The Final Stretch

With Christmas out of the way, let me take you back to the last two days of my 2018 tour.  You will recall that I left you in Liverpool:

Following my two days in Liverpool it was time to head home and into the final stretch of the 2018 tour.

I left Merseyside at around 9am, after a good breakfast of course, and the day was cold, foggy and misty.  I turned the car’s heater on and was surprised the engine didn’t seem to be heating up.  Oh well.  A quick stop at a petrol station to refuel and continue south, eventually joining the M6 but still no heat was forthcoming.  My memory went back to the ‘old days’ of hand-to mouth motoring when I became expert in every frailty in my cheap cars and remembered that no heat from the heater used to mean no water in the system, no water in the system meant engine overheating, engine overheating meant BANG!

But surely not in a modern car governed by electronics and with no temperature gauge to look at – surely if there is no gauge then there cannot be anything that needs monitoring.  However as these thoughts weaved their way around my brain a startling alert appeared on the screen:  ENGINE OVERHEATING!!

I pulled in at the next service station and opened the bonnet, which fortunately did not release clouds of steam, but sure enough the header tank for the cooling system was empty, so I topped it up and was relieved to see that the water did not just cascade through a large hole onto the floor.  I crossed my fingers for the rest of the journey.

The overheating did not return and my homeward progress was uninterrupted.

It was lovely to be home and to see the family, but it was only for a brief couple of hours as I had to get on the road again for an evening show at The Stables Theatre, Wavendon (in Milton Keynes).

To be honest I didn’t want to do it.  I was exhausted from the Liverpool gigs, the cold was threatening and being at home seemed a much more sensible option.  Liz too, who has been coping with the children single handed for the last few weeks, desperately needed my help and the thought of me driving away again was almost too much for either of us to bear.  It was a difficult afternoon, but at 4 o’clock we said the inevitable goodbyes and I headed away again towards the most magnificently huge moon shining low in the sky.

I have performed A Christmas Carol at The Stables Theatre once before and it was a most successful evening, so apart from the tiredness I knew that I would be well looked after.

Sure enough as soon as I arrived I was taken in hand by the lighting and sound teams who made sure that every cue in my script was as I wanted it, that the cross fades between lighting effects were the right speed, and that each sound effect was the perfect volume to complement the action.

When the tech runs were complete I was shown to my dressing room and the green room where a plate of sandwiches, a bowl of fruit, a tin of biscuits and bottles of water awaited me.  Peter, the duty manager for the evening, also asked if I would like a bottle of wine an offer which I foolishly declined as it could have graced our Christmas table in a couple of days time.

I then settled down in my green room to while away the time until the audience started to arrive.  With about twenty minutes to go I changed into my costume at which point I started to pace the back stage corridors as is my wont – as a show approaches I am fairly hopeless at sitting still.

The sound team had selected a CD of a brass (it may have been silver) band performing Christmas carols to play as the audience took their seats and the gentle evocative sound set such a perfect atmosphere that I may encourage all venues to do the same in the future.

At 8.00 I was given the all clear and I waited in the wings until the lights went to black, the sound effect started and, an blue light came up and I walked onto the stage to begin.  The stage at the stables is quite low and although there is a proscenium arch, it is a long way back.  The main part of the stage thrusts way forward into the auditorium terminating in a half octogen shape.   Frustratingly the lighting rig was set for a children’s theatre production which only used half the stage so I couldn’t get all the way forward to the audience and I felt a little remote, but nonetheless I had plenty of space to perform in and the lighting was wonderful.  I was able to use my full range of sound effects again and the whole atmosphere was perfect.

20181221_182731

Considering I had not wanted to be here I loved the sensation of being in a real theatre, in the pool of light with the audience surrounding me, and I got fully into each and every character that I perform.

The interval came and the audience’s applause rang in my ears as I returned to my dressing room and took the opportunity to change shirt.  Most of the interval was spent pacing up and down again, anxious to get back onto the stage again.

The second half of the show engaged the audience straight away and they all joined in at the Cratchit’s Christmas lunch and made suitably appreciative gasps to greet the goose.

The drama and passion of the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come worked really well in this crucible and by the show’s conclusion the audience was as wrapped up in the story as I was.

The applause and ovation was fabulous and it felt great to be on stage.

I changed quickly and although we hadn’t planned any formal signing session I went into the foyer just in case and found quite a line of people waiting to chat.  There was a girl who is studying the book for her GCSE, and a teacher who was teaching it, but last in line was a gentleman so fulsome in his praise that I was almost blushing!  The best comment though was when he told me that he had also seen Simon Callow’s one man production of A Christmas Carol and that he vastly preferred not only my performance but my scrip too, as it took less liberties with the original text.  That sort of comment I will happily accept any day of the week!

Once back stage I got changed as quickly as I could and by the time I emerged from my dressing room I discovered that all of my furniture had been lifted out to my car and it didn’t take long to load up before saying my goodbyes and driving into the night. The journey home took little more than an hour and it was lovely to sleep in my own bed for once!

The 22nd December marked a day off and it was lovely to spend it at home with Liz and the girls.  We finished decorating our house and met up with some old friends, all of which was a world away from life on the road, and all of which was perfect.

But there was still one more day left and early on the morning of 23rd December I left home again and headed towards Leicester.  I have been performing in the ancient Guildhall in Leicester for about 6 years now and it is a perfect place to bring my tour to a close.

Despite a journey through heavy rain and mist I arrived at 11 o’clock and unloaded my props before parking in the large city centre NCP car park that is attached to the Holiday Inn, my home for the night.  Back at the Guildhall I was welcomed by my good friend Ben Ennis and his colleague Carolyn, who were the only staff available to look after my matinee.

As I set up my furniture Carolyn was making mulled wine in the Mayor’s Chamber (which doubles as a bar for events such as mine) and Ben made sure everything else was in order whilst also manning the reception desk (for the Guildhall is one of the main tourist attractions in Leicester.)

The first show was at one and the audience started to arrive very early, as those who have come year after year know that the seating is unreserved and therefore the best spots get filled quickly.  My dressing room is in the Jury Room, a grand panelled library which looks down on the main guildhall, and I am always able to sneak little looks as the audience arrive.  Last week they were noisy and excitable and there was a really festive atmosphere to the afternoon.  Outside shoppers were finishing their gift buying and revellers were just getting started.

The Guildhall is in a little alley and could answer the description of Scrooge’s home:

He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of a building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again. It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge, the other rooms being all let out as offices. The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands. The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.

Very definitely the atmosphere of the room enhances the story.

20181223_125441

The show went very well, despite my voice and body being tired by now.  The audience sat wrapped up in their coats, despite the roaring fire in the grate, but were enthusiastic and demonstrative.  Once again the show was in two halves and it was nice to be able to take a breather at the interval.

At around 3.00 my penultimate show came to a close and I took my bows to loud applause once more.

Between shows Ben always lays on a Christmas dinner for me, his family and everyone involved, so at 4.30 we all gathered around a table in the Mayor’s Parlour and munched on turkey and stuffing sandwiches followed by mince pies.  Ben’s family have become good friends over the years and it was lovely to share some time with them once again.

As we sat in good fellowship so the cathedral bells started to ring an energetic peal on the other side of the narrow alleyway and the perfect scene was complete!

But, there was one more show to do, so after dinner I popped back to the hotel (only a 5 minute walk) to have a little rest and a shower before getting ready for the last show of 2018.  When I arrived the audience were already lining up and I rather had to play the ‘do you know who I am’ card, to get to my dressing room!

Once again it was a full house, and once again the festive city seemed to permeate the ancient room.  There was even more noise from outside by this time and the revellers had obviously been revelling hard!  In my years at the Guildhall I have sometimes managed to time the line ‘the bell struck twelve’ with the tolling of the cathedral; it doesn’t always work because the line comes in the second act so it depends how speedy or tardy the audience are in getting to the bar and back, but last Friday it worked and there was a oud cheer, wholly at odds with the tone of the scene, as the heavy bell intoned the hour.

The show ended at around 9.30 and after I’d said good bye to the audience and signed a few programmes, I walked out into the street to fetch my car.

Guildhall Lane was deserted and quiet, with the exception of one man selling copies of The Big Issue magazine.  He approached me and explained that he’d been on the streets selling all day and he had only three copies left.  He needed the money raised to get himself into a shelter over the Christmas period.  So there we were, just him and me in a deserted street in the shadow of a cathedral.  I scrabbled in my pocket for some change and brought the magazine, giving him the rest of the coins I had too.  It was not much, not enough, but I hope he found the shelter and comfort he needed.  His gratitude as he walked away was a superb Christmas present to me.

And so I returned home early in the morning on Christmas Eve and the professional life of Gerald Dickens became a home life once more.  The most important thing was to finish decorating the house which involved stringing lights around the door frames (the effect looking in from outside is beautiful).  I carefully secured a string of red lights around the kitchen door, pinning it in place with tiny panel pins.  When all was done I stepped back and admired my handiwork!

20181229_090308

Everything was ready, with only one cloud – we had no internet connection, no dialling tone to our phone.  Of course being Christmas eve it would be impossible to get anyone out to look at it for a few days, so we had a wifi-free Christmas (which apart from preventing us downloading a few films, and using up our mobile data allowance, didn’t really matter at all).

Christmas was lovely with a gorgeous tree, acres of wrapping paper strewn across the floor, a huge turkey, a flaming pudding, an afternoon walk to admire the neighbourhood lights and all the rest of the nonsense!

When our kindly Sky TV engineer came to see us he tested the line, prodded and probed and evaluated the situation and then reported to us:  ‘You said that  your phone line went down on Christmas eve?’  Yes.  ‘Did  you put your decorations up on Christmas Eve?  Um, well, yes.  It transpired that I had driven a panel pin straight through the phone line as I hung the decorations!

Thank you for accompanying me on my journeys and for all of your kind comments and thoughts.  It has been another lovely tour but now I am at home and ready to begin 2019 with the family and who knows what adventures will come along.  As they say, ‘watch this space!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming an Usher for a Night

Thursday, 20 December

I want to begin by mentioning two incidents that occurred yesterday that I forgot to mention in yesterday’s blog post:

You will recall that 19th December marked the 175th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol and at the evening show when Lynne announced the fact from the stage the audience broke out into a long and heartfelt applause.  If there is such a thing as a spirit world, then what a wonderful thing for Charles Dickens to hear from above.

The second incident may also have been guided by the spirit hand of CD.  On the set there is a small table which is where I place the carefully folded cloth to represent Tiny Tim’s frail little body.  On the table is a candle in a brass candle stick, and usually the candle remains unlit as most venues don’t like live flames on stage.  St George’s Hall however were surprisingly co operative and I was able to light the candle, which adds the scene even more poignancy.  The candle in the stick was quite a small one, and burnt down during the course of the show.  By the time I reached the point where Bob sits next to Tim the candle was almost gone, and at the very moment – and I mean the absolute instant that he kissed Tim’s face before laying his body down to rest the candle popped and died.

Of course the rational explanation is that the candle had around 90 minutes of life left in it and it after 90 minutes had passed it burnt out.  The moment in the show was completely coincidental and it could equally have happened in Old Joe’s shop, or on the streets of London.  Yes, that is the rational explanation.  But, in a room filled with so many memories, and on such an important day the symbolism and timing was just too perfect to be coincidental, wasn’t it?

So back to the present and I have a morning free before having to be at the Hall at 1.  I have my breakfast and then do a little work back in my room, before heading out into the city.  I have a little last minute Christmas shopping to do and the Liverpool 1 shopping complex is right next to the hotel, so I stroll out and become part of the Christmas melee.

Liverpool 1 is a modern complex but as I walk I catch a glimpse of an older building up an alley and it sets me thinking as to how much Charles Dickens would recognise if he was in the same streets now.  Obviously all of the buildings around St George’s Hall would be known to him, but the iconic Liver Building wasn’t yet built.  The Albert Docks were under construction so he would recognise the warehouses that now host the Tate and all of the restaurants but the rest of the waterside would be an alien landscape to him.

The building that inspires this reverie is the Bluecoat, ‘Liverpool’s Creative Hub’, but the building is the oldest in the City, built in 1716 as a charity school so I have no doubt that Charles would have visited this particular site.

20181220_102821

It is lovely being out in the streets so close to Christmas as, on the whole, everyone is in good spirits.  Lots of people are wearing Santa hats and Christmas sweaters and in each shop there is festive music playing, ranging from discreet choral performances of classic carols to Roy Wood screaming ‘IT’S CHRISTMAS!!!!!!’

Having finished my shopping I walk up to St George’s Hall where there is a Christmas market in full swing, so I decide to treat myself to an early lunch of German sausage and  a crepe (stop sniggering, at the back).  The Brockwurst is good and is made even better by ketchup and mustard and I sit people watching as I eat it.  For my dessert I go for the classical lemon and sugar option on my pancake which I munch from a paper cone as I walk through the various stalls and fairground rides.

I still have a little time on my hands, so I walk to the Walker Art Gallery to have a coffee. As I am standing in line to order my Americano the lady in front asks ‘Are you Gerald Dickens?  We saw your show in Chester last year and are coming to see you this afternoon!’  How nice to be recognised.

Now it is time to go back to the hotel where I have a quick shower and then head to the hall at 1pm.

Johnny is there waiting for me and the first thing I ask him to do is to take a picture of me on stage wearing my G&V tie.  The G&V is a chop house in the heart of the City of London, and its correct name is The George and Vulture.  The tavern features by name in The Pickwick Papers and many take it to be the setting of Scrooge’s counting house, its location being in the heart of the exchange (or ‘change as Dickens describes it) region of London.

For many years the Dickens family has celebrated with a lunch at the G&V in the week before Christmas and the model is that of the Pickwick Club, meaning that the affair is spectacularly chauvinistic and boozy.  Every attendee has to wear a G&V tie which features a vulture with a bone in its beak.  The original sketch was made by my grandfather Gerald, and bore the caption ‘Alas, poor George’.  Anyone who does not wear the tie is fined a bottle of port.

In recent years it has been the tradition for those who cannot attend the lunch to send pictures of themselves wearing the tie in unusual settings, so here is my offering to the group.

20181220_131150

Actually Gerald has been travelling with me throughout the tour as I have two items that belonged to him in my kit.   The first is a silver cigarette case bearing the monogram GCD, which I use to store spare ink cartridges for my fountain pen, and the other is a little locket complete with pictures of Henry and Marie Dickens (Gerald’s parents) who gave it to him.  The locket now is on the end of my watch chain.  I really must find something of my father’s that I can include so that every generation is represented from Charles down to me.

20181220_190251

I get ready for the show and soon the audience are starting to take their seats, and it is another excellent house.

The show is OK but not perfect, unfortunately I am beginning to be aware of a cold building, which is not surprising as I have been going flat out for quite a while now.  I inadvertently drop a few lines, mostly from the sections that get added in for my two act version of the script, for example I completely bypass the conversation between Bob and Mrs Cratchit discussing Tim’s behaviour on the way home from Church.  In itself it doesn’t matter particularly but it is annoying to me and proves that my concentration is not quite where is should be today.

For all that the performance goes very well and once again the audience are on the feet and stamping the floor once more as I take my bows.

After my meet and greet session in the lobby I change head for a nearby restaurant where I have a plate of fish and chips to sustain me through the evening and then return to the hotel to relax.

I have another bubbly energising jacuzzi bath and then lay on my bed watching TV until it is time to return to St George’s Hall for the last time.  This year the hall has been vibrantly lit in various shades of blue, and with twinkling white lights strung in the branches of trees and a hazy moon above it is quite a sight.

20181220_183510_002

My cold is really coming on now, and my throat is feeling a little tight, so I tuck myself away in my room so that I don’t need to talk more than is necessary, although I am very happy to chat to Johnny’s 9 yr old daughter who has come to see the show tonight, and wants a photo taken with me.

Once again we have a choir to open proceedings but they are a much smaller group tonight and at 7.30 they take to the stage.  I decide to sneak in at the back of the balcony to listen and it is truly beautiful.  The Concert Hall’s acoustics are perfect for their performance and it is easy to let the music wash over me.  As I stand I am aware of movement on the other side of the semi-circular balcony.  A rather angry man walks up to me and says ‘I need to be re seated.  I cant see anything from where I am.  This has to be sorted out.  I’m not staying there, it’s not happening.  If nothing is done then it will ruin the evening for everyone else!’

So Mr Gerald Dickens, taking on the guise of an usher, gently makes sure we step out of the door, as the little fracas is already ruining the music for the audience sat near us, and I take him down to Lynne to try and sort it out.  Alternative seating is found on floor level and the crisis is averted.  I would love to see his face when I walk on stage at the start of the show, for he obviously had no idea that I am the performer.

After the choir has finished I get ready to start and when Lynne welcomes me I walk onto the stage to loud applause.  I walk to Marley’s grave side, and then back to centre stage where I deliver my first line directly to the empty seats which our friend and his family have just vacated!  Silly and childish I know, but rather satisfying.

My voice is struggling a little which is annoying for I know that the range of voices and tones is not as great as it could be, and I am aware during the first act of Johnny increasing the levels on the mic system slightly which is good of him.

In the interval I slump in my chair, and drink a lot of water ready for the final push.  Following the drawing of raffle prizes (raffles are the bane of my life!) I return to the stage to commence act 2.  Only a few minutes in I hear a crackle from the mic and it goes dead meaning that I have to get through the next 40 minutes unamplified, which actually isn’t too difficult thanks to those beautiful acoustics.  However what I must do is keep control over the show and not over stress myself and try too hard which I can be guilty of, and am slightly guilty of today.

I also notice that my wooden stool on stage is starting to fall apart too, with one of the cross beams that keep’s the legs in position having pulled out – we are all feeling the strain!

I get to the end of the show hot, sweating and completely drained but once again the Liverpool public stand and whoop and cheer me on to the stage as I take my bows.

Today’s shows were not great ones but everyone who came seemed to enjoy them very much and once again my experiences at St George’s Hall have been remarkable and memorable.

Thank you to Lynne for making it happen, to Jacqui for selling my programmes so effectively, meaning a goodly donation to the Charles Dickens Museum is on the way, to Johnny for looking after my sound and lighting and for being such a positive colleague, and too all the staff at the St George’s Hall who have been brilliant to work with, and who have now loaded my car for me before I drive back to the hotel garage.

I am tired, there is no doubt whatever about that, but elated also.

 

 

175 Years Young

Wednesday 19 December

 

On 19 December 1843 A Christmas Carol was first published.  Exactly 175 years ago Charles Dickens’s ‘ghostly little book’ hit the bookstands and began a journey which apparently will never end.

The day’s festivities start at 7.30 with a radio interview for BBC Radio Solent, whose area includes the city of Portsmouth where Charles was born in 1812.  It is a fun interview in that my brother Ian is on the line from the Isle of Wight too, so The Dickens Boys banter around for a while, chatting about the book as well as our own Christmas memories.

Apart from talking about A Christmas Carol the breakfast show is also discussing festive drinks and Julian Clegg, the presenter, asks us if there is any particular tipple that the Dickens family traditionally enjoy, to which Ian and I, separated by a couple hundred miles, answer in absolute unison:  ‘Horse’s Neck’!

A ‘Horse’s Neck’ is a Naval drink and our family is very much a Naval family (my father, his two brothers and my grandfather all served in the Royal Navy).  Dad would proudly mix brandy and dry ginger as pre-Christmas lunch drinks and we children had to wait patiently until all the adults had a Horse’s Neck in their hands before we were allowed to open the presents under the tree.  I feel a nostalgic glow as I remember those days and I’m sure that Ian is feeling the same.

Once the interview is done so the house descends into chaos as Liz and I bundle the children out of the door and off to school.  Sadly Liz and I have no time together when we get home, as I need to get in the car and drive to the city of Liverpool.

Today and tomorrow mark the second of Lynne Hamilton’s series of shows this year and we are reprising an event that we have staged every second year for the last ten.  The drive up the M40 and M6 is a familiar one and I have the radio on to keep me company.  The main news item and discussion point is the sacking of Manchester United Football Club’s manage Jose Mourinho and the announcing of his temporary replacement Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.  Fans from Man. U are trying to sound upbeat and positive whilst those from rival clubs are gleefully gloating.  Eventually someone texts the programme pleading ‘can we talk about Brexit again!’ which says everything about the banality of the football phone in.

I arrive in Liverpool at around 12 and in heavy traffic crawl past the magnificent cathedrals before making my way to St George’s Hall, my venue for the next two days, and Charles’ on many occasions during his reading tours of the 1860s.

As I pull up outside I see Lynne and Jacquie on the pavement unloading trayfuls of mince pies and raffle prizes, which are being piled onto a metal trolley and taken inside.  I unload all of my furniture and add it to the next cartload. Eventually most of my furniture is taken inside leaving just the hat stand and 2 costumes, which look like a surrealist’s take on the scene, and one which wouldn’t be out of place in the Walker Art Gallery which is behind us.

20181219_123934

Once into the Concert Hall which is a beautifully gilded and chandeliered room I set the stage and take a moment to take in the scene before me.  I am standing on the same stage that Charles stood in and I am looking into the same auditorium.  Later I will be saying the same lines and it is always a breath taking feeling, but today especially.

20181219_125944

Lynne has booked a professional audio company to provide the sound equipment, as well as an operator so the issues that we suffered in Buxton will not be repeated here.  Johnny is to be my techie for all of the performances so we sit with the script and go through it cue by cue until we are both satisfied that we know what we are doing.

20181219_133241

Having got the stage set I go to my huge dressing room, and start to get into costume for the 2 o’clock show.  The audience are arriving and the large majority of it are school groups made up of students who are studying the book.

If Lynne’s hip was painful and difficult in Buxton it is a major handicap at St George’s Hall where there are steps everywhere (even onto the stage).  However she is organising everything and everyone, making sure that everything runs smoothly with a walkie talkie in one hand and a microphone in the other.

When the audience are in their seats Lynne clambers up onto the stage and makes a short introduction before I walk to my place and mouth the words that join the echoes of their counterparts from a hundred and fifty years ago.

As the main part of the audience are school students the response is different to an adult group, but they are very attentive and as the show goes on they begin to realise that they are ‘allowed’ to laugh and respond (taking their lead from the members of the general public who are seated behind).  It is a lovely show and all of the sound effects work very well as Johnny brings them in bang on cue.

As I get to Fred’s party I notice that at the side of the stage there is a rather shapely plaster lady forming part of the stage’s structure and she becomes the object of Topper’s affections.

20181219_190039

When I get to the end the applause is loud and the a lot of the students whoop shout and whistle as they clap.  It is a wonderful ovation and a great start to the Liverpool adventure.

I change into my dry costume and go to the foyer and sign quite a few programmes and CDs as well as posing for photographs with one of the school groups.

It is around 4pm by the time I can change and leave the building, and I walk the short distance to the Shankly Hotel, where I always stay when I’m here, and check in.  I haven’t eaten since breakfast and the rigours of the show have left me feeling a little light-headed and faint so even before I go to my room I head to the restaurant and order a simple dish of grilled chicken and potatoes, which hits the spot.

Once in my room I only have about an hour to rest before I have to be back at St George’s but there is a great big deep jacuzzi bath and I have a long soak which is lovely.

The evening show is at 7.30 and I walk back to the hall at 6.30 so that I can make sure everything is in order before the audience is let in.  A large grand piano has appeared on the stage for the audience are to be entertained by a choir before the show tonight, and my space is slightly restricted but not enough to really make a difference.

The choir is in the next dressing room to me and there are obviously a lot of them judging by the loud merriment coming through the door.  I sit quietly in my room and get into costume whilst the singers make their way to the foyer for their first set.

Tonight is a sell-out and soon the audience are making their way up the stairs and into their seats.  The choir having finished their lobby entertainment now reform in the long backstage corridor and prepare to open the show formally.

20181219_192532

Start time is put back slightly as there has been an emergency at Lime Street rail station meaning that many people are delayed, so it is not until around 7.45 that the choir takes to the stage and begins the first of their three songs – The Little Drummer Boy, which is beautiful.  They are a well rehearsed and talented bunch and the acoustics of The Concert Hall are perfect for their amazing harmonies.  The audience show their genuine appreciation and clap loudly as the final notes of each song gently drift away.

Performing to a capacity audience in a venue such as this is an actor’s dream (well, this actor’s anyway, others may have other dreams, I can’t honestly speak for them!) and from the very start the room is alive.  I have made much over the last couple of weeks regarding the differences between an American and English audience and it is a strange quirk of geography and sociology that a Liverpool audience is always more like those to the west of the Atlantic Ocean than the rest of their own country on the east.  This bunch are completely engaged and hang on every word.

At the end they go ballistic, there is no other word for the standing ovation that they give me.  Not only do they clap, and cheer and whistle but as they stand they stamp their feet creating a cacophony of noise which reverberates around the rotunda and back into the hall.

Amazing, moving, and an entirely fitting tribute to a little book written in just six weeks and which was first published on the 19th December 1843.

31556

 

 

 

Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

Sunday 16 December

 

On my travels a few people have been so kind as to tell me how much they enjoy reading my blog, and a few have mentioned that they like reading the descriptions of the food that I eat – are you in for a treat today!

My sleep in The Palace Hotel at Buxton is brought to a sudden and terrifying end as the fire alarm goes off at some ungodly hour.  A high-pitched, screaming, electronic alarm rising to ear-piercing crescendos and dying to silence for a fraction of a second before soaring again.  I get up and am about to leave my room (I can hear other guests doing the same), when the alarm abruptly stops again.

I return to my bed but never really get back to sleep.

I was hoping to have an early breakfast at 7 o’clock and be on the road by 8, but it is only in the now sleepless early hours that I notice that breakfast isn’t served until 8 at weekends.  I decide therefore to leave early and find somewhere to stop on my route.

I gather all of my things up and make my way to reception where Dave is just about to go off duty.  We chat for a while as I pay for my room and then I go to the car and load up.  Fortunately Deidre has done her worst and blown away,  the morning is clear and the air feels fresh.  I drive through Buxton and back up onto the Peaks as I head towards Derby.  Once again the journey is beautiful and it is a pleasure to be on the roads alone.

After I have driven for about an hour and I am on the point of joining the M1 I spy ‘The OK Diner’ and I pull into the empty car park.  For 45 minutes or so I am back in America, surrounded by moody black and white images of straight roads disappearing into the horizon, cityscapes and rural landscapes.  The walls are adorned with college football pennants and hubcaps from Cadillacs or Buicks.

I order a plate of eggs, bacon and tomatoes, and wash it all down with fresh OJ and coffee.  When I have finished and paid I return to the car, fill it up with gas at the pumps next door (oh, I have gone back to America), and hit the road again, making sure I drive on the left!

I am heading back to Oxfordshire, but not home yet for firstly I have a lunch performance at one of the most prestigious venues I have ever performed at.  In the little village of Great Milton lies a 15th century manor house which over thirty years ago was purchased by Raymond Blanc, one of the most influential chefs working in the UK, and boasting a galaxy of Michelin stars.

20181216_105613

Le Manoir prides itself on perfection whilst maintaining an air of accessibility and relaxation not always found in high end restaurants which can often feel imposing and exclusive.  I am due to perform ‘A Festive Audience With Gerald Dickens’ in the restaurant’s private dining room to forty guests. The show will be split into four different chunks, allowing the diners to fully enjoy the lunch service.

On my arrival I am welcomed at the front desk as if I had just landed in my helicopter (there is naturally a helipad in the grounds).  ‘Ah, Mr Dickens, let me show you to the dining room where Thomas will look after you’

20181216_105854

The private dining area is in a separate building with its own kitchen and wine cellar so as not to effect the service of the main restaurant.  Thomas shows me the room in which dinner is to be served and we run through the order of the afternoon’s events and the timings and then he asks me if I’d like a coffee?  Oh, that sounds good, and he takes me into one of the lounges back in the main building where I sit on a soft sofa and relax for a few minutes before reminding myself that I am actually here to do a job of work.

The guests are due to arrive at 12 when they will be served with canapes in the conservatory which looks out over a private garden and on towards the ancient village church beyond.  At 12.30 I am to perform staves 1 and 2 roaming among the guests, before we all move into the restaurant and the guests take their seats.

I take the opportunity of a few moments to rehearse the opening of the show, remembering how to edit it so that I come in on time.  The acoustics sound good in the Conservatory and with the church clock striking every quarter there is plenty of atmosphere.

As I rehearse I am interrupted (deferentially of course), by William who is presiding over the event and who studied drama at Aberystwyth University and who ‘recognises the sound of a fellow actor warming up!’  We chat for a while but time is moving on and other waiting staff are now appearing and making final preparations for service.  It is time to change.  I ask William where I should go and he suggests the disabled toilet as the best bet –  however elegant the venue, some things do not change when performing in restaurants!

When I remerge in Victorian garb the guests are already arriving, and I try to gauge the mood of the party.  There is always a danger at an expensive event that  the attendees can be rather aloof and difficult to please, but this crowd seem to be loud, lively and up for a good time, which is reassuring.

I wait outside the conservatory as the slates of canapes are taken in and handed around.  I idly look at the fire evacuation notice and smile at another indication of the standing of Le Manoir, for here in case of emergency we are not requested to muster ‘in the car park’, oh no, here we must meet on ‘The Croquet Lawn’!

When all of the guests have arrived and been checked off William’s list I get the nod and walk into the midst of the crowd.

‘Good afternoon, and welcome to a Festive Audience with, well, ME!’  It’s not going to win any awards at the Edinburgh Fringe but it gets a laugh and breaks the ice.

Some guests are seated, others are standing, so I make sure that I move around the room ensuring that everyone can see.  It goes very well and by the time the Ghost of Christmas Past disappears into the dust and I break character and announce that it is time to proceed to the dining room everyone is fully involved in the event.

At the tables wine is poured and then it is time to become the Ghost of Christmas Present and I roam the room spreading good cheer.  The table I select as the Cratchit’s household dutifully do NOT gasp as the goose is carved, and the replacement one dutifully does.  Finally Scrooge and the ghost stand in an empty place and the clock strikes twelve…and it is time to eat.

So as not to disrupt the main meal service too much it has been decided that I should take a break of an hour while the guests eat their amazing dinners.  I retire to the conservatory and discover a table especially laid for me, with all of the same style as the diners.  A place card announces that this is the table for Gerald Dickens, and the menu informs me that I am going to enjoy:

 

LA NOIX DE ST-JACQUES

Roasted scallop, spiced cauliflower textures

 

L’OEUF

Free range hen’s egg, watercress puree, Jabugo ham & toasted hazelnuts

 

LE BOEUF

Roasted fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef, braised Jacob’s ladder, alliums & red wine essence

 

LE CHOCOLAT

Millionaire shortbread, salted butter ice ream

20181216_133426

 

Not only am I served the same menu as the guests, but I am served it in the same way – the waiter brings the dish, carefully places it, explains what is on my plate and then deferentially withdraws leaving me to appreciate how incredible fine dining really is.  Everything is on the plate for a reason, everything gives just the right hit of flavour, and  balances the other flavours on the plate exquisitely.

20181216_133825

20181216_134315

20181216_135909

 

At the commencement of each course the sommelier arrives and asks if I would like wine?  Yes, I would like wine!  Yes a chilled white with the scallops and a smooth red with the beef, however professional self control ensures that his only duty is to top up my water glass.

After I have cleared the plate of beef it is time to get ready to perform once more, as I have to squeeze Stave Four in before dessert.  I am very glad that it is a small room and that I don’t have much space to move in, for I think it would be an ungainly waddle rather than a perfectly honed series of choreographed movements.

The guests are definitely enjoying their afternoon and the decibel levels have risen a few notches over the course of lunch.  It is with some difficulty that I attract their attention but as soon as I do everyone settles down to listen.  Stave Four,  The Last of the Three Spirits is the most intense chapter in the book and sees Scrooge constantly faced with images of mortality.  The atmosphere in the room is electric right up to the very point that the spirit shrinks, collapses, dwindles down into a bed post…. I realise I have to break the tension somehow so say ‘and after that you deserve pud!’ and slip out of the door I am standing next to.  There is a moment’s silence as the words sink in and then I hear laughter and a loud round of applause.

The Millionaire’s Shortbread (decorated with 24 carat gold leaf, naturally) is delicious, and I finish my meal with a cup of coffee before returning to the dining room to finish the story.  Stave 5 is very much a wash-up chapter and doesn’t take very long and soon it is time for God Bless Us Every One, and lots of applause: loud, boisterous, enthusiastic applause.

The guests all hang around for a long time, well why wouldn’t you, and I chat to lots of them and receive plenty of fulsome praise as well as suggestions of venues where I should perform in the future, which is generous.

It is getting dark by the time people begin to leave and we all shake hands as if we are the oldest of friends.  The atmosphere is more that of a house party rather than a theatrical performance.  When the last group departs I return to my disabled loo and change back into my normal clothes, before saying goodbye to Thomas and William.  It has been a highly successful day and I have no doubt that it will lead to further appearances (and hopefully meals) at Le Manoir.

 

 

Buxton

Saturday 15th December

 

With a three hour drive ahead of me this morning the first thing I do upon waking is to look out of the window to check on the state of the weather.  Instead of the feared snowy and icy conditions the view, albeit dark, is beautiful: the clouds are broken by the first hints of sun which renders the famous Tyne bridge in silhouette.  As I watch, a LNER train makes its way from Newcastle station headed to who know where.  LNER is one of those railway companies that evokes thoughts of times gone by, in the same way that our own GWR does.

20181215_074642

Breakfast is a buffet in the lobby of the hotel and as I peruse the fare on offer I ponder the differences between an American breakfast and an English one:  the British bacon is much larger and less crispy, the sausages are thick and plump.  Grilled tomatoes and baked beans would never feature in the US, nor do half grapefruits, unsegmented.

I load up a large plateful as I am not sure if I will get lunch later, and sit quietly eating as the restaurant area begins to fill up.  When I finish I go back to my room and makes sure that I have everything before checking out and getting on the road.

My route out of the city takes me along the A1 and past the remarkable Angel of the North which looks beautiful in the early morning light, and I stop briefly to admire the view.

20181215_084858

I am headed towards the spa town of Buxton, which is in the High Peaks area of Derbyshire and my route will take me across the North York Moors and into the Peak District.  Buxton is the highest market town in the country so if the bad weather is going to effect anywhere it is going to effect there.  Forecasts have been warning of the impending arrival of Storm Deidre which is going to wreak havoc across the north of England.  Somehow Deidre doesn’t seem a terribly threatening name bringing to mind a rather prim lady from an era past.  Storm Gargantua, or Storm Destructa would be more unnerving.

The drive is a highly spectacular one although the mist and clouds are closing in as I drive ever higher.  Bleak moorland, deep dales, impressive viaducts and steely cold reservoirs pass by on either side until eventually I turn into the drive of the impressively imposing Palace Hotel in the very heart of Buxton.

As I walk in through the door there is a huge banner promoting my show, and on the reception desk there are plenty of fliers informing residents of the hotel that they can buy tickets for my shows at a discounted rate.

‘Hello!  I am Gerald Dickens,  I am here to perform the show tonight’

‘Yes’, replies the girl behind the desk, after which there follows a long pause.  ‘I’m sorry, what do you need to know?’

‘Oh, I just wondered where I should go?  Where is the show going to be held?’

Another long pause and a blank stare.

‘I don’t really know anything.  let me see if I can ask someone else’, at which she disappears.  Meanwhile I notice a bulletin board displaying the various events that are going on that day: ‘A Christmas Carol.  High Peaks Ballroom’  So when the girl returns I simply ask the way to that venue.

‘Go through those doors and turn left’ she says, confusingly gesturing to the right.  I follow the directions and discover that the gesture was more accurate than the verbal instruction.

20181215_121238

The ballroom is beautiful with a high vaulted ceiling, at one end a stage has been erected in front of a large high fire place and a huge gold mirror.  Around 200 seats have been laid out in theatre style and each has been covered in black shrouds, making it look like an auditorium filled with mini-Ghost-of-Christmas-yet-to-Comes, which is quite unsettling!

I am alone in the room and start to test the acoustics, as I rehearse Lynne Hamilton makes her entrance:  Lynne is my unofficial northern agent and we have been working together for almost 10 years.  It was Lynne who first suggested that I should perform in the amazing St George’s Hall in Liverpool (more of which next week), and this year she has offered to secure more shows for me.

Lynne has produced the Buxton version herself, so is anxious that everything works well.  Ticket sales have not been great and she has driven from The Wirral a number of times to distribute leaflets and spread the word.

We hug, say hello and chat about this and that.  Poor Lynne has a very dodgy hip which is due to be replaced by a brand new state of the art ceramic one in January, but for now she is limping around in agony.

I set the stage as I want and we experiment with the lighting.  The chandeliers in the room are grand, but can only be controlled from a room far away in the hotel, meaning lots of shouted instructions in a walkie-talkie until we find a level that combines a good atmosphere with enough light on my face (the latter is assisted by two LED uplighters which suit me well but which blind everyone else.  Lynne is worried that I wont be able to see anything during the show and I reassure her that actors really don’t mind being in a bright light, and I recount the tale of the poor actor who died swimming round and round a lighthouse because he wanted to stay in the spotlight!)

Mike, from the hotel’s technical department is going to be in charge of the sound effect and as this involves crouching in a tiny cupboard we decide that it is probably best just to use the opening music rather than the other new effects.

It is 1pm now and the first audience members are beginning to arrive, so I go up to my room on the third floor to change.  The Palace is typical of an old English hotel which has now fallen on slightly hard times, the paint is peeling here and there, the carpets are of an undetermined vintage, the facilities in the rooms are sparse.  My room is impressively large but the main thing I notice, as I try to find somewhere to plug my phone in to charge, is the dearth of electrical sockets.

Whilst in America the thought came to me that the biggest improvement in hotel design over my years of touring has been the increase in electrical outlets, with sockets built into lamp bases and desk tops.  Sadly the Palace has not been part of this revolution.

In my costume I go back to the ballroom and chat with Mike, Lynne and her colleague Jacqui, as well as meeting the audience as they arrive. One of the crowd is Peter Hooper, brother of my oldest schoolfriend Chris.  Chris now lives in New Zealand but Pete is based in Matlock, not twenty miles from here, and has very generously braved storm Deidre to come and see the show.  Peter can proudly boast that he shared a stage with me in the very formative days of my career, as the Hooper clan (Chris, Pete and their sister Sandra) staged a pantomime to be performed for all of their neighbours, and invited me to be part of the cast.  It was Aladdin, if memory serves, and Chris and I must have been around 12 or 13 years old.

At 2.30 it is time to start.  Lynne hobbles to the front and makes a nice introduction, at the end of which Mike starts the music from his kneeling position in the cupboard and I begin the show.

Once again the audience is slightly quiet and reserved, and I can see that they are all rather cold, many wrapped up in their coats and shawls.  Storm Deidre is forecast to bring freezing rain (or ice storms as I know them in America) and many folk have slipped and slithered in.

A very nice feature of the audience is the amount of young students who have come.  A Christmas Carol is currently on the GCSE syllabus so many year 9 and 10s are studying it and one particular lad sat in the front row is thoroughly enjoying the show.

Lynne has asked me for a two act show, and I have to remember to stop at the midpoint, the temptation being to plough on as I have been doing for the past month.  I slump in my chair at the end of Stave 2 murmuring ‘Scrooge fell asleep upon the instant and dreamt of the interval!’

There is no adjustable lighting in the room so I have to stand walk off the stage in full view, fortunately this walk is accompanied by a loud round of applause.

Sadly the Palace is slightly understaffed and the young lad who is supposed to be manning the ball room’s bar is nowhere to be seen, meaning a queue quickly forms and Lynne’s blood pressure ratchets up a few notches.  The punters however seem remarkably unperturbed and simply disappear to find alternative bar facilities in the hotel.  Fortunately they all return.

Eventually our barman is found and the remaining audience get their drinks (mainly hot chocolate) and return to the auditorium for the second act.  As soon as everyone is in I return to the stage and recommence to story.

At one point during the second act I get a bit too enthusiastic and knock one of the LED uplighters off the stage.  A very kind gentleman in the front row gets up and surreptitiously replaces it, so when I descend from the stage on Christmas morning I make a point of shaking his hand and referring him to as ‘the lamplighter’

The show finishes to great applause and I take my bows before going to the back of the room where I have a pleasant time chatting to the guests as they leave, as well as signing copies of my programme and CD which are selling well.  In particular I have a long chat with Pete and his wife, which is very nice.

As the audience disappears into Deidre’s grip I go back to my room and change, before returning to the restaurant where Lynne and Jacquie are sat taking afternoon tea.  I join them and we spend a lovely time eating sandwiches, scones and cakes, sipping tea from china cups.

20181215_164726

We are sat in a glass conservatory and outside the rain is lashing down as the storm batters Buxton.  Hopefully this wont put off any audience members for this evening’s performance, alternatively it may encourage those staying in the hotel to forgo the pleasures of Buxton town centre and come to the High Peaks Ballroom instead.

Having finished tea I go upstairs to rest for a while, and set an alarm in case I snooze on the bed.  Although I don’t fall into a deep sleep, some of my blinks are extended ones.

The evening show is at 7.30, so at 6.30 I have a shower to wake me up and get back into costume.  The hotel is packed tonight, as there are various other events being held, and the staff will be stretched thinly.  Unfortunately Mike is unavailable to do my sound, but another member of management, Carolyn, will come to look after it, I just hope that she has been properly briefed.

The audience is bigger this evening and many are very excited to be seeing the show.  7.30 arrives, but Carolyn does not.  Eventually she is found elsewhere looking after a large Christmas party, and takes up her place in the cupboard next to the sound desk.

Lynne makes her introduction and the music fills the room.  That’s good.  I reach the stage and the fourth bell tolls.  Good.  Now, Carolyn needs to stop the CD before the second piece of music starts, otherwise Scrooge will be dancing to Sir Roger de Coverley at Marley’s graveside!  No folk music comes through the system, and all is well….for a moment.

As soon as I start to speak I can tell that Carolyn has shut off the entire system as my microphone is as dead as a doornail.  Of course Carolyn has returned to her other event, so she cant help out, whilst Lynne and Jacquie are not in the room, as they are making preparations for our forthcoming events in Liverpool at the end of the week.  Although the acoustics in the room are not bad, and I can be heard quite adequately, I can sense that the show isn’t as good as it could be, and certain audience members are having to lean forward to catch every word.  I try not to over compensate and force my voice, knowing that I only have to get to the  half way point of the show before I can turn the system on again.

The applause at the interval is not as fulsome as this afternoon and neither is the chat at the back of the room.  Sure enough as soon as I check the sound system I find that Carolyn had brought the master volume slider right down to 0.   I set it back to the correct level (making sure that the hitherto silent microphone pack is set to ‘mute’) and simultaneously reset myself, forgetting the struggles of the first half and readying myself for an energetic second.

Meanwhile Lynne’s frustration levels are almost through the roof as once again there is no one to man the bar.  Fortunately there are a few other members of staff in the audience, including Dave the Night Manager, who manage to locate the girl who was supposed to be looking after the bar, and also coming up with a solution to dim the main lights thereby creating more atmosphere, whilst maintaining enough light on my face.

Act 2 is much better and the show comes alive: I am better, the sound is better, the light is better and the audience respond most enthusiastically.  This was a show that was rescued.

Lots of people want to linger and chat afterwards, and I pose for many photographs, particularly with one family who are particular fans of Charles Dickens and the Carol. One lady from America just happened to be staying in the hotel to celebrate her birthday and had seen the promotional material in reception and had decided to come, and she adored it too.

From an unpromising start the evening has been a great success.  After changing in my room I return to the now deserted ballroom and load all of my props into the car, for I have another early start in the morning. The rain is still pelting down and the wind is still howling as I make my way to and from the car and by the time I am finished I look like a rather bedraggled dog after he has swum out into a river to fetch a stick.  I join Lynne, Jacqui and a large bowl of chips and mayonnaise (courtesy of Dave, the Night Manager) in the bar and we discuss the events of the day.

Quite a few of the audience are staying in the hotel and come and chat as we all wind down which is lovely.  Eventually I say good night and go back to my room.  I have an early morning drive to Oxfordshire for a very special performance, but this team will reunite in Liverpool on Wednesday.

 

 

 

Lit & Phil

Friday 14 December

Today sees me begin the UK leg of my Christmas Carol tour and takes me up the spine of the country to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the far north east of England.

My flight home from Philadelphia last week was a relaxing one, as I had three seats to myself, even though the flight was very busy.  I watched dear old ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, for the millionth time, and then ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ which is back-lit, soft focus British filmmaking at its best!

My first job was to get all of my costumes dry cleaned before the next set of performances, and I had to give strict instructions that the trousers were to pressed with no creases at the front.  One of the reasons for sourcing new grey trousers this year was so that they would be more authentically Victorian in style, and my costume guru David has stressed to me throughout the year that I must NOT have sharp creases in them.  I was relieved when I picked them up that they had been pressed correctly.

At 11 am I say goodbye to Liz once more, the children being at school, and start a 5 hour drive.  I still have the remnants of an Inspector Morse novel on my phone and he keeps me company as I make my way through the Midlands and into the North, basically following the route that the Roman armies took until they reached Hadrian’s wall running across the country at the Scottish border.

After a long and tiring drive I am welcomed to Tyneside by the open wings of the magnificent Angle of the North and soon am descending the hill into Newcastle and crossing the mighty Tyne by one of the many bridges which the city boasts.

My venue tonight is the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, or the Lit&Phil as it is now known.  I have performed here for the last two years and it is a great venue in a great city.  Housed in a splendidly imposing building near to the main railway station in the City, the Lit and Phil can proudly boast the fact that it is the largest independent library outside London (a fact which must stick in the craw of those goodly folk who run the Bodleian Library in my home city of Oxford).

The City is bustling and busy but remarkably I am able to find a parking space right outside the building and the unloading of my furniture and props is the work of but a few moments.

I am greeted by Kay who organises my performances here (this will be my third appearance) and various other staff and volunteers as I set up the room for my show.  The actual venue for my performance is a fairly bland room at the rear of the building, but we have a sell out audience tonight and I know from past experience that the atmosphere can be electric in here.

Once I have carefully arranged my chair, cloth, table, hat stand and stool (it is not a difficult get-in, it must be said), I descend to my dressing room which is maybe the most impressive that I have on tour, for I am in the oak-shelved, dusty book-lined Reference and Silence Room, where a clock loudly ticks the seconds and minutes.  I have been told in past years that the room is haunted but as yet no spirits have come to visit me.

20181214_182148

I change into my crisp, clean costume, and then sit and relax as the audience builds upstairs.  Last year I performed the Carol at the very start of my tour, and I remember pacing around going over lines to myself.  Tonight I can slip on the script with the same ease that I slip on my frock coat, and I am much more relaxed, indeed I even find myself practicing my golf swing with the gnarled cane that in an hours’ time will become Tiny Tim’s active little crutch.

20181214_190204

The buzz of anticipation from the audience is a lovely sound and I wait just outside the door until I get the nod from Kay who then presses play on an impressive CD machine, thereby launching another performance.

The audience is restrained, as English audiences tend to be, but hang on every line of the script with the intensity you would expect from a Literary and Philosophical crowd. With such a crowd there is always a decision to be made regarding the audience participation elements of my show, which can just fall flat and lie as dead as a doornail if there is no response forthcoming.  Tonight I decide to go for it and everyone dutifully joins in, which breaks the tension a little.

The applause at the end is remarkable in its intensity and length and I am called back for a second curtain call, which is very special indeed.  Back in my Reference and Silence Room I change shirt, waistcoat and frock coat before going to mingle and chat with the audience.

Ian and I have decided to donate the profits from any souvenir programme sales made in the UK over the next couple of weeks to the Dickens Museum appeal to help buy the Lost Portrait of Dickens.  If you missed my blog about this amazing story then it can be viewed at https://wordpress.com/post/geralddickens.wordpress.com/7351

Sales of programmes ad CDs go quite well and it is fun to chat and sign in such a relaxed way, rather than sitting at a desk with a long queue of people waiting patiently, as been the case in America over the last couple of weeks

The audience gradually drift away into the cold night and I return to the tick tock of my clock to change once more.  By the time I remerge all of my furniture has been taken to the front door of the building and in a few minutes it is safely loaded up into the car.  I say good bye to me good friends and head off to search for food.

Newcastle is a university city and on a Friday night in the week leading up to Christmas it is packed.  After a few unsuccessful attempts to get into restaurants I go back to my little hotel and order a takeaway meal which is duly delivered to the front desk.  I sit in my room watching TV whilst I eat.

It has been a long day, with a lot of driving, and I am certainly tired and ready for my bed.  Tomorrow I start south again and will be performing at a new venue for me, in the beautiful Peak District town of Buxton.  There is bad winter weather forecast for this weekend, and my drive could be a difficult one so I will need to be on the road good and early, just in case.

I shall see you there.

 

A Civilised Finale in Burlington

With apologies for the delay in posting, this is my account of the final day in the USA

 

And so I wake for my last morning in America for this year. I am meeting Bob for breakfast at 8.30, or is it 8? I can’t remember what we agreed, except we are both early morning people. To be on the safe side I will go to the restaurant at 8.15!
I write my blog post and pack as much as I can, although I still need costumes for my show this afternoon, so I make sure that my roller bag is packed with 2 clean shirts, some socks, black shoes, the red cloth and the two little mice for the stage. I make sure I have the USB drive as well as a CD with the sound cues and pens for signing.
After a shower (a very good one, but not up to Press Hotel standard, which therefore takes the award for best shower of the year award), I take my two costumes to hang in the car and take a pile of souvenir programmes which have been in my car since the signing in the bookstore and need returning to Bob, and walk to breakfast.
Bob is not there, and nor is anyone else as a matter of fact, and the staff are a rather nonplussed. I grab an orange juice and a coffee and read a little more of Hidden Figures while I wait. One of the servers sees the pile of programmes on the table and asks me about them and when I explain about the show she beams: ‘Oh! I’ve had guests here who went to that and said it was awesome!’, which is good to hear.
Bob arrives bang on the dot of 8.30 (so, I was right first time) and soon we both have platefuls of breakfast in front of us as we chat about this year’s tour, how it has worked, is there anything we can learn for the future. It is too early to start talking about future visits, as I need to talk to Liz about how this year worked for her at home alone with the girls before committing to anything.
From the tour our conversation moves on to travelling in general and various other things until it is time for Bob to leave. It is strange to think that I have another performance today, and I have to make sure that I am in performance mode, rather than travelling mode.
I return to my room and watch a bit of TV until 11 o’clock when it is time to check out, I return my key to the front desk where still no mention is made yesterday’s events. I am sure that Bob will mention it to the management, as Byers’ Choice are good, very good, customers of the Joseph Ambler Inn.
My drive this morning is not a long one, less than an hour in fact, but takes me across another state line into New Jersey. I refill with fuel on the way and buy a sandwich for an early lunch, which I eat in the car before heading to the Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington NJ. This is another venue where I have many friends and also a venue where I have many friends and it will great to finish up the tour here.
I park outside the church and get not only my 2 costume, roller bag, hat and cane out, but also my large suitcase as I will need to pack straight after the show. As I make my rather precarious way to the door two young guys call out ‘Hey dude, are you a magician? Can you do a trick now? C’mon man, just one trick!?’ Getting up the two steps to the door without dropping everything will be trick enough!
As soon as I am in I am greeted by Laura, who organises this event, her husband Joe and all the rest of the team – I get well and truly hugged, for they are a huggy bunch at The Broad Street United Methodist Church. I usually do two shows here but as I have to be at the airport by 7 tonight there is only the 2pm matinee, which has resulted in a huge turnout expected – around 350. The minister of the church jokes that he is going to take a picture of them all packed in and then post it on the Facebook page as an indication of the popularity of his sermons.
I get myself settled in usual dressing room, under the stage, and then go upstairs to make sure everything is where is needs to be. In years past we have had to improvise with the music cue as there was no CD system and poor Joe had to squat holding a microphone to the speakers of a boom box back stage; he couldn’t see what was happening and there was more than an element of guess work involved. This year however there is a new sound system but sadly at the moment it can only play a CD, so the new effects, which are only on my USB stick, will not have another outing: Mr Fezziwig must dance in silence again.
Having completed the sound check I go back to my dressing room to get ready and with half an hour to I make my way to the kitchen and get a nice cup of black tea. A number of volunteers are there busily preparing cookies and cakes which will be served to the guests during the signing session.

20181209_133815
20 minutes. 15 minutes. 10. Laura, Joe and I chat and then at 2pm I go to the back of the hall, whilst Laura takes to the stage to welcome the audience. As I stand waiting at the back of the sanctuary I get a big wave of the hand from Kevin Quinn and Herb Moskovitz, both members of the Dickens Fellowship, who have travelled from New York and Philadelphia respectively to see the show. I have known them both for many years and it is very generous of them to make their journeys.
Laura finishes her intro and I make my slow way to the ‘stage’ (the alter rail has been removed, as has the table to give me as much space as possible to perform on). The hall is indeed packed on floor level and in the balcony and there is definitely a good atmosphere in here.

 

47680326_10156831694613917_7857746400082132992_n
I try to use the various different levels as much as possible to suggest different scenes, especially those in the streets of London. The audience get fully involved and as many of them have attended multiple times they know the score. Bob asked the other day why people who have seen the show so often don’t gasp in delight at the turkey, when they know I am going to feign frustration at their lack of participation. I have noticed over the years that I return to a venue about four times regular attendees DO gasp on cue, but then they begin to realise that the joke is better when they don’t make a sound so dutifully remain silent in subsequent years.
About half way through the show I am aware of a loose shirt cuff, which always seems to happen here, I ascertain that the cufflink hasn’t broken, just come out of the button hole, I make a couple of attempts to re-fasten it but am not successful and end up leaving it to flap.
The performance is a very emotional and intense one, which holds the audience’s attention fully. The comedy gets laughs, the pathos is received with concentrated silence. It is a good way to sign off.
‘God Bless Us, Every One’ for the last time in the USA and the whole audience rise to their feet and make a lot of noise (I wonder if the minister is filming this!). I take my bows and linger a little longer than usual on stage before retiring to my dressing room, where I change out of my rather damp costume, which I hope might dry a little before it needs packing in an hour or so’s time.
The line for the signing line is very long and backs right up into the narrow walkway which also serves as a second hand book store. I have to ‘excuse’ my way to the front before I can get to my seat and begin signing.
Kevin from New York has managed to get right to the front of the queue and after shaking hands he gives me a little gift – a new set of Dickens Fellowship geranium cufflinks, as over the years he knows that I have often broken pairs thanks to the rigours of performance. It is strange that today is the only show on this year’s tour where I have suffered a cufflink malfunction – maybe it is the spirits reaching out to us!

47578365_10156831694583917_4398059584984449024_n

The signing line is full of families who have attended the shows for multiple years and one such present me with a framed picture featuring our portraits over 6 years, which is incredibly moving.
As I sign and chat, I sip a lovely cup of tea, poured from a bone china pot, into a bone china cup which sits on a bone china saucer – things are very civilised in Burlington.
Quite apart from the long signing line, the room is full of people sat at tables enjoying their own tea and cookies, which means that just when I think the signing is coming to an end someone else gets up to come to my table, but everyone is in high good spirits and there is a lovely atmosphere.

 
When the signing does finally end I go back to the dressing room and start the business of cramming everything into my suitcases for the first time in two weeks. Socks get packed in my hat and the thick woollen scarf is wound around it. Both costumes (2 times grey trousers, 2 times red and gold waistcoats, 2 times burgundy cravats, 2 times black frock coats) are folded and packed into my little roller case.

 
It seems strange to be leaving so soon, as usually the whole team go out together for dinner at a local restaurant, before putting on an evening show. Today, even though the others are dining and have invited me to join them, I need to drive to the Philadelphia International airport, where I have a date with a British Airways 747. I am sent on my way with two sandwiches that Marcia has kindly bought for me, and after being well and truly hugged once more I am on my way.

20181209_170315
So the USA tour comes to an end (although my Christmas season will continue in the UK next week) and as I sit in the departure lounge awaiting Zone 5 to be called I can reflect on a very successful series of performances during which the show has progressed once again. I have been very happy with the new scene involving Bob Cratchit mourning Tiny Time, and I am very happy with the use of the cloth throughout the performance.
But you don’t want to hear about my thoughts on the play for I know that there is one pressing question to which you are desperate to know the answer:

 
The Best Breakfast of the Tour Award! On reflection, taking everything into consideration, weighing up all the pros and cons, I think that the short list boils down to:
The Beechwood Hotel, in Worcester Mass
The Press Hotel in Portland
The Fairville Inn at Winterthur
The Joseph Ambler Inn at Byers’ Choice

And the winner is: The Press Hotel in Portland!

I will continue to write through the rest of my tour, and the nest performance is in the beautiful city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne next weekend. I shall see you there.

Pause Before You Snore…..

Although the Joseph Amble Inn presents a fine breakfast buffet I am forgoing its delights this morning as I  have arranged to drive to my cousin Rowland’s hotel to spend a little time with him and his family. Usually Rowly  drives up from NJ for the show and goes straight home on the same night, meaning that we rarely get to talk at length, but this year they have decided to stay.

The Staybridge Suites Hotel is but a 4 minute drive, and I find Rowly in the lobby wrapped up preparing to huddle outside in the cold for a cigarette.  I grab a coffee and go and sit with him on a bench under the main entrance canopy.  As we talk Rowly notices that directly above the ‘Smokers Outpost’ stand provided for people to stub their cigarettes out on, is a ‘No Smoking’ notice.

20181208_080824

After a few minutes Rowly’s middle son Toby comes out to announce that the rest of the family are ready for breakfast, and in we go.  It is a lovely family time  with Rowly’s wife Andrea (Andi), eldest son Sam, Toby and Rafe.

Sam takes on the duty of chief waffle maker and soon places a stack that resembles the leaning tower of Pisa on the table.  We all tuck in as we talk.

20181208_082457

Toby in particular is developing a keen interest in the stage and has already appeared in a number of productions.  He asks me all sorts of questions about my show, including ‘what are you thinking about when you are doing it?’  Interesting!  When I am performing I have various different thought processes going on, at different levels.  The basic level is to think whatever the character I am portraying is thinking – not pretending, but actually thinking it.  If Scrooge is angry, so I am angry.  If Cratchit is distraught with grief, them I am distraught with grief.  On another level my brain is working on a practical level – oh, the scarf has fallen off the stage and I need it for a scene at the end of the play, how best can I retrieve it without it being too obvious?  I am also watching and listening to the audience to try and gauge their reactions so that I can tailor the show to this particular group – make it darker or funnier or develop the pathos more.

While Toby has an interest in the stage, then young Rafe has a fascination in cars, which I equally enjoy talking about, and I get pictures of my old Lotus which I hope will impress him, however his passions lay in huge monster trucks with tyres the size of Rhode Island!

Sam is currently learning to drive so once again we can chat easily, as I used to be a driving instructor.  It is fascinating to hear about the American system for obtaining a drivers licence, and it seems a lot more comprehensive and sensible than the UK one.  There are nigh time curfews in place for young drivers, and limits on how many passengers they can carry.  However the system is flexible enough so that if a young driver works at night, so a dispensation can be granted for him to drive to his home from his place of  work.

Rowly has worked in New York City for goodness knows how many years (20 or so I believe) and whilst he and Andy are still very much Brits abroad, their accents are holding up well, all three boys were born here and are very much American kids, albeit with a very British heritage.

This morning is the first time I have ever got to spend much time with them and it is a delight.  Rowly and Andi are great company and they should both be proud of their three fine sons.

As the family has to drive back to New Jersey and I have a little work to do back at the hotel it is soon time to hug our goodbyes and I drive back to the Ambler Inn.  My first show today is at 1, so I need to back at Byers Choice before 12 to make sure that everything is in the right place and ready.

There is another lovely deep bath in my room, and I decide that I shall have a long hot relaxing soak before I go out, so I start to run the water, and lay on the bed with the TV on as I wait for the tub to fill.

Suddenly there is the sound of a key in the lock which I assume is housekeeping, despite the fact that I had put the privacy please sign on my door, but it is not: a lady, presumably a hotel employee as she has the key, is bringing an entire group in to look at the room!  Not only has she ignored the Privacy sign, but obviously feels that it is OK to look around an occupied room filled with the resident’s belongings and papers even if he is absent.  She mutters a rather inadequate apology and leaves.  Fortunately I was not actually ready for my bath, if you get my drift, but it is not an impressive moment for the Joseph Ambler Inn.

I put the chain on the door and have my bath which is indeed relaxing and luxurious.

Most of my belongings are still at Byers Choice, so all I need to take is an extra shirt and a pair of black socks (making sure I haven’t picked up the rhinestone teacup ones from Lenox).

Before I leave I stop by the front desk to mention the issue of the intrusion this morning, not to complain, just to let them know it happened and that it wasn’t really good enough.  The lady behind the desk says ‘Oh, that’s bad’ but doesn’t actually apologise.  Maybe she will mention it to the manager and he will deal with it later.

As I arrive at Byers’ Choice I drive to my usual car parking spot, but it is filled, I go to another lot at the front of the building, also filled.  Eventually I am directed to the loading bays outside the shipping department and am let in a back door.  The Saturday afternoon audience are arriving so early that not even the performer can park!

In the empty theatre I chat with Bob, as is our custom, and I set the stage for the start of the show, making sure that the stool and the cloth are where they should be.  As I am bumbling about a group of very young children, probably 3 years old I would think, come in with their mothers, or nursery school carers, I am not sure which.  They are all dressed smartly and Dave asks me if I wouldn’t mind saying hello which I am happy to do.  Each one shyly shakes hands, and then they all present me with plaster ornaments that they have made and coloured, as well as beautiful cards with pictures of carefully drawn Christmas trees.  It is a beautiful moment and makes me think of home.

20181209_071918.jpg

The rest of the audience are ready to be let in, so I go to my dressing room to change.  The 1 o’clock show is the biggest of the tour and their will be a capacity house of around 700, which is an exciting prospect.  As usual I return to the auditorium with about 20 minutes to go and watch the seats fill up.  We wait for the last shuttle bus to bring the last guests from the furthest car park, and it is a little after 1 when Bob and I make our way backstage to thank the choir once more and start the show

As you would expect with such a big crowd it is a wonderful show and I work hard.  About half way through though I begin to feel slightly light-headed as though I need a sugar hit, but theres nothing I can do about it.  I work through it and keep going.

A slight change today is to develop Mr Fezziwig’s dancing a little.  Up to now the new musical cue has come in, and I have simply carried on the narrative but today I choreograph a little country dance for Mr F to perform.  It is rather jolly!  I am not happy with Mrs F’s role in the proceedings however and I must give her something better to do than the current manic twirling finale.

It is a good feeling to stand on stage bowing to 700 people who are on their feet clapping and shouting and making strange whooping noises.  Oh yes, it is a good feeling!

The show has been very good, and now it is time for my backstage sprint to prepare myself for the signing.  Having read yesterday’s blog post Bob talks for a little longer on stage, allowing me more leeway to get back to the board room.

When I arrive at my signing table the whole crowd, orchestrated by Pam, breaks out into a loud rendition of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow!’, which is terribly embarrassing but also rather nice.

The signing is long.  Oh it lasts a long time but everyone in the line is so patient.  I am sat in the centre of the visitor centre’s Nativity room where the queue of people ends at my desk; from there the serpentine line winds back around the perimeter of the room and out into the museum section of the building, meaning that I have guests on all sides of me.

As ever Pam is on duty at the head of the queue, chatting and taking people’s phones or cameras to perform photographic duties.  She is superb in this role and has such a great rapport with all of the guests that I am sure every one of them feels as if she is their new best friend by the time they leave.

There is a jolly atmosphere in the room and I make sure that I put just as much energy into being cheerful and approachable as I do into my performance on stage.  It seems as if this session will never end, and I rather think that some of the audience for my second show have taken the opportunity to join the end of the line, so that they don’t have to wait later, however I am wrong for every guest, right to the very end, mentions how much they enjoyed my performance.

One gentleman who has come for multiple years asks me if I felt a little too rushed today?  ‘I don’t want to criticise, but I felt you were a bit too hurried.  In particular the snoring.  Usually you pause before you snore, but today you went straight into it!’  Wow, I knew I’d tried to cut down on some of the pauses, but I’d never realised that the snoring one was something to be considered!  It is amazing the changes that regular attendees notice.

At last the final signing is done and I have a 90 minute break before I am back on duty again for show number 2.

I go back the stage and re set everything and chat briefly to Bob about the changes for this year, especially the sound effects.  He said he was sceptical at first because he felt that too much intrusion might take away the simplicity of the storytelling, but in fact thinks they work well.

Here are the sound effects I have introduced, and the reasons for including them:

1:  The opening music has been a feature of the show for a few years now and creates a good mournful atmosphere leading to the sombre opening line: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’

2:  Sir Roger de Coverley at Fezziwig’s party:  I have wanted a greater sense of celebration and party in this scene and recently found a lovely recording of a single violin playing the old English country dance.  It is a jolly tune and just underscores the whole passage, without being intrusive.  It has also enabled me to dance a little on stage, and that is something I never thought I would write!

3: A church clock striking three-quarters:  After Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present have been on the worldwide adventures Ebenezer notices that the spirit is ageing. ‘My time on this globe is very brief, it ends tonight.  Tonight at midnight’  and then suddenly he says ‘My time draws near’ before revealing Ignorance and Want.  In the book itself the narrative says ‘The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.’, and it is for this purpose that I wanted the chimes to sound, so that the ghost has a reason to speak.

4: the clock striking twelve: Having had the three quarters just a few lines earlier, it would seem odd to have no chiming bells when the narrative talks about the clock striking twelve, and the slow ponderous tolling adds to the sense of impending doom that comes with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come

5: Christmas morning Church bells pealing:  In the book when Scrooge realises that he is in his own room and that he is as light as a feather, as merry as a schoolboy and as giddy as a drunken man, he is drawn to the windows by the Church bells ringing, and it is such a joyous bit of writing:

‘He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell! Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash. Oh, glorious, glorious.’

In my original thoughts I had asked Dave to keep the church bells ringing throughout the whole time that Scrooge is in the streets, right up to the moment he finally leaves Church, but that proved to be too much and too intrusive, so at today’s performance Dave faded them gently out quite soon which worked much better.

Aware of my low sugar levels during the show I make a raid on the refreshment counter at the back of the hall, which has been manned throughout by Joyce Byers who created this entire company.  There are cookies there.  Lots of cookies.  Cookies on plates, cookies in boxes, cookies on racks.

20181207_175114

I fill my hat with a goodly selection and return to the boardroom where I eat a salad and some fruit, and just generally relax.  Even now there is a little work to be done as two large bags filled with books and carollers have been left for me to sign, which I do between bites of apple and cookie.

Also on the desk is the perfect display of Dave’s professionalism and care, for my microphone is laid out with a reassuring little note telling me that new batteries were put in at 3.30 pm

20181208_163216

With a little time to go I sit in a chair and begin to play Angry Birds on my phone, I get to a particularly tricky level and cant get the three-star score that I want.  I know there is a way of doing it, I just have to work out the correct order and strategy.  Over and over I fire the little birds into the air, and over and over I come up short.  There MUST be another way, and so it goes on over and over, until at last the last little green pig explodes and three yellow stars appear on my screen.  Phew!  Oh, I suppose I should check the time – ONLY FIFTEEN MINUTES TO THE SHOW!

I pin my microphone into place, make sure that I have everything that I need and go to the hall where another huge audience is gathering.  The routine is well set now and at 5.30 Bob and I go back stage to thank the choir (a different one this evening), and start things rolling for the final time.

This is the best show of the three in my opinion, it is strong and dramatic and pacey and there is a superb connection with the audience.  I also make sure that I pause properly before snoring!

At the start of the performance I was slightly worried about my voice and throat (too many cookies no doubt), but I hold back a little and everything is fine.

Once again the ovation at the end is amazing, and I have tears in my eyes as I bow.

Big audience and good show equals a long signing session, and I am feeling very tired by the end, but I love this interaction with the audiences and it would be much more worrying if nobody stood in line afterwards.  Pam does her usual sterling job, and Bob offers cups of water to those waiting patiently.

And at around 8.15 my duties at Byers’ Choice end for another year.  Bob accompanies me back to board room, lest I should be accosted and waylaid by any other audience members and I start to change and pack.  I seemed to have accumulated a lot of stuff in the board room including various gifts to take home, not to mention the clean shirts that Pam has laundered for me and it takes quite a feat of balancing to carry everything back to the car.

The theatre is a theatre no more, for the stage has gone, the lights are down and all of the work stations are being wheeled back into place ready for production of the carollers to recommence tomorrow.  In A Christmas Carol we read about young Ebenezer and Dick Wilkins clearing Fezziwig’s warehouse ready for the ball, but we never hear about them putting it back together again.  Here in the 21st century version everyone is involved: Bob and Jeff Byers, the finance director Joe, all of the guys who have been ushering and manning the carparks, they are all rebuilding Byers’ Choice.

20181208_203445

I say my goodbyes, putting down my hat and scarf to do so, before letting myself out of the back door and going to the car.  Instantly I realise that I have left my hat inside, but I cant get back in without a key.  I have been very proud that I haven’t lost or left anything anywhere  throughout the whole trip, so this is rather annoying, but it is not an issue as I am meeting Bob for breakfast I the morning and I send him a message asking him to bring the two items with him then.

Back at the Ambler Inn hang up my damp shirt to dry.  I was wondering if there may have been a note under the door, or a message on my phone regarding the events of this morning, but there is nothing.  I am very hungry after an very active and intense day so I go to the bar and order a steak and brulee, which proves to be a perfect end to a very good day.

Tomorrow I have one more show to perform, before driving to the airport and getting in a plane to take me home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Work With the Fezziwigs

Today it is time to move on to my last hotel of the tour, but there is no great rush.  I go to the main house of the Fairville Inn for breakfast at 8am, and have one of Rick’s superb French Toast Soufflés which is absolutely delicious.

Back in my room I get the cases sorted out, thinking ahead as to how I am going to pack for the flight home in a couple of days time.  After finishing the packing I do a little work on the computer, finding another sound effect to complete the set for my theatre version of the show.

I download and save all of the effects onto a USB drive, as well as onto my computer, update the script and email the whole lot to Dave at Byers’ Choice who will be running my show later today, and who is always keen to try out new ideas.

Having completed the work I put the cases in the car, drop the key off to Laura in the office, say good bye and get on the road.  The day is bright and sunny and although there is plenty of traffic, the drive is very straightforward and doesn’t take much longer than an hour.

I am driving to Byers’ Choice in Chalfont PA and in a sense it is a homecoming as it is the Byers’ family who organise my entire tour, as well as being very good friends.  Bob and Pam actually us in Oxford earlier in the year and it will be great to meet up again today.

My route takes me across the Pearl Harbour Memorial Bridge and I realise that it is actually the anniversary of the attack today.  As I motor slowly across the bridge my thoughts are on all of those who were involved during those terrible hours.  In the peace and tranquillity of a sunny winter’s day in PA it is difficult to imagine the terror that rained from the skies in Hawaii.

I am due at Byers’ Choice at midday for an early soundcheck, but I have made such good time I am very early, so I pull into a Wawa petrol station and get a coffee and a delicious cinnamon roll, which I eat in the car park, before continuing my journey.

20181207_113023

I pull up in the car park and unload all of my things, leaving one complete costume in the car and go into the offices that I know so well (I have been performing here for about 15 years or so now.)  I am greeted by all of the staff as I go to the large boardroom which will be my dressing room for the next two days.

Having laid all of my costumes out I walk towards the theatre (actually the manufacturing warehouse that has been completely cleared for the event) and find Bob and his mother Joyce, who founded the company, putting the final touches to the merchandise table.  As we talk so Bob’s brother Jeff arrives and joins in the chat.  The auditorium looks spectacular with around 700 chairs laid out in front of the high stage.  This is the largest venue that I play on tour.

Bob delights in comparing himself to Mr Fezziwig as the warehouse is cleared away and turned into a place of joyousness and entertainment.

20181207_174724

Dave is already at the sound desk so I leave Bob and Joyce to continue their preparations whilst I get on with the soundcheck.  This year, as I mentioned earlier, I have sent Dave a whole collection of new sound effects, so as well as checking the microphone levels, we also run through all of the cues making sure he knows exactly when to bring the sound in and when to fade it again – I think it will all work very well and I know I have a safe pair of hands on the faders.

Having completed the sound check I need to get back in the car as I am due to meet Pam, Bob’s wife, for lunch prior to an appearance this afternoon.  We are meeting at Lilly’s Café and after a hug of greeting we order our lunch – huge filled wraps that are amazingly difficult to eat and amazingly tasty.

20181207_133641

After lunch we drive in my car back to Bob and Pam’s house where I change into my costume, and meet their latest addition, a Boston Terrier puppy called Calvin Timothy (the second name because he is so Tiny….).  Calvin is so energetic and excited, he licks, and he bites, and he chews, and he pants, and he runs.  Pam wants a picture of Calvin and I, so I pick him up and he develops a fascination for my head and gives it a good wash!

 

Soon it is time to leave this bundle of energy and drive back into town to the Doylestown Book Store where I am do a signing session.  Bob and Pam were not sure how successful the event would be, and if anyone would turn up, but thought it worth trying.  When we walk in all such fears are dispelled there are plenty of chairs laid out and a goodly crowd gathering.  It is apparent that I will be required to talk before any signing takes place, so I dive in with all of the good old anecdotes about my career, and then about A Christmas Caro.  When I have finished I ask if anyone has questions, and lots of hands go up.

We chat as a group for around 20 minutes and then the actual signing begins.  There is an English class from the Lenape School where I spoke last year, and they all have their copies of A Christmas Carol signed and pose for selfies.

Dt515dMWwAE_QL8

The event has been a great success but it is now time to wrap up and get ready for the evening’s performance.  I drive in costume to the Joseph Ambler Inn and am soon checking in.  The girl behind the desk tells me that my room is on the first floor of one of the cottages on site, and I roll my cases to it.  Now I fall foul of a UK/USA language confusion – in England the floor at ground level is known as the ground floor, and the next one up is the first floor, so I lug my heavy case up the narrow wooden staircase only to discover that my room is not on that floor, it is below: in America the first floor is the first floor of the house.  I lug my cases down again and eventually get into a beautiful room with a fireplace and a coffee maker!  I think this may be a first at the Ambler Inn, for in years past if I wanted an early coffee it meant a trip to the reception building and using the machine there.  I am a happy boy.

I have a little under an hour before I need to drive back to Byers’ Choice and I decide just to remain in my costume, my regular clothes are still hanging up in the car.  At 5.30 I leave the Inn and make the short journey into Chalfont and back to BC HQ.

I make sure that the stage is correctly set and then go back to the board room to relax while the huge audience is let in.  My cousin Rowland, who works in New York, is coming to see the show with his family, and I have reserved a few seats for them in the very middle of the auditorium.  Jeff’s wife Dawn, who is a Rottweiler when it comes to seating the audience (the most cheerful and likeable Rottweiler you could ever wish to meet) , promises to protect their seats for me.

With about 20 minutes to go I walk through the offices and into the theatre where I stand at the back and watch, which is always fun to do.  Various people come up and shake my hand and tell me how much they are looking forward to the show, and proudly announce how many times they have see the show!

Show time is approaching, and still no Rowland.  Unfortunately he and the family will not be able to get into the middle of the row whilst the performance is going on and they will have to find seats where they can.

Rowland, or more specifically his father Claud plays an important part in this story, as it was he who first read A Christmas Carol to me one Christmas eve.  The memory has never left me and I can still remember being astounded to discover that the spirits had done it all in one night.  At that moment, when I was 5 or so, the seeds of my career were sown.

Back in the present we cant wait any longer and Bob and I go back stage where we thank the brilliant High School choir who always entertain the audience prior to my shows here.

After the Professor Ort the choirmaster has taken the annual photo of us with his students Bob takes to the stage and greets the assemblage in his usual modest and generous manner.  Having warned them about cell phones, and alerted them about emergency exits, and told them that I will be available for signing and photographs after the show, he says ‘please welcome Gerald Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.  At the back of the hall Dave fades the lights to an eerie blue, and brings the first music cue up.

It is an interesting show in many ways, for the audience are quite restrained and quiet, although attentive.  The extra sound cues work extremely well and Dave’s timing is impeccable.  I am giving it everything, and I am extremely pleased with how it all goes.  Once again this is a large stage giving me lots of space to express myself and I thoroughly enjoy the whole 90 minutes on stage.

Although the show itself is exhausting, it is the few minutes immediately following it that really test my stamina, for I have to get from the stage to the very farthest corner of the building to change, before the audience start to pour out into the corridors thereby blocking my route.  Having taken the bows I exit into the shipping department, whilst Bob buys me a little time by addressing the audience once more, which ensures that they all resume their seats once more.  Behind the scenes I run flat out through the piles of  boxes waiting to be dispatched across America, then through the back of the production floor, past the headless torsos waiting to be turned into the beautiful carollers, and the clay heads waiting to be fixed atop them,  I just make it into the staff canteen before the flow of humanity begins.

I take a while to calm down and change, before making my way to the room in the visitor centre where my signing table is.  The line of people circles the room and back out of the door, and I receive a round of applause as I enter.  For the next hour, or so, I work my way through the line, taking care to give everyone as much attention and time as they need.

At the very end of the line is Rowly, his wife Andi and their three sons Sam, Toby and Rafe.  We pose for pictures and have a brief chat, and Rowly and I arrange to meet up later for a drink back at the Ambler Inn.

It is 9.30 when the last signature is signed and I change back into my normal clothes for the first time since lunchtime.  Bob is trying to secure dinner for me back at the Inn but apparently the kitchen has already closed for the night, which is a shame.

Inspector Morse keeps me company on the short drive back and when I reach the Inn I go straight to the bar – there is no hot food available, although they are still serving desert and I order a delicious spiced pear bread pudding which fills a hole perfectly.

Rowly duly arrives and we sit at the bar reminiscing and catching up – he explains that the reason they were late for the show, apart from heavy traffic on the road from New Jersey, was that they had thought that it began at 7.30, so as I was beginning my stuff on stage they were munching sandwiches at a nearby restaurant!

Time passes and we chat until the bar tender suggests to all present that it is time to leave – the good ol’ Dickens boys close another bar!

I go back to my room and consider watching TV, but decide against it.  I consider reading, but decide against it.

I consider sleeping.  I do it.

 

 

Too Funny

When I wake I know it is cold.  It is very nice to be in a building old enough to allow a connection with the world outside, rather than a hermetically sealed modern concrete hotel, and Spring House at the Fairville Inn is shivering with the rest of the world this morning.  I turn the little heater on, snuggle back under the blankets and start to recall the events of yesterday.  One little quibble about staying in an historic B&B is that there is no coffee machine, so at 7am (when I think the main house will be stirring) I go over to the kitchen where I find both Rick and Laura starting the preparations for breakfast

We chat for a while and then I return to my room with a large cup of steaming coffee and resume my morning’s work. Liz is having a difficult day at home, as one of our cars has to be taken to a garage for its annual MOT safety test, whereas the other is currently off the road due to a manufacturer’s recall.  We have been warned by Mazda that there could be a fault in the front seat catch which may lead to the seat becoming unattached during driving.  DONT DRIVE! they say.  IT IS DANGEROUS! they say.  IT IS ILLEGAL! They say.  Oh, and we cant actually look at it for another three weeks, they say.  Not good enough Mazda, and then to add to the fun a second recall notice has arrived regarding the passenger airbag but the service centre wont do the work on both fixes at the same time, rendering the car hors de combat for a further week.  We are not impressed.

The upshot to all of this is that Liz doesn’t have a car today and has two boisterous girls in the house, one of whom has just been told that she can’t go to her trampoline class – it is not a good day back in Oxfordshire.

As I carry on working at the computer I discover that my new website is up at last.  It needs a little tweaking over the coming weeks, but there it is at http://www.geralddickens.com.

David, Teresa and I have all booked our breakfast at 9am and at that hour we emerge onto the little landing that separates our rooms.  I have a scarf to protect my throat whereas the others have gone one step further and are wrapped up in overcoats and hats for the short walk to the main house.  Teresa has brought a folder of notes from a conference of theatre producers that she recently attended and thought I may be interested in, and also a little video camera so that she can show me some footage of David performing at Winterthur.  I take the black folder and we walk across the car park, which has been dusted with snow in the night.  Most of the cars are frozen but one is clear and has its engine running, as we walk past the driver lowers the window and calls to us ‘are you folks here to make the inspection?’  ‘No, we are going to breakfast’.  ‘Oh, you kinda looked official, what with your folder, camera and coats I assumed you were here for the inspection, but have a nice breakfast!’  He has a point.

The breakfast room is busy but Laura has saved a nice table for us, and soon we are drinking orange juice and coffee (Teresa had also made a raid on the kitchen for early morning coffee), I order pancakes and scrambled egg, whilst David and Teresa both tuck into one of Rick’s famous frittatas.

When we have finished eating we repair to the lounge by the fire and I watch some footage of David doing his thing, which is fantastic to see.  I don’t have time to watch the whole show, but they say that they will save the file in an MP4 format and send it to me.  Teresa then runs through the folder of papers for me, suggesting that some of the producers that she met may be perfect people to talk to regarding a run of my show in a single theatre some day.  Much as I adore touring, it is a lovely thought.

20181206_095221

The party is broken up as the morning moves on, for I have to be at Winterthur by 11 and the Keltz’s need to be on the road home to Baltimore.  I get a few things sorted out in my room and then get into the car and when the ice has cleared start to drive back into Delaware once more.  Half way to Winterthur I realise that I don’t have any shirts for my costume and have to turn around and return to the Inn, before starting the journey anew.

As I drive I notice that the legend on Delaware licence plates is ‘Delaware The First State’  and I realise how unintentionally clever yesterday’s blog post title was.

Crowds are already milling at the visitor centre when I arrive and I recognise a few faces from years past.  I recover my costumes from the auditorium, where they have been hanging on the coat check rack, and get changed.  Winterthur offer a special brunch and show package for the Thursday morning show and part of the deal is that I will meander and chat to the guests so I need to be ready and on show good and early.

I spend 30 minutes or so chatting and signing things, as well as posing for photographs and it is a very nice way of becoming more involved with my audience which is a privilege that not many performers get to enjoy.  When I have finished I return to the store where Ellen is waiting with Lois, a colleague of hers, who is going through the adoption process and is soon to welcome two boys into her house.  She is keen to chat to me about our experiences and I am very happy to do that.

We sit in the auditorium and we talk about everything, about the process, about our frustrations with the system, about fears and insecurities, about the joys and rewards.  I am astounded by how similar her experiences have been to ours and I hope that I am able to reassure her.  We could have talked for hours, but Ellen gently reminds us that we need to do a show and that the audience are starting to gather.

Liz and I know how important it has been to have people who understand the raw emotions that we can talk to and I hope that Lois will stay in touch and use us as buddies.

But now to the show, it is another good audience and there is a great buzz of anticipation in the room.  Back in the store Ellen tells me that Carol is once again in a meeting and wont be here in time to do the intro, and that Jeff is officially on duty.  I ask if he can mention my website and blog, and a few notes are scribbled on the script to that effect.

Not only can’t Carol make it, but Dennis, who operates the sound, is also busy so I may not have a music cue to open the show today.  Dennis is a volunteer fire fighter and the designated first aider, there has been a medical emergency on one of the shuttle busses that take people to the main house, and he is dealing with that, which is rather more important than pressing the PLAY button on his sound equipment.

As 1 pm approaches Jeff is ready for his big moment, and Ellen brings me the glad tidings that Dennis is back and has the resuscitation kit with him, so that if I was thinking of collapsing during any show, this would be a good one to choose.  With that happy thought in my head I get ready to perform.

Jeff makes a nice introduction and says wonderful things about my blog, although he directs people to charlesdickens.com, rather than geralddickens.com, but that’s fine.  The audience clap, the music starts and I slowly walk to the stage to begin.

The matinee crowd are a lively bunch and love the show, they laugh and clap and participate as required and of course I respond to that.  However the highlight of the show comes when Scrooge gets dressed all in his best and flips the hat into the air, it turns over and over and over, reaches its apogee, continues turning over and over during its descent and lands squarely on top of my head! YAY!  The cheer from the crowd is amazing, and I am momentarily stunned as this is only the third time it has ever worked.

With the show finished and bows taken I go through the process of changing into a fresh shirt and costume before sitting and signing as usual.  my signing table is to one side in the cafeteria and I am aware that it is soon to close, so as soon as the last book has been signed I grab a salad to take back to the Inn for my lunch.

I have about two hours to relax and soon I am sat in my room, with the fire blazing and my salad on a table in front of me.  Liz calls and we spend a long time going through the rigours of her day, which has not got any better for her.

All too soon it is time for us to part again and I get ready to return to Winterthur for my evening show,  my last here this year which is always sad.

I get into costume, make some tea and honey (my throat is fine, but its a rather nice way to relax and prepare) and stand with Ellen in the shop as the audience continues to build.  She tells me that is a strange thing but a lady who came to yesterday’s show had told her that she was disappointed in it and on being asked why had replied ‘It was too funny, it was not serious enough’.  Ellen tells me this with a ‘why would anyone think that the show was too funny?’ tone, but to me I only hear the word ‘disappointed’  I hate it when anyone doesn’t like what I do (and of course I know that you cant please all of the people all of the time, and the audiences here this year have particularly responded to the humour in the show).  As the start time comes closer I reflect on my performances, and wonder if I have unintentionally slipped away from the drama of the piece.  I have been trying to keep the pace up this year and have cut out a lot of the ponderous pauses, but maybe this has lost some of the gravitas of years past.

Carol is here this evening and apologises for her absence this afternoon, before sweeping onto the stage and making another eloquent introduction.

With negative thoughts in my head the show is a little bit caught in the middle tonight, as I am trying to reintroduce some of the darkness to the tale, even though the audience once again are a lively humorous bunch who want to laugh: eventually I give them what they want and it becomes a very successful evening.  The lady in the front row who is the object of Topper’s affections gets particularly giggly and blushes superbly on cue.

What are the chances of me pulling off the hat trick twice in one day?  Nil, and it bounces off my shining pate and onto the ground – everything is back to usual.

The signing line tonight is very long, and it is so nice that a lot of people who wait patiently don’t have a book to be signed and don’t have a camera to take pictures with,  they just want to shake my hand and say thank you, which is so generous and thoughtful.

In time the people all leave and it is just Ellen, Barbara and me left in the visitor centre.  I change and make sure that I have all of my belongings, especially the two little toys who have watched my shows from the mantelpiece, pack it all into the roller case and leave Barbara’s office to her once more

We chat for a while and Ellen reassures me that she thinks that this has been one of the best shows during my time at Winterthur which is kind of her, although she then adds ‘I’ve never seen it so funny!’, which slightly sets my insecurities aflame again: bloody sensitive actors!

We say our goodbyes and I walk through the darkness back to the car.  Dinner is at Buckley’s tavern again where I have a plate of lasagne and garlic bread, before returning to the Inn where I am delighted to find ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ playing for the first time this season.

It has been a long day and soon I am in bed and dozing.