‘The Flanders Pigeon Murderer’

Saturday 19th October saw my final theatrical performance of the year, before A Christmas Carol takes over for the season, and with a remarkable synchronicity it was to be at the same venue that my final performance of A Christmas Carol will be: the beautiful historic Guildhall in Leicester.

I drove to Leicester early in the day so that I could meet my son Cameron for lunch.  Cameron is now in his third year at Leicester University studying Physics with Astro Physics, a subject about which I can offer no comment, other than that I am so proud of him and completely in awe of what he is achieving.

After lunch we said our goodbyes and I spent a little time walking around Leicester in search of a special site.  In 1867 and 1869 Charles Dickens performed in the Temperance Hall (which if you have ever seen the document detailing the contents of his wine cellar at the time of his death, seems to be strange choice of theatre).  A little online research gave me the street address, although sadly building had been demolished years ago.

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121 Granby Street was shrouded in scaffolding as it is being converted into accommodation but in Dickens’ day it was a grand theatre owned by Thomas Cook, who founded the travel company which so recently closed its doors for the final time.  In a strange quirk of coincidence Thomas and Charles both had parents named John and Elizabeth.  I grant it would be a greater coincidence had their parents been named Chopper and Kylie, but lets go with it anyway.

I stood in Granby Street as the traffic crawled along filling the atmosphere with carbon monoxide but I was blind to the scourge of the modern age, for in my imagination I saw only the old Palladian Façade  as a Victorian audience excitedly gathered to listen to the great man speak.

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On Friday January 25th, 1867 Mr Charles Dickens would read Doctor Marigold and The Trial from The Pickwick Papers, and on Saturday 19 October, 2019 Mr Gerald Dickens would be performing The Trial also.

Having paid my silent tribute to my great great grandfather, I continued my walk around the city, culminating in a stroll along the beautiful ‘New Walk’ an elegant vehicle-free promenade lined with smart Georgian town houses.  As I walked I could hear cheers from the nearby football stadium where Leicester City were entertaining Burnley and by the sound of things were doing rather well in their endeavours.

It was beginning rain as I found myself close to the King Richard III Visitor Centre and I thought it may be fun to visit.  I did not have long as it was already 4.30, but I was told that my ticket lasts for a year so I could always come back and complete my tour next time I am in town.

It may be difficult for my American readers to understand and, in truth, I think it is difficult for me to understand, but we in Britain managed to lose a King.  Richard of York was slain at the Battle of Bosworth Field not far from Leicester, and his body brought to the city and buried in an unmarked grave at Greyfriars Church.  Unfortunately a couple of hundred years later the church was destroyed as Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and Richard’s grave was forgotten.  Centuries passed and Leicester grew and eventually a car park for some council offices was laid on Greyfriars’s Lane.

Richard would have been lost forever where it not for a keen bunch of experts from the Richard III Society who had a hunch that the remains lay beneath that very car park.  With the co-operation of Leicester City Council and a team of archaeologists, from the university a dig was planned.  Remarkably no sooner was the ground broken that a skeleton was discovered, curled into an almost foetal position.

DNA tests were made involving Richard’s known living relatives and the results came back that there was absolute certainty that Richard III had been discovered.  Over a few years there followed a rather bitter battle between the cities of Leicester and York as to where the slain monarch should be formally buried, but Leicester played the ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’ card and triumphed.  Today Richard has a modern and elegant tomb in the beautiful Leicester Cathedral which is, as it happens, right opposite the Guildhall, my venue for the evening.

I arrived at 5.30 and with the help of Ben, who runs the hall as part of the fantastic museum network in Leicester, loaded my furniture in before parking my car in a municipal car park (I wondered ‘who is buried beneath this one!’)

The Guildhall dates back to the 14th Century and is an excellent venue for my shows.  I have been returning to Leicester for many years and now have a loyal, and enthusiastic, following in the city.

I was scheduled to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and the aforementioned Trial from The Pickwick Papers, and it was the latter piece that gave me most concern, for it is not a regular part of my repertoire.  I decided to do a complete run in the hall, just to put my mind at rest and soon a ‘set’ became clear in my mind: the judge, Mister Justice Stareleigh, would be in a  grand chair up stage right, the witness box would be at centre stage right, whilst the jury would be situated in the front block of the audience (where there happened to be twelve chairs arranged in three rows of four).

Mr Pickwick, the defendant and Mrs Bardell, the Plaintiff in the great case of breach of promise of marriage, would be sat in the stage left block of the audience.

Next: the voices.  Whenever I had performed The Trial before, and in rehearsal, the voice of Sergeant Buzfuzz became positively Churchillian, not helped by his first line being the word ‘Never!’ so I wanted to find a slight variation on that.  I toyed with a lisp, a growl, a splutter of phlegm and saliva until I found the gravity and self-importance of the man.

Next I moved onto Sam Weller, and he was more difficult to find for Dickens didn’t give him many lines in the Trial and yet he was such an important character in the original book, almost single-handedly turning the failing fortunes of the publication around and launching Dickens to stardom.  In Mr Dickens is Coming I relate an anecdote about the artist WP Frith telling Dickens that Sam Weller was not performed as he’d expected during The Trial – what did Frith mean, what had Dickens got wrong, how could I correct it?  Weller is a cockney and reverses his Vs and Ws and some of his accent is written phonetically, but there had to be a voice…..could I find it?

The audience soon arrived and the time came for Ben to welcome me to the stage, and in doing so he pointed out that whenever I visit Leicester City seemed to triumph at home (they had seen of Burnley 2-1 that afternoon).  Maybe I should become the club’s official mascot.

I took to the stage and the first act of Mr Dickens is Coming went well, and I built up a nice relationship with the audience.  I included the Miss Havisham sequence that I have been using all through the year,  and brought the half to an end with a description of Dickens’s death using the final completed passages of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

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And now it was time for The Trial.  How would my voices work?

In the second episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, called Corporal Punishment, Captain Blackadder, played by Rowan Atkinson, is charged with shooting a favourite carrier pigeon belonging to Colonel Melchett who sits in judgement at the Court Martial proceedings.  Fair justice is impossible from the moment that the indignant, florid, furious colonel brands Blackadder as ‘The Flanders Pigeon Murderer!’

There was my Sergeant Buzfuzz.

But the inspiration of the television classic went further, for in the court Blackadder relies upon the witness statement of his trusted, yet dim-witted batman, Baldrick, who admits that: ‘ We didn’t get any messages, and Captain Blackadder definitely did not shoot that delicious plump-breasted pigeon.’

And so it was that Baldrick, who always had a ‘cunning plan’, became Sam Weller for the evening!

The reading of the Trial is quite short, and it comes to rather an abrupt and unsatisfying end, so to bring the evening to a more complete finish I opened the floor up to a question and answer session.

As is always the case on these occasions initially everyone was reticent in putting their hands up (I am the same in such situations), but soon one lady broke the ice by asking the exact address of the Temperance Hall in Granby Street, and so began a very cheerful and enjoyable dialogue.

I was particularly looking forward to one question that I am always asked during such sessions: ‘Mr Dickens, have you ever written a book?’ to which the answer has always been always ‘no’, but on Saturday night I was ready to drop the bombshell that currently I AM writing a book!  Unfortunately nobody asked.

So, here is my news:  having become more and more intrigued by the circumstances surrounding the terrible rail crash at Staplehurst in 1865, I have decided to pull all of the available information together and create an account of the entire day – from Charles Dickens’ departure from Paris, to the aftermath of the event in London.

I will tell the story from the perspective of Dickens himself and from his travelling companions Ellen and Fanny Ternan, as well as observations from other passengers.  I will describe the train journey from Paris to Boulogne and that from Folkestone to Staplehurst.  I will talk about the crossing of the English Channel and describe the boat that made it.  I shall put the reader at the site of the repair works that were being carried out over the River Beult and describe just what went wrong on that fateful day and I will investigate the aftermath of the crash and just how it affected Charles.

Now, don’t get excited and put your orders in quite yet, for the project has no publisher at the moment (any offers or suggestions will be welcomed), but the discipline of working in, a logical and methodical manner has been fascinating and one which I am greatly enjoying.

Watch this space.

 

 

Wedding Flowers

This week my travels took me just a short distance down the A34 road to the little village of Sutton Scotney near Winchester in the county of Hampshire, to perform Great Expectations.

A few years ago I was attending a lunch in Portsmouth, to celebrate Charles Dickens’ birthday in the city of Portsmouth.  I was with my brother Ian and after the festivities were done we started to drive home.  Unfortunately the aforementioned A34 is a fickle highway and on that particular February evening it was choked with heavy traffic, necessitating a change of route to speed our way.  That route fortuitously took as past an attractive village hall, with a bell tower on the top, which bore the legend ‘The Victoria Hall’.

‘That would be a good place to do a show’ I said to Ian and then made a mental note to send an email to the committee and propose that I come and perform.

That email was sent about three years ago and my first show featured the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold, and whilst very successful and much enjoyed it wasn’t hugely well attended  but I had found two good friends and allies in Eryl and Alistair who together form a formidable team.  Eryl is a professional actor who has done a great deal of work on television (including a recurring role in one of my favourite comedy sketch shows), whilst Alistair is also very theatrical, writing, producing and directing a series of village pantomimes (including the most recent one based on A Christmas Carol).

I was invited back to perform my own, conventional, version of the Carol last year and the hall was filled to capacity, proving what a superb job the dynamic duo had done in spreading the word.  Straight away the question was asked: ‘when will you come back and what can you do for us?’ The resulting answer was Great Expectations on Sunday 13 October, 2019.

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It was wonderful to be back and no sooner was I in the door and been hugged by Eryl than she proudly showed me a copy of the Hampshire Chronice newspaper featuring a full page picture of me in dramatic flight, along with an inside article promoting my show.  Alistair had approached the paper and they had responded enthusiastically – I had even stolen top billing from Elton John, which was quite impressive.

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There was more excitement too, for a member of the community had created a special Miss Havisham flower display which dominated one corner of the auditorium: the flowers were white and lacey, and the arrangement was adorned with a collapsing cake, scattered champagne glasses and white sugar mice.  Not only was the display remarkable in its own right,  but it was on the correct side of the hall to become part of my Miss Havisham scenes.

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Although the show was not due to start until 7.30 the first of the audience started to arrive at 6, so I retreated to my dressing room where I was able to do a complete run through of act 1 to satisfy myself that the lines were firmly settled.

The buzz of expectant conversation and laughter from the auditorium so was so loud that I seriously doubted that I had remembered the start time correctly and I got into my first costume early just in case Alistair should appear at 6.55 to give me ‘the five’.  I was not mistaken however, and the party continued until 7.30.

When everyone was in their seats Eryl got on the stage and before she even said a word there was a loud cheer and a round of applause.  That boded well.  Having finished her opening remarks (which included a cleverly constructed and Great Expectations-themed fire exit briefing: ‘If anyone should spontaneously combust during the performance you may leave by the front door…..’), Eryl left the stage, the lights faded to black and Alistair played the recorded narration which begins my show.

The audience at Sutton Scotney have always been generous and lively but my natural performer’s pessimism made me doubt if they would enjoy the darker, more intense material of Charles’s later works – after all I had already heard that they were a party audience, out for a good time.  I shouldn’t have worried for they listened intently, hung on every word.  The script has an interesting, and unplanned for, rhythm in that the early sequences of Mrs Joe Gargery scolding both Pip and Joe encourage laughter, but as soon as the overwhelming presence of Miss Havisham appears the tone becomes more sombre.

During Pip’s second visit to Miss Havisham’s house I could fully use the brilliant flower display, for the dialogue runs:

MH: So! the days have worn away, have they This is where I will be laid when I am dead. They shall come and look at me here. What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”
P: “I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”
MH: “It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!

I was able to point my walking cane directly at the tumbled down cake set among the flowers, surrounded by cobwebs, it added a greater realism to the whole scene.

The first act came to an end and the loud applause assured me that everything was going to plan.  I made sure that I drank a lot of water and then got into my second act costume, before waiting for Alistair to come and tell me that we were ready to go again.

The second act is, if anything, even darker than first, although the mood is occasionally, and essentially, lightened by the character of Mr Wemmick and his Aged Parent.

Soon it all kicked off (this paragraph may contain a few plot spoilers): Magwitch appeared at Pip’s lodging, Miss Havisham burst into flames, Pip was attacked by Orlick, Compeyson was drowned, Magwitch died, Pip became delirious and suffered a 3 month fever, Joe and Biddy married and had a child whom they called Pip, Pip met Pip and showed him the grave of Pip, Pip returned to the ruin of Satis House and found Estella there and together (thanks to the revised ending suggested by Edward Bulwer Lytton), they walked away into a future not shrouded by mist.

All the time the audience listened and concentrated and became more and more involved in the story and the applause that greeted me as I returned to take my bows was amazing indeed.  Usually I will take a bow, then bow one to the audience on stage right, once to the audience on stage left, one more to the centre and then leave the stage, but on Sunday the clapping went on and on so I came back and a huge cheer went up as I reappeared.  It had been a successful evening indeed.

Eryl had asked me if I would be happy to mingle with the audience as they left which I was happy to do.  So many people shook me warmly by the hand and told me how much they had enjoyed the evening.  Great Expectations is still a show that fills me with doubt, and one which never fails to surprise me with its reception.

I packed up my props and loaded them into the car and then said my farewells to Eryl, Alistair and the rest of the volunteers with promises to return soon.

As I drove home through the night I glanced at the passenger seat over which my costumes were draped: they were flat, lifeless and dead, but the realisation came to me that an hour or so before these clothes had been vibrant and alive and filled by a cast of characters.  Never was the nature of my profession so profoundly illustrated to me.

 

 

Porthmadog and Englishmen

Last week I was in Snowdonia in Wales to perform for the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway as part of their annual Victorian Festival.  The railway which was formed nearly 200 years ago is based in Porthmadog on the west coast of Wales (I mention that not because it has any bearing on the tale to come, but because I wanted to use the name in my title!)

It was a long drive from Oxford but as my first commitment was not until 6.30 on Friday evening I had a whole day to make my way west.  Initially the journey took me over familiar roads and then at Birmingham I struck off towards the border county of Shropshire and into the Principality of Wales.  As I crossed the border the gorgeous Welsh flag (white and green and resplendent with a red dragon) flew over many houses and the road signs were all double the size, being in two languages.  On the roads I was encouraged to ‘araf’ rather than ‘slow’ before tight bends.  The Welsh are a proud nation.

As I reached the town of Bala nestling on the banks of its magnificent lake so the enormous vista of the Snowdonia National Park rose before me.  It is a magnificent part of our country and the drive through the imposing mountains with gushing waterfalls cascading through rocky crevices was magnificent.  It was as if I was being filmed for an episode of Top Gear and this image was intensified by the amount of muddy, sponsor-be-decaled cars that passed me (the Rally of GB was taking place in Wales over the weekend and there were lots of support vehicles making their way from one area of forest to another).

As the route took me higher so I became enveloped in swirling low cloud and my only company were a few sheep grazing on the verge or ambling across the road being restrained by no fences.

Eventually I arrived at my hotel in the little town of Tremadog which nestles beneath a towering slate cliff.  I had a couple of hours to rest before I had to get back into the car and drive up the mountain to the little railway station of Tan y Bwlch (I have NO idea how to pronounce that).

I was due to meet my contact Iwan at 6.30, but the station was deserted when I arrived and having unloaded all of my props and furniture I sat in the gathering twilight looking at the tiny slither of a new moon, and the twin golden streaks of the railway line disappearing into the distance illuminated by the last vestiges of a setting sun.

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After a short while a car pulled up and out climbed the frock-coated figure of George who acts as a station host on the rail system, and who would be introducing me.  George performed the same role when I performed here two years ago and has the beautifully modulated voice of a BBC radio announcer.

Unfortunately George didn’t have a key to the station either, so we chatted in the chill of the evening until Iwan arrived.  The main room in the station is a tea room and it had already been laid out with seats in a theatre style.  The area where I was to perform was quite small and the front row of the audience would only be a few inches from where I stood, but I managed to squeeze all of the relevant props in.  Obviously being a tea room the lighting would not be theatrical, but there were 8 pendant lamps with enamelled shades spread throughout the room, unfortunately the bulb in one of those over the ‘stage’ area had blown, therefore casting an awkward shadow over me as I spoke.

Quite a gathering of railway staff had arrived by this time and there followed a variation on the old joke ‘how many railway staff does it take to change a lightbulb….?’  The dead bulb was removed and a live one liberated from a less important light, but then the bulbs got mixed up and the deceased one got replaced into its original holder, causing much hilarity!  I left the team to it, as I had to change before my audience arrived.

For the first half of the evening I would be performing Doctor Marigold, so I got into my long socks, britches, collarless shirt and loosely tied necktie and when I was ready still had some time to practice the fast-paced opening sales patter section before the room filled up.

Usually an audience will start arriving in dribs and drabs around 45 minutes before the show starts, with the bulk arriving in the final 20 minutes before curtain up, but on Friday night with ten minutes to go there were no audience members to be seen, but we were not concerned for soon we heard the whistle of a steam locomotive and a train  sighed into the station where it disgorged its passengers, all of whom quickly took their seats ready for the show.

George welcomed everyone and handed over the evening me.  We were up against a slight time constraint as the train had to depart at 10, so I made my opening remarks as brief as possible before launching in to Doctor Marigold which, to quote the man himself, was ‘wery much enjoyed.’  The proximity of the crowd made Marigold feel very natural, as if the kindly cheapjack was really addressing a crowd at a country fair, rather than an audience in a theatre.

The interval could be no longer than 10 minutes if the train was to depart on time, and I didn’t want to be responsible for its late running, so I changed the set as quickly as I could and got into my all black costume ready to recite the ghostly story of The Signalman in a perfect setting.

Usually I preface the piece by describing the circumstances of the Staplehurst rail crash in which Dickens was involved and which almost certainly inspired him to write The Signalman, but with the ever present stationmaster’s watch ticking away I had printed some copies of my blog post on the subject.

(https://wordpress.com/post/geralddickens.wordpress.com/7535) so that people could get a little background information before the show started.

Tan y Bwlch is a remote station half way between Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog which nestles beneath cliffs of grey slate and heavily wooded slopes.  In the darkness bats flitted here and there and as I told the story we could here the soft hiss of the steam locomotive panting impatiently, waiting to descend the mountain: it all made for a remarkable atmosphere.  George told me later that as I described the ‘wild harp’ of the wind in the telegraph wires a refrigerator in the kitchen started to whirr, causing those at the back of the room to shudder nervously.  All rather fun.

I finished the story at 9.50 and the audience duly filed back into their carriages on perfect time (I must say, I was rather proud of myself for that).  The train whistle sounded a mournful requiem and with a sense of foreboding the passengers began their journey into the darkness to meet whatever fate awaited them……this year I refrained from crying ‘Halloa!  Below there!’ as they rumbled away.

The demand for tickets to my show had been so great that on the Wednesday before I travelled to Porthmadog Iwan had asked me if I would be able to perform for a second night, on Saturday.  I was happy to do so,  although the station at Tan y Bwlch was not available so he had to scout around for an alternative venue.  On Friday evening I learned that I would be performing my second show in the salubrious surroundings of the Porthmadog Football club.

Once again the Saturday performance would be at 7.30 pm which meant that I had a day to myself and I decided to take a drive to Caernarfon, some twenty miles away.  Caernarfon is a wonderful town completely dominated by the castle that sits on the banks of the River Seiont and overlooks the Menai Straight and the island of Anglesey.

I strolled around the town for a while before making my way to the great fortress and walking into a shaky, grainy, washed-out coloured image from my past.  Many many years ago we took a family holiday in this part of the country and an old cine film exists of the grass covered bailey on which a large circular dais was erected where the investiture of Prince Charles had been carried out in 1969.

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I have no actual memories of my childhood visit to Caernarfon, only those burnt into a tiny strip of celluloid and it was almost as if I had become part of that home movie when I saw a gift shop proudly advertising that they sold film, complete with a yellow and red Kodak sticker from the 1970s.

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I admired the scenery from the top of the ramparts and I was dutifully impressed by the museum honouring the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but eventually I was castled out and left my childhood behind me once more.

It was getting on towards lunchtime now and I decided to drive up into the mountains to Llanberis where I could buy a sandwich and have an impromptu picnic by the side of the lake.  Llanberis is the focal point for those who wish to walk, or take a train, up Mount Snowdon and that mighty peak dominates the town (actually on Saturday a very thick and wet cloud, which contained Mount Snowdon, dominated the town).

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Having finished my lunch I drove back to Porthmadog via the mountain road which took me around Snowdon and I was afforded some spectacular views of rock, mountain and wildlife.

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Back at the hotel I had a little time to rest before setting off for my evening show at the football club.  After the spectacular atmosphere of the night before I wasn’t very confident that Saturday’s show would work and those doubts increased when I first walked into the brightly lit, rather sticky clubhouse.  Outside the rain fell heavily and I got very wet unloading the car, but soon all of the furniture was in and I placed the items for Marigold on a tiny semi-circular stage separated from the first row of the audience by a dance floor.

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I was relieved to see that there were two small theatrical lanterns, one on each side of the room, which would illuminate the stage a little, unfortunately only one of them was working but it cast a healthy glow and meant that we could dispense with the harsh fluorescent overhead lights.

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George arrived in a rather flustered state of mind having had a day of late running trains and general difficulty.  The weather had been bad and the staff of the railway had been followed by a tv film crew making a fly on the wall documentary, and nothing had been easy.  Other members of the staff arrived and they all had the same story to tell, all sharing their tales of woe.  Passengers seemed to have been a major problem and George muttered at one point ‘we are a narrow gauge railway with Brunel gauge passengers!’

Once more we waited for our audience who this time would not be arriving by train (there not being a station alongside the Porthmadog football pitch), but by double decker bus, which duly arrived, steamed up and full, at 7.30.  In the front row George had placed four paper plates with the word ‘reserved’ on them, for here would sit the royal party of Queen Victoria and her entourage, and who should turn up but my old friend Rita and her husband Frank from Llandrindod Wells.  You may remember that Rita and I performed The Queen and the Commoner together back in August.

With the audience seated and the Queen in place it was time to begin, and once more Doctor Marigold took to the stage and did his thing.  For all my doubts, for all the difficulties of performing in a  football club,  for all the problems with the lighting, for all the general negative atmosphere of a difficult day that hung over the railway and its staff, the show went really well, in fact I would say that my performances of both Marigold and the Signalman were better than the night before.  Indeed as I closed the second half I received a standing ovation (albeit led by my tame Queen who rose to applaud leading others to dutifully follow)

The show over I chatted and mingled before the audience had to make a run through the pouring rain for the bus back to Porthmadog.  One gentleman stood looking at my set for The Signalman and said ‘a very impressive block signalling system you have’.  I was rather proud of this, for I had constructed my own device to represent the inside of the signal box, but then he went on and added the words which I knew would be inevitable when I eventually visited a working railway for the first time: ‘of course, the proportions are all wrong, it is far too big, but very good anyway!’

Eventually the bus departed and I was left to load my car once more in the pouring rain.  I returned to the warmth of The Golden Fleece Inn and sat in the bar where I slowly wound down from the evening’s events.

It had been a most enjoyable two days both from a performance point of view, but also as tourist: Snowdonia is a most beautiful part of Britain and I hope to return one day soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sold!

You may recall a couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about the forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s of rare Charles Dickens works and memorabilia.  I had been asked by the auction house to read from one of Charles’ own ‘prompt copies’ to help publicise the event and nervously held a tiny volume of the Mrs Gamp reading, signed and annotated by Charles himself during his reading tour of America in 1868.

Well the auction took place yesterday and although I was unable to attend in person I managed to follow proceedings online, and I’d like to share a few highlights with you:

There were 243 lots ranging from exquisite signed first editions to pamphlets and plays published after Charles Dickens’ lifetime, all of which had been collected over 55 years.

The first interesting lot to me was number 15, described as: ‘Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, 1836-1837, 19/20 original parts’

Charles Dickens’ career as a novelist began in 1836 when he collaborated with the illustrator Robert Seymour to begin work on a serialised novel.  Initially sales were not good and the print runs for the first few parts were small (no more than 400 copies were issued of the first monthly edition).  When the fourth instalment came out Dickens introduced the character of Sam Weller and the tone was instantly changed.  Soon sales rocketed and those early instalments become much sought after leading to a number of re-prints.

The collection offered at the auction, although complete, was not all first issues, the first three being later re-prints, so it was not an absolutely perfect set.  The selling price?  £12,500.  I knew at this point that most lots in the sale would be well beyond my means, but it was fun to watch and listen as they sold.

One might suppose that the first edition monthly part works would prove to be the most valuable items, but as soon as an autograph or an inscription was on an item so the price shot up.  For instance there was copy of the first book edition of The Pickwick Papers published in 1837, complete with a handwritten dedication which sold for £100,000.

A similarly signed edition of David Copperfield sold for £110,000.

There were a few items in the auction that were of particular interest to me, such as lot 194 which featured a reading copy of my favourite piece, Doctor Marigold. The catalogue described it as

‘8vo (214 x 130mm.), the second and third readings printed on proof paper, three pencil corrections to Doctor Marigold, together in nineteenth-century embossed brown cloth, preserved in chemise and quarter brown morocco folding box, a few minor marks and stains, upper hinge starting

PROBABLY THE PRINTER’S OWN COPIES OF THESE EXTREMELY RARE READING EDITIONS.’

This is an item that I would love to have bid for for I feel a very special connection to Charles through Marigold but unfortunately I didnt have a spare £32,500 down the back of the sofa.

The next item of interest was lot 209, the annotated reading edition of Mrs Gamp that I used at The Charles Dickens Museum a few weeks ago.  I had no particular desire to own this item but as I had held it and read from it my curiosity was peaked.  It sold for £62,500.

The auction was hastening to an end now, but lot 233 was yet to come:

‘DICKENS, CHARLES AND COLLINS, WILKIE
The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices. No Thoroughfare. The Perils of Certain English Prisoners. London: Chapman and Hall, 1890′

In 1857 Dickens and Collins took a trip together to Cumberland and produced this minor series of their adventures which are great fun.  A couple of years ago I tried to develop them into a two handed show, acting with my brother-in-law Martin, but somehow the script just didn’t naturally form and the project got put away, maybe to resurface again one day.

This edition was the first collected book edition (published after Dickens’ death) and I actually put an online bid in for it.

As the auctioneer opened the bidding my heart started to beat faster and a slight sweat broke out.  I had the initial bid on this lot.  The auctioneer asked for any more bids.  Would there be a rival for this volume?  ‘Any more bids? I have an online bid, paddle number 66, are there any more bids?  I will sell, fair warning. Sold!’ and the gavel came crashing down.

I had invested £50 (£62 with auction house costs) and am now the proud owner of a ‘first edition!’

I am sure that Mr Lawrence Drizen,  the erstwhile owner of this collection, will hardly have noticed an extra £50 in his bank account, but I am delighted to have been part of the sale and to have invested in it.

The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices will sit proudly on my shelves.

 

Homeward Bound

‘I’m sittin’ in the railway station
Got a ticket for my destination
On a tour of one night stands
My suitcase and guitar in hand
And every stop is neatly planned
For a poet and a one man band
Homeward bound’

So mused Paul Simon in his 1966 classic.  I empathised with him on Saturday morning, although I was at an airport instead of  a railway station.  I rather wish I’d caught a nasty chesty cough, so I could write ‘My suitcase and catarrh in hand……’, instead I just had a second suitcase, and a heavy one at that.

My week long tour had finished the night before at The Hermitage and I was now ready to pack up my things and travel home.  Fortunately my flight out of Nashville was not until 1.10, so I had plenty of time to prepare.  To ensure that my big case wasn’t over weight for check in I packed all of the heaviest items in my little black carry on case.  The braided cloak, and the rest of the Tale of Two Cities costume, along with the thick black frock coat and my various waistcoats were squashed into a tiny cube and looked rather like one of those crushed cars.  In the other half of the case I packed my common, coarse boots from Great Expectations and my black shoes from the other shows, and into the void of each I stuffed socks, as well as the little boxes containing my cufflinks and pocket watch.  I needed to sit on the lid to get the zip closed, but I was pleased with my handiwork.

By contrast the main case looked a little empty but that was just as well because in addition to the main zip being on the point of failure, so the one that closes the internal compartment had broken too meaning, that every time the case was opened everything spilled out.  The less weight in there the better.

I left the hotel at 10.30, which was far too early, but the airport would be more interesting than my little hotel room.  Having re-filled my lovely Jeep with fuel and returned it to Hertz I made my way into the departures area of the airport.  I was only flying to Charlotte but as it was the first leg of an international flight I had to have my passport checked, which meant standing in a line to see one of the American Airlines agents, rather than just doing everything at the little kiosk.  The proliferation of self check-in kiosks means that in the world of day to day travel the process of checking in has speeded up to an extraordinary amount, but it also means there are many less agents available and I was forced to join a long and largely stationary queue.

The sole agent was dealing with someone who was trying to take her dogs on her travels and for some reason the correct procedures had not been followed (whether by the passenger or the airline was not clear), so the whole situation needed a great deal of keyboard tapping work to sort it out.  Thank heavens that I was so early, I hate to think what would have happened if I had been in a rush.

Eventually another agent appeared and the line began to crawl slowly on until it was my turn.   After a cursory glance at my passport I was sent on my way.

At the security check my little case was taken to one side for further inspection and apparently a watch hidden deep in a pair of shoes, disguised by rolled up socks, was deemed as suspicious!

My flight took me to Charlotte where I had a three hour lay over, which I filled with some lunch and a coffee before making my way to the gate.  Fortunately their was a request for passengers to offer their carry-on bags to be checked, and I was able to rid myself of my black cube of solid mass for free.

We took off as night fell and headed north towards the eastern seaboard where we turned left.  I had my blind closed, but heard the two people behind me trying to work out where we were.  They were a young couple and American.  I was intrigued and wondered if I might recognise the coastline, so lifted the blind to peer down and was astounded that they had any doubt as to where we flying.  Beneath me was Manhattan Island with a bright glaring glow coming from Times Square.  Brooklyn Bridge, Triborough Bridge and George Washington Bridge all  clearly visible, and all busy.

I closed the blind again feeling somewhat smug that I know America better than some Americans, and relaxed for the long journey home and to my family.

It had been an interesting tour and one during which I felt I had conquered a demon which was rather an unwelcome visitor.  The learning of two major shows had frightened me through the summer, more than I’d like to admit.  As I struggled to get the words to stick and kept coming up short I had a fear that my ability to learn lines had deserted me.  I have struggled with lines before, but the enormity of trying to commit over three hours worth of dialogue to memory seemed overwhelming.  Actors are naturally insecure and when their confidence is dented they can spiral down into a very dark place, a place where I have no desire to go.

The fear of forgetting lines is real for anyone who performs on stage, but when you are a solo performer it is increased greatly, for you have no one to help, no one to rescue you, no one to save your embarassment.  You are standing alone, as if stripped naked whilst hundreds of people laugh, or even worse get up from their seats one by one to leave leaving an empty theatre with only the performer left (this is my most terrifying and vivid stress dream).

So when, on Sunday 15 September I stood in the Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington and uttered the immortal lines ‘It is a far far better thing that I do, than I have ever done;  It is a far far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known’ the tears in my eyes were not purely for the selfless sacrifice of Sidney Carton but also from the knowledge that I could still learn lines and had somehow conquered that demon.  I don’t mind saying that I had a feeling of elation and pride.

A few days later, after I had performed Nicholas Nickleby at Winterthur, my friend David Keltz who is also a one man performer asked me ‘how many hours of material do you have in your head?’.  At the time I didnt have an answer, but I thought I would give it some thought.

These are the shows that I could perform right now with minimal work:

Mr Dickens is Coming: 50 minutes
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1 act): 70 minutes
Great Expectations : 100 minutes
A Tale of Two Cities: 60 minutes
Doctor Marigold: 60 minutes
The Signalman: 40 minutes
A Child’s Journey With Dickens: 30 minutes
A Christmas Carol (full version): 110 minutes

All of that equals 8.6 hours of material.

A Tale of Two Cities will fade away soon, and after October 13 so too will Great Expectations, although I have a feeling that that is on the way to becoming a permanent fixture.

The human mind is an extraordinary thing!

Now I am back in the UK, and I have a few shows coming up.  I will be performing Doctor Marigold and The Signalman at the Ffestiniog and West Highlands Railway, and Great Expectations in the village of Sutton Scotney.  After that it is time to dust off A Christmas Carol, initially in Liverpool for a school group and then my main American tour will begin.

I will, of course, be telling you all about it in this blog, and greatly look forward to sharing my adventures once more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Final Day….For Now

Friday 20 September marked my final day on this leg of American season and once again saw me waking in my little room at the Comfort Inn and Suites hotel near Nashville.

It was still early when I woke, too early for breakfast, so I made a coffee, turned the TV on and watched some coverage of the golf tournament which is being played at the beautiful Wentworth course in Surrey.  This is an event that Liz and I have attended in previous years and it was lovely to remember us walking through the woods and along the fairways, marvelling at some of the best golfers in the world doing their thing.

Breakfast was the usual fare from a hotel of this sort: waffles, bacon, scrambled eggs and pastries and didn’t take up too much of my day.

As I did not have any commitments until the evening the day spread out before me and I had done a little research to see if there were any reasonably priced public golf courses nearby.  I discovered that the Pine Crest Golf Club was only 10 minutes from the hotel, and that it looked very nice, therefore I had booked a tee time in the morning.

In the pro shop I rented some clubs, and bought a couple of boxes of balls, 6 should have been more than enough, even allowing for my lack of knowledge of the course and my relative rustiness.

I put my clubs onto a buggy and drove through the trees to the tenth tee (where I had been told to begin).  Fortunately there was nobody in front and nobody waiting behind, so I could get straight on with things without any pressure.  A couple of practice swings felt good, and I stepped up to the ball.

I took my stance, focussed on the ball slowly swung back, brought the club down and: Clonk!  Horrible dull clonk, and I dragged the ball almost 90 degrees left! Whoops, I decided to count that as a mulligan (a golfing term meaning a shot that one conveniently forgets), and reset with another ball.  I went through the same routine and produced much the same result, although this time with more power and the ball flew into a patch of rough between some trees and towards a lake.

I decided to play my first ball, as at least I could still see it, and guided the buggy over a bit of course it has probably has never driven on before.  My second shot was reasonable and put the ball back on the fairway.  I then drove to look for the other ball and couldn’t find it anywhere.  One down.

Back to the ball in play and the seven iron I had played from the rough had given me some confidence.  Third shot, shanked, into thick weedy undergrowth.  Lost.  Two down.  I placed another ball and miss-hit that, straight into a pond guarding the green.  Three down!  At this rate my round would be over by the middle of the second fairway.

Despite my adventures I had caught up two players who were also struggling, and they eventually let me past (embarrassingly I lost another ball as they stood back and watched), but once I was free of them I relaxed and suddenly I could play golf again.

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The shots started going straight, high and true and my scores came down.  At my ninth hole (actually the eighteenth, as I had started at ten), I not only holed in par, but I actually found the ball I had lost on the first, laying close to the ninth green!  Things were looking up.

The second half got even better and, despite losing one more ball, due to lack of course knowledge that to a bad shot, my scores continued to be impressive, I even got two birdies and by the time I reached the final hole my score was one of my best for a long time.

What a lovely way to have spent a morning, although it hadn’t felt like that on the second fairway!

Having returned my clubs and changed my shoes I got into the Jeep and headed to find some lunch (I would have eaten in the clubhouse, but there was a major tournament scheduled for the afternoon and they were completely overrun).

The radio was still tuned to the Broadway Musicals station and as I drove they played a song from the musical Fame Becomes Me:

Another Curtain goes up
On a one man show
Another chance for an ego
To say hello

Another curtain goes up
On a one man show
Another chance for producers
To rake in the dough

Billy Crystal, Jackie Mason
Kept their overheads low
That’s the way to make a million
On a one man show

Another curtain goes up
On a one man play
Cause if your last film was a flop
Then hello Broadway!

My life’s work in 30 seconds!

I had lunch in a Panera Bread and thoroughly enjoyed one of their Baja Warm Grain Bowls with some grilled chicken on top.  Healthy and delicious.

After lunch I did a little bit of window shopping, particularly looking at small, light laptop computers, as mine is gently fading to a better place and I am keen to replace it soon. After quite a time in BestBuy I made no decisions whatever, and headed back to the hotel, where I continued my research online, which branched out to include a search for a new suitcase too, which is a rather more pressing requirement.

As afternoon turned to evening I prepared for my show and left the hotel at 6.  Once again the traffic was heavy and as I crawled along the Jeep revealed a strange quirk to its nature.  It had been fitted with an engine management setting that cuts out when the car is stationary and which bursts back into life when you are ready to go, this is quite common now in an effort to restrict emissions, but the Jeep had a mind of its own: sometimes the engine stopped, when I stopped and sometimes it didn’t.  If the engine did cut out it sometimes remained silent, or sometimes it just came to life again for no apparent reason – I didn’t take my foot of the brake, or put it on the throttle, it just decided it wanted to run again.  My appreciation for the car grew, it certainly had character.

The traffic hold up was caused by a huge, and very serious looking car crash at an intersection, the road was completely blocked by police, fire and paramedics and the accident had obviously happened at high speed, for two cars were completely smashed, one at the front, one at the back.  It was not a pleasant scene, but fortunately the police were on hand to divert the rush hour traffic.  I drove on, hoping above hope that the drivers were not too seriously hurt and that all that had been lost was a couple of cars.

Because of the delay I was a little late to The Hermitage but still in plenty of time for the show, and as I had re-set the stage the night before so there was nothing to be done other than get into costume, which I duly did.  The audience arrived gradually, some on the golf cart but many walking through the grounds as the evening was a little cooler than the night before and perfect for a twilight stroll.  Most purchased a glass of wine and then made their way into the ‘theatre’ to bag a good seat.

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At 7.30 Hannah welcomed everyone and the last show of this tour began. It was  a really fun evening and the audience laughed and joined in with great enthusiasm.  Uriah Heep got his own round of applause as did James Bond and we all had lots of fun.  It was a lovely way to bring the week to a close, which had begun with some very stressful days, especially leading up to the performance of A tale of Two Cities, and had now gently wound down to this happy moment.

When the applause had died down I opened the floor up to questions and once again their were plenty forthcoming.  One gentleman asked ‘how did you get started in acting?’  and I thought to myself ‘oh dear, you are so going to wish you hadn’t asked that!’  and out came the school nativity play cockerel story, which went down a storm.

Eventually we wrapped up, although plenty of people stood in line to chat and to pose for photographs.  The Spring House at The Hermitage is a fabulous venue to perform in, it is so friendly and cosy.   I certainly hope that I  can return soon.

As the clock ticked around towards 9.30 the last of the audience had departed, I had changed and was boarding the golf cart to be taken back to my car. I said goodbye to Hannah and drove back to my hotel.  There was a restaurant nearby which stayed open until 11pm and I celebrated the end of my trip with a delicious grilled salmon dish served on a piece of cedar wood to give it a hint of smokiness, accompanied by rice and asparagus, with a glass of wine to wash it all down.

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Fortunately my flight was not to be an early one on Saturday morning, so once I got back to the room I could go straight to bed without worrying about packing.  All of that could wait for morning.

To Nashville

At 5 o’clock on Thursday morning my alarm sounded and brought me crashing into a new day.  I got straight up, lest I should fall asleep again and immediately showered to try and wake myself up a bit.  Most of my packing had been done the night before, but I had hung my costumes up to air after the two shows on Wednesday, and it would have been a disaster to set off for Nashville with my frock coat and trousers hanging in The Fairville Inn.

At 5.45 I hauled the cases to the Audi and found Pam already there waiting for me to arrive with the car key.  The sky was dark and from the heavens Orion twinkled over us as I put my big case into the boot, and my little, albeit very heavy one, into the back seat.  Pam took the driving seat and we set off in the darkness towards Philadelphia airport following a very twisty cross-country route as directed by her phone.  ‘We need to watch out for deer.’ Pam said and sure enough soon we were treated to a mother and her fawn trotting across the road in front of us.

The journey was not long, and soon we were on the very busy I-95, where the driving of others was quite terrifying, trucks swooping from lane to lane as they saved vital seconds.  We pulled into the airport, where there was lots of cars creeping to their various terminal drop off points.  I inwardly sighed, lots of traffic equates to lots of people.  Lots of people equates to long security lines.  Long security lines equates to minimal breakfast time.  I know my priorities.

I unloaded the car and said goodbye to Pam before going to the self check-in kiosk at the American Airlines gate, and from there to the bag drop.  Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, my big case was still over the weight limit, and I had to find a place on the terminal floor where I could open both cases and try to stuff more clothing into the already bulging little one.  Eventually I managed to squeeze it shut and returned to the scales and was heartily congratulated by the agent for brining the weight from 52 lbs down to 47: ‘Now, THAT is what I am talkin’ about!  Good job!’

I was convinced that I wouldn’t be allowed to take the little roller onboard as carry on, so heavy and bulging was it now, but I would face that problem when I came to it.  For now it was security and thankfully my worst fears were not realised as the line was quite short and I got through in good time.  Having replaced my belt, shoes and watch I went in search of sustenance which I found at a Legal Seafood outlet.

Re-fuelled with orange juice, coffee eggs and bacon I dragged my bag to gate C26 where, as I arrived, an announcement was being made asking for passengers who would be willing to check their carry-on bags as it would be a full flight.  This was the solution to my little bag concerns and soon it was tagged and ready to take its place alongside its larger cousin in the hold.

It was daylight by the time we taxied to the runway end, and a beautiful morning was in store.  As the captain opened the throttles and pulled back on the stick we soared into the sky and almost straight away banked hard to the left.  As the pilot stood the plane on its port wingtip I had a perfect view of Philadelphia, we flew directly over the Museum of Art and I could imagine early morning wannabe Rockys  bouncing up and down with their arms aloft.  We flew along the route of the I76 and I assume somewhere over the region of Bucks County, The Ambler Inn and Byers Choice.

I read throughout the flight, only to pause for a cup of coffee.  After around 90 minutes the various announcements were made in preparation for our landing and we slowly descended through the clouds to see Tennessee laid out beneath us.  My first view was of a huge lake, or reservoir, surrounded by large homes, with boat houses,  The surface of the lake was occasionally scarred by a silver slash as someone bumped and skipped across the water.

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More big homes and golf courses gradually gave way to churches and colleges, and now the houses were in communities, albeit in great circular neighbourhoods, each home with a large yard and many with a swimming pool.  Onward our approach went and now there were shopping malls, and industrial units, and the great circular neighbourhoods with their broad streets were replaced by narrower straight ones with smaller plots of land cheek-by-jowl with each other.

In the course of a few minutes I had been given a very graphic representation of the demographic of this part of Nashville.

At baggage claim I was relieved to discover that the zip on my large case had survived the journey and that my belongings weren’t coming around on the carousel one by one, which could have been humiliating, to say the least. The car rental facility is in the terminal parking garage at Nashville airport, so I didn’t need to board a shuttle bus to take me to the far reaches of the airport, as is the case sometimes.

This year my Hertz car rental contracts have allowed me to walk to a certain aisle and just choose whichever car I want and yesterday I chose a rather impressive midnight blue Jeep Compass Trailhawk, with 4×4 transmission, and red towing hooks front and rear in case I should get stuck in the mountainous regions of Nashville and need winching out.  It was impressive inside too with body–hugging leather seats and all the electronic gizmos I could wish for.  The sad fact was that of all the cars on this part of the trip this is the one I would be driving least, but it was fun anyway.

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My off-roading adventure began when I got completely lost in the airport roads and found myself in the arrivals pick up lane, instead of speeding away to my hotel.  Eventually I freed myself and was skimming along the freeways listening to songs from Broadway on the satellite radio system.

My hotel was not far away and fortunately I was able to check in, as it was still fairly early in the morning (I had gained an extra hour in my day by flying westward).

There followed a lazy relaxing morning.  I caught up with some work and watched some TV, before walking across the parking lot to a Country Cupboard restaurant where I devoured a plate of fried chicken and corn.

In the afternoon I started to run through a few lines for my evening performance, although Mr Dickens is Coming is an old script and I am very familiar with it, however, it does not do to become complacent and it was a good session.  I was also able to do something that I haven’t done all trip: laundry!  The guest laundry at the Mount Juliet Quality Inns and Suites just happened to be on my floor, so I thought it would be churlish not to use it.

As late afternoon came around I showered to energise myself for the evening ahead, collected all of my costumes and props and went to the Jeep.  I programmed my sat nav unit to take me to The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s house, and she guided me into the midst of heavy rush hour traffic.  My Navigation unit is an English one and the directions are given in a beautiful cut glass voice, that of an English rose who would not be out of place in the new Downton Abbey film.  It was wonderful to hear her modulated tones telling to me join the ‘Old Hickory Boulevard’  One could imagine Maggie Smith saying it with her nose wrinkled in distaste.

The Hermitage was a plantation house and was the home of the seventh president of the United States.  He is burried, next to his wife Rachel, in a tomb that he designed and had built.

I have performed at the Hermitage twice before but unfortunately the pared back nature of my tours over the last two years have meant that Pam, Bob and I were not able to find a date for a performance of a Christmas Carol either last year or this but Hannah Howard, who is in charge of the various events at the house, has instigated a series of performances featuring the works of great Victorian authors.  The ‘Conversations with the Classics’ season would begin with me, and would also take in Poe and Longfellow.

I arrived to be met by the team who would be running the event, foremost Hannah, and we all piled into a little golf cart to rattle through the grounds towards the Spring House where the shows are staged.

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As we drove we could admire the deer and turkeys who call these grounds their own and who come out to play when the paying public have gone to their homes.

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The set for Mr Dickens is Coming is fairly simple and does not require either a guillotine, or a large screen to hang myself behind, although it does require a representation of Charles’ reading desk, a slender piece of furniture draped in red fabric.  Hannah had brought a small oval side table which although not really the correct dimensions would do the job admirably.  I took out my length of red cloth, which so far during the week had been a rug, a shawl, a pool of spilt wine and a wall covering, and which now would recreate the centre piece for Charles Dickens’ reading tours: that has been one versatile piece of cloth.

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I ran through a few lines just to test the acoustics, and then went to the kitchen where I changed into my costume ready to perform.  The audience arrived gradually, in that most were brought to the Spring House on the golf cart, which could only hold 6 or so people on each trip, but soon everyone had made it, and not got caught up in the ghost tours which were also happening on the property that evening.

Hannah welcomed me to the stage and I began the show with my silly ‘words of Charles Dickens’ ice-breaker.  The various characters and scenes from the books were very well received, and I once again included the Miss Havisham passage towards the end, which gives some reality and balance to a part of the script that was quite frivolous before.

When I had finished the performance itself I instigated a Q&A session (For an event entitled ‘Conversations with the Classics’ it seemed necessary), and there were plenty of interesting questions, including ones about Catherine and Ellen Ternan, Dickens in America, the Dickensian TV series, Dickens influence on the plight of the needy, and so on.  An excellent session which was eventually wrapped up by Hannah with a wave of the hand from the back of the room.

I then relocated to another room in the Spring House where I signed copies of books that people had brought along, and chatted to them at greater length (the people, not the books).  It was amazing to discover how many in this group are following the blog, and therefore I must point out how kind, friendly and generous in your praise you all are!

The evening wound up and I was soon changed and ready to leave on the golf cart.  As all of my props and costumes could remain in situ ready for the next night’s performance I felt very unburdened as I returned to the Jeep.

I stopped at a restaurant on my way home, and just managed to get an order in before the kitchens closed, so enjoyed a late supper of a ribeye steak and a baked potato.

At 10.30 I was back in my hotel and ready to sleep.

 

Winterthur in Late Summer

After my two days of leisure Wednesday marked my return to the stage and when I woke up my thoughts turned to The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which I would be performing twice at the Winterthur Museum later in the day.

The first thing to do was to pack all of the props that I would need into my small roller case, so having removed all of the Tale of Two Cities things I put in an old newspaper, some kid gloves,  a couple of handwritten letters and a hangman’s noose.  I made sure that my cufflinks and watch were still in their pocket and then put in a white shirt and a couple of pairs of socks.  I put my costume, with a black cravat and waistcoat onto a hanger, and then went to the little reception office to get a cup of coffee (there are no coffee machines in the rooms at The Ambler), but horror of horrors the machine  had disappeared.  There was no explanation from the lady at the front desk, just that it wasn’t available this morning, although I could try one of the other buildings to see if there was a machine available there.  Eventually I was successful and returned to my room to continue watching a Netflix documentary series about the Last Czars until it was time for breakfast.

When the episode finished I packed all of the rest of my clothes into my big suitcase and tried to zip it up.  The case has rather struggled on this trip, having to contain the costumes and props for four different shows and as I stood it up the zip parted and gaped open.  Fortunately, it was only one half of the zip, so I could seal the case with the other, but this may spell the beginning of the end for this particular suitcase.

I was due to meet Bob at 8 for what has become something of a tradition when I am in Chalfont.  We filled our plates from the buffet and sat down to catch up on all of our news and talk about how future tours may pan out.  Over the years these informal breakfast meetings have proved very useful, as well as being a great time to chat with a good friend.

Soon it was time to say our goodbyes  and to go our separate ways.  I went back to the room, finished the packing and then loaded up the car to drive to Winterthur, a journey of an hour or so.

Heavy traffic on the route gave me time to run through a few pieces of the Nickleby script, for although I have been performing it for many years and know it inside out, upside down and backwards too, there are a couple of new passages that I introduced earlier in the year which I was keen to run a few times.

I was still in good time as I pulled up in the car park at Winterthur and unloaded my cases and costume.  I remembered that my wash bag was in my big suitcase, so managed to open that in the boot of the car (no mean feat) and grab the little black  bag to take with me.

At the bottom of the tree-lined path that joins the car park to the visitors centre I found my friends Ellen and Barbara unloading a table and rug that looked suspiciously like they may be for my set.  We all hugged and made our way inside, where I was able to greet more old friends in the gift shop.

We couldn’t get into the theatre where I was to perform yet, as there was  a lecture going on, so we all discussed the set in the lobby.  The problem lay with the screen which is necessary for the final scene of the show, when Ralph Nickleby hangs himself. Ellen and Barabra had a couple of ideas but somehow nothing seemed to work. One solution was too large and another too small, I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks.  But it is always worth looking around a bit and eventually, in a small room off the cafeteria, we discovered a large projection screen which when covered by a red cloth (in my bag for precisely this purpose), would work very well.

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Inquiries were made as to who it belonged to, permission asked, permission granted and my set requirements were complete.

Ellen and I slipped into the back of the auditorium to listen to the end of the lecture, which was being given by an English lady from the Royal School of Needlework, talking about some of the beautiful creations that the school has made for the Royal family, including the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress.  Needless to say the audience were rapt.

When the lecture was finished and the audience dutifully filed out (many of whom would be coming back to my show), Ellen and I put the set together and I placed the props where they should be.  The screen looked perfect.

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The audience were already gathering outside, so I retired to Barbara’s office, which becomes my dressing room when I am here, and began preparing to change into the all black costume which Nickleby demands.  I was about to spray a little anti perspirant when I realised that my black washbag was nowhere to be seen.  I checked everywhere.  Ellen checked everywhere.  Nowhere was my washbag to be found.  We both checked everywhere again still without luck, until I wondered if it had been handed into the front desk, and sure enough there it was.  I had left it in the car park when I was onloading my costume and a kindly visitor had handed it in.

Brief panic over and I resumed my preparations.  When I was dressed I sat quietly in the office as the audience made their way to their seats.

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1.30 was show time and as the clock ticked round I stood with Ellen and Jeff, who would be making the introductory remarks.  Bang on time we walked to the front and Jeff mounted the podium, he asked how many people had seen me perform before, and I was astounded when pretty well every hand in the room went up (well, half the hands in the room went up, as nobody raised both hands ).  It was a humbled Gerald who mounted the stage.

Nickleby was a new programme for Winterthur, and the audience enjoyed it very much, in particularly the broad comedy of the Crummles theatre troupe scene.  From my point of view I felt completely engaged with the story and it ran very smoothly.

As ever we had a signing session in the cafeteria and people told me how much they had enjoyed the show, and asked me to sign the huge paperback copies of Nickleby that were on sale in the shop:   ‘We had no idea how you would squeeze all of this into an hour!’

When the last of the audience had left I got changed and drove the few miles to The Fairville Inn, where I always stay.  I was welcomed by the owner Laura and was delighted to see the names of David and Teresa Keltz on the register, my dear old friends had made the journey to come and see Nickleby and to catch up.

I was shown to my room, where I munched on some biscuits (cookies), lay on the bed and then had a shower before setting off back to Winterthur for the second show.  The evening audience is always smaller, but once again almost everyone there put their hand up in response to Jeff’s question – I have an immensely loyal following in Delaware.

Not only were David and Teresa in the audience but also Pam Byers as well.  Pam was keen to see Nickleby so that when she is dealing with event organisers in the future she can speak with a little more knowledge of what she is selling.  This week has been useful from that respect in that she has seen Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities as well as Nicklbey.  Pam was also at Winterthur so that she could drive me to Philadelphia airport early the next morning.

If anything the second show was better than the first and it flowed swiftly through the various locales that Dickens takes Nicholas to: London, Yorkshire, London, Portsmouth, London, Devon. Once again the audience showed their appreciation generously as I took my bows.

After the signing David, Teresa, Pam and I decided to get together for supper (I was starving by this time) at Buckley’s Tavern.  I changed and packed up all of my props, taking care not to leave anything behind, and said goodbye to Ellen and Barbara for just a couple of months for I will be returning to perform A Christmas Carol in December.

In Buckley’s the four of us chatted and laughed as we tucked into our various dishes – a comforting Chicken Pot Pie in my case, but the evening is was wearing on and I would need to be waking up at 5 o’clock the next morning, so we made our farewells and all headed back to the Inn.

Once in my room I did as much packing as I could, trying to get as many of the heavy costume pieces into my little case to take the strain off my big case, and then got ready for bed.  Outside the cicadas (or crickets) sung, and I wondered if cicadas (or crickets) in Delaware have different accents to those in South Carolina and with that thought I fell asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

Down Time

Monday

Once Sidney Carton had done his far far better thing and I had said goodbye to my friends in Burlington, so began a couple of days down time during which I could remove Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities from my mind and relax.

On Monday morning I had to wait in my room until 10am for an interview with a Canadian magazine.  Dean, the journalist, called exactly on schedule and we spent around 15 minutes going through his questions about A Christmas Carol.  Naturally he asked what is my favourite film version of A Christmas Caro and then, rather unfortunately for him, he asked if there was one question that I got asked over and over again….the answer, of course, being the one he had just asked.

Having finished the interview I needed to shop – there were a couple of things I wanted to buy including a pair of shoe laces.  I have a pair of brown shoes with only 4 eyelets and the original laces had faded to almost white and were fraying to the point of breaking.  It would be simple to buy a new pair, wouldn’t it?

In England if you want shoe laces you go to a shop that sells shoes, which seems like a simple solution but one that has yet to be adopted in America!  For the next two hours or so I trailed around a whole collection of stores – Kohl’s, Marshalls, Dollar Time, Macy’s, JC Penney’s, CVC all without success. (Dollar Time and CVC did have some laces but only big thick long ones for boots).  In Kohl’s I asked an employee if they sold laces and you would have thought that I was threatening to sell her grandmother – ‘we DON’T sell laces’ she hissed as she turned her back on me and strode away.

Eventually I found myself outside a huge grocery and pharmacy store called Wegman’s.  It was with a sense of extreme nervousness that I approached a member of staff to inquire but when she cheerfully replied ‘yes sir, follow me’ I almost wanted to hug her right there in the middle of the aisle.  A simple trip to buy a pair of laces had turned into a quest that even Homer would have discounted as too improbable.  That was my morning, and the start of my afternoon taken care of.

In the afternoon I was due to meet up with George Byers to play a round of golf.  We had chatted about golf on the drive from the airport and when I mentioned that I might like to play he said that he would try and find a good local course and book a tee time.  At 2.30 we arrived at the Pine Crest Country Club ready to inflict damage on the local topography.

I wont go into great detail about the round, but we had great fun together even if we did lose a great many golf balls in various hedges and ponds.  It was a wonderfully relaxing afternoon and just what I needed after the previous couple of days.

Following the golf Bob and Pam had invited me over for supper and the laid back tone of the afternoon continued into the evening as we all chatted and laughed over a delicious meal of pork tenderloin, macaroni cheese, vegetables and salads.

 

Tuesday

For my second free day I decided to drive into Philadelphia and embark on a bit of tourism.  So on a warm and sunny morning I got into the Audi and let the SatNav unit take me towards the big city.  My first port of call was going to be the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in no time I could see the great Palladian edifice on top of its hill over to my left.  Having cautiously manoeuvred my way around a huge, busy, bustling traffic system I took the Audi down a steep ramp into a subterranean parking lot.

A lift brought me back to daylight and I found myself overlooking the Schuylkill River and the Fairmont Waterworks park.  There was a huge silver weir which curved across the river like a scimitar blade and the whole scene reminded me of the St Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.  I decided not to waste such a beautiful day and spent half an hour so walking by the river and taking in the peaceful scene.  This was once the site of the city water works, and the whole are has been superbly developed into a green park, with a serpentine boardwalk meandering through it.  The old waterworks buildings themselves have been restored to provide space for a museum, or an ‘interpretive center’ as is it billed.

When my walk was completed I climbed a steep path to the top of the cliff and made my way into the Museum of Art.  As I entered the cavernous hall that is the main reception area  a lady came straight up to me and asked me if I had already purchased a ticket and on my response to my negative answer she cheerfully said ‘Well, I have a free one!  I made a group booking and ordered too many.  Here.’  I am ashamed to say that initially I was suspicious, fearing some scam, but this was just a kindly, genuine, friendly offer which I thanked her profusely for.

I love meandering around a good art museum and the Philadelphia Art Museum is definitely a very good one.  The first galleries I went into were European impressionism and in no time I was admiring a fine collection of Manets, Monets, Cezzanes and Van Goughs (including one of the latter’s famous Sunflower creations).

One picture that particularly caught my attention, more for historical fact than for the art itself, was by Manet, entitled ‘The Folkestone Boat, Boulogne’ which was painted around 1868.

Edouard Manet (1872) Departure of the Folkestone Boat

My interest in his particular image stemmed from the famous Staplehurst train crash that Charles Dickens was involved in on June 9, 1865.  He had been riding on the tidal train from Folkestone which had met the steamer from Boulogne.  Therefore Manet’s painting depicted the same scene as Dickens and Ellen Ternan would have experienced as they prepared for their journey on that fateful day.

I wandered through the various galleries for a couple of hours and thoroughly enjoyed my time.  Some works I liked, some left me cold, but it was a superb morning.  As ever when I am in a great art museum I was struck at how important the design of the gallery itself is to the whole experience: the lighting, the shape, the colour, the space in the rooms all enhance (or if poorly executed, destroy) the experience.

After a while I felt ‘arted-out’ so found the café where I had a sandwich and a fresh lemonade for lunch, before pondering my next move.  The zoo was just across the river, but somehow that would seem a very lonely thing to do, I needed Liz with me to go there.  The Rodin Museum was only a short walk away, but I decided that I had had my fill of art and sculpture for the day.  I thought about visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary in the footsteps of Charles, but the day was too sunny and too cheerful to take myself into a dark and cold prison.

In the end I decided simply to walk towards the city and enjoy the space.  So having finished lunch I walked out of the main entrance and found myself at the top of ‘those’ steps looking towards the impressive Philadelphia skyline.  Those steps?  yes, for it was here that Rocky Balboa ran in the first movie to bear his name, and turning to face the city raised his arms in his iconic victory salute.

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And now the steps are covered with tourists recreating that moment for their camera phones.  Men, women, old and young all raising their arms and laughing as their family, friends or complete strangers in many cases take their picture.  The museum has thoughtfully placed two foot prints into the stone to mark the exact spot where Rocky stood.  Some muscle-bound guys, usually with a suitably impressed girlfriend watching on, made the run from the bottom of the steps to the top and then skipped lightly from foot to foot,  shadow boxing to prove that it had all been easy and they could do it all over again, all day.

Having resisted the temptation to do the same I descended the steps walked towards the city.  Eventually I found myself at The Franklin Institute, which is a science museum and thought it may be fun to take a look.  Unfortunately it is very much geared to a family visits, with lots of interactive galleries aimed at children, so it didn’t really match up to my expectations, although I was like a little kid admiring the huge steam locomotive in the basement.

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One exhibit of which the Institute is very proud is their giant heart which you can actually walk through.  The heart is a huge fibreglass construction and once you are in you walk up and down little staircase, through little passageways as if you were a blood cell.  Along the way little signs tell you exactly where you are in the organ and what is happening to you.

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It is very instructive and educational But in this litigious age the museum has to cover its back, it wouldn’t want people thinking that they now know so much about the workings of a human heart that they might go home and attempt some amateur surgery, so there is a disclaimer:

‘The Franklin Institute’s  THE GIANT HEART provides educational information and demonstrations.  The information shall not be used as treatment recommendation or medical advice.  You should consult your personal physician for such treatment advice’

My visit to the Institute finished with an IMAX film about volcanoes which was impressive, as all IMAX films are.

It was now time to head back to the car and as I walked back to the Art Museum the Rocky poses were still being struck at the top of the steps.  I set my SatNav which told me how to leave the city by a particularly appropriate route: this is the city of the Liberty Bell, this is the city of Benjamin Franklin one of the founding fathers of the United States (a child’s t shirt in the institute’s gift shop depicted Franklin in sunglasses with the caption ‘Too Cool For British Rule), this is the city of Independence and this particular Britisher was being told to leave on the I-76! (the American Declaration of Independence of course having been signed in 1776)

The journey back to the Ambler Inn was slow, but on my return I packed all of bags up, as I would be moving out and on to my next shows the next day.  To be honest I was now getting restless and bored:  a  coupe of days to recharge and reset were perfect but now I was ready to get back onto the stage and get back to doing what I came here to do.

I trimmed my beard (I had allowed it to get rather bushy and unkempt for the character of Magwitch and maybe Monsieur Defarge), and showered before going to the restaurant and eating dinner under the stars, which was lovely.

From the Ambler Inn I will drive to Winterthur where I will be performing The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby twice in a day, before flying to Nashville and my final venue of this tour.

 

 

 

The Guillotine

Sunday 15 September was the day on which I was to perform A Tale of Two Cities at The Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington, New Jersey.  Rather than staying nearby I was to commute to the church from The Joseph Ambler Inn, meaning that I was able to spend a nice relaxing morning in familiar surroundings, rather than packing everything up and moving on yet again.

Having had an early morning coffee and then a nice buffet breakfast I came back to my room to do some final rehearsing on the A Tale of Two Cities script.  To be perfectly honest this day has been haunting me all Summer, I have been dreading it and have been very nervous and tense about it.  Way back when Pam was putting this schedule together I should never have agreed to do two major shows in as many days, both of which needed re-learning from scratch, neither of which I had performed in over a year:  it was a monumental task which would have been difficult at the best of times, but a difficult summer for us at home simply added extra pressure to the process and at times I was close to abandoning the whole idea and just saying no.

In life there are occasions when fate, the world, God – whatever or whoever you want to call it – comes along to help. maybe an event that is in some way impossible unexpectedly cancels, or circumstances change and they want a different show after all.  I don’t mind admitting that over the last few weeks I was almost hoping for such a quirk of fate to intervene and change yesterday’s commitment.

I was scared.

No such intervention arrived and that in itself sent a message – you have to do it.  You will do it.  You will do it well.  So I worked harder and completely committed myself to preparing properly and professionally.

One huge bonus was the venue.  I have been performing at The Broad Street Methodist church for many years and a nicer bunch of people I could not hope to meet.  Laura, Joe, Phyllis, Marcia and the rest of the team go out of their way to make everything right for me and do it with genuine kindness and affection.  Actually onto that list I will add the building itself, the old church is light, airy and welcoming. It is very much a safe place and one which I love to perform in.

The audience too are a loyal and friendly bunch so I knew that there would be no animosity or harsh judgement from that quarter.

So, back to the Joseph Ambler Inn and my rehearsals.  Rather than running the whole script I concentrated on those passages that have proved troublesome over the last months and once I was satisfied with them I out the script down.  It would have be very easy to over do it and it is important to know when to step away.  For the rest of the morning I made sure I had my costume in place and the various props that I use during the show.

When I first performed A Tale of Two Cities in Llandrindod Wells the organisers decided that they would build me a giant guillotine which dominated the stage, and which actually worked (well not to the extend of striking people’s heads off, but the plywood blade rose on a strong length of rope and then fell with a huge dramatic bang).  I had worked the beast into the script and it became essential to the success of the show’s ending.  Via Pam I had asked Laura if such a thing could be constructed for my performance in Burlington and was assured that it would be done, but I knew that it wouldn’t be like the Welsh one, partly because the dramatic bang of the blade falling was  thanks to a bare wooden stage with a void beneath the boards making the whole thing a big base drum.  The ‘stage’ at Burlington is carpeted, so even if the new guillotine were the same the effect would be lost.

In preparation for this I had sourced a sound effect of a guillotine, featuring a metal blade sliding down, a rather grisly crunching sound, followed a moment later by a little thump as the supposed head fell onto the floor.  I made sure that I had the effect on a memory stick and packed it into my case.  I was as ready as I ever would be.

The journey to Burlington was about 40 minutes and I thoroughly enjoyed driving Bob’s Audi, although I had to relearn how to drive, which was a very strange experience.  The Audi has a manual gearbox (stick shift for my American readers) which is rare over here.  Back home I have always driven manual cars, I love them, I feel more in control with them, I like being able to choose what gear I use, when.  But now the gear lever was on the wrong side, I was operating it with my right hand and not my left, and it felt completely alien to me!  It was the strangest experience and I felt like a novice driver again, having to concentrate hard on the sheer mechanical action of changing gear.  After a while I worked out what the issue was, and it was a simple one, when changing from 3rd to 2nd gear at home I bring the leaver to the neutral part of the H and then PUSH it over before slipping it down into 2nd.  Now I was having to PULL it over and it felt wrong.  Muscle memory is an extraordinary thing.

I reached the Church at 12, just as the morning service was finishing and the congregation was flocking out.  In amongst the crowds my ‘team’ were already starting to prepare the stage and get everything into place.  Laura was at the centre of things giving orders and making sure everything was in its place.  Soon I was part of the stage crew too, making decisions, asking for this or that to be moved, let’s have the screen for a slide over there, and the furniture placed just so, and a trunk for my props behind it, and so on.

‘Where do you want the guillotine?’

Oh, yes, there was a guillotine and I was about to be introduced to it.  There was great drama in the whole process as the monster was carried through the church in its component parts.

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Onto the stage and into the spot I had selected and it was constructed before my eyes and a magnificent edifice it proved to be!  8 feet tall, towering over me, strong and sturdy.  The ‘blade’ had been fashioned from card and tin foil, so wouldn’t actually work, but as you know I had prepared for that with the sound effect.

When the set was as I wanted it Laura and I started to prepare the technical side.  We needed a laptop and projector for the image of Charles Dickens reading to his daughters, which is the inspiration for the telling of the story, and we needed another computer to run the sound effect through.

After much anguish and effort we got everything set up, and Laura would be sat in the front row carefully following the script ready to give me my four guillotine falls as demanded by the script.  The thought came into my head that she could also act as a prompter, but that was a dangerous thing to think and I banished it straight away.

The audience were already arriving as we made the final preparations, and a good crowd it was too – around 160 people taking their places in a very hot sanctuary on a very hot day.

We were ready to start:  all the anguish, all the nerves, all the self-doubt had brought me to this moment.  Laura went onto stage wearing  a rather rakish red beret (purchased at Harrods, she told me, which sounded rather aristocratic – possibly a dangerous thing when there was a revolutionary guillotine close at hand).  I was welcomed onto to stage with warm applause and I knew at that moment that I was safe.

I began by reading an old blog post of mine describing the various literary influences that may have led Charles Dickens to using the French Revolution plot

(It Was the Best of Times….Losing Heads and Hearts: https://wordpress.com/post/geralddickens.wordpress.com/7558)

When that was finished I became Charles Dickens as he described to his daughters, Katie and Mamie, his ideas for a new book.  The show starts with me recreating the pose in the photograph, which would watch over me for the entire performance.

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It went well.  I did not dry up.  I did not freeze,  I did not run from the stage and sob in my dressing room.  Some lines got slightly tangled up,  some came out in slightly the wrong order, but not to the extent that anyone but me, and Laura with her copy of the script, would notice.  As the story progressed so I threw myself more completely into it and by the time Defarge was marshalling his comrades to arms I was in full passionate flow, screaming the ‘hated word’ BASTILLE!!! with as much volume as I could muster.

And then the end.  As Sidney Carton is carried towards the Guillotine in the tumbril he holds hands and comforts an innocent little seamstress.  He holds her hand until the moment she is taken up the steps and beheaded.  I think this is one of the most tender moments of the story and adds greater poignancy to the famous end that is to come.  I used the curve of the altar rail at floor level to represent the streets of Paris, and played the scene so that the girl always had her back to the guillotine as we approached it. There are steps up from floor level and these became the final climb towards her death.  The sound effect came in perfectly and I stooped to hold her imaginary head high for the knitting women to see.

I delivered Carton’s prophetic thoughts from beneath the guillotine and as I delivered some of the finest closing lines ever written I turned to face the blade, looked up to the heavens and as the sound effect came in I slumped my head forward.

Pause. Applause.

Long applause. Standing applause.

I was quite overwhelmed, not only at the reaction of the audience but by the knowledge and realisation that this whole process had not been easy and I had pulled it off, I had conquered my fears and faced them.  I can’t describe the relief and lightness that filled me in that moment.

Once I left the stage I went downstairs to my dressing room and stood breathing deeply for a while, before drying myself off and getting ready to do a signing session.

As at Byers’ Choice the day before there were a lot of familiar faces and old friends in the crowd.  I signed and I smiled and I laughed and I posed.  There were lots of very positive and gushing comments about the show, one of the nicest was a gentleman who said: ‘we had no idea how you were going to pull this off, we didn’t know how you would perform this book.  Oh, we knew that your performance values would be superb, that was given, so we knew we were in safe hands…..’  I am glad that in the run up to the show that he had faith in my abilities, and more perhaps than I did!

When the event was over I changed and then a group of us went over to Francesco’s Italian restaurant for an early dinner.  We usually dine there between the matinee and evening performances when I perform A Christmas Carol , but as we only had one performance yesterday there was very much an after show party feel to our celebrations.

The best part of the conversation was hearing about the creation of the guillotine.  Laura and Marcia had taken on the roll of carpenters and no one else helped them.  Were they skilled carpenters? No.  Had they ever built anything like this? No.  Had they ever used a power tool in their life?  in Marcia’s case a definite and belligerent NO!

The dynamics of this working party were spectacular, as became apparent during the meal.

Laura is for ever running about doing things, constantly organising, taking charge which means her days are packed from morn until morn, a whirlwind of energy.  For a while she tried to find a guillotine, she approached the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to see if they happened to have one as part of their Hallowe’en  displays.  They used to have one, apparently, but no more. Laura tried various other venues, and even asked Pam to keep an eye and an ear open, but no guillotine was forthcoming.  My event was getting closer and she decided to build one.

Marcia is a planner, she likes things to be organised a long time in advance, she likes to know how and when a project will be achieved.  When Laura approached her with just a few days to go before my visit and showed her a tiny sketch on a torn scrap of paper Marcia’s reaction was ‘dear God, no!’

Friday afternoon, as I was performing Great Expectations at Byers’ Choice, saw Laura and Marcia wielding circular saws, hack saws, and power drills as they tried to convert a pile of lumber into a free standing creation.  Apparently Marcia was tentative with the drill prompting Laura to say ‘you need to put more weight behind it, then it will work.’  ‘I cant put any more weight behind it, I haven’t GOT any more weight!’

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As I listened I had a wonderful image of Marcia holding the drill and spinning round and round, whilst the screw remained stationary.  It would be perfectly illustrated by Quentin Blake in a Roald Dahl novel.

There was much laughter as the two of them regaled us with their story and I really think between us all we made a little bit of Broad Street history yesterday.

It had been a wonderful day.  But I wont lie: I am glad it is over.