Mass, Maine and Christmas Begins

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It has been a week or since last I reminisced on my American adventures as prompted by my phone and Facebook, because this has coincided with a period when traditionally I could spend a few days at home with Liz and my family.

But now the great memory generators have cranked back into life again and provided me with a series of images from Massachusetts and Maine. For the last 12 or so years the second part of my tour has begun in Sutton Mass. at the wonderful premises of Vaillancourt Folk Art where the senses are assaulted by Christmas! As you walk into the store every inch is utilised to display a variety of Christmas gifts but mainly the beautifully hand-painted chalkware Santa Claus figures which are cast from antique chocolate moulds.

The company was formed by Judi and Gary Vaillancourt in 1984. Originally based in their house, the demand for the collectables soon outstripped the confines of a kitchen, dining room and bedrooms and over the following years the business expanded until it eventually landed in its present home the Manchaug Mills in Sutton. The buildings date back to 1826 and are a perfect venue for the Vaillancourt family to promote tradition.

Gary and Judi are justifiably proud that they are one of a very few Christmas businesses which are truly American, and it was their connection with Byers’ Choice, another genuinely American Christmas company (it feels so right to be writing about both businesses on Thanksgiving Day), which led to my performing in the mill.

For my first visit The Vaillancourts made an arrangement with the owners of the mill to convert an empty space next to the store into a theatre, which they named Blaxton Hall. With Judi’s artistic flare a stage set was created surrounded by 200 seats, and over the years my performances of A Christmas Carol have become as much a Christmas tradition for me as they have for the audiences who return every year.

I always have a wonderful time with the Vaillancourts and we have had our fair share of adventures over the years. On one occasion my flight from Philadelphia was delayed by thick fog and it quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t get to the store in time for the show. After a flurry of panic, phone calls and emails were exchanged and a plan was hatched: Luke Vaillancourt (Gary and Judi’s son, now very much a part of the team) was dispatched to wait for my arrival at Logan airport ready to drive me back as fast as was legally possible, whilst his father-in-law Bob was placed on the Blaxton Hall stage with his guitar in hand to entertain the crowd until I could take over: that warm-up performance is still spoken of in Sutton to this day! When I eventually arrived and relieved Bob, whose repertoire was beginning to get rather stretched, the atmosphere in the room was fantastic: a real sense of camaraderie among friends, and when Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning and discovered that there was ‘no mist, no fog….’ there was a great ironic cheer.

Vaillancourt Folk Art is more than a venue to me, I count the family as close personal friends and it feels most odd not to see them this year.

The other memory that my phone provided me with this week was from Portland, Maine. Portland is a more recent addition to my tour but the city has a special resonance for me. Many years ago when my father David was the President of the International Dickens Fellowship organisation (a post that I was greatly honoured to hold a few years later and one that my brother Ian now undertakes with a great sense of duty, wit and professionalism), he asked me to perform with him a short story that he had discovered. The ‘show’ was based on a piece of writing titled ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ and recounted the childhood memories of Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. In 1868 Charles Dickens was touring America, performing his readings in cities along the Eastern seaboard. Most of the events were in Boston and New York but there were other venues too, one of which was in Portland. The young Kate, 10 years old at the time, was a huge fan of Dickens and devoured his works, even naming her pets and belongings after his characters – her dog was named Pip whilst her red sled was christened ‘The Artful Dodger.’

Dickens’ reading was one of the biggest events ever seen in the city and the tickets sold out in no time. Of course there was no possibility for a ten year old girl to attend and so Kate simply lingered outside the hall hoping to catch a glimpse of her hero. Sadly she did not.

The next day Kate and her mother were due to take the train to Boston and during the journey the little girl discovered that Charles Dickens was actually sitting in the next carriage and in a moment of Victorian infant chutzpah she plucked up courage to run up and sit down next to the great author! Once he overcame his surprise Dickens fell into conversation with Kate, asking her about her favourite books and characters. She told him that she’d read all of his books and he questioned her, ‘those great thick long books and you such a slip of a thing?’ She simply replied that she skipped the dull bits – ‘not the short dull bits, just the long ones!’

A Child’s Journey with Dickens is a charmingly beautiful account of the meeting and a visit to Portland always brings it to mind. When I was in the city I performed on behalf of the Maine Historical Society and as well as staging a lovely evening in a beautiful venue, they were extremely generous with their research resources and enabled me to build a complete picture of Charles’ visit.

As a final observation when last I was in Portland, two years ago, I stayed at The Press Hotel on Exchange Street which is housed in the old offices of The Portland Press and Herald (formally the largest newspaper in the State and mentioned by Kate in A Child’s Journey). The owners of The Press have honoured the newspaper trade in the décor and dressing of the rooms and it is a fabulous change to the many identikit boxes that proliferate.

My main memory however was the breakfast I ate there – a Fruit and Quinoa Bowl, which comprised of: Pineapple, Banana, Blueberry, Black Quinoa, Basil, Orange Blossom Ricotta and Local Honey. It was quite simply one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten and won my award for ‘Breakfast of the Tour’!

Back in England in 2020. 26 November has really felt like the beginning of Christmas. We have spent the day listening to Christmas songs and driving through neighbourhoods looking at Christmas lights. I even bought myself a Christmas sweater!

What else happened on 26th November? The film has finally been unleased upon the world!

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers in America

http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html

#achristmascarol2020

Returning to Highclere

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To miss-quote the opening lines of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: ‘Yesterday I went to Highclere again’. Last December on a very wet night I performed at the magnificent ancestral home of the Carnarvon family for the first time and loved every second of what was an elegant and spectacular evening. The castle was fully decorated for Christmas and the great hall embraced the guests as if that was its sole purpose in life – to entertain and delight. Lord and Lady Carnarvon had erected a small stage in front of the huge stone fireplace and somehow had managed to squeeze 80 chairs around it, and as the audience arrived they were in their finery, as befitted such a venue and occasion.

The evening was a great success and Lady Carnarvon confidently announced that we would repeat the event in 2020….Ah, 2020. Of course all of the best laid plans were abandoned early this year and the thought of returning to Highclere Castle disappeared from my mind.

The great building came to my thoughts once more when I was thinking of locations to use for my film, but when a building has such clients as Downton Abbey beating a path to their door, the location costs would have been exorbitant and actually in retrospect, wouldn’t have provided suitable locations for the sparsity of the story – Highclere would have been too lavish for my version of A Christmas Carol.

However as the summer continued there was a call from Lady Carnarvon, asking if I would be available to join her at the Castle to recreate a little of my performance for a national television network who wanted to make a documentary about Christmas in one of England’s stately homes. I was happy to agree, even though this was not a fee paying event, for the relationship with the Carnarvons is so good and the opportunity to gain some exposure for both my live shows and the film was one I couldn’t turn down.

On Tuesday 24th November, just two days before the release of the film on Vimeo, I drove up the long driveway, taking the opportunity to stop and admire the great building against a beautiful late afternoon winter sky. The drive was lined with mini Christmas trees and two larger versions guarded the front door. I swung the car round on the gravel drive (I knew that this is how you are supposed to arrive as I’ve seen it done so many times before on Downton Abbey). Granted, the staff with Carson the butler at the centre, didn’t line up en masse to greet me, but the house manager John did fling open the door and welcome me back in cheerful, hearty tones. In fact my arrival was such a triumph that I had to repeat it three more times as the TV crew from ITN wanted to capture the moment from a few different angles.

The film crew was of two, Brent and Amy, who both dutifully wore masks as they trailed me around. When I finally entered I stood in the Great Hall of the house with a huge lavishly decorated Christmas tree soaring to the ceiling above me. It seemed extraordinary to me that a year ago we had fitted a stage and eighty people into what now looked like a very small space, but the memories of laughter and bonhomie waved over me as I surveyed the scene. Such was my wonder and such was the splendour that I surveyed the scene three more times, as Brent and Amy recorded it from a few different angles….

Lady Carnavon arrived and we greeted each other from the prescribed safe distance and then made our way into the Smoking Room where we were to record an episode of the Highclere Castle podcast which the Countess has been hosting since June. We sat in comfortable armchairs with the rolling landscape bathed in the glow of a winter’s sunset outside the windows. For such a large house some of the rooms, including the Smoking Room, are surprisingly intimate and it proved the perfect setting for our convivial chat. We talked about Christmas and Charles Dickens’ influence on it, as well as the heavy toll of the pandemic on both the entertainment and tourism sectors, and from there discussed how the lack of opportunities to perform in front of a live audience had presented other opportunities: cue promoting the film!

Having wrapped up the podcast recording it was time to prepare for a performance of a few extracts of A Christmas Carol to the massed audience of their Lord and Ladyship, John the manager, and their assistant Cat, who was also recording the snippets of show for an Instagram link. I was directed to my ‘dressing room’, which is in fact a spare room in the castle and in which I was surrounded by photographs of ‘Porchie’, Henry George Reginald Molyneux Herbert to give him his full name, the 7th Earl of Carnavon, to give his him his title – the Queen of England’s trusted confidante and horse racing trainer.

Once I was nearly changed there was a knock at the door and the voice of Brent asked if he could film me preparing for the show. I let him and Amy in and for the next 15 minutes or so I took cufflinks off and put them on again, took my cravat off and put it on again, took my watch out of the waistcoat pocket and studied it before replacing it, all whilst chatting about the experience of being at, and performing in, Highclere Castle.

Eventually we were ready to go. Lord and Lady Carnarvon settled themselves in two armchairs, whilst John hovered deferentially in the background and Cat set up her recording equipment. After a brief introduction by Lady Carnarvon I began.

Oh, it felt good! Oh, to move in that space saying the lines, creating the poses, telling the story. As I performed I could feel the room full of twelve months before, hear the laughter, see the tears. The idea was to perform very short snippets but I just didn’t want to stop and carried on throughout the first scene until nephew Fred leaves Scrooge’s office on Christmas Eve: complete self-indulgence.

I was more restrained for my second piece, the appearance of The Ghost of Christmas Present represented by the magnificent tree, and for a final clip I performed the closing words of the story to neatly wrap everything up.

When Brent, Amy and Cat were happy we wrapped up the performance aspect of the afternoon and mingled while a bottle of Highclere champagne was produced and we all toasted to the strangest of Christmases.

Having posed with Lady C in front of the tree, keeping a strict two-bough distance (in line with government festive guidelines), I changed out of costume, collected my things and drove away into the night.

For a couple of hours I had been back doing what I should be doing at this time of year – performing. But as I drove a strange thought came to me and that was that in 2020 my show will probably be seen by more people than ever before because on 26th November, the day I would usually be flying into Boston, to begin the final weeks of my tour, my film of A Christmas Carol will finally go live!

Film Link: Films (geralddickens.com)

Lady Carnarvon’s Podcast: Lady Carnarvon launches new Podcast | Highclere Castle

Counting Down to Thanksgiving and the launch of A Christmas Carol

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It seems to have been a long time coming and for much of this year it has felt that, between the pandemic and the various political situations across the globe, there has not been much to thank 2020 for. However as we begin the week of American Thanksgiving I can reflect of a year of opportunity and positives as I prepare to launch my first film: A Christmas Carol.

When last we left the saga I had wrapped filming in the ancient city of Rochester and left the entire project in the talented hands of Oscar-winning editor Emily Walder. During the days of filming in Cooling Churchyard, in Rochester Cathedral at The Six Poor Travellers House, in Eastgate House and around the streets of the ancient city, I had told Emily directly, and indirectly, what my vision for the film was, so when we said goodbye in a Rochester car park I was saying a temporary farewell to the project and leaving the next stage to her.

A few weeks passed and from America Bob Byers of the Byers’ Choice company, who not only book and manage my annual tours but also who had commissioned the film, got in touch to ask if there was anything he could see yet? I contacted Emily to ask if there was any way she could create a short trailer for the piece – a few scenes possibly, just to show how the end product may look. I hadn’t been prepared for the amazing production that duly arrived!

I had told Emily that I wanted the tone of the film to be dramatic, dark and sombre – capturing the innermost fears of old Ebenezer Scrooge and as soon as I watched the trailer I knew that she had succeeded. The music she had chosen was exciting with a racing heartbeat of a rhythm, and with lots of fast cutting together of various scenes from all of the locations it served up a tantalising glimpse as to how the film would look. As I watched I just smiled: Emily had created something very special indeed.

The trailer was circulated to all who needed to see it and the response was always the same: ‘Wow! I can’t wait to see the full film!’ Of course that is the point of a trailer but the superb reaction heaped the pressure on Emily to get the entire project completed as soon as possible, whilst juggling her other work which was beginning to make greater demands on her time.

Eventually after many emails back and forward she announced the there was a preview to be watched which she duly forwarded via WeTransfer, and which after an hour or so of gradual downloading I was able to watch. Actually I prevaricated for quite a while as I hate watching and listening to myself, but in the end I opened the laptop and began.

The film is everything that I had hoped it to be, Emily had been true to my wishes and used the specific shots that I had suggested, but also given it so much more. Her use of balancing the colour and the sound, of including carefully selected sound effects and music, of using special cinematic effects sparingly but very effectively turned the production from one man telling a story to a completely immersive film experience. As I watched I laughed and I cried, which considering that I am quite familiar with the book is quite surprising and a testament to her skills.

I am not arrogant or narrow minded enough to suggest that this film is a fully finished perfect piece of work, for there is plenty within its 70 minutes that I would like to either touch up or re-film but of course that is out of the question for now (although I would love to come back to the project next year for a second release!) However my main disappointment could be corrected and that was the opening sequence. Rather than using the dramatic music from the trailer Emily had gone with a melody that reminded me of the famous Hedwig Theme from the Harry Potter franchise, and somehow it didn’t bestow the menace and sense of doom that I wanted. The scene wasn’t helped by my voiceover narrative: ‘Marley was dead to begin with’ which I had recorded in slightly conversational, almost jovial, tones. I asked Emily if it was too late to make a change and she said she would indeed be able to do what I wanted, so I quickly set up my microphone and laptop and recorded a much darker version of ‘Marley was dead….’

Within a few hours Emily sent the new beginning and it was transformed: crows squawk and flutter among the silhouetted branches of a skeletal tree and as the (original) music plays. The viewer flies through the graveyard around ancient tombstones as my voice intones the opening lines, almost spitting out the final ‘Marley was as DEAD as a doornail!’ The screen fades to black and the title A Christmas Carol fills the void. We are off on our journey with Ebenezer Scrooge.

Frustratingly there are also a few moments in the film when we should have done better with continuity as well as ensuring that the numerous ‘Fire Escape’ and ‘Mind Your Head’ signs didn’t feature in the story, not to mention a stack of very modern chairs that I don’t know how we manage to miss on the day.

There are other moments which having seen the end result I would like to re-shoot from a point of view of my own performance, I would like to play about with characterisations a little more at certain moments, and use a few more of the cinematic tricks that we learned were possible as we filmed, but that is all for another time.

For now I think that with a crew of only three, all socially distancing in masks, and on a very short timescale and on a limited budget, Emily, Jordan and I have produced something that I am very very proud of!

On Thursday 26 November you can see for yourself for that is when the finished product goes live. To view the film go to the dedicated page on my website, Films (geralddickens.com) and click the button! Once you have paid for the rental and clicked to watch you will have access to the film for seven days, during which time you can view it as often as you like. From the launch date there is month until Christmas – so why not rent the piece as a gift for family, friends or for colleagues in lieu of a cancelled office party?

Yes 2020 has been a hard, difficult, and frightening year for us all but through it all rose the opportunity to make this film and that is something that I am truly thankful for!

http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html

#AChristmasCarol2020

Way Out West

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With a glance back through a few historic posts on my phone this morning reminds me of some fun times that I have spent in California over the years, so for today’s reflections I thought I would return to The Golden State, shrug off a wet English winter and bask in the warm sunshine for a while.

My first connections with California date back to the very start of my touring years, when I was managed by an indominable lady named Caroline Jackson who originally hailed from Alabama – a real Steel Magnolia! Caroline had watched me perform at the ’95 Dickens on the Strand festival in Galveston and proposed that she instigate a performance tour for the following year. We would work together for around 13 years and I owe my much of my current success to Caroline’s foresight. We certainly had our difficulties and disagreements over the years, but Caroline opened many doors to me and I shall always be grateful to her for that.

Putting together the first your wasn’t easy for Caroline because there was no history or reputation to promote; the family connection was useful of course, but potential sponsors wanted to exactly what they would be getting for their money. Our big break was the forming of a connection with the Historical Hotels of America register, which promoted a collective of some of the most beautiful resorts in the country.

One hotel that liked the opportunity of hosting me was the Ojai Valley Inn nestling high in the mountains to the North West of Los Angeles and I travelled there for many years: it was like a Heavenly oasis.

One of the things that made my visits to Ojai so special was that I had to fly into the terrible sprawl of concrete and glass that makes up LAX airport, and then mercifully leave the city behind me. I would collect a rental car and then make my way through the the streets of LA (indeed my first ever experience of driving in America on ‘the wrong side of the road’ was during rush hour in LA – I decided then that if I could drive there I could drive anywhere!). As I hit the freeway towards Ventura County and rose towards the hills I could see a layer of smog behind me and by the time I arrived in Ojai (pronounced ‘Oh-Hai’) the only smell was of eucalyptus and the only sound was that of cicadas as the sun set turning the mountains pink. It is no coincidence that the resort became Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon movie.

The hotel itself is a 5 star spa resort with amazing facilities (I used to treat myself to a massage or a round of golf during my stay), and the suites are spread around the grounds in a collection of brightly tiled Spanish villas.

In those early years of performing my shows were often dinner theatre events, with me performing each chapter of A Christmas Carol between courses of a lavish meal. The format was a difficult one as the timings of the performances had to be in complete accord with the kitchens where various chefs turned the air blue because their beautifully created dishes sat unserved whilst I continued to prance around the dining room. At Ojai the dinner was served ‘family style’ with large platters of food being laid on the tables for the guests to help themselves: it worked superbly. I don’t remember the details of the menus there except for a delicious salad with persimmons, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

As we dined a troupe of madrigal singers would surround each circular table and sing carols and folk songs (‘The Boars’ Head Carol comes to mind) and the effect of the harmonies was exquisite.

Yes, the Ojai Valley Inn and Resort was a beautiful place to visit and for many years was my favourite venue on tour.

Also in California, to the east of Los Angeles, is the city of Riverside where each February a fabulous festival takes place to celebrate the life of Charles Dickens, who was born on the 7th of that month. I have visited Riverside on many occasions, sometimes for the festival and sometimes at Christmas to assist with their promotional activities and have always had great fun there but my most memorable moment came when I wasn’t even in the United States at all.

In 1996 I was due to appear at the February festival and give a speech entitled ‘Dickens the Businessman’, in which I would talk about Charles’ entrepreneurial nature as well as focussing on his rags-to-riches story of success, which appeals to a country built upon such dreams. However the previous December I had had a run-in with the charming officers of the INS. Through sheer ignorance and naivety I hadn’t appreciated that I would require a visa to perform in the USA and when I had arrived on American soil I was taken off to a small room and told in no uncertain terms that my presence in the country was not appreciated! Now, it so happened that my first performances on the trip were due to be in Canada, so the officer sent me on my way telling me to make sure that all of my papers were in order by the time I returned.

During my few days in the land of the maple leaf, representations were made and meetings arranged with the result that by the time I returned to America I had been given a temporary ‘once in a lifetime’ pass, in lieu of a visa. But I was told that I must have applied and been approved for the appropriate visa (a P3, to be precise) before I tried to work in America again.

I now faced a problem because the whole process of being granted a visa is a very long drawn out one that requires months to complete, and I was due to perform at the Riverside Festival in just a few weeks time. My agent Caroline and I made a decision, to preserve good will I would attend the festival as a guest, taking no payment for my time, so as far as the INS were concerned I would not be working . But when I arrived in early February I was once again carted off to a private interview room, where my suitcases were opened and my costumes and props revealed. The officers picked each item out with the latex-gloved hands as if they were hard drugs and laid them on the table and asked me to explain. With sweat beading I stammered that I was due to appear at the festival, that I was giving a speech, doing some shows but I wasn’t working, I wasn’t being paid…the officers had all of the information about my trip on their computers: they knew I was going to Riverside, they showed me web pages advertising my visit. They were expecting me. Questioning continued and they elicited from me that I would be staying at the beautiful Mission Inn Hotel in downtown Riverside. Who would be paying for the room? Who had paid for my flight? And that is what sealed my fate because it was the festival who had bought my ticket and who would accommodate me during my stay, and that, proudly announced the officer, was payment!

I was placed on the next flight home and refused entry to the United States of America.

In Riverside I was due to give my speech the next day to an audience of wealthy and successful business folk from the city (many of whom were festival sponsors, therefore important to please), and I wasn’t even there, in fact the only thing that had made it to Riverside was my top hat which had been purchased in America (from a company called Hats in the Belfry) and shipped to the venue. And so it was my first performance in Riverside was delivered by phone from my front room in England with a cup of cocoa to hand, whilst the audience sipped champagne in the elegant surroundings of the Mission Inn. My top hat was placed on the lectern to give them something to look at!

It is strange to think that now the World is in such a place that speeches and even performances are being delivered remotely via Zoom or Teams every day. Back then, however, it was a new phenomenon.

I was fortunate to visit Riverside on many occasions after that first attempt and have always had a brilliant time there.

With Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
The Mission Inn, Riverside

In more recent years I have been attending a new Californian venue and that is at Rogers Gardens in Corona del Mar, close to the affluent and beautiful beachside resort of Newport Beach. Rogers Gardens is a large garden centre and nursery and during the Christmas season have impressive displays of decorations and ornaments. In the heart of the centre there is an open air amphitheatre, originally built so that horticultural demonstrations could be given, but a few years ago it was decided to try and use it for open air theatre (which when you are in Southern California is a safe option!).

I was asked to perform twice on each day I was there, once in the afternoon and once at night, and a local tech company was engaged to rig up theatre lights and a sound system.

I used to do a lot of outdoor theatre in England, mainly at tourist attractions, but this was a new experience for me on tour and an exciting one. The first performance was in the blazing heat of the afternoon and whilst the audience were shaded by huge parasols I was alone and exposed! In my heavy frock coat I was sweltering and sweating profusely, and my forehead was getting redder and redder as the show went on. I performed as much as possible without the coat but the heat was still unbearable and I was heartily relieved when I finally said ‘God Bless Us Every One!’ For the next day I made sure I had plenty of sun block on and although that protected me from sunburn it also streamed into my eyes stinging to such an extent that I couldn’t open them, meaning I gave most of the show blind! All new challenges, that was certain.

Even in the short time that I have been visiting Rogers, three years I think, I have built up quite a following, with a loyal and appreciative audience. Rogers Gardens is an amazing and unique venue and I very much hope to return soon.

Whenever I have visited California, flying in or out of Los Angeles, I look across to the Hollywood sign on the distant hills – and dream of being in movies. And now in my own small way I am close to joining the ranks of film makers.

Today the trailer for my forthcoming is released on my website prior to the film’s release on November 26th. Watch the trailer and spread the word!

#AChristmasCarol2020

Memories from the Mid Continent Public Library Service.

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It was no surprise that following the pictures from Omaha my phone should choose to then remind me of my times in the Kansas City area, for the two venues, being geographically close, inevitably have been paired on my tour during recent years.

Woodneath Library Centre

The picture that my phone produced was from two years ago as I prepared to perform at the Woodneath Library in Liberty, Missouri, but my relationship with the Mid Continent Library Service, who own and manage Woodneath, is not a recent one – oh, no, I have been performing there for longer than any other venue on my tour. My first visit was in 1995.

My career as a performer of Charles Dickens’ work began in England in 1993. That year marked the 150th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol and I, as an actor, had been approached by a local charity asking me to recreate one of my great great grandfather’s famous readings as a fundraiser. I reluctantly agreed, and that decision changed my life.

In 1994 I performed The Carol a few times in the UK and one show was watched by a representative from the Galveston Dickens Festival where my Dad had been appearing for the past three years. After the show we all chatted. My father didn’t wish to travel any more and was keen for me to take over the mantle, he had made the introduction with a view to making that happen.

And sure enough, when December ’95 came around I was on a plane heading to Texas. I spent a weekend becoming part of ‘Dickens on the Strand’ which was an amazing time, but when Sunday evening came I didn’t fly home to England, I boarded a flight for Kansas City, Missouri.

The superb festival in Galveston had inspired a similar event in Kansas City which was the brainchild of the Missouri Rep Theater Company and my father had worked closely with them over the previous two years as a consultant. He had attended the inaugural festival in ’94 and now I was stepping into his shoes to carry on the legacy.

But there was a timetabling problem: The Galveston festival finished on Sunday evening and the Kansas City one wouldn’t begin until the next Friday, leaving me doing nothing for four days in a rather luxurious hotel.

Enter the Mid Continent Library Service. The Charles Dickens Holiday Fair organisers thought it would be great publicity for their festival if I could get out and perform in front of as many people in as many areas around downtown Kansas City as I could, encouraging them to visit the Convention Center at the weekend. The library service, which is based in Independence, has branches all over the Kansas City region (thirty-five currently) and so presented the perfect solution.

During that first year I was conducted from venue to venue by a lady named Linda who was volunteer with the festival. I remember that she had a stylishly coiffured bob of platinum blonde hair and wore a large fur coat, so dark that it was almost black: she looked a bit like a walking pint of Guinness!

In those days I used to perform three times a day and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the performances were given as readings and were well received. The following year we repeated the exercise, but during that year the Holiday Fair went bust, meaning that there was no reason for me to return to the Kansas City region in ’97.

Except The Mid Continent Public Library Service had other ideas. The appearances had proved so popular that they wanted to continue the relationship and booked me to return to Missouri in 1997 and I have been going ever since, except for the years when I ‘retired’.

Memories? too many to mention! In the early days I used to be looked after by two librarians in the events and programmes team, Miriam and Marlena, and we would spend whole days driving from one branch of the library to another, each performance punctuated by a huge meal in various restaurants.

Performing in a library space was strange, for although the audiences were relatively small, the buildings themselves were built to soak up sound, meaning that projecting my voice was incredibly difficult and I would frequently end up very tired and hoarse after a day’s performing.

A Library Set

Mid Continent not only enjoyed the audiences that I drew but also the attendant publicity that came with my visits and we often had to find time for media events and interviews between the branch visits. On one occasion we were due to have a very early morning radio interview at a station who broadcast out of a small shack across the state line in Kansas. There was heavy snow on the ground and the air was filled with blizzard conditions as we crawled slowly on. I was in costume as we had to drive straight to a library branch as soon as the interview was done.

At one point of the journey we reached the bottom of a steep hill and the route up was slick and icy meaning that we couldn’t proceed. However Marlena noticed that the route DOWN the hill had been well used by various trucks meaning we would be able to get up the hill by driving on the wrong side of the road. Of course a problem would arise if a car should be legitimately driving only to be confronted with us squirming up the slope, so I rather gallantly, or foolishly, volunteered to walk ahead of Marlena’s car to warn any oncoming traffic. I wrapped my scarf around my neck and pulled my top hat low over my forehead and held my walking cane ahead of me to alert anyone who may be there. It was fortunate that I did, for indeed a pick-up truck driven by a bearded guy in a baseball cap did start the descent. I waved my cane high in the air, matching the movement with my other arm until he stopped and stared at me, mouth open.

To understand his shock you have to relive the scene from his viewpoint: He was driving into a whiteout, nothing to be seen, an alien landscape ahead of him. What was that? A shape, a shadow, a figure: out of the mist appeared a ghost, the ghost of a Victorian gentleman waving in tormented anguish. If the scene had been included in a 70’s movie our pick-up driver would have looked at a half emptied bottle in his hand and shaken his head, before tossing the liquor out of the car window!

On another occasion we had a little time before we needed to be at a venue so the M&Ms decided to take me to a baseball batting cage where I could try some hits. I was fitted with a helmet and gloves but other than that I was in full costume as the automatic pitching machine pelted balls at me.

It was during these early years that I performed at the Blue Springs branch where the head librarian was Kimberley Howard. During subsequent years Kimberley rose up the ranks and began to work on the programming team, initially alongside Miriam and Marlena and more latterly on her own. For the past goodness-knows-how many years Kimberley has been the one who has booked me and looked after me during my stays.

With Kimberley (r) and the team

On her watch my performances have changed somewhat as the interest and audiences have grown. The smaller branches have not been able to accommodate the growing numbers and Kimberley has found other ways of presenting my shows to her patrons – the biggest being in a facility attached to a retirement community called the John Knox Pavilion where we pack around 900 people in, and the amazing thing about it is, that Mid Continent offer all of their programmes for free!

You can imagine therefore, given our history, that Kimberley and the team were very sad that I couldn’t travel in 2020 but as has been their way over the years they weren’t going to let a thing like a global pandemic get in the way of their programming.

Mid Continent Library Service have been instrumental in getting my new film made, and have assisted financially in the production, so our relationship which goes so far back is now even stronger and deeper than ever before.

Memories from a Samsung: Omaha, Nebraska

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Yesterday’s alert on my phone reminded me that two years ago I was being driven through very heavy snow towards Lincoln, Nebraska from the city of Omaha where I was performing at various venues on behalf of The Douglas County Historical Society, as I had done for many years before that.

My chauffeur on that day, as on so many in Omaha, was Lee Phillips and it was he and his wife Suzy who were responsible for taking me to the most central spot in the USA where sea and shining sea are as far away as it is possible for them to be.

Susie and Lee had seen me perform in Williamsburg, Virginia (no doubt the subject of a future post if my Samsung decides to remind me of times there), and as she was on the board at the Historical Society thought that a fundraiser featuring my shows would be a good idea. As soon as she could she marched into the office of the Society’s Executive Director, Kathy Aultz, and told her that ‘we MUST have Gerald Dickens perform’. Now, if Kathy had known Susie well, known her single-minded attitude, known how once she had an idea nothing would stand in her way, she may have simply said ‘alright let me know what we need to do’, but at that moment Kathy was new to the role and was trying to pick her way through all sorts of budgets, procedures, lists of employees, board members, volunteers. Her desk was covered and her mind was whirling, when suddenly in came this woman demanding that they all go on a road trip to the Kansas City area to watch a distant relative of a dead British guy performing A Christmas Carol. Kathy gave in and agreed to this hair-brained scheme. It is a story that both Kathy and Susie tell now with a great deal of humour and affection.

So, having seen me perform and understanding the possibilities, the Douglas County Historical Society put things in place to bring me to Omaha.

Over the years I have performed in many venues around the city but the two constants have been the General Crook House, a wonderfully atmospheric old property which is open for the public to tour, as well as being the HQ of the Society, and the Field Club – a stylish golf course where Lee just happens to be a member. The latter location hosts the largest audiences of my Omaha visits as we take over a spacious function room for an afternoon tea performance. The room is packed with tables as a large audience of locals and bus tour passengers crowd in to begin their Christmas celebrations.

The Field Club

While the audience is having their tea I have plenty of time to sit and relax, maybe chat to some of the volunteers or watch golf on tv in the wonderfully named ‘cry room’, a small bar where disconsolate golfers drown their sorrows after a frustrating round.

When the tea is finished and cleared Kathy welcomes the guests and introduces me.

Now, up to a few years ago I would walk up onto the stage, take the applause, say a few words of introduction and then start the show, but in recent years I have created a more theatrical opening to the performance: after the introductions, music fills the hall (the melancholic, atmospheric opening bars to the Trans Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas Eve/Sarajevo classic which is based on ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, the only carol mentioned by name in A Christmas Carol’). When the music dies away it is replaced by a church bell tolling as the hunched figure of Ebenezer Scrooge slowly walks to an imaginary graveside.

The idea works well so long as there is the equipment to play the sound effect as in most venues there is and you would expect a large function room to have the facility to play music, wouldn’t you? Ah, how dull my tours would be if everything was so simple!

At the Field Club the music for the entire facility used to be generated from an audio system tucked away in a tiny little cupboard near the admin offices, but nowhere near the stage area. To play the music cue it was necessary to plug my phone into the system and at the appropriate moment press ‘play’.

Simple.

However…. Kathy was giving the cue on stage and I was at the back of the room ready to enter through the audience, so we had to engage someone to operate the phone (complete with my access code in case it locked), but as they were stuck in the little cupboard there had to be yet another person in the long corridor waiting to relay the signal. This is how it worked: Kathy said ‘and so please welcome Gerald Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol’, I waved to whoever was in the corridor, they waved to whoever was in the cupboard, they hit play and hopefully the sound effect filled the room. To allow for the inevitable delay, I would start the process a little early so that the music started at the perfect moment, however there were a few occasions when Kathy would be on the point of finishing but just as I was giving the signal she would remember something else she needed to say, and there would be a flurry of hand signals to stop the process!

Last year the Field Club had invested in a new system which allowed the music to be played from within the room itself and although it made for a much simpler and more relaxing start to the show, I did rather miss our adventurous Heath Robinson style set up of years past!

The other venue, the Crook House, is a perfect setting for Victorian story telling. The dining room is cleared and a small stage set up in a large bay window, more of an alcove really. Due to the lack of space I am not able to do my larger theatrical-style shows there, so I usually turn to my smaller repertoire: Doctor Marigold, The Signalman, Sikes and Nancy and A Tale of Two Cities among others. The audience numbers around 40 and such is the intimacy of the setting we have all become good friends over the years.

Actually I have a permanent presence at The Crook House, for a few years ago Kathy arranged to have a life sized carboard cut out of me made to help promote my visits: my alter ego stands quietly in an office and has been christened ‘Flat Gerald’

Of course every venue has its own eccentricities, and The Crook House is no exception to that. One year, I think when I getting all dramatic in the middle of Sikes and Nancy, there was suddenly the sound of a buzzer sounding sporadically. Eventually both I and Kathy realised that the sound coincided with one audience member stretching his legs. I was continuing the show almost on auto pilot, transfixed by this gent’s ability to buzz at will, whilst Kathy quickly realised what was actually happening. The room, having been the house’s formal dining room, had a little bell push under the carpet near to the spot where the hostess would have been seated, so that she could surreptitiously call for the servants to attend and clear the table. Our poor audience member was completely unaware that his foot was activating the hidden switch every time he stretched his leg out.

There have been plenty of other venues in and around Omaha – book shops, high schools (including one performance in the cavernous surroundings of a basketball court!), and more recently senior living communities, but every event is organised by the small and dedicated staff at The Douglas County Historical Society and at every performance Kathy and Susie are there overseeing every detail. As with so many people that I have worked with they have become close friends and valued colleagues.

The Historical Society were one of the prime movers in requesting that I make a video of my show to distribute to their regular audience members and so began the process that will come to fruition on November 26 when my film will be released.

A Christmas Carol: An Eighty-One Man show

The extraordinary year that is 2020 continues to play tricks and confuse. In Britain we are entering a new period of lockdown whilst in America it is not only the pandemic that is occupying the thoughts and passions of a nation. Nothing seems settled or ordered.

My smart phone and various social media sites delight in telling me what I was doing on this day last year, two years, five years, seven years ago, and I have been reminded that I would normally have been in America by now, performing in those beautiful venues filled with happy folk celebrating the holiday season.

So I thought that it would be an enjoyable exercise to allow my phone to set the agenda and to remind me of years past:

Today, images from Pigeon Forge popped up and I realised that I would usually be in that extraordinary resort at the foot of the Smoky Mountains. On the garish strip where the Titanic crashes into its iceberg just across the street from King Kong clambering up the Empire State Building, and where food outlets jostle with dinner theatre joints, the Inn at Christmas Place stately reposes like a respectable Alpine hotel looking upon the neon sprawl around it with an air of elderly resignation (the hotel is not old, I should point out, but it has the demeanour of a respectful yet indulgent aunt presiding over the unseemly bustle of Pigeon Forge).

The atmosphere within the Inn has always been friendly as most of the audience members are also residents and many have become close friends over the years. For example a couple of years ago one regular audience member Gary took me up into the mountains and let me drive his magnificent ‘Batmobile’ Corvette and as a self-confirmed petrolhead I was in Heaven!

The Inn has a season-long series of events and many is the time I have bumped into Father Christmas and posed for photographs with him in front of the great Glockenspiel that dominates the lounge at the base of the staircase.

Time spent in Pigeon Forge has always been a happy one, and on days off there is the single road that leads out of town towards Gatlinburg and from there up into the sheer natural splendour and beauty of The Smoky Mountains. My visit is usually at the beginning of November and sometimes the sun has been brightly shining giving spectacular displays of fall colours, whereas in other years the cloud has hung low and the mountain road has been impassable due to snow and ice.

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As Pigeon Forge often came at the very start of my annual tour it was always a venue where the show began to develop for another year. The way my one man performance of A Christmas Carol has grown and morphed over the decades is fascinating, and is based purely on a natural progression rather than on any specific or conscious decisions on my part. Occasionally I have decided to introduce a new passage or phrase (there is so much of the novel that I am unable to bring to the stage – so much rich material that it pains me to leave in the wings that occasionally I slip in a favourite sentence or scene), but on the whole changes to the performance arise out of audience reaction or just a sense that comes to me during the telling of the story. In fact the whole look of the play arose out of an improvisation in 1996 when I found myself in a library in Alabama about to give a reading (that is how I performed in the first couple of years) only to discover that I had left my book in the previous venue!

Once I had got over the sense of helpless panic that enveloped me and realised to my surprise that I knew the words by heart and did not actually need the book, I started to move around the space available to me. I grabbed a chair that could represent not only the chair in Scrooge’s office but which also doubled and tripled up as that at his fireside and even his bed. A stool that had been left in the room was commandeered for Bob Cratchit to sit at and when it had been moved during the Fezziwig scene (‘Clear away? There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away with old Fezziwig looking on!’) it sat at the back of the stage until I realised I could use it to represent poor Tiny Tim later in the show. In fact very little has changed with the general blocking, the shape, of the show since that empathetic day in Alabama.

But every year the performance takes on its own feeling or flavour, sometimes it is more comedic and sometimes it is darker, more sombre. Over recent years the narrative has become less dramatic and more conversational, which has improved it beyond measure.

And so it was that each year in Pigeon Forge the small audience of 80 or so would get to see that particular year’s version show for the first time and being regulars and friends would feel not only able to pass comment, but expected to, and over the following five weeks or so the show would grow and develop and change some more until it arrived back at The Inn at Christmas Place, ready to begin another cycle.

This year of course the show takes on a new format all together as for the first time it will be available to watch on film and hopefully all of my old friends in Pigeon Forge will be watching, as will those in every other venue that I have visited over the last 25 years or so. But there will new audiences too, those who have been brought to the film by word of mouth and rigorous marketing. It is an exciting time, but at the very heart of whatever develops are people like the 80 in Pigeon Forge who have been part of creating my one man show.

The official trailer for the film will be released very soon, along with details of how to access and rent it: watch this space!

Bringing A Christmas Carol To The Screen: Part Two

‘Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.’ When I walk onto a stage and the lights come up as the sound effect bells toll I can launch into that memorable opening line with sheer confidence that I will be able to spend the next 90 minutes telling the story of A Christmas Carol in a professional and effective manner. For over 25 years I have lived with the book and pretty well know every nuance and mood within the text. It may be boastful, but I think I am quite an expert on performing A Christmas Carol.

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But recording it? Videoing it? That was a whole different field of expertise and a field that I had not yet entered – indeed I was struggling to even find the gate!

When the opportunity to film A Christmas Carol was presented to me it meant that I had to learn quickly and that is something that always excites and challenges me. Initially the plan was to film the show as it appears on the stage, which would be quite simple to do – probably the work of a single day. I was introduced to a talented young videographer, Emily Walder, who specialises in the filming of stage shows and she confirmed that the project would be a relatively simply one. A couple of cameras at most, a sound engineer, a couple of takes to capture a few close ups and different angles, and then patch it all together in the editing suite. Emily’s talent lays in editing and she has even been part of a project that won an Oscar, so I had absolute confidence in her to bring my show digitally to life.

My first job was to find locations and, as I mentioned in my previous post, I was originally looking for beautiful theatres. The architect Frank Matcham was renowned for his spectacular interiors and even though his work came after Dickens’ death, a number of his finest creations still exist and would suit my purpose exactly. I approached a few and received encouraging messages back; during the period of lockdown theatres were shut up, dark, locked, so the opportunity to breathe some life back into them, and receive a small income too, appealed to managers.

But then the project took a turn: initially it started by thinking about using different scenes within the theatre space – brick walls back stage could be suitably bleak and sparse, maybe a bar or box office space would be warm, plush and welcoming. Perhaps we could use exterior walls……and that is when the search for locations widened.

Encouraged by Liz to think further and further outside whatever box my mind was in, I started imaging fantastic backgrounds for the story. Although I know a lot of people didn’t approve of it but much of our inspiration came from the latest BBC2 adaptation staring Guy Pearce which was premiered in the UK last Christmas. There was plenty wrong with the production but the darkness and bleakness of many of the scenes appealed and I was keen to take that tone.

My first location idea was Highgate Cemetery in North London, where I have performed a couple of times. Not only does the site boast a wonderful array of gothic gravestones and monuments, but a little chapel would suit the interior scenes as well. The mood board started to overflow with pictures of dark, lichen-covered, higgledy-piggledy gravestones with slips of grass rising like fingers from the graves below, and my script became a confusion of angles and views which would challenge the viewers’ minds

But Highgate Cemetery wanted too much money

It was then that my thoughts came around to Rochester and the various venues that I described in my last blog post. With clear images of the scenes in my mind I started re writing the script again, complete with costume changes and lighting effects and sound effects and long tracking shots and tight close-ups. It was at this stage that I received a very polite, if somewhat nervous, email from Emily reminding me that when I’d contacted her I had asked her to attend a theatre and film a couple of run throughs of my show: The project seemed to have changed somewhat and she wanted me to understand that what I was asking for may not be possible with a crew of 2.

Emily is completely professional and of course her concerns were valid for when I looked back at the script I realised that I would need a crew of 700, with a budget in the millions and the end film may just be ready for Christmas 2021…..

We agreed to use my complicated script as an extension of the various mood boards that I had created and I began to pare things down until I had another, albeit simpler, version of the text.

Day 1

We met for the first time in the crypt at Rochester Cathedral. The lighting and the arches formed the perfect confusing background for Scrooge’s memories, but we instantly had to come to terms with modernity: Exit signs, fire alarms, electric outlets, stylish glass doors with carefully designed logos etched into them – all seemed to be in the back of every shot we wanted. However we soon managed to find the spaces we needed and began to work.

Without too much discussion we quickly fell into a routine which served us well throughout all of our shooting days: I would say which scene we were to film and suggest any ideas I may have had when working on the script (filming over shoulder, close up of face etc), and then I would actually run through the scene allowing Emily to walk around me searching for suitable shots and angles.

The first scene to be filmed was Scrooge waking up as The Ghost of Christmas Past visits him. I had made a decision not to actually physically portray the spirit (it is an impossible challenge anyway as Dickens describes it as an ever changing form:  ‘For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.’) My idea was for the ghost to be an indistinct presence represented by its voice coming from a different place each time it spoke. The echoes of the low stone vaulted ceiling only added to the mystery and eeriness of the scene.

I was delighted that Emily immediately bought into my vision and filmed the action from all sorts of obscure angles, whilst the sound engineer Jordan wielded the unwieldy sound boom as effectively as he could so as to counteract the natural echo.

We filmed all of the ‘past’ scenes in various settings around the Crypt: Scrooge on the road, at school, losing Belle and seeing her later in domestic bliss. The vergers and staff in the Cathedral couldn’t have been more welcoming to us and allowed us to film uninterrupted all morning.

Our next venue was the tiny, cramped 6 Poor Travellers’ House, which would become the Cratchit’s home – it seemed apt that the happy, close-knit family should be housed within the comforting walls of a charity alms house.

Once again our first job was to move as many indications of modern life as we could before finding suitable angles to film, which was in some ways easier in the cramped confines of the room than it had been in the cavernous crypt – here we just didn’t have much choice! In fact the space was so small that we decided to shoot some of the scenes through the tiny windows, which not only gave us an extra perspective but also a sense of Scrooge being apart from the action, and a slight feeling of voyeurism in the way that Alfred Hitchcock used so effectively over and over again,

At 5pm we had everything filmed that we had planned for the day, which was just as well for in a couple of days the curator of the 6 Poor Travellers’ House was due to leave the grey of Britain and head to Portugal for the winter months, meaning we would not be able to return until the Spring, which would be rather too late for our purposes.

Day 2

We re-grouped a week later to continue the filming. Due to the constraints of the various locations’ availability we were filming out of sequence, so it was a good thing that I have become so completely familiar with every scene of the story over the years, meaning that it was easy to pick up the various emotions as we went on.

Our first location was at St James Church in Cooling, out on the marshes, looking over the rivers Medway and Thames towards the county of Essex. It was 7.30 in the morning and a beautiful clear sunrise was bathing the scene in an amazing light so Emily and Jordan unpacked their equipment quickly in order that we could begin as soon as possible.

A tiny quiet village church in the midst of remote marshes: what could possibly interrupt us at that hour of the morning? The answer, everything. Nearby is Cooling Castle, now owned by a famous musician who obviously doesn’t like the marsh’s resident crows gathering on his roof for he, or one of the farmers nearby, had installed a bird scarer, which went off with a loud retort every twenty minutes or so, meaning we had to time our shoots carefully.

We were not only battling with the shotgun, but as the church is situated on an s-bend, a sort of chicane around the graveyard, we also had a series of cars dropping down gears as they approached it, and then accelerating away again on the other side. As time passed so a very large tip-up truck, whose traditional signwriting proclaimed it was the property of GORDON’S, rumbled and rattled past, only to return ten minutes later with a full load. Rattle. Bump. Grind of gears. Whining transmission. Surge of diesel engine. Rattle. Bump. After a few of these drive pasts the driver of Gordon’s truck would give us a cheery wave of apology each time he guided this monster along the little lane.

The supposed silent idyll was also punctuated by horns from far away ships and the odd executive jet screaming overhead!

We were joined on the second day by our very good friend Martin Smith who is a superb photographer and had offered to come along to take a few stills for publicity purposes. It was Martin who introduced me to Emily as they have worked together on various theatrical shoots on many occasions. As Emily, Jordan and I picked good locations for various shots, so Martin hovered in the background recording the scene.

Our first shots were filmed on a couple of pathways across the marshes, which eventually will form the opening and closing of the story. Charles Dickens loved to walk in this very countryside, so the idea of the narrator of the book striding across the fields as he talks seemed like a good way to begin. The light was beautiful, so were the clouds, although the strong wind made recording the sound a tricky proposition (not to mention bird-scarers. aeroplanes, cars and ‘Gordon’.)

Having captured the open countryside shots we then moved into the churchyard itself, where we spent a good couple of hours filming a number of scenes in different corners. The obvious ones: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’ and Scrooge being shown the vision of his own death were filmed at various ancient stones, whilst we also recorded shorter patches of narration which may, or may not, be used at other points in the story.

The appearance of the terrible visions of Ignorance and Want was filmed against a gnarled old Yew tree in which the bark seemed to form into the grotesque faces of generations of starving children.

When we finished at St James’ we loaded all of the equipment into our cars and headed back into the heart of Rochester and to Eastgate House, our final location for the day.

Our first job was to reconnoitre the entire building and decide which rooms to use for the various scenes that would be filmed there: Scrooge’s office, Scrooge’s home and nephew Fred’s party. It took a while to come to a final decision but eventually we set up in a small oak panelled upstairs room, with my clerk’s desk next to an empty fireplace. The stool which would represent Bob Cratchit in the scene I placed in a little alcove with light streaming in, suggesting the ‘little cell, a sort of a tank’ which Dickens described in the original.

Having run through the scene a couple of times and tried various angles, during which Martin had got some fantastically dramatic photographs, we decided to go for a take.

I concentrated on the lines, Emily concentrated on getting the shot, Jordon kept the boom mic out of sight and Martin…well Martin slid down the wall! Suddenly we aware of a scraping of furniture on the floor and I suppose our first thought was that he had simply leaned against the cabinet which moved, but it was more serious than that. Martin had fainted and as we watched he slowly tumbled to the floor (ever the professional he somehow managed to fall in such away that he didn’t crush any of his expensive and heavy photographic equipment which was hanging from a harness strapped to his body.

There was a moment when time stopped – just a moment – and then Emily, Jordan and I rushed over to him, and made sure he was comfortable. In just a few seconds his eyes flickered open and he gradually became aware that the little room was at a different angle than the last time he saw it. We explained what had happened and slowly he began to remember feeling as if ‘everything was was swimming’. We took him downstairs and into the fresh air where we gave him a glass of water, but he was still not feeling 100% and we thought it may be best to call an ambulance, just so that he could be checked over.

The paramedics arrived in a few minutes and were fantastic (God bless the NHS!). They chatted, asked questions, tested blood pressure and heart rate, and came to the conclusion that the fainting was simply a result of a very early morning and not enough sustenance.

The team in green phoned their findings back to head office and while they waited for the official advice to come back down the line they asked us about our work and were terribly impressed by our various theatrical endeavours. One of the paramedics said, rather forlornly, that he wished he had an exciting job, to which we all chorused ‘What? Saving lives every day is a pretty amazing thing to do!’ The modest reply maybe didn’t install a huge amount of confidence in any of us but perhaps not in Martin the most: ‘Oh, actually I don’t save the lives of about 85% of the people I see!’ I think he meant that most cases he saw were mundane. I hope that is what he meant.

When Martin was given the all clear, our new friends packed up their equipment and bade us a cheery adieu with a parting reminder to ‘drink more water!’

Somehow it didn’t feel right to continue filming now and as we had got some amazing footage in the can (or megapixels on the chip), we took the decision that it had been a valuable and productive day and that we would re-group in a week’s time to finish up.

Martin and I found a dainty café where we had a restorative lunch of quiche and a little salad, and then went our separate ways.

Day 3

Another week on and Emily, Jordan and I were back at Eastgate House (Martin had decided it may be better not to make the trip this time), with a long day ahead of us, but what we did not have to do was spend lots of time trying to work out where to shoot.

We set the little office space up again and picked up with the scene we had been filming before. Spookily, eerily (and the house is about 400 years old so perhaps not surprisingly), at the very moment we reached the point in the scene where Martin had fainted the week before, so one of Emily’s lights failed. We all looked at each other, but chose to press on in spite of whatever spirit floated around us in that confined space…..

We finished all of the scenes in the office, then moved to another very sparse room on the top floor in which we filmed all of the scenes in Scrooge’s home, including leaning out of the window and shouting to the little boy on Christmas morning, much to the surprise of the residents of Rochester.

When we had finished the filming upstairs it was almost 1 pm, so learning the lessons from the week before we decided that it was time to eat and drink water.

In the afternoon we had one more location – a bright large room, where we re-created Nephew Fred’s party, and had plenty of space for the lascivious Topper to flirt with the niece’s sister. For the game of Blindman’s Buff I tied one of my cravats over my eyes and managed to complete the scene without bumping into anyone or anything.

With all of the scenes completed we tidied up all of the rooms we had used and returned them to the state they had been that morning, and then made our way outside to film a few exterior ‘linking’ shots that would be used to join some of the scenes together. The sun was beginning to go down and we had to work quickly against the rapidly fading light, but he golden glow was beautiful on the honey stone of the cathedral and even as we walked back to our cars Emily was filming a few extra scenes to have in reserve should they be needed.

And that was that. a wrap. No hugs or handshakes in our masked socially distancing world, just thanks and goodbyes.

Now it is time for Emily to work her Oscar-winning magic over the show as she stiches all of the scenes together in an order that Charles Dickens would recognise. The next time I write my 2020 version of A Christmas Carol will be ready to view.

Getting A Christmas Carol On to Film…At Last!

2020 has been an empty vessel for me. With the spread of the global pandemic and the resultant periods of lockdown and government-induced precautions the theatre sector has died a death and the opportunities to perform have been non-existent since March. I have walked, cycled and run; I have tried to make the most of the situation I have found myself in, and I have continued to contact possible venues in the hope that my very simple one man show will prove a concept that can suit these new days of restricted audience numbers and social distancing.

But despite all of that potential negativity 2020 has been a remarkable year for me for I have undertaken two projects entirely new to me, both out of any comfort zone that I have slipped into: I have written a book and I am making a video.

Ok, strictly speaking I had started the book last year but I have managed to complete the manuscript and it is in the hands of my publishers (oh, to be able to type those two words is an extraordinary thing!). throughout this year the proof-read manuscript has been returned for me to check, I have made a few changes and returned it ready for the process to begin again and at the moment I am waiting for the next stage to begin and the exciting thing is that I have no idea what that will be! It is all new to me.

The second project is more nerve-wracking for me as I am in charge of it and have no background in writing, directing or acting in videos, my experience lies within the great broad brushstrokes of theatre and the subtleties of film have past me by.

But 2020 is a year of change and it has been essential to embrace whatever prospect has presented itself. This, then, is the story of the video.

As many of you will already know a major feature of my performing year is taken up with an extensive tour to the United States. I have been travelling for over 25 years and many of the venues have become regular stops where amazingly loyal and enthusiastic audience members return over and over again to watch me perform A Christmas Carol. Very early in the year it became apparent to me that the 2020 tour would be impossible to organise. The future was extremely uncertain and infection (and death) rates were soaring in both Britain and America. The introduction of a 14 day quarantine period for anyone returning to the UK from overseas sealed my decision, for if I were to travel to the USA in December I would not be able to perform at home at all in the run up to Christmas: I took the decision to cancel the tour, and that, or so I thought, would be the end of it.

But I had not counted on the generosity of my venues and little by little word came back that some locations would love the opportunity to have a streamed performance which they could offer to their regular patrons. Over the years I have often been asked ‘who don’t you film your performance’ and my answers have always been evasive – ‘I wouldn’t know how to capture the connection between me and the audience’, ‘I don’t know how to get the right venue’, ‘The performance would have to be specially staged and directed to film each scene properly – that may destroy the pace of the show.’ The real reasons of course were more down to earth and basic: firstly, I have no experience in creating the script for, or actually directing the filming of a video, and secondly I have never had a budget to do the job.

When my American agent Bob Byers first approached me to float the idea of making a film it was because some of my regular venues, and one in particular – The Mid Continent Public Library service based near Kansas City – had offered to invest in a production of the show which could be distributed and shown to my regular and very loyal audiences. The budget was in place and that was one excuse that I’d lost!

Initially my plan was to find a suitably Victorian theatre and simply run the show a couple of times with a camera taking a few different shots which could be edited together to create a record of the performance, but as I began to research suitable venues Liz suggested that this was too good an opportunity to miss and we should look at creating something more impressive and memorable. I therefore broadened my location search: a gothic cemetery in London would be too expensive, as would some impressive stately homes that I have visited over the years.

In the end my choice came down to the opening shot I wanted to use: a bleak churchyard with the figure of the story’s narrator standing respectfully over a grave as the opening lines of the novel are heard. The inspiration for this image was the churchyard at Cooling in Kent, which in turn had inspired Charles Dickens to create one of his most memorable opening chapters, that of Great Expectations. Rather than looking for a church that looked like St James’ at Cooling it made rather more sense to use the original, and if I was going to be doing some of the filming near the city of Medway (made up of Rochester, Chatham and Strood as well as many other villages and small towns), it made sense to look for other locations within that conurbation.

I have worked closely with Medway Council over the years as their spectacular Dickens festival has been a regular part of my calendar, so I started to approach some old friends in the tourism and events departments and their desire to assist me and to open doors was very moving. Rochester is internationally seen as being to Charles Dickens what Stratford Upon Avon is to William Shakespeare, so the idea of featuring the old city as a character in its own right was appealing.

As well as the church in Cooling the venues I was looking at were Eastgate House, The Six Poor Travellers’ House and Rochester Cathedral, as well as a few exterior shots which would help to link one scene to another. Each of these buildings, remarkable in their own right, have appeared in Dickens’s works, so their presence in my film is a little nod to the complete canon of work and not just his ‘ghostly little book’.

To describe St James’ Church in Cooling I can do no better than to quote the opening chapter of Great Expectations:

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister – Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle – I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.about:blank

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!

Today the Church still sits on remote marshland and the low leaden line of the river still slashes the green in half. Standing proudly against the grey sky there are no longer gibbets or prison hulks but cranes and derricks at the London Gateway shipping container port. On a cold misty morning it is easy to believe that the wretched convict is still lurking ready to terrify us.

In his description Charles mentions the five little stone lozenges nestled against the grave stone. Dickens would often exaggerate fact by increasing numbers, but in this case he couldn’t bring himself to record the true extent of a family’s tragedy: in reality there are thirteen little graves – a horrific reminder to the mortal danger of marsh fever.

Field paths near to the church were perfect to stride along, as Charles Dickens would have done, narrating the opening of the story until I stand before a grave and look straight down the camera lens to address the viewers directly for the first time….

I also used the churchyard as a base for short lines of narration throughout the story, as well as the setting for the appearance of Ignorance and Want and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (not to mention Scrooge’s own grave stone)

Eastgate House is a remarkable building dating back to the 16th century. Originally built for a Mayor of Rochester, the red-bricked house stands proudly at the end of the High Street, which in former times was part of the main route from the south coast to London and therefore a very important thoroughfare.

Charles Dickens featured the venerable pile in two of his books, in fact it bookended his career appearing in his first novel The Pickwick Papers and his final, unfinished story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

For me the darkly panelled rooms with their tiny mullioned windows are perfect to represent both Scrooge’s office and also his home (the staircase particularly giving me plenty of scope for an eerie Hitchcockian sequence as Scrooge ascends to his rooms), whilst the newly renovated rooms with the Georgian-styled duck egg blue interiors offer a superbly cheerful setting for the Christmas celebrations of Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as well as the flirtatious Topper as he chases Scrooge’s niece’s sister about the room

The Six Poor Travellers’ House was built at around the same time as Eastgate and was funded by the estate of Richard Watts to be used as an alms house for travellers. The accommodation was spartan, boasting six bedrooms complete with fireplaces, and an area where the residents could eat and share their stories in comfort

In 1854 Charles Dickens wrote a short story about the house which he called ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ (he was the seventh) which of course brought greater attention to the admirable work of the Watts’ charity.

The house today is open as a museum and provides a superb background for the scenes involving the Cratchit family in their simple yet cheerful home.

But the Six Poor Travellers’ House had a surprise in store for us: Liz, the current curator, mentioned that although not open to the public the house also boasted a ‘the house of correction’ in the basement which we were welcome to use if we wanted to: Old Joe and Mrs Dilber selling Scrooge’s bed curtains and clothes had found their home!

The use of Rochester Cathedral will perhaps prove to be the most controversial of my locations as it represents Scrooge’s mind, rather than specific scenes. When I was researching the various locations I saw a photograph of the Cathedral’s crypt and instantly saw in the low gothic arches a series of interconnecting neurological pathways. The scene is perfect for Scrooge’s past – the images don’t exist in the real world, they are jumbled, confused and forgotten. So within the Crypt Scrooge sees his school room, Fezziwig’s warehouse and the scene of Belle leaving him all represented by a single piece of furniture.

The entire project has been exciting, terrifying and exhilarating and, as with so many performers across the world, from the warm ashes of live theatre is rising a phoenix of hope

In my next blog post I will discuss the development of the script and how I have come to work with a brilliant videographer and editor to bring the story of A Christmas Carol to your screens this Christmas.

A Blog Post for Lockdown

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Back in March the country entered an uncertain period, as the global scourge that is Coronavirus made its silent presence known across our island.  We had been following the news from Wuhan Province for quite a while and I distinctly remember an expert confidently announce on the radio that the only risk was to those who had visited that particular region of China.  In the same week there were stories of The Diamond Princess cruise ship being held off shore like one of the prison hulks so memorably described in the opening chapters of Great Expectations.  The passengers and crew on board were gradually infecting each other until the reports of the first deaths made the news broadcasts.  For a while The Diamond Princess held the unfortunate honour of having the second largest infection rate in the world.  This was in February, a whole month before the British Prime Minister announced that severe restrictions would be placed on society.

Now, some four months later, the UK is gradually peeking out from behind its curtains as lockdown eases and some sense of normality returns to the country.  Celebrations are rife as hairdressers’ floors disappear under layers of clipped locks, and restaurants are once again able to deferentially ask their customers if ‘everything is alright?’ albeit from a sensible and apparently safe distance.  There are great debates as to the wisdom of letting the country loose when the virus is still at large, but that is not what this post is about:  I want to record some of my perceptions of life as it has been, good and bad, and preserve my memories of lockdown before they get lost in ‘the new normal’, which I fear will closely resemble the old one.

This is the story of a small household in Oxfordshire: me, Liz and our two primary school-aged daughters.

 

Early Thoughts

My first memory of lockdown is the state of our hands.  We are a pretty hygienic household anyway and we always wash our hands before and after meals, but government advice was to wash vigorously (whilst singing Happy Birthday twice through) at every opportunity so we all resolutely obeyed the edict and after just a week or so our hands were dried, cracked and ancient-looking.  Strangely as the weeks and months have passed our skin has returned to its natural state even thought the strident washing regime continues.

In the shops the shelves quickly emptied of certain goods (toilet roll and dried pasta being the most sought after commodities).  Panic buying became an art form and for a while the huge expanses of the supermarkets were almost empty of goods, as people stockpiled.  In our modest way we cleared out a little cupboard in our hallway, purchased some metal shelving and created a new larder to expand the amount of storage available to us.

The shops responded quickly to the panic and introduced strict limits on how much of any particular product could be purchased and little by little the shelves began to fill again.

Each day we followed the news briefings and listened in horror as the first deaths were announced.  Ever more restrictive guidelines were issued by the government and the  realisation dawned that for the next few months both Liz’s and my work would cease leading to a complete cessation of our incomes (both being self employed).  In this respect we were no different to millions of others throughout the country, and apart from the reality of the health tragedy that was quickly unfolding, the full horror of the economic disaster that was approaching became apparent as businesses shut their doors and events at local and national levels were cancelled.  However elsewhere many thousands of horse racing fans congregated at the Cheltenham race course for the annual festival.  Even as the country began to shut down so the little spa town on the edge of the Cotswolds became a breeding ground, Coronavirus spread silently through through the packed grandstands, around the parade ring, in the stables, through the car parks, and individuals carried it away ready to gradually unleash Covid 19 throughout a nervous nation.

 

Being Outside

In those early days of lockdown being outside was a strange experience for there was a sense that the very air we breathed was toxic, and yet the sky was blue, the clouds bright white and nature burgeoned all around.

The first perceptions of how life would be came upon us all gradually, the days took on a different rhythm and we all had to learn to be more tolerant and understanding with each other (not always successfully, it must be said).

We had been told to stay in our houses unless we had to shop, whilst periods of exercise were limited to one a day, and it was the wording of the latter precaution that gave so many people an essential escape clause, our family included.

Liz and I soon realised that being restricted to our small house for an indeterminate amount of time with two very active, confused and frustrated daughters was too horrific to even imagine, so we played the exercise card as often as we were able.  The need to get out into the open was increased as Liz was working from home, teaching piano via her laptop, meaning that the house needed to have an element of quiet and professionalism about it.

At first I would drive out into the countryside to find a walk and there were two reasons for this: firstly, the drive out and back added extra time to the journey, meaning that Liz could teach without interruption for longer, and secondly it gave me the opportunity to discover some new areas of our region to walk in.  Many of our itineraries featured different lengths of The Ridgeway path, an ancient trail traversing Oxfordshire atop a ridge of chalk hills.  The path runs for almost 90 miles and is recognised as one of the oldest, if not the oldest, roads in Britain.  The fact that The Ridgeway was  cut high above the surrounding country meant that ancient travellers could always be on the look out for those of nefarious intent  below them and that gives us our modern name for a road: the highway.

April and May saw a heatwave and day upon day of hot sunshine and warm weather made the countryside even more beautiful to be in, but there was more, for Mother Nature seemed to be revelling in the fact that the human race was being put on hold, that cars were not polluting the towns or planes the skies.  Foliage was abundant and bright, whilst the blossom bubbled and frothed vividly against the blue of the skies which were unmarked by the vapour trails of aircraft.  Birdsong seemed to be louder and wildlife seemed braver (on the television there were pictures of deer meandering through deserted town centres).  Satellite images backed up our own observations, showing much less pollution over China allowing nature to reclaim her planet for a while.

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Our days of exploring the wider countryside would soon end though, for the lockdown restrictions became ever tighter and it was decreed that exercise could only be taken from your own home and that driving to beauty spots would no longer be allowed.

So, we explored Abingdon and discovered some amazing walks on our very doorstep, the other great bonus of the restrictions being that we could cycle without fear of cars, vans or huge trucks threatening to crush us as they thundered past.  The roads were almost deserted and when in the past we might have to wait for a while to cross, now we could just stroll as if we were walking in a park.

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One walk to the pretty village of Sunningwell took us over a footbridge which crossed the usually busy A34 trunk road and we loved standing waiting for a lonely truck or car to flash by beneath us as we waved to the drivers, who usually waved back or flashed their lights and hooted their horns.

These days were the happiest of lockdown, with nature thriving and everyone being forced into a slower, more relaxed pace of life.  We all had to learn a new way of living.

 

Neighbourhood Strolls and Art

Many of our local walks took us through residential streets that we had never really noticed before interconnected by hidden footpaths, or ‘twittens’ as we used to call them back in Kent when I was growing up.  As we walked we loved admiring carefully tended gardens and the ever-increasing amount of children’s window art.  I don’t quite know how it started or who first suggested it, but children across the country began to create rainbows to display in their windows as a symbol of hope.  Some rainbows were simply printed and then coloured with pen or pencil, others were painted, yet more were a spectacular result of mixed-media projects.  Some were large, others small, and a few had positive and uplifting message carefully written alongside.  All of this meant that a neighbourhood stroll became a a trip to a gallery in which we could discuss and compare the artwork.  In our own living room window the girls’ efforts were proudly displayed and the sheer pride and joy we felt when a young mother pushing a buggy stopped one day to tell us how much the pictures cheered her up and how she always admired our front garden can hardly be described.

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The warmth of the feeling was so great that we started to do the same to others, praising gardens and art as we passed by and we relished the beams that resulted.

At Easter we decorated foam egg-shaped cut outs and hung them from the large and gnarled Rosemary bush that overhangs our front wall, and when the country celebrated the anniversary of Victory in Europe Day in May we made our own red, white and blue bunting which we hung proudly over the front of the house.

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Other families did the same so that previously drab, anonymous estates became bright, fun and vibrant places to be. Through this shared artwork communities grew closer – another great positive consequence of the Coronavirus.

At home our artistic endeavours went further than creating displays for passers-by, as our craft box allowed us to create a series of pictures and models inspired by our good friends Martin and Nikki with whom we shared a weekly Zoom call in an attempt to broaden our attempts at the girls’ home schooling .  Each week either Nikki or Martin would suggest a theme for the following session and we would all be required to come up with some work to show them – our eldest, who is eight years old, loved to do lots of reading and research and then present her findings, whilst all of us took to felt-tipped pens, coloured pencils and paints to create large murals on long rolls of paper.  One week we did an under-sea vista and on another we went into outer space (I was particularly proud of my Saturn V rocket made out of loo rolls, with sheets of red and orange tissue paper issuing from the ‘engine’ as the mighty beast ‘cleared the tower’).  We explored the world of Kings and Queens, fairy tales as well as Walt Disney (again, ridiculous amounts of pride for my painted representation of Scrooge McDuck).  On the day appointed for our presentations we would gather in front of my laptop in great excitement and Nikki and Martin would watch, comment on our efforts and present their own offerings.  For a little while each week what was happening in the big bad world was forgotten and became irrelevant.

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A New Etiquette

Being forced to stay within the limits of our own towns to take our exercise meant that naturally there were more people walking on the pavements which created its own issues.  By now we were being told that to prevent the spread of the virus we should all keep 2 meters apart from anyone outside our own household group, and so the phrase ‘social distancing’ entered our language and dominated it (as had ‘self isolation’ and ‘underlying health issues’ a few weeks earlier).  As we walked we would keep a careful watch for others coming towards us and made sure that we were able to position ourselves so that we could pass with the requisite gap between us.  It was interesting to observe how society coped with this and how different people reacted.  We as a family tried to be positive and friendly, greeting everyone we met with a smile and a ‘good morning!’   If someone had paused to let us pass or gone out of their way to give us a clear way we thanked them, and being British we often exchanged pleasantries about the weather.  But not all responded the same way, for some people walked with their eyes down and viewed all around them with suspicion, barely willing or able to converse, on the whole this was not born or rudeness, but of fear.  Whilst our daily walks were an essential part of our mental and physical wellbeing, to others being in the open obviously felt an unnatural risk to be endured and ended as soon as possible.  Very soon we learned to identify the sort of person who was approaching and could modify our own behaviour accordingly.

There was a third category too, next to the friendly and fearful, and that was those who insisted that regulation and order be maintained at all costs.  I recall riding my bike along a pathway which was clearly marked with two lanes, one for cycles and one for pedestrians.  It was a sunny day and quite a few people were out enjoying their exercise. Being a responsible and good citizen I was riding on the cycle side of the path but noticed ahead of me a lady stopping to smell some beautiful blossom on a tree which overhung my way, so I steered to pass by on the other side so as not to prevent her enjoying a moment which obviously meant a great deal to her.  Now I was in the pedestrian lane and striding towards me were two more ladies, with water bottles in hand obviously out on a fitness walk, rather than an amble.  What to do?  I pulled as far into the side of the path as I could and stopped, leaving plenty of room so that they could pass by.  Rather than thanking me, one of the ladies scowled ‘actually this lane is for pedestrians, THAT lane is for bicycles!’ and on they strode muttering to one another.  Yes, technically they were correct, I was not in the proper lane, but the level of anger seemed disproportionate, especially as I’d only been trying to let a lady smell some blossom without being disturbed!

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Keeping Fit and Healthy

As I touched on earlier, the need to be in the great outdoors was born not only of physical wellbeing but of the importance of good mental health too.  Being cooped up  inside a house for hours, days, weeks on end  could and most like would result in depression and anger.  Certainly during the long school days when Liz was teaching she noticed that her mental health was suffering as a result of being confined for long periods.

As restrictions were gradually eased and exercise away from your own neighbourhood was permitted once more so our countryside walks once more became a major part of our weekly routine and the girls (only 8 and 5, remember), amazed me by happily striding out on 6 mile hikes through the Oxfordshire countryside.  I would pack a picnic full of treats into a rucksack and we would find a cool woodland glade somewhere to spread out our rug and relax before pushing on to the end.  The huge expanses of scenery seemed to cosset and care for us as it welcomed us in.  I know that we are extremely lucky to live in a part of the country where such expeditions are possible and I cannot imagine being stuck for four months in a tower block or estate with little or no access to outdoor space.

However it was not just those beautiful walks that kept me fit, for during lockdown I actually took up running.  Running and I haven’t been happy bedfellows over the years,  I have tried to take on an effective fitness regime a few times but always without success.  As long ago as thirty five years ago my good school friend Chris tried to encourage me to join him in his then new hobby of running, but after a couple of aborted attempts I left him to it.  Chris went on to run a number of London Marathons and still runs most days in his adopted homeland of New Zealand.

The fact is that I do not find running a pleasurable experience, I get no inherent joy from the action of pounding on a road, getting breathless and hot knowing that there is no relief from the sheer torture and monotony.

In March I started running again purely as a way of  giving our 8 – year old some sort of routine in the mornings, at a time when she would usually be getting ready for a school day.  We had noticed she became easily distracted and frustrated and as one of her best friends liked to run we thought that we would suggest it.  She liked the idea and so we were committed.  On my last half-hearted attempt at running a few years ago I had downloaded the ‘Couch to 5K’ app onto my phone so we thought that we would start from the very beginning and strictly follow that programme for as long as we could.  The Couch to 5K system starts with very short simple runs – 1 minute running with 1.5 minutes of walking between: we could just about manage that!  After a week we moved to level two which increased the length of the run to 2 minutes, but also allowed us an extra 30 seconds of ‘rest’.  Again, we achieved that.  Week three saw us remaining at 2 minutes but the walk was shortened.  Week four was when we began to struggle: 2 and a half minutes of running within only thirty seconds to recover saw me panting and wheezing and my daughter starting to complain of stiches, sore ankles and blisters.

After a few mornings it became apparent that she had reached the end of her running journey and I was on my own once more.  This time, however,  I was determined not to give up and set myself the challenge of continuing for as long as I could, even if I didn’t reach my 5k goal, which seemed unlikely considering that would mean running for around 40 minutes without a break and I was currently struggling with 2 and a half!

But on I went.  I have always been an early riser so I decided to run as soon as I woke, at around 5.15 and this is when I started to actually, dare I say it,  enjoy myself.  The air at that hour is cool and the streets and pathways deserted.  I still struggled at times, but over a period of weeks I began to move onto more advanced levels until something extraordinary happened: I decided to run through my rest periods.

I assume there are learned articles and studies about fitness and the body which cover this phenomenon but my uneducated and uninformed mind came to a conclusion: it seemed to me as if there were a moment when the excess body fat and weight burned off and the newfound muscle tone and stamina took over, like a tipping set of scales.

And from finding it difficult to run for three minutes I was suddenly running for twenty, then twenty five, then twenty eight minutes at a time.  I have definitely lost weight, I have definitely become fitter as a result and I feel a great deal of pride for pushing on and continuing with something that isn’t completely natural to me.

On the morning of 18th July, 2020, I ran for 34 minutes and for the very first time achieved my 5K goal!

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5k for the first time!

 

 

New Friends

Joe Wicks

Confined to our house we, like most of the country, searched for new virtual friends to help us pass the time and they presented themselves to us via different forums.  Firstly we joined in with the national TV phenomenon that was Joe Wicks’ ‘PE With Joe’.  For those of you who don’t know, Joe had built an incredibly strong fitness brand based on workout programmes released on his YouTube channel, but as lockdown confined entire families to their front rooms so he began to run a 20 minute workout each morning for everyone to join in with.  The exercises were simple and Wicks’ energetic and engaging repartee engaged the whole family as we looked for which ornaments had changed place in his rather stylish and expensive living room.  We all togged up in our ‘fitness gear’ after breakfast and followed Joe for a few weeks, which was a really fun and valuable bonding time, but our youngest struggled with focus and attention after a while and we quietly bade farewell to Joe.

 

Nick Cope

The girls’ school were superb at sending all sorts of resources to parents so that all of the children had plenty to occupy them – this wasn’t necessarily a pre-planned curriculum of lessons to be strictly adhered to, but a series of suggested activities.  Our 5 year old is in the Reception class and one of the links that her teacher sent was to a singer called Nick Cope who was broadcasting regular mini concerts from his front room.  Cope used to be the lead singer of a band called The Candyskins who had success at the beginning of the Britpop era of the early 1990s.  These days Nick has made a brilliant career of writing and singing a series of gentle and witty songs for children and had actually visited the school to perform for the younger year groups.  Soon we were all becoming familiar with his  repertoire and downloaded his albums to play in the car on longer journeys (each time a new song came on our daughter would shout out ‘he did this one at school, its my FAVOURITE!’  In which case it must have been a VERY long concert!)

One particular favourite number was ‘A Round of Applause for the Dinosaurs’ part of the refrain of which goes: ‘Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus and T-Rex, not forgetting Diplodocus with his long neck!’ and on one of our neighbourhood walks we would pass a house where models of those particular species were displayed on an upstairs windowsill: fellow fans we guessed, and we would walk down the street singing the song out loud!

 

Jimmy Carr and Richard Osman

On a more adult level for Liz and me the passing of the early days of lockdown were marked by a daily quiz hosted by comedian Jimmy Carr, which he called ‘The Little Tiny Quiz of the Lockdown’  The format was simple, ten trivia questions, answers broadcast a short while later.  No prizes, no competition, just a little mental stimulation after the children were in bed which became an almost essential marking of the passing of another day.  The quizes ran for about 5 or 6 weeks until presumably Jimmy Carr ran out of trivia, but during those early days they a real feature of our days.

The quiz theme was then taken up by TV producer and host of the ‘Pointless’ TV series Richard Osman, who as a way of promoting his first novel ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ wrote a weekly newsletter (published appropriately on a Thursday) to his very many fans which included a quiz.  Each week all of the answers began with the same letter of the alphabet and at the time of writing we have reached the letter R.  As with Carr’s daily quiz the arrival of ‘Osman night’ marked the passing of another week and gave a sense of routine and stability to a fluid and uncertain reality.

 

Moving Out Of Lockdown

Although Coronavirus is still present in our society and a vaccine has yet to be officially distributed, the more stringent lockdown regulations have now been lifted and a sense of normality is returning to our towns and cities.  Shops are opening, although the wearing of facemasks (which we have done since the start anyway) is now mandatory.  Hair salons are doing a roaring trade, as are pubs and restaurants with careful policies in place.

As far as we are concerned there is really no change in that ‘normality’ coincided with the start of the school holidays meaning that we would all have been at home anyway.  Our days will still be filled with walks, cycle rides and art projects, but hopefully we can actually meet up with friends for picnics etc, as well as visiting playparks.

The roads are busier now and we have to wait for much longer periods to cross.  Cycling is more stressful too, but we still get out on our bikes when we can.  Standing on the footbridge over the A34 the traffic thunders along and drivers are in too much of a rush to notice a family waving to them.

Slowly ‘normal’ life is returning and some of those precious moments are being lost.

In writing these words I do not set out to pretend that our life through the last four months has been perfect and wonderful: it definitely has not been and there have been plenty of days when we have all become increasingly impatient and angry with each other leading to tantrums on all sides which probably have made our neighbours wince.

In writing this blog post I simply wanted to preserve some of those little  memories that may otherwise get swept away in the course of time.

 

 

The Ridgeway

The Ridgeway

 

Richard Osman

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/315815/the-thursday-murder-club/9780241425442.html

 

Nick Cope

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/315815/the-thursday-murder-club/9780241425442.html

 

Jimmy Carr

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