The Election For Beadle

As the UK prepares to vote in the one of the closest elections in living memory, I thought that you might like to see how little has changed.

The Election For Beadle was one of The Sketches by Boz, the first published works of Charles Dickens:

A great event has recently occurred in our parish. A contest of paramount interest has just terminated; a parochial convulsion has taken place. It has been succeeded by a glorious triumph, which the country — or at least the parish — it is all the same — will long remember. We have had an election; an election for beadle. The supporters of the old beadle system have been defeated in their stronghold, and the advocates of the great new beadle principles have achieved a proud victory.

Our parish, which, like all other parishes, is a little world of its own, has long been divided into two parties, whose contentions, slumbering for a while, have never failed to burst forth with unabated vigour, on any occasion on which they could by possibility be renewed. Watching-rates, lighting-rates, paving-rates, sewer’s-rates, church-rates, poor’s-rates — all sorts of rates, have been in their turns the subjects of a grand struggle; and as to questions of patronage, the asperity and determination with which they have been contested is scarcely credible.

The leader of the official party — the steady advocate of the churchwardens, and the unflinching supporter of the overseers — is an old gentleman who lives in our row. He owns some half a dozen houses in it, and always walks on the opposite side of the way, so that he may be able to take in a view of the whole of his property at once. He is a tall, thin, bony man, with an interrogative nose, and little restless perking eyes, which appear to have been given him for the sole purpose of peeping into other people’s affairs with. He is deeply impressed with the importance of our parish business, and prides himself, not a little, on his style of addressing the parishioners in vestry assembled. His views are rather confined than extensive; his principles more narrow than liberal. He has been heard to declaim very loudly in favour of the liberty of the press, and advocates the repeal of the stamp duty on newspapers, because the daily journals who now have a monopoly of the public, never give VERBATIM reports of vestry meetings. He would not appear egotistical for the world, but at the same time he must say, that there are SPEECHES— that celebrated speech of his own, on the emoluments of the sexton, and the duties of the office, for instance — which might be communicated to the public, greatly to their improvement and advantage.

His great opponent in public life is Captain Purday, the old naval officer on half-pay, to whom we have already introduced our readers. The captain being a determined opponent of the constituted authorities, whoever they may chance to be, and our other friend being their steady supporter, with an equal disregard of their individual merits, it will readily be supposed, that occasions for their coming into direct collision are neither few nor far between. They divided the vestry fourteen times on a motion for heating the church with warm water instead of coals: and made speeches about liberty and expenditure, and prodigality and hot water, which threw the whole parish into a state of excitement. Then the captain, when he was on the visiting committee, and his opponent overseer, brought forward certain distinct and specific charges relative to the management of the workhouse, boldly expressed his total want of confidence in the existing authorities, and moved for ‘a copy of the recipe by which the paupers’ soup was prepared, together with any documents relating thereto.’ This the overseer steadily resisted; he fortified himself by precedent, appealed to the established usage, and declined to produce the papers, on the ground of the injury that would be done to the public service, if documents of a strictly private nature, passing between the master of the workhouse and the cook, were to be thus dragged to light on the motion of any individual member of the vestry. The motion was lost by a majority of two; and then the captain, who never allows himself to be defeated, moved for a committee of inquiry into the whole subject. The affair grew serious: the question was discussed at meeting after meeting, and vestry after vestry; speeches were made, attacks repudiated, personal defiances exchanged, explanations received, and the greatest excitement prevailed, until at last, just as the question was going to be finally decided, the vestry found that somehow or other, they had become entangled in a point of form, from which it was impossible to escape with propriety. So, the motion was dropped, and everybody looked extremely important, and seemed quite satisfied with the meritorious nature of the whole proceeding.

This was the state of affairs in our parish a week or two since, when Simmons, the beadle, suddenly died. The lamented deceased had over-exerted himself, a day or two previously, in conveying an aged female, highly intoxicated, to the strong room of the work-house. The excitement thus occasioned, added to a severe cold, which this indefatigable officer had caught in his capacity of director of the parish engine, by inadvertently playing over himself instead of a fire, proved too much for a constitution already enfeebled by age; and the intelligence was conveyed to the Board one evening that Simmons had died, and left his respects.

The breath was scarcely out of the body of the deceased functionary, when the field was filled with competitors for the vacant office, each of whom rested his claims to public support, entirely on the number and extent of his family, as if the office of beadle were originally instituted as an encouragement for the propagation of the human species. ‘Bung for Beadle. Five small children!’ — ‘Hopkins for Beadle. Seven small children!!’ — ‘Timkins for Beadle. Nine small children!!!’ Such were the placards in large black letters on a white ground, which were plentifully pasted on the walls, and posted in the windows of the principal shops. Timkins’s success was considered certain: several mothers of families half promised their votes, and the nine small children would have run over the course, but for the production of another placard, announcing the appearance of a still more meritorious candidate. ‘Spruggins for Beadle. Ten small children (two of them twins), and a wife!!!’ There was no resisting this; ten small children would have been almost irresistible in themselves, without the twins, but the touching parenthesis about that interesting production of nature, and the still more touching allusion to Mrs. Spruggins, must ensure success. Spruggins was the favourite at once, and the appearance of his lady, as she went about to solicit votes (which encouraged confident hopes of a still further addition to the house of Spruggins at no remote period), increased the general prepossession in his favour. The other candidates, Bung alone excepted, resigned in despair. The day of election was fixed; and the canvass proceeded with briskness and perseverance on both sides.

The members of the vestry could not be supposed to escape the contagious excitement inseparable from the occasion. The majority of the lady inhabitants of the parish declared at once for Spruggins; and the QUONDAM overseer took the same side, on the ground that men with large families always had been elected to the office, and that although he must admit, that, in other respects, Spruggins was the least qualified candidate of the two, still it was an old practice, and he saw no reason why an old practice should be departed from. This was enough for the captain. He immediately sided with Bung, canvassed for him personally in all directions, wrote squibs on Spruggins, and got his butcher to skewer them up on conspicuous joints in his shop-front; frightened his neighbour, the old lady, into a palpitation of the heart, by his awful denunciations of Spruggins’s party; and bounced in and out, and up and down, and backwards and forwards, until all the sober inhabitants of the parish thought it inevitable that he must die of a brain fever, long before the election began.

The day of election arrived. It was no longer an individual struggle, but a party contest between the ins and outs. The question was, whether the withering influence of the overseers, the domination of the churchwardens, and the blighting despotism of the vestry-clerk, should be allowed to render the election of beadle a form — a nullity: whether they should impose a vestry-elected beadle on the parish, to do their bidding and forward their views, or whether the parishioners, fearlessly asserting their undoubted rights, should elect an independent beadle of their own.

The nomination was fixed to take place in the vestry, but so great was the throng of anxious spectators, that it was found necessary to adjourn to the church, where the ceremony commenced with due solemnity. The appearance of the churchwardens and overseers, and the ex-churchwardens and ex-overseers, with Spruggins in the rear, excited general attention. Spruggins was a little thin man, in rusty black, with a long pale face, and a countenance expressive of care and fatigue, which might either be attributed to the extent of his family or the anxiety of his feelings. His opponent appeared in a cast-off coat of the captain’s — a blue coat with bright buttons; white trousers, and that description of shoes familiarly known by the appellation of ‘high-lows.’ There was a serenity in the open countenance of Bung — a kind of moral dignity in his confident air — an ‘I wish you may get it’ sort of expression in his eye — which infused animation into his supporters, and evidently dispirited his opponents.

The ex-churchwarden rose to propose Thomas Spruggins for beadle. He had known him long. He had had his eye upon him closely for years; he had watched him with twofold vigilance for months. (A parishioner here suggested that this might be termed ‘taking a double sight,’ but the observation was drowned in loud cries of ‘Order!’) He would repeat that he had had his eye upon him for years, and this he would say, that a more well-conducted, a more well-behaved, a more sober, a more quiet man, with a more well-regulated mind, he had never met with. A man with a larger family he had never known (cheers). The parish required a man who could be depended on (‘Hear!’ from the Spruggins side, answered by ironical cheers from the Bung party). Such a man he now proposed (‘No,’ ‘Yes’). He would not allude to individuals (the ex-churchwarden continued, in the celebrated negative style adopted by great speakers). He would not advert to a gentleman who had once held a high rank in the service of his majesty; he would not say, that that gentleman was no gentleman; he would not assert, that that man was no man; he would not say, that he was a turbulent parishioner; he would not say, that he had grossly misbehaved himself, not only on this, but on all former occasions; he would not say, that he was one of those discontented and treasonable spirits, who carried confusion and disorder wherever they went; he would not say, that he harboured in his heart envy, and hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness. No! He wished to have everything comfortable and pleasant, and therefore, he would say — nothing about him (cheers).

The captain replied in a similar parliamentary style. He would not say, he was astonished at the speech they had just heard; he would not say, he was disgusted (cheers). He would not retort the epithets which had been hurled against him (renewed cheering); he would not allude to men once in office, but now happily out of it, who had mismanaged the workhouse, ground the paupers, diluted the beer, slack-baked the bread, boned the meat, heightened the work, and lowered the soup (tremendous cheers). He would not ask what such men deserved (a voice, ‘Nothing a-day, and find themselves!’). He would not say, that one burst of general indignation should drive them from the parish they polluted with their presence (‘Give it him!’). He would not allude to the unfortunate man who had been proposed — he would not say, as the vestry’s tool, but as Beadle. He would not advert to that individual’s family; he would not say, that nine children, twins, and a wife, were very bad examples for pauper imitation (loud cheers). He would not advert in detail to the qualifications of Bung. The man stood before him, and he would not say in his presence, what he might be disposed to say of him, if he were absent. (Here Mr. Bung telegraphed to a friend near him, under cover of his hat, by contracting his left eye, and applying his right thumb to the tip of his nose). It had been objected to Bung that he had only five children (‘Hear, hear!’ from the opposition). Well; he had yet to learn that the legislature had affixed any precise amount of infantine qualification to the office of beadle; but taking it for granted that an extensive family were a great requisite, he entreated them to look to facts, and compare DATA, about which there could be no mistake. Bung was 35 years of age. Spruggins — of whom he wished to speak with all possible respect — was 50. Was it not more than possible — was it not very probable — that by the time Bung attained the latter age, he might see around him a family, even exceeding in number and extent, that to which Spruggins at present laid claim (deafening cheers and waving of handkerchiefs)? The captain concluded, amidst loud applause, by calling upon the parishioners to sound the tocsin, rush to the poll, free themselves from dictation, or be slaves for ever.

On the following day the polling began, and we never have had such a bustle in our parish since we got up our famous anti-slavery petition, which was such an important one, that the House of Commons ordered it to be printed, on the motion of the member for the district. The captain engaged two hackney-coaches and a cab for Bung’s people — the cab for the drunken voters, and the two coaches for the old ladies, the greater portion of whom, owing to the captain’s impetuosity, were driven up to the poll and home again, before they recovered from their flurry sufficiently to know, with any degree of clearness, what they had been doing. The opposite party wholly neglected these precautions, and the consequence was, that a great many ladies who were walking leisurely up to the church — for it was a very hot day — to vote for Spruggins, were artfully decoyed into the coaches, and voted for Bung. The captain’s arguments, too, had produced considerable effect: the attempted influence of the vestry produced a greater. A threat of exclusive dealing was clearly established against the vestry-clerk — a case of heartless and profligate atrocity. It appeared that the delinquent had been in the habit of purchasing six penn’orth of muffins, weekly, from an old woman who rents a small house in the parish, and resides among the original settlers; on her last weekly visit, a message was conveyed to her through the medium of the cook, couched in mysterious terms, but indicating with sufficient clearness, that the vestry-clerk’s appetite for muffins, in future, depended entirely on her vote on the beadleship. This was sufficient: the stream had been turning previously, and the impulse thus administered directed its final course. The Bung party ordered one shilling’s-worth of muffins weekly for the remainder of the old woman’s natural life; the parishioners were loud in their exclamations; and the fate of Spruggins was sealed.

It was in vain that the twins were exhibited in dresses of the same pattern, and night-caps, to match, at the church door: the boy in Mrs. Spruggins’s right arm, and the girl in her left — even Mrs. Spruggins herself failed to be an object of sympathy any longer. The majority attained by Bung on the gross poll was four hundred and twenty-eight, and the cause of the parishioners triumphed.

Memories of Tunbridge Wells

This post has nothing to do with the theatre; it has nothing to nothing to do with Charles Dickens; it has nothing to with my recent performances of ‘To Begin With’ in America.   I have written this post thanks to all of those things.

A remarkable coincidence, which originated in the sub-zero temperatures of Minneapolis, has transported me back to my childhood and brought to the surface a tsunami of memories.

Let me explain:

Jeffrey Hatcher, the writer and director of ‘To Begin With’ shares with me a passion for the works of Ian Fleming and had read a book entitled: ‘The Man Who Saved Britain.  A Personal Journey In To The Disturbing World of James Bond, by Simon Winder’.

I have read a great many books about Ian Fleming and James Bond, but this particular tome had passed me by.  I assumed it must be by an American author and was pleased when Jeff said that he would lend me his copy.

Unfortunately Jeff’s volume proved elusive (he subsequently remembered that he had previously lent it to another Brit, who had failed to return it), but he promised to order a copy online and send it on to me.

The book duly arrived and I eagerly opened it and almost fell off my chair when I read the title of Winder’s introduction: ‘Eating Old Jamaican at the Tunbridge Wells Odeon’.  In his preface Simon explains how, as a ten year old, he was terrified in the Tunbridge Wells cinema watching the voodoo rituals in Live and Let Die, and ultimately realising that there was a glamorous, dangerous, faced-paced, sexy world outside the boundaries of Royal Tunbridge Wells: the world of James Bond

The reason that these few paragraphs had such an influence on me was that I too was ten when ‘Live and Let Die’ was released.  I too had been terrified by the voodoo rituals.  I too had watched the film at the cinema in Tunbridge Wells (I must take issue with Mr Winder’s memory as the cinema was The Classic, or maybe even the Essoldo at that time:  The Odeon came much later as an out of town multiplex).

I couldn’t believe my eyes as Simon went onto describe that his previous cinema outing had been to sit through the Royal Ballet’s film version of ‘The Tales of Beatrix Potter’ – mine too!  I began to wonder if I had written a book about James Bond and forgotten all about it, for here was my own childhood laid out on the page before me.

My reaction to this little quirk of fate was amazing, it was as if I peering through a tiny crack in time. The more I looked, the wider the crack became, until remembered images of my life in Royal Tunbridge Wells poured through it and flooded my mind.

The purpose of this post is to share some of those memories.  It is not intended to be a history of my childhood, but a walk around the town in which I (and Simon Winder, apparently) grew up.

As this story started there, let’s begin with the cinema:

The Essoldo/Classic/Cannon

The Cinema

The Cinema

The cinema stood at the top of Mount Pleasant, on the corner with Church Road.  It was a strange nondescript, rather modern looking building, built on an angle.  It faced the huge red bricked building that housed the town’s library, town hall, police station and theatre.

To enter the cinema you walked up a few steps to one of a number of doors.  As it was on the edge of a large hill the number of steps increased the further to the left you went.  There were about six on the far left and only one at the right.

The foyer was spacious and had a rather sticky carpet, as though pop corn and sweets had been trodden in to it for so long that a new surface had been created.   The ticket office ran along the left hand side of the foyer, with a small counter selling drinks and snacks to the right.  There was a small confectionary shop next door, and it was much cheaper to buy your sweets there, before you saw the film.

When I was growing up there were two screening theatres, which was very grand.   Screen One was huge, and this is where the big films (presumably Live and Let Die among them), were shown.  Screen Two was a less imposing and more intimate space and was always my favourite.

In later years an upstairs room, which had used to be a small restaurant, was converted into a third screen, and was tiny.  In fact Screen Three was so small that there was no room for a traditional projection room at the back – the projector was housed in the roof, and the image reached the screen via a series of mirrors.

The cinema was built over the railway tunnel, through which the commuter trains to and from London passed, and at regular intervals you could feel the building vibrate.  You can pay good money these days to have the same effect in an Imax theatre.

Other than the aforementioned Bond and Beatrix Potter films, I distinctly remember seeing Pinocchio there, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Of course there were plenty of other visits as I grew up, but those stay in my mind.

Shopping

These days there is a large shopping mall in the middle of Tunbridge Wells, but back in the sixties and seventies the town was made up of lots of independent shops catering for the needs of a staunchly traditional and Conservative clientele.

On the corner of Calverley Road and Mount Pleasant, stood Cheeseman’s, a wonderful department store arranged over three floors.  It seemed huge to me, but I’m sure that it wasn’t.

There were floors given over to clothes, and to hardware and to electrical goods, and to toys and to sporting equipment.  As the shop was in an old building there would never be obvious ways of getting around: there was a staircase tucked in one corner, and a rickety old lift, with those folding metal gates, somewhere else.

In Cheeseman’s every Christmas there would be a Santa’s grotto, and I would wait patiently and excitedly in a queue, until I was ushered into the presence of Father Christmas himself, who gently handed me  a small wrapped gift from his sack and asked: ‘what would you like for Christmas?’ My mother would be standing nearby straining her ears for any clues.

There was another department store at the other end of the town, opposite the main rail station, and that was much grander:  Weekes.  Your position in society was very obvious if you shopped at Weekes – the clothes were more expensive and more fashionable (what era they were fashionable in is open to question: probably at the height of The British Empire).  In contrast to the slightly down-at heel- Cheeseman’s, Weekes actually had an escalator running through the centre of the main floors.  The only other place I had ever seen an escalator was in London, so to actually have one in our own town was very exciting.

Weekes stood on a junction of four roads, one of which was the High Street.  The name ‘High Street’ suggests a bustling town centre, but that was not the case in Tunbridge Wells.

In the 1600s a small settlement had grown up around a natural spring, rich in iron, and the respectable folk had flocked from London to take the waters.  Naturally, entrepreneurial types began to cash in on the influx of wealthy visitors.  They set up stalls and lodging houses, and so the beginnings of the town grew.

Fashions change, however, and the nobility decided that sea bathing was better for them: Brighton became the new fashionable place in which to be seen.  Tunbridge Wells was left to fade and crumble, leaving a few shops straggling away from the site of the Spring.  This neglected road had been the High Street.

Tunbridge Wells needed reinventing if it was to survive, and the young architect Decimus Burton, started work on his ‘Calverley Project’ which utilised land at the top of a steep hill, distant from the formally respectable area where Royalty had once gathered.

The new society lived, and shopped at ‘the top of the town’, while the Pantiles (the covered promenade around the spring), became an interesting tourist attraction.   The old High Street was neither one thing nor another, just a road linking the two ends of the town.

But, there was one shop in the High Street that we as a family knew well, because it was owned by our neighbour, Mr Goulden:  The shop was called Goulden and Curry.

Goulden and Curry was a stationery shop, and at ground level there were lovely glass topped counters, with dark wood cabinets, containing pens and nibs, pencils and sharpeners, rubbers and rulers and tin boxes containing protractors, set squares and compasses.  You could buy a slide rule there too: the range varied from very basic to eye-wateringly advanced.  I never understood slide rules, but Goulden and Curry specialised in them.

Walk up the stairs and you were in the book department, which spread through a number of small rooms, each connected by two or three steps here and there, up or down.

There was also a small record department, which had racks of classical music LPs.  Why was there a classical music department in a stationery store?  Simple: John Goulden loved his music, so why not?

The old Goulden and Curry shop is now a Cath Kidston store, but the staircase and upstairs rooms are little changed, if slightly more floral.

I have memories of a few other shops, but I don’t recall their names, sadly.  There was a fabulous delicatessen on top of the hill, at Mount Ephraim, where my mother used to shop.  Ham and bacon were sliced by a huge spinning circular blade, to the precise thickness that she required.  As mum made her way round the shop each order, be it for meat or cheese, was recorded on a paper ticket which was then attached to an overhead string.  A system of pulleys pulled all of the tickets to a cashier at the front of the shop.

When the shopping was done all of the little tickets were added together and presumably put on account for the male of the species to settle at the end of the month.

Close to the delicatessen was a yacht chandler.  I have no idea why Royal Tunbridge Wells, which is a good hour or so from the coast, needed a chandler but there it was.  The entrance to the shop was at street level and there were counters that sold rope and cleats and pulleys and buoys and flags and anything else that the land-locked sailor could in reason want.  But, explore further back and you were in for a surprise:  The floor dropped away and there were yachts – real yachts – sitting on the ground below, the tops of their masts at eye level.   It was here that Dad bought the fireworks for our traditional display in the back garden on November 5th.

One of my strongest memories of Tunbridge Wells is an olfactory one.  Walking along Monson Road, in the centre of town, you would pass a coffee shop, and in the window there was a machine constantly roasting and grinding coffee beans:  oh, what a wonderful smell that was!

Swimming

Also in Monson Road, nearly opposite the coffee shop, were the swimming baths.  Every Saturday morning, before breakfast, dad would take us with rolled up towels, to the Monson Baths, which were housed in a splendid Victorian building.

The Monson Swimming Baths (L)

The Monson Swimming Baths (L)

The changing cubicles were along each side of the pool and the whole building was tiled, meaning that the screams and shouts from all of the swimmers echoed loudly.   There was always a plaster from someone’s grazed knee, floating in the chlorine filled water.  I seem to remember that the roof was glass, so that there was natural light, but I may be wrong in that.

There was a diving board at one end and I remember standing on it one Saturday morning, desperate to dive, but so scared too. I shivered with cold and fear.   Dad was in the pool getting more and more impatient with me, as were the many bathers who queued up waiting to execute a perfect swallow dive.

Eventually it was time for us to leave and it was now or never – so I dived.  I imagine I landed flat on my stomach, driving the wind out of me and sending up a huge splash.  My shout of pain must have sounded impressive as it echoed from the tiles:  It was a good lesson in conquering fear.

In those days you didn’t just swim for as long as you liked, there was a strict time limit and after the allotted time (half an hour, forty five minutes, maybe?) an announcement was made and everybody with red wrist bands had to get out, and the next group, wearing green, were allowed in.

After the great dive, I was allowed to buy a chocolate bar – a Mars Bar I think, as a reward for my extreme bravery.   I had to pay for it in ‘new money’ – 2 ½ pence (equivalent to 6d).  It was my first lesson in decimalisation, thus dating the momentous day to 1970, when I was six years old.

The town boasted another swimming pool, the Woodsgate Open Air Pool in Pembury.  Woodsgate had a curling slide which launched you into the water, which was so exciting.  A visit to Woodsgate was rare and the pool was demolished and the ground built on when I was still young.

Open Spaces

Tunbridge Wells boasted then, and still does, an expanse of wonderful common land on which children could play.  The Common was laid out for the Victorian gentry to stroll, and there were many wide avenues criss-crossing it.  There were areas of woodland, and areas of open space, including two ‘cricket pitches’.  One was an actual cricket pitch: The Upper Cricket Ground, where the Linden Park Cricket Club played, whilst the other, was just a large grass expanse called The Lower Cricket Ground.

The Lower Cricket Ground was hardly ever used for anything, but one year there was a huge funfair there, and a festival featuring the massed bands of the Royal Marines.  I assume the country was celebrating something or other, but I don’t remember what: my main memory is of the perfectly white helmets of the band, in perfectly straight rows.

Next to the Upper Cricket Ground were The Wellington Rocks, an outcrop of sandstone that was perfect for climbing on.  The soft rock had been worn away by generations of feet, and there were hand and foot holes which meant that would-be Sir Edmund Hillary’s could climb to the highest point with ease (although a six-year old who had been paralysed by fear on the Monson diving board would rather have left the business of climbing to the older children.)

In between the rocks were wonderful crevices, through which only a child could squeeze, making it perfect hide-and-seek terrain.

Many a Sunday afternoon was spent on the rocks, as the adults sat on rugs and enjoyed a picnic, safe in the knowledge that their children were having great adventures just a few yards away.

The Wellington Rocks

The Wellington Rocks

I could go on and on.  Even as I have been writing, more and more of my childhood has come flooding back to me, but I think that’s enough to be going on with.  I hope that by reading this some of your own memories might have surfaced.

Life changes at a rapid pace: The Classic Cinema has lain empty and crumbling for many years. Cheeseman’s was bulldozed when the shopping mall was built. It has been replaced by a series of modern, bland, shops that can be found in any shopping centre in any town in England.

Weekes changed into Hoopers, but is still in the same building, and the escalator is still there.  The fashions are still indeterminate.

The Monson Baths are gone, and there is a single-story outdoor pursuits shop in its place, whilst the aroma of roasting coffee beans no longer wafts along Monson Road.

But in Tunbridge Wells in 2015 there are still children of six, and they will have their own memories of home, and hopefully will look back on these years with as much fondness I have done today.

The End of the Beginning of To Begin With

Monday 9 March, 2015.  I am sitting in my apartment, with my suitcase almost packed.  I am looking out over the roofs of Minneapolis.  I am reflecting on a most remarkable month.

Yesterday the final performance in this run of ‘To Begin With’ took place ending a period of my life that I shall never forget.

I have already detailed the build up to the opening weekend of the play in previous posts, but let me try and give you some idea how life has been during the three weeks since then:

Minneapolis

My apartment block is located on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, which has a modern, exciting skyline.  The tall buildings are crowded together: a forest of steel and glass.  There are wonderful reflections which the architects must have considered carefully as they designed these wonders.

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On many occasions I have walked through the city, and the towering buildings give the impression of being in New York or Chicago, but without the people.  During my time here the temperature has rarely risen to anywhere near freezing, and most people use the skyways to get about: a network of walkways linking all of the major buildings.  The result being that at ground level the streets are deserted as if I were in the set of a cataclysmic disaster movie.

There are unexpected advantages to the freezing conditions:  As in any large city people go out and celebrate of an evening.  Some of these people may have over-imbibed and a portion of those may feel unwell and yet are not able to find sanctuary; they end up leaning on a building and regurgitating their evening’s intake.

Another scenario familiar to all city dwellers: dog walkers who are not vigilant in keeping the streets clear of mess.

In Oxford, or London the result of the aforementioned scenarios can be, at best, a terrible mess on the sole of a shoe, or at worst a slip and fall.

In Minneapolis in March there is none of that; for everything is frozen solid!

The city is laid out on a grid system and once you get your bearings, it is easy to navigate round.  The drivers are courteous and patient, quite happy to hesitate at a junction and wave the pedestrian through.

There is a natural friendliness and generosity here which is infectious and I have found myself striking up conversations with people in the street.  If I keep doing that when I get home I will get some very odd looks.  This isn’t the false, corporate ‘Have a nice day!’ America; this is a completely genuine ‘I really hope that you have a nice day, and I look forward to hearing about it next time we meet’ America.

Nestling among the skyscrapers are some wonderful older buildings, proving that this is a City with a great past.  There is the magnificent Citadel and the beautiful deco Foshay tower, which is now a very impressive hotel.

The Citadel

The Citadel

Foshay Tower

Foshay Tower

Many of walls have had murals painted onto them, including one that has been transformed into a sheet of music manuscript.  Apparently it is a famous piece (I will need Liz to verify it).  Dennis told me that a neighbour had decided to play it one day and discovered that one note was wrong.  He told the building’s owners and sure enough they sent a man up a ladder with a pot of white paint and a pot of black paint, to correct the error.

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Life in 1310

The LPM tower, in which my apartment is located, has been built in a  less developed neighbourhood on the edge of the downtown area, and stands proudly against the sky, like a beacon of expansion.  It’s futuristic curved designed prompted Jeffrey’s son Evan to suggest that I was living in Dubai!

Dubai

Dubai

My apartment is on the 13th floor and is modern, light and comfortable.

Because Liz was with me when I arrived, we both settled in and started putting our own stamp on it.  Nothing major, it was not as if we were hanging pictures and painting the walls; just things like choosing which cupboards the food would go in, when we would run the dishwasher, what temperature we wanted.

So when Liz left after the first week the apartment felt very empty.  After that, I fell into a daily routine that never varied much during my stay.

I would wake at around 6am, make coffee then check emails, and write to Liz with an account of the previous day’s adventures.

Next would be a trip to the sixth floor, where the gym and pool are situated.  In the beginning (that’s a good line….), I went into the gym and spent time on the treadmill and rowing machine, but in the final weeks I devoted my energies to the swimming pool instead.

Swim over, I spent a while in the steam room and then a quick blast in the Jacuzzi pool.

The health centre was usually completely deserted, which was great for me.

Back up to the 13th floor and breakfast.  For those of you that have followed my Christmas tours online, you will be surprised to know how healthy my breakfasts were: granola with raspberries, strawberries or blueberries; two glasses of orange juice and occasionally some toast.  It must have been an attempt to remain virtuous after my exercise.  There were notable exceptions to this healthy diet, but more of that later.

Next up, laundry:  Each night after the show I would bring my laundry bag back from the theatre, with my shirt, t shirt, socks and the sports bra.  Into the huge machine went this pitiful load, with anything that I could find around the apartment that needed washing; as a consequence I had the cleanest towels, pyjama bottoms and exercise gear that you have ever seen.

With the washing machine going it was morning walk time.  Often I needed to buy groceries or whatever, but sometimes it was just nice to walk for the sake of it.  For the greater part of my stay the temperature was at around -15, sometimes as low as -25, but a brisk walk really helped to energise me and get the blood pumping.

After my walk I may do a little work on the computer, or run some lines before lunch, which was usually a salad or soup.

Lazy time now.

TV:  Liz had discovered BBC America  as one of the channels available to us, so that’s where I inevitably ended up during the day.  I have to say that the programming isn’t desperately imaginative or varied.  At lunchtime and into mid afternoon there would be about four episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen nightmares, back to back.

If the programming is not imaginative and varied, the programme itself is even less so.  Never have I known such a formulaic TV show:

Lovely shots of a beautiful restaurant in a great setting.  Gordon walks in and is cheerfully (sometimes reverentially) greeted.  He chooses dishes from a huge menu, and the waitress tells him that they will be awful.

They are awful.  He spits something out and says ‘Unbelievable, this is the worst food I have ever tasted.’  One would have thought that after making so many programmes it would by now be quite believable and it can’t ALL have been the worst food he’s ever tasted.

He shakes his head and says ‘unbelievable’ again.  He meets the owner/manager/chef and confronts them with his opinions.  There are arguments, there is swearing.  Things are thrown.

Gordon watches a dinner service: ‘Unbelievable’

He confronts the owner/manager/chef and tells them exactly what is wrong.  They deny it.  He swears and threatens to leave.  They (and this is where any variety that there is comes in) either swear and shout and tell him that he should leave, or they burst into tears.

Next day they all come back.  Gordon has completely decorated the restaurant and every one puts their hands to their faces and gasps: ‘Oh, my God, oh Wow, Oh Wow.’  Gordon introduces a new menu, which is much smaller and incredibly tasty.

Re-launch night.  The restaurant is packed.  Service starts and goes well, everybody loves the food, but then there is a disaster in the kitchen.  No!  this is the worst thing that could happen on Re-launch night.  ‘Unbelievable!’ says Gordon.  But, the staff all pulls it round and the evening is a success.

‘We could never have done this without Chef Ramsey.  He has shown us what we need to do to succeed.  And, he has made our family complete again’ sob, sob, sob.

Gordon leaves saying to camera: ‘this was the most difficult challenge yet.…’

Oh well, it passes an hour or two.

If it was a performing night I would start preparing quite early, beginning with the ironing of my costume shirts and this was always an adventure.

Because the floors in the apartment are a stylish wood laminate, they are quite slippery.  As soon as I started to iron the board scooted across the floor.  In the end I developed a technique of ironing with my foot firmly planted on the leg of the ironing board.

1310 ironing technique

1310 ironing technique

An hour before I needed to be at the theatre, I shaved my cheeks (we couldn’t have CD with a 5 o’clock shadow), and had a nice cold shower to get buzzing again.

In the very cold weather, leaving the apartment was not the work of a moment, as it took ages to get loaded up with fleeces, scarves, gloves and hats.  By the time I’d walked to the lifts and towards the main door, I would be so hot!  That all changed as I revolved the revolving door and the icy blast hit.  In an instant my beard would freeze and when I eventually got back into warmth it would thaw again and I would gently drip on the floor.  Most attractive!

Dennis

Dennis Babcock has been my host here in Minneapolis.  My host, my friend and my boss.  He is a great source of inspiration and encouragement and is always generous in his praise.  The dream of ‘To Begin With’ has been with him for twenty years, so there was a huge amount riding on the success of these performances.

Not only is Dennis a producer, in the organisational and financial sense, he is also very much a theatre man, and throughout the run was always coming up with new suggestions as to how to play a certain line, or make a certain move. Each day he would subtly drop into conversation his notes from the previous evening:  maybe he wasn’t hearing a word clearly and could I be a little more careful; the best example of this was a line near to the end of the play: ‘So, you see.  Faith and Life, not so dark after all…’

‘Gerald, I’m not quite hearing ‘faith’.  It sounds a bit like ‘fate’, maybe you could just slow that whole line down, to make it clearer?’

I slowed and slowed and slowed it, until finally when I asked him if it had been clearer, he said: ‘Oh yes, much better.  I definitely heard it much more clearly.’  I joked with him that we had just added a minute to the running time.

Dennis is immensely busy, running three different shows (‘Triple Espresso’ which preceded ‘To Begin With’, and ‘That Wonder Boy’, which follows), but he always had time to call and chat and to offer to take me out somewhere.

Our first trip was to Saint Paul (the other of the Twin Cities – the slightly older Twin, I think). Jeffery had written a new script based on a locally-written Sherlock Holmes novel and there was a performed reading taking place to see how it worked.  We went through the same process with ‘To Begin With’ over two years ago.

Dennis and his wife Anne picked me up and we ate dinner before listening to the show.  It was great fun to be back on the other side, and to watch other actors revelling in Jeff’s brilliant language.

On another occasion, a Sunday night after our early show, Dennis took me back home, where Anne and her mother Betty cooked me the most delicious meal of salmon and rice.

Anne and Betty have been most gracious, wonderful and enthusiastic supporters of this production.  They sat through interminably dull tech rehearsals, as well as through a huge number of the performances.  And each time, they came up grinning from ear to ear,  telling me how amazing I was and hugging me.  I liked them being at the shows very much!  Dennis is fortunate to have such a family around him.  He knows it and is truly thankful for it.

Jeffrey

Jeff also made sure I was looked after.  He offered to take me to lunch on one of my days off, to The Saint Paul Hotel, where I used to perform A Christmas Carol as part of my Christmas tours.

It had snowed heavily that Tuesday morning, but of course that does not deter a Minnesotan, and by the time he came to pick me up, the roads had been cleared and home owners were clearing the sidewalks outside their properties with snow blowers.

The Saint Paul Hotel is a charming historical hotel and as I walked through the doors the memories came flooding back.

Saint Paul Hotel Lobby

Saint Paul Hotel Lobby

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We ate in the Saint Paul Grill, and I had cup of Rice Soup and Battered Walleye (a type of fish caught locally.)  It was a true Minnesota lunch.

When we had finished lunch I thought that I might ask at the front desk to see if any of the team I used to work with were still at the hotel, and within minutes I was surrounded by old friends and we were hugging and laughing and reliving old times.  It was as if no time had passed at all.

Jeff is excellent company and is so well read.  His knowledge of, well, everything, is astounding.  He is a generous man, both with his hospitality and his praise.

In a way he embodies Charles Dickens, for his work rate is unbelievable.  During my stay alone he was busy attending performances of one of his plays that was ending a run at the Guthrie Theatre, directing me, working on his Holmes script, and preparing a movie script based on a battle during The First World War, involving a resurgent Knights Templar; and those are just the ones I know about.  I have no doubt there are many more irons in Jeff’s fireplace.  It has been an honour and a privilege to work with him.

Ian

After Liz left I was feeling a bit lonely, but I was to have a very pleasant surprise visitor.  My brother Ian is a marketing consultant and after I’d posted some early production pictures on Facebook, he commented that the whole project was an amazing story and could be ‘PR gold dust’.  Knowing that Dennis was keen to promote the show in the UK, I thought it might be a good idea for him and Ian to talk about the marketing possibilities.

I certainly wasn’t expecting what came next, any more than Ian was.  On a Tuesday afternoon Dennis called Ian to chat.  On Friday Ian was on a plane from London to Minneapolis, to see the show, discuss things with Dennis and then return home on Sunday.

When he arrived at the theatre I was in the middle of a photo shoot.  It was quite a time before I could greet him with a big brotherly hug.  It was great fun having Ian around, and he quickly became immersed in the production.

When the Friday night performance was done we headed to Brit’s Pub, even though it was about 4am as far as he was concerned.  We chatted and laughed, neither of us quite believing that we were both here in Minneapolis.  The temperature outside was about -19;  the following week Ian would be in the Caribbean to crew a yacht in a regatta: life is the most wonderful thing, isn’t it?

On Saturday morning we met at his hotel and chatted about the show some more, before doing one of my walks around downtown Minneapolis.  Dennis had offered to pick us up for lunch and a ‘Pickwickian Adventure’.  Neither of the Dickens brothers quite knew what to expect, until Dennis turned left off a quiet road, down a slipway and into Medicine Lake.  When I say ‘in’, I am taking liberties.  We were in Minnesota, so Dennis’ Jeep Grand Cherokee drove across Medicine Lake.

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Ian was in the front and calmly asked questions such as ‘How thick is the ice?’, how deep is the lake?’ and ‘how late in the year can you drive across it?’  As we became accustomed to the fact that the ice was perfectly safe, we both began to imagine what fun it would be to have a high powered, rear wheel drive car out here.  ‘The Top Gear Boys would love this’ muttered Ian.

At the centre of the lake we stopped, and Dennis, cutting a rather incongruous figure in his smart knee-length coat, knocked at the door of a shack.  He wanted to show us inside an ‘ice hut’ and was asking the owners of a red structure, if we could come and visit.  This was Minnesota – of course we could!

We spent about twenty minutes with three generations of the same family in their little home on the ice.  They build the structure when the winter blast hits in November and it remains there until March.  In each corner there was a hole cut for the fishing lines to dangle through and a high tech piece of sonar equipment which showed where the fish were and where the line was.  By watching this multi-coloured readout the fisherman could agitate his bait to tempt the fish.

The hut was well warmed by a heater, and extra heat would have been delivered by the huge number of  Bloody Marys that would be consumed, judging by the large stocks of Vodka and Tomato juice.

We spent about twenty minutes with the family, before leaving them to their fishing.  We continued across the lake, tracking parallel to a man riding the ice whist attached to a large kite.  Quite an amazing treat, all in all.

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On Sunday morning I took Ian to the Nicollet Diner, where Liz and I had eaten breakfast seven days before.

The Nicollet Diner

The Nicollet Diner

It was here on each Sunday of my stay, that my healthy breakfast diet took a nose-dive.  Bacon, eggs, pancakes and French toast all featured, I am ashamed to say.

When Ian and I visited, we were shown to our booth and fussed over by our waitress who christened us her ‘English Muffins’, after we both chose them from the menu.

And that afternoon, he was gone.  Like Liz the previous week, he watched the first half of the show, came to the dressing room, gave me a big hug and then drove to the airport with Dennis.

It was lovely to see him, and for him to be part of the team.  I hope that he will become a major part of the show in the future.

The Show

To begin with has grown, developed and become something quite amazing over the weeks.  It started off well and has moved on from there.

My show routine never changed.  It is not that I am superstitious, indeed quite the opposite, it is just that if everything happens in the same order each night, you can be sure that everything is in proper place and prepared.

I arrived at the theatre ninety minutes before curtain up.  Tricia would be in the dressing room primping and preparing my wig.  I put the freshly charged mic pack into its little pouch attached to the sports bra, and then pulled the thing over my head and arms.

For the next twenty minutes or so Tricia would do her thing, adjusting, pinning and gluing until I had my flamboyant head of hair firmly attached.  On ‘special’ nights she would take extra time: these nights included the opening night, the photo shoot and the night she watched the show: ‘I couldn’t bear to watch if the wig wasn’t right!’

When Tricia left I changed into my costume trousers, tied my cravat and put on the double breasted waistcoat.  With forty five minutes to go I walked up to the stage, just to check that all of the props were where they should have been and maybe just to run a scene that needed changing as a result of notes from the previous performance.

Contemplating the next two hours

Contemplating the next two hours

Back in the dressing room I drank lots of water, and ran through the first scene, just to become comfortable delivering the lines as Charles Dickens.

With thirty minutes to go Ben would pop his head into the dressing room and announce ‘we are at thirty’.  He would take my black fountain pen up to Millie, the Front of House manager.  I would carry on with the scene one run through and water drinking.

‘We are at fifteen’.  Now I sat down and relaxed briefly until Ben appeared once more to say ‘Five’, which was my cue to make my way to the wings and await the start of the show.

There was a slight gap in the black screening curtains, so I could get some idea as to where the audience were sitting.  I could work out if I needed to direct the performance to the edges of the auditorium or just to the centre where the majority sat.

Then I waited until the lights slowly faded to black and the bell sound effect started.  I walked through the darkness, took my opening position on stage, waited for the lights to come up and….

The interval was only fifteen minutes, and by the time I had changed costume (including socks, from the beige that matched the linen suit, to black for the second act), and hidden lace handkerchiefs up my sleeves, Ben was calling ‘five’ again.

Back in the wings I had more to do in the second act, as I had to enter wearing a dressing gown, carrying a cape over my arm, with a white silk scarf around my neck, three different canes and a top hat balanced on the end of them.  On top of it all was a velvet smoking cap with a gold tassel, which hung down my cheek and kept making me think that my wig had become detached.

The music that hailed the beginning of Act two started, the lights dimmed to black and once more I made my way through the dark to take my opening position on stage.  The lights came up and….

At the end of the show I took my bows before making my way to the lobby where a table was set up, with my fountain pen on it and a cold bottle of water.

It was my pleasure to meet members of the audience and sign their programmes, or copies of The Life of Our Lord.  I really enjoy doing this and it is a lovely way to finish the evening.

Meeting the audience

Meeting the audience

When the lobby emptied I went back to the dressing room, carefully peeled off the wig, and attached it to the ‘head’ clamped to the desk.  I changed into my own clothes, gathered up tomorrow’s laundry, said my goodbyes to whoever was left in the theatre and then walked the short walk to ‘Dubai’.

The End of the Beginning of To Begin With

And so, here I am.  Last night Dennis took Jeff and me out to dinner. We were to be joined by two of Dennis’ investors (both called John), but before they arrived I was able to give these two amazing, creative, colleagues a gift to say thank you.  In the show Dickens encounters the 12 year old Algernon Swinburne and the two have a testy relationship.

In reality Swinburne grew up to be an accomplished poet, and in 1913 wrote a book entitled Charles Dickens, laying forth the argument that Dickens was the world’s greatest author.  Liz and I had managed to track down three first editions of this book.  We now have one at home, while Dennis and Jeff have a copy each.

With the arrival of the two Johns we began a delicious and relaxing meal.  Everyone was so excited about what has been achieved with the play and questions were being asked about the next step: what now?

All I know is that we have come too far to let this project drop.  To Begin With has a long future in front of it, I am sure of that.

This is only the beginning.

 

Charles Dickens And America by David Dickens

Here is an other of my father’s speeches.  This one was written to be delivered during  one of his trips to America in 1992 – 1994.  Sadly there is no date to it:

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Charles Dickens And America

Although Charles Dickens was British his greatest audience and his greatest admirers were in America.  His books were known and loved here even better than in his own country.

This is odd, considering that at the time we are talking about – the 1840s – America had no great love for England.  How, then, did it come about.

We have to take a quick glance at what had been happening in England at this time.  Charles Dickens was born in 1812.  The Battle of Waterloo was fought in 1815.  England became at one stroke the most powerful country in the world.  At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was making England the richest nation in the world as well.

All this created a new cockiness and confidence in the English people (you may think that England had enough of it already without adding to it!)  But it did more than that.  The whole of society began to change.  New people were making new money in new ways.  The power of the old landed aristocracy was challenged.  Class was no longer a barrier to wealth and success.  Ordinary Englishmen sensed a new freedom from the old-established order of society.  And where was the shining example of a new sort of society?  In America of course!

Charles Dickens was of the breed of the new English people and his books became their voice.  He had no inherited background.  He came from nowhere.  He was dazzled by the idea of America and its Republicanism.  He wished to see it for himself.  America had thrown out all the the things that he, himself, hated; and which he had attacked with the most potent of weapons – laughter and ridicule.  His books had made him the hero and darling of England.

For exactly the same reasons America loved his books.  Here was a writer who shared their feelings and spoke their language.  It was the language of the ordinary guy.  The language that was synonymous with the American Dream.

This is the first point I wish to stress.  Be in no doubt whatever that Dickens wished to praise and admire America.  The unfortunate events that came later must be seen in the light of this fact.

By 1841, although he was only 29, Dickens had ‘Pickwick Papers’, ‘Oliver Twist’, Nicholas Nickleby’, ‘Barnaby Rudge’ and ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ to his credit.  He was in touch with the leading American writers, notably Washington Irving and Longfellow, who suggested that he should visit them.

So, when Dickens did visit America for the first time in 1842, preparations for a tumultuous welcome were put in hand. Said one of the organisers:

‘A triumph has been prepared for him, in which the whole country will join.  He will have a progress through the States unequalled since Lafayette’s.’

And so it turned out.  Here is part of a letter home after his arrival:

‘How can I give you the faintest notion of my reception here; of the crowds that line the streets when I go out; of the cheering when I went to the theatre; of the copies of verses, letters of congratulation, welcomes of all kinds – balls, dinners, assemblies without end,….But what I can tell you about any of these things which will give you the slightest notion of the enthusiastic greeting they give me or the cry that runs through the whole country?

‘I have had deputations from the Far West, who have come from more than two thousand miles distance; from the lakes, the rivers, the backwoods, the log-houses, the cities, factories, villages and towns.  I have heard from the Universities, Congress, Senate, and bodies public and private of every kind….’

He was even received by the President in the White House.

If you should think that this sounds like a love-affair between Dickens and the American people, you would not be far wrong.  But, Alas! In all great love-affairs there comes a quarrel.

What on earth possessed Dickens to say it?  In his speech to one of the biggest assemblies gathered to honour him, he referred to the fact that while his books were evidently widely read in America, he himself received not a penny from their sales because there was no International Copyright agreement.

In itself this was not an attack on America.  Indeed, it is on record that some of the people at the reception took no exception to it.  But it was ill-advised, rude and discourteous.  If the matter had stopped there, no more might have been heard of it.  But the newspapers took it up.

At that time American newspapers had a freedom of speech unknown to the British newspapers and therefore unknown to Dickens.  They were loud and brash and personal (but we have them in England now – oh yes! We have them now).  And, of course, it was precisely the newspapers who benefited from the ability to publish Dickens’s stories without the necessity of payment.  Assuming a high moral tone they turned against Dickens, saying, in effect, ‘The whole of America turns out to honour this man as nobody has been honoured before.  And what does he do?  He criticises us to our faces’.

Dickens in his turn was angered by this reaction – naively, you may think.  His anger was caused by his own folly.  He had become so famous and had enjoyed his popularity so much that it was like a slap in the face to find himself being criticised and attacked.

He was, remember, a young man.  He was what we would call a Yuppie – a Whizz Kid – a successful young man but without maturity.  Instead of leaving the matter alone he tried to justify himself.

When he returned home he wrote a small book about his visit entitled ‘American Notes’.  Instead of praising the New World he was critical of some aspects of it, and much of his criticism was inspired by wounded personal pride.  This further angered the American press, and this further angered Dickens.

He was at this time about to write ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’.  It was turning out to be a mess of a book, and he was stuck with his characters.  So, on one bad morning, he decided to send young Martin to America to seek his fortune.  The pen-picture of Martin’s experiences in America was vicious – and gratuitously vicious because these incidents had little to do with the story.  In America copies of the book were publicly burnt.

It was a silly, stupid affair.  But it was not the real Dickens.  In the middle of writing Martin Chuzzlewit – in 1843 – he sat down to write ‘A Christmas Carol.’  Here was the real Dickens at his best, writing about the humble human heart; where kindness and love triumph above the Scrooges of this world, and where every human being is equal in the sight of God.  Of all his books it is the most popular.  And because its philosophy so well accorded with the American Dream, it was loved in America perhaps even more than in England.

The lovers’ quarrel was forgotten.  Although ‘American Notes’ and ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ still rankled, the new books pouring from Dickens’s pen – ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Bleak House’, ‘Great Expectations, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ – restored him to his old place in the affections of the Americans.  Nine of his books sold a million copies in America in his lifetime.

Twenty-five years passed.  By now Dickens had become perhaps the greatest novelist who had ever lived.  But he had discovered that to give readings from his books was as popular, if not more popular, as the books themselves.  Being always at heart an actor, he perfected his performances to such a pitch that they were electrifying.  His appearances on stage attracted huge audiences.

His loving American public clamoured for his return and so in 1867 he came back.  He would have come sooner had it not been for the terrible Civil War.  As soon as the news broke that he was on the seas, and on his way to Boston, the place went wild.  And when he did arrive the whole city turned out to cheer him, just as it had done before.

And in the whole of America his popularity was as great as before.  He went on to New York, where every window on Broadway displayed his picture.  He became as well-known in New York as he was in London. We went to Boston and New York several times – to Philadelphia, Baltimore and many other places, especially Washington.  In Washington he was received once again by the president of the United States (President Andrew Johnson).

His biographer wrote:

‘He was the most popular writer in America.  In every house, railroad car, on every steamboat, in every theatre of America, the characters, the fancies, the phraseology of Dickens had become familiar beyond those of any other writer.’

The New York Times wrote:

‘Even in England, Dickens is less known than here; there are millions who treasure every word he has written.  Whatever sensitiveness there once was to adverse or sneering criticism, the lapse of a quarter of a century, and the profound significance of the great war, have modified or removed.’

However, the memory of his earlier indiscretion, and the hurt he had caused among the American people distressed him.  He bitterly regretted it.  Therefore, at a farewell dinner held by his old adversaries, the American Press, he publicly apologised.

Dickens directed that the full text of his speech should forever after be printed as a Postcript in every copy ever printed of ‘American Notes’ and ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’.  And so it is printed, even to this very day.

So all was well that ended well.  It is good that this story ended happily because in only two years Dickens was dead.  The love of Dickens was forever imprinted on the American heart, as the warmth and generosity of your welcome to his humble great-grandson today most amply proves.

I can only echo my father’s closing sentiments, as my reception in America continues to prove that the love of Dickens in America still burns as passionately as it ever has.

That love affair is amply displayed by the audiences flocking to the Music Box Theatre to watch ‘To Begin With’.  We are now into the final few performances of this run, so if you live in the Twin Cities get your tickets now.  If you have friends here, then make sure that they know about the show!

https://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=26

I would also like to print the text of the apology that Dickens made in New York in 1868:

T a Public Dinner given to me on Saturday the 18th of April, 1868, in the City of New York, by two hundred representatives of the Press of the United States of America, I made the following observations among others:

‘So much of my voice has lately been heard in the land, that I might have been contented with troubling you no further from my present standing-point, were it not a duty with which I henceforth charge myself, not only here but on every suitable occasion, whatsoever and wheresoever, to express my high and grateful sense of my second reception in America, and to bear my honest testimony to the national generosity and magnanimity.

Also, to declare how astounded I have been by the amazing changes I have seen around me on every side, — changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can take place anywhere.

Nor am I, believe me, so arrogant as to suppose that in five and twenty years there have been no changes in me, and that I had nothing to learn and no extreme impressions to correct when I was here first. ]

And this brings me to a point on which I have, ever since I landed in the United States last November, observed a strict silence, though sometimes tempted to break it, but in reference to which I will, with your good leave, take you into my confidence now.

Even the Press, being human, may be sometimes mistaken or misinformed, and I rather think that I have in one or two rare instances observed its information to be not strictly accurate with reference to myself. Indeed, I have, now and again, been more surprised by printed news that I have read of myself, than by any printed news that I have ever read in my present state of existence.

Thus, the vigour and perseverance with which I have for some months past been collecting materials for, and hammering away at, a new book on America has much astonished me; seeing that all that time my declaration has been perfectly well known to my publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, that no consideration on earth would induce me to write one.

But what I have intended, what I have resolved upon (and this is the confidence I seek to place in you) is, on my return to England, in my own person, in my own journal, to bear, for the behoof of my countrymen, such testimony to the gigantic changes in this country as I have hinted at to-night. Also, to record that wherever I have been, in the smallest places equally with the largest, I have been received with unsurpassable politeness, delicacy, sweet temper, hospitality, consideration, and with unsurpassable respect for the privacy daily enforced upon me by the nature of my avocation here and the state of my health.

This testimony, so long as I live, and so long as my descendants have any legal right in my books, I shall cause to be republished, as an appendix to every copy of those two books of mine in which I have referred to America.

And this I will do and cause to be done, not in mere love and thankfulness, but because I regard it as an act of plain justice and honour.’

I said these words with the greatest earnestness that I could lay upon them, and I repeat them in print here with equal earnestness. So long as this book shall last, I hope that they will form a part of it, and will be fairly read as inseparable from my experiences and impressions of America.

CHARLES DICKENS.

MAY, 1868.

A Pictorial Blog

Today’s blog is not a written record of my time in Minneapolis; it is a photographic one.

My brother Ian came to spend the weekend as part of the production and took a wonderful series of photographs, documenting a performance from beginning to end.

With a few of my own pictures thrown in, I present to you the first few weeks of ‘To Begin With’:

The first rehearsal, at Oxford Golf Club, UK.  Dennis creates the set, as Jeffrey looks on

The first rehearsal, at Oxford Golf Club, UK. Dennis creates the set, as Jeffrey looks on

Redefining cold

Redefining cold

The Apartment Block: home for a month

The Apartment Block: home for a month

The first morning: being measured for the wig

The first morning: being measured for the wig

The set being built

The set being built

First glimpse of Charles Dickens

First glimpse of Charles Dickens

Photo Shoot

Photo Shoot

Cards and flowers from great friends

Cards and flowers from great friends

And the day of a performance:

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To the dressing room

To the dressing room

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Checking props

Checking props

Contemplating the next two hours

Contemplating the next two hours

The audience gathers

The audience gathers

In performance

In performance

Taking my bows

Taking my bows

Meeting the audience

Meeting the audience

There are only six more opportunities to see ‘To Begin With’ on this run.

For further details of booking details visit:

https://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=26

Dickens Was Dead: To Begin With by David Dickens

Before travelling to Minneapolis to perform ‘To Begin With’ I discovered some papers handed to me many years ago by my father.  They are two speeches, and I thought it would be fun to post them as  ‘guest blogs’

Back in 1993 I gave my first reading of A Christmas Carol and Dad was a huge inspiration to me.  He was never short of advice and wanted me to do my absolute best.   On reading this first paper, I now fully understand why!

Dad died almost ten years ago but reading his words I can hear his voice and picture his face so vividly.  There are notes in the margin written in his angular hand and I am not ashamed to say that they bring tears to my eyes.  It is as if he is sitting next to me.  I wish he were, for I’d love him to see ‘To Begin With’.

I am sure that you will enjoy:

001

Dickens Was Dead: To Begin With

by David Dickens

Dickens was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  No doubt whatever, because the scene is Christmas Day in 1932.  Yet here are Dickens’s voice, his inflexions, his manner, his movements.  His son, Henry Fielding Dickens, is reading A Christmas Carol to the assembled family.

No! Not reading.  He is giving the whole thing from memory exactly as his father had done.  Henry Fielding Dickens (or Harry, or Sir Henry Fielding Dickens KC, of The Guv’nor, or Pupsey, or Pan-Pan – depending on one’s age and hierarchical status) had heard the Carol from his father – heaven knows how many times!  Indeed, he had been present throughout the last series of Readings in London, including the final one, when ‘from these garish lights’ Dickens vanished ‘for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, affectionate, farewell’.

And here we are listening to the very self-same thing.  Now, at the 150th anniversary of the Carol, it is almost incredible that this link still exists.  How fortunate, how privileged we were!  Did we realise that we were living with history?  Sadly, we did not.  Those of us who remember it (and there are not too many of us now) were children then.  We were on duty to listen to our funny old grandfather.  And we knew, having heard the performance for a good many Christmasses before, that when Bob Cratchit came back from Tiny Tim’s grave, old Pan-pan would begin to cry.  Not only cry, but weep; weep with copious tears; tears that tumbled down his cheeks.  Ye gods!  It was so embarrassing!  But worse was to come because when Scrooge threw open the window to call to the boy, Pan-Pan’s false teeth dropped out.  They always did.  Invariably.  You could set the time by it.  Such youthful Philistines were we!

There had never been a Christmas in the memory of the family but that Harry (as I will now call him) had read the Carol.  It was always on Christmas Day.  Whatever celebrations he had around our own domestic tables, and however far from London we lived, everybody came to Mulberry Walk in Chelsea that evening.  Every aunt and uncle; every great-aunt and great-uncle; every cousin; and every second cousin-once-removed, and third cousin-twice-removed – everyone was there.

The reading of the Carol was the climax of the evening.  Before that, everybody – adults as well as children – had to get on stage and do something.  When it came to our turn – the grandchildren’s turn – we were nervous and shy.  But that shyness was not to be indulged, because it was one of the immutable laws of the family that anyone who got on stage must do their piece with panache.  To perform well in public was a family expectation.

Harry, himself, did not have the appearance of an actor.  He was not a flamboyant man.  But appearance was deceptive; acting and the theatre were among his greatest loves.

After all, he had first trod the boards at the age of 5, when Dickens, Mark Lemon and Wilkie Collins put on, in 1854, the first of a series of theatricals involving the children at the annual Twelfth Night party at Tavistock House.  Harry played the title role in Tom Thumb (a burlesque written, as it happens, by his namesake Henry Fielding).  ‘The encores were frequent’ so Forster tells us.  Such instant and initial success might turn the head of any would-be actor, the more so when it was repeated the following year, and he again took the title role in Fortunio and his Seven Gifted Servants.  Dickens’s flamboyant playbill, which Forster says could not have been bettered by Mr Crummles himself, included the legend ‘Reappearance of Mr H. who created so powerful impression last year!’  It also announced ‘the first appearance on any stage of Mr Plornishmaroontigoonter (who has been kept out of bed at vast expense!’)

Harry’s own memory of his first thespian fame was more modest, recording that ‘my language at this period was of such a very dubious and incomprehensible character that the audience had to be furnished with a copy of the words which I was supposed to be singing’.  If his diction left something to be desired, his enthusiasm did not.  In Fortunio, when he had to slay the dragon (Mark Lemon) he feared that ‘Uncle Mark must have felt the effects of it for some time after’.

The theatre was all around these children.  Although they took no part in the serious dramas of The Frozen Deep and The Lighthouse, Harry at least had the important responsibility of tearing up bits of paper for snow in the arctic scenes.  Whether Harry inherited his love of the theatre from his father, or whether it was acquired by example, is of no matter.  It was there from his earliest years.

After Dickens’s death, Harry, Mamie and Georgina set up house together in London.  because of their intimacy with all Dickens’s literary, artistic and theatrical friends they knew everybody who made the lively world tick.

In another part of London there was another family – that of M. Antonin Roche.  M. Roche was French.  He had married a German wife, Emily Moscheles.  She was a consummate pianist and had been a pupil of Chopin.  That she was musical was not surprising because her father was Ignaz Moscheles, friend and pupil of Beethoven, Director of the Conservatoire of Music in Leipzig.  That same Ignaz Moscheles had been tutor to Dickens’s sister, Fanny, at the Royal Academy of Music.  Emily’s brother, Felix, was an artist of some considerable repute.

Antonin and Emily had nine children.  The eldest girl was Marie.  There were four older brothers and four younger brothers and sisters.

So the Roches, too, were an artistic family.  They, too, knew everybody who made the lively world tick.  The nine children were themselves lively – a close, loving family of enormous enthusiasms, the greatest of which was their love of the theatre.  They were forever putting on plays.  Their dearest friend was Charles Fechter, who was not above helping them in their youthful productions.  The play of his that they enjoyed most was Fanfan La Tulipe in which he brought his horse, Minerva, onto the stage and did a cross-talk act with her.  The children loved that horse, and they had, too, a particularly high regard for the kindness of Mr Charles Dickens because when the run was over, Minerva was given the sanctuary of the paddock at Gad’s Hill in which to live out her days.

Henry Irving; he was another particular friend.  When the children had put on their version of Irving’s play, Charles I, which was drawing full houses at the Lyceum he, himself, came round to maison Roche to supervise their efforts, and to make suggestions, such as that two saucepans banged together were perhaps not an adequate rendering of the sombre striking of the clock so necessary for the dramatic conclusion of the piece.

That two such lively and similar families as the Dickenses and the Roches should meet was only a matter of time.  A certain Lady Wilson got up theatricals each year among her circle of friends.  That theatrically-talented young Mr Henry Dickens was much in demand as Director and Actor.  In 1875 Marie Roche was thrilled to be invited to join the company.  When, next year, Mr Dickens was asked if he would give his services again, he replied ‘Yes – if Miss Roche acts’.  They acted together.  The piece was A Husband in Clover.  They married the same year.

If ever a prophecy came true this was it.  No husband ever lived in such clover as Harry.  For the next 57 years he was loved and cosseted and fussed over by Marie.  He was the sun of her life.  They were as devoted a couple as ever walked together in the world.

When Harry and Marie married they made a conscious and explicit vow that if they had children they would do their best to give them a happy childhood and youth.  That was not difficult for Marie because her childhood and had been energetically happy in a large rumbustuous family.  Harry, who seemed to have been a happy child despite the break-up of his home (he was 9 at the time), may have looked back to the childhood that once had been, so aptly described by FR and QD Leavis ‘….Dickens filled his own children’s lives with acting, jokes, dancing, singing, parties, travel, seaside spells, and all kinds of happy nonsense,…..he liked to describe scenes of joviality as well as to show the horrors of such family life as that of the Clennams, the Wilfers, the Snagsbys, the Gradgrinds and the Murdstones, among others such as Esther’s childhood home.’

Harry and Marie were unanimous about the way in which they would bring up their children. ‘All kinds of happy nonsense’ would be the keynote.  And the family did grow up happy.  Not only happy, but inexpressibly lively, with a wide range of enthusiasms and artistic talents.  Marie was the quintessential earth-mother (her affectionate nickname by her grandchildren became, in fact, ‘Gaïa’, although that developed from the mispronunciation of ‘Grandmere’ rather than from any classical allusion.  She was more generally known as ‘Mumsey’).  Such a role was in the very foundation of her character, and she was used to it, having been the little mother to her brothers and sisters.  Harry, by all accounts, was more like a brother to his children, so unlike the stern paterfamilias of the period.  He was a placid man.  He seemed by nature to be placid and happy (which perhaps explains why he, unlike Plorn, survived Gad’s Hill).  With Marie in command on the bridge; with Marie driving the ship from the engine room; with Marie at the helm, Harry could live his life in the state of placid happiness that suited him, and devote his considerable intellect to the practise of the law.

Marie, by contrast, was always up and doing; always bustling and commanding; always organising and overseeing.  The remarkable thing about this English family (and what could be more English than the name of Dickens?) was that it was, in fact, French.  Marie was born in London, and lived all her life in London, but French she was, and was ever determined to remain so.  She spoke only in French.  She raised her children in French.  Everything about the household was French.  She conversed with Harry in French, but in this he teased her.  He affected, in public, not to understand her.  If he did essay a few words in reply he made sure that he spoke with the most excruciating accent, as only an Englishman can.  And she, if she condescended a few words in English, would likewise mangle it.  It was a running joke throughout their 57 years.  Of course Harry spoke French perfectly well.  His father was a great Francophile.  The family had been on holiday for years in France.  Harry, himself, had been to school in Boulogne.  Of course Marie knew and spoke English perfectly well.  But she was determined to be French and that was that.

If Harry was ‘a Husband in Clover’ at home it must not be forgotten that he was pursuing a distinguished legal career.  He was called to the Bar in 1873; took Silk in 1892.  He became Common Serjeant in 1917 (sitting as a Judge at the Old Bailey) and was knighted in 1922.  He remained as Common Serjeant until his retirement at the age of 80, in 1929.

Given the theatrical backgrounds and enthusiasms of Harry and Marie it was not surprising that their children (there were seven of them) should clamber up onto the stage as soon as they could walk and talk.  The first family play, The Fir Tree, was put on in 1884.  With the actors aged between six and two (that play has been performed by every subsequent generation of the family, the actors being, as far as possible, of the equivalent ages of the originals.)  Thereafter there was scarcely a time when some play or other was not in rehearsal or performance in the Dickens household.

At about the same time Harry began to work-up short readings for the entertainment of the family.  As the children grew older he extended his readings to include his father’s repertoire – Doctor Marigold;  The Child’s Dream of a Star; Mr Chops, the Dwarf; Boots at the Holly Tree Inn; Richard Doubledick; The Cricket on the Hearth.  In doing this he copied his father exactly using Dickens’s own prompt-copies, the very same scripts and stage directions.  For the performance, like his father, he never referred to the book, knowing that the success was to keep his eye on the audience.  He went on to longer readings including the Carol and David Copperfield.  He even made his own version of Great Expectations, which Dickens had never done.  So Harry became an experienced and accomplished reader in the Dickens style, and the tradition of a performance by him at family gatherings was set.

Among the many interests and influences in the lives of the family, Charles Dickens was one, but not the only one.  He was a fact of their lives.  They took him for granted.  They were proud of him, of course, and proud of their relationship.  But Harry and Marie were determined that the children should not live in his aura, or perhaps it was his shadow that they feared.  Harry knew how difficult it had been for his brothers to find their own identities and live their own lives.  Equally, his children must not bask in reflected glory.  They must look forward, and make their own way in the world.  Such success as they might find must be their own, as Harry’s had been.  Aura and shadow were both to be avoided.

That having been said, it cannot be denied that Charles Dickens was everywhere around.  The house was full of his things.  The Children grew up familiar with his stories.  And then there was Georgina (always known simply as ‘Auntie’) and Kitty (never called Katey) – two people who had known Dickens intimately.

Georgina attached herself to Harry’s family.  After Mamie died she always lived close by.  When they moved house, she moved house.  Old photographs show her always present at family parties and picnics.  Far from being a shadowy figure from the past, she was a very vital – and very loving – presence.  At the time of her death, Harry’s children were between their thirties and forties.  ‘Auntie’ had been as much in their lives as she had been in those of the previous generation.

Kitty, too, was a very vital – but really rather a frightening – presence.  Handsome, positive, imperious, she was anything but a soft touch.  After the death of her beloved Carlo Perugini she became sad and depressed.  But she was always around.  Even we grandchildren knew her, for she lived until 1929.

And so we come back to Christmas Day in 1932, and my childhood memory.  The house at Mulberry Walk is all a-bustle with excitement, it is seething with Aunts.  Many Aunts we see only from year to year because they are French or German.  They talk – as my cousin Monica recalled the same scene in her autobiography An Open Book – in thick guttural voices and manufacture a lot of saliva.  They kiss us juicily and hug us painfully against the zareba of their stays.  The noise is deafening.  The Dickens family en masse exudes a colossal confidence.  They are absolutely sure of themselves.  They are perfectly content with their place in the world and do not care a fig for the opinion of society or anyone.  They are just a bunch of gregarious, warm, loving, articulate (in several languages), energetic, outgoing, artistic, lively people, happy in themselves and in the ambience.  They come together now, at Christmas, as they have done for every year of their lives, and they mean to enjoy it in the Dickensian way.  Beloved old Harry and Marie, old Pupsey and Mumsey, old Pan-Pan and Gaïa, are their Christmas star.

The entertainment takes place in the Billiard Room.  It is the largest room in the house, but even so, with a full-size table, a grand piano and Marie’s museum of Dickensiana, it is crowded to suffocation.  We grandchildren creep under the table for survival and try to identify the passing Aunts by their legs.  The show begins – the dreaded moment.  This year my brothers have elected to do an apache dance to mouth-organ accompaniment.  Harry makes a moue of distaste.  My brothers are the apaches ; I am dressed as the gangster’s Moll to be thrown violently from one to other.  I do not enjoy it.  I do not think the audience does, either, but it is a family audience, and we are applauded.  Well – that is over, thank goodness, and now we can sit back and watch our cousins in the agonies of their party pieces.

When all this nonsense is finished, the little old man comes on stage.  Oh!  He is so bird-like and frail.  He is the honoured patriarch.  And is still the actor.  His presence dominates……the room falls silent.

‘Marley was dead: to begin with’.

We are listening to Charles Dickens.

But that was the end of it.  Before another Christmas came round Harry was dead – victim of a road accident, and dying on 21st December 1933, at that very time – of all the good times in the year – that he loved above all.  His proudest boast was that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  And so he did!  God love it, so he did!

‘To Begin With’ continues its run at The Music Box Theatre until March 8.  If you want to book tickets time is running out, so book now at:

https://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=26

Guest Blog: Dr Gary Colledge. ‘To Begin With: A Reflection And A Review’

In my previous blog I am ashamed to say that I omitted to mention one of the most important people in our team.  Dr Gary Colledge is the author of ‘God and Charles Dickens’ and is an expert on Dickens and theology.

We first met when he travelled, with his family, to see me perform A Christmas Carol in Tennessee a few years ago.

Throughout the process of creating ‘To Begin With’ Gary has acted as the literary consultant and has provided much of the backbone for the script.

It has been wonderful to work with him on this project, for his enthusiasm and knowledge are unrivalled.

Gary was kind enough to fly from his home in Ohio to be present for the final rehearsals and opening night of the production.  These are his thoughts:

Three years ago, my wife and I sat with producer Dennis Babcock in my home discussing the idea of turning Dickens’s The Life Of Our Lord into a one-man play. Dennis shared with us that he had been toying with the possibility of this project for almost 20 years, and through a series of rather extraordinary—maybe even providential?—events, learned that The Life of Our Lord had been at the center of my post-graduate studies. He contacted me for the first time initially by phone, visited me at my home shortly thereafter, and at that meeting asked if I might consider serving as a consultant for the production.

That is why, this past Friday evening, February 20, 2015, I sat with much delight and anticipation in the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis waiting for the curtain to rise on the premiere of To Begin With, Dennis’s theatrical production about the writing of Dickens’s The Life of Our Lord.

Gerald Charles Dickens, playing Dickens, looks very much the part of his inimitable great-great-grandfather and convinces us that he is, indeed, his great-great-grandfather right from the opening lines: “Disagreeable evening. Lost an argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God. When I say ‘Swinburne,’ I do not mean Captain Swinburne, the good and respected gentleman who lives next door. I refer to his son, the ill-tempered, foul-smelling spawn. The mad, firetopped Swinburne. Swinburne the younger. Who is twelve.”

Written and directed by the accomplished and brilliant Jeffrey Hatcher, the play, set at Winterbourne, Isle of Wight, is an imagining of how Dickens may have conceived of and began writing this harmony of the Gospels for his children. Young Algernon Swinburne is the imagined antagonist whose arrogant irreligion motivates Dickens to want to tell his children “something about the Lord Jesus Christ.  For everybody ought to know about Him.”

Gerald Dickens is absolutely captivating as the 35-year-old Charles Dickens. If you have never seen Gerald perform, that is a treat in itself. And in this one-man play, he is able to bring to life and introduce us to his children, to Captain Swinburne and young Algernon, to donkeys and Pharisees, to priests and pastors and Wise Men, to Mary Magdalene and Doubting Thomas. Even a young Ellen Ternan makes an anonymous cameo in what Hatcher has called the Portsmouth Epiphany.

Gerald plays all these characters himself, of course, giving subtle nuances to each simply by his change of tone, his posture, and his gestures. His portrayal of Herod, albeit brief, is wonderful. His portrayal of the Pharisees and the “clever bunch” who desire to stone the woman taken in adultery seems spot-on to me. And his brief little portrayal of the Wise Men is laugh-out-loud funny.

On this particular Friday evening, in this particular Minneapolis theatre, the audience was treated to a unique play that asked them to think about Dickens in a way that most rarely think about him; they were treated to some very clever comedy and some rather poignant moments in Dickens’s life; and their knowledge of Dickens was playfully tested and enhanced. But perhaps more importantly they were entertained by a fantastically written play, acted with passion and reflection, and revealing a part of Dickens’s life and work with which few are familiar.

Whether or not one is a Dickens fan, this is a play well worth attending. It is entertaining. It is surprising. It is fun. It is provocative.

Catch it if at all possible.

Gary’s blog was first posted at: Dickensblog

http://dickensblog.typepad.com/dickensblog/2015/02/to-begin-with-a-reflection-and-a-review.html

Tickets for the final two weeks of our run are available at:

https://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=26

To Begin With: the First Week

And so the ‘To Begin With’ team reached our preview night:

Thrusday

When I say ‘night’ my day’s work actually started with a 1.30 call at the theatre to go through the second act, which is made up of a single, long scene.

On arrival at the theatre and putting my bag in the dressing room I found two huge bunches of flowers awaiting me.  One was from my friends in Lincoln Nebraska, wishing me luck; and the second was from all at Byers Choice – my agents in the USA.

Over the last few weeks it has been the second half that has been least rehearsed, so Jeff was keen to go through some of the lighting and sound cues and make sure that I was in the correct area of the stage.

I realised just how precise we were getting when Michael started debating whether a cross-fade of the lights should be timed at a half second or a quarter second!

When our skip through the act 2 cues was finished we had a brief break, during which Liz arrived.  During our walk to Macy’s on the previous day we had found a counter that sells and decorates cakes, so while I was at the theatre Liz went back and had one decorated to wish everyone involved with the project ‘good luck’!

Jeff working through the break

Jeff working through the break

When the break was over we started a complete run of the show, which boded well for the evening’s performance.

As well as bringing a cake, Liz had also brought a salad for me, very carefully selected so as not to include any dairy products, which tend to tighten the throat and affect my ability to project properly on stage.

As afternoon turned to early evening (although in my basement dressing room I only had the watch to confirm that fact), Tricia arrived to fix the wig.

It is always amazing to see an expert at work, in any field.  Everything looked so simple and easy; and in no time the wig was placed, firmly fixed and looking completely like my own hair (from what I can remember).

And then something very strange happened: little by little the dressing room emptied.  I had been used to having Jeff, Nayna, Ben, Dennis, Tricia, Chelsea and Liz all buzzing in and out.  But with an actual show approaching, everybody had places to be and I was left alone with my thoughts.

I was running a few of my lines, just to firmly cement them when Dennis appeared and we spoke for a few minutes.  He said a prayer for us and for the success of the show and left.

Alone again.

Jeff popped into the dressing a room with a few notes from the afternoon’s run: be careful of that, remember this, don’t worry if so and so happens.

Alone again.

My only contact with the outside world was now Ben, who popped his head around the door to announce ‘Thirty minutes!’, then ‘fifteen’ and finally ‘five’.

The five minute call was the moment that I had to start the long walk to the stage, which took me through a long subterranean corridor running beneath the auditorium, then up a flight of stone stairs towards the wings.

The long walk

The long walk

As Ben ‘calls’ the show from the back of the auditorium, I will be alone backstage.

I stood in the wings listening to the hum of a preview night audience.  But I’m not very good at standing still when I am waiting to go onto stage, so I walked around a bit, into the crosswalk from stage right to stage left, which doubles as a prop and technical storage area.

I was only gone for a few seconds but when I returned to the stage right wing I could hear the audience giggling nervously….as if the play had started and no actor had appeared.

My cue to start the show is a clock bell tolling six, and on the third ring I walk out into the black out so as to be ready to deliver the opening line ‘Disagreeable evening!’

I was beginning to panic: had I missed the bell tolling while I walked in the crosswalk?  Had the show started?  How would I know?  Would I hear a rush of feet hurtling towards the stage?  Should I walk on now?

And then the lights dimmed and in the dark came the tolling of the bell that I would have heard quite clearly wherever I had been. Phew!  Deep breath and on:

‘Disagreeable evening!  Lost an argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God.  When I say Swinburne, I do not mean Captain Swinburne, the good and respected gentleman who lives next door: I refer to his son. The Ill-tempered, foul smelling spawn.  The mad, fire-topped Swinburne.  Swinburne the younger.  Who is twelve!’

A big laugh!

It was so nice to actually be able to perform the piece to an audience and discover where the responses and reactions came.

As the show proceeded so, I became more confident and was able to do what I love to do: perform a one-man show and build a relationship with the audience.

I got to the end of the first scene and the lights faded to black. At this point I have to make my way to a window box (in the dark), take off one coat, put on a smoking jacket, deposit the first coat in the box, pick up a pile of books and then close the lid with enough of a bang to alert Ben that I am ready, at which point he will bring up the lights for scene two.

During the preview run my instincts to remain silent in the black-out kicked in and I carefully eased the box lid down, before realising that Ben would not have heard his cue, so had to re-open the box, and drop the lid more forcefully, at which the lights magically came up!  Another lesson learned.

On the show went to a successful conclusion.

During the interval Ben had suggested that I should be in the foyer as the audience left, especially as one group had brought along an old copy of ‘The Life Of Our Lord’ that they wanted signed.

As soon as I came off stage I ran down the stairs, along the long corridor, briefly into my dressing room to collect my fountain pen, then back up the other stairs, into the lobby and met the audience as they emerged from the auditorium.

And this would be the first time that we actually knew what an audience would think about the show.

The worst case scenario would be for the audience members to see me (still in costume and wig, of course), then dip their eyes and make for the exit, leaving the team standing alone pondering the future.

As it was there was soon a crowd around me, asking for programmes to be signed, another around Jeff and another around Dennis.  Although the crowd had not been a big one, they remained chatting for a long time which proved to us that we had a show that people enjoyed.

Eventually I went back down to the dressing room to begin the gentle process of teasing the wig off and changing back into Gerald Dickens.

By the time I re emerged to ground level the team was already gathered in the theatre discussing technical changes: Dennis, Jeff, Nayna, Ben, Michael, John, Rosalie and Chelsea were in the middle of a major post mortem and it seemed as if the sound effects were the issue.

Liz and I said our goodbyes and walked back to our apartment, where we talked over the evening’s events and slowly wound down.

Opening Night.  Friday

Friday dawned and the weather had warmed up to such an extent that it was actually snowing.  As I looked down from the balcony I could see that the roads were white and yet there were cars making their way quite happily along them.

Whenever we have a similar fall of snow in England the country falls to its knees.  Schools are closed, flights back up at the airports, and cars slither and slide into each other.  Even on roads that have been cleared drivers feel the need to crawl along at ten miles per hour.  We don’t ‘do’ winter in the UK.

If Minnesotans had the same attitudes, the state would shut down completely for half a year, so guess what? They just get on with it

Liz and I had a very lazy morning in the apartment, watching BBC America: ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Star Trek, the Next Generation’ punctuated by endless car insurance ads.

We walked to the nearby grocery store, Lunds (which is fabulous and very dangerous on the wallet) and stocked up with lunches and dinners for the next couple of days.

I had a call at the theatre in the afternoon to go through a few more of the sound cues (a result of last night’s discussions) and a ‘half measures’ run of the second act.

Back at the apartment Liz cooked a delicious and healthy meal of salmon and pasta and while we ate he decided that it would be a nice idea to invite a few people back to the apartment after the show, so I went to the liquor store nearby to buy a couple of bottle of wine.

The show was at eight, and I left the apartment at around six o’clock.  It was getting dark and snow was falling again.  Minneapolis doesn’t believe in taking Christmas decorations down (it was probably too cold on twelfth night), so strings of white lights in the trees moved as the slight wind stirred the branches, and the the flurries fell.  I felt like Jimmy Stewart running through Bedford Falls.

At the theatre there was a great sense of excitement and anticipation.  It was opening night!  I struggled slightly with that concept, as I had performed last night to a paying audience making that, in my mind, the opening night.  However, that’s the way things are done in the theatre.

In my dressing room the flower content had risen, with a fabulous bunch from Dennis and his team at The Daniel Group.  The scent in the dressing room was beautiful and it was just as well that I do not suffer from Hay Fever.

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But, in amongst all of this excitement and anticipation there was a show to be done, and that meant one thing: I must get into my sports bra, loaded with the mic pack.  Once I had struggled into that, I put myself in Tricia’s hands for the ceremony of the wig.

When Tricia had finished I started getting into costume, and the process was punctuated by various people stopping by to say ‘have a good one!’

The last to leave was Liz, with a good luck kiss, and I was alone in the dressing room. Strangely I was much more nervous for ‘opening night’ than I had been for ‘preview night’.

I made sure I did some good vocal warm up exercises in the green room, and at seven fifty-five Ben called ‘five!’

Along the dark corridor I walked and into the wings.  I made sure that I stayed there, listening intently for my clock chimes.

The audience was much bigger than Thursday, which befitted an official opening night, and again they loved the play and responded perfectly.

At the end I took my four bows (one centre, one each to left and right and a final one to the centre), and exited.

After my rat run through the basement of the Music Box, I made my way into the lobby, where there was much noise and congratulation.

I chatted and signed and shook hands and hugged: all very theatrical and luvvie!  But people were genuinely impressed by the play and we encouraged them all to get on Facebook and Twitter to spread the word among their contacts, so that we can really build a head of steam up during our run in The Twin Cities.

Among the audience were Bob and Pam Byers, who had travelled from Pennsylvania to be at the opening night, which was so generous of them.

Liz and I asked a few people back (aware that our apartment is not that big and we didn’t have that much wine in!).  Dennis, Anne and Chelsea all took a rain check as they were very tired.  Jeff and his wife Lisa accepted, as did Bob, Pam and their friends Sam and Dan.

I changed and we all made our way back to the apartment, where we had a very pleasant wind-down, first-night party.

Saturday

The opening night was not the culmination of all of our efforts.  It was just the beginning.

This fact was hammered home by a Saturday that featured two shows, very close together at five and eight.

The advantage of having the ‘matinee’ in the early evening was that it gave Liz and I the whole day to explore some of Minneapolis together, as this would  be her last full day in America, before returning to England.

As the weather was still slightly warmer (-5 instead of -25), we decided to walk for twenty minutes to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where we spent a wonderful morning admiring American folk art, Frank Lloyd Wright furniture; European paintings, including Van Goughs, Rembrandts,  Monets, Gauguins and many more.  There was a fabulous display of photography and a gallery of Chinese art.  All of this housed on the top floor of three, we didn’t have time to do the rest!

When we got back to the apartment we had some meatloaf for lunch and I got ready to go to the theatre again.  Liz had bought me a salad to eat in the dressing room between performances, so as to keep my energy up and sent me off with that, a banana and instructions to drink lots of water.

Liz was not going to be coming with me to the theatre as she was having a very special evening:  Rosalie was taking her to see Garrison Keillor perform his weekly radio show: The Prairie Home Companion, in St Paul.  We have both been fans of Keillor’s Lake Wobegon monologues for many years, and the opportunity to actually see him live was too good to miss.

Back at The Music Box everything followed a routine that is becoming well set, with one exception:  Because Tricia only came onto the team quite late in the day, she was not able to attend Sunday performances, meaning that on Saturday night she needed to give Chelsea and Ben and quick wig fitting tutorial.

Chelsea was taking pictures of my head, so that she could remember where the various hairpins were situated, and Ben took more of an overview of the whole exercise.  Between us, I was certain we could get the wig properly fixed when we had to.

The first Saturday show went so well: the best yet.  It had energy and humour and an audience who responded well.

After the opening night Dennis had suggested that I come back onto stage for a second bow, as he felt the audience had been on the verge of a standing ovation.  So, On Saturday I did as he had advised and, as in everything, he was right.

The other advice Dennis had offered was not to greet the audience after the matinee, as there was only one hour before the next show started.  Even so Ben came into the dressing room clutching three copies of The Life of our Lord that people wanted signed.

I got out of my costume, even just for an hour and ate my salad and re gummed the front of my wig, which was feeling ever so slightly precarious.

Before I knew it Ben was calling thirty and the house was open: back on duty!

I could feel the entire week catching up with me a bit, so I drank lots of water and went through my vocal exercises as well as a few lines that were still proving occasionally elusive.

The first act was, in all honesty, a bit tired.  The audience was smaller and not as responsive, but that is never an excuse: It is not the audience’s job to respond, it is my job to entertain them.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a perfectly good performance and if I had done this three days ago we’d have been delighted; but I know how the show can feel, so I expect more from myself.

During the interval I re gummed the wig again and looked at myself in the mirror.  Buck up.

The second act was much better and by the time I reached the curtain call the applause was generous, as were the comments in the lobby afterwards.

Liz had arrived at the theatre from her evening out and back at the apartment she told me all about her night in the company of Garrison Keillor.  As we talked we tried not to think about Sunday.

Sunday

Sunday really marked the end of the first hectic week in Minneapolis.  I would be performing for the last time before having two days off.  But the much more graphic indication of the passing of time would be Liz’s departure back to the UK in the evening.

We decided to treat ourselves to breakfast at the Nicolett Diner, which is situated very near the theatre.  The diner was perfect, with its chrome bar stools and vinyl-covered booth seats.  We ordered, and had served up to us, two delicious plates of pancakes, bacon and eggs.  It was the perfect treat.

Back at the apartment we began the long and awful business of preparing for Liz’s departure.  I had to be at the theatre by one, to allow Chelsea extra time to fit the wig.  Liz would be packing while I was getting ready and then would bring her case to the theatre, watch the first act, after which Dennis would drive her to the airport.

It had been so good to have Liz here during the first week.  My rehearsal and performance schedule had been so hectic, that we hadn’t actually spent that much time together, but through it all she had been an absolute tower of support.

She knew exactly when to bully me with line revision, and when to say ‘you’re tired, let’s have a break, let’s go for a walk.’

Being an extremely talented performer in her own right, Liz fully understands the pressures of performing and always says or does the right thing.

She will hate this: but I love her deeply and know I couldn’t do what I do without her.

I walked to the theatre, wrapped up in my scarf, woollen hat and gloves, bracing the icy blast that had returned.  I arrived on the dot of one, but found myself in the middle of yet another technical debate between Dennis, Jeff and Ben.

Dennis was still not happy with how some of the sound effects fitted into the scenes and we all spent about twenty minutes discussing them, changing them and re-blocking as necessary.

Chelsea was hovering nearby getting progressively more worried about the amount of time we had to fix the wig, so when the last cue was fixed we went down to the dressing room and began the operation.

Between us we remembered most of what Tricia had said, and after thirty minutes or so, the wig seemed to be sitting pretty well and tight.  Well done Chelsea!

Liz arrived and wished me good luck and went to take her seat for the first act and I waited for Ben to give me the ‘five’.

The first act was really strong and pacey again, one of the best of the week I would say and the reactions from the audience were superb.

However as the act progressed I could feel the wig shifting at the back slightly.  The front remained gummed to my forehead, but I was conscious of the possibility of things coming unstuck.  As I went through the lines, I was trying to think of some Samson and Delilah adlib that I could use if necessary.

At the interval I hurried back to the dressing room and there was Liz.  We hugged and said our goodbyes and she went away to the airport and I went to my chair and tried to refix the wig.

Chelsea came down to help and stuck a few more pins in and we hoped for the best.

While Chelsea worked I stuck the two ‘secret’ hankies up my sleeve for an effect during one of the scenes, when I produce them with the flourish of Dickens the amateur conjurer.

Before I knew it, Ben was there and it was time to carry on.

Act two continued in the same vein as the first.  The only problem being that in my haste I had stuffed the two hankies too far up my sleeve so I couldn’t reach them for the great reveal.

The applause at the end was wonderful and I took my bows (including Dennis’s extra ones) happily and gratefully.

After meeting and chatting with the audience I went to the dressing room and packed everything away for two days and as I left, my wig looked rather forlorn and lonely.

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I said good bye to everyone and left the theatre.  The apartment was empty: not good.  Although there was a lovely card from Liz saying goodbye.

The balcony looks out towards the airport so I waved at a plane that seemed to be leaving shortly after six.  I hope it was hers, but I may have sent my love to Des Moines, or somewhere.

I didn’t feel like staying in the apartment, so I decided to walk the few blocks to Brit’s Pub, which is, as its name suggests, a bar celebrating all things British.  It even has a bowling green on the roof.

I took my table and gazed at the memorabilia on the walls: signs for Guinness (ok, not strictly British I know), Whitbread, Boddingtons and Shepherd Neame’s Spitfire ale.

There were pictures of members of the Royal Family and charts showing the lines of succession.

There were football shirts representing Liverpool, Manchester United, West Ham and Manchester City (when I say ‘football’, I mean the game we play in the UK, when the players kick the ball with their feet…..).

The menu featured such English dishes as Shepherd’s Pie, Bangers and Mash, Cornish Pastie, Fish and Chips and that most English of dishes: Chicken Tikka Masala.

The music play list included: ‘Up the Junction’ by Squeeze, ‘This Charming Man’ by The Smiths, ‘Changes’ by David Bowie and ‘Happy Birthday’ by Altered Images.

Home from home.

After eating I returned home to the apartment and watched the Oscar ceremony.  I got about as far as ‘Best soundtrack for an animated short factual documentary’ before I fell asleep.

The first week of ‘To Begin With’ was at an end.

On Tuesday morning our review was published in The Star Tribune:

http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/stageandarts/293728001.html

For ticket sales visit:

https://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=26

Approaching the Beginning

Time and tide wait for no man; and neither does the opening night of To Begin With!  The story continues….

After Jeffrey Hatcher (writer and director) returned to Minneapolis I had just under a week before I followed him.  But as much as my mind was filled with the lines and the moves for To Begin With, I still had two performances of Great Expectations to give, one in Portsmouth and one in Somerset.

Both shows went very well and I was delighted with the response to my version of the novel.  Somehow when I perform a piece like Great Expectations it is just as important to me that the adaptation is appreciated as much as the performance itself; and with that thought in my mind, I realised how important it was that I do Jeff’s script full justice.

Friday

On Friday 13th Liz and I packed up our house and prepared to fly to Minneapolis.  We had checked our weather apps and had been told it would be chilly, so we packed extra fleeces and jumpers before heading to the airport.

The Heathrow experience was much more pleasant than usual, in that Liz was travelling with me, so there was no need for the prolonged and painful good bye at the security gate.

Our flight was delayed by an hour or so, as there was a mechanical fault with the plane which needed attending to.  In such circumstances I am more than happy to wait!

On arrival in Minneapolis we stood for an age in the serpentine queue to clear immigration until finally we saw the smiling face and welcoming wave of my old friend, Dennis Babcock.

Dennis, of course, is the producer of To Begin With and our arrival marked the start of a week which will see the realisation of his dream.

As I will be staying in Minneapolis for a month Dennis had arranged a short term let of an apartment, in a building just one block from the theater.  (For my English readers: I will be living in a flat very close to the theatre).

It had been a long day for us and after a quick bite to eat, we had a very early night.

Saturday

Chilly?  One look outside our apartment window told us all that we needed to know about the temperature.  Chilly?  Try -25C

Across the roofscape beneath our apartment every chimney and vent was steaming as the hot air emerged into bitter cold .  Although there was not a blanket of heavy snow on the ground, there were remnants of previous falls, and enough to make the scene beautiful.  Beautiful but oh, so cold.

Redefining cold

Redefining cold

We stood on the balcony of the apartment for about two minutes and redefined our understanding of the word ‘cold’.

My work on To Begin With was to start straight away and we left the apartment wrapped up like Eskimos for the one block walk to the Music Box Theatre.  My first duty was to sit in a chair in the dressing room and let a girl called Tricia put a plastic bag over my head.

Tricia puts a bag on my head.  Jeff looks on

Tricia puts a bag on my head. Jeff looks on

Tricia is in charge of my wig and for the next forty minutes or so, she applied lengths of clear tape to the bag, so as to create an exact mould to work from.  Very kindly she cut a slit for my nose.

When she was finished, Tricia returned to The Guthrie Theater to create, strand by strand, a wig that would transform me into Charles Dickens.

Exit Tricia, enter Nayna. Nayna Ramey is our designer and she has created the set that will act as the backdrop for the multiple scenes in Jeff’s script.  On this production Nayna is also responsible for costume and props, and she had sourced huge amounts of suits, capes, waistcoats, dressing gowns, smoking jackets, trousers and other paraphernalia for me to try on.

With Jeff looking on we worked our way through various combinations.  From the very beginning a few garments leapt up at us and demanded to be used: a great linen suit would be perfect for Dickens spending his summer on the Isle of Wight, and a double breasted green waistcoat looked perfect with the it.

For the second act we decided to be more monochrome and Nayna produced a great black and white waistcoat, although we struggled, bizarrely, to find plain black trousers of the right style….and fit.

In the end we came up with a set of clothing that worked for all of the scenes in both of the acts.

Once all of the hair and costuming requirements had been completed it was upstairs into the lobby of the theatre to begin rehearsing.

The set had been marked out with chairs and I was ready to pick up where I had left off in Didcot.  The team was building by this time and we were joined by Joelle, who works as a stage manager with Dennis’s company.  Joelle would be sitting next to Jeff taking notes of everything that the stage management team may need to refer to during the coming days.

We did a run of the first act and I was very pleased with where it was.  Jeff seemed pleased; Dennis seemed pleased.  We were all pleased.

During the lunch break I had a brief interview with a local newspaper, which carried on a little longer than I had expected, so I never managed to get a sandwich.  Oh well, I could do with losing a few pounds.

In the afternoon we rehearsed for a little longer until it was time to vacate the theatre, so that it could be prepared to welcome audiences for the incumbent show: Triple Espresso.

Liz had been walking to find the local grocery store and get the lay of the land. She returned like a block of ice.

We had a couple of hours in the apartment before going back to the theatre, this time as audience members.  Denis had very kindly sorted out tickets for us to watch Triple Espresso: his hugely successful and long-running show.

We settled in the auditorium, ready to be highly entertained: which we were.  Triple Espresso is a show about three small-time entertainers reuniting and reminiscing about their not-so-successful act.  One is a pianist and singer, one is a physical comedian and the third is a magician.  Of course the script showcases their individual talents, but it is so much more than that and by the end we were weeping with laughter.  A brilliant show, and one I urge that you see if you ever have the opportunity.

Saturday done.  Time moves on.

Sunday

Sunday morning saw the first cut to my beard.  I have been letting it grow long and shaggy so that I could trim and cut it to whatever shape Jeff decided was appropriate for the show.  Hirsute topiary.

He had decided that I should start with just taking a short strip out on each side, leaving long side-burns and a bushy goatee.

Liz assisted in trimming the areas that were to go and I set to work with the razor.  The result was certainly a strange look, but it was a start.

The first cut

The first cut

Back at the theatre we were meeting in an upstairs conference room, as a local Church takes over the stage on a Sunday.

There was Jeff, Joelle, Dennis and a new member of the team today: Dennis’s daughter Chelsea.  Chelsea’s job was to generally assist Jeff, but most particularly to follow the script and to mark any line that I was getting wrong, or omitting.  There she sat: script and pen in hand……

We rehearsed again and I was so aware of Chelsea’s pen, which never seemed to stop!

Towards the end of the session Joelle had to leave and she was replaced by a very important member of the team: Ben Netzley, who will be the production stage manager.

We carried on rehearsing, and I stumbled and bumbled my way through the lines.

We stopped at one, and spent some time discussing the script.  Jeff decided to make some more changes.

Over our weeks of rehearsal the script had been constantly changing, and it was getting difficult for me to remember where the changes had been made.  One scene in particular, which had been transported from act two into act one, was giving me a great deal of trouble.

I left the theatre slightly despondent and quite panic stricken.  There was still a lot of work still to do. Under my arm was Chelsea’s script, which appeared to have pen markings under every line.

Liz was perfect.  She had sat in on the rehearsal, so knew what was going on.  Back at the apartment she suggested that we go for a walk in the clear cold air, and just let it all go for a brief few minutes, which was perfect.  We walked through a nearby park and returned thoroughly energised.  Or cold, as we say in England.

Liz cooked a roast dinner and we watched television.    At 9.30 I had to call a local radio station, and spent ten minutes doing a live interview on The Center Stage programme, to promote the show.

By ten we were both exhausted, as the jet lag was beginning to catch up with us now.  A good night’s sleep was what was needed.

Monday

I woke at four.  Lines, lines lines.  My head was spinning as I lay in bed trying to silently recite.  It was no good: I got up and started to pace going over and over the script.

For two hours or so I worked and then Liz got up and we had some breakfast, before I trimmed more of the beard and got ready for the day ahead.

Today I was not due at the theatre until two pm, so I had the morning to work in the apartment.  Liz was brilliant: she sat with the script and picked up every – and I mean every – slip.  We worked over and over and over.  Good old fashioned line bashing.  It was tiring and frustrating but oh so necessary.

After lunch we turned up at the theatre, and over night the banners above the door had been changed: ‘Gerald Charles Dickens as Charles Dickens in To Begin With.’  Gulp!

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In the auditorium the scene had been transformed. Triple Espresso had finished its run and the morning had been spent getting one set out and another one in.

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The set for To Begin With is simple: consisting of three large windows, three rugs, a chaise, a chair, a table and an ottoman (which has turned into a circular pouf).  There was great activity throughout the auditorium.  Ben was in position behind a bank of computers with Michael Klaers (lighting designer) on one side, and John Markiewicz (sound) on the other.  The three of them would not have looked out of place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Ben, Michael, John

Ben, Michael, John

For the next two days we would be plotting the show technically. I would be running the scenes and stopping at each technical cue, so that Ben could take Michael’s lighting plot and John’s sound plot, mix them together and tuck them away deep into his computer’s memory.

A technical exercise like this is a very long and slow process but absolutely necessary.  Jeff had created a show with plenty of very subtle light changes to reflect certain moods, as well as a complicated soundscape (not just a sound effect every now and then, but a collection of layered effects to create an ambient noise).

Each element of sound and light had to be carefully coordinated.  And as we went through some had to be changed: perhaps the light was in the wrong place, or an effect lasted too long.  Tap tap tap went Ben’s laptop.

In between the effects editing I ran the scenes, and there in the front row was Chelsea, using a green pen, so that I could distinguish today’s mistakes from yesterday’s.

I was wearing as much of the costume as I could, so that we could discover how easy any quick changes would be.  John announced that my microphone pack would be concealed within a sports bra, so as not to be dislodged during the changes.  Did I know what size sports bra I took?  I can honestly say that nobody has ever asked me that question before.

We worked until ten and almost reached the end of the first act.  Tomorrow we would continue.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning was very exciting.  Dennis had arranged a photo shoot so that the local press would have images to include with their stories, which meant full costume and, of course, full wig.

In the dressing room Nayna was bustling around having been working on the costumes all week:  this one shortened, that one lengthened, those taken out and so on.  Inappropriate buttons were removed and replaced with better ones.  She produced piles of cravats to try, as well as packs of new t-shirts and socks for me to wear.

And then the moment arrived: sat in front of the mirror Islowly eased the wig on and there, looking back at me, was Charles Dickens.  It was quite breathtaking: I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

CD appears

CD appears

The wig was amazing.  Tricia had taken the plastic bag covered with tape, and over the last few days had hand-crafted Charles Dickens’s head of hair.  Each strand was woven into a lace skull cap, carefully coiffure into CD’s rather wild style.

Nayna and I did our best to fix it, but both realised that we didn’t really know what we were doing.  As the wig is one of the major expenses of the show we really wanted to have professional advice.

Nayna called Tricia, who promised to come to our rehearsal at around five to show us how to cope with the hairpiece.  We were all mightily relieved.

When I was dressed and wigged, I strode into the auditorium with a renewed confidence: this all felt RIGHT!

The photographer spent forty minutes or so taking a collection of different pictures and when everyone was happy, we continued with the technical blocking.

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We worked our way slowly through the second act and there was Chelsea in the front row: today’s colour was pink.

It went well and we got to the end of the show by 4.30.

Tricia arrived to fit my wig properly, watched by Nayna, Jeff and Dennis.  John (sound) was also there to find the best place to conceal the microphone into the hairpiece.

Like the professional that she is Tricia made the whole thing look and sound ridiculously easy, but it seemed very complicated to us.  When the show actually is running I won’t have Nayna to bustle around me: I will have to do this myself.

Dennis quickly took an executive decision and almost before she knew it, Tricia had agreed to come to the theatre before each performance to fix the hairpiece.  Another member of the team had been added.

When my coiffure was completed and I was in costume, the team was ready to run the show, from beginning to end, with no breaks.  This was such a relief after the last two days and was really our chance to discover where we had got to.

The audience gathered in the auditorium: Dennis and his wife Anne, along with her mother and sister.  Liz was there too.  Nayna was making costume notes, Jeff held fort at his desk in the middle of the auditorium.

In the command centre Ben was flanked by Michael and John.

Blackout.  Sound effect. Enter.

It was so nice to just do the play.  I was very tired from a combination of very early mornings and the busy rehearsal schedule but as the show went on I found more and more energy and was thoroughly enjoying myself until the moment that my mind went completely blank: one line – not even a line I have ever struggled with before – refused to come.

So annoying.  Jeff filled the gap, and I picked up straight away, but it nagged away in my mind.

We ‘took fifteen’ for the interval, during which I changed costume and then we carried on.

Blackout.  Sound effect.  Enter.

The second act was strong and dramatic:  it is more intense than the first and I was very pleased with the way it felt.

I knew that there was still plenty of work to be done over the next couple of days but there was one clear message from that run: we had a show!

When I had changed I went back into the auditorium.  Everyone seemed happy with the way things had gone.  Jeff sent suggested that we met the next day to go through notes, and I should go home and rest.

Liz took charge and eased my weary frame out of the theatre.

It was the first time that she had seen the show since our rehearsed readings in London last year, and she was amazed at how it had grown and come alive.  Everyone was making the right noises.

Now I just needed a good night’s sleep.

Wednesday

I did it!  I made it to six o’clock: a veritable lie-in.

Liz and I mooched during the morning and walked to the nearby shops, bracing the icy blast.  We needed a few bits for the apartment, and wanted to buy good luck cards for the crew of the show.  We went to Macy’s, Barnes and Noble and Target, before returning home.

Liz had booked a session in a local salon and I did some work on my lines before going to the theatre at two to meet with Jeff.

We sat in the dressing room and went through notes from the previous days run, most of which had to do with picking up the pace a little, as well as some corrections to the blocking.

Notes finished, we joined Ben, Michael and John in a strangely deserted auditorium to do a run of the first act.

It all went well (apart from my trying to exit in a blackout and walking straight into one of the window frames: I managed to find enough self-restraint not to utter an expletive which would be out of place in a show about the New Testament).

After the run we spent some time going over lighting cues, making sure that I was standing in exactly the correct spot to make the effect work:  ‘One foot further forward…half a foot to your left.  Back one. There!  That’s where you need to be!’

We were treated to a slightly longer supper break than usual, as Jeff had to get over to the Guthrie Theater to be present at the opening night of another one of his plays.  He is a busy and a talented man, and no mistake.

I went back to the apartment where we had a delicious dinner of steak and chips, and a nice rest before returning to The Music Box to run the second act.

As in the afternoon, we ran the scene before going over the minor and delicate tweaks to light, sound and blocking.

By 9.30 we were finished and I wrapped myself up in hat, scarf and gloves before making the icy walk home.

On Thursday it will be our preview night.  Everything has been leading up to this moment………

Tickets  for To Begin With are available from:

https://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=26
Continue reading

The Beginnings of To Begin With

In the Beginning

‘I am very anxious, dear children, that you should know something about the history of Jesus Christ…’

Sometime between the years of 1847 and 1849 my great great grandfather, Charles Dickens, dipped his pen into his inkwell and wrote those words.

They were not part of a novel, nor where they part of an angry letter fired off to a newspaper.  For a man who lived in the limelight, these words were intensely personal.

Dickens wrote The Life of our Lord for his children, to explain in a way that they could all fully understand a simple story about a simple man.

Charles never quite trusted any organisation that was regulated by the human race.  He saw corruption in government, banking, welfare and medicine (ah, plus ca change!) and so, was suspicious of any particular Church instructing his children.  However he devoutly believed the teachings of the New Testament and reckoned that if his children abided by its rules they would not go far wrong.

And that is where we came in.

For almost 100 years The Life of our Lord remained a private family book until my great grandfather, Henry Fielding Dickens made his final will and testament. Henry was a highly successful lawyer and senior judge in London; he was also the last of Charles Dickens’s children alive and believed that after his death the family should be allowed to publish the book if they wished.

Poor Henry: just before Christmas of 1933 he was crossing the road on the Embankment in London (not far from where his father had worked in a blacking factory).  Heavy motorised traffic was still anathema to a gentleman raised in the Victorian era, and the old man strode into the road, waving his walking cane as a warning to the mechanised masses that he was crossing.  Alas a motorcyclist either did not see him, or did not have time to react, and struck him, inflicting terrible injuries.

My father, not yet ten, was spending the day at Henry’s London home and remembered it vividly:

‘At about lunchtime there was an unexpected ring at the door.  Diffused in the stained glass panel of the front door was the unmistakable outline and blue bulk of a large London policeman.  There were urgent, furtive, whispers and I was bundled away out of sight and hearing.  Pan-Pan had been crossing the road and had been knocked down by a motor cycle.  He was now lying critically injured in hospital.  He died a day or two later.

‘It was a dreadful tragedy.  Gentle old Pan-pan had been deeply loved by everybody….’

While they mourned, the Dickens family held a conference and decided that The Life of our Lord should be published, in accordance with Henry’s wishes.

Rather than producing a grandly bound edition of ‘The Dickens you’ve never heard of’, it was decided to publish it simply in a  newspaper, as the original novels had been published.  So in 1934 The Daily Mail in London began a serialisation of The Life of our Lord.

It can never be said that the Life of our Lord is as rich, earthy and exciting as any of Dickens’s novels; but then again it shouldn’t be.  If it were filled with characters boasting ridiculous names, and situations that make you weep with laughter, it would be a proof that Charles was writing with one eye on his public.  No, The Life of our Lord was definitely for the children:

‘You never saw a locust, because they belong to that country near Jerusalem, which is a great way off.  So do camels, but I think you have seen a camel.  At all events, they are brought over here, sometimes; and if you would like to see one, I will show you one.’

The book is a harmony of the four gospels and tells the story of Christ from his birth to the resurrection; before finishing with a firm reminder to always follow Christ’s teaching and his examples.

To Begin With

For many years I ended my Christmas tours of America at the St Paul Hotel, in Minnesota.  I would stay there for three or four days, doing two shows a day and the atmosphere would be such fun.

The audience would come in their Christmas sweaters and bring gifts to give to friends.  The park outside the hotel was always under a blanket of snow and the hotel served a lavish English tea.

My stage was in the middle of the room and we all celebrated the Christmas season together.  They were certainly happy times.

Every year a theatre producer from Minneapolis, Dennis Babcock, would come to one of my shows.  Dennis is a keen Dickensian and always brought his first edition of A Christmas Carol to the event, so that the audience could see it.

Dennis and I became good friends and each year he would say: ‘one day we must work together, I will find a show that you can do.’ And I filed the promises away in that optimist place that all actors have – the one that never seems to get reopened.

But a few years ago I had a call from Dennis, out of the blue, telling me that he was coming to London and could we get together?  He had someone he wanted me to meet and a project he wished to discuss.

I was, naturally, intrigued.

In London Dennis introduced me to a writer, Jeffrey Hatcher, and then began to outline his new dream: a play based on The Life of our Lord.

It must be said that Dennis’s inspiration for the play was not merely that of a producer trying to cash in on a little-known Dickens story: his love of the story was very very personal.  As a devout Christian he wanted to share Dickens’s faith with audiences.  As a theatre man he wanted to stage a great, entertaining show.

The initial plan was for Jeffrey to chat to plenty of people about the book and to see the places where Dickens wrote it, so that he could come up with a framework for the story.  Immediately it was obvious that just dramatising the book was a non-starter, but there could well be a biographical slant to the script.

I left the meeting wondering if I would hear any more about the project, but excited by the ideas that we had all thrown around.

Silence reigned for a year.

Dennis is nothing if not persistent: when he gets his teeth into an idea he clings on like a terrier, and he had been working hard behind the scenes to secure the beginnings of a budget, so that ‘Faith’ could move forward.

Jeffrey had created a script based on Dickens coming up with the idea of creating The Life of Our Lord, using Charles’s holiday home on the Isle of Wight as the main setting.

Dennis had taken Jeffrey to visit Winterbourne House, and they had discovered that the Swinburne family lived next door.  ‘So,’ thought Jeffrey, ‘what if Dickens had encountered the young Algernon Swinburne during his visit?’

Algernon was known to be a precocious and troubled child.  What would Charles Dickens have made of this flame-headed firebrand…..?

The next stage was to try the script out, at a series of performed readings and try to get feedback from audiences.

I flew to Minneapolis and ‘performed’ the script over a weekend and after each show Dennis, Jeff and I sat on the stage and listened as the many comments came in.  Some wanted more of Christ’s story, some wanted more of Dickens, some wanted more Swinburne.  Some thought it was too preachy, some thought it did not have enough theological content.  Some liked the name.  Some didn’t like the name.

Everyone, however, had an opinion and that was a huge relief to all of us, for it meant we had something worth working on.

After our time in Minneapolis we repeated the exercise in London, once again performing in front of interested parties and gauging their feedback.

One comment that was made over and over was to do with the title.  ‘Faith’ didn’t quite seem to sum up the biographical nature of Jeff’s script.  Could we find a title that shouted ‘DICKENS’ but also maintained a relationship with the Bible?

It was Dennis’s British theatrical advisor, Paul Savident, who came up with the perfect solution: ‘To Begin With’ which has echoes of the first line of John’s gospel: ‘In the beginning there was the word….’, as well as quoting the opening line of Dickens’s most famous work: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’

Armed with a new title, the production team returned to America and began working to create the final version of the show.

Things moved slowly for a while, as Dennis laboured hard to secure investors.  Suddenly, however, it was on!

The Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis was booked for a three week run.  A designer was already working on set, costumes and wigs (I’m sorry?  Did you say wigs…..?)

Jeff was signed to direct his own piece and I was asked to find a rehearsal venue in Britain.

A final script arrived and as soon as I had finished my Christmas season I began work on the line learning.

The learning process was an interesting one:  usually I have written my own scripts, so much of the structure and language is already in my mind.  But ‘To Begin With’ was someone else’s work and I was really starting from scratch- although much of it was unchanged from our public readings, so there was a certain sense of familiarity.

I have written about my line learning process before: it requires constant pacing and movement.  As I was learning in the depths of an English winter I could not avail myself of the garden, so had to pace from kitchen to living room and from living room to kitchen.

‘Disagreeable evening.  Lost an argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God….’

‘Within an hour I was on the ferry to Portsmouth, then made my way to the Theatre Royal and discovered, upon entering, great chaos and commotion….’

‘This is something I wrote so as not to forget: ‘When my father’s debts had set him to penury, it was proposed that I should go into the blacking warehouse at a salary of six shillings a week….’

‘The Miracles!  I wished to impart and  impress upon them, that the miracles Jesus performs are not magic tricks, for they have all of them been to the Hippodrome and seen the illusionists there…’

And so on.

At the start of February Dennis and Jeff arrived in England and we began to work on the show itself.  For the first time in over twenty years I had director telling me what to do, where to stand, how to deliver this or that line.

I have to say it felt very strange at first but as the week went on I realised how exciting the whole process was.  Jeff was brilliant at ‘seeing’ the show and creating all of the different scenes within the set design.

We discussed text and tone, and created light and shade which made the performance so different to the rather bombastic readings I had given last year.

When our week ended I had to get back to the script to tidy my lines up and make sure that everything was firmly cemented into place.  The paraphrasing that I permit myself in my own scripts, has no place here.

And now there is little over a week to go.  On Friday I fly to Minneapolis and will spend plenty of time in the theatre with Jeff and Dennis bringing the show up to yet another level ready for our previews on February 19.

And then it is opening night!

To Begin With will run at The Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis from 20 Feb until 8 March and tickets are available right now

I know I have readers across America and I hope that some of you will be able to make a trip to Minneapolis and be part of this story, right at the start of its life.

Our plan is to then bring the show to London for a short run, before mounting a series of tours throughout the USA in the coming years.

I will keep you updated on the final week’s preparations: the set, the costume and the wig (oh yes, the wig).  It is certainly an exciting time for me and I can’t wait for the house lights to dim and for the stage lights to come up….

‘Disagreeable evening……’

Tickets for ‘To Begin With’ are available at:

http://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances

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