It’s All About the Shows

For the final part of my Aurora trilogy I would like to tell you about my professional life on board and how my shows were performed.

I had been booked by P&O cruises last year to appear on this particular leg of the South American Adventure.  A quick look at the itinerary showed me that I would be on board over multiple sea days, and assumed that my performances would be part of the daytime lecture programme to pass the long hours as we headed southward. I first performed on a cruise ship in October 2006, and then a couple a year for the next few years, and I had always been booked to perform during the day, which was a situation I greatly enjoyed.

I was somewhat surprised then, upon joining Aurora, to discover that my first show would be in the evening of our one and only port day, and it was in the main cabaret slot at 8.30 and 10.30.  Yikes!  I am confident in what I do, and I know that my shows work for a cruise ship audience, but this was an altogether different thing.  Within an hour or two I was talking to the production director on board so that he could understand all of my technical requirements in good time:  Lighting?  Did I have a lighting plot, and a fully marked up script for his team to use during the show?  Umm, really just general stage lighting, if that’s OK.  Alright.  Now, the orchestra, do you have the parts for your musical arrangement with you, and will you be needing a hand held microphone for singing?  Umm, no orchestra, no music, and really just me talking.  OK, will you be using the screen for slides and images.  Umm, no, just the tabs closed behind me please.  OK, How about follow spots?  Umm, don’t really need them, but I suppose we could.  OK, Will you be introducing guests during the show?  Umm, no, just me.

It didn’t sound very cabaret!

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Curzon Theatre

 

That night I made sure that I went to watch the cabaret show, both to enjoy the entertainment, but also to study the reaction of the audience so as to fully understand their expectations and the relationship to the performer.  The show was given by harpist Rebecca Mills and she delighted the audience with her superb playing and her great banter.  Rebecca is from Tyneside and after playing two beautiful pieces she welcomed the audience in her broad Geordie accent and proceeded to tell us her life story (including the brilliant fact that her first car was a converted hearse, it being the only vehicle that her harp would fit in).  Back to the music and the pieces became more flamboyant and virtuosic, which impressed the audience.  At the next chat break Rebecca told us how as a girl she had been inspired by watching Marx Brothers films with her grandfather and of course most particularly by Harpo.  Then she introduced an old Marx Brothers video clip featuring her hero, and left the stage whilst we all wallowed in nostalgia.  When Rebecca remerged she was in a new dress and then proceeded to play a duet with Harpo from the screen – brilliant!

So my show, Mr Dickens is Coming, was looking rather timid and limp in comparison.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is not that I had doubts about the show, for I have performed it many times before and know that it is always well received and greatly enjoyed.  My doubts were how it would be received by this particular crowd.  Usually audiences come to see Mr Dickens is Coming because they have an interest, or the very least a curiosity,  about Charles.  The cabaret audience go to the Curzon theatre because they have just enjoyed a delicious dinner and now want to be entertained, no matter who is on stage.  However if the fare on offer does not satiate their appetite word very soon goes around the ship: ‘Did you see the show last night?  Very poor, very disappointing, not the standard we expect!’

So that was my mind-set as we made our way south.  My first job was to go through the script and come up with a lighting plot to make everything look a little more theatrical, I even managed to find some places to pump smoke onto the stage (another staple of the cabaret performer’s arsenal).  With the script all marked up I sent it to the Production Office so that they could be ready for my show.

If truth be told I was probably making far too much of an issue of a problem that didn’t really exist:  I had performed on the main stage of Aurora, Oriana and Arcadia many times and the shows had always gone down well, what bugged me was this ‘cabaret’ label. I made sure that I went to all of the other shows and watched all of the performers, trying to picture myself in their shoes.  What all of the acts had in common, apart from their artistic prowess, was the connection to the audience – almost flirtatious – so in my mind I worked out how to deliver my lines in such a way as to build that same relationship.

On the day before our arrival in the Falklands I went to the theatre at 11.15 to listen to ex marine Tony Green give the final account of his 1982 experiences and the theatre was packed.  We all listened until the end and then applauded enthusiastically.  Tony bowed modestly and left the stage, to be replaced by John the Cruise Director who announced that Tony had agreed to do a question and answer session in Carmen’s Lounge on the following evening (ie, the evening of my show in the Curzon) at 7.30 and 9.30.

I looked back at the audience and realised that in all probability Tony’s show would be much better attended than mine, as he had built up a following over the past few days, whereas none of the passengers even knew I was on board yet!  I made my way back to the technical booth where I told John that Tony should be in the big venue, and I would perform in Carmen’s instead.  He replied that he had already thought of that but couldn’t decide if it would be the right thing to do, but to leave it to him.

The strange thing was that by this time I was rather looking forward to trying my show (complete with lights and smoke) in the Curzon slot, but I really did genuinely feel that Tony deserved the larger venue and that there would be a lot of disappointed passengers if he was put in the smaller lounge.

That evening, when the Horizons newspaper was delivered to be my cabin I discovered that sure enough Tony Green would appear in the Curzon Theatre at 8.30 and 10.30, whereas Gerald Dickens would perform Mr Dickens is Coming! in Carmen’s Lounge at 6.30 and 9.30.  I’m glad that Tony had been more careful when he was in the Falkland Islands than I had been during that day – I appeared to have shot myself in the foot!

I have described my day on the Islands themselves in a previous post, so I shall pick up the story on the quay side, where I found myself at the back of a very long queue waiting to join a tender and suddenly the wisdom of coming ashore seemed questionable!  I was due to have a production meeting in Carmen’s an hour before the show and it was looking doubtful as to whether I’d even be back on board the ship in time for it.

The P&O Crew were efficient however and in no time I was at the front of the line and boarding the little craft ready to bump my way back to the mother ship.  Without even going back to my cabin to dump my coat and camera I rushed straight to Carmen’s where the production crew were patiently waiting for me.  I made my apologies and we got down to the meeting.  The guys had a copy of my new script, with all of the lighting changes and smoke added, and are worried that they will not be able to give me all that I required, so we reverted to the original plan and I asked just for a plain lighting rig.  The room in Carmen’s is more of a dance venue, so has a very small stage at the back (where a band can be housed behind the curtains), and then a large circular dance floor, surrounded by seats and tables where I would do my stuff.  I did a microphone check and paced around the floor as I would during the show and discover that in the very centre of the floor, under a dome, there is an odd acoustic spot where everything echoes, so I had to be sure not to stand there too much during the performance itself.

Finally we did a quick safety briefing so that I would know where the exits to the deck were, and having signed an official document saying that I had been thus briefed, I went back to my cabin to shower and gather my costume, etc.

I returned to Carmen’s in plenty of time, and it was still deserted.  Would anyone want to come to my show?  Would anyone be interested?  The waiters arrived ready to sell drinks to the audience, and there were twelve of them spread through the room patiently waiting for…..no one!

I sat in a corner wondering if the stewards would actually outnumber the audience, when they started to file in: slowly at first, one by one, but soon Carmen’s was filling up and by the time the 7.30 start time came around there was a goodly crowd waiting for me.

I waited to one side of the stage whilst my introduction was made and then I walked onto the dance floor to the warm applause.  The show starts with a rather serious and stuffy  ‘quote’ which, I explain, is taken from ‘the words of Charles Dickens,’ and which explains how Dickens wanted to pass his legacy down to ‘his family: those members known to me today and those descendants whom I shall never meet.  May they take the pleasures that I have taken from the institution of The Theatre!’  When the quote is over I lay the book down, look to the audience: ‘As I said those were the words of Charles John Huffam Dickens.  Sadly for me he never actually used them in that particular order, but they were all his words at some time or another!’ Lots of laughter, ice broken and we can get on.  That is the plan, anyway, but in Carmen’s, just as I launched into the speech, so the Captain decided to make a long announcement which was broadcast throughout the ship, and I just had to stand waiting patiently until he signed off.    It was rather an anti-climatic start to the evening.

However the rest of the show went well.  The audience squirmed along with Uriah Heep, and laughed when I produced the toy white cat at the end of the James Bond spoof; they gasped in disbelief to hear that Charles refused to meet Queen Victoria on multiple occasions and were silent during the final lines from The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In short the show was superbly received and I could breathe a huge sigh of relief!

The next day my identity on board changed.  From being the rather curious man travelling alone, I was now ‘the Dickens man’, as in: ‘Excuse me, but aren’t you the Dickens man, who did the show?’  People came up to me on deck, in restaurants, or as we sat in the audience at other shows and complimented me, told me about their particular memories of reading Charles Dickens and most importantly asked: ‘when is your next performance?’

Our sail around Cape Horn and through the Beagle Channel took up the next two days and as I have already described it was stunning.  My second show was to be back in Carmen’s at 3.00pm on my last day before leaving Aurora in Punta Arenus and the ship’s grapevine was working overtime.  One gentleman was indignant, ‘You shouldn’t be in Carmen’s!  That’s ridiculous, I’m going to see the Cruise Director to have a word!’

In the meantime I had work to do on my programme, as I had to be confident with the changes that I had made to it. The show was to be Doctor Marigold, which was one of Charles Dickens’ most popular readings in his time, but which is little-known today. The story is told by the titular character who is a market cheapjack. At the start he addresses the audience directly, as if they were a crowd at a country fair, and he is on the back of his waggon selling his wares. The patter is fast-paced and funny and the audience settle down to be entertained in the same manner. After a while however Doctor Marigold decides that he can trust these people and begins to recite his life-story and the audience are suddenly brought crashing back to Earth when he admits that his wife had been an alcoholic abuser who beat their little daughter who subsequently died. Despite this, and other, tragedies Marigold is man of great resilience and the story continues to describe his adoption of a little deaf and dumb granddaughter and how they learn to communicate.

 
The only problem with the show is that it lasts for 60 minutes and the P&O slot is a strict 45, so every day I found a place on the ship (my outside for’ward deck was not an option in the cold and high winds of the Cape, not to mention with the crowds gathered on deck to admire the views), to rehearse. I discovered that Carmen’s itself was quiet in the morning, until the dance instructors turned up at 9 to give private lessons, so each day Doctor Marigold was to be found on the dancefloor perfecting his patter.

 
On the morning of the performance day I rehearsed as usual and then spent the day walking and reading. Lots pf people came to ask when I was on again ‘Carmen’s this afternoon, at 3’. Eventually a lady who was at my dinner table approached me and said ‘are you sure its Carmen’s because the Horizon paper says you are in the Curzon’ A quick check proved her to be correct! The grapevine had done its work and in a reversal of two days before I had been ‘promoted’ into the large theatre.

 
As before I had a technical meeting an hour before curtain up, and I found a set of two steps back stage which would perfectly stand in for the footboard of Marigold’s cart, and that is all I required from the team. The auditorium filled up and by 3pm there was a goodly audience waiting to listen to a piece of Dickens that none of them knew.

 
‘I AM A CHEAPJACK!’ Instantly I (or more accurately he) had the audience’s attention. The Curzon stage was a perfect setting for this show, and in my mind’s eye I was looking over a muddy fairground entertaining the revellers and gentry who had gathered to watch.

 

Whenever Dickens performed a new piece in his repertoire the press would review it as if it were a  west end premiere , and one of the contemporary reviews of Marigold mentioned that the crowd audibly sobbed during the final passages. I am glad to report that the passage of time has not dulled the sentimentality of the human race, for as I uttered the relevant line, so I could hear little gasps from the audience.

 
Marigold had worked its magic as it always does, and I left the stage to great applause. My professional duties on board were over and both shows had gone well. I have not performed on a cruise ship for around three years now, but I greatly enjoyed my time on board Aurora and hope to do more trips with P&O in the future.

 
All of the entertainers who had joined in Montevideo were leaving the next morning, making our ways back to our various homes, so a group of us decided to meet for dinner at Sindhus, which is the signature restaurant designed by Michelin-star celebrity chef Atul Kochha. And so it was that Tony and Jill Green, Rebecca Mills, David Fairclough and myself all dressed up in our dinner jackets and ball gowns (in due deference to the formal night status on board) toasted to a very successful and very happy cruise!

 

ej

Farewell.  l-r: David Fairclough, Jill and Tony Green, Rebecca Mills and GRCD

 

 

 

Advertisements

It Turns a Little Chile as we Round the Horn

Leaving the Falkland Islands behind us we steamed (diesel-ed?)into the night, and when I awoke next morning I discovered that my porthole was blocked by something, for no sun was getting in.  I pulled the curtain back only to discover that the object blocking my view was a view.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We were heading towards Cape Horn and making our tentative way through a narrow channel whose banks seemed to plunge straight down into the sea.  It seemed that only a few feet from our flanks icy waterfalls cascaded from terrific heights to the shores below.

I hurriedly changed and went up onto deck 12 where I joined many other passengers wrapped up against the cold, most of whom were touting cameras with lenses of various lengths and girths (I am sure that a psychologist would come to some very interesting conclusions:  I myself have a little compact model from Olympus…..)

All morning, all day, we made slow progress through the ever changing scenery as cormorants and other sea birds accompanied us, swooping close to the waves and dipping their wingtips in for fun.  Massive glaciers hove into view and we all tried to remember our ‘O’ level geography lessons,  glibly pulling out such terms as ‘terminal moraine’ as if we all had 1st class degrees in the subject.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At mid morning the bows were aimed towards a narrow channel with an island on one side, the mainland on the other and the most perfect Toblerone-shaped mountain dead ahead.  We were at Cape Horn and for the next couple of hours we lazily circumnavigated the Isla Hornos (darned if I can work out what THAT means).

I am reliably informed by one who knows that having passed the Cape from East to West I am now eligible to have a hoop in my right ear.  Although as we went all the way round the island maybe I’m allowed one in the left ear as well, and another in my nose.

It was the most extraordinary thing but the terrain on the northern side of the island was almost exactly the same as the North Sutor which guards the Cromarty Firth in the Highlands of Scotland, where Liz and I retreat to each year.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Isla Hornos

 

north sutor

North Sutor, Cromarty

 

 

As we turned south, so we seemed to pass The Needles from the Isle of White, and I began to doubt whether P&O had brought us to South America at all, and that this was all a great plot to save fuel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Any doubts of our position on the globe were swept away however when we finished our circle and the captain guided Aurora towards The Beagle Channel.  In the distance were massive snow capped peaks of the Southern Andes, which brought forth more ‘O’ level geography memories such as the well remembered joke:

Teacher: ‘Where are the Andes?’

Pupil: ‘At the end of the Armies!’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had to feel sorry for those who were giving lectures during the day for very few people ventured from the decks, terrified that they might miss that perfect view.

Into the evening we sailed and so the sun shone brightly and the views remained spectacular.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The routine of life on board continued, and we all dressed for dinner, squirted alcohol hand sanitizer onto our hands, and rubbed them like hundreds of Uriah Heeps.  Into the restaurant we went, greetings were exchanged, menus consulted, choices made.  With remarkable haste the amazing meals were served and the noise of the chat grew in proportion to the amount of bottles that were uncorked.

Starters, salads, soups, main courses, deserts, cheese boards, coffee and mints came and went and slowly the restaurant began to empty as the guests made their way through the ship to watch Victor Michael, who was performing in the Curzon that night, but sadly for Victor the theatre remained sparsely populated because alongside the ship dolphins and whales had been spotted.  There are many things that performers can overcome, but what they cannot compete with are cute dolphins and majestic whales: sometimes it is just a question of excepting defeat!

Into another night we sailed, and it had to have been one of the most remarkable day’s travelling that I have ever experienced – I had no idea that we would get so close and personal to the scenery and it left an impression that I will never forget.

In my final blog post from this trip I will talk about my time on board, and my shows.

 

To The Falklands and Beyond

Safely aboard P&O’s mid size cruise ship the Aurora I joined the 1,873 other passengers as we prepared to sail from Montevideo and into the South Atlantic Ocean, or next destination being The Falkland Islands where we were due to arrive three days later.  I had been booked to be on board for a week, but the cruise itself was a 65 day marathon, so my shipmates were seasoned travellers by this time.

Life on board soon settled down into a regular routine, which on sea days basically meant filling the time between meals.  I usually wake early in the morning and being on a ship didn’t change that, and  often used that time to go over my lines.  On Aurora there is a small bit of deck, just above the bridge, that I used to pace around and mutter the lines to Doctor Marigold (at least I muttered some of the lines, as I had to shorten my performance from an hour to 45 minutes – the official P&O time for shows and lectures).

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ready to Rehearse

 

With the line learning completed I would go to the buffet and pile up a plate for breakfast – sometimes fruit and cereals, sometimes cooked.  Sometimes poached fish, sometimes the full English.  Sometimes toast, sometimes croissant.  With such variations did I pass my mornings!

Being on board as an entertainer who hasn’t done anything yet can be a lonely existence as nobody quite knows why you are there, so I tended to read a lot and walk the decks.

At 11.15 each morning the lectures began and on this trip I was in for a real treat.  P&O had booked a gentleman of my age by the name of Tony Green to talk about the Falklands war, but these were to be no dry, academic lectures recounting endless statistics and dates – in 1982 Tony was a 19 year-old Marine, getting ready to leave his barracks and go home to Hartlepool for Easter.  However the word came through from Westminster and overnight all leave was cancelled, Hartlepool became Goose Green.

Tony’s talks were masterpieces of delivery, he just told his story in the most personal manner you can imagine – yes he listed dates and casualty figures, but we knew we were listening to a frightened young boy in the heat (or cold) of war.  Churchill once wrote that ‘Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at….’  Tony strongly disagreed!

What made the lectures even more moving was the fact that Tony would be returning to the Falklands for the first time since the war, and was planning to climb Two Sisters Mountain and visit the remains of the Argentinian machine gun post that he had destroyed by flinging a grenade into it 36 years ago.  By quirk of coincidence he left the Falklands on board a P&O ship (the requisitioned Canberra) and was now returning on another.

After the lecture is was back to the buffet for lunch (usually a salad) before spending an afternoon either reading or watching films in my cabin or the small cinema on deck 8.

To fully accommodate all 1,874 guests the dinner service is divided into two sittings, one at 6.30 and the second at 8.30.  The evening entertainment is arranged so that each group of diners can watch everything that is going on.  I was placed on a table at the first sitting, and very much enjoyed the company of a group of committed cruisers who had circumnavigated the globe many times.  This wealth of experience did create a slight shadow over the cruise, for one of our number – a 91 year old – had visited The Falklands on three previous occasions and because of strong winds had never been able to get ashore.   To think of Tony making his pilgrimage and having to sail straight by was too awful to think about; we had to hope that the Gods would be smiling on us.  As John, the Cruise Director muttered after one of Tony’s lectures, ‘If General Galtierie could get ashore then so can we!’

After dinner was finished (5 courses is you wished to avail yourself of everything, although I restricted myself to 3), most people made their way to the Curzon Theatre to watch the evening cabaret show.  On this leg of the journey we had a harpist and two vocalists, all of whom I got to know during the trip.  The shows featured lots of dry ice and swirling lights to back up the fabulous performances.  Every performer was backed by the seven-piece Aurora Orchestra who only get a single rehearsal for each show, learning new arrangements for songs they have played many times before.

The days and the sea passed by and the weather reports for our arrival in the Falklands were promising.  Every day I made my way round the ship refusing to take lifts between decks, so that I could walk off some of those calories that I took on three times a daily.

As we got closer to land I had a decision to make:  my first show was scheduled for the evening of the Falklands visit, and the professional thing to do was to stay on board and rest or rehearse, but when would I ever get the chance to return here?  I so wanted to see the landscape, and get up close and personal with the penguins which inhabit the beaches.  In the end my decision was made by the harpist Rebecca Mills, who was booking a private trip to Volunteer Point, and was looking for three others to share the cost.  ‘Bugger professionalism’, I recklessly thought and told her ‘yes’.

The day of the Falklands dawned bright, and more importantly calm.  We navigated carefully between the islets until we were just outside the harbour of Port Stanley where we dropped anchor.

ca

Soon the little tenders were ferrying passengers from Aurora to the shore where we were met by a fleet of various 4x4s.  Rebecca’s group was completed by Liverpool football legend David Fairclough and Jill Green (Tony’s wife, who came with us while he faced his memories on Two Sisters).  We were introduced to Michael, our driver for the day, folded ourselves uncomfortably into a proper British Land Rover Defender and headed off.

The drive to Volunteer Point would take us two hours, even though it looked to be no distance on the map.  The reason for the tardy journey soon became apparent as we turned off the road and started to pick our way through the bogs of the Falklands.  Michael kept the car in high range and low gears with the differentials locked, gently letting the rugged tyres find whatever grip was available to them.  We plunged down steep banks and mounted impossible climbs.  There were five cars in our convoy and we stuck together so that if anyone got stuck another car could winch them out again.

Michael knew his territory well and seemed to be using the Force to navigate. The way in which he gently guided the wheels brought to mind Tony’s description of the way that the Marines gently  eased their boots into the soft ground, trying to feel the hardness of a landmine beneath their soles, before allowing their full weight to fall on the trigger.

Eventually we arrived at Volunteer Point and spent an hour and a half among the penguins.  Oh, oh how amazing these creatures are: so proud, so trusting, so comical, so smelly!

From the Land Rover I walked straight to the beach, which has the most extraordinary sand – white with a hint of coral pink streaked through it like raspberry ripple ice cream.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A few birds were making their way back from a quick bathe, whilst a group of four were waddling down to make their ablutions.

 

One of the sea-bound penguins was so keen that he kept flinging himself onto his stomach in the slightest of puddles, only to struggle back onto his flippers to continue the march, whilst the others looked on dismissively.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Having spent time on the beach I then walked back towards the main colony, pausing only to marvel at the strange sight of penguins sharing a field with sheep and cattle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the main colony a few circles had been marked out with white stones, and the penguins crowded into this safe haven seemingly knowing that the humans had been given instructions not to cross the line.

There are three species at Volunteer Point – the Kings, the Megellanic and Gentoo and each species has its own circle where they can lay and protect their eggs.

After a packed lunch (cheese and pickle sandwiches, prawn cocktail flavoured crisps and of course a Penguin chocolate bar), it was time to climb back into our Land Rover for the slow crawl back to Port Stanley.

Michael was not only a great driver but also a fascinating guide, giving us many insights of life on the Falklands.  There seems to be a real sense of community and everyone looks out for everyone else.  There have been occasions when cruise ships have disgorged their passengers in the morning only for the winds to get up during the day meaning that they can’t get back, and then the phone call goes round to see who can offer beds – 1 here, 2 there, the Finlayson’s children are away so they can provide three beds, and so on.

As far as groceries are concerned the Islands are quite self sufficient (a lot of lamb is consumed), but would you believe many people order online from Asda, and approximately eight weeks later the goods arrive from Blighty.

At one point Jill asked if there is a majority wish to remain British and Michael chuckled: ‘We had a referendum a couple of years ago and the result was 98.8% in favour.  We never found out who the .2% were – they must still be in hiding!’

Finally we made our way back to the road and turned towards Port Stanley but before we got there Michael pulled over and pointed out two twisted piles of metal in the middle of the landscape: the wrecks of Argentinian helicopters left where they crashed in ’82 are a stark and morbid reminder of the war.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

All in all it was an amazing day and I felt greatly privileged to have been there.  I joined the queue on the quay to get a tender back to Aurora and that night we left this little piece of Britain behind us.  On board the routine of the cruise resumed, and at 7.30 passengers made their way to Carmen’s lounge to watch Mr Dickens is Coming! before dining.

In my next post I will describe our journey around Cape Horn and through the Beagle Channel.

 

 

 

 

 

Flying South for the Winter

For the past seven days I have been bobbing about in the South Atlantic.  Over the next few days I will post a few selections of my adventures:

 

Since Christmas I have been at home with Liz. The long weeks of the tour are a series of happy memories, and home life has taken over. Much has gone on in Oxfordshire: we have been starting to market my shows various grand stately homes, and we have discovered a brand new cinema in Oxford that is extremely civilised and serves humous and flatbreads, as well as allowing you to take a glass of wine (in a real glass) into the film with you. Oh yes, the Curzon is an extremely middle classed cinema geared perfectly to the local clientele. In the comfy seats (little sofas to snuggle up on) we have watched The Greatest Showman, The Darkest Hour and The Post, all of which we have enjoyed immensely.

 
But this week it was time for me to travel again as last year I had been booked by P&O Cruises to provide some entertainment on board Aurora as part of her South American Grand Tour.

 
Sunday 21 January
I am used to flying of course, but usually I have to be at Heathrow airport good and early ready to board a flight at 9.00am, or some such time. Today however I am not due to leave British soil until 8.20 in the evening so we have the entire day to get ready. As the shroud of night is pulled back and dawn allowed to make her presence felt I am amazed to see snow – real snow with heavy flakes – falling over our garden. Not only is snow falling, but it is laying too and soon the grass, the flower beds, the paths, the shed and our cars is covered in white. There is something about the snow that brings back such happy memories of childhood and Liz and I watch from our upstairs window in delight.

 
This being England the snow doesn’t last long and by 10 o’clock the precipitation has changed to rain, accompanied by a thick misty fog which doesn’t lift for the rest of the day.

 
I spend the day packing my cases not entirely sure what weather conditions will await me in the South Atlantic, but hopefully covering a few bases. The traffic can be very heavy on a Sunday night as various London folk return from their weekend homes, so we decide to leave plenty of time to get to the airport. If anything the fog is thicker and the rain heavier than at any time of the day, and seems to mirror our moods as we prepare to part once more.

 
We were right to leave plenty of time, for soon after joining the M40 we run into the back of a long traffic jam. We edge forward inch by inch, getting dazzled by the very bright brake lights of the Jaguar in front of us. The Sat Nav gives us gloomy predictions of our arrival time and has no better suggestions, so we inch and we inch and we inch, wondering if I might not be heading south after all.

 
Eventually we see a smear of emergency lights flashing through the fog and we crawl pass the wreck of a car, which seems to have damage to every single panel, being loaded onto a flatbed truck. Once clear of the accident scene we speed on our away again and reach the airport bang on schedule.

 
The curb side drop off zone at Terminal 3 has been the scene of many tearful goodbyes over the years and today we add another one as we hug not caring about the rain. I pull my suitcases out of the car and watch Liz drive away, before starting to walk towards the terminal. For some reason I don’t seem to be able to maintain control of my luggage and it is only in the dry of the building that I discover that one of the wheels on my large case has sheared clean off (presumably as I was unloading it just now), meaning that I have only three wheels on my wagon from now on, which promises to make things rather awkward.

aa1
I am due to fly with Latam Airlines, a carrier that I have never heard of, but was reassured a couple of days ago to see that they had flown the Pope to Brazil, so they must be OK. I check in quickly (having to sign a form declaring that my case was damaged before entrusting it to their care), and in no time an walking to the gate and getting ready to board. The plane is a nice modern 777 and the Brazilian crew are friendly and welcoming. I do not understand Portuguese but I have flown enough to know exactly what they are saying. I do up my seat belt, I stow my carry on bags, I put my tray table in the upright and locked position and I remind myself that smoking in the lavatory is not to be attempted as there are smoke detectors there – yes my Portuguese is coming on well.

 

 

Also on the flight is a large group of P&O crew (wearing sweatshirts and carrying kit bags with the company logo), who will all be joining Aurora for the beginning of a new contract. My time onboard is only seven days and I can’t imagine the pain of the goodbyes that they have had to say as they leave for 3, 6 or 9 months away from their homes.

 
The flight is bound for Sau Paulo in Brazil, and will last just over eleven hours through the night. I scroll through the movie options and decide to re-watch The Artist which did so well at the Oscars a few years ago. I plug in my headphones (surely somewhat superfluous?) and settle back to enjoy the film.

 
Dinner is served – I have a smoked salmon salad, which is rather nice – and watch to the end of The Artist. Next up Skyfall, and I cover myself with a Latam rug and lean on a Latam pillow and let myself doze off. Bond fails to keep my attention and half way through the film I turn the monitor off and settle down to sleep. The night is restless, but I do manage to get some shut eye and when I wake and check the flight map I am amazed to discover that we are only an hour and forty minutes from Sao Paulo.

 
I resume Skyfall and watch to the end before, enjoying a breakfast omelette and potatoes which is served an hour before arrival.

 

 

Monday 22 January
Flying into Sau Paulo brings many childhood thoughts to my mind, for it sums up (to me, at least) the centre of the Brazilian Formula 1 industry. Back in the early 1970s when I first became interested in the sport the Grand Prix was held at The Interlagos circuit in the city, a sinuous switch back circuit built in a valley between two lakes (the name of the circuit means ‘between the lakes’). The local heroes of the day were Carlos Pace (who the circuit is now named in memory of) driving for the Brabham team, and Emerson Fittipaldi who drove one of my beloved Lotuses to the World Championship in 72. These men opened the flood gates and soon the racing world was filled with talented Brazilian drivers including Nelson Piquet and of course the mercurial and brilliant Ayrton Senna who is buried in the city.

 
Although the GP switched to Rio in the late seventies and early eighties, it came back to a shortened version of Interlagos and now is permanently homed here. I’d love to spend time in the City and pay a visit to the both the track and Senna’s grave but unfortunately I only have a couple of hours layover before my next flight (and it is 5am!).

 
As I am transiting straight to Uruguay I don’t have to clear immigration in Brazil so apart from a quick security check I am soon at the gate awaiting to board a smaller plane to Montevideo along with the rest of my P&O colleagues.

 
By the time we take off it is daylight again and I look hopefully down at the massive sprawling city trying to catch a glimpse of the racing circuit and although I can see lots of lakes there doesn’t seem to be much between any of them. I do however see miles and miles of the favelas – the poverty-stricken shanty towns that blight all large Brazilian cities.

 
The flight lasts for about two hours and follows the west coast of South America, with rivers and sea glinting through the high clouds.

aab

Latam come up trumps and serve a choice of ham and cheese roll or a muffin to accompany my coffee – the major airlines struggle to serve a bag of peanuts these days, so the snack is welcome. A babble of Portuguese comes over the intercom and my newly-discovered linguistic skills help me to deduce that we are beginning our descent into Montevideo airport.

 
As we break through the clouds I see that we are over the docks and immediately below me is my home for the next 7 days – Aurora moored next to a massive cargo ship, and resplendent with her blue funnel. I haven’t been on a cruise ship for around three years and in the intervening period P&O have undergone a re-branding. The ships had traditionally been white-hulled with pale yellow funnels, but now the prows have a large Union Flag design painted on them and the funnels are blue. ‘Harrumph!’ say us traditionalists, although I must admit it does look rather smart.


The airport is right on the other side of the city and it takes quite a while to make our landing. As in any airport I stand with hundreds of other people waiting to clear immigration (although I am able to use an electronic passport reader and get through quickly), and then waiting for my bags which take an agonisingly long time to come through.

 
Eventually I grab my large suit carrier and my three-wheeled case and make my way out into the lobby where I am greeted by a man holding an ‘Aurora’ sign. I will be on board as a passenger, whilst all of the others on my flight are crew, so have to go through different immigration checks and will be taken to the ship in a mini bus. I get a car and we start the long drive back to the docks.

 
Montevideo is an impressive city, and is on the banks of the River Plate, although the mouth of the river is so wide that you cannot see the opposite bank. A huge sweeping curve of a beach is filled with people playing in the surf or just soaking up the rays. It is like a Californian city with the Spanish architecture and palms alongside the sands. Inevitably much of the building caters to the holiday market and there is a succession of rather drab, dare I say Eastern bloc-looking hotels, but as we get nearer to the docks it is apparent that here lies the ancient part of the town and the architecture becomes more interesting again.

 
Aurora is the only cruise ship in port, although the container ship that I saw from above dominates the skyline with its multi-coloured metal containers piled high, ready to take whatever to wherever.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
My taxi pulls up along side Aurora and in the cool of the shade that her hull provides I complete the paperwork to allow me onboard. My cabin is on deck 10 (so quite high up), and right towards the bows which means if we hit heavy oceans in the Southern Ocean I could be in for quite a rollercoaster ride!

 
Even though it has been a few years since last I was on a ship like this everything is reassuringly familiar. I unpack and then go for a walk to discover my bearings. Theatre, restaurants, bars, library, cinema all as and where I remember them.
On returning to my cabin I see that I have received a packet from the Production Manager informing me of my show times and I am quite surprised to discover that my first show (Mr Dickens is Coming!) has been scheduled in the cabaret slot in the main theatre on 26 January – 2 shows at 8.30 and 10.30. Usually my gigs are during the day as part of the lecture programme, so this is quite a promotion! The passengers are used to seeing top comics, brassy singers, old-fashioned crooners and large glitzy shows with high-kicking dancing girls: I hope that I’m up to it (not the high-kicking, I think I’ll give that a miss this year).

 
I mooch around the ship for the rest of the day and admire the scenery. Also in port is the might of the Uruguayan Navy (rather a motley collection of small ships, including one that proudly boasts number ‘1. It would appear that Uruguay is not too worried about an imminent attack from the sea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Might of the Uruguayan Navy

Another feature of our birth is just outside the harbour walls, where there is a boat’s graveyard. A collection of what appear to be fishing boats rust in various states of submergence. It is a rather sad reminder of Montevideo’s moment of international fame when the German warship Graf Spee scuttled in the bay.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
I have a salad lunch from the buffet and do a little rehearsing in my cabin, before going to a ‘safety briefing’ in one of the meeting rooms. There is only me and a harpist (Rebecca Mills who has also joined the ship today) present. We are greeted by a member of the Entertainment team who runs through the required briefing knowing full well that we have both heard it many times before.

 
For dinner I sit out on the rear deck and have a delicious steak as a 5 piece band serenades the guests with a selection of easy-listening songs from the 70s (Neil Sedaka features prominently), each of which is followed with ‘thanks guys, thank you so much, yeah, thanks guys’ even when nobody applauds: it is a tough gig for a band.

 
Having finished dinner I return to my cabin fairly early and get ready for bed. It has been a long day, or days, and I am looking forward to catching up with some real sleep and then tomorrow I will explore a little of Montevideo.

 

 

The End of the Tour

And so it has arrived.  After 47 days on the road the final day of the 2017 USA tour has dawned.  Strictly speaking I beat the dawn as I have to get up and ready to be at a television studio at 7.15.  I decide not to wear costume today and simply don a smart shirt and cashmere sweater for the interview.

The Fox 9 station is actually situated in Eden Prairie where I performed two days ago, and there is hardly any traffic at this hour.  I arrive in good time and pull into the almost empty parking lot shortly before the Martin, the PR guru also arrives.

The station is almost deserted with one man on the front desk, one girl in the news room, one floor manager, one meteorologist and Leah, the anchor who will interview me.  Martin and I go to the greenroom and manage to track down some coffee which is greatly needed.

After waiting for around twenty minutes I am called into the studio where I am fitted with a microphone and sat at a large Perspex desk to await Leah.  The interview is very good and Leah has done plenty of research and is genuinely interested and excited about the prospect of me performing in The Twin Cities (she is better prepared than one breakfast TV team I remember who had a reputation for bad research and asked the founder of the Cirque du Soleil how many animals the troupe travelled with).

With the interview done I go back to the car and as I drive back towards Minneapolis I can truthfully repeat my opening statement: the final day of the 2017 USA actually dawns.

As I enter the lobby of the hotel it is a sea of purple and white, for the Minnesota Vikings are playing today and the hotel is full of fans (one would of thought that a hotel might be full of the visiting fans, but there is not a Cincinnati Bengals shirt to be seen, although there is one rather incongruous Green Bay Packers fan swimming against the tide.

My breakfast is positively British this morning (I must be getting truly homesick), I start with porridge, then toast some bread, heap scrambled eggs on it, adding bacon and sausage to the side; not a waffle or pancake, or a drop of maple syrup in site.

I have a couple of hours to kill before I am due to meet Jeff, the owner of the Aster Café, to go over the day’s events.  At ten o’clock I return to the lobby and watch the hoards of fans leaving the hotel and heading for the game.  Many are sat at the bar where the beers and wines are already flowing.  After a while I see Jeff pull up in an immensely impressive pick up truck and I jump up next to him.  Jeff and I first met in March when I was in town with To Begin With, but he has a long relationship with the family, originally getting to know Cedric and more recently Ian.

Our first stop is a house that Jeff is selling, which sits in the shadow of the football stadium and we drive through the purple lava that is flowing through the streets of Minneapolis and pull into the driveway.  The house is an extraordinary Tolkeinesque dwelling with quirky iron work and stained glass everywhere.  Jeff had been hoping to sell it to a microbrewery, and one would of thought that its proximity to the stadium would have been a huge bonus, but sadly the sale fell through.  There is a viewing of the house tomorrow and Jeff wants to check how the decorating is going.

The upstairs accommodation gives the most remarkable view of the US Bank football stadium, which was only built two years ago.  The stadium is fully enclosed and is designed to represent the prow of a Viking ship sailing into the city, although its matt black finish make it look more like a stealth warship – it is a truly remarkable building and dominates the skyline.

20171217_101901

From the stadium we drive to the Aster Café where Jeff shows me the River Room where I am to perform: the stage is small and surrounded on three sides by chairs and reminds me rather of the set up at the Vaillancourts mill in Massachusetts.  Jeff has been holding music events here for years but is keen to branch out into theatre and my show is the first dip of the toe.  There is a definite charm about the room and I am sure that the atmosphere will be superb tonight.

With the site check finished Jeff drives me back to the Hilton, although I don’t go back to my room yet as I want to walk in the city for a while.  When I was here in March the whole of Nicollet Mall (one of the main thoroughfares)  was undergoing a major remodelling, and the great gashes in the ground suggested that something remarkable was going to be created – the US Bank Stadium is testament to the vision of the city.  So I was somewhat surprised and disappointed to discover that the finished mall looks just as it did three years ago!  The project has cost the city 60 gazillion dollars, and led to many businesses closing during the years of disruption, and for what?  Not very much would seem to be the answer.

 

20171217_113750

60 gazillions worth….

 

For old time’s sake I walk up to the Lund’s grocery store which is where I regularly shopped when I was here for To Begin With, and buy a salad for my lunch.  From Lunds I walk through the snow covered Loring Park, where a Christmas Market is on, featuring a giant mechanical Arctic wolf and a similarly animated Moose which children can move by pulling on ropes or by peddling a fixed bicycle.  The air is filled with the scent of cooking and spicy punches.

20171217_120034

From the park I continue my nostalgic walk past the two apartment blocks where I stayed, and then past the two venues where I performed, The Music Box and the Old Wesley Center, and then I am back at the Hilton where the bar is still full of fans.

I go back to my room and turn the TV on and discover that the Star Wars Marathon is still going on, fortunately it has now reached the original movies and as I eat my lunch I revel in the brilliance of the ‘first’ film.

The afternoon passes slowly until it is time to pack my things up and drive back to the Café.  I am aware that the first hints of a cold are starting to make themselves felt, which is not surprising I suppose, but I hope I can ward off the worst of it until all of my shows (including those in England) have been completed.  At around 3 O’ clock I can get online and check in for my flight home, which is a wonderful moment for it marks the first step in the two days that will lead to my reunion with Liz.

At the café the staff are busy preparing for the event, David is my tech guy and we do a microphone check, although I really don’t think I need one in this small space.

The doors are due to open at 6, even though the show is not until 7.30, but the audience is already gathering outside the door.  Sonia, who is looking after front of house, does a good job of chatting to them and keeping them informed.

With all the preparations completed I absent myself from the River Room, and take a few photographs of the café and of the remarkable view back towards the city – there is a slight fog in the air that gives the skyline an extraordinary golden aura.

20171217_172641

Back inside I meet up with Dennis Babcock who has come to watch the show tonight, which is kind of him.  He is wearing his Pickwick Club Tie, and if Jeff should happen to turn up without his then a bottle of port will be the forfeit (such are the rules of the club).

I retreat to my dressing room, which is actually an empty shop unit on the upper floors of the old mill building and far removed from the bustle downstairs.  The time seems to pass slowly but I have plenty of time to reflect on the last few weeks and on the adventures that I have had.

Eventually Jeff comes up and says that we are ready to start the show (I notice that he does NOT have his club tie on and wonder if the forfeit has been paid).

The audience are packed in and there is a fabulous atmosphere in the room, I really can’t think of a better venue to finish up the trip.  Outside the windows the lights of Minneapolis twinkle, whilst the stage lighting is enhanced by candlelight throughout the room.

The intimacy of the show is wonderful, and I am able to capture the gentle narrative of the novel itself as I tell the story.  Sometimes a Minnesotan audience can be quiet and stoic, but this group are not – they react and are completely engaged in the show from beginning to end.  I give one of my best performances for quite a while and love every minute of the evening.

When I leave the stage having taken the applause a very kind young gentleman hands me a glass of beer, which is very welcome, and I toast the tour before taking a large gulp.

I quickly run back to my upstairs shop and change before returning to the River Room to mingle with the audience.  This sort of sums up the atmosphere of the whole event, there is no formal desk to sign at, no orderly line, just lots of people who want to chat.  And there are so many people here that I have met before: people with a book that I signed at The St Paul Hotel in 2002, people that I met at The Abbey resort in the mid 2000s and shared dinner with (who give me a bag of presents which include a Chicago scarf, a baseball cap and a toothbrush – the gentleman is a dentist and it is an old joke between us), there are people who saw me at the Arboretum last year, and others who watched To Begin With at The Wesley Center: really quite the fan club!

In particular it is great to see a  contingent from To Begin With, for as well as Dennis, there is Bob who was the production designer of our second run, and Kasey who looked after the social media promotion as well as my wig (a strange combination of talents!).  We all chat and catch up and pose on the stage and discuss the show.

received_10210385824897751

Eventually it is time for everyone to leave, and I hug my goodbyes, before changing upstairs and gathering all of my belongings.  I say goodbye to Jeff, who is very pleased with the event and would like to expand it to more nights next year, and make the Aster my new home in the Twin Cities.

I drive back to the hotel where the bar is STILL full of Vikings fans.  There is a guard at the lifts making sure that no non-guests make it up to the bedroom floors, and I have a great deal of trouble finding my room key whilst balancing two costumes, a top hat, a cane and various gifts, not to mention the little roller case.  Eventually I prove that I am indeed a resident at the hotel and not some suspicious stalker, and get back to my room on the 11th floor where I hang my costumes and shirts up to air for the last time.

I go back to the bar where I look incongruous among the Vikings.  I order a dessert and a glass of wine and congratulate myself on a job well done.

As I sit alone on my bar stool a sad little footnote to the tour pops up onto my Facebook feed: Pat and LaVerne from the Golden Goose in Occoquan have decided to retire and close the store in February.  I have had such happy times in that little shop and shared such close friendship with them.  I send a message wishing them a happy retirement and thanking them for all of the great opportunities that they have given me to perform in the little Ebenezer Chapel.

I return to my room and know that I will sleep very well tonight.

 

20171218_063350

The Tour’s End

 

 

NB: Two of the most ardent followers of this blog back in the UK are Liz’s colleague Penny Durant and her husband Jon.  Please share my congratulations with them for the birth of little Beatrice Esme.  I look forward to meeting her soon.

 

 

 

 

 

The Final Day Off

Today is my final day off, which seems a bit strange on the penultimate day of the tour, but I have nothing that I need to do and nowhere that I need to be.  The day is mine!

I had thought about driving out to the Mall of America to look for some Christmas presents but that seems like a ridiculous idea for a couple of reasons: firstly the second last Saturday before Christmas in the largest shopping mall in America sounds like an extra circle of Hell that Dante would have incorporated if he had lived to see it.  Secondly my flight on Monday is not until 3 pm and the mall is close to the airport, so it makes sense to kill those two birds with one stone.

Instead I decide that after breakfast I will drive up to the magnificent Minneapolis Institute of Art and spend a morning admiring the beautiful paintings and artefacts there.  Over the past three years I have had 2 extended stays in Minneapolis to perform To Begin With and MIA has always been one of my favourite diversions.

Having enjoyed the Hilton’s buffet breakfast and got myself ready, I fetch the car from the ludicrously expensive parking garage beneath the hotel and drive out into the streets of Minneapolis.  At the first red light I discover that the Ford Escape is one of those cars that automatically shuts itself down when you stop, which is very disconcerting and I have to keep reminding myself that this is an effort to reduce emissions and that I have not rented a frighteningly unreliable vehicle.  The drive to MIA is very short, and if the weather had been better I would have walked, but the pavements (sidewalks) are covered with icy snow and it is a grey cloudy day which would make perambulatory activities uncomfortable and possibly dangerous.

At the museum I spend a very happy couple of hours wandering through the galleries, and admiring many pictures that have made an impression before, and others which I am seeing for the first time.  When I have seen about as many paintings as I think I want to see today I go and have a coffee before mooching around the coffee and gift shops and I am delighted to find my cousin Lucinda’s book about beards and moustaches on the shelf (of the gift shop, of course, not the coffee shop!)

20171216_104701

Firmly in tourist mode I now decide to drive towards the Mill City museum by the river, which celebrates the city’s milling trade.  The museum is right next to the Guthrie Theatre and it is a struggle to find anywhere to park because the audience are arriving for a matinee performance of, you guessed it, A Christmas Carol!  I notice that the other show playing this month is Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, so it is obviously the British ghost story season at the Guthrie.

Eventually I find an on-street parking spot and having worked out how to pay I go to Mill City.  The museum is, as the name suggests, built in an old mill that was partially destroyed by fire, but they have mounted an interesting exhibition using a mixture of the ruins and more modern additions.

20171216_131527

The central part of the visit is a ride in a huge industrial elevator which hops from floor to floor, showing us various rooms and machines as they would have been in the mill’s heyday, whist a recorded narration from people who actually worked here tells the story.  The museum does the best it can with a rather limited story to tell, but the highlight of the trip is standing on the observation platform at the very top of the building looking over the St Anthony’s Falls, around which the entire City grew.   And as I  admire the view I can see the Aster Café on the other side of the river, where I will be performing tomorrow evening.

20171216_131717

Having learnt as much about grain and flour as I want to, I return to my car and drive back to the hotel once more.  Although I said that I didn’t have any work to do I realised when I was out that I have two three shows to perform in England next week, and they have to be the longer 2-act version, so I spend a little bit of time going over the extra lines that I will have to shoehorn in to what has become such a  familiar script.

I don’t spend too long working, and soon I have the television on am watching Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, which is the first of the prequel trilogy featuring that woeful creation Jar Jar Binks.

At 5 o’clock I am due to meet my old friend, and producer of To Begin With, Dennis Babcock, and I make my way back to Brits Pub which is our rendezvous point.  The place is heaving just like a British pub would be on a Saturday night.  I am first to arrive so put my name down for a table and at the very instant that my name is called, so Dennis walks through the door, which is a perfect piece of timing.

We sit at our little table before a roaring fire, and begin to talk about what has been going on in our lives since I left Minneapolis in March.  Dennis also produces the incredibly popular show Triple Espresso, which is set to play in cities across America once more after a couple of quieter years.  The future looks bright.

We both eat Brit’s signature dish of fish and chips and talk and talk, until Dennis has to leave to watch a student of his in a play based on The Great Gatsby.  I walk the short distance back to the Hilton and go back to my room where I discover that the Star Wars marathon is still playing,  so I watch some more of that.

I get ready for bed quite early, as I have to be up and out of the hotel at 6.45 in the morning for a live TV interview to promote the show in the evening.

The last day of the USA tour is about to begin.

 

 

 

No Name Day

As I wake up this morning the first thing I see is a blinking red light on the phone next to the bed.  I press the button for messages and listen to an electronically generated message informing me that I have a package waiting for me at the front desk.  I dial ‘O’ and speak to a real person who confirms that indeed it is my suitcase that has been delivered overnight.

I have a fairly early breakfast and then retrieve my case and take it upstairs, much to the confusion of the bell hops who are not used to the sight of someone apparently checking in at 7am.

20171215_082510

Up in my room I open the case up and have my second huge relief of the day when I discover that I had indeed packed my favourite scarf and hadn’t after all left it in the rental car or at Richmond airport.  It is therefore in a good frame of mind that I continue into my day.

My first commitment is a live TV interview to promote my final USA performance on Sunday.  I get into costume and also take everything that I will need for my show later so that I can drop it into the car on my way out.  The TV station is across the street from the hotel so I stride out into the cold morning and get a good blast into my lungs before entering the offices of WCCO, and being greeted by Martin Keller, who’s company is handling all of the PR for the Aster Café where my show is to be held.

Martin guides me to the green room where we make polite conversation about the theatre scene in Minneapolis and the  release of the new Star Wars film (neither of us can quite remember where we are up to in the plot, and what has been prequel and sequel).  After a while we are ushered into the TV studio and I am fitted with a microphone and sat under the hot lights on a cosy part of the set, while the presenters do their stuff behind a more formal news desk on the other side of the room.

There is a local story running about the re-naming of Lake Calhoun in Minnesota: apparently there is a move to change the name because the Mr Calhoun in question was a keeper of slaves and honouring him in this way is now deemed inappropriate.  However the powers that be seem to be saying that the Calhoun was not THAT Calhoun, Oh no, the lake is named after quite another Calhoun – a good man, very honourable and patriotic who did lots of wonderful things and never forgot his mother’s birthday and helped elderly ladies across the street and rescued kittens from trees: One gets the sense that the City would rather not take on the expense of re-branding when they can simply change the story.

The news moves on to viewers reactions to Star Wars, and while the screen is filled with tweets and texts the presenters pick their way across the studio, still talking which is an impressive thing to see.  Their journey complete they sit on the sofa next to me and before I know it the floor manager is waving to one of the remote cameras and our interview begins.

I am sorry to say that I don’t know the name of either presenter as I wasn’t really concentrating when the floor manager told me, but we chat as if we are old friends anyway.  I have some slight doubts when the girl announces that I will be performing at the Aster Café on Sunday, but she pronounces it ‘Aister’ whereas I assumed it was in Lady Astor.  I decide to refer to just ‘the Cafe’ for the rest of the interview.

20171215_093946

It is quite a long slot, in TV terms, and we talk about my show, my previous appearances in the Twin Cities and the friendship of the Café owner Jeff with my brother Ian via their mutual membership of the Pickwick Club in London.  Our chat comes to an end and the male presenter, who is also the meteorologist, repeats warnings of light snow falls, and I leave the set saying thank you to all of the nameless people who fill the studio.

I have a very brief time to go back to my hotel but within twenty minutes I am on the road driving to the small community of Eden Prairie which about thirty minutes away, and where I am to perform this afternoon.  There doesn’t seem any point in changing out of my costume, so I drive Victorian.

My venue is the Wooddale Church and it is an impressive sight as I pull into the parking lot.  It is a modern building with an impressive metal, industrial ‘spire’ on the top.

20171215_111056

I find my way into the main lobby area and am greeted by a lady whose name I don’t hear and then am introduced to another lady whose name I also don’t get.  I am not on terribly good form today in the name stakes and I apologise to everyone involved for my inability to listen!

I am given a brief tour of the Church and shown the main worship space which is remarkable and dominated by the largest pipe organ in the USA.  Then I am taken into the room where I am to perform, which is smaller and beautifully laid out.  The guests are going to be served with a delicious lunch before the show ad already the tables have been set with plates of salad, while at the side of the room plates of delicious desserts are lined up waiting to be served.

20171215_104420

20171215_104454

Along one side of the room a large stage has been prepared and theatre lights hang over it, so that it will be well illuminated when I come to do the show.  The Pastor (David – I made sure I listened) and the sound guy (Richie) introduce themselves, and we start the sound check.  Unfortunately the only microphone they have is one of the ear clips, which always fall off, but my experiences at the Mid Continent Library have told me that a few mini binder clips can hold such a microphone in place on my shirt and so it becomes a lapel unit instead.

The first members of the audience are beginning to arrive, so I go to the little vestry which is where I am to wait until lunch has been served and it is time for the entertainment to begin (scheduled for 12.35 which seems terribly precise!)  There is a TV set in the room and I assume that it is only an internal system broadcasting proceedings from the sanctuary, but I discover that actually it is properly connected, so I wile away the time watching the quiz show Jeopardy, and realising now lacking my general knowledge is!

Just before 12.30 I am collected and taken back to the room, where everyone has enjoyed their lunches and are settling back to watch the show.  The event has been a huge success, with the lunch tickets selling out in a matter of minutes, and the organisers adding a few rows of theatre style seating at the back of the room to accommodate as many audience members as they can.  David takes to the stage and announces me, and the music starts right on cue allowing me to walk, as if behind Marley’s coffin, to my place on the stage.

It is always an interesting to perform for a new group in a new venue, and for a while it is as if we are feeling each other out, and setting down the ground rules.  I have plenty of space to perform, and soon the room is fully immersed in the story: the intensity and concentration of the audience is remarkable, and is most palpable.

I enjoy the performance but as in Williamsburg I am aware that my energy levels are still not where they should be,  I concentrate on giving a measured, and not a strained show, which everyone seems to enjoy.

When I have taken my bows and made my way through the standing crowd, many of whom pat me on the back and shake my hand, I return to the vestry, change quickly and come back to the lobby where a few people are waiting to see me.  The Church haven’t been selling any products, so there is no formal signing session, but it is very nice to meet and chat anyway.  A lot of people have seen me in the past at various venues in the Twin Cities and one lady has pictures from my old performances at the St Paul Hotel dating back 17 years.  How young and slim I looked, with even the trace of a fringe!

Another audience member is Peggy who was responsible for bringing my version of A Christmas Carol back to Minnesota when she encouraged the Arboretum to stage my show two years ago.  Peggy has been a long standing supporter and has been behind a good many of my appearances.  We hug and chat and she sends her love to Liz whom she met at the Arboretum last year.

I thank David and pose for some photographs and then soon it is time to get changed and leave the  church.  Of course I travelled here in my costume, but remembered to bring regular clothes, meaning that when I emerge back into the lobby the staff and volunteers get their first sight of a modern Gerald!

I say my goodbyes and offer my thanks to everyone who has made the event so enjoyable and start to drive back to downtown Minneapolis.  Almost straight away I run into heavy traffic queues; it is only 2.30 and it seems as if the Friday rush hour has started very early.

Back at the Hilton I buy a sandwich and a slice of cake for my lunch, not to mention more bottles of water (the air is so dry here that I am constantly needing to drink), and go back to my room where I spend the rest of the afternoon.

I just seem to have no energy to do anything today, and even when I try to watch the second episode of Mrs Maisel I fall asleep almost before it has started.  I turn all the lights off, get under the covers and have a long afternoon nap.

When evening comes I decide just to stay in the hotel and go down to the lobby bar where I have a delicious pork chop and risotto dish.  A group of ladies at the end of the bar are out celebrating, one is sporting a Santa hat, and on hearing my accent (as I chat to the barman), they start to converse and soon are asking all about the shows and getting a little flirty.

 

I pose for a few pictures but really need to get some sleep, so I politely say my goodbyes and return to my room.

Tomorrow is a complete day off, with no media commitments or appearances, and it will be good to have a final day to recharge before the final show on Sunday night.  I am thinking of joining the hundreds of thousands of other people who will visit the Mall of America tomorrow, just to pick up a few gifts, and I may well visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art which is always a favourite place when I am here.

But that is all for the morning.  For now I bring a close a day when I couldn’t remember anybody’s name!

 

 

 

No Bag!

My alarm is set for 5.45 this morning, although as ever I wake before it.  My first job is to get packed and as I mentioned yesterday this will entail getting everything into my cases as I will be flying again for the first time since Thanksgiving.  My main worry is the weight, for last time I was very close to the 50lb domestic limit and since then the generosity of my audiences has increased what I have with me (most especially the bottle of Ceddy’s Sloe Gin).  I get as much into my little carry-on roller as I can, and it is amazing how small two complete costumes can be squashed down to.  2 Frock coats (both heavy in themselves), 2 pairs of trousers, 2 waistcoats, 6 shirts and 2 cravats are all pressed down into one half of the case, whilst shoes, braces, cufflinks, chargers, socks, pens, CDs, USB drives, a sewing kit, a box of business cards, a pair of flips flops (brought especially for California but never worn) and various other things are packed on the other side. The case just about zips up.  I usually pack my camera bag in here too but today there is no room and I will just have to hope that the gate agent doesn’t quibble over an extra item of carry on baggage.

My main case gets filled with all of my clothes, the top hat and scarf, the cane, various gifts (the bottle of course has to be in the hold), my wash bag etc and when I pick it up I am fairly confident that it will come in under weight.

Finally my brown shoulder bag is bulging with lots of books, as well as my laptop, charger, two pairs of sunglasses in their cases, and my SatNav unit.

By 6.20 I am ready to leave and pull the cases across the gravel to the car, which does not respond to the key fob when I try to unlock it.  Strangely the lights on another car just down the row blink and it dawns on me that I might just be trying to get into the wrong vehicle.

I load up in the Hyundai (I had been trying to get into a Toyota), and drive it to the main entrance of the hotel where I complete the formalities of the check out, before going to the coffee station to grab a cup for the road.  Another couple are doing the same, they are driving home to Raleigh North Carolina this morning.  They have not been here for my shows, and have no idea who I am any more than I have any idea who they are, but we have a nice friendly conversation over the coffee machine.  It is one of those moments when two completely different lives touch for the briefest of instants, before they go off on their separate paths again, never to meet again.  I love those little inconsequential connections that in themselves have no influence on anything, but despite that leave the tiniest of marks on the lives of three people.

I get on the road and drive towards Richmond airport as the darkness breaks into one of the most glorious sunrises that I have ever seen.  I follow directions to the car rental garage and sorrowfully say goodbye to my Tucson which has been a faithful companion over the last weeks.  The gunmetal grey bodywork is streaked with the marks of salt and snow from the weekend, and it is almost as if it is defiantly saying to me: ‘ you WERE right to insist on an SUV, and I hope I looked after you!’  You did, dear friend, and thank you.

20171214_072957

In the terminal I seek out a set of scales and put my case onto it and am relived to discover that it comes in at 47lbs. which means that I can put my camera bag in after all.  I get checked in, clear the early morning security check (for some reason my box of business cards always rouses suspicion), and then seek out a restaurant for a plastic breakfast.  This morning is one of those when all of the timings work perfectly, for as I finish my meal and walk to gate B12 the boarding process has already begun and I can almost walk straight onto the plane.

Astoundingly the flight to Minneapolis is a direct one with no layover, which is almost unheard of theses days.  It is due to last for about 2 hours 30, minutes, and I decide to try Delta’s entertainment app with which you can use the Wi-Fi connection on the flight (without charge) and access the huge library of movies.  I chose the brilliant Hidden Figures, the story of  three women who were mathematicians for NASA in the early years of the space programme, breaking down sexual and racial barriers along the way.  On the whole the system works very well, although I am frustrated by occasions of buffering, but I am pleased to watch such a moving film again.

When I have finished the movie I open the window blind and am delighted to see the snow covered landscape beneath me.  Soon we are descending into Minneapolis, St Paul airport and I am back in the Twin Cities once more.

20171214_112659

As I stand up and put my coat on I realise that I do not have my lovely scarf with me, which was a gift from Liz two Christmases ago.  I think I packed in my case – but I cant be sure.  I so hope that I haven’t left it in the car, or the restaurant, or at the check in counter at Richmond airport.

I make my way to baggage claim and watch as everyone else takes their bags, until eventually the carousel stops revolving.  Of my suitcase there is no sign.  To misquote my own show: ‘No Bag!’

I go to the Delta desk and present my bag tag and after much tapping on a computer keyboard discover that it never got on the plane at Richmond (I have no idea why that should be as I was not late checking in).  Further investigation reveals that my case was then loaded onto a flight to Detroit, from where it will come to Minneapolis later this afternoon.  I give the agent all of my details and she promises that it will be delivered to my hotel as soon as possible.

I have a show tomorrow, and I am glad that I have managed to get all of my costumes into the carry-on bag.

I make my way to the car rental facility where once again I ask for an SUV as there is more snow forecast over the next couple of days, and when it falls here it really falls.  This time I am furnished with an electric blue Ford Escape, which has its own built in GPS system, meaning that my little English SatNav unit has finished its work for the tour.

I have been performing in Minneapolis regularly for the last few years and it is a very familiar city to me now, and can picture exactly where I am heading.  I have been booked in to the Hilton hotel which is only a few hundred yards from the apartment block where I stayed in March of this year, and in no time I have parked in the garage and am in the huge lobby.  It is only 12 o’clock and as yet there are no rooms available for me, so I go and find a table in the café and order a salad for my lunch before completing my blog and posting it.  While I am working I get a couple of emails from the PR company that is working with the Aster Café, where I will perform on Sunday, detailing various media events that they have set up including a morning TV appearance tomorrow.  I reply asking if they want me in costume or regular clothes, although that might be a moot point for at the moment costume is all I have!

By the time I have finished lunch and work I return to the front desk and now there is a room free, so I can relax and snooze, which is lovely.

Afternoon becomes evening: ‘No Bag’.  I can however monitor its progress across the country by getting logging into Delta’s tracking system.  I can see when it was loaded onto the flight to Detroit and even that it has arrived at Minneapolis. I know that it was on carousel 6…..and then nothing seemed to happen until the log changed to say it was being ‘set up to delivery’.  I’m not sure what that means, but what it does not say is ‘Delivered’

20171214_181608

I pass the time by watching the pilot episode of a wonderful new series on Amazon Prime called ‘The Wonderful Mrs Maisel’ and follow that up with the latest edition of Grand Tour.

As 7 o’clock comes round I decide to return to my favourite haunt Brits Bub, where I have a rustic and delicious Steak and Ale Pie and coincidentally find myself sat at the bar next to a lady from Liverpool.  We exchange a polite, reserved, British greeting, but she is being outrageously flirted with by a young American lad, and rather enjoying it I think, so I leave them to their own devices.

thumbnail_received_10154889228886300

Having finished my dinner I walk the single block back to the Hilton, where I stop at the front desk.  ‘No Bag’.  I check the Delta site again and discover that the file has now been officially closed, which is somewhat worrying.

And as I slip between the sheets and fall asleep there is still ‘No Bag’.

Fingers crossed for tomorrow!

 

Oh Yes You Should!

As soon as I wake I know that I am going to be tired all day.  The night was one of disrupted sleep and still I am wide eyed and not very bushy tailed at around 5.30.

Breakfast is not served in Williamsburg until 7.30, so I fire up the Nespresso machine which duly presents me with a very small elegant demitasse of wholly unsatisfying coffee.  In need of further revival I walk to the lobby where there is a machine that grinds beans and dispenses a much larger cup which hits the spot.

At 7.30 I walk down to the room where breakfast is served and have the combined services of all the staff as I am the only diner to venture out at this hour.  As I am showed to me seat, and as Travis fawningly introduces himself to me, a wave of sorrow comes over me:  The breakfast buffet at Williamsburg was always one of the greatest on the tour (only rivalled by that at Hershey), and was laid as a long centre piece in the Regency Room.  Now sadly due to the changes at the hotel the Regency Room is used no more and I am presented with a menu card instead.

Another couple arrives and Travis is as obsequious with them as he was with me.  ‘Did you sleep well?’ he asks, gently rubbing his hands as if drying them.  ‘Yes. very comfortable’, is the reply.  ‘Sometimes sliding between Egyptian Cotton sheets is all that is required,’ says Travis in a perfect corporate response.

I cast my eye over the menu and my spirits are lifted by the promise of ‘An Old English Breakfast’ complete with fried eggs (‘will be prepared over-easy’), bacon, sausage, grilled tomato, mushrooms ‘English-style’ beans and fried bread.  Perfect and I order the dish, asking for the mushrooms to be left off.

My orange juice and coffee arrive and I decide that this isn’t so bad after all!  More guests are arriving now and almost every one mourns the loss of the buffet.  The staff must have become very adept at batting away these comments over the past few months.

The breakfast arrives and it is indeed delicious, although I am not sure where in England the beans hail from but they add a nice sweet yet tangy flavour to the familiar tastes of home.

As soon as I have finished the meal I return to my room as I have a radio interview due.  I have time for a quick shower and when I phone the station at 8.45 I am sat at the desk in a fluffy Williamsburg robe.

IMG-20171213-WA0001

This morning’s interview is not to promote any particular event, but just a general feature about Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol and my career.  It is a nice chat, and the presenter has done plenty of research which keeps the conversation moving from topic to topic.  After fifteen minutes or so of chat I sign off with the inevitable ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ and listen to his closing comments before hanging up.

I need fresh air.  I need to walk.  I get wrapped up and head down towards the Duke of Gloucester Street which is the main thoroughfare through the historic district of Williamsburg.  The day is bright, the sky is blue and boy is it bracing!  All of the familiar buildings stand in their various states of majesty (the Governor’s Palace at on end of the scale and humble wooden cottages at the other), and all are decorated with the door wreaths which are such a feature of Williamsburg at this time of the year.

20171213_100534

Opposite the Bruton Parish Church I am dismayed to see that the charming store that sold garden goods and wreaths, and which has always been a favourite stopping place for Liz and me, is no more.  It also seems as if there are very few people out and about at this hour, although I do witness a moment of rush hour traffic as two carriages pass each other in the street.

20171213_100607

I walk up to the Merchant Square shopping complex where I am to meet my old friend Christine and her eight year son Erich who came to see the show last night.  They are already tucking into a huge breakfast, with Erich almost hidden behind a stack of four waffles which are drowning in syrup.  We chat about the show and Erich admits that he thought it was amazing and that he ‘loved it more than the Lego Ninjago movie’ which seems like a pretty good affirmation to me.

We are in a French bistro and over the bar there is a television screen showing old episodes of Julia Child’s The French Chef.  Liz and I loved the movie Julie and Julia and a few years ago made a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian Museum where Julia’s kitchen is displayed.

 

20171213_103356

Bon Appetit! 

 

Whilst Christine and Erich have their breakfast, I have a delicious cup of coffee.  When we have all finished I say good bye and set off to walk from Merchant Square to the recreation of the old Capitol building, a distance of a mile.  My stroll is brisk (CD would be proud of me) and the cold morning air is feels so good.  As I am striding towards the Capitol the peace is suddenly broken by a loud siren which sounds rather serious: the sort of siren that is sounded when there is an impending nuclear attack, and as it goes off I remember my concerns as I drove past the various military establishments yesterday morning.  Despite the unearthly wail nobody else seems to be very worried, so maybe I shouldn’t be either.  I complete the mile trek and then walk half a mile back to the hotel and return to my room.  When I switch on the TV all of the channels are showing an official screen explaining that there is a test going on for the warning systems relating to the nearby Surry nuclear power station.  I probably should feel safer in the knowledge!

The rest of the morning is extremely frustrating as the Wi-Fi service is down (in fact it is a city-wide problem according to the front desk), so I am unable to get my blog posted.

I stay in my room and try to rest before the tea performance which will follow the same pattern as yesterday.

I get into costume and walk up to the dining room just before 2 o’clock and check my microphone battery with Chase, who is on audio duty today.  At the top of the hour seating is started and the audience are in an ebullient mood.  I pose for a few photographs and chat to many people that I recognise from past years (the people here love telling me how many times they have seen my show).  Soon the servers are placing the plates and we are ready to begin.

I am in an energetic frame of mind, which bearing in mind my tiredness today is maybe not a good idea, but I go at it full tilt.  At one point one of the buttons from my frock coat cuff pops off, but I manage to retrieve it when I am on my knees being dramatic.

The audience responds enthusiastically, and soon I am bringing the first half to end and vacating the stage so that the waiters can pour tea.  In the short break I go back to my room, to dry myself off, but also just to be away from the guests who I know will start to ask me to sign books and programmes, and once I have done one the floodgates will open.  But back in the room I read message from Liz with the very sad news that a friend and former colleague of hers has died unexpectedly back in Oxford.  It is with a heavier heart that I return to complete my show.

Once I get going my mind becomes involved with the story again and all of the joyousness of the Cratchit’s party, not to mention Fred’s pushes the sadness of the news away for a while.

I finish up and take my bows and go through the well trodden route from Regency room to bedroom and back again where I sign all of the books, programmes (which have now sold out here) and menus for a very happy and festive group of people.

After the signing has finished I discover that the Wi-Fi is back on and I am at last able to post my blog.

To relax I have another of my lovely hot baths and lay on the bed where I fall asleep in front of the television.  When I wake I look at my clock and see that I have half an hour to get ready.  I decide to do the James Bond shower (scalding hot, followed by ice cold, although on this occasion I wimp out a bit and finish with another blast of hot.)  I am still feeling tired and know that I am going to have to call on all of my reserves tonight.

When I get to the room all of my dinner companions (including Ryan’s wife Jeannie) are already seated and are chatting animatedly.  Actually it is a good group for me because they all have backgrounds in music and Ryan is the centre of attention (he is a professional singer who teaches opera at William and Mary College), meaning that I don’t have to talk too much.  I can feel my eyelids getting very heavy and on a couple of occasions I think I on the point of nodding off, although I must say that this has nothing to do with the company or conversation as they are a lively and engaging bunch.

At around 8.15 we get the nod and my last show in Williamsburg gets under way.  I push myself on, taking care not to strain my voice, and don’t let myself get disheartened by a quiet audience.  I know that often evening audiences are more reserved and I just have to carry on and not allow myself be ground down.  In a repetition of this afternoon’s show another cuff button pops off and once more I am able to retrieve it under the cover of a gesture.  Maybe I should be in Pantomime playing Buttons in Cinderella: Oh no I shouldn’t….Oh yes, I should! (that line will mean NOTHING to my American readers, but it is a traditional audience response to the pantomime dame on stage)

The show takes it all out of me, and by the end I honestly believe that if it were 3 lines longer I wouldn’t be able to deliver them.  As I bow (to a standing ovation – so I was right not to be worried about the audience), I know that I have nothing left in the tank.

Fortunately the signing line isn’t that long and those that are in it are in fine spirits, including a couple who were at my shows in Pigeon Forge all those weeks ago at the start of the tour.

When I have finished signing I join Ryan and Jeannie in the bar for a little nightcap where we all miss Liz who has been here chatting over a glass of wine for my last few visits.

Soon it is time for bed, and Ryan and Jeannie need to drive home, so we say our goodbyes for another year and I return to room 3191.  It would be lovely to have a nice relaxing lazy lay in tomorrow, and maybe a pampering massage in the spa, but unfortunately that will not be possible as I have to leave the hotel at 6.30 to get a flight to Minneapolis where I will be performing for the last two times on this years USA tour

 

Williamsburg

This morning we bid farewell to a constant companion on this trip, for I will be loading my final load of washing into a coin operated machine.  Naturally the process does not run smoothly as the dispenser of detergent is empty, thereby necessitating an extra trip to the front desk and back to the 2nd floor again, where I discover that I have left my key card inside the laundry room, thereby necessitating yet another trip to the front desk and back to the 2nd floor again.

 

20171212_080018

The last load of shirts

 

With my white shirts carelessly tumbling in the machine I eat breakfast and spend time in my room doing the sort of things that I do when I have time to kill, until I can finally pack my case and check out of the Hampton Inn at around 10 o’clock.  The packing of the case is another ‘last’, as next time I have to get all of my costumes, hat and cane in there as well for it will be back to flying on Thursday.

I re-join the i95 and start a 2 hour drive towards the opulent luxury of the Williamsburg Inn.  The road is straight and for the most part rather dull, taking me past the military strongholds of Quantico and West Point, and signs to the Norfolk where much of the US Navy is moored.  With the Pentagon just up the road this must be one of biggest targets in America, and therefore probably one of the most protected patches of land in the country: I’m not sure I feel reassured by that or not.

I am feeling very tired today and I think that I am starting to dip into my reserve tank of energy. The road being monotonous and slightly claustrophobic thanks to the heavily wooded central reservation, I can feel myself struggling to stay awake, so I pull into a McDonalds for an early lunch and a chance to stretch my legs, and gulp some fresh air into my lungs, before pushing on to Williamsburg.

Like so many venues on this years’ tour, Williamsburg is an old friend to me as I have been coming to perform here for heaven knows how long.  Within the last twelve months the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (which overseas all of the properties and tourist sites in the city) has been taken over and massive changes have been predicted, so I am anxious to explore the Inn and find out what has happened here, for better or for worse.

I pull up in the car park and walk through the beautifully polished brass handled doors.  The main hallway allays any fears that I may have, as the décor is just as plush and understated as ever it was.  I am welcomed with due deference into the reception lounge (nothing as sordid as a simple check in desk here), and am offered a glass of champagne, ‘or perhaps sir would prefer a spiced cider?’ as my check in is sorted out.  I decline both as I have a show to perform fairly soon.  Unfortunately my room is not quite ready, so I stroll towards the Regency Dining Room where all of my shows will be held.  The Regency Room used to be the hotel’s signature restaurant and harked back to another age when gentlemen wore jackets and ties to dine, but sadly that age is passing (maybe it has already passed) and the modern clientele want to spend their money in a more relaxed setting, so now the room lays dormant except for special banqueting events such as mine.

Chase and Donald, the AV guys, have already set up the sound system so I do a quick sound check, and then sit on the set and watch the bustling preparations for the sumptuous tea that is due to be served in an hours time.  A call is put out for more chairs, which requires Chase to slowly descend to the store room which is under the room.  A whole patch of floor is in fact a lift and in past times a band would slowly emerge to the delight of the diners and dancers who flocked to the Inn.  Wouldn’t it be great if Marley could make his first appearance on this device?

20171212_123729

Another addition is a long fire pit on the terrace outside the window, meaning that my performance will have the flames licking behind me.  There is another wonderful item on my wish list – how about if we could control the height of the flames, so that as Scrooge is shown his own grave we turn them up as if the gates of Hell are opening for him!

I pop back to reception to see if my room is ready, and while I am there am greeted by my dearest friend here, Ryan Fletcher who always introduces my shows.  We exchange a hug of greeting and then walk back to the Regency Room together to go over the timing of the afternoon’s event with the banquet staff.  Guests will be seated at 2.30, and tea will be served.  As soon as the plates are down Ryan will get the signal and introduce me.  I will perform the show up to the end of the Ghost of Christmas Past when we have a short break so that teacups can be replenished before I finish the story.  It is all pretty simple, and a well tried programme.

20171212_131509

Ryan

The audience are already waiting at the door, so I go back to the desk, get my room keys and finally am able to enjoy the beautiful room in which I am to be based for the next two days.  I have a quick shower to clear away the journey and get into costume before returning to the dining room and watch as the guests are seated.  Many exchange greetings and shake my hand as they arrive and the whole scene is very festive with red Christmas sweaters predominating; there is even a Santa hat (has the Regency Room ever seen such a thing before?)

The service seems to take a while, but Ryan and I are reassured that everything is running to time.  We stand at the back of the room and chat and Ryan fills me in with goings on elsewhere in the Williamsburg operation.  A lot of staff have been laid off from the shops and venues on the tourist side and Ryan, who appeared as storekeeper Mr Greenhow, no longer works for the Foundation (although he retired, rather than was let go).

And suddenly we are given the nod, and Ryan makes a typically generous and eloquent introduction before I start the performance.  I don’t have a stage to perform on here, I have a dancefloor and as I am almost performing in the round I need to use all of the space available to me to make sure everyone enjoys the show.  Being a tea event means that I can roam among the tables and include members of the audience in the plot (one man becomes Scrooge, another Fezziwig.  Someone ‘trips’ me up as I am rushing through the city streets, but is forgiven for ‘it is a shame to quarrel on Christmas Day’).  As Scrooge falls asleep after being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past I say ‘..and dreamed of servers replenishing cups of tea’ and we are into the intermission.  When everyone has been served and the necessary restroom breaks have been complete, the plot begins once more and builds to the rousing end.

It is always hot and energetic work here, as I have a lot of ground to cover but the rewards are immense for maybe here, more than at any other venue, the audience and I travel through the story together.

I take the applause and bow to each corner of the room, and then make my exit leaving an excited babble of conversation behind me.  My room, although on the same floor, is quite a way away so I run down the corridors in order to get changed as soon as possible so as not to keep the people waiting in line for too long.  This year I am signing in a little room that used to be a back office to the front desk (the title of ‘Executive Board Room’ is rather more grand than it deserves to be), but it takes us away from the hubbub of the lobby and ensures that people arriving for the second show don’t gate crash the party!  The great advantage of the board room is that it has two entrances making ingress and egress very easy.

People congratulate me on the show and a lot talk about my blog and ask about various adventures (my geranium cufflinks seem to have taken on star status this year).  It is always nice to know that people enjoy my rather mundane diaries and it makes an even closer connection between me and the audiences around the country.

When the signing is finished I have only about an hour to relax before it is time to prepare for dinner, so I run myself a hot bath and disappear beneath the bubbles.

But time and bubbles wait for no man, and before I know it, it is time to get ready again.  I get into costume and carefully lay out the replacement shirt, waistcoat and frock coat on my bed so that the after-show change can be a quick one. As I walk through the lobby the crowd is massing, and once again I am greeted by people who come to the show every year – ‘This is our 5th!’;  ‘Hey Mr Dickens great to have you back, this is our 8th time!’; ‘Gerald!  is Liz with you?  Oh, what a shame, we miss her!’, and so on.  Before taking my place in the restaurant I go outside to admire the hotel at night, one of the changes this year has been the building of a reflecting pool which reflects the thousands of white lights spectacularly.

20171212_184140

 

As I am admiring the view a couple of guests come up to me and ask if they can have a picture taken?  ‘Of course!’ and as I am getting ready to pose with them, they hand me their phone  and stand arm and arm waiting for me to take the photograph.  It is good to be reminded that not everything is about me!

For the dinner show I sit at a table with Ryan and some other guests, and enjoy the delicious meal before performing after desert.  This year we are sat with Rick and Carol, who are celebrating their anniversary, as well as other guests who cant quite believe that they have been seated with the ‘talent’.  In the early years of my Williamsburg appearances I would inevitably be sat with hotel management or board members, but Ryan and I love the new style and always enjoy chatting, although I have to be careful not to overdo the anecdotes as I need my voice to be in fine fettle.  As we eat, snow begins to fall outside which brings an even greater festive feel to the proceedings.

The dinner is superb, and just after 8 Ryan makes his introductory remarks before he leaves to go to a concert at the Bruton Parish Church where he is due to sing.  The energy in the room is even greater than this afternoon, and people become completely engaged in the story, which in turn leads me to work even harder.  It is a wonderful show and I feel truly energised by it as I take my bows.  Once more I run back to my room only to discover that the Williamsburg housekeeping team have turned down my bed, and carefully hung all of my clothes up meaning that my quick change plan doesn’t work quite as well as it should!

One of the first parties in the line hands me a gift bag and says ‘This is for Liz, we so enjoyed talking to her when we were in the lobby last year, and she is so sweet.  So please say hi from us!’  Once again I am open mouthed at people’s thoughtfulness and generosity.

Eventually the line dwindles down to nothing, and my energy levels are doing the same.  I retreat to the bar (new wallpaper: not sure about it) and have a drink with some old friends from the hotel, but soon I have to get back to my room and sleep.  I move the little cushion with the porcelain tray and the miniature bottle of peach liqueur to the antique table at the side of my bed, slip between the Egyptian cotton sheets and let my eyes close upon the instant.

20171213_093007