to work out who a stranger would approach if they had an inquiry to make. They would, I guessed, make an online search and come up with the contact details for The Dickens Fellowship.

I did the same and came up with contact details for The Wodehouse Society. I sent an email to them and very quickly got a wonderfully positive response, saying how exciting the project sounded, how they would publicise it for me via their newsletters and giving me an email address that I should use to get further details about the performing rights.

The new contact led me to: The Agency. It all sounded very mysterious but soon I was in contact with the gentlemen who looked after the arrangements on behalf of The Wodehouse Estate and so there began a series of email exchanges. What was the show? Where would it be performed? How much would I be making from it? How large would the audience be? And so on and so on.

I was asked to supply a script for The Estate to review and this was my first test. If they didn’t think that I was creating a show that honoured Wodehouse, then that would be the end. The first script that I sent was the dull, uninspiring one story-after-the-other version and it was the fear of them rejecting it that led me to starting on the idea of intertwining the four stories in a more creative and complicated way.

Fortunately, as I mentioned in my previous post, that version came together relatively quickly and I was able to email it to The Agency before the estate themselves had a chance to comment on draft 1.

There was a nervous wait, although I was actually touring in America, so the time passed quickly and then, one day, the answer came through…I had been granted the rights to perform the piece! It was so exciting and again a positive confirmation that this idea really could work.

I didn’t do a great deal of work on the script when I was in the USA and almost as soon as I was home I had to work hard on learning and rehearsing Great Expectations, so Top Hole took a bit of a back seat for a while. What I did have to do, however, was make arrangements for actually performing it.

The very first idea for the show had come to me via my golf club’s weekly newsletter so I thought the best thing would be to give Top Hole its premiere performance at the club itself. I contacted the Manager at Oxford Golf Club and soon the wheels were in motion.

I decided to make Oxford a try out for the script and therefore would not charge them for my performance. Soon a small committee had been formed consisting of me, Ray Davies, an ex captain who arranges the social events, current Club Captain, Alan Davey and the Club Manager Alan Butler. Between Alans and Davey/Davies this promised to get very confusing!

Back to The Agency I went with further details of my first show. Back they came to me with the same list of questions: What, Where, How Much? I told them my plans, that I would not be making any profit from the show. How could that be, They asked, how would I finance the show? I replied that it would be a loss leader, that I would fund the show myself, that the Golf Club would donate the space and charge the guests only for the dinner they would serve. Yes, they replied, but how will you be paid? I won’t, I replied, I’m doing it for free! It was a tricky concept to grasp – for me as well as The Agency but eventually they got it and we drafted an initial agreement for the first performance of Top Hole.

At the golf club the committee meetings started, ably chaired and controlled by Ray. Here is a man who likes to know that everything is under control, that everything is minuted, that everyone knows what they have to do.

After our first planning meeting one of my jobs was to prepare a poster and this was a project already in hand. Last autumn, when Liz and I were in Scotland for my birthday celebrations, she took the most magnificent picture of me on the links at Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Course. The scenery was spectacular and the sky wild but clear.

Fortrose and Rosemarkie

Fortrose and Rosemarkie

I decided that the poster (and my marketing leaflet) would be based on a similar pose lifted straight from the text of ‘The Letter of the Law’:

‘He finished his stroke with a nice, workmanlike follow through, but this did him no good, for he had omitted to hit the ball.’

The first job was to get a costume together and that took me to a fantastic vintage clothes shop in Oxford, via a golfing website with pictures of 1920s golf fashion. Plus fours, tweed jacket, woolly sweater, diamond long socks and flat cap: I was ready to go.

Over the previous week or so I had been looking at various views across the golf course, trying to find a suitable backdrop. Fortunately my standard of play is such that I get to see the course from some very unconventional angles. The view had to shout GOLF!, preferably with a hill involved and a green in the distance. There could be no houses, towers, pylons or anything modern in the background. It being March the trees were not in leaf, which was a shame but that couldn’t be helped. Eventually I found a perspective taken from the seventh fairway looking towards to eleventh green, which seemed to fit the bill.

On a sunny afternoon I arrived at the club, changed into my costume (which is very hot indeed), and with the manager Alan walked out to the 7th. The day was bright and, as a bonus, a willow tree was coming into leaf giving us a burst of fresh spring green.

For twenty minutes or so we posed, clicked, ducked as errant tee shots sailed around our heads and eventually got a collection from which I could build the marketing campaign.

Oxford Golf Club

Oxford Golf Club

And before I knew it posters were up in the clubhouse, the e-newsletter had announced the show and, if I didn’t want to make myself look extremely foolish I had better get down to some serious rehearsing.

I took you through the process of line learning in my Great Expectations blog and basically the routine was the same for Top Hole! Repetition, repetition repetition, add a bit, learn that. Go back, refer to script, try again. Over and over again.

Interestingly at first I found Top Hole! much more difficult to learn than anything else. Over the years I have become so familiar with the way that Charles Dickens wrote, that the sentences almost form themselves in my mind. Wodehouse was a different matter altogether. I really had to concentrate on capturing the exact phrasing and structure if I were to do him justice and not just recite a few stories about golf. I realised, quickly, that my rate of learning was nowhere near fast enough, that I would possibly have the first act learned and no more come the first night.

I had wanted to challenge myself and now I discovered that I had really succeeded!  Every waking moment, and indeed a few sleeping ones too, I found myself muttering lines. I would wake at 5.30 with my head spinning desperately trying to remember the order of the passages, if George Mackintosh came after Wilmot Byng. Did the script go back to Oom or did it move to the dogleg fourth hole? Is this the passage in which Mitchell Holmes loses his temper in the grass? When DID Celia Tennant lead me back to the ravine where George lay…..the house had pages of script all over the place as I picked up the page I was struggling with, walked around the house muttering and then put it down again.

Little by little it began to find a shape and I was managing to run the whole first act easily and the slightly more complicated second more accurately with each rehearsal.

On the production side things were also moving along. Press releases were sent to the local newspapers, radio interviews sorted for the week of the show, invitations sent out, via The Agency, to the members of the Wodehouse Estate.

At one of our regular committee meetings Ray, Alan, Alan and I met in the clubhouse itself and I began to visualise the performing space. It would be a fairly large rectangular area which gave me plenty of room to set the show as I’d begun to visualise it during my rehearsals.

The first thing in the staging of the show was that I would be in clubhouses, not theatres, so I could not make the performance space complicated in anyway. However I did want to make it very clear to the audience when I was in each of the four stories. In a theatre I would rely on pools of light but that would not be an option for me with this script.

The large rectangular space gave me four distinct corners and I numbered them in my mind. 1 (bottom right) is where the whole thing starts, an armchair, a table a large history book and The Oldest Member can begin his telling of ‘The Coming of Gowf’. Area 2 diagonally opposite (top left), where a single golf club (a niblick if you must know) will stand. Area 3 (top right) is the setting for Mitchell Holmes, with a small book and lastly, bottom left (4) is the setting for Wilmot Byng and the great President’s Cup playoff, assisted by a driver and a book of rules.

For rehearsal purposes our living room rug became very useful, with the props set out at each corner and actually the movement between them assisted with the line learning as well.

So, here we are, just over a week until tee off time (did you see what I did there?). I am pleased with where the show is but of course there is still more work to be done: plenty more run throughs, plenty more referrals to the script just to check the EXACT phrasing, plenty more experimenting with different voices and accents.

There will be some more meetings to go over final arrangements and there will be more emails to The Agency. I need to create a programme for the evening and of course I need to play golf (all in the interests of research. )

All of this leads inexorably on to Thursday and Friday the 3rd and 4th of April and 8pm. Getting into my costume, waiting on the edge of the room. Watching the guests finishing their dinner, sipping their coffee, getting another drink from the bar. Looking again to see if the props are where they should be, in each corner of ‘the stage’. Yes. Ray checking with me to see if I am ready. Short nod, ‘yes’. And then he is there, in the middle of the room calling for quiet, making his opening remarks. At the side of the room I’m listening to him but also to the words in my head: ‘On the broad terrace, outside his palace……’. Laughter from the guests at one of Ray’s remarks. Am aware of people looking over towards me, people with whom I play golf. Concentrate now. ‘Please welcome our Oldest Member!’. Applause and I am on……..

I don’t know if you’re nervous having read that, but I am! Only one thing for it, I had better run through it one more time.

Top Hole! is to be performed on 3&4 April at Oxford Golf Club, Oxford.

Tickets, although limited in numbers, are available from: manager@oxfordgolfclub.net

 

 

 

 

Top Hole 1

Top Hole!

 

‘Isn’t that a bit disloyal?’  That was the reply I received at a recent show of mine when I answered a question about my next project.

Yes. For the first time in 20 years I am preparing a non Dickens show and it is one that I am excited about and nervous about in equal measures.

As I enter my last 2 weeks of rehearsal let me try to tell you how it has all come about.

2 years ago I received the weekly e-newsletter from my golf club in Oxford and it had details of a forthcoming social event:  a tribute act to Abba or Queen or some such, if I recall.  The Oxford Golf Club has a constant programme of social events for the membership and as well as tribute acts there are quiz evenings, after dinner speeches, celebrations for Burns Night, Valentine’s Day and so on.

As I read, a thought suddenly came to me, why don’t I offer one of my shows?  The idea rolled around for a while and I came to the conclusion that instead of suggesting one of my regular theatre scripts, why not prepare something specifically for golf clubs that I can then market across the country?

Charles Dickens was not known for his work on golf.  A little bit of cricket, yes, but no golf that I could think of, so I began to think about who HAS written about golf and the answer came to me faster than my golf ball disappears into the left rough at the first: PG Wodehouse.

In 1922 Wodehouse started to write a series of short stories set in a golf club.  He was a member in le Touquet and although not a terribly good player, he was certainly an expert observer and soon realised that every human trait was laid bare on the links.

The majority of his tales were written from the perspective of ‘The Oldest Member’, sitting quietly in the clubhouse and regaling anyone who was there with his memories of life at the club.  The fact that Wodehouse’s plots were based in a golf clubhouse and that I wanted to perform in a golf clubhouse seemed to make this the natural path to follow.

As with any new project my first action was to announce to Liz my eureka moment and get completely carried away with the idea:  generally planning world domination, long theatre tours, no doubt a  television series followed by the movie version.  As the idea took hold more firmly I began to plan where we would moor our luxury yacht, which great cities we would have apartments in and which classic cars I would buy – all purchased with the takings.  That moment past, I let the project slip away into the depths of my mind and there it lay dormant, almost forgotten.

In this case Liz gave me the necessary prod by buying a small collection of old golf clubs to use as props in the yet to be created show.  Although the clubs didn’t have an instant effect, they nagged away at my conscience for months.  There they were mocking me from their corner in the shed.

About a year after first having the idea, I came back to it.  I analysed it again and once more came to the conclusion that it was an interesting plan and that it would be a good challenge for me to adapt and learn the work of a different author.

Of course the first thing to do was to read the full collection, firstly in a small volume called ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert and Other Golfing tales’ and then in the larger ‘Golfing Omnibus’.  Wodehouse is always a delight to read, his use of language is brilliant and there are phrases at which you shake your head in disbelief and revel in their wit and conciseness.

Although each story features a different approach, they all follow a fairly similar path: a young, successful golfer, his character usually flawed in some way, inevitably in love with a young beauty, plays a round of golf which not only cures his flaw but wins him the girl.  There are many brilliant variations on this theme, but it is the recurring one.

Having read the stories a few times I narrowed them down to 6: ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’ , ‘The Long Hole’, ‘The Coming of Gowf’, ‘Ordeal by Golf’, ‘The Letter or the Law’ and ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’.  This collection I felt gave me a good spread of golfing characteristics and situations which would appeal to my target audience: golfers.

Having settled on my short list, then next thing to do was to learn more about Pelham Grenville Wodehouse himself.  I purchased a recent biography and began immersing myself into his world.  Any life story is fascinating, of course, but in this case it wasn’t the anecdotes and the factual accounts of his movements between Britain, America, France and Germany that interested me.  It was his method of writing that became important.

Wodehouse simply lived to write.  He wasn’t a gregarious outgoing party animal, enjoying lavish parties the like of which Bertie Wooster might attend;   he was a somewhat withdrawn fellow and was at his happiest in his study with his typewriter.  He took huge care with his art, which is belied by the carefree and flowing language of his novels.  He wrote quickly but revised and improved constantly.

His attention to detail, the need to craft the perfect sentence, became very important to me, and I realised that I could not ‘play’ with his work, I couldn’t make my show a pastiche, it had to be an honest, respectful performance of Wodehouse’s own words.

With all of this information in my head it was now time to start working on the script itself.  How to present the stories?  It quickly became apparent that 6 stories were going to be too many.  Each one has a fairly detailed scenario running through it, so to do them justice I wouldn’t be able to edit too much.  I decided to use only four of the stories but which two to drop?

Rather than thinking about what not to include I decided it was better to decide what I definitely did want to include and see where that left me.  ‘The Coming of Gowf’ was a shoe-in.  It is in the form of an ancient tale told from the pages of history as to how the game of golf came to the mystical land of Oom.   How a stranger – a bearded Scotsman, captured from an inhospitable coast near to the spot known to the natives as Snandrews – shows the King how to play ‘gowf’.  King Merolchazzar sees this strange ceremony as a religious rite and adopts the new God Gowf for his land.

Because ‘The Coming of Gowf’ is presented as a story from history it sets up a good way of starting the show.  The Oldest Member has been asked by the club committee to give a lecture on the history of golf and he begins by reading the account from the land of Oom.  By taking this stance it means that Tom (as I have christened him from the initials of The Oldest Member) has a perfect excuse to talk directly to the audience and begin his recital.

From the other stories I wanted to depict the characters and situations that will be instantly recognisable to those who play the game.

All golfers know the danger of losing their temper on the course and all will have winced as a player screams obscenities and hurls his clubs about.  Every course will have a litter bin next to a tee with a bent or broken club angrily discarded in it.  ‘Ordeal by Golf’ deals exactly with this as Mitchell Holmes is to play a round of golf as a test of his character to see if he can control his passions enough to be considered as the Treasurer for his company. Holmes, however, has only one fault: he loses his temper on the golf course.  I have met Mitchell Holmes many times.  He has to be in.

Another major irritant on the golf course is someone who constantly offers unsolicited advice.  You have made a complete hash of a shot and all you hear is: ‘Ah, what you did there is…..’ and so a soliloquy on the theories of golf, not to mention your own shortcomings, follows.  In ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’ the main character discovers the art of eloquence and becomes a ‘tee talker, a green gabbler, a prattler on the links’.  He certainly needs to be part of the script.

‘Those for whom the rules are the best club in the bag.’  Ah.  We play this game (or at least I do), for fun.  So when some studious know-it-all points out that I have played out of order or from the wrong place or have said the wrong thing or have not said the right thing…….well, a story about someone who lives by the rule book is a necessity and it is here where I must make a decision.

Two of the stories that I have selected cover the rules issue: ‘The Long Hole’ and ‘The Letter of the Law’ and it will be pointless to include both of them.  ‘The Long Hole’ is a very funny story dealing with a grudge match played from the first tee of a course all the way to the front door of a hotel in the centre of town.  Much underhand play takes place as the two players hack their way towards the wining post.  The match is resolved when one player casually asks an errand boy what club he should use for his final shot, his opponent leaps on the indiscretion ‘Seeking advice from one who is not your caddy!’

The other possibility is ‘The Letter of the Law’ in which Wilmot Byng drives his ball into four geriatric golfers, known as The Wrecking Crew, hitting Joseph Poskitt (the father of the girl he wishes to marry), on the leg thereby causing him to halve The President’s Cup, rather than win it.  The bulk of the story concerns the playoff for the cup and especially the rule book shenanigans of Poskitt’s rival, Wadsworth Hemingway.

Which to chose?  Well, ‘The Long Hole’ was my first choice but on closer inspection it rambles a bit and actually there is no solid resolution to the tale, whereas ‘The Letter of the Law’ is neatly structured by the geography of the golf course and has a perfect denouement.  It also features a description of Joseph Poskitt’s swing:

‘He brought to the tee the tactics which in his youth had won him such fame as a hammer thrower.  His plan was to clench his teeth, shut his eyes, whirl the club round his head and bring it down with sickening violence in the general direction of the sphere.’  Which, as it happens, is a perfectly accurate description of one of the members’ swing at Oxford Golf Club, which is where I shall be perform for the first time.

And there were my four stories.  A bit unfair on ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’ but I can always use that in the future.

So. To write.  Blank page.  The best thing, I have found, when faced with a blank page is to do something else and it suddenly became vitally important to me to have a title, I couldn’t possibly write an untitled script.  ‘The Golfing Stories of PG Wodehouse’ was accurate if not exciting.  ‘The Oldest Member’ didn’t capture the spirit and feel of Wodehouse’s work.  ‘Right Ho, Jeeves!’ is one of the most famous and memorable book  titles, while one of Bertie Wooster’s favourite sayings is ‘Top Ho!’ could I use that?  Not really for although Wodehouseian, it says nothing about golf.  And then all of a sudden, there it was, at the forefront of my mind: ‘Top Hole!’

I had now no excuse but to write the script.

The first draft was very ordinary indeed.  The Oldest Member enters and recites the story of ‘The Coming of Gowf’.  When he has finished he starts to tell the story of ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’.  When he has finished that there is an interval.  In the second half he tells the story of ‘Ordeal by Golf’ followed by ‘The Letter or the Law’.  Very uninspiring, very ordinary, very dull.  Actually, that takes some doing: to make Wodehouse dull, but I had succeeded.  A rethink was definitely necessary.

For a while I pondered just telling one of the stories, but I felt that there would not be enough variety, nothing for the audience to do and an audience will never enjoy a script if they are not thinking about it and involved with it.

The solution came from my main character, the oldest member.  Surely this elderly man sat in the clubhouse will be a little confused, a little befuddled.  Why not, then, have him mixing up his favourite stories?  That way the audience will never have the chance to settle down into a single narrative, there will be different characters, different situations and different outcomes.

Suddenly the script began to fall into place easily.  Starting with ‘The Coming of Gowf’, I found a natural moment in the narrative to drop straight into ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’ then another natural spot for the poor old boy to remember that  he should be talking about King Merolchazzar  before drifting into ‘Ordeal by Golf’ .

Sometimes a script only works because of sheer hard work and more work, then reworking and starting again.  However, Act 1 of Top Hole! just arranged itself in front of me.  By the time I reached the point where I wanted the interval to be I discovered that, purely by a happy accident, each of the four stories had arrived at the point where their respective golf matches were just starting out at the first tee, giving me a perfect point to break and ensuring two acts of very different styles.

In Act 2 all of the action takes place on the links and, with the exception of ‘The Coming of Gowf’, Wodehouse uses the same course for each match and so, as the stories continue to intertwine with each other, the audience will get a feel for the course itself.  They will recognise the short second over a lake.  They will fear the drive across the ravine to the par 5 third.  The dogleg fourth, the ninth back over the water again, the tricky eleventh and the objectionable freak hole that is the eighteenth.

I continued to work my way through each of the  plots winding them up one by one until the only one unfinished is back where we started, in the kingdom of Oom and the end of ‘The Coming of Gowf’, which wraps up the whole affair very neatly.

And that is where I shall wrap this up too.  In my next blog I shall tell you how I am approaching this project as a performer, as opposed to as a script writer and also some of the production challenges that have arisen out of it.

In the meantime, Top Hole!

 

Top Hole! is to be performed on 3&4 April at Oxford Golf Club, Oxford.

Tickets, although limited in numbers, are available from: manager@oxfordgolfclub.net

01865 242158

 

 

Creating Great Expectations

A question that I often asked after my shows is ‘how do you remember all of those lines?’.  Having just completed 3 performances of a brand new show, I thought that you may be interested to read about the entire process from the original idea to the fall of the curtain, so here it is:

In the UK all of my theatre events are promoted by the Derek Grant Organisation.  I have been working with Derek and his partner Michael for five years now and in that time have been touring with 2 shows.  The first was ‘An Audience With Charles Dickens’ which is based on my biographical show ‘Mr Dickens is Coming’, but also featuring part of Dickens’s reading of the’ Murder of Nancy’ from Oliver Twist and my one man version of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’.

After a couple of years we decided to lengthen Nickleby and make it into its own complete evening, which gave us our second show.

A year or so ago Derek suggested to me that we should introduce a completely new show into our repertoire and wondered if I could do anything with Great Expectations, which happens to be my favourite Dickens novel.  I leapt at the chance and we agreed a deadline and so began the protracted panic of getting a new show to the stage.

The Writing

The first thing to worry about is the editing of the script and with Great Expectations that is more of a problem than with, say Nicholas Nickleby.

Charles Dickens’s early novels tend to be quite episodic, featuring a central figure travelling through the story and meeting various larger than life characters along the way.  In Nickleby, Nicholas starts in London, meets Newman Noggs and the villain of the piece, Ralph Nickleby, before travelling to Yorkshire to spend time with Mr and Mrs Wackford Squeers at Dotheboys Hall.  In Yorkshire he also meets up with Smike who runs away with him back to London, a few more wonderful characters there (the Wittiterlys and the Mantalinis), before they leave for Portsmouth where they discover the theatrical company of Mr Crummles.  After a brief adventure there, they return to London and the final part of the story is played out exactly where it started.

So to adapt the show for a 2 hour evening is not difficult, some of the good characters have to be axed, but on the whole the central plot is easy to relate.

Great Expectations is another matter altogether, it is a much later book and regarded by many as his greatest.  The huge wealth of characters are still there of course, but they all have a vital piece to play in Pip’s story, making it much more difficult to condense.

I’m sure that there are many ways of starting to write, and no doubt that people who have studied creative writing could tell me the best way of going about it, but I just like to get going.  For the moment the staging of the show doesn’t come into my mind at all, it is purely doing justice to the words that Charles Dickens wrote: they must always be the star.

I of course have some idea as to what I’m going to include and what I’m cutting out, otherwise I’d simply copy the entire novel out.

As in the novel the story will be told in the first person by Pip, so that I do not need to change any of the narrative language.  The opening is easy, why mess about with such a fabulously atmospheric passage?

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

I take the next paragraph out and go straight to the description of the marshes as well as introducing Pip’s mother and father who will be referred to later, so they need to make an appearance there.  The little brothers don’t need to be there for the sake of the story, so sadly they have to go:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!” 

So, the story has begun.  Something that I will have to think about later is how I transition from the opening narrative into the terrifying appearance of the convict, Abel Magwitch.  I really want an impressive crash of an entrance which will shock the audience in the same way that the opening sequence of David Lean’s classic 1946 adaptation does.  Hmmm, will have to think about that.

In the first scene with the convict, what do I need to get across?  That Pip is terrified, that he has no doubt that the man (of course Pip doesn’t know he is an escaped prisoner yet), will rip his heart and liver out, that it must be established that he lives in a forge and that the man needs his help to get away and that he realises that a forge will give him the tools that he wants.

Is it necessary to introduce the 2nd convict at this stage?  No. Pip will be quite terrified enough by Magwitch without the secondary threat of ‘There’s a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver. It is in wain for a boy to attempt to hide himself from that young man. A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep and creep his way to him and tear him open.’

The second convict does need to appear later, but descriptions of him now would prolong the opening scene, so I’ll keep him in reserve.

Back to the forge and we are introduced to kindly Joe Gargery and to his wife, Pip’s older sister, who had brought him up by hand.

I won’t go through the entire novel but you get the idea, taking each scene and breaking it down to what is strictly necessary to tell the story and move it along.

During my career I have performed various passages from Great Expectations in other shows.  Liz and I feature 2 passages from it in our Kinderszenen show (music from Robert Schuman with readings from various scenes of Childhood within Dickens’s work) and I of course have a passage in my ‘Complete Works of Dickens’ show.  When I reach the scenes that I have used before, I heave a huge sigh of relief and simply cut and paste them without too much thought.

After a couple of weeks of editing I get the script to as pared back form as I possibly can.  It is 50 pages long and I need it to be 30 pages! Ah.

At this stage in the proceedings it is traditional for me to completely abandon the project and say ‘it can’t be done.  There is no way I can tell the story of Great Expectations in 2 hours.  I will not do justice to an amazing novel and the audiences will feel cheated and short changed. So, I give up.’  This, inevitably, will happen a few times during the process.

I leave the script for a while, maybe for a few weeks.  I am probably working on something else, so I forget it completely.  When I come back to it, pull the folder out from the memory of my computer and re-read it I realise that of course I can edit it much harder and so start again.

Often the first passages to come under the knife are those which I had pasted from previous shows.  One such is the amazing boat escape at the end of the novel which I have previously used for the Complete Works show.

Cut, snip, bin.

40 pages.

‘It can’t be done.  There is no way I can tell the story of Great Expectations in 2 hours.  I will not do justice to an amazing novel and the audiences will feel cheated and short changed. So, I give up.’

And on we go.

With so many re-writes, or at least re-edits, I am becoming more and more familiar with the words and the shape of the script so this becomes the first stage of the line learning process.  Certain phrases just start to stick and the way the show moves from scene to scene becomes second nature.  I don’t realise that I am learning lines at this stage, I am not going over them, they are just wheedling their way into my brain.

As the rewrites go on I also start to think of how to stage and perform the show.  The first issue is that of the beginning and how to transition from the opening narrative to Magwitch’s first lines and the answer I come up with is a new one for me: voiceover.

When the show starts in the theatre I will have all of the lights fade to a blackout and then play my recorded voice.  At the end of the voiceover I will burst onto the stage, with sudden bright light, bellowing the first line of dialogue ‘Hold Your Noise!  Keep still you little devil or I’ll slit your throat!’

The next issue is how to distinguish the different venues in the story.  In my version they are broken down into: The Forge, Miss Havisham’s House, Mr Jaggers’s office, Herbert Pocket’s lodgings and Wemmick’s house, with a few intermediate scenes.  Keeping the scenery very simple means that I am not tied to certain scenes by the set, so I can use different moods of lighting.  A cold, blue light for Miss Havisham’s , a nice friendly warmth for the forge and so on.

I soon hit upon another idea for the set.  As Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is his benefactress, her presence looms over him for most of the novel.  I have the idea of using my good old faithful hat stand, draped with a white cloth, which will simply stand at the back of the stage, a menacing presence throughout.  The Havisham Hat Stand will have a permanent blue light of its own which creates her cold aura.  It also means that I can light it with bright reds and oranges during the scene in which she burns.

At last I have a script that I am happy with.  It is 33 pages long, it tells the basic story successfully and can be staged incredibly simply.  But now I have to learn it.

The Learning

There is no secret to line learning it is a case of repetition and repetition again.  I imagine that every actor has their own way to do it, in my case I have to move, I have to pace.  Firstly I have a script in my hand and start to read.  I don’t ‘perform’ it out loud, but mutter to myself.

Let me give you an example of how a passage from Great Expectations might work:

‘My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie.    My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie.’  Then I hide the book.  ‘My sister went to fetch…’ look at the book. ‘My sister went out to fetch….’ Wrong again, check again:  ‘My sister went out to get a pork pie’  Check it again, no, it needs the word ‘savoury’:  ‘My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie.’  Look at the next line:  ‘…I heard her steps proceed to the pantry.   I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry.’ Hide book. ‘I could hear her steps proceed to the pantry.’ Check. No: ‘I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry.’  Now, put the two together:  ‘My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry.  My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry’.  Add the next line: ‘I felt I could bear no more, and that I must run away…..’  You get the idea.

Fortunately I was recently on a cruise ship (as those who read my last post will know!), to perform some of my other shows, which meant I had plenty of time during which I could walk around the deck line learning.  The other passengers soon realised what I was doing and watched with amusement as I committed the whole of act one to memory over a period of 9 days.

I didn’t do any line learning on days when I was to performance as that might have become very confusing!

When I got home I had to really concentrate on Act 2, which is longer and more intense but the routine is the same.

For a long time it seems as if I am never going to get this one memorised (as I feel with every new script).  It just seems to be an impossibility but if I am not going to make myself look like a complete idiot, there is nothing for it but to pace and mutter and mutter and pace.  Little by little the lines start to stick.  Soon I am reaching the point when I find myself going back to the script convinced I’ve gone wrong only to find that the words were perfect after all.

Sometimes I will find a combination of words that just won’t stick.  For an example I site a speech by Mr Wemmick, warning Pip that Magwitch’s presence in London has been noticed and that he is being watched.  The line is:

‘I accidentally heard, yesterday morning that a certain person not altogether of uncolonial pursuits, and not unpossessed of portable property had made some little stir in a certain part of the world where a good many people go, not always in gratification of their own inclinations, and not quite irrespective of the government expense — By disappearing from such place, and being no more heard of thereabouts. From which, conjectures had been raised and theories formed. I also heard that you at your chambers in Garden Court, Temple, had been watched, and might be watched again.’

The words that I just could NOT get were: ‘…and not quite irrespective of the government expense…’  Every time I came to it, the words ‘..not quite insensible of the government expense.’ came out.  I know, I know, it doesn’t even make sense, but that was no help to my befuddled brain.  Back to the script look at it, mutter it; ‘Irrespective, irrespective, irrespective.’  Hide script: ‘and not quite insensible….NOOOOOOOO!’  Check it again and again and again.  ‘Not quite……I know it is not insensible, but I can’t think what it is’  Now there is a mental block coming as I approach that line and even though I have convinced myself that it is NOT insensible and I know that it IS Irrespective I bottle it and end up floundering pathetically.

This is when I have to find a key word, a hint, fixed into my brain to let me attack the line confidently.   To make this technique work successfully I have to look at the whole sentence and find a hint that relates to what I do know.  In this case the end of the sentence is….’government expense’.  Government…expense……finance….taxes…..  OK, what word links irrespective to taxes, more to the point what word sounds like irrespective and not insensible.  Irrr. Irrres. IRS!  The USA Internal Revenue Service.

Now, as I approach that line I know that the word has the IRS sound, which steers me away from insensible and straight toward irrespective.  More importantly it breaks the mental block that I’d found myself up against.

One other example of the same technique:

The appointment was for next day. Let me confess exactly with what feelings I looked forward to Joe’s coming.

Not with pleasure, no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money.

In this passage the problem was with ‘considerable disturbance, some mortification and a keen sense of incongruity.’

The final item of the list was fine and makes sense in the context of the story but I got confused over the first two, so I needed a key to get me into the list correctly.  Answer: CD (Charles Dickens) = Considerable Disturbance; and SM (Scrooge and Marley) = Some Mortification.  Easy!

As the first performances approached the line learning went on and on, concentrating mainly on the 2nd act, although in the days immediately preceding the shows I was doing full runs twice a day.  It was with great relief that I discovered that all of the work done on board the cruise ship meant that Act 1 was still safely in my mind.

The First Performances

And now, to perform.  As an actor in a one man show there is nowhere to hide, you are judged purely on your individual efforts. This has great rewards if everything goes well but huge opportunities for self doubt and despair if it all goes wrong.

With a brand new show the doubts are doubled as they creep in about the script itself.  Great Expectations is very dark and intense with very few moments of levity to bring a smile to the audience’s lips, and that is completely different to all of my other shows: I’ve always relied on laughter to give me a clue as to how a performance is going.

My first performance is to be in the city of Leicester in the Guildhall museum.  I performed there last year and it is an amazing hall dating back to around 1380.  Of course it is in no way a theatre so for my first 2 performances I won’t have my nice moody pools of light to create each scene, I will have to rely on the words and the action, which actually is no bad thing, it will help to focus my concentration onto what is really important.

The date is 7 February, 2014 which is Charles Dickens’s 202nd birthday, it is also the day on which the very first UK statue of Charles Dickens is to be unveiled in the city of Portsmouth.  Today, therefore will be a day to honour Charles Dickens and to celebrate his amazing life and career, all of which heaps more self-induced pressure onto my shoulders.

By 12.15 the 1 pm audience are arriving, I can do no more pacing on the stage itself, but find myself still walking round in circles in my ‘dressing room’ which is a fabulous Jury Room with a little wooden hatch looking down into the main hall.

‘Hold your noise, keep still you little devil…… not always in gratification of their own inclinations, and not quite irrespective of the government expense……. Not with pleasure, no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity…..’ and so forth, over and over.

I’m getting rather like a caged lion now and really could do with starting, I always get very impatient before a show and really want to get out onto the stage.  At 1.pm I go downstairs, into the Mayor’s Parlour, from where I will make my entrance onto the stage and almost before I know it I can hear the opening voiceover playing.  The nerves ratchet up a few more notches and the butterflies in my stomach begin to flap harder and faster.

‘……and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.’

I burst onto the stage trying to create a flurry of movement and noise:

‘HOLD YOUR NOISE!…..’ There is a little squeal of shock from the front row: that opening works, then!

And now the nerves and the butterflies have gone, I am where I want to be and can’t do anything about the show other than to give it my best and concentrate on telling the story as well as I can.

When I get to the end of the first act the nerves return…how has it gone?  Have the audience enjoyed it?  Will they even come back for Act 2.  The applause is long and loud, it seems as if Great Expectations is working as a piece of drama.

Back in the dressing room I pace some more, mutter some more, filled with adrenaline, desperate to get back to it, want to do act 2.  Trying to listen for the audience going back into the hall, why is it taking so long?

At last we are ready to go.  Act 2 begins in the same way as act 1, with a voiceover, setting the scene in London.

The second ‘half’ is much longer than the first, although much more happens in it and is faster moving, why, it even has a few laughs!

On stage I am aware of the audience’s intensity, they are following each line, each scene.  It is joy to feel that concentration coming from the auditorium because it means that I can pace the show accordingly, leaving longer pauses and ‘feeling’ the silences, rather than rushing through them in an attempt to keep people on my side.

At the end of the show the applause and the ovation is everything I wanted it to be, it really seems as if the script and the telling of it has worked well.

There is a second performance in the evening and now that there is no daylight coming in, the Guildhall takes on an even more atmospheric tone, which is helped by the mournful tolling of the cathedral bells right next door.  As with any show I relax into the performance the more I do it and the more familiar I become with it.

The evening reaction is as positive as the afternoon’s one, which is a relief (just because one audience likes a show there is absolutely no guarantee that another body of people will) and I pack up and drive to my hotel feeling very satisfied.

On the following day I have a 2 hour drive to Boston in Lincolnshire, another ancient town, this time on the east coast of England.  I will be performing one show at the Blackfriar’s Arts Centre, which is a stunning little theatre.

Performing in an actual theatre means that I can try the show out in its fullest form, with lighting etc.  Michael Jones, the technical side of the Derek Grant Organisation, travels to the shows as well, to oversee the lighting.  As there was no lighting available to him yesterday he was able to watch the show and try to get a sense of how it works and moves along.  Tonight is his debut!

We spend quite a lot of time focussing and placing the lights, with the help of the theatre’s resident tech team, and then we are ready to go.

Sadly it is a small audience, in comparison to 2 sell outs in Leicester,  but that’s not important to me as a performer, the people who are there have made an effort, they have made a commitment of time and money to watch me, so they deserve as much as the larger audiences last night. It is frustrating, of course, but the energy and the effort are the same

The show goes very well again and in a more theatrical setting it seems to become even more dramatic and intense.  I am getting used to the fact that this is a drama now and that the audiences will not respond as they do for Mr Dickens is Coming, or Nicholas Nickleby or any of my other shows.

With 3 performances behind me at 2 different venues I am very satisfied with how things have gone.  There is a little time until I perform Great Expectations again but I am now no longer terrified about the prospect but very very excited.

I hope that this has given you some idea as to how I bring a show from the depths of my mind onto the stage.  Of course this story isn’t finished yet, as Great Expectations will continue to change and develop each time that I perform it and alongside that, there are new shows to be written, learned and performed.  New lines that will not stick, new panics, new fears, new depths, new highs.

And I Love It!

 

How Not to Join a Cruise Ship

Heathrow

I am very lucky to travel the world and to do what I love doing.  I hope that those of you who followed my adventures throughout my American tour got some sense of life on the road: the highs, the lows and the mundane, all of which makes my life so exciting.

Today I am sat on a cruise ship in the port of Aqaba in Jordan, on the Red Sea.  My cabin door is wide open and the warm breeze is stirring the curtains.  Outside the sounds of the port are mixing with the wailing call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

All is good.

So, let me tell you about another aspect of my professional life.  The good and the……let me tell you about my journey here.

P&O Cruises’ smallest ship, the MV Adonia, is currently undertaking a world cruise.  10 days ago she left Southampton and has been sailing across the Mediterranean before passing through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea.

I have been booked to join Adonia for 9 days, providing entertainment during an extended period at sea.  Usually on a cruise the ship sails at night and the days are spent in port, from which the passengers can go ashore and explore the sights either by themselves or on organised tours.

Occasionally there will be a ‘sea day’ when there is a greater distance between ports and the passengers can relax on deck or enjoy entertainment laid on by the Cruise Director which is where I come in.

On this particular cruise there is a strangely long period of 6 days at sea and I will be performing on three afternoons during that time and I am sure that I will be able to tell you of wonderful audiences, friendly people and of life at sea.

But this trip hasn’t got off to the best of starts:

The whole adventure starts off with my alarm going off at 5.45 on a Friday morning in Abingdon.  I have a flight at 10.00 but need to arrive at the airport 2 hours before, and the journey to Heathrow takes an hour and Liz and I need some breakfast, so 5.45 it is.

We get on the road by 7 and as always it is very difficult when Liz is not joining me on the trip.  It seems as if I’ve only just got back from the long Christmas tour and here I am jetting away again.

We make good time and get to the airport at around our target of 8.00am.  I have slight worries about the journey as it will be made with 2 different airlines and I have only been able to check in for the first leg with BA from Heathrow to Berlin.  I am greatly relieved to discover that I can check my bag all the way to my final destination in Aqaba, Jordan, but I will still have to find the Royal Jordanian Airlines desk at Berlin airport to check in myself.

Having said a nervous farewell to my suitcase, Liz and I have a coffee and some breakfast before saying a sorrowful farewell to each other.  It is a horrible moment as I walk through security and see her waving, trying to hold back the tears.  It is always a very empty feeling once I disappear behind that screen.

Security:  Belt off, shoes off, laptop out.  Keys, phone, watch, coins in my coat pocket.  All in the bin.  Stand in the swooshy scanning booth, on the little pictures of two feet, with hands up. Swoosh Swoosh and I‘m spat out the other side and into the bustle of Heathrow terminal 5’s shopping arcade.

I have enough time to buy myself a new pair of sunglasses, replacing the ones I sat on in America, and then it is off to gate A17 and the first of my waits.  I sit in the chair at the boarding are and entertain myself by trying to guess the nationality of everyone at the gate.  There is an extra level to the game today as some other entertainers are due to join the ship at the same time as me and it fun to try and spot them as well.  I have my suspicions!

We are called quite quickly and the flight is not very full, which is great.  As I’m sorting out my books and things that I want with me from my bag, one of my suspected other entertainers comes past.  He has a very smart roller bag and I comment on it.  He answers with a big grin and a laugh and makes his way to his seat.

I have 3 seats to myself and sit next to the window as we take off and bank over Wembley stadium before heading into the cloud and to the east.

The first leg of the journey is only about 90 minutes, so there is time for a coffee but nothing else and soon the engine not falls, the nose of the plane dips almost imperceptibly and we are making our approach to Berlin airport.

It maybe my imagination or the result of a long held perceived stereotype but the housing looks to be regimented and ordered.  As we get closer to the airport itself, blocks of flats abound and there is a certain feel of the old Eastern Bloc to the scene.  However, bucking that stereotype, the buildings seem bright, clean and vibrant.

Berlin

The plane touches down and taxis to the stand and I am soon off and into the terminal building.  I go through another passport check.  There is a large notice ‘DO NOT FORGET YOUR LUGGAGE’ but I have confidence in the information from the BA desk and bypass the carousel with just a nagging thought that when I am in Jordan, my bags will still be in Berlin.  Pushing such fears aside I head out into the main terminal.

I have almost 2 hours before my next flight, but am very aware that I haven’t checked in yet and don’t want to find that I’ve missed a deadline, so immediately track down the Royal Jordanian Airlines desk, at which there is a long queue.  I am amused to see that the man that I assume to be a fellow entertainer is waiting in the same line.

The queue moves forward slowly and rather worryingly a number of passengers are being sent over to the ticket counter where the staff are frowning and tapping away at their keyboards.  One of these is an Englishman, making a bit of a fuss and insisting that he be told what is going on.  I have a sneaking suspicion that he may also be joining the ship.

At last I get to the desk and it is an hour before departure.  The clerk, rather worryingly, peers at my ticket and at my luggage tags, back at my ticket again.  He asks for my complete itinerary and goes through another round of peering.  At last a thought crosses his mind and he asks me if where I’m going.  I tell him ‘from here to Amman and then to Aqaba.’

‘Tomorrow?’

‘No, today.  This flight in an hour and then on to Aqaba.’

‘Yes, but Aqaba tomorrow?’

‘No, today.  I have to join a ship.’

His face drops again and the cycle of peering and tapping resumes.

And suddenly there is a boarding card in front of me.  Hooray.  Just as suddenly he tears it up and goes back to his tapping.  Finally, finally, he resolves whatever problem there was and prints out 2 more boarding passes and a voucher for €10, as the flight is delayed.  ‘ How much by?’ I ask him.

‘An hour’

I explain I have a connection to make in Amman.  ‘How much time do you have?’ he asks.

‘An hour’

It will be fine he assures me.  ‘When will we board?’

‘An hour’

‘Will there be an announcement made?’

‘Oh, no, we operate a silent airport’

And with that I’m left to explore the delights of Berlin airport which are few and far between.

The terminal building is a huge circle, rather like I imagine the Hadron Collider to be.  The inner half of the loop is the public area and the gates themselves are behind each airline’s desks.   It is a good system, so long as there are no delays.

In the public area there are very few chairs, but in the secure gate area there are plenty.  Of course none of us can get to those for an hour.

I wander aimlessly about and see others wandering aimlessly about too and little by little we all aimlessly wander back and find ourselves  grouped around the Royal Jordanian desk hopefully waiting for the great moment.

At last a security guard arrives and we are allowed to filter in, having had our carry-on bags and ourselves scanned again and our passports checked once more.

The clock is now showing that we are an hour late and it is with an air of resignation that I see no plane is waiting at the gate.  It is quite amusing to watch everyone else coming in and watching their reaction as they realise the same thing.  One thing is for sure, I will not be getting the connecting flight to Aqaba tonight

I find an electric socket and plug my iphone  in as I think I am going to need it later and then fire up the laptop.  I send an email to the P&O Cruises port representative in Aqaba warning him that any entertainers that he is supposed to meet will not be arriving there tonight.  Then I open a blank page in Microsoft Word and stare at it.

One of the results of writing my blog at Christmas is the germ of an idea that I may try to write a book based on my experiences over the last 20 years and here, in Berlin airport with no immediate sign of going anywhere, seems to be a very good place to start:  ‘Acting has always been a part of my life. …..’   OK, it’s not on a par with ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show….’, but it IS a start.

I write for about 50 minutes before the excitement of a plane coming in interrupts the creative process.  We all watch as it is refuelled and catered and at last we are allowed on.  Once again it is not a full flight and the boarding is affected very quickly and we trundle out to the runway just over 2 hours late.

This leg of the journey is almost 4 hours and there are films to watch and meals to be eaten.  Unfortunately my video screen isn’t working but, as before, I have 3 seats to myself.  I shuffle to the middle one which does work, but only in Jordanian, then to the aisle seat, which is fully functional.  I watch Rush (the motor racing film based on the 1976 Grand Prix season).  The editing for airline viewing is quite funny.  I’m sure that when James Hunt says something along the lines of ‘That was my FLAMING race,  the movement of his mouth doesn’t seem to match the word flaming’.  Same with the expletive ‘SUGAR!’

Having finished with Rush there is only about 30 minutes left of the flight and I watch the beginning  of the truly awful ‘Diana’ movie.  30 minutes was just fine thank you.

Amman

When the plane arrives at the gate I switch on my iphone and there is an email from Mohammad, the port representative asking me to call him.  He says that the easiest thing will be to just get a taxi from Amman to Aqaba and if I can get cash at the airport he will reimburse me tomorrow.  He says that there should be 2 other entertainers onboard and can I round them up as well?  I wonder if my hunches were right back in London and Berlin?

The first thing to do is make sure I have my bag.  If it has made it this far at all, it is now checked through to Aqaba.  Whilst I’m making enquiries I hear a voice asking about getting to Aqaba as he has to join a ship.  Yes, I was right, my mark from Heathrow with the smart roller carry-on bag.  I introduce myself and shake hands with Jimmy, who is a singer, with the most delicious Jamaican accent and a laugh that follows every sentence.  You just can’t help smiling in his company.

I explain to him what Mohammad told me and he agrees that this seems like a good plan (I suppose we are both tired but neither of us consider the fact that we are about to take a taxi over a distance that was supposed to be covered by a jet plane, but more of that anon).  We successfully negotiate the safe release of our bags and then are told to clear immigration.

As we are waiting in line Jimmy says that he thinks he knows the other entertainer. ‘I just have a feeling I know who it is’.  The man in question is the guy who was making a fuss in Berlin, being very British and slightly bolshie.  We see him marching up to the front of a line waving his ticket about and demanding that things are sorted out.  He’s being very British and slightly bolshie.

Jimmy goes to introduce himself and Christopher Hamilton comes to complete the three stooges.  We explain the new plan to him.  ‘Drive?  But its 4 hours across dessert and through mountains.  We won’t be there until 2 in the morning and I have a show tomorrow .  There is a flight out of here at 7 in the morning, so I’m going to stay here and get that one.’

Chris has already got himself a voucher for a local hotel, paid for by the airline and he is in the act of buying his visa.  Jordan has a strange arrangement in that before you can clear immigration you have to stump up 20 Dinars for an entry visa.  Every desk in immigration has a crowd around it, some people are waving money, some are waving passports, none are being dealt with.  Chris had marched to the front of one of these lines and done his best ‘British Empire’ line and got his passport stamped immediately.

Realising now that 4 hours doesn’t sound good,  I call Mohammad back and ask him about the drive: ‘only 4 hours’, he says.  At which Jimmy and I decide to stay put as well.  We have to go back to the transfer desk and get ourselves booked onto the morning flight, get our hotel voucher sorted out and then back to immigration all over again.  Along the way we seem to have picked up a hotel concierge who is going to drive us.

The mayhem and disorganisation at the passport desk continues with the happy result that both Jimmy and I get our passports stamped with the visa, without having to part with any money.

Amazingly our suitcases are waiting for us and we dutifully follow our concierge to the lower level roadway, where he makes a phone call and then takes us back to the upper level roadway.  A mini bus arrives and we load ourselves in.

My phone says it is now 11.30 at night and we are all beginning to feel the strain a bit.  As the mini bus drives in to the hotel, the engine stalls and the driver can’t seem to restart it.  Even here, 25 yards short of the hotel entrance but frustratingly the wrong side of a security gate, we are delayed.

The driver eventually coaxes the engine into life just long enough to roll us to the hotel and we are in.  What is the first thing we have to do?  Put our bags through a security scanner and be screened ourselves.  No more.  Please make it stop!

We shuffle to the desk (even Jimmy’s laugh is sounding a little less robust now) but the guys tell us we can’t check in, not yet but their motives are good.  The hotel is giving us a free dinner and the restaurant will stop serving in 5 minutes so ‘go, go and eat, come back to check in after!’

The dinner is a buffet with some delicious salads, meats and fishes and it is very welcome indeed. When we finish we go back to the front desk and get our room keys before trailing to our rooms and bed.  The room is basic but who cares.

We have to leave the hotel at 5am and although the desk promised to call our rooms, I don’t quite believe it and set my iphone alarm for 4.30 am and with that I sleep.

Sure enough at 4.30 my alarm goes off but a phone call there is none.  I feel rather smug and pleased with myself for correctly assessing the likelihood of a successful alarm call.  I get out of bed, shower, dress and get to the lobby as the top of the hour approaches.  The staff behind the desk look at me enquiringly.

‘I have to leave for the airport.  2 others will be joining me.’

‘Where are you flying to, What time is your flight?’

‘Aqaba,  leaving at 7.  We were told we should leave here at 5.’

‘But you are too early, sir.  It is only 4 o’clock!’

Bugger!

There is a little coffee counter in the foyer and as the rooms didn’t have any coffee making facilities I decide to stay there and write some more.  At 4.35 a member of staff comes over and asks if I was in room 412.

‘Yes, that’s right’

‘Ah, I see.  You didn’t answer your alarm call.’

‘No.  I was sitting here.’

That will teach me for being smug.

At the genuine  5 o’clock Jimmy and Chris appear and we wait for the mini bus.  Nothing seems to be happening so Chris asks at the desk what’s going on.  The bus is there waiting for us, apparently even though nobody thought of mentioning it.

We get on the bus and wait.  Other passengers dribble on.

We wait some more.  At last we make the short drive to the airport (we could have walked and arrived sooner).

We stand in a queue at a desk that says ‘All Destinations’  above it, to check in.  We wait.

We are told to go to another desk if we are flying to Aqaba.

We wait.  No one at the desk.

We sit down and wait.

At last a clerk arrives but says the desk is not open yet, so we should wait.

We wait.

The desk opens and we all stand up again and wait some more.

Once we are checked in we are told that the gate will open soon and we should…..

We wait.

Eventually the gate opens and we are screened once more before waiting for all the passengers to get on bus which drives across the dessert surrounded expanse of the Amman airport.

Cruelly, oh so cruelly, the bus drives us past a BA plane.  The Union flag tail fin mocking us with the knowledge that there was a direct BA flight to here after all.  Ha, ha, bloody ha.

Aqaba

The plane to take us on is  only a small regional jet and we are quickly on our way.  The views in the morning sun are stunning: mountains and dunes of sand stretching as far as the eye can see.  The thought of driving through that terrain for 4 hours at 2 in the morning is not appealing and I am very glad that Chris knew his stuff and prevented Jimmy and me from taking the cab last night.

The flight is just less than an hour and it is with a ridiculous amount of joy that I see the sea for the first time.  The plane banks hard round and we seem to land in the middle of the dessert.  Aqaba airport is very small.  Of course we have to be screened again and have our passports checked again but it is fine now, we are here.  We have reached our journey’s end.  All there is to do now is to join the ship and it is still early enough to have breakfast on board.

Our driver is not overly communicative but as we drive into the town itself we get our first glimpse of Adonia at the quayside.  We turn into a side street and the driver pulls up at a curb.

‘You wait. I get papers.’

We wait.

After 15 minutes he comes back and starts to drive again, then he starts chatting on his phone at great length and with great urgency.  He pulls over until the conversation reaches its conclusion.  We have no choice but to wait.

Next we stop at a red traffic light.  I am now getting irritated at waiting at traffic lights!

At last we turn into the port gate and there is Adonia again like a white beacon shining out to us.

The driver does a u turn in the main entrance of the dock and pulls up.

‘I need your passports, you wait here’, and he disappears.

We get out of his car and lounge around swapping stories of life on cruise ships, each of us trying to outdo the others with tales of terrible journeys and missed flights.  We all know that this particular one will be added to our respective repertoires and retold many times in the future.

It is Chris we all feel sorry for as he has 2 shows tonight after 4 hours sleep and a journey from hell.  Chris is a cabaret pianist and will have to rehearse with the resident band during the afternoon before performances at 8.45 and 10.45.  Poor guy.

Eventually our driver returns clutching our passports and some paperwork.  He gets into the car and we pile back into our seats and away he drives.  Yes, away, not towards Adonia but out of the port, onto a coastal road and away.  Nooooooooooooooooo!

We ask where we are going.  ‘Immigration’

But, but, but…we cleared immigration yesterday when we arrived in Amman and again just now arriving in Aqaba, why more?

A mile along the coast we pull up outside a municipal building and are shepherded in and told to sit in a long grey hallway.  Plastic chairs line the wall and there is a line of black grease and dirt on the wall at head level all the way along.

We wait.

Eventually someone who seems to be in his pyjamas comes to see our driver, and they talk earnestly.  Mr Pyjama than goes into an office with a window hatch and the earnest conversation continues until some stamping of passports happens.  This process is conducted purely by our driver, we have no part in it, and the three of us just sit and wait.

Mr Pyjama comes back out from his booth and says ‘Good morning’ to us and disappears into another office.

Driver now walks to another set of windows and waits for someone to appear, which they do not.  He goes into another door and after a while comes out again and returns to the line of windows.

He waits.  We wait.

We are sat in those dirty slimy chairs with the dirty slimy scum line along the wall for about 30 minutes whilst various people do various things with our passports until suddenly it is over and we can go back to the car.  The three of us, who are being admitted to the country, have played no part in the events at all.  Very strange, the whole thing.

And now we drive back to the port and drive into the gate once more and drive towards the security gate and…..as we near them the driver’s phone goes off again.  He pulls over while he talks.  He starts to do a u-turn again, back to the spot we were at an hour ago, but something is said that changes his mind and we make our way into the secure area of the port.

At last we are on the quayside, the wind blowing off the sea.  We pull our bags to the bottom of the gangplank where we are greeted by a crisp, smart P&O Officer.  At last, there will be some semblance of order and method now.

‘Good morning gentlemen.  Are you joining us today?  Do you have a boarding letter or the like?’  I fish mine out from the bag.

‘Good, good.  Yes.  Well, someone will be here to see to you shortly.  The thing is, that we weren’t expecting anyone to be joining today!’

We’ve gone beyond caring now.  We just stand on the dock like zombies.

Eventually a member of the admin team comes down clutching our cruise cards and we can board.

Chris shows his and walks up the gang plank.  Jimmy shows his and walks up the gang plank.  I am about to show mine until I notice that is has the name Graham Gould on it.  You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?

The error is corrected and I get my own cruise card.  We are all checked into the ship and go to our cabins.

Even with our delays the breakfast buffet is still being served (there is always some food being served on a cruise ship), and we sit in the warm sun on the rear deck.  All of the cares and woes of the past 2 days slide away.  Even Chris is calmer now as he has managed to convince the Cruise Director to reschedule his show and doesn’t have to perform today after all.

Deep breaths all round and relax.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the glamour of life on the road.

Reflections from a Vinyl Chair

I am now sat at Logan International airport in Boston, waiting to board BA flight 212 to Heathrow.  I have had a lazy and touristy day in Portsmouth, including a visit to the spectacularly bonkers Pickwicks Mercantile store that stocks an eclectic range of gifts and apparel.  I posed for photographs with the staff and with a bust of the great man himself.

With the staff at Pickwick's Mercantile

With the staff at Pickwick’s Mercantile

Behind the Counter with CD looking on

Behind the Counter with CD looking on

The success of yesterday’s shows was backed up by a wonderful article in the local paper as well as second hand reports from the girls behind the desk at the Hilton Garden Inn, from guests who had been in the audience.  All very gratifying indeed.

A Successful Outcome

A Successful Outcome

Although my flight doesn’t leave until almost 6pm, I made up my mind to leave Portsmouth early and drift down Route 1 rather than taking the Interstate.  It was a lovely drive, through small New England towns.  I was particularly looking forward to Hamptons Falls, which sounded as if it would give me some exciting photo opportunities.  Hamptons Falls must sit in the flattest piece of land in New England, so any falls that exist must be very small.

The route is lined with small antique stores, often it seems in private back yards, and car repair shops, similarly located.  There is a splendid lack of corporate food outlets and instead there are plenty of diners, looking as if they’ve been lifted straight from an episode of Happy Days.  As I drove I could imagine the queues and tailbacks on the Interstate and was very glad that I took this route.

As I approached Boston I reset the SatNav and let it take me through the suburbs to Logan.  I’d expected the airport to be very busy but actually I checked in and cleared security in good time which brings me to this metal and vinyl chair.

It is time to reflect:  It has been a marvellous tour.  If you have followed me all the way through you may think that I have painted a rosy picture of my time here and edited the bad stuff out but that is not true.  On the whole I have written what I have seen and felt.  It has been fun, it has been successful and it has been very satisfying.

The biggest change this year has been the blog.  I have never written one before and, I’m ashamed to admit, I have never read one either so I don’t know if there is a right or wrong way to do it.  I have just sat down first thing in the morning and recorded my thoughts from the day before.  Of course there has been a degree of repetition within it and that has been intentional.  I wanted to capture the spirit of life on the road and a part of that is doing the same things over and over, such as the shows themselves and the signing sessions, not to mention the ironing and laundry.

The blog has had one huge benefit for me personally: it has made me look at things much more closely than I have done in the past.  For instance I am sure that I would never normally have noticed that I was driving on the Sergeant Robert Kimberling Freeway on my way to Omaha.  However with open eyes and an enquiring mind I remembered his name and later learned of his tragic story.

I am so grateful to everyone who has read the blog and for your very kind comments about it.  I will certainly repeat the exercise next year.

What other memories?  Of course meeting the Wagners from Newtown Connecticut.  The boy in the signing line telling me that my head was REALLY shiny, the girl in Wilton admitting that she thought I was saying ‘spinach’ rather than ‘spirit’.

There was the luxury of my hotels in Chicago, Atlantic City and Williamsburg.  There were hotel rooms with nowhere to plug an iron in. There was my sparrow at the Borgata.  There was my Jeep. Oh, there are so many memories.

There were hundreds of kind, generous and hospitable people, some who gave me gifts, some who checked me into hotels, some who told me how much the show had meant to them.  There were a whole range of technical experts who made me look and sound good as well as the individuals who actually organised, promoted and staged my events.  To all of these people I offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks.

But the biggest thanks are reserved for a very special group:  Bob Byers and Lisa Porter at Byers Choice spend the entire year making the arrangements that make the trip so problem free.  The sheer logistics of taking all of the requests and finding dates to suit everyone, whilst maintaining a sensible and not too exhausting travel schedule, is a major feat.

During the tour Lisa is bombarded with requests for interviews and has to find packets of time when I am in a hotel or can get to a telephone. She checks in on me, makes sure all is well and follows up on all of the requests that I make of her. As Don Tirabassi in Portsmouth told me, she ‘is a real diamond’.

Bob took on the role of managing my trips 5 years ago and is as supportive and enthusiastic an agent as I could ever wish for.  He puts up with my demands (hopefully not too many), cheerfully and patiently.  The entire Byers Family are a good bunch of people and I feel fortunate to count them among my closest friends.

I have saved my biggest thank you until last.  To Liz.  Thank you so much for supporting me in my career and putting up with my weeks of absence every year.  You are a very special person indeed and I love you so much.

And that is where the 2013 tour finishes.  My flight is boarding and tomorrow morning I will be back in England to celebrate Christmas at home.

I shall leave you with this line from A Christmas Carol:

‘I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.’

A Very Merry Christmas to you all.

Gerald Dickens 2013

The Final Bow

Goodbye to Nashua

So, here we are.  48 Days, 54 shows, 11 States and 2 countries bring me to today, the last day of my 2013 tour.

I wake at my usual annoyingly early time but that gives me plenty of opportunity to read my notes and write yesterday’s blog.  It has become a good morning discipline to get the latest post written before I get into the meat of the day.

Notes for the blog

Notes for the blog

This morning I have plenty of time, as I don’t need to be in Portsmouth until 1.30 and the drive is only an hour or so.  The weather looks clear, so there is no obvious potential for delay.  Despite not needing to get going too early, I will probably leave at about 10.  There is an empty feeling about being in a hotel after an event has finished, everyone has gone and the hotel itself is moving on to the next event. ‘My’ ballroom will be used for a party or a seminar and different people will be bustling about.

It’s not that I like to be the centre of attention or anything; it’s just that…..Oh, OK, I like to be the centre of attention.

I have a brief breakfast in the lounge before going back to my room to make preparations for the day ahead.

Today will be a day of ‘lasts’ and I unfold an hotel ironing board for the last time, fill the iron for the last time, spill water all over the cover for the last time and press my final 2 costume shirts.  I assemble 2 hangers with striped trousers, gold waistcoats and black frock coats, complete with burgundy cravats and put them into my suit carrier, making sure that my cufflinks and watch are safely in their little compartment as well.

I watch a bit of TV, get online to reserve a window seat for my flight home and generally potter until I decide that it is time to leave.

The lobby of the hotel is deserted this morning and having checked out I pull my bags to the car and load up.  I get in and start the engine and immediately there is a message on the dash saying that the tailgate is open.  I get out and check it:  definitely shut.  Back into the driver’s seat and the message is still showing.  How ironic would it be to now have a rental car whose tailgate I can’t shut having lived with one that I couldn’t open for most of the tour.

I Check again and I realise what the problem is, the window part can open independently from the main door and I must have activated the release when I first unlocked it with the remote key fob.  2013 has indeed been the year of the tailgate.

To Portsmouth

On the road and the route takes me up towards Manchester and then East to the coast.  I could almost be home already as I pass signs for Newbury, Chester, Nottingham, Rochester, Epping, Kingston, Stafford, Exeter, Durham and of course Portsmouth itself.

I have never visited Portsmouth before and it looks lovely as I drive through the downtown area looking for my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn.  As I pull up a young man opens the car door and immediately greets me.  ‘Good morning, Mr Dickens, we are delighted that you are staying with us.  Your room is all ready for you, just see the girls at the desk’ and with that he gets into my car and takes it to a nearby lot.  I am astounded.

The welcome is continued at the front desk and before I know it I am in the lift rising to the fourth floor.  I had noticed that in the lobby fliers for my show are on the desk, hence the instant recognition but it is still amazing customer care.

In the room there is a basket containing cheeses, crackers and water, which I will save for this evening after the show.  Dairy products have a constricting effect on the throat making it difficult to project properly, so I always avoid them on show days.  I have a little time, so I watch a bit of television and buy a microwavable vegetable soup which is a perfect lunch.

At 1.15 I leave the hotel to walk just a couple of blocks to my venue for the day, the North Church which is a hugely impressive building, overlooking the old market square.  Outside is a trio of students playing carols on brass instruments and I am immediately taken back to my childhood when a local Salvation Army brass ensemble would stop at the corner outside our house on Christmas Eve and play.  I would always request ‘Away in a Manger’.

As I approach, the Church door opens and a face peers out scrutinising the passersby, she sees me carrying my top hat and cane and welcomes me in.  This is Nina Custer who is one half of the production team which is promoting this event.  Nina introduces herself and helps with my bag and coat, takes my hat and cane and generally makes a rather lovely fuss of me.

I catch sight of Don Tirabassi and we greet each other like old friends.  Many many years ago, in my very early years of touring, Don and his associates staged three events for me in Boston.  2 were in the Tremont Temple, where Dickens himself had performed and the third in The Shubert Theatre in the heart of the city’s theatre district.  He is a true theatre man and knows how to stage a great event.  Don and his wife now live in Portsmouth and he has formed a new company, Open Stage Events, with his business partner Nina.

Throughout this year’s tour it has been obvious that they are doing a good job, there have been plenty of interview requests and they have been promoting well.  Don says that the matinee is a complete sell out but we will probably be starting late as parking in Portsmouth is a real issue and this is the last Saturday before Christmas.

The hall itself is beautiful, actually very similar in size and design to the Church in Burlington New Jersey.  Don and his team have erected a stage in front of the main pulpit and altar area.  It is nice and high and will give everyone in the Church a good view.

The North Church, with temporary stage

The North Church, with temporary stage

The tech crew, Clark and Dean are hovering, waiting to do a sound check.  Dean has one of the little over the ear microphones but, remembering the one I tried at Fairleigh Dickinson University earlier in the trip, that fell off after about 10 minutes, I opt for a traditional clip on lapel mic instead.

I stand on the stage and start performing as Dean tweaks levels on his board, on the microphone pack itself and on the amplifier, until it is perfect.  Ushers and volunteers appear from various doors to listen and there is a little round of applause…for a sound check!

Door opening time is approaching so I go to my dressing room (a little office ‘off stage’ where the Pastor prepares for her services), and start to change.  I drink as much water as I can and take the opportunity to do some deep breathing exercises, as well as going through a few tongue twisters, to get my voice working properly.  More water, get hydrated.

In the dressing room

In the dressing room

I can tell when Don has opened the door, suddenly the noise in the Church is huge.  I’m not sure if we will need to start late, as it sounds as if 350 people have all arrived at once.  There is obviously a huge sense of anticipation in the hall and that lifts my energy levels and spirits.

More water, and now the first problem of the day presents itself.  The only restroom is out in the front of the Church, in the lobby, where the audience is flooding in and to which I cannot get.  This may be the fastest performance of A Christmas Carol that I have ever done.

At a little after 3.00pm the Pastor of the Church, Dawn Shippee, gets up onto the stage and makes an introduction to the Church and then to me.  The applause that greets me is astounding, what a welcome.

I start with a few introductory remarks before diving into the show head first.  The opening gambits go well, the audience are definitely responsive and this is going to be a fun afternoon, I can tell.

The Issue of the Hat Stand

As Bob Cratchit I grab my scarf from the hat stand and fling it around my neck.  Odd, there is only one end.  I give it a flick to pull the other end round but unfortunately, out of my eyeline, it is still caught on the hat rack which topples onto the stage, spilling my top hat and cane, which is a vital prop later in the show, onto the floor.  Fortunately, they do not fall down the narrow gap between the back of the stage and the pulpit behind.  If they had I would not have been able to retrieve them until after the show.

As the scene continues my mind is furiously working at the issue of the fallen hat stand.  I consider introducing a new scene, with Scrooge berating Cratchit for his untidiness and telling him to clear up before he leaves, thereby giving Bob the chance to set things up again, but in the end I simply stand the rack up in the character of Scrooge as he prepares to leave the office on Christmas Eve.

The rest of the show passes with no problems and it is a gem.  I am so pleased with it and the thunderous applause suggests that the audience love it too.

I get back into the dressing room, change and then back out to my signing table.  Don and Nina have decided not to sell any product but lots of people want their programmes signed or just to shake hands.  A reporter and photographer from The Portsmouth Herald are there getting audience member’s reactions as well as chatting to me.

When the audience has left Don is beside himself, he says that he has never known an audience like that, so enthusiastic and excited.  He heaps lavish praises onto me, which is very nice indeed.  However, I must not forget that we still have one more show to go.  So often on this tour the matinee audience has been enthusiastic and the evening one quiet, so there is still work to be done.

Don gets a roll of gaffer tape (USA Translation: Duct tape) and secures the hat stand, so that my earlier adventures are not repeated and as he carries out the operation he says that if this had been a union theatre in Boston, he would not be allowed to tear the three strips off the roll, bend them back on themselves and stick them beneath the legs of the stand.  No, a union stage hand would have to be located and if there wasn’t one on site, he would come in especially to do the job and be paid $360!

We have a couple of hours to relax.  Nina fetches a grilled chicken salad for me to eat, and we sit together, chatting in the pews of the Church.

The clock ticks inexorably on and Don is soon quietly mentioning that it may be nice to open the house doors a little earlier for this performance, which translated means: ‘I am about to open the doors, make yourselves scarce!’  I make sure I pay a visit to the rest room this time.

Back in the little dressing room I listen to the audience coming in again and try to gauge how they are going to be.  If anything they sound even louder and more excitable than the afternoon crowd.

I sit in my chair and actually doze off for a while.  Come on, don’t let it go now.  One more.  Energy.  Tongue twisters. Deep breaths.  Shake limbs. Hydrate.

The Final Show

Once again Dawn gets onto the stage and makes her introduction and once again the ovation that welcomes me to the stage is outstanding.

The show and the audience exceed even this afternoon’s.  It is an amazing 90 minutes and encapsulates everything I love about my job.  The laughter rings through the Church as do the sobs.  The responses are enthusiastic and from my point of view the timing and the performance are right back on the mark.

God Bless Us. Every One!

An explosion of applause.  Cries of ‘Bravo’.  Whistles and whoops.  Maybe I’m living in a rose tinted spectacled world, but right now I think that this is the best reception that I have had all through the tour.  Here, in Portsmouth at 9.30.  My last show. The sweat has rolled into my eyes, making them water a little bit.  I’m not sobbing with the emotion of it all.  Of course not.

The Final Bow

The Final Bow

I go through the same routine of changing costume before signing.  One gentleman presents me with a lovely framed engraving that he made of Charles Dickens.  More generosity.

Even as I sign, Clark, Dean and their crew are dismantling the set and stage behind me.  Things must move on and the Church, entering a rather busy week, needs to be returned to its natural state.

The last guests leave and I change and pack up all of my things, making sure that nothing gets left in the Pastor’s room at the North Church in Portsmouth.  I thank Clark, Dean and Don (Nina had to leave during the signing session).  They have been a great team to work with and I sincerely hope that we will do more together in the future.

I trudge through the crowded Saturday night streets of Portsmouth, in my thick coat, tweed cap and scarf, pulling my costume bag behind me.  Crowds are spilling out of bars, and everywhere there is music, raucous conversation and laughter.  I feel a bit like Scrooge ‘edging his way along the crowded paths of life’  The spirit of Christmas Present is definitely in the air tonight.

Back at the Hilton Garden Inn there is a little bar, and I have a couple of drinks, toasting myself and the season before going back to my room and making a start on the selection of cheeses.  It really doesn’t matter if my throat closes up and I can’t project now!

So, that is the end.  I get into bed and the accumulated waves of tiredness wash over me and send me to sleep. A deep sleep.

I will post one more blog later today, but for now thank you so much for reading and for all of your comments along the way.  It has been so much fun.

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