World Book Day

Dickens and Dahl

Thursday March 8 was designated as this year’s World Book Day, on which it is traditional for school pupils to dress up as their favourite book characters for the day.  The idea is to think about books and possibly do some research into the actual character although the reality is often that children sport a costume based on a film adaptation.

One of our local primary schools decided to be more specific in their advice and suggested that the students should chose a costume from their favourite Roald Dahl story, which still gave them plenty of opportunity to raid their dressing-up boxes.  As the school day started there were plenty of Matildas, Miss Trunchbulls, Willy Wonkas, Oompa Loompas and Fantastic Mr Foxes. Danny and George were there, as were a few Twits and Witches.  Also there were the normal children: Charlie, Sophie and James, for many of Dahl’s protagonists are so splendidly ordinary that the reader can believe that the amazing adventures could actually happen to them.

As I watched this parade of imagination fill the pavements it set me thinking about the many connections between Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens and the influence each had on their readership.  Dahl was once asked in an interview why so many of his central characters had lost one or both parents, and in his answer he compared himself to Dickens, saying that he had ‘used a trick to get the reader’s sympathy’  In his list of favourite authors, and those which influenced him in his writings Dahl always named Charles Dickens first, so it is no surprise that great great grandad pops up again and again in the Dahl canon.

When the BFG wanted to learn English it was a copy of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’  that he borrowed from a bedside table,  ‘by Dahl’s Chickens’ he proudly tells Sophie.  What an interesting use of spelling and the apostrophe too.  Dahl doesn’t directly spoonerise the name as Darles Chickens but instead uses his own name to make the sound of the name  – the apostrophe almost gives him ownership.

Like the BFG when a 4 year old Matilda asks the kindly librarian Mrs Phelps for advice as to which grown up book she should try the answer is:

‘Try this’, she aid at last.  ‘It’s very famous and very good.  If it’s too long for you, just let me know and I’ll find something shorter and a bit easier.’

Great Expectations,’ Matilda read, ‘by Charles Dickens.  I’d love to try it.’

Matilda devours the story of Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham in just a week and returns to the library:

‘I loved it,’ she said to Mrs Phelps.  ‘Has Mr Dickens written any others?’

‘A great number,’ said the astounded Mrs Phelps.  ‘Shall I chose you another?’

And so Matilda embarks on Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist before surfing a wave of literature that includes works by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Mary Webb, Rudyard Kipling, HG Wells, Ernest Hemmingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, JB Priestly, Graham Greene and George Orwell.

Later in the book Matilda enrols at the local primary school and again the influence of Dickens is evident, although not in such a positive persona.  The  nightmarish headmistress Miss Trunchbull is teaching the class of the delightful Miss Honey and is barking at pupils and teacher alike:

‘Oh, do shut up, Miss Honey!  You’re as wet as any of them.  If you can’t cope in here then you can go and find a job in some cotton-wool private school for rich brats.  When you have been teaching for as long as I have you’ll realise that its no good at all being kind to children.  Read Nicholas Nickleby, Miss Honey, by Mr Dickens.  Read about Mr Wackford Squeers, the admirable headmaster of Dotheboys Hall.  He knew how to handle the little brutes, didn’t he!  He knew how to use the birch, didn’t he!  He kept their backsides so warm you could fry eggs and bacon on them!’

Miss Trunchbull is the perfect embodiment of her hero; the two schools both boast suitably foreboding names: Dickens uses Dotheboys (Do the Boys) Hall, whereas Dahl places The Truchbull at  Cruncham Primary.  Both headteachers regularly bully and abuse their charges to an extent that they are in mortal danger (starvation and beating in Nickleby, hurling high by into the air by pigtails and force feeding chocolate cake in Matilda.)

In Nicholas Nickleby our hero is employed as a young teacher and encounters the pathetic character of Smike whom he befriends as Miss Honey befriends Matilda. At the conclusion of both novels the teachers effectively adopt the children as their own.

A more obscure work of Charles Dickens is ‘The Tale of Captain Murderer’ which is one The Nurses Tales published in All the Year Round, and which is based on Charles’ own infant memories of a drunken nurse would try to terrify him to sleep.  Captain Murder is a splendidly gruesome story of piratical cannibalism culminating in our villain being poisoned from within by one of his victims – the effect on him is bizarre, terrifying and, to students of Roald Dahl, surprisingly familiar:

‘…and Captain Murderer had hardly picked her last bone, when he began to swell, and to turn blue, and to be all over spots, and to scream. And he went on swelling and turning bluer, and being more all over spots and screaming, until he reached from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall; and then, at one o’clock in the morning, he blew up with a loud explosion.’

Step forward and take a bow Violet Beauregarde!

I am sure there are many more Dickensian references in Dahl’s work and if anyone knows of them I would be fascinated to hear them.

 

King Alfred School

My own World Book Day took me to the King Alfred School in North London to perform The Signalman to the Key Stage 3 group who have been studying the gothic novel in their English lessons.

I had visited the school last year and then I had driven through heavy snow falls to get there.  This year it was rain and strong squally winds that accompanied me; maybe one year I will motor down in warm sunshine and a soft breeze.

I arrived at the school with 45 minutes to spare before I was due to perform and was given a parking space right outside the hall meaning that I could get all of my ‘set’ unloaded with a minimum of fuss.

The school is a well-to-do and artistic sort of a place with many of the students being children to well-known singers and actors.  It is surprising therefore that King Alfred’s does not boast a state of the art performance space, but the show was to be on the stage in the ‘main hall’ which at the time  of my arrival was doubling as the lunch hall.  As I lugged the clerk’s desk, chair and table onto the stage so the school staff packed away tables and swept up bits of potato, cabbage and sponge pudding which are the staple of the British school luncheon.

Having changed into costume I found myself alone in the hall and thought that I would do a little rehearsing before the audience arrived.  When I performed The Signalman in Henley I had got a little tangled up with a few of the lines towards the end, so I wanted to run them through.  As I rehearsed so the wind outside battered the building, rattling the old windows and generally adding a very authentic feel to the words.

At 2.50 the first students arrived in a trickle, which turned into a stream and then a flood so that by 3.00 the hall was full.  English teacher Alex made a short introduction and I was welcomed to the stage with a loud round of applause.

By way of introduction I talked about the Staplehurst Rail disaster, as is my wont, describing in detail the dying souls that Dickens came across in the wreckage: the man with ‘the moon-shaped gash across his head’ and the beautiful young woman in the unmarked dress who sat against a tree.  I pointed out how the press relished the story of the crash because it involved a celebrity- a celebrity, what’s more, who just happened to be travelling with the ‘wrong’ woman.

And then I started.

I got the first line wrong!  All of that rehearsal concentrating on the tricky middle section and I buggered up the easiest and most memorable line of the script.  Hey, ho.  Actually it was fine and I got back on track quickly.  In fact the performance became more and more intense as I went on and by the time I got to the part that had given me difficulties at The Kenton Theatre I was in full flow and really enjoying myself.  It was an energetic, physical and ultimately good performance.

When I finished I returned to the aftermath of the Staplehurst crash and told the students (who had been remarkably attentive throughout the hour) about the coincidence of Dickens’ death on the 5th anniversary of the accident – 9th June 1870.

And then it was question time: quite a few hands went up and there some very good enquiries, mainly about the train crash: was the lady in the untouched dress who died in Dickens’ arms the model for the lady who died instantaneously in the story?   (Almost certainly) Does the rail line outside Staplehurst go through a steep cutting and is there a signalbox there?  (No, the line it Staplehurst is over very flat countryside and in fact the bridge where the crash happened carries the line over marshland, rather than any sort of ravine.  However near Dickens’ home at Gad’s Hill Place there was a deep rocky cutting with a dark tunnel and this was his inspiration for the claustrophobic setting for the story).  What did everyone at your school think of you?  (Goodness, how do I answer that?!  Actually my school was not strong academically and nobody really cared less whether I had a famous forbear or not, apart from the moment when we started to study Oliver Twist and my English teacher helpfully pointed my ancestry out to the class.  At that point I think sheer hatred rained upon my head.).

Of course there was interest in ‘the other woman’ and I honestly told the group that Charles was travelling home from France in the company of Ellen Ternan and her mother.  Dickens has separated from his wife Catherine seven years before and had been involved with Ellen for a long time, but to protect his wholesome image the affair was kept secret, even though London was rife with rumour.  Image the joy of today’s press if a major incident occurred and it involved an uber, mega, superstar and he just happened to be in the company of someone with whom he had long been suspected of having an affair – the same was true in 1865.

At 4 o’clock so our session drew to a close and I received another, even louder, round of applause as I left the stage.  As the students left a few came up and asked other questions and one young man informed me that all of the depressing events I had talked about occurred on his birthday – June 9th.  I apologised but he airily replied ‘Oh that’s all right, it’s hardly your fault!’ With a firm shake of the hand and a cheery ‘goodbye’ he left with the rest of his classmates.

The English department helped me pack away the set into my car and I drove back onto the streets of North London still in costume.  Now it was my turn to celebrate World Book Day and I started to play a recording of a book that encouraged me to read when I was young and which shaped my childhood:  A Bear Called Paddington.

I drove home with a big smile on my face!

 

 

 

February: A Theatre, Two Schools and Forward Planning

I have made a decision and it is this:

Throughout the year I would like to write a much more regular blog, as well as the Christmas tour’s daily diary.  Of course every day is not made up of interest-filled journeys, sell-out shows or mouth watering repasts, but there is usually something or other going on either in my mind, or on stage, which hopefully will be of interest to you and may pass a quiet 20 minutes or so of a morning.

So, here goes:

February is always a quiet month in the Dickens calendar, despite it including Charles’s birthday on the 7th, so usually it is a time where I look at the coming year and make my plans.

This year the evening of the birthday itself was spent in The Kenton Theatre in Henley-on-Thames performing a double bill of Mr Dickens is Coming and The Signalman, which is a combination that I do not usually use.

I was working on a box office split with the theatre so it was in my interest to sell the show well, and I embraced Twitter as never before, with each Tweet liked and retweeted by a growing number of people.  I arranged interviews for both BBC Oxford (which resulted in the intriguing possibility of narrating a special radio version of The Carol utilising the talents of the presenters as the cast) and BBC Berkshire.  The theatre PR team organised a wonderful double page feature article in the local newspaper, and as the day came closer so the audience numbers crept up.

The evening was great fun and it was great to back on stage for the first time this year.   An enthusiastic audience enjoyed the show and asked some great questions in a short Q&A after the final curtain.

Mind you the evening wasn’t all plain sailing for the get-out wasn’t an easy, or enjoyable experience.   The theatre has no off-street parking and I had to leave my car double parked in the main road whilst I carried all of the furniture down a long narrow alley from stage to street.  On a number of occasions I emerged from the alley, struggling with some awkward load or other, only to discover a bus or a lorry unable to get past my car and a queue of increasingly irate drivers forming behind it.  At such times all I could do was get in the car and drive round the long one-way system in Henley before returning to the theatre and getting the next load.  I got home rather late that night.

On the following day I drove down to my home county of Kent to talk in two schools, one in Canterbury and one in Sandwich, about Charles Dickens and specifically A Christmas Carol which the students are studying for their GCSE exams.  My first appointment was at The Spires Academy in Canterbury which is a very new purpose-built school.  My performance space was in the open plan reception area surrounded by giant video screens showing a slide show of memorable events on that day in history.  I asked if the screens could be turned off, as they would not only be distracting to the pupils, but to me also – they were fascinating!

The pupils at The Spires were most respectful and attentive and asked good questions afterwards, but I couldn’t stay long as I had to get on the road to my second venue at The Sandwich Technology School some twenty minutes away.  I had performed at the school before and was greeted by the English staff like an old friend.  The performance space in the school gymnasium was somewhat gladiatorial as a small stage had been surrounded  on all four sides by over 200 seats waiting for 200 year 10 students to fill them: there would be no hope of escape.

The larger audience was more difficult to deal with than the morning’s smaller group, and it was with a great deal of noise that the students poured in.  As I worked my way the show the show there was a degree of shuffling, sniggering and chatting but members of staff from all departments (including a rather terrifying sports teacher) were spread through the room and moved in to keep order if a particular individual stepped out of line.

In both schools I performed an hour long version of the show (which is about long enough, but frustrating as there is so much that has to be cut), and at the end of my show I got a long and loud round of applause which I didn’t quite expect.

Once again there was plenty of time for questions, one of which was ‘Did all of that actually happen to Scrooge, or was it in his imagination?  Did he dream it all?’

Discuss!

Looking forward into the year I have some exciting new venues coming up, including the Museum of the Written Word in the North East of England, which looks to be an amazing site, and where I will be performing the same double bill as in Henley.  Another very exciting addition is that of the Severn Valley Railway in August where I will, of course, be performing The Signalman.  The historic setting will be exciting enough but of even greater interest to me is the fact that part of the BBC’s classic 1976 adaptation of the story starring Denholm Elliott was filmed on the line.

What else does did February hold?  Planning for Christmas, of course.  Due to the difficulty of getting a USA Visa the process of booking my tour has to start early in the year and as soon as we decide on dates then all of the UK venues start to fall into place too.  I have spent the last week with my diary starting to work out where in the country I would like to be.  Liverpool has already come online, as well as venues in Newcastle, Kent and Dorset.  There are plenty of others to talk to and it will be good to have the whole tour fully sorted so early in the year.

I will keep you in touch with progress through as well as anything else that I think may be of interest as the months roll on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sad Loss

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Last week I had my first two shows of 2019 the first of which was in a theatre.  I was due to perform a double bill of ‘Mr Dickens is Coming!’ and ‘The Signalman’ at The Kenton Theatre in Henley-on-Thames (which incidentally is the 4th oldest active theatre in Britain, which is quite a claim).

‘Mr Dickens is Coming’ requires a replica of Charles Dickens’ red reading desk on stage, while The Signalman needs an old clerk’s table both of which are stored in a garden shed, so last Thursday I had to remove bikes, golf clubs, garden tools, jacks, axle stands and various other paraphernalia before I could get to my props.

The long winter had taken its toll on the structure of the shed and far from being a warm dry environment it is now rather damp and is held together by a few layers of paint and very little else.  As I got to my prop box I found a leather folder blooming with blue mould on the surface and a wave of sadness came over me, for this item represents a major part of my performing career and many memories are nestling in it.

in 1993 I was a thirty year old actor who was teaching people to drive in order to make ends meet.  It must have been around May that I was approached by a lady who was involved in raising funds for a local charity.  ’93 marked the 150th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol and the lady in question had hit upon the idea of recreating one of Charles Dickens’ own readings of the novel in a candle-lit village hall and would I like to take on this challenge?

To be honest I wasn’t keen on the plan as I hadn’t enjoyed a close relationship with my great great grandfather during my school years.  I couldn’t see anyone enjoying 90 minutes of reading, and I certainly didn’t feel up to the job of taking on the huge responsibility of representing my family name.  My charitable lady was persuasive however and by the time I left the house I had agreed to perform two evenings of readings in November.

I was all at sea as to how to perform though, and tentatively broached the subject with my Dad, David Dickens, past President of the Dickens Fellowship and a great student and expert on all things Dickens.

Dad always been good in not forcing his passion for CD onto his children.  His mantra had always been ‘do whatever you want to do in life, but do it to your best ability’.  About Dickens he would say ‘you will discover a love of Charles Dickens one day.  It maybe when you are twenty, or when you are fifty or when you are eighty, but you will discover it one day’  Now he saw the first glimmers of my moment of discovery and responded enthusiastically!

Firstly he purchased me a little paperback book called ‘Sikes and Nancy and Other Readings’ which had the texts of all of Charles’ own readings in it.  The battered volume is still on my shelves and I refer to it often.  Discovering the chapter on A Christmas Carol I found a brief description of the original readings as well as the version of the story that the great man had created for his performances, and that seemed as good a place to start as any other.

Then Dad started steering me towards various biographies which told the story of Dickens the performer which he felt would be beneficial.  At this stage I ignored my father’s advice because I wanted to perform as myself and not trying to ‘be’ Dickens (what was the point of  imitating  a man long dead?  Nobody would know if it was accurate or not, and it would detract from the story which had to be the star turn).  My father respected that decision and was happy that I wanted to do things in my own way.

Nothing happened until maybe September or October, when I was called to asked if everything was ready for the show. ‘Of course!’ I untruthfully replied:  ‘I am thoroughly looking forward to it!’ and immediately started to work on the script.  I had no time to learn the text so the performance would have to be a reading and that was fine as it had been advertised as such.  I printed out the text and had it bound between two A4 sheets of cardboard which looked terribly modern and shabby, so I had a cloth sleeve made to cover my book.

The rehearsals went well, for each and every character found their own voice with no real input from me.  Scrooge naturally became Scrooge as I described him as a ‘Squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scratching, covetous old sinner.’  Bob Cratchit took on a nervousness that was reflected in his voice (a soft west country burr to contrast the harsh, grating dialect of his employer) and his movements.  Marley’s voice was based on the description of his dislocated jaw, whilst the Ghost’s of Christmas Past and Present reflected previous representations of the characters that my audience would be familiar with: light and ethereal for the former and bluff Yorkshire for the latter.

It was an exciting time for me as an actor to discover this cast coming together, and to find them working in harmony, complementing and helping one another through the story.

Eventually I read for Dad.  There were tears in his eyes (at the time I took that to be a good thing and I am sure it was!).  He told me that he wouldn’t come to the show as he wanted me to be the centre of attention, but he couldn’t wait to hear all about it.  There would be another night years later when he said the same thing to me.

Well the evening was fabulous and for the first time I discovered the magic that Charles Dickens’ ‘ghostly little book’ could weave.  The audience were entranced and became completely immersed in the story: they laughed, they cheered and they cried.

The following Christmas I performed The Carol more often and by this time the little cloth sleeve had been replaced and this is where today’s  blog subject makes its appearance.  I wanted a folder in my hand that looked antique, that would be part of the set and one day in an antiques shop I saw an old leather cover which had probably been made in the 1970s to cover copies of either of the two television listing guides, the BBC’s Radio Times or  ITV’s TV Times (probably the latter, for the type of person who would want to cover a Television listing guide would not want their guests to know they stooped so low as to watch ITV!  If you want to see who I am talking about then watch episodes of ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ and you will understand.)

Soon the folder and I became inseparable as I started to travel farther and wider.  Until one afternoon in Tennessee when we became separated on a day which changed the shape of my career and life.  I had performed an afternoon reading of The Carol in a hotel function room in Fayetteville TN, and the show went well, and as I finished with ‘God bless us, every one!’ I put the folder down and took my bows.  I didn’t have time to stay and chat however for in just a couple of hours I had another performance in Alabama and had to get into a car straight away.  I travelled in costume and slept in the back seat while my agent at the time drove. Time was tight.  Along the way we got lost and had to phone ahead to warm the audience members that I would be a little late.

I had been travelling in costume so when we eventually arrived I could bound straight onto the stage and start the reading for the patient folk who sat expectantly in rows…except my leather folder and my script were three hours behind me in Fayetteville!  Panic!  What would I do?  The little folder contained not only my words, but also was a comfort blanket and crutch: suddenly I was alone and exposed.

I had no choice but to try and ‘wing it’ and tentatively began with ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’  As I continued I discovered that actually I knew the whole show by heart, and rather than being metaphorically tied to a lectern I could roam about the stage and start acting.  I grabbed a chair which could double as the one in Scrooge’s office, as well as that in his chambers – it even became his bed.  I found a stool which became the image of Tiny Tim, I hung my hat and scarf over a hat stand which stood in the corner of the room. And so the show that I perform now was born.  The reading script and folder had led me to a point where I could recite 90 minutes of script.

There was an amusing post script to the performance in Alabama when a lady complimented me after the show on my ability to act with my medical condition.  On asking what she meant she pointed out that my ability to gesture despite the paralysis of my left arm was truly inspiring….I had spent so much time with the leather folder clasped in my left arm that all of my gestures had been developed for the right and now my unencumbered free arm hung useless by my side!  Even today the show is very much ‘right handed’.

As the years went on I introduced more shows into my repertoire, including the brutal Murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist, using the script that Charles had developed and which had made ladies in his audiences faint.  The climax of the reading comes as Bill Sikes batters the poor girl with a heavy club and at that moment I took to bringing my right fist hard down onto the script.  The heavy leather gave a solid base for the blow and the drama of the scene was enhanced by the loud noise that is produced.

Many of my favourite performances have started their lives as readings – Nicholas Nickleby, The Signalman, Doctor Marigold and A Tale of Two Cities all nestled between the leather covers before they became fully fledged shows in the own right.  The Death of Little Paul Dombey and The Haunted Man were both attempts at developing new readings which never made it passed their first performances, meaning that many memories good and bad are held in the folder.

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But now it is time to move on and say goodbye to a piece of…what? furniture? equipment? costume? Who knows what category it falls into, but it has been a constant companion to me throughout my career and I am sad to say goodbye.

I hinted earlier that there was a second occasion that my dad was not present and asked me to report back.  I had been asked to take on the great honour of being the President of the Dickens Fellowship and would begin my term at the conference in Canterbury.  At the conference dinner I would be expected to make a speech and dad asked me if I would thank all of his friends in the organisation, for he wasn’t well enough to travel.  I didn’t realise, although I am sure that he did, that he was actually saying good bye.  He insisted I come to the house the next morning to tell him all about the dinner, as well as to climb a ladder and prune his wisteria which was starting to overwhelm the house.

After dinner I stood to speak, I relayed Dad’s message and there was a long period of warm and heartfelt applause for him.  I picked up my leather folder and gave a short reading (of what I cannot remember, probably something from Copperfield as we were in Canterbury) and I know that my father was proud of me.  That night, probably as I was actually speaking, my father passed away in his bed.  I received the news as I left the event and drove straight to my parents home in costume to be with my mother.  Next morning I duly clambered up a ladder (in waistcoat and striped trousers) to tend to the wisteria, as I had promised.

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The Final Stretch

With Christmas out of the way, let me take you back to the last two days of my 2018 tour.  You will recall that I left you in Liverpool:

Following my two days in Liverpool it was time to head home and into the final stretch of the 2018 tour.

I left Merseyside at around 9am, after a good breakfast of course, and the day was cold, foggy and misty.  I turned the car’s heater on and was surprised the engine didn’t seem to be heating up.  Oh well.  A quick stop at a petrol station to refuel and continue south, eventually joining the M6 but still no heat was forthcoming.  My memory went back to the ‘old days’ of hand-to mouth motoring when I became expert in every frailty in my cheap cars and remembered that no heat from the heater used to mean no water in the system, no water in the system meant engine overheating, engine overheating meant BANG!

But surely not in a modern car governed by electronics and with no temperature gauge to look at – surely if there is no gauge then there cannot be anything that needs monitoring.  However as these thoughts weaved their way around my brain a startling alert appeared on the screen:  ENGINE OVERHEATING!!

I pulled in at the next service station and opened the bonnet, which fortunately did not release clouds of steam, but sure enough the header tank for the cooling system was empty, so I topped it up and was relieved to see that the water did not just cascade through a large hole onto the floor.  I crossed my fingers for the rest of the journey.

The overheating did not return and my homeward progress was uninterrupted.

It was lovely to be home and to see the family, but it was only for a brief couple of hours as I had to get on the road again for an evening show at The Stables Theatre, Wavendon (in Milton Keynes).

To be honest I didn’t want to do it.  I was exhausted from the Liverpool gigs, the cold was threatening and being at home seemed a much more sensible option.  Liz too, who has been coping with the children single handed for the last few weeks, desperately needed my help and the thought of me driving away again was almost too much for either of us to bear.  It was a difficult afternoon, but at 4 o’clock we said the inevitable goodbyes and I headed away again towards the most magnificently huge moon shining low in the sky.

I have performed A Christmas Carol at The Stables Theatre once before and it was a most successful evening, so apart from the tiredness I knew that I would be well looked after.

Sure enough as soon as I arrived I was taken in hand by the lighting and sound teams who made sure that every cue in my script was as I wanted it, that the cross fades between lighting effects were the right speed, and that each sound effect was the perfect volume to complement the action.

When the tech runs were complete I was shown to my dressing room and the green room where a plate of sandwiches, a bowl of fruit, a tin of biscuits and bottles of water awaited me.  Peter, the duty manager for the evening, also asked if I would like a bottle of wine an offer which I foolishly declined as it could have graced our Christmas table in a couple of days time.

I then settled down in my green room to while away the time until the audience started to arrive.  With about twenty minutes to go I changed into my costume at which point I started to pace the back stage corridors as is my wont – as a show approaches I am fairly hopeless at sitting still.

The sound team had selected a CD of a brass (it may have been silver) band performing Christmas carols to play as the audience took their seats and the gentle evocative sound set such a perfect atmosphere that I may encourage all venues to do the same in the future.

At 8.00 I was given the all clear and I waited in the wings until the lights went to black, the sound effect started and, an blue light came up and I walked onto the stage to begin.  The stage at the stables is quite low and although there is a proscenium arch, it is a long way back.  The main part of the stage thrusts way forward into the auditorium terminating in a half octogen shape.   Frustratingly the lighting rig was set for a children’s theatre production which only used half the stage so I couldn’t get all the way forward to the audience and I felt a little remote, but nonetheless I had plenty of space to perform in and the lighting was wonderful.  I was able to use my full range of sound effects again and the whole atmosphere was perfect.

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Considering I had not wanted to be here I loved the sensation of being in a real theatre, in the pool of light with the audience surrounding me, and I got fully into each and every character that I perform.

The interval came and the audience’s applause rang in my ears as I returned to my dressing room and took the opportunity to change shirt.  Most of the interval was spent pacing up and down again, anxious to get back onto the stage again.

The second half of the show engaged the audience straight away and they all joined in at the Cratchit’s Christmas lunch and made suitably appreciative gasps to greet the goose.

The drama and passion of the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come worked really well in this crucible and by the show’s conclusion the audience was as wrapped up in the story as I was.

The applause and ovation was fabulous and it felt great to be on stage.

I changed quickly and although we hadn’t planned any formal signing session I went into the foyer just in case and found quite a line of people waiting to chat.  There was a girl who is studying the book for her GCSE, and a teacher who was teaching it, but last in line was a gentleman so fulsome in his praise that I was almost blushing!  The best comment though was when he told me that he had also seen Simon Callow’s one man production of A Christmas Carol and that he vastly preferred not only my performance but my scrip too, as it took less liberties with the original text.  That sort of comment I will happily accept any day of the week!

Once back stage I got changed as quickly as I could and by the time I emerged from my dressing room I discovered that all of my furniture had been lifted out to my car and it didn’t take long to load up before saying my goodbyes and driving into the night. The journey home took little more than an hour and it was lovely to sleep in my own bed for once!

The 22nd December marked a day off and it was lovely to spend it at home with Liz and the girls.  We finished decorating our house and met up with some old friends, all of which was a world away from life on the road, and all of which was perfect.

But there was still one more day left and early on the morning of 23rd December I left home again and headed towards Leicester.  I have been performing in the ancient Guildhall in Leicester for about 6 years now and it is a perfect place to bring my tour to a close.

Despite a journey through heavy rain and mist I arrived at 11 o’clock and unloaded my props before parking in the large city centre NCP car park that is attached to the Holiday Inn, my home for the night.  Back at the Guildhall I was welcomed by my good friend Ben Ennis and his colleague Carolyn, who were the only staff available to look after my matinee.

As I set up my furniture Carolyn was making mulled wine in the Mayor’s Chamber (which doubles as a bar for events such as mine) and Ben made sure everything else was in order whilst also manning the reception desk (for the Guildhall is one of the main tourist attractions in Leicester.)

The first show was at one and the audience started to arrive very early, as those who have come year after year know that the seating is unreserved and therefore the best spots get filled quickly.  My dressing room is in the Jury Room, a grand panelled library which looks down on the main guildhall, and I am always able to sneak little looks as the audience arrive.  Last week they were noisy and excitable and there was a really festive atmosphere to the afternoon.  Outside shoppers were finishing their gift buying and revellers were just getting started.

The Guildhall is in a little alley and could answer the description of Scrooge’s home:

He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of a building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again. It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge, the other rooms being all let out as offices. The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands. The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.

Very definitely the atmosphere of the room enhances the story.

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The show went very well, despite my voice and body being tired by now.  The audience sat wrapped up in their coats, despite the roaring fire in the grate, but were enthusiastic and demonstrative.  Once again the show was in two halves and it was nice to be able to take a breather at the interval.

At around 3.00 my penultimate show came to a close and I took my bows to loud applause once more.

Between shows Ben always lays on a Christmas dinner for me, his family and everyone involved, so at 4.30 we all gathered around a table in the Mayor’s Parlour and munched on turkey and stuffing sandwiches followed by mince pies.  Ben’s family have become good friends over the years and it was lovely to share some time with them once again.

As we sat in good fellowship so the cathedral bells started to ring an energetic peal on the other side of the narrow alleyway and the perfect scene was complete!

But, there was one more show to do, so after dinner I popped back to the hotel (only a 5 minute walk) to have a little rest and a shower before getting ready for the last show of 2018.  When I arrived the audience were already lining up and I rather had to play the ‘do you know who I am’ card, to get to my dressing room!

Once again it was a full house, and once again the festive city seemed to permeate the ancient room.  There was even more noise from outside by this time and the revellers had obviously been revelling hard!  In my years at the Guildhall I have sometimes managed to time the line ‘the bell struck twelve’ with the tolling of the cathedral; it doesn’t always work because the line comes in the second act so it depends how speedy or tardy the audience are in getting to the bar and back, but last Friday it worked and there was a oud cheer, wholly at odds with the tone of the scene, as the heavy bell intoned the hour.

The show ended at around 9.30 and after I’d said good bye to the audience and signed a few programmes, I walked out into the street to fetch my car.

Guildhall Lane was deserted and quiet, with the exception of one man selling copies of The Big Issue magazine.  He approached me and explained that he’d been on the streets selling all day and he had only three copies left.  He needed the money raised to get himself into a shelter over the Christmas period.  So there we were, just him and me in a deserted street in the shadow of a cathedral.  I scrabbled in my pocket for some change and brought the magazine, giving him the rest of the coins I had too.  It was not much, not enough, but I hope he found the shelter and comfort he needed.  His gratitude as he walked away was a superb Christmas present to me.

And so I returned home early in the morning on Christmas Eve and the professional life of Gerald Dickens became a home life once more.  The most important thing was to finish decorating the house which involved stringing lights around the door frames (the effect looking in from outside is beautiful).  I carefully secured a string of red lights around the kitchen door, pinning it in place with tiny panel pins.  When all was done I stepped back and admired my handiwork!

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Everything was ready, with only one cloud – we had no internet connection, no dialling tone to our phone.  Of course being Christmas eve it would be impossible to get anyone out to look at it for a few days, so we had a wifi-free Christmas (which apart from preventing us downloading a few films, and using up our mobile data allowance, didn’t really matter at all).

Christmas was lovely with a gorgeous tree, acres of wrapping paper strewn across the floor, a huge turkey, a flaming pudding, an afternoon walk to admire the neighbourhood lights and all the rest of the nonsense!

When our kindly Sky TV engineer came to see us he tested the line, prodded and probed and evaluated the situation and then reported to us:  ‘You said that  your phone line went down on Christmas eve?’  Yes.  ‘Did  you put your decorations up on Christmas Eve?  Um, well, yes.  It transpired that I had driven a panel pin straight through the phone line as I hung the decorations!

Thank you for accompanying me on my journeys and for all of your kind comments and thoughts.  It has been another lovely tour but now I am at home and ready to begin 2019 with the family and who knows what adventures will come along.  As they say, ‘watch this space!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming an Usher for a Night

Thursday, 20 December

I want to begin by mentioning two incidents that occurred yesterday that I forgot to mention in yesterday’s blog post:

You will recall that 19th December marked the 175th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol and at the evening show when Lynne announced the fact from the stage the audience broke out into a long and heartfelt applause.  If there is such a thing as a spirit world, then what a wonderful thing for Charles Dickens to hear from above.

The second incident may also have been guided by the spirit hand of CD.  On the set there is a small table which is where I place the carefully folded cloth to represent Tiny Tim’s frail little body.  On the table is a candle in a brass candle stick, and usually the candle remains unlit as most venues don’t like live flames on stage.  St George’s Hall however were surprisingly co operative and I was able to light the candle, which adds the scene even more poignancy.  The candle in the stick was quite a small one, and burnt down during the course of the show.  By the time I reached the point where Bob sits next to Tim the candle was almost gone, and at the very moment – and I mean the absolute instant that he kissed Tim’s face before laying his body down to rest the candle popped and died.

Of course the rational explanation is that the candle had around 90 minutes of life left in it and it after 90 minutes had passed it burnt out.  The moment in the show was completely coincidental and it could equally have happened in Old Joe’s shop, or on the streets of London.  Yes, that is the rational explanation.  But, in a room filled with so many memories, and on such an important day the symbolism and timing was just too perfect to be coincidental, wasn’t it?

So back to the present and I have a morning free before having to be at the Hall at 1.  I have my breakfast and then do a little work back in my room, before heading out into the city.  I have a little last minute Christmas shopping to do and the Liverpool 1 shopping complex is right next to the hotel, so I stroll out and become part of the Christmas melee.

Liverpool 1 is a modern complex but as I walk I catch a glimpse of an older building up an alley and it sets me thinking as to how much Charles Dickens would recognise if he was in the same streets now.  Obviously all of the buildings around St George’s Hall would be known to him, but the iconic Liver Building wasn’t yet built.  The Albert Docks were under construction so he would recognise the warehouses that now host the Tate and all of the restaurants but the rest of the waterside would be an alien landscape to him.

The building that inspires this reverie is the Bluecoat, ‘Liverpool’s Creative Hub’, but the building is the oldest in the City, built in 1716 as a charity school so I have no doubt that Charles would have visited this particular site.

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It is lovely being out in the streets so close to Christmas as, on the whole, everyone is in good spirits.  Lots of people are wearing Santa hats and Christmas sweaters and in each shop there is festive music playing, ranging from discreet choral performances of classic carols to Roy Wood screaming ‘IT’S CHRISTMAS!!!!!!’

Having finished my shopping I walk up to St George’s Hall where there is a Christmas market in full swing, so I decide to treat myself to an early lunch of German sausage and  a crepe (stop sniggering, at the back).  The Brockwurst is good and is made even better by ketchup and mustard and I sit people watching as I eat it.  For my dessert I go for the classical lemon and sugar option on my pancake which I munch from a paper cone as I walk through the various stalls and fairground rides.

I still have a little time on my hands, so I walk to the Walker Art Gallery to have a coffee. As I am standing in line to order my Americano the lady in front asks ‘Are you Gerald Dickens?  We saw your show in Chester last year and are coming to see you this afternoon!’  How nice to be recognised.

Now it is time to go back to the hotel where I have a quick shower and then head to the hall at 1pm.

Johnny is there waiting for me and the first thing I ask him to do is to take a picture of me on stage wearing my G&V tie.  The G&V is a chop house in the heart of the City of London, and its correct name is The George and Vulture.  The tavern features by name in The Pickwick Papers and many take it to be the setting of Scrooge’s counting house, its location being in the heart of the exchange (or ‘change as Dickens describes it) region of London.

For many years the Dickens family has celebrated with a lunch at the G&V in the week before Christmas and the model is that of the Pickwick Club, meaning that the affair is spectacularly chauvinistic and boozy.  Every attendee has to wear a G&V tie which features a vulture with a bone in its beak.  The original sketch was made by my grandfather Gerald, and bore the caption ‘Alas, poor George’.  Anyone who does not wear the tie is fined a bottle of port.

In recent years it has been the tradition for those who cannot attend the lunch to send pictures of themselves wearing the tie in unusual settings, so here is my offering to the group.

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Actually Gerald has been travelling with me throughout the tour as I have two items that belonged to him in my kit.   The first is a silver cigarette case bearing the monogram GCD, which I use to store spare ink cartridges for my fountain pen, and the other is a little locket complete with pictures of Henry and Marie Dickens (Gerald’s parents) who gave it to him.  The locket now is on the end of my watch chain.  I really must find something of my father’s that I can include so that every generation is represented from Charles down to me.

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I get ready for the show and soon the audience are starting to take their seats, and it is another excellent house.

The show is OK but not perfect, unfortunately I am beginning to be aware of a cold building, which is not surprising as I have been going flat out for quite a while now.  I inadvertently drop a few lines, mostly from the sections that get added in for my two act version of the script, for example I completely bypass the conversation between Bob and Mrs Cratchit discussing Tim’s behaviour on the way home from Church.  In itself it doesn’t matter particularly but it is annoying to me and proves that my concentration is not quite where is should be today.

For all that the performance goes very well and once again the audience are on the feet and stamping the floor once more as I take my bows.

After my meet and greet session in the lobby I change head for a nearby restaurant where I have a plate of fish and chips to sustain me through the evening and then return to the hotel to relax.

I have another bubbly energising jacuzzi bath and then lay on my bed watching TV until it is time to return to St George’s Hall for the last time.  This year the hall has been vibrantly lit in various shades of blue, and with twinkling white lights strung in the branches of trees and a hazy moon above it is quite a sight.

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My cold is really coming on now, and my throat is feeling a little tight, so I tuck myself away in my room so that I don’t need to talk more than is necessary, although I am very happy to chat to Johnny’s 9 yr old daughter who has come to see the show tonight, and wants a photo taken with me.

Once again we have a choir to open proceedings but they are a much smaller group tonight and at 7.30 they take to the stage.  I decide to sneak in at the back of the balcony to listen and it is truly beautiful.  The Concert Hall’s acoustics are perfect for their performance and it is easy to let the music wash over me.  As I stand I am aware of movement on the other side of the semi-circular balcony.  A rather angry man walks up to me and says ‘I need to be re seated.  I cant see anything from where I am.  This has to be sorted out.  I’m not staying there, it’s not happening.  If nothing is done then it will ruin the evening for everyone else!’

So Mr Gerald Dickens, taking on the guise of an usher, gently makes sure we step out of the door, as the little fracas is already ruining the music for the audience sat near us, and I take him down to Lynne to try and sort it out.  Alternative seating is found on floor level and the crisis is averted.  I would love to see his face when I walk on stage at the start of the show, for he obviously had no idea that I am the performer.

After the choir has finished I get ready to start and when Lynne welcomes me I walk onto the stage to loud applause.  I walk to Marley’s grave side, and then back to centre stage where I deliver my first line directly to the empty seats which our friend and his family have just vacated!  Silly and childish I know, but rather satisfying.

My voice is struggling a little which is annoying for I know that the range of voices and tones is not as great as it could be, and I am aware during the first act of Johnny increasing the levels on the mic system slightly which is good of him.

In the interval I slump in my chair, and drink a lot of water ready for the final push.  Following the drawing of raffle prizes (raffles are the bane of my life!) I return to the stage to commence act 2.  Only a few minutes in I hear a crackle from the mic and it goes dead meaning that I have to get through the next 40 minutes unamplified, which actually isn’t too difficult thanks to those beautiful acoustics.  However what I must do is keep control over the show and not over stress myself and try too hard which I can be guilty of, and am slightly guilty of today.

I also notice that my wooden stool on stage is starting to fall apart too, with one of the cross beams that keep’s the legs in position having pulled out – we are all feeling the strain!

I get to the end of the show hot, sweating and completely drained but once again the Liverpool public stand and whoop and cheer me on to the stage as I take my bows.

Today’s shows were not great ones but everyone who came seemed to enjoy them very much and once again my experiences at St George’s Hall have been remarkable and memorable.

Thank you to Lynne for making it happen, to Jacqui for selling my programmes so effectively, meaning a goodly donation to the Charles Dickens Museum is on the way, to Johnny for looking after my sound and lighting and for being such a positive colleague, and too all the staff at the St George’s Hall who have been brilliant to work with, and who have now loaded my car for me before I drive back to the hotel garage.

I am tired, there is no doubt whatever about that, but elated also.

 

 

175 Years Young

Wednesday 19 December

 

On 19 December 1843 A Christmas Carol was first published.  Exactly 175 years ago Charles Dickens’s ‘ghostly little book’ hit the bookstands and began a journey which apparently will never end.

The day’s festivities start at 7.30 with a radio interview for BBC Radio Solent, whose area includes the city of Portsmouth where Charles was born in 1812.  It is a fun interview in that my brother Ian is on the line from the Isle of Wight too, so The Dickens Boys banter around for a while, chatting about the book as well as our own Christmas memories.

Apart from talking about A Christmas Carol the breakfast show is also discussing festive drinks and Julian Clegg, the presenter, asks us if there is any particular tipple that the Dickens family traditionally enjoy, to which Ian and I, separated by a couple hundred miles, answer in absolute unison:  ‘Horse’s Neck’!

A ‘Horse’s Neck’ is a Naval drink and our family is very much a Naval family (my father, his two brothers and my grandfather all served in the Royal Navy).  Dad would proudly mix brandy and dry ginger as pre-Christmas lunch drinks and we children had to wait patiently until all the adults had a Horse’s Neck in their hands before we were allowed to open the presents under the tree.  I feel a nostalgic glow as I remember those days and I’m sure that Ian is feeling the same.

Once the interview is done so the house descends into chaos as Liz and I bundle the children out of the door and off to school.  Sadly Liz and I have no time together when we get home, as I need to get in the car and drive to the city of Liverpool.

Today and tomorrow mark the second of Lynne Hamilton’s series of shows this year and we are reprising an event that we have staged every second year for the last ten.  The drive up the M40 and M6 is a familiar one and I have the radio on to keep me company.  The main news item and discussion point is the sacking of Manchester United Football Club’s manage Jose Mourinho and the announcing of his temporary replacement Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.  Fans from Man. U are trying to sound upbeat and positive whilst those from rival clubs are gleefully gloating.  Eventually someone texts the programme pleading ‘can we talk about Brexit again!’ which says everything about the banality of the football phone in.

I arrive in Liverpool at around 12 and in heavy traffic crawl past the magnificent cathedrals before making my way to St George’s Hall, my venue for the next two days, and Charles’ on many occasions during his reading tours of the 1860s.

As I pull up outside I see Lynne and Jacquie on the pavement unloading trayfuls of mince pies and raffle prizes, which are being piled onto a metal trolley and taken inside.  I unload all of my furniture and add it to the next cartload. Eventually most of my furniture is taken inside leaving just the hat stand and 2 costumes, which look like a surrealist’s take on the scene, and one which wouldn’t be out of place in the Walker Art Gallery which is behind us.

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Once into the Concert Hall which is a beautifully gilded and chandeliered room I set the stage and take a moment to take in the scene before me.  I am standing on the same stage that Charles stood in and I am looking into the same auditorium.  Later I will be saying the same lines and it is always a breath taking feeling, but today especially.

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Lynne has booked a professional audio company to provide the sound equipment, as well as an operator so the issues that we suffered in Buxton will not be repeated here.  Johnny is to be my techie for all of the performances so we sit with the script and go through it cue by cue until we are both satisfied that we know what we are doing.

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Having got the stage set I go to my huge dressing room, and start to get into costume for the 2 o’clock show.  The audience are arriving and the large majority of it are school groups made up of students who are studying the book.

If Lynne’s hip was painful and difficult in Buxton it is a major handicap at St George’s Hall where there are steps everywhere (even onto the stage).  However she is organising everything and everyone, making sure that everything runs smoothly with a walkie talkie in one hand and a microphone in the other.

When the audience are in their seats Lynne clambers up onto the stage and makes a short introduction before I walk to my place and mouth the words that join the echoes of their counterparts from a hundred and fifty years ago.

As the main part of the audience are school students the response is different to an adult group, but they are very attentive and as the show goes on they begin to realise that they are ‘allowed’ to laugh and respond (taking their lead from the members of the general public who are seated behind).  It is a lovely show and all of the sound effects work very well as Johnny brings them in bang on cue.

As I get to Fred’s party I notice that at the side of the stage there is a rather shapely plaster lady forming part of the stage’s structure and she becomes the object of Topper’s affections.

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When I get to the end the applause is loud and the a lot of the students whoop shout and whistle as they clap.  It is a wonderful ovation and a great start to the Liverpool adventure.

I change into my dry costume and go to the foyer and sign quite a few programmes and CDs as well as posing for photographs with one of the school groups.

It is around 4pm by the time I can change and leave the building, and I walk the short distance to the Shankly Hotel, where I always stay when I’m here, and check in.  I haven’t eaten since breakfast and the rigours of the show have left me feeling a little light-headed and faint so even before I go to my room I head to the restaurant and order a simple dish of grilled chicken and potatoes, which hits the spot.

Once in my room I only have about an hour to rest before I have to be back at St George’s but there is a great big deep jacuzzi bath and I have a long soak which is lovely.

The evening show is at 7.30 and I walk back to the hall at 6.30 so that I can make sure everything is in order before the audience is let in.  A large grand piano has appeared on the stage for the audience are to be entertained by a choir before the show tonight, and my space is slightly restricted but not enough to really make a difference.

The choir is in the next dressing room to me and there are obviously a lot of them judging by the loud merriment coming through the door.  I sit quietly in my room and get into costume whilst the singers make their way to the foyer for their first set.

Tonight is a sell-out and soon the audience are making their way up the stairs and into their seats.  The choir having finished their lobby entertainment now reform in the long backstage corridor and prepare to open the show formally.

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Start time is put back slightly as there has been an emergency at Lime Street rail station meaning that many people are delayed, so it is not until around 7.45 that the choir takes to the stage and begins the first of their three songs – The Little Drummer Boy, which is beautiful.  They are a well rehearsed and talented bunch and the acoustics of The Concert Hall are perfect for their amazing harmonies.  The audience show their genuine appreciation and clap loudly as the final notes of each song gently drift away.

Performing to a capacity audience in a venue such as this is an actor’s dream (well, this actor’s anyway, others may have other dreams, I can’t honestly speak for them!) and from the very start the room is alive.  I have made much over the last couple of weeks regarding the differences between an American and English audience and it is a strange quirk of geography and sociology that a Liverpool audience is always more like those to the west of the Atlantic Ocean than the rest of their own country on the east.  This bunch are completely engaged and hang on every word.

At the end they go ballistic, there is no other word for the standing ovation that they give me.  Not only do they clap, and cheer and whistle but as they stand they stamp their feet creating a cacophony of noise which reverberates around the rotunda and back into the hall.

Amazing, moving, and an entirely fitting tribute to a little book written in just six weeks and which was first published on the 19th December 1843.

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Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

Sunday 16 December

 

On my travels a few people have been so kind as to tell me how much they enjoy reading my blog, and a few have mentioned that they like reading the descriptions of the food that I eat – are you in for a treat today!

My sleep in The Palace Hotel at Buxton is brought to a sudden and terrifying end as the fire alarm goes off at some ungodly hour.  A high-pitched, screaming, electronic alarm rising to ear-piercing crescendos and dying to silence for a fraction of a second before soaring again.  I get up and am about to leave my room (I can hear other guests doing the same), when the alarm abruptly stops again.

I return to my bed but never really get back to sleep.

I was hoping to have an early breakfast at 7 o’clock and be on the road by 8, but it is only in the now sleepless early hours that I notice that breakfast isn’t served until 8 at weekends.  I decide therefore to leave early and find somewhere to stop on my route.

I gather all of my things up and make my way to reception where Dave is just about to go off duty.  We chat for a while as I pay for my room and then I go to the car and load up.  Fortunately Deidre has done her worst and blown away,  the morning is clear and the air feels fresh.  I drive through Buxton and back up onto the Peaks as I head towards Derby.  Once again the journey is beautiful and it is a pleasure to be on the roads alone.

After I have driven for about an hour and I am on the point of joining the M1 I spy ‘The OK Diner’ and I pull into the empty car park.  For 45 minutes or so I am back in America, surrounded by moody black and white images of straight roads disappearing into the horizon, cityscapes and rural landscapes.  The walls are adorned with college football pennants and hubcaps from Cadillacs or Buicks.

I order a plate of eggs, bacon and tomatoes, and wash it all down with fresh OJ and coffee.  When I have finished and paid I return to the car, fill it up with gas at the pumps next door (oh, I have gone back to America), and hit the road again, making sure I drive on the left!

I am heading back to Oxfordshire, but not home yet for firstly I have a lunch performance at one of the most prestigious venues I have ever performed at.  In the little village of Great Milton lies a 15th century manor house which over thirty years ago was purchased by Raymond Blanc, one of the most influential chefs working in the UK, and boasting a galaxy of Michelin stars.

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Le Manoir prides itself on perfection whilst maintaining an air of accessibility and relaxation not always found in high end restaurants which can often feel imposing and exclusive.  I am due to perform ‘A Festive Audience With Gerald Dickens’ in the restaurant’s private dining room to forty guests. The show will be split into four different chunks, allowing the diners to fully enjoy the lunch service.

On my arrival I am welcomed at the front desk as if I had just landed in my helicopter (there is naturally a helipad in the grounds).  ‘Ah, Mr Dickens, let me show you to the dining room where Thomas will look after you’

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The private dining area is in a separate building with its own kitchen and wine cellar so as not to effect the service of the main restaurant.  Thomas shows me the room in which dinner is to be served and we run through the order of the afternoon’s events and the timings and then he asks me if I’d like a coffee?  Oh, that sounds good, and he takes me into one of the lounges back in the main building where I sit on a soft sofa and relax for a few minutes before reminding myself that I am actually here to do a job of work.

The guests are due to arrive at 12 when they will be served with canapes in the conservatory which looks out over a private garden and on towards the ancient village church beyond.  At 12.30 I am to perform staves 1 and 2 roaming among the guests, before we all move into the restaurant and the guests take their seats.

I take the opportunity of a few moments to rehearse the opening of the show, remembering how to edit it so that I come in on time.  The acoustics sound good in the Conservatory and with the church clock striking every quarter there is plenty of atmosphere.

As I rehearse I am interrupted (deferentially of course), by William who is presiding over the event and who studied drama at Aberystwyth University and who ‘recognises the sound of a fellow actor warming up!’  We chat for a while but time is moving on and other waiting staff are now appearing and making final preparations for service.  It is time to change.  I ask William where I should go and he suggests the disabled toilet as the best bet –  however elegant the venue, some things do not change when performing in restaurants!

When I remerge in Victorian garb the guests are already arriving, and I try to gauge the mood of the party.  There is always a danger at an expensive event that  the attendees can be rather aloof and difficult to please, but this crowd seem to be loud, lively and up for a good time, which is reassuring.

I wait outside the conservatory as the slates of canapes are taken in and handed around.  I idly look at the fire evacuation notice and smile at another indication of the standing of Le Manoir, for here in case of emergency we are not requested to muster ‘in the car park’, oh no, here we must meet on ‘The Croquet Lawn’!

When all of the guests have arrived and been checked off William’s list I get the nod and walk into the midst of the crowd.

‘Good afternoon, and welcome to a Festive Audience with, well, ME!’  It’s not going to win any awards at the Edinburgh Fringe but it gets a laugh and breaks the ice.

Some guests are seated, others are standing, so I make sure that I move around the room ensuring that everyone can see.  It goes very well and by the time the Ghost of Christmas Past disappears into the dust and I break character and announce that it is time to proceed to the dining room everyone is fully involved in the event.

At the tables wine is poured and then it is time to become the Ghost of Christmas Present and I roam the room spreading good cheer.  The table I select as the Cratchit’s household dutifully do NOT gasp as the goose is carved, and the replacement one dutifully does.  Finally Scrooge and the ghost stand in an empty place and the clock strikes twelve…and it is time to eat.

So as not to disrupt the main meal service too much it has been decided that I should take a break of an hour while the guests eat their amazing dinners.  I retire to the conservatory and discover a table especially laid for me, with all of the same style as the diners.  A place card announces that this is the table for Gerald Dickens, and the menu informs me that I am going to enjoy:

 

LA NOIX DE ST-JACQUES

Roasted scallop, spiced cauliflower textures

 

L’OEUF

Free range hen’s egg, watercress puree, Jabugo ham & toasted hazelnuts

 

LE BOEUF

Roasted fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef, braised Jacob’s ladder, alliums & red wine essence

 

LE CHOCOLAT

Millionaire shortbread, salted butter ice ream

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Not only am I served the same menu as the guests, but I am served it in the same way – the waiter brings the dish, carefully places it, explains what is on my plate and then deferentially withdraws leaving me to appreciate how incredible fine dining really is.  Everything is on the plate for a reason, everything gives just the right hit of flavour, and  balances the other flavours on the plate exquisitely.

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At the commencement of each course the sommelier arrives and asks if I would like wine?  Yes, I would like wine!  Yes a chilled white with the scallops and a smooth red with the beef, however professional self control ensures that his only duty is to top up my water glass.

After I have cleared the plate of beef it is time to get ready to perform once more, as I have to squeeze Stave Four in before dessert.  I am very glad that it is a small room and that I don’t have much space to move in, for I think it would be an ungainly waddle rather than a perfectly honed series of choreographed movements.

The guests are definitely enjoying their afternoon and the decibel levels have risen a few notches over the course of lunch.  It is with some difficulty that I attract their attention but as soon as I do everyone settles down to listen.  Stave Four,  The Last of the Three Spirits is the most intense chapter in the book and sees Scrooge constantly faced with images of mortality.  The atmosphere in the room is electric right up to the very point that the spirit shrinks, collapses, dwindles down into a bed post…. I realise I have to break the tension somehow so say ‘and after that you deserve pud!’ and slip out of the door I am standing next to.  There is a moment’s silence as the words sink in and then I hear laughter and a loud round of applause.

The Millionaire’s Shortbread (decorated with 24 carat gold leaf, naturally) is delicious, and I finish my meal with a cup of coffee before returning to the dining room to finish the story.  Stave 5 is very much a wash-up chapter and doesn’t take very long and soon it is time for God Bless Us Every One, and lots of applause: loud, boisterous, enthusiastic applause.

The guests all hang around for a long time, well why wouldn’t you, and I chat to lots of them and receive plenty of fulsome praise as well as suggestions of venues where I should perform in the future, which is generous.

It is getting dark by the time people begin to leave and we all shake hands as if we are the oldest of friends.  The atmosphere is more that of a house party rather than a theatrical performance.  When the last group departs I return to my disabled loo and change back into my normal clothes, before saying goodbye to Thomas and William.  It has been a highly successful day and I have no doubt that it will lead to further appearances (and hopefully meals) at Le Manoir.

 

 

Buxton

Saturday 15th December

 

With a three hour drive ahead of me this morning the first thing I do upon waking is to look out of the window to check on the state of the weather.  Instead of the feared snowy and icy conditions the view, albeit dark, is beautiful: the clouds are broken by the first hints of sun which renders the famous Tyne bridge in silhouette.  As I watch, a LNER train makes its way from Newcastle station headed to who know where.  LNER is one of those railway companies that evokes thoughts of times gone by, in the same way that our own GWR does.

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Breakfast is a buffet in the lobby of the hotel and as I peruse the fare on offer I ponder the differences between an American breakfast and an English one:  the British bacon is much larger and less crispy, the sausages are thick and plump.  Grilled tomatoes and baked beans would never feature in the US, nor do half grapefruits, unsegmented.

I load up a large plateful as I am not sure if I will get lunch later, and sit quietly eating as the restaurant area begins to fill up.  When I finish I go back to my room and makes sure that I have everything before checking out and getting on the road.

My route out of the city takes me along the A1 and past the remarkable Angel of the North which looks beautiful in the early morning light, and I stop briefly to admire the view.

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I am headed towards the spa town of Buxton, which is in the High Peaks area of Derbyshire and my route will take me across the North York Moors and into the Peak District.  Buxton is the highest market town in the country so if the bad weather is going to effect anywhere it is going to effect there.  Forecasts have been warning of the impending arrival of Storm Deidre which is going to wreak havoc across the north of England.  Somehow Deidre doesn’t seem a terribly threatening name bringing to mind a rather prim lady from an era past.  Storm Gargantua, or Storm Destructa would be more unnerving.

The drive is a highly spectacular one although the mist and clouds are closing in as I drive ever higher.  Bleak moorland, deep dales, impressive viaducts and steely cold reservoirs pass by on either side until eventually I turn into the drive of the impressively imposing Palace Hotel in the very heart of Buxton.

As I walk in through the door there is a huge banner promoting my show, and on the reception desk there are plenty of fliers informing residents of the hotel that they can buy tickets for my shows at a discounted rate.

‘Hello!  I am Gerald Dickens,  I am here to perform the show tonight’

‘Yes’, replies the girl behind the desk, after which there follows a long pause.  ‘I’m sorry, what do you need to know?’

‘Oh, I just wondered where I should go?  Where is the show going to be held?’

Another long pause and a blank stare.

‘I don’t really know anything.  let me see if I can ask someone else’, at which she disappears.  Meanwhile I notice a bulletin board displaying the various events that are going on that day: ‘A Christmas Carol.  High Peaks Ballroom’  So when the girl returns I simply ask the way to that venue.

‘Go through those doors and turn left’ she says, confusingly gesturing to the right.  I follow the directions and discover that the gesture was more accurate than the verbal instruction.

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The ballroom is beautiful with a high vaulted ceiling, at one end a stage has been erected in front of a large high fire place and a huge gold mirror.  Around 200 seats have been laid out in theatre style and each has been covered in black shrouds, making it look like an auditorium filled with mini-Ghost-of-Christmas-yet-to-Comes, which is quite unsettling!

I am alone in the room and start to test the acoustics, as I rehearse Lynne Hamilton makes her entrance:  Lynne is my unofficial northern agent and we have been working together for almost 10 years.  It was Lynne who first suggested that I should perform in the amazing St George’s Hall in Liverpool (more of which next week), and this year she has offered to secure more shows for me.

Lynne has produced the Buxton version herself, so is anxious that everything works well.  Ticket sales have not been great and she has driven from The Wirral a number of times to distribute leaflets and spread the word.

We hug, say hello and chat about this and that.  Poor Lynne has a very dodgy hip which is due to be replaced by a brand new state of the art ceramic one in January, but for now she is limping around in agony.

I set the stage as I want and we experiment with the lighting.  The chandeliers in the room are grand, but can only be controlled from a room far away in the hotel, meaning lots of shouted instructions in a walkie-talkie until we find a level that combines a good atmosphere with enough light on my face (the latter is assisted by two LED uplighters which suit me well but which blind everyone else.  Lynne is worried that I wont be able to see anything during the show and I reassure her that actors really don’t mind being in a bright light, and I recount the tale of the poor actor who died swimming round and round a lighthouse because he wanted to stay in the spotlight!)

Mike, from the hotel’s technical department is going to be in charge of the sound effect and as this involves crouching in a tiny cupboard we decide that it is probably best just to use the opening music rather than the other new effects.

It is 1pm now and the first audience members are beginning to arrive, so I go up to my room on the third floor to change.  The Palace is typical of an old English hotel which has now fallen on slightly hard times, the paint is peeling here and there, the carpets are of an undetermined vintage, the facilities in the rooms are sparse.  My room is impressively large but the main thing I notice, as I try to find somewhere to plug my phone in to charge, is the dearth of electrical sockets.

Whilst in America the thought came to me that the biggest improvement in hotel design over my years of touring has been the increase in electrical outlets, with sockets built into lamp bases and desk tops.  Sadly the Palace has not been part of this revolution.

In my costume I go back to the ballroom and chat with Mike, Lynne and her colleague Jacqui, as well as meeting the audience as they arrive. One of the crowd is Peter Hooper, brother of my oldest schoolfriend Chris.  Chris now lives in New Zealand but Pete is based in Matlock, not twenty miles from here, and has very generously braved storm Deidre to come and see the show.  Peter can proudly boast that he shared a stage with me in the very formative days of my career, as the Hooper clan (Chris, Pete and their sister Sandra) staged a pantomime to be performed for all of their neighbours, and invited me to be part of the cast.  It was Aladdin, if memory serves, and Chris and I must have been around 12 or 13 years old.

At 2.30 it is time to start.  Lynne hobbles to the front and makes a nice introduction, at the end of which Mike starts the music from his kneeling position in the cupboard and I begin the show.

Once again the audience is slightly quiet and reserved, and I can see that they are all rather cold, many wrapped up in their coats and shawls.  Storm Deidre is forecast to bring freezing rain (or ice storms as I know them in America) and many folk have slipped and slithered in.

A very nice feature of the audience is the amount of young students who have come.  A Christmas Carol is currently on the GCSE syllabus so many year 9 and 10s are studying it and one particular lad sat in the front row is thoroughly enjoying the show.

Lynne has asked me for a two act show, and I have to remember to stop at the midpoint, the temptation being to plough on as I have been doing for the past month.  I slump in my chair at the end of Stave 2 murmuring ‘Scrooge fell asleep upon the instant and dreamt of the interval!’

There is no adjustable lighting in the room so I have to stand walk off the stage in full view, fortunately this walk is accompanied by a loud round of applause.

Sadly the Palace is slightly understaffed and the young lad who is supposed to be manning the ball room’s bar is nowhere to be seen, meaning a queue quickly forms and Lynne’s blood pressure ratchets up a few notches.  The punters however seem remarkably unperturbed and simply disappear to find alternative bar facilities in the hotel.  Fortunately they all return.

Eventually our barman is found and the remaining audience get their drinks (mainly hot chocolate) and return to the auditorium for the second act.  As soon as everyone is in I return to the stage and recommence to story.

At one point during the second act I get a bit too enthusiastic and knock one of the LED uplighters off the stage.  A very kind gentleman in the front row gets up and surreptitiously replaces it, so when I descend from the stage on Christmas morning I make a point of shaking his hand and referring him to as ‘the lamplighter’

The show finishes to great applause and I take my bows before going to the back of the room where I have a pleasant time chatting to the guests as they leave, as well as signing copies of my programme and CD which are selling well.  In particular I have a long chat with Pete and his wife, which is very nice.

As the audience disappears into Deidre’s grip I go back to my room and change, before returning to the restaurant where Lynne and Jacquie are sat taking afternoon tea.  I join them and we spend a lovely time eating sandwiches, scones and cakes, sipping tea from china cups.

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We are sat in a glass conservatory and outside the rain is lashing down as the storm batters Buxton.  Hopefully this wont put off any audience members for this evening’s performance, alternatively it may encourage those staying in the hotel to forgo the pleasures of Buxton town centre and come to the High Peaks Ballroom instead.

Having finished tea I go upstairs to rest for a while, and set an alarm in case I snooze on the bed.  Although I don’t fall into a deep sleep, some of my blinks are extended ones.

The evening show is at 7.30, so at 6.30 I have a shower to wake me up and get back into costume.  The hotel is packed tonight, as there are various other events being held, and the staff will be stretched thinly.  Unfortunately Mike is unavailable to do my sound, but another member of management, Carolyn, will come to look after it, I just hope that she has been properly briefed.

The audience is bigger this evening and many are very excited to be seeing the show.  7.30 arrives, but Carolyn does not.  Eventually she is found elsewhere looking after a large Christmas party, and takes up her place in the cupboard next to the sound desk.

Lynne makes her introduction and the music fills the room.  That’s good.  I reach the stage and the fourth bell tolls.  Good.  Now, Carolyn needs to stop the CD before the second piece of music starts, otherwise Scrooge will be dancing to Sir Roger de Coverley at Marley’s graveside!  No folk music comes through the system, and all is well….for a moment.

As soon as I start to speak I can tell that Carolyn has shut off the entire system as my microphone is as dead as a doornail.  Of course Carolyn has returned to her other event, so she cant help out, whilst Lynne and Jacquie are not in the room, as they are making preparations for our forthcoming events in Liverpool at the end of the week.  Although the acoustics in the room are not bad, and I can be heard quite adequately, I can sense that the show isn’t as good as it could be, and certain audience members are having to lean forward to catch every word.  I try not to over compensate and force my voice, knowing that I only have to get to the  half way point of the show before I can turn the system on again.

The applause at the interval is not as fulsome as this afternoon and neither is the chat at the back of the room.  Sure enough as soon as I check the sound system I find that Carolyn had brought the master volume slider right down to 0.   I set it back to the correct level (making sure that the hitherto silent microphone pack is set to ‘mute’) and simultaneously reset myself, forgetting the struggles of the first half and readying myself for an energetic second.

Meanwhile Lynne’s frustration levels are almost through the roof as once again there is no one to man the bar.  Fortunately there are a few other members of staff in the audience, including Dave the Night Manager, who manage to locate the girl who was supposed to be looking after the bar, and also coming up with a solution to dim the main lights thereby creating more atmosphere, whilst maintaining enough light on my face.

Act 2 is much better and the show comes alive: I am better, the sound is better, the light is better and the audience respond most enthusiastically.  This was a show that was rescued.

Lots of people want to linger and chat afterwards, and I pose for many photographs, particularly with one family who are particular fans of Charles Dickens and the Carol. One lady from America just happened to be staying in the hotel to celebrate her birthday and had seen the promotional material in reception and had decided to come, and she adored it too.

From an unpromising start the evening has been a great success.  After changing in my room I return to the now deserted ballroom and load all of my props into the car, for I have another early start in the morning. The rain is still pelting down and the wind is still howling as I make my way to and from the car and by the time I am finished I look like a rather bedraggled dog after he has swum out into a river to fetch a stick.  I join Lynne, Jacqui and a large bowl of chips and mayonnaise (courtesy of Dave, the Night Manager) in the bar and we discuss the events of the day.

Quite a few of the audience are staying in the hotel and come and chat as we all wind down which is lovely.  Eventually I say good night and go back to my room.  I have an early morning drive to Oxfordshire for a very special performance, but this team will reunite in Liverpool on Wednesday.

 

 

 

Lit & Phil

Friday 14 December

Today sees me begin the UK leg of my Christmas Carol tour and takes me up the spine of the country to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the far north east of England.

My flight home from Philadelphia last week was a relaxing one, as I had three seats to myself, even though the flight was very busy.  I watched dear old ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, for the millionth time, and then ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ which is back-lit, soft focus British filmmaking at its best!

My first job was to get all of my costumes dry cleaned before the next set of performances, and I had to give strict instructions that the trousers were to pressed with no creases at the front.  One of the reasons for sourcing new grey trousers this year was so that they would be more authentically Victorian in style, and my costume guru David has stressed to me throughout the year that I must NOT have sharp creases in them.  I was relieved when I picked them up that they had been pressed correctly.

At 11 am I say goodbye to Liz once more, the children being at school, and start a 5 hour drive.  I still have the remnants of an Inspector Morse novel on my phone and he keeps me company as I make my way through the Midlands and into the North, basically following the route that the Roman armies took until they reached Hadrian’s wall running across the country at the Scottish border.

After a long and tiring drive I am welcomed to Tyneside by the open wings of the magnificent Angle of the North and soon am descending the hill into Newcastle and crossing the mighty Tyne by one of the many bridges which the city boasts.

My venue tonight is the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, or the Lit&Phil as it is now known.  I have performed here for the last two years and it is a great venue in a great city.  Housed in a splendidly imposing building near to the main railway station in the City, the Lit and Phil can proudly boast the fact that it is the largest independent library outside London (a fact which must stick in the craw of those goodly folk who run the Bodleian Library in my home city of Oxford).

The City is bustling and busy but remarkably I am able to find a parking space right outside the building and the unloading of my furniture and props is the work of but a few moments.

I am greeted by Kay who organises my performances here (this will be my third appearance) and various other staff and volunteers as I set up the room for my show.  The actual venue for my performance is a fairly bland room at the rear of the building, but we have a sell out audience tonight and I know from past experience that the atmosphere can be electric in here.

Once I have carefully arranged my chair, cloth, table, hat stand and stool (it is not a difficult get-in, it must be said), I descend to my dressing room which is maybe the most impressive that I have on tour, for I am in the oak-shelved, dusty book-lined Reference and Silence Room, where a clock loudly ticks the seconds and minutes.  I have been told in past years that the room is haunted but as yet no spirits have come to visit me.

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I change into my crisp, clean costume, and then sit and relax as the audience builds upstairs.  Last year I performed the Carol at the very start of my tour, and I remember pacing around going over lines to myself.  Tonight I can slip on the script with the same ease that I slip on my frock coat, and I am much more relaxed, indeed I even find myself practicing my golf swing with the gnarled cane that in an hours’ time will become Tiny Tim’s active little crutch.

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The buzz of anticipation from the audience is a lovely sound and I wait just outside the door until I get the nod from Kay who then presses play on an impressive CD machine, thereby launching another performance.

The audience is restrained, as English audiences tend to be, but hang on every line of the script with the intensity you would expect from a Literary and Philosophical crowd. With such a crowd there is always a decision to be made regarding the audience participation elements of my show, which can just fall flat and lie as dead as a doornail if there is no response forthcoming.  Tonight I decide to go for it and everyone dutifully joins in, which breaks the tension a little.

The applause at the end is remarkable in its intensity and length and I am called back for a second curtain call, which is very special indeed.  Back in my Reference and Silence Room I change shirt, waistcoat and frock coat before going to mingle and chat with the audience.

Ian and I have decided to donate the profits from any souvenir programme sales made in the UK over the next couple of weeks to the Dickens Museum appeal to help buy the Lost Portrait of Dickens.  If you missed my blog about this amazing story then it can be viewed at https://wordpress.com/post/geralddickens.wordpress.com/7351

Sales of programmes ad CDs go quite well and it is fun to chat and sign in such a relaxed way, rather than sitting at a desk with a long queue of people waiting patiently, as been the case in America over the last couple of weeks

The audience gradually drift away into the cold night and I return to the tick tock of my clock to change once more.  By the time I remerge all of my furniture has been taken to the front door of the building and in a few minutes it is safely loaded up into the car.  I say good bye to me good friends and head off to search for food.

Newcastle is a university city and on a Friday night in the week leading up to Christmas it is packed.  After a few unsuccessful attempts to get into restaurants I go back to my little hotel and order a takeaway meal which is duly delivered to the front desk.  I sit in my room watching TV whilst I eat.

It has been a long day, with a lot of driving, and I am certainly tired and ready for my bed.  Tomorrow I start south again and will be performing at a new venue for me, in the beautiful Peak District town of Buxton.  There is bad winter weather forecast for this weekend, and my drive could be a difficult one so I will need to be on the road good and early, just in case.

I shall see you there.

 

A Civilised Finale in Burlington

With apologies for the delay in posting, this is my account of the final day in the USA

 

And so I wake for my last morning in America for this year. I am meeting Bob for breakfast at 8.30, or is it 8? I can’t remember what we agreed, except we are both early morning people. To be on the safe side I will go to the restaurant at 8.15!
I write my blog post and pack as much as I can, although I still need costumes for my show this afternoon, so I make sure that my roller bag is packed with 2 clean shirts, some socks, black shoes, the red cloth and the two little mice for the stage. I make sure I have the USB drive as well as a CD with the sound cues and pens for signing.
After a shower (a very good one, but not up to Press Hotel standard, which therefore takes the award for best shower of the year award), I take my two costumes to hang in the car and take a pile of souvenir programmes which have been in my car since the signing in the bookstore and need returning to Bob, and walk to breakfast.
Bob is not there, and nor is anyone else as a matter of fact, and the staff are a rather nonplussed. I grab an orange juice and a coffee and read a little more of Hidden Figures while I wait. One of the servers sees the pile of programmes on the table and asks me about them and when I explain about the show she beams: ‘Oh! I’ve had guests here who went to that and said it was awesome!’, which is good to hear.
Bob arrives bang on the dot of 8.30 (so, I was right first time) and soon we both have platefuls of breakfast in front of us as we chat about this year’s tour, how it has worked, is there anything we can learn for the future. It is too early to start talking about future visits, as I need to talk to Liz about how this year worked for her at home alone with the girls before committing to anything.
From the tour our conversation moves on to travelling in general and various other things until it is time for Bob to leave. It is strange to think that I have another performance today, and I have to make sure that I am in performance mode, rather than travelling mode.
I return to my room and watch a bit of TV until 11 o’clock when it is time to check out, I return my key to the front desk where still no mention is made yesterday’s events. I am sure that Bob will mention it to the management, as Byers’ Choice are good, very good, customers of the Joseph Ambler Inn.
My drive this morning is not a long one, less than an hour in fact, but takes me across another state line into New Jersey. I refill with fuel on the way and buy a sandwich for an early lunch, which I eat in the car before heading to the Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington NJ. This is another venue where I have many friends and also a venue where I have many friends and it will great to finish up the tour here.
I park outside the church and get not only my 2 costume, roller bag, hat and cane out, but also my large suitcase as I will need to pack straight after the show. As I make my rather precarious way to the door two young guys call out ‘Hey dude, are you a magician? Can you do a trick now? C’mon man, just one trick!?’ Getting up the two steps to the door without dropping everything will be trick enough!
As soon as I am in I am greeted by Laura, who organises this event, her husband Joe and all the rest of the team – I get well and truly hugged, for they are a huggy bunch at The Broad Street United Methodist Church. I usually do two shows here but as I have to be at the airport by 7 tonight there is only the 2pm matinee, which has resulted in a huge turnout expected – around 350. The minister of the church jokes that he is going to take a picture of them all packed in and then post it on the Facebook page as an indication of the popularity of his sermons.
I get myself settled in usual dressing room, under the stage, and then go upstairs to make sure everything is where is needs to be. In years past we have had to improvise with the music cue as there was no CD system and poor Joe had to squat holding a microphone to the speakers of a boom box back stage; he couldn’t see what was happening and there was more than an element of guess work involved. This year however there is a new sound system but sadly at the moment it can only play a CD, so the new effects, which are only on my USB stick, will not have another outing: Mr Fezziwig must dance in silence again.
Having completed the sound check I go back to my dressing room to get ready and with half an hour to I make my way to the kitchen and get a nice cup of black tea. A number of volunteers are there busily preparing cookies and cakes which will be served to the guests during the signing session.

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20 minutes. 15 minutes. 10. Laura, Joe and I chat and then at 2pm I go to the back of the hall, whilst Laura takes to the stage to welcome the audience. As I stand waiting at the back of the sanctuary I get a big wave of the hand from Kevin Quinn and Herb Moskovitz, both members of the Dickens Fellowship, who have travelled from New York and Philadelphia respectively to see the show. I have known them both for many years and it is very generous of them to make their journeys.
Laura finishes her intro and I make my slow way to the ‘stage’ (the alter rail has been removed, as has the table to give me as much space as possible to perform on). The hall is indeed packed on floor level and in the balcony and there is definitely a good atmosphere in here.

 

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I try to use the various different levels as much as possible to suggest different scenes, especially those in the streets of London. The audience get fully involved and as many of them have attended multiple times they know the score. Bob asked the other day why people who have seen the show so often don’t gasp in delight at the turkey, when they know I am going to feign frustration at their lack of participation. I have noticed over the years that I return to a venue about four times regular attendees DO gasp on cue, but then they begin to realise that the joke is better when they don’t make a sound so dutifully remain silent in subsequent years.
About half way through the show I am aware of a loose shirt cuff, which always seems to happen here, I ascertain that the cufflink hasn’t broken, just come out of the button hole, I make a couple of attempts to re-fasten it but am not successful and end up leaving it to flap.
The performance is a very emotional and intense one, which holds the audience’s attention fully. The comedy gets laughs, the pathos is received with concentrated silence. It is a good way to sign off.
‘God Bless Us, Every One’ for the last time in the USA and the whole audience rise to their feet and make a lot of noise (I wonder if the minister is filming this!). I take my bows and linger a little longer than usual on stage before retiring to my dressing room, where I change out of my rather damp costume, which I hope might dry a little before it needs packing in an hour or so’s time.
The line for the signing line is very long and backs right up into the narrow walkway which also serves as a second hand book store. I have to ‘excuse’ my way to the front before I can get to my seat and begin signing.
Kevin from New York has managed to get right to the front of the queue and after shaking hands he gives me a little gift – a new set of Dickens Fellowship geranium cufflinks, as over the years he knows that I have often broken pairs thanks to the rigours of performance. It is strange that today is the only show on this year’s tour where I have suffered a cufflink malfunction – maybe it is the spirits reaching out to us!

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The signing line is full of families who have attended the shows for multiple years and one such present me with a framed picture featuring our portraits over 6 years, which is incredibly moving.
As I sign and chat, I sip a lovely cup of tea, poured from a bone china pot, into a bone china cup which sits on a bone china saucer – things are very civilised in Burlington.
Quite apart from the long signing line, the room is full of people sat at tables enjoying their own tea and cookies, which means that just when I think the signing is coming to an end someone else gets up to come to my table, but everyone is in high good spirits and there is a lovely atmosphere.

 
When the signing does finally end I go back to the dressing room and start the business of cramming everything into my suitcases for the first time in two weeks. Socks get packed in my hat and the thick woollen scarf is wound around it. Both costumes (2 times grey trousers, 2 times red and gold waistcoats, 2 times burgundy cravats, 2 times black frock coats) are folded and packed into my little roller case.

 
It seems strange to be leaving so soon, as usually the whole team go out together for dinner at a local restaurant, before putting on an evening show. Today, even though the others are dining and have invited me to join them, I need to drive to the Philadelphia International airport, where I have a date with a British Airways 747. I am sent on my way with two sandwiches that Marcia has kindly bought for me, and after being well and truly hugged once more I am on my way.

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So the USA tour comes to an end (although my Christmas season will continue in the UK next week) and as I sit in the departure lounge awaiting Zone 5 to be called I can reflect on a very successful series of performances during which the show has progressed once again. I have been very happy with the new scene involving Bob Cratchit mourning Tiny Time, and I am very happy with the use of the cloth throughout the performance.
But you don’t want to hear about my thoughts on the play for I know that there is one pressing question to which you are desperate to know the answer:

 
The Best Breakfast of the Tour Award! On reflection, taking everything into consideration, weighing up all the pros and cons, I think that the short list boils down to:
The Beechwood Hotel, in Worcester Mass
The Press Hotel in Portland
The Fairville Inn at Winterthur
The Joseph Ambler Inn at Byers’ Choice

And the winner is: The Press Hotel in Portland!

I will continue to write through the rest of my tour, and the nest performance is in the beautiful city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne next weekend. I shall see you there.