I wake up later than usual, at about 7 and try to get out of bed. I can hardly move, I am SO stiff. Those two little shows yesterday were more energetic than I thought. I cajole my limbs into doing what they are supposed to do and get myself to the shower.
I have a little time this morning, so check my iphone notes and start to write my latest blog. After finishing, checking, correcting, adding pictures and checking again, I post it and then go to breakfast which, being a Hampton Inn, is the usual fare but it is very welcome nonetheless.
In my room I pack up ready for another drive and then wait until 9.00 for a telephone interview to promote my final event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Saturday. I spend about 20 minutes chatting to the journalist and it is fun. She asks good questions and responds to my answers, letting the conversation take its own course, which is not always the case with interviewers.
When we are finished I take my bags to the Jeep, load up and get on the road heading further South. I’m glad that I’m heading away from DC, as the traffic on the opposite carriageway is very heavy indeed. I am alerted by a little ‘ping’ that my fuel is getting low and I pull of the highway at Fredericksburg to fill up. I find the slowest fuel pump in the World and after standing in the cold for about 10 minutes, only 3 gallons have dribbled in. I give up at that and move on.
Back on the road, heading towards Richmond and it is noticeable that all traces of snow and Ice have disappeared and that the sky is blue. I make a mental note of where the airport is as I will be coming back here tomorrow morning for my first flight since I arrived on November 26.
Skirting the city of Richmond I think of Charles Dickens and his visit here in 1842, when he came to specifically to see the issue of slavery at first hand. The relevant passages in American Notes are harrowing and disturbing which is exactly as he meant them to be.
The fuel gauge has worked its way round to empty again and I find another gas station, this time one which dispenses fuel at a respectable rate. I only put in a further 4 gallons as I want to return the car empty tomorrow.
Now I am reaching the outskirts of Williamsburg and there are signs for lodging: Quality Inns and Suites, Hampton Inn, Comfort Inn, all of which I have stayed at during my trip in other cities but not here. Oh, no. My accommodation in Williamsburg is the gracious, splendid, stately and elegant Williamsburg Inn, where the Queen stayed during her visits to the town.
I pull up in the parking lot and look admiringly at the wonderful building but don’t go straight in. Sadly I have very little time here and want to catch a little bit of the Williamsburg atmosphere so walk across the street into the 18th Century.
Colonial Williamsburg is an amazing reconstruction of the capitol of the Colony of Virginia in the years before the Revolutionary War. This is no Disneyfied theme park, this is a faithful reconstruction. The buildings are original and were brought back to life by Rockefeller in the early years of the 20th century. On the main street costumed characters go about their everyday life. Oxon are driven along the street as are horse drawn carriages. Everything happens at a slow and sedate pace. It is the modern tourists who look out of place, not the residents of Duke of Gloucester Street.
For the past 2 years Liz has joined me at the end of my trip and Williamsburg has been one of our favourite places to be together. I make my way to her favourite site on the street, a little garden stall, where vegetables are grown in a well ordered plot. I take a few pictures and then make my way back to the Inn.
I am greeted warmly by the staff, most of whom have been here ever since I’ve been touring, which is always the hallmark of a good hotel. Lesley behind desk busies herself with the check in and asks if Liz is with me this year and is genuinely disappointed that she is not. Lesley finishes the check in and gives the key card to room 3269. This sounds innocuous enough but it is the suite in which the Queen stayed during her last visit here in 2007. I cannot believe it!
The suite is stunning. Entering from the corridor you find yourself in a little private hallway from where you continue into a lavishly appointed drawing room, where one can receive ones guests. The bedroom is huge, as is the bathroom. As with all of the rooms here it is filled with antique furniture and prints.
I still can’t believe it. There is the desk where the Queen sat to do her correspondence, here is a sofa on which she took tea and chatted. There is the bed in which she slept, the bath where she bathed, the basin where she brushed her teeth, the lavatory where……no, I think it may be treasonable to have such thoughts.
I don’t have much time to enjoy the surroundings as I have a sound check and meeting in the Regency Room. Waiting for me there is Michelle DeRosa who is looking after my events today. We chat for a while until my very dear and great friend, Ryan Fletcher, arrives.
Ryan is an opera singer who teaches at the nearby William and Mary College. He has also portrayed one of the characters on the Duke of Gloucester Street and has been engaged by Williamsburg to introduce my shows since 1998. We have a big hug (I mean a big hug, as Ryan towers above me) and catch up a little on the year past.
There is still a little time before the show, so I go back to the room and immerse myself in the deep bath and have a cold blast in the shower to energise myself a little.
Something is in the back of my mind and I get online to check my theory. Yes, I am right, today, 17th December, is the exact anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol. I should be able to use that in my opening remarks at tea.
I go back to the Regency Room which is now filling up. It looks as if the room is going to be packed. I perform on the floor here, there is no stage, but I have the whole dance floor to use. In previous years I have also been able to work the room, but there are so many tables laid that it is going to be difficult to find a route among them today.
The seating process is overseen by Leroy, the master of the dining room. Short, but with a military ramrod straight back, he welcomes every guest with true southern hospitality and then hands them over to one of the waiters who lead them to the relevant table. It is a well drilled and effective system.
Once everyone is seated the waiters make their efficient way around the room serving plates filled with sandwiches and cakes, all looking delicious. Tea is poured from silver pots and the room is full of chatter and laughter.
Ryan and I get ‘the nod’ from the banquet Captain and we begin. Ryan makes a generous and warm introduction and I take my place in the centre of the room.
I mention that today is the 170th anniversary of the first publication and A Christmas Carol gets a warm round of applause, which it fully deserves. That puts an idea in my mind, and I continue:
‘It is a tradition, in literary circles, that whenever a book celebrates its 170th anniversary, any performance or rendition of that book be greeted with a standing ovation.’ Shameless!
The show goes well, although the sweat is streaming off me and stinging my eyes very early on in the piece. I do manage to make my way through the tables and find suitable candidates to be my stooges: The Ghost of Christmas Past, Fezziwig, Young Scrooge with his fiancée Belle, and Topper’s victim who gets flirted with at the nephew’s Christmas party. All play their parts well. Over half of the audience have been to the event before and many are mouthing along with the words.
At the conclusion the audience respect the 170th anniversary tradition and after taking my bows we all move out into the hotel lobby for the signing session. As my room is at the top of a short flight of stairs I am able to run up, towel down, change into my dry costume and be back at the desk again in short order.
The signing runs for quite a long time and one party of guests give me a bag filled with gifts. People have been so generous to me this year.
When the last books are signed and the last pictures posed for, I go back to my room and relax for an hour or so before the dinner show. I have another bath and another shower and lay on the bed in a Williamsburg bathrobe, watching television until the phone rings at 6.15. It is another good friend from my times here in Williamsburg: Christine and her husband Erich. Christine used to work at the Inn and looked after my events for many years during which time we became good friends.
I get into costume and meet them in the bar, where they sip cocktails and I don’t. Not having had any lunch today, a glass of anything now would be very bad news indeed. We all catch up with each other’s news. Our conversation is punctuated by lots of waves, handshakes and ‘hellos’ from other arriving audience members.
As the clock approaches 7, I make my way into the dining room and get fitted up with my microphone again. Ryan arrives, with his wife Jean and our other table guests join us, a family with whom we dined last year. Greetings are exchanged and hands shaken. I am sitting next to Bill, who is an actor in Williamsburg. Actually he is quite a celebrity hereabouts as he portrays Thomas Jefferson in many different settings. It is nice to chat with a fellow ‘one man’ actor.
In the past I have performed A Christmas Carol between the courses of a dinner but I am trying to get away from that format as far as possible. It is much easier for me to do the whole show straight through and it is better for the Chefs to be able to produce a dinner without the service being interrupted by gaps for the performance.
Ryan makes a brief announcement to explain how the evening will work and there is a sense of disappointment in the room that the familiar format will not be followed. I will have to do a good job to convince the guests that this is a better way to run the evening.
I repeat the 170th anniversary tradition line, which gets a laugh and on then ask the room to bow their heads and join me in the Dickens Family Grace, which is a nod to the old traditions of this event.
‘In fellowship assembled here
We thank thee Lord for food and cheer
And through our saviour, they dear son,
We pray ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’
Our food arrives, as does the wine: white with the soup, red with the beef. The waiter even brings me my own glass of Smoking Bishop; I have no idea why, as I do not feature it in the show, but it looks lovely. I have a sip and the taste matches the look.
However, with a performance to do I can’t drink any of the wine and the three glasses remain untouched which is most frustrating. I don’t really eat much either. Bill says that he is amazed I can sit at the table at all, he would be backstage pacing and fretting.
Desserts are served and coffee poured and when the last of the waiters slips out of the room it is time to go. Ryan makes another introductory speech and I take to the floor.
The evening show is a repeat of this afternoon’s. Many audience members have been before and are joining in with the words: one table very audibly. Everyone joins in again where necessary and I’m able to give a more complete performance than the very fragmented and shortened version that I do when it is split. Even with the longer show we are all finished by 9.40. On one occasion in the past we were still in the dining room at 11.00pm.
I know that not everyone will have liked the changes, after all Williamsburg is all about tradition, but it is a much more effective way to perform.
The signing line is once again busy and fun. The reaction seems positive and there is lots of merriment. A glass of wine appears on my table but I don’t get to touch it until I have finished with the signatures and the photographs.
After the last of the guests have gone I go into the bar where I meet a husband and wife who had been at our table (I am so bad at names, and apologise to you if you are reading this: it is very rude of me). They are excellent company and we chat about the show, about wine, about cruise ships and about Harry Potter World at Universal Studios.
Christine and Erich are also in the bar and I move to sit with them to have a brief chat before they go home. Leroy joins us and the brief chat becomes a long reminiscence of years gone by. He is a wise and sensitive man and his words about the current state of the hospitality industry are fascinating to listen to.
It is after midnight by the time we leave. I say goodbye to Leroy, Erich and Christine and make my regal way up the stairs, through my little hallway, across my spacious drawing room, into my commodious bedroom, via the extensive bathroom, and to sleep.