Mrs Joseph Porter

The second of the Sketches written by Charles Dickens for The Monthly Magazine describes a wonderful amateur theatrical, and was quite prophetic, for over twenty years later Dickens himself would convert his London house into a theatre to stage a grand production of ‘The Frozen Deep.  The description of the dining room being ‘…dismantled of its furniture, and ornaments’ could just as easily applied to the reality of Tavistock House as to the fictitious Rose Villa.  Dickens, or Boz, was in his element!

 

Mrs Joseph Porter

 

Most extensive were the preparations at Rose Villa, Clapham Rise, in the occupation of Mr. Gattleton (a stock-broker in especially comfortable circumstances), and great was the anxiety of Mr. Gattleton’s interesting family, as the day fixed for the representation of the Private Play which had been ‘many months in preparation,’ approached. The whole family was infected with the mania for Private Theatricals; the house, usually so clean and tidy, was, to use Mr. Gattleton’s expressive description, ‘regularly turned out o’ windows;’ the large dining-room, dismantled of its furniture, and ornaments, presented a strange jumble of flats, flies, wings, lamps, bridges, clouds, thunder and lightning, festoons and flowers, daggers and foil, and various other messes in theatrical slang included under the comprehensive name of ‘properties.’ The bedrooms were crowded with scenery, the kitchen was occupied by carpenters. Rehearsals took place every other night in the drawing-room, and every sofa in the house was more or less damaged by the perseverance and spirit with which Mr. Sempronius Gattleton, and Miss Lucina, rehearsed the smothering scene in ‘Othello’—it having been determined that that tragedy should form the first portion of the evening’s entertainments.

 
‘When we’re a leetle more perfect, I think it will go admirably,’ said Mr. Sempronius, addressing his corps dramatique, at the conclusion of the hundred and fiftieth rehearsal. In consideration of his sustaining the trifling inconvenience of bearing all the expenses of the play, Mr. Sempronius had been, in the most handsome manner, unanimously elected stage-manager. ‘Evans,’ continued Mr. Gattleton, the younger, addressing a tall, thin, pale young gentleman, with extensive whiskers—‘Evans, you play Roderigo beautifully.’

 
‘Beautifully,’ echoed the three Miss Gattletons; for Mr. Evans was pronounced by all his lady friends to be ‘quite a dear.’ He looked so interesting, and had such lovely whiskers: to say nothing of his talent for writing verses in albums and playing the flute! Roderigo simpered and bowed.

 
‘But I think,’ added the manager, ‘you are hardly perfect in the—fall—in the fencing-scene, where you are—you understand?’

 
‘It’s very difficult,’ said Mr. Evans, thoughtfully; ‘I’ve fallen about, a good deal, in our counting-house lately, for practice, only I find it hurts one so. Being obliged to fall backward you see, it bruises one’s head a good deal.’

 
‘But you must take care you don’t knock a wing down,’ said Mr. Gattleton, the elder, who had been appointed prompter, and who took as much interest in the play as the youngest of the company. ‘The stage is very narrow, you know.’

 
‘Oh! don’t be afraid,’ said Mr. Evans, with a very self-satisfied air; ‘I shall fall with my head “off,” and then I can’t do any harm.’

 
‘But, egad,’ said the manager, rubbing his hands, ‘we shall make a decided hit in “Masaniello.” Harleigh sings that music admirably.’

 
Everybody echoed the sentiment. Mr. Harleigh smiled, and looked foolish—not an unusual thing with him—hummed’ Behold how brightly breaks the morning,’ and blushed as red as the fisherman’s nightcap he was trying on.

 
‘Let’s see,’ resumed the manager, telling the number on his fingers, ‘we shall have three dancing female peasants, besides Fenella, and four fishermen. Then, there’s our man Tom; he can have a pair of ducks of mine, and a check shirt of Bob’s, and a red nightcap, and he’ll do for another—that’s five. In the choruses, of course, we can sing at the sides; and in the market-scene we can walk about in cloaks and things. When the revolt takes place, Tom must keep rushing in on one side and out on the other, with a pickaxe, as fast as he can. The effect will be electrical; it will look exactly as if there were an immense number of ’em. And in the eruption-scene we must burn the red fire, and upset the tea-trays, and make all sorts of noises—and it’s sure to do.’

 
‘Sure! sure!’ cried all the performers unâ voce—and away hurried Mr. Sempronius Gattleton to wash the burnt cork off his face, and superintend the ‘setting up’ of some of the amateur-painted, but never-sufficiently-to-be-admired, scenery.

 
Mrs. Gattleton was a kind, good-tempered, vulgar soul, exceedingly fond of her husband and children, and entertaining only three dislikes. In the first place, she had a natural antipathy to anybody else’s unmarried daughters; in the second, she was in bodily fear of anything in the shape of ridicule; lastly—almost a necessary consequence of this feeling—she regarded, with feelings of the utmost horror, one Mrs. Joseph Porter over the way. However, the good folks of Clapham and its vicinity stood very much in awe of scandal and sarcasm; and thus Mrs. Joseph Porter was courted, and flattered, and caressed, and invited, for much the same reason that induces a poor author, without a farthing in his pocket, to behave with extraordinary civility to a twopenny postman.

 
‘Never mind, ma,’ said Miss Emma Porter, in colloquy with her respected relative, and trying to look unconcerned; ‘if they had invited me, you know that neither you nor pa would have allowed me to take part in such an exhibition.’

 
‘Just what I should have thought from your high sense of propriety,’ returned the mother. ‘I am glad to see, Emma, you know how to designate the proceeding.’ Miss P., by-the-bye, had only the week before made ‘an exhibition’ of herself for four days, behind a counter at a fancy fair, to all and every of her Majesty’s liege subjects who were disposed to pay a shilling each for the privilege of seeing some four dozen girls flirting with strangers, and playing at shop.

 
‘There!’ said Mrs. Porter, looking out of window; ‘there are two rounds of beef and a ham going in—clearly for sandwiches; and Thomas, the pastry-cook, says, there have been twelve dozen tarts ordered, besides blancmange and jellies. Upon my word! think of the Miss Gattletons in fancy dresses, too!’

 
‘Oh, it’s too ridiculous!’ said Miss Porter, hysterically.
‘I’ll manage to put them a little out of conceit with the business, however,’ said Mrs. Porter; and out she went on her charitable errand.

 
‘Well, my dear Mrs. Gattleton,’ said Mrs. Joseph Porter, after they had been closeted for some time, and when, by dint of indefatigable pumping, she had managed to extract all the news about the play, ‘well, my dear, people may say what they please; indeed we know they will, for some folks are so ill-natured. Ah, my dear Miss Lucina, how d’ye do? I was just telling your mamma that I have heard it said, that—’

 
‘What?’

 
‘Mrs. Porter is alluding to the play, my dear,’ said Mrs. Gattleton; ‘she was, I am sorry to say, just informing me that—’

 
‘Oh, now pray don’t mention it,’ interrupted Mrs. Porter; ‘it’s most absurd—quite as absurd as young What’s-his-name saying he wondered how Miss Caroline, with such a foot and ankle, could have the vanity to play Fenella.’

 
‘Highly impertinent, whoever said it,’ said Mrs. Gattleton, bridling up.

 
‘Certainly, my dear,’ chimed in the delighted Mrs. Porter; ‘most undoubtedly! Because, as I said, if Miss Caroline does play Fenella, it doesn’t follow, as a matter of course, that she should think she has a pretty foot;—and then—such puppies as these young men are—he had the impudence to say, that—’

 
How far the amiable Mrs. Porter might have succeeded in her pleasant purpose, it is impossible to say, had not the entrance of Mr. Thomas Balderstone, Mrs. Gattleton’s brother, familiarly called in the family ‘Uncle Tom,’ changed the course of conversation, and suggested to her mind an excellent plan of operation on the evening of the play.

 
Uncle Tom was very rich, and exceedingly fond of his nephews and nieces: as a matter of course, therefore, he was an object of great importance in his own family. He was one of the best-hearted men in existence: always in a good temper, and always talking. It was his boast that he wore top-boots on all occasions, and had never worn a black silk neckerchief; and it was his pride that he remembered all the principal plays of Shakspeare from beginning to end—and so he did. The result of this parrot-like accomplishment was, that he was not only perpetually quoting himself, but that he could never sit by, and hear a misquotation from the ‘Swan of Avon’ without setting the unfortunate delinquent right. He was also something of a wag; never missed an opportunity of saying what he considered a good thing, and invariably laughed until he cried at anything that appeared to him mirth-moving or ridiculous.

 
‘Well, girls!’ said Uncle Tom, after the preparatory ceremony of kissing and how-d’ye-do-ing had been gone through—‘how d’ye get on? Know your parts, eh?—Lucina, my dear, act II., scene I—place, left-cue—“Unknown fate,”—What’s next, eh?—Go on—“The Heavens—”’

 
‘Oh, yes,’ said Miss Lucina, ‘I recollect –  “The heavens forbid But that our loves and comforts should increase Even as our days do grow!”’

 
‘Make a pause here and there,’ said the old gentleman, who was a great critic. ‘“But that our loves and comforts should increase”—emphasis on the last syllable, “crease,”—loud “even,”—one, two, three, four; then loud again, “as our days do grow;” emphasis on days. That’s the way, my dear; trust to your uncle for emphasis. Ah! Sem, my boy, how are you?’

 
‘Very well, thankee, uncle,’ returned Mr. Sempronius, who had just appeared, looking something like a ringdove, with a small circle round each eye: the result of his constant corking. ‘Of course we see you on Thursday.’

 
‘Of course, of course, my dear boy.’

 
‘What a pity it is your nephew didn’t think of making you prompter, Mr. Balderstone!’ whispered Mrs. Joseph Porter; ‘you would have been invaluable.’

 
‘Well, I flatter myself, I should have been tolerably up to the thing,’ responded Uncle Tom.

 
‘I must bespeak sitting next you on the night,’ resumed Mrs. Porter; ‘and then, if our dear young friends here, should be at all wrong, you will be able to enlighten me. I shall be so interested.’

 
‘I am sure I shall be most happy to give you any assistance in my power’
‘Mind, it’s a bargain.’

 
‘Certainly.’

 
‘I don’t know how it is,’ said Mrs. Gattleton to her daughters, as they were sitting round the fire in the evening, looking over their parts, ‘but I really very much wish Mrs. Joseph Porter wasn’t coming on Thursday. I am sure she’s scheming something.’

 
‘She can’t make us ridiculous, however,’ observed Mr. Sempronius Gattleton, haughtily.

 
The long-looked-for Thursday arrived in due course, and brought with it, as Mr. Gattleton, senior, philosophically observed, ‘no disappointments, to speak of.’ True, it was yet a matter of doubt whether Cassio would be enabled to get into the dress which had been sent for him from the masquerade warehouse. It was equally uncertain whether the principal female singer would be sufficiently recovered from the influenza to make her appearance; Mr. Harleigh, the Masaniello of the night, was hoarse, and rather unwell, in consequence of the great quantity of lemon and sugar-candy he had eaten to improve his voice; and two flutes and a violoncello had pleaded severe colds.

 

 

What of that? the audience were all coming. Everybody knew his part: the dresses were covered with tinsel and spangles; the white plumes looked beautiful; Mr. Evans had practised falling until he was bruised from head to foot and quite perfect; Iago was sure that, in the stabbing-scene, he should make ‘a decided hit.’ A self-taught deaf gentleman, who had kindly offered to bring his flute, would be a most valuable addition to the orchestra; Miss Jenkins’s talent for the piano was too well known to be doubted for an instant; Mr. Cape had practised the violin accompaniment with her frequently; and Mr. Brown, who had kindly undertaken, at a few hours’ notice, to bring his violoncello, would, no doubt, manage extremely well.

 
Seven o’clock came, and so did the audience; all the rank and fashion of Clapham and its vicinity was fast filling the theatre. There were the Smiths, the Gubbinses, the Nixons, the Dixons, the Hicksons, people with all sorts of names, two aldermen, a sheriff in perspective, Sir Thomas Glumper (who had been knighted in the last reign for carrying up an address on somebody’s escaping from nothing); and last, not least, there were Mrs. Joseph Porter and Uncle Tom, seated in the centre of the third row from the stage; Mrs. P. amusing Uncle Tom with all sorts of stories, and Uncle Tom amusing every one else by laughing most immoderately.

 
Ting, ting, ting! went the prompter’s bell at eight o’clock precisely, and dash went the orchestra into the overture to ‘The Men of Prometheus.’ The pianoforte player hammered away with laudable perseverance; and the violoncello, which struck in at intervals, ‘sounded very well, considering.’ The unfortunate individual, however, who had undertaken to play the flute accompaniment ‘at sight,’ found, from fatal experience, the perfect truth of the old adage, ‘ought of sight, out of mind;’ for being very near-sighted, and being placed at a considerable distance from his music-book, all he had an opportunity of doing was to play a bar now and then in the wrong place, and put the other performers out. It is, however, but justice to Mr. Brown to say that he did this to admiration. The overture, in fact, was not unlike a race between the different instruments; the piano came in first by several bars, and the violoncello next, quite distancing the poor flute; for the deaf gentleman too-too’d away, quite unconscious that he was at all wrong, until apprised, by the applause of the audience, that the overture was concluded. A considerable bustle and shuffling of feet was then heard upon the stage, accompanied by whispers of ‘Here’s a pretty go!—what’s to be done?’ &c. The audience applauded again, by way of raising the spirits of the performers; and then Mr. Sempronius desired the prompter, in a very audible voice, to ‘clear the stage, and ring up.’

 
Ting, ting, ting! went the bell again. Everybody sat down; the curtain shook; rose sufficiently high to display several pair of yellow boots paddling about; and there remained.

 
Ting, ting, ting! went the bell again. The curtain was violently convulsed, but rose no higher; the audience tittered; Mrs. Porter looked at Uncle Tom; Uncle Tom looked at everybody, rubbing his hands, and laughing with perfect rapture. After as much ringing with the little bell as a muffin-boy would make in going down a tolerably long street, and a vast deal of whispering, hammering, and calling for nails and cord, the curtain at length rose, and discovered Mr. Sempronius Gattleton solus, and decked for Othello. After three distinct rounds of applause, during which Mr. Sempronius applied his right hand to his left breast, and bowed in the most approved manner, the manager advanced and said:

 
‘Ladies and Gentlemen—I assure you it is with sincere regret, that I regret to be compelled to inform you, that Iago who was to have played Mr. Wilson—I beg your pardon, Ladies and Gentlemen, but I am naturally somewhat agitated (applause)—I mean, Mr. Wilson, who was to have played Iago, is—that is, has been—or, in other words, Ladies and Gentlemen, the fact is, that I have just received a note, in which I am informed that Iago is unavoidably detained at the Post-office this evening. Under these circumstances, I trust—a—a—amateur performance—a—another gentleman undertaken to read the part—request indulgence for a short time—courtesy and kindness of a British audience.’ Overwhelming applause. Exit Mr. Sempronius Gattleton, and curtain falls.

 
The audience were, of course, exceedingly good-humoured; the whole business was a joke; and accordingly they waited for an hour with the utmost patience, being enlivened by an interlude of rout-cakes and lemonade. It appeared by Mr. Sempronius’s subsequent explanation, that the delay would not have been so great, had it not so happened that when the substitute Iago had finished dressing, and just as the play was on the point of commencing, the original Iago unexpectedly arrived. The former was therefore compelled to undress, and the latter to dress for his part; which, as he found some difficulty in getting into his clothes, occupied no inconsiderable time. At last, the tragedy began in real earnest. It went off well enough, until the third scene of the first act, in which Othello addresses the Senate: the only remarkable circumstance being, that as Iago could not get on any of the stage boots, in consequence of his feet being violently swelled with the heat and excitement, he was under the necessity of playing the part in a pair of Wellingtons, which contrasted rather oddly with his richly embroidered pantaloons. When Othello started with his address to the Senate (whose dignity was represented by, the Duke, a carpenter, two men engaged on the recommendation of the gardener, and a boy), Mrs. Porter found the opportunity she so anxiously sought.
Mr. Sempronius proceeded:

 
‘“Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors, My very noble and approv’d good masters, That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter, It is most true;—rude am I in my speech—”’

 
‘Is that right?’ whispered Mrs. Porter to Uncle Tom.

 
‘No.’

 
‘Tell him so, then.’

 
‘I will. Sem!’ called out Uncle Tom, ‘that’s wrong, my boy.’

 
‘What’s wrong, uncle?’ demanded Othello, quite forgetting the dignity of his situation.

 

 
‘You’ve left out something. “True I have married—”’

 

 
‘Oh, ah!’ said Mr. Sempronius, endeavouring to hide his confusion as much and as ineffectually as the audience attempted to conceal their half-suppressed tittering, by coughing with extraordinary violence –

 

 
– ‘“true I have married her; – The very head and front of my offending Hath this extent; no more.”

 
(Aside) Why don’t you prompt, father?’

 
‘Because I’ve mislaid my spectacles,’ said poor Mr. Gattleton, almost dead with the heat and bustle.

 
‘There, now it’s “rude am I,”’ said Uncle Tom.

 
‘Yes, I know it is,’ returned the unfortunate manager, proceeding with his part.
It would be useless and tiresome to quote the number of instances in which Uncle Tom, now completely in his element, and instigated by the mischievous Mrs. Porter, corrected the mistakes of the performers; suffice it to say, that having mounted his hobby, nothing could induce him to dismount; so, during the whole remainder of the play, he performed a kind of running accompaniment, by muttering everybody’s part as it was being delivered, in an under-tone. The audience were highly amused, Mrs. Porter delighted, the performers embarrassed; Uncle Tom never was better pleased in all his life; and Uncle Tom’s nephews and nieces had never, although the declared heirs to his large property, so heartily wished him gathered to his fathers as on that memorable occasion.

 
Several other minor causes, too, united to damp the ardour of the dramatis personae. None of the performers could walk in their tights, or move their arms in their jackets; the pantaloons were too small, the boots too large, and the swords of all shapes and sizes. Mr. Evans, naturally too tall for the scenery, wore a black velvet hat with immense white plumes, the glory of which was lost in ‘the flies;’ and the only other inconvenience of which was, that when it was off his head he could not put it on, and when it was on he could not take it off. Notwithstanding all his practice, too, he fell with his head and shoulders as neatly through one of the side scenes, as a harlequin would jump through a panel in a Christmas pantomime. The pianoforte player, overpowered by the extreme heat of the room, fainted away at the commencement of the entertainments, leaving the music of ‘Masaniello’ to the flute and violoncello. The orchestra complained that Mr. Harleigh put them out, and Mr. Harleigh declared that the orchestra prevented his singing a note. The fishermen, who were hired for the occasion, revolted to the very life, positively refusing to play without an increased allowance of spirits; and, their demand being complied with, getting drunk in the eruption-scene as naturally as possible. The red fire, which was burnt at the conclusion of the second act, not only nearly suffocated the audience, but nearly set the house on fire into the bargain; and, as it was, the remainder of the piece was acted in a thick fog.

 
In short, the whole affair was, as Mrs. Joseph Porter triumphantly told everybody, ‘a complete failure.’ The audience went home at four o’clock in the morning, exhausted with laughter, suffering from severe headaches, and smelling terribly of brimstone and gunpowder. The Messrs. Gattleton, senior and junior, retired to rest, with the vague idea of emigrating to Swan River early in the ensuing week.

 
Rose Villa has once again resumed its wonted appearance; the dining-room furniture has been replaced; the tables are as nicely polished as formerly; the horsehair chairs are ranged against the wall, as regularly as ever; Venetian blinds have been fitted to every window in the house to intercept the prying gaze of Mrs. Joseph Porter. The subject of theatricals is never mentioned in the Gattleton family, unless, indeed, by Uncle Tom, who cannot refrain from sometimes expressing his surprise and regret at finding that his nephews and nieces appear to have lost the relish they once possessed for the beauties of Shakspeare, and quotations from the works of that immortal bard.

A Dinner at Poplar Walk (Mr Minns And His Cousin)

In 1833 a young reporter by the name of Charles Dickens posted a manuscript through the letterbox of The Monthly Magazine.  The story was called A Dinner at Poplar Walk and beneath the title was written the pen name of Boz.

This was the first of the famous ‘Sketches’ and was also the first published work of the author whose works would go on to influence not only his own generations but also those that followed.

With all of this extra time on your hands you may enjoy going back to where it all began:

 

A Dinner at Poplar Walk.  By Boz:

Mr. Augustus Minns was a bachelor, of about forty as he said—of about eight-and-forty as his friends said. He was always exceedingly clean, precise, and tidy; perhaps somewhat priggish, and the most retiring man in the world. He usually wore a brown frock-coat without a wrinkle, light inexplicables without a spot, a neat neckerchief with a remarkably neat tie, and boots without a fault; moreover, he always carried a brown silk umbrella with an ivory handle. He was a clerk in Somerset-house, or, as he said himself, he held ‘a responsible situation under Government.’ He had a good and increasing salary, in addition to some 10,000l. of his own (invested in the funds), and he occupied a first floor in Tavistock-street, Covent-garden, where he had resided for twenty years, having been in the habit of quarrelling with his landlord the whole time: regularly giving notice of his intention to quit on the first day of every quarter, and as regularly countermanding it on the second. There were two classes of created objects which he held in the deepest and most unmingled horror; these were dogs, and children. He was not unamiable, but he could, at any time, have viewed the execution of a dog, or the assassination of an infant, with the liveliest satisfaction. Their habits were at variance with his love of order; and his love of order was as powerful as his love of life. Mr. Augustus Minns had no relations, in or near London, with the exception of his cousin, Mr. Octavius Budden, to whose son, whom he had never seen (for he disliked the father), he had consented to become godfather by proxy. Mr. Budden having realised a moderate fortune by exercising the trade or calling of a corn-chandler, and having a great predilection for the country, had purchased a cottage in the vicinity of Stamford-hill, whither he retired with the wife of his bosom, and his only son, Master Alexander Augustus Budden. One evening, as Mr. and Mrs. B. were admiring their son, discussing his various merits, talking over his education, and disputing whether the classics should be made an essential part thereof, the lady pressed so strongly upon her husband the propriety of cultivating the friendship of Mr. Minns in behalf of their son, that Mr. Budden at last made up his mind, that it should not be his fault if he and his cousin were not in future more intimate.

 
‘I’ll break the ice, my love,’ said Mr. Budden, stirring up the sugar at the bottom of his glass of brandy-and-water, and casting a sidelong look at his spouse to see the effect of the announcement of his determination, ‘by asking Minns down to dine with us, on Sunday.’

 
‘Then pray, Budden, write to your cousin at once,’ replied Mrs. Budden. ‘Who knows, if we could only get him down here, but he might take a fancy to our Alexander, and leave him his property?—Alick, my dear, take your legs off the rail of the chair!’

 
‘Very true,’ said Mr. Budden, musing, ‘very true indeed, my love!’ On the following morning, as Mr. Minns was sitting at his breakfast-table, alternately biting his dry toast and casting a look upon the columns of his morning paper, which he always read from the title to the printer’s name, he heard a loud knock at the street-door; which was shortly afterwards followed by the entrance of his servant, who put into his hands a particularly small card, on which was engraven in immense letters, ‘Mr. Octavius Budden, Amelia Cottage (Mrs. B.’s name was Amelia), Poplar-walk, Stamford-hill.’

 
‘Budden!’ ejaculated Minns, ‘what can bring that vulgar man here!—say I’m asleep—say I’m out, and shall never be home again—anything to keep him down-stairs.’

 
‘But please, sir, the gentleman’s coming up,’ replied the servant, and the fact was made evident, by an appalling creaking of boots on the staircase accompanied by a pattering noise; the cause of which, Minns could not, for the life of him, divine.

 
‘Hem—show the gentleman in,’ said the unfortunate bachelor. Exit servant, and enter Octavius preceded by a large white dog, dressed in a suit of fleecy hosiery, with pink eyes, large ears, and no perceptible tail.

 
The cause of the pattering on the stairs was but too plain. Mr. Augustus Minns staggered beneath the shock of the dog’s appearance.

 
‘My dear fellow, how are you?’ said Budden, as he entered.

 
He always spoke at the top of his voice, and always said the same thing half-a-dozen times.

 
‘How are you, my hearty?’

 
‘How do you do, Mr. Budden?—pray take a chair!’ politely stammered the discomfited Minns.

 
‘Thank you—thank you—well—how are you, eh?’

 
‘Uncommonly well, thank you,’ said Minns, casting a diabolical look at the dog, who, with his hind legs on the floor, and his fore paws resting on the table, was dragging a bit of bread and butter out of a plate, preparatory to devouring it, with the buttered side next the carpet.

 
‘Ah, you rogue!’ said Budden to his dog; ‘you see, Minns, he’s like me, always at home, eh, my boy!—Egad, I’m precious hot and hungry! I’ve walked all the way from Stamford-hill this morning.’

 
‘Have you breakfasted?’ inquired Minns.

 
‘Oh, no!—came to breakfast with you; so ring the bell, my dear fellow, will you? and let’s have another cup and saucer, and the cold ham.—Make myself at home, you see!’ continued Budden, dusting his boots with a table-napkin. ‘Ha!—ha!—ha!—’pon my life, I’m hungry.’

 
Minns rang the bell, and tried to smile.

 
‘I decidedly never was so hot in my life,’ continued Octavius, wiping his forehead; ‘well, but how are you, Minns? ‘Pon my soul, you wear capitally!’

 
‘D’ye think so?’ said Minns; and he tried another smile.

 
‘’Pon my life, I do!’

 
‘Mrs. B. and—what’s his name—quite well?’

 
‘Alick—my son, you mean; never better—never better. But at such a place as we’ve got at Poplar-walk, you know, he couldn’t be ill if he tried. When I first saw it, by Jove! it looked so knowing, with the front garden, and the green railings and the brass knocker, and all that—I really thought it was a cut above me.’

 
‘Don’t you think you’d like the ham better,’ interrupted Minns, ‘if you cut it the other way?’ He saw, with feelings which it is impossible to describe, that his visitor was cutting or rather maiming the ham, in utter violation of all established rules.

 
‘No, thank ye,’ returned Budden, with the most barbarous indifference to crime, ‘I prefer it this way, it eats short. But I say, Minns, when will you come down and see us? You will be delighted with the place; I know you will. Amelia and I were talking about you the other night, and Amelia said—another lump of sugar, please; thank ye—she said, don’t you think you could contrive, my dear, to say to Mr. Minns, in a friendly way—come down, sir—damn the dog! he’s spoiling your curtains, Minns—ha!—ha!—ha!’ Minns leaped from his seat as though he had received the discharge from a galvanic battery.

 
‘Come out, sir!—go out, hoo!’ cried poor Augustus, keeping, nevertheless, at a very respectful distance from the dog; having read of a case of hydrophobia in the paper of that morning. By dint of great exertion, much shouting, and a marvellous deal of poking under the tables with a stick and umbrella, the dog was at last dislodged, and placed on the landing outside the door, where he immediately commenced a most appalling howling; at the same time vehemently scratching the paint off the two nicely-varnished bottom panels, until they resembled the interior of a backgammon-board.

 
‘A good dog for the country that!’ coolly observed Budden to the distracted Minns, ‘but he’s not much used to confinement. But now, Minns, when will you come down? I’ll take no denial, positively. Let’s see, to-day’s Thursday.—Will you come on Sunday? We dine at five, don’t say no—do.’

 
After a great deal of pressing, Mr. Augustus Minns, driven to despair, accepted the invitation, and promised to be at Poplar-walk on the ensuing Sunday, at a quarter before five to the minute.

 
‘Now mind the direction,’ said Budden: ‘the coach goes from the Flower-pot, in Bishopsgate-street, every half hour. When the coach stops at the Swan, you’ll see, immediately opposite you, a white house.’

 
‘Which is your house—I understand,’ said Minns, wishing to cut short the visit, and the story, at the same time.

 
‘No, no, that’s not mine; that’s Grogus’s, the great ironmonger’s. I was going to say—you turn down by the side of the white house till you can’t go another step further—mind that!—and then you turn to your right, by some stables—well; close to you, you’ll see a wall with “Beware of the Dog” written on it in large letters—(Minns shuddered)—go along by the side of that wall for about a quarter of a mile—and anybody will show you which is my place.’

 
‘Very well—thank ye—good-bye.’

 
‘Be punctual.’

 
‘Certainly: good morning.’

 
‘I say, Minns, you’ve got a card.’

 
‘Yes, I have; thank ye.’ And Mr. Octavius Budden departed, leaving his cousin looking forward to his visit on the following Sunday, with the feelings of a penniless poet to the weekly visit of his Scotch landlady.

 
Sunday arrived; the sky was bright and clear; crowds of people were hurrying along the streets, intent on their different schemes of pleasure for the day; everything and everybody looked cheerful and happy except Mr. Augustus Minns.

 
The day was fine, but the heat was considerable; when Mr. Minns had fagged up the shady side of Fleet-street, Cheapside, and Threadneedle-street, he had become pretty warm, tolerably dusty, and it was getting late into the bargain. By the most extraordinary good fortune, however, a coach was waiting at the Flower-pot, into which Mr. Augustus Minns got, on the solemn assurance of the cad that the vehicle would start in three minutes—that being the very utmost extremity of time it was allowed to wait by Act of Parliament. A quarter of an hour elapsed, and there were no signs of moving. Minns looked at his watch for the sixth time.

 
‘Coachman, are you going or not?’ bawled Mr. Minns, with his head and half his body out of the coach window.

 
‘Di-rectly, sir,’ said the coachman, with his hands in his pockets, looking as much unlike a man in a hurry as possible.

 
‘Bill, take them cloths off.’ Five minutes more elapsed: at the end of which time the coachman mounted the box, from whence he looked down the street, and up the street, and hailed all the pedestrians for another five minutes.

 
‘Coachman! if you don’t go this moment, I shall get out,’ said Mr. Minns, rendered desperate by the lateness of the hour, and the impossibility of being in Poplar-walk at the appointed time.

 
‘Going this minute, sir,’ was the reply;—and, accordingly, the machine trundled on for a couple of hundred yards, and then stopped again. Minns doubled himself up in a corner of the coach, and abandoned himself to his fate, as a child, a mother, a bandbox and a parasol, became his fellow-passengers.

 
The child was an affectionate and an amiable infant; the little dear mistook Minns for his other parent, and screamed to embrace him.

 
‘Be quiet, dear,’ said the mamma, restraining the impetuosity of the darling, whose little fat legs were kicking, and stamping, and twining themselves into the most complicated forms, in an ecstasy of impatience. ‘Be quiet, dear, that’s not your papa.’
‘Thank Heaven I am not!’ thought Minns, as the first gleam of pleasure he had experienced that morning shone like a meteor through his wretchedness.

 
Playfulness was agreeably mingled with affection in the disposition of the boy. When satisfied that Mr. Minns was not his parent, he endeavoured to attract his notice by scraping his drab trousers with his dirty shoes, poking his chest with his mamma’s parasol, and other nameless endearments peculiar to infancy, with which he beguiled the tediousness of the ride, apparently very much to his own satisfaction.

 
When the unfortunate gentleman arrived at the Swan, he found to his great dismay, that it was a quarter past five. The white house, the stables, the ‘Beware of the Dog,’—every landmark was passed, with a rapidity not unusual to a gentleman of a certain age when too late for dinner. After the lapse of a few minutes, Mr. Minns found himself opposite a yellow brick house with a green door, brass knocker, and door-plate, green window-frames and ditto railings, with ‘a garden’ in front, that is to say, a small loose bit of gravelled ground, with one round and two scalene triangular beds, containing a fir-tree, twenty or thirty bulbs, and an unlimited number of marigolds. The taste of Mr. and Mrs. Budden was further displayed by the appearance of a Cupid on each side of the door, perched upon a heap of large chalk flints, variegated with pink conch-shells. His knock at the door was answered by a stumpy boy, in drab livery, cotton stockings and high-lows, who, after hanging his hat on one of the dozen brass pegs which ornamented the passage, denominated by courtesy ‘The Hall,’ ushered him into a front drawing-room commanding a very extensive view of the backs of the neighbouring houses. The usual ceremony of introduction, and so forth, over, Mr. Minns took his seat: not a little agitated at finding that he was the last comer, and, somehow or other, the Lion of about a dozen people, sitting together in a small drawing-room, getting rid of that most tedious of all time, the time preceding dinner.

 
‘Well, Brogson,’ said Budden, addressing an elderly gentleman in a black coat, drab knee-breeches, and long gaiters, who, under pretence of inspecting the prints in an Annual, had been engaged in satisfying himself on the subject of Mr. Minns’s general appearance, by looking at him over the tops of the leaves—‘Well, Brogson, what do ministers mean to do? Will they go out, or what?’

 
‘Oh—why—really, you know, I’m the last person in the world to ask for news. Your cousin, from his situation, is the most likely person to answer the question.’

 
Mr. Minns assured the last speaker, that although he was in Somerset-house, he possessed no official communication relative to the projects of his Majesty’s Ministers. But his remark was evidently received incredulously; and no further conjectures being hazarded on the subject, a long pause ensued, during which the company occupied themselves in coughing and blowing their noses, until the entrance of Mrs. Budden caused a general rise.

 
The ceremony of introduction being over, dinner was announced, and down-stairs the party proceeded accordingly—Mr. Minns escorting Mrs. Budden as far as the drawing-room door, but being prevented, by the narrowness of the staircase, from extending his gallantry any farther. The dinner passed off as such dinners usually do. Ever and anon, amidst the clatter of knives and forks, and the hum of conversation, Mr. B.’s voice might be heard, asking a friend to take wine, and assuring him he was glad to see him; and a great deal of by-play took place between Mrs. B. and the servants, respecting the removal of the dishes, during which her countenance assumed all the variations of a weather-glass, from ‘stormy’ to ‘set fair.’

 
Upon the dessert and wine being placed on the table, the servant, in compliance with a significant look from Mrs. B., brought down ‘Master Alexander,’ habited in a sky-blue suit with silver buttons; and possessing hair of nearly the same colour as the metal. After sundry praises from his mother, and various admonitions as to his behaviour from his father, he was introduced to his godfather.

 
‘Well, my little fellow—you are a fine boy, ain’t you?’ said Mr. Minns, as happy as a tomtit on birdlime.

 
‘Yes.’

 
‘How old are you?’

 
‘Eight, next We’nsday. How old are you?’

 
‘Alexander,’ interrupted his mother, ‘how dare you ask Mr. Minns how old he is!’
‘He asked me how old I was,’ said the precocious child, to whom Minns had from that moment internally resolved that he never would bequeath one shilling. As soon as the titter occasioned by the observation had subsided, a little smirking man with red whiskers, sitting at the bottom of the table, who during the whole of dinner had been endeavouring to obtain a listener to some stories about Sheridan, called, out, with a very patronising air, ‘Alick, what part of speech is be.’

 
‘A verb.’
‘That’s a good boy,’ said Mrs. Budden, with all a mother’s pride.
‘Now, you know what a verb is?’
‘A verb is a word which signifies to be, to do, or to suffer; as, I am—I rule—I am ruled. Give me an apple, Ma.’

 
‘I’ll give you an apple,’ replied the man with the red whiskers, who was an established friend of the family, or in other words was always invited by Mrs. Budden, whether Mr. Budden liked it or not, ‘if you’ll tell me what is the meaning of be.’

 
‘Be?’ said the prodigy, after a little hesitation—‘an insect that gathers honey.’
‘No, dear,’ frowned Mrs. Budden; ‘B double E is the substantive.’

 
‘I don’t think he knows much yet about common substantives,’ said the smirking gentleman, who thought this an admirable opportunity for letting off a joke. ‘It’s clear he’s not very well acquainted with proper names. He! he! he!’

 
‘Gentlemen,’ called out Mr. Budden, from the end of the table, in a stentorian voice, and with a very important air, ‘will you have the goodness to charge your glasses? I have a toast to propose.’

 
‘Hear! hear!’ cried the gentlemen, passing the decanters. After they had made the round of the table, Mr. Budden proceeded—‘Gentlemen; there is an individual present—’
‘Hear! hear!’ said the little man with red whiskers.

 
‘Pray be quiet, Jones,’ remonstrated Budden.

 
‘I say, gentlemen, there is an individual present,’ resumed the host, ‘in whose society, I am sure we must take great delight—and—and—the conversation of that individual must have afforded to every one present, the utmost pleasure.’ [‘Thank Heaven, he does not mean me!’ thought Minns, conscious that his diffidence and exclusiveness had prevented his saying above a dozen words since he entered the house.] ‘Gentlemen, I am but a humble individual myself, and I perhaps ought to apologise for allowing any individual feeling of friendship and affection for the person I allude to, to induce me to venture to rise, to propose the health of that person—a person that, I am sure—that is to say, a person whose virtues must endear him to those who know him—and those who have not the pleasure of knowing him, cannot dislike him.’

 
‘Hear! hear!’ said the company, in a tone of encouragement and approval.

 
‘Gentlemen,’ continued Budden, ‘my cousin is a man who—who is a relation of my own.’ (Hear! hear!) Minns groaned audibly. ‘Who I am most happy to see here, and who, if he were not here, would certainly have deprived us of the great pleasure we all feel in seeing him. (Loud cries of hear!) Gentlemen, I feel that I have already trespassed on your attention for too long a time. With every feeling—of—with every sentiment of—of—’
‘Gratification’—suggested the friend of the family.

 
‘—Of gratification, I beg to propose the health of Mr. Minns.’

 
‘Standing, gentlemen!’ shouted the indefatigable little man with the whiskers—‘and with the honours. Take your time from me, if you please. Hip! hip! hip!—Za!—Hip! hip! hip!—Za!—Hip hip!—Za-a-a!’

 
All eyes were now fixed on the subject of the toast, who by gulping down port wine at the imminent hazard of suffocation, endeavoured to conceal his confusion. After as long a pause as decency would admit, he rose, but, as the newspapers sometimes say in their reports, ‘we regret that we are quite unable to give even the substance of the honourable gentleman’s observations.’ The words ‘present company—honour—present occasion,’ and ‘great happiness’—heard occasionally, and repeated at intervals, with a countenance expressive of the utmost confusion and misery, convinced the company that he was making an excellent speech; and, accordingly, on his resuming his seat, they cried ‘Bravo!’ and manifested tumultuous applause. Jones, who had been long watching his opportunity, then darted up.

 
‘Budden,’ said he, ‘will you allow me to propose a toast?’

 
‘Certainly,’ replied Budden, adding in an under-tone to Minns right across the table, ‘Devilish sharp fellow that: you’ll be very much pleased with his speech. He talks equally well on any subject.’ Minns bowed, and Mr. Jones proceeded: ‘It has on several occasions, in various instances, under many circumstances, and in different companies, fallen to my lot to propose a toast to those by whom, at the time, I have had the honour to be surrounded, I have sometimes, I will cheerfully own—for why should I deny it?—felt the overwhelming nature of the task I have undertaken, and my own utter incapability to do justice to the subject. If such have been my feelings, however, on former occasions, what must they be now—now—under the extraordinary circumstances in which I am placed. (Hear! hear!) To describe my feelings accurately, would be impossible; but I cannot give you a better idea of them, gentlemen, than by referring to a circumstance which happens, oddly enough, to occur to my mind at the moment. On one occasion, when that truly great and illustrious man, Sheridan, was—’

 
Now, there is no knowing what new villainy in the form of a joke would have been heaped on the grave of that very ill-used man, Mr. Sheridan, if the boy in drab had not at that moment entered the room in a breathless state, to report that, as it was a very wet night, the nine o’clock stage had come round, to know whether there was anybody going to town, as, in that case, he (the nine o’clock) had room for one inside.

 
Mr. Minns started up; and, despite countless exclamations of surprise, and entreaties to stay, persisted in his determination to accept the vacant place. But, the brown silk umbrella was nowhere to be found; and as the coachman couldn’t wait, he drove back to the Swan, leaving word for Mr. Minns to ‘run round’ and catch him. However, as it did not occur to Mr. Minns for some ten minutes or so, that he had left the brown silk umbrella with the ivory handle in the other coach, coming down; and, moreover, as he was by no means remarkable for speed, it is no matter of surprise that when he accomplished the feat of ‘running round’ to the Swan, the coach—the last coach—had gone without him.

 
It was somewhere about three o’clock in the morning, when Mr. Augustus Minns knocked feebly at the street-door of his lodgings in Tavistock-street, cold, wet, cross, and miserable. He made his will next morning, and his professional man informs us, in that strict confidence in which we inform the public, that neither the name of Mr. Octavius Budden, nor of Mrs. Amelia Budden, nor of Master Alexander Augustus Budden, appears therein.

 

Researching Staplehurst

Life is confusing at the moment and across the globe there is a huge sense of uncertainty. Businesses are struggling as the effects of self isolating and social distancing take hold and many people (myself and Liz among them) who are self employed in the so-called ‘gig economy’ are fearful of what the future holds from a financial standpoint.

We know our friends and family are thinking of us just as we are thinking about them, and that includes our many friends across the globe.

I have been writing a blog post over the past couple of weeks, my first since Christmas, and although in the current situation it may seem trite to publish it, I hope that it may divert your fears and restore a sense of normality for a couple of minutes.

Here it is:

 

I have been quiet for a few weeks, for which I apologise, but that does not mean that I have been idle for I have been working to complete the manuscript of my first ever book – a feat that I was never certain I could achieve, so this winter has been a voyage of discovery.

Regular readers of my blog will remember that I have been investigating Charles Dickens’ involvement in the Staplehurst rail disaster of 1865, which occurred on June 9th – five years, to the very day, before he died.

Much of my research has taken place at my laptop, made possible by the fabulous resources available now, such as online census records, the amazing British Newspaper Archive, the complete collection of Charles’ letters.  Added to that cyber collection of information is the huge stack of Dickens biographies that I own, each of which takes a slightly different tack thereby sending me off down different avenues of exploration.  On the way I have become acquainted with others who boarded the tidal train from Folkestone to London on that day and have enjoyed discovering their histories as well as that of my illustrious forebear.

But there is only so much that can be done online and there came a time where good old fashioned legwork was required and it all started at a railway station.  We live in Oxfordshire and our nearest mainline station is Didcot Parkway from where we board the mighty Great Western Railway high speed trains that whisk us into London’s Paddington station.  Nestling behind the electric main lines is The Didcot Railway Centre where a remarkable collection of GWR locomotives and rolling stock is restored, preserved and displayed and it was here that I made my way on a chilly February afternoon to meet Kevin who had offered to explain how a steam locomotive is driven (in writing the book I wanted to take the reader onto the footplate, to feel the heat and hear the noise).

Kevin, wearing a dirty boiler suit made of natural fibres, welcomed me at the gate and gave me an extensive tour of the site, explaining how the locomotive involved in the crash would have looked (he had also been researching and had found out that it was number 199 and had a 2-2-2 configuration.  If you don’t know what any of that means you will just have to buy the book when it is published!).  We stood on footplates and he explained about regulators and valves, brakes and whistles, coal and water. He put up with my ignorance and patiently went through technicalities over and over until it began to make sense to me.

The highlight of the day was the moment that Kevin led me to the steaming panting Railmotor number 93 which was standing at a platform waiting to depart along the short stretch of line, and I was to drive it!  A Railmotor is basically just a carriage with a footplate at one end.  So although one does not get the sensation of riding a huge great locomotive, the manner of driving is the same and this is what Kevin wanted to demonstrate.  On the footplate was the boiler, the drive selector, with which you could select forward or reverse drive, and the huge red leaver attached to the boiler which opened the regulator valve, allowing the huge steam pressure to enter the cylinders and ultimately drive the wheels.

After a very brief lesson I pulled the cord to sound the whistle, and off we went: the sheer amount movement of the boiler suspended in the chassis surprised me and the feeling of such huge latent energy kept in check by purely by iron plates and rivets.  The heat of the furnace, the smell of the coal and steam, the sight of the tracks rushing beneath us, and all the time Kevin telling me to ease off on the regulator, or prepare to sound the whistle, or gently start braking until we came to a smooth stop next to another platform (a feat of which I was ludicrously proud!).

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Having guided the coach back to our starting to point I bade farewell to my new friends taking with me the feeling that at the age of 56 I had driven a steam train, and as I walked back to my car Kevin’s parting words rattled around inside my head: ‘You must come back soon to drive a proper locomotive, so you can understand how limited the visibility is from a cab.’  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the manuscript will be finished before I can take him up on his offer, because it is one that I will be unable to refuse.

During the week following my visit to Didcot I embarked on my next journey of research when I drove down to the county of my birth, Kent.  I particularly wanted to visit three towns, all of which played an important part in the story.

On the first day I drove to Staplehurst itself, not so much to observe the scene of the crash for I have been there many times, but to board a train bound for Folkestone.  On 9th June 1865 Charles Dickens sailed across the English Channel from Boulogne to Folkestone where he boarded the ill-fated train to London.  I particularly wanted to understand the geography of the quayside, and how passengers would transfer from the steamer to the train.  During the kitchen table period of research I had been sent a few old photographs of the harbour station in Folkestone but I was keen to see it for myself, hence the journey.

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At Staplehurst station I boarded an airy modern train and stood at the window so that I could judge the precise moment we passed over the little bridge crossing the river Beult, the spot at which the accident had occurred 155 years earlier.  Finding the location proved to be difficult as the surrounding fields were flooded obscuring the path of the stream.

The ride to Folkestone lasted around 45 minutes and I disembarked at the modern station to the north of the town and walked towards the harbour.  Folkestone is a typical modern south coast town, slightly down at heel and faded, although the centre is dominated by a huge modern supermarket.  To reach the sea I found myself walking down the ‘Old High Street’ a quaint cobbled lane lined with art galleries and gift shops most of which were closed up for the winter, although one defiantly had its doors open with an ‘A’ board on the pavement declaring that ‘No, this street isn’t closed.  Its just very artisan.’  The other side of the same board read. ‘Thank the Lord that the vapid commercial emptiness of Valentines Day is over.  MOTHER’S DAY IS 22 OF MARCH’

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At the bottom of the steep hill I found myself at the harbour and everything I had read about it in my research began to make sense.  The Harbour Station has long been out of service but in recent years it has been restored and developed as a…I’m not quite sure what, really, a performance space, a gathering spot, who knows?

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What is certain is that I could stand on the old platform and imagine the train waiting to take the passengers from the Victoria steamer.  The platform is built in a long arc stretching towards the end of the sea wall, and next to it there was originally a large custom house of which only the façade survived the war.

From the station itself the Victorian trains would have crossed a swing bridge over the harbour, then over a long viaduct originally built from timber, but now of brick, and then gradually uphill towards the main station in Folkestone at that time, Folkestone Junction, where the main journey to London would have commenced.

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Today the old signal box which stands at the end of the platform, before the swing bridge, has been converted into a tiny café and I found a seat near the old signalling equipment where I did a little writing and enjoyed a ‘Kentish Rarebit’ for my lunch.

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The rest of the afternoon I devoted to a walk around Folkestone, and thanks to the wonders of the internet and Google Maps found my way to an elegant home on the top of a cliff, Albion Villas, where Charles Dickens had stayed for a few months.  As I looked at the building and photographed it a rather frightening woman came out of the door, her head was bound against the chilly wind by a scarlet headscarf and she seemed to be a modern equivalent of Betsy Trotwood from David Copperfield, striding out to admonish me for trespassing on her land.  In reality she couldn’t have been kinder and was happy to tell me all about the house and its history.  We discussed the recent storms which had ravaged Britain and she pointed out an upstairs window which faced the sea: ‘my bedroom!  And, yes, I can confirm that the bed does move!’  With that rather startling revelation in my mind I made my way back to the station for the journey back to Staplehurst.  I made sure that I took in all of the scenery during the ride home so that I could recall exactly what Charles Dickens saw as he rattled through Kent in 1865.  The line of the North Downs to the right, the featureless farmland to the left.  Church spires and conical oast houses with their white cowls, woods and marshes flashed by until I once again crossed the flooded lake that had once been the River Beult and disembarked safely at Staplehurst.  As I drove away from the station I saw a building that had once been the Staplehurst Railway Hotel, which played an important part in the story, for not only were many of the wounded given beds there but the formal inquest was held in the large room downstairs.  It is a hotel no more but has been converted into flats or bedsits and a tiny plaque made of individual self-adhesive black letters on a gold background states that it is now called ‘Charles Dickens Court’, which is ironic for the great man made sure that he did NOT attend the formal proceedings there

 

Boulogne

The second day if my trip was devoted to a trip to France to investigate the city of Boulogne from where the steamer had begun its journey.  I arrived back in Folkestone in plenty of time to catch an early train through the tunnel and arrived in Calais on a beautiful morning.  The drive to Boulogne took a little over half an hour and soon I was searching for a parking space in the shadows of the great ramparts which surround the old town.  Our gold Renault seemed at home in the country of its birth.

My guide for the day was to be Janine Watrin the founder of the Boulogne branch of The Dickens Fellowship organisation and an absolute authority in the subject of Dickens and Boulogne (he had spent a few summers in the city holidaying with his family).  Janine was accompanied by another member of the Fellowship, Hazel, who had been born in Canterbury before marrying a Frenchman and moving to Condette, a few miles outside Boulogne.  Hazel therefore would play the role of translator for the day.

Our tour began with a stroll around the top of the ramparts, a walk that thanks to Janine has recently been named ‘Promenade Charles Dickens’.  Following our perambulations, and having seen a few of the old streets and sights that Dickens knew, we all piled into my car and drove to a large school in a neighbourhood on the edge of the town, set on a hillside.  Janine explained that this is where Charles Dickens and his family stayed when they were in the city.  The view over the docks was beautiful (and would have been more so in Charles’ day, before the proliferation of apartment blocks grew from the soil), and as the bell of the Basilica dully tolled midday I could quite imagine being there, standing on the hillside with great great grandad.

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Lunch was next and we sat in a small café on the quay trying to work out quite where Dickens alighted from the train from Paris and where he boarded the steamer for Folkestone.  Lunch finished Janine (into her 90’s, by the way), led us to a tiny museum located in The Beurières.

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This area of Boulogne was home to the fishermen and was built over 5 streets which were so steep that they form staircases rather than paved roads.  On each side were crammed three story houses, each floor of which was occupied by a single family living in two small rooms, and it was recorded during the 19th Century that 13,000 people lived within the neighbourhood. Children slept on rudimentary cots built into kitchen cupboards to save space, whilst the babies were put down to sleep and shut away in chests of drawers.

There was no running water to these houses, no drainage, no sanitation and the effluent would be disgorged into the street, cascading down the steps in a foul-smelling waterfall.  Rivalries and fights were commonplace, but these were people united in their profession and when a man was lost at sea (as often happened), the community came together to help the grieving family.

Today only one of the streets has survived and the tiny museum in one of the houses at the very top (to which Janine clambered without assistance) was fascinating.  On thing caught my eye particularly, in the background of one of the old photographs of the street there is very definitely a cowl similar to those found on an English Oast House, a design most peculiar to the county of Kent.  I asked our guide what it could be but he did not know.  He did however tell me that the residents of Boulogne traditionally had a much closer relationship with the people of Kent than they did with the citizens of Calais just a few miles up the coast, so the possibility of Kentish industrial architecture influencing the building of businesses in the city is quite understandable.

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Our final stop of the day (having briefly stopped to admire Napoleon standing on top of his column, pointedly facing AWAY from England) was at the Archives where we ploughed through lots of images of Boulogne in the 1860s.  It was here that I was able to discover that the train from Paris came in on one side of the quay and the passengers either walked or took hansom cabs past the fish market to where the steamer waited, moored near to the fashionable casino.

After an hour huddled over a screen the scene that had greeted Charles Dickens in 1865 was a great deal clearer to me and I knew that I could now imbue the facts in my book with a little more local colour.

We all thanked the staff at the archives for their assistance, and then I bade farewell to Janine and Hazel before returning to England where I sat at the little desk in my hotel room and re-wrote the chapter pertaining to Boulogne while the memories were fresh in my mind.

 

Tenterden

Day three of my adventures had been earmarked for Staplehurst itself, possibly visiting the farmer who owns the field through which the railway runs so that I could revisit the scene of the accident once more, but the flooding made such a pilgrimage useless, so instead I decided to visit the Kent and East Sussex Railway in Tenterden to get a little more experience of steam.

When I arrived at the station a fully laden passenger train was getting ready to leave with plumes of white steam seeping from every part of her.  A uniformed guard made sure everyone was onboard, blew his whistle and displayed his flag and from deep within the belly of the great snake a guttural belch answered the actions of the driver and slowly and with great ceremony, the train began to inch forward.  I was positioned near the signal box and level crossing at the end of the platform and with my flat cap and camera I looked every inch a train spotter (I believe that ‘rail enthusiast’ is the correct term).

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When the train had departed I spent a while looking round the site, although the main locomotive museum was sadly closed to visitors, until it was time for the next departure.  I found myself a private compartment and settled into my seat to enjoy the journey.  Having previously experienced the footplate itself, now I wanted to understand how Dickens felt in his carriage and as I looked out of the window it was as if I were rushing through the countryside approaching Staplehurst, crossing small bridges over shallow rivers.

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I have been on many steam railways before but on this occasion I made every effort to remember the exact experience, I tried to analyse the damp smell. and watched how the view was obscured by whisps of steam in the slipstream of the train.  As we rushed towards Bodiam I worked on my laptop and asked the ticket collector to take a picture of me.  ‘Hmmm,’ he must have thought, ‘another train spotter, sorry, rail enthusiast’

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My day ended with the return trip, and this time I walked through the train watching the various families who were spending the half term break together.  I noticed that, on the whole, it was the grandfathers who were enjoying the ride the most whereas the many children were gorging themselves on crisps and snacks as young mothers and fathers struggled to keep them occupied.

Back at Tenterden I left a bygone world behind me and returned to the quiet and comfort of my car and started the drive home.  For all of the factual information that I had previously packed into my manuscript those three days brought it all to life in my mind and now I have to make sure that I pass that on to the reader.

As yet I have no publication date in mind, and indeed do not have a publisher, although one company has shown interest and is currently reviewing my work.  I will let you know how things proceed over the coming months and maybe in the autumn when I am touring again I may have a little volume to sell and sign.

In the meantime, read lots and keep safe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BBC A Christmas Carol 2019: Yay or Nay?

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2019 saw the release of a new television version of A Christmas Carol which was, like those before it, eagerly anticipated.  The joyous tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his journey to redemption never fails to bring a smile to the faces of those who so cherish and love the story and I’m sure many settled down to watch this new offering with a sense of excitement and warm familiarity: but if they were expecting traditional fare they were in for a shock.

The new version, featuring Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge, was made produced by Ridley Scott and the team behind the gritty UK gangster drama Peaky Blinders.   The BBC described the series as an ‘unique and original take on Charles Dickens’ iconic ghost story and a haunting, hallucinatory, spine-tingling immersion into Scrooge’s dark night of the soul.’ which might have started to ring warning bells.  The screenplay for the three hour production was written by Steven Wright who has previously credited Charles Dickens as a major inspiration and who plans to adapt a number of the major novels in a similar style.  There was talk of a ‘…timely interpretation of a timeless story.’ and of following plot lines that were signposted by short sentences or observations from the original text although never yet fully explored.

Clearly this adaptation was going to be quite a challenge to those who relished the flickering candlelight, the beautiful prose and the heart-warming familiarity of my great great grandfather’s ‘ghostly little book’.

For my part I made the decision not to watch the first instalment until my own 2019 tour was completed, for I didn’t want any new ideas to cloud or confuse my current version.  Much better to have a year to reflect and ponder and to carefully weave any new influences into my telling for next year.

The first thing to notice about the show is that it is NOT billed as ‘Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’, it is titled ‘A Christmas Carol.  Based on the novella by Charles Dickens’  The opening scene is in a grey, neglected graveyard and we see a youth urinating over Jacob Marley’s headstone.  OK, time to reset Pickwickian perceptions.

I took the decison to watch the three episodes not as a remake of A Christmas Carol but as a drama in its own right, in the way that ‘West Side Story’ is not a remake of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Return to Forbidden Planet’ is not a performance of ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou’ is not a recital of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’.

Goodness the production tested me in my resolve!  Why did Marley die only 1 year before the action,  not 7? Why did Jacob  announce that the spirits would come at midnight, not at 1?  Why did the Cratchit family have only two children?  Why was Scrooge’s sister called Lottie (more on her later!)?.  Each and every time I reminded myself that all of these details existed in this story and must be accepted as such.  Once I had got myself into the correct state of mind the drama came alive and I found myself leaning forward on the edge of my seat.

The central plot is familiar, of course, with the non-caring and somewhat OCD Ebenezer Scrooge working in his office on Christmas Eve.  His clerk Bob Cratchit has promised his wife Mary, who seems to have a remarkably passionate hatred of her husband’s employer, that he would be home early, but Scrooge demands that a letter complaining to the authorities about extreme displays of jollity in the streets be copied in duplicate.

OK so far.

Nephew Fred appears and invites Scrooge to dinner and the invitation is rejected.

Still a safe telling of the story, but all of the time there are ghostly goings on, a ledger mysteriously opens having been closed and the words ‘Prepare Ye’ are scrawled across the page.

Meanwhile in the world of the dead Jacob Marley finds himself cast in chains forged in a red hot foundry before being hauled behind a horse-drawn carriage to purgatory (which seems to be a Christmas tree farm, although to be honest being in such a place on Christmas Eve probably DOES feel like purgatory), with a jet of Hellish flame soaring into the sky.  This land is presided over by The Ghost of Christmas Past who tells a somewhat confused Jacob that if he is to be released then he must assist the ghosts of Christmasses Past, Present and Future in forcing repentance from Ebenezer Scrooge.

In the counting house of Scrooge and Marley, which company seems to have a reputation for skimping on its health and safety commitments, shop is finally shut up and Scrooge marches into the streets and runs into two gentlemen collecting for charity and strangely it was this that really grated, for Steven Wright used Charles Dickens’ own words: ‘Are there no prisons?’  ‘Plenty of prisons.’  ‘And the union workhouses, are they still in operation?’ ‘They are. Still.  I wish I could say they were not.’  ‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?’ ‘Both very busy sir.’  ‘Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course.’  This exchange comes early in the novel but so successfully had the television adaptation created its own world that the original words seemed out of place in it.

I wont go through the entire three hours scene by scene but the atmosphere became darker and darker, bleaker and bleaker as the story moved on leaving one with the impression that it would be impossible for Scrooge to repent.

Interestingly the cinematography reminded me of the illustrations one of my favourite editions of A Christmas Carol, the one illustrated by Roberto Innocenti with is muted, drab palette.

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Apart from the familiar plotlines Scrooge’s place in Hell seemed assured thanks to the business dealings of his company: a mine shaft had been improperly secured leaving to a collapse that killed many men and children as well as, and this is what seemed to affect Scrooge more than anything, pit ponies. A failing mill that had been purchased by the two businessmen, had been stripped back to its bare bones with most of the staff having been paid off on Boxing Day, before being sold on at a huge profit

These scenes were shown to Ebenezer by The Ghost of Christmas Past who cleverly morphed between different figures: Ali Baba from The Arabian Nights took him back to school, a worker from the mine took him underground, an industrialist from the mill showed him the looms printing nothing but money.  These characters always come back to the grizzled figure who presides over the Christmas tree farm played by Andy Serkis.  The changing faces of The Ghost of Christmas Past pays homage to Dickens’ confused description of the character:

‘It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions……
….Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.’

When the ghost takes Scrooge to the schoolroom scene there is one particular memory that is truly awful that being the suggestion, no, the confirmation, of the sexual abuse he suffered when he was there and this brings us back to the ‘signposts’ in Dickens’ text that the producers had spoken about.

The original scene is written thus:

‘He was not reading now, but walking up and down despairingly. Scrooge looked at the Ghost, and with a mournful shaking of his head, glanced anxiously towards the door.
It opened; and a little girl, much younger than the boy, came darting in, and putting her arms about his neck, and often kissing him, addressed him as her “Dear, dear brother.”

 

“I have come to bring you home, dear brother!” said the child, clapping her tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. “To bring you home, home, home!”
“Home, little Fan?” returned the boy.

 

“Yes!” said the child, brimful of glee. “Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you’re to be a man!” said the child, opening her eyes, “and are never to come back here; but first, we’re to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in all the world.”

 

“You are quite a woman, little Fan!” exclaimed the boy’

 

I have always thought that the mention of the father ‘being so much kinder than he used to be…’ and that ‘he spoke so gently to me….that I was not afraid to ask….’ screams of some sort of abusive home life for both Ebenezer and Fan which has never been properly explored.  In the television adaptation that plot thread is taking further suggesting that Scrooge’s teacher is sexually abusing him, as he alone is left in the school when all of the other boys have gone home for the ‘jolly holidays’

Whilst I am mentioning Scrooge’s sister I should point out a remarkable change to the story  that reminded us that this was made by the team behind Peaky Blinders: In the book Little Fan is described as being much younger than Scrooge and as ‘a delicate creature’  In the adaptation she is somewhat older, called Lottie, and like a good gangster confronts the schoolmaster with a gun!

Lottie becomes even more important for it is in her adult shape that the Ghost of Christmas Present appears and this is another interesting take on the language used in the original, another following of a signpost.  As soon as the ghost appears in the book it is clear that Scrooge trusts him and almost begs him to teach him more, the John Leech illustration shows Scrooge in a penitent pose but with the wisps of a smile on his features.

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By making his sister the mortal figure of the spirit that sense of trust is portrayed beautifully.  Throughout the scene Lottie guides Scrooge like an angel might and constantly calls him ‘dear brother’, which mirrors Dickens’ description of Fan ‘…and putting her arms about his neck, and often kissing him, addressed him as her “Dear, dear brother.”

The story takes us to the Cratchit’s house where we are forced to witness another vile moment in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Seven years before Mrs Cracthit, desperate to save her son Tim, needed money desperately and unbeknown to her husband visited Mr Scrooge begging for a loan.  Ebenezer told her to come to his chambers on Christmas day and if she performed whatever task he asked of her then she could have the cash as a ‘gift’.

On the Christmas morning she presented herself and as Ebenezer looked dispassionately on she began to remove her clothes ready for the debasing act.  Eventually Scrooge tells her that his experiment in understanding human need had been successful and he knew what depths a woman would go to in order to save her child. He dismisses her with disdain (and the cash).

Mrs Cratchit had been emotionally raped, and that completely explains her violent response when Bob toasts ‘Mr Scrooge.  The Founder the of the Feast!’ in the original work: another signpost.

Even as Scrooge travels with the spirit of Lottie it is impossible to imagine how he could possibly repent or reform for even though he is effected by much of what he sees, he still manages to justify everything that has happened to himself..

Once the corpse ghost of Christmas Yet To Come leads Scrooge to the churchyard and he slumps against his own tombstone (also urinated over), he is unrepentant.  He is joined by Jacob Marley (whose release from purgatory relies on Scrooge’s conversion, remember) and in answer to the question ‘Well? have you changed?’ he says simply ‘No.  I refuse.  I refuse to change.  All their efforts were in vain for I refuse redemption.’

‘But, why?’ asks Marley

‘This fate, this piss covered second class grave is exactly what I deserve.  If redemption is to result in some kind of forgiveness I do not want it.’

It is a huge anti climax, and as a viewer you think ‘No!  surely not!  Liberties with the text you can take, changes to the details of the plot are OK, but messing up the whole ending is just NOT ON!’

But our attention is held by the most beautiful bit of facial acting by Guy Pearce, the pause is long, so long, and we can see Ebenezer trying desperately to make sense of what he is feeling.  He is watched not only by Jacob Marley but by the three spirits as well, still haunting him.  On the other side of the Churchyard a funeral is taking place, the funeral of Tim Cratchit.

‘The only thing…..’ another long pause.  ‘The only thing I want the spirits to do, the only change I want them to make is to spare the life of him!’  At that moment the three spirits disappear and Marley sinks back into his grave, a spirit at peace: they have succeeded for Scrooge cares about someone else and that is all that can be asked of him.

The final scene is sheer joy, running through the streets, slipping on the ice and declaring ‘I can FEEL!’  ‘What do you feel? inquires a concerned passer by. ‘At the moment, a pain in my arse!’  Its not quite ‘Im as light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy, as giddy as a drunken man’ but it serves the same purpose.

Ebenezer runs to the Cratchits and the scene is truly, tenderly moving and brought a tear to my eye.  As he leaves Mrs Cratchit follows him and says ‘Your £500 will be welcome but it shall not buy forgiveness’

‘Nor shall forgiveness ever be earned, or expected, or wanted,’ he replies.  ‘My business now is the future.  I will just be the best I can be.’ And with that he leaves.

The conclusion is just as uplifting and affirming and joyous as any other that has been committed to celluloid over the years.

I know that many people will not have enjoyed this adaptation and indeed will not have continued watching passed episode one.  I know that on next year’s American tour nobody will say that their favourite version was the Guy Pearce version  of 2019.  In fact when I am asked which is my favourite version I probably will still say ‘Alastair Sim’, or ‘George C Scott’, or ‘The Muppets’,  but that is not to say that I do not like the new version because I do very much.  I think it is well considered, well scripted and very well performed.

Did I enjoy it?  Enjoy is probably the wrong word for something so dark and at times disturbing,  but I relished it and admired it.  From me the BBC A Christmas Carol gets a very definite ‘Yay’.

 

 

 

 

Highclere Abbey…or Downton Castle?

December 19 1843 was the day that A Christmas Carol was published in England and it is always nice to mark the anniversary in a special manner:  this year I achieved that in some style!

Having returned from Liverpool in the morning I had a little time at home before setting off once again to the magnificent Highclere Castle which is about 45 minutes from our home.  I had been emailing Highclere year after year suggesting that it maybe a good venue for one of my shows but finally this year the stars aligned for Lady Carnavon has written a book called ‘Christmas at Highclere’ and the team at the castle had planned a full programme of Christmas events, of which my show was one.

Just after 5 o’clock on a rainy night I turned into the driveway, ignored the many ‘CASTLE CLOSED!’ signs and approached the magnificent house.  The final sweep of drive was lined by Christmas trees while the floodlit house itself stood out proudly against the black of the sky.

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In the first couple of seasons of Downton Abbey the Grantham family owned a 1911 Renault Landaulette which was usually seen pulling up at the front door of the house loaded with trunks and cases, so I felt very much at home pulling up at the same entrance in my 2016 Renault Kadjar.

The front door was opened for me not by Mr Carson, but by John the house manager who looked at my rather shabby furniture and said ‘you don’t need that!  We have plenty of furniture’.  I’m not sure that he would have been quiet so ebullient had I taken him up on his offer and jumped onto an antique chair as the fiddler at Fezziwig’s ball.

The stage was small and was surrounded on three sides by chairs all of which were packed into the great hall between the towering stone pillars which create the main ‘room’.  Behind the stage was a huge fireplace, one of the oldest parts of the house, and above huge vaulted ceiling.  As I stood on the stage arranging the furniture I was looking at the grand staircase and to my left was the largest Christmas tree that I have ever seen inside a house (obviously those in Trafalgar Square or at the Rockerfeller Center were taller, but those two examples did not need to carried through a doorway before they were erected)

When I had set up I was shown to a little back stage sitting room which was to be my dressing room and on the way passed the loos – I knew that I was in a fine venue because the signs didn’t say ‘gents’ and ‘ladies’ or have little pictorial representations of each gender.  No, at Highclere the signs said ‘Gentleman’s Lavatories’ and ‘Ladies’ Powder Room’.  In my green room I ate a little salad that I had brought with me.  This room was comfortable but very simply decorated in great contrast to the lavishness of the rooms which the public get to see.

Downstairs the guests were arriving dressed in their finery and were being given glasses of champagne as they strolled through the ground floor rooms, guided by Lord and Lady Carnarvon themselves, proudly showing off their home.  Among the guests were Liz and her sister Sheila and brother-in-law Martin.  Liz hadn’t seen me perform A Christmas Carol for almost three years and the show had changed a bit in that time, including the introduction of the sound cues and the red cloth which transforms into the figure of Tiny Tim, so I was particularly anxious to know what she would think of the changes:  I wanted to do a good job for her.

At 7.00 there was a knock at my door and I was led to the top of the staircase with its plush red carpet to await the start of the show.  Below me John took to the stage and with his melodious voice and vowels formed at a fine school he welcomed the guests.  He opened with a little light hearted comment suggesting that he was sure that nobody in the audience could possibly have a taller Christmas tree in their homes and the apparently throw away comment was greeted with laughter from most of the audience.

But one hand was raised.  The tickets for the evening were expensive and there were some members of the audience who exuded sheer wealth.  One thing that the wealthy do not like is being upstaged – size is everything and so it was obviously important for the gentleman to mention that his Christmas tree was larger!  John retorted that the Highclere tree was actually originally seven feet higher than we now saw but it had to be cut down to size because in its original form nobody could reach the top to decorate it properly.

The moment of needless posturing passed and John continued his introduction before giving the stage to Lady Carnarvon who graciously welcomed her guests and took the opportunity to mention her brand new book ‘Christmas at Highclere’ which is a lavishly and impressively produced volume containing many family Christmas recipes as well as plenty of chapters describing various traditions.   She pointed out that we were gathered on the 19th December the anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol and also mentioned that Dickens managed to sell some 20,000 volumes before Christmas – and that she would rather like to do the same!

And then my part of the evening began.  The music filled the hall and I made my slow way down the staircase.  when Liz and I had visited the castle in the Summer we decided that this would be a wonderfully dramatic way to open the show but now I was actually doing it I realised it was purely an exercise in vanity, for the audience were all sat with their backs to me (all except Liz, Sheila and Martin who were watching).  When I reached the floor I made sure that the metal ferrule on my walking stick clicked on the wooden floor to alert the audience that I was among them.  I stepped onto the stage and began.

It was an excellent show, one of the best of the season. The acoustics of the hall meant that I didn’t have to work hard and therefore the narrative was pacey and light, which is something that I had been concentrating on achieving during the 2019 season.  I have mentioned in previous blog posts that English audiences can be a little reserved and don’t always appreciate the ‘audience participation’ elements of the show, but the group in Highclere were fun, enthusiastic and playful.  There are a few moments early in the script where I can get a feel for a group and from those moments make decisions about what I will include in the rest of the performance.  My decision on Thursday 19 December was to give them everything!

I was concentrating hard and becoming completely absorbed in the story and characters but there was one moment during the first act when out of the blue I suddenly thought ‘I am HERE!  That’s where Lady Mary and Matthew first kissed as his fiancé looked down from the balcony over there.  I am performing where Dame Nelly Melba  (well, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa) sang.  I am HERE!’  And those thoughts didn’t even take into account the many real ghosts from Carnavon’s past that haunted the halls.

At the interval I returned to my little sitting room and, once I’d changed, just sat an relaxed, waiting for the word that we were ready to recommence.  After 15 minutes or so there was a knock at the door and Lady Carnarvon appeared.  She congratulated me on the show and we sat chatting about this and that.  In her book she had quoted Dickens (A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers), and had also related an anecdote about mourners at Charles’ funeral in Westminster Abbey leaning over the open grave in order to get a better view of Alfred Tennyson.  It seems that the phenomenon of celebrity spotting is not a new one.

Soon there was another knock on the door and it was time to start act 2.  With a top-up of mulled wine inside them the audience were in even higher spirits in the second half, which was just as well because that is where all of the Cratchit and Topper nonsense happens.  The hall of Highclere Castle was filled with laughter and at the end of the show with loud applause too.

Having taken my bows I was briefly able to chat with Liz for a moment before stationing myself at the front door where I was able to shake hands, talk and bid farewell to the audience as they gathered their coats and made their way out into the rainy night.

When the guests had all gone I returned to my room to change and then went to fetch my car which I again parked outside the front door.  All of the Highclere staff helped me pack the Renault and when I was ready to leave they all, including Lady Carnavon, stood outside the front door and waved me goodbye>

My Christmas special at Highclere Castle was over and it had been a highly successful evening and one which I hope that we will repeat in the future.  I certainly know of a lot of people who would very much like to attend performances there.

 

Emulating CD, But Not Quite As I Would Have Liked

Following my late return home from Highgate Cemetery on Tuesday night I was back in the car early on Wednesday morning to make the three hour drive to Liverpool where I would be performing in the beautiful and historic St George’s Hall.

In a British winter of almost unremitting rain the morning dawned sunny casting a tranquil and peaceful glow over the flooded fields of North Oxford.  Before heading onto the M40 and North I wanted to buy some lunch to take with me, as well as a cup of coffee to assist me on my way.  I stopped at a service station and once I had picked up what I wanted I waited to be served at the coffee counter.  A very large young gentleman who, judging from his sweatshirt was a landscape gardener by trade, stood behind me.  A stream of inevitable Christmas songs was playing over the  PA system and at that particular moment Santa Baby was on.  As I waited I was aware that my foot was gently tapping and I was sort of moving from foot to foot, dancing (I use the word in its loosest sense) in time with the music, and at the same moment I noticed that the gardener was doing the same.  It was as if we were replaying the famous supermarket scene in ‘The Full Monty’ but fortunately that was where the similarity ended!

I was due in Liverpool at 12 o’clock and I made excellent time, eventually pulling up at around 11.45.  St George’s Hall is a venue I have played often so I knew exactly how to navigate to the little cobbled cul-de-sac next to the hall.

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As I unloaded my furniture and costume a lady came up to me, ‘Are you Mr Dickens?’  I replied in the affirmative.  ‘I am coming to your afternoon show, but am not sure how to get into the hall.  I recognised you from your website.’  That was a nice welcome!  I showed her where the door to The Concert Hall was and off she went to get some lunch before returning for my show.

The staff at St George’s Hall welcomed me in and were really helpful as we loaded all of the furniture into the lift to take it up to the beautifully gilded hall on the 2nd floor where Charles Dickens himself had entertained the Liverpool crowds in the 1860s.  I was feeling very tired thanks to the rigours of the American tour, the previous night’s show and the jet lag, and I spent a little time just sitting in my quiet dressing room relaxing.

However time was pushing on and I had a sound check to do and I met up with Nathan from the AV company, who would be looking after me throughout the two performances. He had just driven from Wrexham where he was looking after a huge pantomime: my show would be a little easier and less stressful for him.

After we had successfully checked the microphone and run through the sound cues I went downstairs to the lobby where the event’s producer, Lynne Hamilton, was busy setting up a table for mince pies and a spicy mulled wine which simmered in a large urn.

Back upstairs in my dressing room I just sat quietly preserving my energy whilst in the next room the members of the Liverpool Philharmonic choir warmed up, unaware that they were serenading me with my favourite carol from childhood, Away in a Manger.

Soon it was time for the show to start, the choir would perform for ten minutes (it would inevitably be more like twenty!) before it was my turn to take to the stage.  I slipped upstairs to the gallery from where I could watch the small group of singers.  The pure sound and the harmonies filled the hall, the notes floating across the audience and it struck me that this was the space being used to perfection.

I went back down to the stage level ready to begin my show and congratulated the choir as they came off the stage.  Lynne welcomed me onto the stage, Nathan began the music cue and I walked into the light.

The audience was slightly smaller than in previous years as the only day that Lynne could book was a Wednesday and at the weekend a touring production of A Christmas Carol would be moving in, but as ever the Liverpool audience was lively and boisterous and great fun.  The show was in two acts so I had a chance to change costumes during the interval before returning to the stage as The Ghost of Christmas Present.

It was a good performance, I kept everything together and when Topper came to flirt I used one of the scantily clad marble statues which support the golden pillars that frame the stage.  I probably have done that in the past, for it is too good an opportunity to miss, but the audience enjoyed it.

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At the end of the show I received a typically Liverpudlian standing ovation complete with shouts, whistles and whoops.  It is such a great venue to play.

When all of the signing was done I packed up quickly and walked to my hotel, the Shankly Hotel, which is very comfortable and very convenient for the hall.  As I waited to check in the gentleman in front of me told the clerk behind the desk that he and his wife had booked supper for 6 and then they would be going to the ‘A Christmas Carol’ show in St Georges.  It was an amazing reminder how much people invest to watch me, way over and above the buying of the tickets this couple had travelled to the city and were staying overnight, just to come to my show.

As I’d left the hall Lynne had told me that she had asked for me to be upgraded room and I discovered that meant the 5th floor, only accessible by a special lift.  The corridor was painted in a lurid pink shade and all of the rooms had names: Adam, Eve, Sin.  I was in Desire!

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I was exhausted so ran a bath (a lovely deep jacuzzi) and let the stresses and strains and weariness bubble away. I didn’t have a long break and in no time I had to prepare myself for the evening show.  There was a Christmas market outside St George’s Hall so I bought myself a thick Bratwurst hot dog and went up to my dressing room to eat it.

There was a much larger choir at the evening show, called ‘Off Pitch’ not due to any lack of singing prowess but because they were formed out of a rugby club membership.  Again I sat in my dressing room quietly while they warmed up next door.

The evening’s audience was almost a full house and there was a great sense of anticipation and excitement in the room.  At 7.30 I went up to the gallery once more to listen to the choir (this exercise not only allowed me to enjoy the music but also to get a feel of the audience too).  Off Pitch pulled a great stunt by opening their set with two 11 year olds, Mia and Georgia singing the first verse of, you guessed it, Away in a Manger completely unaccompanied.  You could have heard a pin drop in the hall.  It was beautiful, as was the swelling of low harmony as the rest of the choir joined in.  It was an amazing moment and a great way to start the evening.

I returned downstairs just as Mia and Georgia were coming off stage accompanied by their grandfather and I was able to congratulate them on their incredibly mature performance.

After a few more carols the 60-strong main choir took their applause and filed off the stage and it was one again my turn.

I started the show and was determined to do a good job so really concentrated on giving it my all.  I was aware that Mia and Georgia were up in the balcony leaning forward on the rail entranced by the story.

Everything went well and as Jacob Marley floated out of his window and Ebenezer slumped into his bed I was confident that all was under control.  But suddenly I became aware of a commotion in the audience, to my right, three rows back, there was loud urgent talk and someone ran from the room, it soon became obvious that an audience member had collapsed and was being tended by her family and those in that part of the theatre.  There was nothing for it but to stand and announce, ‘ladies and gentlemen, I think it best if we take a slight pause in the show’, and I left the stage.

By this time the St George’s Hall staff were coming to help, and I went down to tell Lynne who was busily preparing for the interval in the lobby.  She hurried up and after a brief discussion we decided to call an early interval so that the audience could leave the auditorium while whatever treatment that needed to be carried out could be given without the scrutiny of a full house.

I lingered around the hall, chatted to some of the audience and when it felt as if it would not be too intrusive I made my way to where the patient was.  She was in a wheel chair and talking by now and more than anything was intensely embarrassed by the whole thing.  It seemed as if she had been slightly overdoing things during the day and the heat of the hall had caused her to faint.  I chatted to her and we laughed and I held her hand and assured he that it was fine and that she hadn’t ‘spoiled the evening’ at all.  Her daughter and son in law (I am guessing as to their exact relationship) were insisting quite rightly that if she didn’t go to hospital she certainly needed to go home, but the lady wasn’t having any of that, she wanted to stay and watch the rest of the show, and so started a family argument!  I told the group that I would be back to perform a Christmas Carol again at the end of January to some school groups, and I would arrange for a ticket to that performance for her.  Slightly calmed she allowed her family to wheel her away.

The bulk of the audience were down in the lobby enjoying their mulled wine and mince pies by this time but I hung around in the hall and chatted to some of the people who had remained in their seats.

The evening was slowly being dragged back to its natural course and when everyone was back in their seats (almost everyone, a few had decided to leave), Lynne got up to announce the raffle winners and then she handed back to me.  I couldn’t just proceed with the show without making some mention of the dramas that had unfolded earlier, but how should I pitch it?  I decided to strike a slightly light-hearted note, so said ‘Many of you know that Charles Dickens gave readings in this very room but what you may not know is that he would often judge how well a performance was going by the amount of ladies in the audiences who fainted…’  The audience laughed, which was  a relief.  I had certainly emulated my great great grandfather but not in the way I had wanted!

The second half was much longer that I had anticipated for our enforced break had come after the visit of Jacob Marley rather than in its usual place after the Ghost of Christmas Past, so I had a long slog ahead of me.  It was hot work and I was very tired by the end but the audience clapped and cheered and stood once more, thereby bringing an end to my single day in Liverpool.

I got changed, and then packed my car up before driving to the hotel and returning to my pink room – Desire.  All I desired on that evening was to sleep soon my wish was granted.

 

 

There Was A Horse With a Nun On It, And A Pony…

Having landed at Heathrow airport on Monday morning I had a little over twenty four hours at home before I was on the road once more.  Those few hours however did give me some time to let the Christmas spirit envelop me for we all decorated our Christmas tree together on Moday evening which was a very special time.

On Tuesday afternoon, having spent the morning with Liz writing Christmas cards, it was time to load up the car and to start the final leg of the 2019 tour.  My first venue was to be in the chapel at Highgate Cemetery in North London.  I was driving in the rush hour but I’d left myself plenty of time and arrived at the great wrought iron gates nice and early.  Indeed it took quite a deal of shouting and rattling to alert anyone that I was there – maybe they are used to the mysterious rattling of iron gates and put the noise down to the many ghosts that must surely inhabit the sacred ground.

Highate Cemetery is one of the largest and most prestigious burial grounds in the capital, and boasts some illustrious skeletons beneath the turf, most famously Karl Marx.  There are many actors buried there including Jean Simmons who found stardom as the young Estella in David Lean’s classic telling of Great Expectations, made in 1946.

There is even greater interest to the Dickens family at the site for it is there that Charles’ parents John and Elizabeth Dickens lie, as does Alfred Dickens, Charles’ younger brother.  Catherine Dickens, Charles’ wife and mother to his ten children, and of course my great great grandmother, is buried in the Cemetery alongside the couple’s daughter Dora who died at only 8 months old.  It is entirely possible that memorial services for some, if not all, of those ancestors of mine would have taken place in the very chapel in which I was to perform.

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As I set up my furniture I was greeted by Nick Powell who was responsible for organising the evening and who couldn’t have been more helpful.  We played about with different variations of the little spotlights and came up with a combination that lit me and my face adequately whilst still maintaining a sense of theatricality within the chapel.

When our preparations were completed Nick showed me to the room which would be my changing room and which was in a separate building.  It was like a school staff room with a sink, a dishwasher, a microwave.  Through a door I could hear a television and it was with some surprise that after a little while the door opened and a gentleman came in holding some mushrooms and packets of pasta sauce.  This was Victor, and he was about to cook his supper. We got chatting and I soon learned that Victor was the sexton at Highgate Cemetery and loved his job.  He had been digging graves for ‘thirty years officially, more like forty unofficially’: his father had been the sexton before him, so he used to help out! He reckoned that he must be the longest serving grave digger in history.

Victor needs to write a book and he has been asked to on many occasions but so far ‘I have only written one page. The first page.’  When he gets round to getting the rest of the stories down it will be a fabulous read for he spins a great yarn. Example: ‘I remember one service: there was a horse in the chapel with a nun on it, and a pony.  The pony was there because the horse wouldn’t go anywhere without it and the pony wouldn’t go anywhere without the horse.  The nun wouldn’t go anywhere without either of them….’  Sheer magic!

We chatted about various memorable funerals, many of them for household names that I cant divulge, but Victor had an amazing recall of every detail.  A major publisher has told him that when he is ready to talk they will send their best ghost writer to chat with him, which somehow seems apt.

Show time was coming round so we went our separate ways, him to his supper and me to my costume.  It had been one of the those delightful moments in life.

The chapel was full as I stood at the back next to Peter, one of the cemetery guides, who was operating my sound.  Towards the front sat the comedian Eddie Izzard who had come to see the show.

The show went well although there was lots of re-adjusting to be done: firstly I had to adapt to a very small stage, so my ability to move was limited (actually it was rather like being back in Ventfort Hall in The Berkshires), secondly I had to remember the two act script again with its few additions and lastly I had to adapt to the rather more reserved nature of an English audience after the boisterous fun-loving American ones.

Everything went well and the soon the plot was rattling on at a good pace, the interval was heralded by plenty of applause, and the second act, with all its playfulness, picked up where I had left off.

Considering I had only been back in the UK for a day I was pretty pleased with my efforts.  I received a very load round of applause with a few whoops and whistles included (there were some American guests in the crowd), and gratefully took my bows.  When I had left the stage I lingered at the back of the chapel and signed copies of my souvenir programmes and chatted to the audience.  Eddie Izzard offered his congratualtions and as he was leaving a girl said to me, ‘wow, I loved it – you should be a comedian!’  Maybe I wont change my day job (or my evening job more accurately) quite yet.

Soon the chapel was quiet again and I was able to pack up my furniture and say good bye to Nick who was beaming all over his face.

As I drove through a foggy and misty London I reflected on two things: an enjoyable show in a memorable setting, and the chance encounter with Victor, a natural born storyteller who will, must, record all of his memories soon – when he does I urge you to buy the book!

 

 

Heckled By The Best

Sunday 15 December marked the last day of my 2019 American tour.  My flight was due to depart at 9.45 pm so in previous years this would have meant checking out of a hotel as late as possible and trying to find something to do with my day.  On Sunday however I had the perfect diversion in the shape of one final show.

It has become a tradition for Bob and me to meet for breakfast on the day after my last Byers’ Choice show and on this occasion we had arranged to meet at 8.  Before meeting I sort of packed my case, although I couldn’t really do it properly for I would need to put my costumes, top hat and cane in when the day’s professional activities had been completed.

Bob was waiting for me in a deserted restaurant and as we ate fruit, scrambled eggs and bacon we discussed how the tour had gone, how we will organise the 2020 one and various other subjects including the political state across the globe.

I needed to be on the road by 9.30 so after an hour of chatting we had to call an end to our musings and say goodbye for another year.  I put a few final things into my case, making sure that I had shirts, black socks and all the other bits and bobs that I would need for the show in my roller bag and checked out of the Ambler Inn.

My venue for the final performance was a new one  (the only new venue on tour this year) and it was in Lakewood New Jersey, a drive of about ninety minutes, or the same length as a complete performance of A Christmas Carol lasts.  I hadn’t listened to the Audible recording of His Dark Materials for a few days, so I decided to get back to Lyra and Will and their adventures.

My route took me past dear old Burlington, where I usually perform at the Broad Street United Methodist Church, and onto the New Jersey Turnpike – cue loud tuneless singing of Simon & Garfunkle’s America.

Lakewood is on the Jersey Shore between New York City and Atlantic City and soon I was taking the exit and driving through the outskirts of a town that I didn’t know. At one junction I was unsighted by parked vehicles and  incurredthe wrath of a red sports car drive who appeared from nowhere, accelerated hard so that he could slam on his brakes and then he waved at me (I think he was saying that there could only be 1 car on that road, or that it was 1 way:  whatever he meant, the gesture only utilised one of his digits.

I found The Strand Theater easily and fortunately there was a parking spot right outside, which had no time limitations on a Sunday.  I unloaded my two suitcases and two costumes, as well as the hat, scarf and cane and knocked on the door.  As soon as I was inside I was aware that there was a great sense of excitement and anticipation, and I was instantly taken to the stage where I got my first view of the most beautiful and majestic auditorium that you could imagine.

The Strand Theater was opened in 1922 at a time when the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and DuPont families were busy enjoying the fruits of their various industries up and down the east coast of America.  Today, after a period of restoration The Strand is looking as impressive ever, all lit by sparkling chandeliers.

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I was met on stage by Chris who would be overseeing my technical requirements for the day.  As we chatted the rest of the team were busily plotting lighting cues and testing the sound system in readiness for a cue to cue technical rehearsal.  As I peered into the gloom I became aware that somebody, no, more than that, somebodies in the auditorium were watching me,  and then I saw them: sitting in a private box high to my left were two of my theatrical heroes who had arrived early to watch, and no doubt heckle about, my show.  Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show looked critically down upon my preparations.

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Of course they famously played Jacob and Robert Marley in the 1992 film version of A Christmas Carol so would no doubt be viewing my efforts with a critical eye.

Back in the real world I thought that it might be a good idea to check that the script that the tech team were using was the current one and it was just as well that I did for the copy they had was a couple of years old and had a completely different opening.

Having tweaked the lighting plot to match the new script we were ready for our rehearsal.  I performed each section where there was a technical cue so that Hunter (sound), Victoria (lighting) and Tom (all-powerful overseer) could be confident in the timings of the piece.  Chris meanwhile showed off his pride and joy – a huge dry ice machine situated behind the fireplace which would coat the floor with an eerie mist at relevant moments in the show.  With a little practice we realised that I could WHOOOOOOSSSSH forward at the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and create a huge bow wave of fog that would gently disperse.  Dry Ice is fabulous because it clings to the floor, rather than rising, obscuring the view and choking everyone as smoke does.

When we had finished the run-through I returned to my dressing room and changed, then sat quietly to wait for the advertised start time of 2pm.  Just before 2 Chris popped his head in to say that we were holding for 5 or 10 minutes as there were major issues with parking and people were late getting in as a result: subtext, we had a big audience!

At 2.10 I waited in the wings.  The house lights went down, the music started, the fog seeped and an eerie blue light covered the stage, I walked on into the pool of light at  and began the story.

It is always interesting to perform for a new audience who don’t understand what the format of the show is or how it is going to work (although there were a few sniggers from the darkness that told me that fans from other venues had made the trip).  On Sunday there was a definite period when people didn’t quite know how to react, but soon (mainly after I had descended into the audience and used someone as a hat stand), things began to relax.

I only made one mistake in the delivery of my lines and that came about because I found myself staring straight into the eyes of Statler and Waldorf, I kid you not, and it unnerved me for a moment leading to whatever slight fumble I made.  I half expected to hear ‘He’s terrible! Awful! Get him off!’  But the two gents had obviously mellowed with age and behaved impeccably.

The other issue was with the microphone, I was wearing a head mic which hooked over my ear and Chris had bonded it to my cheek with a sort of adhesive layer of extra skin

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Unfortunately as I got hotter and hotter so my sweat effected the unit but Hunter busily tweaked levels and adjustments on his sound board to ensure that I could be heard at all times.

The show worked superbly and all of the technical effects enhanced the beauty of Charles Dickens’ language.  When I wished every one ‘Merry Christmas’ and left the stage the noise was terrific with shouting, and whistling augmenting the applause.

Although there was no specific signing session planned, the front of house manager popped her head into my dressing room to say there were some people who wished to say hello, and when I reached the foyer there was quite a crowd, all of who burst into spontaneous applause.  I found a table and chair and settled into the familiar routine of smiling, chatting, signing and posing.

It was around 4.15 when I returned to my dressing room and was able to finally pack my cases completely for the journey home.

I said goodbye to Chris, Tom, Victoria, Hunter and the rest of the team, thanking them for their amazing work during the afternoon.  The stage has been cleared and the only sign of my performance was the dry ice machine with a length of aluminium ducting laying on the floor, a puddle of water at its end making it look like an elephant with a rather bad cold.

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Making sure that I had all of my bags and cases I left The Strand and climbed into Franz for our final journey together.

The drive to Newark airport was about an hour and occasionally I could see the twinkling lights of Manhattan peeping at me from behind buildings.  The unmistakable smell of large oil refineries and the huge neon BUDWEISER sign guided me to the airport and little Hertz signs took me to the spot where Franz took our leave of one another.  I wondered where my companion would go next?  He had started life in Michigan and yet when I chose him he had been at Logan airport in Boston.  Now he was being dropped off in New Jersey.  Where would the next leg of his adventures take him? It would be a fascinating study to trace the life of a single rental car and track it’s progress around the country.

I checked in for my flight and was soon waiting in the security line.  I had so much time in hand that of course I didn’t mind being asked to stand aside whilst a lady was pushed passed us in a wheelchair, accompanied by her husband wearing a large neck brace.  However once they were at the front of the line she was out of her chair and he removed his neck brace for scanning and I have to say they looked quite sprightly as they went through.  Maybe if I have a very tight connection on future tours I need to pull the same stunt…I’ve often thought hobbling through on Scrooge’s cane and seeing if that would elicit any expedition of the process.

I am absolutely sure, by the way, that I was doing the couple an injustice and that they really did suffer from the ailments and infirmities that they displayed.

I sat down in the vicinity of my gate and the hours passed slowly by.  Shortly before boarding I was somewhat alarmed to hear an announcement: ‘Virgin Airlines is paging passenger Jack Richard Bauer, please see the agent.’  Jack Bauer?  I have watched all the seasons of 24 and I know that when Mr Bauer of CTU is about thinks don’t tend to go well.

It was looking as if it could be a rough flight……

Perhaps Jack Bauer, like Statler and Waldorf has mellowed, for the flight was smooth and I even managed to sleep a little.  Having circled over South London a few times we made our final approach and touched down.  I was home.

 

For my final musical accompaniment I am leaving A Christmas Carol behind me and choosing a more personal tune:  ‘There’s No Place Like Home For The Holidays.’

A Night for Celebration.

The Joseph Ambler Inn does not have coffee machines in the rooms, so the first job on Saturday morning was to go down to the little office and use the large Keurig machine there to give my morning a kick start.  Back in the room I wrote my blog and then watched the end of the Grand Tour  programme that I had started the afternoon before.

At 8 o’clock I went to the restaurant were a delicious buffet was laid out.  As I was considering what to choose a party of guests came up to me, they had seen the show the night before and wanted to chat and tell me how much they had enjoyed it, which was lovely.  In an early morning state of semi-dishevelment I had to play the role of actor again.  The family were very nice and asked if I would be returning next year with any of my other shows: the answer to that was hopefully, yes.

With breakfast done I returned to my room and didn’t do much for a couple of hours until it was time to drive back to Byers’ Choice and prepare for a very intense and busy day, with two shows being staged almost back-to-back.

I had re-set the stage the night before but I went back into the ‘auditorium’ to check on things anyway and found Bob, Dave and Jeff all similarly checking on various things.  I chatted to Bob about the previous day’s show and people’s reaction to it, specifically the back drop.  In previous years the stage had been placed against the white wall of the workshop, but when I came in September to perform Great Expectations we decided to hang a black curtain to make the stage appear more like a black box theatre.  Dave loved how it looked under the stage lights, and to me the black helped to focus the audience’s attention onto my facial expressions.

There had been a bit of debate in the weeks leading up to the A Christmas Carol weekend as to whether we should stay with black (Dave and I in support) or return to white (Bob and Joyce).  In the end Dave and I had won and I was keen to know what Bob had thought of the look.  Generally it had met with approval and I think that we may stay with black from now on.

As Bob and I were walking through the corridors of the office area he asked me ‘what is a curate’s egg?’  One of my blog posts last week was entitled ‘A Curate’s Egg’, and apparently this is not a phrase in wide use in America meaning that the large majority of my readership  had no idea what I was talking about!   The phrase is used to describe something that is good in parts and bad in others.  I don’t know the exact origin of the phrase but there was a famous cartoon in the 1800’s showing a young timid curate having breakfast with the Bishop.  The Bishop is peering at the plate of the curate and says “Dear me, I’m afraid your egg’s not good!”; to which the timid curate replies. “Oh, yes, my Lord, really – er – some parts of it are very good.’

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So, there is the explanation!

As Bob and I chatted his phone rang and from the tone of his side of the conversation some issue had arisen.  Apparently two high school choirs – CB East and CB West had both turned up to perform!  I left Bob to sort things out and returned to the large conference room where my costumes were where I had laid them out the night before.

Not only was there my costume but also a surprise from Pam, who had kindly taken a bag full of laundry for me the night before, and in it she had discovered my ‘lost’ sweater!  I was so glad.  I hadn’t lost anything so far on the tour after all, in fact I had gained something for when I took my diary out of my leather shoulder bag I discovered that I had accidentally picked up the guest services folder from The Fairville Inn as well.  Fortunately Bob could send it back to Rick and Laura.

I got changed and made sure that everything was just as it should be: microphone clipped to waistband and pinned to shirt, watch in one waistcoat pocket, old penny in the other.  Shoes tied in double knots so the laces wouldn’t come undone during the show, cravat properly tied.  Top hat, scarf and cane all ready. Fountain pen with fresh ink cartridge prepared for the signing session afterwards.

With everything prepared I sat and listened to some music until it was 12.45 at which point I went to join Dave at the lighting desk to watch the huge audience gather.

On the stage CB East had won the battle of the choirs and were entertaining the growing crowd with their beautiful carols.  Everything seemed calm, until Dave and I became aware of an audience member get up onto the stage, what was going on?   The gentleman was helping one of the carol singers, she was slumping in his arms, Dave immediately ran to help as did other members of the Byers’ Choice staff.  The poor girl had been overcome by the heat of the stage lights (I could sympathise) and had simply fainted.

Soon Dave returned and reported that she was fine, and being looked after. I immediately drank a lot more water to ensure I was well hydrated for the show ahead.

The audience continued to fill the hall and the countdown continued and then I became aware that the stool was not where it should be on the set, in fact I couldn’t see it on the stage at all, although with so many carol singers it was difficult to tell.  I mentioned it to Dave and he looked from one angle and Bob joined the search and looked from another.  Eventually we confirmed that the stool WAS on the stage but had been moved, so when Bob was making the introduction he would need to place it back in the correct position.

Goodness, what an action packed few minutes, it would be relaxing to get into the show!

I was on much better form than the night before, I felt much more connected with the script and the audience.  it was hot work, but the audience after a slightly quiet start were soon fully engaged.  It was a fun show to an almost full house of around 700 people.

After I had taken my bows and changed I went to the room in the visitor center where I would be signing and could hardly get through the throng of people who were waiting for me.  It was going to be a long session and indeed by the time I finished and returned to the conference room I only had an hour before it would be time to get ready again.   Before I relaxed I went to the stage and re-set the furniture and props ready for round two.  Back in the dressing room I sat quietly and ate a salad that Bob had procured.

At 5 o’clock I went through the whole process of preparation again and joined Dave at the tech console where we hoped that there would not be quite so many adventures this time round.  The evening’s entertainment was supposed to be provided by CB West again but because of the earlier mix up only four singers had been able to stay.  Instead of standing on the stage the quartet simply mingled among the audience and it was a very effective way of entertaining the crowd.

At 5.30 Bob started the whole show again, and in inviting the audience to come to the signing session afterwards he mentioned that ‘Gerald always loves to talk about the show and hear about what you loved…’, that’s true, but he continued ‘and he loves to hear about things that you didn’t like so much….’ aggghhhh! this may have been an unwelcome can of worms that Bob had opened!

Once more the show went well and once more it was hot work.  There was a group of kids in the front row who giggled and laughed infectiously, bringing the line from the original book to mind: ‘It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour’.

The children’s laughter was indeed contagious and the rest of the audience caught it.

I was surprised by my energy level and stamina through the second show, for I had been worried that I may flag a little, but everything stayed with me and I pushed through to the end to take my final bows at Byers’ Choice for this year.

The signing line was slightly shorter this time around but it still took an hour or so until I signed the last book and was able to return to the conference room to pack up my things.  I went back to the hall to collect the red shawl, my scarf and the two little soft toys who sit on the set at every performance and discovered that the theatre was back to being a manufacturing facility once more.  Work stations were being manoeuvred back into place and the stage was gone.  I said good by and thank you to Dave’s legs, for he was busy unplugging electrical cables in the void above the ceiling.  Everyone was helping, as they always do at Byers’ Choice.

When I had all of my belongings I went to the car and drove to the Ambler Inn and sat in the bar.  I ordered a large thick juicy steak, for although I had one more matinee performance on the following day, that particular Saturday night felt like an evening to celebrate.

24 hours later I would be boarding a flight to return home.

 

I apologise, but I didn’t include a musical link yesterday.  Today we are in Scrooge’s old school and the Ghost of Christmas Past has just announced ‘let us see another Christmas…’ Scrooge’s former self grew larger at the words, and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead.’

Why did the plaster in the ceiling crack?  Because, as Gene Autrey memorably sang ‘Up on the house top reindeer paused, Out jumps good old Santa Claus’

That would definitely make the plaster fall!

 

 

 

 

Detached and Clumsy

Friday would see me driving to the tour’s headquarters, Byers’ Choice in Chalfont PA, but as I didnt have a show until 7 pm I had plenty of time to myself during the day.

I was due to meet David and Teresa for breakfast at 8 o’clock again so having written the blog post I walked up to the main house where we all settled down at ‘our’ table and picked up the previous night’s conversation as if the intervening hours had never passed.

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The room was full of other guests, two of whom had been at my afternoon’s show the previous day.  Laura and her staff moved between us all taking orders and filling coffee cups.  The choice for breakfast was a spinach omelette, waffles or scrambled eggs and we all plumbed for the waffles.  Laura explained that Rick had a large cast iron waffle iron which only produced  a certain amount at a time, and as some of the other tables had also ordered them, she would bring them in ‘tranches’ and sure enough soon after our first plates arrived and we tucking in so the second wave of waffles arrived, followed not long after by a third.  They were delicious.

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An hour past quickly and I realised that I had to hurry a little for although I didn’t have any professional commitments until later in the day, I had arranged to return to Winterthur in order to view a special exhibition that was running featuring the costumes from the Netflix series The Crown.  I returned to my room and packed my cases, discovering that I had left a sweater somewhere along the way, which was frustrating as I had thought Id been doing rather well on this tour so far.  I returned my key to Laura and said my goodbyes before making the familiar drive to the great house, where I parked in a small staff car park and was met by Ellen.  The exhibit was not yet open to the public so I was to have a private viewing which felt rather special. Ellen walked with me to the entrance to the exhibition room and left me to wander in my own time.

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The costumes were stunning, of course, and it was difficult to remember that these were theatrical recreations for they were so perfect – especially the Coronation robes and Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress.  Each item was displayed with pictures from the series as well as with archive photographs of the Queen when the costume had been based on an actual garment.  There were video clips and design sketches and other paraphernalia, including the fat suit (complete with a modesty-preserving fig leaf attached) that John Lithgow had worn as Winston Churchill.

Some of the best pieces were those inconsequential costumes such as the ones that Vanessa Kirby wore as Princess Margaret during her courtship with Anthony Armstrong-Jones.

It took me the best part of an hour to complete the tour and what really struck home to me was how brilliant seasons 1 and 2 had been, and how difficult it must have been for the new cast to fill those shoes.  When I reached the end Ellen was waiting for me, and she was chatting with Jeff who had introduced my show the day before.  It was Jeff who had actually curated the exhibition, diligently working with Netflix,  Left Bank Pictures and the two costume designers to produce a stunning and stylish event that has proved incredibly popular.  I asked if there plans to tour it, but at the moment there are not, so if you want to see it you will need to travel to Winterthur!

It was around 10.30 when I said goodbye to Ellen and Jeff and got into my car to head to Pennsylvania.  It was starting to rain and the traffic was heavy meaning that an hour journey took me ninety minutes.  As I neared my hotel I decided to stop for a bite of lunch and drove to a Panera Bread outlet that I had visited before. I selected a bowl of their 10 vegetable soup which was hearty and delicious and which would set me up for the afternoon ahead.

Having finished lunch I drove on to the Joseph Ambler Inn where I was welcomed effusively but told that my room was not yet ready and could I come back in two hours time?  I therefore decided to drive to Byers’ Choice where I knew that Bob and the team would be busy setting the stage up in readiness for me show.

For those of you new to my blog I should explain that Byers’ Choice manufacture caroller figures each one of which is hand painted and dressed.

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Within the impressive buildings in Chalfont is a visitor centre and shop as well as the huge space where the carollers are actually made.  When it is time for my shows all of the work benches are stored away, a stage built, set dressed, theatre lights hung, sound system installed and around 800 chairs are laid out.  It is quite an operation.

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When I arrived the room was almost complete and I was greeted by Bob Byers who was setting the last of the chairs out.  Byers’ Choice is not only a venue for my performances  but they actually sponsor, manage and book my entire tour.  Bob and his wife Pam make the whole thing possible.

Not only was Bob busy in the room but also David, who looks after all my technical requirements, was setting up the lighting and sound desks. As Bob pointed out David has probably seem more complete shows of mine than anyone in the world!

I chatted to Bob for a while, catching up on how the tour had been up to that point, and then David was ready to do a sound check.  The audience at Byers’ Choice is one of the largest on tour, rivalled only by The John Knox Pavillion in Kansas City, and getting the sound right is a vital part of our preparations.

I stood on the stage and went through my lines as David walked about the room before returning to the desk to adjust the levels.  In the end he was happy and I joined him at the desk to go through the cues for the various sound effects in the show.

Eventually we were done and I returned to the board room that becomes my dressing room to lay out my costumes for the evening and following day.  Once all was ready for my return I drove back to the Ambler Inn where my room was now ready.

I was feeling very very tired and I simply rested on the bed whilst I ran a bath to relax in.  The Penn Suite boasts a large whirlpool bath which took an age to fill, so I watched the latest edition of the Grand Tour car show (which anarchically featured boats), until it was ready.

After the bath, with its energising bubbles, and a shower as well, it was time to return to Byers Choice and get ready for the show.

I sat in my dressing room and listened to some piano ragtime music, which always gets me prepared for a show and then got into costume and pinned the microphone into place.

With twenty minutes to go before curtain up I went to the hall which was already filling up only to find David in a sense of controlled panic with a man I didn’t know called Allan.  Apparently the lighting desk had blown, or at least had a bit of a crisis, an hour before and whileI had happily been listening to the Maple Leaf Rag phone calls had been flying around to get another one.  Allan had answered the call and he and David were busily trying to programme the new board with all of the effects from the show (David does like to play with the lighting, giving me lots of different colours and moods).  It was going to be tight.  On the stage the brilliant CB West High School choir were entertaining a huge audience all of whom were blissfully unaware of the drama being played out behind them.

With about two minutes to go the last light was patched in and the show was ready to go.  Phew!

Bob had decided to take Calvin, the family Boston Terrier, onto the stage as he made my introduction, but before we did that we went backstage to meet the choir as they came off stage and congratulate them on their beautiful performance.  Naturally the talented students were much more interested in the puppy than our words of praise!

When Bob did take to the stage Calvin stole the scene once more and the audience ‘ahhhed’ and ‘ooohed’ over him: a successful theatrical debut one might say.

But in a few moments it was time to get down to work and perform a Christmas Carol

It went well, the audience responded and laughed and clapped, but I found it very difficult.  I felt weak and, how can I describe it?  as if I were not quite there.  I was saying all of the right lines, and making all the right moves, but I felt detached and awkward and clumsy.  It was a horrible feeling, actually, and one I am sure that was borne of tiredness thanks to all of those very early mornings.

I reached the end of the show and the applause and the shouts affirmed that the performance had been a good one, despite of my internal worries, there was even a cry of ‘Bravo! Bravissimo! as I took my bows.

I came off stage and was making my way back to the dressing room to change before what would be a marathon signing session, when I met Allan (the lighting saviour), who congratulated me on the show: ‘I only came to fix the lights, but I couldn’t leave!’  That made me feel an awful lot better about things.

Back in my dressing room I changed out of my sodden costume and hung the various component parts over separate chairs, before slowly getting into the dry one and preparing to go to the heart of the visitor centre to chat and sign.

The line was very long, as it always is at Byers’ Choice, but everyone was very patient and Pam did her usual amazing job of taking pictures and keeping the queue moving along.

Eventually we reached the end and the last couple in line were David and Sherri, friends of Bob and Pam’s, with whom we were going out to dinner.

Bob, David and Sherri would make their own way to the restaurant and Pam would ride with me.  When I was changed we got into Franz and drove the short distance to the restaurant that specialised in fish dishes.  I chose a sea bass cooked in lime juice, served on rice: it was superb, delicious and restoring.

It was a very nice evening, but the weariness that had been upon me all day was beginning to get heavier now and we all said our goodbyes and I drove back to the hotel.

I couldnt tell you what film was on, or even if I tried to watch anything at all, for I was asleep very very soon.