For Sheila

Sheila 1952 – 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Drood Dudes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘My homestead. And only my homestead’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the North: PIES, Unitarianism and a Palace Stand-In

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On Sunday morning I left my Oxfordshire home at 9am, to drive to the North West of England, specifically to the city of Preston in Lancashire where I was due to perform The Signalman at a matinee and evening show. My venue was to be The Playhouse, a lovely small theatre in the town, and the show was promoted by PIES, a charity which raises money to help feed and educate children in southern Africa, the acronym standing for Partners In Education Swaziland

This was the third appearance for the organisation, and I have gained a loyal following in Preston, having previously performed Mr Dickens is Coming with Doctor Marigold, and A Christmas Carol. My preparations for the trip were less smooth than they might have been for, as regular readers will remember, I had left an important prop for The Signalman in Leeds following my appearance there a few weeks ago, and somehow needed to get it back to appear on the stage in Lancashire. I had originally thought that I would drive to The Leeds Library on the morning of the show and pick the piece up, but understandably the Library does not open on a Sunday. However, Carl, the manager there, offered to meet me somewhere convenient so that we could make the exchange like some seedy contraband deal. This arrangement would mean a very early departure, as I would have to drive for three hours to get to Leeds, meet Carl, and then drive a further 90 minutes to Preston, perform two shows and then drive another 40 minutes to Manchester, the reason for which will become apparent later….

In the week prior to the trip I had an extremely apologetic message from Carol to say that when making our arrangement he had temporarily forgotten that Sunday was his daughter’s 18th birthday and an absence of an hour or so wouldn’t be terribly well thought of within the family circle. For a day or two we toyed with the idea of me going to his area of Leeds, but that would add another hour or so to the journey, and didn’t seem to be a terribly good idea for anyone involved.

The prop in question is a representation of a block signalling console, described in the story as a ‘telegraphic instrument with its dial, face and needle’ I had taken a photograph of a genuine unit at a local railway preservation centre and fixed it to an antique wooden display box. Using two large wooden rods this unit could be slotted into corresponding holes drilled into the top of a clerk’s desk. The unit was far too large for accuracy’s sake, but for a piece of theatrical furniture it has done the job just fine over the last few years. Alongside the signalling unit sits a small wooden box with a brass bell on top of it (again, referenced in the text), and on the Saturday before my show I suddenly had the brainwave of printing a much smaller photograph of the equipment and sticking it to the back of the little wooden box, and using that in lieu of the big wooden box. I contacted Carl and said that I wouldn’t interrupt the birthday celebrations and would instead retrieve the prop from the library itself on Monday morning.

So, without the pressure of driving to Leeds, I set off at 9am with the various pieces of furniture rattling away in the back of the car. It was a beautiful sunny day, and on a Sunday morning the traffic was light, which allowed me to arrive in Preston with plenty of time to spare, indeed enough to stop for a cup of coffee and a lemon drizzle muffin at a nearby motorway service station.

I pulled up outside The Playhouse Theatre at 12.45, having arranged to meet at 1, but the loading doors were already open as a gentleman was busy removing a set from the previous evening’s performance. I went in and was met by a manager at the theatre, and we briefly discussed certain technical requirements for my shows, before the team from PIES arrived. Joe and Karen Comerford first saw me perform in Liverpool a few years ago and got in touch to book me to perform on behalf of the charity. Having exchanged greetings and made suitable enquiries as to how we had all made it through two years of Covid, we all got on with our respective jobs – Joe and Karen setting up the raffle, while I placed all of my furniture on the set and tried to convince a slide projector that it might like to talk to my laptop, sadly in vain.

My show was to be in two acts, the first of which was my talk about the circumstances behind The Staplehurst Rail Crash, and the writing of my book on the subject. I have a short PowerPoint presentation to go with the talk, made up of a few photographs from the book, and it is nice to give the audience something else, other than me, to watch, but on this occasion they would have to put up with my features, as we couldn’t get the projector to co-operate.

The show was due to start at 2 o’clock and a goodly sized audience were already crowding into the bar. The front of house manager asked if we could open the doors, and I retreated down to the dressing rooms in the basement to change into the casually formal combination of trousers, open-necked shirt and jacket, that I wore for my first publicity shot as a writer.

I looked over my notes for the first act talk and panicked as to whether it was actually long enough. I had said to the front of house team that the first act would be around 40 – 45 minutes, but I wasn’t confident. Despite having given this speech on a few previous occasions I am still not comfortable in delivering it, which once again shows my insecurities of speaking as myself, rather than in the fantasy world of one man theatre.

Just before 2 Joe came to find me and together we waited in the wings of the stage until it was time for him to walk onto the stage and introduce me. I walked into the light to generous and welcoming applause, and began to speak. The talk concentrates on the circumstances of the terrible crash itself, as well as some of the personalities involved, and is lifted directly from the book which, I pointed out on a number of occasions, would be on sale during the interval and after the show. When I got to the end of the talk, I spoke briefly about the second half and then left the stage with the sound of applause in my ears. I checked my watch: 45 minutes, I needn’t have worried about a thing!

Back in the dressing room I changed into the all-black costume that I favour for The Signalman and waited while the folk upstairs drank, ate and hopefully purchased books!

I was on much firmer ground when I returned to the stage, although of course was unable to deliver my usual introduction to The Signalman, which is a brief description of Staplehurst, having given a long description in the first act, so launched into the story itself quickly. The simple black stage with the few pieces of furniture arranged on it (including the little telegraph unit, making its debut), provided a suitably sparse atmosphere, and my red light shone dimly as a portent of the doom that was to follow.

When the the three distinct acts of the story had played out I took my bows and then returned to the stage to take questions, as I did all of the way through last year’s American tour. I chatted for around twenty minutes and it was great fun, gently batting away the constant requests to make a dramatisation of Hard Times, in which Preston was the model for Coketown. They will grind me down in the end and I will relent, but the thought of trying to achieve an accurate Lancashire accent under such local scrutiny is a nerve-wracking one!

After the show had finished I made my way to the foyer, to chat and sign books, which were selling well. Gradually the audience drifted away and the foyer was quiet once more. Joe and Karen said that they were popping home for a bite to eat and I retreated to my dressing room where I ate a salad am some fruit that I had brought with me, and passed the time by reading a magazine, playing some backgammon on my phone and running through the lines again.

After a while in my subterranean lair I became aware of voices upstairs and went to see who was about, and was surprised to discover that there was quite a gathering of PIES volunteers, including Norman and Lynne who have kindly provided hospitality to me in previous years. They were surprised to see me, for they assumed that I had walked into town, taking advantage of the sunny afternoon. ‘Gerald! We have some food for you’ and a plate loaded with pieces of pork pie, crisps, salad and a hunk of cheese was produced. It would have been rude not to accept the offering, and my salad had been a small one, so I sat down and tucked in to all but the cheese (dairy products effect the throat, and I avoid them on performance days). Soon the second audience began to arrive and it was time to repeat the earlier process.

The first act went well, and prior to the second commencing Norman went onto stage and said a few words about PIES. The fundraising work that the group undertake helps children in Swaziland, and he pointed out that the money raised from the day’s events would feed 40 children for an entire year, which is quite a thought. Norman then went on to announce the winning raffle tickets: ‘the first is a blue ticket, 34, then another blue ticket, 107, yet another blue, 63. A yellow ticket, 73, and another yellow 137, blue 89 and another blue 43….’ and so it went on. From the wings it dawned on me that all of the winning tickets that had been drawn were in the colours of the Ukranian flag, as if somehow we were able to show our support for the extraordinary spirit that the citizens of that nation are displaying in such terrible times.

When Norman had finished I returned to the stage and performed The Signalman once more, and I was particularly pleased with how it went – the piece is in a good place at the moment.

After I had bowed I once again opened the floor for questions and one was about Dickens’s spirituality and by extension his attitude to religion. I told the audience that Charles had a strong faith and followed the teachings of the New Testament, but as far as aligning himself with any particular religion was concerned he had a distrust of anything organised (seeing the human influence as one of potential corruption), so followed his own faith rather than being dictated to by others. I also talked about the little book based on the gospels which he wrote for his children, ‘The Life of our Lord’. I moved onto other questions, and after a while a gentleman in the front row put his hand up and asked ‘I thought Dickens described himself as a Unitarian?’ I picked up from my previous answer and continued to plough my furrow of not trusting organised religion, although, I conceded, he certainly did not dismiss people or organisations that he saw were doing good and would support such groups. The end of my answer was met with a sort of ‘Hmm’ sound. It is amazing how a single syllable can say so much, and this one said ‘you really don’t know what you are talking about, but OK, I will let it drop!’

The incident niggled at me, so when I got home I did a bit of research about Dickens and Unitarianism, and discovered that, in a way, we were both correct. When Charles visited America in 1842 one of the first people he met in Boston was Dr William Ellen Channing, the city’s leading Unitarian preacher and he was very impressed. Other leading Bostonians, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, followed Channing, and Dickens become more and more enamoured with the doctrine, which purely followed the teachings of the New Testament without, as he wrote once, forcing the Old Testament ‘into alliance with it’. When he returned to England he began to attend the chapel in London where the first Unitarian congregation had met, and later another chapel presided over by the Reverend Tagart. He was a regular attendee for nearly two years, and even afterwards he would occasionally return to listen to particular sermons. He was not only attracted by the spiritual comfort that the Church offered but also by the passionate stance on the campaign for abolitionism, a cause that was particularly close to his own heart.

I hope the gentleman from the front row is reading this and will accept an apology for my ignorance into this aspect of Dickens’s life. In a way we were both correct, for his was not a life long member of the Church, but it certainly had a major effect on his life at that time.

Back in The Preston Playhouse the question and answer session ended and I returned to the foyer, where there was not much to do, other than chat, for all of my books had sold out during my first show!

Having changed and made sure that I had retrieved everything from the dressing room, I returned to the theatre and discovered that Norman and Joe had moved all of my props and furniture to the loading door, so my get out was much quicker than it might otherwise have been. When the car was full, and I checked carefully that I had everything on this occasion, I said goodbye to Norman, who said that he was sorry I wouldn’t be staying with him and Lynne this year, as he would miss the Full English breakfast that Lynne has traditionally prepared in my honour!

On Sunday night, however, I had to drive to a hotel near Manchester, for I had two meetings in Yorkshire the following morning, and I wanted to break the journey a little. As I drove there was the most remarkable giant amber moon sitting low in the sky, which looked as if it were a special effect from a science fiction film. I reached my hotel at around 10.30 and called my new best friends at Uber Eats for a late night pizza as I gently wound down from a long but successful day.

Monday Morning

On Monday morning I enjoyed a large breakfast and wondered what Norman was eating back in Preston. At 9 o’clock I checked out and headed for Leeds where I was at last reunited with the large box that I had left there, although the little replacement had done an admirable job standing in during the Preston performances.

From Leeds I headed towards Rotherham where I had a meeting at one of the most impressive stately homes in the country. Wentworth Woodhouse is a truly impressive pile, but without the fame and popularity of Chatsworth or Blenheim. The house is undergoing a major restoration project and there are many events taking place to help raise money to that end. The building is also used as a filming venue and has doubled up as Buckingham Palace in various TV dramas and big-budget films

I am due to perform there later in the year and wanted to see the spaces where I would be, and to check acoustics, which can be problematic in some large spaces, and came away very excited at the prospect of returning in July.

As I drove up the long, serpentine driveway, my obligations in the North of England were done and I was soon on the M1 heading home.

A New Venue

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Throughout my working year most of the venues that I perform at are repeat bookings, meaning that I know who I am going to meet, where I am going to change and how the room feels. The fact that I have so many requests to return is a wonderful compliment, and makes me feel very satisfied about what I am doing. Occasionally, however, I will receive an email out of the blue asking me to visit a new city and organisation and this is always exciting but slightly nerve-wracking. Such a thing occurred last year when I was contacted by The Leeds Literary Festival with a request to appear as part of their 2022 event. In fact they had wanted me two years ago, but the onslaught of Covid put paid to that. We communicated via email and phone until we settled on Wednesday 2 March as a suitable date, and I would perform my double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold in The Leeds Library.

The day dawned grey and rainy and I spent the morning loading the car up with the various props that the two shows require, and it is quite a collection: for The Signalman I have a large clerk’s desk, which is in two parts – stand and top, a small table, a chair and a stool. On top of the desk is a large wooden box with the image of Victorian signalling equipment pasted to the front, representing the ‘telegraphic instrument with its dial, face and needles’ that Dickens describes. There is a large book, a railwayman’s lamp (complete with a battery-operated candle to make it flicker) and a new addition – a theatrical spotlight (or at least, an interior designer’s approximation of one) on a stand to double for the dismal danger light at the mouth of the tunnel which is so important to the telling of the story. For Marigold I have a small set of wooden steps, a stool (a smaller one than that which features in The Signalman), a wooden crate, an anodised pail with a small metal shovel, a kettle and a rolled up blanket. Alongside all of the hardware I had to pack two costumes and of course a box containing copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’ All of this filled pretty well every square inch of a Renault Kadjar and it was with a sense of relief that all of the doors shut successfully.

The drive to Leeds takes about three hours and I left with plenty of time in hand just in case the notorious M1 roadworks should delay me. As it happened my journey was very smooth and I had plenty of time to stop for lunch before arriving in the heart of the city at around 3 o’clock, ready to check in at my hotel, The Plaza Park. Being in the very centre the hotel had no car park, but I was able to leave the car for a few minutes in order to get directions to a large parking garage nearby, from where I could easily walk back. I had an hour in my room, during which I had a shower to freshen myself up before going to the venue.

Even though the Library was only a five minute walk from my hotel, I needed to drive so that I could unload all of the furniture and props ready for the show, but as I made my way to the car I had a phone call from Carl, who had booked me. In our various emails I had mentioned to him that I would arrive at the library at 4, unload and then go to park the car, and he had suddenly realised that he hadn’t told me that there was no vehicular access to the library at all, so I would need to park in another parking garage, where he would meet me and help me unload.

By the time I was finally parked on the second level of the QPark garage it was almost 4.30 and I had agreed to appear on a Leeds Lit Fest live podcast at 5, so other than taking my costumes and a few smaller articles, Carl and I decided to delay the unloading process until later. We took the lift down to the ground level and walked along a typical city centre street, through the bustle of a weekday evening, past a McDonalds and a Starbucks until we arrived at a rather nondescript door, squeezed in between a branch of the CoOp Bank and a Paperchase stationery shop.

A blue plaque on the wall suggested that the may be more to this building than met the passing eye, and Carl pushed the door open and I found myself in a small marble hallway at the bottom of a curling grand staircase, which lead up to an Aladdin’s cave filled with the treasure of books!

The Library was founded, so a small wooden sign informed me, in 1768, but moved to its current location in 1808. At the top of the stairs is ‘The Main Room’ and this is the modern section of the library where up to date novels, audiobooks and DVDs can be found but, even so, it has a wonderfully antiquated feel to it, with an iron spiral staircase at one end and books packed into the shelves from floor to ceiling.

Through a small door between shelves and then I am in the ‘New Room’ which was built 140 years ago. It was in the New Room that I was to perform and I had to pause for a moment to take in the grandeur and splendour of my surroundings. The room was narrow and again the walls from floor to ceiling were lined with books over two stories. Opposite my small stage was a magnificent wooden staircase leading to the upper level and around 70 chairs were laid out in the body of the room, this was going to be a wonderful space to perform in.

For now though, I had to concentrate on the podcast and was shown into the Old Librarian’s Office, which would also become my dressing room.

There waiting to greet me was Molly Magrath, who would be interviewing me, and huddled behind two laptops was Jack who would be looking after all the technical side of the session. We had a few minutes before the broadcast was due to start, so they pulled out some gems from the shelves – a travel book dating back to the 1400s (the author never left England so it was a complete work of fantasy!), and a second edition of The Hobbit. Molly also handed me a beautifully bound first edition of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming and this was a real treasure for a Bond fanatic like me to hold.

5 O’clock came round and without ceremony Molly was talking to the little webcam about my visit, and we had a great conversation about the theatricality of Dickens and how I prepare my shows for the stage. It was a really good interview, not too rigidly bound by questions, just a flowing chat. I had done a little research into Dickens’ visits to Leeds and unfortunately he hadn’t seemed to be too impressed by the City. He first visited in 1847 to give a speech at The Mechanics Institute. The visit was in December and he had a terrible cold, but the experience of Leeds wasn’t a pleasant one. He didn’t return for a further 10 years but his memories still burned brightly, for he wrote home to his sister in law on that second occasion that ‘we shall have, as well as I can make out the complicated list of trains, to sleep at Leeds-which I particularly detest as an odious place-tomorrow night.’ Charming!

He did, however, return to Leeds 3 further times to give readings, and indeed actually performed Doctor Marigold, as I would be doing later on the evening of March 2.

When Molly wrapped the podcast up I went to find Carl and together we walked back to the car park and began the task of shifting all of my stuff back to the library; it took as three trips to get all of the furniture into the lift, down to ground level, past McDonalds and Starbucks, into the front door, up the narrow staircase, through the Main Room and into The New Room. And it was raining!

At last everything was in and I began creating the set for The Signalman. The stage was not large, but there was plenty of room to place the clerk’s desk with the telegraphic instrument and bell atop it, and the stool beneath. I placed the table a little downstage and placed the chair at the back, so that the Signalman, unused to visitors, could grab it, dust the seat off, and place it for the stranger to sit on. Immediately behind the stage was a display case which was the only bit of furniture in the room that was not an antique, and I was able to put my new red light on top of it, meaning that it towered above the scene in a suitably imposing manner. When the first act set was in place I took the opportunity of running through a few lines and as I did another member of the library staff, Ian, busied himself putting programmes on chairs and preparing a makeshift bar for the evening. When I had finished my brief rehearsal Ian introduced himself and asked if I would like to see the basement, an offer that I was delighted to accept. We descended into the bowels of the building where there is a huge collection of very old books, many in a terrible condition. Ian explained that in days of yore the library had been lit by gas jets which had created acidity in the air causing irreparable damage to the leather bindings. The plan is to restore every volume, but at a cost of over a million a shot, that project is a very long term one. I looked along the shelves and there was a first edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’ final, unfinished, novel. It was such a treat to hold in my hands something that connected me so closely to my great great grandfather. Elsewhere in the basement were racks of periodicals and newspapers just waiting for keen-eyed researchers to discover some wonderful long-lost fact. As we ascended the stairs once more, Ian said wistfully that he never tires of showing off the collection in the basement and that everybody notices something new.

Back upstairs I retired to the Librarian’s Office, my very grand dressing room, and ate a small salad and some fruit before getting into costume for the first act. Outside, the audience gathered and began to take their seats. Ian had told me that this was the largest audience that the New Room had held since the beginning of lockdown. At 7.30 Carl poked his head in and asked if I was ready, and on my replying ‘yes’, he said a few words of introduction and then left the stage to me.

I welcomed the audience, made reference to CD’s rather uncomplimentary words about Leeds, and then launched into a brief description of the circumstances behind the Staplehurst rail crash, vital to both the telling of The Signalman and to the selling of my book at evening’s end. Soon I was into the dark, claustrophobic ghost story and , as ever, I surprised myself by the sheer physicality of what is a very short performance. The emotional intensity of the piece is exhausting and I continually find that by the time I finish every limb is aching from the tension.

On my concluding the story and then announcing the spooky fact that although Dickens was not killed at Staplehurst, he did die exactly 5 years, to the day, after the crash, there was a gasp from the audience, partly in surprise and partly out of relief that they too could relax back into the real world.

Having left the stage and allowed a little time for the audience to drift away, I started clearing the furniture from The Signalman away and setting the stage for Doctor Marigold. In the office I changed into a new costume (long corduroy Victorian-style trousers, rather than the breeches I used to wear), and after twenty minutes or so I returned to the stage to perform my favourite show in the character of the ever resilient and cheerful cheapjack, Doctor Marigold. At one point in the monologue, Marigold describes building a cart with books in ‘rows upon rows’ and so the book-lined walls of the New Room formed the perfect setting for the second half of the story. The audience were rivetted and entranced, as audiences tend to be when witnessing this little gem of a story for the first time.

I finished and left the stage and there was generous and warm Yorkshire applause when I returned to take my bows. Having taken a few minutes to cool down, I made my way back into The Main Room, where I chatted, sold and signed my book, until the audience drifted away into the night.

I changed back into everyday clothes, having briefly donned my black frockcoat again for a couple of photographs that Ian wanted to take on the New Room staircase, and then faced the proposition of taking all of my furniture downstairs, up the street, into the car park, up the lift and back to the car again, however Carl suggested that I actually left everything in the Library, for in the morning the bollards closing off the pedestrianised street would be down, allowing access to the shop fronts for deliveries, and so I would be able to drive to the front door, which would make things much easier.

I walked through the streets of Leeds, back to my hotel and was delighted to discover that they offered a 24 hour room service, so I ordered a plate of fish and chips and let the adrenaline of the evening gently subside, until eventually I fell asleep in the early hours of Thursday morning.

I woke with a start at around 7.40, and decided to get the car loaded before having breakfast, so I quickly showered and retrieved my car, before driving slowly past pedestrians hurrying to work, along the pavement of Commercial Street. Carl and the library caretaker were there to assist and in no time all of my furniture was squeezed into the Renault – actually, we seemed to have hit on an improved system of loading, in that there seemed to be more space than when I had loaded up the day before.

I said farewell to Carl, promising that I would endeavour to find a date for a repeat visit in the winter tour, and returned to the hotel where I enjoyed a hearty full English breakfast before getting on the road for home. The journey was smooth once again and I arrived back in Oxfordshire at midday.

As I unloaded the car I discovered the reason that loading had been so easy, for I had left the ‘telegraphic instrument’ prop in the library. I will next need it for a performance in Preston, Lancashire, at the end of March, so Carl and I will have to work out how to reunite it with the rest of the set, but that is all for another day. For now I could reflect on a wonderful evening, in a beautiful setting, and a new venue for my future tours.

Well, That Was Quite A Birthday! Part 4: Happy Birthday to the Immortal Mr Dickens

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And so my week of celebrating came to an end as Monday 7th February dawned – 210 years since Elizabeth Dickens gave birth to her second child Charles. It is sometimes reported that Elizabeth and her husband John had been dancing at a party the night before the birth, thus imbuing the infant with a love of entertainment and fun.

My birthday celebrations would involve driving to London to be present at a dinner to honour the event, hosted by the Central Branch of The Dickens Fellowship. My brother Ian, who is currently The President of The Fellowship had a busier day in store, as he travelled from his home on The Isle of Wight, and attended celebration events in Portsmouth, the city of Charles’ birth. Firstly a visit to the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum and then onto the UK’s only statue of the great man where a garland of red geraniums were placed over his head (Charles’s not Ian’s!).

My journey to London began after I had taken my daughter to her dance class, and as I was getting on the road straight away I was the best dressed dad there, looking rather like James Bond in my dinner jacket and hand-tied bow tie (no clip-ons here!). The traffic to London was light and I had booked a parking space ahead of time, so I would not have to trawl around the city centre, panicking that I would be late for the dinner. As it happened I arrived almost an hour before the reception was due to start, so I simply sat in my car and read for a while, until it was time to make the short walk through the Waterloo district of London, to The Union Jack Club where the dinner was to be held. The main road in the area is Waterloo Road which is a busy, bustling thoroughfare filled with buses, taxis and bikes. Pedestrians take their lives in their hands as they dash across the road to reach the huge Waterloo railway terminus, rather risking being struck by a car than missing that all important train home. But running parallel to Waterloo Road is Cromwell Road and that is quiet and peaceful street, lined with a terrace of elegant Victorian houses, now much sought after and no doubt eye-wateringly expensive, but presumably built as mass housing for manual labourers, maybe those who built Waterloo Station. It is a lovely part of London, and surprisingly very peaceful and it was along Cromwell Road that I walked from my car to the club.

The Union Jack Club has no Dickens connections, but exists for the use of servicemen and veterans. It was first built on the site in 1907, but was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and eventually (in 1975) a new building was erected on the same spot.

The Fellowship dinner was being held in small dining room, and we had 46 attendees. Paul Graham, the Hon Gen Sec of the Fellowship had not been sure how many members would actually attend this first meeting since lockdown restrictions were eased, but it was a goodly crowd who gathered. Ian, in his role as President was hosting the event, and it was lovely to hug him and his wife Anne when I arrived.

There were many old friends and familiar faces in the room and we all chatted until Ian called the evening to order and recited the traditional Dickens Grace:

‘In Fellowship assembled here; We thank thee Lord for food and cheer; And through our saviour, thy dear son; We pray ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ We all joined in the last line and then took our seats to dine and converse.

Many of the guests had watched my streamed performance the night before, and were kind enough to compliment me on it. Cindy Sughrue, from the museum, was also there and told me that the feedback from the event had been very positive, which was immensely pleasing.

Ian, Anne and I shared our table with Adrian Wooton OBE, the Chief Executive of Film London and The British Film Commission. Adrian became involved with the Fellowship in 2012, when we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, by curating a series of events based on Dickens in Film and has been an active member ever since, he was due to speak at the end of the dinner, and was a marvellous companion. Ian and I in particularly relishing a shared love of Formula One motor racing!

Dinner was delicious, consisting of a smoked salmon and horseradish starter, a steak with mashed potatoes and broccoli for main , and a crème brule for desert. At one point, when the steak was served, Michael Eaton, another table mate, was spooning mustard onto his plate. Unable to shift the thick yellow paste he knocked the little silver spoon against the china plate sending a ringing retort throughout the room, which was immediately followed by a pushing back of chairs and a silence descending, for everyone thought it was time for the speeches!

Ian hosted the dinner with such grace and ease, moving everything along, and speaking effortlessly whenever he needed to. When desert had been cleared and coffee cups filled he announced a 5 minute comfort break and when all were gathered once more it was time for me to do my party piece. At such events it is the job of The President to introduce the speakers, and this usually involves quite a bit of research to create factual and witty remarks to welcome the guest. On this occasion Ian just had to talk about his baby brother, and did so with such a sense of pride that I got rather emotional.

I had decided to speak about my own personal milestones in my relationship with Charles Dickens, and spoke about becoming aware of his importance to our family at the age of 6 when I shared a pew with the Queen Mother in Westminster Abbey. I recalled being made to study Oliver Twist at school (quoting Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ along the way), and I recounted the story of my first ever performance of A Christmas Carol in 1993, and how Dickens’ brilliant descriptive text helped me morph into the characters. I finished by telling the story of visiting the site of The Staplehurst Rail Crash and sinking up to my neck in muddy water. When the bemused farmer saw this bedraggled man trespassing in his field, and listened as I explained that I had been visiting the site of the rail crash, instead of taking a pitchfork to me he said simply ‘Charles Dickens’. I wound up my talk by saying that ‘he didn’t know I was there to research a book.  He just knew of the celebrity who had been at that exact spot 154 years before.  And that says everything about the long shadow that Charles Dickens has cast across our globe – much longer and more influential than just 21,307 days of life.  He left a legacy that can never be measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, or years.  Charles Dickens’ influence over our society is timeless.’

I invited the guests to stand, charge their glasses and I proposed the toast to the immortal memory of Charles Dickens.

It seemed to be well received, and there was some nice applause as I sat down. The truth is that I really feel uncomfortable giving speeches, it is not where I am happy, and I feel exposed and vulnerable. Give me some voices and contorted facial expressions to hide behind and I am relaxed as anything, but put Gerald Dickens in a dinner jacket and ask him to stand and talk…..

I was relieved when I was finished, and envious as I listened to the naturalness with which Ian and Adrian spoke, but it was a great fun evening and it was wonderful to meet so many old friends.

In closing this quartet of birthday blogs I would like to point out a remarkable coincidence: Charles Dickens died when he was 58 years old, in fact he lived for 21,307 days (hence the reference to that number in my speech). On Tuesday 8 February, (the day after I spoke in London), I was also 21,307 days old.

It was a wonderful week and I will conclude by once again offering a birthday wish up to Charles Dickens, and to thank him for making my professional life so unbelievably exciting.

Well, That Was Quite A Birthday! Part 3: A Home From Home

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My week celebrating the 210th birthday of Charles Dickens continued on Sunday 6th February in two homes – his and mine.

On Sunday evening a specially filmed version of my old show Mr Dickens is Coming was due to be streamed by The Charles Dickens Museum, which is based at 48 Doughty Street, the home that a young Charles moved into having enjoyed instant success with The Pickwick Papers.

Cindy Sughrue, the director of the museum, had approached me last year with the idea of my developing a version of the show that would utilise many of the rooms in the museum, meaning that I would have a wonderful backdrop for my performance whilst the museum could be shown in its best light. The original idea had been to film it before Christmas, but various issues with my tour, obtaining visas and some family concerns at the time meant that we decided to delay the project until early in the year, using the birthday as a suitable time to screen.

Monday 17th January was selected as a filming day, with the 18th being held as an extra. The advantage of these particular days being that the museum is closed on a Monday and Tuesday, thereby giving us full rein to use whichever rooms we needed, whenever we wanted without disturbing the paying public.

I arrived at around 10.30am, and was met by Jordan Evans who is the Marketing and Events manager at the House who was responsible for co-ordinating the entire project. We would be working with videographer Alex Hyndman who has filmed in the museum often, most particularly with actor Dominic Gerard who performs his brilliant A Christmas Carol from the house in December, and as I arrived Alex was setting up cameras and lights in readiness for the first takes.

I quickly changed into costume, which included one of my oldest waistcoats – a black one with shining golden embellishments, and bright patches of colour. I saw it back in the 1990’s hanging on a bargain rail outside a charity shop in the pouring rain. I had been looking for a garish waistcoat for the show, and this one seemed to be calling out to me: ‘buy me! buy me!’ And I did.

I had re-written my old script whilst taking the virtual tour of the museum, which is available on the Carles Dickens Museum website, and had tried to feature each room in a way appropriate to the part of the story I was telling. My opening shot would see me striding down the centre of Doughty Street towards the camera and then entering the famous red door to begin, and this, Jordan decided, would be the first scene to film. The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray, as Rabbie Burns wrote, and on the morning of filming we discovered that it was bin collection day, so the elegant street was lined with piles of rubbish and recycling rendering our idea for the long view of Doughty Street impossible to capture. The three of us stood in the street pondering our next move and I realised that I was holding my hand up to shade my eyes against the low-in-the-sky sun shining along the street (which apparently runs East-West). ‘Guys,’ I said, ‘why don’t we use my shadow on the pavement?’ and so the show opens with a panning shot of a top-hatted shadow striding along, until the camera pans up to show me walking up to the door.

For the rest of the day we moved from room to room, planning how to shoot each scene and taking care not to touch the historic furniture and artefacts as we did. In the nursery on the top floor I performed the passage about John Dickens next to his bust, and then Alex was able to swing the camera round as I walked behind the original prison bars from The Marshalsea Prison, where the family had been sent for debt. At the end of the scene I moved out of shot, revealing a picture of Mr Micawber on the wall behind me.

We managed to get the whole show filmed in the single day, wrapping with a final shot in the little courtyard garden, and I drove home again, leaving Alex to cast his editing magic wand over the whole thing.

During the intervening weeks Jordan made sure that social media was covered with information about the screening, and Alex had made a short trailer for the film too, which meant by the 6 February we had a goodly number of viewers signed up. I would be watching the film, and then taking questions afterwards, from our new garden office, which we have yet to paint, so it would look rather as if I were sitting in a sauna. During the afternoon, after I had driven back from Sharnbrook, I went up into our loft and grabbed a large picture of Charles Dickens as a young man, one of Henry Fielding Dickens, my great grandfather, and one of me on stage, and hung them in such a way as if to suggest I was in a picture-lined study (I am sure that I didn’t fool anyone!).

I was scared watching, for I knew that many viewers would have highly academic backgrounds, and Mr Dickens is Coming was never written with that in mind: it was always a light-hearted script designed to entertain primarily and doesn’t really bear serious analysis, but Alex had done a great job with the editing, and it came across pretty well, I thought. We had viewers from Australia, Japan, America, Georgia, Malta and many other countries, such is the international influence of Charles Dickens.

When the final shot in the garden faded to black, Cindy Sughrue’s camera flicked into life, which was my cue to switch mine on as well. The comments in the chat room scrolled quickly as various viewers from around the globe congratulated me and asked many questions, which Cindy put to me to answer on screen. We spent around 30 minutes chatting until Cindy would the session up, and having said farewell, I logged off, leaving Charles Dickens’ home behind me and walked back down the dark garden towards the warm, welcoming glow of my own house.

Well, That Was Quite A Birthday! Part 2: Sharnbrook Mill Theatre

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Sharnbrook Mill Theatre. Saturday 5 February

The next event in my busy week of Charles Dickens birthday celebrations saw me back to being the centre of attention as I was due to perform Great Expectations at The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre in Bedfordshire.

I had visited the theatre for the first time in 2020, when we were extremely fortunate to be able to present A Christmas Carol to a small, mask-wearing audience, widely distanced throughout the auditorium. It had been a wonderful experience and at the time wrote that I couldn’t wait to return, and now I was able to fulfil that ambition.

I was due to perform Great Expectations and for some unknown reason I had got myself into a right old state about it. Great Ex is one of my newer shows, so the lines are not as deeply ingrained as others, but I have been doing it for a few years now, so there should be no reason for me to struggle with it, but struggle I did! For weeks I had the script open on the table and found myself going over passages at all times of the day and night. I was even having stress dreams about the show, not uncommon before big events. In one I dreamed that I was on a stage performing and a member of the audience left, then another, then more until I was left on the stage alone, at which point I just stopped and gave up. Another night I dreamed that I was at an open air theatre, and was watching a cast perform a play. I was due to take the stage after their show and so I left to change into costume, but couldn’t find the dressing room, or my clothes, and then couldn’t remember how to get get back to the stage, meaning that when I did arrive all of the audience had given up and gone home. Dreams such as this don’t necessarily mean that I am under-prepared, but do confirm that I am anxious and maybe need to make sure that all of the small details are in place. With that in mind I decided to get the car loaded up with all of my props and costumes on Friday afternoon, so that everything was in place for my Saturday departure. During that day I rehearsed both acts of the show a couple of times, and at last was confident that I was ready.

Saturday dawned and in the morning I was taking my eldest daughter to a football match in which she was playing. During the drive to the fixture, which was an ‘away’ match, a warning light came on in the car and the message said ‘STOP! DANGER OF ENGINE FAILURE’ That didn’t sound good.

I dropped my daughter at her match (with horrible echoes of my second stress dream, we couldn’t find the ground, and were running all over the place before managing to get there just as the starting whistle was blowing), and took the car to a nearby petrol station, where I checked the water and oil levels and hopelessly prodded at sundry leads and pipes, all of which seemed to be connected as they should be. On restarting the car the warning message still flashed up, and it became apparent that there was no way I could risk driving all the way to Bedfordshire with complete engine failure imminent. I picked up my daughter from the match and crept back home putting as little strain through the engine as I could. So much for packing the car with all of my costumes and props in plenty of time.

Once at home Liz and I started making plans. I remembered from my previous visit to Sharnbrook that they have a wonderful prop store under the stage, so I would be able to borrow the large pieces of furniture that I required, The rest of my props: cloths, candlesticks, and even a collapsible hat stand, as well as my costumes, would fit into Liz’s car which is a tiny Mini!

I set off after lunch and after around 90 minutes I pulled up outside The Sharnbrook Hotel, which was apparently deserted – the car park was empty. I was relieved when the automatic doors opened to admit me, but the reception area was as as quiet as the outside view had suggested it may be. I was gratified to see, however, that there was a goodly supply of fliers on the counter proclaiming that Gerald Dickens would be performing Great Expectations at The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre that evening.

There was a striking bell on the desk, so I rang it and a smiling lady eventually appeared to check me in. Although the hotel seemed empty, my room was located in the farthest flung reaches of the building meaning a long walk, but I dropped my bags, and then returned to the car for the short drive to the theatre.

I was welcomed at the front door by Brenda Stafford, who has been responsible for my appearances, and having exchanged greetings and pleasantries, she disappeared to open the stage door so that I could load my belongings onto the stage. As soon as that was done Gerry (stage manager and Brenda’s husband) appeared to take me into the furniture store, from where I could chose the pieces I needed to complete my set. I found a grand chair, upholstered in red velvet, and a small table, and together we returned to the stage where I commenced putting everything in place.

The set of Great Expectations features the ever present figure of Miss Havisham on the stage, and this is constructed over a slender hat stand, painted white, with fabrics draped over it to give the appearance of a human figure. Preparing Miss H is always an uncertain moment, for there is no science to the creation, just a drape here, a pin there, a flick somewhere else until my hat stand seems to stand proud with a sleeve and veil.

The next job was to sort out the technical side of the show. I have scripted Great Expectations with quite a few lighting changes, using different colours to represent cold, eerie scenes or warm, cosy ones. My lighting man, sat in a sort of crow’s nest high in the eves of the old mill building which forms the theatre’s auditorium, was Ron. I had sent my script a couple of weeks before the event and Ron’s son Ricky had carefully programmed all of the cues into the lighting console. Ron would be running the show and we spent a good amount of time going from cue to cue. We had one slight issue, where the lighting effect for Miss Havisham bursting into flames had been focussed on the wrong side of the stage (my fault, as I had not been specific enough in my script), but Ron said that he would try to sort something out, and sure enough when I was walking through the theatre a little later. the semi-strobe effect flared up around Miss Havisham. Theatre techies are definitely ‘can do’ folk.

In contrast to the lighting, the sound for the show is quite simple, using just two sound cues which start each act. Unfortunately, though, the theatre’s sound man had been taken ill, so a willing volunteer in the shape of Peter Laughton was found. With the help of Gerry we downloaded my two cues onto a laptop and Peter practiced playing them to order.

And now it was time to relax. Usually at this time I retreat to my dressing room and maybe will eat a salad or some fruit, but at Sharnbrook I was treated to a proper dinner prepared by Richard West – chicken breast, rolled in bacon, served with mashed potato and broccoli. We all sat around one of the tables in the front of house space and we chatted and laughed and exchanged stories as we ate. Gary Villiers, the most dapperly dressed front of house manager, mentioned that he is an avid collector of old cigarette cards and dug out of his pocket a little bundle depicting Dickens characters dating back to 1923. He told me that he had come across them that afternoon and wanted me to have them – it was such a generous gesture.

Dinner plates were cleared away and replaced with bowls of summer fruits with cream for those who wanted it and a fruit coulis for others. I avoid any dairy on the day of a performance, not because of any allergy but because it tends to thicken the lining of the throat thereby causing an actor to strain his voice. For many years I regarded performers who followed this regime as rather faddy, but since I started a number of years ago I have had many fewer problems with my voice than before.

With supper over I retreated to my dressing room, where I called an old friend of mine, Les Evans. Les used to be a pilot on Concorde and I first met him on a cruise liner in Athens on which both he and I were booked as guest lecturers. We were joining the P&O ship Artemis which was entering the last leg of a world cruise. It was to be a very important trip for me because, apart from Les and his wife Jill, there was also a classical pianist joining the ship – her name was Liz….

Along with a young magician called Oliver, we all hit it off and had one of the most enjoyable fortnights you can imagine.

Back at The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre I prepared for the show, got into my Magwitch costume, and waited for Gerry to confirm that the audience were in place, that Ron and Peter were ready and that he, as stage manager, had control. The house lights dimmed, my recorded voice filled the theatre and on cue I burst onto the stage: ‘Hold your noise!’

It was lovely to be in a full theatre, feeling and hearing the responses of the audience as I introduced them to Joe and Mrs Joe Gargery, Uncle Pumblechook, Miss Havisham and Estella, Herbert Pocket, Wemmick, Jaggers and the rest. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and thankfully the audience did not leave one by one until I was alone.

When I had performed A Christmas Carol in 2020 I had come back to the stage and conducted a Q&A session which had been so popular that Brenda had requested that I repeat the exercise this time, so having taken my bows Ron brought the house lights up and I spent twenty minutes or so answering a good variety of questions, which I have come to enjoy doing more and more. Fortunately somebody asked me if I had written anything myself, which gave me a good opportunity to plug ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’ which happened to be on sale in the foyer, and after I had left the stage I signed a few copies and chatted with some of the audience.

Finally it was time to relax, and Gerry brought me a glass of wine and I sat with the various volunteers and committee members at the theatre, until it was time to close up shop and pack away.

I feel particularly at home in The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre, surrounded by such keen and generous theatrical folk. They care about their theatre and go to huge efforts to ensure its success, and as I said at the end of my previous Sharnbrook blog post I very much look forward to returning!

Well, That Was Quite A Birthday! Part 1: Right Royal Rochester

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The 7th February was Charles Dickens’ 210th birthday and such is the enormity of his enduring legacy I have been involved in celebrating the event for an entire week. These are the accounts of the various events that I have attended

Rochester Guildhall. Wednesday 2 February

My first journey was to the county of Kent, and specifically to Rochester, on the 2nd February. Rochester is the town most closely associated with Charles Dickens and the ancient buildings feature in many of his novels, including the first (The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club), and the last (The Mystery of Edwin Drood). Although he never actually lived in Rochester, his home at Gad’s Hill Place was nearby, and today the streets are a Mecca for those who love his books and revere him.

Rochester used to be a city in its own right, but lost the status a number of years ago, eventually amalgamating into the larger unitary authority of Medway, but for me and, I suspect most Dickensians, it will always be the City of Rochester. For a long time there was a Dickens visitor attraction built in Eastgate House, which also features in the first and last novels. One would walk through various rooms, each of which had a brilliantly designed and built theatrical set, with various projections, voiceovers and animatronics to bring the scenes to life, and it was an impressive venue for Dickens fans to visit, but unfortunately the historic fabric of the old house couldn’t sustain the daily tramp of visitors and the attraction had to be closed down, which left the City of Rochester with nothing to present to the fans who came from all over the world. Until last week!

At the opposite end of the High Street from Eastgate House is the Guildhall Museum, which tells the entire history of Medway, and for over two years (interrupted by the pandemic) the Council have been planning and constructing a new permanent exhibit to Charles Dickens, called ‘The Making of Dickens’ which was due to be officially opened on the 2nd February. I was contacted by the Council, thanks to the influence of my brother, Ian, with a request to read a short passage from Great Expectations to a VIP guest, who would be performing the opening ceremony. The identity of the guest was at this time unknown, but as the council had originally approached the actress Miriam Margoyles (a major VIP in her own right) to perform the reading, we guessed that the VIP must be very important indeed and soon this was confirmed when the emails began to refer to the VIP in bold type). With Miriam being out of the country, the search for a reader settled on me, and arrangements were made, and still the identity of our VIP was unknown due to security concerns, and so it became apparent that we would be in the presence of royalty. Who, though? The front runner in the ‘Guess The Royal’ stakes was Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, as she has long celebrated and championed the written and spoken word, and is a patron of various charities promoting literacy. Before Christmas she and The Prince of Wales had read passages from A Christmas Carol for a series of videos made by the Charles Dickens Museum, and the fact that a day or two before the event I had a message saying that she (yes, the council let the pronoun slip through the net) would like to share the reading, strengthened my suspicions further.

On the morning of the 2nd I dropped our girls to school and then got on the road for the 2 hour drive to Kent. I was dressed in a suit, but had my costume with me also. The team at The Guildhall had asked for me to be in Victorian attire, and the suit was merely an insurance policy in case I hit traffic and was running late.

Rochester and the Guildhall are both very familiar to me, as I have been performing there since I started my Dickens shows in 1994. Indeed the first reading I ever gave (after my initial performance of A Christmas Carol in December ’93) was in the Guildhall itself, when I read a passage of Nicholas Nickleby to the local Dickens Fellowship branch. Each Summer I return to the city for the Dickens Festival and the beautiful main chamber of the building has been my permanent venue for many years, and it was in that main chamber that I was to read with Camill…..with the VIP.

It was during my journey down that an email came in confirming that the guest was indeed the Duchess of Cornwall, and that I would be briefed on the procedures and protocol when I arrived.

At 12.30 I walked through the door and The Guildhall looked spic and span ready for it Royal visit. To be perfectly honest, it is always in an immaculate condition, and mounting the great staircase makes one feel as if you are in a palace. I was greeted by Ed Woollard who was coordinating the day’s events, and he quickly ran through the timetable with me: At 1.30 a party of thirty school children from the nearby St Margarets at Troy Town school would arrive, and would gather in the Grand Chamber, where I would be also, to await the Duchess. At 2 o’clock The Duchess of Cornwall would arrive and be greeted by costumes characters, supplied by the local Dickens Fellowship branch (of which I am proud to be president.). She would then be taken up to the new exhibit and be shown around by various Council officials and dignitaries, before making her way into the chamber at 2.30, where I and one of the teachers from the school would greet her (these Royals get greeted a lot!). I should address her as ‘Your Royal Highness’ at first and as ‘Ma’am’ subsequently. We would walk to our chairs at the front of the room and following a brief welcome by a member of the council, I would introduce our reading, setting the scene so to speak, and then invite Camilla to begin.

When all was firmly in my mind I went to change into my Victorian costume and when I returned Ed showed me around the exhibition, which is very impressive. Although built in what used to be a rather square, featureless room the designers had made remarkable use of the space by guiding the visitor past a mock up of Charles’ childhood home in Chatham, through a theatre where you can sit and watch a holographic actor portraying Dickens at his reading desk (NOT ME!), and then along a walkway where large panels cause you to stop and look up to read about his journalism, Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers. At the end of the walkway you suddenly find yourself in a town square with a store front, which contains some Dickens memorabilia . This square is a good space and will be used by the educational officer at the museum to talk to students. From the square you pass through a door into a recreation of Dickens’s study at Gad’s Hill Place with his desk in the bay window. For the Royal visit Charles’ walking cane and letter opener had been laid on the desk, but these will be tucked into a display case during normal opening hours. I suggested that the chair be pulled out from the desk slightly, to recreate the famous picture of the study sketched on the day after Dickens died: The Empty Chair.

The Empty Chair

At the end of the exhibition is a map showing all of the local sites associated with Charles Dickens and encouraging visitors to explore the wider region.

I walked through the exhibit again, this time with a photographer in tow, and I posed in each of the rooms, until he had all of the shots he needed (I think he was actually slightly practicing for the Royal walk-through, making sure that light and angles were correct – In effect I was Camilla’s stunt double).

Initial duties done I returned to the Chamber and the school children duly arrived and took off their coats. Together we had an hour to wait, so my job now was to keep them entertained. The students were from Year 5, meaning that they were 9 and 10 years old, and although they were due to study Great Expectations later in the year, they hadn’t yet. Information about the visit had come very late and the teachers had spent one afternoon cramming some basic knowledge about author and text into the young brains. So, when I asked if anyone had any questions about Charles Dickens, the floodgates opened! We had a wonderful time, for the more they asked the more curious they became. After their greeting duties outside, the costumes characters from The Fellowship came into the room, and then the children had fun guessing who was which character.

The imminent arrival of The Duchess interrupted out wonderful session and I took my place at the door where Camilla was introduced to me. I said ‘good afternoon’ remembering to slightly bow my head and add ‘Your Royal Highness’. I mentioned to her that I had thoroughly enjoyed her A Christmas Carol readings, and she seemed genuinely pleased that I had not only seen them but remembered them.

We walked to the front of the room and took our seats. As I had been in the room for so long, and had performed in it so many times before, I felt incredibly at ease, as if it was my own domain and I was welcoming Camilla into it, and in the photographs taken on the day I certainly look very relaxed, while she looks slightly nervous at the prospect of reading.

The children were welcomed by the Council member who was escorting The Duchess, and then he handed over to me to introduce the reading. The passage chosen (not by me, incidentally) was one from early in Great Expectations when Pip is attending a very basic school kept my Mr Wosple’s great aunt (‘…who went to sleep between the hours of six and seven each evening, in the society of youth who payed her twoppence a week for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it’).

I am not sure if the school children fully followed what was going on but when we got to the end they applauded politely. Now it was time for questions, and four children sat in the front row clearly and confidently read theirs out. The nice thing about this was that the questions hadn’t been submitted prior to the event, so that the Duchess’s answers were completely genuine.

1: ‘What is your favourite Charles Dickens book and character?’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities and The Artful Dodger’

2: Why is it so important to read books by authors like Charles Dickens?’ ‘Because their use of language is so beautiful and authors like Dickens tell such wonderful stories. Also, we have so much to learn from the past.’

3: ‘How do you find time to read books in your busy day?’ ‘It is very difficult. Sometimes I try to read in bed, but fall asleep and cant remember what Ive read, so end up reading the same passage the next night and over and over again! I try to save up all of the books that I want to read for holidays, at Christmas or Easter, and read them when we are away.’

4: ‘Where did you get your love of reading and books?’ ‘When I was a little girl my father used to sit on the end of my bed and read stories, and I have always loved the memories of those times’

These answers are paraphrased, but the gist is correct and it was during this time that Camilla was at her happiest and most relaxed. Next on the itinerary was the unveiling of the plaque, which will eventually be on the wall of the exhibition, but for the moment was mounted on a board set on an easel. The staff were very worried that the whole affair would collapse when she pulled the little string to draw back the blue velvet curtain, and Ed was gripping tightly on to the whole structure as she performed her duty. Fortunately disaster did not ensue!

And that marked the end of the visit and with three cheers ringing in her ears, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, left the building to be driven to another venue where she would be greeted again, and shake more hands, and smile and be gracious. In the Guildhall chamber you could almost hear the gasp of relief and everyone relaxed. I said goodbye to the school children and offered to come into their school to talk more about Charles Dickens. The costumed characters and I went around the exhibition and again, until gradually we all drifted away to our homes.

On Tuesday 2 February I had driven a round trip of 4 hours and read from Great Expectations for 2 minutes, but it was a very special day for all of us present. Also it shows how large Charles Dickens still looms over our society, to attract a Royal visit to honour his memory is quite a thing.

Postcript:

Just 2 days after our event it was announced by The Queen that it was her sincere wish that Camilla be known as Queen Consort when Charles takes the throne. It seems obvious to me that The Queen felt that if Camilla could hold her own reading with a Dickens, then she had proved that she was ready for anything. To quote Abel Magwitch: ‘It was me what done it!’

A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic

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Call it a busman’s holiday, but when Liz asked me last year if I would like to go to theatre to see a production of A Christmas Carol as one of my Christmas presents, I leaped at the chance. I never tire of the story and any opportunity to see someone else’s vision of it is a privilege, and is also useful for the ongoing development of my own show as I always notices different ways of presenting a scene, or even just an alternative method of delivering a line.

The production that Liz had chosen was at The Old Vic Theatre which is situated near to the Waterloo railway station just south of the River Thames. The Old Vic is not in the heart of the West End theatre district, but has a reputation for imaginative and innovative programming. I remember being taken to the venue on a school trip to see the British actor Timothy West play Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice, which we were studying, and realising that seeing a play in its natural setting rather than grinding through it in an academic environment can teach a student so much.

Saturday January 8 was our performance day, and having dropped the girls off at a friend’s house, we drove to London in thick fog and heavy rain, it was a foul day to be travelling and a slightly tight timescale meant that we couldn’t dawdle. Our matinee was due to commence at 1pm, but we had to present ourselves at the theatre between 12 and 12.30 – in these days of Covid restrictions the management were trying to get blocks of audience seated at different times, to avoid everyone rolling up together at 12.45.

The traffic was heavy and fast moving, although the visibility was low, and the opportunities for catastrophe was high. Inevitably we were soon rolling to a standstill behind a long queue of stationary traffic, and away in the distance the thick cloud was pierced by flashing blue and red lights as a police car blocked the road, presumably to allow for an accident to be cleared. We sat and sat and sat, and the idea of making our time slot became more and more unlikely. Eventually the flashing lights were extinguished and we drove on once more.

We made good time for the rest of the journey and we wound around Buckingham Palace before crossing the river Thames and finding our parking space close to the the theatre (in the absence of any parking garages in the vicinity we had found a parking space available for rent on someone’s driveway and booked a four hour slot).

The rain was still falling as we walked to the theatre and joined the long line waiting to be admitted. In an attempt to expedite the process, one of the front of house staff made her way along the line scanning tickets, so that by the time we got to the door we could walk straight in….or so we thought.

The producers of the show had sent a detailed email the day before entitled ‘Everything You Need to Know About Your Visit’, and we had followed the instructions to the letter, however one may have supposed that in an email with such a title, they might have mentioned the need to take a Lateral Flow Test for Covid on the day of the show, rather than putting that instruction in a second email with the title ‘We Are Looking Forward to Your Visit’, which sat, unread, alongside many other similarly titled emails most of which were purely of a promotional nature.

So, when a second box office member walked the line asking to check on everyone’s LFT status Liz and I exchanged a look of horror, for we had no idea! The young man was sympathetic, but unmovable, there would be no entry to the theatre without proof of a negative test in the past few hours. However, he did offer to call his manager who may be able to explain. So we were asked to leave the queue and stand aside until the aforesaid manager appeared. He was equally sympathetic and equally intransigent until he produced a pair of test kits, as if they were Class A drugs, and secretively handed them over to us, suggesting that we find somewhere nearby to carry out a test (‘don’t do it in front of the others, ok?)

We looked helplessly around us, until I noticed a tiny little tent in the square outside the main theatre entrance, which bore the legend: ‘NHS Mobile Testing Centre’ well, that seemed as good a place as any other, so we poked our heads in and asked if we could do our LFTs in the dry, ‘We don’t do Lateral Flow, only PCRs’ we were told, so we had to explain that we had the kits, we didn’t need to be given any, but just required a dry space and as they had no one in their tent at the present, could we huddle under the dripping canvas? They agreed, and we both undertook the least clinical and probably least hygienic tests imaginable. As we waited for the tell-tale line to appear, some more people arrived from the theatre queue, making the same request, but they were turned away. We were lucky.

Fortunately both tests were negative and soon we were back in line and were finally admitted to the theatre with 8 minutes to spare, rather than the 30 that we should have had. Liz had booked amazing tickets in the stalls and we were nestled close to the action, as a temporary circular stage had been built in the centre of the auditorium, meaning that the whole show was performed in the round, with extra seating having been installed on the traditional stage looking out through the proscenium arch and into the auditorium. As the audience gathered, so the cast (with the exception of Mr Scrooge) mingled on the stage, greeting us all with smiles and waves – they were all dressed in long black coats and top hats, but were in no way ‘in character’, they were simply welcoming us to their club, encouraging us to join them. Earlier on in the process they had been handing out mince pies and satsuma oranges, but at that time we had been taking our secret Covid tests, so missed out on the tasty treats. Bah, Humbug!

In the text of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens goes out of his way to make the reader feel as if they have company throughout the story, for example when Scrooge first encounters the Ghost of Christmas Past Dickens says: ‘The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow’. There is the storyteller, close at hand, looking after us.

As an audience we weren’t allowed to feel that the cast were one group and the audience another, in fact we were encouraged to believe that we were ‘really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’ and that would be a central theme to the entire performance.

At the centre of the stage a trio of musicians played country folk tunes on a fiddle, an accordion and a whistle, and then suddenly, imperceptibly, the story began, the music became louder, the audience began to clap in time and the cast began to sing, just like that: no announcement, no lowering of house lights, but we were off an running. During the first musical number the entire cast provided accompaniment on hand bells, which sounded sublime.

I wont give a detailed review of the show, for there are many available online, but I want to share our feelings of the adaptation and the performance: it was beautiful, it was intensely moving and it was very very clever. The set and staging was very simple, with little more than four doorframes (one at each compass-point of the stage) which rose up when Scrooge was in the reality of his office or home, but which tilted backwards and laid flat, recessed in the stage, when he was on his supernatural journeys.

Much of the narrative and dialogue was lifted directly from the original, but the writer Jack Thorne had not shrunk away from including his own changes and way of telling the story (for example the three spirits in no way resemble those written by Dickens, but were extremely effective nonetheless). Some scenes were moved around within the plot but settled into their new homes with ease, and the whole journey of Ebenezer was utterly believable and so moving. Much of Scrooge’s torment was shown to arise from his childhood fear of debt, and in these scenes there was a sense of Dickens’ own personality (when Charles was only 12 years old his father had been imprisoned for debt leaving a scar on the great man’s personality that would never heal).

There was a lovely moment when the young Scrooge was seen chatting to his little sister, Fan. Ebenezer had just been released from the lonely torment of his school but was now faced with the anger and abuse of their debt-ridden father. As Fan skipped onto the stage she held a violin in her hand and happily told her brother that she had been told she had talent and if she practiced hard she would become even better. In Dickens’ own childhood he had been sent to work in the squalor of a shoe blacking factory, whilst his little sister was sent to The Royal Academy of Music, where she had won a scholarship. The young Dickens never begrudged her successes and loved her dearly: her name was Fanny, or Fan.

And what of Mr Scrooge himself? The role was played by the very popular actor Stephen Mangan who in recent years has enjoyed a stellar career as a television ‘personality’. Apart from his roles in both comedy and drama series he has also found a niche as a presenter, winning prime-time audiences over with his flashing smile and easy wit. When such personalities are cast in a leading theatrical role it is often to satiate the marketing department, and the performance is little more than an extension of their television persona, but Mangan is so much better than that. We were fortunate to have seen him in a previous theatrical role, and had been super impressed by his performance as Sidney Stratton in ‘The Man in the White Suit’, but his performance as Ebenezer Scrooge moved the bar up many levels. He played Scrooge as an angry man, tormented by his background and his fears. I have said before that I do not like versions of A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge is angry throughout and refuses to listen to the ghosts, and to some extent Mangan’s performance took this route, but you could tell that beneath the apparent rage the new Scrooge (or, more to the point, the old Scrooge) was struggling to burst forth. And when it DID burst forth, OH! What JOY! The tears of sheer elation poured down our cheeks and I am sure many others too. Suddenly the entire audience became part of the celebrations. The young boy who is sent to fetch the turkey from the poulterer’s shop became three young boys selected from the audience being sent to the bakers, from where hey nervously and proudly carried the largest, wobbliest, fruit jelly you have ever seen onto the stage and received a rousing round of applause and a cheer (we were all cheering and applauding everything by this time!) We all joined Fred’s party and took the feast to the Cratchit’s house where old Ebenezer and Tiny Tim connected in the most moving way imaginable. And it snowed! Throughout the auditorium it snowed on us all.

Among this finale of celebration there were moving scenes too, as Scrooge tried to make his peace with those he had wronged, and the meeting of him with Belle at her house door was a particularly effective moment. There was also a reminder from the three spirits that this was not a magical overnight conversion, but one that had to be continually worked at.

As the show ended, Liz and I were on our feet clapping and cheering loudly, and the entire cast looked deeply moved by the reception. Their emotions would have been heightened by the fact that this was the final day of their run and they now had only one more opportunity to present A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas

OK, I promised not to review it. Too late!

The performance, the experience, stayed with us during the walk back to the car, throughout the journey home and on into the evening. We both felt moved, uplifted and improved by being part of it and it will stay with us for a long time to come

It was a spectacular afternoon of live theatre and I thank the entire ensemble and production team for bringing it to us.

At the end of the show Mr Mangan made a short speech pointing out that Dickens was writing about the huge poverty gap in the 1840s and the sad fact is that the problem still exists, we were encouraged to donate to the FareShare charity, who raise money and campaign to bring food poverty and food waste to an end. It is a superb and appropriate cause and if you are able to support it then please visit the website and give what you can.

‘Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash!’ Quite a Way to End!

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The final day of my 2021 Christmas performance season was in the City of Leicester, in The Midlands. It has become something of a tradition over the years that on the 23rd December I perform a matinee and an evening show in the amazing surroundings of the Guildhall’s Great Hall, which was built at the end of the 14th Century. The room is timber framed and at the centre there is a huge fireplace which is always lit during my visit to warm the sell-out audiences that always attend.

With the Café Royal’s sad cancellation, I had spent my free day with Liz and the girls, and in the evening we had visited the Silverstone race track, where we had attempted to ice skate (I had a great fear that I would fall awkwardly, thus making my rendition of Tiny Tim rather too real), and then drove a very slow lap of the track to admire the light and laser show that had been installed for the Christmas season.

On Thursday morning the car was a prop carrying vehicle once more and I was back on the road. As I drove, the radio programme which was playing asked listeners to supply their favourite questions for Christmas quizzes, and one chap phoned in with the inevitable ‘How many ghosts visit Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol?’ The answer being, of course, four (Marley and the ghosts of Past, Present and Future), but then somebody else texted in with the pedantic opinion that as ‘Yet to Come’ was from the future it couldn’t be considered a ghost, so the answer was three after all. My solution to this celestial conundrum was to include the words ‘on Christmas Eve’ after the question, which means the answer is one, as only Marley appears before midnight, although there is the issue of the air filled ‘…with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.’, but technically they haven’t actually visited Scrooge, so don’t count!

I arrived at Leicester at 11, and parked as close as I could to the venue and started carrying the furniture down the narrow cobbled alley which runs between The Guildhall and Leicester Cathedral with its tall spire.

I was welcomed by Ben Ennis, a friend of many years standing, and we chatted for a while, catching up on our news. Ben had caught Long Covid very early on, and suffered for many months. Although understandably he had been extremely cautious, worn a mask and kept away from crowds, he actually caught it again, thankfully this second time he recovered within a couple of weeks. I asked him if the Guildhall’s audience numbers were being affected by cancellations (after the Café Royal’s experience I was nervous during these last days), and he said although some had called, their tickets had been snapped up by those on the waiting list, so he wasn’t too worried.

Once the car was unloaded I had to move it to a nearby car park and as I walked back I saw that Jubilee Square was filled with a huge Ferris Wheel and a skating rink – I knew from experience that noise from the square accompany would my performance, and I resigned myself to the fact there may be distractions for both me and the audience – little did I know then that later I would have given my right arm to just have the noise from the ice rink in the background!

My changing room at The Guildhall is The Jury Room, from where I can hear the audience gathering and on Thursday the afternoon crowd sounded a lively bunch, and very Christmassy. There was a lot of laughter and loud conversation, which boded extremely well.

At 1pm I went to the back of the hall, and slowly walked through the masked audience, with my scarf pulled up over my face, until I reached the stage. I was right, the audience were imbued with the spirit of Christmas, and we all shared a great afternoon together. Unfortunately there wasn’t a big enough staff to spare anyone to follow the script and look after the sound cues, so apart from the opening music I was performing unplugged, meaning that Mr Fezziwig had to dance without the strains of Sir Roger de Coverly to give him rhythm, but he managed quite well.

The show finished at around 3pm and I took my bows to loud applause and returned to the Jury Room to change. It has been a tradition in Leicester that between shows Ben has brought in a Christmas lunch of Turkey and all of the trimmings and so, with various staff members and his family, we have celebrated the season with good fellowship, but of course this year we couldn’t gather, which was a shame. Ben made up for this loss by presenting me with a turkey sandwich, some fresh fruit, and a trifle, which I took back to my hotel room, where I lay on the bed and watched television until it was time to get ready for the evening show.

When I arrived at The Guildhall, there were already audience members waiting for the door to be opened, and soon a steady stream were making their way in reserving their seats, before availing themselves of mulled wine.

Once again it was almost a full house and once again the audience seemed in great spirits, boding well for a fine send off to the ’21 tour. But, this wasn’t going to be an easy show by any stretch of the imagination.

I was not far in when the bell ringers in the cathedral began their weekly practice, and spent time perfecting their loudest and most complex peals. Every scene was accompanied, indeed almost drowned out, by the constant noise, making it difficult to concentrate. Every so often a particular peal would end, and you could almost feel the sigh of relief in the hall, which turned to disappointment as the next one began. The Leicester Cathedral bell ringers are a dedicated bunch, I will give them that! The interval arrived and still the bells rang and crashed. Ben apologised, although there is nothing he could have done to prevent it, and said that they would probably finish within about twenty minutes of the second half beginning. That SHOULD just about have been OK for Bob Cratchit returning home without Tim on his shoulder – the narrator says that it ‘was quiet. Very quiet’, and it is one of my favourite moments in the show, for I can feel the emotion and tension of an entire audience in that moment – crashing bells wouldn’t be appropriate.

I started act two and sure enough eventually the Cathedral Tinnitus ended, allowing me my moment of peace. The Cratchit scene passed and the atmosphere that builds through the final quarter seemed to be well established, until unbelievably a nearby security alarm went off and the rest of the show was accompanied by a loud, screeching ‘whoop whoop whoop whoop’ which didn’t end until the very final sentence of the story. I at least made was able to make an adlib, which broke the ice somewhat, by saying ‘Yes, the bedpost was his own, the bed was his own, the room was his own, the alarm was his own…..’ which was greeted by a loud cheer and even a cry of ‘Brilliant!’ That was rather overstating it, but it proved that we had all been battling the same intrusions into our fantasy world, together.

The show came to an end and the the hall erupted into applause and I earned a standing ovation which was a very fitting end to a wonderful season of performances – it has been apparent that audiences in both the UK and America have needed entertainment after such a difficult two years (I remember the same phenomenon in 2001, post 9-11) and have come out in good numbers to see the show, but have remained respectful of the wishes of others, whether that has meant wearing a mask throughout the show, or distancing in an auditorium.

My decision not to undertake long formal signing sessions has allowed me to conduct the question and answer sessions after the shows which have proved very popular.

What does 2022 hold for me? Of course we cannot tell, but there are a couple of new books in the pipeline, one of which is all about the history of my tours and the development of the show (I may even include the script…), and if everything works well that will be available for sale when I tour next year.

I will also get back to my running, which I have rather let lapse during the 2nd half of this year, with the aim of completing a half marathon before the year is out.

In the meantime, thank you to all of the audience members who have joined me for the ride this year and to the many people who have allowed me to perform in their venues, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year.