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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.