A Sad Loss. Part 2

In February I wrote a post entitled ‘A Sad Loss’, which described the memories wrapped up in my old leather folder which held my reading scripts.  The folder had been stored in a damp shed and a mould had formed meaning there was no alternative but to throw it away.  I felt a pang of sadness as it went for it had accompanied me during much of my professional career.

This week I felt the same pang, yet stronger, as Liz and I bade farewell to our Mocha Renault Grand Scenic, NV10 USJ.  Whilst the folder was part of my job NV10 has been part of our life together and has shared so many adventures: it was much more than just a means of transport.

We bought the Renault eight years ago using money inherited from my mother, and the purchase marked a major watershed in my life.  Up until that time I had been working at two careers – my acting and teaching people to drive; as far as the latter was concerned I worked for a national driving school on a franchise basis and in exchange for a large weekly sum of money I was provided with pupils and a car, which I was also allowed to use in my spare time.  The upshot of this arrangement was that I would turn up at theatres and venues in a fully branded AA Driving School car, which didn’t give a terribly professional impression, the nadir coming when we arrived at Althorp House, the home of the Spencer family, in the car and Lord Spencer and his butler rather sneered at the sight!

Unfortunately my Franchise payment to the AA was extremely high and I had to work from morning till night all week just to cover my costs and was left with nothing at the end of it, which made life for Liz and me extremely difficult.

The financial phoenix that rose from the sadness of my mother’s death gave me the chance to begin a new chapter in my life.  Liz suggested that I leave the driving instruction behind me (it was almost killing me for nothing but a garish yellow car), and concentrate completely on my acting.  This would mean the loss of my ‘free’ (ha!) vehicle, but I now had the money to buy a new one and so, one day, we were introduced to NV10 on the forecourt of the local Renault dealership.

The Renault Grand Scenic is a long multi-purpose vehicle with a huge boot space and when the rear seats are folded up so the cargo bay becomes enormous.  The car had another trick up its sleeve though, for you could actually take the seats out completely meaning that the enormous space became gargantuan.  All very useful for storing a replica of Charles Dickens’s reading desk, a chair, a table, a hat stand, a clerk’s desk, suit carriers, prop boxes, wooden steps, screens and all the other paraphernalia that go to make up my productions.

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For years I have loaded up the car in Oxfordshire and set off for some far-flung theatre.  I have driven to venues in the far north, south, east and west of England.  I have performed in Scotland, Wales and Ireland and each time NV10 has been a steadfast, reliable and cavernous companion for me.  It has always performed steadily and safely.

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But don’t believe for a minute that the Renault was merely a tool of my trade, it was truly a fully fledged member of our family.  It has taken us on holidays and on trips to family and friends.

Together Liz, I and NV10 have driven the 1000 mile round trip to our  favourite  spot in the Highlands of Scotland on countless occasions.  Each journey was a special one, for it is a special place, but two stand out particularly:

2013 marked my 50th birthday and I decided to celebrate it in Scotland where the happiest memories of my childhood originated.  We drove from Oxford, my brother Ian and his wife Anne drove up from their home in Bedfordshire and my sister Nicky came from Ireland, and there we gathered to party, reminisce and celebrate.

Just two years later we were there for another great celebration as Liz and I decided that there was no better place to get married than in our dear village of Cromarty.  On that occasion we had so much to take with us that the giant boot space wasn’t enough and we had to rent a roof box as well, but NV10 was more than up to the task and transported our special day from Oxfordshire to Scotland without a hiccough.

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On that occasion I scraped the front bumper trying to squeeze the car through the narrow lane where ‘our’ cottage is situated and I have never repaired the scrape for it is a reminder of an amazing time.

Last year NV10 started to sicken, and the electronics systems deep within started to do strange things to the car’s performance.  The ‘brain’ understood that there were terminal issues with the engine and so to save the oily mechanical bits  it shut down and only allowed the engine to idle along in ‘get home’ mode, which wasn’t at all convenient!  We took the car to a dealership who plugged a laptop in and happily announced that it was a failure of ‘…such and such sensor’, which was replaced at great expense.  I drove the car away only for it to lapse into get home mode once again.  Back to the garage, more tests another discovery, more expense, same result.  It was as if the Renault was teasing us.

After three such attempts at rectifying the problem we regretfully decided that next time it failed we would have to say good bye to the car, and I almost re enacted the famous scene from Fawlty Towers when Basil Fawlty beats his car with a tree branch screaming ‘that’s it!  I’m going to give you a damn good thrashing!’  NV10 obviously has an appreciation for classic British comedy for the next sensor that was changed did the job and we were back to normal for another year.

But last week the end finally came. NV10 went for an annual service but before they started to work the garage phoned me just to tell me what needed doing: radiator leak needed repairing, air conditioner condenser had rotted and was about to fall off, the rear brake discs and pads needed replacing, track rod ends were worn and just to top it off the mechanic announced cheerfully that the windscreen wipers were ‘a bit noisy’.  The cost of all these repairs would be almost £2,000, much more than the car was worth and we took the sad decision that at last enough was enough.

The beginning of last week was spent seeking a replacement, but there was to be one last hurrah for NV10 USJ, for I had to visit a venue where I will be performing in December, and it was with great pride that we drove up the long lane until we saw the view of the majestic Highclere Castle (otherwise known as Downtown Abbey) before us.

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It seemed fitting that the Renault’s last official role was in such a grand setting and that both Liz and I were there together.

The next day we finally found a new model: younger, curvier and blonder and signed the papers, and I am sure that it will be a fine motor car:  but it will never fully replace NV10 USJ.

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Cricket, Pickwick and Seymour

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On Saturday I found myself on a village green watching a cricket match.  I had not planned to watch it, I just happened to be there and soon became wrapped up in the great contest.  I did not know the teams involved, but after a short while spectating the various characters of the players emerged.  Batting was obviously the team’s star player, and boy did he know it: he strutted arogantly, prodded the pitch with his bat as if he were at Lord’s cricket ground during a test match.  When he received a ball he treated the bowler with disdain and struck it cleanly to the boundary of the field.  If he happen to miss a ball (which happened more often than he probably realised, and certainly more often than he would recount in the bar later that evening) he would admonish himself by smacking his bat into his pads and screaming some expletive.  Every cricket team has one of these players.

Eventually he hit a ball to the deep and started to run, his partner at the other end responded but our alpha male wanted a second and turned to run again.  There was a mix up! Both batsmen at the same end!  Shouts from the fielding side, ball thrown in, wickets broken and  with a cheer our hero had to depart from the field of play.  Oh his exit was spectacularly angry!  His erstwhile partner walked towards him to offer a word of apology and consolation, but he was rebuffed and ignored as the bat inflicted damage to the turf.  I am sure that when he reached the pavilion we would have thrown his bat against the wall and screamed abuse to all and sundry, and no doubt the rest of his team  giggled and exchanged glances as they lounged in the sun and prepared to watch the next stage of the game.

Anyway, the match went on and the batting side seemed to accumulate a good total, although wickets fell regularly until suddenly, and without ceremony, everything stopped and the players trooped back to the pavilion for tea.

It was a scene that was being repeated throughout the nation and in a world of political strife and uncertainty it provided a splendidly reassuring sense of normality.

I have loved cricket since I was around 10 years of age, I played it at school and at club level and followed both the Kent County Cricket Club and the England team through thick and thin (mainly the latter).

I am aware that many of my readers are from the United States of America where cricket is not a popular sport, indeed your knowledge of cricket is probably as extensive as mine is of what you call ‘football’ (a sport where the ball is predominantly thrown and the ‘foot’ seems rarely to come in contact with the ‘ball’ but that is just me being pedantic).

So, let me try to explain. The most important contests, internationally, are the test matches and these are played over 5 days (yes, that’s right – FIVE days).  Each team has 11 players and the side that is batting (let us call them a) has to try and amass as many runs as possible until the opposition (for arguments sake let us call then b) has got them all out, at which point they swap over and it all starts again.  When each team has had one innings the first team (a) goes in again and scores more runs, leaving their opponents (b) a target to score in the final innings.  If team (a) gets all of team (b) out before they have reached the target then (a) has won, but if (b) reaches the target amount of runs then they win.  However, if team (b) do NOT reach the target, but are NOT all out, then the match is a draw!  Yes, after 5 days of playing it is often the case that a match has no result!

For a much simpler and more concise explanation of our national game allow me to quote from tea towel which was in wide circulation during the days of my youth:

 

Cricket as Explained to a Foreigner 

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out. When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side thats been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.
When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay all out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out.

When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!

Simple.

What, you may ask, does all this have to do with the works of Charles Dickens?  Well, in Chapter 7 of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club Mr Pickwick and his friends, Mr Tupman, Mr Snodgrass and Mr Winkle, travelled to the town of  Muggleton where  a great cricket match was to be played against the team from Dingley Dell.

The scene was much the same as the one that I witnessed on Saturday:

The wickets were pitched, and so were a couple of marquees for the rest and refreshment of the contending parties. The game had not yet commenced. Two or three Dingley Dellers, and All– Muggletonians, were amusing themselves with a majestic air by throwing the ball carelessly from hand to hand; and several other gentlemen dressed like them, in straw hats, flannel jackets, and white trousers — a costume in which they looked very much like amateur stone-masons — were sprinkled about the tents, towards one of which Mr. Wardle conducted the party…..

….All–Muggleton had the first innings; and the interest became intense when Mr. Dumkins and Mr. Podder, two of the most renowned members of that most distinguished club, walked, bat in hand, to their respective wickets. Mr. Luffey, the highest ornament of Dingley Dell, was pitched to bowl against the redoubtable Dumkins, and Mr. Struggles was selected to do the same kind office for the hitherto unconquered Podder. Several players were stationed, to ‘look out,’ in different parts of the field, and each fixed himself into the proper attitude by placing one hand on each knee, and stooping very much as if he were ‘making a back’ for some beginner at leap-frog. All the regular players do this sort of thing; — indeed it is generally supposed that it is quite impossible to look out properly in any other position.
The umpires were stationed behind the wickets; the scorers were prepared to notch the runs; a breathless silence ensued. Mr. Luffey retired a few paces behind the wicket of the passive Podder, and applied the ball to his right eye for several seconds. Dumkins confidently awaited its coming with his eyes fixed on the motions of Luffey.
‘Play!’ suddenly cried the bowler. The ball flew from his hand straight and swift towards the centre stump of the wicket. The wary Dumkins was on the alert: it fell upon the tip of the bat, and bounded far away over the heads of the scouts, who had just stooped low enough to let it fly over them.

‘Run — run — another. — Now, then throw her up — up with her — stop there — another — no — yes — no — throw her up, throw her up!’— Such were the shouts which followed the stroke; and at the conclusion of which All–Muggleton had scored two. Nor was Podder behindhand in earning laurels wherewith to garnish himself and Muggleton. He blocked the doubtful balls, missed the bad ones, took the good ones, and sent them flying to all parts of the field. The scouts were hot and tired; the bowlers were changed and bowled till their arms ached; but Dumkins and Podder remained unconquered. Did an elderly gentleman essay to stop the progress of the ball, it rolled between his legs or slipped between his fingers. Did a slim gentleman try to catch it, it struck him on the nose, and bounded pleasantly off with redoubled violence, while the slim gentleman’s eyes filled with water, and his form writhed with anguish. Was it thrown straight up to the wicket, Dumkins had reached it before the ball. In short, when Dumkins was caught out, and Podder stumped out, All–Muggleton had notched some fifty-four, while the score of the Dingley Dellers was as blank as their faces. The advantage was too great to be recovered. In vain did the eager Luffey, and the enthusiastic Struggles, do all that skill and experience could suggest, to regain the ground Dingley Dell had lost in the contest — it was of no avail; and in an early period of the winning game Dingley Dell gave in, and allowed the superior prowess of All–Muggleton.

 

The original idea behind the Pickwick Papers was not Charles Dickens’ at all; he had been approached by a famous illustrator and caricaturist by the name of Robert Seymour who had built his reputation on creating either political or sporting cartoons.  Seymour’s idea was to produce a series of sporting prints chronicling the adventures  of a club called The Nimrod Club.  Rather than just publish the illustrations Seymour set out to find a young author to provide witty captions for his work.  Dickens, using the name Boz, was the succesful candidate.

Far from being a submissive junior partner 24 year old Charles rather took the project over and convinced Robert Seymour that a full-length serialised novel was the way to go, suggesting that comic prints were too old fashioned, the sort of thing William Hogarth had been producing a century before.  The idea of a club appealed however, but why not make it a corresponding society?  That way the members could travel throughout Britain and the book would be made up from their written accounts.  The subject matter could be so more far reaching than simply sport.

As to the clubs name?  How about the Pickwick Club?

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Seymour’s involvement did not last long, he provided the illustrations for the first monthly instalment, including the famous picture  Mr Pickwick addressing the club, but during the preparation of the second month’s adventures Dickens and Seymour had a disagreement over an illustration entitled The Dying Clown.

Dickens (remember very much the junior partner, unknown and writing under a pseudonym) vigorously argued that the face of the clown was too grotesque and terrifying, and suggested in no uncertain terms that Seymour should return home and produce a new picture that was more suitable.  Charles did send him on his way with a glimmer of hope, offering a grain of faint praise, for he suggested that the proportion and perspective of a little table in the foreground had been ‘achieved admirably’.

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That night Robert Seymour committed suicide.

Chapter seven of The Pickwick Papers contains not only the account of the cricket match but also a brilliant description of Mr Winkle trying to shoot rooks, but only succeeding in wounding Mr Tupman.

Above all others Chapter Seven represents Robert Seymour’s forgotten dream.

 

 

 

 

Catching my Breath

Following the show in Hitchin last week things have calmed down as I am now entering a quiet month or so.  One performance which was due for a couple of weeks time has been moved to later in the year, leaving me with a fallow period in which to relax.

So, there is not a huge amount to report this week, but there a couple of things that may be of interest:

 

The Lost Portrait

A snowy December day in The Berkshires seems like a long time ago now, but it was there that I wrote a blog post called ‘What Did Charles Dickens Look Like?’ in which I described the discovery of a long lost portrait of my great great grandfather and the fundraising efforts of the Charles Dickens Museum in London to purchase the miniature and put it on permanent display.

The target was £180,000 and at that time the sum seemed huge and unobtainable, but I am delighted to announce that this week the museum issued a statement:

 

A portrait of Charles Dickens that was lost for more than 130 years is “coming home” after a successful fundraising campaign.

 
The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street in London said the target of raising £180,000 had been reached to buy the painting by Margaret Gillies of the writer when he was 31.

 
It was once a famous image, displayed at the 1844 Royal Academy summer exhibition. But Gillies said in 1886 that she had “lost sight of the portrait”. It remained lost until, covered in mould, it was improbably spotted in a cardboard box of trinkets at an auction in South Africa.

 
The museum said it had received substantial grants from the Art Fund and the lottery-funded Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, as well as donations from admirers of Dickens.

 
Cindy Sughrue, the director of the museum, said: “We are so excited to be bringing the lost portrait home and we are extremely grateful, and touched by, the generous support that we have received.

 
“It is a magnificent affirmation of the enduring appeal of Dickens’s writing and the worldwide fascination that he continues to inspire.

 
Dickens was already an emerging literary star when Gillies painted him and would have been in the thick of writing A Christmas Carol. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning saw the portrait and remarked how it “has the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes”.

 
It re-emerged when someone paid the equivalent of £27 for a tray of stuff at auction in in Pietermaritzburg, which also included a metal lobster, an old recorder and a brass plate.
After some online research, the buyer realised the painting had the look of Dickens and contacted the art dealer Philip Mould.

 
Mould said its re-emergence was astonishing. “It is an epic tale with a supremely happy ending,” he said.

 
The Gillies portrait will go on display from 24 October and be a regular part of the programme although, to help its preservation, there will be times when it is not on display, the museum said.

 

Excellent news!  Thank you to all who supported the appeal, whether financially or just by sharing posts via social media and spreading the effort across the world.  I still haven’t actually viewed the portrait and I cannot wait to set eyes on it later this year.

 

Christmas

My other job this week has been to finalise my Christmas calendar and get the dates posted on my website.

This year my travels to America are divided into three different trips, one in September, one in November and one in December and there are a few interesting titbits within those dates.

The saddest omission from this year’s trips is The Inn at Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  This year the dates just didn’t work in such a way to allow a trip to Tennessee and I certainly hope that this is a temporary hiatus and that I can return next year.

 

Regular readers will know that the Inn has become a regular feature of my travels over the last ten years or so and I have forged close friendships with Kristy, Dwight, Debbi and the rest of the team at the hotel.  Not only have the staff become friends, but many of the audience too and it is with a heavy heart that I will not be enjoying myself in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains.

Whilst one Inn does not feature this year, so another returns and it is with great excitement that I can announce that I am scheduled to perform at The Williamsburg Inn after a year off in 2018.  The surroundings of the Inn are spectacularly elegant and I have enjoyed many wonderful times there.  It will wonderful to be back.

Some venues find new dates and even new shows, for example I will be performing both Mr Dickens is Coming, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cites during my September sojourn.  On that trip I will be at Winterthur and Byers’ Choice both of which I will return to in December, but I will also be performing at The Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington, New Jersey and at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee both of which have only had A Christmas Carol before.

The November hop takes in my Mid-Western venues in Missouri with my old friends at the Mid Continent Public Library Service and a return to Omaha, Nebraska to perform with the Douglas County Historical Society (you may remember that there were fears that last year may be my last in Omaha).

Beyond the American venues there are a few exciting additions to my UK dates too, most particularly a performance at Highclere Castle (the filming location for Downton Abbey).  Anyone who watched the episode in which Dame Nelly Melba performed for the Grantham’s will know what I will be doing and where I will be doing it!

I will also be at the beautiful St George’s Hall in Liverpool again, the Lit & Phil in Newcastle and back at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons for a second time.

For a full run down of my 2019 dates take a look at my website:

 

http://www.geralddickens.com

 

Girding my lines….and coming up short

As you know the last two weeks was  spent on my two current projects, the preparation of a new Nickleby script and the new play which describes my father’s assistance in creating ‘The Queen and the Commoner.’

The latter project took up my time at the start of the week before I suddenly realised that my performance of Nickleby was imminent so I had to concentrate on that instead.  I put ‘The Queen and the Commoner’ down and returned to ‘The Life and Adventures….’

The issue with my original two act script was at the very start.  When I first wrote Nickleby it was as a one act play and it lasted a little over an hour but a few years ago the theatre producers who promoted my work in the UK suggested that I lengthen it so that theatres could make bar profits in the interval.  As a short term solution I wrote a long passage about how Dickens actually wrote Nickleby, referencing Sketches by Boz, and quoting Pickwick and Oliver Twist, before moving on to his visit to Bowes where he saw a gravestone that inspired the pathetic character of Smike.

It’s all very interesting, but it was a very clumsy and unwieldy way to start the show and didn’t really match the fast-paced frivolity of the story itself, so my plan was to ditch it all.

In my last blog post I mentioned the new passages that I was including (the job interview with the MP Mr Gregsbury, and Smike seeing the dark withered character of Brooker watching him), but both of these come into the second half, meaning that without the original preamble Act1 was left in a very emaciated  state.  My answer to this was simply to move the interval, placing it later in the novel at the point when Smike and Nicholas begin their arduous trek from Yorkshire to London, which actually is a more suitable place to break and gives the audience a sense of the journey’s true length.

Having re-jigged the script it was time to start learning the new lines.  The main chunk was the three page Mr Gregsbury section and to my horror I just couldn’t learn it!  I read, I put the script down, I tried to repeat and nothing was there.  Back to the script and try again, still nothing.  This was rather a scary moment for it seemed as if my ability to learn new lines had deserted me which would not be good news in the years ahead.  I ploughed on and little by little the gist of the lines started to embed themselves and this is an important moment, for if I know vaguely what I have to say it is then easier to perfect the words themselves.

The most productive morning of learning came on a sunny day after I had completed the school run.  Instead of heading straight home I walked around the North end of the town using a network of little paths (we used to call them ‘twittens’ back in my childhood home in Kent).  For over an hour I walked and muttered, muttered and walked, getting a few strange looks along the way.  Maybe it was being away from home, but that hour really put the words into my memory and from that moment I could concentrate on perfecting the sentence structure.

With the new words memorised it was now time to slot them into the script, so I started to rehearse the whole show and it was with horror that I discovered that even with the interval moved the first act was only 25 minutes long!  That is just not long enough: an audience would settle into their seats, the lights would go down and they would get comfortable ready to enjoy the show, or to have a discreet snooze, when suddenly the lights would be up again!

It was too late to introduce any new passages, and anyway there really isn’t anything else I’d WANT to include in the first half.  I would still have a little bit of preamble to introduce the show, but that would not be enough.  I thought the problem through and the only solution I could come up with was to suggest to that the theatre that I forgo the interval altogether and perform it as a one act show, knowing that this would mean a huge lack of bar income.  I emailed and waited for the angry reply….which didn’t come; instead the theatre manager Glynn said, ‘that’s fine, we do a lot of one man shows here and they are all 1 act!’   I wish I had know that ten years ago.

The running time was still a bit short, but I suggested to Glynn that I would do a little meet and greet session in the theatre bar afterwards, and all was settled.

I continued to rehearse as the week went on until the new passages felt comfortable and on Wednesday afternoon I loaded the car up and set off for The Market Theatre Hitchin.

It is a great little theatre run by a collective of young actors.  It nestles in a little yard in the centre of Hitchin, next to a busy pub which, in previous years, has been showing major football finals meaning the cheers from the patrons could be heard from the auditorium but fortunately this year there are no football tournaments in progress.

I was greeted by Ollie and quickly got my set onto the tiny stage ( the roof is so low here that I was rather worried that as Ralph Nickleby climbs up a small step ladder to ‘hang’ himself at the show’s conclusion he might also give himself a nasty bump on the head.

Glynn arrived soon after and we set the lights to give me a nice warm sunny glow and a cool melancholy one, as well as a couple of ‘specials’ for certain specific scenes.

When everything was set I spent some time on the stage going through the new passages again and then retired to the little green room, which is actually a store room, wardrobe and workshop all rolled into one.

My performances at The Market Theatre are part of the Hitchin Festival and over the last few years I have performed ‘an Audience with Charles Dickens’, ‘Great Expectations’ and the double bill of ‘Doctor Marigold’ & ‘The Signalman’.  The shows always sell well and this year was no exception, the audience began to arrive early and took to their seats as Liz’s CD ‘Play’ serenaded them.

At 7.30 the house lights dimmed, Liz’s beautiful playing faded and the stage lights came up, I walked to the centre of the stage and an unexpected round of applause broke out, which is always a good way to start!

I went into my Nickleby preamble, and the audience responded well giving me the confidence that this would be a good evening. With all of the changes and additions it was important for me to remember that Nickleby is a well established show which has been successful for me over many years. Sure enough through the first ‘half’ all of the familiar business worked well and the audience responded just as I like them to.

The plot rushed to Yorkshire with Nicholas, a brief interlude with Kate Nickleby in London, and then back North as Nicholas beats Mr Squeers before running away with Smike.  This is where the interval should have been but now I plough straight on into my new scene, the job interview with Mr Gregsbury.  The words came to my lips easily (a couple of vocal fumbles and stumbles, but I’d built that into the characterisation anyway as an insurance policy), and before I knew it the two and  half pages that caused me so much grief in the last couple of weeks came and went and I was back to familiar territory in the company of Mr Crummles and his troupe of actors.

The rest of the show passed in a blink, although my ‘hour and 10’ turned into an ‘hour and twenty-five’ so I felt that after all I hadn’t short-changed the audience.  I took my bows, re-used the ‘chapter 2’ gag that I’d introduced in Rochester and after the laughter died down announced that I would be in the bar for a chat in a few minutes time.

Back in my dressing room/green room/store room/workshop I towelled myself down, re-shevelled myself a little and then headed to the little bar.

On the way I was waylaid by an impressively bearded gentleman (who reminded me of the actor Griffith Jones who played Tim Linkinwater in the old RSC production of NickNick), who took great delight in studying the coin on my watch chain and deducing that it was a copy of a commemorative coin struck for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, and then asking if my cufflinks represented the red rose of Lancashire.  I was able to correct him on the latter point explaining that they are a representation of a scarlet geranium, the emblem of the International Dickens Fellowship.

In the bar there were only a few people but we had a lovely chat about the show (one lady had actually been at my Rochester  performance a few weeks ago and loved the additions, in particular ‘the job interview’ which made me feel very good).  I showed them some original monthly instalments of Nickleby, bound alongside the blue (they were green when new but have faded slightly over the years) covers.  Everyone was fascinated by the advertisements which not only give a snapshot of 1838 society but also ensured that Charles Dickens had an extra income stream over and above the sales of the book.

Time and Tide wait for no man, and soon we all said our goodbyes and I returned to the auditorium to change and load the car.  As I said goodbye to Glynn and Ollie we chatted about the possibility of returning next year and Glynn said that having me perform during the festival was always ‘an easy sell’.

With those uplifting and cheering words in my mind I started the journey home.

Now it is back to The Queen and the Commoner, as well as starting to write a show based on ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and re-learning Great Expectations….

 

BOZ FOR HOW LONG?

An interesting question popped up on my Twitter feed this week, and that was ‘did Charles Dickens still use the name of Boz all the way through the Pickwick Papers?’  The simple answer to this was ‘yes’, but it set me scurrying around the internet to discover exactly how long he did publish under his pseudonym. This research is by no means academic and if anyone wishes to put me straight then I am happy to be corrected, but as far as I can tell the monthly instalments continued to be ‘Edited by Boz’ right up to and including Martin Chuzzlewit, which was published between 1842 and 1844.  However he did use the name of Charles Dickens for American Notes (1842) and the Christmas books which began with A Christmas Carol in 1843.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to the Drawing Board

Following the flurry of events during the last few weeks the diary is quiet again for a while and that gives me a chance to look ahead to the summer and do some preparation for events yet to come.

Specifically I have two shows that need some work, so for me it is back to the drawing board, or more specifially to the blank screen of my laptop.

In July I am returning to the Market Theatre in Hitchin and will be performing The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.  Although NickNick is a familiar show to me, and indeed I performed it in Rochester just a few weeks ago, this year I am extending it and adding some passages.  The show itself currently runs at about an hour and a quarter meaning that the first act has to be padded out with a lot of background information.  I am keen to lose the blurb and to include more of the novel itself.

The first passage I am adding is a brief description of Nicholas’s job interview with the Member of Parliament Mr Gregsbury.  On answering the question what should a secretary do Nicholas muses that he should write lettrs, take dictation and send copies of the great man’s speeches to various periodicals and journals.

Mr Gregsbury concurs but proceeds to add a whole raft of other jobs:

‘This is all very well, Mr Nickleby, and very proper, so far as it goes — so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. There are other duties, Mr Nickleby, which a secretary to a parliamentary gentleman must never lose sight of. I should require to be crammed, sir.’ ‘My secretary would have to make himself master of the foreign policy of the world, as it is mirrored in the newspapers; to run his eye over all accounts of public meetings, all leading articles, and accounts of the proceedings of public bodies; and to make notes of anything which it appeared to him might be made a point of, in any little speech upon the question of some petition lying on the table, or anything of that kind. Do you understand?’

‘I think I do, sir,’

‘Then,’ said Mr Gregsbury, ‘it would be necessary for him to make himself acquainted, from day to day, with newspaper paragraphs on passing events; such as “Mysterious disappearance, and supposed suicide of a potboy,” or anything of that sort, upon which I might found a question to the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Then, he would have to copy the question, and as much as I remembered of the answer (including a little compliment about independence and good sense); and to send the manuscript in a frank to the local paper, with perhaps half-a-dozen lines of leader, to the effect, that I was always to be found in my place in parliament, and never shrunk from the responsible and arduous duties, and so forth. You see?’

‘Besides which,’ continued Mr Gregsbury, ‘I should expect him, now and then, to go through a few figures in the printed tables, and to pick out a few results, so that I might come out pretty well on timber duty questions, and finance questions, and so on; and I should like him to get up a few little arguments about the disastrous effects of a return to cash payments and a metallic currency, with a touch now and then about the exportation of bullion, and the Emperor of Russia, and bank notes, and all that kind of thing, which it’s only necessary to talk fluently about, because nobody understands it.

This is a hasty outline of the chief things you’d have to do, except waiting in the lobby every night, in case I forgot anything, and should want fresh cramming; and, now and then, during great debates, sitting in the front row of the gallery, and saying to the people about —‘You see that gentleman, with his hand to his face, and his arm twisted round the pillar — that’s Mr Gregsbury — the celebrated Mr Gregsbury,’— with any other little eulogium that might strike you at the moment. And for salary,’ said Mr Gregsbury, winding up with great rapidity; for he was out of breath —‘and for salary, I don’t mind saying at once in round numbers, to prevent any dissatisfaction — though it’s more than I’ve been accustomed to give — fifteen shillings a week, and find yourself. There!’

Goodness!  I’d want more than 15 shillings just to learn that lot.  Nicholas certainly didn’t  think that 15 shillings was adequate and turned down Mr Gregsbury’s kind offer of employment and returned to Smike, before the two headed to Portsmouth and a chance meeting with Mr Crummles (thus returning to my original script).

Charles Dickens of course worked in parliament as a reporter and his disdain for all things political is evident in this scene.

The other passages I need to work in, to make the end of the plot make more sense, are to explain the sudden appearance of Mr Brooker, who confronts Ralph Nickleby with the truth about Smike, thereby leading to remorse, suicide and conclusion.  In the script’s current form Brooker is suddenly produced by the Cheeryble brothers with no explanation.

In the novel when our heroes  are on the road to Portsouth Smike tells Nicholas about a ‘man – a dark, withered man’ who had taken him to Yorkshire when he was young.  Later towards the end of the book when Smike is desperately ill he tells Nicholas that he saw that man once more, behind a tree, watching.

By gently weaving those two instances into the current script Brooker’s revelations to Ralph will make much more sense.

So Nickleby is undergoing a stretching exercise but another show is being written from the ground up, and it is really going to be a very special one for me.

For my annual appearance in Llandrindod Wells this year I will be performing a double bill of The Signalman and Sikes and Nancy, so no work needed on those, but for the next day I suggested that it would be fun to perform a short play written by an American actress based on the only meeting between Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria.

Ann Hamilton portrayed Queen Victoria at a Dickens festival in Galveston, Texas and worked closely with my mother and father during the years that they attended.   Ann took her role as the Queen very seriously and did as much research as she could, pressing dad for any information he had to offer, and so began a fascinating correspondence between the two.

The play was called The Queen and the Commoner and as the script developed so Ann wrote to dad with questions of fact and etiquette.  My father would read each draft of the script and send his comments back, and all of the time the letters crossing the Atlantic were beautifully written, as you would expect from two wordsmiths.

In 2010 , almost 10 years after Ann and my parents first met, she published both the play and the letters in charming volume called ‘Walking with Dickens’.  When I read it my father came alive once more.

In Llandrindod there is an actress who portrays the Queen and last year I suggested that we get together to perform The Queen and the Commoner as a rehearsed (or non-rehearsed probably) show.  But the play is short, little more than fifteen minutes, so it would need more to justify a place in the programme.  I went back to Ann’s book and realised that the letters themselves were so perfect that they had become part of the story.

One of my favourite books (and later the film it spawned) is 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff in which a sassy New York author corresponds with an outwardly stuffy, rather formal antiquarian bookseller in London.  The letters that follow bespeak an intimacy and understanding between two people who would never meet.

To recreate that feeling I have immersed myself in the letters trying to edit them (which is difficult for I want to include every word!) so that the audience will fully understand how the play arrived at its finished state and also get to know my father and Ann more fully.

In my mind the set on the stage will be in two halves, one a dressing room in which the character of Ann is sitting at a desk, her Queen Victoria dress hanging on a rail ready to be worn; the other my dad’s study with a typewriter.  As the letters progress and the script develops so Ann slowly takes on the character of Victoria, and my dad (who looked more like Charles than Charles did) eventually dons a frock coat and cane to become his great grandfather, ready to be received by his monarch at Buckingham Palace.

It is an exciting project!  I hope it works, for next year marks the 150th anniversary of the meeting and it would be amazing to mark it with special performance of the play – possibly with Ann playing herself.

The best part of this script?  It gives me a chance to play my dad and that will be an experiences such as I have never had!

I shall keep you updated on the progress of both projects over the coming weeks.

 

Secondary 1st Garden Party

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Beautiful Houses

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

 

June 5  Hillbark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

June 9.  Fonthill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the link to the donations page:

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

 

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Rochester 2019

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

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

Faithfully yours, 

Charles Dickens’

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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After a show in Rochester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a lovely sight.

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

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

And from there launch into the multi-character show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phew!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was 5.15.  There was time for golf.

 

Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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The scenario was as follows:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It could be an emotional one!

 

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Little Deepings and The Bookshop Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Never before have these two cultural icons met!

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

British Reserve

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

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

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

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

We said yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nerves ramped up a notch.

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

The nerves ramped up another notch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Thank you Niki.