Two Days in Kent

 “Kent,sir — everybody knows Kent — apples, cherries, hops and women”

 

Last week I spent two days back in the county of my birth – the country of Kent  – and it was a wonderful time.

I was in The Garden of England for two reasons, the first of which was to give a talk to the Rochester and Chatham Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, of which I am President; and the second was to show Cindy Surgue, the Director of the Charles Dickens Museum, around the county most associated with my great great grandfather’s works.

I arrived in the city of Rochester on a blustery afternoon and met up with Cindy and her partner George in the heart of the High Street, ready to begin the first part of our tour.

At the start of Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, Charles took the four members of The Pickwick Club out of London and into Rochester and many of the subsequent scenes feature buildings that still stand today (although Mr Snodgrass did not dine at the Indian restaurant called ‘A Taste of Two Cities).

Our first stop was on a narrow strip of pavement, abutting a busy road, in front of a dishevelled, peeling building which announced itself as The Conservative Club.  A small plaque over the door bore a silhouette of the elderly (be-bearded) Dickens and told us that we were at the site of the Theatre Royal in Rochester.

Charles always loved the theatre and as a young boy, living in nearby Chatham, he would visit the Royal.  He recorded his memories in The Uncommercial Traveller:

The Theatre was in existence, I found, on asking the fishmonger, who had a compact show of stock in his window, consisting of a sole and a quart of shrimps — and I resolved to comfort my mind by going to look at it. Richard the Third, in a very uncomfortable cloak, had first appeared to me there, and had made my heart leap with terror by backing up against the stage-box in which I was posted, while struggling for life against the virtuous Richmond. It was within those walls that I had learnt as from a page of English history, how that wicked King slept in war-time on a sofa much too short for him, and how fearfully his conscience troubled his boots…

Many wondrous secrets of Nature had I come to the knowledge of in that sanctuary: of which not the least terrific were, that the witches in Macbeth bore an awful resemblance to the Thanes and other proper inhabitants of Scotland; and that the good King Duncan couldn’t rest in his grave, but was constantly coming out of it and calling himself somebody else. To the Theatre, therefore, I repaired for consolation. But I found very little, for it was in a bad and declining way… 

No, there was no comfort in the Theatre. It was mysteriously gone, like my own youth. Unlike my own youth, it might be coming back some day; but there was little promise of it’ 

And the Royal is still in the same state, sadly, with little prospect of ever being filled with the noise and gaiety of live performances again.

theatre

Our stroll took us back into the High Street and then left into Crow Lane, at the top of which is situated Restoration House, where Charles the II spent a night in 1660 on his way to London to be restored to the throne.

The house is a magnificent, brooding, red-bricked pile hiding behind a large iron gate and a small patch of garden and was well known to Dickens as he walked around Rochester:

Within a quarter of an hour we came to Miss Havisham’s house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it. Some of the windows had been walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred. There was a courtyard in front, and that was barred.

Restoration House became Satis House and would be the home of one of Dickens’ greatest creations.

restortaion house

We ambled through a green space known as The Vines and were soon in the precincts of the Norman cathedral featured so prominently in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  As we walked through Minor Canon Row (the fictitious home of the Reverend Crisparkle), it was wonderful to reflect that the City was an ancient one when Charles Dickens lived and worked  there, and that the crumbling walls, the rotting wooden doors, the gnarled trees and the moss-covered roofs that we saw would have been just as familiar to him.  In the time scale of the city the years that separates us from Dickens are but a minor blip.

The cathedral itself is the second oldest in England, after Canterbury, and is a magnificent specimen of Norman Architecture.

Overlooking the cathedral is the Normal Castle situated above the River Medway and overlooking the vital bridge which carries the main road from Dover to London (a road that we would revisit on the next day).

In The Pickwick Papers Mr Jingle describes the castle as:  Ah! fine place, glorious pile–frowning walls–tottering arches–dark nooks–crumbling staircases–old cathedral too–earthy smell–pilgrims’ feet wore away the old steps–little Saxon doors–confessionals like money-takers’ boxes at theatres–queer customers those monks–popes, and lord treasurers, and all sorts of old fellows, with great red faces, and broken noses, turning up every day–buff jerkins too–match-locks–sarcophagus–fine place–old legends too–strange stories: capital’.

The Guildhall Museum in Rochester High Street houses a fine collection and Cindy, with her professional hat on, was particularly interested in how the various rooms were prepared.  From prehistoric times, through Saxon, Medieval, Victorian and to the modern day each display was carefully presented to appeal to children, whilst not alienating the more historically-minded adult.

In the old, and lavishly gilded, council chamber a series of huge portraits hang high on the walls, looking down.  It was in this room that young Pip received his indentures to be apprenticed to Joe Gargery, the blacksmith.

Having finished in the Guildhall we made our way back to our starting point but noticed as we walked that the Six Poor Travellers House was open.  In 1579 local MP and philanthropist Richard Watts died, leaving in his will a provision for an almshouse to be made available to six poor travellers to stay in for a single night.

The house, which was 100 years old in 1579, still stands and a great sense of peace and kindness seem to emanate from the whitewashed walls.  The bedrooms, although tiny and spartan, are warm and comforting, whilst the courtyard garden is carefully tended and on that sunny day felt like a place of meditation and reflection.

6 poor travelers

Dickens visited the house in 1854 and was inspired to write a Chauceresque account of the six gentlemen he found staying there.  His story was called The Seven Poor Travellers (Dickens himself becoming the seventh).

As a minor footnote, Richard Watts lived in a grand house near to the castle, which is called Satis House, the name that Dickens attached to Restoration House in Great Expectations.

Our daytime rambles completed Cindy and George returned to their guesthouse, whilst I made my way to my hotel in order to prepare for the evening’s presentation.

 

The Rochester and Chatham Branch of the Dickens Fellowship

Ever since I became involved in the world of Dickens, back in 1993, I have had a close connection with the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Fellowship.  My father had been President, and I took over from him as, with advancing years, he felt as if he could no longer give them as much time as he would have wanted.

The group is filled with enthusiastic Dickensians, who not only study and revere his works, but also love to take the message out into the community.  No opportunity is missed to get into Victorian garb and perform readings.  The group’s secretary, and driving force is Steve Martin, whilst the Chairman is Norman Munn, who dons a beard and portrays Charles himself when on show.

The June meeting was at the Brook Theatre in Chatham (just a short walk from young Charles’ childhood home).  The Brook used to be the town hall and our meeting was held in the sombre surroundings of the wood panelled Mayor’s Parlour.  There was a fabulous turnout, with many dear old friends there: hugs there were a plenty.

After a short introduction Norman handed the floor over to me and I read two memoirs: one written by Henry Fielding Dickens (my great grandfather), remembering life with his father Charles, and then a speech written by my father remembering his childhood Christmases with Henry.  It is a programme that I have performed in America and gives a charming, gentle insight into the Dickens family, and links the generations back to the man who we all have to thank for bringing us together.

After my talk the meeting of the Branch was conducted in a suitably formal and Pickwickian manner.  The recent activities of the branch included an appearance at the Senior World Fencing Championship, where many members featured in the opening ceremony in costume.

Eventually it was time to leave and everyone drifted away to their homes, guest houses and hotels.

 

A Day’s Drive in Kent

Friday was the day when Cindy, George and I would take a road trip from north to south Kent stopping along the way at various sites that are important in the Dickens story.  Our drive started by leaving Rochester on Watling Street, the ancient Roman road that linked Dover to London and beyond.  In modern parlance we were on the A2 but as we drive over across the Medway Bridge, guarded by the castle, it was impossible not to be aware of how strategically vital this thoroughfare has been throughout history.

The A2 took us uphill, away from Rochester to the summit of a hill: Gad’s Hill, and there we were able to get a glimpse of the red bricked house, with a white cupola on top.

“Bless you, sir,” said the very queer small boy, “when I was not more than half as old as nine, it used to be a treat for me to be brought to look at it. And now, I am nine, I come by myself to look at it. And ever since I can recollect, my father, seeing me so fond of it, has often said to me, ‘If you were to be very persevering and were to work hard, you might someday come to live in it.’

The young Dickens had greatly admired Gad’s Hill Place, and heeding his father’s words he did work hard and he was persevering.  In 1856 he bought the house and would eventually die there in 1870.

We drove on towards Gravesend where, Cindy was astonished to learn, Pocahontas is buried.  We turned off the main road and dropped down hill towards the marshes.  Our drive took us through the small village of Chalk, where Dickens spent his honeymoon with Catherine, and also where the forge belonging to Joe Gargery in Great Expectations is believed to be situated.

The Kentish countryside was looking wonderful and it seemed as if every field and hedgerow was blossoming even as we watched.  Great bunches of cow parsley dominated the roadsides, but there were plenty of buttercups lending a golden glow to the morning.

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The traditional industry of Kent is agriculture, with fruit predominating and large orchards of apple trees   lined our route.  Further into the marshes we drove, leaving the villages and towns far behind us, until we finally reached St James’ Church, Cooling which stands proud overlooking the bleak, wild, low marshland.

This spot inspired one of the greatest opening passages in English literature:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine — who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle — I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence. 

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

And there we were, in the overgrown churchyard looking down on the large gravestone, surrounded by tiny lozenge shaped child’s graves.  But not five, as Dickens described, but thirteen – all victims of marsh fever.

cooling

As we looked at the church itself, we notice bees swarming around a crack in the stone, and birds flying beneath the eves to their nest.  On the roof moss was growing and from that soft prehistoric carpet, tiny pink wildflowers were flourishing.  It was as if the scenery was slowly repossessing the Church and taking it back to nature.  Out of all the Dickens related places that I am fortunate enough to visit, this is one of my favourites.

From Cooling we drove back through the mashes, until we rejoined the main road and headed south towards Broadstairs.  The drive took over an hour, so we talked of many things.  As we passed the small Roman settlement of Reculver I mentioned to Cindy and George how keen I am on the Ian Fleming James Bond Novels (Goldfinger is partly set in Kent, and the villain’s smuggling operation is based at Reculver).  We discuss who our favourite Bonds are, and then our favourite Doctor Whos (for the record – Sean Connery, Daniel Craig, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, George Lazenby, with Roger Moore bringing up the rear; as far as Doctor Who is concerned, I am a John Pertwee fan.)

Broadstairs itself is a respectable seaside town, which has managed to avoid the kiss-me-kwik, fish and chips, amusement arcade sprawl that has blighted so many others.  Dickens spent many long happy summers there, staying in either the Albion Hotel or in a small house on the cliff, called Fort House.  Of course thanks to Dickens’ notoriety the locals cashed in on his patronage many years ago, changing the name from Fort House to Bleak House.

We were there to meet Lee Ault in the wonderful Dickens House Museum situated in a tiny house overlooking the bay.  I know the museum in Broadstairs well as I perform to a packed house each Summer  (the drawing room which serves as my theatre only holds 35 people.)

The cottage in which the museum is housed was once the home of Mary Pearson who firmly believed in her right to prevent donkeys passing in front of her home.  Charles knew Miss Pearson well and described both her house and her donkey habits in David Copperfield (although he moved her to Dover in the book giving her the name of Betsy Trotwood).

Although small, the Brodstairs Dickens House Museum holds an incredible collection and we all spent a happy hour or so poring over letters, pictures and artifacts.  The great treat, however, came when Lee unlocked a cabinet and brought out the auction catalogues for the sale of Gad’s Hill Place and its contents.

A few things struck us as strange:  the first sale of pictures and furniture was held on July 9, 1870 – exactly a month after Dickens had died.  Why the rush?  Were the Dickens family that desperately in need of the financial injection; did they need to strike whilst the Dickens name was still hot?

The auction of the house itself took place just another month on and the agent’s description of the house is extraordinary.  Every line of text is in a different typeface as though someone were trying each one out before making a decision on which to use.  The descriptions of each room are detailed and complete but make almost no mention of Dickens having lived there – wouldn’t you think that an agent trying to sell the house would push the Dickens connection as hard as he could?  As it happens Charles’ eldest son Charley purchased the house and lived there for another 9 years.

After a quick lunch in The Albion Hotel we said goodbye to Lee and got back on the road driving to the largest City in Kent, Canterbury.  Although there is no specific museum to Dickens in Canterbury, he did set a large part of David Copperfield there and John Ingram from the Fellowship was on hand to show us around.

The city is a beautiful one and any excuse to walk around it is to be welcomed, but our journey with John took us to all sorts of nooks and crannies searching out the possible and probable sites of the various houses mentioned in the book.  We started in the cathedral precincts searching out the location of Doctor Strong’s Academy, based on the literary descriptions, before walking into the bustling city to track down the house of Agnes Wickfield, passing the possible lodging of Uriah Heep on the way.

John’s enthusiasm and knowledge was infectious and it was a pleasure to be in the company of a man so wrapped up in the world of Dickens.

Back at the cathedral our tour was over, and we shook hands and thanked John for his time and kindness.   I drove Cindy and George back to Rochester station and bid them farewell as they headed back to London.

Kent had certainly put on a good show for me but the best memories from last week are of the wonderful people I was fortunate enough to be with: Cindy with a huge breadth of knowledge but so anxious to expand it and discover more; George in a seemingly permanent state of delighted astonishment at the things we were seeing, and determined to re-read the opening chapters of Great Expectations following our trip to Cooling; all the members of the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Dickens Fellowship who are brought together each month thanks to their love of my great great grandfather’s work, and who perpetuate his flamboyance and theatricality in all of their events;  Lee Ault, and her husband Eddie, who run the museum in Broadstairs as a real labour of love and spread the word as widely as they are able; John with his enquiring and academic mind trying to discover Dickens in Canterbury.

Most of all however I spent the entire trip in the company of a very great man indeed:  thank you Charles John Huffam Dickens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Guest Post: Sam Weller’s Walentine

To mark Valentine’s day I have passed my blog over to an author of some repute:  Mr Charles Dickens wrote the following account in his first novel The Pickwick Papers outlining  Sam Weller’s attempt to compose a valentine.

 

‘I’ve done now,’ said Sam, with slight embarrassment; ‘I’ve been a-writin’.’

‘So I see,’ replied Mr. Weller. ‘Not to any young ‘ooman, I hope, Sammy?’

‘Why, it’s no use a-sayin’ it ain’t,’ replied Sam; ‘it’s a walentine.’

‘A what!’ exclaimed Mr. Weller, apparently horror-stricken by the word.

‘A walentine,’ replied Sam. ‘Samivel, Samivel,’ said Mr. Weller, in reproachful accents, ‘I didn’t think you’d ha’ done it. Arter the warnin’ you’ve had o’ your father’s wicious propensities; arter all I’ve said to you upon this here wery subject; arter actiwally seein’ and bein’ in the company o’ your own mother-in-law, vich I should ha’ thought wos a moral lesson as no man could never ha’ forgotten to his dyin’ day! I didn’t think you’d ha’ done it, Sammy, I didn’t think you’d ha’ done it!’ These reflections were too much for the good old man. He raised Sam’s tumbler to his lips and drank off its contents.

‘Wot’s the matter now?’ said Sam.

‘Nev’r mind, Sammy,’ replied Mr. Weller, ‘it’ll be a wery agonisin’ trial to me at my time of life, but I’m pretty tough, that’s vun consolation, as the wery old turkey remarked wen the farmer said he wos afeerd he should be obliged to kill him for the London market.’

‘Wot’ll be a trial?’ inquired Sam. ‘To see you married, Sammy — to see you a dilluded wictim, and thinkin’ in your innocence that it’s all wery capital,’ replied Mr. Weller. ‘It’s a dreadful trial to a father’s feelin’s, that ‘ere, Sammy —’

‘Nonsense,’ said Sam. ‘I ain’t a-goin’ to get married, don’t you fret yourself about that; I know you’re a judge of these things. Order in your pipe and I’ll read you the letter. There!’

We cannot distinctly say whether it was the prospect of the pipe, or the consolatory reflection that a fatal disposition to get married ran in the family, and couldn’t be helped, which calmed Mr. Weller’s feelings, and caused his grief to subside. We should be rather disposed to say that the result was attained by combining the two sources of consolation, for he repeated the second in a low tone, very frequently; ringing the bell meanwhile, to order in the first. He then divested himself of his upper coat; and lighting the pipe and placing himself in front of the fire with his back towards it, so that he could feel its full heat, and recline against the mantel-piece at the same time, turned towards Sam, and, with a countenance greatly mollified by the softening influence of tobacco, requested him to ‘fire away.’

Sam dipped his pen into the ink to be ready for any corrections, and began with a very theatrical air —

‘“Lovely —”’

‘Stop,’ said Mr. Weller, ringing the bell. ‘A double glass o’ the inwariable, my dear.’

‘Very well, Sir,’ replied the girl; who with great quickness appeared, vanished, returned, and disappeared.

‘They seem to know your ways here,’ observed Sam.

‘Yes,’ replied his father, ‘I’ve been here before, in my time. Go on, Sammy.’

‘“Lovely creetur,”’ repeated Sam.

‘‘Tain’t in poetry, is it?’ interposed his father.

‘No, no,’ replied Sam.

‘Wery glad to hear it,’ said Mr. Weller. ‘Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’-day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. Begin agin, Sammy.’

Mr. Weller resumed his pipe with critical solemnity, and Sam once more commenced, and read as follows:

‘“Lovely creetur I feel myself a damned —”’ ‘That ain’t proper,’ said Mr. Weller, taking his pipe from his mouth.

‘No; it ain’t “damned,”’ observed Sam, holding the letter up to the light, ‘it’s “shamed,” there’s a blot there —“I feel myself ashamed.”’

‘Wery good,’ said Mr. Weller. ‘Go on.’

‘“Feel myself ashamed, and completely cir —’ I forget what this here word is,’ said Sam, scratching his head with the pen, in vain attempts to remember.

‘Why don’t you look at it, then?’ inquired Mr. Weller.

‘So I am a-lookin’ at it,’ replied Sam, ‘but there’s another blot. Here’s a “c,” and a “i,” and a “d.”’

‘Circumwented, p’raps,’ suggested Mr. Weller.

‘No, it ain’t that,’ said Sam, ‘“circumscribed”; that’s it.’

‘That ain’t as good a word as “circumwented,” Sammy,’ said Mr. Weller gravely.

‘Think not?’ said Sam.

‘Nothin’ like it,’ replied his father.

‘But don’t you think it means more?’ inquired Sam.

‘Vell p’raps it’s a more tenderer word,’ said Mr. Weller, after a few moments’ reflection. ‘Go on, Sammy.’

‘“Feel myself ashamed and completely circumscribed in a-dressin’ of you, for you are a nice gal and nothin’ but it.”’

‘That’s a wery pretty sentiment,’ said the elder Mr. Weller, removing his pipe to make way for the remark.

‘Yes, I think it is rayther good,’ observed Sam, highly flattered.

‘Wot I like in that ‘ere style of writin’,’ said the elder Mr. Weller, ‘is, that there ain’t no callin’ names in it — no Wenuses, nor nothin’ o’ that kind. Wot’s the good o’ callin’ a young ‘ooman a Wenus or a angel, Sammy?’

‘Ah! what, indeed?’ replied Sam.

‘You might jist as well call her a griffin, or a unicorn, or a king’s arms at once, which is wery well known to be a collection o’ fabulous animals,’ added Mr. Weller.

‘Just as well,’ replied Sam.

‘Drive on, Sammy,’ said Mr. Weller.

Sam complied with the request, and proceeded as follows; his father continuing to smoke, with a mixed expression of wisdom and complacency, which was particularly edifying.

‘“Afore I see you, I thought all women was alike.”’

‘So they are,’ observed the elder Mr. Weller parenthetically.

‘“But now,”’ continued Sam, ‘“now I find what a reg’lar soft-headed, inkred’lous turnip I must ha’ been; for there ain’t nobody like you, though I like you better than nothin’ at all.” I thought it best to make that rayther strong,’ said Sam, looking up.

Mr. Weller nodded approvingly, and Sam resumed.

‘“So I take the privilidge of the day, Mary, my dear — as the gen’l’m’n in difficulties did, ven he valked out of a Sunday — to tell you that the first and only time I see you, your likeness was took on my hart in much quicker time and brighter colours than ever a likeness was took by the profeel macheen (wich p’raps you may have heerd on Mary my dear) altho it DOES finish a portrait and put the frame and glass on complete, with a hook at the end to hang it up by, and all in two minutes and a quarter.”’

‘I am afeerd that werges on the poetical, Sammy,’ said Mr. Weller dubiously.

‘No, it don’t,’ replied Sam, reading on very quickly, to avoid contesting the point —

‘“Except of me Mary my dear as your walentine and think over what I’ve said. — My dear Mary I will now conclude.” That’s all,’ said Sam.

‘That’s rather a Sudden pull-up, ain’t it, Sammy?’ inquired Mr. Weller.

‘Not a bit on it,’ said Sam; ‘she’ll vish there wos more, and that’s the great art o’ letter-writin’.’

‘Well,’ said Mr. Weller, ‘there’s somethin’ in that; and I wish your mother-in-law ’ud only conduct her conwersation on the same gen-teel principle. Ain’t you a-goin’ to sign it?’

‘That’s the difficulty,’ said Sam; ‘I don’t know what to sign it.’

‘Sign it —“Veller”,’ said the oldest surviving proprietor of that name.

‘Won’t do,’ said Sam. ‘Never sign a walentine with your own name.’

‘Sign it “Pickwick,” then,’ said Mr. Weller; ‘it’s a wery good name, and a easy one to spell.’ ‘The wery thing,’ said Sam. ‘I COULD end with a werse; what do you think?’

‘I don’t like it, Sam,’ rejoined Mr. Weller. ‘I never know’d a respectable coachman as wrote poetry, ‘cept one, as made an affectin’ copy o’ werses the night afore he was hung for a highway robbery; and he wos only a Cambervell man, so even that’s no rule.’

But Sam was not to be dissuaded from the poetical idea that had occurred to him, so he signed the letter —

‘Your love-sick
Pickwick.’

Further Memories of Life in Tunbridge Wells

A year or so ago I wrote a blog post reflecting on my memories of childhood in Royal Tunbridge Wells and the reaction from the town itself was so enthusiastic that I decided to continue delving into the past and to resuscitate some scenes of my youth.

 

27 Boyne Park

The town of Tunbridge Wells is built in a valley between two ridges, one to the south (Forest Road) and one to the North (Mount Ephraim). We lived in Boyne Park, a rather well-to-do road off Mount Ephraim.  The houses were mostly been built around the turn of the 20th Century and were substantial red-bricked monuments to the wealth and success of professional gentlemen who had served their country – and their empire – abroad.  At the bottom of the hill was number 27: our house.

27 Boyne Park was (and remains so) one of the few old houses in the road that had not been converted into flats and was what an estate agent would refer to as ‘a substantial detached property. It was three storied house and had a strange conical tower growing from the roof.  There was a small driveway which wound around the house to a garage which had been built for one of the original owners who was a doctor and who actually owned a car: a peculiarity in Edwardian Tunbridge Wells.

The house was on the corner of Boyne Park and the cul-de-sac of Mayfield Road and when we lived there was boarded to the front by a beech hedge and to the side by a grassy bank which in the spring hosted the most remarkable display of daffodils. There were seven of us living in 27: my parents, four children and our paternal grandmother who had assisted in the purchase of the property in exchange for a suite of rooms on the top floor.

27 was never happier than when it was entertaining and the house seemed to come alive at Christmas, when it would be filled with noise and laughter.  Often on Christmas Eve there would be a great party and friends, neighbours and relations would fill the ground floor, oozing from the rooms into the large hall which was dominated by a wonderful staircase.

There was quite a community feel to the Boyne Park neighbourhood as many of the families were of similar ages, and the children were in and out of each other’s houses all the time. The roads around us were largely residential and free from heavy traffic so we could play quite safely and happily on them.

Boyne Park linked Mount Ephraim at the top end to Oakdale Road and tucked away at the end of the latter was The Twitten: a very narrow path between two houses, and which connected us to Royal Chase, which in turn led to Earl’s Road, Byng Road and Connaught Way – another world!

If I were to walk through The Twitten and turn left into Royal Chase I would eventually find myself joining Bishops Down Road near to its junction with Lake Road. Here, in an overgrown wilderness, there was an abandoned neglected and ruined house deep in the woods which was said to be haunted.  Occasionally we would explore that house, but only on very bright sunny days when the chances of haunting were minimal (I knew that ruined houses such as this were places to be scared of thanks to watching Scooby Doo).

Hurrying away from the haunted house Bishops Down Road became, without ceremony, Culverden Down, which was lined with modern open plan homes. At the junction of Culverden Down and Coniston Avenue the road overlooked a narrow path alongside a small stream which ran through a tunnel under the road.  Children would clamber down the muddy bank and play in the stream, sometimes the braver ones would get on their knees and crawl through the concrete culvert, although our parents always warned us not to in case we should be swept away (in retrospect I think that the stream was little more than an open sewer and that our mothers and fathers were more worried about what we might ingest rather than a possible drowning).

I knew this area well because Coniston Avenue led to my school.

 

 

Bishops Down

My sisters and brother were slightly older than me and they had all attended St John’s Primary School, which was a wonderfully traditional establishment (I don’t know if it had separate doors for boys and girls, but I imagine so); however when I was old enough to commence my formal education I was sent to a brand new school: Bishops Down Primary School.

At the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s education was changing and Bishops Down was created to reflect the new attitudes and to stimulate creativity and individuality within its young charges. For example, rather than teaching us to read and spell by rote, the school used a system called ITA, which was a phonetics-based system to develop linguistic skills.  ITA (the Initial Teaching Alphabet) had been invented by Sir James Pitman who, as it happened, owned the Pitman Publishing Company and for whom my father worked in London.

In the name of research I have looked up ITA online: it seems to be terribly complicated and it’s a wonder that we learned anything.  Certainly to this day my spelling is hopeless, but it is equally true that I have grown up to have a fascination and love for the sounds and rhythms of the English language

 

The school itself was at the end of a quiet residential road called Rydal Drive and the single story building was set a little away from the houses up a short drive (which seemed to be terribly long to me). The main entrance led straight into the school hall in which we ate lunch and which would be the setting for my very first theatrical performance, playing a large cockerel in the annual nativity play.  I learned a great deal about performing in that hall, for I also played violin in the school orchestra.  I was not a good violinist and on one occasion during a school assembly I was scraping the instrument with such force that the tailpiece could not cope with the abuse any longer and snapped clean in two.  There was a loud bang, followed by a TWANGGGGGGG (which was possibly more musical than anything that had preceded it), and the strings dangled listlessly from the tuning pegs like rosin-covered dreadlocks. In my panic I looked at our music teacher Mr Sutton and with tears in my eyes mouthed ‘what do I do?’ to which he replied ‘SING!’

At the rear of the building there was an L-shaped tarmac playground onto which the children would pour at playtime, but the real excitement came in the shape of ‘The Mound’. When the school had been built a large pile of rubble and earth and been left on site, and this was subtly landscaped into an organic, natural play area.  Large concrete pipes were set into the base through which we could crawl, and the mound itself developed well-worn paths across it as we young Sir Edmund Hillarys made our proud way to the summit.  I am sure that the mound is long gone – a victim to health and safety regulations and natural erosion, but if there was ever a better way of encouraging children to exercise I have not heard of it.

The main playing field was at the front of the school and it was here that I first fell in love with the game of cricket.

 

 

The Nevill Cricket Ground

In the 1970s Kent was a good county to grow up in if you liked cricket, for we boasted one of the best teams in the country. When England squared off against the Australians to battle for the Ashes the spine of the team came from Kent: Colin Cowdrey was the captain, Brian Luckhurst opened the batting, as would Bob Woolmer a few years later, Alan Knott was the greatest wicket keeper in the world, and Derek Underwood bamboozled opposition batsman with his medium paced spin bowling.

These men were heroes to me, as were others in the team: The West Indian John Shepherd, the little Pakistan master batsman Asif Iqbal,  Alan Ealham who looked like a blacksmith on a village team and who would bash the ball to all corners of the ground and our fast bowler Kevin Jarvis, who couldn’t bat to save his life.  For one week every year the Kent team would come to Tunbridge Wells and play two matches at The Nevill Ground.

The Nevill was, and still is, an elegant cricket ground which nestles among banks of rhododendron bushes. The County Cricket Week was held in May and if the weather had been favourable the red flowers would provide a vivid backdrop to the game.  The main pavilion was grand, and that is where the Kent County Cricket Club members would sit in their ties and panama hats sipping their gins and tonics or Pimms, dozing in the sun, waking only to clap politely  and mutter ‘well played’ through their bushy nicotine-stained moustaches.

The players themselves weren’t permitted into the pavilion, but had a small shed in the shadow of the main edifice from which they would watch the game. The changing rooms were behind and underneath the pavilion, so crowds of children would wait until the gladiators emerged and get them to sign autographs, which they were always happy to do.

Later in the summer I would sit in front of our black and white television and watch these men doing battle against Dennis Lilly and Jeff Thomson and the rest of the pantomime villains who made up the Australian team – I had met them, spoken to them and felt proud of them: I knew that they were fighting for ME!

 

 

The Carnival of 1969

Each summer Tunbridge Wells held a carnival, the highlight of which was the parade through the centre of the town.

In 1969 my father decided that we would enter a float to help raise awareness and funds for the local branch of the RSPCA and set about the project with customary gusto.

The construction of most carnival floats involved borrowing or hiring a flat-bed lorry from a local haulier and decorating it on the morning of the event. Some floats had a band playing, a choir singing or tinny recorded music blaring out; all of them were crowded with people trying not to fall off as the inevitably surly driver let out the clutch and his truck shuddered away, leaving behind a thick smog of diesel fumes.  The Rotary Club and The Lions and the Local Scouts and Girl Guides and Army Cadets and Sea Scouts would all be out in force waving flags and collecting loose change, but Tunbridge Wells had never seen anything like the Dickens entry of ’69.

Dad decided to build a full-sized Loch Ness Monster (what was actually full size was, of course, open to debate but ours was thirty feet long), which would seem to float along the roads. The construction started many weeks before the event itself and involved many visits to RN Carr, Ironmongers in Southborough.

Carr’s had a specific smell that was only to be found in old ironmonger’s shops, and which was a mix of galvanised steel nails, cleats and screws wrapped in oiled brown paper, and garden compost. I am sure that Ronnie Barker bought his fork handles in Carr’s.

Back home in Boyne Park Nessie began to take shape. She was built on a strong (for which read heavy) wooden frame, which was covered with chicken wire to create the dinosaur’s shape.  The chicken wire was then covered in papier mache, onto which was stuck the individual cups from a thousand cardboard egg boxes to give the impression of scaly skin.  The whole thing was painted in a lurid green paint, and had the most luscious eyelashes you can imagine.

As the creation grew my mother was repeatedly dispatched to Carr’s to buy new supplies of nails and screws, and she became more and more frustrated at being patronised by the old boys who worked there. She would try and describe what she needed and the men would try to confuse her be asking the sort of question that the little lady of the house wouldn’t possibly understand: ‘are those screws to be steel or brass, countersunk, domed head, or flat?  Timber: planed or rough? Paint: gloss or emulsion?  Look, dear, why not just tell us what job your husband’s trying to do and we’ll see if we can help you out.’  To which mum fixed them with a steely eye and replied: ‘That’s very kind of you, and since you ask he is building a thirty foot long, seven foot high Loch Ness monster which is to be painted green and pushed along the road.  It needs to billow smoke from its nostrils and be strong enough to last for a two mile journey: what would you suggest?’

The motivational force for this gargantuan creature was hidden beneath each of the famous humps and involved dad, my brother Ian and one other gullible – sorry, I mean willing – friend, pushing her along on little casters. If you think how wayward a modern shopping trolley is and incrementally increase that frustration from three feet to thirty you will get some idea as to what they faced on that summer’s day.

As the float was built to promote the RSPCA it was decided that Nessie would be a pet monster, so I was dressed up in a tweed jacket and kilt to walk ahead clinging on to her ‘lead’.

The day of the procession arrived and all of the floats were marshalled in a yard of the Old West Station (roughly where you would buy sandwiches in Sainsbury’s now) and slowly made its way through the town, involving a long push up the steep hill of Mount Pleasant. We passed the Town Hall and war memorial before reaching the Five Ways junction and turning sharp right at Chieseman’s into the then un-pedestrianised Calverley Road where the crowds were four or five deep, cheering, laughing and clapping.

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Me leading Nessie in Calverley Road

I seem to remember that the whole thing ended up in Broadwater Down, but that seems so far away I can’t quite believe it.

We won a rosette for best float and I think that dad was probably more proud of that award than any other achievement in his life. For years afterwards Nessie’s head hung in our garage at Boyne Park – a reminder of an extraordinary and somewhat surreal day in the summer of 1969.

There is a lovely cine film on YouTube of the Tunbridge Wells Carnival, sadly not from 69, but the year before. However the flickering, faded pastel-coloured images give some sense of the event.

I don’t think that I can’t top Nessie, so I will bring this collection of nostalgia to a close, but I have no doubt that all too soon there will be more memories of Royal Tunbridge Wells to be shared.

 

January 2016

The start of a new year is always a time when, with the rigours of Christmas behind me, I can look forward and see what is on, and over, the horizon.

For a few reasons 2016 looks to be one of the quietest for many years and although that may seem to be a frightening prospect for one whose income is based solely on performances given, I actually go into the new year in a very positive state of mind, as there are lots of new ideas and plans in my head.

This enforced period of inactivity has given me time to stand back and look at where I am now and where I need to go. Hopefully over the year you will get a sense of how things are developing.

Firstly, why are things so quiet this year?

 

To Begin With

You may remember that this time last year I was starting to learn lines for an exciting new project that was supposed to become a regular part of my year. ‘To Begin With’ was a show commissioned by my good friend, and theatre producer, Dennis Babcock.   After many years of trying Dennis had found enough investment to launch the show in Minneapolis.

After a short rehearsal period in England, I flew to the USA and spent a month working in The Music Box Theatre to bring the new show to the stage. We were a small team and it was an amazing experience.

To Begin With was well received both by the audiences and the press and we got some great reviews but sadly almost as the word was beginning to spread, so our run came to an end. We had proved however that the show worked and Dennis assured me that we would revive it as soon as possible, and to clear my diary from January to Easter in 2016 as the only thing that would limit our USA tour of To Begin With would be my availability and willingness to be away from home.

I duly put a large line in my diary and waited for news. And waited and waited. Deadlines for English theatres came and went, and still I waited for news from Minneapolis, but none came. In America Dennis was struggling to find suitable investors and eventually he let me know that we couldn’t tour To Begin With in 2016.

January, February and March lay empty in my diary.

 

The Derek Grant Organisation

In England my work comes from a number of sources, but for the last seven years or so my theatre bookings have come from a small company called The Derek Grant Organisation. DGO is run by Derek himself and his partner Michael Jones who have been involved in variety performances for many years. They have produced their own shows and represented many artistes. Sadly, however, over the last decade or so it has become increasingly difficult to attract large audiences to theatres (unless you are a tribute band, which in a way I am: perhaps I need to gather a few performers together and find a more cheesy name for the act such as ‘The Twisting Olivers’, ‘Those Dickens Dudes’, ‘A Tale of Two Dickies’, or, if I want a whole new audience ’The Knickerless Nicklebies….’ Mmmmm, maybe I’ll stick with what I have).

Just before Christmas Derek informed me that he and Michael would be stepping back and no longer working as full-time producers and while there may be a few repeat bookings filtering through their books, the regular appearances in regional theatre would stop.

So 2016 lay before me: an arid desert, with a few oases of regular bookings shimmering here and there; that made me sit back and consider what the next move should be.

 

The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices

The first big idea came to me as Liz and I were getting ready to visit her sister and brother-in-law in Cambridge for a post-Christmas get-together. Martin, a very talented amateur actor, whose ability has often far outstripped the productions he has been in, is due to retire as a solicitor this year and it struck me that it would be fun to find a show that we could work on together.

In the back of my mind there was the glimmer of an idea which had been planted three years ago in Santa Cruz, when I was listening to a lecture about the relationship between Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, which quite fascinated me. The two authors were close friends for many years and in 1857 Dickens proposed that they should go and have a walking adventure in Cumberland which they could use to create a short story for Dickens’s magazine Household Words.

The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices is a fun account of the adventures befalling Francis Goodchild (Dickens) and Thomas Idle (Collins) and starts with a day’s walking on Carrock Fell, during which they get hopelessly lost in the rain and cloud.

As the idea took hold I began to realise that there was an opportunity to interweave the biographies of these literary giants by using letters and diary extracts, alongside the Lazy Tour text, which could create a show of great interest.

I immediately ordered two copies of the book and let my mind wander. The weekend in Cambridge was fun (somehow Liz and I ended up in Capt Jack Sparrow wigs and costume), and Martin embraced the idea of The Lazy Tour with great enthusiasm. The first new project was underway.

For the next few weeks I started to search for the letters that Charles Dickens had written to Collins before the trip, as well as those written to other friends during their time away. Unfortunately the letters from Collins TO Dickens will be more difficult to find – in a fit of pique brought on by constant public scrutiny Charles burnt all of his personal correspondence in the gardens at Gad’s Hill Place.

To further my research I emailed Melisa Klimaszewski, the academic who had originally given the lecture in Santa Cruz, and to my delight she replied almost straight away with great enthusiasm for the project. In her reply Melisa happened to mention that Professor Michael Slater was currently editing a new edition of The Lazy Tour and perhaps I should chat to him as well. Professor Slater is one of the leading Dickens academics in the world, who has published a great many fabulous biographies: As far as Dickens is concerned If Michael doesn’t know about it, it didn’t happen! Michael also happens to be a great friend and supporter of my shows, so an email to him also elicited a positive response.

I now had all that I needed to begin work on the script, so how should this work…..?

 

Highgate Cemetrery

The second week of January saw my only performance of the month, at Highgate Cemetery in London, where I had been asked to perform The Signalman in the chapel.

Highgate Cemetery is one of the largest in the capital and is the final resting place of many famous people, including Karl Marx.  On a more personal level many of the Dickens family are buried there, including Charles’s parents John and Elizabeth, his wife (my great great grandmother) Catherine, his sister Fanny (who won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music while Charles was working in a shoe blacking factory and who became the model for ‘Little Fan’ in A Christmas Carol,) and his brother Alfred.

On a dark and wet night Liz and I drove towards London in the height of the rush hour. One would have thought that all of the traffic would be heading away from the city, but the fact is that it was just moving around, so we sat on the North Circular road watching the time tick by.

Fortunately The Signalman isn’t a complicated piece to stage and we arrived at the great iron gates of the cemetery with thirty minutes to spare. A few keen members of the audience were huddled together in the cold, trying to shelter from the rain as we unloaded a chair, a table and a railwayman’s lamp from our car.

The chapel itself was a lovely room, with a low stage set up at the far end. The wind outside and the knowledge that we were surrounded by thousands of dead bodies made it a perfect setting for the spine-chilling tale of The Signalman.

Having set the stage we were shown to a small office across the courtyard, where we tucked into a plate of sandwiches and waited for 7.30 start time.

The chapel was full and I started by recounting the circumstances of the terrible rail accident in which Charles had been involved in 1865. With the horror of Staplehurst vividly on the audience’s minds I launched in with that great opening line: ‘Halloa! Below there!’ The low lighting combined with the arches soaring up to the vaulted ceiling above threw eerie shadows across the room, which seemed to darken as the plot unfolded.

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The performance went well and I’m sure that as the audience made their way out of the chapel and through the gothic gatehouse into the dark night more than one may have nervously glanced over their shoulder or started as a ghostly bough of the overhanging trees creaked.

As we packed up my props Melanie, the event organiser, pointed out that we were in the Anglican Chapel, where in the past a short service would have been held before burial , and that many of my ancestors would have gathered in this same room to pay their respects to John, Elizabeth, Catherine, Fanny or Alfred.

Tax Return

The tax year in the UK runs from April 5, and the deadline for submitting a return is January 31, therefore the sensible thing to do is to collate all of the figures and get them off to the accountant in April, leaving the rest of the year worry-free. Do I think that every year? Yes. Do I do it….?

Every January is filled with a mental struggle as I find any number of ways to put off ‘doing the books’ (this year the initial research for The Lazy Tour project was a superb excuse). Finally, with a week to go before the deadline, I dragged myself into the office, pulled out the various receipts and invoices from the year 2014-15 and began to work.

For a task that is purely number driven the job of preparing accounts is wonderfully evocative, for with each invoice, or hotel receipt comes a raft of happy memories: memories of a beautiful theatre with gilded boxes overlooking the stage; reflections on a show well performed and enthusiastically received by a responsive audience. I could almost taste the fish and chip lunch in a wind-swept Little Chef near Barnsley. Whitby Abbey reared before my eyes once more in all of its ruined majesty.

But the figures didn’t only bring happy memories, for there were also receipts from our trip to Ireland and Wales which was the prelude to losing our dear cat Kip. The pain and emptiness of that time returned as I ignored my financial responsibilities and tearfully opened pictures of him.

 

Marketing

With such an empty diary it became obvious that I needed to find some more work to fill the gaps, and rather than hope for a few bookings dripping in here and there, I needed to be proactive in developing new opportunities.

As regular readers will know my brother Ian is a marketing man. For many years he worked with Olympus Cameras and rose to become their Director or Marketing and now has his own consultancy business.

It seemed sensible to get together and work out a way forward that would bring us both a new income stream, so on January the 27th we had a meeting.

I drove to Ian’s beautiful house in Bedfordshire and immediately it became apparent that we were doing things right, as he had erected a flip chart with the words ‘Gerald Dickens. The Brand’ written up.

After coffee was poured we got down to a long and varied discussion based on an agenda that I had drawn up during the week.

Ian’s great talent is his common sense approach to marketing. There are no gimmicks or buzz-words just plain sensible strategies. One of his mantras is to identify a goal and then work back from there; for example, imagine I want to play for a two month run in a thousand-seat theatre filled to capacity every night. That is not going to happen next week, so let’s first find a small theatre, and identify an audience and work until we have filled that for one night; then let’s see if we can fill it for three days, and then a week. The success and profile generated by our successful run means that we can talk to a larger theatre in a larger city with a theatre-going demographic, but there we will be starting again, so we work on the next step finding a new audience to fill every seat – and so it goes on until eventually the original goal has been reached.

The result of an hour or two around the kitchen table was that we are going to investigate self publishing a book based on my interpretation and performance of A Christmas Carol, and finally try to film the show either for DVD release or online streaming. We are going to investigate all of the festivals in the UK, and maybe try to create a tour of venues where Dickens himself performed.

Next year is the 160th anniversary of the Lazy Tour’s publication and will also see the publication of Michael Slater’s new edition, so there are plenty opportunities to launch the new show with a fanfare.

Our meeting broke up to make way for a delicious lasagne and salad. I have no doubts that from here on things are going to get very exciting.

 

Tunbridge Wells

As the month came to a close a strange thing happened with my blog. I was minding my own business when an alert came from WordPress reading: ‘Your stats are booming! On The Road With Gerald Dickens is getting lots of traffic’, which surprised me somewhat as I hadn’t posted anything for ages. Further investigation revealed that a post written almost a year ago about my childhood memories of Tunbridge Wells had been placed on a Facebook page dedicated to the town.

I watched in amazement as the skyscraper on the stats page grew and grew, far surpassing my previous best, and then doubling and almost tripling it!  Messages came in from others who had spent their childhoods in the town and discussions went back and forth on Facebook about the town in the 1970s and where various shops had been.  In an instant digital age the power of nostalgia is a remarkable thing.

I re read the post ‘Memories of Tunbridge Wells’ and once more my childhood came to life as a whole host of new recollections came to mind: there may well be a sequel written soon, and I certainly know who to share it with.

 

A New Blog

At the beginning of January as we pondered the year ahead Liz mentioned that she wanted some creative outlet and thought that she may like to write a blog about our garden. Liz is an amazing and creative gardener and the thought and artistry which goes into making our long stretch of mud into a thing of beauty is extraordinary.

Liz wanted to share not only her practical work in the garden, but also her influences and emotions as a new year began.

As we looked out across the dull dank vista we saw dots of colour as a few buds responded to the warm winter: It was the perfect time to begin the story.  I know that you will enjoy it:

https://foxcottagegarden.wordpress.com/

After the Tour, the Tour Begins

On December 16 my USA tour ended in Occoquan Virginia, but there was plenty more fun to come before Christmas and here is a brief outline of what we got up to:

Washington DC

Our flight home to the UK was not due to leave DC until 9.40 in the evening, so we had a full day to ourselves to explore Washington DC. As I have already detailed the weather throughout the tour had been sunny and warm (into the 70s at times), so the prospect of being tourists for a day was greatly appealing.  We had decided that we would drive to the centre of the city and then walk the length of the Mall, taking in the Lincoln Memorial (more poignant to me following my visit to Gettysburg), admire The Whitehouse and gaze at the Washington Monument before strolling into whichever of the Smithsonian museums took our fancy.

We would bask in the spring-like temperatures and admire the grandeur of the nation’s capital.

December 17 had dawned rainy and foggy – thick fog and heavy rain. We would be lucky to see the top of the Washington Monument and certainly wouldn’t be able to see Capitol Hill from Lincoln’s seat, but we decided to go ahead with our plans anyway.

The drive into DC was easy, and having finally found a parking garage not too far from Pennsylvania Avenue we emerged into the rain and walked towards the Whitehouse.

With the Presidential election due to take place next year the battle for supremacy in the Whitehouse is in full flight and as we walked we noticed one of the most amazing bits of marketing possible. Within sight of the Whitehouse an old building is being converted into a hotel which will open next year and the huge banner outside carries the message: ‘TRUMP hotel COMING IN 2016.’

If anything the rain was coming down harder and got in at every seam: we were very miserable little drowned water-rats as we stood on the Ellipse admiring the National Christmas Tree and the elegant residence beyond. Having watched so many episodes of House of Cards during my trip it was strange to actually stand so close to the Oval Office.

With the entire choice of the Smithsonian collection spread out before us, what did we chose to see?  Julia Child’s kitchen in the Museum of American History. We had seen the film Julie and Julia a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, but knew nothing of the career of Julia Childs at all.  In England we used to watch Fanny Craddock, who filled a similar role on our TV channels (and whose husband came out with the greatest double entendre on British television up to that point: ‘And I hope that all of your doughnuts turn out like Fanny’s…’).

The Museum of American History – at least the first floor – was remarkable and we spent most of our afternoon admiring beautifully displayed exhibits – especially the section dedicated to travel across America, complete with huge locomotives and wonderful cars from the twenties to the eighties (give me something with chrome and fins from the fifties any day!)

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The afternoon was moving on towards evening so we started to walk back to our car, with a brief look at the Museum of Natural History on the way which, although impressive, didn’t have the same impact on us as American History had done.

Knowing that we would be leaving DC in the heart of the rush hour we had built in a huge amount of extra time for our journey to Dulles Airport, but the dedicated expressway saw us arrive with plenty of time to spare and we ate and relaxed at the airport before leaving American soil at the end of an amazing trip.

 

Back in England

Our overnight flight was on time, although we didn’t get much sleep during it, so we were both tired as we disembarked at Heathrow. The drive home to Abingdon only takes an hour and as we drove it struck us both that everything seemed so small suddenly: the cars, the roads, the buildings – everything!

At home we had the rest of the 18th to ourselves and spent a rather lazy day trying re-familiarising ourselves with home. We shopped, picked up our cat from the cattery and slowly started to unpack.  With Christmas only a week away there were preparations to be made and after lunch Liz started to create the Christmas Pudding.  This year she is making a gluten free pudding, so she is worried that the mixture may not hold together as successfully as puddings past – ‘supposin…supposin…it should break in the turning out!’ Mrs Cratchit’s panics are not just a good comedy device – they are a genuine reflection of the fears felt in almost every British kitchen at Christmas.

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The 18th moved on, and I had to begin thinking about work again, as Saturday 19 December saw the first of my British shows this year.  My UK tour started in Halifax, way to the North of England and then gently worked its way south, meaning that I had a long drive ahead of me to Yorkshire.

 

Saturday December 19: Halifax

The long drive gave me plenty of time to work at the 2-act version of A Christmas Carol that I would be performing for the next few days. I had become so used to the flow and rhythm of the single act script that I had to make sure that the new passages slipped in successfully: It was not so much a question of remembering the lines – they are all very familiar to anyone who knows the story; the issue is simply remembering to say them!

The drive took me up the spine of England, using the M1 motorway, which can be notoriously slow, but on this occasion my journey was uninterrupted and I arrived in Halifax with plenty of time to spare.

The venue for the first show was the Square Chapel Arts Centre, which, unsurprisingly, is housed in an old chapel, that is square. The theatre itself is on the first floor of the building, so I had to haul my props and costumes up several flights of stairs before meeting with John the front of house manager, and Simon the technical manager.  Shortly after I arrived so did Michael Jones:  Michael is one half of the production company that promotes and stages my shows in the UK and he looks after all of the technical aspects of my performances.

I rarely get to perform A Christmas Carol in the UK, so Michael wasn’t really familiar with the show, meaning we had to sit down with the script and go through it slowly scene by scene deciding how to light it. I used the lighting plot designed by David at Byers’ Choice as a base, and we used a small light to highlight Marley’s face, with a bright green gel in it: whether that is the colour of a bad lobster in a dark cellar I do not know, but it seemed to be effective nonetheless.

Michael also had a smoke machine, so we decided to fill the hall with smoke before the audience arrived, so it would be hanging in the atmosphere during the build up to the show, and then just before the start I would press the button to fill the stage again, meaning that the first scene, at Marley’s graveside, would have a very eerie feel to it.

Just before the performance I realised that December 19 was the very date on which A Christmas Carol was published, so we arranged to have a microphone backstage, and after the house lights went out I welcomed the audience and told them of this fact, which drew a few murmurs of interest and appreciation.

The stage at the Square Chapel is at floor level, with the seats raking up steeply in front, so I had to be a bit sparing with my top hat, as it would hide my face from the majority of the audience. The extra lines worked well enough but the transition from old script to new felt a bit clunky to me.  One really annoying thing that had been bothering me throughout the USA tour is Marley’s line: ‘You will be haunted by three spirits….’  For some, unknown, reason I have taken to saying ‘visited’ instead of ‘haunted’ and I’ve been re-educating myself to come out with the correct line.  During the performance in Halifax I successfully said ‘haunted’ during the script, but when I repeated the line in a blackout to start act 2, I reverted to ‘visited’: very annoying.

One bonus of performing the two act version was that as Scrooge sees his fiancée Belle leaving, I realised that I was approaching the interval and would have a chance to cool down before pushing onto the end.

The audience was a typically English one: somewhat quiet and rather reserved in their responses, which after the enthusiasm of American audiences was a little bit difficult to come to terms with, but the ovation at the end told me that it had been a successful evening.

As I got ready to leave the theatre the front of house manager gave me an envelope that had been left for me, and it contained a heavy iron key, with a note scribbled onto a napkin: ‘my great grandfather gave this to me to be returned to its rightful owner. I trust you know what to do with it.  Signed, a debtor’.  Curious!

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Michael and I were being hosted by one of the theatre’s volunteers over night, so we drove back in convoy to a charming village nestling in the Yorkshire Moors between Hebden Bridge and Howarth, and had some cheese and biscuits before retiring for the night.

 

Sunday, December 20: Market Drayton

Sunday morning had dawned bright and the air was so clear. We all met in Julia’s kitchen and she made a delicious breakfast, which we ate overlooking the hills that folded over one another to create the Calder Valley.

My next show was due to be a matinee in Shropshire and I wanted to get onto the road reasonably early, so as not to be rushing at the other end. I left Julia’s cottage at around 9.15 and headed towards Manchester, encountering a strange meteorological phenomenon on the way:   Yorkshire is in the east, whereas Lancashire (and Manchester) are to the west – why then was I driving straight towards the rising sun, which made visibility almost impossible?  This scientific anomaly would not last long however, as I would be turning to the south soon – but as I took the M6 motorway the sun was STILL in my eyes!  I have no idea how that all happened.

The Festival Drayton Centre in the small Shropshire town of Market Drayton is a great example of a community coming together to create an entertainment venue. Firstly a chapel was purchased and a simple and intimate theatre was built, but the needs of the community soon outstripped the small space, and more land was purchased.  Now the venue boasts meeting rooms and a fantastic modern lobby, which houses the box office as well as a superb café.  All theatres are struggling to get audiences in these days, but The Festival Drayton Centre has embraced live streaming of opera and productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which are bringing new audiences through the doors – it is a shining beacon of how to provide theatre in the 21st century.

I arrived in good time, followed shortly by Michael and we began to work at the lighting rig again. Having seen the show once Michael had scribbled some new ideas down and we discussed how best to include them.  We asked the resident technician if we could have the green special for Marley’s face and after a moment’s thought he cheerfully replied: ‘Sure, You can have the Bad Fairy Special!’

We were joined in Market Drayton by Derek Grant, the other half of DGO, the production company. Derek and Michael have been working with me for eight years or so and have opened so many doors for me, and encouraged me to write new shows (most particularly Great Expectations).  Sadly Derek and Michael have decided to retire and these few shows will be my last with them: it is certainly the end of an era in my professional life.

I sat in the dressing room chatting with Derek until the audience started to arrive. We gave the stage a good dose of smoke again, and I lit the candle on the little table, as well as placing the key that so mysteriously arrived in Halifax next to it.

The Shropshire audience was much more vocal than the Halifax one, and the show was great fun from beginning to end. However the strains of international performing were beginning to tell and I felt very weak and shaky during the performance.  I was glad that this was a matinee and I could return to my nearby motel and have some rest.

 

Monday, December 21: Gloucester

I had plenty of time during Monday as both Market Drayton and my next venue of Gloucester are in the west of England, meaning no long drives were needed.

I had decided to drive initially to Shrewsbury and spend some time Christmas shopping there. Shrewsbury is a lovely small city, with plenty of independent shops.  It is also the location for the George C Scott version of A Christmas Carol and Scrooge’s grave stone still lies in one of the town’s cemeteries.

After spending a few hours enjoying the Christmas Spirit and buying some small presents for Liz I returned to my car, and drove on to the Cathedral city of Gloucester, where I had time to explore before I had to be at the Guildhall to set up.

The Cathedral itself is set a little apart from the city centre and looked glorious, with its honey-coloured stone glowing against a bright blue winter sky.

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My get-in at The Guildhall was scheduled for 5pm, but even though I was only moving my car about half a mile I got caught in the one-way system’s rush hour and ended up taking forty minutes to get there. The car park for the building is on the roof, which meant that I had to unload all of my furniture and get it into a lift, before being able to get to the stage.

The Guildhall is more of a rock venue, and the stage is very high and quite distant from the audience, so the atmosphere isn’t a great one. However the organisers had sold a goodly amount of tickets, so I was certainly hopeful of a good response.

Michael and Derek were both there and Michael worked with the tech crew to get the lights properly focussed and the cues logged in the system well before the audience arrived. My dressing room was beneath the stage and I felt tucked out of the way, which was rather nice as the fatigue was certainly telling now.

At 7.30 I climbed the staircase to the stage and waited for the houselights to dim, which was my cue to make the pre show announcement from the wings and activate the smoke machine, before listening to the music and walking out to start the show.

The Gloucester audience were another ‘British’ crowd and the show seemed to be quite a struggle. I was still saying ‘visited’ instead of ‘haunted’ (the other way round this time – I got it wrong at the beginning but correct at the start of act 2, although strictly speaking I should have said ‘visited’ both times, so that they matched).

The reaction at the end of the show was very positive, and lots of people waited afterwards to chat, which is always a good indication as to how the show has been received. By the time I had finished chatting Michael and Derek had left and I began the process of transporting my props and costume along the corridor, into the lift, out of the lift, and to the car, before driving home for a rare luxurious night in my own bed, and a chance to be with Liz for the first time in a few days.

 

Tuesday, December 22: Fernodwn

It was lovely to have a morning at home with Liz, and to make preparations for Christmas, including a good session at the supermarket. Over the last two months we have hardly been able to be together in a relatively ‘normal’ environment, so even the shop was a precious time to us.

In the afternoon however I was on the move again, this time driving to Ferndown in Dorset, and to the Barrington Theatre built in the middle of a small shopping centre. After about fifteen minutes driving around a Tesco car park, searching in vain, I eventually found myself at the stage door.

The Barrington is a small, modern theatre perfectly suited to the needs of the community, with a large well-equipped stage and a very welcoming and helpful staff. As it is right on their doorstep both Michael and Derek came to the show.  Michael worked with the technical team while Derek and I chatted in the dressing room.

Derek has been in the business for years and years, and with Michael has promoted a wide range of shows. As they are retiring from the theatrical business Derek chatted reflectively about some of the characters that they have known over the years, especially some of the more temperamental.  He told me of one female singing star who regularly threw the dressing room furniture about if everything wasn’t just so, and a television star of the seventies who grandly announced that ‘I am not a star – I am an ICON!’  I so hope that I never come across in that way!

As the start time of 7.30 approached the audience started to arrive and were entertained in the foyer by a local musical society singing carols. When everyone was seated I made the welcoming announcement from the wings (as had become the routine during the week), and activated the smoke machine before walking out.

The first act went well, and I managed to say ‘haunted’ instead of ‘visited’, although I fumbled the line when Scrooge is seeing the vision of Belle as a ‘comely matron..’ adding: ‘sitting opposite HIS’ (instead of HER), ‘daughter’. That makes for an interesting sub-plot.

Once again the audience were restrained and polite, but they all enjoyed the show. Naturally I said ‘visited instead of ‘haunted’ at the start of the second act, but apart from that all went smoothly.

After I had changed I chatted to some of the audience, many of whom had bought CDs and programmes and wanted them signed. Many of the choir wanted to talk as the musical society had produced their own version of A Christmas Carol a few years ago, and are staging Oliver! next year.

I said good bye to Derek and Michael and returned to Smuggler’s Cottage, my charming B&B just five minutes away from the theatre, where I fell asleep watching the end of Love Actually.

 

Wednesday, December 23: Leicester

The ancient Guildhall in Leicester has become a regular venue for me over the last few years: I have performed An Audience with Mr Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations, Doctor Marigold, the Signalman and A Christmas Carol there. The audience is always enthusiastic and I have gained a strong following in the city.

The drive from Dorset to Leicester was due to take three hours and as this was the busiest shopping day of the year I set out good and early, thereby forgoing the delights of The Smuggler’s Cottage breakfast. After an hour on the road I stopped at a motorway service station, and realised that more and more of them are not serving ‘real’ food, so I was reduced to a Sausage  Egg McMuffin meal.

I made good time and arrived in Leicester an hour before I needed to be at The Guildhall, which suited my purpose as I wanted to make a rather specific purchase, which I managed to do successfully.

Leicester has enjoyed great prosperity over recent years, thanks to the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton under a municipal car park (only the British could actually lose one of their Kings and not notice for hundreds of years), and the Guildhall houses the main City museum. I was welcomed like an old friend by the staff, headed up by Ben Ennis, who has become a good friend over the years.

Between us we unloaded my props from the car and took them into the hall itself, originally built in 1390, and therefore possessing the most amazing atmosphere. The stage is small and there is no technical equipment, but who needs it when there are half timbered walls, a vaulted ceiling and a roaring fire in a stone hearth?

My first job was to chat with the local radio station and record a few clips of the show for them to use on Christmas Eve. By the time I had finished, the audience were arriving and I could watch them from my dressing room, which overlooked the courtyard through which they all entered.

As the start time approached there was no sign of Michael, which was worrying, as he and I had been driving from the same place and I had been in Leicester for at least two hours. I sent him a text, but then had to concentrate on the show.

As ever the Leicester audience were a real treat to perform for: it was like being back in the USA! They joined in and laughed throughout the show, and even the City itself joined in, with the Cathedral bell ringing right on cue, which raise a huge laugh.

For once I got the ‘haunted/visited’ line right on both occasions, although I did manage to spoonerise ‘on the very day of the funeral’ into ‘on the derry vay of the funeral’, which I hope not too many people noticed.

During the first act I noticed Michael slipping in to the rear of the hall, which was a great relief. I discovered during the interval that he had left Dorset a little later than me, and had become caught in the Christmas traffic around Leicester itself.

Into the second act and the festival atmosphere continued, but I was saving the best until the end:

Leicester is a small city, and it has a small football team, which traditionally battles around the lower reaches of the Premier League. Leicester City FC has had its moments of glory, but has never been a team to threaten the multi-million pound outfits from London, Manchester and Liverpool.

This year, however, Leicester have been playing with the spirit of a winning team, and the day before my show it had been confirmed that they would sit at the top of the league over Christmas – which is always a major achievement for any team. To celebrate this fact I had wanted to mention the team during the show, and I decided that when Scrooge gets ‘dressed, all in his best’, I would let him wear a Leicester City scarf (my special purchase from this morning).  I reached that line and he put on his usual plain scarf, before muttering ‘no, I must get dressed in my VERY best’ at which point I produced the blue and white of the Foxes.  The cheer that went up must have threatened the ancient building!

I was very pumped up and excited by the performance, but I had to remember that there was another one to go, so tried to calm down and focus a little.

As the two-show event in Leicester was so close to Christmas, Ben had arranged for roast turkey and vegetables to be ordered in and hosted a wonderful festive supper between the shows. As well as Michael and me, there were various volunteers and staff members from the museum and Ben’s family who have all become good friends too.

We used the huge table in my dressing room, which was actually used as a jury room in the Guildhall’s days as a town hall.  I cleared all of my costume away and the table was prepared.  I placed my top hat in the table centre with a candlestick placed on the top in lieu of a more traditional table decoration.

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Dinner: Ben to my right and Michael to his right

 

It was a lovely dinner, with much laughter. Ben’s mother told a long story, about some apparently dead goldfish that were brought back to life by a re-oxygenation of the water via a drinking straw: it was a bizarre, surreal tale, but brilliantly told and very entertaining.  There then followed many stories of pet disasters, which became more upsetting and yet macabre-ly funny by the minute.

The dinner ended at 6, and the staff got ready to welcome the evening audience to the Guildhall.   The jury room looks down on the hall itself, so I was able to watch the crowd as they took their places.

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Although I was feeling tired, I was very pleased with the evening show. The audience were not quite as vocal as the afternoon’s but joined in enthusiastically.  This time the clock didn’t ring on cue, but when I said ‘some people laughed to see the alterations in him…..’ a loud shriek of laughter was heard outside, again bang on cue.  Two shows, two perfectly timed ad-libbed interruptions: if I believed in ghosts I may have thought that someone in the spirit world wanted to be a part of this show…..who could that be, then?

The football scarf raised another huge cheer, and I reached the end of the show with a feeling of huge celebration, which is just how it should have been so close to Christmas Day.

 

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day

I drove home from Leicester on the morning of Christmas eve and Liz and I spent the rest of the day making preparations for the big day. We finished decorating the house together, and hung lights wherever we could.

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Christmas Day was so special, as it was the two of us together in our own house, and Liz provided the most remarkable turkey and Christmas pudding- which blazed in brandy, bedight with Christmas holly stuck in the top.

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Having spent so much time apart over the past two months the entire Christmas time was wonderful, and we walked (a little) and talked (a lot) and relaxed together. It wasn’t a great huge Dickensian celebration – it was the perfect time for the two of us to grow together once more.

 

Sunday, December 27: The Concorde Club, Eastleigh

I had one final performance to give before 2015 passed and that was at a new venue for me, near to the city of Southampton. The Concorde Club was built as a music venue but is trying to expand its programme of events.  The generously sized stage was in a cabaret style lounge, and tables were laid for the guests to have dinner before the show itself.

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Liz had come with me, and Derek and Michael were both present, as this would mark my final performance for them.

The dinner service meant that the show would begin later than usual, and just before 8pm Liz wished me good luck and went to take her seat among the audience.

It was back to the ‘English audience’ and I quickly decided that there would be no point trying to cajole them to join in with anything, as they were not that sort of group. However there was no fidgeting, not muttering, no noise at all – everyone was listening and concentrating on the words with great intensity.

I shortened the show ever so slightly so that we didn’t finish too late, but included most of it. The applause was very generous and I stood on the stage bowing not just for the evening’s show, but for the entire season, which began back on November 7 in Cambridge Ohio.  It seems strange to think how nervous I was about performing A Christmas Carol back then, but the show has developed since. and is definitely better now than it was in 2014.

Many members of the audience wanted to chat after the show, including a couple that Liz and I had met on a cruise ship many years ago, and with whom Liz had watched the show.

We said our final goodbyes to Derek and Michael and entered a new phase in my life. In 2016 I will write new shows and think of new ways to promote myself in England, hopefully working with my brother Ian and using his brilliant marketing talent; but for now I can relax and rest and reflect on 52 performances of A Christmas Carol, each one performed to the very best of my ability.

And with that, I shall leave you to your New Year’s Celebrations.  Thank you for all of your support throughout this year, and for all the comments and gifts along the way.  I look forward to chatting to you again very soon.

Happy 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good People

Wednesday, December 16

 

In an earlier blog (‘A Polite Way of Storytelling’) I opened with the sentence ‘My alarm goes off and I wake feeling ever so slightly jaded.  Maybe my evening of great conviviality with Stephen and Sarah Jane was a little too convivial.’

On that occasion I was in Norfolk: there must be something about Virginia, for if I substitute Stephen and Sarah Jane for Ryan and Jeannie, the same is true today.

We surface slowly and start to pack a few things ready for our departure. This morning we are going to have breakfast at the Inn itself, rather than at the Lodge, and feel much more at home as we arrive back in the Regency Room.

We are greeted as old friends by many of the staff and receive nods of recognition from guests who were in the audience last night.

One of the waiters, Don – who has been at Williamsburg for as long as I can remember – comes to the table to chat. Don is a giant of a man, he must be 6’4 at least, and he moves slowly, with great deliberation; when he serves he does so with deep concentration, as if the fear of making a mistake is too huge to bear. He loves to talk, and loves the shows, and tries to watch as many as he can, meaning that he is well versed in the lines. Apparently yesterday when the sound man turned up and wanted to check that the microphone was working correctly Don immediately volunteered to stand in for me and had his moment centre stage repeating the words of Charles Dickens. I would have paid anything to have seen that!

Don’s eyes are sparkling as he recounts the story, but as we talk Leroy, the Maitre D’ comes across the restaurant and reminds Don that he is still working and needs to get on: ‘If I didn’t rescue you he would keep talking to you all morning!’

Leroy is another amazing man and the Regency Room would be a faint imitation of itself without him at the helm. Leroy is short of stature but with a ram-rod-backed military demeanour. For the past few years he has been talking about retiring, which is a terrible thought for the restaurant.  As we chat he tells us about his grandson in Houston, who he misses profusely; and a sensitive, loving, caring soul is shown to us. It is a moving moment in which Leroy becomes our close personal friend rather than a Williamsburg employee. Retire! Definitely!

It is a feature of my tours that along the way so many kind, generous, warm, sensitive, talented and fascinating people touch my life and I feel truly grateful for being given the opportunity to meet them.

We finish our breakfast, and after a final farewell hug from Leroy we return to our room to finish packing. The journey today takes us to the little riverside town of Occoquan which lies to the south of Washington DC. We get on the road and settle in for a 2 hour journey that features no corners to speak of. The I295 cuts its arrow-like route through the Virginian woodland, taking us past the Marine Corps base at Quantico.

The I295 becomes the I95, which seems to feature a great deal on my tour running, as it does, for the entire length of the eastern seaboard. To alleviate the massive DC commuter traffic a toll expressway has been built alongside. The Expressway is only open in the rush hours, but now lays silent. To prevent cars using it a series of barriers are down – there must be at least twelve of them at each intersection, and it would be a fantastic scene for a car chase in a Bond, Mission Impossible of Bourne movie. I can see the flimsy poles being pinged into the air one after another as our hero chases down some villainous crook, hell-bent on world domination.

Shortly before 1pm we turn off 95 and head into the little town of Occoquan, where we park next to my venue for today’s shows, The Ebenezer Chapel. The car park is almost full and people are already streaming into the chapel even though my show is not for another hour.

The events of the day are actually put on by The Golden Goose Christmas store, which is a short stroll along Main Street. Occoquan is such a beautiful little town, with the houses looking like models that have been carefully constructed and painted. The Golden Goose is elaborately decorated with swathes of fir and huge Christmas ornaments. As soon as we enter we are greeted by Pat, who owns the store along with LaVerne – they are both further examples of the good and kindly people that we are fortunate to know.

We are ushered into the little back office to relax, and Pat arranges for a quick lunch to be brought in for us: a salad for me and a sandwich for Liz. If there could be a blueprint for the perfect pre-show lunchtime salad, this would be it: simple, healthy and tasty.

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I get changed in the stockroom and just before 2 we walk along the street back to the chapel. It is only a small hall, but it is full. Almost an entire side is taken up by a group from the Red Hat Brigade, looking resplendent in a variety of scarlet headwear and purple tops. They are always a fun crowd to perform to, and I have my special ‘red hat’ ad-lib (that they have all heard many times before), ready up my sleeve.

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LaVerne makes a wonderful introduction, which includes showing us her old family copy of A Christmas Carol printed in 1900, and I begin my penultimate performance of this year’s USA tour.

From the very start I know this is going to be a fantastic show – not a good one, but a fantastic one. The relationship between me and the audience is electric and every moment works perfectly. The laughter rings from the Ebenezer Chapel, and there are not just sniffles to accompany Tiny Tim’s death but loud, uncontrolled sobs.

On Christmas morning Scrooge makes his way through the crowds wishing everyone Merry Christmas, until he catches sight of the Red Hatters: ‘Hmm, I think that you should shop in different stores to one another!’ A huge guffaw of laughter and a round applause greets the line; and another one follows when Scrooge goes to church and realises that ‘they even named it after me!’ They are both old well used ‘ad libs’, but the audience at Occoquan look forward to them as much as ‘God Bless Us, Every One.’

If I could bottle up the joyfulness within the Ebenezer Chapel this afternoon and sell it, I would be a rich man indeed. When, at the end of the show, I stand at the door to say goodbye to everyone there is a most amazing sense of Christmas energy flowing into the streets. It is an unbelievably precious moment, and both Liz and I are moved to the point of tears.

When the audience has left the Church we walk back to the store for the signing session. Liz sits in the office and I make my way through the displays of trees and ornaments to a small room at the back of the shop. The Christmas Spirit is still alive and well, and everyone is happy.

When the signing finishes I just have time to change before we are taken out to supper by Jean, her husband Peter and Joe, all friends of Pat and LaVerne, who have become my regular dinner companions here for the last few years.

Jean is an avid fan of British television, and chats eagerly to Liz about the final season of Downton Abbey, as well as series that are less well-known in the USA such as Granchester and the original version of House of Cards.

Joe and I talk about Washington DC, and what Liz and I could see on our day of tourism tomorrow – he suggests many things, including the Smithsonian Museum of American History on the Mall, which sounds fascinating.

Time rushes on all too quickly, and soon I am changed and ready for the final performance. The chance of it being anything like this afternoon’s adventure is slim, but I want to go out on a high note, nonetheless.

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Back at Ebenezer the audience are packed in once more. LaVerne makes her introduction and for the final time on US soil this year I say ‘Marley was dead, to begin with!’

Right from the start I know that I am a little slow and slightly fatigued, but certainly not badly so. The show is going well enough, and the pace is beginning to return when I am aware of movement in the audience. A gentleman sitting about four rows back is obviously not feeling well, and the people around him are trying to help. I keep an eye on proceedings, in case I need to stop the show, meaning that I am performing on automatic pilot, just letting the words continue.

Then the man slumps forward, and his companions, lift him up, and manage to get him to his feet and lead him out of the little hall. Of course the audience are watching this drama unfold, which is just as well, because my continuing narration has become devoid of any real emotion now.

With the patient out of the hall (followed by LaVerne, Liz and another member of the Golden Goose staff), faces turn back to me, and we all settle down to return to the story once more. I give myself a metaphorical kick with metaphorical spurs, and metaphorically break out of a trot to gallop once more.

From this point on my performance starts to gather rhythm and energy once more – even when the wailing cry of the ambulance is heard outside, and the red lights flash through the stained glass windows directly in my eye line.

Liz and LaVerne are back in the hall, so I assume that things are as good as they can be, and the flashing lights are a permanent reminder that the gentleman is in good hands.

I get to the end of the show, and to the end of the tour – not quite the easiest of performances with which to finish, but a good reminder that you can never relax until the fat lady has sung (or the little boy has God Blessed).

At the back of the hall I ascertain from LaVerne that the gentleman fainted, and was thoroughly checked over by the paramedics, but refused to go in the ambulance to hospital. It is a huge relief that the situation was not more serious.

Back at the store the signing line is less frantic than earlier (a lot of the second audience had joined the first audience’s queue earlier), and in no time I am changing back into my normal clothes again. The Frock coats and waistcoats can be hung up for the last time – well, for three days, as I have a series of performances in the UK, but for now there is a definite feeling of closure

We say good bye to Pat and LaVerne and wish them well for Christmas and the New Year, until we meet again in this magical shop in this magical town. As we walk to the car Christmas lights are twinkling from gables and windows. Some are white, some coloured, some subtle, some bold; some outside, some in. Yes, Occoquan is definitely magical tonight.

After dropping my costumes and bags into our car, we walk to Madigan’s restaurant and bar where we order two deserts and a bottle of wine, and we quietly toast the conclusion of another successful USA tour.

This will not be the final blog post of this year for I shall look back over the tour soon; but for now:

‘Happy Christmas to all and to all a good-night!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making a Spectacle

The tour is certainly getting towards its closing stages now, with just today and tomorrow left: four more ‘Marley was dead, to begin withs’ and eight more ‘God bless us every ones’.

We both wake at around 6.30 and I sit at the desk writing, while Liz reads in bed. When the blog post is finished and posted we make our way across a courtyard into the main building at The Williamsburg Lodge. The sky is bright blue and temperature is already climbing – it must be in the high 60s if not in the 70s already.

It is so busy in the restaurant that we have to put our name on a list, so that we can be called when there is space for us. The lady at the podium doesn’t quite here our name correctly, and we temporarily become Dixon, party of two.

After a short wait Mr and Mrs Dixon are called and we are shown to a table, where we are handed a menu but decide to avail ourselves of the buffet.  One of the great highlights of touring is the breakfast buffet at the Williamsburg Inn, and sadly the Lodge’s efforts do not come close.  As with everything here it is perfectly good and would rate well in any other hotel, but we know what is just over the parking lot. We decide that tomorrow we shall sneak to the Inn and treat ourselves to the luxurious fare that will be on offer.

Following breakfast we need to pick up a rental car from the local Hertz dealership. We should have collected a car from Richmond yesterday, but of course all of our plans became mangled with the flight cancellations and delays.

We take a short cab ride, which takes us past the campus of William and Mary College, which is truly impressive, and to a small retail park on the edge of the town. The Hertz office is tiny and the first car they offer us does not have a sat nav unit fitted, which will make things very difficult.  However a larger car has recently been returned, and if we don’t mind waiting it can be cleaned for us.

As we sit and wait Liz picks up a copy of The Original Virginia Magazine, and we flick through the advertisements. One in particular catches the eye: ‘Serendipity: The Largest Flag Shop On The East Coast!’  Suddenly I have an urge to visit this vast emporium, and the advertisement promises even more when it says: ‘Flagpoles and Accessories!’  Liz points out, there can’t be that many accessories available, other than rope and a little cleat to wind it round.

As much as we want to experience the largest flag shop on the east coast (which, by the way, suggests that there must be a larger one either in the mid west or on the west coast), we decide instead to return to the historic region of Colonial Williamsburg.

When we reach the hotel there is a message waiting on our phone which is from Hertz, saying that the previous renter of our Ford Fusion thinks that he left his spectacles in the car and could we look for them. We are more than happy to do so, because actually we are in the same situation.  Liz lost her glasses somewhere (either in Winterthur or Chalfont) and we are anxiously waiting to see if anybody has found them, so it is the least we can do to help this unknown gentleman in his quest.

The first search of the car proves unsuccessful, but a call to Hertz prompts us to look in the secret sunglasses compartment built into the roof, and there they are. We leave the glasses at the front desk for collection, and hope that we may have the same good fortune.

Our walk along the Duke of Gloucester Street is wonderful. The mix between the historic buildings inhabited by costumed characters, and the modern camera-toting tourists is confusing, but somehow it works.  Horse-drawn coaches with liveried footmen make their way slowly along the street, and demure ladies in bonnets nod and bob their greetings to the baseball cap-wearing passengers within.

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We visit one of the stores on the street, and buy a few small items to take home with us, and as we are paying we notice a pair of circular spectacles on the counter. I have often wanted Scrooge to have glasses, and we ponder for a while as to whether we should make the purchase.  The arms are hinged and loose, but they can be tightened up easily enough. The glass is a reading prescription, making everything blurry to me, but I can peer over the top of them in a very Scroogy way.  The man behind the counter, in full costume, asks what they are for and we explain about the show.  ‘Are you Gerald Dickens?  I saw you perform in St Paul, Minnesota many years ago!’

In the end we decide to buy them and I will see how they work during today’s performances.

We walk on until we reach our favourite place – the Colonial Garden, which sells horticultural wares, both living and manmade. The main part of the plot is planted with vegetables, whilst the store area is beneath a canvas cover carefully tied to tree branches, which in turn are lashed together in such a way as to create a sturdy frame.

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Browsing

There are elaborate Christmas wreathes and table centres artistically made with fir and dried fruits, and there are the raw materials so that one can attempt to make them oneself. There are iron gardening tools and there are terracotta pots. It is a great store and so photogenic.  Over the years I must have taken more photographs per square metre here than anywhere else in the country.

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The morning is moving on, and we need to buy some lunch before I go to the Inn to prepare for my first show. There is a good delicatessen next to the Fat Canary restaurant, and we buy a simple salad for me and a sandwich for Liz to take back to the hotel.

My first commitment at the Inn is for a sound check and a meeting with the banqueting staff to make sure that the tea performance runs smoothly. The Regency Room is once again set up to capacity, but today I know that every seat will be filled.  Many of the staff are old friends and we chat as they set the tables.

Michele DeRosa arrives (I’m never quite sure what her position in the hotel is, but she looks after my events each year) and we discuss the logistics of the day. The tea guests will be seated at 2.15 and served, I will then begin A Christmas Carol, but will pause the performance after the Ghost of Christmas Past has done her thing, so that the teapots can be refreshed.  I ask Michele if there is a room where I can change, and she shows me to an overflow dining room:  It is the most lavish dressing room I have ever had, filled with antique furniture and 17th Century Chinese porcelain.

With all of the plans laid and agreed upon, I go back to the Lodge. Liz isn’t coming to the afternoon show, but is going to make the most of the beautiful day and surroundings.  I get my costumes together, and we leave the room together.  I must say that the idea of being a tourist this afternoon is rather appealing!

At the Inn the audience are gathering and the corridor to the Regency Room is already packed as I enter my dressing room. I get myself ready and put on my hat and scarf, not forgetting the new glasses, then go to the dining room which is alive with laughter and chatter.

Ryan Fletcher takes to the stage and welcomes the crowd, asking how many have seen the show before. The response is astounding – it must be at least 80% of the room, and a round of applause breaks out.  Goodness, with an approval rating like that I should be running in the forthcoming primaries, which are so energising the nation currently.

Ryan is as mellifluous and articulate as ever and as he completes his remarks the music starts and I make my way slowly through the tables (slowly and somewhat myopically, as I can’t really focus on anything very effectively).

The audience is a good one (as you would expect from such a loyal group), and we have a lot of fun. The glasses are a slight hindrance, and I need to think how best to use them.  My plan had been for Scrooge to wear them throughout the first scene and then discard them when he first falls asleep: thereby meaning that he never wears them in the supernatural world, only in the real one.  However, that means that Fred and Bob (as well as the charity collector and carol singer, who don’t appear in the shortened tea show) will have them too:  a new project for me to work on, which is always, fun.

At the end of the performance I change and then sit in the lobby to sign. The line is long, and many people have multiple books to be inscribed with complicate dedications (which is always the case as we get closer to Christmas).

But lurking back in line is one of the most wonderful treats in the shape of the Secaur family who lavish gifts on me. Firstly there is a collection of linens, embroided by mother Mary (the mother of the family is called Mary – she is not a Mother Superior from a local convent).  Each piece has a wreath of green thread and spiralling within it is the quote: ‘I shall honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I shall live in the past, the present and the future, the spirits of all three shall strive within me’.

The family, and most especially daughter Meredith, have been following my adventures through the blog and so my next gifts are based on the tour: a pair of clothes-peg figures, which Meredith has made to represent Charles Dickens and me (one has more hair than the other…). ‘My’ figure also has a detachable scarf that can be left in as many venues as the real thing. So funny!  There is also a book on The Gettysburg Address and other writings by Abraham Lincoln, following my visit to the battlefield there.

Thank you so much to Mary, Robert, Elizabeth and most especially Meredith – your thoughtfulness and attention to detail is very moving indeed.

The signing line lasts a long time, and eventually members of the evening audience start arriving and joining in, so I eventually have to absent myself and get a small amount of down time, before all of the craziness starts again.

I return to the room, where Liz is getting a little concerned by my prolonged absence. She has spent the afternoon at The Williamsburg Art Museum, which sounds wonderful and is definitely a place that I would like to visit in future years.

I have just time for a bath and shower to re-energise, before it is time to return to the Inn and get ready for the dinner show. I leave slightly before Liz, so that I can change into costume again.  As I walk into the lobby there is a group of carol singers gathered around the Christmas tree and I am delighted to see that it is Ryan’s group.  For all of the years of my visits to Williamsburg Ryan and I have shared the camaraderie of fellow performers, but I have never heard him sing, or seen him on stage.  The quintet fills the lobby with the most beautiful sounds, and it is a perfect welcome for the many guests who are pouring into the hotel.

I go and change and when I return Liz is there, so we stand together and listen to the very end of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ before congratulating the group and posing for photographs with them.

The evening’s performance will follow a three course dinner. I used to perform between courses, but the format is one that I find very tiring and difficult, not to mention being hard on the kitchen and waiting staff, so about three years ago I suggested that we reverted to a more traditional dinner theatre format.  Many guests miss the old way, I know, but I’m too old to leap up and down over and over again these days.

Liz and I are sat with Ryan and his wife Jeane, as well as a few other guests. Conversation through dinner is fun, although both Liz and I are aware that I must spare my voice, so as to be ready for the vocal work-out that is to follow.  I am careful as to what I eat, and leave most of the delicious crab soup, as it has a high cream content: cream/throat/performance – not a good mix.

When the desserts have been placed, and glasses refilled it is time to sing for my supper. As with this afternoon many of the audience are regular attendees, which makes everything much easier.

I am tired, I can feel that I am tired, but the show goes well. Some of the voices are not quite as crisp as they were a few weeks ago, and some of the moves are not quite so energetic (although I try to leap high as Mr Fezziwig, because Ryan told me that he always likes that part).  When I get to the end I feel as if I could not go on another five minutes, for today the tank is at empty.

There is still signing to be done, and the line is immense! Liz, Ryan and Jeane go to the bar and I say that I will join them as soon as I can, but the enthusiastic audience are keen to talk.  A few ask ‘why don’t you do it the old way, between courses – that was my favourite’, or ‘why don’t the waiters parade the flaming pudding, I loved that part’ or ‘Why do you not say the family grace before the first course – I miss that’, but on the whole people have enjoyed the evening exactly as it is and congratulate me.

Eventually I am able to make my way to the bar, where Liz, Jeane and Ryan are enjoying a glass of wine, and have one waiting for me. Also in the bar is my old friend Christine, who used to work at the Inn, and her husband Erich who are sharing a table with Leroy, the Maitre D’ of The Regency Room, who has run my events with military precision for as long as I can remember.  Today it is his birthday and he has actually attended the dinner with his wife.

We all chat and gossip, until, as always seems to be the way in Williamsburg, we are the last ones left in the bar, patiently watched over by Mark the bar tender.

We realise that it is time to leave and another fifteen minutes passes as we all hug our various goodbyes.

Liz and I pack up my costumes and props and make our way back to the Lodge (oh, how much easier it would have been if we had a room at the Inn). Between us we muster enough energy to hang the costumes up, and get ready for bed before complete fatigue overwhelms us and sleep comes to take us both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Perfect End to an Imperfect Day

Monday, December 14

 

Here we go again: It is time to move on, and our luxurious time in the Historical Hotel Bethlehem is coming to end all too soon.  The alarm rings us awake at 5.15 and we both get up before falling back to sleep.

For the first time in a week I have to carefully pack my case to include my top hat and cane, which I do while Liz showers and gets ready. When she is finished in the bathroom we swap and by 6.00 we are both prepared for the day ahead.

As we have been driving Bob and Pam’s Volvo during our Pennsylvanian trip it has been arranged that Bob will drive Pam to meet us at the hotel, and drive us to Philadelphia airport, from where she can easily drive home again.

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We have a somewhat bleary-eyed reunion among the beautiful lobby decorations and, with the help of the man behind the front desk, discover that our flight to Richmond Virginia will be flying from Terminal F – a tiny alarm bell rings somewhere deep in my mind, as I remember the day in September when I was stuck at Philly (in F) for an entire day.

We load the car and Bob says his farewells to us both. Liz sits in the front with Pam, while I sit in the back and try something new: writing my blog on my phone.  There will be lots of spelling mistakes (even more than usual) but at least I am getting something down that I can email to myself at the airport and finish.

There is thick fog this morning, but Pam (assisted by Liz’s navigation) makes good time to Philadelphia and we arrive at the airport at around 8am, with plenty of time to check in and have breakfast. I close my Word document on the phone and we unload the car, before hugging Pam for the final time this year.

Check in and security is un-problematic (although Liz’s case requires an extra search), and we are soon in the terminal where we check the monitors: our flight to Richmond is delayed by about an hour and, more worryingly, the previous Richmond flight had been cancelled.  Good old terminal F.

We walk to the central food court, which serves as a hub to the three spokes of terminal F, and sit at a restaurant I now know well, where we order a large breakfast each, which we can spend plenty of time over.

After browsing in some of the shops (Liz spends plenty of time looking at organic skin and hair treatments, while I look at a carry-on bag mounted on a little scooter), we walk all the way down one of the spokes to gate 23, from where our flight will depart. No plane.  We sit patiently: the fog is playing havoc with the schedules and planes are not where they are supposed to be.  Eventually an announcement is made to say that as gate 23 is still waiting for a different inbound flight, the Richmond passengers now need to go to gate 4, which is all the way up our spoke, and all the way down the opposite one.  At 4 we are quickly re-located to 2, and after twenty minutes or so a further announcement sends us to gate 21 (yes, that’s right, all the way down the first spoke again).  We sit patiently at 2 for a few more minutes until the inevitable announcement is made: ‘For passengers flying to Richmond, we regret to announce that the flight has been cancelled.  Please make your way to the American Airlines desk next to gate 37 for re-booking’  Gate 37 is at the far end of the third spoke, so we have now covered every inch of terminal F.

As we stand in line I call Pam and Bob, and they get to work on dealing with the situation from their end, while we wait to see what American Airways can do for us. It is looking tight for my show that is due to begin at 3pm.  Bob calls back, there is one flight to Norfolk, Virginia, but there is only one seat on that – however it will get me there in time to drive to Williamsburg and perform.  Three years ago Liz and I stood on the same spot, in the same situation, and I had to leave her behind to perform: we definitely do NOT want to do the same this year – although in the end I am here to work and if that is the only way to get to a show, then we will have to.

While Bob works on the airline schedules, Pam contacts Williamsburg to explain the situation to them. When Liz and I reach the desk the American Airlines agent couldn’t be more helpful.  We explain the need to get to Williamsburg in time for my performance, and she does a detailed search of all the airports in that part of Virginia.  Initially she comes up with the Norfolk flight that Bob had found, but even as she looks the final seat goes, thereby solving the issue of us being separated.

With more tapping she discovers a flight to the tiny airport at Newport News, which is very close to Williamsburg, and manages to book us, and our bags, onto that. It is due to leave at 1pm, arriving at 2, and then a twenty five minute journey to The Williamsburg Inn.  It will be tight but doable.

I call Bob with the good news, and after a few minutes Pam calls to say that the Inn will send a car to pick us up. We can relax again.

As we sit at the gate I remember the unfinished blog on my phone, but when I open up the Word file has gone. I couldn’t have saved it properly when we arrived earlier, and my great words of wisdom have been cast aside forever.  As we sit at the gate waiting  for our plane to arrive (now showing as delayed by twenty five minutes), I start typing again.

Eventually the inbound flight pulls up at the gate and disgorges its passengers, meaning that we will soon be boarding. Amazingly I have reached exactly the same point in my recollections of the previous day as I had when we pulled up at the airport all those hours ago.

Our plane is packed, which is not surprising as two Richmond flights have been cancelled and all of those passengers need to be in Virginia. I settle into my seat and watch another episode of House of Cards, while Liz sits two rows behind and reads.

The flight is very short, and soon we are skimming the woodlands of Virginia and landing at Newport News. It is 2.15.

In the baggage claim area we are hoping to see a driver with a sign saying ‘Dickens’ or ‘Williamsburg Inn’, but there is no such sign, which is worrying. As we stand I look anxiously towards the door, hoping that a driver will appear.  Near the main entrance there is one suited older gentleman who watches the proceedings unfold, and eventually he walks to us and says ‘are you Mr Dickinson?  I thought it must be you, from the worried way you were looking round.  I am Howard Smith, your driver’  It seems an odd way of meeting passengers – just to wait until you work out who is looking most nervous.

Mr Smith has a huge black Suburban, with blacked out windows, meaning that we look like part of a presidential motorcade as we swish out of the airport. We explain the situation to him, and he eases his foot down a little further, meaning that the huge V8 engine (actually it may be more than that), pushes us onward with greater urgency.

We reach the Inn at 3pm, and as we climb down from the car we are met by our old friend Ryan Fletcher who introduces me at the Williamsburg events. He is already in costume and ready to go.  In the hotel there is some confusion as to what is happening; we are actually not staying here but at another hotel in the group, The Williamsburg Lodge.  However with the performance so imminent I need a room to change in: people scurry here and there until eventually I am shown to an empty guest room (it doesn’t need to be empty, we would quite happily stay in it, surrounded by the kind of luxury enjoyed by the Queen when she stayed here).

Liz takes her bags over to the Lodge to check in, and I change as fast as I can, before going to the Regency Room, which must be one of the most elegant hotel restaurants in the world. The room is set out for a tea service for around 100 guests, but there are only about thirty seated when I arrive.

My show this afternoon is a private one, for the USA Chamber of Commerce from Washington DC. The hotel has invited the group to spend time here and to have the run of the facilities, in the hope that these powerful business men and women will book conferences and meetings in the future: my show is just a small part of the entertainment package laid on for them.

With so few guests here, I can see that the start will be late and am greatly surprised when Ryan gets up to begin his announcements. Thirty it is, then.  Seventy delicious servings of tea will go to waste and the room will feel very empty.

My performing area is a large dance floor in the centre of the room, with the tables arranged around it. It really is difficult to get myself up for this performance, after the mad start to the day.  The guests (including quite a few young children) are very quiet, yet very attentive.  This is not a show for audience participation, so no ‘oooohs’, and ‘ahhhh’s’ over Mrs Cratchit’s pudding, and no ‘nooooo Bobs’ on Boxing Day morning.  There is however a suitably blushing Topper’s girl, who joins in, even to the extent of loudly repeating the line ‘It’s not fair!’ which is good.

Actually the performance is a good test for me, as I am determined not to let myself just go through the motions and get it finished and out the way. The audience may be small, and spread widely across the room, but they are there, and listening closely: they deserve every bit as much effort as the seven hundred at Byers Choice two days ago.

When the show finishes all of the guests clap very loudly, and as I stand at the door with Liz they all shake my hand and thank me so much for performing for them. Children and adults alike are excited and there are lots of ‘that has really put me into the Christmas spirit’ comments.

I sign a few books, and pose for a few photographs, before returning to my swish ‘changing room’.

Liz walks me over to the Lodge and takes me to our room, which in any other hotel would be grand, if only we didn’t know what life is like at the Inn itself! In previous years we have always stayed at the Inn and it is amazing how used you become to luxury.

I change and at last am able to finish and post the Bethlehem blog before having a nice hot bath.

When we were in Chalfont Bob had suggested a very good restaurant in Williamsburg, and Liz has managed to get a reservation for us at The Fat Canary at 8pm. It is only a ten minute walk, so we stroll in the warm night air hand in hand, enjoying the historic surroundings of Colonial Williamsburg, until we are brought sharply up to date by the bright garish appearance of an ice rink, with modern holiday songs blaring out.  There is a modern tourist kiosk next to it, and it all seems very out of place here.

The Fat Canary is a wonderful modern restaurant, with an imaginative menu. We order a bottle of Viognier from the Williamsburg Winery and settle down to share a wonderful evening together: no shows, no audiences, and no commitments.   No Gerald Charles Dickens and his wife.  No, this just us, Liz and Gerald enjoying each other’s company and having a perfect evening.

The perfect end to an imperfect day.

 

Oh, Little Town….

Sunday, December 13

I wake fairly early this morning, and as we have no commitments for a few hours I let Liz sleep on while I set to writing two days worth of blog posts.

After completing the first day I decide that coffee is needed, so get dressed to make my way to the front desk where the coffee machine is kept.

At this hour I am in a rather dishevelled state, so am grateful to discover that the breakfast buffet (including a pot of freshly brewed coffee) is being laid out in our building. I am filling two cups when the lady who is responsible for the breakfast suddenly notices me and cries out: ‘Wow! It’s you! I saw your show last night.  Oh, my!  All of those characters! How do you do it?’  It is difficult to maintain decorum when the bags under one’s eyes are so heavy that they would attract excess baggage charges, and one’s hair is sticking out horizontally.  I try to be as suave and grateful as I can, but probably fail.

Back in the room I finish writing, and we get ready to return downstairs for breakfast. A Joseph Ambler breakfast buffet is a wonderful thing, and we both enjoy a plate of fresh fruit, before embarking on scrambled eggs and bacon.

We need to be on the road at 10am, so we finish packing and load the car up ready for the next leg of our adventure. As I check out there is a lady fussing over the Christmas decorations and I ask her if she is responsible for dressing the entire inn, to which she answers yes.  I tell her what an amazing job she has done: her face lights up with one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.  As I leave I say ‘Merry Christmas’, to which she replies ‘Straight back at ya!’

It is another warm spring-like day, and the drive is easy. At one intersection we are sat behind a fire truck, and we talk about how perfectly – well – American the large utilitarian vehicles are here: fire trucks, school busses, Mac and Peterbilt tractor units are all so chunky and purposeful.  Liz says that it is as if the designer took his childhood Tonka Toy and made it for real – and that is exactly how this fire tender looks.

Within an hour we are dropping down the steep hill towards Bethlehem and passing the classic golden arches of a McDonalds restaurant that looks as if it hasn’t changed since the 1950s.

Our destination is the Historic Hotel Bethlehem, which is a major social hub in the self-styled Christmas City. The lobby is packed as we arrive, with a huge, elegantly attired crowd enjoying a lavish brunch.  As we drag our cases through the throng, a musical duo (piano and violin) are playing ‘The Streets of London’, which seems very apt for our arrival.

It is only 11.15 and not surprisingly our room is not ready, so we decide to sit in the bar and have a cup of coffee before heading to the theatre.

As is often the case on tour, our eating times will be a bit of a lottery, but now Liz is here she takes much more care of my dietary needs than I do alone, and insists we get something to eat before the first show. We decide to go to the café in the Moravian Bookstore (which sponsors my events here).  As soon as we walk through the door we bump into Lisa Girard who has been running my shows for 5 years or so.  Liz has been to Bethlehem on a few occasions and Lisa is delighted to see her back again this year.  As we all chat I notice a slim wooden stool that is part of a Crabtree and Evelyn display which would be perfect on my set.

Our plans for lunch have to change when Lisa tells us that the café has been replaced by a bar specialising in mead – probably not the perfect preparation for a show. Lisa directs us to another café a few doors away.

As we walk up the street the air is filled with a wonderful cacophony of festive sounds: piped Christmas music is playing through speakers carefully hidden among the twinkling branches of the trees; on a street corner a trumpeter plays and there is the clop of horses’ hooves as they pull open carriages.  I have mentioned a few times that I have struggled to feel Christmassy on this trip, due to the unseasonably warm weather, but Bethlehem is doing its best to remedy that (even though the temperature is close to 70)

Having bought a couple of sandwiches and some fruit we walk to the theatre, which is part of the Moravian College, where we are greeted by our old friend Blair, who looks after the technical side of my shows.

Lisa is on the stage putting furniture in place, and making sure that the fireplace has a genuine, working, fake-fire on the hearth.

I tentatively bring up the issue of the musical opening, but Blair can easily play my CD through the sound system, and there is a central aisle down which I can make my entrance, which should prove very atmospheric. Blair can’t control the lighting from his desk, so Lisa will be stationed in the wings to bring the stage lights up when the fourth ‘bong’ has sounded.

The only stools in the hall are metal, and rather unsuitable, so I mention to Lisa the one I’d spotted earlier: she goes to the book store to fetch it and we go back to the hotel, which is only a five minute walk. I get a few things that I need from my bag, before going back to the theatre and Liz stays at the hotel, as our room is almost ready and she can check in for us.

Back in my dressing room I get changed and mooch around for a bit, until Liz returns and we chat with Lisa backstage. I am performing in the Foy Hall, which is where the music faculty gives their orchestral concerts. Behind the scenes there is a large gong, which I wish I could include in the show (J Arthur Rank presents…..BONNNNGGGGGG!!!!).  There is a huge base drum as well as a glockenspiel and xylophone – the possibilities are endless.

The audience starts to arrive, and it is a big one – around three hundred, and they will fill the whole lower tier of the concert hall, which will make for a good atmosphere. Gradually the hall fills up and 1 o’clock approaches.

I am always introduced here by Kristy, who works at the book store, and as usual she is dressed in a spectacular Victorian dress. Lisa goes to her lighting post in the wings, I go to the back of the hall and Kristy gets nervous.

Kristy’s introduction is well written and delivered: she has taken our standard welcome remarks and made them very much her own – it is a good start to the show. The houselights dim to nothing, and so do the stage lights.  The music starts and I try to make my way down the steep steps through the audience to stage level, without falling flat on my face.  As I get to the stage the lights come up – maybe we need to re-think that for this evening.

The audience are wonderful, and give the show energy, creating a strong performance which, in turn, enthuses the audience even more: it is whatever the opposite of a vicious circle is.

The routine is slightly different in Bethlehem, as the signing session is back in the Book store, so I change at the theatre, before walking back through the streets again. There is quite a line waiting for me, but Lisa runs the session with military precision: making sure that every book is open to the correct page, and that photographs are taken with a minimum of delay.  The result of all this efficiency is that the last book is signed after only about half an hour.

Liz has been browsing in the shop, and together we walk to the hotel, where I can relax for a couple of hours. We put the TV on and try to find Christmas films to watch, finally settling on Santa Claus 3: The Escape Claus.  While we are watching I suddenly become aware of music from outside, and we look out of our window to see crowds gathering around The Central Moravian Church ready for Vespers.  In the bell tower, high above the street, a trombone ensemble are playing carols.  It is beautiful.  We leave the window open (having nearly dropped the metal fly screen onto the roof below), and let the sounds of Bethlehem float in to our room:  as well as the music, there is a deep throaty rumble of a Harley Davidson and the evocative hooting of a train heading for some distant destination.

My rest time passes all too quickly and after a long hot soak in a bath, I get ready for the evening show.

Blair is involved in the Vespers service, so the sound and lighting is being looked after by Chris this evening. We discuss the opening, and get the light levels set to create the eerie atmosphere that we are looking for, but without sending me plummeting onto the stage as I trip in the dark.

The corridor behind the auditorium is lined with lockers in which the students can store their musical instruments: small narrow ones for trumpets and violins, and large wide ones for tubas and euphoniums. One locker is unlocked and slightly open: Liz and I peer in, to see what instrument it holds and find a Darth Vader mask and a rubber chicken: there really is nothing more to be said about the state of modern music.

The evening audience is smaller than this afternoon’s, but just as enthusiastic and I am determined to put on a good show for them (having rather let the corresponding audience down this time last year). It is a fine balancing act, as it is so easy to overstep the mark and try too hard, which is what happened twelve months ago.  I am pleased with my efforts and the audience seems happy too,

After taking the applause I change, and Liz helps me to pack everything up before taking the costume and my bag to the hotel, while I return to the store for the signing ‘hour’. The line is shorter this evening and with Lisa’s help I finish in good time.  I sign a few copies for the shop’s stock, and then say my goodbyes to Lisa and the team, before rejoining Liz in our room.

I change, and we go to the bar for some dinner. Many of the audience are dining there too, and one very kind gentleman offers to buy us both a glass of wine, which is so nice of him.

We order fish and chips and sit, revelling in the history and the elegance of this beautiful old hotel, lined with photographs of the famous folk who have dined here. The Christmas decorations are amazing with a massive nativity scene about the front door, and two huge Christmas trees decorated in all in white (including large glass baubles with moving stars projected from within).  It is everything that a hotel should be and we both love being here.

Sadly our stay is only for one night, for tomorrow we have an early alarm call. We return to our room and find that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is playing again, so we watch it in bed, before turning the lights off and falling asleep.

 

Links:

Moravian Book Shop: http://shop.moravianbookshop.com/index.htm

Moravian College: http://www.moravian.edu/

 

 

Two Days At Byers Choice

(Please accept my apologies for the lack of a blog post yesterday: this was due to the misplacement of my laptop charger and adapter, which rendered me hors de combat for the day. Here are the last two days, which saw us travelling to be with our dear friends at Byers Choice.)

 

Friday, December 11

We wake at the Fairville Inn to yet another bright, warm morning. Liz’s sleep was interrupted as she started the process of acclimatising to another time zone.  They say that it takes a day for each hour difference – that being so she will just about back to normal as we fly back to the UK.

We don’t have a difficult morning ahead of, so I write the blog as Liz grabs an extra hour’s sleep. At around 8am we get up and walk to the main house where we are welcomed by the Inn’s owners Laura and Rick Carro.  Laura saw the show yesterday afternoon, and is fulsome in her congratulations and praise, as are another couple, who are guests at the Inn. We sit in the small dining room and have a properly prepared and cooked breakfast: no buffet tables with congealing scrambled eggs or greasy bacon here.

Although I don’t have a show until 7pm, we do have an appointment this morning, as Ellen managed to book us on a morning tour of the house at Winterthur. We repack (as ever it is astounding how much we have managed to unpack and use in the space of twelve hours) and load the car up, before saying goodbye to Laura and Rick.

It is a strange feeling to drive to ‘work’ as a tourist and as we arrive at the visitor centre it takes a great deal of effort not to go straight to my little office dressing room. Instead we take a short woodland walk to the house itself, where Ellen meets us with hugs.

The tour of Winterthur takes an hour or so, and the various rooms have been decorated to showcase spectacularly designed and prepared Christmas Trees: there is an autumnal one which glows with oranges and reds; there is a Tiffany one in purples and peacock blues; A Downton Abbey themed tree is weighed down with traditional glass ornaments, along with little bells (representing the servant’s bells) and tiaras hiding among the branches. Our particular favourite is in the conservatory, and is a massive tree decorated purely with dried summer flowers.  It is a truly impressive sight and moves Liz (a passionate gardener) to tears.

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The tour is very much tree-centric, and we miss being told the story of the house and art itself, but the Montmorenci Staircase (moved from a house in North Carolina and re-assembled here) is quite stunning.

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After finishing the tour, and spending some time in the gift shop (where the wares of both Byers Choice and my friends at Vaillancourt Folk Art are featured), we decide to drive to Doylestown and grab some lunch there before arriving at The Byers Choice building.

The journey lasts for about an hour and sees us skirting Philadelphia, before driving into Bucks County. We are close to Chalfont, where Byers are based, and (somewhat confusingly) to North Wales where we will be staying.  The charming historical town of Doylestown is not far but the traffic is very heavy.  We soon realise that by the time we get there and eat it will be time to turn round again, so we decide to cut our losses, find somewhere to have lunch close by and then check in to the hotel.

I pull into a car park as we consider our options, and as the car park in question belongs to Bertucci’s Italian restaurant we decide to eat here. We share a large bowl of salad and each have a plate of spaghetti and meatballs each. It is a good, filling lunch, and should keep us going through the afternoon and evening until we can eat again, after my show.

The Joseph Ambler Inn is just a short drive away and the route takes us through a lovely, well-to-do residential area. A neighbourhood like this is so different to a corresponding one in England, in that the houses stand proudly within their plot of land, whereas back home everyone hides away behind hedges , fences and walls.  If you are claustrophobic live in America, and if you suffer from agoraphobia then Britain is the place for you.

We receive a fulsome welcome at the Joseph Ambler Inn, which is a traditional Pennsylvanian country inn, with fifty two rooms spread through five historic buildings. We are staying in ‘Rose Valley’, which is a room in the main barn building, above the restaurant.

Liz lays on the bed and relaxes, while I battle with the mini ironing board, trying to get two shirts ready for this evening. These table-top ironing boards are very awkward, but the small rooms in the converted barn do not leave much room for a full-sized version.

I have a quick shower and then we re-gather our belongings ready for the short drive to the Byers Choice headquarters and visitor centre.

Byers Choice is not just another venue, it is home. I have been performing here for eleven years, and for the past seven Bob Byers has been managing my tour.  He does an amazing job on my behalf and the tour quite simply would never happen without him: he secures my visa, arranges the venues, makes sure I can get from a to b in time to perform, he makes sure I have somewhere to stay.  Of course all actors have agents and producers that they work with, but not all actors can say that their management are genuinely good friends, as I can.

For the past two years Bob’s wife Pam has been working closely with him and now she looks after all of the day to day logistics of the trip. In the summer Bob and Pam visited us in Abingdon and we spent a wonderful day on the River Thames and being tourists in Oxford.

We park our car and as we arrive there is a veritable reception committee to meet us – Bob and Pam are there, as well as various other staff welcoming us back. Liz has visited Byers Choice on a few previous occasions and she is welcomed back with open arms.

Almost as soon as we are in the door Wendy Stubb ushers us in to the staff canteen where a table as been set up with a huge wedding cake is laid out. Suddenly we are celebrating our wedding all over again!  It is the most generous and charming gesture – we are both very moved and grateful.

Joyce Byers (Bob’s mother, whose artistry and vision lies behind the Byers Choice success story) joins the celebration, as does David who looks after all of my technical requirements here. It is the most remarkable welcome.

But there is still a show to be done, so David and I go to the theatre to get ready. The entire production are is cleared of work stations each year, a stage erected and seven hundred seats laid out. Dave rigs theatre lights and installs a sound system and suddenly a factory floor becomes a place of entertainment. Dave knows the script almost as well as I do and prides himself in using subtle lighting effects to enhance my performance.

He shows me where all of the ‘special’ lights are focussed: the most important one is a tight spotlight downstage centre which will flash up when Marley’s face appears in the door knocker, and again at the very end of the show. There is a particular pattern in the rug upon which I must stand if the light is to have its full effect.

We test the microphone for a while, but it crackles and distorts, thanks to a loose connection. We swap it for a replacement pack and all is well.

The logistics of getting nearly seven hundred people from the car park and into the theatre is huge, so seating starts an hour before the show. Liz and I retreat to my dressing room – the company’s board room, where we manage to spread ourselves out within minutes of arriving.

With twenty minutes to go we walk back to the room which is filling up now. On stage the Bucks County West High School Choir entertain the swelling audience, watched proudly by their director of music Joseph Ortz,

Bob decides to delay the start slightly as people are still being ferried from the car park, so it is not until 7.15 that he gets onto the stage to thank the choir (who have been loudly applauded), and introduce me.

As Bob leaves the stage, Dave brings my music in and bathes the stage in a cold blue light representing the cold churchyard of Marley’s grave. It is a superbly atmospheric and theatrical opening to the show.

I concentrate very hard on my performance tonight, trying to correct a few things that Liz had noticed during my performance at Winterthur last night. Liz has a superb eye and ear, and I completely trust and act on her advice.  In this case she pointed out that I have been losing some of the hard consonants at the end of some words: ‘Marley was Dea…’ instead of ‘deaD’.  Also some of my dramatic pauses have become too long, thereby losing any drama they may have had.  I make a real effort to keep the pace up and enunciate well and as a result I am very very pleased with the performance.

The lighting is fabulous and Dave makes little changes here and there: warmer for the Cratchit’s celebrations, cooler as the Ghost of Christmas Present slowly ages, and positively chilly for the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

The response from the audience is quite amazing, with seven hundred people standing and cheering. Goodness, what a fine life I lead!

Of course a large audience makes for a long signing line, and having changed in the boardroom I make my way through the company museum to settle into a comfy chair, behind a smart desk. The patience of audience members is amazing, as they wait in line.  Pam does a great job chatting to everyone and making them feel special.

After about forty minutes Bob appears with a tray of water, and walks along the line handing them out, he is followed a few minutes later by Joyce carrying a trash can for the empty cups. Those moments sum up Byers Choice completely – Bob could easily have snapped his fingers for an employee to distribute water and provide the rubbish bin, but that is not the sort of people the Byers are.

Time is moving on and Liz is patiently waiting for me to finish. By the time we get back to the hotel the restaurant will be closed and so she and Bob phone ahead to ask them to put a couple of sandwiches aside.  There follows the most remarkably obstructive and difficult phone call as the staff at The Joseph Ambler Inn claim not to know of Gerald Dickens or Byers Choice.  It is unlike the Inn and rather disappointing.

When we finally get back to the hotel we are rather grudgingly told that our sandwiches are at the front desk as ‘we had to put them somewhere!’ The level of service has descended to those of an English hotel.

We fetch our boxed sandwiches and take them to the bar, where the staff are cheerful and welcoming, which restores our faith once again. Bob and Liz must just have caught someone at a bad moment in a bad day.

The sandwiches are delicious, and we slowly wind down, before climbing the stairs to ‘Rose Valley’ and getting ready for bed.

 

Saturday, December 12

We both sleep well, apart from being woken at 2am by a somewhat loud, and presumably well lubricated, reveller who can’t find her room key and feels the need to call to a companion who must be in the adjoining county, judging by the volume of the conversation.

When I wake at 6 I start to write the blog but it is now that I discover that the laptop’s power lead is in my bag at Byers Choice. Liz fetches us both a cup of coffee from the front desk, and we slowly prepare for the morning.

Although the Joseph Ambler Inn serves a superb breakfast we are meeting Bob and Pam in Doylestown this morning. Our assignation is to be at the Cross Keys Diner, which is full and noisy.  Bob and Pam are splendidly off duty in their Penn State sweatshirts, and it is nice for all of us to be away from work.

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Coffees are brought in a collection of randomly selected mugs (mine bears the legend ‘I Love my Grandpa’ and Liz’s is from a local garage.)

We both order pancakes and syrup, while Pam selects Scrapple, a great Pennsylvania breakfast delicacy. ‘What is Scrapple?’ we ask.  From the outset her description doesn’t sell the concept to us at all.  It is made from all the bits of pig that are unusable for anything else, which are mushed up with cornmeal, boiled and finally fried.  We decide to stick with the pancakes (although of course we come from the nation where black pudding and haggis are revered)

The portions, as one would expect from an American diner are huge and defeat us completely, but it has been a lovely way to start the day.

Pam says that she will drive us into the centre of Doylestown, so that we can explore before driving back to Byers Choice for the matinee performance. Before dropping us off she takes us to chez Byers to show off her ‘Bunny Garden’ a little enclosure that is the home to Budda and Summer.

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In The Bunny Garden with Budda

Pam is creating quite the homestead here, as there is also a large chicken run, complete with strutting cockerel.

In Doylestown itself Liz and I spend an hour or so looking into various shops, and particularly spending far too long in the book store. We but lots of little trinkets – some of which will become Christmas presents for others – but mostly for us.  We also find a copy of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, which we buy for Pam and Bob.

We have to be back at HQ at around 11am, as the 1pm show is even busier than last night, so the seating has to begin early.

I do a quick sound check with Dave and make sure that the stage is set correctly, before handing the room over to Bob and the front of house team. Liz and I sit quietly in the boardroom, reading (in her case) and playing backgammon (in mine).  Soon it is time to get into costume and start the preparations for the show once more.  It is extraordinary to see the huge audience from the back of the hall, and it is just as well that I don’t get phased by large numbers (in fact, quite the opposite:  if I had to address a meeting of twelve around the boardroom table I would be a hopeless, gibbering wreck.)

Once again the start time is delayed, but soon Bob is welcoming the audience, and the show starts again. As with last night the large audience is responsive and vocal, and the show is strong and energetic.  There may be the first little signs of tiredness in my voice (the charity collector, the carol singer and Mrs Cratchit’s voices are all slightly broken), but it is not a major issue.  I again concentrate on my consonants and pauses, so as not to fall into my default mode of speech.

‘God Bless us, Every One!’ A wonderful ovation – there never WAS such an ovation (well, not quite true, as last night’s matched it).  It has been another great success at Byers Choice.

There now comes a difficult period of the tour, as the signing line will be big and the day’s second show is early, leaving very little time between the end of one and the start of the other. Pam does her best to keep the line moving and I try to keep the chat to a minimum, so as to save both time and voice.

By the time I sign the last autograph, the next audience is gathering in the store. Bob, Pam, Liz and I sit together in the kitchen and eat a salad and some soup, but in no time Bob is off to start seating and I need to get ready again.

The evening audience is slightly smaller (‘only’ 400) but the Bucks County West choir receive generous rounds of applause from them.

The show starts and it really is a case of dragging a rather weary body back to the levels that the story demands. It is actually a good show, not a great one, not an amazing one, but a perfectly respectable one.  Silly things go wrong, as is often the case in such circumstances: I flick the rug up with my foot and almost trip on it, and then have to find an inconspicuous moment to flatten it out again; when I throw my coat towards the chair it misses and falls off the stage, and I have to make sure I have time to retrieve it before Scrooge gets ‘dressed all in his best’.  Nothing major, but irritating little things, which all take the concentration away from the performance itself.

The audience are with me throughout though, and give me a suitably rousing Byers Choice farewell.

The signing session is not too difficult, as between us Pam and I have a good routine going now. The end of the queue comes surprisingly quickly, and this long, tiring day is at an end.

Almost at an end, for there is one more ceremony to be performed: Wendy has gathered as many of the staff who are still about as possible to witness the cutting of our Wedding Cake!  Bob, Pam, Joyce, David and others give us a celebratory round of applause as the knife sinks through the icing and into the sponge below.  We take a large chunk with us back to the hotel to enjoy for our dessert.

It feels as if it should be about 11pm, but actually it is only 8.15. The car park of The Joseph Ambler Inn is packed, and we struggle to find a space, but fortunately the bar and restaurant are surprisingly quiet.  Having hung my costumes in our room to air, we sit and enjoy a plate of steak and fries in a corner of the bar.

We return to our room and enjoy our wedding cake before getting ready for bed.

The two days at Byers Choice never feels like work (although goodness knows this second day is a tough one), it just feels like a happy time spent among dear friends – which is exactly what it is!

Tomorrow we are on the move again, journeying to Bethlehem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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