Secondary 1st Garden Party

June 9. Fonthill
Having returned from the Wirral on the 6th I had a three day wait for my next event which was in Dorset.
The 9th of June is a very important day in the Dickens calendar as it is the day on which Charles Dickens died, and if I can perform at a particularly special event on the anniversary then it is a bonus – this year was very special indeed.
The story dates back many many years when my brother Ian worked as the Marketing Director for Olympus Cameras He often used a husband and wife team of graphic designers to assist in some of his memorable advertising campaigns. Graham and Diane May then decided to forgo the rat race and to continue their freelance work in Dorset.
Three years ago when Ian and I were planning our Souvenir Brochures (still on sale via my website, by the way) it was to Graham and Diane that Ian turned. We all had a lovely meeting in London and they went to work and anyone who has seen the finished products will know it was a job superbly done.
Last year Diane got in touch with me and asked me if I would attend a special fundraising garden party at a country pile called Fonthill Park near Salisbury. There would be other entertainers throughout the day and we would all be strutting our stuff in a ‘performance marquee’ situated in the grounds. After discussion we decided that Doctor Marigold would be the perfect piece for the event and June 9th, 2019 was firmly in the diary.
The charity in question was one very personal to Diane, it was Secondary 1st which is committed to find a cure for secondary breast cancer. To understand the ethos and passion behind the fundraising efforts I can do no better than to quote the website http://www.www.secondary1st.org.uk:
We want to put secondary breast cancer first. Front of mind. Top of the list. This is a disease that has spread to the rest of the body. It affects men and women everywhere. Finding a cure means a diagnosis is no longer the end. It means people will have more days doing what matters most. It means daughters, mothers, fathers and sons will go on living a life they love’
Secondary 1st is not one of the popular ‘sexy’ cancer charities but it is every bit as important and needs every penny that can be raised to allow the valuable research to forge ahead. The event at Fonthill would not only raise funds but also to raise awareness of the work being done.
Fonthill is owned by Lord Margadale and he generously donated his house and gardens for the event which hopefully would be graced by fine weather. Although my show was not due to take place until 2.30 proceedings would kick off at 11 with a champagne and canapes reception hosted by his Lordship. Always a nosy soul the chance to peek inside the big house was too good to miss and I set off from home at 9.30.
The drive west was fine and took me passed Stonehenge which appeared to be surrounded by an ant’s nest of tourists, and just beyond there was the most extraordinary field of poppies. This wasn’t the usual corn field speckled with red, this was a plush carpet of poppies the brightness of which was astounding. Further along the road was another carpet, but this one was only half-dyed, the vibrant red fading into green as if it were a watercolour painting.
Turning off the main trunk road I found myself winding through country lanes before turning through the magnificent stone arch that forms the entrance to the Fonthill estate. The scene couldn’t have been more English, the driveway took me past a small cricket pitch with its boundaries marked and stumps placed ready for the contest to come later that afternoon.
I followed the road over a bridge that crossed a lake and then the drive wound uphill until I arrived at the house itself which, considering the grounds it presided over, was quite modest (listen to me! Modest!)
It was around 10.45 so I just had time to unload the car and parking it in one of the nearby fields before the drinks reception began. The performance marquee was in the lower part of the garden, in a paddock beyond the formal gardens and the swimming pool. The word ‘marquee’ maybe slightly oversold the venue, but it looked as if it would be a lovely space in which to perform Marigold.

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Under canvas was a stage with some speakers and cables waiting to be plugged in for various bands who would be performing throughout the day. There was some audience seating inside, but most of the chairs were in the open air beneath the warm sun which was trying its best to join the party.

 

Surrounding the tent were lots of stalls all manned by folk adorned in the Secondary 1st T-shirts, resplendent in white pink and purple. There were tombola stalls and craft stalls and clothing stalls and a raffle and a silent auction, each waiting to plead with the public to support this most worthy and admirable charity, and in the middle of all the bustle were Diane and Mary busily checking and organising everything.

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11 o’clock was approaching so we all made our way up the steep garden and into the house. What a civilised way to begin an event, I rather think that this should be in the rider to all of my contracts – ‘the artiste will be entertained by a member of the British aristocracy no less than three hours before the performance’

We sipped champagne nibbled on elegant canapes and chatted to strangers – in my case a gentleman who was providing a hot air balloon ride as a raffle prize. I asked him if he had ever been here before and he replied that the only thing he knew about the estate came from a colleague who had inadvertently landed his balloon in the grounds thus raising the anger and ire of Lord Margadale!
On the current day however his Lordship was all smiles and bonhomie, welcoming us to his home and pledging his support to the fundraising efforts ahead, and with that we made our way into the gardens to begin the day’s fun.

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I wandered through the gardens looking at the stalls, buying raffle tickets (Liz and I would LOVE to go up in balloon!) and soaking up the atmosphere.
Down in the performance marquee there was due to be a short performance of a scene from The Importance of Being Ernest and I made my way down to get a seat. The excerpt was the splendidly catty meeting between Gwendoline Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, both of whom are of the opinion that they are engaged to Jack Worthing.
Actors Helena Payne and Marie Fortune gave brilliantly funny performances getting every ounce of humour from the scene and the audience revelled in it. I enjoyed it as much as the rest but I got even more from the experience for it was a chance for me to listen and judge how easily I could hear the words (very easily as it happened for Helena and Marie had superb voices) and study the site lines – all of this would be invaluable when I took to the stage later.
With the show over I found a quiet bit of garden and went through my lines for a while (I only had a 45 minute slot, rather than the full hour that Marigold normally takes, so it was another of those times when I had to go through the process of remembering which lines to un-learn.)
A particular bonus of the day was that Liz was coming down with the children to join me, and at around 12.30 I got a message that she was making the ascent from the cricket pitch, over the bridge and into the car park. We all met up and made our way to the refreshment tent where we bought sandwiches and cake. I didn’t have much time to linger over lunch though as the time for my show was getting closer and I needed to get changed, which I was able to do in a Portaloo just behind the marquee (such glamour).
When I reemerged into the sunlight quite a reasonable audience was gathering which was reassuring. At 2.30 I walked onto the stage, gave my little history of Marigold and then launched into the show.
It was a strange experience, for the audience were very much divided into two camps, firstly there were those sat at the front, under canvas, who were watching and listening intently and laughing at Doctor’s rapid sales patter and one liners, then there were those further out who maybe stopped by out of curiosity but were not so fully involved, maybe chatting to friends, or just watching for a few minutes before moving on to another part of the gardens. Through it all Doctor Marigold bared his soul and told his story to half committed and half transient crowd as he would have done in fairgrounds up and down the country.

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With about a quarter of the monologue still to go I began to hear pitter patter on the canvas over my head and it was like being a child lying in a tent on a rainy afternoon. As I continued I could see people huddling under coats, and putting umbrellas up. Doctor Marigold thought ‘my poor audience’ whilst Gerald Dickens thought ‘Damn! I left my linen suit laying on a table outside!’ Doctor Marigold however was the stronger of us and in the middle of his recitation said, ‘come on, get out of the rain, bring your seats in here, shuffle forward, plenty of room for all, in you come’
I (he) paused as everyone huddled into the small tent, and when pretty well everyone who wanted to be thus accommodated was, I continued the story in a much more intimate setting.
The final lines of the grandchild speaking drew the usual gasp and sobs from the audience and I took my bows to lovely applause. Diane was in the front row and I gave her a great big hug and thanked her for inviting me to be part of this amazing afternoon.
The rain was still falling outside, and I was delighted to discover that someone had seen my suit and moved it under cover. I changed into it, and made my way back to the tent where Helena, one of the actors from earlier, was now performing a beautiful operatic aria as the rain fell hard.
Once she had finished and taken her bows the drones of a bagpipe sounded in the distance and soon the members of the Clayesmore School Pipe Band marched damply into the space between all of the Secondary 1st stalls. An appreciative audience stayed in the tents and watched as the stoic performers shivered and dripped in the teeming rain. I wished I could have poured a little bubble mixture into the pipes, which would have made quite a spectacle!

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The band finished their set and as they marched away they received huge applause both for their musical ability and their great resilience. As we stood the rain passed and the sun came out again shining brightly onto the old house which looked spectacular against the retreating black clouds.

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It was now time to perform my final duty of the day which was to assist in the drawing of the raffle. Wouldn’t you just believe it, but the rain had got into the electrical connections rendering the PA system useless. There was nothing for it but to bring out my biggest, boomiest voice and to announce each of the winning tickets to the damp, dripping, expectant crowd.
Lord Margadale drew the tickets, handed them to me and I bellowed the colour, the number and the name on the back and waited for an excited cry from the audience as the lucky soul went scurrying to the table to choose their prize. Unfortunately Liz and I were not victorious so our hot air balloon trip will have to wait for another day.
And so the event came to an end and I fetched the car and packed up all of my belongings. I said good bye to Diane, Mary, Lord Margadale, Helena and Marie before leaving the beauty of Fonthill behind me. I’d spent an am amazing day in fantastic surroundings, but the most important thing was that we had all raised lots of funds for Secondary 1st.
But they always need more, and I would strongly encourage you to visit their site and donate even a little – every penny helps.
This is the link to the donations page:
https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/donation-web/charity?charityId=1015524&stop_mobi=yes

Two Beautiful Houses

Shows can be like London busses, you wait for ages and then three come along at once, and so it has been for me at the beginning of June.

 

June 5  Hillbark

Following my busy weekend in Rochester I had 2 days to relax before loading up the car again and heading off to the Wirral peninsular to perform at The West Kirby Literary Festival.

The booking was a good lesson in never knowing what might, as Mr Micawber may say, ‘turn up’.  In November last year I agreed to attend a product launch in Liverpool.  I was working with Owen Drew Luxury candles and the lavish event in the heart of the Albert Dock had been planned by the company’s PR guru, Paula.  I hadn’t been called upon to perform, or even to speak at the event, but the new candle had been inspired by A Christmas Carol and was called the 1843, so my job was just to smile and be photographed, which I did to the best of my abilities.

In my mind this was a one off event which I greatly enjoyed but never for a moment did I expect anything would come from it, however earlier this year Paula got in touch to ask would I be available to perform at a brand new literary festival on the weekend of June 8th and 9th; this proved impossible due to a prior engagement (more of which later), however the week proceeding would be fine and we settled on Wednesday 5th.

The festival had grown from an idea suggested at a West Kirby book club based in the Wro Bar where the members  discussed the finer points of literature in a convivial surrounding, sipping chilled white wine.

What show to perform?  I suggested Mr Dickens is Coming which is always a a good ice-breaker at a new venue.  It is fun, varied, not too challenging and always works well but how about the second half?  My first choice was my favourite Doctor Marigold (and I would be performing it a few days later too, meaning it would be fully brushed up and ready), or the Signalman, but Paula asked me if I had anything from Oliver Twist?  Oliver is a novel that I have never adapted for a show – the 1960 stage musical is so popular that it is difficult to tell the story without the audience expecting you to plunge your thumbs into your braces and break into song.  There is one passage, though, that would fulfil the brief.  The murder.  Sikes and Nancy.

I made sure that Paula knew that the piece was delivered as a reading (that’s ironic considering that in my last post,  I was ranting about my shows being billed as readings, when they plainly are not!) and when she expressed satisfaction with the choice, everything was confirmed.

I set off on Wednesday afternoon and for once the journey was problem free and easy.  The drive is now familiar to me for over the last few years I have found myself performing more and more often on Merseyside thanks mainly to my good friend Lynne Hamilton who has done a fabulous job promoting me in this corner of the world.

As I peeled off west onto the peninsula I passed the impressive hillside looking down on the town of Frodsham,where I performed at another literary festival a few years ago.

On past the huge Vauxhall factory at Ellesmere Port and then I left the Mersey behind me as I headed towards West Kirby and the Hillbark Hotel where I was to stay for the night.

Hillbark was quite a surprise!  I am used to pulling up at Premier Inns or Travelodges, maybe something better, but usually corporate, bland and sensible.  Hillbark was certainly none of those things.  I drove up the long  serpentine driveway and among the trees and shrubs I noticed impressive equine sculptures fashioned out of old horseshoes.  Around the final corner and the majesty of Hillbark house welcomed me.  The half-timbered black and white building looked welcoming and a lively fountain bubbled energetically in the courtyard to the front.  My Renault looked rather out of place for parked to one side was a pearlescent puce Bentley.

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I unloaded my bags and was met at the door by a young man who took them from me with the deference of a butler and ushered me in.  In the ‘reception area’, which was in fact the main hall beneath the impressive wooden staircase, was Paula, Lynne and members of the hotel staff.   I greeted the former two with hugs and was greeted by the others, one of whom positively gushed at meeting a relative of Charles Dickens, ‘if Brad Pitt was here I couldn’t be more excited!’

We had about an hour before we needed to leave for the show’s venue, but Lynne wanted to shoot a few short videos that she could use to promote my Christmas shows in Liverpool, so I needed to change into my costume.

I was shown up to my room and was informed that I would be sleeping in the same bed as Beyonce.  I was startled at this revelation until it was explained that this was the best suite and all of the VIPs who visited stayed here, even Take That.  I was once more startled: all of them?

It was a magnificent room with views across the Dee estuary to the hills of Wales beyond, and it was with regret that I surveyed it for I would only be in it for a few hours, as I had to leave early the next morning.

I changed into my costume and then went back down to the bar where coffee was served, and I joined Lynne and Paula who filled me in about the history of this wonderful place.  It had originally been built in 1891 and stood proudly on Bidston Hill.

In 1921 the house was owned by Sir Ernest Bland Royden and his wife but unfortunately she suffered from ill health and desired better views to  aid her recovery, so Ernest decided to move.  He knew the perfect site but the house that stood there was not what he and Rachel wanted, they were very happy with what they had, thank you very much!  What a conundrum, so what they did was to demolish the old Hillbark House and then moved their own beautiful home brick by brick, panel by panel to its new position.

The project took two years, so one presumes that Rachel’s illness was not too serious…..

Apparently today if you remove the panelling that dominates the interior you can still see the handwritten numbers that ensured the house was re-assembled correctly.

The current owners Craig and Lisa took over the business in 2002 and have made it a stylish, elegant hotel which celebrates the craftsmanship and design of the original, yet with spectacular splashes of modernity and style.  It has five stars and is the smallest hotel in the UK to have been afforded that honour.

Paula left us to go and start preparing the hall for the evening and Lynne and I started recording a few short video clips:

‘Hello, I am Gerald Dickens, great great grandson to Charles Dickens, come and join me at the St George’s Hall in Liverpool for my one man dramatisation of A Christmas Carol….’

That was the gist of it, but some versions had a ‘Bah! Humbug!’ or a ‘God bless us, every one!’ thrown in for good measure.

When we were finished we got into our respective cars and I followed Lynne to the Westbourne Hall in West Kirby where I was to perform. The stage was impressive and soon I was illuminated by a fine array of theatrical lights as I arranged my furniture for Mr Dickens is Coming!  I have to say that the set looked rather good.

The show was due to start at 7 but at 6 there was a VIP reception to thank all of the festival’s sponsors and supporters so having finished my preparations I spent some time chatting and posing for pictures.  A local bookshop had copies of Oliver Twist to sell, and I flicked through until I found the illustration of Noah Claypole eavesdropping on Nancy and Mr Brownlow, a scene that features heavily in The Murder.  The picture was on page 498 and I tucked that information away for later.

As the reception continued, and I continually declined glasses of wine and canapes which came around with great regularity, the main audience started to arrive and a goodly crowd it was.  Paula and the festival team had done a brilliant job marketing my show with repeated online posts bigging me up (on one occasion mentioning that I would be performing my ‘multi award-winning show’.  I am not sure WHICH awards I have won, but I am delighted to hear about them anyway)

The clock ticked towards 7 and I absented myself from the reception and went back to my dressing room to sit quietly until the show began.  As in all such events there were a few words said by the organiser of the festival in this case Sally from the Wro Bar, and when she had finished thanking everyone who had to be thanked, and announcing the various other events, I was away.

I have performed Mr Dickens is Coming a few times recently, so it flowed freely and easily with good timing.  I had a slight issue about the end of the act as I usually finish up with a description about Sikes and Nancy, but on this occasion I would be doing that as a precursor to my second act.  Once again I used the Great Expectations passage, which seems to have found a permanent home now, and finished off with a teaser for The Murder, finishing off by saying that if during the interval the audience wanted to do some research they should buy a copy of the book from the table at the back of the hall and refer to page 498!  Hopefully that would generate a few extra sales.

I went back to my dressing room and changed from garish gold waistcoat to sombre black and then went to the stage to remove most of the furniture, leaving just the reading desk and the red screen – the set that Charles used for his readings.

Our 20 minute interval inevitably turned into a 30 minute one, but eventually everyone was encouraged back to their seats and it was time to kill.

I introduced the piece and stepped up to the desk and began to read.

Right, the reading thing:  In my last blog post I wrote  ‘The other thing that ALWAYS happens when there is a change of leadership is that my shows are billed as ‘readings’ which is always a source of great frustration to me.  Anyone who has seen me perform will no that the one thing I do not do is ‘read!’  One week on and I am reading, why? The truth of the matter is that I believe Sikes and Nancy works best in this format, that is how Charles Dickens envisioned it and that is how he adapted it to be performed.  Whilst something such as Marigold or The Signalman lend themselves to an off the book performance, Sikes and Nancy would be confusing and clunky if performed in that way.

The characterisations (Fagin and Sikes in particular) are brought into sharper focus by the fact that the audiences attention is concentrated on one spot –  the reading desk which can also be used as a prop.  Illustrations of Dickens himself performing as Fagin show him crouched low over the desk, chin jutting forward gesturing wildly with his hand.

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Just because Sikes and Nancy is performed with a book in hand it is by no means a dull, dry, monotone recitation, quite the opposite indeed for it is electrifying, violent, terrifying and brilliant.

The script is very cleverly conceived -it is divided into three scenes the first of which sees Fagin engage Noah Claypole to spy on Nancy and bring back all of the information he can.  As an audience we are privy to only to Fagin and Noah’s conversations, we know nothing of Nancy’s movements or motives, thereby placing us firmly in the villain’s camp.  Scene 2 and once again we are placed with Noah as he tries to listen to Nancy as she tells her story.  The most important line here is ‘After receiving an assurance from both that she might safely do so she proceeded in a voice so low that it was often difficult for the listener to discover even the purport of what she said, to describe the means by which this one man Monks might be found and taken.  But nothing would have induced her to compromise one of her own companions; little reason she had, poor wretch! to spare them’

So we are still alongside Noah, we as an audience have now become complicit in the crime to come.  We are helpless to stop the inevitably tragedy, and even if we could stop it we have no idea what Nancy actually said to Mr Brownlow, it is a clever device and raises the tension in the audience.

The final scene sees the entrance of Bill Sikes and we watch as Fagin very very carefully pulls his strings, making him angrier and more violent by the second before he rushes through the streets to find Nancy half dressed on their bed, he pulls her up by the hair, has the presence of mind to realise that a gunshot will attract attention, and bludgeons her to the floor.

Having assured himself that she is quite dead he rushes into the countryside but is haunted by the memory of what he has done and is driven back to London where he is discovered by a raging mob.  He climbs to a rooftop and as he is fixing a noose around himself to escape he has a vision of Nancy’s dead eyes, slips and is hung.

It is all shocking, but Dickens wanted to outrage his audience more, so to finish off he had Sikes’ dog leaping for his master’s shoulders, missing his aim and tumbling down into the ditch…‘turning over as he went, and striking his head against a stone, dashed out his brains!’

It is truly shocking and brutal and always leaves the audience in stunned silence.  Such was the case last week, I became more and more intensely involved in the scene, and smashed my fist into the reading folder (newly made for this event and making its professional debut), imagining Nancy’s upturned face was there before she staggered and fell to the floor.

It was a really good performance, I may say enjoyable if that is not too disturbing and as the applause started to come in I stood on the stage panting, exhausted, trying to come back to the present moment in the Westbourne Community Hall.

We had a few minutes of Q&A on the stage and then I went to the book shop’s table to sign copies of Oliver Twist, as well as one of Monica Dickens’ ‘An Open Book’ which the owner had proudly brought to the event.

I was tired and when the audience had left and the members of the book club sat drinking wine and discussing the evening I wasn’t fully engaged in the conversation, but floating away somewhere else.

I needed to get back to the hotel and Lisa, the owner of Hillbark, suggested that I give her a lift.  I gratefully acquiesced to this idea and soon the props were loaded into the car and we were on our way.

Even then the evening was not quite over for we joined Lisa’s husband Craig in the bar and had a nightcap as they told me more about the building and its history.  We also talked about cars – their Bentley and an Ascari, whilst I rather meekly told them about my old Lotus!

Eventually the rigours of the Murder began to tell and I had to absent myself.  I went to my room, set the alarm for 6am, as I had an early start in the morning, and slipped wearily under the covers.

 

June 9.  Fonthill

Having returned from the Wirral on the 6th I had a three day wait until the next bus arrived, and this one would take me to Dorset.

The 9th of June is a very important day in the Dickens calendar as it is the day on which Charles Dickens died, and if I can perform at a particularly special event on the anniversary then it is a bonus – this year was very special indeed.

The story dates back many many years when my brother Ian worked as the Marketing Director for Olympus Cameras  He often used a husband and wife team of graphic designers to assist in some of his memorable advertising campaigns.  Graham and Diane May then decided to forgo the rat race and to continue their freelance work in Dorset.

Three years ago when Ian and I were planning our Souvenir Brochures (still on sale via my website, by the way) it was to Graham and Diane that Ian turned.  We all had a lovely meeting in London and they went to work and anyone who has seen the finished products will know it was a job superbly done.

Last year Diane got in touch with me and asked me if I would attend a special fundraising garden party at a country pile called Fonthill Park near Salisbury.  There would be other entertainers throughout the day and we would all be strutting our stuff in a ‘performance marquee’ situated in the grounds.  After discussion we decided that Doctor Marigold would be the perfect piece for the event and June 9th, 2019 was firmly in the diary.

The charity in question was one very personal to Diane, it was Secondary 1st which is committed to find a cure for secondary breast cancer.  To understand the ethos and passion behind the fundraising efforts I can do no better than to quote the website http://www.www.secondary1st.org.uk:

‘We want to put secondary breast cancer first. Front of mind. Top of the list.  This is a disease that has spread to the rest of the body. It affects men and women everywhere. Finding a cure means a diagnosis is no longer the end. It means people will have more days doing what matters most. It means daughters, mothers, fathers and sons will go on living a life they love’

Secondary 1st is not one of the popular ‘sexy’ cancer charities but it is every bit as important and needs every penny that can be raised to allow the valuable research to forge ahead.  The event at Fonthill would not only raise funds but also to raise awareness of the work being done.

Fonthill is owned by Lord Margadale and he generously donated his house and gardens for the event which hopefully would be graced by fine weather.  Although my show was not due to take place until 2.30 proceedings would kick off at 11 with a champagne and canapes reception hosted by his Lordship.  Always a nosy soul the chance to peek inside the big house was too good to miss and I set off from home at 9.30.

The drive west was fine and took me passed Stonehenge which appeared to be surrounded by an ant’s nest of tourists, and just beyond there was the most extraordinary field of poppies.  This wasn’t the usual corn field speckled with red, this was a plush carpet of poppies the brightness of which was astounding.  Further along the road was another carpet, but this one was only half-dyed, the vibrant red fading into green as if it were a watercolour painting.

Turning off the main trunk road I found myself winding through country lanes before turning through the magnificent stone arch that forms the entrance to the Fonthill estate.  The scene couldn’t have been more English, the driveway took me past a small cricket pitch with its boundaries marked and stumps placed ready for the contest to come later that afternoon.

I followed the road over a bridge that crossed a lake and then the drive wound uphill until I arrived at the house itself which, considering the grounds it presided over, was quite modest (listen to me!  Modest!)

It was around 10.45 so I just had time to unload the car and parking it in one of the nearby fields before the drinks reception began.  The performance marquee was in the lower part of the garden, in a paddock beyond the formal gardens and the swimming pool.  The word ‘marquee’ maybe slightly oversold the venue, but it looked as if it would be a lovely space in which to perform Marigold.

Under canvas was a stage with some speakers and cables waiting to be plugged in for various bands who would be performing throughout the day. There was some audience seating inside, but most of the chairs were in the open air beneath the warm sun which was trying its best to join the party.

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Surrounding the tent were lots of stalls all manned by folk adorned in the Secondary 1st T-shirts, resplendent in white pink and purple.  There were tombola stalls and craft stalls and clothing stalls and a raffle and a silent auction, each waiting to plead with the public to support this most worthy and admirable charity, and in the middle of all the bustle were Diane and Mary busily checking and organising everything.

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11 o’clock was approaching so we all made our way up the steep garden and into the house.  What a civilised way to begin an event, I rather think that this should be in the rider to all of my contracts – ‘the artiste will be entertained by a member of the British aristocracy no less than three hours before the performance’

 

We sipped champagne nibbled on elegant canapes and chatted to strangers – in my case a gentleman who was providing a hot air balloon ride as a raffle prize.  I asked him if he had ever been here before and he replied that the only thing he knew about the estate came from a colleague who had inadvertently landed his balloon in the grounds thus raising the anger and ire of Lord Margadale!

On the current day however his Lordship was all smiles and bonhomie, welcoming us to his home and pledging his support to the fundraising efforts ahead, and with that we made our way into the gardens to begin the day’s fun.

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I wandered through the gardens looking at the stalls, buying raffle tickets (Liz and I would LOVE to go up in balloon!) and soaking up the atmosphere.

Down in the performance marquee there was due to be a short performance of a scene from The Importance of Being Ernest and I made my way down to get a seat.  The excerpt was the splendidly catty meeting between Gwendoline Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, both of whom are of the opinion that they are engaged to Jack Worthing.

Actors Helena Payne and Marie Fortune gave brilliantly funny performances getting every ounce of humour from the scene and the audience revelled in it.  I enjoyed it as much as the rest but I got even more from the experience for it was a chance for me to listen and  judge how easily I could hear the words (very easily as it happened for Helena and Marie had superb voices) and study the site lines – all of this would be invaluable when I took to the stage later.

With the show over I found a quiet bit of garden and went through my lines for a while (I only had a 45 minute slot, rather than the full hour that Marigold normally takes, so it was another of those times when I had to go through the process of remembering which lines to un-learn.)

A particular bonus of the day was that Liz was coming down with the children to join me, and at around 12.30 I got a message that she was making the ascent from the cricket pitch, over the bridge and into the car park.  We all met up and made our way to the refreshment tent where we bought sandwiches and cake.  I didn’t have much time to linger over lunch though as the time for my show was getting closer and I needed to get changed, which I was able to do in a Portaloo just behind the marquee (such glamour).

When I reemerged into the sunlight quite a reasonable audience was gathering which was reassuring.  At 2.30 I walked onto the stage, gave my little history of Marigold and then launched into the show.

It was a strange experience, for the audience were very much divided into two camps, firstly there were those sat at the front, under canvas, who were watching and listening intently and laughing at Doctor’s rapid sales patter and one liners, then there were those further out who maybe stopped by out of curiosity but were not so fully involved, maybe chatting to friends, or just watching for a few minutes before moving on to another part of the gardens.  Through it all Doctor Marigold bared his soul and told his story to half committed and half transient crowd as he would have done in fairgrounds up and down the country.

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With about a quarter of the monologue still to go I began to hear pitter patter on the canvas over my head and it was like being a child lying in a tent on a rainy afternoon.  As I continued I could see people huddling under coats, and putting umbrellas up.  Doctor Marigold thought ‘my poor audience’ whilst Gerald Dickens thought ‘Damn!  I left my linen suit laying on a table outside!’  Doctor Marigold however was the stronger of us and in the middle of his recitation said, ‘come on, get out of the rain, bring your seats in here, shuffle forward, plenty of room for all, in you come’

I (he) paused as everyone huddled into the small tent, and when pretty well everyone who wanted to be thus accommodated was, I continued the story in a much more intimate setting.

The final lines of the grandchild speaking drew the usual gasp and sobs from the audience and I took my bows to lovely applause.  Diane was in the front row and I gave her a great big hug and thanked her for inviting me to be part of this amazing afternoon.

The rain was still falling outside, and I was delighted to discover that someone had seen my suit and moved it under cover.  I changed into it, and made my way back to the tent where Helena, one of the actors from earlier, was now performing a beautiful operatic aria as the rain fell hard.

Once she had finished and taken her bows the drones of a bagpipe sounded in the distance and soon the members of the  Clayesmore School Pipe Band marched damply into the space between all of the Secondary 1st stalls.  An appreciative audience stayed in the tents and watched as the stoic performers shivered and dripped in the teeming rain.  I wished I could have poured a little bubble mixture into the pipes, which would have made quite a spectacle!

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The band finished their set and as they marched away they received huge applause both for their musical ability and their great resilience. As we stood the rain passed and the sun came out again shining brightly onto the old house which looked spectacular against the retreating black clouds.

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It was now time to perform my final duty of the day which was to assist in the drawing of the raffle.  Wouldn’t you just believe it, but the rain had got into the electrical connections rendering the PA system useless.  There was nothing for it but to bring out my biggest, boomiest voice and to announce each of the winning tickets to the damp, dripping, expectant crowd.

Lord Margadale drew the tickets, handed them to me and I bellowed the colour, the number and the name on the back and waited for an excited cry from the audience as the lucky soul went scurrying to the table to choose their prize.  Unfortunately Liz and I were not victorious so our hot air balloon trip will have to wait for another day.

And so the event came to an end and I fetched the car and packed up all of my belongings.  I said good bye to Diane, Mary, Lord Margadale, Helena and Marie before leaving the beauty of Fonthill behind me.  I’d spent an am amazing day in fantastic surroundings, but the most important thing was that we had all raised lots of funds for Secondary 1st.

But they always need more, and I would strongly encourage you to visit their site and donate even a little – every penny helps.

This is the link to the donations page:

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/donation-web/charity?charityId=1015524&stop_mobi=yes

 

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Rochester 2019

In 1863 Charles Dickens’ hall clock stopped striking.  In an effort to effect a speedy repair the great man wrote a brilliant letter to his clock mender:

‘Since my hall clock was sent to your establishment to be cleaned it has gone (as indeed it always has) perfectly well, but has struck the hours with great reluctance, and after enduring internal agonies of a most distressing nature, it has now ceased striking altogether. Though a happy release for the clock, this is not convenient to the household. If you can send down any confidential person with whom the clock can confer, I think it may have something on its works it would be glad to make a clean breast of, 

Faithfully yours, 

Charles Dickens’

Last week my laptop also lapsed into an electronic stupor and without the same wit I similarly approached my local computer repairer.

For this reason I am slightly behind on my blog posts, but the laptop is now back to rude health and so here are my recent musings:

 

 

There are certain events throughout my performing year that are set fixtures, stalwarts, old friends.  The Summer Dickens Festival is one such.

I must have been travelling to Rochester for about 35 years or so, initially as a punter, accompanying my dad who would inevitably have been be called upon to give a talk or maybe the annual oration at the memorial service in the cathedral.  I used to watch him with a sense of awe at the ease with which he spoke and of his great knowledge (both of which were the result of immense amounts of work and rehearsal, of course)

As my career as a performer of Dickens’ work took off in the mid 1990’s so our roles reversed and it was I who became the artiste and it was dad who watched proudly on.

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After a show in Rochester

This year’s Rochester Festival took place over the weekend of the 1 and 2 June and I set out from home on Friday afternoon so that I could settle in to my hotel and be ready for a pressure-free start to Saturday.   I had left in good time and had in mind that I may even manage to squeeze a few holes of golf in before my supper, the car park that is the M25 on a Friday night would put paid to that, though.

Driving from Oxford I have a choice as to which way I can go around the orbital motorway to get to Kent.  On this occasion my phone suggested  I go north, avoiding the bottle neck around Heathrow Airport, but running the risk of being held up at the Dartford river crossing, although in reality on Friday 31 May the entire circle was crawling.

As I joined the M25 the SatNav told me that my journey would last for a further 2 hours, which would get me to the hotel for about 6pm and allow me a little twilight round of golf.  Perfect.

I sat in traffic.  I edged forward.  I sat in the same traffic.  And however much I edged in 1st gear, or even surged forward in 2nd, the journey time stayed resolutely at 2 hours – it never went up strangely, but never decreased either.  My arrival time became 7 (maybe just 9 holes then), 7.30, 8 (5 holes?) and then finally 8.30.  There would be no golf that night, then.

At one point as I sat musing I noticed an aeroplane lumbering towards me, with its unpainted fuselage glinting in the evening sun.  It was obviously something historic and I opened the window so that I could fully appreciate and enjoy the wonderful sound of its engines as it flew directly overhead.  As it came closer I saw it to be a Dakota and I now realise that it must have been arriving in readiness for the following week’s D Day celebrations.

Finally I reached the Dartford crossing and soared up high over the river having my usual melancholy and reflective thoughts as I did so.  To my right the skyline of the city of London shimmered in the lowering sun and I passed from Essex into Kent.

Finally freed from the M25 my journey sped up considerably and soon I was driving past the village of Cobham on my right, meaning that the only house that Charles Dickens ever owned, Gad’s Hill Place, was somewhere in the woodland to my left.  I gave a reverential nod to the old place and drove on my way.  Soon the M2 reached the river Medway and from huge span of the bridge I  could look downstream to see the ancient castle and cathedral of Rochester.  At this point the river meanders around a long bend and it was on these banks that the Short Brothers Flying boats were built.  Maybe it was having seen the Dakota earlier but as I looked at the view I could quite clearly imagine one of the great lumbering Sunderlands throwing up spray as its throttles were opened and, defying the natural laws of physics, take to the sky.

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After a little more driving I was  pulling up outside my hotel in Gillingham, the golf clubs remained firmly in the car and I was soon enjoying a steak pie and mash for my dinner.

 

Saturday

Over my years attending the festival there have been many changes at the organisational helm as personnel at the City Council are moved on, move on of their own volition or retire , and after a period of relative stability this year marked one such change.

Of course a new hand on the tiller means new ideas and the main one for this year was that we would only have one grand parade each day, instead of the two in previous years. Personally I think that this was a good innovation for the second parade of the day was always a bit of a damp squib, but I had no doubt that lots of the regular Victorian characters would complain most vociferously!

The other thing that ALWAYS happens when there is a change of leadership is that my shows are billed as ‘readings’ which is always a source of great frustration to me.  Anyone who has seen me perform will no that the one thing I do not do is ‘read!’

After breakfast I got into my Victorian costume and drove into the heart of Rochester to set up for my show at 12.  With the change to the parade timetable my performance  was earlier in the day than in the past, so I had to make sure that all of my furniture and props were in place in good time.  As a performer I had been allocated a free parking place in the city’s ‘park and walk’ facility, but that would mean dropping off the props, driving to the car park (about a mile away), walking back to the Guildhall, setting up and being ready for the audience at 11.30.

I pulled up in front of the large iron gates that form the entrance to the Guildhall’s car park, pushed them open and drove in.   I started to unload my stuff and in no time the museum’s staff were helping me. I was secretly hoping that an offer may be forthcoming to leave my car in the little courtyard but I wasn’t hopeful as it seemed to be rather full, however the offer was made, so long as I could free the other cars I would be blocking by 4.45 – that wouldn’t be a problem – and I was thus saved the long walk in blisteringly hot weather.

In the grand Guildhall chamber (in which Pip was formally apprenticed to Joe Gargery in Great Expectations) I arranged my set and when all was done I took a stroll into the High Street to meet and greet as many old friends as possible.

The 2019 Summer Dickens was rather a special one for me because a photograph of me smiling and waving had been selected to be the main poster image for the event: quite the ego boost.  My grinning mug was on the front of every programme of events and even more alarmingly ‘I’ looked down upon the massed crowds from a huge banner on the castle wall

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Having soaked up the atmosphere I went back to the Guildhall where an audience were already gathering for my show, which is always a relief.  On the street outside the  Guildhall there was a Punch and Judy show in full swing and a crowd of children from a generation that apparently only care about ‘screen time’ and video games cheered, laughed and shouted at Mr and Mrs Punch, not to mention the crocodile, the policeman and the string of sausages.

It was a scene that could have come from any fair or fete since 1662 when Samuel Pepys first witnessed a puppet show featuring Mr Punch in front of St Paul’s Church. Charles Dickens himself wrote about Mr Codlin and Mr Short who toured a Punch and Judy show in The Old Curiosity Shop.

It was a lovely sight.

Back upstairs in the main Council chamber the audience were gathering and I started gathering my thoughts for the show to come.  This year I was performing my 1 hour version of Nicholas Nickleby. and on the stroke of 12 I walked to the front of the room (accompanied by a most agreeable round of applause).  I always start Nickleby by talking about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s epic 8 hour adaptation of the novel which opened my eyes to the brilliance of Charles Dickens, and having finished that little preamble I launched into the show.  I begin by apparently reading the opening lines of the novel from a huge book:

‘There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr Godfrey Nickleby….’

And from there launch into the multi-character show.

My Nickleby is a rush through the novel taking the basic plot of  Nicholas’s antagonistic relationship with his evil uncle Ralph who visits the family in meagre lodgings kept by a painter of miniatures Miss La Creevey Ralph grudgingly organises employment for his nephew by sending him to work at the Yorkshire school of Wackford Squeers where he meets the young, beaten, malnourished pupil Smike.  Having witnessed terrible cruelty in the school and beaten the schoolmaster Nicholas flees to London (with Smike in tow) and from there to Portsmouth, thereby creating the model for the charity walk which Ian and I undertook in 2012.

Whilst in Portsmouth Nicholas meets up with the outrageously theatrical Vincent Crummles and the members of his troupe, before he is called back to London to look after his mother and sister Kate, who has been used by Ralph as a sweetener for some underhand financial deals with a group of unsavoury business men.  Realising that he has to support his family Nicholas is employed by the ever-smiling and beneficent Cheeryble Brothers and their long serving elderly clerk Tim Linkinwater.

But, evil plots are afoot and Ralph colludes with Squeers to recapture Smike, which they do but he is then set free by the bluff Yorkshireman John Browdie.

Smike returns to Nicholas but becomes ill and has to be removed from the city.  The family return to Nicholas’ childhood county of Devon where Smike dies in a very perfect and Dickensian manner.

Meanwhile in London Ralph is confronted by his past – Smike was his son!  Overwhelmed with remorse Ralph runs back to his house rushes up to a garret room, where Smile slept as a child, and hangs himself.

The plot is wrapped up as we are told that Nicholas, Kate, Miss La Creevey and Tim Linkinwater all married and that their offspring bowed their heads and spoke softly of their poor dead cousin.

Phew!

It’s a fun show with lots of characters and action, and in the heat of Saturday 1 June I worked up quite a sweat.  The audience applause lasted a gratifyingly long time and I took my bows thankfully.  When the clapping finally died down I returned to the reading desk, turned a page of the book and said ‘Chapter 2’, which got a huge laugh.

I spent quite a long time chatting to some of the audience members and signing a few copies of the event programme until eventually everyone left and headed to different parts of the city-wide festival to seek their fun.

I had time for a brief bite of lunch (a hog roast sandwich with apple sauce) in the performer’s green room, which was located in a large marquee nestled in the dried up moat of the Norman Castle.  I chatted to some of the other performers until we all started gathering our things to join the parade.  In my case this involved picking up my top hat and walking cane, but for two of the others it meant dressing themselves as Mr Philleas Fogg and partner from ‘Around the World in Eighty Days and then  installing themselves into two hot air balloons which were built on Segways meaning they appeared to float along the street.  Although not Dickensian these two added a fabulous flavour to the whole event.

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I made my way to the far end of the High Street where I joined the fabulous collection of characters, a few Nancys, a couple of Miss Havishams, a Fagin or two.  Our venerable Mr Pickwick had retired last year, and the character was now being portrayed by a gentleman who used to be Mr Bumble, which was all very confusing.

Before we started I was introduced to the new Mayor of Medway, Councillor Habib Tejan and the Mayoress Bridget.  The Rochester festival is always the first event that a new Mayor attends and I have ushered a few of them through the excitements of the parades.  Cllr Tejan was smiley, full of laughter and confident and I had no doubts that he would have  a great weekend.

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At 2pm the bagpipes and drums of the Rochester Pipe Band droned into life and off we went waving to the crowds.  The parade is always fun and the crowds, although slightly smaller than years past, were in fine form.   At the front the Mayor and Mayoress were chaperoned and flanked by two huge security guards but after about ten minutes the Mayor broke ranks to start high fiving some children in the crowd and I thought to myself ‘he will make a very good Mayor!’

The parade ran its course and on the stage between the castle and cathedral crowds were welcomed (in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Cantonese – the Mayor was REALLY trying hard to impress!), before we all drifted away again to continue entertaining the thousands of people who had taken the time and trouble to attend.

I made my way into the castle grounds which surround the keep and strolled around perusing the entertainment on offer.  Alongside the garish modern fairground rides from which came flirtatious teenage screams, there was of course the magnificent carousel which is always a favourite, but this year there were a few stalls that really captured the essence of a Victorian fairground.

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For a few years The Amazing Camera Obscura has set up its little tent, but this year it was joined by The Insect Museum and Mr Aexander’s Travelling Show both of which utilised large truck trailers to create their sets: they were perfect and if this is the direction that the festival is heading then things look good.

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As I ambled my attention was caught by the Great Kentspectations Steam Punk tent who were encouraging guests to try their hand at Familiar Flinging.  Over the last few years the Steampunk crowd have become more and more involved in the festival and have brought a colour and life to it that has been a joy to witness.  Familiar Flinging entails placing a soft toy into a large leather catapult hidden in a metal cannon and firing it at a distant target.  When I was spotted at the edge of the crowd I was hauled in to try my hand, unfortunately my shot was too big and my toy sailed over the target and landed in the grass beyond, allowing someone else to claim the prize.

I had one more engagement on Saturday afternoon, although I wasn’t convinced that anyone would turn up for it.  Q&A sessions after my shows have always proved popular and fun, so I had suggested that it may be an idea to have a specific session where people could ask me anything about Charles Dickens or myself.  Although no expert I can certainly get by and there would no doubt be ample opportunity to trot out a few funny stories and anecdotes from my years on the road.  Unfortunately I was scheduled to appear at 3.45 when most of the crowds would be wending their way home.

On my return to the Guildhall I was pleasantly surprised to find a goodly collection of people patiently waiting in their seats, many of whom had been at Nickleby earlier in the day.  As I stood at the back waiting for 3.45 to tick around I suddenly had a major pang of nerves – I was laying myself bare, completely unprepared and I wasn’t sure if I was up to it after all.

I took a deep breath and walked to the front of the room.  The ‘stage’ that had felt so safe earlier in the day when I had been performing Nickleby now suddenly felt claustrophobic and intimidating .  All of those feelings were irrelevant  I had to do it and that was that.

I opened proceedings by saying that this was a completely informal session and it would be driven purely by what came from the floor, and so let the questions commence.  There was a lull, as is usual at such moments, when everyone waits for everyone else to make the first move.  Eventually (actually it was probably only a couple of seconds) a gentleman at the back raised his hand.  Excellent, let’s hope for a nice, gentle, easy question to start:

‘Mr Dickens, thank you for being here this afternoon.  I assume that you are aware of the recent find of letters in the archives of Harvard University  relating to the relationship between Charles and his wife Catherine and that she suggested that he wanted to have her committed to an asylum?  What are your thoughts on this?’

OK, a nice, gentle, easy question to begin with then!

I am aware of the letters, but have not researched them in depth, but I gave the honest answer and that is that the thought of the suggestion made me profoundly sad for, as I pointed out, Catherine was my great great grandmother and therefore exactly the same to me emotionally and genetically as Charles and I hate the way he treated her during the period of their separation.

This answer proved an acceptable one and opened the way for others to chime in with their thoughts and opinions.

Soon the whole room was involved and other, less contentious, questions were being asked.  I loved every second of the session and my pre-show nerves were forgotten.  The time flew by,  fact it was only when I saw a member of the Guildhall staff nervously looking around the door that I remembered that I was supposed to be moving my car out of the way by 4.45 or no one would be able to get out!

I brought the session to a close and still chatting to a few of  the audience made my way down the magnificent staircase.  I said goodbye to my friends at the Guildhall and drove back to the hotel.

It was 5.15.  There was time for golf.

 

Sunday

So far as my shows were concerned Sunday was a repeat of Saturday:  Nickleby at 12, parade at 2, Q&A at 3.45, so I wont go over all that again, but there was a fun addition to proceedings and that was an interview with a children’s TV show who were filming at the festival.

I was due to meet them at 10am, so I set off  early and arrived at the Guildhall (which had rather become my own private green room) at 9.30.  Inside the staff were getting ready for a new day and one of the jobs was to vacuum the grand staircase.  The plush red pile was perfectly flat and as I walked up it I left the imprints of my shoes as if I was walking on virgin snow.

Having made sure that all of my props were in place for my first show I popped into the aptly named Quills coffee shop and had a cuppa, before heading to the castle at 10, where I found the film crew which comprised of a director, two camera operators and a sound technician busily getting ready.

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On a low wall sat two costumed figures, apparently Scrooge and the Artful Dodger, concentrating hard on what appeared to be scripts.

The PR lady from Medway Council introduced me and  put me in the hands of the director who ran through the morning’s proceedings.  We were filming for a programme called ‘All Over the Place’ which airs on the CBBC channel, in which the presenters, Ed and Lauren, investigate various events around the country.

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The scenario was as follows:

Ebenezer and Dodger (aka Ed and Lauren both of whom I recognised from a variety of other programmes on the BBC children’s networks) have arrived in the middle of the Dickens Festival and spotting me standing there with my top hat on come and chat:

 

Ebenezer:  ‘Ah, my good man, are you Mr Charles Dickens perchance?’

Me: ‘No, but I am his great great grandfather Gerald Dickens!’

Dodger:  ‘No way!  That’s amazing.  Why do people still like reading stories by your great great gramps?

I then explained how popular he was in his lifetime, his connection with Rochester, and the reason for the festival.  Ed then took up the script:

Ebenezer: We both want to be more Dickensian than the other, can you help us?’

Me: ‘I can, you will be visited by three judges…’

Ebenezer:  ‘Ah from the past, present and future, like in A Christmas Carol! You see I know my Dickens.’

Me: ‘No, all from the past you will talk to three Dickens characters and they will help you!’

Ebenezer: ‘Well, we’d better get on, what’s the time?’   As he fumbles for his watch he realises that the Dodger has stolen it and is running away.  The scene ended in a flurry of ‘Bah! Humbugs ‘ and off they went to explore.

We filmed the scene a few times from different angles and to avoid Cathedral bells ringing – alright it WAS Sunday morning, but didn’t they know this was for the BBC? – and various other extraneous noises.

Eventually we had the scene completed and we all moved on to another location in the High Street to film the end of the programme.

In the show Ed and Lauren had been amongst the characters all day and now came back to me to perform a short piece and I was to judge who had done the best job.  Quite a crowd gathered around us as we filmed, and other costumed folk heckled and joined in, all of which was great fun.

Ed went first and performed the ‘Christmas? What is Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills with no money….’ speech.

He needed a couple of takes but did well and remained in character throughout, obviously a serious contender!

Lauren was next up and she had the speech from Oliver Twist when the Dodger first offers to take Oliver back to Mr Fagin.  Lauren was great with the crowd and played the scene with huge fun, maybe not quite what Mr D had intended, but everyone enjoyed it immensely!  She used members of the audience (including one of the Fagins who had fortuitously stopped by to watch.)  Lauren’s more improvisational approach led her to repeatedly forgetting her lines and we did quite a few takes before the crew were satisfied.  All I had to do was to watch, nod, and stroke my beard thoughtfully.

And now it was down to me, who got the vote?

You had better watch ‘All Over the Place’ which will air in October to find out!

Rochester 2019 was great fun, as Rochester always is.  The crowds were lower than in years past and some naysayers put that down to there only being one parade each day, instead of two, which I don’t think was true.

Somehow the festival felt better for the lower numbers, in the past it has been noisy, unwieldy, rowdy and the reason for the celebration has felt lost, whereas this year there was a definite Victorian feel to the proceedings.

Next year will be a special one for 2020 marks 150 years since the death of Charles Dickens.  The festival itself will change dates so that events can be held over the anniversary itself and moves are afoot to mark Charles’ wishes to be buried in the grounds of Rochester Cathedral, which were ignored at the time so that he could take his place among the literary greats in Westminster Abbey.

It could be an emotional one!

 

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Little Deepings and The Bookshop Band

This week my travels took me to Lincolnshire and the beautiful, and beautifully named, town of Market Deeping, where I was to appear as part of the Little Deepings Literary Festival. I had been contacted last year by Michael Cross and after a series of emails he engaged me to perform ‘Mr Dickens is Coming!’ on the Friday night of the festival.

I was to share the bill with a group of musicians called The Bookshop Band and Michael’s original idea was to connect us so that we could work out a programme that would feature us performing together, me performing a passage followed by them performing some music, but the logistical problems of co-ordinating such a programme meant that it was decided that they would take the first half and I the second.

The drive to Market Deeping was awful in one sense and beautiful in another.  It was the Friday night of a bank holiday weekend and everyone was on the road.  In England if you want to drive north to south or south to north it is relatively easy, for there are quite a few major trunk roads to chose from, but as soon as you need to go left to right or right to left things become rather more difficult.  On this particular Friday evening I left plenty of time for my journey, thinking that I would be able to get to my B&B and have a shower before heading to the venue, but as soon as I set the maps on my phone I saw dire warnings of congestion and traffic which would delay me by over an hour.

My Android phone is loaded with Google Maps and it did its best to find me an unaffected route, and it was these efforts that gave me the most beautiful drive across the countryside, through small towns and villages, passing farmland and yellow fields of buttercups smudged with poppies.

As I passed from Northamptonshire and into Lincolnshire I seemed to enter Festival country as there seemed to be posters promoting a whole range – The Sausage and Cider Festival looking as if it may be the most interesting.

After more than three hours on the road I began to see signs for the Little Deepings Lit Festival and shortly after that I let out a quiet cheer as I was welcomed to Market Deeping itself.

I drove straight to the Deepings School and as the reception was locked I looked around until I found an open door.  I walked in and saw a small group of people at the far end of the room bustling around a table and some boxes, they didn’t look like they were setting up for a festival but one gentleman turned and politely asked if he could help?

‘I’m looking for the literary festival,’ I told him.  ‘I am performing here tonight.’

‘Oh, I don’t know about that, this is the food bank, I think you may be in the main hall, let me show you the way.’

And in that instant the lovely, safe, middle class world of literature festivals was put into sharp relief by these few good people caring for the many who desperately need it – a cause that Charles Dickens would have approved of, supported and championed.

In the main hall the preparations for our evening were in full swing and as I walked in Michael greeted me with a warm handshake and a big smile.  On stage The Bookshop Band were working through their sound checks and far from being a group of musicians they were a couple whom I soon discovered to be Ben and Beth.

The set up for the band was all at once simple and complicated, Beth and Ben sat in a couple of chairs surrounded by a bewildering array of stringed instruments, there were 4 or 5 guitars on bespoke stands and a similar number of ukuleles on rather smaller bespoke stands.  There was also a harmonium and a cello.  Each instrument was plugged in and besides that amplification two microphones were rigged up for each performer, one for voice and one for whichever instrument they happened to be playing.  As I arrived a technical team were carefully tweaking each audio channel to make sure that all of the sounds emanating from the stage were perfectly balanced, and that each of the monitors that relayed the sound back to Beth and Ben were at a suitable volume.

As the sound check progressed so I got to hear The Bookshop Band for the first time, and what a beautiful sound it was, their style is folky but with overtones of theme tunes to  Scandinavian dramas such as The Bridge.  Every now and then they would stop playing to request that ‘the ukulele channel be a little higher’ or ‘the monitor for the cello be a touch less’  It was a very involved and professional sound check.

Mine by contrast was less complicated, I stood on the stage and the sound engineer stood at the back of the hall.  I said ‘Throughout my lifetime as boy, youth and man I have derived a love of the stage.  Today I am fortunate to stand upon the stages of the great theatres of the world.’  At which point I asked ‘can you hear me ok?’  The engineer said ‘Yes’ and that was it!

We now had about an hour until the audience was due to arrive so we all disappeared to get changed and wait for the show to begin.  I was stationed in a music theory classroom surrounded by various posters telling me about musical dynamics, and how an orchestra is made up.  The classroom was over the corridor from a gymnasium where there was a karate class and the violent grunts and crashes on to the floor mats were in stark contrast to the gentle music and vocals of The Bookshop Band.

Michael and his team had obviously done a superb job marketing the festival, and our event, for soon the hall was full and extra seats were being sought.  At 7.30 the lights were dimmed and Michael took to the stage.  Usually at events such as these an organiser briefly welcomes the audience, talks about the festival, points out highlights of forthcoming events and maybe does a brief airline steward ’emergency exits are…’ speech.  Michael did all this, but with such presence, panache and style that he really could have stayed up there all evening doing a stand-up routine!  As well as imparting all of the information that he needed to Michael was a great warm up man for Beth and Ben and he had the audience in the perfect place for the beginning of their show.

I settled down at the back of the hall to watch the start of the show, both for my own entertainment but also to gauge the audience and the room.  Ben started the set by explaining what The Bookshop Band are and it is a good story, they don’t play the music circuit, but perform mainly in small independent bookshops or at festivals such as this.

Each song in their repertoire is influenced by a novel and I felt very good about myself when Ben announced that their first offering was based on the novel ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, which I read a few years ago.

The audience were transfixed, and listened closely to the lyrics (perfectly audible thanks to the rigorous sound check earlier).  I was just settling in for an enjoyable evening when a gentleman with a camera came up to me in the dark and asked me if he could photograph me for the local paper.  He scarcely bothered to whisper, so I went with him out of the hall before we disturbed the rest of the audience too much.

The photographer had obviously been doing this for a good few years, and stood me against a wall in the school corridor. ‘Now, do you have your book that you can hold?’, he assumed I was an author and was going to be talking about my new novel, he seemed disappointed when I explained I was here to do a theatre show and therefore didn’t have a book. It was as if I were ruining the composition of his shot!

 
I posed in a pose he has posed a thousand times before, and he went away to chat with Michael before leaving to shoot his next job.

 
As I was out in the corridors of the school anyway I decided to pace a bit and run through my lines. The script of Mr Dickens is Coming has been deeply ingrained over the years, so it flows easily, but as I got to the end a strange, and artistically dangerous thought, came into my head. A few weeks ago I introduced a new passage from Great Expectations into the show, featuring Pip, Miss Havisham and Estella and it worked well, but that was just a one off and I hadn’t looked at it since, but now I began to think ‘why not do it again?’

 
I had no script for the passage with me, so it was just a case of relying on my memory. After a few false starts I discovered that the words were still in my head and eager to be used! Yes, I would include the Great Ex passage.  Probably.

 
Having done a little more work I slipped back into the hall to listen to more Of Ben and Beth who were performing a piece made up of opening lines from novels, featuring the ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….’ passage particularly strongly.
Great Expectations was still playing in my mind, so at the next round of applause I slipped out to rehearse a little more until the first act finished and the audience emerged and headed to the temporary bar.

 
I went to the stage and congratulated Ben who was starting to pack all of the instruments and equipment away and when he had finished so the tech crew moved in to wind up all of the cables and pack up the microphones and speakers until the stage was empty and ready for me to move my reading desk, screen, hatstand and chair into their required positions under the lights.  When everything was as it should be and I was confident that all of my props were in place I returned to my dressing room, drank some water and wondered if I was being stupid in changing the script at the last minute.

The interval ran its course, soon the audience were back in their seats and Michael was on stage to welcome them back and introduce me, which we did with professional grace.

Instantly I knew that I was in for a good evening for the atmosphere on the stage was perfect – the combination of the hall, the lighting, the words of Dickens and the magic that occurs when a completely random collection of individuals come together  to form a single living entity called an audience, all worked to make last Friday night thoroughly enjoyable.

As I worked through the script I still hadn’t fully decided whether I would be brave enough to include the Great Expectations passage but when I got to the edge of the precipice I decided to jump, and it was the correct decision.  The end of Mr Dickens is Coming is vastly improved by having a more serious and literary passage nestling in it and the pace of the piece is a nice contrast to the rather more frenetic material that precedes it.

Somehow a literary festival such as Little Deepings deserved Miss Havisham .

The end of the show features the anecdote of Charles Jnr finding his ageing father performing the Murder of Nancy in the gardens at Gad’s Hill Place a few days before his death.  After describing a pale, grey, lined, pathetic man I suddenly become a violent villain ‘MURDERING NANCY ONE LAST TIME!’  Last Friday I became so energetic that as I ‘struck’ the imaginary Nancy I fell to one knee and put my hand on the ground to steady myself and in that moment I realised that Charles Dickens had assumed the famous pose of Marvel Comics’ Iron Man.

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Never before have these two cultural icons met!

I took my bows to lovely applause, left the stage and was called back again for a second time.  Michael bounded into the light and thanked me, Ben and Beth and after reminding the audience of what was coming up in the festival he bade everyone goodbye.

I got changed and then returned to the stage to tackle the less glamourous part of my job which entails packing up all the props and loading them into my car.  It’s one thing doing it at home when I’m going to a gig, but after a show when I’m hot and the adrenaline is still  flowing it can lead to a very sudden come down and weariness sets in easily.

Eventually everything was loaded and I said goodbye to Michael, Ben and Beth before we got into our respective cars to head off.  I drove in convoy with Ben and Beth who were staying at the same elegant B&B in the town centre.  We said goodnight once again and I went to my room where I fell into a very deep sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

British Reserve

If last week saw me return to where I am most comfortable, that is the stage, this week’s appearance wrenched me straight out of my comfort zone again.

A couple of months ago our doorbell rang and there stood a neighbour of ours;  not a next door neighbour or an across the street neighbour, but a gentleman who lives in a small cul-de-sac nearby and whose house overlooks our back garden.  We have met him and his wife on occasion at neighbourhood events such as royal street parties etc, and of course we have been introduced to him, but on this particular evening could we remember his name?  No.

He began by saying that he was the president of the local branch of the Rotarians and that he would be hosting the President’s dinner soon.  He knew it was an imposition but would it be at all possible for me to be the after dinner speaker at the event?  He quickly added that he didn’t expect me to do a show or give a performance, just to talk for 20 minutes or so.

After a quick check of diaries we discovered that both Liz and I would be free on that evening and it may be a fun opportunity for us to dress up in our smart togs and have an evening out.

We said yes.

Now began a terribly British thing, – British reserve one might say, for Liz and I realised that we could not actually remember our neighbour’s name.  Not only that but we weren’t altogether sure as to which house he lived in.  Not only that but we didn’t have a phone number or email address for him and neither did he for us.  Oh well, stiff upper lip, can’t admit it, on we go.  British reserve, don’t you know.

As the door shut Liz asked ‘what will you talk about?’  It was a good question for this was not a case of pulling one of the shows from my repertoire, this was a different kettle of fish altogether – after dinner speaking is not what I do and was not what I was prepared for.  We chatted for a while until Liz gave voice to a thought that was also sitting somewhere in my own head: ‘why not talk about The Signalman and Staplehurst?’  This was the same week as I published my blog post on that very subject and having done the research it seemed like a good opportunity to expand it.

Over the next few weeks I created a talk based on the blog, and added much more detail about Dickens’ relationship with Ellen Ternan into the piece.  On the day of the Staplehurst crash Charles Dickens was travelling with Ellen as they returned from France.  It has been suggested, and it is indeed very probable, that Ellen had given birth to a baby during her time in France but it had died almost immidiately.  Ellen’s mother had travelled to France, presumably to be support her daughter, and was also in the carriage on that day.

I worked, I practised, I tweaked and the speech began to take shape.

After a week or so our neighbour returned clutching a menu to ask what we would like to eat at dinner.  Liz chose chicken, I chose Cod.  Did we confess and say ‘we are so sorry, this is terribly rude, but we don’t actually remember your name?  Would you mind giving us your phone number?’  No, we did not!

The next week passed and I worked on.  I read the talk through, I sought a new quote or fact, I tried to make sure that each section ran into the next quite naturally.

Unfortunately for a day or so it looked as if Liz would not be able to make the event, and we told our host that it would only be me attending when he popped round to make arrangements for getting to the venue (very kindly he had offered to drive us so that we could enjoy a glass of champagne).  I would be picked up at 6.30 on Friday.

The day of the dinner arrived and I was feeling more nervous and more twitchy about it than I usually would about a theatre show.  Throughout the day I tinkered, and made changes to punctuation and phrase.  I read it and timed it and read it again.

But it was during the day that circumstances changed and we realised that Liz would after all be able to join me, and now it became imperative that I not only knew the name of our host but could get in touch with him too.

I decided to see if the Abingdon Rotary Club had a website and after a brief search was delighted to discover that it did.  My delight turned to confusion however when I discovered that the photo of the President was not that of the kind and smiling gentleman who lives around the corner.  Even more confusing was the fact that instead of a black tie dinner in the Cosener’s House in Abingdon, the Rotary Club of Abingdon seemed to be meeting for a cheese and wine tasting evening in a nearby pub.

Maybe I was not speaking to the Abingdon branch.  I widened my search and opened the page for the Oxford branch but still without success.  Next on the list was North Oxford and there flashing up onto my screen came the reassuringly familiar photograph of Andrew Humphries!

But how to get in touch with him?  I sent an email to another neighbour who is a leading light behind the various events in our road and she almost instantly replied with an email address for Andrew and his wife Lynda.  I don’t think I have ever sighed a longer sigh of relief as I did last Friday morning.

At 6.30  Andrew rang at our door resplendent in a smart dinner jacket proudly wearing the royal blue ribbon and medal of a Rotary Past President.  From the back of the car Lynda greeted us with a cheery hello too and as we drove to The Cosener’s House we chatted as old friends chat.

Abingdon is a small town on the banks of the river Thames not far from Oxford.  Today nothing much happens in Abingdon but 500 years ago it was one of the most important settlements on the river.  Abingdon Abbey towered over the skyline and the Benedictine monks wielded great power and influence over the surrounding countryside.

However in 1541 Henry VIII passed the disolution of the monasteries act and the Abbey was destroyed.  Monastaries and abbeys throughout the nation were ransacked for their gold and treasures, all of which passed to the King.  Some of the buildings, such as Glastonbury and Whitby Abbeys, were left as ruins, but those on the banks of the Thames were completely destroyed so that Henry could float the valuable stone to London where it was used to build the great Royal palaces.

All that remains of Abingdon’s glory days is a large green park with the footprint of the old edifice laid out with small paving slabs.  But close to the site remain some ancient buildings that served the Abbey.  The Unicorn Theatre, where I have performed a couple of times, is housed in a building which dates back to the 14th Century.

Another building with its roots in those years is the Cosener’s House hotel and restaurant (a Cosener was a Cuisinier or Kitchener and supplied the food to the abbey), which on Friday 17th May was due to play host to the North Oxford Rotarians.

As befitting his role as President Andrew had made sure that we were among the first arrivals and it was good to get the lie of the land before the other guests arrived.  A welcoming glass of champagne was served in a small rotunda beneath a spiralling staircase and this space soon became very crowded with a fine crowd of people all dressed to enjoy a very special evening out.

The nerves ramped up a notch.

Andrew had asked if I would come in costume, so it was obvious that I was the turn for the evening and many people came up to me and generously told me how much they were looking forward to whatever I was going to perform for them.

The nerves ramped up another notch.

I detached myself from the main group so that I could inspect the dining room to try and judge how the acoustics and sight lines would work.  My heart sank, for although it was a lovely room with windows overlooking lawns that ran to the river bank, it had originally been two rooms which had been knocked through to create a single large space.  The arch that remained would trap any words uttered at the top table before they could reach the farthest tables.

I returned to the reception crowd and with Liz chatted to various people to whom we were introduced.

The proceedings were overseen by a splendidly florid master of ceremonies complete with a scarlet tail coat, white tie, white waistcoat and a gavel which he wielded with terrifying aplomb.

At 7.30 our MC called for silence and instructed us to make our way into the dining room which we all dutifully did.  Liz and I took our seats at the top table along with Andrew, Lynda, the Vice President (next year’s President) and his wife, the gentleman who will be Vice President next year (President in two) and his wife, and Andrew and Lynda’s daughter Sarah.

As the lords would have watched over their guests from the high table in the abbey, so we watched on as the 70 guests found their seats.  When everyone had taken their place the MC whacked the table with his gavel making many people jump and palpitate uncontrollably.

‘Pray Silence for the President of the North Oxford Rotary Club Mr Andrew Humphries’

Andrew stood to welcome his guests and to say grace and this was an important moment for me for it was the first time that I could judge how the acoustics in the room actually worked.  My worst fears were realised as I could see people at the back of the room either straining to hear or just continuing their conversation unaware that anything was being said.

Once Andrew had delivered the Rotarian grace we all sat down and began our meal.  I chatted to Mr and Mrs Vice President Next Year and President in Two (Mr and Mrs Shelton to give them their correct name), who were fascinating company as they own a farm nearby.

But as dinner went on I became more and more withdrawn, I scribbled notes on my speech, not because it needed it but because I needed to do someting.  Conversation became more stilted not only because of my nerves but also due to my tinnitus which makes hearing anything in a  noisy crowded room very difficult.

Prawn cocktail came and went, and our main courses (chicken for Liz and cod for me) were placed.  The noise in the room became louder and there were guffaws of laughter every now and then.

After desert had been served, consumed and cleared the master of ceremonies brought on a few more cardiac arrests with his gavelling and announced that it was time to toast the Queen.  We all stood and raised our glasses to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.  After the loyal toast had been murmured a comfort break was announced and the time for speechifying came closer.

Due to the fact that the Cosesenr’s House was not well provided with loos the 20 minutes suggested drifted on towards half an hour but eventually everyone took their seats and I took a deep breath.

The first up was Paul, the Vice President, who had unfortunately left his notes at home and had to speak off the cuff.  Paul decided that it would be best to speak from the half way arch, thereby taking in the whole room, and this seemed to work succesfully as everyone laughed at his jokes and joined in the toast.

After we had all sat down the MC walloped his gavel again and called silence for the Presedient, Mr Andrew Humphries.

Andrew decided to speak from the top table and this gave me the opportunity to judge how I should position myself when my turn came.  As soon as he asked ‘put your hand  up if you can’t hear me at the end of the room’ lots of hands rose and there was much laughter, but it was obvious that there was an issue so Andrew also decided to move to the archway.  Unfortunately just a moment before Andrew made his decision a gentleman with a military bearing and of advanced years had decided that we would relocate to the top of the room so as to hear more clearly.  He had just found a chair near to the top table and had stiffly settled himself into it, when he realised that Andrew had moved and in fact he would be better off in his original seat.  The proud march home was heralded by cheers and claps from the rest of the crowd.

Andrew’s job was to propose a toast to the guests and he gave a superb address discussing what the word ‘guest’ actually means.  He ended up by thanking all of the guests (specifically the wives of the Rotarians) for their help and assistance throughout the year.  He also gave us a little information of the fundraising achieved through his year of presidency and it was a remarkable achievement indeed.  The toast was given everyone sat down, and now it was my turn to make my way to the middle of the room.

I looked around the room at the sea of expectant faces and took a deep breath: ‘Mr President, Mr Vice President, Rotarians, guests…’  I have no idea if this was a correct way to address the group, but it seemed suitably formal for such an occasion.  I thanked Andrew on behalf of the guests (my official duty) and then launched into my speech.

It is a strange phenomenon but put me on stage performing one of my shows in front of 1000 people and I am as happy as Larry, but stand me in a room as myself and ask me to speak intelligently and coherently, I turn to jelly.  This was really out of my comfort zone and I would have been much more comfortable performing The Signalman, or reading some passages from The Pickwick Papers (which in hindsight would have been terribly apt for the group and occasion!), but Andrew had specifically asked me to give a speech and not a performance and I would do that to the best of my ability.

And here we had another bout of British reserve, for Liz told me later that in conversation with Andrew he had mentioned that he’d asked me NOT to perform because there was no fee available and he didn’t want to take advantage of my professional status, but he did confide that he was sure that the members of the club would have thoroughly enjoyed a reading.  If only he’d asked I would have had a much more relaxing evening!

Back to my speech and I got off to a good start: ‘Mr President, Mr Vice President…..’ was greeted with a murmer of ‘Oh we can hear HIM’.  The talk that I had prepared of course was about a rather serious and morbid subject – a rail accident that killed ten and injured forty is not the stuff of belly laughter, but I did try to introduce a few laughs along the way.   By way of example when I described how Dickens went among the injured I told the story how he had tended a man with a terrible would and gave the poor fellow a drink from his hip flask but the man died in his arms, Dickens went on and found a young lady slumped by a tree, Dickens gave her a drink but she too died.  I paused before saying ‘What DID Dickens have in that hip flask?’ which got a chuckle.

I rather hoped that people hadn’t expected a comedian, for if that was the best gag in my armoury it would be a long evening.

I think the talk went well and people were genuinely interested in what I was saying.  Maybe it wasn’t quite the right speech for that particular evening, maybe I would have been better off talking about Dickens’ career and throwing in a few readings and characters, but this was something I wanted to do.  I wanted to give myself a challenge that made me nervous, I wanted to conquer those nerves and come through it.  I wanted to learn lessons from the evening so another time I can talk more confidently and with a greater sense of what is required.  I am pleased with what I did.

After the speech the guests drifted away, many coming to me and shaking my hand, telling me how much they had enjoyed what I’d said.  Of course one of the most repeated comments was ‘we could hear every word!’

At last it was just Andrew, Lynda, Sarah Liz and I left and we all piled into the car and drove home.

The best bit of the evening?  We now properly know Andrew and Lynda and can count them as friends. Hopefully they will come to our house soon and the four of us can dine, chat, raise a glass, have a chuckle with no sign of that British reserve.

 

 

Regular readers will know of my lifelong passion for Formula One racing.  I started following the sport in the 1970s and became a fully-fledged fan during the hot summer of ’76 when a dashing young Englishman called James Hunt took the fight to the clinical reigning champion Niki Lauda.

The 12 year old me saw things in black and white and I supported Hunt, meaning that Lauda was the villain, but what a perfect villain he was!  At the start of the season he won as he pleased, which was all rather dull.  Hunt in contrast got pole positions, crashed, retired from races, won non-championship races and courted controversy with his drinking and womanising.  He even played the trumpet in the Royal Albert Hall – wearing a t shirt, trainers and no socks!  He stuck two fingers up at establishment and that appealed to a young boy from a respectable household.

But in the middle of the summer Niki Lauda crashed catastrophically in Germany and for days lay upon the point of death.  He fought against his injuries and only 6 weeks later started racing again.  His dedication and strength was an inspiration and suddenly Niki Lauda became a real man not the pantomime baddy; the battle for the championship took on a fresh impetus to me.

Niki Lauda died this week, and with him passes the excitement of those days. He, and his like, gave me so much and I will be forever thankful.

Thank you Niki.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to the History Books

Last  week was been spent preparing for two days of performing.  Both venues were new to me, which tends to bring its own pressure and waves of nervousness.

On Thursday I loaded the car up with the set required for A Christmas Carol, and set my satnav for the Alderwood School in Hampshire.  It was a lovely drive although traffic on one of the motorways prompted my phone to suggest an alternative route, which I duly took.  The roads were narrow, pretty and the houses large suggesting a well to do area of the country.  Suddenly things began to look familiar and I couldn’t quite think why until I drove past a sign informing me that I was entering the town of Hartley Wintney.

Many many years ago, in a time before Dickens one man shows, I used to be a partner in a small company that specialised in corporate theatre.  We wrote and performed murder mystery parties, we provided open-air children’s theatre for tourist attractions and we provided actors for training purposes, most particularly for the Police Force.

We worked in two major training centres, one in Maidstone which was close to home and the other at the Hampshire Constabulary’s training facility in Hartley Wintney.  As I drove through the town so many memories came to mind.

We would be sent 5 minute scenarios and the candidates, at an early stage of their training, had to follow certain proceedural routes as we provided them with carefully scripted answers to their questions.  On one occasion the test was to breathalise a suspect drink driver, and when the officer had ascertained that there was reasonable grounds he was supposed to use his radio, clipped to his lapel, to ‘radio base’ and request a breathalyser kit.  At this point the senior training officer would hand over a sealed and sterile breath test unit, and the candidate would continue, asking the correct questions and following the correct proceedure.

On one occasion a rather flustered young officer came in and reached the point where he should have radioed in, but in a complete panic he forgot what he was suppsoed to do.  Realising he didn’t have a breath kit at hand he decided to improvise and stuck one finger straight out and asked me to blow into it.  The senior office, desperate to help, hissed softly ‘use your bloody radio!’  Our candidate’s face cleared and with relief he unclipped his radio, pushed the stubby aerial towards me and said ‘blow into this please!’  As the poor lad left the room the training officer sighed ‘and there goes a future Chief Constable!’

Wallowing in nostalgia I drove on until I turned into the gates of The Alderwood School where I was greeted in the car park by Glenn Christodoulou who was responsible for booking me.  Glenn used to teach at another school at which I performed every year and we became good friends but a few years ago he retired to Devon.  However the siren song of education was too compelling and now he is back teaching in Hampshire.

Having seen me signed in and issued with a lanyard (ensuring that the students were perfectly safe) Glenn showed me to the hall where I would be performing.  I arranged my furniture on the high stage and Glenn experimented with the lights until between us we were ready to go.

The year ten and eleven students are currently studying A Christmas Carol and, as with a few other schools recently, I had been asked to perform my show as well as giving the students some idea as to the context in which the book was written (the latter forming a large percentage of the available marks in the examination).

What Alderwood School had provided me with was time – plenty of time to talk, plenty of time to perform and plenty of time to answer questions.  I had two hours for each group which was positively luxurious.  My first performance was for the year tens, who will be sitting their examinations next year.

Glenn took me to the English department’s office which had been appropriated as my dressing room and which seemed to welcome me as it was furnished with a large stack of A Christmas Carol books on the table.

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Peeping out from behind books on shelves were various Christmas decorations and trees which made me feel even more at home.

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For the first time in three months I got into my costume, checked cufflinks, tied my cravat, wound my watch, slipped it into my waistcoat pocket and time travelled back to 1843.

In the hall a few members of the English department were around and pointed out to me that a lot of the students in this group were now not studying A Christmas Carol but Jekyll and Hyde, and could I gear my presentation towards that instead. Um?  No!

As the school bell rang the group made their way in and took their seats and awaited their morning session to start.  I was introduced (a distant relative of Charles Dickens) and walked up to a lectern on floor level to begin.

The first part of my presentation was given over to describing Charles Dickens’ early experiences in London and explaining how he saw poverty, neglect and vice at first hand as a 12 year old wandering the streets whilst his father was incarcerated in the Marshalsea.  I talked about what a prosperous and great trading nation Britain was and how with such great prosperity comes great poverty also (I assumed that this would be useful to students of Jekyll and Hyde too!).  I moved on to Dickens’ tireless campaigning work, his efforts on behalf of the ragged schools, and then to his speech in Manchester on October 5 1843 where the first glimmers of an idea that would become A Christmas Carol started to glow.

To conclude my discourse I talked about The Tale of the Goblin who Stole a Sexton from The Pickwick Papers which would form a basis for the plot and pointed out the important differences between the two pieces (Gabriel Grub is a completely evil and violent man within whom there can be no real hope of redemption, whereas in the Carol Dickens is careful to paint Scrooge as a mean man, but never a villainous or vicious one)

When the forty minute talk was complete I went up onto stage and began the show itself.  It was good to back, every movement, every gesture, every voice seemed reassuringly familiar and soon I was becoming completely surrounded by a world that has become part of my life over the years.

Thanks to my previous performances for him Glenn was familiar with the script and was having a fun old time on the lighting desk: dimming them, flashing them up, creating different atmospheres as the story moved from time to time and scene to scene.

The audience of students certainly were attentive and reacted well throughout the show.  I had 70minutes to fill, which was so much better than the hour long ‘greatest hits’ version of the show that I usually do in schools.  The extra ten minutes allowed for the charity collector and the carol singer (which was important as I had compared Scrooge’s and Gabriel Grub’s reaction to their respective carol singers in my initial talk – whereas Ebenezer threatens and scares his away, Grub inflicts actual bodily violence).

There were a few other chops and changes, Marley doesn’t get a full outing, and neither do the Cratchit family, but Topper gets a little look in although he is not allowed to play at blindman’s buff with the niece’s sister.

I came in bang on time, leaving some 15 minutes for questions of which there were plenty – thoughtful, inquisitive and intelligent questions.

When the group had left I got back  into my normal clothes so that I could have a very quick lunch before preparing for the year 11s in the afternoon.

Unfortunately the rain has set in during the lunch break and the students had not been able to get outside, also it became clear that some did not realise that the session would take them past of the end of the school day.  There was a degree of dissention.  The staff asked if I would be able to cut everything shorter, but I was loathe to do that seeing that this particular group would be sitting their A Christmas Carol exam in just a few days – this was the group who would get most out of the history and the story.

at 1.50 they slouched in.  I decided to get as much information across as I could whilst aiming for a 3.30 finish.  I didn’t stint on history and context, and I didn’t cut much out of the show, I just did it all an awful lot quicker.  If you had heard a recording of the performance on that day you might imagine that I’d sucked the gas from a helium balloon before speaking!  I managed to get the show finished at my target time, and most students bolted for the door as soon as they were released.  A few stayed for the Q&A session and I was able to furnish them with a couple of extra quotes and anecdotes that their less committed classmates would not be party to.

The rain was heavy by now and once I was changed Glenn and I got soaking wet as we loaded my car up.  We said our goodbyes and I headed off into the murk, towards home.

After a relaxing Friday  I was on the road again on Saturday, this time driving the length of the country.  My show was to be made up of Mr Dickens is Coming, which requires my facsimile of Charles Dickens’ reading desk, a chair, a hat-stand, a table and a screen; and for a second act The Signalman, which uses the large clerk’s desk, my new block signalling equipment, a chair, a table and a stool.  All of this meant a logistical exercise of supreme efficiency to fit the set into the back of my Renault Scenic.  I think that this combination is about the most I can manage without having to hire a van.

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I was headed for Jarrow in the far North East of England and it is a drive I know well thanks to my regular appearances at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle.  As I drove I re-familiarised myself with the scripts that I was due to perform.  Mr Dickens is Coming is so familiar to me that it didn’t need much work, but I needed to change the end to include a passage from Great Expectations, and that transition needed some attention.  The Signalman is fairly secure in my mind but it was good to run through it once on my drive.

Apart from rehearsal much of the drive was taken up spotting Eddie Stobart lorries, the cabs of which are all painted with the names of the driver’s wives or girlfriends above the front wheel arch.  As I pounded northward on the M1 and then later the A1 I logged Sarah, Elaine, Cassandra, Rebecca, Marion, Charley, Kimberley, Holly, Susan, May and many others.  What a simple way to pass 4 and half hours!

My journey continued through Yorkshire and on towards Tyneside, soon there were signs for Sunderland, Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle and Jarrow the last of which was to be my destination.

Jarrow is one of those English towns that is known to most purely by its place in the history books.  Anyone of my generation could glibly trot out ‘The Jarrow March’ without having any idea what we were talking about.  The facts were that following shipyard closures and a general decline in the industrial landscape 200 workers embarked on a crusade to London, where they presented a petition to Parliament.  The Jarrow Crusade lasted for the whole month of October and although it didn’t achieve anything specific, in that the issue was never debated,  the crusaders took their place in history.

So to me the name of Jarrow summed up a long dead, neglected, industrial dinosaur of a town and I was slightly nervous as to how my show would be received there.  Certainly as I approached the town the signs to the colliery and the shipbuilding yard tied in with the stereotype but within minutes I was parking on the banks of the Tyne with a busy bustling market behind me.  Far from my prejudiced imaginations Jarrow showed itself to be a lively energetic and modern town.  The riverside was dominated by two impressive buildings, one the Custom House Theatre which unsurprisingly is situated in a magnificent Victorian or Georgian building and according to the posters outside is a thriving venue, and opposite it a brand new gleaming white circular structure stood proudly looking out to sea.  This was The Word, and would be my venue for the afternoon.

I parked my car in the loading bay and made my way into the main entrance where I found myself in the centre of a huge spiralling atrium alive with life, energy and bustle.  The Word is a library, but it is so much more for it appeared to be a hub for the whole town.  As I took  in my surroundings I saw that there was a gift shop and a café.  In the centre of the atrium a small stage had been set up and prizes were being awarded for a short story competition.

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I made my way up the spiral staircase to level one and there discovered lots of smaller areas and meeting rooms, one of which was proudly called ‘The Charles Dickens Room’

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I was met by my contact for the day Gemma and together we started to unload my car. My performance space was on the third floor, so that meant numerous crowded rides in the lift.  The room itself was white, light and airy with a large circular ceiling feature which is a motif repeated throughout the building.  The window looked out across the Tyne.

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Once all of my set was in the room I bustled around putting it all in place on the small temporary  stage.  My dressing room was a store room just behind the stage area and funnily enough it reminded me of being at the Woodneath Library in Independence, Missouri – a very similar establishment to The Word.

Before I knew it 2 o clock was approaching and the audience was ready to be let in;  actually so was I, for I had popped out to the bathroom and the door to the performance room clicked shut behind me, consigning me to the hallway with the waiting crowd until Gemma returned with her security pass to let me back in.

The crowd was a good one, and I stayed in the room to chat as they came in.  One gentleman wore a Green Bay Packers cap and I was able to tell him about the time I visited the stadium.  Another lady was a huge fan of Dickens and had attended the festivals in both Rochester and Broadstairs.  When the room had filled I took my cue from Gemma and made my way to the stage to begin.

Mr Dickens is a well grooved show and soon the audience were chuckling over the Micawbers and squirming with Uriah Heep.  In no time I arrived at the part where instead of talking about Sikes and Nancy I diverted into Miss Havisham and Estella, as rehearsed in the car on the journey up.

As soon as I mentioned Charles Dickens friendship with George Cooper Apps who, if you remember, told a story of a relative who was left standing at the altar, there were nods of affirmation in the room.  South Shields is proud of its connection to one of the greatest characters that Charles created,  but the looks of pride turned to concerned looks of doubt as I started to suggest that maybe it wasn’t Apps who was the inspiration for Miss Havisham, perhaps it was Miss Dicks from the Isle of Wight, or Eliza Donnithorne from Australia.  However  relief returned to the faces when I pointed out that Mr Apps was the only one to stop his clocks, and therefore must be the true Miss H: South Shields had stakes its claim!

The Great Expectations passage brought me to the end of act one, and I announced that we would have a 10 minute recess while I changed the set for act two.  As people stretched their legs and ran downstairs to buy a coffee, I removed the reading desk, the screen and the hat stand, I brought the clerk’s desk to the stage and proudly fitted my signalling prop which was making its debut.  I put the little wooden chest next to it, and the bell on the top and before I knew it I had my signal box.  Just time to swap my colourful waistcoat for a black one and it was time for Act 2.

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The Signalman held the audience in its grip – the dark, brooding, claustrophobic nature of the story surrounding them all. We were all so involved in the narrative that there was an audible gasp when my little bell suddenly slid from the little chest and fell to the floor with a clang!  I hadn’t touched it, I hadn’t been near it as it moved.  Was this a poltergeist, the spirit of Charles Dickens reaching out to me?  Or maybe I just need to pack some Blu-Tak next time.

The show came to its conclusion at around 3.30 in the afternoon and the audience gave me a warm and long round of applause.  It seemed wrong to disappear into my ‘dressing room’,  so I stayed and chatted to everyone as they left, until it was just me and the staff from The Word remaining.

As I changed Gemma and her team fetched a cart and started to load my furniture onto it, so we could get everything back downstairs again, and soon I was trying to remember the intricate jigsaw that would allow everything to fit back into the Renault.

I said my goodbyes and headed back south collecting more Eddie Stobart lorries on the way.

On the following morning a Twitter feed popped up with an image from a local newspaper describing Charles Dickens’ Jnrs visit to the town of Jarrow in 1886.  Apparently the audience had been sparse and Charlie had ‘stormed out because he was annoyed at the poor attendence and the masses of people promenading along German Ocean Rd and not listening to him’

I must state that 2019 Jarrow afforded the Dickens family a much warmer and more generous welcome and I hope that I shall return often!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recalled to the Stage

As May begins so my career as an actor is reignited.  I haven’t worked since February and there is nothing unusual in that for this is the usual rhythm of my year.  It is nice to have a few months away from the rigours of travelling and touring, and just to enjoy my life at  home,  but now it is time to re-focus and prepare for the week ahead.

On Thursday I am due to travel to a school in Hampshire at which the students are studying A Christmas Carol for their GCSE English exams, so this week I need to make sure that the script is still nestling in the region of my brain that has become its home.

The challenge is not necessarily remembering the lines, but remembering which lines to say.  My full performance of A Christmas Carol runs to 110 minutes and my shortest version stops the clock at 60.  The school would like a 70 minute version, so I have to work out how best to edit the script to come in on the hour, ten mark.

Not only will I be performing the show itself but I am also required to talk to the students about the context in which A Christmas Carol was written.  Charles Dickens of course was a great campaigner for reform and was horrified about the situation in which the poor found themselves.  In his second novel, Oliver Twist, he laid bare the horrors of London life, including the issues of parochial corruption, crime, disenfranchisement, prostitution, legal ineptitude, squalor, covetousness, alcoholism and many others.  With each successive novel he returned to the same subjects, adding others along the away,  and was soon seen as a mouthpiece for the downtrodden.

In October 1843 his attentions were focussed on the children of the poor and the necessity of providing them with a basic education.  He argued that if society didn’t look after ‘the poor man’s child’ then the country would soon founder.  He gave speeches and wrote pamphlets on the topic but as The Christmas season approached he realised that by writing a special story embracing his concerns he could reach a much wider section of the population (and the potential income would come in handy, too).

This is how I shall introduce the Carol to the students at the Alderwood School in Aldershot on Thursday and I shall read them passages from The Pickwick Papers (where the plot, in its earliest form, first appeared), and from Oliver Twist in which the description of East London mirrors that of Old Joe’s shop.

It should be a fun day.

After a day off I am due to drive to Jarrow in the North East of England to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and The Signalman at – to give it its full title – The Word, the National Centre for the Written Word. You will recall that the centre was keen for me to introduce a passage from Great Expectations into my performance as one of the inspirations for the character of Miss Havisham came from the region.  With a bit of cutting, pasting, shoehorning and tenuous linking I have come up with a script that fulfils the brief, and will also ensure the popular vote by stating categorically that the Tyneside Miss Havisham (actually a Mr) must have been the true inspiration as he was the only one of the contenders to stop his clocks!

So the first act is in place and ready.  At this point in a regular performance I would usually retire to my dressing room for 20 minutes or so and prepare for the second act, but in Jarrow time is slightly limited so it will be a case of changing the set as the audience patiently waits, swapping my colourful waistcoat for a black one and then launching into The Signalman with barely time for breath.

I am excited about performing The Signalman next Saturday because a new prop will make its debut.  I mentioned in a previous post that I had found the block signalling equipment in our local preserved railway centre and was keen to try and reconstruct it for my set.

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My first task was to track a wooden box with some age to it and I was fortunate to find on ebay an old oak cutlery box.  The lid had a recess set into it, which suited my purpose because it meant that I could paste an image from a genuine piece of equipment in, thereby creating the ‘dial, face and needle’ without resorting to clumsy artwork.

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I took another trip to the historic railway for the purpose of taking close-up images of the face and used a graphics package to make sure the picture was the perfect size for the aperture.  At the base of the original equipment was a piece of wood on which a Bakelite knob was fixed.  To either side of this large switch were metal panels, one showing a red square signifying that there was a train on the line, and on the other a white square showing that the line was clear.

I created this look by cutting a piece of tongue and groove cladding to size and colouring it to the correct hue it with a dark oak stain.  But how would I create the metal panels and the Bakelite switch?  The solution to the latter problem came to me, quite literally, over a cup of coffee.  As I sipped I gazed at the glass pot which held the instant coffee and noticed that the lid  was large, circular, black and perfect.

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All I had to do was drink a lot of coffee in less than a week, and once I had liberated the lid paint a white arrow onto it.

The metal panels created more of a headache until I visited the Oxford branch of Hobbycraft.  As I queued up waiting to pay I saw that there was a large basket of little plastic cards, the same size as credit cards, which once activated become a membership card to the Hobbycraft Club.  The cards were free.  Hmmm, with some silver paint from one of my Formula 1 model kits they would look like perfectly cast pieces of metal.

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During the past week I have started to assemble this creation and I am rather proud with the way it looks.  It is the wrong size and proportion and anyone with any knowledge of railways will probably shake their head in disbelief, but as a prop for a theatre show it works admirably, and it will look fine sitting atop my clerk’s desk, upstage left.

But the picture was not yet complete, for next to the block signalling machine there should be a bell mounted on a small wooden box.  The bell is not only a vital part of the signalling equipment but also of the story itself, for the ghostly apparition that haunts the signalman supernaturally rings it as a precursor to tragedy.

A bell I had.  A small box I did not.  If only we were to pay a visit to some old friends, and if only they had a tiny wooden chest of drawers in their spare room.  If only I thought about asking them where it came from and what it was and if only they said ‘please borrow it and use it!’  If only that unlikely sequence of events where to occur.

With very grateful thanks to our friends Martin and Nikki I am now the temporary custodian of said small wooden box, and my bell sits on it perfectly and the set is complete.

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All I need to do now is create a structure that holds the box to the top of the desk so that it doesn’t fall embarrassingly as I move around a stage.  For this I shall approach my neighbour who lives for wood!  He is always in his garage sawing, planning, jointing or sticking.  He will have a practical and simple solution to my request whereas I am sure that I would over think and over engineer it.  I will need  a structure that can be assembled at the venue, so that the whole thing can be transported in my car along with the reading desk, the clerk’s desk, a chair, a table, a hat stand and all of the other paraphernalia that I need.

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For the rest of this week I shall be muttering lines as I pace around the kitchen and generally getting myself back into the routine of being an actor. It is good to be back!

 

 

Easter Memories from Tunbridge Wells

Last week we spent a sunny Easter Sunday at home.  We ate roast lamb in the garden, we had an Easter egg hunt, we went for a walk.  As always happens on such occasions my thoughts wandered back to my own childhood and the memories of Easter days gone by filled my head.  So this week, rather than delving into the world of Charles Dickens, I thought I would be more self indulgent and share my memories with you.

As we came downstairs to breakfast the table would be groaning under an impossible weight of chocolate eggs.  It makes me positively ill now to think about how much there was.  There were luridly wrapped eggs from Cadbury’s containing buttons, and there were beautifully crafted chocolate animals wrapped in transparent cellophane.  The sound of that cellophane rustle was like no other, and comes clearly to me now, all these years on.

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Breakfast itself was made up of ham, toast and boiled eggs but before we could eat the latter we would decorate them.  Each of us had a tea towel so as not to burn our fingers and then as soon as the eggs were out of the boiling water we would scrawl patterns on with felt-tipped pens.  Some of us decorated them in the style of a wrapped Easter egg with colourful chevrons, circles and stripes, others created faces representing those who sat around the table (dad with his big red beard was easy!), others drew countryside scenes with trees, fences and soaring birds in the sky.  My brother Ian was always the most artistic (he would go on to study photography at the Medway College of Art and Design).

Either mum must have had a brilliant sixth sense about the cooking of eggs, or we drew very quickly, because by the time we had finished our masterpieces and had proudly shown them to the rest of the family amid guffaws of laughter, the yolks inside were never over done and oozed glutinously to obscure our artwork forever.

After breakfast (and I imagine we were allowed to make a start on the chocolate, even at such an early hour), we would set to carefully decorating more eggs, this time hard boiled, ready for the next part of our day – the pace-egging ceremony staged in the Calverley Grounds.

Tunbridge Wells is an interesting town whose fluctuating historical fortunes are displayed in a geographical timeline.  The first iteration of a settlement came in 1606 when Dudley Lord North, a dashing young nobleman from the court of King James 1, stumbled over a natural spring which stained the soil around it red.  With a knowledge of the sciences Dudley recognised this as an iron-rich spring and having taken a long draft of the cool water realised that this would be a perfect spot for the London gentry to spend their summers.

Over the next hundred years or so the wells near Tonbridge grew in popularity and a town grew up that rivalled Bath in its respectability.  However when the Prince Regent built his magnificent Pavilion in Brighton the nobility decided that sea bathing was much more efficacious and the little spring at the bottom of the hill fell into obscurity.

The village of Tunbridge Wells bumbled on until a dashing high flying- architect decided to reinvigorate it. Decimus Burton had already made his name by re-designing the great London Parks as well as creating The Marble Arch which would eventually form an impressive gateway to Buckingham Palace.  His plan for Tunbridge Wells was to ignore the original settlement in the valley but to build a brand new town at the top of the hill with large villas, elegant town houses, impressive crescents and a beautiful park.  The whole development was called the Calverley Project and the park became The Calverley Grounds.

 

Making use of the hillside the pleasure grounds boasted formal gardens at the top and a bandstand in the bottom of the natural amphitheatre.  Generations of respectable folk strolled in the gardens and sat in deck chairs on a Summer Sunday listening to brass bands playing.

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The Calverley Grounds also were a perfect setting for the annual Pace Egging ceremony which was organised by the local morris dancing side, The Royal Borough Morris, which soon became part of our Easter tradition.  The crowds would start to gather around the bandstand at around 10am, and soon after the first dances would begin.  White hankies were waved and rustic sticks cracked together showering the audience with splinters.  A terrifying hobbyhorse made out of a genuine painted horse skull crept up behind unsuspecting watchers and snapped its jaws shut with a loud ‘CLACK’ eliciting screams and laughter.

When the first set of dances were complete the egg games would begin.  Firstly any children with a decorated egg would be invited forward and the individual judged as the best would be declared the winner and awarded a chocolate egg (more chocolate!).  I was fortunate to win on one occasion and the victory pose was recorded on film:

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After the eggs had been judged it was time for the main event, the egg rolling competition.

Egg rolling has its routes in a pagan ceremony welcoming the spring and celebrating re-birth but the tradition had also been adopted by the Christian faith to represent the rolling away of the stone from Jesus Christ’s tomb on the day of his resurrection

Such historical detail meant nothing to the children in the Calverley Grounds as all of the participants climbed to the top of the hill, stood behind a rope and on the shouted command ‘GO’ rolled the eggs.  It may sound simple but there was quite an art to the egg rolling.  The prize went to the egg which went furthest so the sensible thing to do was to throw it as hard as possible, but the rules specified that the egg had to be largely unbroken, so a gentle roll was maybe the way to go.  The winner was somebody who could balance these two techniques, who could send the egg skimming over the grass in a  sort of Barnes Wallace bouncing bomb style.

As soon as the eggs had been rolled or thrown we all rushed down the hill trampling our rivals’ efforts on the way.  With my grown up head on now I cannot imagine how difficult the task of cleaning up after the event would have been, or how detestable the sulphurous odour of rotten eggs must have been in the weeks following.

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Once the winner had been announced and they had been awarded with, guess what, a chocolate egg, so the Mummers play would be performed in front of the bandstand.  We loved the stock characters of good St George, the doctor and the evil Turk.  When George was slain the doctor would try to revive him by pouring an elixir (ale)  into his throat via a large funnel and length of rubber tubing.  When this treatment proved unsuccessful the doctor decreed that the only cure possible was the kiss from a princess and he would run into the crowd and pull out some young beauty who would be encouraged to place a kiss on the lips of the patient.  Naturally George would wake and all of the other characters would fall flat on their backs, necessitating a kiss for each from the poor girl.  It never changed and we loved it.

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After some more dancing we drifted home and got ready for our Easter lunch of roast lamb and all the trimmings.

I remember that one year my eldest sister Liz indulged me by agreeing to perform a special morris dance for the rest of the family.  Unfortunately all of the chocolate that I had consumed during the morning was having a most unfortunate effect on my tummy and instead of the traditional accordion and fiddle accompaniment I seemed to have provided an entire flatulent brass section complete with rather unpleasant odours to boot.  When Liz complained I reassured her: ‘don’t worry, it only happens when I’ve eaten chocolate and when I jump up and down!’  Morris dancing on Easter Sunday wasn’t the perfect time to test this theory….

Sadly it seems now that The Calverley Grounds is to be redeveloped once more.  The beautiful slopes down which we rolled eggs, the bandstand around which we gathered, the Victorian pavilion that served teas are all due to be flattened to make way for a brand new council office block.  Of course progress is inevitable and I am sure that Decimus Burton’s Calverley Project plans met with an outcry too, but this will be a tragic loss to the town which I will always regard as home.

In the afternoon came the Easter egg hunt.  Whilst we made inroads into yet more chocolate the curtains would be closed and Dad went into the garden to hide hundreds of mini eggs.  He loved it when Easter fell later in the spring because there were lots of flowers in bloom within which he could cunningly disguise the prizes.  There were standard places that we knew and would instantly head for: the bumper of the car and the plastic handle of the wheelbarrow.  A curled piece of hosepipe was perfect as was a little stack of terra cotta flowerpots.  But each year there would be new hiding places and fifty-odd years on I now realise how seemingly lazily untidied rubbish had in fact been carefully laid in place weeks before in readiness for the great day.

When the hiding was complete we would be led to the back door clasping bowls and with our eyes closed (maybe even blindfolded) until the starting order was given and there was a rush to pick up the first egg.

My sister Nicky always won.  Always.  Every Year.  If we were to hold a family Easter reunion and stage another egg hunt I am sure that she would still win.  How did Nicky do it?  Well quite simply she was more focussed, more competitive, more stealthy than the rest of us.  There was never any hint of cheating, or barging her competitors out of the way as they headed for an egg.  Nope, she was just brilliant at finding tiny foil-wrapped eggs.  And playing card games.  And board games.  The same qualities and her attention to detail have turned her into an astounding businesswoman who has created the most amazing bar and restaurant in Ireland.

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In preparing this piece Nicky kindly sent me pictures from her photo album, the above one captioned ‘Me winning Easter egg hunt’ was sent four times just to make sure I had it.  That competitive drive still runs deep!

And so our Easter day drifted from afternoon into evening and I cant recall any specific details of that time but I am sure that it involved yet more consumption of chocolate, if there were any left.

On the Easter Monday we would pack a huge picnic (mum’s picnics were extraordinary creations!) into our mustard yellow Hillman Hunter estate, or later into our midnight blue Chrysler Alpine, or later still into our gold Vauxhall and head off to the local point-to-point races, where we would park right next to one of the jumps and watch as powerful horses with brightly attired jockeys on their backs thundered past throwing great clods of earth into the air.

The state of the weather was immaterial and if the wind blew and the rain lashed down dad simply rigged up some old sheets of tarpaulin on some cut tree branches (tied with knots perfected during his days in the Royal Navy), onto our car thereby fashioning a shelter for our feast.

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When the racing started we would study the listings for each event and chose our favourites to cheer on based purely on a name we liked.  We were even occasionally allowed to place a 50p bet with one of the bookies who stood in front of their little stalls waving their arms about using the traditional tic-tac sign language to communicate.

The race was held on farmland and the toilet facilities were basic in the extreme meaning that many people preferred to use a nearby Bluebell wood for quick relief.  One year a member of our party attending the races for the first time decided that she would do the same and disappeared among the trees, only to hear an indignant voice barking at her in the tones of a retired military officer ‘Excuse ME!  Don’t you know, this is the GENTLEMAN’S wood?!’

Such happy memories from more innocent times.

 

Thanks to Ian and Nicky for the  pictures and in loving memory of Dad, Mum and Liz

 

 

 

 

 

It Was the Best of Times…Losing Heads and Hearts

Last week the eyes of the world were focussed on Paris, and many feared that they were watching the death of an 800-year old (or 859 year-old from the pedants and 1,000 year old from the sensationalists) cathedral. There was a feeling of desperation on Monday night as the spire and roof collapsed and a sense of euphoria on Tuesday morning when the main structure, including the great bell towers, was seen to be still standing.

 
Instantly social media went into overdrive with pictures of a single golden crucifix among the charred remains being posted as proof of divine intervention or socialist horror being expressed at the amount of money instantly pledged by major corporations as poverty continues to wrack our societies.

 
In many ways it was a news story of our time played out in less than twenty four hours on our phones, tablets and computers. Beginning, middle and end: move on.

 
In the world of Dickens thoughts turned to another great Parisian fire which raged in 1789 at the heart of the Bastille and which would bring inspiration to Charles in 1859 for a new novel: A Tale of Two Cities.

 
But exactly what was it that created the world of Lucy and Doctor Manette, the Defarges, Charles Darnay and Sidney Carton? What led Dickens to dip his pen into the ink and scrawl: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…..’?

 
Well, as was the case with the various Miss Havishams that I spoke of a few weeks ago, the truth lies not in a single source but in many, the most famous of which is Thomas Carlyle’s ‘The French Revolution. A History.’ written in 1837.

 
Carlyle inherited the work from his friend John Stuart Mill who had been commissioned to create a history of the Revolution but had been unable to meet his commitments. Mill suggested that Carlyle may be the man for the project and handed all of his research over. The Scotsman took to the project enthusiastically and worked for over three years until his masterpiece was completed. The style of the book was far from the staid, factual, dusty fare usually offered up by historians, Carlye often used a first person perspective thereby putting himself and the reader in the very heart of the action and creating a real sense of danger and drama. It was this style that Dickens loved and he carried a copy of ‘Mr Carlyle’s wonderful book’ with him as he worked on A Tale of Two Cities.

 
As well as dedicating A Tale of two Cities to Thomas Carlyle and praising him in the preface Dickens also paid tribute to the work by holding it when he sat for the photographs in the garden at Gad’s Hill Place. Dickens would have chosen the pose and the prop with great deliberation so this was a major honour for Thomas Carlyle.

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But Dickens was not only influenced by Carlyle’s work for there were other works that dealt with the same subject and the similarity of A Tale of Two Cities to one of them almost landed Dickens in court.

 
Through the 1850s Dickens had delighted in staging ‘Amateur Theatricals’ alongside his friends from the world of the arts. He formed the ‘Guild for Literature and Arts’ which was ostensibly an organisation to raise money for the impoverished families of writers. However the group really existed to satiate Charles’ need for the stage and he took little notice when the family of deceased actor Douglas Jerold pleaded with him that they really were NOT impoverished and would rather that a their perceived plight was not broadcast to the world.

 
One of the leading lights of the Guild was Wilkie Collins and it was he who created the script for ‘The Frozen Deep’ a drama that told the story of a doomed polar expedition and was based on that of John Franklin who had gone in search of the North West Passage in 1845, all the members of which perished.

 
In reality it was reported that the last survivors of the team resorted to cannibalism in their efforts to survive, but in Collins’ script the final scenes were much more uplifting – more British, indeed!

 
Dickens played the lead role of Richard Wardour and as he lay in the arms of his beloved Clara and with his last breaths delivered a moving soliloquy explaining how he was sacrificing himself to save the other members of the expedition, he must have realised what a powerful plot device this was – in the moment of death his thoughts were on those who would be spared. ‘It is a far far better thing I do….’

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Following a particularly successful performance of The Frozen Deep the entire ensemble decamped to Brighton for fun and frolics.  Whilst in Sussex the group were entertained by the actor Benjamin Webster as he read them the script of a play in which he been appearing in London.  The play was called ‘The Dead Heart’ and had been written in 1857 by Watts Phillips.  The plot of the play certainly has a familiar ring to it being set in the heart of the French Revolution and culminating in the hero changing places with a condemned man as he prepares to mount the scaffold to meet Madame Guillotine.

The play was staged in London 10 days before the final episode of A Tale of Two Cities was published and suddenly the city was awash with scandal – Dickens supporters swore that Webster had changed the ending of The Dead Heart to ‘scoop’ Dickens’ own denoument, whereas those who were in the Phillips camp were outraged that the great author should have stolen such a moving plot.

Watts Phillips’ sister went to her grave convinced that A Tale of Two Cities actually represented the brilliance of her brother.

The final gap in the jigsaw is filled by an Edward Buller Lytton shaped piece, more specifically his 1842 novel Zanoni. Bulwer Lytton and Dickens were close friends and indeed the Guild of Literature and Art used Lytton’s home Knebworth House to stage some of their ‘fundraising’ events.  A few years later it was Lytton who would convince Dickens to change the end of Great Expectations, feeling that the original was too downbeat (the replacement isn’t a bundle of laughs it must be said).  It was clear then that the two men were familiar with each other’s work.

In Zanoni the titular character is immortal but can only retain that happy state if he does NOT fall in love with a mortal.  Guess what?  A young opera singer called Viola (daughter to a violinist who presumably had hoped that she would follow his own musical path) comes onto the scene and of course Zanoni loses his immortal heart to her.  Despite warnings from his master, Zanoni marries Viola and they conceive a baby which spells the end for him.  Sure enough Zanoni loses not only his heart but his head too for his days on earth end in 1789…in Paris….beneath the guillotine.

A Tale of Two Cities certainly uses elements of all of these works but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts for it is the Dickens work that has survived the test of time and  remains a much loved volume on many a book shelf, whilst the others have faded into relative obscurity.

 

From the Rev Awdry to Capt Rich RE in a Week

Two weeks ago we went to our local ‘Day out with Thomas’ day at the Didcot Railway centre, our local preserved historic railway.  It was a fun day with everything you’d expect from such an event, with a jolly Sir Topham Hat (aka The Fat Controller in less PC days) taking control of proceedings whilst his assistants Rusty and Dusty performed a series of slapstick comedy routines which also involved the might of a GWR diesel train shuffling up and down a short length of track.  Thomas himself was smilingly giving rides on another stretch of line.

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Along the platform were bookshops selling volumes that only the most committed of railway enthusiasts would understand, there were engine sheds in which one could gaze up in awe at the majestic pieces of engineering that are steam locomotives and there was a museum that displayed signalling equipment from the nearby town of Swindon.

As I walked in the door to view ‘The Swindon Panel’ exhibit I was faced with something that immediately resonated, for on a shelf I saw: ‘a telegraphic instrument with its dial, face, and needles, and the little bell of which he had spoken.’ These words of course come from The Signalman which is a major part of my repertoire.

I have often wondered what the inside of the signalman’s box would be like and how the solitary man went about his duties through the long hours of his shifts.  He talks about there being little manual labour, and of the bell which sends and receives messages from the nearest station and which is his constant companion as well as his tormentor when it is supernaturally rung by the malevolent spirit that haunts the line.

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I studied the equipment on display and was delighted to discover that it was actually wired up and when the little handle was pushed a bell on the other side of the museum rang.  A helpful young man showed us how a signlaman would set the dial to ‘Train on Line’ and ‘offer’ that train to the next signalbox by pushing the little lever which rings the bell.  The other signalman then accepted the train by returning the message and then everyone set their signals accordingly.   Both dials showed ‘Train on Line’ and in theory there could be no risk of a collision until both boxes went through the system of messages again and set the dials back to ‘Line Clear.   Each bell had a different tone so at very complicated junctions an expert signalman would know instantly which stretch of line was busy or clear’.

In the week following the visit I emailed The Swindon Panel organisation and asked if the equipment on display would have been similar to that used in Dickens’ day and I received a very helpful reply from a Mr Robert Heron confirming that it was.  With a rather nice touch Mr Heron opened his email by pointing out that he was familiar with my work having seen me perform on the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway a few years ago.

Now I have new levels of knowledge and have discovered that the equipment that Dickens describes is in fact a Block Signalling system and that I can buy a complete one, including the bell, from a dealer in railwayana for around £700!  I think that my next project is to source some oak display boxes and mock one up for my set.  At least I know where I can go to confirm the exact measurements and details of the device.

The discovery of the signalling equipment brought ‘The Signalman’ very much to the forefront of my mind and I decided to undertake a little more research into the circumstances of the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865 which is generally supposed to have inspired Dickens to write his most intense ghost story.

The basic facts of the story have long been known to me and indeed feature in my performance:  A viaduct over the River Beult was being repaired and so a stretch of line had been removed.  The train travelling from Folkestone to London arrived at the scene unexpectedly and the resulting derailment killed ten and injured forty.  Charles Dickens had been travelling in a first class carriage with Ellen Ternan and her mother and had assisted in the rescue operation.  In a letter to his close friend Thomas Mitton written just a few days after the crash he described he scene, naturally embellishing it with his delicious prose:

‘This is precisely what passed.  You may judge it from the precise length of the suspense: Suddenly we were all off the rail, and beating the ground as the car of a half-emptied balloon might.  The old lady cried out ‘My God’, and the young one screamed.  I caught hold of them both (the old lady sat opposite and the young one on my left), and said: ‘We can’t help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed.  Pray don’t cry out.’  The old lady immediately answered: ‘Thank you.  Rely upon me.  Upon my soul I will be quiet.’  The young lady said in a frantic way, ‘Let us join hands and die friends.’  We were then all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage, and stopped.  I said to them thereupon: ‘You may be sure that nothing worse can happen.  Our danger must be over.  Will you remain here without stirring, while I get out of the window?’  They both answered quite collectedly, ‘Yes’ and I got out without the least notion what had happened…’

Dickens then clambered out and assisted the workforce and the train guards in pulling the dead and wounded from the wreckage.

‘No imagination can conceive the ruin of the carriages, or the extraordinary weights under which the people were lying, or the complications into which they were twisted up among iron and wood, and mud and water.’

The scene was somewhat fancifully illustrated by the popular press casting Dickens in the role of a super-hero.

penny-illustrated

All that I know about Staplehurst has been derived from various biographies of Dickens but I had heard that there was a transcript of the full Board of Trade investigation into the accident available and I was very keen to read it.

After a little hunting around on the internet I tracked the report to Leicester University and was able to download a four page document which had been written by Captain FH Rich of the Royal Engineers and which had been originally published on 21 June 1865, just 12 days after the crash.  It made fascinating reading.

I have always understood that the foreman of the works (the foreman of platelayers, to give him his official title), had incorrectly read the timetable book which dealt with the vagaries of the boat train which, because of the tides in the English Channel, arrived in the vicinity of Staplehurst at a different time every day, and this fact was confirmed by the report:

‘When at breakfast on the morning of the 9th inst. he informed some of the men sitting near him that the tidal train would not pass till 5.20pm that day.  He had the time service book in his hand at the time, and was seen to refer to it, but he mistook the time the tidal train would be due at Headcorn on the 10th June, for the time it was due on the 9th, and read the time as 5.20pm instead of 3.15pm, about which time it arrived.’

But what I hadn’t known until reading the report is that this mistake should not have allowed to happen, for a second timetable book given to the leading carpenter could also have been checked and the foreman’s error would have been seen, however the carpenter’s book had been…

‘…cut in two by a wheel passing over it, and as he was working under the orders of the foreman of platelayers, who had a similar book, he did not consider it necessary to ask for another, in place of the one that had been destroyed.’

There then follows a great deal of technical information regarding baulks, chairs, sleepers, beams, girders, sleepers and ballast all of which relates to the nature of the repairs that were being carried out, but then the Capt. Rich talks about the next failsafe that was incorrectly observed.  Whenever there was a breach in the line the South Eastern Railway Company had a regulation that a labourer would be sent 1000 yards up the track to display a red flag in the event of a train unexpectedly using the line.  On 9th June 1865 John Wiles was given the flag and sent on his way.  I have always believed that the method of measuring the 1000 yards distance was to count a certain amount of telegraph poles, and that outside Staplehurst the poles were placed too close together meaning that the requisite distance was not reached.  The report however makes no mention of the placement of the poles but does suggest that Wiles rather lazily decided that 10 poles was probably about right and set himself up there.  The reality of the situation was 10 poles only took him 554 yards from the breach leaving a speeding train no space to stop.

The final check that failed was the presence, or non-presence, of the inspector of the railway from the South Eastern Railway Company.  In the case of a ‘protracted repair’ the inspector should have visited the sight regularly to ensure that all of the procedures were correctly followed.  Even though the repairs to the Beult viaduct took over ten weeks the foreman did not regard it as a protracted repair, his reasoning being that each day of work was a separate project.  Captain Rich strongly disagreed with this assumption.

With so many procedures ignored or incorrectly carried out it was inevitable that the tidal train from Folkestone to London should meet its doom on June 9th 1865.  Captain Rich takes up the story again:

‘The train passed Headcorn station at 3.11 pm about two minutes late; she reached the viaduct about 2.13 (this must be a typographical error for as far as I’m aware Headcorn and Staplehurst are not in different time zones!).  The speed at which she reached the viaduct appears to have carried the engine over that part of the road from which the first length of rail on the bank had been removed…..Her right wheels remained between the up line of rails; and the left wheels between the up line and the boundary fence of the railway.

The tender remained attached to the engine and stood across the up line.  The van next to it was unhooked, but remained on the bank standing across the up line, in an opposite direction to the tender.  This van remained coupled to the second-class carriage next to it, which had its leading wheels on the viaduct and the hind wheels suspended over the bed of the river.  The first-class carriage next behind hung by its front end to the second-class and the other end rested in the dry bed of the river (this was the one that Charles Dickens and his companions were in).  The next first-class carriage was turned bottom upwards in the dry bed of the river.  The five next first-class carriages were in the mud and water…..

‘The train consisted 80 first-class passengers and 35 second-class.  Seven women and 3 men were taken out dead and 40 others with injuries of various kinds, some of them very serious…..

Seven of the carriages were completely destroyed from falling over the viaduct….’

I have visited the site of the accident and the ‘viaduct’ is not high, and at the time of the crash the speed of the train was low, although Capt. Rich didn’t trust the driver’s testimony:

‘The driver of the tidal train….states that he had reduced his speed from 45 or 50 miles per hour to 10 or 12 miles per hour when he reached the viaduct.  I consider that his estimate of the speed  to which he reduced his train is erroneous; and considering the time that would be lost before the brakes came into action, and the rest of the catastrophe, it appears probable that he had not reduced the speed of the train below 30 miles per hour, when he reached the viaduct.

The driver had shut off steam and realising that he was not losing sufficient speed had whistled to the guards in other vans to apply their brakes too.

‘None of the guards perceived the “danger” signal before reaching it.  Their first intimation was the driver’s whistle, and they state that they immediately commenced to apply thwir brakes….’

‘…The train had probably got over half the distance between the signalman and the viaduct from which two rails had been removed, before the brake came into action.’

A small drop into a muddy river bank and a relatively low speed but the devastation of the tidal train was horrendous, and Dickens was truly lucky to have survived.

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The effect of the accident on him was profound and often the memory of it came back at the most unlikely times.  I have been told that modern experts have identified Dickens’ reaction to Staplehurst as  one of the first recorded cases of post traumatic stress disorder.

His daughter Mamie later described how Staplehurst continued to haunt Charles:

‘But my father’s nerves never really were the same again after this frightful  experience.  At first it was natural that he should suffer greatly, and we have often seen him, when travelling home from London, suddenly fall into a paroxysm of fear, tremble all over, clutch the arms of the carriage, large beads of perspiration standing on his face, and suffering agonies of terror.  We never spoke to him, but would touch his hand gently now and then.  He had apparently no idea of our presence; he saw nothing for a time but that most awful scene.’ 

Adding to his terrible associations with the railway Charles’ beloved dog Turk was run over and killed by a train not long after the crash.

dickens-and-turk

In his considered and unemotional conclusion to the official report Capt. Rich points out that the train ‘…would have reached London safely had the rules of the South-Eastern Railway been adhered to.

‘It appears however that for the last ten weeks these rules have been daily disregarded.’

‘The result of the coroner’s inquest is a verdict of manslaughter against the foreman of platelayers and the district inspector of permanent way.’

It seems certain that Staplehurst must have influenced the writing of The Signalman, although Dickens probably also knew the details of another crash four years earlier in which two trains collided in the Clayton Tunnel near Brighton and which resulted in a much greater death toll than on the River Beult viaduct.  Certainly the Clayton Tunnel matches the scene in the story much more closely than the flat open marshland of Staplehurst:

‘On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air’

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It has been an interesting week of research which has taken me from the famous creation of the Rev. W Awdry through the personal recollections of Charles Dickens and his daughter to the sober and factual account by Capt. Rich.

I have  thoroughly enjoyed learning so much more about subjects that I have spoken about for many years.

 

 

Sources:

The Swindon Panel Exhibition at Didcot Railway Centre

Letter from Charles Dickens to Thomas Mitton

Charles Dickens by his Eldest Daughter, by Mamie Dickens

The Invisible Woman, by Claire Tomalin

The Board of Trade Report compiled by Capt. FH Rich. RE