Getting the Wrong Signals

Monday October 5

Having fallen asleep quite early last night, I set a new record for early waking: when I turn over and peer at the clock I discover that it is 10.10pm!

The night continues in the same vein and I wake at 1, and 3 and finally at 4.15, when I finally give in. It’s very frustrating, as I haven’t had a show for three days and yet here I am exhausted.

I go through all of the morning routines and settle in to writing the blog, whilst sipping coffee and munching the last of some shortbread biscuits that I bought in Columbia. While I write I put the tv on and vaguely register that there is a commercial for a vacuum cleaner on. I keep writing for a while, sip some more coffee, look up at the television and realise that they are STILL selling the same vacuum cleaner. I switch off.

After writing for a while I get up and patter around the room ‘silently’ going through the lines of Doctor Marigold and The Signalman, which I will be performing later.

As the dark outside my window starts to ease, I realise that I can now avail myself of breakfast so I have a shower and dress before heading to the lobby.

The Hampton Inn, Lberty offers a simple buffet breakfast, as is the way of such establishments; but for whatever reason the little waffle maker here produces the best waffles in the USA (in my not so limited experience, that is). Of course I may find that standards have slipped over the past twelve months and that the management have started using a cheaper batter, or changed their old machines for something ‘more modern and state of the art.’

Fortunately they know when they are onto a good thing and the breakfast room is laid out just as I remember it. I don’t rush straight for the waffles, that would be unseemly: orange juice, a bowl of granola and some fresh fruit first, for I am a very healthy eater!

Then….fill the little paper cup: yes the batter is viscous (I’ve always wanted to use the word viscous in one of my posts), pour it into the heavy iron, clamp the lid shut, twist it through one hundred and eighty degrees, and the agonising wait has begun.

I try to look cool by fetching some coffee, and getting a knife and fork for my table, but every fibre is silently screaming at the timer ‘Now! Its had enough cooking time, NOW!’

And then ‘ping ping ping ping ping…’ Pavlov would have put me on a lead and taken me for a walk.

Breakfast was delicious.

Back in my room I gather all the bits and pieces necessary for my morning show – which includes two different costumes with attendant cufflinks, braces and shoes.

Kimberly is waiting for me at 9.15 and we head off for the drive to the Blue Springs North branch of the Mid Continent Library Service, where plenty of chairs are laid out ready for the show. The parking lot and the library itself however seem worryingly empty.

The librarians have set up a small stage and created a wonderfully spooky backdrop, showing a stretch of rail line, with a shadowy figure silhouetted, holding a lantern: perfect for The Signalman.

As the start time of 10am comes closer the seats begin to fill up, including a large group of 5th Grade students from a local school. I hope that two hours of Dickens language wont prove too much for them, but they seem to be an incredibly well behaved and quiet group .

At 10 o’clock I begin and after a short preamble explaining the terrible circumstances surrounding the Staplehurst rail disaster of 1865, I begin The Signalman: ‘Halloa! Below There!’

The show is going well and the atmosphere is building nicely, but I make a complete hash of some of the lines – suddenly finding myself in a passage, realising that I have to say something else, which I have missed, to make sense of something else that comes later – such is the way the mind works on stage.

I am furious with myself. All of the time spent in hotel rooms (and airports) going over lines and I go and make a stupid error like this. As far as the actual show is concerned, it is fine. I get out of the hole I’d dug myself into and carry on. But it is the principle of the matter that counts and I am so angry.

The Signalman is actually a very short reading, but very intense and right from the start it has been a difficult one to commit to memory. Something like Great Expectations or Doctor Marigold certainly took a long time to learn, but they are well lodged now and require only a little ‘dusting off’ when I come to perform them. With The Signalman, on the other hand, it seems as if I am starting from scratch each time.

I get to the end of the story and there is a welcome applause and excited murmur, so things must have gone alright from the audience’s point of view. I dash back to the Librarian’s offices, where I quickly change into my Doctor Marigold costume and return to the ‘auditorium’ for the second half.

Marigold: I am totally home with Marigold. I love ‘being’ Marigold. Doctor Marigold was one of Charles Dickens’ most successful performances during his reading tours in the 1860s. It was a brave choice for him to perform in that it involved him taking on a single persona and talking directly to his audience for an hour, rather than acting as narrator and using multiple characters to tell the story.

The story is funny, moving and uplifting and because most of the audience have never heard of it, nobody knows what is going to happen at the end. I’m not going to tell you here, you must come and see it.

The effect is just what I want, and it is a very successful performance, producing plenty of tears by the end (tears of sadness or happiness? As I said, you must come and see it).

I have a little meet and greet session afterwards before changing back into my normal clothes and heading off to lunch.

Kimberly drives me to a branch of Panera Bread near to the hotel and we order our food, before settling down to a meeting. Very grown up, that: a lunch meeting.   For quite a while now Kimberly has been investigating the idea of putting together a tour group to explore ‘Dickens’ America’ and wants me on board as tour guide and consultant. She has been chasing me for ideas for about two years now, and at last this is our opportunity to discuss the project at greater length.

By the end of lunch our notebooks are filled with exciting ideas for cities, museums, hotels, canals, rivers and communities associated with Dickens’ two visits to America in 1842 and 1868. Now it is time to make some coherent sense of the material and see if the idea will work logistically.

After lunch I go back to the hotel and firstly go through The Signalman again, trying to work out what sent me off on the wrong track. I go through the relevant part of the script a few times and then lay on the bed for an afternoon nap, trying to catch up some of the sleep from last night.

I doze fitfully until the alarm goes off at 5pm. I get up, have a refreshing and energizing shower and get ready for the evening.

I will be performing the same programme at the Woodneath branch of the library, which is only five minutes away, so Kimberly picks me up at 5.45, for the 6.30 start. The Woodneath branch has been a constant part of my Kansas City visits for the last three years and Melissa, the librarian, has a background in theatre, so is very keep to stage lots of shows.

Whereas this morning’s event was held in a cleared out corner of the Library, Woodneath has a separate room dedicated to lectures and performances, which is packed with chairs. There is always a good turn out here.

I check the microphone system and as audience members are already gathering outside, I go to get changed. Even in my little ‘dressing room ‘ (storage closet), I am still going through The Signalman over and over. When I emerge, the room is almost full and I stand at the back with Kimberly and Melissa watching the people pour in.

As I said, Melissa has a theatre background and she tells me that she is running a series of workshops on stage fright and how to deal with it. My line lapse from this morning surges to the front of my brain. Maybe I’d better take one of her workshops!

When everyone is settled I take to the stage and begin. The Signalman goes much better this evening. Not perfect, for there are a couple of hesitations and minor inaccuracies, but I’m much happier with it. I love hearing a gasp of realisation at the end when the train driver tells the narrator what he called out to the doomed signalman, and tonight there is such a gasp. The applause is wonderful.

We have a fifteen minute break for people to stretch their legs and check their mobile phones (although quite a few of them were able to do that during the show), and for me to change costume again.

Melissa manages to round everyone up, and we are ready for act 2.

This particular crowd, on this particular evening are a perfect Marigold crowd. They buy into the whole style of the show and are laughing along with it until Dickens makes his U turn and takes them in a completely different direction, which they dutifully follow.

It is a lovely shared experience of a show and at the end there is a standing ovation, which I had not expected at all.

I chat for a while and sign a few things, until the room is empty once more. I get changed, say good bye to Melissa (I will be back here in November), and then load my things into Kimberly’s car.

We decide to dine at the Longhorn Steakhouse again, as it is very close to my hotel, and tonight I have thick juicy ribye with a baked potato, instead of my rather effete salad of last night. It is a nice way to sign off from this one week mini tour.

Kimberly drops me off at the Hampton Inn and in no time I am on the verge of sleep.

The Steamboat Arabia

Sunday, October 4

After my adventures yesterday I am confident that today will be just fine. I wake at around 5 and get up to make a cup of coffee, before committing my adventures to the blog.

I muse for a little as to why, in this modern digital world, hotels still slip the final bill under the door during a guest’s last night. Is it really still necessary for some poor night porter to prowl the corridors making sure the correct statement goes under the correct door, knowing full well that the majority of guests are then going to have breakfast, therefore rendering the bill entirely redundant?

Just a short muse.

I render my bill redundant with a delicious breakfast and then get ready to check out. The hotel is connected directly to the airport by a covered bridge, so in no time I am back in my favourite place.

My flight this morning departs from terminal A, which is about the only one I didn’t visit yesterday. It is like stepping back in time, as I have to check in with a real person at a real desk – no little terminals to make life quicker.

The airport is quiet on this Sunday morning, so the process is swift. Upstairs and through security. I stand in the Whoooshhhhie xray machine with my hands up, and the female security officer says: ‘you’re good to go’. However her male colleague pulls me to one side and there follows a conversation that proves I have yet to fully master the American language.


‘I’m sorry?’


This sounds like a code between spies, but I don’t understand what on earth he is saying to me.

‘Excuse me?’


‘Ummmm, nope….’

‘Your zipper…sir.’

Ah. OK. Log that one into the memory banks. Have a nice day!

Gate A2 is very close to the security screening and I am greeted by the most glorious message on the monitor that I could possibly imagine:

A Welcome Sign

A Welcome Sign

On Time! Ahhhhhhhh. And sure enough, we board and the plane pushes back from the gate at precisely 9.15 and we scream down the runway, heading towards Kansas City, Mo.

The flight is quite a long one and I pass the time by finishing my current Kindle book – a biography of the great Victorian cricketer WG Grace, which has been a fascinating read.

I read the last page at the very moment that the Kindle’s battery runs down and I pass the rest of the flight looking down on the endless patchwork of fields, laid across the Midwest.  It is lovely to actually see the ground through the fluffy white clouds, after the incessant rain of the east coast.

We arrive in Kansas City early, and my bags are there on the carousel. In the baggage office there is a man remonstrating with the US Airways representative about some lost luggage. I send good vibes to the poor guy: ‘you’re doing a fine job!’

There to meet me is Kimberly Howard, from the Mid Continent Library Service, who have been bringing me to the Kansas City area for as many years as I have been touring. Kimberly is a good friend of longstanding, and as we drive away from the airport we catch up on our respective news.

Because of the change in my flight times, I have arrived much earlier than was planned, so we have some time to kill before I can get into my hotel. Kimberly asks me what I’d like to do. After a bit of ummm-ing and ahhh-ing, I chose the Steamboat Arabia museum in downtown Kansas City. I have visited the exhibit before, many years ago, and it is quite remarkable.

The Arabia was a huge steamer that plied its trade on the Missouri River, carrying heavy loads of supplies to the frontier communities. Kansas City marked the start of many of the trails west and the brave folk that set out on them needed everything: clothes, hardware, foodstuffs, crockery, glassware and the rest.


In 1856 she was loaded with almost 200 tons of goods and 130 passengers. Her huge paddles churned through the muddy Missouri pushing her inexorably forward. The river was shallow and fast flowing with huge broken tree trunks, or snags, carried along beneath the surface: a permanent threat to shipping.

In the late afternoon, with the low sun making visibility all but impossible, the Arabia struck one of these submerged spears and immediately began to go down. The passengers made their way to the upper hurricane deck to buy themselves time to be rescued which, incredibly, they all were. The only casualty was a mule that had been tethered on the deck.

The Arabia Goes Down

The Arabia Goes Down

The Arabia went down quickly and soon was soon sinking not only into the water, but into the silt of the river’s bed too.

Days, weeks, months and years passed and the mighty Missouri gradually changed its course, leaving the wreck of the mighty steamboat beneath a farmer’s field.

And there it stayed until 1988, when an enthusiastic group of men began searching. Initially using metal detecting methods they pinpointed the massive iron boilers, and from that discovered the resting place of the hull. And then they began to dig, and dig, and dig. The Arabia lay forty five feet down, wonderfully preserved.

But it was not the ship that fascinated the team, it was her cargo. Little by little a snapshot of life on the frontier began to emerge from the mud.

The collection in the museum is quite extraordinary both in quantity and variety – as our tour guide said; it was like unearthing a Victorian Wal-Mart!  There are full services of Wedgewood crockery, silver cutlery sets, nails, bolts, saws, drill bits, bottled pickles and fruit, perfume, hats, coats, cardigans, shoes, door handles, locks, keys and so much more.



The museum holds particular resonance for me because my great great grandfather (no, not that one: the other one) took the Orgean Trail and headed west. The trail started in Kansas City and Herbert Hoxie Hoyt must have been using these very supplies as he started his new life.

The museum tour finishes and we are deposited into the gift shop which sells the usual array of tourist tat, and which has disappointingly little to do with the artefacts that we have just been admiring.

In a car park outside there is a flea market going on, so we look at some of the stalls and they tell their own historical story, albeit a slightly more recent one: Sony Walkman’s, Kodak Instamatic cameras and their funny little flash cubes, 16 mm film projectors and all sorts of other things from my childhood – frighteningly now becoming ‘history’.

As time is moving on we decide to have a bite of lunch in a Chinese restaurant, before driving to Liberty, Missouri where I can check into my hotel. We arrange when Kimberly will pick me up in the morning for tomorrow’s events and I get to my room on the second floor.

For the only time on this trip I can do some laundry – ah, how I’ve missed that; and while the machines are whirring I do some more rehearsing in my room for tomorrow’s shows: a double bill featuring The Signalman and Doctor Marigold.

The lines seem to be settling in nicely, so I go and retrieve my clothes and then watch a bit of television and catch up on the news from home.

It is early, but I decide to go and get a bite to eat. There is a Longhorn Steakhouse just a short walk away (that doesn’t require me to get a cab or take my life in my hands by crossing a six lane freeway), so I head there.

After a substantial Chinese lunch, I choose a salad for my dinner, which seems almost heretical in a steak house, decorated with cowboy boots, horse whips and general symbols of Frontier masculinity! However it is delicious and suits me just fine.

I walk back to the hotel muttering the lines to Doctor Marigold to myself: ‘I am a cheapjack. My own father’s name was Willum Marigold. It was, in his lifetime supposed by some that his name was William, but no, he always said it was Willum……’

As I walk I get a terrible sneezing fit: I hope I’m not coming down with a cold. I get back to the hotel and receive a cheery ‘Welcome back!’ from the girl on the front desk.

It is still relatively early, but I get into bed anyway and read until I begin to doze off.  Tomorrow is a working day, after all.

An All Time First

Saturday October 3


I knew it was too good to be true. After my long night’s sleep yesterday I am PING awake at 4.15 this morning. Oh well, coffee and blog fill my time until the alarm goes off at 6.

This morning I am driving to The Reagan National Airport in the heart of Washington DC and I want to leave myself plenty of time to deal with any delays (even though it is a Saturday, the Nation’s Capital is renowned for it for its heavy traffic).

The rain is still falling hard and more than once I hit deep puddles on the side of the road which send the car skittering away from the straight and narrow – there’s a lot of water on the ground

Actually the traffic isn’t at all heavy and in no time I am driving straight towards the Capitol Building, which is looking spectacular in its scaffolding shroud – rather like a Lego model of itself.

My GPS guides me through various tunnels and over various bridges and I’m soon pulling into the Alamo Car rental parking garage, which is where I will say goodbye to my black Ford Fusion, which has been a very good car. It has lots of gadgets, which I am always a sucker for – the best of which is the automatic seat that electrically slides into position as you turn the engine on and slides backwards again when you switch it off, giving you more room to get out. Very clever.

Even though it is still rainy and squally, I decide to walk to the terminal building, rather than waiting for the shuttle bus. As I leave one parking garage there is a covered walkway which leads to the next and it passes a – dare I say it – grassy knoll. I notice that there is an information board and as I have plenty of time in hand I go and read it.

Suddenly I am at home: the board reads

‘The land that Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport occupies today was once part of a plantation. This hill and the ruins on it are all that remains of the house that stood here for nearly 190 years.

Abingdon, as this tract of land on the Potomac River was called, witnessed sweeping historical changes.’

Abingdon! That’s my home town – Abingdon. How odd to find this little connection in the middle of a wet concrete jungle. It is one of those happy little moments on tour which just make me smile.

I leave Oxfordshire and return to Virginia, making my way into the terminal, where I check my bags, clear security and get myself some breakfast.

Everything is running smoothly.

My schedule for the day sees me flying from DC to Philadelphia, which is only a thirty five minute flight, a short layover and then down to Wilmington in North Carolina, where I will be met by a limousine, which will whisk me to Swansboro to perform Doctor Marigold for the Swansboro Development Foundation. It promises to be a lovely day, culminating in one of my favourite shows.

I spend a little time completing yesterday’s blog post and uploading the photographs accompanying it, before closing down all of my electronics ready to board flight US4483 bound for Philadelphia.

The plane is completely full and because it is such a short trip most people are travelling with just carry-on bags, the result being that all of the overhead bins are quickly filled. There is a delay as people have to check their bags at the front of the plane, but finally everyone sits down and buckles up.

We are ready to leave. But we don’t.

Nothing happens.


At all.

Eventually our cheery Captain comes over the intercom to tell us that Philadelphia airport has gone into ‘Ground Lock’. Apparently this means that no traffic can move in or out of the airport. The captain reassures us that because nothing is moving, it means that all of our connections will be delayed by an equal amount of time and everything will be tickety-boo (the American readers are now thinking ‘WHAT?’)

We sit on the runway for the best part of an hour until the intercom crackles into life again, telling us that the lock has been lifted and we can go. OK, I’ll be later getting into Wilmington than planned, and I hope that delay doesn’t cost my hosts more for the limo, but I have plenty of time in hand.

The short flight is bumpy and uncomfortable. Bumpy because we never rise above the clouds; uncomfortable because the man in the seat behind talks the whole time about his wife – who is an alcoholic, suffers from depression, wants to divorce him, lives on an allowance from him – a large allowance because he ‘doesn’t want her to feel that she is a kept woman’. He has two sons – 44 and 48, and a daughter. He has visited China, Singapore, Istanbul. He lives in Baltimore, is flying to San Francisco to attend his aunt’s funeral. She was well off and lived in a beautiful suburb. He is tax inspector, chasing the cheaters. He has written a book. He loves his daughter more than his wife…..and on and on and on. I am mightily relieved when the ground appears through the clouds and we land.

As we taxi to our gate I look at my watch. It is 11.30 am, the precise time that my connecting flight was due to leave and for the first time I realise that our Captain’s logic is flawed: the planes that were delayed at Philly would have taken off as soon as the ground lock was lifted – we were only allowed to leave DC at that time. The chances are that I have missed my plane.

In the terminal building my fears are realised: ‘Flight number US 3739, Dest. Wilmington DEPARTED 11.30′.

Deep breath, and find the US Airways customer service desk. ‘Everything is fine, Sir, we’ll get you sorted’. After much computer tapping I am booked on the next flight to Wilmington at 3.55, arriving at 5.30. The slight worry is that the flight is showing ‘full’ and I am on standby, but the agent is confident I’ll get a seat. If not, he also books me onto the next flight, leaving at 6.10, arriving at 7.40. OK, that is too late for showtime, but maybe the organisers can tweak their evening and I can perform later.

Anyway, I now have 4 ½ hours to kill in Philadelphia airport. I spend an hour or so pacing the corridors going through the lines of Doctor Marigold ready for my show tonight and then I have lunch.

It is now 2pm: 2 hours to wait – and more, because the flight has been delayed a little. I have been in touch with Bob and Pam Byers, and they have been in contact with the event organisers. Everyone is in the loop now.

4pm approaches and I go to gate F24, where there is a plane waiting. The screen says: Wilmington Dep. 4.14. But the announcements are saying that this plane is actually bound for Albany. The clerk doesn’t know what’s happening to the Wilmington flight, but her screen still shows a 4.14 departure.

Albany boards and departs. Bob calls and asks what is happening? Am I able to take this flight? Don’t know yet, am waiting to find out.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you waiting for the flight to Wilmington, I am sorry to say it has been cancelled due to bad weather. Please see the US Airways service desk to rebook your flight’

There is a rush to the desk, but I hold back. I’ve spoken to Bob and he is talking to Swansboro – is it even worth getting the later flight – which is now also showing as delayed?

As I get to the desk Bob comes back on the phone and says that it has been decided to cancel the show, so I need to try and cancel my Wilmington flight and rebook a direct flight to Kansas City, my next venue, tomorrow morning

This is a very sad moment, not only because I love performing Doctor Marigold, but mainly because this is the very first time in all of my years of touring, dating back to 1995, that I have had to miss a show. There have been a few narrow squeaks over the years, where I have been driven directly from the airport to the venue and onto stage, but never actually a show lost. I feel very empty.

The agent, Nida, tells me that if I want to change my flight from Wilmington to Kansas City, she will have to charge me $200, and also the extra cost of flying from Philly to Missouri. There is no point getting angry with her, it’s hardly her fault after all, but I patiently explain that it was because the US Air flight was delayed way back at 9.45 this morning, that I missed the connection, that put me on a flight that was cancelled, that made me have no reason to go to North Carolina.

At the same time this is going on, I am talking to Bob and Pam trying to arrange things for tomorrow.

Nida, bless her, manages to talk to her superior and after explaining what it is that I do, they decide it will be fine to alter my flights. I am booked on the 9.15 flight to Kansas City tomorrow morning.

I let Bob know and he offers to look for a hotel for me near to the airport, as I begin the next part of the difficult process: finding my bags, which are deep within the bowels of the airport, on some pre-ordained bar-coded journey.

Nida tells me that they will be sent to the carousel in terminal E, so I make my way from F, via a shuttle bus, to E where there are no bags.  The agent in Baggage Services looks them up and says they are booked to go to Kansas City. I patiently explain my situation again and he makes a few phone calls to get them retrieved and returned to me.

This takes an hour. The system is fantastic when everything is working smoothly, but the second something untoward occurs it creaks and groans and stutters. While I am in the office another man comes in asking for his bags, as his flight to Hartford had been cancelled. Tap, tap tap on the keyboard: ‘Sir, your bags have gone to Hartford. The poor man shouts (more in exasperation, rather than in real anger), ‘How come my BAGS are in Hartford, and I am NOT!’ Good question, seeing as his flight was cancelled.

More and more people arrive – bags mislaid, bags left on planes, flights changed. I feel sorry for the agents in this office as the only people they get to see in their working lives are angry, disappointed, upset, frightened people. They do a good, unsung job.

Still, it takes an hour!

At last the carousel trembles into life and my two bags appear – as do those of Hartford man: apparently they had not gone to Hartford after all. It is 6.30 and I have been in Philadelphia Airport for seven hours.

One of the nicest calls I have ever had came as I was waiting, from Bob, telling me that he has booked at a room at the Marriott Hotel, which is a short walk from the terminal – no shuttle bus, no taxi ride, but right there.

Within ten minutes I am in a large comfortable room, having a bath, washing the day away. I email the organisers in Swansboro to tell them all how sorry I am not to be with them and then go to the restaurant for some lovely Fish and Chips.

It has been an emotional and very very tiring day (amazing how tiring it is doing nothing!), and Im glad it is over.

To use the English vernacular (and apologies for any offence caused), it has been a bugger of a day.

The Word Farmer

Friday October 2

I wake up in the Sheraton, In Columbia, at a thoroughly reasonable 5.30 am.   It is usual, when I first arrive in America, to see 3.30, 4, 4.30, so this is a luxurious lie-in for me.

Today marks my first performances of this mini tour and I am looking forward to performing Great Expectations for the first time on American soil, even though the first show is at 10 o’clock, which is terribly early to get the voice going.

Yesterday was spent going over the lines for Great Ex in my hotel room. Fortunately the weather was terrible, with unremitting heavy rain from dawn until dusk (and I assume either side of those events), so being confined to my room was no great hardship.

I had driven over to Slyaton House during the afternoon to meet with the technical staff who would be overseeing my show. Fran, Sue, Steve and Dale couldn’t do enough for me. They ‘built’ Miss Havisham (a seven foot high wooden frame, draped with white fabric), and diligently focussed and plotted lights. Great Expectations is the only one of my shows that requires specific lighting, and I sat for an hour in the lighting box, working through the script as Fran and Sue tapped away at a keyboard to record all of the cues – and there are a great many.

Theatres are great places to explore, and backstage at the Slayton House Theatre I discovered an Aladdin’s cave of old pieces of furniture and props from long-forgotten productions.

Aladdin's Cave

Aladdin’s Cave


It was while I was finishing up in the theatre that I heard about the latest college shooting in Oregon.

‘The latest’….how terrible are those two words?

How long must we wait, how many innocent lives will be lost, how many grieving parents must we be forced to watch on the news channels, how many bunches of flowers with candles flickering between them must we see, how many yearbook pictures, how many aerial shots of a campus with captions overlaid, how many photographs taken in a bedroom of a cock-sure lunatic brandishing a gun? How much longer can this slaughter continue before something is done?

The sad and terrible fact is that the wait will most likely go on and on and on. I’m sure that this will not be the last time that I write ‘the latest’.

Two years ago I met with Darren Wagner whose children attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. – another community ripped apart by a lone gunman. At the time I was impressed by his positivity and energy to bring the community back together and fight for tighter gun control laws. Now there will be another Darren in Oregon battling with grief, desperate to get something done.

I am aware that a few ranting lines from me will have no effect on anything but, please America: take action – take the RIGHT action now.

Great Expectations

The world keeps turning and lives go on. For me I have to get up and ready for my shows. The theatre is only ten minutes away from my hotel, so I have plenty of time to breakfast, shower, iron (oh, how you have missed those words!) and pack my costumes.

Slayton House is open and being prepared for the ‘British Invasion’ festival, of which I am a part. In the lobby there is a full sized cardboard cut out of a British phone box, apparently sourced from the British Embassy in DC. Even the weather makes me feel at home. The director of the festival , Dave Simmons, is there bustling around – a man of energy and adrenaline!

The crew are ready to go and I set the stage, while Fran and Sue work through the lighting cues again to check that everything was saved correctly. They find a slight discrepancy towards the end of the show, and we go through the script again to re-plot those cues.

Back stage a very kindly lady is looking after the green room and lays out a magnificent spread of fruit, soda, coffee, cookies, muffins, chips (crisps) chocolate and more. She seems a bit put out when I say that plenty of water is all I need.

It does seem to be a huge amount of treats for little old me, but I soon realise that the festival has taken over the Slayton House Community Center and the day will be filled with multiple events.

Unfortunately the 10 o’clock show will be played to a very small audience. The original plan was to take the show into one of the local schools, but the date clashed with a major schools meeting and nothing could be done. The result is that we are expecting a meagre 22. However, each of them has invested not only their money, but their time too and therefore deserve as much energy and commitment as a full house does.

To be honest, I am quite nervous about Great Expectations: It is a much darker and more intense show than those that I regularly perform, and laughs are scarce, to be sure. It requires a great deal of commitment and concentration from the audience and runs the length of a Broadway show. In the UK I have discovered that those who come to see it tend to be fans of the novel and therefore bring a degree of passion and knowledge with them: will it be the same in America or will the audience be made up of curious festival goers who are keen to see the great novelist’s descendent. We shall see.

Miss Havisham looks on

Miss Havisham looks on

As the start time approaches I pace the halls behind the stage, go into the wings and try to ‘feel’ the audience from their chat and conversation, of which there is very little. I return to my hall pacing.

Steve is the stage manager for the event and he comes to fetch me. We are ready to go.  The lights dim to black and the recorded voiceover, featuring the opening passages of the novel, plays into the darkened auditorium. And now it is time for my entrance…..

The show goes very well and the audience seem fully engaged. It is an intense silence of concentration, rather than a shuffling silence of boredom. I am very pleased. There is good applause at the end of the first act as Pip sets off to begin his new life in London.

The second act is darker still and yet more complicated to follow, but the audience are there with me every minute of the way. When the final black out enshrouds Pip and Estella as they walk into their uncertain future, the applause is remarkably generous for such a small gathering and as I return to the stage to take my bow there is whistling and whooping. Phew.

I return to my dressing room and am amazed to discover that it is not yet noon. I had completely forgotten that this was a morning performance, and fully expected the skies to be dark outside.

I pack up my things, as there is to be a rock band on stage now, and head back to the hotel, buying a salad for my lunch on the way.

The afternoon is spent resting, and going through the lines of Doctor Marigold, which I am due to perform tomorrow evening. As I am rehearsing I remember an actor friend of mine asking ‘how many hours do you have memorized?’ It’s a good question and I hope that pushing Marigold into my limited memory banks doesn’t drive Great Ex out before the evening show.

At around five-thirty I return to Slayton House and everything is busier. David is running here and there, as are other members of the organising group. There is a lecture taking place about the British explorer Ernest Shackleton and another band, who will be performing after me, has just finished their sound check on the stage.

I set up the stage again and sit in the quiet of the auditorium chatting to the crew, as they munch egg sandwiches, garnished with little Union Flags.

Proud to be British!

Proud to be British!

We chat and Dale philosophises that Charles Dickens planted his novels all those years ago and now I am nurturing them and spreading them: ‘Dude,’ he says, ‘you are truly a word farmer’ and nods profoundly.  And with that, it is time to farm.

The crew: l-r: Sue, Fran, Steve, Dale and David

The crew: l-r: Sue, Fran, Steve, Dale and David

This evening’s audience promises to be much larger than this morning’s and soon more seats are being laid out, which is a good sign. With thirty minutes to go I get into costume, check the stage one final time and commence my back-stage pacing once more.

Ready to Farm

Ready to Farm

The show is even more intense than this morning’s and I can feel myself pushing hard; trying to capture every emotion in every scene. Once again the audience are well involved in the story, and once again the applause is generous with accompanying whistles and cheers.

When I get back to my dressing room the band who are up next have already moved in, so I get changed and pack my things up quickly, leaving the evening to them.

In the lobby plenty of audience members are milling about chatting about the show. Among them are Bob and Pam Byers who have driven down from Philadelphia to see me, which is so generous of them. As we are all staying in the same hotel we say our goodbyes to as many of the folks from British Invasion as we can find and head back to the Sheraton in convoy

There is time for a drink in the bar and we have a lovely time chatting and catching up: they admire the wedding pictures and we discuss plans for future events and tours: venues are already seeking dates for the 2016 trip.

As time goes on the effort of two Great Expectations (two Great Expectationses?) begins to takes its toll and it is time for bed.

I can sleep soundly in the knowledge that Great Expectations has worked!

Back Online.

There is a moment during the film Apollo 13 when the character of Jack Swigert climbs into the frozen, crippled command module; he flicks a few switches and, after a suitably dramatic pause, lights start to flicker back into life. The capsule becomes a living being again

I am feeling much the same as I stare at the WordPress home page, ready to write for the first time in many months.

Once again, as Autumn begins to grip (which in England seems to mean a spell of fine weather far outstripping anything that we enjoyed in the Summer), my professional attentions turn to the United States of America and life back on the road.

2015 has been a wonderful year, with so much going on. Back in February I was in Minneapolis helping to create ‘To Begin With’ – a new play based on Charles Dickens’ short book ‘The Life of Our Lord’. The show was a great success, and to work with a close-knit team for a lengthy run in a single venue was something very exciting and new for me.

We are hoping to repeat the exercise and hopefully take the show on tour, maybe even to the UK but, as is ever the case, there is the slight hurdle of funding. At the moment everything is on hold until the producer, Dennis Babcock, can get investors on board. It is a frustrating time for all of us, but I’m sure that ‘something will turn up’, as Mr Micawber says.

THE event of this year, though, was our Wedding. In August Liz and I travelled up to Cromarty in the Highlands of Scotland , along with my son Cameron, and our brothers and sisters. The day was everything we could have dreamed of: the ceremony itself in the open air beneath azure skies and hot sun.

The Highlands being the Highlands, the weather changed completely within a couple of hours, and our Dolphin watching boat trip became a rain-lashed adventure, which certainly added to the fun of the day.

In a few weeks Liz and I head off for a belated honeymoon in Zanzibar, where we will lay on soft sand, snorkel, watch spectacular sunsets and let the woes of the world pass us by.

For now though we are both working: Liz as head of keyboards in the music department at St Helen and St Katharine’s School and me travelling to Maryland. The goodbyes seemed to be even more difficult this year, even though I’m only going to be away for a week.

In the midst of a busy working day Liz drove me to the bus station in Oxford, so that I could catch the superb coach service that links the city to Heathrow airport. We said our sorrowful goodbyes and I set off on my travels.

Actually there is very little of interest to report, as the journey was one of the easiest I have ever taken. The bus arrived at Heathrow on time and there were no queues at either check-in, or security. Everyone in the line ahead of me knew to take their belts off, laptops out and empty their pockets – so there were none of the usual bottle necks.

After a little routine shopping and a cup of coffee, the gate for my flight was called and when I arrived I could walk straight onboard, where I discovered that I had nobody sat beside, in front or behind me.

We pushed back from the gate on time and taxied towards the end of the runway. It was interesting to see all of the new bulbous Airbus A380 double decked planes, with their sensually curving wings. Suddenly the big 747s look very dated and somewhat ungainly.

We took off to the east and banked round directly over Windsor Castle and Eton school. The day was bright and clear and the view was amazing. Soon we flew over the remaining chimneys at Didcot Power Station. In clear view, a little to the north was our home town of Abingdon: the ring road, the roundabout marking the junction with the Oxford Road, the turn into our road – our house: all very visible! I waved and blew a kiss to Liz.

As the plane rushed to the west I watched a couple of films before discovering the first season of House of Cards and managed to watch three episodes before we made our descent into, appropriately, Washington DC.


The sunset above the clouds (Actually, I’m not sure if that is possible), was beautiful and seemed to make a solid surface on which we could actually land, but we gently passed through and touched down on American soil some twenty minutes early.

My seat was way back in the plane and by the time I got off I’d missed the first shuttle bus taking passengers to the main terminal. The next bus had a few straggling passengers, such as myself and the crew. By the time we eventually got to the immigration hall everybody else had gone and I could just walk straight up to a desk, have my finger prints taken and be sent cheerily on my way (yes, really: cheerily)

The final bags were coming onto the carousel as I arrived at the baggage hall and in no time I was walking into the chilly Virginian evening. Actually waiting for the courtesy bus from the Alamo Car rental office was the longest delay I experienced on the entire trip.

My first event on this mini tour is going to be at Columbia, Maryland, where I will be performing my version of Great Expectations as part of the ‘British Invasion’ Arts Festival ( I spent much of the hour’s car journey to Columbia going through the lines of Great Ex and the miles passed quickly.

In no time I was pulling up at the Sheraton Hotel where I had a brief dinner of grilled chicken, before falling asleep on my bed.

On Friday I will be performing, and will report back then: the winter starts here….

The Election For Beadle

As the UK prepares to vote in the one of the closest elections in living memory, I thought that you might like to see how little has changed.

The Election For Beadle was one of The Sketches by Boz, the first published works of Charles Dickens:

A great event has recently occurred in our parish. A contest of paramount interest has just terminated; a parochial convulsion has taken place. It has been succeeded by a glorious triumph, which the country — or at least the parish — it is all the same — will long remember. We have had an election; an election for beadle. The supporters of the old beadle system have been defeated in their stronghold, and the advocates of the great new beadle principles have achieved a proud victory.

Our parish, which, like all other parishes, is a little world of its own, has long been divided into two parties, whose contentions, slumbering for a while, have never failed to burst forth with unabated vigour, on any occasion on which they could by possibility be renewed. Watching-rates, lighting-rates, paving-rates, sewer’s-rates, church-rates, poor’s-rates — all sorts of rates, have been in their turns the subjects of a grand struggle; and as to questions of patronage, the asperity and determination with which they have been contested is scarcely credible.

The leader of the official party — the steady advocate of the churchwardens, and the unflinching supporter of the overseers — is an old gentleman who lives in our row. He owns some half a dozen houses in it, and always walks on the opposite side of the way, so that he may be able to take in a view of the whole of his property at once. He is a tall, thin, bony man, with an interrogative nose, and little restless perking eyes, which appear to have been given him for the sole purpose of peeping into other people’s affairs with. He is deeply impressed with the importance of our parish business, and prides himself, not a little, on his style of addressing the parishioners in vestry assembled. His views are rather confined than extensive; his principles more narrow than liberal. He has been heard to declaim very loudly in favour of the liberty of the press, and advocates the repeal of the stamp duty on newspapers, because the daily journals who now have a monopoly of the public, never give VERBATIM reports of vestry meetings. He would not appear egotistical for the world, but at the same time he must say, that there are SPEECHES— that celebrated speech of his own, on the emoluments of the sexton, and the duties of the office, for instance — which might be communicated to the public, greatly to their improvement and advantage.

His great opponent in public life is Captain Purday, the old naval officer on half-pay, to whom we have already introduced our readers. The captain being a determined opponent of the constituted authorities, whoever they may chance to be, and our other friend being their steady supporter, with an equal disregard of their individual merits, it will readily be supposed, that occasions for their coming into direct collision are neither few nor far between. They divided the vestry fourteen times on a motion for heating the church with warm water instead of coals: and made speeches about liberty and expenditure, and prodigality and hot water, which threw the whole parish into a state of excitement. Then the captain, when he was on the visiting committee, and his opponent overseer, brought forward certain distinct and specific charges relative to the management of the workhouse, boldly expressed his total want of confidence in the existing authorities, and moved for ‘a copy of the recipe by which the paupers’ soup was prepared, together with any documents relating thereto.’ This the overseer steadily resisted; he fortified himself by precedent, appealed to the established usage, and declined to produce the papers, on the ground of the injury that would be done to the public service, if documents of a strictly private nature, passing between the master of the workhouse and the cook, were to be thus dragged to light on the motion of any individual member of the vestry. The motion was lost by a majority of two; and then the captain, who never allows himself to be defeated, moved for a committee of inquiry into the whole subject. The affair grew serious: the question was discussed at meeting after meeting, and vestry after vestry; speeches were made, attacks repudiated, personal defiances exchanged, explanations received, and the greatest excitement prevailed, until at last, just as the question was going to be finally decided, the vestry found that somehow or other, they had become entangled in a point of form, from which it was impossible to escape with propriety. So, the motion was dropped, and everybody looked extremely important, and seemed quite satisfied with the meritorious nature of the whole proceeding.

This was the state of affairs in our parish a week or two since, when Simmons, the beadle, suddenly died. The lamented deceased had over-exerted himself, a day or two previously, in conveying an aged female, highly intoxicated, to the strong room of the work-house. The excitement thus occasioned, added to a severe cold, which this indefatigable officer had caught in his capacity of director of the parish engine, by inadvertently playing over himself instead of a fire, proved too much for a constitution already enfeebled by age; and the intelligence was conveyed to the Board one evening that Simmons had died, and left his respects.

The breath was scarcely out of the body of the deceased functionary, when the field was filled with competitors for the vacant office, each of whom rested his claims to public support, entirely on the number and extent of his family, as if the office of beadle were originally instituted as an encouragement for the propagation of the human species. ‘Bung for Beadle. Five small children!’ — ‘Hopkins for Beadle. Seven small children!!’ — ‘Timkins for Beadle. Nine small children!!!’ Such were the placards in large black letters on a white ground, which were plentifully pasted on the walls, and posted in the windows of the principal shops. Timkins’s success was considered certain: several mothers of families half promised their votes, and the nine small children would have run over the course, but for the production of another placard, announcing the appearance of a still more meritorious candidate. ‘Spruggins for Beadle. Ten small children (two of them twins), and a wife!!!’ There was no resisting this; ten small children would have been almost irresistible in themselves, without the twins, but the touching parenthesis about that interesting production of nature, and the still more touching allusion to Mrs. Spruggins, must ensure success. Spruggins was the favourite at once, and the appearance of his lady, as she went about to solicit votes (which encouraged confident hopes of a still further addition to the house of Spruggins at no remote period), increased the general prepossession in his favour. The other candidates, Bung alone excepted, resigned in despair. The day of election was fixed; and the canvass proceeded with briskness and perseverance on both sides.

The members of the vestry could not be supposed to escape the contagious excitement inseparable from the occasion. The majority of the lady inhabitants of the parish declared at once for Spruggins; and the QUONDAM overseer took the same side, on the ground that men with large families always had been elected to the office, and that although he must admit, that, in other respects, Spruggins was the least qualified candidate of the two, still it was an old practice, and he saw no reason why an old practice should be departed from. This was enough for the captain. He immediately sided with Bung, canvassed for him personally in all directions, wrote squibs on Spruggins, and got his butcher to skewer them up on conspicuous joints in his shop-front; frightened his neighbour, the old lady, into a palpitation of the heart, by his awful denunciations of Spruggins’s party; and bounced in and out, and up and down, and backwards and forwards, until all the sober inhabitants of the parish thought it inevitable that he must die of a brain fever, long before the election began.

The day of election arrived. It was no longer an individual struggle, but a party contest between the ins and outs. The question was, whether the withering influence of the overseers, the domination of the churchwardens, and the blighting despotism of the vestry-clerk, should be allowed to render the election of beadle a form — a nullity: whether they should impose a vestry-elected beadle on the parish, to do their bidding and forward their views, or whether the parishioners, fearlessly asserting their undoubted rights, should elect an independent beadle of their own.

The nomination was fixed to take place in the vestry, but so great was the throng of anxious spectators, that it was found necessary to adjourn to the church, where the ceremony commenced with due solemnity. The appearance of the churchwardens and overseers, and the ex-churchwardens and ex-overseers, with Spruggins in the rear, excited general attention. Spruggins was a little thin man, in rusty black, with a long pale face, and a countenance expressive of care and fatigue, which might either be attributed to the extent of his family or the anxiety of his feelings. His opponent appeared in a cast-off coat of the captain’s — a blue coat with bright buttons; white trousers, and that description of shoes familiarly known by the appellation of ‘high-lows.’ There was a serenity in the open countenance of Bung — a kind of moral dignity in his confident air — an ‘I wish you may get it’ sort of expression in his eye — which infused animation into his supporters, and evidently dispirited his opponents.

The ex-churchwarden rose to propose Thomas Spruggins for beadle. He had known him long. He had had his eye upon him closely for years; he had watched him with twofold vigilance for months. (A parishioner here suggested that this might be termed ‘taking a double sight,’ but the observation was drowned in loud cries of ‘Order!’) He would repeat that he had had his eye upon him for years, and this he would say, that a more well-conducted, a more well-behaved, a more sober, a more quiet man, with a more well-regulated mind, he had never met with. A man with a larger family he had never known (cheers). The parish required a man who could be depended on (‘Hear!’ from the Spruggins side, answered by ironical cheers from the Bung party). Such a man he now proposed (‘No,’ ‘Yes’). He would not allude to individuals (the ex-churchwarden continued, in the celebrated negative style adopted by great speakers). He would not advert to a gentleman who had once held a high rank in the service of his majesty; he would not say, that that gentleman was no gentleman; he would not assert, that that man was no man; he would not say, that he was a turbulent parishioner; he would not say, that he had grossly misbehaved himself, not only on this, but on all former occasions; he would not say, that he was one of those discontented and treasonable spirits, who carried confusion and disorder wherever they went; he would not say, that he harboured in his heart envy, and hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness. No! He wished to have everything comfortable and pleasant, and therefore, he would say — nothing about him (cheers).

The captain replied in a similar parliamentary style. He would not say, he was astonished at the speech they had just heard; he would not say, he was disgusted (cheers). He would not retort the epithets which had been hurled against him (renewed cheering); he would not allude to men once in office, but now happily out of it, who had mismanaged the workhouse, ground the paupers, diluted the beer, slack-baked the bread, boned the meat, heightened the work, and lowered the soup (tremendous cheers). He would not ask what such men deserved (a voice, ‘Nothing a-day, and find themselves!’). He would not say, that one burst of general indignation should drive them from the parish they polluted with their presence (‘Give it him!’). He would not allude to the unfortunate man who had been proposed — he would not say, as the vestry’s tool, but as Beadle. He would not advert to that individual’s family; he would not say, that nine children, twins, and a wife, were very bad examples for pauper imitation (loud cheers). He would not advert in detail to the qualifications of Bung. The man stood before him, and he would not say in his presence, what he might be disposed to say of him, if he were absent. (Here Mr. Bung telegraphed to a friend near him, under cover of his hat, by contracting his left eye, and applying his right thumb to the tip of his nose). It had been objected to Bung that he had only five children (‘Hear, hear!’ from the opposition). Well; he had yet to learn that the legislature had affixed any precise amount of infantine qualification to the office of beadle; but taking it for granted that an extensive family were a great requisite, he entreated them to look to facts, and compare DATA, about which there could be no mistake. Bung was 35 years of age. Spruggins — of whom he wished to speak with all possible respect — was 50. Was it not more than possible — was it not very probable — that by the time Bung attained the latter age, he might see around him a family, even exceeding in number and extent, that to which Spruggins at present laid claim (deafening cheers and waving of handkerchiefs)? The captain concluded, amidst loud applause, by calling upon the parishioners to sound the tocsin, rush to the poll, free themselves from dictation, or be slaves for ever.

On the following day the polling began, and we never have had such a bustle in our parish since we got up our famous anti-slavery petition, which was such an important one, that the House of Commons ordered it to be printed, on the motion of the member for the district. The captain engaged two hackney-coaches and a cab for Bung’s people — the cab for the drunken voters, and the two coaches for the old ladies, the greater portion of whom, owing to the captain’s impetuosity, were driven up to the poll and home again, before they recovered from their flurry sufficiently to know, with any degree of clearness, what they had been doing. The opposite party wholly neglected these precautions, and the consequence was, that a great many ladies who were walking leisurely up to the church — for it was a very hot day — to vote for Spruggins, were artfully decoyed into the coaches, and voted for Bung. The captain’s arguments, too, had produced considerable effect: the attempted influence of the vestry produced a greater. A threat of exclusive dealing was clearly established against the vestry-clerk — a case of heartless and profligate atrocity. It appeared that the delinquent had been in the habit of purchasing six penn’orth of muffins, weekly, from an old woman who rents a small house in the parish, and resides among the original settlers; on her last weekly visit, a message was conveyed to her through the medium of the cook, couched in mysterious terms, but indicating with sufficient clearness, that the vestry-clerk’s appetite for muffins, in future, depended entirely on her vote on the beadleship. This was sufficient: the stream had been turning previously, and the impulse thus administered directed its final course. The Bung party ordered one shilling’s-worth of muffins weekly for the remainder of the old woman’s natural life; the parishioners were loud in their exclamations; and the fate of Spruggins was sealed.

It was in vain that the twins were exhibited in dresses of the same pattern, and night-caps, to match, at the church door: the boy in Mrs. Spruggins’s right arm, and the girl in her left — even Mrs. Spruggins herself failed to be an object of sympathy any longer. The majority attained by Bung on the gross poll was four hundred and twenty-eight, and the cause of the parishioners triumphed.

Memories of Tunbridge Wells

This post has nothing to do with the theatre; it has nothing to nothing to do with Charles Dickens; it has nothing to with my recent performances of ‘To Begin With’ in America.   I have written this post thanks to all of those things.

A remarkable coincidence, which originated in the sub-zero temperatures of Minneapolis, has transported me back to my childhood and brought to the surface a tsunami of memories.

Let me explain:

Jeffrey Hatcher, the writer and director of ‘To Begin With’ shares with me a passion for the works of Ian Fleming and had read a book entitled: ‘The Man Who Saved Britain.  A Personal Journey In To The Disturbing World of James Bond, by Simon Winder’.

I have read a great many books about Ian Fleming and James Bond, but this particular tome had passed me by.  I assumed it must be by an American author and was pleased when Jeff said that he would lend me his copy.

Unfortunately Jeff’s volume proved elusive (he subsequently remembered that he had previously lent it to another Brit, who had failed to return it), but he promised to order a copy online and send it on to me.

The book duly arrived and I eagerly opened it and almost fell off my chair when I read the title of Winder’s introduction: ‘Eating Old Jamaican at the Tunbridge Wells Odeon’.  In his preface Simon explains how, as a ten year old, he was terrified in the Tunbridge Wells cinema watching the voodoo rituals in Live and Let Die, and ultimately realising that there was a glamorous, dangerous, faced-paced, sexy world outside the boundaries of Royal Tunbridge Wells: the world of James Bond

The reason that these few paragraphs had such an influence on me was that I too was ten when ‘Live and Let Die’ was released.  I too had been terrified by the voodoo rituals.  I too had watched the film at the cinema in Tunbridge Wells (I must take issue with Mr Winder’s memory as the cinema was The Classic, or maybe even the Essoldo at that time:  The Odeon came much later as an out of town multiplex).

I couldn’t believe my eyes as Simon went onto describe that his previous cinema outing had been to sit through the Royal Ballet’s film version of ‘The Tales of Beatrix Potter’ – mine too!  I began to wonder if I had written a book about James Bond and forgotten all about it, for here was my own childhood laid out on the page before me.

My reaction to this little quirk of fate was amazing, it was as if I peering through a tiny crack in time. The more I looked, the wider the crack became, until remembered images of my life in Royal Tunbridge Wells poured through it and flooded my mind.

The purpose of this post is to share some of those memories.  It is not intended to be a history of my childhood, but a walk around the town in which I (and Simon Winder, apparently) grew up.

As this story started there, let’s begin with the cinema:

The Essoldo/Classic/Cannon

The Cinema

The Cinema

The cinema stood at the top of Mount Pleasant, on the corner with Church Road.  It was a strange nondescript, rather modern looking building, built on an angle.  It faced the huge red bricked building that housed the town’s library, town hall, police station and theatre.

To enter the cinema you walked up a few steps to one of a number of doors.  As it was on the edge of a large hill the number of steps increased the further to the left you went.  There were about six on the far left and only one at the right.

The foyer was spacious and had a rather sticky carpet, as though pop corn and sweets had been trodden in to it for so long that a new surface had been created.   The ticket office ran along the left hand side of the foyer, with a small counter selling drinks and snacks to the right.  There was a small confectionary shop next door, and it was much cheaper to buy your sweets there, before you saw the film.

When I was growing up there were two screening theatres, which was very grand.   Screen One was huge, and this is where the big films (presumably Live and Let Die among them), were shown.  Screen Two was a less imposing and more intimate space and was always my favourite.

In later years an upstairs room, which had used to be a small restaurant, was converted into a third screen, and was tiny.  In fact Screen Three was so small that there was no room for a traditional projection room at the back – the projector was housed in the roof, and the image reached the screen via a series of mirrors.

The cinema was built over the railway tunnel, through which the commuter trains to and from London passed, and at regular intervals you could feel the building vibrate.  You can pay good money these days to have the same effect in an Imax theatre.

Other than the aforementioned Bond and Beatrix Potter films, I distinctly remember seeing Pinocchio there, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Of course there were plenty of other visits as I grew up, but those stay in my mind.


These days there is a large shopping mall in the middle of Tunbridge Wells, but back in the sixties and seventies the town was made up of lots of independent shops catering for the needs of a staunchly traditional and Conservative clientele.

On the corner of Calverley Road and Mount Pleasant, stood Cheeseman’s, a wonderful department store arranged over three floors.  It seemed huge to me, but I’m sure that it wasn’t.

There were floors given over to clothes, and to hardware and to electrical goods, and to toys and to sporting equipment.  As the shop was in an old building there would never be obvious ways of getting around: there was a staircase tucked in one corner, and a rickety old lift, with those folding metal gates, somewhere else.

In Cheeseman’s every Christmas there would be a Santa’s grotto, and I would wait patiently and excitedly in a queue, until I was ushered into the presence of Father Christmas himself, who gently handed me  a small wrapped gift from his sack and asked: ‘what would you like for Christmas?’ My mother would be standing nearby straining her ears for any clues.

There was another department store at the other end of the town, opposite the main rail station, and that was much grander:  Weekes.  Your position in society was very obvious if you shopped at Weekes – the clothes were more expensive and more fashionable (what era they were fashionable in is open to question: probably at the height of The British Empire).  In contrast to the slightly down-at heel- Cheeseman’s, Weekes actually had an escalator running through the centre of the main floors.  The only other place I had ever seen an escalator was in London, so to actually have one in our own town was very exciting.

Weekes stood on a junction of four roads, one of which was the High Street.  The name ‘High Street’ suggests a bustling town centre, but that was not the case in Tunbridge Wells.

In the 1600s a small settlement had grown up around a natural spring, rich in iron, and the respectable folk had flocked from London to take the waters.  Naturally, entrepreneurial types began to cash in on the influx of wealthy visitors.  They set up stalls and lodging houses, and so the beginnings of the town grew.

Fashions change, however, and the nobility decided that sea bathing was better for them: Brighton became the new fashionable place in which to be seen.  Tunbridge Wells was left to fade and crumble, leaving a few shops straggling away from the site of the Spring.  This neglected road had been the High Street.

Tunbridge Wells needed reinventing if it was to survive, and the young architect Decimus Burton, started work on his ‘Calverley Project’ which utilised land at the top of a steep hill, distant from the formally respectable area where Royalty had once gathered.

The new society lived, and shopped at ‘the top of the town’, while the Pantiles (the covered promenade around the spring), became an interesting tourist attraction.   The old High Street was neither one thing nor another, just a road linking the two ends of the town.

But, there was one shop in the High Street that we as a family knew well, because it was owned by our neighbour, Mr Goulden:  The shop was called Goulden and Curry.

Goulden and Curry was a stationery shop, and at ground level there were lovely glass topped counters, with dark wood cabinets, containing pens and nibs, pencils and sharpeners, rubbers and rulers and tin boxes containing protractors, set squares and compasses.  You could buy a slide rule there too: the range varied from very basic to eye-wateringly advanced.  I never understood slide rules, but Goulden and Curry specialised in them.

Walk up the stairs and you were in the book department, which spread through a number of small rooms, each connected by two or three steps here and there, up or down.

There was also a small record department, which had racks of classical music LPs.  Why was there a classical music department in a stationery store?  Simple: John Goulden loved his music, so why not?

The old Goulden and Curry shop is now a Cath Kidston store, but the staircase and upstairs rooms are little changed, if slightly more floral.

I have memories of a few other shops, but I don’t recall their names, sadly.  There was a fabulous delicatessen on top of the hill, at Mount Ephraim, where my mother used to shop.  Ham and bacon were sliced by a huge spinning circular blade, to the precise thickness that she required.  As mum made her way round the shop each order, be it for meat or cheese, was recorded on a paper ticket which was then attached to an overhead string.  A system of pulleys pulled all of the tickets to a cashier at the front of the shop.

When the shopping was done all of the little tickets were added together and presumably put on account for the male of the species to settle at the end of the month.

Close to the delicatessen was a yacht chandler.  I have no idea why Royal Tunbridge Wells, which is a good hour or so from the coast, needed a chandler but there it was.  The entrance to the shop was at street level and there were counters that sold rope and cleats and pulleys and buoys and flags and anything else that the land-locked sailor could in reason want.  But, explore further back and you were in for a surprise:  The floor dropped away and there were yachts – real yachts – sitting on the ground below, the tops of their masts at eye level.   It was here that Dad bought the fireworks for our traditional display in the back garden on November 5th.

One of my strongest memories of Tunbridge Wells is an olfactory one.  Walking along Monson Road, in the centre of town, you would pass a coffee shop, and in the window there was a machine constantly roasting and grinding coffee beans:  oh, what a wonderful smell that was!


Also in Monson Road, nearly opposite the coffee shop, were the swimming baths.  Every Saturday morning, before breakfast, dad would take us with rolled up towels, to the Monson Baths, which were housed in a splendid Victorian building.

The Monson Swimming Baths (L)

The Monson Swimming Baths (L)

The changing cubicles were along each side of the pool and the whole building was tiled, meaning that the screams and shouts from all of the swimmers echoed loudly.   There was always a plaster from someone’s grazed knee, floating in the chlorine filled water.  I seem to remember that the roof was glass, so that there was natural light, but I may be wrong in that.

There was a diving board at one end and I remember standing on it one Saturday morning, desperate to dive, but so scared too. I shivered with cold and fear.   Dad was in the pool getting more and more impatient with me, as were the many bathers who queued up waiting to execute a perfect swallow dive.

Eventually it was time for us to leave and it was now or never – so I dived.  I imagine I landed flat on my stomach, driving the wind out of me and sending up a huge splash.  My shout of pain must have sounded impressive as it echoed from the tiles:  It was a good lesson in conquering fear.

In those days you didn’t just swim for as long as you liked, there was a strict time limit and after the allotted time (half an hour, forty five minutes, maybe?) an announcement was made and everybody with red wrist bands had to get out, and the next group, wearing green, were allowed in.

After the great dive, I was allowed to buy a chocolate bar – a Mars Bar I think, as a reward for my extreme bravery.   I had to pay for it in ‘new money’ – 2 ½ pence (equivalent to 6d).  It was my first lesson in decimalisation, thus dating the momentous day to 1970, when I was six years old.

The town boasted another swimming pool, the Woodsgate Open Air Pool in Pembury.  Woodsgate had a curling slide which launched you into the water, which was so exciting.  A visit to Woodsgate was rare and the pool was demolished and the ground built on when I was still young.

Open Spaces

Tunbridge Wells boasted then, and still does, an expanse of wonderful common land on which children could play.  The Common was laid out for the Victorian gentry to stroll, and there were many wide avenues criss-crossing it.  There were areas of woodland, and areas of open space, including two ‘cricket pitches’.  One was an actual cricket pitch: The Upper Cricket Ground, where the Linden Park Cricket Club played, whilst the other, was just a large grass expanse called The Lower Cricket Ground.

The Lower Cricket Ground was hardly ever used for anything, but one year there was a huge funfair there, and a festival featuring the massed bands of the Royal Marines.  I assume the country was celebrating something or other, but I don’t remember what: my main memory is of the perfectly white helmets of the band, in perfectly straight rows.

Next to the Upper Cricket Ground were The Wellington Rocks, an outcrop of sandstone that was perfect for climbing on.  The soft rock had been worn away by generations of feet, and there were hand and foot holes which meant that would-be Sir Edmund Hillary’s could climb to the highest point with ease (although a six-year old who had been paralysed by fear on the Monson diving board would rather have left the business of climbing to the older children.)

In between the rocks were wonderful crevices, through which only a child could squeeze, making it perfect hide-and-seek terrain.

Many a Sunday afternoon was spent on the rocks, as the adults sat on rugs and enjoyed a picnic, safe in the knowledge that their children were having great adventures just a few yards away.

The Wellington Rocks

The Wellington Rocks

I could go on and on.  Even as I have been writing, more and more of my childhood has come flooding back to me, but I think that’s enough to be going on with.  I hope that by reading this some of your own memories might have surfaced.

Life changes at a rapid pace: The Classic Cinema has lain empty and crumbling for many years. Cheeseman’s was bulldozed when the shopping mall was built. It has been replaced by a series of modern, bland, shops that can be found in any shopping centre in any town in England.

Weekes changed into Hoopers, but is still in the same building, and the escalator is still there.  The fashions are still indeterminate.

The Monson Baths are gone, and there is a single-story outdoor pursuits shop in its place, whilst the aroma of roasting coffee beans no longer wafts along Monson Road.

But in Tunbridge Wells in 2015 there are still children of six, and they will have their own memories of home, and hopefully will look back on these years with as much fondness I have done today.

The End of the Beginning of To Begin With

Monday 9 March, 2015.  I am sitting in my apartment, with my suitcase almost packed.  I am looking out over the roofs of Minneapolis.  I am reflecting on a most remarkable month.

Yesterday the final performance in this run of ‘To Begin With’ took place ending a period of my life that I shall never forget.

I have already detailed the build up to the opening weekend of the play in previous posts, but let me try and give you some idea how life has been during the three weeks since then:


My apartment block is located on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, which has a modern, exciting skyline.  The tall buildings are crowded together: a forest of steel and glass.  There are wonderful reflections which the architects must have considered carefully as they designed these wonders.



On many occasions I have walked through the city, and the towering buildings give the impression of being in New York or Chicago, but without the people.  During my time here the temperature has rarely risen to anywhere near freezing, and most people use the skyways to get about: a network of walkways linking all of the major buildings.  The result being that at ground level the streets are deserted as if I were in the set of a cataclysmic disaster movie.

There are unexpected advantages to the freezing conditions:  As in any large city people go out and celebrate of an evening.  Some of these people may have over-imbibed and a portion of those may feel unwell and yet are not able to find sanctuary; they end up leaning on a building and regurgitating their evening’s intake.

Another scenario familiar to all city dwellers: dog walkers who are not vigilant in keeping the streets clear of mess.

In Oxford, or London the result of the aforementioned scenarios can be, at best, a terrible mess on the sole of a shoe, or at worst a slip and fall.

In Minneapolis in March there is none of that; for everything is frozen solid!

The city is laid out on a grid system and once you get your bearings, it is easy to navigate round.  The drivers are courteous and patient, quite happy to hesitate at a junction and wave the pedestrian through.

There is a natural friendliness and generosity here which is infectious and I have found myself striking up conversations with people in the street.  If I keep doing that when I get home I will get some very odd looks.  This isn’t the false, corporate ‘Have a nice day!’ America; this is a completely genuine ‘I really hope that you have a nice day, and I look forward to hearing about it next time we meet’ America.

Nestling among the skyscrapers are some wonderful older buildings, proving that this is a City with a great past.  There is the magnificent Citadel and the beautiful deco Foshay tower, which is now a very impressive hotel.

The Citadel

The Citadel

Foshay Tower

Foshay Tower

Many of walls have had murals painted onto them, including one that has been transformed into a sheet of music manuscript.  Apparently it is a famous piece (I will need Liz to verify it).  Dennis told me that a neighbour had decided to play it one day and discovered that one note was wrong.  He told the building’s owners and sure enough they sent a man up a ladder with a pot of white paint and a pot of black paint, to correct the error.


Life in 1310

The LPM tower, in which my apartment is located, has been built in a  less developed neighbourhood on the edge of the downtown area, and stands proudly against the sky, like a beacon of expansion.  It’s futuristic curved designed prompted Jeffrey’s son Evan to suggest that I was living in Dubai!



My apartment is on the 13th floor and is modern, light and comfortable.

Because Liz was with me when I arrived, we both settled in and started putting our own stamp on it.  Nothing major, it was not as if we were hanging pictures and painting the walls; just things like choosing which cupboards the food would go in, when we would run the dishwasher, what temperature we wanted.

So when Liz left after the first week the apartment felt very empty.  After that, I fell into a daily routine that never varied much during my stay.

I would wake at around 6am, make coffee then check emails, and write to Liz with an account of the previous day’s adventures.

Next would be a trip to the sixth floor, where the gym and pool are situated.  In the beginning (that’s a good line….), I went into the gym and spent time on the treadmill and rowing machine, but in the final weeks I devoted my energies to the swimming pool instead.

Swim over, I spent a while in the steam room and then a quick blast in the Jacuzzi pool.

The health centre was usually completely deserted, which was great for me.

Back up to the 13th floor and breakfast.  For those of you that have followed my Christmas tours online, you will be surprised to know how healthy my breakfasts were: granola with raspberries, strawberries or blueberries; two glasses of orange juice and occasionally some toast.  It must have been an attempt to remain virtuous after my exercise.  There were notable exceptions to this healthy diet, but more of that later.

Next up, laundry:  Each night after the show I would bring my laundry bag back from the theatre, with my shirt, t shirt, socks and the sports bra.  Into the huge machine went this pitiful load, with anything that I could find around the apartment that needed washing; as a consequence I had the cleanest towels, pyjama bottoms and exercise gear that you have ever seen.

With the washing machine going it was morning walk time.  Often I needed to buy groceries or whatever, but sometimes it was just nice to walk for the sake of it.  For the greater part of my stay the temperature was at around -15, sometimes as low as -25, but a brisk walk really helped to energise me and get the blood pumping.

After my walk I may do a little work on the computer, or run some lines before lunch, which was usually a salad or soup.

Lazy time now.

TV:  Liz had discovered BBC America  as one of the channels available to us, so that’s where I inevitably ended up during the day.  I have to say that the programming isn’t desperately imaginative or varied.  At lunchtime and into mid afternoon there would be about four episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen nightmares, back to back.

If the programming is not imaginative and varied, the programme itself is even less so.  Never have I known such a formulaic TV show:

Lovely shots of a beautiful restaurant in a great setting.  Gordon walks in and is cheerfully (sometimes reverentially) greeted.  He chooses dishes from a huge menu, and the waitress tells him that they will be awful.

They are awful.  He spits something out and says ‘Unbelievable, this is the worst food I have ever tasted.’  One would have thought that after making so many programmes it would by now be quite believable and it can’t ALL have been the worst food he’s ever tasted.

He shakes his head and says ‘unbelievable’ again.  He meets the owner/manager/chef and confronts them with his opinions.  There are arguments, there is swearing.  Things are thrown.

Gordon watches a dinner service: ‘Unbelievable’

He confronts the owner/manager/chef and tells them exactly what is wrong.  They deny it.  He swears and threatens to leave.  They (and this is where any variety that there is comes in) either swear and shout and tell him that he should leave, or they burst into tears.

Next day they all come back.  Gordon has completely decorated the restaurant and every one puts their hands to their faces and gasps: ‘Oh, my God, oh Wow, Oh Wow.’  Gordon introduces a new menu, which is much smaller and incredibly tasty.

Re-launch night.  The restaurant is packed.  Service starts and goes well, everybody loves the food, but then there is a disaster in the kitchen.  No!  this is the worst thing that could happen on Re-launch night.  ‘Unbelievable!’ says Gordon.  But, the staff all pulls it round and the evening is a success.

‘We could never have done this without Chef Ramsey.  He has shown us what we need to do to succeed.  And, he has made our family complete again’ sob, sob, sob.

Gordon leaves saying to camera: ‘this was the most difficult challenge yet.…’

Oh well, it passes an hour or two.

If it was a performing night I would start preparing quite early, beginning with the ironing of my costume shirts and this was always an adventure.

Because the floors in the apartment are a stylish wood laminate, they are quite slippery.  As soon as I started to iron the board scooted across the floor.  In the end I developed a technique of ironing with my foot firmly planted on the leg of the ironing board.

1310 ironing technique

1310 ironing technique

An hour before I needed to be at the theatre, I shaved my cheeks (we couldn’t have CD with a 5 o’clock shadow), and had a nice cold shower to get buzzing again.

In the very cold weather, leaving the apartment was not the work of a moment, as it took ages to get loaded up with fleeces, scarves, gloves and hats.  By the time I’d walked to the lifts and towards the main door, I would be so hot!  That all changed as I revolved the revolving door and the icy blast hit.  In an instant my beard would freeze and when I eventually got back into warmth it would thaw again and I would gently drip on the floor.  Most attractive!


Dennis Babcock has been my host here in Minneapolis.  My host, my friend and my boss.  He is a great source of inspiration and encouragement and is always generous in his praise.  The dream of ‘To Begin With’ has been with him for twenty years, so there was a huge amount riding on the success of these performances.

Not only is Dennis a producer, in the organisational and financial sense, he is also very much a theatre man, and throughout the run was always coming up with new suggestions as to how to play a certain line, or make a certain move. Each day he would subtly drop into conversation his notes from the previous evening:  maybe he wasn’t hearing a word clearly and could I be a little more careful; the best example of this was a line near to the end of the play: ‘So, you see.  Faith and Life, not so dark after all…’

‘Gerald, I’m not quite hearing ‘faith’.  It sounds a bit like ‘fate’, maybe you could just slow that whole line down, to make it clearer?’

I slowed and slowed and slowed it, until finally when I asked him if it had been clearer, he said: ‘Oh yes, much better.  I definitely heard it much more clearly.’  I joked with him that we had just added a minute to the running time.

Dennis is immensely busy, running three different shows (‘Triple Espresso’ which preceded ‘To Begin With’, and ‘That Wonder Boy’, which follows), but he always had time to call and chat and to offer to take me out somewhere.

Our first trip was to Saint Paul (the other of the Twin Cities – the slightly older Twin, I think). Jeffery had written a new script based on a locally-written Sherlock Holmes novel and there was a performed reading taking place to see how it worked.  We went through the same process with ‘To Begin With’ over two years ago.

Dennis and his wife Anne picked me up and we ate dinner before listening to the show.  It was great fun to be back on the other side, and to watch other actors revelling in Jeff’s brilliant language.

On another occasion, a Sunday night after our early show, Dennis took me back home, where Anne and her mother Betty cooked me the most delicious meal of salmon and rice.

Anne and Betty have been most gracious, wonderful and enthusiastic supporters of this production.  They sat through interminably dull tech rehearsals, as well as through a huge number of the performances.  And each time, they came up grinning from ear to ear,  telling me how amazing I was and hugging me.  I liked them being at the shows very much!  Dennis is fortunate to have such a family around him.  He knows it and is truly thankful for it.


Jeff also made sure I was looked after.  He offered to take me to lunch on one of my days off, to The Saint Paul Hotel, where I used to perform A Christmas Carol as part of my Christmas tours.

It had snowed heavily that Tuesday morning, but of course that does not deter a Minnesotan, and by the time he came to pick me up, the roads had been cleared and home owners were clearing the sidewalks outside their properties with snow blowers.

The Saint Paul Hotel is a charming historical hotel and as I walked through the doors the memories came flooding back.

Saint Paul Hotel Lobby

Saint Paul Hotel Lobby


We ate in the Saint Paul Grill, and I had cup of Rice Soup and Battered Walleye (a type of fish caught locally.)  It was a true Minnesota lunch.

When we had finished lunch I thought that I might ask at the front desk to see if any of the team I used to work with were still at the hotel, and within minutes I was surrounded by old friends and we were hugging and laughing and reliving old times.  It was as if no time had passed at all.

Jeff is excellent company and is so well read.  His knowledge of, well, everything, is astounding.  He is a generous man, both with his hospitality and his praise.

In a way he embodies Charles Dickens, for his work rate is unbelievable.  During my stay alone he was busy attending performances of one of his plays that was ending a run at the Guthrie Theatre, directing me, working on his Holmes script, and preparing a movie script based on a battle during The First World War, involving a resurgent Knights Templar; and those are just the ones I know about.  I have no doubt there are many more irons in Jeff’s fireplace.  It has been an honour and a privilege to work with him.


After Liz left I was feeling a bit lonely, but I was to have a very pleasant surprise visitor.  My brother Ian is a marketing consultant and after I’d posted some early production pictures on Facebook, he commented that the whole project was an amazing story and could be ‘PR gold dust’.  Knowing that Dennis was keen to promote the show in the UK, I thought it might be a good idea for him and Ian to talk about the marketing possibilities.

I certainly wasn’t expecting what came next, any more than Ian was.  On a Tuesday afternoon Dennis called Ian to chat.  On Friday Ian was on a plane from London to Minneapolis, to see the show, discuss things with Dennis and then return home on Sunday.

When he arrived at the theatre I was in the middle of a photo shoot.  It was quite a time before I could greet him with a big brotherly hug.  It was great fun having Ian around, and he quickly became immersed in the production.

When the Friday night performance was done we headed to Brit’s Pub, even though it was about 4am as far as he was concerned.  We chatted and laughed, neither of us quite believing that we were both here in Minneapolis.  The temperature outside was about -19;  the following week Ian would be in the Caribbean to crew a yacht in a regatta: life is the most wonderful thing, isn’t it?

On Saturday morning we met at his hotel and chatted about the show some more, before doing one of my walks around downtown Minneapolis.  Dennis had offered to pick us up for lunch and a ‘Pickwickian Adventure’.  Neither of the Dickens brothers quite knew what to expect, until Dennis turned left off a quiet road, down a slipway and into Medicine Lake.  When I say ‘in’, I am taking liberties.  We were in Minnesota, so Dennis’ Jeep Grand Cherokee drove across Medicine Lake.


Ian was in the front and calmly asked questions such as ‘How thick is the ice?’, how deep is the lake?’ and ‘how late in the year can you drive across it?’  As we became accustomed to the fact that the ice was perfectly safe, we both began to imagine what fun it would be to have a high powered, rear wheel drive car out here.  ‘The Top Gear Boys would love this’ muttered Ian.

At the centre of the lake we stopped, and Dennis, cutting a rather incongruous figure in his smart knee-length coat, knocked at the door of a shack.  He wanted to show us inside an ‘ice hut’ and was asking the owners of a red structure, if we could come and visit.  This was Minnesota – of course we could!

We spent about twenty minutes with three generations of the same family in their little home on the ice.  They build the structure when the winter blast hits in November and it remains there until March.  In each corner there was a hole cut for the fishing lines to dangle through and a high tech piece of sonar equipment which showed where the fish were and where the line was.  By watching this multi-coloured readout the fisherman could agitate his bait to tempt the fish.

The hut was well warmed by a heater, and extra heat would have been delivered by the huge number of  Bloody Marys that would be consumed, judging by the large stocks of Vodka and Tomato juice.

We spent about twenty minutes with the family, before leaving them to their fishing.  We continued across the lake, tracking parallel to a man riding the ice whist attached to a large kite.  Quite an amazing treat, all in all.


On Sunday morning I took Ian to the Nicollet Diner, where Liz and I had eaten breakfast seven days before.

The Nicollet Diner

The Nicollet Diner

It was here on each Sunday of my stay, that my healthy breakfast diet took a nose-dive.  Bacon, eggs, pancakes and French toast all featured, I am ashamed to say.

When Ian and I visited, we were shown to our booth and fussed over by our waitress who christened us her ‘English Muffins’, after we both chose them from the menu.

And that afternoon, he was gone.  Like Liz the previous week, he watched the first half of the show, came to the dressing room, gave me a big hug and then drove to the airport with Dennis.

It was lovely to see him, and for him to be part of the team.  I hope that he will become a major part of the show in the future.

The Show

To begin with has grown, developed and become something quite amazing over the weeks.  It started off well and has moved on from there.

My show routine never changed.  It is not that I am superstitious, indeed quite the opposite, it is just that if everything happens in the same order each night, you can be sure that everything is in proper place and prepared.

I arrived at the theatre ninety minutes before curtain up.  Tricia would be in the dressing room primping and preparing my wig.  I put the freshly charged mic pack into its little pouch attached to the sports bra, and then pulled the thing over my head and arms.

For the next twenty minutes or so Tricia would do her thing, adjusting, pinning and gluing until I had my flamboyant head of hair firmly attached.  On ‘special’ nights she would take extra time: these nights included the opening night, the photo shoot and the night she watched the show: ‘I couldn’t bear to watch if the wig wasn’t right!’

When Tricia left I changed into my costume trousers, tied my cravat and put on the double breasted waistcoat.  With forty five minutes to go I walked up to the stage, just to check that all of the props were where they should have been and maybe just to run a scene that needed changing as a result of notes from the previous performance.

Contemplating the next two hours

Contemplating the next two hours

Back in the dressing room I drank lots of water, and ran through the first scene, just to become comfortable delivering the lines as Charles Dickens.

With thirty minutes to go Ben would pop his head into the dressing room and announce ‘we are at thirty’.  He would take my black fountain pen up to Millie, the Front of House manager.  I would carry on with the scene one run through and water drinking.

‘We are at fifteen’.  Now I sat down and relaxed briefly until Ben appeared once more to say ‘Five’, which was my cue to make my way to the wings and await the start of the show.

There was a slight gap in the black screening curtains, so I could get some idea as to where the audience were sitting.  I could work out if I needed to direct the performance to the edges of the auditorium or just to the centre where the majority sat.

Then I waited until the lights slowly faded to black and the bell sound effect started.  I walked through the darkness, took my opening position on stage, waited for the lights to come up and….

The interval was only fifteen minutes, and by the time I had changed costume (including socks, from the beige that matched the linen suit, to black for the second act), and hidden lace handkerchiefs up my sleeves, Ben was calling ‘five’ again.

Back in the wings I had more to do in the second act, as I had to enter wearing a dressing gown, carrying a cape over my arm, with a white silk scarf around my neck, three different canes and a top hat balanced on the end of them.  On top of it all was a velvet smoking cap with a gold tassel, which hung down my cheek and kept making me think that my wig had become detached.

The music that hailed the beginning of Act two started, the lights dimmed to black and once more I made my way through the dark to take my opening position on stage.  The lights came up and….

At the end of the show I took my bows before making my way to the lobby where a table was set up, with my fountain pen on it and a cold bottle of water.

It was my pleasure to meet members of the audience and sign their programmes, or copies of The Life of Our Lord.  I really enjoy doing this and it is a lovely way to finish the evening.

Meeting the audience

Meeting the audience

When the lobby emptied I went back to the dressing room, carefully peeled off the wig, and attached it to the ‘head’ clamped to the desk.  I changed into my own clothes, gathered up tomorrow’s laundry, said my goodbyes to whoever was left in the theatre and then walked the short walk to ‘Dubai’.

The End of the Beginning of To Begin With

And so, here I am.  Last night Dennis took Jeff and me out to dinner. We were to be joined by two of Dennis’ investors (both called John), but before they arrived I was able to give these two amazing, creative, colleagues a gift to say thank you.  In the show Dickens encounters the 12 year old Algernon Swinburne and the two have a testy relationship.

In reality Swinburne grew up to be an accomplished poet, and in 1913 wrote a book entitled Charles Dickens, laying forth the argument that Dickens was the world’s greatest author.  Liz and I had managed to track down three first editions of this book.  We now have one at home, while Dennis and Jeff have a copy each.

With the arrival of the two Johns we began a delicious and relaxing meal.  Everyone was so excited about what has been achieved with the play and questions were being asked about the next step: what now?

All I know is that we have come too far to let this project drop.  To Begin With has a long future in front of it, I am sure of that.

This is only the beginning.


Charles Dickens And America by David Dickens

Here is an other of my father’s speeches.  This one was written to be delivered during  one of his trips to America in 1992 – 1994.  Sadly there is no date to it:

dad & G 002

Charles Dickens And America

Although Charles Dickens was British his greatest audience and his greatest admirers were in America.  His books were known and loved here even better than in his own country.

This is odd, considering that at the time we are talking about – the 1840s – America had no great love for England.  How, then, did it come about.

We have to take a quick glance at what had been happening in England at this time.  Charles Dickens was born in 1812.  The Battle of Waterloo was fought in 1815.  England became at one stroke the most powerful country in the world.  At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was making England the richest nation in the world as well.

All this created a new cockiness and confidence in the English people (you may think that England had enough of it already without adding to it!)  But it did more than that.  The whole of society began to change.  New people were making new money in new ways.  The power of the old landed aristocracy was challenged.  Class was no longer a barrier to wealth and success.  Ordinary Englishmen sensed a new freedom from the old-established order of society.  And where was the shining example of a new sort of society?  In America of course!

Charles Dickens was of the breed of the new English people and his books became their voice.  He had no inherited background.  He came from nowhere.  He was dazzled by the idea of America and its Republicanism.  He wished to see it for himself.  America had thrown out all the the things that he, himself, hated; and which he had attacked with the most potent of weapons – laughter and ridicule.  His books had made him the hero and darling of England.

For exactly the same reasons America loved his books.  Here was a writer who shared their feelings and spoke their language.  It was the language of the ordinary guy.  The language that was synonymous with the American Dream.

This is the first point I wish to stress.  Be in no doubt whatever that Dickens wished to praise and admire America.  The unfortunate events that came later must be seen in the light of this fact.

By 1841, although he was only 29, Dickens had ‘Pickwick Papers’, ‘Oliver Twist’, Nicholas Nickleby’, ‘Barnaby Rudge’ and ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ to his credit.  He was in touch with the leading American writers, notably Washington Irving and Longfellow, who suggested that he should visit them.

So, when Dickens did visit America for the first time in 1842, preparations for a tumultuous welcome were put in hand. Said one of the organisers:

‘A triumph has been prepared for him, in which the whole country will join.  He will have a progress through the States unequalled since Lafayette’s.’

And so it turned out.  Here is part of a letter home after his arrival:

‘How can I give you the faintest notion of my reception here; of the crowds that line the streets when I go out; of the cheering when I went to the theatre; of the copies of verses, letters of congratulation, welcomes of all kinds – balls, dinners, assemblies without end,….But what I can tell you about any of these things which will give you the slightest notion of the enthusiastic greeting they give me or the cry that runs through the whole country?

‘I have had deputations from the Far West, who have come from more than two thousand miles distance; from the lakes, the rivers, the backwoods, the log-houses, the cities, factories, villages and towns.  I have heard from the Universities, Congress, Senate, and bodies public and private of every kind….’

He was even received by the President in the White House.

If you should think that this sounds like a love-affair between Dickens and the American people, you would not be far wrong.  But, Alas! In all great love-affairs there comes a quarrel.

What on earth possessed Dickens to say it?  In his speech to one of the biggest assemblies gathered to honour him, he referred to the fact that while his books were evidently widely read in America, he himself received not a penny from their sales because there was no International Copyright agreement.

In itself this was not an attack on America.  Indeed, it is on record that some of the people at the reception took no exception to it.  But it was ill-advised, rude and discourteous.  If the matter had stopped there, no more might have been heard of it.  But the newspapers took it up.

At that time American newspapers had a freedom of speech unknown to the British newspapers and therefore unknown to Dickens.  They were loud and brash and personal (but we have them in England now – oh yes! We have them now).  And, of course, it was precisely the newspapers who benefited from the ability to publish Dickens’s stories without the necessity of payment.  Assuming a high moral tone they turned against Dickens, saying, in effect, ‘The whole of America turns out to honour this man as nobody has been honoured before.  And what does he do?  He criticises us to our faces’.

Dickens in his turn was angered by this reaction – naively, you may think.  His anger was caused by his own folly.  He had become so famous and had enjoyed his popularity so much that it was like a slap in the face to find himself being criticised and attacked.

He was, remember, a young man.  He was what we would call a Yuppie – a Whizz Kid – a successful young man but without maturity.  Instead of leaving the matter alone he tried to justify himself.

When he returned home he wrote a small book about his visit entitled ‘American Notes’.  Instead of praising the New World he was critical of some aspects of it, and much of his criticism was inspired by wounded personal pride.  This further angered the American press, and this further angered Dickens.

He was at this time about to write ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’.  It was turning out to be a mess of a book, and he was stuck with his characters.  So, on one bad morning, he decided to send young Martin to America to seek his fortune.  The pen-picture of Martin’s experiences in America was vicious – and gratuitously vicious because these incidents had little to do with the story.  In America copies of the book were publicly burnt.

It was a silly, stupid affair.  But it was not the real Dickens.  In the middle of writing Martin Chuzzlewit – in 1843 – he sat down to write ‘A Christmas Carol.’  Here was the real Dickens at his best, writing about the humble human heart; where kindness and love triumph above the Scrooges of this world, and where every human being is equal in the sight of God.  Of all his books it is the most popular.  And because its philosophy so well accorded with the American Dream, it was loved in America perhaps even more than in England.

The lovers’ quarrel was forgotten.  Although ‘American Notes’ and ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ still rankled, the new books pouring from Dickens’s pen – ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Bleak House’, ‘Great Expectations, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ – restored him to his old place in the affections of the Americans.  Nine of his books sold a million copies in America in his lifetime.

Twenty-five years passed.  By now Dickens had become perhaps the greatest novelist who had ever lived.  But he had discovered that to give readings from his books was as popular, if not more popular, as the books themselves.  Being always at heart an actor, he perfected his performances to such a pitch that they were electrifying.  His appearances on stage attracted huge audiences.

His loving American public clamoured for his return and so in 1867 he came back.  He would have come sooner had it not been for the terrible Civil War.  As soon as the news broke that he was on the seas, and on his way to Boston, the place went wild.  And when he did arrive the whole city turned out to cheer him, just as it had done before.

And in the whole of America his popularity was as great as before.  He went on to New York, where every window on Broadway displayed his picture.  He became as well-known in New York as he was in London. We went to Boston and New York several times – to Philadelphia, Baltimore and many other places, especially Washington.  In Washington he was received once again by the president of the United States (President Andrew Johnson).

His biographer wrote:

‘He was the most popular writer in America.  In every house, railroad car, on every steamboat, in every theatre of America, the characters, the fancies, the phraseology of Dickens had become familiar beyond those of any other writer.’

The New York Times wrote:

‘Even in England, Dickens is less known than here; there are millions who treasure every word he has written.  Whatever sensitiveness there once was to adverse or sneering criticism, the lapse of a quarter of a century, and the profound significance of the great war, have modified or removed.’

However, the memory of his earlier indiscretion, and the hurt he had caused among the American people distressed him.  He bitterly regretted it.  Therefore, at a farewell dinner held by his old adversaries, the American Press, he publicly apologised.

Dickens directed that the full text of his speech should forever after be printed as a Postcript in every copy ever printed of ‘American Notes’ and ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’.  And so it is printed, even to this very day.

So all was well that ended well.  It is good that this story ended happily because in only two years Dickens was dead.  The love of Dickens was forever imprinted on the American heart, as the warmth and generosity of your welcome to his humble great-grandson today most amply proves.

I can only echo my father’s closing sentiments, as my reception in America continues to prove that the love of Dickens in America still burns as passionately as it ever has.

That love affair is amply displayed by the audiences flocking to the Music Box Theatre to watch ‘To Begin With’.  We are now into the final few performances of this run, so if you live in the Twin Cities get your tickets now.  If you have friends here, then make sure that they know about the show!

I would also like to print the text of the apology that Dickens made in New York in 1868:

T a Public Dinner given to me on Saturday the 18th of April, 1868, in the City of New York, by two hundred representatives of the Press of the United States of America, I made the following observations among others:

‘So much of my voice has lately been heard in the land, that I might have been contented with troubling you no further from my present standing-point, were it not a duty with which I henceforth charge myself, not only here but on every suitable occasion, whatsoever and wheresoever, to express my high and grateful sense of my second reception in America, and to bear my honest testimony to the national generosity and magnanimity.

Also, to declare how astounded I have been by the amazing changes I have seen around me on every side, — changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can take place anywhere.

Nor am I, believe me, so arrogant as to suppose that in five and twenty years there have been no changes in me, and that I had nothing to learn and no extreme impressions to correct when I was here first. ]

And this brings me to a point on which I have, ever since I landed in the United States last November, observed a strict silence, though sometimes tempted to break it, but in reference to which I will, with your good leave, take you into my confidence now.

Even the Press, being human, may be sometimes mistaken or misinformed, and I rather think that I have in one or two rare instances observed its information to be not strictly accurate with reference to myself. Indeed, I have, now and again, been more surprised by printed news that I have read of myself, than by any printed news that I have ever read in my present state of existence.

Thus, the vigour and perseverance with which I have for some months past been collecting materials for, and hammering away at, a new book on America has much astonished me; seeing that all that time my declaration has been perfectly well known to my publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, that no consideration on earth would induce me to write one.

But what I have intended, what I have resolved upon (and this is the confidence I seek to place in you) is, on my return to England, in my own person, in my own journal, to bear, for the behoof of my countrymen, such testimony to the gigantic changes in this country as I have hinted at to-night. Also, to record that wherever I have been, in the smallest places equally with the largest, I have been received with unsurpassable politeness, delicacy, sweet temper, hospitality, consideration, and with unsurpassable respect for the privacy daily enforced upon me by the nature of my avocation here and the state of my health.

This testimony, so long as I live, and so long as my descendants have any legal right in my books, I shall cause to be republished, as an appendix to every copy of those two books of mine in which I have referred to America.

And this I will do and cause to be done, not in mere love and thankfulness, but because I regard it as an act of plain justice and honour.’

I said these words with the greatest earnestness that I could lay upon them, and I repeat them in print here with equal earnestness. So long as this book shall last, I hope that they will form a part of it, and will be fairly read as inseparable from my experiences and impressions of America.


MAY, 1868.

A Pictorial Blog

Today’s blog is not a written record of my time in Minneapolis; it is a photographic one.

My brother Ian came to spend the weekend as part of the production and took a wonderful series of photographs, documenting a performance from beginning to end.

With a few of my own pictures thrown in, I present to you the first few weeks of ‘To Begin With’:

The first rehearsal, at Oxford Golf Club, UK.  Dennis creates the set, as Jeffrey looks on

The first rehearsal, at Oxford Golf Club, UK. Dennis creates the set, as Jeffrey looks on

Redefining cold

Redefining cold

The Apartment Block: home for a month

The Apartment Block: home for a month

The first morning: being measured for the wig

The first morning: being measured for the wig

The set being built

The set being built

First glimpse of Charles Dickens

First glimpse of Charles Dickens

Photo Shoot

Photo Shoot

Cards and flowers from great friends

Cards and flowers from great friends

And the day of a performance:


To the dressing room

To the dressing room




Checking props

Checking props

Contemplating the next two hours

Contemplating the next two hours

The audience gathers

The audience gathers

In performance

In performance

Taking my bows

Taking my bows

Meeting the audience

Meeting the audience

There are only six more opportunities to see ‘To Begin With’ on this run.

For further details of booking details visit:


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