The Tour Comes to a Halt, Thanks to Covid19

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For all of you who are anxious to discover what happened yesterday, when I drove from Lenox to Manchester, and performed at The Dana Center at St Anselm College, things have changed a bit.

I had written a draft for that blog post, and in it had mentioned that I was suffering the start of cold-like symptoms, which I was worried would affect my microphone-less performance last night. In fact, the show went OK, and the audience reaction was as enthusiastic and positive as those throughout the tour. However, when I got back to the hotel room, I began to feel a bit worse, and sleep was difficult. By the morning I didn’t feel good, and decided that I should take a Covid test, especially as I was due to perform at a senior center in downtown Nashua, and I certainly shouldn’t go there if there was any hint of me having Covid Unfortunately, two little pink lines showed, and for the very first time since the pandemic began in the winter/spring of 2020, I had contracted the virus.

Obviously, this is going to affect the rest of the tour, considerably. I immediately called Bob Byers, and we took the inevitable decision to cancel today’s two shows, as well as those on Monday and Tuesday on Long Island – what happens after that, we will have to wait and see how my condition improves or declines. The hotel at which I am staying in Manchester has very kindly extended my stay, so that I remain in my room, mainly watching the World Cup (sorry, USA, you put up a noble fight)

So, this is not a cheery, witty Blog post, just telling you what is happening – more soon!

A Few Secrets and a Memory of Dad

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Although my only performance on Thursday would again be at 7pm, I had to be at Ventfort Hall at 8.30 in the morning for an interview and photo shoot. I had a small breakfast of yoghurt, granola and fruit and returned to the room to get ready. Outside it was very cold in fact the remaining puddles from Wednesday’s rainstorm were now solid ice, and when I tried to open the car door, I found that I could not. At first I assumed the lock had failed, or the remote key was low on battery, but I soon realised that the door had an effective seal of ice, and it took a good deal of force to break it, and gain access to the Santa Fe (maybe, bearing in mind the season, it should be a Santa Sleigh instead?)

It is always a nice feeling, when I have been to a city multiple times, to set off on the journey from hotel to venue without needing any digital aid to navigate me there. Such is the case in Lenox, although admittedly the journey is not a complicated one, involving only one turn, but still there is a feeling of belonging when you can just jump in a car and know where you are going.

I arrived at the Hall at the same time as Haley and waited as she unlocked the venerable old building and switched the lights on. I went upstairs and got into costume and by the time I was ready I could hear Haley welcoming Anastasia Stanmeyer, the journalist from The Berkshires Magazine. We shook hands and she immediately got down to work, starting with taking a whole series of photos to accompany the article. Firstly, I stood on my set, in front of the red curtain that Haley had fixed in front of the windows to provide a suitably theatrical backdrop. I did some Scrooge faces, as well as a few posed portraits of the real me (whoever HE is?) Next Anastasia wanted to move to other areas of the house (the article, of course, being just as much about promoting Ventfort Hall as my shows). I walked about and down the long hallway leading to the Billiard Room, and then posed in front of a great stone fireplace while Anastasia called out various emotions which I had to instantly reflect in my pose and expression, it felt rather like being at drama school!

With the photo shoot done (all on her phone, for long gone are the days of hours waiting for photographic lights and flash units to be erected, readings to be taken and a single image being captured before setting up again somewhere else), we sat down in the library, or auditorium as I like to think of it, and began to chat about the show and my career. One question that she asked, which interestingly has become increasingly common this year, was ‘what is your favourite part of the show?’ The answer is a scene when nothing is happening at all, there are no words being spoken, and no action, indeed no movement. I speak of the moment that The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leads Scrooge back to the Cratchit’s house and simply points straight forward (over the spot on the stage where both Marley’s and Scrooge’s graves are placed). The line is, ‘It was quiet. Very quiet’. and I hold the pause. If everything has gone well up to that point you can feel the silence in the room, almost heavy in its intensity, and it is an amazing experience for a performer to know that an entire audience is almost breathless with fear and anticipation.

I also shared some of my ‘secrets’ about playing multiple characters, citing the conversation between Ebenezer and the charity collector on Christmas morning, during which old Scrooge holds his hat and cane together in his left hand, while the collector holds the hat in his left hand and the cane in his right. It is a simple device, and one that maybe an audience doesn’t really see, although they are aware that there is something different between the two gentlemen. And these are the kind of details and secrets that you will be able to read in my new book, available next year!

When the interview was finished, and thank-yous exchanged, I went back to change, The Hall was now open to the public, so I wouldn’t be able to leave my costumes on the chaise longue, but Haley told me that I could hang them in a large wardrobe in the room, where they looked as if they may feature in a new Narnia novel.

I drove back to the hotel, and did a little work before heading out for a lunch date. A very dear friend of mine, Jeneene Brengelman had flown in from Cincinatti with her companion Tom, to see my show. Jeneene has often travelled over to England for the annual Dickens Festival in Rochester each June and became very much a part of the regular crowd of characters, which is where we met. After years of hoping that I may perform in her own city, she decided to come to Massachusetts instead, and very kindly extended an invitation to lunch. We were due to meet at Electra’s Cafe, which was only a matter of a few minutes from my hotel. At 1 o’clock I pulled into the parking lot, locked the car door and walked into the building, only to discover that I had nonchalantly strolled into a cannabis store (legalisation of recreational cannabis in the state and the ability to buy it from an outlet was passed in 2018, and such shops are now as prevalent along the way as popular fast-food chains). Quickly realising my mistake, I exited and took the adjoining door which opened to a much more familiar scene, and there were Jeneene and Tom waiting for me. Jeneene makes wonderful Christmas ornaments and presented me with a special one featuring a family of four snowmen and a snow cat, with all of our names written around the frame – it will hang on our tree this Christmas! We sat down, and they told me about their nightmare journey of the day before, when they had been due to fly to Albany and then drive to Lenox. In the height of the rainstorms that had hit the region, their pilot had taken the decision that it would not be safe to fly, and so the plane had trundled back to the terminal, where they had to wait for a much later departure, meaning a very late arrival at their B&B, which was all locked up. I was truly fortunate that my flight from Virginia had been on the day before the storm hit, or I may have been describing a similar tale of woe. Soon the conversation was flowing, mainly with reminiscences from Dickens festivals in the past. Many years ago, Jeneene had sent me a picture taken at one of the festivals of me and my dad, and it is a picture I treasure, for his is very obviously looking out for me, making sure that everything was OK, without taking over – his support at that time, when I was finding my feet in what was a new departure for me, was essential for the success that followed. I owe him so much.

Looking at the picture now, so many years on, how slim I was and even had a sort of a fringe!

As we talked, we ate a delicious lunch, which for me featured my regular fare on the day of a show, a large salad with grilled chicken.

It was a lovely diversion and break to my day, and great to catch up with Jeneene and to meet Tom, who would be coming to the show at Ventfort that evening (having managed to change their tickets from the night before when they were stuck at the airport)

I went back to my room again, and actually had a short nap, before watching another extraordinary football match, this time Japan managing to beat Spain, thereby knocking Germany out of the tournament – it is turning into quite an interesting World Cup all things considered.

I drove back to Ventfort at around 5pm, and there were festive flurries in the air, not enough to make driving dangerous, but enough to make the town look extremely Christmassy. There wasn’t much to do when I arrived, for I had made sure the set was in place that morning, but it is always good to check so as not to be caught out, and everything was just as I had left it. I chatted with Haley, Leah and various volunteers who would be helping that evening, but even as we spoke the door opened and the first audience members arrived (actually, Jeneene and Tom). It was time to withdraw and to change. My costumes were hanging in the wardrobe, but I wasn’t transported to a magical land to be greeted by Mr Tumnus, which would have made for a very interesting blog post, but simply got changed into the meet and greet costume, without the Velcro attached.

As soon as I walked down the stairs, I could tell that the Thursday audience was a lot livelier than the Wednesday crowd had been, there was a buzz about the building. I circulated, chatted, and once again many people told me that they had seen me before at various other venues. I posed for quite a few pictures, and it was obvious that the evening was going to be a fun one.

Gradually the guests began to take their seats in the library, and I went upstairs briefly, to change into my performance costume. There was the inevitable delay while the queue for the single restroom cleared, but soon everyone was in their seats, including Anastasia, who had interviewed me that morning and was watching the show to further flesh out her article.

I was right about the audience; they were very lively and vocal and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. I had a few adventures during the show, including the fringe of the red cloth, that becomes the image of Tiny Tim’s frail body, getting caught on my coat cuff button. It seemed to take an age for me to untangle it, but I am sure it was only a few seconds. I made a couple of adlibs in the voice of Bob Cratchit, ‘ah, Tim does not want to leave go of me’ but I managed to untangle myself eventually and carry on. When I got to my ‘favourite’ moment, I hoped that the silence was as impressive as I had told Anastasia it would be, and indeed it was, I could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.

The reaction at the end was spectacular and I could feel myself completely pumped up with a huge adrenaline rush. Having taken my bows, I stationed myself in the hall and chatted and posed with audience members as they left. Jeneene still had tears in her eyes as we hugged, and others were in a similar state of emotion. It had been a very good night.

My time at Ventfort had ended all too quickly, but before I changed, I posed for photographs with Haley, Leah and the other staff. and then mounted the grand staircase for the last time.

Back at the hotel the lobby bar was still serving food, so I had a burger and fries, before turning in for the night. On Friday I drive to New Hampshire for performances in Manchester and Nashua, before heading south to New York.

Rain, Tea and 1066 – a Very British Sort of a Day

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Lenox in The Berkshires is a lovely place to be, a small town in beautiful scenery. I have been here when there has been thick snow on the ground, and I have been in here in clear bright sunshine in a cloudless blue sky, indeed I have been here when there have been both of those things together. Wednesday in Lenox, however, was less New England, more old England, as the skies were leaden, and the rain fell constantly.

I had an almost full day before me, as I didn’t have to be at the venue, Ventfort Hall, until 5pm, but the idea of driving into the mountains and maybe hiking a little suddenly didn’t appeal very much. I unpacked my costumes and hung them on the rail, and at around 7.45 went down to the lobby for breakfast. I took a bag of my regular day-to-day clothes to put in the laundry but was somewhat dismayed to discover that both washer and drier were full. I took the laundry bag to a table and then went to the counter where I ordered some French toast and strawberries, with orange juice and coffee. As I sat, I noticed a lady at another table, with a large plastic bottle of laundry detergent next to her and knew her to be my victorious competitor.

As I ate, another customer went to the bar and asked for some tea, to which the assistant asked, ‘just plain old Early Grey?’ This seemed rather dismissive of what is rather an elegant blend, seen by some to be traditionally drunk by the more respectable classes of society. In England if it is just a ‘plain old..’ cup, we tend to say, ‘builder’s tea’. Curious as to who Earl Grey was, I took at my phone and did a little research and discovered that the tea is probably named in honour of the 2nd Earl (although nobody seems quite sure for certain), who was born in 1764, and rose to become prime minister of Great Britain in 1830. In his early career he resigned as Foreign Secretary over a disagreement of policy by King George III, who had had his own troubles with tea in the past, most particularly in Massachusetts. It is suggested, in family lore, that the 2nd Earl (christened Charles, but not the Charles Grey who would go on to blow Blofeld in the James Bond films) had engaged a Chinese mandarin to create a perfect blend of tea to counteract the taste of the water at the family seat in Northumberland, which was rich in lime. The addition of bergamot into a black tea created the taste the Earl desired, and so was established the beverage that had just been ordered in Lenox, MA.

I finished my breakfast and, checked in at the laundry, where both machines were still spinning, so returned to my room. There was no great rush, although I did have a radio interview coming in at 10am. After a while I went back to the laundry, and found that the washing machine was now empty, although the lady from the breakfast room stood guard over the drier. We chatted for a while, and she asked me what I was doing in town, and was I here with the other Brits who were at the hotel? Apparently, there are a few of us here, maybe the others are part of a tea-checking delegation.

As 10 came around I called the number that connected me with a radio station in New Hampshire, and instantly I was talking with the morning show, hosted by Greg Kretschmar, and his team which included a gentleman by the name of Roadkill. I think I have been interviewed by a Greg before, but never by a Roadkill, I am quite sure of that!

After the interview, I pottered around for a while, finished the laundry and got everything ready for the evening’s show, and decided to get out for a little bit, despite the weather, to stave off the onset of cabin fever. In past years I have driven into the nearby town of Lee, and I decided to do the same and explore some of the antique shops there. The weather was getting worse, so a gentle stroll through the streets was not really an option. I parked right outside Finders Keepers and made the dash from road to store, without getting too wet. An antique is something that is over 100 years old, and there wasn’t a great deal in the shop that qualified, but there was some interesting stuff, nonetheless. One stall featured lots of ceramic houses made by Department 56, a company with whom, I used to work, mainly because they produced a range called Dickens Village. When I started touring in the 1990s D56 villages where the complete rage, people collected manically, and each Christmas would create whole towns, with streets and rivers and people in order to display their collections. Desirable pieces fetched huge amounts of money and the world of D56 was quite an industry, but, seeing them in the store, dusty, unloved, at bargain basement prices, told me everything about the decline of the company in recent years.

Elsewhere in the shop there was a surprising amount of other Dickensiana, including a toby jug in the shape of Sam Weller and a couple of Norman Rockwell prints, one featuring Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing, and another of the beaming face of Mr Pickwick. There was also a lusterware jug with a scene from the Bayeaux Tapestry (which is not a tapestry, but an embroidery, and was not made in Bayeux, but in Canterbury), the famous 70-meter-long cloth depicting the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 – a date that every English child knows. All in all, I felt quite at home in Finders Keepers!

I walked up the street to another antique store, but the weather was really starting to close in now, so decided to get back to the car before I got completely drenched.

I drove to a large grocery store and picked up a salad for my lunch, then returned to the hotel room and sat at the little desk to eat it. Throughout this time, I was exchanging messages with Liz back home and with the girls about to have their supper, it seemed a good time to have a video call. They told me about what they had been up to at school, and about the trip on Thursday to watch a pantomime in Oxford, which they were excited about. Soon it was time for their meal, so we all sadly said our goodbyes, and clicked the little red button to close the call, which always seems very brutal.

I spent the next hour or so catching up with some admin, emailing back and forth with upcoming venues, both in America and England, as well as providing information to my publishers about my new book, which will be available during next year’s tour.

When my work was done, I switched on the TV and watched an enthralling match from the World Cup, Argentina against Poland. I have never particularly been a football fan, but with our eldest daughter playing, and loving the sport, I have become more aware of what makes a good team, and can appreciate great play, and oh my, was there some great play in that match!

Late afternoon was drawing in, and the weather was too, with heavy winds now whipping the even heavier rain around. I collected my costumes and roller bag (I had put my hat and cane in the car earlier when I went out) and made a dash across the parking lot for the Santa Fe. Even in that short run I got completely soaked.

The drive to Ventfort Hall was only a few minutes, and in no time I was turning into the little driveway which led me up to the red mansion that had been built in 1891. This was my fourth visit, but it seems as if Ventfort has been part of my tours for much longer than that, for it feels very friendly and welcoming. I rang at the door, which was opened by Haley, who has looked after me during all of my visits. The dark panelled hallway was decorated for Christmas, with green garlands and white lights abounding. I took my things up to the lady’s boudoir, which is my sumptuous dressing room, and then returned to the library which for the evening would be my theatre. There was not a lot to sort out, as I do not need to use a microphone in such a small space. Haley introduced me to Leah, who would be looking after my sound effects. We ran through the script together, and it was obvious that she knew exactly what she was doing: I would be in safe hands. I took an opportunity to just sit in the parlour for a while, soaking up the atmosphere ready for the evening ahead.

Soon, the first of the audience were arriving, so I took myself upstairs. The format of the show at Ventfort was slightly different this year. In the past I have performed my show, and then the audience had been served a lavish tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches, cakes and other fancies. This year the decision was made to serve the tea first, at 5.30, and then my performance would be at 7. In previous years the tea has doubled as a signing session, with me just drifting through the crowd, chatting to audience members, and posing for pictures and giving autographs, as requested, and Haley had the same idea this year, but of course prior to the show.

I got into costume ready to meet n greet. I currently have two black frock coats, one has Velcro strips attached to the lapels which allows me to become ‘all black’ for the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and therefore the coat I need to wear throughout a one act performance, but which would look odd during tea, so I put my other coat on, and so as to remember to change before the show, draped my scarf over the Velcroed version.

When I was sure that there were plenty of guests gathered, I went down and circulated through all of the first-floor rooms – It was very nice to meet people, and there were plenty of audience members who had seen me before, and not necessarily in Lenox, but somehow, without having had the show, it was a bit stilted and awkward – nobody, myself included, quite knowing what to say. When I was in the hall, I was swept up by board member Mary-Frances, who took me in hand and went up to every table with the ice-breaking gambit of ‘How are the cookies, Mr Dickens has said if the cookies are not good, he won’t come back, so we are checking up!’ It was an effective ploy, and allowed everyone to engage in conversation, without the social uncertainty of how to begin a dialogue.

After I had chatted for a while, I went back upstairs to relax before the performance itself. I sat in a chair next to a fireplace and could hear the strong wind whistling and moaning down the chimney, as if Jacob Marley himself were about to appear. At around 6.45 I returned to the hall and Haley confirmed that most of the audience were in, although there was a long line for the restroom, but soon everyone was gathered and Haley welcomed them all to Ventfort Hall, and introduced me. It is still the policy at Ventfort that all visitors and guests wear a mask, so I was the only person in the building without one, which felt a bit odd, and I think also made the atmosphere a bit formal, as it had last year, but I carried on and soon there was laughter in the little parlour. This was the first one act version I have performed since I arrived back in America, so I had to concentrate hard on the script, and make sure that I didn’t go off on any tangents, thereby confusing Leah and Haley, who would not be suspecting that 70 people would want refreshment! I kept to my proper script, and by the time Mrs Cratchit was panicking about her Christmas Pudding, there was lots of laughter in that small room.

The show came to an end, and I exited through the central aisle to the back of the room, and when I returned everyone stood and applauded me, with a few be-masked shouts thrown in for good measure. I wished everyone a final ‘Merry Christmas’ and stood in the large hall and chatted and posed with and for anyone who wanted to, and there were plenty who did.

It was a round 8.45 when I changed out of costume and was able to leave everything in the Green Room, for I was due to return at 9 the next morning for an interview and photo shoot. The rain outside had eased a little, but it was still windy and very cold, Haley warning me to watch for icy roads, and I drove back to the hotel, where I had a microwaved pizza for my supper, which maybe was the least English thing of my day!

From VA to MA

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On Tuesday morning I woke on the outskirts of Waynseboro with the sense that I had nowhere to be for quite a while, for this was to be a day off, with only travel to occupy me, and that wasn’t until the afternoon. I had a lazy morning ahead of me and intended to make the most of it by doing as little as possible. I probably should have taken a scenic drive into the National Park and visited some of the ‘cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, fields of wildflowers, and quiet wooded hollows’ that the website promised, but the fact was I felt completely empty and used up – this needed to be a ‘floppy day’ in which I re-charged my batteries a little for the next leg. I even found it difficult to write my blog, which isn’t in itself an energetic task, but my brain seemed in need of rest too, and was coming out on strike along with the rest of me!

I did what you would expect me to do, I had breakfast and loaded some laundry into a machine, and when the latter was complete, I set to packing my cases one more. Actually, this was quite an important moment in this year’s tour, for it would be the last time that I needed to squeeze my costumes into the little roller bag, or stuff my top hat with socks and wind my scarf around it. When next I unpacked, I would have no more flights until I go home, meaning that everything I need for my shows will be able to stay in my car.

I had asked the hotel if I could have a late check out, and as midday approached, I made final checks of the room to ensure that I left nothing and loaded my belongings into the black Highlander. I was heading back north.

The drive back to Charlottesville took me on a freeway with stunning views of the mountains to my right, and I began to regret not following The Skyline Drive earlier that morning. At one point I noticed tourist signs directing me to The Blue Ridge Trail, and suddenly I was a child again, putting my favourite 45rpm vinyl disk onto our old record player; I could almost hear the various clicks and whirrs as the mechanism allowed the disk to drop onto the turntable, and then the arm with the little stylus needle at the end swung across and lowered itself with a static ‘click’ perfectly onto the edge of the record. A moment of crackles and then a guitar started to play, followed by a voice: ‘On a mountain in Viriginia stands a lonesome pine…’ Yes, those where certainly the Blue Mountains to my right, and I was definitely in Virginia, so somewhere, it stood to reason, was a trail to a lonesome pine. I used to sing along to that record over and over when I was a child, and just for a few moments as I drove, I could hear Laurel and Hardy’s brilliant performance once more.

The drive to the airport took less than an hour, and I passed the time by listening to BBC news on the radio. At one time there was a traffic report, which described an incident causing delays between Hyde and Ashton-Under-Lyme, which is where I had been performing just a week before! I found a petrol station, filled the tank and then continued to the car rental returns area and walked the short distance into the terminal, where the paperwork would be completed. From the Enterprise desk I walked to the check-in desk, dropped my case, and then made my way to security. No bustle, no crowding, no fuss, just a very small, friendly airport.

Ahead of me at the bag drop was an elderly lady who didn’t seem quite sure what to do, and as I stood behind her, she turned and said ‘Oh, you go ahead, this is my very first time flying, and I am not sure how to do it all’. She had chosen the right airport to make her flying debut at, for everyone, me included, took her under our wings and looked after her. I helped her get the bins to put her bags and things in, and she asked if she could keep her coat on, her purse with her, her shoes on, and I told her that everything needed to go through the x-ray machine. The staff at security were brilliant, also very gently telling her what she needed to put on the conveyor belt. ‘Where do I go after that?’ she asked, ‘Oh, ‘said the kindly TSA officer, ‘we will talk about that on another side of this part, don’t you worry, we will look after you.’ He picked up a metal water bottle from her tray, ‘is this empty?’ he asked, and she replied with a huge sense of pride ‘Yes!’, as if she had passed that part of the test with flying colours. ‘Am I allowed to fill it up again?’ ‘Oh, yes ma’am, there are water stations just through those doors, that’s fine. Which airline are you flying with, ma’am?’ ‘American’. ‘Oh, I think there is a fountain by the American gates, let me check’, and with that he called another officer over, ‘Mack, is there are a water fountain over at the American Airlines gate? This lady is flying for the very first time, and she wanted to know if she can fill her bottle.’ ‘Oh, yes I think that there is. Hey, Bill,’ he called to another staff member, ‘is there a water station up at American?’ The answer came back in the affirmative and was relayed back to the smiling lady. When our bags had been cleared, and we both were putting our coats and shoes on, she said, ‘Thank you all so much for looking after me’ and went off to fill her water bottle at the American Airlines gate. I hoped for her sake that there would some equally kindly and friendly people at the next airport, which would probably be a huge, heaving, hub of humanity all rushing to be somewhere else as quickly as possible, maybe not seeing, certainly not caring about the scared elderly lady for whom all of this was an alien experience.

I had an hour or so before my flight, so I bought some lunch and listened to the BBC’s radio coverage of the build-up to the important football match in Qatar, England vs Wales, the very first time that two home nations (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) had played each other in a World Cup tournament. Unfortunately for me, the USA were also playing their final qualifying match against Iran, so any TVs that were showing the tournament were tuned to that encounter, But still, I had my radio commentary, or at least I did right up to the moment that the whistle blew to start the game, at which a pre-recorded voice informed me that ‘due to copyright issues you are unable to listen to this content in your present location’. And that was that! I had to follow the match by a rolling text report.

The flight back to Washington DC lasted for only 20 minutes, and by the time I was in the toytown terminal A and making my way towards the grown-up terminal D, England had scored three goals and ensured that they would finish at the top of their group and progress to the next stage. Meanwhile, the USA had a one goal lead over Iran, and needed to hold onto it if they were also to progress. Fortunately, they did win, meaning that they also progressed to the next stage.

My next flight was to Hartford, Connecticut and once more it was very busy. The clerk at the gate asked if anyone would like to check their roller bags, as the bin space would be very limited, and I offered mine. As a thank you, I was allowed to board with Group 2, rather than having to wait for my original allocation of Group 3 to be called, the irony being that there was so much space in the bins when I boarded that I could easily have taken my bag!

It was another short flight, under an hour, and soon I was reunited with both of my bags and was making my way to the Hertz counter where I was introduced to my companion for the rest of the trip – a Grey Hyundai Sante Fe, loaded it up and set off towards Lenox in The Berkshires.

This will be my 5th trip to Lenox. but I have never approached it from the Hartford region before, nor in the dark. I put the address of the hotel into my phone, 70 Lenox Road, and dutifully followed the instructions. The route didn’t take me on freeways, but through small towns and along winding country roads, which meant a lot more concentration, especially in the rural areas where my eyes were scanning the woodlands for any movement that may presage a deer leaping into the road in front of me. The towns, on the other hand, were beautiful, with colourful Christmas lights lining the way.

The drive took about 1 hour and 20 minutes, but at last I was approaching my destination, the Courtyard by Marriott hotel just outside Lenox, and yet still I did not recognise anything. I began to panic slightly when driving along a dark road my satnav app announced that I had arrived at my destination, or rather just said ‘Done!’ and abandoned me. I had a horrible thought that somehow I had entered an incorrect address – I could be anywhere! I wasn’t even aware of crossing the state line, and for all I knew I could be in some far-flung corner of Connecticut, miles, and hours, from where I should be – I had simply followed the screen rather than having any knowledge of where I actually was. I pulled over, and checked the address, and sure enough I had clicked on an address in New Lenox Road, rather than Lenox Road. I nervously re-entered the address and waited to see how long it would take me to get my hotel, and I can’t tell you the relief when it came up ‘6 minutes’

Soon I was on a road I knew, and there, on a hill to my left, was the Courtyard. I checked in, purchased a microwavable meal of pasta and meatballs to have in my room, and brought a day of travel from VA to MA to an end.

First Time to Waynesboro

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Having just about settled into life at the AC Marriott, life in Worcester and life with the Vaillancort family, on Monday morning it was time to move on, and quite early in the morning, too. My flight from Boston airport was due to depart at 9.45 am, but I have been caught out by the very busy Logan airport before, and decided that I needed to be in the terminal 2 hours before my flight, at the very least – add to that a Monday morning Boston rush hour, and the need to get a shuttle bus from the car rental building and I had decided to leave my room at 6.15. Fortunately, I was still in a sleep pattern that saw me waking at around 4.30, so I had plenty of time to carefully pack my cases and get on the road.

Initially my phone refused to find a network, leaving me with no way to navigate, but my experience of many years coming to Worcester meant that I knew which roads to take out of the city, and I was well on my way before the map screen flickered into life and told me that I had more than an hour left in my 40-minute journey: I was glad that I had built plenty of time into my morning, and sure enough I was soon crawling along in very heavy traffic, although I was rewarded by one of the most beautiful sunrises I have seen in a long while

As the skyline of Boston appeared so the traffic slowed to a crawl and then a standstill. My spare time was ticking away, but then, deep under the city, in the tunnels that were still being dug when I first visited, I was directed towards Logan airport, and the road cleared again and in no time I was handing my Nissan back to a Hertz agent and pulling my cases into the terminal, which was much quieter than I had supposed. Once I cleared security my thoughts could turn to breakfast, and I found a diner and was shown to a table. There was a gentleman at the table next to me, and after a few minutes he lent over, pointing at my ‘GD A Christmas Carol’ logo, ‘Are you in that play?’ he asked. I explained that I did a one-man version of it and had just performed locally. He went on to tell me that he had been to see a version of it in Providence Rhode Island, in which the gender of many of the characters had been reversed (I mean that Scrooge was female, not that he had undergone surgery), and he had NOT enjoyed the show, neither had his brother-in-law who had booked 40 tickets for all of his family. I suggested that maybe next year they should all come to my show instead – they could be sure of a much more traditional rendition of the story. I never told him about the family connection, just about the show, and we chatted for a long time about theatre in general (he had studied to be an actor in New York City many years before). It is amazing the doors that a simple embroidered logo can open. The gentleman’s name was Richard, and it was one of those incredible occasions that happen every now and then when two worlds, completely separate, just touch for the briefest moment. Richard finished his breakfast and left for Iowa where he was going to shoot some deer, I finished mine and set off to Virginia, where I had a date with a theatre audience.

As I made my way from the diner to my gate, I was overtaken by an airline pilot running very hard, as if he were in danger of missing his flight; ‘relax, I thought, ‘the plane’s not going to leave without you, is it?’ The first leg of my flight was from Boston to Washington DC, and as I took off , I was treated to an incredible view of the new international terminal building at Logan – a great slash of colour, a crescent of Ferrari red. It is so refreshing to see some real architectural expression go into a building such as this, rather than just the usual never-ending re-working of existing and dated structures. I am sure some won’t like it, maybe there is already a heated dialogue about the design, but on Monday morning I liked it!

The flight to DC was uneventful and once at Dulles I had to make my way to a little part of terminal A, especially for little planes – it was like a children’s play area, recreating a ‘real’ airport. I grabbed a cup of coffee and waited to be boarded. It was one of those gates that service four or five flights, all of the jets parked around on the tarmac, so it is essential to make sure you go to the right aircraft, or you may find yourself in a completely different city to the one you had planned. I walked across to a plane and reassured myself that it was indeed heading to Charlottesville, Virginia, and walked up the steps to the door. There is something very special about standing on the top of a set of stairs and standing outside the hatch – it brings images of the great world leaders making state visits, or of the Beatles arriving in New York City in 1964.

I thought about turning for a moment and waving to imaginary adoring crowds, but instead simple wished the flight attendant ‘good afternoon’ and made my way along the very narrow aisle to my seat in row 31.

When we were all settled in, the captain came on to update us on our flight – once airborne it would last 20 minutes, less of a flight than a long bump. Charlottesville airport is one of those brilliant facilities where you can sort out your rental car while waiting for the baggage carousel to tremble into life. On this occasion I was picking up a car from Enterprise and was given a Toyota Highlander – I didn’t know what that was, but for a single day I was sure it would be fine. When my case arrived, I walked to the parking lot and found a large black SUV waiting for me, which was very comfortable and spacious.

I was in a part of Virginia that I do not know, so diligently followed my map app (that is very pleasing to say out loud, try it: MapApp). Signs along the road told me I was on the edge of the Shenandoah National Park, and the scenery that surrounded me looked beautiful; strangely it reminded me of The Berkshires in Massachusetts where I am to travel next. In fact, for a while, I began to think that I had skipped a day and journey to the wrong place as I found myself driving along Berkshire Way and passed signs to Lenoxx (my venue in The Berkshires is the small town of Lenox), but soon I saw signs to Waynesboro, which was to be my destination, and I relaxed once more.

I pulled into the car park for a Holiday Inn Express and as soon as I walked into the reception hall the lady behind the desk said ‘You must be Mr Dickens!’ (Actually, she said Dickerson). I asked her what gave me away, and she pointed at my logo. ‘So,’ she continued, ‘you are at the Wayne Theater tonight? It’s going to be real special’.

When I perform at a venue year after year, I have some idea what to expect – I know what size the audience is likely to be, and to a certain extent how they will respond, but when I come to a new city, I really don’t know what will happen. The Wayne Theater had reached out to us earlier in the year and Bob Byers had managed to find a single day in my itinerary where I could perform for them. I had looked at the venue’s website, and it looked beautiful, but what would the response in the town be? Was it the type of place that would say, ‘Oh, we sent a press release out a few weeks ago, but the ticket sales haven’t been as good as we expected’, or would it be one of those energetic, vibrant, hub-of-the-community type places? All of that I would find out in due time.

I had an hour or two at the hotel and took the opportunity to have an energising shower, and at 5pm I got into the Highlander and drove the 10 minutes to downtown Waynesboro. Along the way, I passed houses that had been decorated for Christmas, with multi-coloured lights, projected snowflakes and large inflatables on front lawns making me smile, as if the spirit of Christmas was really descending. The theater itself is on Main Street and is a very beautiful building (it was originally built in the 20’s as a Vaudeville theater, then became a move theater. before being all but destroyed by flooding and fire. As recently as 2016 it was restored, thanks to the largesse and hard work of the community, and now it is a thriving part of the city.

I parked in the small lot to the side, and went to the front door, where I was warmly greeted and taken into the auditorium by Chris, who I guessed was the technical manager for the night. The auditorium was perfect, and on the large stage my set had already been placed. Chris introduced me to Drew in the technical box who would be looking after my sound and lighting, and in no time, we were going through the script together. I was originally slated to perform my 1-act version of the show, but Chris had asked if it would be possible to include an intermission, as their audiences were used to that. Considering I had just done 2 days and 4 performances in the 2-act format, it really wasn’t any trouble to say yes, and besides this was a venue that deserved the full theatrical treatment. That, and an audience which would number more than 300.

Having got all of the technical requirements sorted out, I told Chris that I was going to drive back to the hotel and pick up a second costume and would be back very soon. Ten minutes each way, and soon I was lounging in the green room listening to the audience gather. The show was due to begin at 7, but we held for a few minutes as the large group took their seats (there had been a 6.30 tree-lighting ceremony in the town, which was one reason that sales had been so good), but soon I was standing in the wings waiting to start. Our original contact, Tracy Straight, was making my introduction, and as soon as she walked onto the stage the whole crowd started clapping and shouting, they were obviously a crowd out for some fun.

I am not going to describe the show scene by scene, laugh by laugh, I am just going to say ‘Wow!’ It was amazing, energizing, moving, exhausting and exhilarating. Drew did a great job with light and sound, not to mention a bit of fog, and the audience were just unbelievably enthusiastic and vocal, which is not always the case at a new venue, especially one of this size.

After two acts of fun, I took my bows to a standing and shouting ovation and returned to the green room where I simply slumped into a chair and reflected on what had just happened. There was no specific signing session planned, but Tracy brought a couple of books that an audience member had brought along, and I signed them, before changing out of my costume. I returned to the stage in the now empty house and stood chatting to Drew and Chris and other volunteers from the centre, just enjoying being in that space. Being in an empty theatre is very special, and I did the same at the Vaillancourts, just sitting reflecting, thinking about the alternative worlds that have just filled that space.

There is definitely a desire from the theatre staff that I return to Waynesboro next year, and I certainly hope that it comes to pass, for it will fit in very, very well. Besides that, I am already part of the fabric there, for there is a tradition that performers of every show sign one of the black bricks backstage. During the interval I had climbed onto a table with a two Sharpies, one gold, one silver, and drew a picture of me as Scrooge (copying one of the publicity photographs that my brother Ian had taken a few years ago), and carefully scribing ‘A Christmas Carol’ beside it. Actually, I lost concentration and found myself writing ‘A Christmas Christmas’ Fortunately I was able use a black Sharpie to correct the error, and I had left my mark on the stage wall.

I said my goodbyes and drove back to my hotel, stopping off at an Applebee’s restaurant to eat a plate of chicken tenders and fries. It had been an early start, a lot of travel and an exhausting evening, so it is no surprise that I fell asleep very quickly. Tuesday, although involving travel back to Massachusetts, is a free day and it was almost as if my body knew that, saying to me, ‘nothing to do in the morning, just let me recover a little before we start again’

‘Bing bong. Bing bong. Bing bong’

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Day two with the Vaillancourts, on Sunday, was due to be an almost carbon copy of Saturday, but with everything shifted backward by an hour, meaning that the first show was at 1, instead of 2, and the evening one at 5 instead of 6.

The morning marked an exciting moment for me, as it was my first opportunity to delve into a hotel laundry room and wash the costume shirts that I had used the day before. So, before breakfast, I loaded up the machine, swiped a credit card (no need for bags full of quarters at the Marriott), and enjoyed the buffet whilst my shirts tumbled and fell in their drum. My dining timings were excellent, for I was able to switch the shirts from washer to drier as I left the breakfast room and before returning to 410. When another thirty minutes had passed, I retrieved the clean costume and carefully folded all four shirts ready to be taken back to Sutton.

I left the hotel at around 11, as I wanted to check in with Curtis and discuss the microphone issues from the day before with him. When I walked into the theatre, I was greeted by a new sound engineer who introduced himself as Dave. Curtis had filled him in with all of the developments from the day before and we checked every lead and socket until we were as sure as we could be that nothing could go wrong. We then spent time huddled around the laptop going over the sound cues until Dave was confident in what he was doing.

My dressing room at the Vaillancourts is behind the packing department, and is well furnished with a clothes rack, 2 sofas and a table upon which had been placed a beautiful vase of flowers with a card saying, ‘welcome back Mr Dickens’, which was very generous. The room is sort of an anteroom to Gary’s office which is right at the back of the building, and so that he knows when anyone is coming to see him, he had installed a little motion activated chime which trills an electronic ‘bing bong. bing bong. bing bong’. When I am getting ready for a show I like to pace about, I am not good at just sitting still, so that even as I tie my cravat, or button my shirt, or put my watch chain on, I am walking to and fro, back and forth, and at Vaillancourts this had the result of constantly setting off the chimes. I would walk out of the room and into the packing area: ‘Bing bong. Bing bong. Bing bong’. I walked back into my room again: ‘Bing bong. Bing bong. Bing bong’. Maybe I had a drink of water from my large green water bottle, before going back out to listen to the audience gathering: ‘Bing bong. Bing bong. Bing bong’. Back to put my microphone on: ‘Bing bong. Bing bong. Bing bong’…and so on

On Sunday morning, my costumes were still hanging on the rack from the day before, and I unpacked my shirts ready for the day ahead. I use four shirts for day with two performances of the 2-act version of the show, and they are worn to the following timetable: shirt 1 is worn for show 1, act 1. At the interval it is taken off and hung on a hanger to dry, and shirt 2 is used for the second act. When the show is finished, I change into shirt 3 for the signing session, and that same shirt is used for Act 1 of the second show. Shirt 4 is put on for act 2, and then shirt 1, now dry and aired, is re-used for the second signing event. Simple, really.

When I had changed, I went through my normal routine of checking that I had everything ready – my hat, cane and scarf were on a steel table in packing, rather as if it were a props table in a theatre, and everything else was where it should be. With 20 minutes to go, I made a very quick video call home and briefly chatted with Liz and the girls, taking them on a little tour of the backstage area and showing them some of the beautiful Santa figures which were awaiting dispatch.

Naturally, my backstage perambulations activated the little alarm constantly. They told me all about their weekend, but our call had to be terminated due to the fact that Liz’s phone was almost without battery, the girls needed their supper, and I had a room fool waiting for me to do some funny voices. We finished the call with waves, blown kisses and goodbyes, and I took up position, and waited for the show to begin.

At 12.55 Gary called ‘the five’ and I left the dressing room, striding to the theatre, leaving the bings and the bongs in my wake.

Once again it was a full house, and it included a bus tour from Rhode Island, which had offered my performance as part of their itinerary, meaning that there were quite a few audience members who would be experiencing the show for the first time, which is always interesting, although there were plenty of loyal and regular fans to guide them through the trials and tribulations of Mr Scrooge and the rest of the cast. I have to say, after my self-criticism of the day before, I was very pleased with the matinee performance, it was pacey and energetic and engaged well with the crowd who seemed to enjoy it very much – they even gave Mr and Mrs Fezziwig a round of applause for their remarkable dance moves. The microphone popped once or twice, but not to the extent that Dave had to shut it off, as Curtis had the day before, and it seemed as if the noise was related to certain moments when it banged into my beard, I tried to subtly adjust it to see if that would help and it certainly seemed to. If the levels of sweat are any indication to my efforts on stage, then I certainly put a lot of effort into that performance, and those efforts were rewarded with a superb ovation at the end. I returned to the dressing room, pumped full of adrenaline, and quickly changed for the signing session, pacing back and forth to the constant soundtrack of ‘Bing bong. Bing bong. Bing bong’

It was lovely to meet lots of passengers from the tour, who had thoroughly enjoyed the show (some had actually seen me before in other locations), and I spent plenty of time chatting and posing with them. Usually, an audience naturally drifts away after a while, but the group had to wait for their transport of course, so stayed in the store and looked around the museum, meaning that I needed to politely absent myself so that I could have some lunch and restock my energy levels before the second show. When I had changed, and re-set the stage, I returned to the office space just behind the museum area, and loaded a plate with some salad and ham, and sat down with Luke and Abby, one of the artists who paints the Santas, and who, for my visit, was also tending the bar in the theatre (the reason for the 2-act format here). Just outside the office, the bus passengers were watching a video about the history of Judi and Gary’s remarkable company, and when that finished Gary did what he does so well, and chatted to them, and charmed them, making them feel as if they were all the most valuable and important customers who had ever walked into the store. When Gary had finished schmoozing, he joined us to eat, and we began talking about my ideas for 2023, my thirtieth anniversary tour. Thirty years of performing A Christmas Carol, can you believe it? I very much want the ’23 tour to be a celebratory one, and the opportunity for some special tour merchandising is obvious (my decision to wear my own branded clothing during this year’s trip is sort of a toe-in-the-water exercise to see what the reaction to GD apparel is).

All too soon it was time to start the preparation for the evening performance, and I returned to the dressing room and once more started the ceaseless (can you start a ceaseless thing? Is that an oxymoron? If something never ceases, then surely you can’t actually start it, although it must have started at some point. Ah, the English language!) round of binging and bonging. When I put my microphone headset on, I adjusted the wire, pulling it further from my face, thereby minimising the possibility of further banging.

I had put so much effort into my afternoon show, that I was worried that the evening one may be difficult, but actually I picked up exactly where I had left off, and the performance was as good, if not even stronger, although Mr and Mrs F didn’t get their applause this time. The audience were fully involved and responded with great gusto, obviously made up of regulars, for they joined in with many lines, often before I had a chance to say them. From a performance point of view Sunday had been a very positive day.

Having taken my bows, Gary called me back onto stage and announced that 2023 was to be a very special year, with the big anniversary, and that folk would need to book their tickets as early as possible: the Vaillancourt entrepreneurial brain was already shifting up a gear and accelerating hard!

Before I went to meet the audience in the museum, I made a point of finding Dave, who was packing up the sound equipment, and thanking him for his help and expertise – it had been a difficult couple of days but by the end we had got on top of our problems and delivered a pair of superb shows.

At the meet and greet session I met lots of old friends, but the final photograph of the weekend was with Gary, Judi and Luke surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands of Santa figures, each carefully produced from antique chocolate moulds and each meticulously painted by hand.

I changed out of costume and made sure I had all of my belongings with me, before driving back to Worcester, where Gary and Judi met me and took me to dinner at a steak house – we all dined well, and as the rain pelted the streets outside, we talked about our times together – in the past, the present, and of course, the future.

An Adventuresome Day

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My first day back in the States started, as they tend to do following a flight from England, very early. I lay in bed for a few hours, trying to get back to sleep and then giving in to the inevitable and writing my blog post, as well as tackling Wordle, which I achieved in 3 attempts.

At around 7.30 I went to investigate the breakfast offerings at the Marriott and had some cereal and fruit, as well as eggs and bacon. On the wall a very large TV was showing the latest match in the football World Cup – Poland vs Saudi Arabia, which looked to be a very entertaining one.

Back in my room I decided that I may go for a short run, which I haven’t done for a long time. Back in October I completed the Oxford Half Marathon, which was quite an achievement for me, and since that day I haven’t been out on the roads again. I had packed some running gear with the thought that I might occasionally go to hotel gyms during my stay, although I absolutely detest running machines, getting my joy from being in the open air and seeing the scenery, hearing the sounds, watching nature. On Saturday morning I decided to go an explore the streets of Worcester a little more. It was a crisp morning, with a clear blue sky, and I turned left out of the hotel, left again, around a square, and then just followed my nose. I didn’t stay out for long, I don’t really know, maybe 2 miles, nothing impressive, but it felt good to be in the open air, and to see parts of the city that I didn’t know.

Back at the hotel I had a shower, changed into my corporate garb, and then began to make preparations for the day ahead – I was due to perform twice, once at 2 and the second show at 6, and both were my 2-act performances, meaning that I would need 4 shirts for the day. I checked that I had everything else (cufflinks, watch, cravat, penny pieces, red cloth, shoes and socks). I picked up both of my costumes, my top hat and cane and went to the lift.

When I had arrived the night before the desk clerk had given me a ticket for the parking garage, telling me to scan it whenever I entered or exited, and I wanted to check if I needed to do that at the pay station, or the exit barrier, so I stopped by the front desk to ask. I was in a line of lots of people checking out of the hotel but had time to spare so I waited patiently. When my time came to be helped, I asked the question and the clerk confirmed that I needed to scan the ticket at the barrier, and then she said something I didn’t quite hear, but which may have been ‘Are you staying at the hotel?’ I nodded in the affirmative, ‘and your room number?’ I told her, and then she cheerily said, ‘You’re all set, have a great day.’ and off I went to the garage.

Soon I was on the freeway heading out of Worcester towards Sutton, stopping briefly at Wal-Mart to buy some laundry detergent capsules for my trip, and it was as I was getting back into my car that I had a terrible realisation that I may have just checked out from my hotel room! There I was, in line with luggage, asking how to leave the carpark, what if the inaudible question had not been ‘Are you staying at the hotel?’, but ‘Are you checking out?’ I had nodded and told her my room number, she had tapped at her keyboard and said that I was all set! Well, there was nothing that I could do about it now, I would have to see what the evening held when I returned.

My journey to Sutton, and specifically the Manchaug Mills building, is a very familiar one to me, as I have been performing for the Vaillancourt family for the last 12 years and they are not just colleagues but good friends also. As I arrived Gary was standing in the sun and seeing me pull in, directed me to a parking space close to the building. Much of the carpark was taken up with two wooden cabins selling Glühwein and German pastries respectively, for the Vaillancourts love to celebrate Christmas and all of its traditions. We greeted one another as if it had not been a year since last I drove away, but a day or so, and we went into the beautiful store from where the company sells the amazing plaster, hand-painted Santa Clause figures that they make here. We went to the intimate theatre where the stage was decorated and just awaiting a cast of 26 or so characters to bring it to life. At one end of the room was a bar, with a hot jug of Glühwein giving a rich boozy essence to the room, whilst at the far end Curtis, our sound engineer, was putting the finishing touches to the sound system. We spent some time going through the various cues, and then did a sound check, using a microphone system that clips over my ears – I warned him that I am never very successful with those units, as they tend to fall off, but he assured me that we could adjust it, so it fitted snugly, and the sound quality was far superior to a lapel mic, which may also be prone to feedback from the speakers that were right against the stage. I took his professional advice with a few misgivings and retired to the dressing room to wait for showtime.

I could hear the audience gathering, and they were a lively crowd, as the Saturday afternoon bunch usually is at Vaillancourts. Among them were, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law along with their daughter and her wife (they are not actually sister and brother-in-law, it is slightly more complicated than that, but they feel like they are, and that is good enough for Liz and me!) I wanted the show to be special for them and was delighted to hug and welcome them before start time. At 2 o’clock Gary checked that I was ready and walked up to the stage to welcome the audience to the event and to introduce me. The theatre was packed full. in fact, every performance over the weekend sold out weeks ago. When Gary had finished, Curtis started the music, and I began the show. I knew that it would be a bit of a struggle, as I was still extremely tired from my journey and the early morning, but the audience were lively, which gave me extra energy, but then the microphone started playing up – not the headset particularly, although that felt loose, which distracted me somewhat, but it sounded as if there was a loose lead somewhere and every time I moved there was a loud electrical CRACK or POP, which meant that any sense of atmosphere was lost. My attention and concentration were so lacking that I suddenly realised that I had jumped from Scrooge’s school into the scene where Belle leaves him, without even bothering to visit Mr Fezziwig! I realised the mistake I had made because the stool was in the wrong place on the stage (having not been cleared away by Dick Wilkins), and so my practical brain kicked in – I would be able to return to the Fezziwig scene, as I don’t think there are too many laws of chronology in the world of fictional time travel, and then leap forward again to Scrooge seeing the older Belle happily married, celebrating with her family. It was all a bit of a fudge, but well worth the effort for my dancing abilities got a round of applause! The continuing microphone problems were very annoying, and still that cracking and popping accompanied and disrupted Dickens’s words. I was very glad that this was a two-act show, for I only had to wait until the interval to sort something out, rather than ploughing on through the rest of the plot. Actually, the audience applauded loudly as I left the stage, but I was extremely frustrated by the whole affair.

Curtis was soon with me in the dressing room, and we checked all of the leads, which seemed tight and secure, but he replaced the pack anyway, in case that would improve matters. It was rather like a panicked pitstop in the middle of a Formula 1 race, and as I got changed for the second half, I put my waistcoat on before the microphone, meaning that the lead from headset to pack was held under my frock coat only.

Back onto the stage and I picked up the story, and the audience continued to respond enthusiastically, although I was struggling to maintain my energy and concentration a little. They were plenty who had been to the show before, and when I gasped at the stuffing issuing forth from the Cratchit’s goose, they all instantly joined in, meaning that I couldn’t go to the oppose side of the audience, and that I had to rearrange all of my blocking for the rest of the show!

But the really annoying moment came when I was in the very moving scene as Bob Cratchit returns to his house alone and takes off his coat. I did that, as usual, but of course now the long microphone lead was free and flapping everywhere, getting caught in my arm, as I made gestures and pulling the headset from my ears again. It was not a good moment.

In and around all of this confusion, the actual show was going well and there was lots of laughter, especially as Topper did his thing, and old Joe spread his mucus over an unsuspecting arm

I got to the final scenes of the show, and to the point when I could get my coat back on, thereby securing the errant microphone somewhat, and delivered the final narrative before leaving the stage to loud applause and shouting. I returned to take my bows and the audience stood, which was wonderful, but I was angry with myself and circumstances. I was particularly upset for I had wanted the show to be really special for David, Sue, Amy and Tara.

I changed quickly and went up into the store, where I was due to meet and greet and sign books, and the response was positive ‘Best ever!’ ‘You are a true artist!’ ‘Simply amazing’ all bandied about, and I relaxed a little as I posed and signed. At the very end of the line my family members waited, and we hugged again and exchanged news and chatted for a while, which was really nice.

When the signing time was over, I went back to the theatre to talk things through with Curtis, but he was nowhere to be seen. I changed into my normal clothes and went back to the shop where a lunch/dinner of sandwiches and salad had been laid out for everyone to enjoy, I chatted with Judi Vaillnocurt, who’s artistic vision lies behind the entire company, and Luke who is increasingly taking the company into a new future.

The second show was at 6, and having finished lunch, I rested for a while in the dressing room, preserving my energy. There was a knock at the door, and it was Curtis who had returned to his store and picked up a different type of headset, ‘better for the more active performer,’ he said in the way in which a tailor might offer a suit to a client:’ If I may say so, sir, the looser cut is appropriate for the more sporting gentleman’. Certainly, when I slipped it on (the microphone, not the suit), it felt tighter and much more secure. All that I needed to do was to remember to put the lead UNDER my waistcoat.

The second show was much better, and I was able to concentrate on the words and atmosphere – I even managed to get all of the scenes in the correct order this time. Unfortunately, during the second act the electronic cracking and popping returned, but almost instantly Curtis took the decision to turn the unit off, meaning that I was unplugged for the final scenes, but it is a small room and actually it all worked fine – maybe tomorrow I will just not use the microphone at all. The audience were as enthusiastic as the first and joined in at every opportunity, many having seen me many times before. At the final scene, as the narrator says that ‘Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed that knowledge’ I carefully picked up one of the Vaillancourt Santas and placed it on my top hat, which in turn was sitting on the stool. I regarded it for a moment and then said, in Scrooge’s voice, ‘I wonder where I can order more of these?’ which got a huge laugh. It had been a lovely show, one which restored my positivity, which had waned somewhat earlier in the day.

Again, I signed in the shop, and received plenty of praise, which is a nice way to end the day. Changing was quick, as I had no need to pack up my costumes and props, they could stay in the dressing room, and soon was driving back to Worcester, where I would meet up with Gary, Judi and Luke for a wind-down dessert and glass of wine in the restaurant next my hotel. Before heading to the bar, I went up to my room to drop a bag with costume shirts off and was relieved to discover that my keys still worked, and that I was still checked in as a guest of Mr Marriott!

The evening was nice and relaxed, but I was tired by now, so we all said our goodbyes. I headed to the lift and they to the parking garage and back to Sutton.

For sure, it had been an adventuresome day.

A Tale of Two Ghosts

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On Friday it was time to travel again, returning to America for the second part of my 2022 tour. Typically, an international travel day involves departing Heathrow at around 10am, which means packing my cases the night before and getting a taxi at around 6 in the morning. However, on this occasion my flight was not due to depart until 5pm, which gave me plenty of time at home with Liz. My cab was booked for 1.45, so I spent the morning with my cases on the living room floor methodically packing everything that I will need over the next two and a half weeks. Our parting is also difficult, but somehow the extra time on Friday made it more so.

My cab arrived bang on time (a rather scruffy Toyota Prius, compared to the nice Mercedes that takes the early morning shift) and soon I was being driven around the Oxford ring road, and onto the M40, towards London. There was a fair amount of traffic, but I had plenty of time in hand and arrived at Terminal 2 good and early. I had managed to negotiate the United Airlines check-in app (including not only having to upload my Covid vaccination status, but also being requested to manually type every date and drug supplier of my two original injections plus two boosters), so I was able to stroll straight up to the bag drop counter where my passport was checked, and bag tagged. It suddenly struck me that one is never asked if you have packed your own bag, or if anyone has given you anything to take on board anymore, I wonder when that stopped being a safety requirement?

The airport didn’t seem to be very busy, and I cleared security quite rapidly, although my roller case was deemed worthy of extra inspection, and when the agent opened it and saw my gold and red costume waistcoats, she let out a loud ‘Ooooooh!’

The change in my timings was very confusing to me, for having completed the formalities it really felt as if I should go and buy breakfast, because that’s what I always do. Time in an airport, like in a Las Vegas casino, works in a different way to normal life. I mooched around a bit until the signs told me that I should proceed to my gate, which for United means taking an escalator far down into the ground and walking beneath the taxiways before rising into another part of the terminal again. I have made this walk on plenty of occasions, not least back in September when I flew with United, but this time I had a real sense of vertigo as I was taken into the abyss (my online dictionary defines abyss as ‘a deep or seemingly bottomless chasm’, and that is how it felt). I held the rail tightly, aware that I had two United pilots behind me, and I hoped that they didn’t choose today to suffer from the same affliction

The relative quietness of the airport continued into the satellite terminal, for we appeared to be the only flight departing at that time of day, and there was none of the bustle and excitement that makes airports interesting places to be. I knew from the seat plans on the United app that it was quite a full flight, but I had managed to find myself an aisle seat in the centre section with an empty seat next to me. As regulars know I usually prefer to have a window seat, but other than two rows right at the back of the plane outside the lavatories and galley, United don’t offer window seats to economy passengers, unless they pay an extra $169 for the privilege, which I was not inclined to do – especially as the entire flight would be in darkness, making any possibility of a view fairly unlikely.

I settled into seat 34D and spread myself out, took my shoes off and started to look through the film choices. Then I realised that I should have been in 33D, and sure enough another passenger came along the aisle brandishing her boarding card. 33D, my assigned seat, was full also, so I asked that passenger where he should be (I would have been perfectly happy to go to his correct seat), and he looked at his pass to discover that he should have been in 32C. The cabin became like one of those children’s games where you have to switch tiles about to make a picture, having only one empty square to move into each time. Eventually everyone was settled where they should be, and we were ready to leave.

Once again, I scrolled through the film listings and for my first choice decided on Shakespear in Love. It is a fun film, and Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow are superb, as is the supporting cast which features some amazing actors such as Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Antony Sher, Martin Clunes and that nice butler Carson, from Downton Abbey, playing the nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Now, of course, the main part of the plot is that William Shakespeare falls in love (not really a plot spoiler, the clue is in the title), and at one point he ends up in the bed of Viola de Lesseps, and it was at this moment that the meal service came around, so I paused the film in order to discuss my dining options and to deliberate between chicken or ravioli. I was aware that the flight attendant gave a rather uneasy look at the screen, before serving me quickly and moving on – the scene was of two entwined naked bodies (admittedly, just about artfully decent with sheets), glowing golden in candlelight, in the very heights of passion and extasy, and it looked for all the world that I was watching some x-rated adult movie. The ravioli was nice, though….

My next two film choices were rather less adult, in fact positively childlike, as I watched ET for the first time in many years, and The Golden Compass, staring Daniel Craig and that nice Mr Carson again, this time as John Faa.

My final movie selection, which would get me onto the ground, was much more highbrow as I decided to watch Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version of Hamlet. It is unabridged production and beautifully told and I enjoyed a great sense of pride in that the location for the castle of Elsinore was Blenheim Palace, just a few miles from our home. If the cast of Shakespeare in Love and The Golden Compass had been stellar, then Hamlet was a real who’s who – Branagh, himself of course, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Brian Blessed, Kate Winslet, not to mention cameos from such as Robin Williams, Ken Dodd, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, John Mills, Richard Attenborough, John Gielgud, Charlton Heston and even a brief appearance by John Spencer-Churchill, the 11th Ducke of Marlborough, whose house they using top film in.

As I watched the opening scenes, I was reminded of a passage in A Christmas Carol which is never used in any adaptations, but one which I always enjoy: when the narrator is trying to convince the reader that Jacob Marley really was dead, and. ‘ this must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate’ he goes on to reference Hamlet, saying that: ‘If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind’

In fact, as I continued to watch the scene, the influence of it on Dickens became ever clearer, for the conversation between Hamlets senior and junior is so similar to that between Marley and Scrooge. Each ghost bemoans that they are doomed to an eternity of helpless wandering – Hamlet: ‘I am thy father’s spirit. doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, And for the day confined to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature, Are burnt and purged away’, whilst Jacob tells Scrooge, ‘Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house—mark me!—in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!” The ghost of Hamlet’s father says to his son ‘My hour is almost come….lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold.’ and Marley says ‘“Hear me! My time is nearly gone.” Charles Dickens was a great admirer of Shakespear, and the opening of A Christmas Carol is testament to that.

I didn’t have enough time in flight to get too far into the plot, but I think that I will download the film so that I can watch it during the rest of my trip.

The landing at Boston’s Logan airport was uneventful, and in no time we were at the gate at gathering cases, coats and bags. The relative deserted nature of Heathrow was mirrored in America for it seemed as if the London flight was the only international one coming in at that hour. Certainly, the immigration hall was very empty and the whole process was completed in record time, as it always seems to be when I do not have a connection to make. I have been flying into Boston on the Thanksgiving weekend for many years now and know exactly where to go and which bus to board (33 or 55) to take me to the car rental facility. I presented myself at the Hertz Gold member’s office and was directed to a Nissan Pathfinder – an all-wheel drive SUV, in case the snow should begin to fall, which has happened to me here in the past. I settled myself in, fixed the little phone holder, that I had bought a couple of days before, into the air vent and asked the navigation app to take me to the AC Marriott in downtown Worcester.

This year’s tour, although essentially similar to those of the past, has a few changes – some venues have gone (most sadly The Country Cupboard in Lewisburg PA, which has closed for business during the last year – I will so miss my time there with Missy and KJ), and in other places hotels that have become a home from home to me over the years are no longer open or viable. In Worcester I have traditionally stayed at the Beechwood Hotel, but this year the Vaillancourts had booked me into the Marriott, so I had to concentrate a little more than usual, as I was driving through a part of the city that I do not know well yet. The lobby of the hotel was loud with a variety of parties and conferences taking place, but I was soon checked in and riding to the 4th floor, away from the carousing, where I found myself in a very spacious and superbly stylish room.

I unpacked my costumes and hung them so that the creases could gently fall out before Saturday’s performances, and then went back to the restaurant where I had a superb Thai salmon and rice. As soon as the server heard my accent, he fist-pumped me and said ‘Hey, great result today!’ England had been playing the USA in the football World Cup, and they (you) had held us to a goalless draw. The game had been played while I was at 35,000 feet, but the news reports that I read after landing suggested that England had been pretty woeful, and the game had been a rather dull one.

It was about 2.30am in my world when I finished my supper, so I went back to my room and fell asleep to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1. There is no rest for the wicked, and on Saturday it is back on stage with two performances of my 2-act version of A Christmas Carol for my good friends at Vaillancourt Folk Art

A Remarkable Gift

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The weather in Birmingham early on Wednesday morning was wet – very wet. As I woke in my lovely apartment, I could hear the rain lashing down outside the window. I got up and went to the kitchen in order to make myself a cup of coffee, and then remembered that my ‘welcome’ email had mentioned that there would be no milk or bread, but they could easily be bought at the Tesco shop just down the street. I checked on my phone and discovered that it had opened at 6.30, so I threw on some clothes, descended 6 floors in the lift, and dashed through the rain to a surprisingly busy shop. I decided to buy some things for my breakfast too, loading my basket with some granola, fruit, orange juice and a pain au raisin, as well as the milk.

Back in the flat I worked out how to use the Nespresso pod coffee maker, sat at a stool at the counter and began work on my blog post for the day. After a while I had my breakfast, warming the pastry in the oven, and then took a shower, which was immensely powerful and completely energising. Outside the clouds were clearing now and even the sun was beginning to break through. I wrote some more, and then began to pack my things away ready to leave at 10. I had received strict instructions on how to leave the apartment, so as not to incur extra charges, and I made sure that everything was in order, and that I had all of my belongings.

At 10 I bade farewell to my lovely flat, taking my two bags, and I walked into the streets. Birmingham has a reputation in Britain for being a somewhat dull city – it was heavily bombed during the war and much of the architecture is dull and uninspiring, but oh, my goodness, there are some beautiful historic buildings hidden away between the office blocks, and even the recent additions have been designed with a great flair, meaning that the city centre is a fascinating and inspiring place to walk.

I arrived at the car park, loaded everything into the back, and set my map to take me to Ashford, in the county of Kent, which would take me around 3 hours. I had missed the rush hour, but the Aston Expressway was still heavily loaded for incoming traffic. The road is a 6-lane highway, with no central island, but overhead warning lights to let you know which lanes are open or closed. On Wednesday morning only two lanes showed green on the way out of the city, whilst four showed a red cross above, and there was a steady flow of traffic entering. I have always thought that this system seems incredibly dangerous, but it seems to work – at least it did on that morning.

I approached the Gravelly Hill Interchange, where many trunk roads meet and entwine, but got into the wrong lane and took the wrong strand of spaghetti, meaning that I found myself heading north up the M6, instead of south. This wouldn’t normally have been a problem, for I would simply drive up to the next intersection double back around the roundabout and continue on my way, but on that morning, there had been an accident on the southbound carriageway and the traffic was at a standstill. My map suggested an alternative route, which I accepted, and soon I was on a clear road, speeding towards Kent. For a long time, the map suggested that I returned to the previous route telling me that it was ’57 minutes longer’ and that it involved tolls. It would seem odd to decide to select this option, what would I be thinking? ‘Oh, there’s a thought, I could always go back and sit in stationary traffic chatting to other disgruntled drivers for an hour, and pay for that privilege, or should I continue my free, uninterrupted route to my destination? Hmmm, a tricky one!’

The journey was uneventful, and I passed the time by listening to the end of Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes From a Large Country’ which had me laughing out loud in the car – especially as he described his clumsiness and awkwardness as a traveller, so much of what he said I could relate to, especially the need to go to hotel front desks to ask them to remind him what room number he was staying in – I have done that often. Also, the moment on a plane when he bent forward to retrieve something from his bag at the exact moment that the passenger in front reclined their seat, meaning that he was caught, as he described it, in an inadvertent brace position, from which he had to be released by the cabin crew!

I stopped for lunch at around 1.30, then continued to Ashford where I arrived at my hotel an hour later. As I checked in, the clerk at the desk said, ‘You have a very big room for just yourself!’ and when I arrived at number 32 I saw what he meant! It was a huge room in its own right, with lots of space around the bed, but there was an arch that led to another bedroom complete with bunk beds, and also a sofa which could pull out to give me yet more sleeping accommodation – I could have brought the whole family and some of their friends too.

I had arrived quite early in order to record a radio interview for one of the forthcoming events in America. At exactly 3.30 the station called, and I was patched through to the presenter. The programme was arts based one, and the questions focussed on my particular adaptation and performance, which was really fun to discuss. It was also a lengthy chat, meaning that I could go into quite a bit of depth with my answers, rather than the usual quick-fire questions crammed into a 2-minute slot (another Bill Bryson story came back to me, he was talking about radio interviews on one of his extensive book promotion tours, and on one occasion the interviewer said ‘So, Mr Bryson, you have a new book?’ to which Bill answered, ‘Yes, I do’, the interviewer then concluded the chat, ‘well that’ great! Now folks, join me tomorrow when my guest will be……’). My interview was much more fulfilling, and it was good to remember how this adventure had all began back in ’93.

As soon as the chat was finished, I had to get into the car to drive to The Revelation Arts Centre in Ashford, where I was to perform that evening. Revelation is a regular stop for me, indeed I am a patron of the theatre, and it is always fun to go back. But this year, I had concerns about the evening. Debra, the manager, had wanted to stage a double bill of Mr Dickens Is Coming, and a one act version of A Christmas Carol, which seemed a very long show, especially as the venue had a curfew of 10.30. I just couldn’t see how it was going to work. We had spoken about it on the phone earlier in the year, and it seemed like a possibility then, but now I thought about it I wondered if I had misled Deb with the timings, or I had said the wrong length for A Christmas Carol: Even if I managed to reduce Mr Dickens is Coming to only 45 minutes, and made sure that the interval was only 15 minutes, and not a second longer, I would still only have an hour to squeeze the Carol in, and that would be a VERY pared back version of the show, which would be very disappointing to what has become a loyal audience.

I have to admit I was a LITTLE bit Diva-ish when I arrived, telling all and sundry that the timing was going to be tight, mentioning to John, my superb technical guy at Revelation, that we would have to go through the script and cut a lot of the scenes (he looked rather crestfallen at this, having already programmed all of the lighting and sound cues into his computer). Eventually Debra came up with a timing sheet for the evening, and said ‘are you sure we have to cut the show? and carefully went through the evening hour by hour. And then it dawned on me, I felt completely foolish, and quite elated, for I realised that in all of my calculations, that I had been running through my mind all day, I had mislaid an entire hour somewhere! Even doing the full 1-act version of A Christmas Carol we would be finished before 10! I apologised to everyone, and looked forward to the night with a greater sense of excitement than I had previously.

John and I went through the complete script and checked all of his cues, I loved seeing the names he had given each one, especially ‘Warm Fezzis’

Soon the audience began to arrive, so I retreated to my dressing room, and nibbled at the sandwiches and fruit that had been laid out for me. The Revelation Arts Centre is based in a church, and the two organisations share the building. The stage, with the huge stone columns to either side is truly imposing, whilst my dressing room is used on a Sunday by the vicar to robe in. It is a remarkable place.

At 7.30 I was given the nod, and John faded the house lights and brought the stage lights up. I walked on and immediately got a round of applause, which was a nice way to start. The venue is a perfect one for Mr Dickens is Coming, as it is very intimate, the stage being only 2 steps high, and the audience close. They enjoyed all of the silliness: the Micawbers, Uriah Heep, Queen Victoria and James Bond, etc, and the first act rushed past. I brought the show to a close with the thought that now the audience had heard how Dickens came to perform A Christmas Carol, it was time to see it for real. I left to lots of applause, and I waited a few minutes for those who were going to the bar to leave, and then quietly went about rearranging the stage for the second half. When all was done, I returned to the dressing room, changed waistcoats and made sure that I was in the right state of mind.

I have performed The Carol at Revelation for many years, so it was with a sense of familiarity that I took to the stage. It was a lovely performance and, despite the audience being very cold (the Church’s heating system has been rather temperamental of late, and most people were wrapped in coats, scarves, hats and even thick pink blankets that Debra had bought and placed at the end of rows), they responded warmly and increasingly enthusiastically.

Despite my earlier misgivings, this was a most enjoyable evening, but the highlight was yet to come. When I came out of my dressing room, I was met by a gentleman named Tony, who congratulated me warmly, and said that when I had finished chatting with others, he had a little bit of Dickens memorabilia, that I may be interested in. He hovered until I finished and then produced a white envelope. I took it from him and was surprised by its weight, he directed me to read what was said on it, and the true story of what was within was revealed: ‘Coachscrew or Chairscrew or Dogscrew, 1860. Found at Staplehurst railway, site of accident.’ The heavy piece of ironwork had been found in the fields around the small viaduct over the River Beault by a railway surveyor who was engaged on repairs to the bridge a few years ago, and found it deep in the mud. I don’t know how he aged it, or if it was actually discarded on that memorable afternoon in 1865, but to hold it in my hand and to imagine that this had come to me from a day that I have written so extensively about was remarkable and moving. I thank you Tony, very much.

I packed up all of my furniture, props and costumes, and Deb and John helped me to load them into my car, I said my goodbyes and I drove off to my hotel where I fell asleep very quickly. And that is the end of my brief time in the UK, on Friday I return to America for the main part of my annual tour.

Performing With Kevin the Penguin in a Shopping Arcade

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On Tuesday I was back on the road again for the first of my final two British events before returning to America again. My first venue was Birmingham, and I was not sure what to expect from it.

Earlier in the year I had been approached by what seemed to be an events management agency to perform on behalf of a shopping arcade in Birmingham as part of a series of special events on the run up to Christmas – not just on behalf of the arcade, but actually in the arcade, at 5 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. I had looked online at images of the venue, and it looked very pretty, and pretty historic, but my show, which is essentially a theatre show? Would it work, could it work? As I set off from Abingdon, I had NO idea what the day would hold and actually felt a real sense of fear for the first time in many years.

Most of my props were still packed in the car, but I had to rearrange them to include my reading desk and various extra props needed for Mr Dickens is Coming, which I will be performing on Wednesday evening. Once everything had been squeezed in, and the boot shut successfully, I was ready to head to the Midlands

The drive to Brum is a fairly quick one, taking me to the famed Spaghetti Junction and from there along the very busy Aston Expressway into the heart of the city, where I managed to completely confuse my satnav unit, and spent quite a time trying to drive into pedestrianised roads, or heading off in the completely wrong direction, before finally I found myself at the Snow Street Railway Station car park. I found a space and then, once again following the map on my phone, this time in walking mode, I went to discover the city, and right opposite the station entrance I saw The Great Western Arcade. Although I had meant to walk to the apartment where I was to stay, I changed route slightly to investigate my venue for the evening. The GW Arcade is, as the online pictures had suggested, a straight elegant Victorian arcade, beautifully lit for Christmas with tasteful twinkling lights and a large Christmas tree bedecked in gold. As I walked through, there didn’t seem to be anywhere obvious to perform. The shops were all independents, no national or international chains, and included a Victorian sweet shop, a whisky shop, some high-end clothes shops, it was all very smart and chi chi.

In the middle of the mall was a slightly larger area, where the Christmas tree stood, and I imagined this would be the best place to perform – but I couldn’t imagine that we would draw much of an audience here and I would simply end up annoying tired commuters who were hurrying to catch their trains at Snow Hill.

For now, though, I needed to check into my apartment, which as it happened was only a couple of minutes’ walk from the Arcade. Around a square which as alive with a brightly lit Christmas market (Oh, yes, Christmas has come early to the major cities of England), and into Temple Street. where the front door to ‘my home’ nestled between two shops. To gain access to the building I had to punch a PIN onto a keypad, and I had great trouble finding the message with that number on it. I had found the apartment on a booking agency which I often use to book hotels, and had received many messages from them, and the apartment owner, over the previous days, but could I find the one about the entrance code? No, I couldn’t! It seemed to be buried deep inside other messages and was only accessible through following a certain unexplained order of clicks. I sat miserably on a bench searching and searching and searching, slowly coming to the conclusion that I might be spending my night in the car, when all of a sudden up popped the relevant page! I quickly punched in the number and took a lift up to the relevant floor, before punching in the second code which allowed me into the flat itself. It was a lovely apartment, fresh, bright and stylish. I put my bags down, freshened up a little and then headed out again, as it was time to meet Katie and Man, my contacts for the event who were waiting for me back at the arcade. We all got on straight away and went back into the arcade to decide how best to stage the event. We all agreed that the area around the Christmas tree would be the most appropriate, even though I would be sharing my performing space with a large blue and yellow fibreglass Penguin, who apparently, so Katie told me, had been nicknamed Kevin. I may have performed in stranger circumstances over the years, but I am struggling to remember when that might have been!

Having seen the location, I now had to decide how much of my set to unload from the car. Looking at the stream of passers-by it didn’t seem sensible to try and create a fixed stage, for I could see that I would have to be constantly moving to allow people through, so I decided on just the hatstand and the stool: everything else I could improvise. Katie and Man kindly offered to help me carry my things and we all trooped into carpark, where for a moment I couldn’t remember which floor the car was on. The garage featured 1/2 floors, so they were labeled 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B. I knew I was on floor 2,but was it 2B, or not…..? You can fill in the rest of the actor’s joke for yourselves. We actually found the car on 2A, and I unloaded what I needed, so that we could set off for the Arcade once more: me with my roller bag and costumes, Katie with the stool and top hat, whilst Man, the smallest of us all, took charge of the large unwieldy hatstand!

The show was due to start at 5 0’clock, and it was about 4.20 now, so I changed (in an empty shop unit), whilst Katie and Man optimistically put out some chairs for the audience. I emerged in costume, and Man immediately taking lots of photographs (her area of expertise being in digital marketing and website design)

As I posed and grinned, I noticed a gentleman hovering nearby clutching a copy of a book that I knew very well, and which filled me with a feeling of warm nostalgia and happiness; it was the white edition of A Christmas Carol published by The Dickens House Museum (now The Charles Dickens Museum) in 1965. Why did this particular edition have such an effect on me? The very first time I can remember the story being read to me, it was on Christmas Eve and I must have been 5 or 6. My Uncle Claud and Aunt Audrey, with their children Kate and Rowland, were staying for Christmas and Claud read from the same, white-covered edition to us all, so introducing me to a story that has shaped my life. I have later editions of the same book, with a red cover and a green cover, but to see the white edition made me quite sentimental.

I soon fell into conversation with Barry, the book’s owner, and it turned out that he was a member of the Birmingham branch of The Dickens Fellowship and had been since 1965 at which time he was the youngest member of the society. ‘Now,’ we ruminated, ‘I am the oldest!’ We chatted for quite a while, and he shared his lifelong passion for Dickens. Barry was a wonderfully cheerful and knowledgeable gentleman, who had worked in that most Dickensian of industries, the law. At least I knew I had one audience member, and I began to feel more confident about the hour or so ahead of me, and gradually a few more people arrived and sat down, obviously come specifically to see what I had to offer. At five o’clock, I stepped into the space, with Kevin watching over me, and began. I didn’t have the usual music cue, so instead simply welcomed the group, now numbering10, by telling them that the very first time that Charles Dickens performed A Christmas Carol in public, it was in the city of Birmingham, and that he had told the audience that they should laugh or cry and feel free to express their emotions openly, rather than sit obediently in silence. I hope that the present group would do the same, and off I went.

Of course, the show was compromised slightly by the surroundings, and as well as concentrating on my acting I also had to be aware of the people using the arcade for their journey home, and make sure that I didn’t get in their way. Some simply marched straight through the set without caring, or possibly without even noticing what was going on, others hesitated, unsure if they should proceed, and to those folk I took the action to one side of the area and incorporated a slight gesture in the manner of a police office on traffic duty, as if to say, ‘please come through, its fine: it’s a pedestrian arcade after all!’ The nods or whispers of thanks from those people, made the performance even more special. Some people even stopped, watched for a while, and then took a seat, meaning that I had a larger audience at the end than I did at the beginning – it is always best that way round. Katie and Man sat together outside The Good Intent, a rather nice-looking pub situated opposite Kevin’s plinth, and from where quite a few interested drinkers watched the goings on with a sense of curiosity and, I hope, some admiration.

I cut a few bits of my longer script out, trying to judge the interest levels of my audience in the somewhat chilly alley, but kept the bulk of it. I finished, of course, with ‘God bless us, everyone’ and as I took a bow, I was greeted by one of the most welcome, and unexpected standing ovations I have ever received. I shook hands and chatted with the audience members, and the nerves of that morning seemed but a distant memory. The crowd gently dissipated, drifting away into the Birmingham night, as if they themselves were spectres, and I returned to the empty shop to change, while Katie and Man put the chairs away.

By way of celebration, we had a drink in The Good Intent, Man insisting that we bring my props into the pub rather than leaving them out on the arcade, so we sat at a booth protected by a hatstand which actually was rather useful for us all to hang our coats on.

The evening finished with another trip to my car (me taking charge of the hatstand this time), and we shared hugs and said our goodbyes before Katie and Man visited the Christmas market, and I bought a pizza to eat in my apartment far above the noisy and bustling city streets below.

It had been a fascinating day, and I am still not sure why Kevin, the blue and yellow Penguin was there – but he had been a fine companion, nonetheless.