My journey today is a short one, and I do not have a performance until 7pm, so it is with a leisurely air that I rise this morning. I sit in bed writing until it is time for breakfast at 8. I shower and get ready for the short morning stroll. The weather is clear, sunny and cold and my exhalations produce little puffs of steam, as if I were a locomotive struggling along the tracks.
I sit at my table, and continue to read Familiar London, as the orange juice, coffee, scrambled eggs and bacon are served. There are no other diners this morning and I have the services of the entire staff to myself, which seems a trifle greedy.
After breakfast is finished I return to my room and make sure that everything is packed (except for my costumes, which I mustn’t forget to collect from Winterthur), and prepare to start the next leg of the tour, which will see me reunited with Liz. She arrives tomorrow, but it feels as if I am driving to meet her now.
Winterthur is just opening as arrive and the shop is almost deserted. I go straight to the auditorium where someone (I am guessing Barbara), has pinned a large sign onto my costume: ‘DO NOT REMOVE THIS CLOTHING. IT WILL BE COLLECTED TOMORROW’
I pick everything up, and say good bye to the hall for another year. As I am walking through the shop a member of staff is on the phone: ‘I don’t know where he went, I saw him go into the auditorium, but haven’t seen him since. No, perhaps he went out the back…..’ I cough. ‘Oh! He is here. Yes. Right. OK!’ She hangs up the phone and says: ‘You are not to leave, I have to give you some things.’
Last night before the show Ellen had mentioned that I should have a Christmas Carol Colouring Book to keep me entertained on my travels, and it was her on the other end of the phone giving instructions that I should be presented with one! I leave Winterthur clutching a bag with the book and a packet of pencils too. Generous, kind, wonderful people.
I have looked online for a nearby Laundromat and apparently there is one in Kennett Square, so I drive off down a wonderful country road towards the town. The houses are all large and sit in great swathes of countryside – oh, yes there is wealth in these here hills. But one house attracts my attention particularly: it is of wooden construction, smaller than the rest, and is painted in a similar hue as the walls of my set at Winterthur. In the front garden – well, in the countryside to the front of the property – there is the shell of a ruined cottage made from the local stone, which is crying to be restored. Out of all of the homes here that is the one I would have!
My visit to Kennett Square is unfruitful, as the only laundry I find is actually a dry cleaner who offers a return-it-the-same-day service, which doesn’t help me on the journey. I put my laundry needs on hold and strike out towards The Joseph Ambler Inn, and Byers’ Choice.
After a while I hit heavy traffic and sit stationary as I listen to my Christmas music. While I am waiting my phone pings, and I have received an email from my brother Ian. For the past few months Ian has been visiting one of the local schools to help some of the students with their reading, and naturally, on discovering his lineage, the school asked him if he would do a special day talking about A Christmas Carol and Charles Dickens. Today was that day! Ian had visited Camden Market and bought a frock coat and waistcoat, and he already owned a top hat, from our sponsored walk in 2012.
For the past few weeks he has been working hard at his script and preparing for the day. This is his email:
Well, I have even more empathy with you now! Croaky voice struggling when I read my abridged version for the third time in two hours. Sweat pouring off me as wearing a heavy frock coat and top hot in direct line of a heater blasting hot air was most uncomfortable. But saying those words and seeing the kids listening with rapt attention was wonderful.
And visiting their classrooms and hear that they remembered the name Boz, that Dickens had a pet Raven called Grip, that he had written a book none of the teachers knew about called The Life of Our Lord, that he had been in a train crash and that he died three years to the day of the accident.
I was asked to pretend to be a fierce Victorian headmaster and come and inspect a class. The rapping on their door with my walking stick scared the life out of them! Such fun. Really, such fun.
And watching the Muppets and hearing those lines faithfully followed was great. I picked out my 8 year old lad Lucas and highlighted my script so he could be the boy in the street on Christmas Day and he was perfect. Being able to say what a delightful boy, an intelligent boy made him blush and the teacher’s laugh……
My £40 outfit bought on Monday from a Camden Town flea market stall worked fine and it was nice to give the London-Portsmouth walk top hat another outing! Won-der-ful🙂
I am so happy for him to experience the joy of telling the story, and for seeing the look of happiness in his audience’s faces. Happy, and so proud of what he is giving to his young charges. It is a lovely thought that on December 9, 2016 The Fabulous Dickens Boys are performing the same story on two continents.
The traffic eventually clears and I am soon pulling into the car cark of The Joseph Ambler Inn, where I always stay when I am performing at Byers’ Choice. The large car park is packed, and I can’t find a space anywhere, so circulate until finally I make up my mind to park in one of the roadways: I look at it carefully and there is definitely enough room for others to leave.
I go to the little reception office, and am effusively welcomed back, before being handed the key to the Penn suite, which has become my regular room here. I have plenty of time before I have to be at Byers’ Choice, so I take the opportunity to watch the next in the Grand Tour (re-invented Top Gear) series, which is getting better as it goes on.
As the light outside starts to fade, I have a shower and get ready to drive to the Byers’ Choice HQ and visitor centre.
Regular readers will know this history, but it is worth re-telling for newcomers: The Byers’ Choice company was formed nearly 40 years ago when Joyce Byers started to make figurines out of wire coat hangers, tissue paper and clay. Each figure had its own expression and character, and they were dressed in offcuts of material: the costumes were those of Victorian carol signers, and so were born the Byers’ Choice carollers.
Although the original pieces were purely intended to decorate the family home, word soon began to spread and it became apparent that there was a much wider market for them. Joyce and her husband Bob started to market the figures and soon their table-top enterprise was turning into a huge company.
And now the business is still overseen by Joyce and Bob Snr, but is run on a day to day level by their sons Bob Jnr and Jeff. It is based in a magnificent facility in Pennsylvania, which not only include the manufacturing floor and administrative department, but also an amazing visitor centre and museum.
Over ten years ago I was invited to Chalfont to perform in the Headquarters building, and so began a relationship that endures to this day. Byers’ Choice now represent me, and manage my tour and I count them as very dear close personal friends: I could not wish for better people to work with.
As I walk towards the door of the office building Bob Jnr is waiting to welcome me. Everything is so familiar and everyone so welcoming. The blog has been followed assiduously throughout the building, so there are many questions about my state of health.
I put all of my things in the grand board room, which becomes a dressing room for two days, and then go to the cavernous space that is the theatre: During working hours the room is the main factory floor, filled with work benches as artisans create the Carollers; but on Friday morning Mr Fezziwig (Bob) says ‘let’s clear away, let’s have plenty of room here!’ and the space is converted into a 600-seat theatre, with a large stage against one wall.
David, who by day works in the marketing and sales department, becomes the technical manager and rigs a wonderful array of stage lighting, as well as installing a state of the art sound system. David has lived with the show for many years and is always thinking of new ways to enhance it. Last year he used to a gobo to project a Church window onto the back wall which faded up as ‘Scrooge went to Church!’. We have a carefully focussed and positioned spot light which glows eerily for Marley’s face, and then closes down onto my face for the very final lines of the show.
I know that if I mention any ideas to David they will most likely be included the following year. It is with this in mind that I mention that I had thought of including a couple of sound effects: maybe the tingling little bell which is the harbinger of Marley’s visit, and possibly a bustling street scene as the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge into the City. How about a slow tolling bell as Present slides into future? Unsurprisingly Dave looks thoughtful: ‘hmm, I’ll see what I can do….’
With the sound check complete (which includes reminding myself exactly where I must stand to be in the Marley light), I chat to Bob and his wife Pam, who looks after the booking and managing of my tour, and who is always there in case of emergency: she does an amazing job for me.
As we talk, the pizza delivery man rolls a cart laden with food into the hall: the delivery man in question is Bob Byers Snr, founder and bedrock of the Byers’ Choice empire – they are that kind of family.
Bob lays out the food for anyone working tonight to share, and I chose a plain salad, with no cheese. Various volunteers turn up, who will be assisting the large audience, and the whole machine begins to grind into life.
Pam tells me that a High School student who is writing an article based on A Christmas Carol is coming, and would very much like to interview me, so I go into the small conference room to chat, which is a fun distraction.
The audience are arriving in great numbers, and I have to go and change for the show. A few times Dave has appeared clutching his laptop saying: ‘what do you think of this?’ and then playing a sound effect that he has found online, or even recorded himself: that is quick work, to be sure: a full twelve months earlier than I had expected.
As the start time of 7 approaches I stand at the back of the hall watching the crowd take their seats and listening to the wonderful High School choir who always entertain the audiences here. When the last of the audience have been seated Bob and I go back stage to start the show.
Well, it is always an amazing experience to stand on this huge stage and to look out into the darkness over such a big audience. The response is wonderful (especially from a lady in the front row who laughs loudly at almost every line). David’s sound effects are perfect – the ringing of the little bell starting slow, before building up in speed and volume and then suddenly silent – all perfectly timed. The street scene adds extra depth to the Christmas morning, and the heavy bell tolling (lifted from my opening sound effect) is a sombre introduction to the solemn phantom.
The show is a really good one, and Ian’s experiences of earlier are in my head: whatever the discomforts, it is so important to remember what fun this all is: that way you will always give your best.
The signing session here is in the middle of the visitor centre and I inevitably get lost trying to find my way to the spectacular nativity room in which my desk is situated. I end up walking through the entire museum, mingling with members of the audience, who shake my hands and congratulate me on the show. Finally, I make it to the table, where Pam is on guard marshalling the line along and taking pictures for the guests as they pose with their programmes, Carollers and books. Bob pops in to check if there is anything I need, and everything runs very smoothly right up to the very end when I can change and get ready to return to The Ambler Inn.
Bob and Pam ask if I would like to join them for a drink, and we arrange to meet up in fifteen minutes or so. It is late and the bar as slowly closing down, after a very busy day, but we sit in the corner and chat about the tour, the audiences, the programme and the political state of the world.
It is lovely to be back here, and I always feels as if I am part of the Byers family, for they have taken me to their hearts and welcomed me in. But of course, I have my own family: Ian who performed so passionately in England this morning, my sister Nicky in Ireland who has put on many performances of my shows in her Inn in Kilkenny, (and whose birthday it is tomorrow), and Liz who in 24 hours’ time will be here with me, at the Joseph Ambler Inn.
Yes, today has definitely been a Family Affair.