Back on the Horse

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June 9 is always a very special day in the Dickens calendar and each year I try to mark it in a special way to commemorate the life of my great great grandfather who died on that date in 1870. On occasion I have stood at his graveside in Westminster Abbey at the annual wreath laying ceremony organised by the Dickens Fellowship (this year presided over by my brother Ian, the current President of the organization) and on one particularly memorable occasion I performed ‘Sikes and Nancy’, one of Dickens’s most energetic and violent readings, in the very room where he collapsed and died at the exact time of day he drew his last breath – the shivers certainly went down my spine that evening, to be sure!

This year June 9th was a particularly special day for not only was I able to honour Charles Dickens, but I was able to return to the stage for the first time in many months. At The Revelation Arts Centre in Ashford Kent I would be clambering back into the saddle and onto the horse. The whole process was a strange one for the feeling from beginning to end was one of uncertainty – not because I was worried about actually performing (although naturally there were a few fears in that area), but about the entire logistical process of gathering the correct costumes and props, loading the car, leaving on time, getting the stage set, working with the tech team on lighting and sound, preparing in the dressing room etc. All of those little things that have been such a natural part of my life over the last twenty five years felt awkward and confusing.

I had spent much of the day of the 8th preparing the car and checking off a long list to make sure I had everything for my show, which was to be Great Expectations: the props for the performance include a slim hat stand that becomes a kind of skeleton, draped with white fabric to represent the ever present Miss Havisham. Unfortunately the fabric to create this figure had been stored in a shed and become the victim of hungry mice (which is apt, actually, as Miss H describes her bride cake as having been ‘gnawed by the teeth of mice’), so I had purchased a new length for the show.

I left the house at 9am, and the roads were quiet meaning that I made excellent time. A sign of our current times came to me as I passed Heathrow airport where planes from around the globe used to make their final approaches in a never-ending ribbon of metal and fumes, but on that day I didn’t see a single flight coming in. The virus and resultant pandemic may have decimated the Earth’s human population, but has also meant that the fossil fuel pollution of our atmosphere has been eased, albeit temporarily I am sure.

Onwards around the M25 orbital motorway before spearing off in a south easterly direction towards the town of Ashford in the heart of the county of Kent.

The Revelation Arts Centre is housed within the impressive St Mary’s Church in the heart of the town and as I arrived I was delighted to see that the council had filled its municipal planters with scarlet geraniums which were Dickens’ favourite flowers and which made up the wreath on his grave.

I have performed at Revelation on many occasions and I represent the venue as an ambassador, so it was a great place to restart my career. As soon as I arrived the sense of excitement was palpable, for June 9th didn’t only mark my return to the stage but it was also the first time the venue had opened to the public in well over a year too and the sheer relief of injecting life back onto stage was evident in all. I was greeted by the centre manager Debra, and her front of house manager for the day, Jo. John who looks after the technical side of the operation waved a greeting from his eerie high at the back of the auditorium.

I was actually due to perform twice on the 9th, and the rigours of Great Expectations would have to wait for the evening. The first presentation, at lunchtime, was a talk about the research I have been undertaking for my book about the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash. The great disaster actually took place on June 9th 5 years to the day before Dickens’ death, so my talk was titled ‘The Day That Dickens Nearly Died’. I had prepared a few illustrations to accompany my words, so John and I needed to spend a little time making sure that PowerPoint spoke to the laptop, and the laptop spoke to the projector and the projector shone light upon the screen.

At 12.15 the doors were opened and I sat in my dressing room listening to one of the most beautiful sounds that an actor can hear – the building murmur of a gathering audience. At 1 o’clock Jo told me that we were ready to start and I walked onto the stage without introduction or ceremony, ready to take on one of the most difficult roles: myself. Actors, by and large, are insecure people who relish the opportunity to become someone else but who can struggle when they have to appear without disguise. As I strode onto the empty stage and looked at the well-lit auditorium (I couldn’t even hide behind the darkness beyond the stage), and I immediately felt safe and confident. I took a deep breath and launched into my lecture.

I spoke for about 45 minutes, explaining the circumstances that led to the rail crash and relating my own experience of visiting the accident scene and falling into the river where I briefly floundered submerged up to my neck in the muddy water thereby experiencing a closer affinity to the victims than perhaps was necessary.

At 1.45 I opened the floor to questions and made sure that I plugged my book by having a picture of the proposed cover art on the screen behind me and by 2.00pm I wrapped up the event and bowed gratefully to warm applause. The first part of my day had been completed successfully.

I now had five hours to prepare for the big show. Firstly I drove to check into my hotel, just five minutes away and had a shower and a bite of lunch, before heading back to Revelation at 4 to ‘get in’. The set for Great Ex is a simple one with sparse furniture arranged on each side of the stage: the right hand side representing Joe Gargery’s forge whilst the left is dominated by Miss Havisham at Satis House. During the first act I have to make some onstage costume changes (more additions rather than changes) so I had to make sure that the required clothing was carefully placed in a condition that I could easily slip into them when the time came. John was working hard at lighting cues and soon everything was in place and ready. It was 5 pm and there was still 2 hours and forty five minutes before curtains, so I decided to go back to the hotel and rest a little more.

Due to the ongoing Covid restrictions the audience would not be seated in theatre style rows, but at separate tables in a cabaret format and judging by the arrangement Deb and her team were expecting a goodly number. When I returned to St Mary’s I spent some time walking around the auditorium looking at sight lines around the great stone columns in the nave of the church. I wanted to be aware of which tables may struggle to see the action when I was at various parts of the stage and adapt my movements accordingly. I was aware there was no possibility of everybody seeing everything all the time, but if I was at least conscious of the limitations I could try to give those to the sides as much as I could.

Seven o’clock, and the doors opened. Once more I sat back stage and listened to the murmur. My script lay open and occasionally I turned to a certain passage that I was running through in my mind just to check the exact phrase or grammar. I had a great sense that not only did I need to give a good performance for my own self esteem, but that the audience who had been deprived live theatre for so many months craved and deserved one too.

At 7.40 Jo came to give me the five, and in no time the auditorium lights dimmed and the recorded voiceover that begins the show boomed out into the hall and as it ended with ….’Pip beginning to cry…’ I leapt into action as the savage Magwitch, grabbing the little orphan: ‘HOLD YOUR NOISE!

Great Expecations, or at least my version of it, is a little lopsided, in that the first act is relatively short compared to the second and takes young Pip up to the point where he leaves the village bound for London. Along the way we are introduced too all of the main characters – Pip, Magwitch, Mr and Mrs Joe, Jaggers, Miss Havisham and Estella and very briefly to Herbert Pocket, Biddy and Orlick.

The interval came and the applause that followed me to the dressing room was wonderful – the evening was going well! After changing from Pip’s rough blacksmith’s clothes into the formal and smart attire in which he would arrive in London, I returned surreptitiously to the stage in order to clear the act 1 detritus which include a scattered pack of playing cards, and various items of costume that had been discarded during the performance.

With everything placed as it should be I returned to the dressing room and waited for the ‘five’ once more.

The longer second act passed by in a blur and in no time I, as Pip, was walking through the ruins of Satis House and meeting Estella once more (this being the second ending that Dickens wrote to replace the incredibly downbeat original). He took her hand and left the ‘ruined place forever’ and after a moment of silence the auditorium of Revelation was filled with applause once more.

It had been a hugely successful evening both for me and the venue, and the audience, so long starved, made their way home hopefully with a feeling that a new phase of life had begun.

Having changed it was time to load up the car (meaning lugging my furniture and props through the dark graveyard, which somehow seemed appropriate) and having hugged all and sundry and said my goodbyes, I headed out to find a take away restaurant in the centre of Ashford. It was 10.15 on a Wednesday evening and it seemed as if everything had closed up shop on the stroke of 10, but I eventually tracked down a Domino’s Pizza outlet and returned to my hotel clutching a 10 inch Pepperoni.

As I drove home the next morning it seemed as if the world was bursting back into life: the fields of buttercups gleamed in the morning sun, shining out from behind the huge fluffy foamy hedgerows of cow parsley spilling over the pavements dotted with the first scarlet poppies of the season. Occasionally I glimpsed a field of linseed coming into flower peeping out with the gunmetal hints of the brilliant blue to come. Yes, hopefully, the World is moving forward into a better place.

Driving a Toaster Through a Car Wash

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There is a scene in Ron Howard’s ‘Apollo 13’ when astronaut Jack Swigert is ready to restart the crippled command module, which had lain dormant for the days of the trip home to Earth from the depths of space. The complicated computers had been shut down to preserve battery power as the crew huddled in the tiny lunar module which had acted as a lifeboat throughout the crisis, but now it was time to bring them online again. Swigert, as played by Kevin Bacon, reaches out a hand in the style of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam but withdraws it at the last moment, for the switch is dripping with condensation. He, quite naturally, asks mission control what are the chances of the entire module short circuiting when he brings power back but the answer is not reassuring, ‘Ah, we’ll just take that one at a time Jack’. The finger is extended once more as Swigert mutters ‘it’s like driving a toaster through a car wash’

On June 9th I will take to the stage to perform Great Expectations at the Revelation Arts Centre in Ashford, Kent and when I picked up my folder to relearn the script I felt just like Jack Swigert reaching out for a dripping switch. For almost 18 months I have hardly performed at all and I have no idea if I am going to short circuit when I finally step onto the stage. The hardware is there but will those complicated neurons align to bring back the performances I used to give?

Great Expectations is a slightly awkward choice of show to reignite my career with, in that it is one of the most recent additions to my repertoire so I don’t have such a large database of experience to draw upon, but it has proved itself as a popular choice as the novel is a great favourite of many readers. I have performed at Revelation on numerous occasions (indeed I am an ambassador for the venue), and I know that the show will suit the space and I know that the audience there will respond well. This particular programme has been on hold for a year: I was due to perform on June 9 2020 but with the closure of the theatres due to the Pandemic the show was postponed. We were hopeful of rescheduling for October but a week or so before I was due to travel the county of Kent was placed in one of the highest tiers of restriction and a further postponement was put in place. Now, here we are a year late but ready to go again.

I have described my line learning process in previous blog posts and the most important part of it is to pace. For the lines to stick I have to move, so the best days to learn are sunny days when the garden is dry and warm. As I mutter lines over and over to myself I wear a little track into the grass, and somewhere on this circuit is a small table with my script on, ready for me to dive back to to check on a particular phrase or passage. If it is raining I will be confined to the kitchen, giving me less room to roam, but leaving me closer to the comfort blanket of my printed lines.

Fortunately I have found that each of the sections has come back to me quickly, so the story of Pip’s progression from scared orphan to successful man, via being brought up ‘by hand’ by his sister, the care of Joe Gargery, the terrifying Miss Havisham, the aloof Estella, the violence of Orlick and Bentley Drummle and above all the discovery of the true identity of his financial benefactor who is revealed to be……(ah maybe not, that would be a plot spoiler!), all seems to be falling into place.

So the mechanics of Great Expectations are safe, but the real test will be standing on the stage in front of an audience on 9th June, a day which holds a very special relevance to us as a family for it is the anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death in 1870. At 6 0’clock in the evening surrounded by his family at Gad’s Hill Place the great author, who had been unconscious for almost 24 hours following a major stroke the evening before, let out a deep sigh and as a tear rolled down his cheek and he gently slipped away. However it was remarkable that Charles even lived to be 58 for he so nearly met his end exactly five years before in a river bed twenty miles away from his home.

On June 9, 1865, Charles Dickens was travelling with his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother on a train bound for London. Just after three O’clock the train sped through Headcorn station where the signals were set to ‘All Clear’ suggesting that the line ahead was safe. Unfortunately and tragically the truth was very different for the rails over a bridge had been removed for repair and various regulatory safety procedures had been ignored meaning that the tidal train from Folkestone plunged into the River Beault, killing ten and injuring many more. That Dickens himself survived was sheer luck for somehow his first class carriage managed to leap the gap in the lines and ended up suspended by its couplings, dangling into the water. Dickens clambered out and assisted in the rescue operation for 2 or 3 hours, comforting grievously injured men and women, witnessing death, loss and tragedy all around him.

For the past year I have been working on a book about the circumstances of the Staplehurst rail crash and it is due to be published within the next couple of months. It seems appropriate that on June 9th I will not only be performing Great Expectations at Revelation, but will also be giving an ‘author’s talk’ entitled ‘The Day Dickens Nearly Died’ at 1pm. Tickets for both events can be booked from the theatre and because we are not fully clear of Covid restrictions both events will be staged in a cabaret style, socially distanced setting.

It will be wonderful to be back on stage and to see if I really can still drive a toaster through a car wash and emerge intact as Jack Swigert did in 1970, 100 years after the death of Charles Dickens.

For further details of the events at Revelation visit their website:

The Day Charles Dickens Nearly Died | Revelation Ashford

Guest Blog: Mark Twain and Charles Dickens

Over the past couple of weeks the green shoots of Spring have begun to appear outside. Snowdrops, Daffodils and Croci have coloured the dull earth, whilst on trees and shrubs tiny little buds are beginning to appear promising the great explosion of life that is now just a few weeks away.

In my world there are similar signs of renewal as I am starting to work on two projects in conjunction with the Charles Dickens Museum in London, as well as tentatively putting dates in place for my formerly-annual tour of A Christmas Carol. The events for the museum. whilst being online and not performed to a live audience, do at least give me the opportunity to spread my performing wings which are currently rather tightly packed away and in need of excercise!

The first project is based on A Child’s Journey with Dickens, the little story of Charles Dickens’s chance encounter with an eleven year old girl whilst he rode on a train from Portland, Maine, to Boston. The memoir was written by Kate Douglas Wiggin who in adulthood recounted her experience to a branch of the Dickens Fellowship in New York. It is a piece that I have performed on many occasions but this year I had the idea of developing the script to utilise another actor to playing the role of Kate and to perform it as near to the anniversary of the actual event as possible.

As part of Charles’ birthday celebrations in February I was asked to judge a Dickens reading competition and one of the winners was Jennifer Emerson who is based in Massachusetts and a talented actor and storyteller in her own right. I knew that Jennifer would be the perfect person to take on the role of Kate.

In preparing our script I needed to introduce a lot of background material (the little memoir being only short) and I decided to use Dickens’s own letters from his 1867-68 American reading tour as well as some other background material to flesh out the story. One little gem that I was keen to introduce into the script is Mark Twain’s newspaper review of one of Dickens’s first readings in New York City, and it has to be said it wasn’t a particularly positive article: ‘Dickens is a bad reader…..’ ‘Mr. Dickens’ reading is rather monotonous’, ‘his rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads it himself.’ and more. I was anxious to find someone who could record Twain’s voice for the performance so that my woeful attempts at his accent wouldn’t be exposed, and emailed Ohio based actor Mark Dawidziak asking for his assistance. Mark performs and lectures about Twain and is highly regarded as an expert in his field and I was delighted when he responded to my request for assistance in the positive. Not only did Mark agree to provide the voiceover but also furnished me with plenty of information about Twain’s possible motivation for his vicious review. He sent me the text of a paper that he had written entitled ‘Mark Twain and Charles Dickens: Separated at Birth?’ which was fascinating and which I thought you may like to read. So, with Mark’s permission, I am happy to republish that paper in the form of a ‘Guest Blog’:

Charles Dickens and Mark Twain: Separated at Birth?

By Mark Dawidziak

Public speakers often are advised to open with a joke. There is wisdom here, I believe, and keeping that time-honored guidance in mind, let me share with you a joke of my own devising that I once played on a group of my Twain friends. It was like this: We were sitting around, talking about our mutual affection for Twain, when I broke out with the following, “Let me give you a list of reasons why my favorite writer is my favorite writer.” And off I went, offering up item after item, my friends humoring me at first, then wondering why I was belaboring them with the obvious. They were, of course, abundantly familiar with every detail I was piling on – as it applied to Mark Twain. And there was no doubt in their minds that I was describing Mark Twain. I could see them wondering how long this was going to go on. When I felt that their patience had about worn out and that the strain had reached the breaking point, I trotted out the snapper: “Now that we’re through with Charles Dickens, let me tell you a thing or two about Mark Twain.”

The surprise on their faces was delightful. All right, I cheated a little. I failed to mention in the setup that I had two favorite writers. But a little fudging aside, the joke had made its point. These Twainiacs, as Twain scholars like to call themselves, had no idea that the two writers had so much in common. And, indeed, it has been my experience that Dickensians have little sense of the sheer number of remarkable personal and professional parallels between Twain and Dickens.

Remember in the 1960s when we started seeing those lists of strange-but-true connections between the assassinated presidents, Lincoln and Kennedy? Well, a similar Dickens-Twain list makes the Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences seem pale and paltry in comparison. I wish to say I was the first to noticed these amazing similarities, but I think they were first noticed by a wonderful scholar named Edward Wagenknecht, who wrote brilliantly on not only Twain and Dickens, but Poe, as well.

The first substantial entry on the subject was made by Twain scholar Howard G. Baetzhold in his 1970 book, Mark Twain & John Bull: The British Connection. But Baetzhold, as insightful as he was, didn’t realize how deep the similarities ran. Since 1970, the points of comparison have been mentioned only in passing by Twain scholars and not at all by Dickens biographers.

Are the similarities really so striking? Well, in truth, some of the parallels are not as amazing as they might seem at first blush. For instance, it’s undeniably true that each was fascinated with look-alikes and twins, using them for characters and plot twists in key books: Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby; Twain in Pudd’nhead Wilson. And each wrote a historical novel with look-alikes at the center: Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities; Twain in The Prince and the Pauper. Intriguing? To be sure, but it also can be said that Shakespeare was fascinated by lookalikes and twins.

And speaking of Shakespeare, both Twain and Dickens were fascinated by the debate over Shakespeare’s identity. Ah-ha! Another amazing coincidence? Maybe, but then again, it would have been more remarkable if writers of their stature hadn’t been interested in the Shakespeare discussion. The point is, it’s only natural that there would be some similarities between two male writers plying their trade in the same century.

The similarities between Twain and Dickens, though, go beyond those we might deem logical and obvious. So I’m going to try to avoid this becoming the literary equivalent of a parlor trick. And I don’t want this to get tedious, but, starting with childhood, let’s run through just some of the dozens upon dozens of items that link these two literary giants.

Each had a father named John who by any definition of the term was a bad businessman. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Mark Twain, Justin Kaplan describes John Marshall Clemens in terms that certainly could apply to John Dickens: “He was a chronic business failure. . . and his wife and his children were accustomed to being poor.” John Clemens or John Dickens?

Each had little formal education, learning by experience and working as a journalist covering legislative bodies before making it as an author.

Each was jilted by a sweetheart, later making the woman who dumped him the model for a character. For Dickens, this was Maria Beadnell. For Twain, this was Laura Wright (although, as Baetzhold points out in his book, the psychological and emotional scar left on Dickens was far more profound).      

 Each started out primarily known to his nation as a humorist, trying increasingly more serious work that grew darker and darker.

Each first was widely known to the public by a pen name: Charles Dickens as Boz; Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain.

Each’s first book was a collection of sketches, followed by a phenomenally successful second book that established him as literary superstar: for Dickens, it was, of course, Sketches by Boz followed by The Pickwick Papers; for Twain, it was The Jumping Frog followed by The Innocents Abroad.

From these runaway successes, each became his country’s dominant family author during the 19th century, but also was popular across the Atlantic (Twain in England, Dickens in America).

Each created two boy heroes whose names were the titles of beloved books: Twain with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; Dickens with Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.

Each drew strongly on autobiography for major novels about their childhood experiences: Dickens in David Copperfield; Twain in Tom Sawyer.

Each, in addition to being a best-selling author, was a wildly popular platform performer (each managed by George Dolby at different times). This one bears a little special attention. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that a great writer is almost psychologically incapable of also being a great performer. The exceptions are so rare, in fact, they span centuries: Homer, Moliere, and, yes, Dickens and Twain. Professional actress Elizabeth Yates once was so carried away by Dickens’ acting, she yelled at him, “O Mr. Dickens what a pity it is you can do anything else.” Compare that compliment with the verdict handed down by no less than Henry Irving, “You made a mistake by not adopting the stage as a profession. You would have made even a greater actor than writer.” He said this, of course, to Mark Twain.

Each had a brother who repeatedly failed at one calling after another, causing no end of annoyance and constantly asking for loans. For Twain, this was Orion (pronounced by the family Or-ree-on). For Dickens it was, well, take your pick, but probably best to settle on Frederick.

Each had a musical older sister idealized as characters in books. For Twain, this was his sister Pamela (pronounced Pah-meel-yuh), the direct model for Tom’s kindly cousin, Mary, in Tom Sawyer. For Dickens, this was his sister Fanny, the model for Florence Dombey in Dombey and Son, and at least partly the inspiration for Kate Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby and Scrooge’s sister, Fan, in A Christmas Carol.

Each had a child who died in infancy and, during his lifetime, one who died in early adulthood.

Each had a strong-willed daughter who outlived him and left behind memoirs of life with a great author. Each of these daughters had artistic aspirations and married someone in the arts. Dickens’ daughter, Kate, became a painter of children’s portraits and married artist Charles Edward Perugini. Twain’s daughter, Clara, tried a singing career and married pianist-conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch.             Each drew on a relative to create an ever-optimistic, high-talking windbag character destined to become one of his most popular creations, and, yes, Twain’s Col. Sellers (The Gilded Age) could be a first cousin of Dickens’ Mr. Micawber (David Copperfield).

Each wrote novels with lampoons of politicians, wild political plots and an American land scheme (Twain in The Gilded Age, Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit).

Each was subject to fits of depression, towering rages and giddy exuberance.

Each was somewhat nervous in disposition, unable to sit still for long stretches and frequently pacing while others talked (see Paine, page 574). Each loved to take long walks.

Each was fascinated by Carlye’s history of the French Revolution, naming it was one of his favorite books.

Each dressed to catch attention in public: Twain in white suits, Dickens in gaudy vests.

Each was narrow-shouldered, of slight of build and on the short side. Twain was 5-foot, 8½ inches tall. Dickens was 5-foot, 5 inches.

Each was cheered in the other’s country, then wrote a book that momentarily raised ire in the other’s homeland: for Dickens, it was American Notes, for Twain, it was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But each made a triumphant return to the other’s country near the end of his life: Dickens for his 1867-68 reading tour of America (he died in 1870); Twain to receive his Oxford degree in 1907 (he died in 1910).

Each lobbied against the lax copyrights laws that cost him millions in lost revenue on the other side of the Atlantic (Twain furious with pirated editions of his work in England; Dickens speaking out against his works being stolen in America).

Each feuded with almost every publisher.

Each was a cigar smoker.

Each wrote travel books, as well as novels, short stories, essays and humorous sketches.

Each believed the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for keeping Italy and other countries in poverty and ignorance. Strains of anti-Catholicism runs through each’s writings, but each had close Catholic friends.

Each wrote condescendingly and critically of the American Indian.

Each was helped in his writing by a devoted sister-in-law. For Dickens, this was Georgina Hogarth; for Twain, it was Susan Crane.

Each wrote in a secluded study during the summer months: Twain in the octagonal study built for him by Susan Crane at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York; Dickens in the Swiss chalet at Gad’s Hill Place.

Each unsuccessfully tried to write plays, seeing his books turned into hit shows by others.

Each had a brief and unhappy turn as a newspaper editor: Dickens (one month) with the Daily News; Twain (for a year and a half) at the Buffalo Express.

Each had a close friend who also was a major novelist: for Dickens, it was Wilkie Collins; for Twain, it was William Dean Howells.

Each was drawn as a young man to a profession he always would romanticize. For Dickens, this was acting. For Twain, it was piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi River. Each tried to pursue this profession, Dickens arranging for an audition at a London theater.

Each was considered a hero by George Bernard Shaw.

Each had book adapted into a 1930s film by producer David O. Selznick: David Copperfield (1935) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938).

            There are dozens of other similarities, and, of course there are many significant differences.

            Twain was happily married. Dickens wasn’t.

            Dickens had 10 children, eight of whom survived him. Twain had four, only one of whom survived him.

            Dickens burned out and died at 58. Twain made it to 74 (a fine run for 1910).

But the similarities are too numerous and too striking to be brushed aside. As Baetzhold writes: “Both writers had gusto, robustness, and closeness of observation; and, with humor, sentimentality, and social criticism as stocks in trade, both went on to create novels that brought the vernacular idiom and the use of the first-person boy narrator to new levels of artistry.”

We are, therefore, inevitably led to the question, what did Twain and Dickens think of each other? Half of that equation is easy. Dickens never thought of Twain at all. Twain was on his way up when Dickens literally was on  his way out. The Innocents Abroad was published in July 1869. Dickens died in June 1870.

Although Twain once said that the humor of The Pickwick Papers was lost on him, he counted A Tale of Two Cities among his favorite books, and regularly reread it. We also know he read and borrowed elements from Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Cooperfield, Little Dorrit, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Indeed, Twain left behind many scattered comments on Dickens, some sympathetic to his predecessor’s efforts to escape the label of humorist and write serious fiction.

Twain also was conscious enough of Dickens to be mindful not to copy him. He certainly appropriated a device or two from Dickens’ fiction, but Twain knew that both English and American literature was awash with authors trying to write like Dickens. One of his biggest gripes with the writing of Bret Harte was that it became an anemic and obvious imitation of Dickens. So there is no doubt that Twain was aware of just how tall Dickens stood on literary ground. How could he not have been?

They were literary ships passing in the 19th century. They never met. But had Dickens lived just two more years, they undoubtedly would have met when Twain visited England for a lecture tour in 1872. And Dickens’ son and namesake, Charles Jr., stayed with Twain and his family at their  Hartford home while on an 1887 reading tour.

But, yes, for one brief instant, Dickens and Twain were in the same building at the same time. And it was a monumental evening – for Twain.

Twain went to hear Dickens’ 1867 reading at New York’s Steinway Hall on New Year’s Eve. Olivia Langdon had made the trip to New York City from Elmira with her family. Samuel Clemens was introduced to her by Charles Langdon, his friend from the 1867 Quaker City tour of Europe and the Holy Land, which became the basis for The Innocents Abroad. Twain met Livy and her parents at the St. Nicholas Hotel on December 27. Four days later, he accompanied the family to Steinway Hall. “The circumstances of the evening Sam Clemens spent with his future wife were appropriate,” Twain biographer Justin Kaplan wrote in Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. “This was the valedictory reading tour of a towering literary personality, a hero of the mass audience which would soon elevate the newcomer, Mark Twain, also a great public reader as well as an actor manqué, to an analogous height.”

Twain left behind two accounts of the December 31st reading by Dickens. The first was for San Francisco’s Alta California newspaper, and it took issue with the “extravagant praises” bestowed on Dickens by such New York newspapers as the Herald and Tribune. Twain said that Dickens’ voice seemed husky, and he criticized the monotony of his reading. He called the performance “glittering frostwork with no heart.”

“Promptly at 8 p.m.,” Twain wrote for the Alta, “a tall, ‘spry’ (if I may say it), thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his buttonhole, gray beard and mustache, bald head with side hair and beard brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came!” He strode to his famous reading desk “in the most English way and exhibiting the most English general style and appearance. . . heedless of everything. . . as if he had seen a girl he knew turn the next corner.”

Indeed, the early tone of the review seems quite reverent: “But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake.”

From here, though, the tone changes, as Twain professes himself disappointed in the readings from David Copperfield. “He professed to be disturbed, too, by the reader’s seeming inability to enliven his pathetic passages with genuine emotion,” Baetzhold wrote, “a fault which made the ‘beautiful pathos of his language’ seem mere ‘glittering frostwork.’ More specifically, he found Dickens ‘a little Englishy in his speech”; the rendition of Peggoty’s search for ‘Em’ly’ was ‘bad’; and the episodes featuring ‘Dora the child-wife,’ and the storm at Yarmouth in which Steerforth drowned, ‘not as good as they might have been.’ He did like ‘Mrs. Micawber’s inspired suggestions as to the negotiations of her husband’s bills,’ but concluded that whole performance was far inferior to to what Dickens’ repuation had led him to expect.”

This was his reaction in early 1868. Almost forty years later, he gave a very different account of the evening. This was how Twain described it in an October 1907 dictation for his autobiography:

“I heard him once during that season; it was in Steinway Hall, in December, and it made the fortune of my life – not in dollars, I am not thinking of dollars; it made the real fortune of my life in that it made the happiness of my life; on that day I called at the St. Nicholas Hotel to see my Quaker City Excursion shipmate, Charley Langdon, and was introduced to a sweet and timid and lovely young girl, his sister. The family went to the Dickens reading and I accompanied them. It was forty years ago; from that day to this the sister has never been out of my mind or heart.

“Mr. Dickens read scenes from his printed books. From my distance he was a small and slender figure, rather fancifully dressed, and striking and picturesque in appearance. He wore a black velvet coat with a large and glaring red flower in the buttonhole. He stood under a red upholstered shed behind whose slant was a row of strong lights – just such an arrangement as artists use to concentrate a strong light upon a great picture. Dickens’s audience sat in a pleasant twilight, while he performed in the powerful light cast upon him from the concealed lamps. He read with great force and animation, in the lively passages, and read with stirring effect. It will be understood that he did not merely read but also acted. His reading of the storm scene in which Steerforth lost his life was so vivid and so full of energetic action that his house was carried off its feet, so to speak.”

Great force and animation? Stirring? Vivid? Energetic? They are the words found in a rave review. Why two accounts so at odds with each other?

It is my guess, and only a guess, that the second description is the true one – the one of his heart. The first account was that of a young writer looking at the old literary lion he soon would replace in the hearts of the mass audience. He was about to write his first major book

and about to embark on his first major lecture tour. There is, in the 1868 review, the sense of the young writer measuring himself against a giant. How do you measure up more easily? Knock him down to size a bit.

“A number of factors were at work here,” Baetzhold writes perceptively. “Anxiety to impress his Western readers doubtless contributed to the jibes at the New York critics. Those critics, by the way, had also mentioned the huskiness of Dickens’ voice, the result of a current cold, but they had invariably noted that the distraction quickly disappeared as the performance proceeded.” Baetzhold also argues that Twain’s “role of brash humorist” also contributed to the “flippancy” of the review, as well as “the traditional condescension of the American” toward the English and their “Englishy” ways. Twain would prove equally flippant in describing European customs and culture in The Innocents Abroad.

This seems logical. It also seems logical that, by 1907, Twain was completely secure in his place as an American author embraced by England. He no longer had anything to prove as a writer or a platform performer. He could stand shoulder to shoulder to Dickens in every respect. “More important, Clemens no longer felt the necessity either to impress his readers with an appeal to American and Western superiority or to ‘be funny,’ ” wrote Baetzhold. “Hence, the 1907 account may well represent a truer picture of his reaction to the performance than does the contemporary one.”

It also seems more accurate in details. Dickens is described as tall in the 1868 review, which takes more than a stretch of the imagination. He becomes “small and slender” in the 1907 dictation. In this one difference between the two accounts, we may have the long and the short of it, if you will – Twain recalling the evening more clearly almost forty years later than just several days later. Perhaps, too, Twain’s perception was altered by some awareness of just how much he had in common with Dickens.   

Two other things they have common. Each has been portrayed on stage by tonight’s speaker, who has noticed that the people who study these two writers have something in common. They are unfailingly generous, encouraging, welcoming and, yes, fun, in keeping with the great spirit of these two writers. Or as Prof. Joseph McCullough once said to me at a Twain gathering, “You’ve got to figure we have more fun than the Kafka society.” We do.

Over the next couple of weeks I will write more about our show which is scheduled for the evening of Sunday March 28th and describe the journey Jennifer and I have taken to bring the meeting of Kate and Charles to life.

Mark Dawidziak’s website: www.markdawidziak.com

The Charles Dickens Museum: www.dickensmuseum.com

The End of January

Today is the 31st January and 2021 has certainly stumbled into life bringing with it the heavy baggage of uncertainty and misery that we all hauled through 2020. But January has been a positive month for me as I have taken on, and completed, a running challenge to raise funds for an amazing charity.

If you have been reading my previous blog posts you will know that I signed up for the ’50 Miles in January’ fundraising event organised by Maggie’s Centres, an organisation that provides comfort and respite for patients and their families who are facing the battle of cancer together. The idea was to inspire as many athletes as possible to join in, each sporting a bright orange running vest, so that the Maggies message would be vividly seen across the country. In Oxfordshire an active Facebook group was formed and it was soon filled with updates as various peoples’ progress was updated. Most of the participants were at a similar level to me – those more serious athletes seeing a mere 50 miles in a month as too simple – so the motivational messages and words of encouragement that were added every day really meant something. When someone reached a goal the community celebrated together; when someone was struggling we encouraged them; when an individual hinted at an injury words of caution and advice poured in.

When I took on the challenge I was not sure if I would be able to complete it but, as events transpired, I passed the 50 mile mark on 19th January (completing my longest run to date to do so), but I have kept pulling on the shorts and orange vest to push on towards 75 miles for the month, a figure that I passed this morning with a final ceremonial Maggies run of 3miles.

For our fundraising efforts Maggie’s tempted us with medals if we raised over £150. Now call me shallow, but I have often looked enviously at cascades of medals dangling in the houses of friends who have been running for years – bits of metal hanging from a ribbon sporting the logos of various 10k events, half marathons and even the 26.2 mile daddy of them all have filled me with an impressed jealousy, so the opportunity of actually having my own award was too good to miss. I have been so fortunate in the support that I have received and have been astounded by the generosity of those who have been following me which saw me surge past the £150 mark (thereby qualifying me for my medal!) within just a few days of starting. At present I have raised £314 on the Maggie’s Facebook page with another £320 pledged via my JustGiving page, making a running total (excuse the pun) of £634. But of course Maggie’s needs more, much more, for the battle with Cancer is ever increasing, so if you are able to add to the fund please do, even the smallest pledge will be used to help others. Even though the efforts of the many runners, cyclists and walkers who have got out in the rain, wind and snow of January ’21 are coming to an end, the work of Maggie’s Centres is never ending

And so it is time to look for a new challenge to motivate me, to keep my momentum up, and I have found such a scheme: Through the coming weeks I will be running the length of Hadrian’s Wall, with my progress being updated by an app which sends me regular postcards of the views as I make my way from South Shields (not far from the magnificent National Centre for the Written Word where I performed in 2019), to Carlisle. And when I achieve the 90 mile distance I will be sent another medal!

Thank you for your support during January and if you would like to make a donation to Maggie’s centres there is still time. Either visit my fundraising page on Facebook, or follow the link below to my JustGiving page.

Gerald Dickens is fundraising for Maggie’s Centres (justgiving.com)

Maggie’s Run Update

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It is the 15th January and Britain is in the depths of an ever-deepening lockdown which sees us permitted to one session of exercise outside the home per day. Fortunately for me I decided to undertake the ’50 Miles in January’ charity run to raise funds for Maggie’s Centres Cancer charity, and so have motivation to use that daily exercise effectively.

Those of you who read last week’s blog post will know that I came to this project not only as a means of raising money and spreading awareness of an amazing charity, but also to give me a target to aim for to get me back out on the streets. When I signed up with Maggie’s I had no idea if I could achieve the 50 miles or not, but I have been inspired and encouraged by the large community of runners, cyclists and walkers who are attempting the same feat.

So, half way through the month, how is it all going? Well! very well, actually. The weather has warmed up a little since last week and replacing the icy fog is damp mist which is quite refreshing to run through. During week one I was running and walking for about 4 miles per session but us the regularity of the runs has started to have an effect so I have found myself able to run for longer without feeling the need to slow down for a breather. This week my runs have seen me complete 4.16 miles on Monday, 5.02 on Tuesday, 5.05 on Thursday and a painful 5.65 on Friday all without walking.

A few months ago during those balmy Summer days we were all out for a walk when we bumped into a friend who was completing a run of her own. ‘How far have you been?’ we asked, ‘6 miles’ she replied. We looked at her in disbelief, it seemed such a huge distance for someone to cover, especially as I was struggling to achieve 5 k (3 miles) at that time. But now I am approaching that very landmark and feeling fairly good about it. On each run I have tried to imagine a finishing line over which I could collapse in glorious triumph as I have seen the athletes do at the London Marathon. Usually I use a red post box or a particular road junction as my line but on one occasion this week I decided to make my final sprint past the statue of Queen Victoria standing with an imperious air in Abbey Gardens, Abingdon. The Queen has always been a source of amusement to us as a family, our daughters love to run up to her and ask ‘what knickers are you wearing today?’ (this is inspired by a brilliantly irreverent children’s book called The Queen’s Knickers by Nicholas Allan, in which we are granted a glimpse of the Queen’s collection of ceremonial undergarments!)

In the context of the Maggie’s project I have now ticked off over 40 miles leaving me less than ten to complete the challenge, although I will go on running to the 31st to see how high I can raise the bar.

When I am out on the road I am very aware that I am running in the midst of Covid. In one sense the invisible fog of the coronavirus makes being outside more pleasurable in that there is little traffic on the road, but I have to be aware that other pedestrians taking their own exercise may well be nervous so I try to make every effort to keep as far away from anyone else as I can, switching my path early so as to signal my intentions, maybe actually running in the road itself if all is clear. When others afford me the same courtesy I make sure I show them my thanks with a wave of the hand, rather than actually saying ‘thank you’, having noticed that some folk wince as they imagine that they are being engulfed by a miasma of disease.

As an incentive to aspiring runners and fundraisers Maggie’s promised to send every participant a bright orange running vest. The uptake was so big that there has been a bit of delay in dispatching them all (leading to a degree of rather unreasonable grumbling on the Maggie’s 50 group on Facebook.) My own vest arrived yesterday meaning that my last run of the week was the first in which I proudly sported the garish colours, which clash horribly with my red face – but which hopefully diverts attention from my ponderous running style to the real purpose of the run: cash.

I have been so fortunate to have been supported by many very generous friends and family and the pledged amounts are way over my initial targets of £150 (as suggested by Maggie’s), but like any charity the more that is raised the better the work Maggie’s can do and in these current days of overflowing hospitals, the spacious calming centres where cancer sufferers and their families can stay become even more vital.

I thank all of those who have already donated so generously and if anyone else would like to chip into the fund there is still time. You can either visit my Facebook page, or I have also set up a Justgiving page which is at: Gerald Dickens is fundraising for Maggie’s Centres (justgiving.com)

Running for Maggie

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I have never met Maggie. I have met some Maggies, indeed one of my sister in laws is called Maggie, but I have never met THIS Maggie because she died in 1995. But Maggie is shaping the first days of 2021 for me. Let me explain:

As regular readers may remember during the first UK lockdown I began to run, following an app called ‘Couch to 5K’ which encouraged novice runners to gently build a regime that would eventually see them conquering the apparently mythical 5 kilometre barrier. After a slow start with much wheezing and panting, I eventually managed to reach the end of the programme which gave me a ridiculous sense of pride and achievement. However as the year went on and I became more involved in making my film of A Christmas Carol and trying to salvage some sort of ‘tour’ from the ashes of 2020, my runs became more and more infrequent until they petered out again, becoming a distant memory of an extraordinary Summer.

During the weeks running up to Christmas, and because I wasn’t actually performing, I was able to spend some time in the virtual company of audiences conducting some Q&A sessions. One such event was for my good friends at the Mid Continent Library Service in the Kansas City area and one question from an avid reader of my blog dealt with my running: I was asked if the new fitness regime would help me on stage, perhaps giving me greater stamina and strength. I answered (rather guiltily as I wasn’t currently running) that I wasn’t sure, but probably yes. We moved onto another question, but the seed to resume running had been planted and sat in the back of my brain throughout Christmas.

Now, we all know that Social Media, especially Facebook, is controlled by little witches who scan your innermost thoughts and then bombard you with advertisements relevant to them. True to form no sooner had the possibility of resuming running entered my brain than the adverts become to arrive. New trainers! New shorts! New leggings! All were sent to tempt me, but alongside the rigorous commercialism of the sport so a few charities began to appear asking me to ‘Run For….(film in name as applicable)’, one of which was Maggies.

The reason that the Maggies programme appealed to me was that it would be a challenge, a target, but I reckoned which was achievable to one of my abilities: the idea was to run 50 miles during the month of January and if you raised over a certain amount of cash you would be awarded a medal! I have never received a prize for running, indeed for any sporting activity before, so the idea of getting a medal certainly appealed. I signed up.

You may suppose, having read this far, that I had chosen this particular charitable exercise purely for selfish reasons, just to get a medal, but The Maggies Charity is a very special one and Id like to tell you a little a bit about what they do.

Maggie Keswick Jencks was a writer, gardener and designer, highly successful in her field, until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment was initially successful in the short term, but five years after her first diagnosis Maggie was called to hospital to be told that the cancer had returned and that she had maybe three months to live. Maggie and her husband were then given a little time together to digest this bombshell, being ushered to a windowless hospital corridor. No privacy, no comfort, no care.

Maggie was not going to give in easily and signed up for an advanced chemotherapy trial which would prolong her life by eighteen months and that was time she didn’t waste, for working with her medical team she developed an all new approach to cancer care which would see peaceful, comforting surroundings for sufferers to meet and discuss their conditions both with other patients but also with the doctors and consultants who were treating them, so that each individual felt part of their own treatment and future.

Maggie was a positive soul and the day before she died in 1995 she sat in her beloved garden facing the sun and said ‘Aren’t we lucky?’ The first of the Maggie’s Centres was opened the following year and now they are all over the country giving support and comfort to not only the patients themselves but their families too, providing a positive, supportive and uplifting environment.

Cancer has touched everyone’s life, there can be very few of us who do not know someone close to us who has suffered and whilst the big research charities raise vitally needed funds, so an organisation like Maggies which actually makes life better is equally needful and deserving.

The first week of January has been cold and foggy and so has not been conducive to lovely early morning runs, but I was determined to begin on the 1st, knowing that every day I delayed was one less opportunity to chip away at the 50 mile mountain. In launching the ’50 in January’ initiative Maggies created a Facebook group for all those who registered and this is a really motivating place as everyone posts their progress there, as well as encouraging and congratulating other runners on their achievements. We all use running apps (Strava in my case) to log our miles and each day sees a wide variety of stories pop up: ‘I haven’t run for thirty years, just done 2 miles and feel exhausted!’ lots of comments, ‘Wow!’ ‘Keep going, amazing!’ ‘Finding it really difficult, did 1 mile today, I’m not a runner…’ ‘The fact you went running MAKES you a runner! Great job!’ And at the other end of the scale people are pounding the streets for hours on end clocking up 12 miles or so in a single run, making the target achievable within a week (indeed, as I write this on the 7 January a runner has just posted that she has topped 50 already, as well as completing her first week of radiotherapy!)

My achievements are modest but in line with my expectations, in 7 days my total mileage so far is around 21 miles made up from 5 runs. If I keep up this rate I will be able to reach my goal easily, but of course that is all irrelevant if I don’t get sponsorship, so here is the plea: I know that charities are bombarding us in the post Christmas period and I know that many of us have suffered a severe drop in income thanks to the spread of Covid during 2020, but if you are able to pledge a small amount you will be helping to make lives of ordinary folk, possibly like you and me, immeasurably better.

In the meantime I will be pulling on my running leggings, shorts, shirt, jacket, gloves and cap, lacing up my trainers, and heading onto the icy streets of Abingdon. Every now and again I will see another runner in the orange ‘Maggies 50 in January’ running vest and we will exchange a wave and a smile (or grimace, depending on how we are feeling) knowing that we are both running for Maggie, whom we have never met.

To sponsor my efforts go to ‘Gerald’s fundraiser for Maggie’s Centres by Gerald Dickens’ and Thank You

Or go to my Justgiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/gerald-dickens

Byers’ Choice

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Throughout this Christmas season I have been sharing some of my memories of Christmas Tours Past with you, being prompted by my phone’s ‘on this day’ function. I have told you about performing with the Vaillancourts in Massachusetts and at The Country Cupboard in Pennsylvania. I have described trips to Tennessee and to California, as well as the luxury of Williamsburg and the friendship at Winterthur. However there is one venue that I have not shared with you because I wanted to save it until Christmas and that is the headquarters and visitor centre of a company called Byers’ Choice.

Around 15 years or so ago, when I was represented in America by Caroline Jackson, a member of the Byers’ Choice team came to watch me in a show at Hershey PA, with a view to my performing for them the following year. Caroline told me about the Byers family and the company that they had created, she explained that they had a huge network of collectors across the country and to perform for them could be a major development – little did any of us know back then exactly how big. The lady that came to meet me in Hershey was Lisa Porter and obviously I made a positive impression for the following year Byers’ Choice appeared on my schedule. But things were about to change – my contract with Caroline Jackson was coming to an end and I had to make the decision as to whether I would renew it; she wanted a 5 year extension and I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit for that long. In the end I took the decision to retire from travelling to America and it seemed as if my relationship with Byers Choice, fun as it had been, was going to be a very short one.

At this point let me break the narrative a little by explaining who the Byers are and what they have achieved: In the 1960s Joyce Byers was a struggling student in fashion, and despairing at the over-priced and garish Christmas ornaments available at the time she decided to create some Christmas table decorations of her own made from scraps she found in the house. By twisting an old wire coat hanger into a basic skeleton she could created a body by wrapping soft tissue paper around it. Off-cuts of material from her studies became coats or dresses, and Joyce used modelling clay to form features on the figures’ face. To celebrate to joy of Christmas Joyce decided to pose her creations as if they were lustily singing carols, so pinched their mouths into a little ‘o’ shape and from that time the figures became Carollers.

Some of the earliest Carollers

In no time the Carollers attracted attention, friends wanted a set for their own tables and it became apparent that there may be a wider market for them. Towards the end of the decade Joyce’s husband Robert was finding that a downturn in the economy was hurting his construction business but his fine business brain could see that the Carollers had a future, if only he could have his dining room table back (it having become the centre of production each Christmas), and in 1978 the couple employed their first staff: the Byers’ Choice company was formed.

The new company rapidly grew thanks to the American public’s three passions: Christmas, collecting and products that are patriotically handmade on home soil, and soon there was a need to move into new surroundings. The dining table gave way to a barn which eventually was replaced by the magnificent visitor centre and production facility which sits in Chalfont, PA. Joyce still designed each Caroller, Bob still sat at the helm of the business and their two sons Bob Jnr and Jeff, came into the family firm to take it to even greater heights. Christmas was always the vortex around which Byers’ Choice swirled and at some point Joyce included characters from one of her favourite Christmas stories into the range. By manufacturing Scrooge, Marley, the three spirits and the Cratchit clan, the company put into motion the series of events that would lead to me working so closely with them.

Back in the early 2000s I had made the decision to retire from touring in America and when that first Christmas season came around it felt as if something was missing, and I wasn’t sure that I had made the correct choice. But I had made my bed and burnt my bridges, indeed, I had apparently mixed my last metaphor. The process of getting the correct visa had become increasingly difficult over the years, and required a great deal of expertise: nobody would want to take that job on just so I could get on stage again. But a year later I received an email from Bob Byers Jnr asking if I would like to return to America to perform at the company’s anniversary (30th, I think) celebrations. I reluctantly declined and explained that even to perform for a single event we needed to spend months, and a lot of money, preparing a visa application with no guarantee that it would even be approved. What would be the point for a single weekend? I don’t know if Bob Jnr is a fisherman but he should be, for he now gently played me like a salmon in a peaty Scottish river. Maybe we could look at a visa if I would return to perform a few dates the following Christmas season too, that would make it more worthwhile for us all….wouldn’t it? He landed his catch.

Back in Chalfont the production of the Carollers takes place in a huge warehouse, dotted with benches, the open expanse is divided into different areas so as you walk through you can see the wire frames padded with tissue awaiting heads which are being carefully individually painted at other benches. Miniature coats, cloaks, dresses and bonnets are sewn with the the precision and skill of a Saville Row tailor and the whole collection are brought together to produce another completely individual and therefore collectable piece.

But each Christmas when I arrive all of these benches are removed and the warehouse floor becomes a theatre of giant proportions. Bob Jnr loves to think of himself as Mr Fezziwig clearing the warehouse on Christmas Eve ready for the great party!

A large stage is erected at one end and David Daikeler leaves his normal job in sales to become the stage manager, rigging a superb theatrical lighting system and installing state of the art sound equipment. Joyce (still very hands on within the company that) dresses the stage with fine furniture, whilst hundreds of white seats are laid out – I think the largest audience we had in that room was around 900, but we are limited by parking space!

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My dressing room is in a large conference room surrounded by fine American artwork, and I have plenty of space to spread out. The corridors of the office space are filled with plaques, certificates and awards which tell another story about Byers’ Choice: their philanthropy. In 1982 Bob Senior created The Byers Foundation which donates a large portion of the company profits to various charities, local, national and international. This was never a cynical business ploy, the donations are made because the Byers family are good, kind, caring people. I feel it a privilege to have met them and an even greater privilege to continue to work with them.

Bob Byer’s Jnr and his wife Pam construct and manage my tours, generously and thoughtfully, striking long and deep relationships with the various venues I have already written about.

This year of course it was Bob who initiated the idea of making a film and put the funding in place, alongside various other partners, to get it done. Even when orders for the Carollers went through the roof at the end of this year as people were desperate for some joy in 2020 he was always there at the end of a phone, answering questions, arranging the systems through which people around the globe could rent the movie and doing it all with the grace and care inherited from his parents.

I wanted this to be special celebratory Christmas tribute to my dear friends, Joyce, Bob Snr, Bob Jnr and Jeff, as well as all of the artisans who make the figurines, but this week brought sad tidings from Chalfont: Bob Byers senior passed away after a period of ill health. His family had been able to spend quality time with him through recent weeks and were at his side when died on 21st December, in the heart of season during which he had brought so much joy to so many people over the years. You can read the family’s tribute to Bob on the company website, I shall put the link at the end of this post, but I can only say that to me he was a great fun man to spend time with, his passions for fine red wines and vintage cars engaged us in long conversations as he proudly showed off his latest acquisition. During the days of my shows Bob would be running around the factory checking that there was a goodly supply of toilet roll in the bathrooms, and that everything was perfect. He was that kind of man – not expecting anyone else to do something if he could do it himself

I know the family will spend this Christmas mourning a great husband, father and grandfather, but oh what an impression he has left on this earth and what a fine legacy remains.

Bob Byers Senior. 1938 – 2020 RIP.

The Byers Family tribute to Bob can be read here: Bob Byers Sr (byerschoice.com)

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Carol Trivia: The Answers

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Christmas is behind us but, heeding the advice of Charles Dickens, we are going to keep it all the year! Before the festive season reached its climax I set a little quiz based on the original text of A Christmas Carol, and here are the answers:

The Preface:

1: Which publishing house produced A Christmas Carol (even though it was funded by Dickens himself)?

A Christmas Carol was published by Chapman and Hall

2: Who was the illustrator of the first edition?

John Leech

3: On what date was the book published?

19 December 1843

4: How many copies were printed for the first edition?

The first run was of 6,000 which sold almost instantly

5: What is the full title of the book?

A Christmas Carol In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas

Stave 1:

1: Assuming the story is set in 1843, in what year did Jacob Marley die?

‘He died seven years ago, this very night’ Therefore on 24 December 1836

2: Who would have been on the throne at the time of Marley’s death?

William IV reigned until his death on 20th June 1837, when he was succeeded by Queen Victoria

3: What time of day is it when we first enter Scrooge’s office?

The clocks had just struck 3

4: What does the Clerk use to warm himself?

His comforter (scarf) and his candle

5: What is the name of the first visitor to the office on that evening?

Scrooge’s nephew, Fred

4: How many charity collectors come to solicit Scrooge on Christmas Eve?

Two

6: where does Bob Cratchit slide on the ice before going home?

He slides on Cornhill, which sets Scrooge’s office in the very heart of the financial heart of London

7: Where is his home and what connection does it have to Charles Dickens?

Bob Cratchit’s home is in Camden Town, the region in which the Dickens family resided when they moved to London in 1822. Charles was aged 10 at the time.

8: Who built Scrooge’s fireplace?

‘The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago.

9: After Jacob Marley floats through the window who else does Scrooge see?

‘The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they may be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar, with one old Ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.’

10: In my film what Churchyard did I use to film the opening scenes?

The Churchyard of St James’ Church, Cooling, Kent, which inspired Charles Dickens in the creation of the opening chapters of Great Expectations.

Stave 2:

1: What is the second Chapter called?

The First of the Three Spirits

2: What does the Ghost of Christmas Past carry under its arm?

A Great extinguisher’, or candle snuffer

3: What book was the young Ebenezer reading at school?

Robinson Crusoe

4: Who wrote it?

Daniel Defoe, in 1719

5: What did the Headmaster of the school give to Ebenezer and his sister before their journey home?

‘Here he produced a decanter of curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake, and administered instalments of those dainties to the young people….’

6: What country dance did the fiddler accompany at Fezziwig’s party?

Sir Roger de Coverley

7: What was the name of Ebenezer’s fellow apprentice at Fezziwig’s?

Dick Wilkins

8: When Ebenezer is shown the house of his ex fiancée, there is a scare about the baby – what did the family think had happened?

‘The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken the act of putting a doll’s frying pan into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having swallowed a fictitious turkey, glued on a wooden platter.’

9: When Belle’s husband walked past the office window of Scrooge and Marley’s what day of the year was it likely to have been?

As he tells Bell that ‘Jacob Marley lies upon the point of death so I hear’ it is likely to be Christmas Eve.

10: In my film all of the scenes from the past were filmed in the Crypt of Rochester Cathedral – which of Dickens novels does the Cathedral feature strongly in?

The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Charles Dickens’ final, unfinished, novel is set in the fictional cathedral city of Cloiseterham, and also features Eastgate House which also appears in my film as various different locations.

Stave 3:

1: What is the time when Scrooge finally gets out of bed?

1.15 am

2: What does the Ghost of Christmas Present wear around its waist?

An empty Scabbard

`3: Outside the fruiterers’ shop there were ‘piles of filberts’. What is a filbert?

A nut

4: What was Bob Cratchit’s weekly wage?

15 shillings, or 15 ‘bob’

5: How many children did Mr and Mrs Cratchit have?

6: Peter, Belinda, Martha, Tim and the ‘two youngest Cratchits – boy and girl’

6: In my film version of A Christmas Carol I used an an Elizabethan alms house called The Six Poor Traveller’s House to represent the Cratchit’s home. Charles Dickens wrote a short story about the house – what was it called, and why?

The essay was called The Seven Poor Traveller’s House. The house could only accommodate 6 people, but Dickens as the narrator became the seventh

7: Why did Mrs Cratchit’s Christmas pudding smell like a washing day?

Traditionally a Christmas pudding is wrapped in muslin while it steams

8: After leaving The Cratchit’s house the Spirit suddenly removes Scrooge from the city and shows him simple Christmas celebrations in three remote locations: where are they?

A mine, in a lighthouse and onboard a boat at sea

9: According to Charles Dickens ‘..there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as…’ what? (hint, it is NOT Covid19!)

Laughter and good humour

10: What is the answer to Fred’s ‘Yes or No’ game?

Uncle Scrooge!

Stave 4

1: What is the title of Stave 4?

The Last of the Spirits

2: How many wealthy merchants in total does Scrooge watch discussing his own death?

Six

3: What is Mrs Dilber’s occupation?

She is a Laundress

4: How does old Joe keep a tally of how much he will pay each of his visitors?

Keeps a record by chalking figures on the wall

5: When Scrooge sees the vision of a dead body under a ragged sheet, there is an animal in the room also, what is it?

A Cat

6: Scrooge is shown the vison of a husband and wife who are in debt to him – what is the wife’s name?

Caroline

7: What is Mrs Cratchit doing when Scrooge returns to the house?

Sewing

8: Where does Tiny Tim’s body lie in the vision of the future?

In the upstairs room of the house

9: The Spirit leads Scrooge to a churchyard, but what establishment do they pass on the way?

His own house which he notices is occupied by someone else

10: There is an actual grave to Ebenezer Scrooge in the UK – where and why?

In the city of Shrewsbury, where the George C Scott movie was filmed. It was a clause in the filming contract that the stone be left in the churchyard for tourism purposes.

Stave 5

1: How does Charles Dickens describe the ringing of the church bells on Christmas morning?

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

2: How much does Scrooge promise the boy on the pavement if he brings the poulterer back to the house?

A shilling

3: How much does he promise him if returns within 5 minutes?

Half-a-crown

4: ‘I shall love it as long as I live!’ cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. ‘What an honest expression it has on its face!’ What is Scrooge talking about?

The knocker on his door

5: How many times did Scrooge pass his Nephew’s door before he plucked ‘up the courage to go up and knock?

A dozen times

6: What time did Bob Cratchit arrive for work on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas)?

9.18 and-a-half

7: What did Scrooge tell Bob to buy for himself, before he dotted ‘another i’?

A coal scuttle

8: And what drink did he promise him?

Smoking Bishop

9: Who was responsible for filming and editing my film version of A Christmas Carol?

Emily Walder

10: What are the final words of the novel?

‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

I hope that you enjoyed this little diversion, have a very happy and safe 2021

The End of the Tour: Happy Birthday and a Lamb Pasanda

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My extensive 2020 tour of three venues continued and concluded over this weekend as the country was plunged ever deeper into more complicated layers of lockdown.

On Saturday morning I loaded my car with the various pieces of my set (carefully designed to fit into the rear of a Renault Kadjar) and set a course for The Wirral – the beautiful peninsula to the south of the River Mersey. In past years I have regularly performed in the city of Liverpool, specifically at The St George’s Hall where Charles himself gave readings, but harsh restrictions in the city led to a nervousness of many venues to stage events meaning that Lynne Hamilton, the producer who promotes my shows in this region, had to search for alternative sites. With time rapidly running out to organise and market a show Lynne finally came to an arrangement with the Thornton Hall Hotel and Spa, and the date was to be the 19th December, the anniversary of the day that A Christmas Carol had been published in 1843. It seemed as if the stars were truly aligning.

My SatNav set I made the journey north on roads which were very much quieter than in more more normal years of yore. The hotel sits on the outskirts of the very pretty village of Thornton Hough which was originally built as a model village by a mill owner in 1866 before being developed by William Lever as a community for his executive staff working at the Sunlight Soap factory nearby.

Having checked in to the hotel I found my way to the Torintone Suite where I was due to perform. The large room had been set up with a stage at one end and tables and chairs very carefully placed to abide by the strict regulations. Members of staff, all masked, bustled about making final preparations. I introduced myself and received muffled greetings and welcomes in reply, before starting to arrange my furniture on the stage.

Every venue has its own particular challenges and I immediately realised what those would be here: over the stage hung two beautifully designed chandeliers, modern in design, made up of hundreds of glass droplets which dangled from little hooks…unfortunately with the raised stage they dangled to a lower height than 5’10 plus top hat – I was going to have to very carefully navigate my way around.

Soon Lynne arrived and we made the final preparations, the most complicated of which was to arrange my opening music and sound effect to play at the correct moment, for the CD unit was in a completely different room (actually a tiny stock cupboard behind the bar area), meaning that we had to set up a chain of people to allow Zak, one of the staff members, to hit the button bang on cue.

Soon the time for the audience to arrive was approaching so I made some final checks to the stage, before waiting for the start time of 2.30. Although the hotel had not staged any events like this for months they had worked out a system of taking bar orders and serving drinks which they carried out like clockwork. Soon everyone who wanted one had a drink and we were ready to start. Lynne got on the stage and welcomed everyone, who were revelling in a tiny moment of normality in turbulent times, and the show began.

I performed in two acts, and successfully managed to not destroy the chandeliers, the audience responded enthusiastically throughout. After I had finished I chatted to a few audience members (all masked up, of course and from a distance), and learned that many people had seen me perform in Liverpool before and had made the journey across the Mersey to catch up with me this year.

Between shows I went to my room and as soon as I switched on the TV I discovered that the Prime Minister was announcing even tighter restrictions on the country, and the jolly plans that had been put in place to temporarily allow a few household bubbles to meet over the Christmas season were henceforth rescinded. Inevitably Mr Johnson would now be slammed in the press as the PM who cancelled Christmas. It was all too depressing to watch, so I flicked the channel and was instantly rewarded with Alastair Sim skipping around his room in sheer undulated joy: once again A Christmas Carol had come to the rescue.

The evening show was at 7.30 so I had plenty of time to rest before the second audience, slightly larger than the first, took their seats, ordered their drinks and prepared themselves for a dose of escapism to treat the depressing malaise that has spread across the country.

Again the show was a success, and again I was able to chat and pose with some of the fans who had tracked me down!

When I returned to my room the day’s duties were not quite done for I had a Q&A call from America, which was arranged to celebrate the 177th anniversary of ‘The Ghostly Little Book.’ The video session had been arranged by Sandy Belknap, my good friend from Nashua, who has been doing a lot of marketing work to promote the film during the last few weeks. I was to be interviewed by Pam Byers, who would usually be organising and managing my American tour. The whole technical aspect was overseen by Scott, a colleague and friend of Sandy’s. We virtually forgathered in our virtual studio and ran through the running order that Sandy had drawn up and then with a couple of minutes to go Pam and I were left to our own devices, but with Sandy and Scott feeding chat messages to us, guiding the session.

Pam welcomed me and invited me to chat about the gestation and publication of A Christmas Carol, before opening the ‘floor’ to questions, which started to pour in. I was asked if I had a favourite copy of A Christmas Carol and I talked about the ‘reading’ version upon which I based my first show. The volume in question was first published in 1969 with a white cover (and that is the one that was read to me by an uncle – my first experience of the story), then re-published with a red cover (I am not sure when that was), and finally with a green cover which is the copy I have marked up with some of my own performance suggestions from 1993.

Another question was about Dickens development of characters and did he base any on real people, also the names, where did they come from? Of course Charles Dickens was an observer above all things, so his greatest characters were an amalgam of many character traits that he had noticed around him. As for the names, they were very important to him, having to capture the essence of the character in an instant.

I was delighted to notice a couple of questions pop up from ‘Martin at Orgin8 Photography’ Martin is a good friend who took the fantastic still photos for the film’s promotion. Martin’s questions focussed on the making of the film and the challenges I faced in creating it, which was a lovely avenue to go down, and useful in that the point of the session was to stimulate plenty of rentals. I assure you Martin was not a plant and his presence online was a complete, yet very happy, surprise’

Our thirty minutes ran its course, with Pam and I keeping up a dialogue, whilst watching for Sandy and Scott’s comments to guide us. It was a fun session and the whole thing can still be watched online and I will post the link at the end of this article.

I was still buzzing with adrenaline when we finally signed off, and it took quite a while to get to sleep. It had been a fun day and I think we honoured the anniversary of A Christmas Carol in a suitably celebratory fashion.

On the next day I left the hotel after a large breakfast and headed home to be with the family for a few brief hours before setting off to perform my final show of 2020. Once again this was a new venue to me and an unusual one at that! I had been booked by a friend of many years (I was going to say an old friend, but that is ungallant), who works as an event promoter. I had first met Paula when she worked at a theatre in the Oxfordshire riverside town of Henley and had booked me to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and The Signalman. We have kept in touch ever since and this year she contacted me to ask if I would perform A Christmas Carol as a dinner theatre show for her client: The Spice Merchant Indian restaurant. Dickens and an Indian restaurant do not seem to be a natural fit, but there was plenty of enthusiasm for the project and I was very happy to sign off my year in this way.

The drive to Henley from Abingdon is a short one, so I travelled in costume, admiring the beautiful Christmas lights which are adorning Britain more extravagantly this year than ever before. The room I would be performing in was long and narrow with tables on either side, so allowing for distancing I only had a single track to move up and down along.

The guests arrived and ordered their meals, before I performed chapters 1 and 2. As I performed so the waiters were carrying plates of food and drink, meaning that I had to be careful not to send a plate of Lamb Pasanda and Pilau flying with some theatrical and flamboyant gesture. I was however able to include some the waiters in the performance, one unwittingly becoming Dick Wilkins, Scrooge’s fellow clerk in Mr Fezziwig’s warehouse.

After a brief interval I returned to fisnish the story, taking care not to roam too far up the room this time as one table has an elderly and therefore vulnerable lady in their party and had asked Paula if I could not come quite so close to them during my show, a request which of course I honoured.

The show was another great success and after I had finished we spent a little time chatting in an informal Q&A until I packed up my things, said goodbye to Paula and drove away from my 2020 tour, which has involved 5 performances!

To view the online Q&A with Pam Byers visit my Facebook page: Dickens Shows

To watch my film of A Christmas Carol go to my website: http://www.geralddickens.com

Sharnbrook Mill Theatre

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Last Saturday I performed for the first time this year, and what a perfect venue it was to ‘open my account’. At the start of the year The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre contacted me and it was with great difficulty that we were able to find a date in the crowded Christmas season. As 2020 moved on so my diary began to empty with each confirmed booking being consigned to the dustbin with a line stroked through it, but Sharnbrook remained. With the cancellation of my American tour so the diary opened up completely and whilst other venues were falling by the wayside, Sharnbrook asked if they could change dates to one closer to Christmas. There was no problem there, I had plenty of time available!

Britain came out of lockdown but the celebrations of late Summer sent us straight back in again and for a while it looked as if my performances in Bedfordshire would suffer the same fate as the others, but the staff worked on, planning, hoping. Rather than leaving the theatre empty during those long months the volunteers (The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre is staffed entirely by volunteers) began a renovation process and the auditorium was filled with scaffolding as they installed air conditioning units and made much needed repairs to the fabric of the building.

By December the work was finished but there was still no guarantee that I would be able to perform, for the government replaced our second full lockdown with a tier system of restrictions: if Bedfordshire was in tier 3 then there would be nothing we could do. We all listened to the radio anxiously that day – the county of Kent, where I made my film and where I was also due to perform, was in 3 – another date lost, but Bedfordshire was announced as being in tier 2 – the emails started again. I booked a hotel which seemed to be close to the theatre and on Saturday 12 December I packed my car with all of my props and started my 2020 tour.

The theatre is, as its name suggests, in a converted mill building on the Great Ouse river. Having left plenty of time for traffic, I arrived slightly early so decided to drive to my hotel and get checked in. It wasn’t a long drive in any sense of the term, for in fact the two properties were next door to one another and the view from my room was of the rear of the theatre.

Having dropped my bags off I made the long car journey next door where I was welcomed by the extremely enthusiastic, dedicated and professional staff who run it. My contact was Brenda and her husband Gerry (another Gerald, there are not many of us), would be my stage manager for the evening whilst Mark would be running my sound. The stage and auditorium are in a a towering room which, judging by the long ago bricked up windows, was once four stories high. The roof was of wooden timbers which contrasted with the bright metal grid which held the lights. The stage was at floor level with the auditorium holding 187 on a good day (more like 50 in this time of social distancing regulations), rising in a gentle rake. At the back of the stage were flats representing old wooden panelling, which were created for the last production staged – Daisy Pulls It Off, an old favourite of mine that I have directed twice in the past.

I can’t tell you of the sheer sense of pleasure with which I laid out my chair, table, hat stand and stool and began a cue to cue tech rehearsal to ensure that the various sound effects and lighting cues all worked.

I retired to my dressing room, got into costume, checked that my pocket watch was wound and that I had a Victorian penny in my waistcoat pocket and waited for the audience to arrive: all of those little details which give me such pleasure when I am in a theatre.

Out front the staff in their full PPE visors were busily ensuring that the audience were safely admitted having checked temperatures at the door in that terribly aggressive and threatening gun-to-the-head stance that has become part of our lives now. The seats in the auditorium were marked with a cross or a tick and slowly the open seats filled up.

At 3pm I got the nod from Gerry and the show began. It was so good to be on stage again, to be bathed in theatrical light, to have space to move, to hear the response from the small, but enthusiastic audience as I guided them through Ebenezer’s somewhat interrupted night.

At the end of my performance it had been agreed that I would return to the stage to conduct a question and answer session, but before I could do that I had to wait back stage until those that wanted to leave had carefully been ushered from the auditorium. Naturally the pessimistic nature of an actor led me to assume that when I came back into the lights I would be greeted by an empty house so I was most happily surprised to find the large majority of the audience still in their seats. The questions that followed were fun, allowing me plenty of scope to tell my favourite anecdotes – you know the ones by now – but also to discuss the craft of staging the show. One questioner commented on my breaking of the fourth wall, that is talking directly to the audience rather than maintaining the character and scene within the set, and I was pleased that she appreciated this device because it is an important part of the stage show, as well as of the film. In the original text Charles Dickens uses the narrator’s voice in a very personal way, occasionally slipping in little asides as if he is sitting close to the reader guiding them through the story and I have always strived to capture that same approach on stage.

Between the matinee and the evening show all of the volunteers gathered to enjoy a supper of salmon and salad, followed by a delicious citrus polenta cake, all provided by Brenda. It was during this dinner that I learned more about the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre and the amazing team of volunteers that keep it afloat. There was a mill on the site from as long ago as 1086 but the oldest part of the current building was constructed in 1703. Milling ceased in 1969 and the building lay crumbling for a decade until it re-opened as a theatre in 1979.

Sharnbrook Mill Theatre is staffed and run entirely by volunteers who this year were awarded with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, or QAVS. The QAVS is equivalent to the MBE and is the highest award a voluntary group can receive in the UK. Everyone connected with the theatre was justifiably very proud of this recognition but due to the extraordinary circumstances of the year had not yet been able to celebrate, so the day of my show was a perfect opportunity to pat each other on the back and raise a glass.

I felt extremely honoured to be part of these celebrations and to meet so many passionate, committed and utterly professional people. I very much look forward to returning to The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre in the coming months and to performing to a full house in the beautifully atmospheric audiortium.

To view my film of A Christmas Carol visit: http://www.geralddickens.com