Wentworth Woodhouse

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On Saturday morning it was time to load the car up once more ready to drive to the county of Yorkshire, in the north of England for another leg of my 2022 tour. This time I was to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and The Signalman at the glorious stately home of Wentworth Woodhouse. This particular combination of shows requires me to load both the replica of Charles Dickens’ reading desk (for Mr Dickens is Coming) and the large clerk’s desk which features on the set of The Signalman, meaning that, with all of the rest of the props, this is the most difficult programme to squeeze into the car. I spent quite a long time trying different combinations of packing, until finally everything fitted in successfully. I took a few pictures so that I could remind myself how it worked, and then prepared to leave for to long drive North.

I was accompanied on my journey by coverage of the third cricket test match between England and New Zealand which, coincidentally, was being played at the Headingly ground in Yorkshire, not far from my destination. I had left a long time for the drive, and stopped for lunch at a motorway service station before continuing my journey through the beautiful scenery of The Peak District and on into what the locals call ‘God’s own Country’. I reached the village of Wentworth with an hour or so to spare so pulled into a small car park to relax before completing my journey. At Headingly the commentators talked of heavy rain storms preventing play, and sure enough, shortly afterwards, the skies darkened and the same weather swept over me, but almost as soon as the rain fell so the clouds parted and the sun shone once more.

At 5 o’clock I started the car up and drove down the long driveway into the grounds of the great stately home, which unlike it’s counterparts at Chatsworth or Blenheim, is little known. But Wentworth Woodhouse is a truly remarkable building, boasting the largest Façade of any stately home in Europe. The house is actually two houses, one facing to the West made out of red brick and the other facing East made of honey-coloured stone with grand Palladian columns, and it was in front of the latter that my little red car sat dwarfed by the opulence and splendour.

The house was just closing to the public as I entered, and the young man behind the front desk greeted me with a a reference and awe which suggested that everyone was very excited about this event. This would be my first performance at the house, although I did visit last autumn just to discuss the practicalities of my performances and to see the rooms. Proceeds from the show would go towards the never ending restoration project.

My contact for the evening was Mark and he along with various volunteers who had either been working during the day, or who were arriving for our evening event, helped me to unload my car. I have had a wide variety of dressing rooms in my time ranging from modern well-lit ones to cramped toilet stalls, but none can ever be more grand than the painted drawing room at Wentworth Woodhouse – it was huge, lavish and impressive. The chair and table that had been placed for me looked lost in the space, but, I reflected, there was plenty of room to pace around going through my lines!

The two shows would be in different rooms. I would be starting with Mr Dickens is Coming in one of the grand state rooms upstairs, where the guests would be eating a Victorian-themed dinner (actually based on one described in Martin Chuzzelwit), and then everyone would move downstairs to a much smaller, and darker, room where I would finish the evening with The Signalman. Fortunately the majority of the furniture that I had brought was for the ghost story, so didn’t need carrying up the grand staircase, only the reading desk needed to be up there.

The staircase is wonderful, circling out to the right and to the left before curving back on itself. The huge wall of the stair well is painted white, with niches of rich deep Georgian blue for the display of ancient statuary. The house is a popular venue for filming and has featured in many TV series – it will make an appearance doubling as The Kremlin in a forthcoming season of The Crown. The room in which I was to perform the first half was lavish in the extreme, and already laid out with table for dinner, each of which bore a Dickensian name: Heep, Drood, Quilp, etc. I was to perform at one end of the room beneath a huge painting of a rearing stallion (I debated as to whether I should open the show with a little cough and then say ‘I am sorry, I was just feeling a little hoarse….’, but decided against it).

Everyone was very busy making final preparations for dinner, so I took myself back downstairs and set up the other room where I could be alone and do a little rehearsal, although on this occasion I was pretty confident with the lines.

I had an hour or so to myself and from my dressing room I could hear the noise and bustle echoing through the old stone hall of guests arriving. There was laughter and chat and noise, and I felt a wave of nerves, as I often do at a new venue, and thought ‘what are they expecting? Can I give them what they want?’

The hour for gathering and aperitifs passed quickly and soon Mark came to tell me that it was time to begin the show. I followed him up the staircase, and waited outside the room while a few of the guests returned from the loos, and then he said a few words of welcome to the assembly and then welcomed me – I was greeted with lots of applause and I knew straight away that we were in for a fun night. There was spontaneous applause after many of the character performances, and much laughter at the terribly contrived gags that make sure Mr Dickens is Coming remains a piece of entertainment primarily, rather than becoming a literary or academic performance.

The intimate nature of the room and the sheer exuberance of the audience made this one of the freest and most enjoyable performances of the show that I can remember. It was hot in the room and the sweat flowed freely (unfortunately so for the poor gentleman in the front row whose hand I limply shook in the moist character of Uriah Heep). Despite the heat I enjoyed myself thoroughly and seemingly, if the applause and shouts were anything to go by, so did the audience!

I left the room with a surge of adrenaline, a real high, and returned to my drawing room, where I paced around for a while calming down. I changed my shirt and swapped the bright golden garish waistcoat for the sombre black one, and then returned to the dining room where I joined one of the tables for a spot of dinner, although I don’t usually eat too much when I am performing. The menu featured a delicious meat pudding, with mashed potatoes and vegetables followed by a creamy posset (which I avoided so as not to risk my throat tightening during the second half) As I sat and chatted with my table mates, lots of other guests came and offered to buy me a drink, all of which offers I politely declined, restricting myself to water.

Each table had a quiz on it and as we ate the results were announced. I had very carefully NOT assisted my table with their answers for that may have been rather unfair, but the two they had answered incorrectly were ‘what is the nickname that Charles Dickens used for his first writing’ and ‘which is the only Dickens novel that does not feature London as a setting’ . Answers at the end….

When dinner was finished we all made our way downstairs to the smaller room which was laid out with theatre style seating. Mark and I had discussed the lighting in the room and decided to keep the overhead lighting on. The room is painted dark grey and would have had a supremely eerie atmosphere without the lights, but unfortunately there was not enough residual light to illuminate my facial expressions effectively.

Soon the room was full and I began talking about the Staplehurst rail crash as a prelude to The Signalman. This was a slightly risky piece of programming, considering that the comedy of Mr Dickens has proved so popular earlier in the evening and, to be honest, there aren’t many laughs in the The Signalman, but the audience appreciated the suspense and the characters and at the conclusion once again clapped and shouted and stood as I bowed. It had been a supremely successful evening and hopefully I will return to Wentworth Woodhouse in the future.

As the guests began to leave, I changed out of costume and started to collect all of my props and furniture which Mark and the volunteers helped to carry to my car. Having consulted the photograph I had taken of the boot that morning, I managed to get everything stowed and said my goodbyes before driving out into the night.

I was staying for the night at the home of Nick and Marie Cragg, who actually were responsible for this whole event. In 2007 I had performed for them in aid of a charity, and it was Marie who got in touch last year suggesting that I contacted Wentworth Woodhouse. Nick and Marie live in an amazing house that they built to their own exacting design – it is a house built for art: visual and performance (my performances in 2007 were in the house), and in fact the whole building is itself an artwork with lots of design features giving nods to James Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Nick and Marie are fine hosts and we sat up late into the night talking about all sorts of things, not just the show, and it was a wonderful way to wind down. Having lived there for 20 years the couple are now selling and are moving to Guernsey, where they have already bought a smaller property with spectacular views across the sea. As we chatted they suggested that there may well be an opportunity to perform on the island which would be very exciting.

When I finally went to my room I fell asleep instantly and slept well. I woke next morning and joined Nick and Marie for breakfast and as we chatted it came to light that Nick has a fascination of old cars and in the garage had two American cars from the 50s. My passion for all things automotive piqued, I asked if I may see them – they were magnificent: a Buick and a Cadillac all fins and chrome, and vinyl bench front seats, and steering column mounted gear shifts.

The engines, oh the engines. Nick started both up and the great big, low-revving V8s just purred and rumbled. When I gently put my foot on the accelerator pedal of each the whole vehicle shimmered and trembled, asking to be taken onto the long freeways and head west on Route 66.

It was a very special treat to see these particular works of art, and yes I do regard them as such, but it was time to leave Yorkshire behind me and head back south once more.

Answers to the two quiz questions: Boz and Hard Times

Hot!

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My busy early summer continued last Friday with a trip to the home of the traditional British pork pie – Melton Mowbray. An online recipe for this delicious pastry product states that you should set the oven at 180 degrees Celsius before beginning the preparation, and it seemed as if someone had set the weather gauge to the same temperature last week. It was the hottest day of the year in Britain and as a race we don’t do very well in the heat (or in snow, or fog, or ice, or wind; although we are quite good at rain), and a typical conversation of the day would have run: ‘Oh, my, it’s too hot, isn’t it?’, ‘Yes, it is. Unbearable. But we shouldn’t grumble.’ ‘No! of course not, but a little cooler would be nice.’ ‘I hear there is a storm due this evening, that will break it!’ The same exchange would have taken place up and down the country.

I was due to perform my double bill featuring The Signalman and Doctor Marigold and the set for that programme only just fits into the back of my car and then only if I get everything in the correct order and alignment. By the time everything was in and the boot lid shut successfully without the glass shattering into a million pieces (which actually happened to me many years ago), I was a dripping sodden mess. I had a shower to freshen myself up again and after having a hearty lunch I set off towards Leicestershire, with the various items of the set rattling in the back.

I had booked a hotel in the town and when I checked in I found that the sun had been beating on the front of the hotel (where my room was situated) all afternoon and the atmosphere was oppressive. Fortunately there was a huge fan in the room which, as well as giving the feeling that I was in a Caribbean villa, also stirred the air a little and created a comforting breeze as I relaxed.

I was due at the venue at 4.pm, so didn’t have long at the hotel, and at 3.45 I returned to my car to make the very short drive across town to The Hope Centre, the base of Melton Vineyard Christian Church. Although the Church’s services are not actually held at the Centre, it is open throughout the week as a drop-in centre and a foodbank, serving the entire community; the sad fact being that it’s services are being called upon more and more frequently as the country’s economy continues to suffer.

I have performed at The Hope Centre before and my contact there is Gillian Ennis. Those readers with a keen eye and good memory may recognise the surname, for her brother Ben Ennis is responsible for staging my shows at the Guildhall in Leicester. I arrived a little after 4.15, having become considerably tangled up in the Melton one-way traffic system, but I had plenty of time in hand and a parking place had been left for me close to the back door, into which I could unload my two sets of furniture. My performance space was on the second floor of the building but I was assisted in the process of heaving everything into place both by Neal, who runs the centre, and a small lift which has been installed into the old building. It is a quirky lift in that it has no walls and ceiling, just a floor, which means if you happen to be leaning against the side as it begins its journey you discover that you are sort of pulled down because you are actually leaning against the lift shaft. Similarly as you approach the top of the building you can see the roof getting ever closer and there is a feeling for a moment that the lift wont stop and that the end is nigh…..such dramatic imaginations, as if from a big-budget disaster movie, seem curiously out of place in a building filled with such compassion and love.

In the room on the top floor Neal began to erect a stage and when all was fixed in position I placed the furniture for The Signalman. Being on the very top floor the room was, of course, very hot (one complete wall being large windows through which the sun had shone all afternoon), and although there were two air conditioning units rattling away, they were fighting a losing battle.

When the set was in place, a call came up from one of the rooms below that supper was ready: Gill had very kindly prepared a fish pie with peas, followed by a choice of rhubarb crumble with cream or a fruit salad. What a treat! As we dined Neal decided to open an emergency exit to allow some air in, knowing that the action would set off an alarm, so he disappeared to override the security system, before returning to resume his meal. After a few minutes he had a phone call from the security company just checking that everything was OK at The Hope Centre, and he was able to reassure them that yes, it was.

When dinner was finished I returned to the room upstairs and began to rehearse Doctor Marigold, as I hadn’t performed it for a few weeks (Back in Bury St Edmunds) and so many other scripts had come and gone since that I wanted to be sure that everything was in place. Having satisfied myself that Marigold was ok, I moved onto The Signalman, although I was less worried about that having performed it regularly over the last couple of weeks.

As the time for the show came ever closer I withdrew into Neal’s office which was repurposed as my dressing room for the evening, and drank lots of water, before getting into costume. I could hear the audience gather and they sounded to be a lively, enthusiastic bunch. At 7.30 Neal welcomed all present and introduced me. I took to the stage and began by talking about Staplehurst (taking care to mention my book, which would be on sale at the end of the evening), and then began with The Signalman. In no time the sweat was dripping down my face so much that my eyes began to sting. The audience were also using anything that came to hand to fan themselves. The sensible ones, who knew the room, has sat in the very back row, directly under the two air con units.

As the suspense of the story built the atmosphere was a little hindered by the distant sounding of an alarm siren, and I noticed that each time Neal left the room to see what was happening. He told me afterwards that apparently there was another group using a space in the building and they had tried to open an emergency door, as Neal had done earlier. Of course the alarm went off, but when it was re-set they fastened the door on its safety chain meaning it kept pulling closed, then blowing open again, setting the alarm off each time! It didn’t really effect the show too much and the first half ended with lovely applause and I returned to my dressing room, where I stood in front of a large fan with a towel draped over my head until I had sufficiently cooled down to change into Doctor Marigold’s costume ready for the second half.

I needed to change the set around, so whilst the audience were chatting and enjoying their interval drinks I bumbled around the stage removing the signal box set and replacing it with the wooden steps, which represent Marigold’s cart, the plain wooden crate with a rolled up blanket inside, a little rustic wooden stool, and a few other pieces of set dressing. Although I didn’t actually say anything or interact, in my mind I was Marigold arriving at a new pitch, setting up his cart ready to sell to the gathering crowd.

I returned to the dressing room, drank more water and waited for Neal to give me the go ahead for part 2

Marigold, once more, charmed the audience and the applause at the end was long and heartfelt. A few days later Neal emailed me to say that one gentleman in the audience had ‘come to support the event and that it wasn’t really his ‘thing’, but he’d been absolutely held throughout and now he won’t miss any future events.’ which is a lovely compliment to both the performance but more especially to the wonderful creation of my great great grandfather.

When the show was over I chatted to audience members as they left, as well as signing copies of my book, until the only people left were the volunteers and staff from Melton Vineyard. I changed and then began the process of loading up the lift for multiple journeys to the car park, where I tried to remember the order in which I had stacked all of my props that morning. When everything was in, I said my goodbyes and drove back to my hotel.

The room was cooler now and the large fan still whirred as another day of performing drew to a close.

The Bells – Tales of Two Cathedrals

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Leicester

On the Friday following my return from Rochester I was back on the road once more, driving to the city of Leicester, where I was due to perform The Signalman at the ancient Guildhall which has been a regular part of my tours for many years.

The week had been mainly spent going over my lines, as once again I was performing a different script, I have not managed my 2022 tour very effectively when it has come to booking my shows, for I haven’t done the same script twice in a row for weeks now. Since I travelled to Cheshire on 21 May I have performed Great Expectations, Mr Dickens is Coming, Sikes and Nancy, The Trial from Pickwick, Doctor Marigold, Dickens and the Queen and now The Signalman, and my mind is getting more and more addled with all of those lines!

My regular visit to Leicester is as the final date on my winter tour, always performing A Christmas Carol as a matinee and evening show on 23rd December, so it felt odd to arrive in the warm sunshine of a June afternoon. The Guildhall is situated half way along a narrow cobbled lane, with the mighty spire of Leicester Cathedral above it. Even though the cathedral is currently closed for restoration work, the bells (which regularly accompany my shows) were still ringing loudly. I parked the car at the end of the lane and started carrying the first pieces of furniture that make up my Signalman set to the Guildhall’s front door, where I was met by Ben Ennis who runs the museum there and who has become a good friend over the years. He returned to the car with me and assisted in the unloading until everything was in and we could find a parking place. Ben hopped into the passenger seat to show me where we would most likely to be able to find an on-street spot, but as soon as we set off a car pulled out from the kerb and we were able to park straight away and conveniently close to the Guildhall which was a relief.

We walked back and I began setting up the room for the evening’s event. I was due to start by giving my talk about my book, ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’, as an introduction to ‘The Signalman’ the performance of which would take up the second act. The first job was to see if my laptop would talk to The Guildhall’s projector, as it is nice for the audience to have a few pictures to look at as I tell the story of the great 1865 rail crash. Last time I performed this programme, at Preston back in March, I never managed to get the projector connected, and I wasn’t confident that it would be any different this time round, so I was delighted when the screen flickered and images appeared.

With everything in place I made my way up to the huge room in which I change, and ate a small salad and some fruit and continued running through the lines of The Signalman, to make sure they were absolutely in place before the audience arrived for the 7.30 start. At Christmas I perform in the main Guildhall chamber and we have an audience of over 200, but because this was a smaller event Ben and I decided that the Mayor’s Parlour would be a better, more intimate room. The Parlour is directly under my changing rom, so not only could I hear the audience taking their places, but I am sure they could trace my footsteps as I circled the room above (whenever I run lines I have to be on the move constantly)

The Parlour was full when Ben welcomed me, and I walked to the front of my room in the blue trousers, pink shirt and grey checked jacket that is my casual ‘costume’ for the book talk.

The show was on 10th June, which was the 157th and a day anniversary of the crash itself, and the historical significance of the date was not last on the audience who followed every word with interest. The horrors of that June afternoon built the atmosphere perfectly for the intensity and darkness of the second half and I left the room, having heavily and shamelessly promoted my book which would be on sale after the event.

I changed into the all black Victorian costume, and went back to the Mayor’s Parlour to move the scenery into place once Ben had removed the screen and projector. I switched on the red spotlight which represents the danger light at the mouth of the tunnel and then returned to the Jury Room until Ben gave me the nod that it was time to start.

The words were firmly in place and the atmosphere in the room was perfect, even the Cathedral bells added to the intensity as they tolled solemnly adding a mournful soundtrack to the poor Signalman’s tale. At the end of the show I remained in the room and chatted with the audience, and sold a few books too. It was a fun, intimate, evening in great surroundings with some very nice people

I was not staying in Leicester that night, as one of our daughters was due to play in a football tournament early on Saturday morning, so when the audience had left I changed and with the help of the Guildhall staff loaded up the car before driving through the night back home to Oxfordshire.

Incidentally, the late night was well worth it, for our daughter scored an amazing goal in her tournament, firing a powerful shot into the roof of the net. Her celebrations with the team mates would not have been out of place in the UK Premier League, whilst her dad stood on the touchline with his arms aloft!

Canterbury

I didn’t bother to unload the car when I got home because I was due to be on the road again on Sunday afternoon, to drive to another cathedral city, Canterbury in the county of my birth, Kent. The fact that I was keeping the same furniture in the car may tell you that, thanks be to God, I was actually performing the same show for a second night! No new words to learn or revise, just the confidence of repeating a script which was firmly in my mind, and which had gone so well just two days earlier. It was a lovely afternoon to drive and the Sunday traffic was light as I listened to the radio commentary of the second cricket test match between England and New Zealand which was swinging one way and another between the two teams. The hedgerows and fields were alive with white frothy blossom, pricked with colour from poppies, cornflower and buttercups, the sky was blue, streaked with wisps of white cloud and the whole scene was perfectly British.

In Canterbury I drove to my hotel and just had time to check in and have a quick refreshing shower, before trying to find the venue for the show which was at The Canterbury Cathedral Lodge Hotel. Canterbury is an ancient city, dating back to the Roman times and beyond, and the centre is a spider’s web of tiny lanes, mostly closed to traffic. I followed my sat nav unit which took me to the very gates of the cathedral among groups of languid tourists and students ambling through the streets gazing at the views. Unfortunately at this particular point there was no vehicular access to the precincts so I had to double back and try an approach from the other side of the city. This time I got a little closer, but still wasn’t able to get to the hotel. I managed to find a parking place and went to the cathedral gift shop to ask advice. The staff directed me to a tiny driveway, next to one of the city’s many pubs, and so finally I was able to pull into the oasis of the cathedral’s grounds.

Canterbury Cathedral is magnificent and towers proudly over the city calling pilgrims to the tomb of Thomas Becket who was brutally murdered there in 1170 by followers of King Henry II. Naturally the bells were pealing loudly, as they had in Leicester.

The Cathedral Lodge Hotel is a modern building (by which I mean 1970s), and is more of a conference centre than a tourist hotel. I have actually performed there before at a conference for The Dickens Fellowship many years ago. I carried all of the Signalman furniture through the gates and up a long path, negotiated the swing doors into the entrance hall, and from there up a staircase to the room where I would be performing.

I was due to perform for a small tour group of ‘mystery readers’ from America. The tour had been arranged by Kathy, who I had met many years ago at a Rochester Dickens Festival. Kathy is based in America and has been putting these tours together in association with a company called Tours of Discovery, owned an operated by Nicky Godfrey-Evans, a certified Blue Badge tourist guide from Cumbria.

As I was setting up both Kathy and Nicky arrived and checked that all was well and then disappeared to freshen up after a long day out on the road (the group had been visiting Rochester where I had been just a week before). I finished positioning the set, and then stepped out onto a little balcony which overlooked the quiet gardens above which the cathedral tower towered.

The show was due to start at 6 and the various members of the tour started arriving and taking their place as the clock ticked around and when everyone was ready Kathy welcomed the group and introduced me. On this occasion I was not doing the first half about my book, but still prefaced The Signalman by talking briefly about the Staplehurst crash. Obviously quite a few of the audience didn’t know of the accident as there many gasps and shocked expressions as I continued telling the story. The Signalman had the same effect, especially the final moments, and it proved to be a most successful evening. Having taken the applause and been thanked by Kathy, I took some questions and was able to tell a few anecdotes and talk about my acting life and how the Dickens shows came about (incidentally all of which is the subject matter for my next book!)

When I had finished speaking everyone gathered around the table at the side of them room and a large proportion of the group ensured that they would be taking home signed first editions of a Dickens book.

I changed out of my costume and a few of the group very kindly helped me to ferry all of my furniture back to the car where I carefully loaded it. Kathy and Nicky had offered to take me to dinner after the show so we walked into the centre of Canterbury and ate at a Cote Brasserie in the company of Diane, another member of the group who had written her dissertation on Dickens and who is a massive fan of my ancestor.

We sat outside the restaurant as it was still a warm evening. It was very quiet in the city centre, and we ate our meal at a Parisian pace, enjoying the good food, chilled wine and fine companionship. It was so nice to be able to have a relaxed meal after a show, for so often I finish late and end up with a take away in my hotel room. It was getting dark when we walked back to cathedral, subtly floodlit against the dark blue of the night sky.

I said good by to Kathy, Nicky and Diane and returned to my car and drove the five minutes back to my own hotel.

The Carnegie Forum, Abingdon

I had to leave Canterbury early the next morning as I had another commitment back in Oxfordshire at lunchtime, so as soon as I had enjoyed the Premier Inn breakfast, I was back in the car and edging along in the morning rush hour. I had plenty of time to get home and passed the time listening to podcasts about the weekend’s Grand Prix and the Test Match.

I was due to speak at the Carnegie Forum event in Abingdon and was due to be there for 1pm. The Carnegie award is given to the best work of children’s literature each year and has been awarded to many influential and notable authors. Alongside the official announcement schools around the country are encouraged to stage their own events based on the shortlisted novels. In Abingdon pupils from 6 schools come together to work in teams, preparing short presentations extolling the virtue of each novel. Many of the students have also written reviews of the books, and these are judged also (in past years I have been on the judging panel and certainly didn’t envy the task of this year’s judges!) I had been asked to give a 20 minute talk on the art of public peaking and presentation. As public speaking is not something I enjoy, or think I’m particularly good at, I talked about the ability to ‘assume’ a character as a speaker – a more confident version of oneself, just as if I were playing Scrooge, or Cratchit, or Marigold.

I arrived on time and the pupils were all working hard in their groups under gazebos in the middle of a large school playing field. One of the great things about the event is how students from a wide variety of backgrounds – independent fee-paying schools, and state funded schools, just work together and create some amazing things.

My talk was inside a small sports pavilion and as there were so many kids working I gave the speech twice, taking half of the participants each time. I hope it was alright and hit the brief – everyone seemed to listen quietly and they all applauded at the end, so it must have been OK! The best bit was the opportunity to extol the virtues of my own favourite book from my childhood – A Bear Called Paddington, by Michael Bond, and I wallowed in nostalgia as I explained what that little book (and that little bear) had meant to me. I also tried to communicate my sheer pride and emotion at seeing Paddington’s starring role as part of the Jubilee celebrations.

With my talks done, we all went outside and watched the presentations. Part of my speech had been about the practicalities of being heard and understood effectively, but as the sketches were being performed in the open air with the busy A34 road just behind the field, it was very difficult for all of the performers, (although some really shone out).

The conclusion to the afternoon was to announce the winning presentation, the best book reviews and then the result of the student’s vote for their favourite shortlisted novel, and it is always interesting to see how that compares with the official announcement, which will be made on Thursday.

It had certainly been a busy few days and now I have a few days rest before getting back on the road on Friday.

Rochester – Jubilee or Dickens?

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For as long as I have been performing, and indeed for a few years before that, the first weekend in June has meant attending the Rochester Summer Dickens Festival. The city of Rochester in Kent has long associations with Charles Dickens, as he lived nearby in both his childhood and at the end of his life. Many of his novels are set in Rochester, including his first (The Pickwick Papers) and last (The Mystery of Edwin Drood). The local residents and the council are proud of their connection with Dickens and treat him as their own, so each Summer the streets are given over to a celebration of his life and works with costumed characters mingling with the colourful crowds.

It has to be said that over the years the festival has become more of a huge party and carnival and less of a Dickens event but I have always been invited back to perform a variety of my shows, thereby maintaining a familial connection.

In 2020 and 2021 there were no festivals due to Covid, so 2022 would see all of the participants back on those ancient streets for the first time in 3 years, but this year we wouldn’t be attending a pure Dickens Festival for the first weekend in June coincided with a weekend of patriotic pride as the nation came together to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. A city such as Rochester would be amiss indeed if it didn’t honour the Monarch so the plan was to subsume the Dickens Festival into the Jubilee party.

As far as I was concerned the biggest change was that I would not be performing in the beautiful Guildhall museum, that has been my ‘home’ in recent years, but instead my show would be part of a fringe festival celebrating the spoken word, and which was organised by an organisation called Wordsmithery. From the sumptuous surroundings of the Guildhall I would be instead performing in a small tent in the shadow of the ancient castle

When I first attended the Dickens Festival there was a large programme of talks, lectures and performances, but this aspect has declined in recent years, but I need to congratulate Wordsmithery and the Medway Council for providing this opportunity. Over the two days there was a constant programme of events and I definitely think that this an opportunity to be encouraged and developed.

Saturday

Having driven to Kent on Friday night (after attending the most brilliant circus with Liz and the girls in the morning), I woke quite early on Saturday morning to be greeted with a grey windy day. I was glad of a little time for I wanted to run through my show, which was a brand new one. Usually my performances run for about 45 minutes to an hour, but to fit into the Wordsmithery timetable I had been asked to produced something that ran at 25 – 30 minutes. I had suggested ‘A Child’s Journey with Dickens’ or ‘The Signalman’ both of which are relatively short, and I had also flown the idea of creating something new, detailing the only meeting between Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria – that idea was leapt on, as it tied in so well with the Royal theme, and just a few weeks ago I had begun researching in an attempt to tell the story effectively.

I was assisted by a script that had been written many years ago by an actress in America who portrayed Victoria at various festivals and events. Anne Hamilton had worked closely with my father over a play called ‘The Queen and the Commoner’, and her script was a superb place to start. I also discovered various other accounts of the private audience – the Queen herself wrote about it in her journals, and of course Dickens wrote letters. There is a detailed account by Arthur Helps, the Clerk of the Privy Council who made the meeting possible, and Charles Dickens’ tour manager George Dolby published his memories of sharing a dinner with the author immediately after he had left Buckingham Palace.

The choice of the Queen script was made late in the day meaning that it would be impossible to write and learn it in the time available, but Barry from Wordsmithery assured me that most of the acts, including his own poetry recital, would be ‘on the book’ and it was fine to give the show as a reading.

My first writing of the new script concentrated purely on the meeting between the two great figures – covering their discussion of America (Dickens had just returned from his second tour), including a description of President Lincoln’s dream in which he had a premonition of his own death 10 days before the fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. They also spoke of the gulf between the rich and poor and the necessity of solving that issue; they discussed the price of beef and bread and the difficulty of finding good servants in England. The Queen presented Dickens with a copy of a book that she had written (which he had previously read and detested), and he offered to tell her the proposed plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood – she declined the offer meaning that our only hope of unravelling Dickens’s final mystery was taken from us.

When I had finished the script I discovered that it was woefully short, running at around 15 minutes, so I decided to include some other incidents involving the two. In 1840 on the day of Victoria’s wedding to Albert the young Charles travelled to Windsor Castle with friends and there, beneath the window of the Royal bed chamber he flung himself to the ground professing his undying love for the Queen! This behaviour could be put down to high spirits and an excess of celebration, but in the days following he continued to write a series of letters telling all and sundry that his life was not worth living without Victoria, and that he hated his wife, his parents and his children. He wanted to run away and commit murder (the queen should have to sign the warrant for his death penalty and therefore his name would come before here eyes), or suicide. He theatrically and flamboyantly asked that his body be embalmed and placed on the arch outside Buckingham Palace when she resided in London or on the round tower at Windsor when she was there. These were the type of letters that a celebrity may rather have wished would not resurface!

In the end the script ran at half and hour and seemed quite fun.

Saturday morning in Rochester was grey and very windy. I parked my car and walked to the mote of Rochester Cathedral where Wordsmithery were based. There were two venues each in a tent – one was called The Raven (Dickens had a pet raven, Grip), and the other ‘The Empty Chair’ after the sketch made of Dickens’ study on the day of his death.

My first show was due to be at 11.30 in the smaller tent – The Raven, and as the start time came closer a steady stream of audience arrived and took every available seat with more standing outside peering through the flap. Barry announced me and I began by issuing a warning that if the wind kept up we may not be ‘in Kansas anymore!’ when we finished

The script worked very well and people laughed at appropriate moments and applauded at the end, which was a huge relief.

And now I had time to explore the rest of the festival – to celebrate the Jubilee in style, and I have to say I was somewhat disappointed. It seemed to me that the event had rather missed the target, for there were no large events to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s reign. In the castle grounds there has traditionally been a stage and it would have been wonderful to have brass bands playing, energetic dance shows, tribute bands and the like, but there was no arena or stage this year and the area looked rather forlorn. There was a large screen which was playing a programme of Royal-themed cookery programmes, but nothing more. In previous Dickens festivals the long High Street has been filled with entertainers, and there were a few stages along the way where theatre and dance schools would do shows, while jugglers, one-man bands and storytellers gathered crowds, laughing and cheering around them. There were no entertainers in the streets and no talks, lectures or exhibitions. It all seemed a bit flat.

Fortunately there were still plenty of costumed characters to engage with the public, and these volunteers go to great lengths to make wonderful costumes and are happy to pose for photographs and chat with the visitors to the town. The centrepiece of the Dickens Festival are the two great daily parades but this year there was only to be one, at 1pm. All of the costumed characters gathered at the end of the High Street behind the pipe band, and off we set. We waved and smiled and the crowds waved back, but still there was not the same buzz, the same excitement as in previous years. When we all arrived in the Castle Grounds the Mayor made a short speech and the parade dispersed. I stayed around for a while, making myself available for photo ops, but soon my day at the festival was done.

Knowing I had an early finish I had booked a round of golf at a nearby course and I was amazed to discover that I was about the only player on it! The wind was still strong which effected my game, but most of the errors I made were down to me being very out of practice rather than the prevailing weather conditions. It is so nice to play without being held up, or indeed feeling as if you are holding up the players behind, and it was a very relaxing evening.

Sunday

My show on Sunday would not be until 3pm, so my first actual commitment would be the parade at 1pm. However I got into costume and drove to Rochester quite early in the hope that the crowds would be out in force and that the party atmosphere that was gripping the country would make this a day to remember. Throughout the nation there would be street parties and the British would do what they do best! But in Rochester that flat feeling of the day before continued, perhaps even more so. There were not large crowds and even a number of the costumed characters were mumbling and grumbling. I took the opportunity to visit the Guildhall, wondering if they had a display of the many Royal connections with the City, but there wasn’t anything going on there. ‘My’ room was empty with chairs stacked at the sides. The staff had wondered whey I was not doing a show there and indeed a few confused potential audience members had arrived during the day before asking when I would be on.

As I walked back down the High Street it was almost empty and the thought suddenly came to me that if this was to be a real Jubilee celebration then the opportunity to have a HUGE street party taking in the entire length of the thoroughfare would have been amazing! What a spectacle that would have been!

Midday on Sunday 5 June: Jubilee Day

At 1 we paraded again, and waved and smiled and posed once more until we all went our different ways in the afternoon. My show was at 3, so I made my way to the ‘Empty Chair’ yurt at 2.30 to prepare. The wind was considerably less on the Sunday, so I didn’t have that to contend with, however the bells of the Cathedral were being loudly rung on one side whilst the Pipe band, with their rat-tat-tat-ing drums, gave an impromptu concert on the other. ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’

Again the yurt filled and again people stood outside peering in, and once more the new script was a success. It is an interesting subject and something that I will look more closely at in the future, I think.

The Empty Chair

And now my 2022 Festival was over. Jubilee Celebration or Dickens Festival? Sadly it was neither – it could and should have been a wonderful opportunity to wave the Union Flag high and proud, and I don’t think that anyone in the Dickensian community (I certainly wouldn’t) would have begrudged being gently eased aside to celebrate a remarkable time in our country’s history, but somehow, it just didn’t happen that way.

I drove away from Kent feeling a little sad.

A Mystery

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Having told you all about my journey to Baden Baden yesterday, you may expect me to use today’s blog post to tell you what I did when I was here…but on the whole I cant! I was in the city to appear on a TV programme, but until it is aired I cant tell you anything about it, so the main excitement of the stay is something that I must leave undescribed for a few months. So here is the redacted version of my Thursday:

It was a beautiful morning and the Baden-Baden birdlife was in lusty voice outside my window as I woke. I made myself a coffee from the Nespresso machine. Unfortunately there was no guide as to what the various differently-coloured pods contained, and my knowledge of the Nespresso brand is not strong enough, so I took pot luck as to whether I was getting off to a caffeinated or non-caffeinated start. Whichever it was, it tasted good.

Breakfast was served in the first floor restaurant and was one of those glorious European buffets to which the British label ‘Continental Breakfast’ does no justice: cold meats, cheeses, salmon, breads in all shapes and hues, multiple mueslis, yoghurts, juices, pastries, preserves, a delicious looking honeycomb and lots more had me salivating.

As I perused the fare on offer a gentleman sat at a nearby table flashed me a smile of recognition and I smiled back without having any knowledge of who he was. I sat at my table and thoroughly relished the feast, returning for a couple of mini croissants upon which I spread the honey, before pushing my plate away and sitting back to finish my coffee. The sense of relaxation compared to 24 hours before was glorious.

I couldn’t relax for too long however for I had an appointment in one of the hotel suites with a Covid test which all participants in the TV show had to take before being allowed to travel to the studios. I presented myself at 9.30 and having been swabbed very briefly up one nostril I departed again with an assurance that if I didn’t hear anything it would be OK, and if I did, well then it wouldn’t. I am one of those lucky people who has yet to catch Covid in any form and I sincerely hoped that today would not be the day that the second red line appeared.

I returned to my room and changed into the tourist’s uniform of shorts and t shirt, ready for a morning walk. I had a little administrative work to do before I could explore, so I sat on my little balcony overlooking a courtyard and placed my laptop on my lap and started tapping away. After a few minutes the next door balcony door opened and the gentleman who had smiled in such a friendly way at breakfast appeared, still smiling. ‘I would like to introduce myself, I am Andreas and am interpreting for you today’ As I speak no German other than ‘guten tag’, ‘danke’ and ‘ein bier bitte’, and the show was for the German market Andreas would be in my ear throughout the recording, feeding me the questions and relating my answers to the studio.

My next commitment was in an hour and a half’s time, so having finished my work and my chat, I left the hotel and followed my nose. Liz and I had visited Baden-Baden together some years before so the streets around the centre were familiar: it is an affluent town with expensive shops (I had commentated the night before of some of the architecture being similar to that in Monaco and I saw nothing to disabuse me of that). There are fountains and churches and of course the huge spa to which wealthy Europeans flocked and to which now wealthy Russians (so Andreas told me later) flock. From the town centre I found myself in a park with paths winding up hills, I climbed some wooden steps which took me ever higher, and I eventually found myself on a terrace with amazing views across the town and to the hills beyond.

The air was clear and fresh, and little by little the travails of the previous day drifted into the sky and away. By now it was time to return to the hotel and the navigation was easy – head downhill.

My next official duty was to meet the presenter of the programme, just to run through what was going to happen, and Andreas joined me so that we could practise the interpretation technique. Julia, the host, spoke to me in German (even though her English is superb), and Andreas sat at my side keeping up a constant dialogue in my ear, so that by the time she finished a question there was not a huge gap whilst he translated. The biggest thing I had to achieve was to maintain an interested eye contact with her, as if I were hanging on her every word, rather than gazing off into the distance as I concentrated on the words coming to me.

The prep meeting soon finished and it was time for lunch. There were a few other guests for the TV show staying in the hotel and we had a jolly time getting to know each other. One of the others asked Andreas about the interpretation industry and whether voice recognition algorithms were taking over, and the reply made so much sense, that I wonder at my never having realised the fact before: Andreas pointed out that whilst technology was making his work more scarce, a computer can never take a speaker’s words and make a decision as to their meaning and context, and then use suitable words to translate them. In other words, it can’t interpret as a human can. To me the word ‘interpreter’ has just been another way of saying ‘translator’ but it means so much more.

After lunch it was time to take a short drive to the TV studios for a technical walk through. On my notes it was mentioned that if I had any clothes that needed attention I could take them with me, so I put the trousers, shirt and jacket that I was planning to wear for the recording onto a hanger and set off to the TV studio. It never fails to amaze me how many people are involved in making a show, from runners, to floor managers, to directors. to cameramen, and countless others whose jobs are unknown but who obviously have a vital role in creating a successful programme.

We ran through what I was to do and Andreas disappeared into his soundproofed booth from where he would talk to me via a tiny earpiece. The floor manager held a brief conversation with me in German to check that the system was working well and sure enough I could hear the words clearly. When we had finished out brief rehearsal Andreas mentioned that he was going to walk back to the hotel, rather than take the minibus, and I said that it would be nice to join him. As we walked Andreas told me that he had been watching lots of YouTube clips of my shows as preparation for the day, which is why he had recognised me so quickly at breakfast.

Back at the hotel I took the opportunity of a rest, so watched a film on my laptop before drifting into a nap. I woke in time to shower and freshen up once more before meeting up with Andreas once more and taking the minibus back to the studio for the actual recording. When we arrived I was shown to a dressing room where my clothes hung beautifully pressed. I changed and then was called to hair and make up, where liberal amounts of foundation were applied to dull the glare from the studio lights. Even my hair and beard were gently primped.

I returned to my dressing room until I was fetched and was taken into the studio where I was to record an episode of……..

And there the story is paused! Until it has screened in Germany I can say nothing more, but I will talk all about the actual programme in a later blog post.

When the filming was finished I was taken back to the hotel where there was a dinner laid on for everyone who had been involved in the day’s events, which was fun. As the evening came to a close I said goodbye and thanks to Andreas whose professionalism and expertise had made the day so much easier than it could have been, and then I returned to my room, for I had quite an early start the next morning.

My car to Frankfurt was due to meet me at 8.15, so I just had time to get to the restaurant and raid the buffet table again before I had to finish packing and get to the lobby. The day was fine and it was nice to watch the scenery flash by (my journey to Baden-Baden had of course been in darkness), and about half way to Frankfurt I saw a sign to Hockenheim, which is where the German Grand Prix used to be held. It is also the track where one of the greatest drivers of all time, Jim Clark, crashed fatally in 1968. As we sped by at 100 mph I looked over towards the dense forests which claimed him. And as we drove on another motorsport story came to me, for I realised that we were on the Autobahn between Frankfurt and Darmstadt and it was on this very road that the great Mercedes and Auto Union teams of the 1930s made attempts on speed records – battling each other for supremacy and at the same time showing the technological might of the Third Reich to the watching world. It was here, in January 1938, That the young racing star Bernd Rosemeyer set out to try and set a new record in his silver streamlined Auto Union, but a gust of wind unsettled the car at around 280 miles per hour and the resulting crash took his life also. I had never realised that these two seminal and tragic events in the history of the sport I love so much had occurred so close to each other.

Fortunately our drive was perfectly smooth and safe, and in no time I was at Frankfurt airport where, I am glad to report, there were no delays. My flight home left on time and I enjoyed absolutely clear views as we flew over Bonn, Eindhoven, the Dutch coast and then back to England arriving over Clacton pier. It was a strange thought that as we skirted London to the North, the Queen’s 70th Jubilee celebrations were taking place in the city, and soon in that very same sky a huge flypast of 70 aircraft would be forming up to make their way over the Mall and Buckingham Palace where, hopefully, the Queen would be on the balcony watching.

Appropriately we made our final approach right over Windsor Castle and soon after touched down at Heathrow.

Another chapter of my adventures had come to an end

A Long Day At Heathrow

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Having returned from Suffolk on Friday, my UK tour turned into an international one on Tuesday as I left the house early in the morning to drive to Heathrow airport, where I was due to board an 11.30am flight to Frankfurt. I had been booked to appear on a German TV show which was to be recorded on Wednesday evening, so Tuesday would be a lovely relaxing day, arriving in Baden-Baden during the afternoon, checking into a rather elegant looking hotel, and having the rest of the day to myself to explore the town, maybe take a little swim and session in a sauna at the spa for which the town is so famous. Then I would have a dinner with a finely chilled glass of Rhein Wein, or maybe a Moselle. The only shadow over the day was that Liz wouldn’t be there to share it with me.

My drive to Heathrow was easy, for the roads were clear and fast moving. I drew into the car park just before 9 o’clock, and having made a note or the section and aisle were my Kadgar would rest, I walked to the shuttle bus stop where a van pulled up as I arrived. 10 minutes later I was walking into the departure lounge of Terminal 2. It was only 9.15 and I had promised myself a slap-up breakfast before ambling to the gate at 11. That was the plan.

Terminal 2 was a seething mass of humanity.

The news has been filled during the past week with stories of gridlocks at various ports (Dover being particularly hard hit), and this is due to many factors. Firstly the effect of Covid on the travel industry – naturally many workers lost their jobs, and now that restrictions have been lifted and people are travelling in numbers, the ports are woefully understaffed. Monday 31 May was also the start of a holiday week so a lot of families were travelling therefore putting extra stress on an underprepared system. And there is the ‘B’ word: Brexit. Although the official changes to the freedom of travel within Europe came into force over a year ago, the extra time and manpower of extra immigration and security checks and were hidden by the periods of lockdown and restricted travel. Suddenly in 2022 everyone is seemingly on the move again and quite simply the ports (most especially in my case Heathrow Terminal 2) cannot cope with the perfect storm that brought so many to one place.

I had checked in at home, but I still had to join the queue to drop my bag…….An hour. Now it was 10.15. As I stood in the line an official had passed by saying ‘Frankfurt, 10.30, anyone for Frankfurt 10.30 flight please come with me’. I wasnt really concentrating, but heard the word ‘Frankfurt’, so asked if that was the 11.30 flight, ‘no sir, 10.30’. The man behind me in the line laughed that I should have just gone without questioning the time, covering up the flight details with my thumb on the boarding card. Oh, how I wish I had! I edged and shuffled further forward, until at last I had a bag tag and could send my suitcase into the trusted hands of Lufthansa.

And now I joined the line for the pleasure of getting through security.

At the first look this didn’t seem to be so bad, for the entry to security was just behind the baggage drop, but I was soo disabused of any notion that I could swan through, for I was directed back on myself to join a queue that wound around the terminal, even at one point taking us out of the doors and into the open air, as if hundreds of people were creating a giant conga line – without the happy smiles and laughter.

The woefully inadequate staff were doing their best to contain the large number of people without causing any crushes or dangerous surges. At one point I asked if I could get to the front, as my flight was due to leave at 11.30 and instantly others joined in ‘Mine too’, ‘I am at 11.20.’, ‘I have to be at the gate at 11’, and so the problem was laid bare for all to see – no one was going anywhere fast. It was at 11.05 that I finally stood at the little electronic security gate which would allow me into the security area proper, and even then I was told to wait until the crowd in front had dispersed a little. At last the very patient lady who was controlling the line waved me forward with a smile. I scanned my boarding pass and was rewarded with a message on the screen: ‘Cannot process. Go to your airline for further assistance’ Now what? Well, apparently it was too late to be let through this particular gate – they don’t allow any access after a predetermined time before a flight is due to depart. I asked the lady what I could do, and she suggested that I go to the FastTrack line – that sounded good, so I left the gate, the gate that would allow me in, and found the FastTrack line….or at least found the end of the queue for the FastTrack line, which was as long and as static as the one I had minutes before reached the front of! More pleading with more operatives and I was sent to the ‘extra assistance’ line which is there to help large families with buggies and infirm folk in wheelchairs. Another period queuing, and the clock ticked on past my boarding time and up to departure time. As I continued to shuffle I passed a notice placed on behalf of the ITV television company which seemed to mock me with its words: ‘Raw TV are currently filming Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport’ I bit my lip and did not give in to the tirade of foul language which was welling up inside.

I had a brief glimmer of hope when I received a text saying that my flight had been delayed, but it was only by 15 minutes. The inevitable came to pass and the plane left without me.

When I finally cleared security, the strangest sight met my eyes for Terminal 2 was deserted! Everyone must have burst through the human dam and ran to their gates as fast as they could, without stopping at restaurants, shops or seating. I took a moment to catch my breath and called the television company in Germany to update them on the situation and then tried to work out what to do next.

The Lufthansa help desk was my next port of call, and naturally there was nobody there – every other airline had clerks, sometimes two and in the case of EgyptAir even 3, helping their customers, but from Lufthansa there was nobody to be seen. After waiting for about 20 minutes someone appeared and without making any eye contact or smiling or acknowledging that I even existed, she spent an inordinately long period of time carefully wiping down the desk and keyboard and telephone handset. Having sanitized everything she then realised that the boarding card printer needed refilling with blanks, and disappeared for a while before returning with a handful of cardboard rectangles which she loaded…apparently the wrong way round for she took them out again and had another try. I tried to catch her eye and ask for help, but she wasn’t going to acknowledge me until she was quite ready. Even then there was no hint of a smile, or an apology, or any emotion whatever – I began to wonder if she was perhaps a (an?) holographic avatar of some kind.

When she finally switched on her engagement mode I explained what had happened and passed over my boarding card, and then without a word she disappeared into the back office. To be fair when she re-emerged she bore good tidings, informing me that I would be on the 6.30 pm flight to Frankfurt, which would arrive at 9pm My case, she assured me, would meet up with me there. And so I had a further 6 hours to wait in Terminal 2.

My delicious breakfast, which I had so been looking forward to, had now become a lunch and I sat in one of the restaurants writing this blog post, people watching and just letting time drift by. Having eaten I then went to the book shop and bought ‘A Short History of England’ which may help me in my new-found interest in the Magna Carta, then I found a seat and wrote a little more, read the start of the book and people-watched some more. 2pm became 3 and 3 ticked round to 4, at which point I glanced at the departures board and noticed that my new flight was slowly climbing the second page. I decided to add some excitement to my afternoon by waiting until it clicked onto page one, and then treat myself to a coffee and cake, which I duly did.

Through the afternoon I had noticed that all of the Frankfurt flights had departed from gate A23, so I took a wild gamble and went to sit there – I was alone, but sure enough at 5.45 the announcement flashed up that my flight would indeed depart from A23 and I supressed a smug smile – my first little success of the day.

Much to my delight I was in a priority boarding group so when the flight was ready to board I was able to saunter down the ramp and enjoy an almost deserted aeroplane for a few minutes, my day was definitely improving. The other passengers piled in and then we all sat in our seats as our departure time came and, of course, went. An announcement came from the captain that due to a shortage of baggage handlers the incoming passenger’s bags had yet to be unloaded, let alone ours stored, so another wait was in store. The clock ticked to 7. Eventually the captain came back on to announce that the hold doors were shut and he was confident that we would be able to depart very soon. A further wait. The Captain came back over the PA to inform us that they needed a ‘Headset Man’ to be present to control the start up of the engines and the push back from the gate. I have never heard of a Headset Man before, but apparently he is the aviation equivalent of a sea pilot. So, still we waited.

It wasn’t until 7.30pm, a full eight hours after I should have left Heathrow, that our Airbus began to roll. We took to the air quickly and were soon across the English Channel and over mainland Europe heading South. The flight was a short one and it seemed no time at all before the cabin pressure changed and we began our descent. We flew past Frankfurt’s high rise skyline made a great loop and gently descended to the runway where we touched down. As we taxied lots of passengers stood and gathered their bags, as they had connections to make. Despite the continued pleas of the purser and cabin crew they surged forward, as if that would speed the plane up, and by the time we finally stopped at the gate the aisle was full. I had no such need to hurry (I had become rather accustomed to waiting), so remained in my seat and waited until the initial rush and crush had subsided.

It was quiet in the terminal and I was quickly granted permission to enter the country for the purposes of appearing on a TV show, and made my way into the baggage reclaim hall where, you may be surprised to read, there was a delay. I assume that the same labour shortage is prevalent in Germany as has blighted Britain, but announcements informed us that our baggage would be delayed. For another hour did we wait! At one point the belt started and we all leapt to our feet and watched three bags come out, at which point everything felt silent again. The same happened again 2o minutes later and a few more passengers excitedly picked up the belongings and left, leaving five of us behind staring at a once more stationary conveyor belt. Finally, at 11.10pm the last bags came through, including (to my great surprise) mine! I say the last bags, but that is not quite true for one gentleman in a rather racy checked tweed jacket was left forlornly standing alone as the rest of us left.

Outside stood Ivan. My driver, with a little ipad saying ‘G Dickens’ I could have hugged him. He was due to meet me at 9.05 and now it was 11.15. He led me to his car – a lovely black, sleek Mercedes Benz and I took my seat in the back. Baden-Baden was a drive of about 90 minutes but we skimmed along the Autobahn at a constant speed of around 100 mph which at first was exciting and exhilarating, but which soon became routine and ordinary. Occasionally another car would WHOOSH past us as if we had been trundling along at 20, meaning they must have been touching 150 or more. It is fortunate that the Germans are careful and skilful drivers for the consequences of a collision caused by inattentiveness at those speeds are unthinkable.

At a little after 12.30 we pulled up outside the elegant Maison Messer, an extremely beautiful building redolent of the architecture in Monaco (the scene of the latest F1 Grand Prix the weekend before). I said my thanks to Ivan and in the exquisite lobby was checked in. In no time I was in my room, at last.

My plans for an afternoon at the spa were long gone, as were my dreams of an exquisite dinner, but I dined on a packet of cashew nuts from the mini bar and then fell into my bed , oh the bed – it was so good to be there and sleep came extremely quickly!

Returning to Bury St Edmunds

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My busy week continued on Thursday when I drove across the country to the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, and this had been a show which was a long time coming. About three years ago I first had an email from Clifford Hind asking me to appear in the town as part of the 2020 Bury St Edmunds Festival, and arrangements were made as to which show I should perform and what my fee would be. Charles Dickens had visited the town three times, and Cliff was keen to bring the Dickens name back after a gap of 159 years. February came and confirmatory emails were exchanged. March came and the spread of Covid began to take its grip. Inevitably I had another confirmatory email (among many others from various venues), this time with the news that the festival had been cancelled, but asking that we go ahead with the plan for the 2021 festival. A year passed and still Covid held sway, and the Bury St Edmunds Arts Festival was cancelled once more. It seemed more unlikely that the show would ever come off, but Cliff asked that we keep in touch and hopefully we could do something, sometime.

As Autumn of 21 passed it seemed as if things were improving and Cliff was back in touch asking of May 26, 2022 would work – the show wouldn’t be part of the Festival but would be a benefit for the Moyse’s Hall Museum, a 12th Century building housing an comprehensive collection of items telling the story of the town’s long and fascinating history. Cliff wanted me to perform The Trial from The Pickwick Papers and Doctor Marigold, as well as giving a brief talk about Charles’s connection with Bury St Edmunds. The latter request always fills me with terror, for the truth is that local historians will always have access to a great deal more information than me, and the danger is that I just trot out a few easily discoverable facts, promoting local ire. I would need to make sure that my research was sound and that I delivered it in my own way.

On the 16th May, shortly after my return from Kent and before I set off for Cheshire, another email from the Hind household came in, but this time it was from Diane, Cliffs wife with the very sad news that Cliff had unexpectedly died. Our show had occupied so much of his time and attention that Diane and the committee had made the decision to go ahead with the plan and stage the evening in his honour. Suddenly the pressure to do a good job mounted.

On the morning of 26 May I loaded the car with my reading desk and the various rustic paraphernalia for Marigold, as well as the costumes I would need. For some reason I was incredibly nervous about the day and had woken that morning with a pit-of-the-stomach sense of panic, which didn’t leave me all day. As I drove I had my script laid out on the passenger seat and made constant reference to it when I was stopped in traffic.

I arrived in Bury St Edmunds at 4pm, an hour before I was due at the Guildhall where I was to perform, so I parked in front of the famous Angel Hotel, which is where Charles stayed on each of his three visits. As with many hotels across the country, the Angel is proud of its association with Dickens and boasts a blue plaque on its ivy-covered façade, honouring him.

I went in and sat in the stylishly designed lobby and ordered a coffee. A nearby bookcase had copies of Dickens books, as well as a little figurine representing Mr Pickwick and I quietly raised my cup to him. Having finished my coffee I left the hotel and walked through the great stone arch into the abbey gardens where beautifully manicured lawns are dotted with various flint ruins. My home town of Abingdon has similar gardens, where our own Abbey once dominated the skyline, but Henry VIII changed the landscape of Britain forever with his dissolution act of the 1530s, and these beautiful buildings were destroyed. In the case of Abingdon we are not even left with even ruins, for not only was the gold, silver and other treasures taken but the stone itself was taken on barges down the River Thames to be used in the building of new and grand palaces.

Bury St Edmunds Abbey Ruins

After a peaceful and relaxing walk I returned to my car and drove to the Guildhall building, just a few steps away from The Angel, but quite a drive as I had to navigate through a narrow warren of one-way streets, before turning through an opened gate into a small driveway with a space reserved for me. I was greeted by Jill Badman who is not only the manager of The Guildhall but also lives in a charming cottage on site. As I took in my surroundings (beautifully tended gardens) Jill took me into the main building and showed me the room in which I was to perform, and an elegant space it was indeed. A small stage had been erected in front of the fireplace, which would be a perfect setting for my red reading desk.

The Guildhall has a definite history that dates back to 1279 and there are possible references to it over100 years before that, making it senior to my ‘other’ Guildhall in Leicester, which is a little scamp having been built in 1390!

Jill showed me my dressing room which was in the Tudor Kitchen complete with a huge fireplace complete with a pulley operated spit. When she was sure that I had all that I needed Jill left me to my own devices and I began to ferry my props, furniture and costume from my car to the hall. I erected my red screen behind the stage and set up the desk and while I was doing that Diane Hind arrived and introduced herself. I don’t know if Diane is a hugger, but I gave her a big hug and we agreed that Cliff would have been pleased that we were staging ‘his’ event and that we would all make it a memorable evening in his honour. Diane and her son were incredibly strong throughout the evening

As more volunteers and committee members began to arrive, I retreated to my kitchen (where I learned from an educational sign that the Tudors only ate strawberries if they have been cooked) and pondered as to how I would present the first act. Cliff had asked me to talk a bit about how The Pickwick Papers had been written (the novel having connections with Bury), and I was torn between academic and entertaining…I plumped for the latter. In my mind I ran through the various talks I had given about CD’s childhood, his seeing Gad’s Hill and his father’s motivational words about it. I would talk about the creation of Sketches by Boz, his meeting with artist Robert Seymour and the creation of Pickwick. All of those stories are delivered in a light-hearted way, and occasionally take liberties with strict fact (for example, I don’t think that Frederic Chapman really did cry out ‘Who the Dickens is Boz?’ when trying to engage the young author to provide text for Seymour’s illustrations), but they are all based in reality.

Having satisfied myself as to the shape of Act 1 I relaxed in the gardens as the audience gathered. At 7pm I waited at the back of the hall while Margaret Charlesworth introduced me. When I had walked to the stage to welcoming applause Margaret also took a moment to say a few words about Cliff before handing over the evening to me.

My cobbled together first act worked very well and I brought the whole story back to Bury St Edmunds by quoting two letters that Dickens had written during his reading tour of 1861. He had debuted a new reading based on David Copperfield in the city of Norwich and had complained that the audience there were ‘lumpish’, however two days later after another performance of the same piece he described a ‘very fine audience. I don’t think a word – not to say an idea – was lost!’ and that audience was from Bury St Edmunds. There is a natural geographic rivalry between Norfolk and Suffolk, so this mini victory was well received.

Having finished my biographical performances I stepped up to the reading desk to perform The Trial from Pickwick. This was one of Dickens’ favourite readings and is the one that he performed more than any other during his years of touring. It is filled with wonderful characters such as Sergeant Buzfuzz, Justice Stareleigh, Mrs Cluppins and, of course Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller, and pokes fun at the sheer pomposity of the legal system. The reading went well with plenty of laughter and when I concluded I received a very warm round of applause.

I was rather worried that I had over run somewhat, but nobody seemed to mind and I called to mind Jill’s words from earlier, ‘Remember, we are on Suffolk time here’. I returned to my kitchen and changed into my Doctor Marigold costume before returning to the hall, removing the reading desk and screen, and replacing it with the little wooden steps, the 3-legged stool, the rustic wooden box and a kettle and shovel which go to make my set for my favourite performance.

When everyone was seated I took to the stage in the character of the lovable cheapjack and told his story with all of its highs and lows. The audience were transfixed and were with me the whole way through (even when a rather loud motorcycle revved his engine in a most un-Victorian manner outside). Charles Dickens’ tour manager George Dolby described how the audiences gasped when a revelation is made in the last two lines of the performance, and I would love to be able to tell Dolby and his Guv’nor that a 21st century audience gasp in the same way – there was hardly a dry eye in the Guildhall on Thursday evening, and I include my own in that. It was a wonderful performance and one I was extremely proud of.

Margaret returned to the stage, clearly very moved, and thanked me, and after taking more applause I made my way to the back of the room and signed some copies of my books and chatted to the audience as they left. It rounded off a most enjoyable evening.

Margaret had very kindly offered me hospitality at her home, and when I had changed and packed up all of my things into the car she rode with me and directed me to her wonderful Victorian house where her husband Roger was waiting. We sat around the kitchen table and chatted as we ate some bread and cheese and sipped a little wine. We finished the evening with a cup of tea and my mug had a facsimile of the Magna Carta on it. Margaret’s email address features the word magnacarta and its turns out that she is a renowned export on the subject. This was a curious coincidence as earlier in the week on a run I had been listening to an audiobook of ‘Three Men in a Boat’ in which the narrator imagines being present at Runnymede in 1215. As I listened I realised that I know so little about such an important moment in English history and vowed that I would purchase a book on the subject and educate myself. So, in Margaret’s kitchen, as I sipped my tea, I mentioned to her this happy twist of fate, and explained that other knowing that the Maga Carta had been signed at Runnymede I knew little of the political background and circumstances. Well, I had clearly failed my first test, for Margaret pointed out that ‘It was never signed! It was sealed!’ Oops!

It was late now and as the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins that evening gently dissipated, I began to feel tired and said my goodnights to Margaret and Roger.

I slept very well and next morning enjoyed a simple breakfast of fruit juice, muesli and toast. Before I left, Margaret showed me their beautiful garden, as well as asking me to sign their visitor’s book. I had been their first guest, other than family, since the first lockdown of 2020. Soon it was time to get on the road and as I drove away I reflected on a very happy day in the company of kind and hospitable people, and I hope that the gap before the Dickens name returns to the town will be a little shorter this time.

Getting a Lift in Cheshire

After an unusually busy start to the year through April and the first half of May was empty, which actually was fortunate for, as many as you know, Liz’s sister Sheila died from the brain tumour with which she had been suffering for eighteen months. The end, when it came, was more of a relief than a shock, as we had watched her go steadily downhill for many months. Sheila was moved from her home into a hospice but was able to celebrate Easter and her 70th birthday with her family around her, before she finally slipped away on the 16 April.

So after those quite and reflective weeks, my work came back with a bang in the middle of May with a succession of events which will take me to the end of June and on into July.

Broadstairs: A Child’s Journey With Dickens

The first of these was in the seaside town of Broadstairs on 11 May, at the South coast of England, where I was due to address the local branch of The Dickens Fellowship. The group had asked me to make an after dinner speech and propose the toast of the Immortal Memory to Charles Dickens, but I am never confident about making speeches, so I asked if I could cheat a little and read an address given at a previous Fellowship event, to which the answer was in the positive. The piece I had chosen wasn’t any old speech, but it was my old favourite ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’, originally delivered by the author Kate Douglas Wiggin to the New York branch of the Fellowship, in 1912. I have performed A Child’s Journey on many occasions, and a year ago I joined forces with my great friend and fellow actor Jennifer Emerson to perform a Zoom version of the piece.

For the Fellowship I decided not to present the piece as a show, but simply to read it from the signed copy of the book that Kate published. When I arrived in Broadstairs I made my way to The Albion Hotel where the branch chair, Christine Ewer, had booked me into room 15 – the very room where Charles Dickens stayed when he completed Nicholas Nickleby in 1839.

Room 15

The room, is at the back of the hotel with a beautiful view over the great sickle curve of Viking Bay with its unblemished sandy beach where the Dickens family played when they stayed in the town for a number of summer holidays. Looking to the left I could see the imposing building atop the cliff, now known as Bleak House, properly called Fort House, which is where the family based themselves, renting the property for the entire summer. It is said that it was from the little garret study overlooking the sea that Charles found inspiration for the terrible storm that took the life of Steerforth in David Copperfield.

Before walking to the venue for the evening’s events I was visited by Andrew, one of the branch members, who wanted to take some photographs of me in the famous room, so I donned my suit, and posed gazing wistfully out to sea, thinking about Charles himself taking in the same view.

The evening was lovely, for the Broadstairs branch of the Fellowship are an enthusiastic and fun group, who particularly embrace the performing of Dickens, so it is always a pleasure to visit. I dined on a seafood timbale, followed by a delicious piece of roasted beef, and rounded the meal off with a Tarte aux Citron. I was rather glad that I wasn’t due to be cavorting around in a theatrically active performance, for I’m not sure that my mobility would have been up to the challenge!

The reading of A Child’s Journey was wonderful, and the group hung on every one of Kate’s words – the highlight being when I announced that I had bought an edition of the story from Ebay and discovered that it had been personally signed by her, meaning I had a direct personal connection back to Charles himself (in the account she mentions that he held her hand, so the signature in my book was written by a hand that had touched my great great grandfather’s). I proposed the toast to the Immortal Memory, and the evening came to a pleasant conclusion (which included selling a few copies of my book, which is always a good thing!)

Plumley: Great Expectations

My next commitments were over the weekend of May 21 and 22 when I had been booked to perform in two venues in the county of Cheshire to the North West of England. Over a year ago I had been approached by an organisation called Cheshire Rural Touring Arts which stages an arts festival with a difference. Rather than placing all of the events in a particular town or city, requiring potential audience members to travel, the organisation offers all of the performances to rural communities and the shows go out to small halls across the county. I have worked on a project like this before, in my very early years of touring (it must have been 1994 or 5) when my friend and first manager Paul Standen and I travelled to the Yorkshire Dales and took Mr Dickens is Coming to a succession of village halls. I hadn’t really learned the art of touring a one man show at that time, and I wasn’t terribly good, so I was hoping for better things in Cheshire!

Plumley is a small village located not far from Northwich and as with most villages this spring it was bedecked in bunting and had posters advertising various celebrations of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. I was welcomed at the door of the hall by Harry Allen who had made all of the arrangements for this performance. I unloaded the simple Great Expectations set and Harry made me a cup of coffee, before he left me with the hall key and popped back home. There is something lovely about being alone in a theatre, and I spent an enjoyable hour just running through the script on stage to an audience of none.

At around 6’oclock Harry returned, and little by little more volunteers appeared and starting bustling, so I withdrew to the room behind the stage and sat quietly until it was time to begin.

Great Expectations is still a show that I am nervous about, and I am never quite sure if an audience will respond to it or engage with it. These doubts come purely from my own head for I have never had a failure with it and it is a very popular choice, but I still get into quite a state about performing it.

In Plumley Village Hall a goodly audience packed in, and at 7.30 I waited in the wings to begin, and as soon as I burst onto the stage in the persona of Magwitch the convict, I knew that the evening would be alright, and when I left again at the end of the first act and the audience’s applause echoed I could relax a little. During the second act I fell awkwardly at one point (the fall was in the script, so not an accidental trip), and I bent one of my fingers right back on itself and for a while I was uncertain as to whether I had broken it or not. This would not have been good, for a month or so before I had sliced the tip of another finger off whilst putting cutlery away in a drawer which contained a very sharp bladed tool to create mandoline vegetables. After spending an afternoon and evening in an A&E department as various nurses and doctors tried to stop the bleeding, I have been carefully protecting the shortened digit and changing the dressings every day. The weekend in Cheshire was the first time my finger had been exposed to the air without risk of infection and it would have been a real bugger to break another: to misquote Oscar Wilde ‘To injure one finger is unfortunate, to injure two is carelessness’ Fortunately I had not broken my finger on Plumley Village Hall’s stage.

The second act proceeded to its end and I was welcomed back to the stage with a very generous round of applause. I wound the evening up with a short Q&A session, which was fun before leaving the stage for the final time.

When the audience had departed back to their nearby homes I packed up my set, said my goodbyes to Harry and the team, and drove back to my hotel room in Northwich, having stopped at a take away and picked up a box of fried chicken and chips. As ever on a performance night sleep took a while to come, but eventually I slept well into the morning.

Weaverham: Mr Dickens is Coming and Sikes & Nancy

My second show for Cheshire Rural Touring Arts was in the village of Weaverham, also close to Northwich but in the opposite direction to Plumley. As the show was not until 7pm I had a whole day to myself and I was keen to explore a little of a county about which I know very little.

In my hotel there was a huge picture of the Anderton Boat Lift, which I had seen on television, so I thought that would be a good place to start exploring. I had a slap up English breakfast, and spent a little time running through my script for the show (the purpose of this exercise was not only to cement the words in my mind, but also to push those of Great Expectations out), and then I got into the car and drove to Anderton. What a beautiful county Cheshire is, and I quite fell in love with the villages, cottages, farm houses and beautiful rural scenery. I drove past the old Lion Salt Mill, which is now a museum dedicated to one of the main industries of the area – salt mining having been a vital part of the community since the 17th Century and possibly since Roman times too (many salt deposits have been excavated around Roman villas).

Arriving at Anderton I drove alongside the Trent and Mersey Canal with its pretty narrow boats and well tended tow-path gardens before parking and exploring. Firstly I walked into Anderton Nature Park which is a beautiful are of woods, pools, meadows and fields with plenty of paths criss-crossing it so that it is rare to see anyone else.

The park is boarded by the River Weaver at its lowest edge and I took the footpath along the river’s edge back towards Anderton. The birdsong was cheerful, the views calming and there was plenty to explore. It was a very healing sort of a morning.

At the end of my walk I found the great boat lift that opened in 1875. With the River Weaver flowing 50 feet beneath the canal it was decided that it would be beneficial to connect the two waterways therefore allowing greater traffic for the salt to be taken to the potteries of Stoke on Trent. Various designs for linking river and canal were discussed until in the end a hydraulic boat lift was decided upon. The theory was simple but relied on watertight pipes feeding water from one chamber to another, therefore changing the weight and buoyancy of two lifts operated alongside one another so as one went down it displaced water to the other sending it up. Unfortunately the engineers hadn’t taken into account the natural corrosiveness of the water and as time went on pipes, seals and pistons began to fail. Eventually it was decided to convert the lift to electric power, and the great frame had to be strengthened to support the extra weight.

Today the lift sits at the middle of a visitor centre, but it is still a working piece of equipment and boats still ride up and down – it is an extremely impressive structure and is beautifully shown off amongst beds of wild flowers, planted to create an amazing contrast between the brutal iron structure and nature. Having admired the lift from all angles I then walked for a while along the canal before returning to my car and then to the hotel.

I had decided to have a bite of lunch in the pub, as I wouldn’t be eating much in the evening, and was delighted when the waiter offered me the Sunday roast menu – I’d forgotten that it was Sunday, and happily settled down to roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, greens, parsnips and gravy. Perfect.

In the afternoon I rested in my room, whilst watching coverage of the Spanish Grand Prix. When the race was finished I had time for a refreshing shower and slight beard trim, before heading over to Weaverham.

My second venue of the weekend was in a Sea Scout hut and as I was unloading my furniture I was met on the pavement by Brian, the organiser of this show. The setting was different to the village hall, as I would be performing on the floor with a great semi circle of chairs and tables around me. As I walked in it rather looked as if I would be facing a panel for a job interview!

Brian had chosen Mr Dickens is Coming for his show and it was a very good choice, for it is a conversational, informal performance and would suit this particularly intimate setting very well. A large theatrical show, like Great Expectations for instance, would have been difficult to pull off in the hut.

I erected my new red screen (sewn by Liz the day before I left) behind the reading desk and arranged the other furniture ready for the show. It was an earlier start than the night before, so as soon as the set was in place I got changed before the first of the audience arrived. There was no dressing room to sit quietly in so I mingled in the hall as people arrived, and chatted, which is a good thing for it gets people on side, and also gives me an idea as to how they may respond to various aspects of the show, allowing me to tailor it as necessary. At just before 7 the last people took their seats and I was able to begin the show.

The opening of Mr Dickens is Coming is designed to make people laugh, allow them to relax and reassure them that this isn’t going to be a weighty, academic sort of evening, and fortunately they laughed loudly at the line, so I knew we would be alright. I haven’t performed Mr Dickens is Coming for a while (other than filming it at The Dickens House Museum in London earlier this year), so it was fun to do it again – Uriah Heep made people squirm and my woeful Sean Connery impression got a laugh – everything hit the mark.

When I reached the end of the first half I warned everyone that they weren’t in for a bundle of laughs in the second act, before leaving them to their interval treats. Brian had an imaginative idea to serve his guests a suitably Victorian high tea and had created this menu:

Kedgeree, royal anchovy biscuits, mushroom puree on crackers. The sandwiches were ham and mustard, cucumber and herby cream cheese, and egg & cress mayonnaise. For desert there were slices of Victoria sponge and mince pies made with real minced meat!

As the audience munched they busied themselves with filling in the questionnaires that Cheshire Rural Touring Arts send out. What is written on these sheets would seal my fate for future years, so I hoped that everyone was in good spirits! I recalled a time when I performed on a cruise ship, where audience feedback was equally important, and one of the lecturers said to the audience ‘I know that you have your questionnaires to feel in, but surely you would rather be enjoying the swimming pools and decks, so why not just drop your forms to my cabin, and I shall fill them in on your behalf!’ I felt like suggesting the same at Weaverham….

When everyone had finished their nibbles I returned to the stage to perform Sikes and Nancy, the dark, brutal reading that Dickens gave during his final your of touring. He would delight in seeing ladies in the audience faint so shocking was his performance. Even today, when we have become so tragically inured to violence, Sikes and Nancy still packs a punch. It is exhausting to perform, more because of the physical tension that slowly builds until the moment of the murder itself, and tends to leave the audience silent at the conclusion, as the full realisation of what they have witnessed becomes apparent.

In the brightly lit scout hut, surrounded by tables, Sikes and Nancy still had the same effect, although no ladies actually fainted on Sunday night. When we had all calmed down for a bit, I opened the floor to a few questions and answers, and then it was time to bring the evening to a close. Brian thanked me, and the residents of Weaverham returned to their homes whilst at the hall Brian and his team cleaned up and I packed my props into the car. I drove back to the hotel and so came to an end a thoroughly enjoyable two days in Cheshire. I will have two days at home before I am on the road again, this time to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.

For Sheila

Sheila 1952 – 2022

On the 16th April this year my sister-in-law, Sheila Woodruff, died as a result of a brain tumour that had been diagnosed eighteen months before. It has been a desperately sad, hard, difficult time for her whole family, but as a result of the medical treatment she received during this time Sheila was able to enjoy periods of stability enabling her to spend treasured time with those she loved so dearly.

However, there is currently no cure for the particular type of tumour.

On behalf of her husband Martin, their three sons and all of Sheila’s family, I would like to raise money for Brain Tumour Research in her memory and ensure that the search for answers is continued.

To this end I seem to have rather foolishly entered the 2022 Oxford Half Marathon (my first attempt at anything like this) and have created a Just Giving Page to receive donations.

I know that we are all bombarded with requests from multiple charities, all superb and worthwhile, but if you can donate to this special cause I would be very grateful.

The event is not until October, so I have plenty of time to train and you have plenty of time to contribute!

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/geralddickens

The Drood Dudes

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After the fallow period of recent years, the spring of 2022 is proving to be a busy one as I travel around the country performing in a wide variety of venues. Having returned from Preston on Monday morning, I had a day to collect my thoughts before heading off once more on Wednesday, south this time, to the city of Canterbury in Kent, the county of my birth.

I was due to visit The Spires Academy, a relatively new school, built in 2007 in a rural setting to the east of the city. This would be a second visit to Spires for me, where the year 10 students are studying A Christmas Carol for their GCSE course. It is a impressive modern building, standing proudly with its lime green cladding welcoming visitors into a large central atrium, which acts not only as a dining hall at lunchtime but also as a performance space.

My contact at the school is one of the English teachers, Sarah Turrell, who is also a keen member of the Dickens Fellowship, and she loves to share her passion for Dickens with her students. Sarah has come to many of my shows in Kent over the years and is currently writing an article about the teaching of Dickens in the modern era for that most academic of journals, The Dickensian.

The journey was a beautiful one with the chill of early March giving way to Spring, there were even fields of Rape beginning to paint their broad, yellow splashes across the countryside, and the blossom of trees speckled the deep blue sky. I arrived at 11.30, and Sarah was there to meet me and help me unload. With the help of the facilities staff we found a small cupboard in the main atrium to store my furniture and then headed up three floors to a conference room (in my day, schools never had ‘conference rooms’!)

My first commitment of the day was to meet a small group of students who, inspired by Sarah, had formed their own Dickens Society within the school. The group comes from a wide variety of year groups (yrs 8 – 11) and meet at lunchtimes when their respective timetables allow. Sarah’s suggestion to the team was that they study Charles Dickens’ final, unfinished novel, and try to create their own solution to ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, and it is this project that gave the group its name: The Drood Dudes.

Before the group arrived, in dribs and drabs from their various morning lessons, Sarah gave me a printed essay, showing what has been achieved so far, and I only had time to cast a very quick eye over it before the seats around the table were full and we began to chat. ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood….Unveiled. A Work in Progress’ is not only an amazing feat of imagination, but also a great piece of well-researched writing too. Students have paired up and worked on specific chapters, and making sure that the language that they use is suitably Victorian in structure. An example:

”The cabin windows blurred by innumerable layers of smog which further added to the uncomfortable aura that had latched onto the room. ‘Where were you on the night of the storm, Miss Budd?’ Gerald’s tone had indicated that he had no longer been welcoming of her diversion to his prompts. Stubborn in her innocence, her annoyance had quickly been replaced with a monotone seriousness. Straightening her posture and clasping her hands together, she responded.

‘My homestead. And only my homestead’

Yes! the detective introduced to the story to get to the bottom of the disappearance of Edwin Drood, is named in my honour, although the character is certainly not an accurate representation of me, for later the narrative mentions that ‘Gerald could tolerate no more. Adjusting his hair, he exclaimed ‘Miss Bud, I think I’ve heard enough.’ It has been many years since I have been able to adjust my hair.

We went through the piece chapter by chapter and the authors of each talked through their inspiration and the motivation for steering the plot as they did.

When Charles Dickens was writing Drood, during the early months of 1870, it was his first novel for 5 years, and marked a new direction: a mystery novel. Perhaps influenced, or piqued, by the success of his good friend Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Dickens set out to weave as many false avenues and red herrings as he could into the plot. Unfortunately, Charles Dickens died on June 9 1870 when only 6 of the planned 12 monthly instalments had been published, meaning that he unwittingly created one of the greatest mystery novels ever written – one that had no denouement. He didn’t leave a detailed plan behind him, although a few letters to friends have a few suggestions as to where the plot may have lead. But, as one of the leading Dickensian scholars pointed out to me a few years ago, if you stop reading Great Expectations at the half way point you would have no clue what is to come, and it is reasonable that Charles would have pulled the same trick with Drood.

I shall not tell you what conclusion the Dudes have come to, for I hope that when the piece is complete I may be able to share it in its entirety, but it is obvious that they have considered and discussed every angle of their plot and stand by it. As we chatted I threw a few alternative thoughts into the mix, not because I felt they were needed, or superior, but because I was keen to hear them defend their choices, which they firmly and passionately did.

When we had finished discussing their work Sarah asked if I would sign copies of The Mystery of Edwin Drood for each of the Dudes, and as I signed they asked me questions about Dickens and one man theatre, until the bell rang heralding the end of a truly exciting morning.

It is obvious that Sarah has inspired this group of students, and they all have immense pride not only in what they have created but also of their society (they even have their own handshake!). In a world that is so fraught with negativity at the moment, this hour was a shining beacon of positivity and hope for the future.

Sarah took me to the dining hall where we met the school’s interim principal, David Thornton, who said that he had never known such success in an extra curricular club.

After a quick lunch the hall was cleared and a stage erected. I just had time to place all of my props, and change before the year 10s arrived – a typical bunch of secondary school pupils: some noisy, some quiet, some defiant, some intrigued, some confident, some troubled. When everyone was seated, the head of the English department welcomed the group with dire warnings about behaviour, and then welcomed me to the stage. I started the show by talking a bit about how and why Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, as the exam syllabus calls for a degree of contextual knowledge as well as a familiarity with the book itself, and then began. This was the first time that I had performed A Christmas Carol since 23 December in Leicester, but the words and movements came back to me as if I had done it the day before.

It wasn’t an easy performance, for the space was cavernous and the audience was not altogether attentive (two members being removed and sent to a classroom to write essays in silence), but I was pleased with what I did. I am currently writing a book about my performances of A Christmas Carol, which includes a detailed account of how I perform each scene, and it was interesting to recall my written words as I performed. I became a lot more aware of where I was on the stage and how I delivered the various lines, and mentally stored some details for the next time I write. The show had a slight break in the middle as there was a bell heralding a change of lessons, and the hall being at the centre of the school building would become packed with students moving from one room to another, so we had agreed that I would simply pause and wait until peace was restored. While I sat on stage during the hiatus some of the students shouted out ‘Mr Dickens! Can we have a selfie with you later?’ I said yes, and the request came in from others too….

When I resumed, my main concern was the timing of the show, as I had to be finished before the school day ended at 3.15. Fortunately there was a clock on the wall opposite me and I could carefully make decisions as to how much of the text to included so that I finished and left time for some questions. I said the final ‘God Bless Us, Every One’ with 10 minutes to spare, and the year 10s gave me loud and raucous applause, born to some extent out of the relief to be able to make noise again! When the tumult had died down I took questions for a while, the answers to only a few of which were going to help the students in the exam, for example I doubt the paper will ask for my age, or details of how much I earn, but it was a fun session nonetheless.

At 3.15 the bell sounded the end of the day and the group dispersed, although plenty of students gathered around to take their selfies with me, before heading home. Soon the atrium was quiet once more, and having changed I loaded the car, said farewell to Sarah and headed back onto the road.

As I drove away I smiled at the memory of a successful day, but in particularly of my hour in the company of a talented, enthusiastic and inspiring group of students: Maxwell, Jasmin, Honey, Ryan, James, Chloe, Maisie, Rosenevi, Jasmine, Katy, Ali, Phoebe, Kaiya and, of course, Sarah: The Drood Dudes.