Dr who?

After yesterday’s hectic day of travelling it is very nice to know that I will be based in the same hotel for the next three nights.  Even if the schedule is busy, there is a sense or relaxation in having a firm base.

I write the blog in bed, with a coffee before getting up and doing a few ‘chores’.  Firstly I empty a bag of laundered white shirts, and notice to my dismay that the tomato stains from my Norfolk ravioli disaster have not come out.  Following on from the shirt that shrunk in the wash, I am rapidly running out of casual shirts to wear.  Maybe a trip to the shops is called for soon.

I have also promised myself to start a small exercise regime of sit-ups each morning, so I lay a towel on the floor and set myself a target of fifty, managing to reach thirty before subsiding into a crumpled heap on the floor.  Plenty of work to be done there, then.

I shower and dress before having breakfast.  I am still trying to be very careful with my diet, so I painfully forego the waffle maker this morning.  I may not remain so disciplined for the remainder of my stay, however.

Although my first show isn’t until 1.15, I do have an early start as Kimberly and the team at Mid Continent have set up two live TV interviews, which means being in costume and ready at 8pm.  Kimberly is waiting in the lobby and we head for downtown Kansas City on yet another bright, blue morning.

We are busy talking about life at the Mid Continent Public Library Service and life on the road, when I notice the offices for Fox4 TV, which is our first destination, on the right.  I tell Kimberly but it is too late to make the turn.  It is fine, as we have plenty of time, so we will just make a left turn further up the road and double back.

At the next street there is a no left turn arrow; and at the next, and the next, and at the next; and again.  It seems that the people in power in Kansas City do not want us to enter the area behind the modest condominium frontages.  What could they be hiding?  is it a Missouri area 51?

We are driving further away from the TV studio, so Kimberly decides to make a right turn instead.  The traffic is heavy this morning and very fast.  As we approach a junction she manages to ease the car over to the right, only to be greeted by a ‘No Entry’ sign.  To add insult to injury the fact that this street is one way, means that we could have turned left anyway.

On we go, now stuck in the right lane, until we reach the suburb of Westport where finally we can double back on ourselves and head towards the television station once more.  We are now travelling back down the road with the TV station to our left.  We reach the relevant intersection: ‘No Left Turn’ and we sail on past once more.

Eventually we find a road that winds its way through a park and brings us back to Fox 4.  What an adventure, and it isn’t even 8.45 yet!

We meet Mary who is in the marketing department at the Library service, and who is waiting patiently in the car park.  Obviously her journey hasn’t been quite as hectic as ours.

I am here to appear on the Fox4 morning show, and we are shown into a tiny green room to await our slot.  Of course the programme is being broadcast into the green room and at one point a list of stores who will be opening on Thanksgiving Day is shown.  Presumably the managers of the stores in question are delighted at the publicity, whereas others will see this as a blacklist of corporations sullying a special holiday with greed.

We watch the various news items being played out, until we are ushered into a studio that is stifling in its heat.  The air conditioning has broken and the studio lights are creating sauna-like conditions.

My first job is to wave cheerily at the camera for a ‘coming up after the break’ tease.  That done, we all relax in the studio and get chatting.  One of the floor managers says that he has a second edition of A Christmas Carol, inherited from his mother, who inherited it from her mother.  I casually ask, where he lives, and if his house is easy to break into?

‘Don’t worry; it is locked in a vault!’  That is a wise precaution, but I hope he takes it out to read sometimes, for it deserves to be read.

Nick, the presenter who is to interview me, comes in from the adjoining news studio, and immediately complains about the heat.  We stand together in front of the camera, and soon the autocue rolls and Nick introduces me to the coffee-drinking, school-run-preparing citizens of the Kansas City Metro area.


As is the way in morning TV, the interview is short and I finish by performing a few lines from the show which take the station to a commercial break.

Nick and the crew all say thank you and good bye; but time and tide wait for no man and the studio is being prepared for the next segment.

We make our way back to the front door, get into our cars and head for the next studio: KSHB and an appearance on the popular morning magazine show: KC Live.

The green room here is very busy:  we meet Scrooge and Tiny Tim, from the KC Rep’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, an archery champion and a young man organising a charity pub crawl.

We are all ushered into the studio which is large and comfy, with a sofa, bookcases and the obligatory kitchen.

The presenters are Michelle Davidson, who is the stereotypical perky, bright morning tv personality, and Joel Nichols a distinguished gent of more mature years.

The hour show is packed with features, and is carefully co-ordinated.  As each new feature approaches, the floor manager gives warnings at two minutes, ninety seconds, one minute, thirty seconds and then the final five, four, three, two and one.  Michelle perkily talks until the final second, before turning her face to the camera. She is exhausting in her positivity, and the bright smile never leaves her carefully made-up face.  Joel by contrast is more morose and quiet; he reminds me of the Harrison Ford character in Morning Glory:  the film about daytime TV magazine programmes.

I am called to the set, where Noel will conduct the interview.  As we wait for our cue, he asks if a relative of mine came through Kansas City doing much the same thing over twenty years ago.  Dad!

My father came to the city in 1993 and 1994 to help create the spectacular, but short-lived, Dickens Holiday Fair and Joel had interviewed him way back then.  What a lovely connection.

Despite a malfunctioning microphone (what do I DO to them?), the interview goes well and the events of the next three days are promoted successfully.  Joel shakes me warmly by the hand and suggests that perhaps he will interview my son in another 20 years:  Cameron, it is over to you!

The interviews have run for much longer than any of us had expected, and the day is pushing on.  I need to pick up a few things from the hotel before we drive to the Smithville High School, where I am performing A Christmas Carol to students.

The journey takes about half an hour, and shortly before we arrive at the huge educational complex we pass an old wooden house, with a sign proclaiming it to be ‘The American Angus Hall of Fame.  The largest and most complete compilation of Angus Bulls, Cows and History Ever!’

At the school Kimberly and I sign in at the main office, where we are joined by library employees Robert and Rebecca.  We are shown to the truly impressive theatre and are greeted by grey-bearded Davd in his Kansas City Chiefs cap.  David is helping us with technical issues, and we carefully check the microphone and the lights, until everyone is satisfied with the results.


The tech box, with a ghostly David


L-R: Rebecca, Robert and Kimberly


Being arty: the shadows of the stool on stage


We are joined by the splendidly named Taylor St John, the head of theatre, and then by Dr Mike Bartig who is the school’s principal.

Mr St John and Dr Bartig and very welcoming and we play the usual game of polite host/guest conversation, until Dr Bartig drops into the conversation that he drives in the NASCAR series!  Wait! Scroll back? NASCAR?  Wow! How cool is that!  Dr Bartig is no longer Dr Bartig, he is now Mike Bartig, pilot of car #27.

Theatre is forgotten as I chat to a real livin’ breathin’ stock car racer.

At 1 o’clcok the students file in to the theatre and I go to my dressing room.  Shortly before the show Mike comes by and gives me a signed picture of one of his major shunts: ‘folk only notice you when you hit things!’


The time to perform is approaching and, being a school, I have to be careful to run to time.  In fact I have to make sure that the show lasts for an hour, rather than its usual eighty minutes.  I spend time pacing backstage not trying to remember the lines I have to say, but the lines I have to forget.

The hour passes quickly and the show seems so empty in its pared back state.  There is no charity collector and there is no carol singer at Scrooge’s door.  Passages of lovely narration remain unsaid, and swathes of dialogue unspoken.  Despite that the students seem to enjoy it and give me an incredibly generous standing ovation at the end.

When the bulk of the audience have left, Dr Bartig (Principal, once more) asks me if I wouldn’t mind speaking to the acting class.  I am greeted by another round of applause from these young actors, and we spend fifteen minutes chatting, as I answer their questions.  It is like my time with the students in Norfolk: there is so much ambition within this group and they live in an amazing world of idealistic dreams.  Some will make it, some will fall by the wayside and some will find other outlets for their artistry, but here and now they are a positive, exciting and generous group of people.

smithville school


We all pose for photographs, before it is time to leave.  Kimberly drives me back to the hotel, and we talk about the show and how sparse it felt.  It is strange to think that the hour long version was what I first performed on tour and this afternoon is vivid proof of how far it has come in the last twenty years.

We stop to buy a salad which I can take back to my hotel room, and I lie on my bed watching television and resting for two hours.

My evening performance is at the Woodneath Library Center, which is only five minutes away.  I have performed at Woodneath on many occasions, and know the staff and space very well.  Kimberly picks me up at 6.15 and tells me that the audience have been gathering since about 4.30.  I have quite a following at Woodneath!

The chief Librarian Melissa greets me and we go into the room where I will be performing.  She has decorated it beautifully, with amazing flowers crafted from the pages of books.


We do a sound-check, and then the doors are opened to let the crowds flood in.

My dressing space is in a small store room at the back of the hall and I stay inside it, wanting to preserve my energy and voice for as long as possible.  With five minutes to go I emerge and find Kimberly standing guard, making sure that I am not disturbed.  The room is packed.

Melissa, a trained opera singer, makes the introductions and I make my entrance from the back of the room.  The music and the bells see me to the stage and the audience is silent as I begin.

The crowd here are committed supporters, and many have been coming to see me for many years.  Every development in the script, every new nuance will be noticed and most likely commented on later.  It is nice to have the full cast of characters back with me this evening.

All goes without a hitch and I have great fun on stage.

As the applause and cheers die down I return to my store room, where I change costume and then go to the library’s coffee shop to sign some autographs.  There are many old friends in line, and one lady presents me with a beautiful Christmas Carol tray, whilst another gives me a print of her own artwork.  I shake the hand of Doug, (who is an avid follower of the blog) and his son Collin.  Another lady always has a sketchbook with her and shows me the pencil drawings of me in performance – this has become a tradition and it is fascinating to see how I appear to her.

And lastly, there is Don.  Dear Don, who always comes to my shows in Kansas City, and who has a signature from every one, and who always politely waits until everyone else has gone, before stepping forward to ask his questions.  A KC show wouldn’t be complete without Don.

It has been a long but exciting day and I change wearily into my normal clothes.  I say goodbye to Melissa and then Kimberly drives me back to the hotel, stopping on the way for dinner at Longhorn, where I have a burger and fries.

Back in my room I hang my costume and then go to bed.

What a lot has happened sine I last lay here: TV personalities, a NASCAR driver, ambitious students, artists and my good friends at the Mid Continent Public Library Service.  It has definitely been a good day!


Mid Continent Public Library Service:  http://www.mymcpl.org/

Smithville High School: http://smithvilleschooldistrict.net/site/default.aspx?PageID=1












Beginning to Feel the Strain

Sunday, November 22

I am awake and up much earlier than I need to be this morning and there is hardly any repacking to be done, so I decide to have a coffee in bed before get going.  But where is the coffee machine?  Those cheeky folk at the airport Marriott have hidden it:  It’s not in the bathroom and it’s not in the armoire.  It’s not by the bed and it it’s not on the desk.  Oh, of course, silly me, it is on the top shelf of the wardrobe.

I finish the packing, and have a shower before leaving the room at around 6.15.  It is still too early for breakfast and I am just thinking about waiting until 6.30 when the girl behind the front desk asks if I’m taking the shuttle  bus to the airport, as it is about to leave.  I may as well, so join an American Airlines flight crew for the short ride.

Check-in, bag-drop and security are all very quiet, so I am at the gate early.  Today has the potential to be very awkward:  I am flying from Greensboro to Atlanta and then from Atlanta to Kansas City, but the layover is very tight.  According to my ticket I am due to arrive in at Atlanta at 9.46 and boarding for the next flight commences at 9.48.

As I sit at the gate I become aware that an earlier flight to Atlanta is boarding, which may have been a safer bet.

I use the hour I have to write the blog post and eat a breakfast sandwich from Dunkin’ Donuts.  I finish writing just as the boarding is announced, so the corrections and photographs will have to wait until I have time later in the day.

We take off on time, which bodes well for the connection, and rise into the bright blue sky.  This tour resolutely refuses to become Christmassy!

The flight is smooth, unlike the landing which is one of the roughest I’ve had for a long time.  The plane hits the runway hard before bouncing back into the air, at the same time lurching over to one side, which makes the second impact uneven which in turn slews the plane sideways.  It is all finished in a moment, but it is a scary moment.

The good news (apart from surviving) is that we have arrived thirty minutes early, so the pressure is off.  The news gets even better when I discover that Kansas City flight is departing from the same terminal (a rare event: perhaps I should buy a state lottery ticket today).

Thanks to all of the good fortune I have plenty of time to finish the blog, before the flight is called.

Another two hours pass and we begin to make our slow descent into the Kansas City airport.  The sun is glinting off streams and rivers, making them look like a giant snail trails across the landscape.  The flight path takes us over the Kansas City Speedway, before we fly parallel to the airport and the clover leaf arrangement of its three terminals.

The second landing is a vast improvement on the first and in no time I am waiting for my bags to be delivered.

Time is still tight, as I have to drive straight to the venue for my show today, it is a distance of over seventy miles, and I will only get there about an hour before the performance is due to start.  I don’t like days like this: there is too much stress involved, and I have very little opportunity to relax properly before the show.

I get on the road and head towards Chillicothe, Missouri.  At first the route takes me along some rural roads and the terrain is not unlike Pennsylvania, with gentle rolling hills dotted with barns, silos and farmhouses.  Soon, however I am on I36, heading north east and the road stretches way out in front of me, a lesson in perfect perspective.  The horizon is low and the sky dominates the scene, a brush of cirrus cloud breaking the blue.



There seems to be an inordinate amount of road kill, with the mutilated bodies of deer littering the highway.

The journey seems never ending, although there is some relief near Carrollton, when the road bends gently to the right and then to the left again.  It is the first time that I have used the steering wheel in over an hour!

At last the sat nav tells me to leave the highway and I am soon in the wide, quiet streets of Chillicothe.  It looks like an old frontier town, and it is easy to picture the saloons and livery stables, where diners and real estate offices are now.

The Livingston County Library is in a truly magnificent Victorian building, five or six stories high.  The car park is at the rear and is dominated by a huge mural depicting a bookcase stocked with classic novels.  I pull in, and study the art work, and see works by many authors, but where is Dickens? He must be represented somewhere: And then I see that I have pulled into park immediately beneath Oliver Twist.  It seems to be a good omen.



I get my suitcases out of the car (of course I haven’t been able to gather my costume together as I normally would), and haul them into the building where I am greeted by Robin, the director of the library and Jean, who first saw me perform and has put today’s show together.

We get into a lift and ride to the third floor, where I will be performing.  The room is huge, and was originally built as a courtroom, complete with a public gallery above. As befits its original status it is an impressive space with lots of polished woodwork. Robin and her team have dressed the stage with entirely appropriate period furniture, including one of the most remarkable iron hat stands that I have ever seen.


A microphone system has been set up, but even as we chat I can tell that the acoustics in the room are superb.  Considering that most of the troubles that I run into on tour stem from microphone systems, I ask if we can do a sound check without it.  It sounds wonderful, and I do not need to strain, so we decide to do the show without artificial enhancement.

There is now forty five minutes to go, and the audience are already gathering downstairs, so I go to my dressing room, where my cases are spread out on a table.  I get changed and then try to sit for a moment and gather my thoughts. There is a little plate of crackers in the room and I nibble on some of those, in lieu of the lunch that I haven’t had time to have today.  The effects of my Dunkin Donuts breakfast sandwich wore off a long time ago.


Spreading Out

Soon the courtroom is full and there is an expectant buzz of conversation.  The tolling of a church bell somewhere nearby heralds 3 o’clock and Robin gets onto the stage to welcome the guests.

With a round of applause I take to the stage and begin (there is no musical effect here, so I start with the ‘I have endeavoured in this ghostly little book to raise the ghost of an idea….’ preface from the first edition.)

The audience are great and vocal, and so attentive.  Everything works well today, and I even discover that I am not getting nearly as hot and damp as during previous shows, which is a bonus.

When I finish and the ovation has died down, Robin invites me back to the stage to take some questions, and there follows a very jolly thirty minutes or so banter with the audience, before I sign a few programmes and pose for a few photographs.

I am tired now and ready to get to my hotel.  The truth is that I could do with a day off, but I don’t get one of those (by which I mean a completely free day, with no travel or other commitments) until December 8, so for now I must just relax as and when I can.

I get everything back into my cases and say goodbye and thank you to Robin and Jean, before loading up the car and setting the sat nav for the hotel.  It is a journey of eighty minutes, back towards Kansas City.

The instructions tell me to take the I36 west, and I know I am heading in the right direction, because in front of me the sky is bathed in a beautiful sunset.

The drive is difficult, as I am struggling to stay awake.  I open the car windows and listen to the radio, all the time scanning the dark edges of the road for stray deer.

Eventually I reach the city limits of Liberty, and I pull into the car park of the Hampton Inn, Church Road, where I will be staying until Thursday.  It is a familiar hotel to me, and I was last here as recently as October.  I check in and go to my room.

It is 7.30 now and I could really do with something to eat.  In one of Liz’s emails from home she mentioned that she had a thick juicy steak on Saturday night, and that sounds like a great idea, so I go to the nearby Longhorn steak house nearby.  I just wish she was with me right now, although she will be flying out to join me for the final week of the trip, which will be amazing.

I have a delicious tender ribeye, with baked potato, but no dessert.  I am back in my room by 9, and feel completely drained as I lay on the bed.  I have quite an early start in the morning, with two TV interviews, before I even get to the performances, so I hope that I sleep well tonight.


Livingston County Library: http://livingstoncountylibrary.org/



A Polite Way of Storytelling

Saturday November 21

My alarm goes off and I wake feeling ever so slightly jaded.  Maybe my evening of great conviviality with Stephen and Sarah Jane was a little too convivial.

The lobby of the hotel is very quiet, populated only by a desk clerk and the parking valet attendant, who disappears to fetch my Ford Focus.  I settle my bill, making sure that Nauticus do not end up paying for my dry cleaning, and drive into the night.

The journey is quick, and I am soon at Norfolk airport, returning the car with a full tank of fuel (not because I’ve filled it, just because I haven’t used it).  There is a short walk to the terminal building, which is surprisingly busy for this hour.  I buy a bagel for breakfast and go to my gate, awaiting the flight.

Today is one of those silly ‘fly-over-your-destination-to-a-hub-then-back-again’ days.  I am flying from Norfolk, Virginia to Charlotte, North Carolina and then to Greensboro.  For my first flight I am seated in an exit row, and take a great deal of time to study the card, which instructs me how to open the door.  In my mind I run through the emergency scenario and try to imagine how I will address my fellow passengers, as I guide them to safety. I will be controlled and ordered and command respect, and will inevitably be honoured for my bravery.  I am sure that the reality would be somewhat different, and I’d be elbowed out of the way in the initial surge.

Another episode of House of Cards passes the time nicely, and soon we are making our final approaches over the beautiful woods, rivers and lakes of Charlotte.  I used to perform here many years ago, and it is a friendly, modern, thriving city.

Charlotte also boasts one of the nicest major airports in the USA.  It has a large central atrium, with trees growing, and white rockers:  It’s similar to a grown-up Knoxville airport, actually.

My second flight departs from E concourse, and as I walk towards my gate I notice that the planes are getting smaller.  The Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s giving way to regional jets and propellered puddle-hoppers.  As the planes get smaller so the destinations get more charming, for these little craft are taking passengers around the southern states: Mobile, Augusta, Savannah, Hilton Head, Charleston, Fayetteville, Birmingham (with the emphasis placed firmly on the HAM) and Pensicola.  The last named Floridian city reminds me of a conversation many years ago, when I was told that ‘Florida is not in the south.  The south is further north!’

As the boarding time for my flight  to Greensboro approaches an announcement is made to say that there is a mechanical issue with the plane, and boarding will be delayed.   I have a horrible sense of déjà  vu of the day in October when my flight from Philadelphia was cancelled, and I missed a show.

Fortunately the trouble is soon remedied (Control-Alt-Delete and switch it off and on again) and we are allowed to board for a 20 minute flight at an altitude of only 9,000 ft.).

For once I am not renting a car, but staying in a hotel within the perimeter of the airport.  I am only here for one night, and am performing this evening in a private club in the city of High Point.

It is only 10.30 when I check in and I am able to have a bit of rest and a bite of lunch until I get ready for the show.  The order of events today is all a bit skew-whiff.  Originally the plan was to perform in the club to a public audience at 4pm, then do a signing session, which would include the arrival of the second audience made up of the club’s members who were to have an exclusive evening show.

In this way, all of the signing and posing for photographs would be done in one fell swoop, thereby meaning that I could leave as soon as the late show was finished.

A few days ago, however, the club cancelled the first show, but left the arrangements much the same, meaning that I need to be on site at 4pm, for a sound check; ready to sign at 5.30, before the guests have dinner prior to the show at 8.  The result of all this is that I am being picked up at 3.30 for an 8 o’clock show.

My chauffer is Michael, the husband of Nicky McLaughlin who is the general manager at the String and Splinter Club, and who has arranged the booking.

Michael turns out to be excellent company: he is a blues guitarist and spent years on the road, most particularly in Shanghai, so understands the routine of flights and hotels.  His 7 year old son Joe is in the back, intently studying a book on the Minecraft online game.  Every now and then our conversation is interrupted by completely surreal interjections: ‘Daddy, if I call my sheep Jeb it will have rainbow wool’; and ‘If I collect skeletons I can grow mushrooms!’  A different world, which I suppose is the whole point.  It is far removed from the flickering black and white tennis game that astounded us so much in the 1970s.

As we reach the city limits of High Point Michael explains that the community exists purely for the furniture manufacturing business.  There are massive warehouses everywhere, and for a week in the spring, and another in the autumn, the whole town is packed for the furniture shows.  Outside those weeks it is almost a ghost town.

We arrive at the String and Splinter Club (named after the city’s historic industries of fabric and woodwork) and Nicky is there to greet us.



I have worked with Nicky in different venues in the past – indeed last year she was the manager at a country club in Wilmington NC, and looked after me then.  She took the job at the String and Splinter in April and is trying to encourage the members to have more events.  The String and Splinter is a typical city club and is mainly used for business lunch meetings.  Only comparatively recently did it open its doors to female members

As soon as I walk in I can feel the history, and tradition oozing out of the walls.  It is very Dickensian and the Pickwick Club would feel quite at home here.

The staff is professional and attentive and the dining room, where a stage has been erected is elegant.  I ask if all of the furniture is locally made: ‘Oh, yes.  If it is local and very expensive, they buy it’

I am shown to an upstairs room to change in.  It is, in fact a restroom, but is furnished with tables and a sofa, and the decor is relaxing.  It makes me think of one of my very first tours, in 1995, when I came to do a book signing in a store near here, and had to change in a McDonald’s rest room: my, I have come a long way since then and how my restrooms have improved!


Not McDonalds

I change and return to the ground floor for the signing session.  The guests arrive gradually and as I sign their programmes they tell me how excited they are to see me.  They are the senior elite of High Point society and remind me how genteel the southern aristocracy are.  They are all immaculately dressed, with impeccable manners, and beautiful (oh, so beautiful) accents.

At 7 o’clock I return upstairs and leave the guests to their dinner, before returning ready to begin performing at 8.  The last of the plates are cleared, coffee is served, wine glasses are re-filled and everybody sits back to watch the show.

The audience in the String and Splinter Club have to be the quietest audience I have ever performed to!  There is no reaction to anything.  No titters, no laughter: nothing. Actually that is not quite true, and one table in particular are laughing in a very polite, genteel way, but as a group they are so quiet.

I abandon any form of audience participation (ie the gasp at Mrs Cratchit’s goose, or Topper flirting with a demure young girl.)  Rather than panicking I take comfort from the remarks of one of the students at yesterday’s event in Norfolk, who had gushed ‘you are great at telling a story!’  I heed his words, and concentrate on telling these good folk a story, nothing more.

For that reason it is a rather nice show, and at the end there is generous and polite applause.  The guests shake me politely by the hand and purr their appreciation.

It is a good reminder that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and A Christmas Carol does not necessarily have to be the big theatrical show that it usually is.

I say my goodbyes, and shake firm hands, before Michael brings his car round and we drive back to the hotel, where I have a late supper and get to bed.

Tomorrow will be back to normal but for today I have dropped into the south, not only geographically but socially too.  It, like Minecraft, is a different world.



String and Splinter Club:  http://www.stringandsplinter.com/





Let Me Take You By The Hand and Lead You Through The Streets of London

Friday November 20


As my only commitment today is a meet and greet session with students in the afternoon, I can take the opportunity of having one of my costumes dry cleaned.

It is with a sense of trepidation that I hand it over, for if by any chance it is not returned today, I am in trouble. I am sure that it is good hands, but as the green frock coat, along with trousers and waistcoat, disappear from my sight I send vibes of good fortune with them.

The breakfast room is actually very quiet, as the orchestra members, dressed in ill-fitting tuxedos, and long black dresses are obviously ready for an early performance. The noise level in the lobby rises as more musicians arrive, and it is as if they are tuning up before the conductor raises his baton to bring silence.

Good luck folks, have a great performance

I return to my room and write the blog, before spending time doing some research on a small legal matter that has arisen (no, it has nothing to do with running the red light in LA, or even for driving through the PA Turnpike toll booth without an EZ-Pass).

My administrative efforts are interrupted by taking the elevator to the 5th floor to do the mundane laundry that is necessary for the next few days.

When I have all of the information that I need, and have sent the relevant emails; as well as retrieving my socks and shirts, I put my remaining costume onto a hanger ready to walk to Nauticus.

I have a little time before the meet and greet starts, so I am going to spend an hour or so in the museum itself. The walk is only ten minutes, and before entering the building I pause and look up at the huge prow of The Wisconsin.

Angela is waiting to greet me, and makes sure I have the correct sticker before letting me loose within Nauticus. The museum is superb and naturally focuses on the Naval History of the area (The Chesapeake Bay being a strategically important delta). I learn how the US Navy was in disarray until Theodore Roosevelt commissioned the Great White Fleet and sent the ships on a circumnavigation of the globe, to spread goodwill, friendship – as well as proof that the USA should now be counted on as a naval powerhouse.

I am particularly amazed at the stories of the Confederate ironclad ships used in the American Civil War. Ships such as the CSS Virginia were used to ram the opposition, and what is extraordinary to me is how modern they looked – almost like the stealth craft of today’s navy. I can’t say that for sure, because I have never seen a stealth craft, which obviously proves how effective they are.

CSS Virginia

CSS Virginia

Being from a family steeped in naval history I find the whole place wonderful.

All too soon my hour is up, and I take the lift up to Angela’s office, where I change into my costume for the afternoon’s visit to Christmas Towne itself. Angela is already emailing Pam at Byers Choice to try and get dates for next year sorted as soon as possible.

Angela and I take the short walk from Nauticus to The Half Moone Cruise Terminal where the Christmas Towne exhibit is situated. Stephen is waiting to great us, and as we walk through the doors we pass from the warmth of a sunny Norfolk day, into the chill of a London street.


The set is remarkable with streets winding up and down the building, all lined with 2-story buildings. There is the Old Curiosity Shop, there is a poulterer, there is a book store. Stephen is obviously immensely proud with what has been achieved, and as we walk he is checking the minutest of details, making sure everything is perfect.

He is an old romantic at heart, as one of the buildings represents the pub that he and his wife Sarah Jane visited on the night of their engagement, whilst one of the streets is named after his mother-in-law.

One of the main concerns Stephen has is to preserve the literary background of the experience, and not let it become a Disneyfied scene, so he has created huge curled pages displaying text and illustrations from the original 1843 edition of the book, and hung them from the walls.


There is a pub, serving proper pub food, there is an old time photography booth, there are huge Victorian Christmas Cards for people to stand behind and be photographed.


There are Union Flags (the correct name for the Union Jack), hanging…..oh dear. Last night as Stephen drove me back to the hotel there was a folded up Union Jack on the front seat of his car. ‘Make sure you hang it the right way up!’ I said. Stephen, having an English wife replied by saying his life wouldn’t be worth living if he got it wrong. And now, here today in Christmas Towne the Union Flags are hanging upside down.

Poor Stephen is distraught, but I know he’d rather be aware of it now, rather than when the crowds are pouring through the doors tomorrow.

We reach the far end of the scene and there is a small circular wooden stage, where I will be performing for the students in about thirty minutes. Actually the stage, set as it is in a market square, would be a superb venue to do Doctor Marigold in, and maybe that is something to think about in the future.

I do a quick sound check, and grab a few pieces of furniture, and then wait until the audience arrives.

At 2.15 the small group of theatre students from the Governor’s School for the Arts arrive and sit themselves around the stage.

Originally I was going to try and pare down A Christmas Carol to 45 minutes, but it was proving difficult to retain a sense of the main performance, so instead Angela, Pam and I decided that it would be better if I did the ‘behind the scenes’ of A Christmas Carol, and explain how the show works, and how it developed.

I begin with Dickens’s preface to the novel and then tell all of my old stories: Cockerel, RSC Nicholas Nickleby, first reading performance in 1993, losing the script and improvising for the first time. The students are very attentive and engaged.

For the second half of the session I talk about some of the techniques for transitioning between characters and maintaining their respective positions on stage – I hope that being theatre students they may appreciate these technical details.


Performing, with the Union Flag behind

When I have finished my talk, I throw it open to questions. At first no one is willing to make the first move, until the group’s teacher chimes in – after that the flood gates open and we spend a fun time chatting back and forth.  They are a great bunch and a real credit to the school, asking intelligent and pertinent answers.

My 45 minute time slot comes to an end and they give me a big round of applause. The teacher thanks me and asks if I could actually give a performance at the school sometime, which may be something to think about in future years; I’d love them to see the full show, and then have a discussion about it afterwards.

My formal duties for Dickens Christmas Towne are now finished, and it is with great sadness that I leave the wonderful scene for the last time. At least this year I have seen it in its finished state, whereas when I was here twelve months ago to promote the inaugural season, it was still a construction site as I left.


With Angela and Stephen

Angela takes me back to the office to pick up my 21st Century clothes, and then back to the main entrance of Nauticus, where we say goodbye for another year.

I walk back to the hotel in costume, and no heads turn in surprise. It is a lovely warm day, and the sun is beginning to set.

When I get back to my room I realise that the dark load of laundry didn’t dry properly earlier, so I go back to the first floor and change a dollar bill for quarters. While I am at the counter I realise that I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast, so purchase a little microwavable can of ravioli, which I take back to my room (stopping at the fifth floor laundry to start the drier going). Once in the room I realise that there is no microwave (that was the previous hotel), so go all the way down to the lobby again to use the one in the pantry.

I read the instructions on the can: ‘remove metal lid by ring-pull.’ I peel it back, but it gets stuck at the last bit, so I tug a little harder and still it doesn’t come away. A little more effort…..

OK: a tight lid suddenly giving way; a can filled with red tomato sauce; a man wearing a white shirt. What do you think the result is? A CSI team could investigate me for spatter patterns – I look as if I should be strapped to a stretcher and taken to A&E straight away.

Back up to floor 8, and I take my shirt off and soap all of the red marks, before hanging it up to dry. By the time I get to the ravioli it is cold anyway.

Because I haven’t had a big show today I don’t need to let my costume air before packing it, so I spend time organising my cases (not forgetting the load in the drier.) My dry cleaning is returned intact, and everything is ready for the morning.

At 6.50 Stephen comes to the hotel to take me out to dinner. I’d assumed we would be driving, so didn’t put a coat on, but actually we are walking a few blocks to a fish restaurant. The temperature is still warm, and it is a very pleasant stroll.

We sit at the bar and order some wine while we wait for Sarah Jane to join us. Stephen is tired, as the whole project has been a massive effort, but tomorrow his dreams will be realised and Dickens Christmas Towne will be open to the public.

Sarah Jane arrives and we have a great evening, with lots of laughter and good conversation. I have a grilled salmon with crab and it is superb.

After a couple of hours of convivial company, and with promises to do it all again next year, we walk through the streets of Norfolk back to my hotel, where we say goodbye.

It will be sad to fly away tomorrow and leave Christmas Towne behind me. Stephen’s passion and vision, allied to the professionalism of Angela and the whole team, makes the whole project very welcoming; I have felt as if I am a major part of it from the first moment Stephen greeted me last year.

Good luck Dickens Christmas Towne: have a great season.









Very Flat, Norfolk.

Thursday, November 19

Time to move on once more and the alarm rings at 4.30, jerking me away from my short sleep.

I fold my costumes carefully, so as to protect them as much as possible from creasing, and pack them into my cases.

As I pack the top hat I realise that I have left my thick woolly knitted scarf at Langhorne, presumably still on the hat rack on stage.  It is the first ‘casualty’ of the tour so far, but will be easily retrievable.  I will have to email Pam later today.

When all that remains to be packed is my wash bag, I shower and finally close up.  The whole process from alarm to leaving my room takes forty five minutes.

It is dark outside, but pleasantly warm.  The gloves, hat and scarf that I have packed for the cold winter weather remain resolutely unused so far.

In the car I go to set the sat nav for Philadelphia Airport.  Most of these units are pre-programmed with details of how to get to the car rental desk, but in this case it is slightly odd, in that the sat nav unit is made by Hertz, even though the car does not come from them.  I try and remember who I rented from and my mind is completely mixed up between Hertz, Avis and all of the others.  I have to dig out the rental agreement to find where I am going.

The traffic, even at this hour, is busy and aggressive but flows well and I arrive at the Dollar desk (for ‘tis they who entrusted me with this car), and make sure that I have all of my belongings.

The courtesy bus drops passengers off at terminals B, C and D until it is only me and the driver left.  ‘Norfolk, Virginia.  I used to do this flight every week.’  There is deep memory and a certain sense of melancholy in his voice.  ‘Millitary?’ I prompt.  ‘Yes, I was in the Navy’ and for a moment his thoughts are in the mess, or wardroom, as the great grey prow of his ship cuts through the waves.

He drops me off at terminal F and I leave him to his memories.

Terminal F at Philadelphia airport: ahhh, I have a strange relationship with terminal F.   The last time I was here was in October when I spent an entire day forlornly waiting to board a flight that never left. It is a perfectly nice terminal, with a very impressive food court at its hub.  It is almost as if the contractors who were building the main airport completed this building and set it to one side until they could attach it.  Somehow terminal F was forgotten, and remains at the edge of the field, unloved, and only reachable by bus.

With that forlorn little story of neglect in my mind I feel more amenable to Terminal F and make my peace with it.

I have time for a quick breakfast, before going to gate 20, ready to board my flight for Norfolk.  At the very tip of the terminal F there are 5 gates gathered together, all serving little Dash 8 propeller-driven planes.   As each flight boards, the agents make the same scripted announcement about boarding, carry-on bags, Sky-Miles medallion members, those who need a little extra time, zones one and two.

By the time my flight is called it hardly seems necessary for our agent to go through it all again, as we’ve heard it four times already.

The flight is quite empty, and I have two seats to myself, towards the rear of the plane.  I watch another House of Cards episode, or at least part of it, for the flight is not long enough to get me to the end.  As we break through the clouds I can see that Norfolk is wet today.  The wheels (only a few feet from where I sit) throw up a plume of spray as they touch the ground.

At the airport I pick up a car from Alamo, and start on the short drive into downtown Norfolk.  The street names are wonderful here, and I drive along Azalea Gardens, passing Kevin Road, Robin Hood Way and turn onto Princess Anne Road.  The businesses are nicely named too: ‘Murphy’s Propeller Works’ (good, I’m glad that it works); and ‘A Step in Time Chimney and Roofing’ (It’s an ‘appy ‘olliday with Meeearrryyyy!)

I arrive at the hotel and even though it is only 9.30, am checked in to my room, where I can start working on the blog. It seems a real struggle to write today and is slow going.

I get a slight break, when I get a message from an old friend, Christine, who used to work at the Williamsburg Inn and now lives with her husband and son in Norfolk.  She offers to take me out to lunch, and I have a very nice salad as we catch up on old times.  It is only a brief interlude to my day, as Christine has to pick her son up from school, and I go back to my room and finally finish writing.

I am due to walk to my venue (The Nauticus National Maritime Center) at 4.45, so I begin to gather my belongings together.

It is now time for an ironing rant.

Two years ago I made some comments in my blog about the dearth of electric outlets suitably positioned for ironing and I delighted to say that almost every hotel has now improved that situation.  I am happy to take credit for this change, on behalf of travellers across the globe.

Now, for a new campaign:  the covers on hotel ironing boards are so thin these days, that the metal lattice work beneath is imprinted onto whatever garment you are ironing.  There is no soft, foam padding, and it is as if you are ironing directly against the metal.  Not good enough, hoteliers of America – I want thicker ironing board covers!


Lattice work

With my lattice-imprinted shirts carefully folded and packed I walk to Nauticus, where I am greeted by Angela Mello who is my contact here.  She greets me like an old, old friend and takes me to her office, where I will be based for the evening.

Nauticus is a huge maritime museum, which includes the magnificent Battleship Wisconsin, moored alongside the building itself. The complex also includes a cruise ship terminal and it is there where the Dickens Christmas Towne is based.  Today I am performing A Christmas Carol in Nauticus itself and tomorrow I will be helping to launch Christmas Towne’s second season.

Angela takes me to the theatre, which is a huge cinema space, with a curving white screen on the back wall.  The thousands of seats (I’m sure that I do not exaggerate), curve around the floor space in a huge arc (now, how nautical is that reference!)



My props look rather lost in the midst of this huge space.  The challenges here are the complete opposite of those I faced in Langhorne and Burlington, where the space available to me was divided up on different levels and broken up by altar rails and the like.  Here, there is just space, and lots of it.  Looking at the expanse of floor reminds me of Noel Coward’s comment in Private Lives: ‘Very flat, Norfolk.’

Angela fetches Dustin, who will be looking after the technical side of things and we spend quite a long time working on the sound levels.  He adjusts the base levels to allow for what he calls my ‘boomy voice’.  When we are all satisfied we spend some time on the opening music/sound effect.


Sound Check


When all of the details have been looked after I go back to Angela’s office, where I spend a very enjoyable hour or so chatting with Jeff Cannon, who is an architect specialising in museum spaces.  Jeff is well travelled and fascinating

As we chat the door opens and Stephen Kirkland comes in.  Stephen is the director of Nauticus, and Christmas Towne is very much his pet project.  Last year he convinced the board members to invest in his dream and it paid off handsomely.  I worked with him to promote the inaugural season, and even though I was only in Norfolk for a single day, I feel as if Stephen is an old friend, and that I have been part of his project for years.

Time is marching on, and Stephen, Jeff and Angela leave me to prepare for the show.  I change, and then listen to music until Angela returns and takes me down the stairs to the theatre.  As I stand waiting I become aware of the strangest phenomenon.  All of the walls of the theatre are curved, and as I stand, I am aware of the conversation of the audience being ‘broadcast’ eerily along the walls; It is the same science that makes the whispering gallery at St Paul’s Cathedral in London such a fascinating place to visit.

On the dot of seven o’clock Stephen takes to the stage and makes a passionate speech about his visions for Christmas Towne.  He thanks the many sponsors and board members who have supported him, and then announces the show.

The strains of the cello playing God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen fill the auditorium, and I begin the show.

I am not sure how well the microphone is working, but the acoustics in the room seem very good and I make sure that I annunciate clearly (taking my late father’s advice to always finish one word before starting the next).  I try not to use too much of the space, and to remain in clearly defined areas for each scene.

One couple get up and leave the auditorium quite near the start of the show, and I hope that their exit does not mark the start of a mass exodus, which is my recurring performance nightmare!  Fortunately the rest of the audience remain in their seats, and respond more and more enthusiastically as the show continues.

As I make my final exit, Stephen is on the stage whipping the audience to even greater heights (he used to be an entertainment cruise director with Carnival Cruises, and is now reverting to his old self).  As a result I get to take three curtain calls, before going back to the office to change, ready for a signing session.  As I take the microphone off I notice that the battery level is on zero, which may explain why it didn’t sound as crisp as when we did the sound check earlier.

I spend forty five minutes in the main Nauticus hall, just outside the gift shop, signing books and talking about the show, and greeting people I met at last year’s event.  Stephen’s wife, Sarah Jane is there and is enthusing about the performance.

At the end of the evening I change and Stephen drives me back to the hotel.  There is a small restaurant in the foyer, and I order a burger for my dinner.

As I sit, pondering the day, a young man who appears to be no more that high school age comes into the lobby. It seems strange at this time of night and a moment later the revolving door turns and a few more join him; this trickle turns into a flood and soon the foyer is heaving with young people.  Many of the kids have musical instrument cases over their shoulders: there are violin cases, flute cases, clarinet cases.  Bringing up the rear three guys are doing battle with the revolving door as they force their double bases in.

I talk to one of the adults with the group and discover that they are from The Shenandoah University Conservatory, and are in town to play at a conference of musical educators tomorrow.

It is wonderful to see so much young talent gathered together, to perform excellent music.

One final thought crosses my mind as I go to bed:  It is going to be very busy at breakfast tomorrow morning.



Nauticus:  http://www.nauticus.org/

Shenandoah University Conservatory:  http://www.su.edu/performs/






Bloody Splendid!

I wake this morning feeling very tired.  It has been a busy few days and it doesn’t stop today, as I have another two shows to perform.

However I do have a little time to catch up, as the venue is only ten minutes away, and the sound check is not scheduled until one o’clock, so I spend a very lazy morning in the hotel watching TV, surfing, reading etc.

As noon ticks round I prepare my bags for the show, have an energising cold shower, and carry my suits (with a pang of guilt, as I am using the hotel hangers and am convinced I will be spotted as I leave the premises) to the car.

The drive is easy and I turn off the main freeway into the leafy neighbourhood of Langhorne, where the impressive Methodist Church stands proudly a little back from the road.

The Langhorne Methodist Church is a new event for me, and that always brings its own challenges. The simple routine of a day at somewhere like Burlington are well founded: I know where to park, who does what, where to change, how the audience will be and any number of other little details. But, at a new venue all of that is unknown.



I follow the signs to the car park at the rear of the building, unload the car, and seeing a large sign which says ENTER HERE, follow the path towards a door.

Before I get to my goal I realise that I still have my glasses on, so turn round and return to the car so that I can leave them there; this is not a question of vanity, but a respect to people’s sensitivities.  When I chose the frames for my first glasses a year or so ago, I liked a set made by French Connection UK.  The UK arm of the French Connection fashion house began marketing as FCUK many years ago, and at time we all thought it terribly risqué and daring.  As the years have passed, however, the brand has just become lost in the corporate morass, and everyone in Britain (maybe with the exception of a few sniggering, giggling teens), has forgotten that there was ever anything remotely crude about it.

In America, however and especially in a Church community, the simple text could definitely offend, so it is better to keep the glasses tucked away.

I re-follow the path with the ENTER HERE sign and find that the door is locked, so go around to the front of the building where I meet Linda Rutlidge who has booked me today.  Last year Linda watched my show in Burlington, and decided that it would be an excellent event for her own Church.  My main credentials being that her husband, who had one fallen asleep during a performance of 42nd Street, remained awake for the whole of A Christmas Carol!

Linda is busy.  Goodness she is busy as she has put together an incredibly ambitious programme for the day.  Between the two shows there is to be a Turkey supper served, which will feed both audiences – probably numbering about 350 guests.  Then there are the pre-ordered books, which need signing, and distributing to those with a particular coloured, ticket.  Then there is the distribution of show tickets previously ordered. Then there is finding me a dressing room, and making sure that I have everything I need.  Poor Linda is everywhere.

She introduces me to Tim, who is to look after the technical side of things and he in turn introduces me to John Lutz, who is the Pastor here.  John and Tim run through the various lighting options open to us, and then we do a sound check.  The microphone is very boomey and echoey in the room, but Tim and John convince me that it will become more muted when the people are sat there.


With all of the checks done John shows me to the room where I will change, which is actually the church’s photocopying room.  It is slightly awkward, in that the large window looks straight out on to the ramp leading guests to the front door, and there is no curtain.  The internal door to the corridor also has a window in it, and although it is covered with a cloth, people could easily see in.  I must time my changing carefully!


With all of the pre-ordered books, Linda had asked me if I wouldn’t mind signing a few before the show, so I sit at a large table in a large room and start to work through the pile next to me.  As I sign, a friendly face comes down the corridor and Pam Byers enters the room.  Byers Choice is not far from Langhorne, so this is Pam’s first chance to come and visit me at a venue.  We chat about various things that have arisen from the completed events, and plans for the forthcoming ones; and all the time I am scrawling GeraldCharlesDickens 2015.

As the word that I am signing spreads around the Church, volunteers start appearing and ask if I would just inscribe a book to a daughter, or grandson, or husband.  Soon the volunteers are joined in line by audience members, and that is the time to stop!

I return to my dressing room, and by keeping a careful eye on the windows to front and back, manage to get into costume with no embarrassment.

The audience is a good size and as they file into the church  I stand at the back, next to Tim’s sound box, watching them take their seats.  It is a large room, and I try to imagine what people will be seeing when I am at the front.  Shortly before the show Pastor John lights candles on the stage, and everything is ready.

Linda makes a welcoming announcement, and everyone settles down. Tim sets the music playing and I begin my long walk down the aisle.

It is a curious space to perform in, not unlike Burlington, but with more spaces and levels to use.  In my mind I have to work out what each level represents, so that the Cratchit’s house is always on one step and the streets of London on another.  Can the top level, which has Scrooge’s furniture on it, also be Nephew Fred’s house?

The sound is still rather too loud for my liking, and I try to restrict my projection as much as I can, so as to keep the echoes to a minimum.  Acoustics that are perfect for choirs, do not always suit the spoken word.

I am not entirely sure how the show is going, actually.  The stage area is quite a long way from the front row of seats, being a ‘new’ audience many are not sure if they are allowed to respond and react.  The whole thing is a learning process from both sides of the fourth wall.

The response at the show’s conclusion tell me that it has been a success however, and as the only exit from the stage is straight back down the aisle, I leave the room through an applauding guard of honour.

I change as quickly as I can, as the line for book signing forms outside the photocopying room (I undress unseen by keeping close to the wall next to the door, like an FBI agent about to storm a room).

The signing lasts for quite a long time, and people have plenty to say.  Books signed by my Uncle Cedric are in plentiful supply, as he spent many years travelling to the Philadelphia area.

Whereas I sign Gerald Charles Dickens, 2015 and add a dedication if requested, Cedric used to write long quotes from the book, as well as the inevitable ‘Keep Smiling!’

When I have finished signing books, Linda asks if I would like a cup of tea, and she brings a lovely teapot, cup and saucer, milk jug, and sugar basin to my room.  I sit alone, just resting and sipping the black tea, whilst the first audience go into the dining hall for their lunch.


After twenty minutes or so I go into the hall too and am soon eating roast turkey, mashed potatoes, carrots and apple sauce.  In the background a group of singers entertain us all: The Men of Harmony sound wonderful, and lend a real Christmassy feeling to the proceedings.

Pastor John is helping to serve the food, Linda is running everywhere, serving, clearing, talking.  The feeling throughout the room is one of inclusion and friendship and caring – it is what a church community should be all about.

I chat to lots of audience members, who tell me how much they enjoyed the show, which is good to hear.  I ask Linda about the sound and she says everybody thought it was fine, and could hear perfectly.   I may suggest to Tim that we turn it down a little for the second show.

The lunch continues, and the second audience fill the seats vacated by the departing first crowd.  I go back to my little room, turn all of the lights out and lay down on the floor to get an hour’s sleep, before going through the whole process again.

At 6.15 I get up, splash some cold water on my face, and start putting my costume back together again.


It is a much larger, and noisier audience, and I again take my station next to the tech desk, exchanging a few words with people as they arrive.

With ten minutes to go John takes to the stage to light the candles once more and as I watch him, I realise that this is just what an audience watching Charles Dickens would have seen.  Shortly before Dickens took to the stage a gas-man would light the lamps ready to illuminate the author as he read A Christmas Carol.

The microphone is definitely better this evening, and I use the space more effectively too.  But I get so hot, goodness it is bad; I don’t know why, particularly because the lighting isn’t materially different from anywhere else, but the perspiration is flowing uncontrolled tonight.

‘God Bless Us, Every One’ and I am finished and once more walk through a lovely, loud standing ovation and go back to my copy room.

The signing line is much longer tonight, and at one point I have to grab another ink cartridge for my pen, but everyone is in good spirits and has lovely things to say.  One lady leans on my table, and points at me: ‘I am going to say to you, what my mother used to say. That was bloody splendid!’  What a good review!

Eventually the audience leaves and the volunteers bring their books up for signing, and to pose with me for photographs.  I thank Tim for his help and Linda gives me a great big hug (as well as a bottle of wine and some chocolates).

I go back to my room and wearily, very wearily, pack up.  By the time I emerge almost everyone has left the building.  I am let out through a back door (actually the one I couldn’t get in at this morning) and drive back towards the Holiday Inn.

I am obviously tired and struggling to concentrate, because I miss the turn to Street Road on three different occasions, sending my sat nav unit into paroxysms of ‘recalculating route’.  I accidentally get onto the Turnpike and have to go through the automated toll booths twice, even though I have no EZ-Pass in the car.   Usually in the tolls there is a little traffic light that says ‘Payment Accepted’ or ‘No Payment’, and those do not light up, so I’m hoping that at this time of the night I may be OK.

Finally I get back to the hotel, where for the first time in two weeks I treat myself to a desert of apple pie.

It will be a short night with the alarm set for 4.30 in the morning, and soon the rigours of the past week creep up on me and take me to the land of sleep.





Happy Days

Tuesday November 17

At last I sleep through to a decent time, waking up at around 6am, which is a welcome change to my routine.

Another bonus is that the Holiday Inn Express boasts a Keurig coffee maker – the first I’ve come across this year.  With a delicious cup of Columbian brew at my side I begin my daily writing, until the details of my travels from California are completed and sent into cyberspace.

I have a shower and reflect that the twin bottles of ‘Volumising Shampoo and Conditioner’ are probably going to struggle on my thinning locks: the volume switch was turned down many years ago.

After a nice breakfast I come back to my room and kill a bit of time, before calling a Virginia PBS radio station.  On Thursday I will be performing at the Dickens Christmas Towne exhibit in Norfolk and this brief interview is to promote the event.

Dickens Christmas Towne is about to open for its second year, and I spent a little time in Norfolk last year helping to launch the inaugural season.  I am very excited to be returning and to actually see it up and running.

The director of the organisation that runs Christmas Towne is also on the line, and we chat with Kathy, the presenter, for fifteen minutes.  I’m sure that our enthusiasm for the event will be obvious to the listeners.

When the interview is over I go through all of the preparations for my day ahead, making sure that I have three shirts ironed, and pack all of the little bits and bobs that I will need for two shows.


Ready for the show

As I leave the hotel a bright blue sky and warm sun greet me. I pack everything into my Mazda, before setting the satnav unit.   I start the engine and notice that the car has a ‘SPORT’ button.  That sounds exciting, so I set it.


The journey to Burlington, which is actually over the state line in New Jersey, takes about twenty minutes.  The sport button doesn’t seem to make a huge difference to the car’s performance.  When I switch it ‘on’ the transmission drops a gear and there is a slight increase in acceleration.  Turn it ‘off’ and the gear shifts up again, and the engine revs drop accordingly.  As far as I can tell he sport button allows you to either a) use more fuel, or b) use less.

Having conducted this experiment I am arriving in Burlington and am soon pulling up outside the familiar building, that is the Historic Broad Street United Methodist Church.

I have been coming here for six years or so and it is always a very happy stop on my tour.  The team who organise the event are fun, and I treat them all as good friends.  As I unload my car the front door of the Church is opened and I am greeted by Joe Jaskot, the husband of the event organiser, Laura.  He helps me with my bags, and soon I am being hugged by Laura and her mother.

Unfortunately one member of the team is not here this year – Bob, who has expertly looked after the sound system over the years, has been through the rigours of heart surgery recently and is not recovered enough to be here.  We will miss him, but at least I can dedicate a line from the show to him: No Bob!

The sound system has been set up in advance and we do a quick check of the microphone, which sounds excellent.

And now there is the issue of my new musical effect at the start of the show.  Laura has brought a huge portable CD player in, which is set up behind the stage, a microphone  that is wired into the main sound system, is ready to be held in front of the speaker.  Joe has been given the task of looking after this Heath Robinson system, and is understandably nervous about the whole operation.


We find a microphone stand, and adjust it so that it is at the same level as the speakers.  Joe can now concentrate on playing track 2 (which features five minutes of tolling bells), and listening for my opening lines, so that he can fade the sound away at the appropriate moment.

We run the beginning of the show a few times, and all seems well.

In the lobby of the church the first audience are beginning to arrive, so I go to my dressing room to get ready, and Laura goes to greet the guests.  Joe looks at the CD player, and makes himself even more nervous!

At 1 o’clock Laura, Joe and I meet at the base of the stairs that lead to the stage.  The team is in place and we are ready to go.  Joe goes to his post, to man the CD player, I go to the back of church’s sanctuary to make my entrance through the audience, and Laura goes to the stage to make the introductory remarks.

Our rehearsals pay off and everything works perfectly.  The music accompanies Ebenezer as he walks through the audience to stand at Marley’s graveside.  The heavy bell starts to toll.  Scrooge removes his hat, and stands, uncomfortably alone.  The narrator takes over: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’.  The sound effect fades gently to silence. Perfect!

The Broad Street United Methodist Church was built in 1847, and is a beautiful space to perform in.  Bright sunlight shines through the simple stained glass windows and the lighting is augmented by subtle electric candles and overhead lights.



I have often found that I discover new ways of doing things in Burlington:  maybe it is the shape of the stage, or the different levels, or the proximity and friendliness of the audience, but the space seems to encourage creativity.

There are a few moments in the show that I am keen to tweak during this year’s trip and I try a few today.  Many of the audience have seen the show on multiple occasions, and know what is coming.  Today  I have great trouble keeping  a straight face as Mrs Cratchit, for the giggles start long before she leaves to fetch her Christmas pudding.

It is a fun show – that’s definitely the right word!  There is a huge sense of friendship and support, and the ovation at the end feels as if it is a declaration of thanks, as well as congratulation. (That is actually an interesting thought – what emotion is being displayed by an audience at the end of any performance?)

I leave the stage and return to my basement dressing room, where I peel off my costume, towel down, and change into my fresh clothes ready for the signing reception, which is held in a large meeting room, where tea and cookies are served.

That sense of family and friendship continues as I sign and pose for those dedicated followers who return every year.  Many wear their dedication like a badge of honour:  ‘this is our seventh year to see you!’

When every smile has been smiled for every camera (or phone), and every signature signed, I go back to my dressing room and change into my normal clothes, ready for a spot of dinner.

Laura has booked a table (as has become a tradition) and fourteen of us make our way from the church to Francesco’s restaurant just around the corner.

Many of the volunteers follow my blog avidly, so there are many congratulations for Liz and my Wedding.  Everyone wants details and stories and when I tell them about our honeymoon most ask: ‘Why Zanzibar?!’

Dinner is delicious, and I have veal, simply cooked in a lemon sauce, with no cheese, and a salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette.

When we return to the church there is still over an hour to go before the second show, so I lay on the sofa in my room listening to music, playing backgammon, and reading – all thanks to the wonders of modern technology.

The heating has been turned on to warm the church and the ancient water pipes are groaning and rattling as if Jacob Marley himself is haunting us all.

With forty five minutes to go I get up from my couch, have a hot  cup of tea and start to stretch and breathe properly, in readiness for the evenings events.

I put my costume on, fix the microphone to my shirt, clip the braces to my trousers (suspenders to my pants), tie my cravat and wait for Laura to give me the cue.

This evening’s audience is slightly larger, and has the same mix of old friends spread through the pews.

As the Ghost of Christmas Past is doing his/her stuff I become aware that my little microphone has come unclipped and is dangling down.  As I ‘fall asleep’ in the chair, I turn away from the audience so that I can clip it back, but almost immediately it falls out again.  I decide to leave it hanging, and rely on the room’s excellent acoustics to see me through.

Rather annoyingly I mix some of my lines up:  as Christmas Present morphs into Yet To Come, I say: ‘Scrooge looked all about him for the Ghost of Christmas Present…’ then, instead of continuing ‘but saw him not’, I leap forward to ‘but he saw no likeness of himself among the multitude’, which should come in a few minutes, when Scrooge is taken into the city.

I now have the job of getting back to where I should be and adlibbing in such a way so as not to repeat myself.  It is a clumsy and awkward moment and I am angry with myself for such a  silly mistake.

Apart from that the show is another great success, and the audience are vocal in their thanks.

In the signing session I pose for a photograph with a family, who are regular attendees.  Apparently my picture is on their wall at home more often than some of their closest relatives! However this is a poignant year for them, as their father (and grandfather), has recently passed away.  He read A Christmas Carol to them each year and loved bringing his family to my show every year. As we talk about him there are tears and trembling lips.  It must be so difficult for them to be here, where there are so many happy memories, but they were determined to come and celebrate as he would have wished.

I am sure that he was there with us, watching, laughing, listening.  In fact, he is probably chatting to Charles Dickens right now, asking why Marley’s face looked like ‘a bad lobster in a dark cellar!’

I am feeling very tired as the last of the audience leave.  I pack up my bags, and say good bye to Laura and Joe and the rest of them for another year.

As I drive back to my hotel, the moon, with a tinge of bronze to it, lays lazily on its back, and looks like a huge smile in the sky.

I smile back and reflect on a very happy day.



Broad Street United Methodist Church: http://broadstumc.org/






From Angels to Brotherly Love

Monday 16 November


Mathematics Exam – Basic Level.

Q : A flight departs at 9.20, and the passenger has to be at the airport at 8am.  The airport is a forty-five minute drive away.  What time does the passenger have to leave his hotel?  Explain your answer and show working.

A: 5.30 am.  The airport in question is Los Angeles, and it is Monday morning.  In all probability there will be an accident and the journey could take anything up to three hours.

My alarm is set for 4.45, but I am up and packing before it rings.  I go through the careful process of protecting my top hat, and making sure that I have collected all of my belongings, before leaving the room.  I decide to leave the sun block behind, rather doubting that I will need it again.

The night sky is clear and the stars are looking down at me.  They are old friends now.

Even as I load the car up I can hear the rumble of busy traffic on the freeway close by and as soon as I take the entry ramp I join a river of cars and trucks, flowing like lava towards the City of Angels.

I hook up my phone to the car stereo and flick through my music choices.  Somehow I don’t feel like Christmas music this morning, and I select Liz’s fantastic CD: New York Connections.  The beautiful sound of Gershwin, Joplin and Sondheim will keep me company as I drive, and make me feel closer to home.

As is usual in traffic like this, I have plenty of time to look at the surroundings (although concentration is necessary: the Californian driving style proves the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest.  There is no quarter given as cars swap lanes with astonishing boldness).

One roadside sign that catches my attention says: ‘3 Day Suit Broker!’  A suit broker?  I understand a stock broker, or an insurance broker, but a suit broker? A strange world we live in.

My sat nav unit began the journey by telling me that my arrival time would be 6.20, but as I crawl on it amends that to 6.24, 6.30, 6.33. 6.40.

As I approached the City Limits of Long Beach the traffic filled all five lanes, and  there was just a sea of red lights in front of me.  Ironically the first lane to stop was the High Occupancy Vehicle Lane, dedicated to those good drivers who had taken the decision to car share, thereby easing the congestion.

Fascinating Rhythm plays on the stereo: the joyful pace of the music not reflected by the traffic.

There is a sign to Bixby Knolls.  What a great name – it sounds rather like a Hollywood starlet, or an aging repertory actor: ‘Sir Bixby Knolls will reprise his performance as Heathcliff for the twenty-fifth year’.

In my rear view mirror the sun is rising, and the darkness is swallowed up to be replaced with a steely blue, changing rapidly into gold.

At last I see the sign to leave the freeway and am on the final approaches to the airport.  I spot a petrol station and pull in to refill the Sonata before returning it to Avis.  The exit to the forecourt is right on a junction and the traffic is heavy.  I don’t see any opportunity of getting out into it, until a nice lady waves me forward.  I stamp on the accelerator and shoot out into the road, so as not to hold her up.  Quick glance in my mirror, she is way behind; and stationary.  At the moment I register this fact, I become aware that traffic is coming from either side and I realise that I must have run the red light.  Well, when in LA….I accelerate harder and clear the junction before anyone is much the wiser.  Good old Darwin (for the Sonata has now earned its name).

I pull into the Avis lot, and am soon on the bus into the airport terminal, where after the inevitable queues, I am finally able to get some breakfast.

I find a table with a power point and start to work on the blog post, which takes me a little while.  In fact the flight is called before I am able to correct it and add pictures, it.  It will have to sit in the computer’s memory until my layover in Detroit.  No Blog.

The gate is very busy and once again the agents are asking if anyone would mind checking their roller bag, and I again offer.  Sadly on this occasion I do not get offered priority boarding, and I become a part of the slow-moving scrum of people edging their way towards the gate so as to be first in line when ‘Zone 2’ is announced.

I have a window seat, which is always my preferred option, but today the sun is so hot, that even with the shades down I am being cooked.  I have four hours of this ahead of me and it is very uncomfortable.

I have downloaded season 2 of House of Cards into my Kindle so I set it up and watch the first, shocking, episodes.

The flight seems to drag on and on and on.  I follow our progress on the little tracker-map and it seems as if we remain stationary over Colorado forever.  We drone over Nebraska and Idaho before finally, apparently reluctantly, starting our descent into Detroit.

The disembarking is slow, but I am relieved to discover, as I stand up, that my back hasn’t suffered a relapse during the journey.

Detroit is one of those major hubs where the various terminals are linked by a monorail.  It is rare to depart from the same terminal that you arrive in and often an ungainly rush through crowds of people is required to make the onward flight.

Today, however I am in luck as the flight arrives at gate 31,and my onward flight is to depart from gate 29.

I sit down and power up the laptop once more, ready to finally post the blog.  Of course, Murphy’s Law kicks in and the computer chooses this moment to download countless updates, and by the time it is ready to do anything useful my flight is being called.  No Blog.

It is another massively full flight and my cheery good nature is feeling a little fragile by now.  A girl tries to force, and I mean FORCE a bag into the overhead bin, when it is patently obvious it won’t fit.  It is too large by half.  That is why they have those little measuring cradles at check-in and by the gate. There is no excuse for finding that your bag wont fit..  Nobody else can get seated as she selfishly stands there looking at the bin and the bag; the bag and the bin.

Then there is the business man conducting the loudest phone call you can imagine, just so we all know how important he is.  In case the urgent talk of meetings and contracts isn’t enough to convince us, he sets up a conference call for tomorrow: ‘That will be great – yes, I will be through security by then and will be having a glass of red wine in the Delta executive lounge.’ Grrrrrrr.  If you are so important, then why are you in the back with us?

Then, there is the guy next to me: he is large and pushing me against the window, but that’s OK: I have no issue with anybody’s size of course.  But he has the most annoying twitch as he reads his Kindle – every few seconds he shoots his elbow out horizontally.  He doesn’t actually make contact with me, but it is right in my eye line, as I try to read, and becomes more and more irritating as the flight goes on.

Sorry, just grumpy.  Rant over. For now.

The flight from Detroit to Philadelphia is only an hour, and finally I disembark into the cool Pennsylvania air.  I have to pick up a rental car, and here that means waiting for a shuttle bus to take me to the Dollar office.  Is there a Dollar bus to be seen?

As I wait I watch buses from Enterprise and Alamo and National and Hertz (four of them), and Avis (three) go by,  before Dollar puts in an appearance.

It is all made better by the driver, Mike C, who is very cheerful and chatty.  It must be a thankless task driving constantly around an airport perimeter road, but he is very obviously enjoying himself, and that enjoyment is infectious and most welcome to a weary, jaded traveller.

Logistically the day has actually been very easy – there have been no delays or hold ups or difficulties, and the theme continues with Dollar.  In no time I am in possession of a chunky, solid-feeling Mazda CX5, and am on my way towards the Holiday Inn Express located about 30 minutes North of Philadelphia.

As I  leave the airport I notice that the Wells Fargo Center is bathed in red white and blue light, to show support and comradeship to the people of France.  It is good to see that the City of Brotherly Love is living up to its nickname.

The traffic is light and soon I am turning onto the rather unimaginatively named Street Road and into the hotel’s car park.

And now, at last at 8.30 pm, I finally post my blog.

I am very hungry, and as I drove in I noticed an Applebee’s restaurant nearby,  so I get back into my car and set the sat nav.  The route calculation is quick: ‘arrive at destination in 1 minute’ OK, probably didn’t need to drive to the other side of the parking lot!

I have some pasta and chicken and then go back to my room and have a shower, washing the heat and grime of a day in the air away, before turning off my light and drifting away to sleep.



New York Connections performed by Liz Hayeshttp://www.amazon.co.uk/Gershwin-York-Connections-Elizabeth-Hayes/dp/B0002LQQE6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1447764413&sr=8-1&keywords=elizabeth+Hayes+New+York+Connections

The Rain That Never Came, or: Working Intently

Sunday November 16

Today is to be a repeat of yesterday, with two shows in the amphitheatre at Rogers Gardens.  I wake fairly early (I am hoping that when I travel back east tomorrow, my body-clock will settle down a little and allow me to sleep to a time without a 3, 4, or even a 5 in it).

I write and drink coffee, before getting ready for breakfast.  I have another load of white costume shirts waiting to be washed, so I go via reception to ask where the guest laundry is.  Once again, as in Minnesota, it is in a separate building: this seems to be the way of it on this tour.  I am going to get extra fit with my laundry treks!

Having set the machine running, I go to breakfast, where I enjoy a bowl of muesli and fresh fruit, accompanied by orange juice and coffee.

I am keeping an eye on the time, as the Brazilian Grand Prix is being run today and I have discovered that it is being shown live on NBC Sports.  The lights go out at 8am, and I want to be back in my room to watch it.  I finish breakfast and go back to my room, via the laundry where the wash cycle has finished.  Having shrunk one of my casual shirts the other day, I separate my three others from the load of costume shirts, and take them back to my room to drip dry:  I make it back just in time for the race’s start.

As with so many Grand Prix this year, it is a disappointing race, with very little action at the front of the field.  The current regulations make passing difficult, and Lewis Hamilton just can’t mount a challenge to his teammate Nico Rosberg.  It is almost as if Hamilton’s competitive intensity has dimmed slightly since he tied up the World Championship a few races ago.

Fortunately for the television audience young Max Verstappen (only 17 years old), hasn’t read the memo about not being able to overtake, and he enlivens the race with some amazing lunges around the outside of the first corner.

The race drifts to its inevitable conclusion and on the podium Rosberg looks smug and Hamilton looks, well, rather disinterested by the whole thing.

I take the trip down in the lift, walk to the other building, go up the lift and collect my dry shirts, and get ready for the day’s shows.  The weather is a little more overcast and slightly cooler today, but in California that is all relative: it is still somewhere in the 70s.

Just before 11 I load up the car and make the short drive to Rogers, where Theresa is waiting for me.  Apparently Hedda is worried, as the weather forecast is showing high winds and rain sweeping down the coast, from LA towards us.  The plan is to perform the 1pm show outside, and while that is going on to prepare a marquee (which is usually used to store Christmas trees) so that we have an alternative should the bad weather threaten the 5 0’clock performance.

I make my way to the amphitheatre where Patrick, the sound and lighting man, is setting up his equipment.  Hedda arrives and she is looking very stressed about the whole weather thing.  The first threat is the wind, and we will not be able to have the large umbrellas that afforded me protection from the sun yesterday, as they will become large sails, and could wreak havoc among the guests.


The amphitheatre stage: in the sun.

Patrick and I do the briefest of sound checks,  and I amble over to the marquee to take see what is going on there.  It is empty, and the canvas sides are flapping noisily in the ever strengthening breeze.  A member of staff is already hard at work decorating the wall where the stage will be, and a Christmas garland, made of fir and red Christmas ornaments is already being draped from the tent’s frame.

I can do nothing for now, but return to my dressing room and go through my normal preparations for the show.  When I emerge, fully costumed, into the main office area I find Hedda, Theresa, Michael (operations manager) and Nava (marketing director), all gathered around a computer watching the latest radar predictions for the weather.  It is going to be a tight call to even get the first show finished before the rain hits, and that is not even worrying about the effects of the strengthening winds.


With thirty minutes to go before show time the decision is made: we relocate.  This means the set, the sound system, the lighting and, of course, the audience have to be moved.

At least I won’t be needing my sun block today.

At the moment the marquee is a dark space, with chairs being laid out, but the staff of Rogers Gardens sweep into action with a co-ordinated operation that is truly impressive.

Firstly the most vital parts of furniture from my set are brought down on carts, and set up.  The girl who was decorating the tent earlier now starts work on set dressing and in no time it looks as if it had been there all week.

Patrick is re-wiring his sound equipment, and I stay close so we can test it as soon as he is plugged in.

There is a problem with the canvas sides of the marquee flapping noisily, which will distract the audience.  A brief problem-solving conference is held, and a solution found:  espaliered apple trees are transported and placed against the inside of the tent walls, and on the outside flat-bed shopping carts are loaded with sandbags to keep the canvas still.  It is a brilliant solution, and one which helps to decorate the inside too.


The new set

Now Patrick has got the sound rigged, he turns his attention to the lights, and tripods complete with the LED stage lanterns attached are carried into the tent.


Light work

Meanwhile Hedda has addressed the audience and told them what the plan is, and they applaud her.  Everyone is involved in the adventure!  As the work continues in the marquee, the carol singers are busy entertaining the very patient audience.

At 1 o’clock Hedda and Nava announce to the crowd that they can make their way to the tent, and lead them, Pied Piper-like, through the pot plants, shrubs and trees to the new venue, where the transformation is complete.  We actually start the show only ten minutes late, which is a quite remarkable achievement from everyone involved.

And now it is my turn.

Many years ago, when I first adapted A Christmas Carol as a one man show, I decided to stage it very simply, with just a chair and a hat-stand; this meant that I could perform it anywhere.  Never has that decision paid off more completely than today.  As I get into the show, I start testing out the boundaries of the light, and the space

The audience are very close, in fact I am almost on top of the front row and they get the full Dickens experience.  They are fantastic, and seem to be wrapped up in what we in Britain refer to as ‘The Blitz Spirit’: when a group of people are brought closer by adversity.  OK, I grant you being asked to walk from an amphitheatre to a marquee, to watch a show is not really on a par with huddling in the London Underground stations as bombs fall, but the sense of camaraderie is the same.

Does it rain?  Of course it doesn’t, and I am able to adlib when Scrooge looks out of his window on Christmas morning: ‘No fog, no mist….’ and I add, ‘and no rain either.’  It raises a huge laugh and a round of applause.

The show finishes to a fabulous ovation and Hedda looks like the cares of the world have lifted from her shoulders.  We have pulled it off spectacularly.  The staff at Rogers has been simply amazing.

Having changed into a fresh costume I go to greet the patient people in the signing line, where the congratulations continue.  Everyone has thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon.

At the very end of the signing session a gentleman waits, who was sat in the front row for the show. His name is David and he is a journalist who has come to interview me between the shows.  David is a freelance writer, originally from England but now living in Orange County.

He is currently involved in launching a new project, which sounds absolutely fascinating, and which has close connections to the works of Charles Dickens, hence the interview.  The idea is to serialise some of the novels, and release them weekly via an app, to encourage people to read the classics once more.  Of course, this is exactly how Dickens published his books in the first place, so it is a great way to show the works in their original form.  The app is called NoteStream and I encourage anyone with an interest in Dickens to support the project.

We chat for the best part of an hour, and it is a fun conversation.  But now I must get back to work.  I sign a couple of books for David, we shake hands and he leaves, while I start to prepare for the evening show.

It is another full house, but there isn’t the same excitement and buzz to the evening audience.  In fact the show is quite hard work.  They are one of those ‘intense’ audiences: fully focused and concentrating hard, but not quite so willing to open up.  Quite British, in fact.

All I can do in such situations is to just perform the show as well as I can.  The biggest mistake is to try and force a reaction – that never works, and always results in a sub-standard performance.

When I get to the end the applause is loud, long and accompanied by lots of shouts and cheers.  A job well done, I think.

The signing line is one of the longest of the week, which none of us expected.  One constant comment throughout all of the signing sessions has been: ‘are you coming back next year?’  All I can say to that is ‘I hope so!’

At 8pm Rogers Gardens falls quiet again.  The lights in the trees are blowing in the gentle wind, and the forecast rain has never fallen, but with the information available at the time, the decision to move under canvas was definitely the correct one.

I change and pack up all of my bits and pieces from the board room.  Hedda has booked a table for herself, me, Theresa and another staff member, Susan, to have a wind-down dinner.  Theresa gives me the address and having set the sat nav, I follow the instructions and arrive at R+D Kitchen, in a nearby mall.

The four of us are very tired, after a challenging day (for them, much more than me:  I just did the two shows that I was expecting to do).  We eat appetisers, and talk.  We order Entrees and talk.

It turns out that Hedda, whose family come from Henley-on-Thames, almost went to St Helen’s school in Abingdon, where Liz is now head of keyboards in the music department.  It’s a small world.

We finish our meals (I have Greek-style chicken with tabouleh, which is delicious ) and say our goodbyes for another year.  I am sure we will all meet again in twelve months, and who knows what the California weather will have in store for us then?

I return to the Ayres Hotel, and set my alarm for 4.45am: tomorrow is a day of travel.



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