A Dickens Double Bill

For those of you who have become used to long, detailed blog entries which take you through every waking minute of my day, you will find this one a little more brief.

This one is a shameless piece of self-promotion.

On Friday evening at the Unicorn Theatre in my home town of Abingdon, I will be performing A Dickens Double Bill. The show features two of my favourite short stories written by Charles Dickens in the mid 1860s.

The Signalman is a spine chilling, eerie ghost story which takes place in a lonely signal box in a deep, damp railway cutting.  The narrator tells the tale of his chance encounter with the signalman under whose charge that stretch of line was.

What starts as an idle conversation to pass an hour or two soon becomes something much darker and more terrifying.

The fact that Dickens wrote The Signalman a year after he had been involved in a terrible railway accident lends an awful realism to the piece.

Regular readers of my blog will know all about Doctor Marigold.  Written in 1865 this charming monologue is a piece of Dickens little known today but one which delights audiences whenever they hear it.

Marigold featured heavily in Charles Dickens’ highly successful public reading tours and differs from most of his repertoire in that it is delivered in the first person. Almost reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s amazing ‘Talking Head’ sketches which were so popular in the 1980s, the audience really begins to feel as if they know the gentle man who shares his life’s struggles, tragedies and joys with them.

The two shows contrast beautifully and I am thoroughly looking forward to presenting them as a double bill for the first time on Friday.

So, now with my producer’s hat on: tickets are still available and can be ordered directly from me (use the email link on my website: http://www.geralddickens.com) or, if you are local, they can be purchased at Mostly Books in Stert Street, in the centre of Abingdon itself.

I look forward to seeing as many as possible on Friday and to writing a complete account of the show next week.

Remember:

Friday, 19 September, Unicorn Theatre, Abbey Buildings, Abingdon.

marigold poster white jpg

Links:

http://www.geralddickens.com

http://www.abingdonabbey-unicorntheatre.org.uk/

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

Monday – Wednesday: Llandrindod Wells

Monday

And so it is that, at 5.00am, the alarm goes.  As usual when there is an early morning call the alarm is unnecessary, as we have both spent a broken night more awake than asleep.  That will come back to haunt us later, I have no doubt.

We have showers and pack up the last of our belongings, in the certain knowledge that we are bound to leave something behind, and head to the kitchen to perform the sustaining coffee/tea/toast ritual.

Nicky, God bless her, comes in and we chat about the preceding days and the fun we’ve all had together.  It’s always so much fun to be here and this year has had the extra excitement of being in at the start of JD and Una’s trip.  I can’t wait to hear their updates and news.

We get ourselves loaded into the car, more hugs from Nicky, and we are on the road to Dublin.

Of course, at this hour of the day, there is very little traffic about, but as we get to Naas and various routes from the west and south converge, the Monday morning rush hour begins to build.

This time we aim for the tunnel, not the route along the Grand Canal and our journey is much quicker, less problematic and much duller. The tunnel takes you right beneath the City and into the heart of Dublin Docks.

As we drive up to the check in booth we take a decision to book a cabin on this crossing.  We are already exhausted and the thought of battling for chairs and trying to get comfortable is too much to bear.

Before we head up to the quiet of the cabin deck our first stop is the restaurant for a full slap-up breakfast: the works.  Bacon, sausages, eggs, tomato, toast, coffee, orange juice.  Delicious and much needed.

We find our cabin and for a 3 hour crossing it is surprisingly well equipped and well presented. We pull the top bunk down, I climb up and in a very short time we both doze off, lulled by the gentle movement of The Irish Sea and the far distant hum of the diesel engines.

I’ve no idea what happens for the next two hours, so you may as well go and make yourself a cup of tea or something.

When we do both wake there is still a short distance of the journey to go, so we make drinks and turn the tv on.  There is a film showing: ‘Bell, Book and Candle’, a strange thing starring Jimmy Stewart about witches.  We are both brought up short when the character played by Kim Novak is revealed to own a Siamese cat, so like our dear Kipling at home that he is almost in the cabin with us.

We slowly come to again and leave the cabin ready to join our car.  One huge bonus of paying the extra for the cabin is that our boarding and departing of the vessel is due to be expedited and we have a specially coloured tag dangling from the driver’s mirror to show everyone the fact.

We smugly sit in our car, looking sorrowfully at all of those with the standard, non-coloured tags.  Poor them.

The bow doors open.

We watch as a line to our left is waved off.  A line to our right is waved off. Lorries are waved off and some coaches are waved off.  Eventually and somewhat reluctantly our row of cars is permitted to leave the ship.

Actually it makes no difference whatsoever as the line of cars is completely stationary in the dockyard.  The entire payload of two ferries from Ireland is held up by one small set of traffic lights in the centre of Holyhead.  As the residents of the town go about their daily routine so drivers of cars, lorries and coaches sit fuming and impatient.  Presumably this scenario plays out each morning.

Even when we clear the town centre and set off along the A55 across the centre of Anglesey, we are still not free. 

To leave the island and rejoin the mainland there are only two, very old, very narrow, single file bridges and the line of cars and lorries which first became acquainted in Dublin at 8.00 this morning, are once more bumper to bumper.

Actually the delay doesn’t really have any significance for us, as there is nothing to rush for today.  In fact I have no real commitment until tomorrow evening, but it is extremely frustrating all the same.

At last we are released from Alcatraz, sorry, Anglesey, and begin the most beautiful day’s driving we could ever have wished for.

We are driving towards Llandrindod Wells, in the heart of Wales where I am due to perform at the Victorian Festival .  If this were a normal booking I would be driving from Oxford using the motorway system, but because we are driving from Holyhead the route take us through the heart of Snowdonia and, what is more, the sun is shining which is not always the case in North Wales.

The single-track roads wind this way and that, past farms, over rivers, alongside narrow-gauge railways.  We drive alongside the lower slopes of Mount Snowdon – at least we think it is Mount Snowdon: it appears to be bigger than all the surrounding mountains as well as being sort of pointy.

We amble on, occasionally getting stuck behind caravans and other holiday traffic, but we have not a care in the world.  At one point we are running behind a Dutch couple on an historic motorcycle and sidecar.  It looks terrifying from where we are as, being ‘left hand ride’, the rider is forced close to the slate wall marking the edge of the road, whilst the passenger is stuck out in the path of any oncoming traffic.

At around lunchtime we decide to find somewhere to stop and turn off the road into Dolgellau where we find a little café.  The town looks pretty but we are both feeling tired and want to get on, so it is back into the car and on towards Llandrindod Wells.

The Victorian Festival is due to be officially opened this evening and I have been asked if I could be up on the bandstand for the opening ceremony.  Speeches will be made and I am terrified that I will mispronounce Llandrindod Wells.  I have been practicing for weeks but am still convince that at the pressure-filled moment when I have to say ‘I am delighted to be in Llandrindod Wells…..’ I will actually say something completely insulting in Welsh and probably spit all over the Mayor.

We drive on and arrive in town at around five o’clock.  We have been booked accommodation in the amazing Metropole Hotel, which looks like it has been plucked from the slopes of the Alps.  All of the staff there are very attentive, helpful and polite.

At six I get into costume and head to the little park across the street where the opening ceremony is to take place (‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’). 

Straight away I see David Hawes.  David is a good friend of many years standing.  In a previous blog post I called him an old friend, which he took exception to, so we will stick with good friend.

It is thanks to David that I am here.  He has been coming to Llandrindod for a few years now and has used his theatrical costume expertise to help dress the festival.  After last year’s event he  suggested to the organisers that it would be a good addition to the programme to have me performing.

Fortunately for me, they agreed

Since last I saw David in Rochester he has had a major medical scare and undergone a serious operation.  For a long time it was assumed that he would not be well enough to come to Llandrindod, but he’s here – as ebullient as ever.

David introduces me to the various people in the party that will parade to the bandstand.  Most importantly I am presented to Queen Victoria.  It is immediately apparent that the folks here take the festival very seriously indeed, as we are given our parading orders by a gentleman in a uniform of the Coldstream Guards.

“We will parade from here to the bandstand, where we shall assemble.  Speeches will be made. When the speeches have been heard and appreciated there will be photographs after which we will form up and process back here where you will be dismissed!”

Goodness!  I’m even more scared now and spend our entire parade, which isn’t very long admittedly, whispering to myself: ‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’.

There is small crowd awaiting us and they cheer and clap.  We stand on the bandstand. (‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’).

The chair of the festival committee makes a speech, and as she winds up my mouth is dry and my stomach in knots.

‘And now, to officially open the festival I am delighted to welcome our very special guest this evening…..’

(‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’)

‘…..please give a round of applause for The High Sherriff of Powys.’

Of course I had completely got the wrong end of the stick: I had never been asked to say anything, nobody had ever expected me to say anything, they just thought it would be nice for me to be there.  Oh, happy day!  At least I could now say the name of town correctly.

We all finish up and go back to the hotel where we are formally dismissed.

Liz rejoins me from her place in the crowd and we have a lovely quiet dinner in the hotel’s brasserie. 

After coffee we decide to take a brief stroll around the town before retiring for an early night.

 

Tuesday

After breakfast on Wednesday morning I spend a couple of hours going through the lines for Doctor Marigold, which I am due to perform tonight, whilst Liz has a massage in the hotel’s spa.

When we meet up again we still have plenty of time to walk through the elegant town and take in various aspects of the events going on: craft stalls, a fairground barrel-organ, a marquee hosting ‘The Great Voltini and Madame Electra Sideshow’.

We go into the Church where there is the most magnificent collection of flower arrangements and a coffee shop selling delicious cakes of which we avail ourselves.

We continue our walk and make our way to the park containing the original chalybeate springs and Victorian bath houses that brought such prosperity to the town during the 19th century. Heading back to the hotel there is an opera singer performing on the bandstand and everyone seems involved and happy.

In the evening I am performing Mr Dickens is Coming and Doctor Marigold in the Albert Hall Theatre and we have arranged to meet David there at 5.45.  We are soon joined by Keith, who will be looking after us and the theatre tonight.

Oh, it is magnificent!  What a gem of a theatre. A beautiful stage, with all of the paraphernalia that you would expect to find backstage.  There are gently raked stalls and an elegant balcony.  At each side of the stage are large semi-circular panels, which had been designed to hold pipes for an organ but which are now filled in with the stained glass.  I am going to enjoy this evening.

 

The props, as usual with my shows, are minimal, so I’m soon set up and Keith has focussed the lights for me.

As 7.30 approaches the audience start to arrive and I am backstage peeking through holes in the curtain.  Liz is going to watch the whole first half from the wings, so that she can close the curtains at the interval.

Suddenly there is a fanfare and my friend the Coldstream Guard announces the arrival of Queen Victoria.  Everyone solemnly stands as she takes her place in the centre of the front row.  This suits me very well for a running gag in the show is Dickens’s repeated refusal to meet the Queen. 

David then stands to make an introduction and he gets a round of applause before he’s even said anything – this promises to be a good audience.  It is clear how fond everyone here is of David, for as he says that he really hadn’t expected to be able to attend the festival this year due to his operation, the whole audience begin to clap.  I’m welling up in the wings, so heaven knows how he is coping out front.

He keeps his composure, completes the introduction and I am on.

The audience are with me from the start, they know the characters and passages I use, they appreciate the jokes and love the byplay with The Queen.  There is a wonderful, warm, friendly feeling in The Albert Hall tonight.

During the interval Liz and I clear the stage.  I change into the Doctor Marigold costume and soon the house lights dim and I’m on again.

Marigold is a perfect piece to perform in a small Victorian Theatre and, as is becoming the norm now, people warm to a tale that they have never heard before.  They feel close to this kind man entrusting them with his life’s story.

It has been a lovely evening.

When I am changed and back into the 21st century I start to move the furniture and props to the front door, where we load the car.

David has arranged for us all to descend on the house of one of the regular festival participants where we tuck into a Chinese dinner ordered and collected after the show.  We all chat, eat and slowly wind down until it is time to get back to the hotel and bed.

 

Wednesday

This adventure is almost over and I have just one more duty to perform before we head for home.  This morning at 10.30 I am due to appear at Dickens Wine Bar, which is a basement establishment just off the gardens which form the hub of the festival.  The wine bar has not been open long but, as the name suggests, is completely Dickens themed, with character prints and quotes from novels hanging on the walls.

Even the bar’s mission statement is a quote:  ‘Whatever we have tried to do in business, we have tried with all our heart to do it well; whatever we have devoted ourselves to, we have devoted ourselves completely; in great aims and in small we have always thoroughly been in earnest.’  I’d love to tell where that is from….but I can’t!

The wine bar is owned and run by Chris and Denise Hartley who, for the period of the festival, are appearing as Mr Bumble and Nancy. Their son (now THAT is a plot line Dickens never thought of), is The Artful Dodger, aka Evander.

I am sat at a Victorian clerk’s desk, complete with inkstand and quill pen and there is a nice steady stream of people coming in.  We have brought my DVDs of Doctor Marigold; David sold plenty at the show last night and a good many more sell this morning.  There are photographs and lots of friendly chat.  It is a nice way to finish our week long trip.

At 12.00 the final pictures are taken outside the bar and we go back to the hotel where I change out of my frock coat and back into civvies before getting into the car and heading home to Abingdon.

It has been a remarkable trip.  It has been lovely to spend so much time with Nicky in Ireland and it has been a treat to be part of such a warm welcoming festival as the one in Llandrindod Wells.  We have had a lovely time but now it is certainly time to go home.

 

Epilogue

After returning home on Wednesday afternoon our first task was to pick up our two cats, Ruby and Kip from the local cattery.

On Friday I was away again, performing in Leicester, so Saturday was really the day we were finally all at home together.

I flopped and Liz worked in the garden throughout the day.  The cats, enjoying the freedom of the garden again, accompany her.  In the late afternoon Kipling began to struggle to breathe and although we rushed him to the vet who performed an emergency operation, he died that night.

He was not yet two years old but had become so much a part of our home that he leaves an immense hole in our lives.

We posted the news on Facebook and were overwhelmed by the support and love we received from friends all over the world for which we say a heartfelt thank you.

Kipling, you will always be here with us.

 

 

 

Sunday: The Great Golf Match

After two days of performing Sunday is a day off and I would normally take this opportunity to flop. There will be no relaxation today however, for it is the day of The Great Golf Match.

JD and I are due to go head to head this afternoon and my concentration needs to be tip top.  Over the past couple of days JD and I have been playing a psychological war, which mainly involves getting our own excuses for terrible golf into the mix.

The pressure is mounting: for two nights I have slept soundly, despite the fact that I have had performances looming.  No nightmares of walking onto stage naked, or discovering that I’m in a completely different show to that which I’d planned for.  However last night I writhed, tossed, turned in my bed, dreaming of swinging hopelessly at a golf ball which remains resolutely in place.  On the few occasions that the club does touch it the ball moves either a matter of inches or flies off in completely the wrong direction.  Oh, this is bad!

During the morning JD heads off to the gym (an underhand bit of training, I call it) and Liz and I head back into Kilkenny.  We walk around the castle grounds and have a coffee but most of the businesses in town are closed.

After a relaxing time we go back to the house to make final preparations.  JD comes back from the gym looking fit and buoyant. 

We load my clubs into the car and we all set off (Liz is coming with us, for the walk and to ensure fair play!)

The venue for the match is Mount Juliet, a magnificent golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus that has hosted the Irish Open and other PGA events.  It is a money-no-object facility the like of which I have never played on before.

As soon as we arrive JD heads off to the pro-shop and I dash after him, as I’m determined to pay for something during this trip.  The generosity of Nicky and her sons is unbelievable. 

Fortunately on this occasion I manage to get there before him and not only get our rounds paid for but also buy a Mount Juliet cap, a course guide and a few extra balls, which may well be necessary.

At precisely two o’clock, Liz, JD and I walk to the first tee.

JD has the honour and as he warms up I can see that he has an elegant, powerful looking swing.  He stands over the ball, waggles the club, pauses and then the match is on.  His first tee shot flies long but right into an area of rough.

And now it is my turn:  forget about those bad dreams, concentrate.  I try to keep the swing short and slow and am rewarded with the sight of the ball soaring into the sky in a dead straight line, landing just to the right of the fairway.

JD doesn’t find his ball and has to drop but I put my second into a greenside bunker.  We halve in six.

The second we halve in six too, and move onto Mount Juliet’s signature hole.

When Jack Nicklaus got his hands on the patch of land near Kilkenny he spotted a short valley which was a perfect par 3 length.  Having dug a lake, he put the tee at one end of it and the green 170 yards away at the other.

JD still has the honour and hits a shot onto the green.  Now I begin to self destruct.  First shot: plop! into the water.  Second shot: plop! into the water.  Somehow the third gets across but I’m now one hole down.

My demons follow me to the next and I’m soon two holes down.  At the fifth I go three down.  This is shaping up to be a rout.

The one great hope for me is JD’s putting which is fragile at the moment.  He is playing beautifully from tee to green (assisted by his seemingly magical rescue club) but once there he is struggling to finish the job.

From the sixth I start playing again.  My drives are long and the approach shots decent.  While JD still can’t find form on the greens I pull myself back to level as we reach the ninth.

At the ninth tee there is another example of the luxury of Mount Juliet, a little telephone in a box with a menu attached.  You simply place an order for a burger, wraps, drinks and snacks and by the time you have navigated your way to the green the food is waiting for you to collect on the way to the tenth.

Our match swings back and forward.  For a while it looks as if I am in complete control but, as I had done earlier in the round, JD fights back to level again.

All square as we start the seventeenth.  We halve. 

All square and everything to play for at the last.

The sun is setting and the shadows are long as we look down the eighteenth fairway.  JD slices his ball and is placed in short rough on some hillocks.  I hit my best drive of the round into the middle of the fairway and when JD fluffs his second, only advancing a short distance, I am definitely the favourite.

The lie is good and I take a 3 wood to clip the ball off the immaculate turf and send it towards the hole.  The swing is good, the contact is clean and the ball climbs into the sky with plenty of power behind it.  I am almost celebrating until I realise that it is arcing away to the left and what runs up the whole left side of the fairway?  Water.

For a moment I hope that I may just clear the water hazard and reach the bunker beyond.  However it is only a fleeting hope and frustratingly once more my ball plops into the lake, a fountain of silver briefly marking its landing point.

JD, now back on the fairway, is in charge once more. 

It soon becomes apparent however that neither of us seems ready to win this match, for JD’s ball follows mine into the lake.

Throughout the round JD’s composure and sense of calm has been remarkable.  He has played a superb game, getting out of trouble with that rescue club of his and scoring consistently.  But now, half way up the eighteenth fairway it all collapses.

As we walk to the point where his ball has gone into the lake his trolley and bag start to roll down the bank towards the water.  We all make a leap to save them but in his haste JD knocks over one of the red stakes marking the edge of the hazard.  For a moment it looks as if he may follow the balls into the lake but although he saves himself his composure is lost.

He drops a ball but the tempo of the swing is hurried and it flies into a bunker.  He swipes at the ball angrily, taking three to get out of the sand, but his next shot, a magnificent long putt, almost rescues his day.  Sadly for him the ball pulls up a few inches short.

In the meantime I have played a scrappy shot to the front of the green followed by several nervous putts to the hole.

After four hours, 6554 yards, some great shots from both us and some frankly embarrassing ones, it has all come down to this final green and I crawl over the line first, taking the match by a single hole.

It has been such a fun round (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)  JD has been great company throughout and it has been fabulous to have Liz with us. 

We pose on the green for pictures and make our way to the clubhouse where we pore over the scorecards and they reveal a perfectly democratic result, for while I won the matchplay game by that single, final hole, JD triumphed on strokes by 3.  We both won!

JD has let Nicky know that we are finished so she and Una drive out and join us in the clubhouse.

For all of Mount Juliet’s superb qualities the service in the bar isn’t brilliant and we have a bit of a wait before a) we can order and b) we get served our plates of fish and chips, chicken and a bowl of soup.

I am seriously beginning to flop now and the various conversations carry on around me as I subside deeper into the large leather chair.

When we have all finished, we take a little bit of time to walk through the grounds of the magnificent 5 star hotel which is attached to the golf course.

JD wants to show us the hotel’s putting course, and our walk takes through the extraordinary walled garden.  It is a complete dream in there, helped with the golden evening light.  The beds are extravagantly planted with riotous colours and set off with dream-like, whispy grasses blowing in the breeze.  It is like an oasis of flowers.  We could be anywhere right now, the location is completely forgotten.

We leave the garden and return to the real world and there JD shows us the putting green.  It is a complete miniature replica of the main golf course, complete with bunkers and those dreaded lakes.  I scowl at the third hole and we walk back to the cars.

Back at the house it is time to pack the car.  Our adventure in Ireland is almost at an end and tomorrow morning we have to leave at 5.45 to pick the ferry up in Dublin.

For once the evening does not extend as far towards midnight and we say our ‘good nights’ early and head for our various beds.

 

 

Saturday: The Signalman, The Nore and More

Morning

Once again the rigours of the evening before (and I’m not really referring to the performance), take their toll and it is another slow, pottery start to the day.  We go through the same routine of coffee, tea and toast.

This morning Una is the first to appear from the rest of the house.  We all sit round the table and have a most remarkable conversation.  Una and JD are about to head off on what can only be described as the trip of a lifetime.

Una is a primary school teacher and JD, of course, works in the hotel industry.  They both went straight into their respective professions as soon as they graduated and therefore missed out on the gap year enjoyed by so many students.

Thanks partly to a piece of legislation in Ireland which allows teachers to take a break from work, yet guarantees them a job when they return, JD and Una have decided to travel the world.  They will be flying to Russia and from there will spend a year and maybe more exploring the eastern hemisphere. 

They will be taking a train across Russia, hiking through Mongolia, exploring Tibet and hoping to trek through the foothills of the Himalayas to Everest Base Camp.  Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Hong Kong all feature in their itinerary.  However, they will not be calling in favours from JD’s contacts in the luxury hotel industry as their homes will be packed up in their rucksacks each night.

Quite apart from the sheer physical scale of the adventure, there is also the logistical side of the trip to be worked on.  Visas for everywhere have to be applied for: some online, some at embassies.  Some countries will let you in and back out, but only if you haven’t travelled from a hostile neighbouring territory.  In some cases the political situation may well have changed between the planning and the arrival so everything is up in the air.

It sounds an amazing trip and Una’s excitement of the months to come is infectious.  Hopefully they will write a blog of their adventures, I can’t wait to follow them.

As we chat JD’s brother Niall appears.  Niall is the only one of Nicky’s three sons not working in the hotel industry, preferring the more regular hours of a career in marketing.  He drove down from Dublin last night and arrived during my show.  Nicky soon joins us too.

In past years Saturday has been a day of recovery but not so this year as for the first time I am doing a second show at Kyteler’s: The Signalman.

When we discussed my trip earlier in the year Nicky suggested that we staged a daytime, more intimate show to again coincide with the Arts Week crowds.  If we don’t ever become part of the official festival remember that this is where the Kilkenny Fringe started.

Niall heads into town first, and Nicky goes later.  Liz and I arrange to meet her at Kyteler’s for an early lunch before the two o’clock show.  Fortunately for us JD and Una are about so there is no pressure for Liz and me to set the house alarm.

 

Kyteler’s Inn

In Kyteler’s we are shown to a small table and order Irish Stew – well, you have to, don’t you?  As we sit and watch we are reminded (not that we have ever been in any doubt), what an amazing establishment Kyteler’s Inn is.  It is Saturday lunchtime and it is busy.  There are locals, there are tourists, there are Arts Week visitors and throughout all three floors are waitresses taking orders, serving dishes, clearing tables.  Guests are taking photographs of the decor, getting in the way of the staff as they do but there is never any issue and the whole building has a sense of relaxed efficiency.

A table near us has been reserved and when the party arrive the reserved sign is put on an adjoining table.  A second reserved table is occupied and the sign for that one is also put aside next to the first.

  Now a group of American’s arrive and they head towards what looks like a large empty table but they are disappointed when they see the two reserved tabs. A waitress bustles past and realising that the group are looking for a table says: ‘You can sit there if you like’.  ‘But it says reserved’ ‘Ah, don’t worry about that, that’s grand!’ She whisks away the two reserved signs and the group are beaming as if the Maitre D’ of a Michelin Starred restaurant has just freed up the most sort after table especially for them.  It is a tiny thing but that group will have loved their visit to Kyteler’s Inn and, by association, to Kilkenny.

Our Irish Stew and soda bread arrives and it is delicious.

And now the time is approaching to get back to work.

 

The Signalman

The Signalman is a ghost story written by Charles Dickens in 1866.  It is set in a deep, dark, damp railway cutting, at the mouth of a long tunnel and is packed with atmosphere.  The story is told by an unnamed gentleman who befriends the signalman and spends long hours talking to him in his lonely box.  The poor railway worker tells a tale of ghostly sightings and terrible happenings.

For this show I am performing it as a reading but will be introducing it as a fully fledged part of my repertoire soon.  To allow the brilliant narrative to be the centre of attention I have cleared the stage of all my paraphernalia with the exception of a small rustic stool. 

We are not expecting a huge crowd today but there are plenty of people returning after last night (presumably with the requisite ‘S’ marked on the back of their tickets) and a group of ladies who just happened to hear about the event have turned up on spec.

Just as we are about to start one of the groups order teas and Nicky’s family goes into action giving  a further illustration of the professional attitude that pervades at Kyteler’s: Nicky goes to the main bar to sort out the order, asking Niall to fetch milk and sugar for the table. Niall, remember doesn’t work in the hotel industry (although he has been brought up in it and knows how it works).  He is dressed in jeans and a casual shirt and calls JD, who is dressed in jacket and tie, over.  Both know that it would be bad form to serve guests inappropriately dressed, so Niall passes the tray to JD.  Nicky comes back with the tea, JD serves the milk and sugar, and another set of guests are spoiled without realising it.

And it is time to start.  Being a reading the whole atmosphere is much more relaxed than the theatrical events of last night and it’s a rather nice feeling, almost getting back to my roots.

I begin the show by telling the story of Charles Dickens’ narrow escape in a terrible train disaster just a year before he wrote The Signalman.  From that date he felt haunted and terrorised by the horrors of the railway and the story seems to be an exorcism of those fears.

The show goes well and I am very pleased with the way its debut has been received.  The next time I perform it will be in my home town of Abingdon as a double bill with Doctor Marigold (Friday September 19 at the Unicorn Theatre, if you must know. Tickets available directly from me).

Again the audience hang around in the bar and chat about both shows.  Many of them are going to get in touch with the festival organisers and push for our inclusion next year.

After doing a brief television interview up in the roof of the bar, I am able to get changed and Nicky, Liz and I take all of my furniture and props down to the car.

Before we leave Kyteler’s Nicky is anxious to show us her new pride and joy.  Throughout the first part of this year she has had an entire new kitchen area built which has entailed complicated planning applications, negotiations with neighbours, architectural meetings about how to fit a modern, purpose-built, mass-catering kitchen into a limited space enclosed by a 14th Century witch’s house.

The results are spectacular and it is so lovely to hear Nicky bubbling with enthusiasm as she shows us round.  She is, justifiably, very proud of what she is achieving here.

 

A Walk by The Nore

We all get back to the house at about the same time.  Niall is going to go to the gym and Nicky had suggested that a walk would be fun.  It sounds like a great idea, especially as all of my shows in Ireland are now finished and I can free my mind of them.

Liz and I are a bit intimidated as JD, Una and Nicky all appear in very sporty looking gear, whilst we are in wellies and sweaters.  The walk takes us initially along the road and then across some fields to the banks of the River Nore.  It is quickly apparent that JD and Una are in serious training for the trek to the foothills of Everest – they are gone! Striding out ahead at a great pace.

The walk along the Nore from Kilkenny to Bennet’s Bridge is beautiful.  The river itself is dark and peaty, occasionally the strong currents created frothy white crests and then it looks like a freshly pulled pint of Kilkenny Ale.  It is a river of many characters, sometimes it flows slowly and peacefully and at other times there are sections of rapids that would not be out of place in the Grand Canyon.

The path follows the river’s meandering course, through meadows, fields and deep dark woodlands.  It is here, in the woods, that the most amazing structures arise before us.  Covered in creeping ivy and sinuous branches is a lost industrial community.  Huge mill buildings, factories, wharfs, stand long forgotten.  Here was a noisy bustling river bank, these skeletons of buildings were filled with labourers shouting, swearing, sweating.  Barges took loads up the river.  Fortunes were made and presumably lost meaning that industry moved on leaving this ghost town in the heart of the forest.  All very Brothers Grimm.

As we walk on we admire magnificent houses on each bank.  Una tells us to look out for a shrine visible briefly through the trees and when we see it, it is frankly terrifying.  Framed in a V in the woodland, a large white figure of Christ hangs against a black background, seemingly suspended in mid air.

We approach the end of our walk and the river path passes under a huge flyover carrying the M9 motorway towards Waterford.  Here, as business men roar past over our heads, as lorry drivers belch diesel into the atmosphere, as holiday makers and taxi drivers motor on blissfully unaware, wrapped up only in their respective worlds; here we are given to a rare wildlife treat.

Our first excitement is a heron perched on a rock in the river.  He is a noble bird taking off with slow, languid beats of his wings into the setting sun which refelcts brightly against the river.  And then Una squeals with excitement: in the middle of the river is an otter.  Coming to the surface, searching, fishing, inquisitive before diving again.  For a few minutes we stand searching for him, never quite knowing in which part of the river his head will reappear.  It is a beautiful end to the walk.

Back at Nicky’s car we all pile in and JD phones ahead to a Chinese restaurant in Kilkenny.  As we drive across each railway crossing Nicky takes her hands and feet from the controls of the car, at the same time shouting out ‘Win the Lotto, win the Lotto, win the Lotto!’ Apparently this is a good-luck ritual introduced to her by our sister-in-law Ann.  I might have thought keeping control of a high -powered vehicle in a rural lane might bring better results of self preservation.  However, if Nicky wins the jackpot this weekend I am willing to be convinced.

Back at the house JD and Una go to fetch the Chinese and the rest of us settle down to watch another episode of ‘The Shelbourne’ television programme.  Niall is excited about this episode as he is responsible for one of the advertisements shown at half time.  The ad in question is for a foot fungal treatment. He says it is a perfect bit of advertising, as all of the staff at the hotel (including his brother, JD) are on their feet all day and always on the move so may well suffer from foot fungus.  We’re certainly looking forward to our Chinese now!

We all tuck in to the various dishes and it is delicious.  As usual we chat and laugh.  Nicky’s home is so welcoming and she is a generous host.  We talk about our walk, the television show, the performances.  We talk about board games that we used to play as kids.  We share silly old jokes such as: ‘why is there only one Monopoly’s Commission? Why is there only one word for thesaurus? Why is dyslexia so difficult to spell?’ and others.

We play a card game and then decide to have an early night.

It’s after midnight and tomorrow I have a major golf match to play.

 

Friday: A Day of Great Expectations

Continuing the tale of our trip to Ireland:

After the long day’s travel yesterday we, not surprisingly, sleep well but are still awake before anyone else.

We potter in the kitchen making coffee for me, tea for Liz, some eggs and toast for us both. Nicky appears and has some toast too as we all sit around the table and chat. We chat about home, about the show later today, about our holiday in Scotland last year when we all met up in Cromarty, Scotland, to celebrate my 50th birthday. We try to decide on a timetable for the day.

From my perspective I cannot afford to be very sociable today. I am due to perform Great Expectations tonight and haven’t done it for a while now, so I really need to spend a good deal of time this morning going over the lines, accents and moves. We decide between us that after showers etc, I shall head outside to my perfect rehearsal space, while Liz and Nicky spend the morning mooching.

Nicky’s house is a sprawling bungalow (with a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom built into the roof space), set in a large plot of land. A few years ago she created a hedged-off area with a gazebo, a rockery, a pond, some decking. In the summer it is a perfect place for a barbeque and a glass of chilled something or other. It is also a perfect place to run through lines uninterrupted. I discovered its suitability last year when I was busy preparing Doctor Marigold.

‘HOLD YOUR NOISE! KEEP STILL YOU LITTLE DEVIL OR I’LL CUT YOUR THROAT!!!’ I bellow. Hopefully there aren’t neighbours anywhere near or the Garda will be arriving at the door before we know it. I’ve been working on Great Ex for the last few days at home, so this is really just to tweak any little moments that are causing trouble and to consider how best to stage it in Kytelers Inn later this evening.

The lines seem to be well in place and the characters are working well, which is a good omen for the show, and I spend a little over two hours working away at them during which time I am treated to mercifully kind weather.

Back in the kitchen we three meet again and decide to go into town, which is only a ten minute drive. Nicky will go into Kyteler’s while Liz and I walk around Kilkenny and maybe have a bite of lunch before all reuniting at the bar to talk about lighting and staging.

Prior to our departures we are issued with strict instructions on how to open the automatic gate at the end of the drive and how to disable the house alarm. It is simple: the gate has a telephone number, call that and the gate will swing open. If that doesn’t work, then there is a separate keypad for which Nicky sends me a text with the number on it. Now, the house alarm – unlock the door using the key and simply type a different code-number into a keypad to disable the alarm. Easy.

Kilkenny is busy today. There are plenty of tourists ambling about, taking selfies on the bridge over the River Nore which flows beneath the soaring walls of the splendid castle. The main car park is in the heart of the town, right next to Kyteler’s Inn, so we say good bye to Nicky and head into town.

It is Arts Week. The Kilkenny Festival is a city-wide event embracing theatre, music, sculpture, strange inflatable installations and much more. There are lots of venues spread around and large posters listing all of the various events.

Frustratingly at the moment Kyteler’s Inn is not an official festival venue, so is not included in the festival marketing. It seems odd: Kyteler’s is in a wonderfully central spot and has a spectacular performance space. The various bars host musicians all the year round as well as a Bodhran ‘experience’ during which guests learn how to play the traditional Irish drum.

As far as theatre is concerned, I have successfully performed ‘Mr Dickens is Coming’, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Doctor Marigold’ there, so the venue’s credentials as a theatrical space are proven. Earlier in the year Nicky had tried to apply to the festival committee to be included but without success. Hopefully, next year….

Liz and I amble up to The Kilkenny Design Centre, which is made up from the old stable blocks of the castle, surrounding a small quad. It comprises artists’ studios, shops and restaurants. In the quad at the moment is the set for an open air production of Much Ado About Nothing.

We decide to have a bite of lunch there and tuck into sandwiches and cake. Unfortunately I am becoming ever more uncommunicative as the day moves on. This is always the way on the day of a performance, and I don’t make sparkling company.

Inside my head I am thinking of ways of saying a certain line, or trying this move or that; calling on previous experiences at Kyteler’s to decide where to say the opening line; where to base Joe Gargery’s forge; where to put Satis House and whist my mind is thus whirring, I am not talking.

Once lunch is finished we walk back into the main road which separates the castle from the Design Centre. The road has a large promenade to one side which features exhibitions of paintings, the inevitable ‘human statue’ and a great many ambling people.

One bonus of the festival atmosphere is that the huge variety of arts encourages others to join in. Sat on a low wall are four teenagers: jeans, hoodies, bored sullen looks. They are like any teenagers in any town in the world, except for the fact that one has a euphonium, another a set of bongos and the other two a trombone and clarinet respectively. As we walk past, the ‘euphoniumist’ puts the mouthpiece to his lips. There is no sense of performance about him, it’s just as if he’s going to puff into it with a sense of curiosity. But now we hear the sound, low and rich and resonant, as he starts with the opening bars of Ben E King’s ‘Stand By Me’.

Just take a moment, think about it, imagine it, hear it.

As the Euphonium completes the opening riff and goes into a repeat so the bongos join in, adding a little texture and when they both complete the riff again, the trombone player and clarinettist put their instruments to their lips and take up the melody.

Are you thinking about it? Can you hear it?

Somehow the insouciance of the whole scene adds to the beauty of the music.

I have to get back to Kyteler’s now to look at the stage and lighting, so Liz takes the opportunity to look around some of Kilkenny’s shops while I’m doing my tech runs.

The ‘theatre’ at Kyteler’s Inn is the top bar, which is a marvellous medieval room, complete with stone walls, arched windows of stained glass and suits of armour. At one end there is a high platform which becomes a decent sized stage with plenty of room for my small set (a wooden stool, a hat stand draped with white material, a chair and a table).

There are three theatrical lights, which actually are there for dancing and musical gigs, but they will work well if we can stop one slowly changing from red to yellow to blue constantly. Liz comes back and looks at the stage from various audience seats and we tweak until we are satisfied that the lighting is as good as we can get it.

JD (star of TV’s ‘The Shelbourne’) is going to act as master of ceremonies tonight and that role includes operating my CD voiceovers, so we spend a bit more time making sure that the sound levels are correct and that the tracks are cued up properly.

When we are satisfied, Liz and I head back to the house for a bit of a rest before the evening’s events

As we drive up to the security gates we phone ahead but they don’t work (I later discover that my phone is adding +44 to the Irish number, thereby rendering it unrecognisable to the security system). Liz gets out of the car and puts the number that Nicky gave us earlier into the keypad, thereby activating the electric motors and swinging the gates open.

At the front door I put the key in and the alarm sets up its warning ‘beep, beep, beep, beep’. I get my phone out and look at the number that Nicky texted me earlier today. Press the four digits. ‘beep beep beep beep’. For some reason the alarm doesn’t deactivate and there is a message flashing: ‘incorrect number. System not disarmed’. Damn! I must have hit a wrong number. Try again.

Meanwhile Liz is saying ‘That’s the wrong number’. Helpful. I know. Press the keypad again. Definitely correct this time. ‘Beep beep beep beep. Incorrect number. System not disarmed.’

‘Darling, that’s the wrong number.’

‘Yes, yes, I know!’ I am beginning to sound like my own father as he got impatient with my mother.

Stabbing at the keys this time.

‘Beep beep beep beep. Incorrect number. System not disarmed.’

‘It’s not right!’

And now all hell breaks loose as the beeping stops and a piercing high pitched wail takes its place.

‘That’s the wrong number!!!!’

‘I put it in properly, and this is the text Nicky sent. It IS right, the system is broken.’

Grrrrrrrrrrrr. Grrrrrr. Grr. Gr. Oh.

Gradually the realisation dawns on me that the texted number was for the gate. The alarm number was the other number.

Liz recognises the fact that I have worked out the problem, but to her great credit does not say ‘I told you so.’ She even manages not to look smug. Well, not too smug.

‘I, um, I got the numbers mixed up.’

‘Yes’

I put the correct number in and amazingly the wailing alarm is silenced. At the same time I have a message from Nicky, who has been called by the security company and probably by the police as well.

At the scene of the crime we fully expect an armoured car to screech up, disgorging gun-toting officers yelling at us to ‘Spread ‘em!’

Fortunately for us nobody arrives, so we go in to the kitchen and have a cup of tea.

Actually there isn’t that much time until we have to go back into town and get ready for the show. Kyteler’s Inn is busy this evening and the various bar areas are noisy and lively.

The top bar/theatre is now laid out for our show, with seats in rows. Liz is going to man the ticket table at the door and runs through the pricing arrangements with Nicky. This may sound easy but it is made more complicated by the fact that we are offering a discount for anyone who comes to both of my events.

So, a ticket for tonight costs €15. A ticket for tomorrow’s show is €10. Some people have bought tickets for both at a cost of €20 and their ticket will be marked with a G and an S. If people who have only bought a ticket for tonight (just a G on the ticket) but decide that they would like to come tomorrow as well, then tomorrow’s ticket will only cost them €5 and Liz must add an S to the already purchased G. Some people have paid in advance but need to collect their tickets. Some people need to collect their tickets AND pay for their tickets.

Everything is ready with 30 minutes to go and the first customers arrive. Immediately Liz realises that the preparations were not quite completed. There are no tickets.

Nicky runs back to the main bar and comes back with the envelope containing all of the tickets.

The gentleman would like to know if there is a different price for senior citizens. Haven’t discussed it. Call Nicky again. No.

The gentleman would like to pay with a credit card. Liz looks at the box of cash. Nicky comes to the rescue once more and takes him to the bar and uses the card machine there.

I take the opportunity to go upstairs to the old flat, which is now a store room, in order to change surrounded by bottles of booze of all kinds.

As the 7.30 start time approaches I head back down to the room and wait with Liz at the back until we are all ready to start.

JD gets the signal from Nicky (these events are great family affairs) and makes his way up to the stage. I may be imagining it but I’m sure there is a gasp as people recognise him as JD from televison’s ‘The Shelbourne’. He makes a typically impressive introduction, the voiceover plays at the correct moment and I make my entrance from the rear of the room.

‘HOLD YOUR NOISE! KEEP STILL YOU LITTLE DEVIL, OR I’LL CUT YOUR THROAT!!!’ has the required effect and there are sharp intakes of breath as Magwitch makes his appearance from behind the audience.

The first act goes very well and the audience clap appreciatively at the interval. As they refill their glasses at the bar I go back to the flat/store room to cool off a bit, towel down and get a fresh shirt on for the second act.

Great Expectations is quite a dark, intense show but the beginning of the second act has one of the necessary comic moments as Wemmick takes Pip to meet his Aged Parent. It is a part of the show I love and the audience responds to it.
Pip’s adventures take him on. He learns who his benefactor is, he is spurned by Estella, tries to save Miss Havisham, is attacked by Orlick, loses Magwitch, becomes reunited with Joe, works for Herbert, returns to Satis House and walks away from the story, hand-in-hand with Estella once more.

I am exhausted but so pleased with the way the show has worked, and Nicky, standing at the back clapping, is delighted too. I think we have proved once more that the top bar at Kyteler’s Inn is a genuine theatre space and fully deserves to be included as a festival venue.

Many of the audience stay in the bar to chat and it is quite late before I am able to change. JD is there with Una, Nicky is chatting with everyone, Liz and I get a glass of wine and join the group.

Eventually people start to leave and we all go back to the house.

I don’t do the alarm

.
Nicky has brought platters of food from the kitchens at Kyteler’s and it is perfect post-show food: lots of things just to pick on such as cocktail-sausages, sandwiches and samosas. We all sit round the table once more, chatting and laughing.
Tomorrow I have another show and this time it is a new one and it is at lunchtime, so I really must have an early night.

Well after midnight, then, we say our goodnights.

Feast Or Famine

I used to know an actor who, whenever you asked him if he was busy, always answered the same way:  ‘You know this business: feast or famine, dear boy, feast or famine!’

In which case, to keep the analogy going, I have enjoyed a veritable banquet over the last week or so.

For the past four years I have been travelling to Kilkenny in Ireland to perform during the City’s Arts Week.  Not FOR Arts Week, but DURING Arts Week.  More of that later.

The connection with a town in the middle of Ireland may not be obvious until I declare a family interest.  My sister Nicky owns and runs Kyteler’s Inn right in the heart of the City.  The wonderful stone house was once the home of Dame Alice Kyteler, a notorious witch who worked her way through four husbands.  Eventually the relatives of each of the deceased spouses began to suspect something was up and accused Alice of witchcraft.  Alice fled, possibly to England, and left her poor maid to be tortured, flogged and eventually burned at the stake.

Kyteler’s is now is a bustling, lively, musical pub in the middle of a bustling, lively, musical city.  In a guidebook to Kilkenny I once read that it boasts ‘over 52 licensed premises’.  Over 52?  Why not ‘over 50’, or ‘54’ or whatever the official number may be.  I have a theory that the inspector passed out after 52, so just used the last legible notes in his book for the official guide.

Four years ago Nicky suggested that I came over to perform in Kyteler’s and the evening was hugely successful and I have been back each summer and one winter since.

This year we decided that it would be fun to add to the usual Friday evening show and perform a more intimate programme during Saturday afternoon, thereby lengthening my stay which is always a good thing

Liz was able to come with me, so the whole adventure, which would also encompass 2 days in Wales, became a mini holiday break for us both.  Over the next few days I will tell you the story, starting with:

 

Thursday: The Journey

The car is loaded as if we are going away for months rather than days but during the next week I will be performing Great Expectations, The Signalman, Mr Dickens is Coming and Doctor Marigold so props and costumes for all of those are in. I will be playing golf with my nephew so golf clubs have to be in, and we have packed clothes, shoes, coats, umbrellas and so forth.

At last, at 8am, we set off for Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesey.  The journey takes us north to Liverpool and then west along the north coast of Wales.  The drive is fairly easy and the weather is good so we arrive at the port of Holyhead in good time and join the queue of cars waiting to board the ferry.

Before leaving this morning we had made some sandwiches and now seems the perfect time to unwrap them and tuck in.  How middle aged.

Lunch finished and we are of the opinion that we are now ready to board.  Unfortunately the representatives of Stena Line do not share the same thoughts and meander around the dock in their Hi-Vis jackets.

We continue to sit in a line of cars.  Watch the line of cars on our left board the ship.  Watch the line of cars on our right board the ship.  Watch a line of lorries board the ship.  Watch some coaches board the ship.  Eventually and somewhat reluctantly our line is waved on board.

We make our way up from the car decks to the public decks and try to find somewhere comfortable to sit, as does everyone else.  We find some chairs but they seem to have springs instead of legs and wobble all over the place: great fun but not for 3 hours maybe.

We decide on a table near to a coffee bar and settle in for the long haul, getting out kindles and magazines.  All around us are noisy families with loud electronic toys and high decibel voices…we must be getting old, I think.

The ferry eases away from Wales and points itself towards Ireland.

As the journey chugs on we fill the time gradually.  We delay the excitement of a walk around the shop for as long as possible and enjoy it all the more for that.  We are able to savour the leprechaun bottle openers and the Guinness tea towels.  We can linger at the perfume counter and admire the high tech, budget headphones and colourful zany iphone covers.  All of this retail excitement takes up maybe ten minutes of the trip.

Sigh. Back to the table.

Aha!  There is an arcade, we can play car racing game against one another, except one side of the game isn’t working, so we have to take it in turns, which isn’t so exciting.  Another five minutes passed.

Now what?

Let’s go outside and have a bracing walk around the deck.  The good news is that this takes up much more of our time.  The bad news is that’s because there is one tiny, miniscule, petite square of deck accessible to the passengers and it is not shown on any notice anywhere, so we are walking from door to door, bulkhead to bulkhead until, almost accidentally we find the way out.

Actually the time in the open is lovely and we can see Ireland looming large which is exciting.

We return to our base camp with a greater sense of anticipation now.  An announcement comes over the ships tannoy.  It is the cheery voice of a children’s entertainer:  ‘Hey everyone!  Why not come to the main restaurant to see our great Kids Show! We’re putting on Oliver Twist!’  Would you believe it?

We decide not to avail ourselves of the opportunity but a little later, as we are walking back towards the staircase which will take us to the car deck, the children in the restaurant are singing ‘The Wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round.  The wheels on the bus go round and round all day long’.  Hmmmm, must re read Oliver Twist, I obviously don’t know it as well as I should.

Another announcement on the tannoy asks all car passengers NOT to block the staircases by trying to get to the car decks until the ship has berthed.  This is the cue for everyone to rush for the staircases.  Eventually the doors are opened and we all get into our cars. 

We watch the line of cars on our left leave the ship.  We watch the line of cars on our right leave the ship.  We watch a line of lorries leave the ship.  We watch some coaches leave the ship.  Eventually and somewhat reluctantly our line is waved away.

The cars, lorries and coaches wind in a long snake through the Dublin docks and at each mini roundabout or junction we lose a few more.  Unfortunately our SatNav (called Sean in honour of his Irish accent) chooses the moment we arrive at a major intersection to have a crisis and wavers between the city centre or the toll tunnel.  We take matters into our own hands and chose the wrong route.

The toll tunnel would have been the good choice, beneath the city and out to join the main motorway circling Dublin.  It would have been dull but fast.  As it is we have interesting, lovely, and very slow.

Our route takes us past the hugely impressive Landsdowne Road Stadium where Ireland play their home Rugby matches, and then follows the line of the Grand Canal.  We never knew Dublin had such a thing but it is a wonderful part of the city.  The tow path is well used by walkers, runners and cyclists and stunning Georgian architecture abounds, with the elegant doors and fan lights which are such a feature of Dublin.

There is a positively Mediterranean feel as pubs and coffee bars (OK, just pubs), spill out onto the pavement and in the low light of a Friday evening the chairs are filled with people enjoying the craic.

The traffic crawls on.

OK, that’s enough loveliness. We want to get a move on now.

The traffic crawls on.

Georgian elegance turns into Victorian functionality which turns into post-war drab, which turns into 70s industrial. Still there is no let up in the traffic.

The crawl continues until we finally meet the intersection with the M50 ring road, where ‘major improvement’ is going on.  All I can say is that there is a bit of work to do yet.

Finally released from the shackles of Dublin the journey is a real pleasure once more.  The scenery is soft and gentle, the sun is low and there is drama in the dark rain clouds in the distance.  The roads are empty now and we make great progress to Naas where, like the ship we travelled on, we make a slow turn to port and set off on a new heading taking us towards the medieval city of Kilkenny.

On this stretch of road Sean has another breakdown.  It’s obviously been a few years since he was home and the impressive dual carriageway doesn’t feature in his memory bank.  The screen tells us that we are rather unfortunately bounding across fields and, as far as Sean is concerned, have left tarmac far behind us.

Fortunately Sean’s lack of local knowledge is more than compensated for by my memories of previous journeys and even without his help we are soon turning into Nicky’s driveway and pulling up outside the door. There to welcome us is Nicky all hugs and smiles, her eldest son John David (JD) and his girlfriend Una.

We are bustled into the house while JD takes our bags from the car and puts them in our room:  Wow, this is 5-star service, most impressive.

The kitchen table is already laid and a bottle of chilled sparkling rosé is popped and poured. Ahhhhhh, lovely.  Home from home.

But before we can eat supper it seems that there is an important programme to watch on television so we all settle down on the huge L-shaped sofa to watch RTE’s ‘The Shelbourne’.

You may think that this is a strange way to welcome guests but there is a good reason.  JD has been working as the Guest Relations Manager at The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, which is an elegant 5-star establishment.  RTE, the Irish national broadcasting service, has made a fly-on-the-wall documentary about life at the hotel.  JD features strongly in every episode and we are all immensely proud of him.  He not only comes across as a consummate professional in the hotel industry but also as a natural on the small screen.

In this week’s episode he is helping a guest who is staging the most lavish marriage proposal you can imagine. The man has booked a suite which is to be filled with white roses.  There has to be a vase visible from every angle in the room.  The bed is strewn with white rose petals. Nothing is too much trouble for the staff and JD is there liaising with the guest, making sure the final touches are just so, until the moment when the lady arrives…….

Thankfully she said ‘Yes’.

As soon as the show is over JD and Una’s phones are alive with tweets and retweets about the show, including one from the proposer thanking JD again for a spectacular job well done.

Dinner tonight is a gorgeous spaghetti bolognaise and we all sit at the table chatting, laughing, eating and drinking until suddenly it is after midnight.  This always happens in Ireland.  The phrase ‘let’s just have a quiet, early night’ doesn’t seem to exist.

Liz and I say our goodnights, another hug with Nicky and up we go to bed where after a long day, we quickly fall asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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