A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic

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Call it a busman’s holiday, but when Liz asked me last year if I would like to go to theatre to see a production of A Christmas Carol as one of my Christmas presents, I leaped at the chance. I never tire of the story and any opportunity to see someone else’s vision of it is a privilege, and is also useful for the ongoing development of my own show as I always notices different ways of presenting a scene, or even just an alternative method of delivering a line.

The production that Liz had chosen was at The Old Vic Theatre which is situated near to the Waterloo railway station just south of the River Thames. The Old Vic is not in the heart of the West End theatre district, but has a reputation for imaginative and innovative programming. I remember being taken to the venue on a school trip to see the British actor Timothy West play Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice, which we were studying, and realising that seeing a play in its natural setting rather than grinding through it in an academic environment can teach a student so much.

Saturday January 8 was our performance day, and having dropped the girls off at a friend’s house, we drove to London in thick fog and heavy rain, it was a foul day to be travelling and a slightly tight timescale meant that we couldn’t dawdle. Our matinee was due to commence at 1pm, but we had to present ourselves at the theatre between 12 and 12.30 – in these days of Covid restrictions the management were trying to get blocks of audience seated at different times, to avoid everyone rolling up together at 12.45.

The traffic was heavy and fast moving, although the visibility was low, and the opportunities for catastrophe was high. Inevitably we were soon rolling to a standstill behind a long queue of stationary traffic, and away in the distance the thick cloud was pierced by flashing blue and red lights as a police car blocked the road, presumably to allow for an accident to be cleared. We sat and sat and sat, and the idea of making our time slot became more and more unlikely. Eventually the flashing lights were extinguished and we drove on once more.

We made good time for the rest of the journey and we wound around Buckingham Palace before crossing the river Thames and finding our parking space close to the the theatre (in the absence of any parking garages in the vicinity we had found a parking space available for rent on someone’s driveway and booked a four hour slot).

The rain was still falling as we walked to the theatre and joined the long line waiting to be admitted. In an attempt to expedite the process, one of the front of house staff made her way along the line scanning tickets, so that by the time we got to the door we could walk straight in….or so we thought.

The producers of the show had sent a detailed email the day before entitled ‘Everything You Need to Know About Your Visit’, and we had followed the instructions to the letter, however one may have supposed that in an email with such a title, they might have mentioned the need to take a Lateral Flow Test for Covid on the day of the show, rather than putting that instruction in a second email with the title ‘We Are Looking Forward to Your Visit’, which sat, unread, alongside many other similarly titled emails most of which were purely of a promotional nature.

So, when a second box office member walked the line asking to check on everyone’s LFT status Liz and I exchanged a look of horror, for we had no idea! The young man was sympathetic, but unmovable, there would be no entry to the theatre without proof of a negative test in the past few hours. However, he did offer to call his manager who may be able to explain. So we were asked to leave the queue and stand aside until the aforesaid manager appeared. He was equally sympathetic and equally intransigent until he produced a pair of test kits, as if they were Class A drugs, and secretively handed them over to us, suggesting that we find somewhere nearby to carry out a test (‘don’t do it in front of the others, ok?)

We looked helplessly around us, until I noticed a tiny little tent in the square outside the main theatre entrance, which bore the legend: ‘NHS Mobile Testing Centre’ well, that seemed as good a place as any other, so we poked our heads in and asked if we could do our LFTs in the dry, ‘We don’t do Lateral Flow, only PCRs’ we were told, so we had to explain that we had the kits, we didn’t need to be given any, but just required a dry space and as they had no one in their tent at the present, could we huddle under the dripping canvas? They agreed, and we both undertook the least clinical and probably least hygienic tests imaginable. As we waited for the tell-tale line to appear, some more people arrived from the theatre queue, making the same request, but they were turned away. We were lucky.

Fortunately both tests were negative and soon we were back in line and were finally admitted to the theatre with 8 minutes to spare, rather than the 30 that we should have had. Liz had booked amazing tickets in the stalls and we were nestled close to the action, as a temporary circular stage had been built in the centre of the auditorium, meaning that the whole show was performed in the round, with extra seating having been installed on the traditional stage looking out through the proscenium arch and into the auditorium. As the audience gathered, so the cast (with the exception of Mr Scrooge) mingled on the stage, greeting us all with smiles and waves – they were all dressed in long black coats and top hats, but were in no way ‘in character’, they were simply welcoming us to their club, encouraging us to join them. Earlier on in the process they had been handing out mince pies and satsuma oranges, but at that time we had been taking our secret Covid tests, so missed out on the tasty treats. Bah, Humbug!

In the text of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens goes out of his way to make the reader feel as if they have company throughout the story, for example when Scrooge first encounters the Ghost of Christmas Past Dickens says: ‘The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow’. There is the storyteller, close at hand, looking after us.

As an audience we weren’t allowed to feel that the cast were one group and the audience another, in fact we were encouraged to believe that we were ‘really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’ and that would be a central theme to the entire performance.

At the centre of the stage a trio of musicians played country folk tunes on a fiddle, an accordion and a whistle, and then suddenly, imperceptibly, the story began, the music became louder, the audience began to clap in time and the cast began to sing, just like that: no announcement, no lowering of house lights, but we were off an running. During the first musical number the entire cast provided accompaniment on hand bells, which sounded sublime.

I wont give a detailed review of the show, for there are many available online, but I want to share our feelings of the adaptation and the performance: it was beautiful, it was intensely moving and it was very very clever. The set and staging was very simple, with little more than four doorframes (one at each compass-point of the stage) which rose up when Scrooge was in the reality of his office or home, but which tilted backwards and laid flat, recessed in the stage, when he was on his supernatural journeys.

Much of the narrative and dialogue was lifted directly from the original, but the writer Jack Thorne had not shrunk away from including his own changes and way of telling the story (for example the three spirits in no way resemble those written by Dickens, but were extremely effective nonetheless). Some scenes were moved around within the plot but settled into their new homes with ease, and the whole journey of Ebenezer was utterly believable and so moving. Much of Scrooge’s torment was shown to arise from his childhood fear of debt, and in these scenes there was a sense of Dickens’ own personality (when Charles was only 12 years old his father had been imprisoned for debt leaving a scar on the great man’s personality that would never heal).

There was a lovely moment when the young Scrooge was seen chatting to his little sister, Fan. Ebenezer had just been released from the lonely torment of his school but was now faced with the anger and abuse of their debt-ridden father. As Fan skipped onto the stage she held a violin in her hand and happily told her brother that she had been told she had talent and if she practiced hard she would become even better. In Dickens’ own childhood he had been sent to work in the squalor of a shoe blacking factory, whilst his little sister was sent to The Royal Academy of Music, where she had won a scholarship. The young Dickens never begrudged her successes and loved her dearly: her name was Fanny, or Fan.

And what of Mr Scrooge himself? The role was played by the very popular actor Stephen Mangan who in recent years has enjoyed a stellar career as a television ‘personality’. Apart from his roles in both comedy and drama series he has also found a niche as a presenter, winning prime-time audiences over with his flashing smile and easy wit. When such personalities are cast in a leading theatrical role it is often to satiate the marketing department, and the performance is little more than an extension of their television persona, but Mangan is so much better than that. We were fortunate to have seen him in a previous theatrical role, and had been super impressed by his performance as Sidney Stratton in ‘The Man in the White Suit’, but his performance as Ebenezer Scrooge moved the bar up many levels. He played Scrooge as an angry man, tormented by his background and his fears. I have said before that I do not like versions of A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge is angry throughout and refuses to listen to the ghosts, and to some extent Mangan’s performance took this route, but you could tell that beneath the apparent rage the new Scrooge (or, more to the point, the old Scrooge) was struggling to burst forth. And when it DID burst forth, OH! What JOY! The tears of sheer elation poured down our cheeks and I am sure many others too. Suddenly the entire audience became part of the celebrations. The young boy who is sent to fetch the turkey from the poulterer’s shop became three young boys selected from the audience being sent to the bakers, from where hey nervously and proudly carried the largest, wobbliest, fruit jelly you have ever seen onto the stage and received a rousing round of applause and a cheer (we were all cheering and applauding everything by this time!) We all joined Fred’s party and took the feast to the Cratchit’s house where old Ebenezer and Tiny Tim connected in the most moving way imaginable. And it snowed! Throughout the auditorium it snowed on us all.

Among this finale of celebration there were moving scenes too, as Scrooge tried to make his peace with those he had wronged, and the meeting of him with Belle at her house door was a particularly effective moment. There was also a reminder from the three spirits that this was not a magical overnight conversion, but one that had to be continually worked at.

As the show ended, Liz and I were on our feet clapping and cheering loudly, and the entire cast looked deeply moved by the reception. Their emotions would have been heightened by the fact that this was the final day of their run and they now had only one more opportunity to present A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas

OK, I promised not to review it. Too late!

The performance, the experience, stayed with us during the walk back to the car, throughout the journey home and on into the evening. We both felt moved, uplifted and improved by being part of it and it will stay with us for a long time to come

It was a spectacular afternoon of live theatre and I thank the entire ensemble and production team for bringing it to us.

At the end of the show Mr Mangan made a short speech pointing out that Dickens was writing about the huge poverty gap in the 1840s and the sad fact is that the problem still exists, we were encouraged to donate to the FareShare charity, who raise money and campaign to bring food poverty and food waste to an end. It is a superb and appropriate cause and if you are able to support it then please visit the website and give what you can.

‘Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash!’ Quite a Way to End!

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The final day of my 2021 Christmas performance season was in the City of Leicester, in The Midlands. It has become something of a tradition over the years that on the 23rd December I perform a matinee and an evening show in the amazing surroundings of the Guildhall’s Great Hall, which was built at the end of the 14th Century. The room is timber framed and at the centre there is a huge fireplace which is always lit during my visit to warm the sell-out audiences that always attend.

With the Café Royal’s sad cancellation, I had spent my free day with Liz and the girls, and in the evening we had visited the Silverstone race track, where we had attempted to ice skate (I had a great fear that I would fall awkwardly, thus making my rendition of Tiny Tim rather too real), and then drove a very slow lap of the track to admire the light and laser show that had been installed for the Christmas season.

On Thursday morning the car was a prop carrying vehicle once more and I was back on the road. As I drove, the radio programme which was playing asked listeners to supply their favourite questions for Christmas quizzes, and one chap phoned in with the inevitable ‘How many ghosts visit Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol?’ The answer being, of course, four (Marley and the ghosts of Past, Present and Future), but then somebody else texted in with the pedantic opinion that as ‘Yet to Come’ was from the future it couldn’t be considered a ghost, so the answer was three after all. My solution to this celestial conundrum was to include the words ‘on Christmas Eve’ after the question, which means the answer is one, as only Marley appears before midnight, although there is the issue of the air filled ‘…with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.’, but technically they haven’t actually visited Scrooge, so don’t count!

I arrived at Leicester at 11, and parked as close as I could to the venue and started carrying the furniture down the narrow cobbled alley which runs between The Guildhall and Leicester Cathedral with its tall spire.

I was welcomed by Ben Ennis, a friend of many years standing, and we chatted for a while, catching up on our news. Ben had caught Long Covid very early on, and suffered for many months. Although understandably he had been extremely cautious, worn a mask and kept away from crowds, he actually caught it again, thankfully this second time he recovered within a couple of weeks. I asked him if the Guildhall’s audience numbers were being affected by cancellations (after the Café Royal’s experience I was nervous during these last days), and he said although some had called, their tickets had been snapped up by those on the waiting list, so he wasn’t too worried.

Once the car was unloaded I had to move it to a nearby car park and as I walked back I saw that Jubilee Square was filled with a huge Ferris Wheel and a skating rink – I knew from experience that noise from the square accompany would my performance, and I resigned myself to the fact there may be distractions for both me and the audience – little did I know then that later I would have given my right arm to just have the noise from the ice rink in the background!

My changing room at The Guildhall is The Jury Room, from where I can hear the audience gathering and on Thursday the afternoon crowd sounded a lively bunch, and very Christmassy. There was a lot of laughter and loud conversation, which boded extremely well.

At 1pm I went to the back of the hall, and slowly walked through the masked audience, with my scarf pulled up over my face, until I reached the stage. I was right, the audience were imbued with the spirit of Christmas, and we all shared a great afternoon together. Unfortunately there wasn’t a big enough staff to spare anyone to follow the script and look after the sound cues, so apart from the opening music I was performing unplugged, meaning that Mr Fezziwig had to dance without the strains of Sir Roger de Coverly to give him rhythm, but he managed quite well.

The show finished at around 3pm and I took my bows to loud applause and returned to the Jury Room to change. It has been a tradition in Leicester that between shows Ben has brought in a Christmas lunch of Turkey and all of the trimmings and so, with various staff members and his family, we have celebrated the season with good fellowship, but of course this year we couldn’t gather, which was a shame. Ben made up for this loss by presenting me with a turkey sandwich, some fresh fruit, and a trifle, which I took back to my hotel room, where I lay on the bed and watched television until it was time to get ready for the evening show.

When I arrived at The Guildhall, there were already audience members waiting for the door to be opened, and soon a steady stream were making their way in reserving their seats, before availing themselves of mulled wine.

Once again it was almost a full house and once again the audience seemed in great spirits, boding well for a fine send off to the ’21 tour. But, this wasn’t going to be an easy show by any stretch of the imagination.

I was not far in when the bell ringers in the cathedral began their weekly practice, and spent time perfecting their loudest and most complex peals. Every scene was accompanied, indeed almost drowned out, by the constant noise, making it difficult to concentrate. Every so often a particular peal would end, and you could almost feel the sigh of relief in the hall, which turned to disappointment as the next one began. The Leicester Cathedral bell ringers are a dedicated bunch, I will give them that! The interval arrived and still the bells rang and crashed. Ben apologised, although there is nothing he could have done to prevent it, and said that they would probably finish within about twenty minutes of the second half beginning. That SHOULD just about have been OK for Bob Cratchit returning home without Tim on his shoulder – the narrator says that it ‘was quiet. Very quiet’, and it is one of my favourite moments in the show, for I can feel the emotion and tension of an entire audience in that moment – crashing bells wouldn’t be appropriate.

I started act two and sure enough eventually the Cathedral Tinnitus ended, allowing me my moment of peace. The Cratchit scene passed and the atmosphere that builds through the final quarter seemed to be well established, until unbelievably a nearby security alarm went off and the rest of the show was accompanied by a loud, screeching ‘whoop whoop whoop whoop’ which didn’t end until the very final sentence of the story. I at least made was able to make an adlib, which broke the ice somewhat, by saying ‘Yes, the bedpost was his own, the bed was his own, the room was his own, the alarm was his own…..’ which was greeted by a loud cheer and even a cry of ‘Brilliant!’ That was rather overstating it, but it proved that we had all been battling the same intrusions into our fantasy world, together.

The show came to an end and the the hall erupted into applause and I earned a standing ovation which was a very fitting end to a wonderful season of performances – it has been apparent that audiences in both the UK and America have needed entertainment after such a difficult two years (I remember the same phenomenon in 2001, post 9-11) and have come out in good numbers to see the show, but have remained respectful of the wishes of others, whether that has meant wearing a mask throughout the show, or distancing in an auditorium.

My decision not to undertake long formal signing sessions has allowed me to conduct the question and answer sessions after the shows which have proved very popular.

What does 2022 hold for me? Of course we cannot tell, but there are a couple of new books in the pipeline, one of which is all about the history of my tours and the development of the show (I may even include the script…), and if everything works well that will be available for sale when I tour next year.

I will also get back to my running, which I have rather let lapse during the 2nd half of this year, with the aim of completing a half marathon before the year is out.

In the meantime, thank you to all of the audience members who have joined me for the ride this year and to the many people who have allowed me to perform in their venues, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year.

Two Nights at Highclere

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My final week of performing continued on Monday, just a week after returning from America, with the first of two performances at the magnificent Highclere Castle.

I had left my hotel in York at around 9am and with a decent drive I managed to get home for some lunch and time with with the family (the latter having been a rarity over the previous month), but at 2.15 it was time to get back into the car and head to the beautifully castellated and be-towered cuboid home that in real life is the home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, and in fiction is the ancestral home of the Crawley family in the guise of Downton Abbey.

I first performed at Highclere two years ago, and the event had been a great success, but sadly one that we couldn’t repeat in ’20, for obvious reasons, but in 2021 Lady Carnarvon was anxious to celebrate Christmas well in the old house and booked me for a double stint, with shows on both Monday and Tuesday.

As the sun lowered in the sky I turned into the long driveway and was delighted when a security guard flagged me down and cheerily said ‘Hello Mr Dickens, just follow the road up to the front door where you can unload!’ so I swept into the large gravel area in front of the house and pulled up outside the great front door (such a spacious area deserves a good ‘sweep’). As I opened the car door I was cheerily greeted by John, the Castle Manager, who opened the large front door for me, and helped me load my things in to the Saloon, the great space, dominated by a huge Christmas tree, which forms the heart of the house and where I would be performing.

Two years ago a decent sized stage had been erected in front of the huge stone fireplace, and that had been surrounded by around 80 seats. This year numbers had been reduced to 50, to allow guests to distance as they required, and about a metre had been lost from the stage, to allow more room between me and the front row. Once I had my furniture placed I could see that the performances this year were not destined to be terribly active ones, as I wasn’t going to have much room to move.

I chatted to John, and Charlotte, the events manager with whom I have been corresponding during the year, and ran through the running plan for the event (start at 5, interval at 5.45, 30-minute interval, second act at 6.15, finish at 7 and then join the guests for supper). I also ran through the sound queues with Charlotte, and then took myself off to one of the ‘back stage’ private rooms where I laid out my costumes and changed into costume.

As I sat waiting waiting for 5 pm to tick around an email came in from The Café Royal in the heart of London, where I was due to be performing on Wednesday evening, saying that it was with great reluctance that they had been forced to cancel the event, due to the fact that many of the guests had decided that they didn’t want to be with groups of people in the middle of London, where the Omicrom Variant of Covid had been spreading rapidly through the previous week. I had fully expected to loose some shows as the national situation worsened and there was always the possibility that the government would introduce tighter restrictions on events, and scupper the lot. If the Café Royal event was to be the only victim, then I would be relieved.

At 5 o’clock I made my way through the various corridors and met with John, who would be introducing me to the stage. All of the guests had arrived, had been given a welcoming glass of champagne and were now sat in the Saloon ready for the show. I made my way to the top of the staircase, and John walked onto the stage where he said a few words and then welcomed me. Charlotte brought the music cue in perfectly and I walked down the stairs, through the audience and up onto my little stage. To my left sat Liz and our good friends Nikki and Martin. Highclere generously offer me the opportunity of bringing guests to the show, and it was so nice to see ‘my team’ among the audience (this would be the first time that Liz has actually seen the show for two years, and the first time that Nikki and Martin had ever seen it, although Martin worked closely with me on the creation of the video version, which is once again available to rent – details at the end of the post).

Despite the lack of space to move, indeed maybe as a result of it, the show was a very good one, concentrating more on the storytelling aspect, rather than the brash theatricality. I could tell that the little pieces of knock-about business wouldn’t play well with this group, so I didn’t bother with encouraging them to gasp at Mrs Cratchit’s goose, or to sigh in delight when the pudding was produced, I just told the story, and the show was the better for it.

The interval came and went, and I was soon calling to the young boy from Scrooge’s window. When I finally wished everyone a ‘Happy Christmas’ (remembering that I was now in England), and left the stage, the applause echoed loudly around the old walls, and I returned to take my bows to all sides, indeed I was called back once more for a second round of bowing. It was a lovely and rewarding experience.

I hurried back to my dressing room where I changed into a jacket and tie, so that I could join Liz, Nikki and Martin in the festive marquee which had been erected in the courtyard at the rear of the house and where tables had been prepared for each individual bubble of audience members. The menu featured salmon and beetroot, delicious Scotch Eggs with golden yolks, a demitasse of mushroom soup, all finished up with a mince pie and a chocolate caramel cup. Glasses of champagne were regularly refilled, although with a drive ahead of us all, we had to decline further top-ups. This was a rather different dining experience to the various meals delivered to me by Uber Eats over the last few weeks!

It had been a lovely evening, made so much more special by having Liz and our friends there.

The following evening I was back at Highclere for the second show and this time as I drove up to the house there was a beautiful golden setting sun behind creating an image that would have had the film crews of Downton Abbey running for their cameras to capture.

I made my way back to the dressing room and discovered that the staff had brought in a hat stand and hung all of my costumes up for me, as well as laying my shoes neatly out. It was as if the butler had come in, which was rather grand.

The preparations for the show, and the show itself followed the same routine as the day before, although the audience were a little more restrained. On stage it is very difficult to judge how people are reacting when most of their faces are hidden behind masks, but it seemed as if everyone was having fun, and the enthusiastic applause at the end certainly backed up that supposition.

After I had taken my bows I changed and packed my things up, and returned to the Saloon. I was not joining the guests for dinner tonight, so once I had retrieved the car and brought it to the front door, I could load up and return home by 8 0’clock, where I could have a supper at home with Liz – a rare treat!

Highclere Castle is a truly wonderful venue to perform A Christmas Carol in and I am delighted that it has become a fixture on my UK tour.

For any of you who haven’t been able to see the show this year, or who need an extra fix, remember that my film version is available to rent, and you can access it through the following link

TO RENT GERALD DICKENS’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL: https://tinyurl.com/ychp7t3r

Happy Birthday

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Sunday19 December was a birthday. A 178th birthday. Charles Dickens first introduced the characters of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit and his family, the various ghosts, Belle, Fred and all of the others to the world on that date in 1843 and so began one of the most extraordinary literary success stories of all time, for the book has never been out of print from that day on.

My birthday celebrations began with an early breakfast at The Shankly Hotel in Liverpool, as I had to get onto the road by 9am for a drive across the country and north to Tynseside, leaving one great shipbuilding city on The Mersey and travelling to another on The Tyne.

The morning was a foggy one, a very foggy one, and all of the cars on that Sunday morning had both front and rear high intensity lights shining so that they glowed like, as Charles Dickens says, ‘ruddy smears on the palpable brown air’.

As the morning went on my route took me eastwards on the M62 and gradually the fog began to clear, and a bright morning sun shone to my right. I was listening to the coverage of the second cricket test match from Adelaide (a day-night match), and it was extraordinary to hear the commentators describe the sun setting in the west, while I watched the same celestial body rising in the east. The clearing of the weather had less to do with the fog lifting but more to do with my climbing to a greater altitude. Various signs informed me that I was crossing Saddleworth Moor, a name which strikes repulsion and loathing into British minds, but which is also one of the most beautiful tracts of countryside I have ever seen. The low-lying fog nestled in the valleys whilst the hills were illuminated in a golden morning glow. I drove onwards and upwards until another notice proclaimed that I was at the highest point on the UK motorway network meaning, inevitably, that I was soon descending back into the thick fog once more.

Eventually I joined the A1-M road, one of the main North-South routes, and I was back on familiar territory as I headed towards the North East.

I was due to perform at The Word – the National Centre of the Written Word, in South Shields, where I had last appeared at the end of October, just before my A Christmas Carol tour commenced. At that time I had been talking about my new book, Dickens and Staplehurst, as well as performing The Signalman, but I hadn’t yet received copies of the book from my publishers, so had none to sell. Even though the book had sold so well in Liverpool, I had kept a few back so that any audience members in South Shields who had seen my previous performance could buy them.

The journey took around three hours and I pulled up outside the extraordinary circular building at the edge of the market square on the stroke of 12. I called June, who was looking after this event, and soon all of the furniture for A Christmas Carol had been unloaded and was being taken up to the third floor, while I took the car to a nearby car park next to the large theatre in the town, The Custom House.

The room where I perform at The Word is not a theatre, it does not have great stage lighting, and doesn’t have any of the history or atmosphere of St George’s Hall, but somehow performing A Christmas Carol in a venue dedicated to the written word was the perfect way to celebrate the birthday and honour Charles Dickens, so the room was excellent!

While I prepared the stage I chatted with June who admitted that she wasn’t sure how many people would actually attend – the library had received a few cancellations, due to the growing fear of the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid 19. I was also worried about the effect of the virus on my final week of shows and fully expected some cancellations along the way, either due to stricter government regulations, or simply because audience members would make their own decisions based on their levels of caution or fear.

At 1.30 the doors were opened and the audience began to arrive, all masked, and by 2 everyone who was expected had arrived. June formally welcomed them and when she mentioned the fact that we were honouring 178 years of A Christmas Carol there was a loud gasp of excitement.

The show itself was very different from those in Liverpool, as I didn’t have the same space to roam, and with the bright fluorescent lights shining brightly, I could see the audience clearly, but the effect of that amazing story was every bit as powerful as ever. The audience laughed, and sobbed and shouted and clapped with every bit as much enthusiasm as their Merseyside cousins and when I took my bows they stood and called out their appreciation. When the applause had died down I returned to the stage and spoke briefly about Dickens’s writing process of A Christmas Carol, and how it came to be published on the 19th December.

When I had finished I pulled on my mask (the Christmas Carol one that I had been given in Pennsylvania a week before) and went to the little merchandise table with its scanty stock of books. Soon they were all sold and signed, and the audience made their way to their homes, while I changed and packed up again. I walked to the car park to retrieve the car and noticed that at The Custom House it was interval time. I could tell this because huddled in the cold outside the front door was a group of audience members smoking, while on the other side of the building, at the stage door, were huddled a gropu of actors smoking! On the pavement outside The Word June helped me to load up my props and a little after 4pm I was driving again, this time heading south through drizzly rail towards the city of York, where I would break my journey home to Oxfordshire, with an overnight stay at The Elmbank Hotel, which has become my traditional staging post for this journey.

I had spent a great deal of the day driving to perform for a small audience in the far north eastern corner of Britain, but it had been well worth it, for in that little room at the very top of The Word we had given ‘A Christmas Carol’ a very good birthday party!

‘The people were so hurried and so eager….’

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Sleep didn’t come easy on my first night in Liverpool, as the Shankly reverberated to the various parties it was hosting late into the night and early into the morning. It didn’t help that the couple in the next room seemed to have had a disagreement, and he kept leaving and then coming back and continuing their argument through the door, as she refused to let him back in…..

The last time I checked my clock was at 2am, so I assume I must have dropped off around that time. Fortunately I didn’t have an early start, as my first show was not due until 2.pm, so I could sleep for as long as I needed into Saturday morning, which, naturally, was not that long.

Breakfast at The Shankly is an impressive buffet, and I availed myself of a full English, with plenty of refills of coffee (the cups were far too small and needing lots of replenishing). I went back to the room and caught up with some emails and waited for the city to come alive. I was planning to walk into the city centre and complete a little Christmas shopping in Saturday morning, as well as trying to get a float for the remaining merchandise sales.

Liverpool 1 is a large, open shopping mall that embraces many of the city’s historic districts and stretches down to the banks of the River Mersey. Like any port city Liverpool is exciting, brash, vibrant and loud and has its own distinct personality and on that Saturday morning the shopping district was busy.

Hopeful musicians performed their latest songs, or covers of old ones, hoping to be discovered and follow in the footsteps of The Beatles, whilst elsewhere various political factions shouted their opinions over small PA systems (at one point, two diametrically opposed groups had set up camp in the same street and spent the time shouting abuse at their rivals – even making occasional forays to pull each other’s displays down). Another stall was selling English translations of The Qur’an, and a recorded message continually broadcast the fact that it was available. It was a very strange phenomenon to see, but lots of people stuck their fingers in their ears as they walked passed, as if even hearing the words would somehow effect them.

Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men……

Having bought the gifts I needed, I then went in search of cash, and to my dismay discovered that my own bank wasn’t open. I tried a few other companies, but they all said the same – ‘you have to have an account with us to change money’. One helpful lady suggested the post office may be able to help, so I walked to the local branch and patiently stood in line, and here part of my show almost came true.

At the point in the story when Scrooge and The Ghost of Christmas Present stand on the streets of London, Dickens describes the people as being so busy and eager that ‘sometimes they tumbled up against each other’, at which point I strike a pugilistic pose, and if possible make a little ‘ad lib’. In America I suggest that this moment is like Black Friday, but in the UK I will often mention the local shopping mall, saying something like ‘Liverpool 1 on Christmas eve!’

Well, on Saturday as I stood in the post office, the guy in front of me was trying to draw his benefits from an account, but none of his cards were working, the patient cashier patiently explaining to him that he had already withdrawn all of his available funds. Unfortunately, such reasoning didn’t work as he was obviously much the worse the wear from some substance or other. Eventually a manager was called, which didn’t help either, at which time the queue behind me began to get impatient, and one man shouted ‘Just get out of here’, well that ignited the situation, as the guy at the counter rounded quickly, fists flying and screaming every obscenity he could think of. Fortunately in his impaired state none of the blows landed, but he stood staring with bulging eyes, daring his opponent to respond, which he was about to do, when security arrived. In reality there was none of the calm resolution described in A Christmas Carol and maybe there was no spirit present to shed drops of water on the two men. Instead of happily saying that ‘It was a shame to quarrel….’ the two were parted and led away. Phew. Oh, and the post office wouldn’t exchange cash either!

The morning drifted on and I returned to the hotel to prepare for the afternoon’s show. I showered to re-energise myself and took the short walk back to St George’s Hall, where Tas was already setting up. Having watched the show, and pondered overnight, he had had a few ideas, the most obvious one being to add a lingering echo to Jacob Marley’s final line as he floats away out of the window. We rehearsed the scene a few times just to be sure of the timing, and then I went back to my dressing room to prepare.

At the 2 o’clock Saturday show we had a small choir present to entertain the crowds as they arrived (in fact they had been booked for all of the shows, but had cancelled the two evening performances due to the members not feeling comfortable using crowded public transport at night.) Initially the singers sung in the large foyer area, and then at 2pm moved up onto the stage to perform in the Concert Hall itself which was perfectly suited for the beautiful choral harmonies that they created. The audience were suitably impressed and gave the singers a great ovation, as they filed off the stage.

Lynne made her introduction, the lights dimmed and I began once again. The Saturday matinee was played to an almost full house and was another excellent show. I was on good form (and even managed to perform all of the scenes in the order in which they had been written), as were the audience. We had great fun with the aromas of the goose, and with Mrs Cractchit’s pudding, and Tas subtly changed the levels of lighting, as well as adding his echoes to Jacob Marley’s voice (not only when the ghost left, as we had rehearsed, but also during the reprise of that line at the opening of act 2).

Again Liverpool gave me a huge and loud response and I lingered on the stage to make the most of it. It is very moving, but Merseyside has really welcomed me over the years, indeed almost adopted me as one of their own.

The afternoon audience had a good many children in it, which was lovely to see, and at the signing session one young boy asked ‘which ghost did I think helped Scrooge the most?’ I said I have always thought that Past is the one who starts everything, and prepares Scrooge to learn, but I also said that wasn’t the correct answer, just my opinion, and asked which one he thought. He plumped for ‘the jolly guy!’ because he showed him what might happen to Tiny Tim, which is an excellent answer too.

After I had finished and changed, I purchased myself a large Bratwurst hot dog from the Christmas market and returned to the hotel for a couple of hours. I discovered that ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ was on the TV, so I watched a little of that with great interest, before showering and getting ready for my last show in Liverpool for this year. Before leaving the hotel I asked the restaurant if they would put a slice of cheesecake aside for me (the kitchens would be closed by the time I got back), so that I could have a little something to wind down with.

The Saturday night audience was the smallest of the three and therefore, the quietest, and my performance wasn’t quite as strong as the other two, I could feel the tiredness effecting me and the temptation was to over-compensate a little, which I tried not to do. It was one of those shows where the audience response wasn’t as lively during the show, but at the end there was an explosion of cheering and clapping, showing me that they had been fully engaged throughout. Rosalie, my Great Expectations-loving hotel greeter, had come to the evening show, and I knew that the voiced that shouted out ‘EVERY ONE!’ to finish the final line, was hers.

There was not much signing to be done, as we had pretty well sold everything, so I could start the process of getting all of my things packed away quickly. I changed, packed my various cases, and loaded all of the furniture into the lift to take them down to the ground floor level, where the St George’s Hall team helped me to load the car (which I had retrieved from The Shankly’s parking garage.)

Back at he hotel I went to the bar and my cheesecake was produced. Rosalie was there and gushed with excitement about the show, and then introduced me to the social media manager of the hotel. It seemed a strange time of the night to conduct business, but I suggested that The Shankly should come on board as an event sponsor in the future!

Eventually I said my goodnights and went up to my room. On the following morning I would need to be on the road by 9am, so I made sure that everything was packed, and then retired for the night.

It had been a very enjoyable and very successful two days in Liverpool, and hopefully I will be back in 2022.

Quite the Welcome in Liverpool

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The final UK leg of my 2021 tour began on Friday when I drove north from Oxfordshire to the city of Liverpool. With only one evening performance on Friday I didn’t need to leave home until around 11am, giving me plenty of time to ensure that the car was fully loaded with all of the props and costume that I would need for three days of shows.

Initially the drive went well, but after I had stopped for lunch and was nearing Cheshire, the traffic ground to a halt and warnings of lane closures due to an accident were flashed up. Fortunately I had plenty of time in hand, and even the 45-minutue delay didn’t cause me any real problems, other than not allowing me time to get into my hotel and relax. Having cleared the blockage, I was soon swooping downhill towards the River Mersey, and more specifically the beautiful St George’s Hall.

In previous years I have been able to drive right up to the side door of the amazing venue and unload my car, before parking in one of the staff car parking spaces behind the hall, but this year the City had extended its traditional Christmas market, which previously had only occupied the plaza at the front, to surround the entire building, meaning I couldn’t get my car anywhere near, without convincing various security guards that I really did have a good reason for unloading. Of course following the spate of Christmas market terrorist attacks involving vehicles being driven through crowded festive celebrations you can quite understand why such rigid precautions were put in place.

When I had parked my car as close as I could to the hall, some members of staff brought a trolley out and we loaded it up as best we could, while I carried the chair and a case into the building, and then took my car to the car park beneath The Shankly Hotel, just a 5 minute walk away.

The Shankly Hotel, named in honour of one of Liverpool Football Clubs most famous and successful managers, is perfectly situated for my stays in the city, and there is a welcoming sense of familiarity to it now. The foyer was spectacularly decorated for Christmas, and as I stood waiting to check in, I was approached by a member of staff, proudly wearing a Great Expectations t shirt: ‘In your honour! I heard you were coming, so I put this on for you!’ Rosalie introduced herself as a huge Dickens fan, and was so excited that I was staying and proceeded to make a great big celebrity fuss of me!

Having checked in and got up to my room, I discovered a beautiful platter of little cakes, with the message ‘Good Luck!’ scrolled in icing. There was also a card in which Rosalie had included the quote: ‘There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour!’. A few days ago Liz and I were watching a very VERY trashy Christmas movie, in which one of the characters was reading A Christmas Carol to some guests in a remote hotel, and it was that particular line that was featured. Liz had commented what a great line it is, and I’d mentioned that it was one that I wanted to get into the show sometime, but never had. The card from the staff at The Shankly seemed to be the final push to make me do it: the new line would be in the show that evening.

I really only had time to drop my bags before returning to St George’s Hall to prepare for the evening’s show. When I walked in there was Lynne Hamilton, the producer of the shows here, and a friend of many years, and we greeted each other warmly, but ‘safely’. With the recent increase of the Omicron variant, Lynne had spent a very nervous week listening to each new wave of restrictions and guidelines from government briefings, not knowing if the events would even be allowed to go ahead. Final confirmation came on the day before, but even so she had received quite a few cancellations as people elected to remain safely in their homes rather then venturing out to a theatre.

From the quite dour entrance hall, I made my up the dour staircase, into a dour hallway and through a pair of wooden doors into the majestic, sparkling, gilded, ornate and utterly spectacular Concert Room at the top of the building.

I would be truly fortunate to perform in this space in any circumstances, but the fact that Charles Dickens stepped out onto the same stage to say the same words, and pronounced the room as one of his favourites to perform in, always adds an extra frisson to my times in Liverpool. I introduced myself to Tas, who was looking after my audio and lighting needs for the duration of my stay, and soon we started doing a series of sound tests, before discussing if there was anything we could do in the way of lighting effects. The hall does not have an extensive lighting rig, so I suggested that he watched the Friday night show and then he could decided if there was any scope to do anything extra on Saturday. Tas explained that he had a background in cabaret and comedy, and was keen to do whatever he could to enhance the performance. His first action was to find some squares of blue lighting gel to fix over a series of uplighters set into he stage floor, just to take the edge off the golden glare on the pillars behind where I would be doing my stuff.

When all of our technical conversations were completed, I went to my large dressing room and ate a simple salad before getting into costume ready for the 7.30 start. Lynne made a few appearances, and we discussed the selling of my book, Dickens and Staplehurst, as well as the souvenir brochures that Ian and I had created a few years ago. As the rail crash book is not really a Christmas volume, we didn’t think that sales would be strong at this event, but we laid some copies out on the merchandise table hoping that a few people would respond to the opportunity of owning a Dickens first edition.

In the dressing room I went through the lines that needed to be re-inserted for the two act version of the show, and with about ten minutes to go Tas appeared to check the microphones (he had given me a back-up pack, just in case)., and then it was time take a final swig of water, and switch my ‘show brain’ on.

The route to the stage is via a small ante room, which has a monitor in it showing the stage, and on the screen I could get some idea as to the size of the audience. With Covid cases rising rapidly across the UK, Lynne had received calls from audience members cancelling at the last moment, and we had no idea as to the extent of possible ‘no shows’, but on the tiny TV screen it looked as of a very impressive crowd had turned up. And then an extraordinary thing took place on the stage which sent the years rolling back: Tas lit the candles.

When Charles Dickens toured with his readings he travelled with a gas man, whose responsibility it was to erect the lighting rig, consisting of two upright pipes, with gas jets backed by reflectors at head height, connected by a further pipe overhead, with a number of lights shining down on Dickens’ face. 5 minutes before my great great grandfather took to the stage (including the very stage I was about to walk on to) the gas man would pre-empt the show by opening the valves and igniting the various lights, and now, 152 years after his last performance in the hall, Tas was recreating the ‘gas man’s moment’

When the last audience member had been admitted, Lynne went onto the stage and as soon as she said hello, the audience erupted into applause – we were going to be in for a fun evening, and so it proved. The crowd were out for a great time and laughed and cheered at everything.

However, I got muddled up! Would you believe it, after all these years, I got muddled up: When Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past left the school, instead of heading to Fezziwig’s warehouse, I took then straight to the scene with Belle. I only realised my error when I noticed that the stool was in the wrong place on the stage, in other words, it hadn’t been cleared away prior to the ball. I ploughed on, and at the end of the scene, I returned to Fezziwig’s and danced my jig, before leaping forward in time once more to see the married Belle and her husband – what a mess! Well, I got to the end of the half and the applause as I left the stage let me know that there was nothing to worry about, and I could continue knowing that I hadn’t destroyed the story, but I was annoyed with myself.

During the interval Lynne came rushing into the dressing room asking if I had any more of the Staplehurst books, as the audience had gone mad for them and we had run out! Sadly I didn’t, and she went back to the lobby.

After a nice rest and towel down, I prepared to return for act 2, which would begin in a blackout, so that I could say the first lines (a reprise of Jacob Marley’s warning) in the darkness, but even as I groped my way towards the chair, the audience burst out into applause again!

The second act went more smoothly than the first and when I came off the stage at the end of the show I received a great big, happy, cheering, foot-stomping Liverpool ovation. It was wonderful.

With so many books sold, I had said that I would sign, but on the understanding that I would be masked, and that the line would be carefully controlled so that there wouldn’t be a mass of humanity crowding around me (with another week of performances, I had to be so careful to remain safe). When I came into the foyer the queue was backed up on the stairs, but it was well ordered, and I signed my books until everyone was gone.

Fortunately I had another day in Liverpool, so all of the set and costumes could remain at The Hall. I walked back to The Shankly, where various Christmas parties were in full, and loud, swing, and I ate a salad and some sausage rolls in my room – Rock and Roll!

The End of It

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On Sunday the USA leg of my 2021 tour came to an end, with a single afternoon performance of A Christmas Carol at Byers’ Choice, but the business of the day began early, with the two issues that had haunted me the previous night.

Firstly, there was the subject of my Covid test, taken two days earlier on my way to Lewes, and from which I would need a negative result to be allowed back into England. As of Sunday morning, no notification had arrived, so I started researching the possibility of getting another test, hopefully with an instant turnaround, at Philadelphia airport after my show. The other issue was that of the TV and the coverage of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which was due to start at 7am. The televisions at The Montgomeryville Quality Inn give you the option of casting your own content from a phone or laptop, and if you happen to want to watch regular programming, you simply press the button marked ‘TV’. Unfortunately, in room 215, the TV button had no effect. At 6.30 I went to reception, where Cynthia, the night manager, was coming to the end of her shift. She gave me a new remote, in case the batteries in mine were fading, and I went back upstairs to try again, with the same result as before. Back down I went, and eventually she offered to let me change rooms, which was very kind of her. I was now in room 207, and to my relief I discovered that I could indeed get to ESPN2 and watch the full build-up to the race, as well as the epic event itself. Fortunately, I had spent the early part of the morning packing my suitcases, so it was easy to transfer all of my things along the corridor from one room to another.

As all of this was going on I was also doing a final sneaky bit of laundry, as I didn’t have a fresh shirt to wear during the day and on my flight home, and while I was shifting things from washer to drier, I also collected the ‘Grab and Go’ breakfast offered by the hotel: I chose a sachet of oatmeal, to cook in my room’s microwave, a sausage and egg muffin, some orange juice and a coffee, and as I settled down to eat in front of the TV I received a text message confirming that my Covid test result had come back negative. My stars were aligning.

At 8am the race started. I won’t go into details, but it built up to a suitably exciting and controversial climax to an exciting and controversial season – everything boiled down to the very last lap before we knew who was crowned the 2021 World Champion.

With the race over, I resumed my packing (remembering to retrieve my dried laundry) and loaded the car up ready to drive back to Byers’ Choice. When I arrived, I took all of my cases into the office as I would need to pack my top hat and cane into the large one, and the costume that I would be wearing into my hand luggage. The offices were deserted when I arrived, so I sat in the boardroom and completed all of the oxymoronic online paperwork for my flight home.

Soon Bob appeared and said hello, and shortly afterwards Dave appeared with the microphone. Outside the lines were beginning to form for the biggest show of the year and as they were ushered in, I got into costume. I drank water and sucked on a Fisherman’s Friend throat lozenge to ensure a smooth show, and then sat at the desk and played a little backgammon on my phone, until it was time to walk to the hall. The room was already packed, and the high school choir were struggling to make themselves heard over the general hubbub, indeed one disgruntled parent was suggesting to Dave that he should make an announcement to ask the audience to be quiet and listen to the carols.

1.30 soon ticked around, so Bob and I went into our well-grooved routine and to get the show started. The large audience were certainly enthusiastic (is it were or was? Is an audience a plural or a singular? hmmmm), and I gave a what I believed to be a very good final performance: no carolers fell off their table and I didn’t try anything clever with candlesticks, meaning that I had a problem-free run to the finish line. The cheering and whooping and loud cries of ‘BRAVO!’ that started almost before I had finished ‘God bless us, every one’ were amazing, and the applause continued loudly as I returned to bow to all corners of the room.

As I left the stage, Bob walked onto it, and called me back for the final question and answer session of the season. A question that has come up fairly often, in varying forms, is about the text I use and how much it is changed from the original, and I answer that everything is based on the text that Charles Dickens himself had prepared for his readings, so is almost completely lifted from the original. One fairly obvious modern departure is the gross manipulation of old Joe’s snot. Obviously, Dickens didn’t write that particular description, but the passage that he DID write passage creates the sense of repulsiveness, that I try to capture:

‘They left the busy scene, and went into an obscure part of the town, where Scrooge had never penetrated before, although he recognised its situation, and its bad repute. The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.’

One change I have made during this year’s performances, just in the last few days of the tour in fact, has been to keep that atmosphere through the following scene and and so have made Mrs Dilber and Joe less figures of fun, but more downtrodden victims of society.

Another moment is when Scrooge surprises Bib Cratchit by telling him that he will raise his salary, and I, in the guise of Bob, stand and use the stool to fend off this apparently madman. Again, as with Joe’s nasal explorations, in the book Cratchit doesn’t do this, but he does get ‘…. a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.’ So, once more, even though I don’t use the line of narrative, I do capture the essence of the .original text..

Bob had been careful to choose a variety of questions that had been submitted – some about Dickens, some about A Christmas Carol and some about me, and the sessions have proved to be very popular. Maybe it is something we will think about continuing next year, even if there are no Covid restrictions in place by then.

When we had finished up on stage I returned to the boardroom and began packing my cases for the journey home, and by the time the top hat hat had been stuffed with socks, and wrapped in the woolly scarf to protect its shape, and everything else had been carefully folded and stowed, the Byers’ Choice team were well into the task of converting the 700-seater theatre into a production floor once more.

I found David up a tower, taking all of the theatrical lights down, and called up my thanks for all of his amazing work.

Jeff and Jake were packing chairs away, and I said goodbye and wished them the best for what will be very difficult Christmas season. I said goodbye to Pam, who always does such an incredible job in creating my tour, and finally to Bob who masterminds this whole crazy project on my behalf.

I loaded up the Rogue and set off towards a golden sunset, destination Philadelphia airport, and ultimately London.

As ever it had been a fun tour, with so many enthusiastic audiences and great people to work with. It is strange, but I haven’t felt desperately Christmassy during the weeks on the road, and I think that there is still a nervousness hanging over society which looks to the next year with a sense of suspicion. But for 75 minutes in a variety of rooms and halls throughout the North East of America, hopefully we could all forget those concerns and revel in Charles Dickens’ ‘ghostly little book’ and convince ourselves that we can honour Christmas in our hearts and try to keep it ALL the year!

Merry Christmas and thank you to everyone who has followed my American adventures over the last month, or so.

A Byer’s Market

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From Lewes Delaware, I had to drive north again on Saturday morning to the final venue of my 2021 American adventures, the headquarters of my American agents Byers’ Choice,

The drive was scheduled to be about 2 hours, 30, and as I would driving around Wilmington, I wanted to be on the road early so as to avoid potential traffic delays and that meant getting into the breakfast room as soon as it opened at 7.30. I was first down and helped myself to some cereal, piled high with fruit, and a couple of pastries. I must say it looked most colourful and healthy.

I was back in my room by 8, closing my fully packed suitcase and getting ready to leave. The latest action from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend was just starting, so I listened on headphones as I pulled my cases back to the car, and then linked up my phone to the audio system, so that I could follow the action as I drove. It was an overcast day, and occasionally rain fell.

As I continued to listen to the Formula One qualifying session, I drove passed one of the centres of the NACAR world – the colluseum-like the Dover Motor Speedway, huge grandstands and floodlights surrounding a mile long oval. It must be amazing to spectate at a NASCAR race in such a couldron, and I’d love to do it one day.

Although the route was basically the reverse of the one I had driven the day before, it seemed a much quicker journey and in no time, I was crossing one of the bridges that span the Christina River in Wilmington. As I looked down at the waters beneath, and then to the city skyline beyond, I recalled an occasion many years ago when I was due to perform at a festival in the city. My entrance was to be a grand one, and I was taken downstream where I boarded a fireboat in the company of Santa Clause and we steamed towards a convention centre, where the crowd would be waiting to greet us. During the first part of the journey, we had nobody to wave at, so Santa and I sat in the back of the boat, enjoying the view and chatting. You may be as surprised, as I was on that day, to learn that Santa actually doubled as a private detective! What a perfect disguise, and I remember him telling me that one Christmas he was performing both roles at the same time and a gentleman whom he was tailing actually lifted a child onto his lap for a photograph.

I drove on and passed the intersection for Claymont, and more memories flooded back, for it is in that suburb of Wilmington that the artist Felix Darley lived. Darley was one of Dickens’ American illustrators and Charles stayed with him when he was touring in 1867. When I visited, my performances were organised by a gentleman called Ray Hestor, who then owned the Darley House, and ran it as a B&B. On my first visit I flew into Wilmington airport and as I came off the plane I was serenaded by a group of Victorian-costumed carol singers, led by Ray. In those days, pre-9-11, anyone could come to the gates at the airport. Simpler times!

On I drove, into Pennsylvania, and as I had made good time, I decided to drop into a branch of Kohl’s clothing store, as I had no clean black socks for the next two days, and anyway the ones that I do have were getting rather old, so a new sock stock would be a good thing. I made my purchase and got into the car to complete the final part of the journey to Byers’ Choice and as I turned from the parking lot and onto the road, my mind went back maybe four years, when I had driven to this neighbourhood to do some laundry. At the time I had been listening to the audiobook of ‘His Dark Materials’ and now the exact passage of the book returned to me (the first time that Lyra met the armoured bear, Iorek Byrnison). It is amazing how a seemingly insignificant stimulus can open such detailed memories.

I arrived at the Byers’ Choice HQ and visitor centre at around 11.30, and as soon as I walked into the offices Bob and Pam, with their Boston Terrier, Calvin, greeted me. I hadn’t seen either of them since we said goodbye on the streets of Philadelphia after we had all seen Hamilton, and a lot had happened since then. Not only had their sister-in-law Dawn passed away, but a day or two before that Pam’s mother had unexpectedly died. It has been a terrible time for the Byers family. Having greeted each other, I went to the ‘theatre’ (it had been the production floor just a day before) to do a sound check with Dave, who looks after all of the technical details of my show. We have worked together for 17 years, and he probably knows the show as well as I do now. As I walked in, the first person I saw was Jeff Byers, Dawn’s husband, ready to play his part in making the afternoon a success, whilst dealing with his grief. I offered my condolences and put an arm around his shoulder for a moment, but it seemed a small and helpless gesture.

We were all there to work, however, and the moment passed as we got on with what we had to do, which for me was to prepare the stage for the show. When I had arranged the furniture as I wanted it, and David checked that his lighting rig was correctly focussed, we started the sound check. Normally, I would just start the show from the beginning, but being conscious that Jeff and his son Jake were still at the back of the room it didn’t seem sensitive to be saying ‘Marley was dead…’, ‘There is no doubt that Marley was dead…’, ‘as dead as a doornail….’, etc, so instead I skipped to the scene with the nephew Fred and then to the charity collector. When I had finished my checks, I went to the large boardroom which doubles as my dressing room, and started to lay the costumes out, and while I was doing that Bob appeared with the glad tidings that we had almost sold out of the signed copies of Dickens and Staplehurst, although it was thought that there may be some more copies somewhere. In the meantime, the stock of other books was selling fast too, and various members of The Byers’ Choice staff would occasionally appear with another pile to be signed.

The matinee was due to begin at 1pm, so I was in costume by 12.30 and making all of the pre-show checks to ensure that nothing untoward would happen. At 12.50 I made my way to the hall, where I stood at the back with Dave at his tech console and watched the very large audience gather who were listening to a high school choir singing carols. Watching Jeff and Jake cheerfully greet the audience members and make sure they were seated, as Dawn had done so energetically in previous years, was a very emotional thing to see, and proved what an incredibly strong and impressive family they are.

At 1 o’clock Bob joined Dave and me and, having given the signal to the choir master to wind up, we went together through the large warehouse and waited behind the door next to the stage.

If you have ever been to a Byers’ Choice show you may wonder why after the choir leaves the stage there is a bit of delay before Bob appears to make his introductory remarks, well it is because we both like to spend a few minutes thanking the students and congratulating them on their efforts.

When the singers disappeared to the store to collect their gift cards, a token of Byers’ Choice gratitude, Bob opened the door and we slipped into the darkened room. Seeing us, the audience applauded, and when Bob took to the stage, they applauded again. When he said, ‘welcome back, it is SO good to see you all’ there was more applause and when Bob greeted me there was yet more applause! This was definitely an audience of applauders.

There is nothing like being under bright stage lights, knowing that a large crowd is fully involved with every move and word, and I was fortunate to have that experience on Saturday afternoon. There were a few niggly moments during the show: I had decided to experiment on a slight tweak to the moves and pick up my little candlestick when Scrooge was making his way upstairs, and then leave it on the stool at the front of the stage. Unfortunately, I did that without thinking that Scrooge’s ‘former self’ would need needed to sit on the stool later on. I had planned to move the candle during the clearing away scene at Fezziwig’s without remembering the school scene. I managed to get the candlestick back to the table, but it was a clumsy moment, and I won’t be repeating it for a while. I also stumbled a bit as I stepped up onto the chair, in the guise of Fezziwig’s fiddle player, and during a particularly energetic moment some of the Byers’ Choice carollers fell off the table at the back of the set, although I could clear them up very easily, for it was just before mention of the room with the large and boisterous family, which gave me a good excuse to tidy up. Despite these tiny distractions, the show was an amazing one, and the audience were very active and engaged right to the end. The ovation was incredible and when I joined Bob on stage for the question-and-answer session (for such a large audience, questions had been submitted before the show, responding to a notice at the entrance: AGA – Ask Gerald Anything!), every answer was greeted with a fresh round of applause.

It was around 3.30 when I came off stage and so I had two hours to relax before the evening show. I returned back to the dressing room and Pam brought me a salmon salad and a cup of chicken noodle soup, which was a perfect repast.

In the store still the books sold, and still any copy of anything that could be found was brought to me to sign, as stocks ran out. At one point there was a knock on the door and Pam reappeared, not with books, but bearing a gift from a regular Byers’ Choice audience member, on unwrapping the package I discovered a hand-stitched mask, featuring the original John Leech illustrations from A Christmas Carol – what an imaginative and beautiful thought!

As the time moved on, I readied myself for the evening show. As I only had one set of braces now, I needed to unbutton them from the trousers that I had used for the matinee and fit them to the dry ones that I would now be using. Once again Pam appeared, this time bearing a piece of artwork created by another regular audience member – people really are so creative and generous.

My preparations completed I once again joined Dave with around 5 minutes to go before the show. The evening audience was a smaller one, and noticeably quieter, and when Bob made his introduction, the response wasn’t nearly as excitable as the matinee group, but they were an excellent crowd as far as the show itself was concerned.

The question-and-answer session was fun again and concluded with an anonymous questioner asking what I felt to be the pivotal moment in the story. I answered that I always think that the moment Scrooge remembers the carol signer, when he is with the Ghost of Christmas Past, and says that ‘I wish that I had given him a little something’, is a vital moment, for the reformation begins there.

We wrapped up, and once I’d changed, I drove to my hotel a mile away, and got checked in before meeting Bob and Pam in the lobby, for they had very kindly offered to take me to dinner in their hoem town of Doylestown. It was a lovely way to bring the day to a close. During our conversation Pam confessed to being the anonymous questioner! We talked about the tour and the possibilities for future ones, and as we chatted the most torrential rainstorm raged outside. We had some desert, and the little bit of time spent ordering, being served and eating it allowed the storm to pass through, meaning that we could return to the car in relative dryness. Bob and Pam dropped me back to my hotel and the last full day of the tour came to an end.

I had two worries in my mind as I prepared to sleep: 1) My Covid test result had yet to come through and I would not be allowed to return to the UK without it, and 2) The TV in my room wasn’t working properly and as the final race of the GP season, at which one of the closest Championships in history would be resolved, would be showing the next morning, I needed to find a way to watch it.

But that was for Sunday, for now it was time to sleep.

The British Return to Lewes

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And still I woke early – 3.15 this time, and frustratingly I couldn’t get back to sleep properly. As I sat in bed, watching to the coverage of practice from the Abu Dhabi Grand prix, I realised that having been at Winterthur all the previous day, I had failed to let the owners of The Fairville know what time I wanted breakfast. As I would need to be on the road by 9am, and the breakfast service would start at 8.30, I needed to get in there early, so I decided to go over at around 8.15, hoping to get my order in right at the start.

I packed all of my cases, so I would be ready to go, and when I felt I could reasonably do so, went to the main house, where I was cheerfully greeted by Willie, the young owner. He brushed off my apologies for not letting him know about my breakfast needs and said that of course I could sit down right then, and he would make me my pancakes, and so I was well into my meal when the other guests began to arrive.

With my breakfast finished I was able to get the car loaded up and I was on the road by 9 o’clock. Friday was a strange day, in that I only had one performance scheduled at 7pm, and the drive to Lewes, Delaware, would take a little under three hours, but I had a duo of commitments first thing in the morning: at 9.30 I was due to speak to Warren Lawrence at the WKNY radio station in the Hudson Valley, and straight after that chat I was booked to take my Covid test. I had decided to drive to the branch of CVS where my test was scheduled, and do the interview from the parking lot, so that I was in the correct place to insert a swab up my nose. Unfortunately, there was a traffic issue and I had to pull off the road and park up in a parking space outside some small businesses and called into the radio station. I have spoken to Warren on many occasions, and it he always conducts a really good interview, feeding the questions and allowing me to elucidate my answers at whatever length I feel necessary. There is none of the time pressure of some media interviews. On Friday morning we talked about the character of Charles Dickens, the creation of A Christmas Carol, my adaptation and performance of it, as well as my book, ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’. Warren even mentioned that the book is available via Amazon in the USA…..

The interview finished at 9.50, and I was able to get back on the road and arrive at CVS by ten, where I drove through the Drive-Thru, and self-administered the test sat in my car as if I were about to handed a Big Mac Meal. The nice thing in America is that you only have to swab your nostrils, whereas in the UK we have to get samples from our tonsils as well, meaning we end up gagging with watering eyes. Having completed the test, I dropped it in the little metal box provided and offered a silent prayer for a negative result, that would be delivered swiftly, so that I can complete all of the official documents that are now needed to fly.

And now I could drive on towards Lewes, which is situated in the south of Delaware. The drive seemed to take forever, and the early start meant that I was feeling very tired. I drank a lot of water, and listened to the radio, or more specifically more podcasts, as I skirted the city of Wilmington, and on. As with my drives around Massachusetts, many of the place names were familiar to me, and I drove through Kent County (I was born in the County of Kent), passed Dover and on towards Sussex County, in which Lewes is situated, as indeed is the town of Lewes in England. Some names were less ‘English’, however and I am not sure that I want to sunbathe on Slaughter Beach any time soon

This would be my first visit to Lewes and it is always lovely to visit a new city. I pulled up in the parking lot of The Inn at Canal Square, which is situated on the water’s edge of a wide inlet, lined with wooden docks and boats of varying sizes and shapes.

The buildings are mostly wooden clad, painted in bright colours, and it is an extremely pretty town. I checked in to the hotel, although my room was not ready, but it meant that I could leave the car in the lot without fear of it being towed and started to stroll around Lewes. Instantly I was greeted by a variety of boards describing the history of the town, and the first one was entitled ‘The War of 1812’. Oh dear, Lewes and the British obviously had previous form.

I read the information and discovered that the British Navy had attempted to blockade the town in 1813, and demanded that the locals provide food to fettle the warships. The residents of Lewes unsurprisingly refused to comply with the British request, and the invaders decided that the best thing to do was therefore to bombard the little town. For almost two days canon ball and rocket rained down on Lewes with absolutely no effect at all, other than breaking the leg of one pig and killing one chicken. The Americans returned fire and managed to set ‘one gunboat aflame’ but there were no casualties among the British forces either. Eventually the ships withdrew from the bay and peace fell in Lewes once more. There is one relic of the violence in the town, for a British canon ball is lodged deep in the foundations of what is now a maritime museum.

I walked out towards the lovely sandy beach, where the only revellers were sea gulls. Actually, the whole place reminded me of the little town of Amity in Peter Benchley’s Jaws, and I imagine that when the tourists flock, as they do in the novel, the atmosphere must be amazing. The beach was lined by grassy dunes, which during the summer months must surely be the scene of late-night teenage campfires, and even a few midnight swims….Durrrr Dum….Durrrr Dum Durdum durdum durdum durdum Diddle deeeee!

I walked back into town and ambled around an antique store where I found the perfect Victorian Hall Stand for my set. It was made of iron and would be far too heavy to carry around, but it would make a magnificent gothic, and menacing addition to Scrooge’s furniture.

I hadn’t stopped for food during the drive, so was feeling a little peckish so I found a brilliant cafe where I had a sandwich, before going to the hotel to rest before the evening’s show. As I lay on the bed I had a message from Barbara, who had used to manage the bookstore, so sadly deserted, at Winterthur, saying that she had felt emotional reading my words, but reassuring me that she had kept all of her ‘goofy stuff’ from the walls of the office and was going to recreate that wall in her home office, the collection being just as carefully curated, as the main Dupont exhibit in the great house itself! I had been booked to perform at the public library and had arranged to arrive there at 5pm to prepare for the 7 o’clock show. Darkness had fallen as I got into the car and the Christmas lights around the city were spectacular – it looked so beautiful. The library was on the outskirts of the town, and was housed in a modern building, similar to those that I have already visited in Kansas City and on Long Island during this tour. I was greeted by the team putting on the show, led by David White, who is a theatre man through and through. David had seen me perform at Winterthur a few years ago and had very much wanted to bring me to Lewes, but various problems, not least the pandemic, had meant that the plans had never quite worked until now. We spent time arranging the stage and working out how best to work the sound cues, which could be run from a laptop, but mostly we simply talked about theatre. Although we were gathered in a modern meeting room in a library it was as if we were in a Victorian auditorium preparing for a show, because we were all theatre folk allowing our mutual experiences to be shared.

The audience started to gather at 6, and I retired to a small kitchen, which had been designated as my Green Room, and began to get ready. The microphone that I was to use was the sort that hooks over one ear, and I knew from previous experience that it would come loose and fall off during the show, but I managed to find a desk in the library offices with a roll of sellotape on it and stuck the unit to my cheek as best I could. I knew it wouldn’t last but thought that it may give me a little bit of time.

David continually poked his head around the door to give me the ‘half’, the twenty, the ten and the five, before it was show time. The room was packed but everyone was masked, and I made my entrance through the centre of the audience. Unfortunately, the little speaker that was supposed to amplify the opening music had disconnected from the laptop, so we could only hear the effect through the computer’s built-in speaker, and during the opening scenes, Jesse, David’s daughter (following the family business in theatre, but more on the tech side), crawled along the front of the stage to try and re-connect it. We wouldnt know if she had been succesful until Old Fezziwig stood out to dance.

The show was great fun, and I gave it my all. It was one of those days during which I had felt fatigued and lacking in energy, but A Christmas Carol cast its magic spell over me and brought me back to life, and Mr Fezziwig DID have music at his dance.

The audience were fully engaged, and at the end gave me a very noisy and enthusiastic ovation. As usual having taken my bows I remained on stage to conduct the Q&A session, and soon the questions were coming in from all quarters. I was asked about my family lineage and took the opportunity to include my new-found knowledge about my host town with a little affectionate and gentle teasing: when I spoke about my grandfather, Gerald, I mentioned that he had been an Admiral in the Royal Navy, and then added: ‘I know how fond you are of the British Navy in this town. I have seen the canon ball, and I have actually been sent by the Admiralty to retrieve it, they would like it back!’ I got a huge laugh and a round of applause and one audience member called out ‘He is OK!’

We finished up and I went back to my dressing room, where the pair of braces (suspenders) that I had been wearing broke, the rigours of the tour are beginning to tell. I will have to order a replacement pair when I get back to England, but for my final three shows I have another set.

The audience had departed when I re-emerged, and I gathered up my things and said goodbye to the whole team. Hopefully I can return and perform some of my other shows in this remarkable community.

It was getting on towards 9.30 when I got back to the hotel and all of the restaurants in town were closed, but I logged on to Uber Eats once more and arranged for a late-night dinner to be delivered to me.

On Saturday morning I will drive back into Pennsylvania and to Byers’ Choice, where the 2021 American tour will conclude with three final shows.

An Unexpected Audition and An Unexpected Companion

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I woke early on Thursday morning (to be honest, my body clock simply hasn’t adapted through this whole trip), so I sat up in bed writing my blog post and sipping coffee, until it was time to get ready for breakfast. I had arranged to meet David and Teresa at 8.30, and I walked from The Carriage House, where my room was situated, to the main building and, just as I was asking for orange juice and coffee my friends joined me. We sat a large table and soon were tucking into plates of pancakes (David and I), and a frittata (Teresa). The conversation picked up easily from where it had ended the night before and the time sped by, until we had three empty plates before us. As we sat and talked, a message came in from home – Liz was just settling down to watch our youngest daughter perform in her school’s Nativity play: great things can come from Nativity performances! I showed pictures to David and Teresa and they ‘oooo’d and ‘ahhh’d’ appropriately. Soon, though the time had come for me to get back to my room to prepare for a Zoom call to the UK, and David and Teresa had to pack ready to leave, so we posed for our annual photograph and then returned to our respective rooms, having hugged goodbye in the car park.

My Zoom call was due to be with the banqueting team at London’s prestigious Cafe Royal, to go through the format of a dinner event I am performing there on December 22. There wasn’t a desk as such in my room, so I removed the light and little vase of flowers from the bedside table and moved it so that it was in front of the small armchair in the corner, which gave a plain view of the wall behind, avoiding seeing my suitcase, overflowing with clothes and my unmade bed.

At exactly 10 (3pm London time) the call connected, and my contact Kerry popped up, she was in a tiny office and behind her the entire team, including chef, maître d’ and banqueting manager were squeezed in. We went over the format of the evening during which I will be performing between the courses of a fine dinner, and just as I thought we were ready to wrap up, Kerry said ‘could you do a bit of what you do now? None of us know what it is.’ And so, I suddenly was performing a completely unprepared and unexpected audition from my little room in Fairville, Pennsylvania. I chose the beginning of Stave 2, the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and fortunately my efforts were greeted with smiles and laughter, which was good, and when I finished, I even got a little round of applause. I promised that I would send a link to my video of the show too, to give them a better idea as to what is involved.

With the call over I emailed Kerry with the video link and also sent it to David and Teresa who were keen to see my efforts, and then I began to make preparations for the day ahead which would involve two more shows at Winterthur. I probably wouldn’t have time to return to the Inn between commitments, so I made sure that I had everything that I would need.

Back at Winterthur the old store was deserted, and I went into the auditorium to check that everything on the stage was correctly placed for the first show, and also retrieved my costume from the night before, which I had left airing on the coat check rack at the back of the hall. Lois arrived and we went through the schedule of the day, and then I retired to change, while she sorted out her volunteers who would be greeting the audience.

At 1 o’clock I made my way to the hall, and asked Lois to place a mask on the side of the stage for me, so that if I got collared by various audience members after the show again, at least I could have some protection.

The first show went very well, and the audience was full of a lot of people who had seen the performance often, meaning we all had great fun together. It felt more relaxed than the evening before as I had learned my lesson about not trying too hard. It was a good show.

When the question and answers were done, and I had posed for a couple of (masked) pictures, I went back to my office and changed, and when I was sure that the hall was empty, I hung my costume on the rack again. I had a couple of hours to kill now, and Lois bought me a salad from the cafeteria, which was much needed. When I had finished eating, I went back to the stage and sat in the big red armchair on the set, it being the most comfortable place to rest.

The evening’s timetable was slightly different from the previous two, in that the show was reserved for members of Winterthur, and they had been promised a special pre-show event, during which there would be canapes and wine served, and at which I would make an appearance. It had been decided that it would be a good idea to do the question-and-answer session then, so I needed to be in costume at 4.45. The reception was in the cafeteria and when I came in there were plenty of people already eating, but they were spread widely throughout the large room, which would make being heard difficult. I took up a position as centrally as I could, and opened the floor to questions, which flowed freely. One of the last inquiries was ‘Do you think that Charles Dickens would be proud of you?’ I had to pause to consider this, because that is quite a thought, but eventually I answered, ‘I think that he would be, yes, because I am following his theatrical dream’. I followed up by saying that ‘However, if you should see a lightning bolt strike me down on the stage, you will know I was wrong!’

It was now 5.15 and the show was due to start at 6, so I wound the session up and returned to the office, or ‘the bunker’ as Lois christened it, to relax and prepare. I was aware that I had over-used my voice in the cafeteria, so I drank a lot of water, sucked some Fisherman’s Friends lozenges, and did a few deep breathing exercises.

At 6 I stood at the back of the hall, which was almost full, and after Lois had made her introductory remarks, I took to the stage for the final time on this visit. The opening of the show was fairly uneventful, and I was keeping up a good pace, and then I noticed that I had company on stage – a little beetle, possibly a Shield Bug judging by its shape, was strolling around, apparently checking out what I was doing: I had joked about the lightning bolt coming from Charles Dickens, but perhaps he had come to check on me in the form of a bug! I became transfixed by my new companion, and whenever I could I checked his whereabouts so as not to tread on him (if it were a reincarnation of my great great grandfather, it would be a rather ignominious end to be squashed under a decsendant’s boot). As Fezziwig’s wild dance approached, the beetle crawled to the edge of the stage, as if he realised that he was in mortal danger, and then when the dance was over, he came back to centre again.

On the play went, and I managed to avoid him, until eventually he disappeared. At moments when I was on my knees, I checked the pattern in the rug to make sure I hadn’t squished him but there was no sign. Maybe he had deemed himself satisfied with my efforts and taken flight. My very own Sprit of Christmas standing by me!

Anyway! The show itself went very well and came to a great end with a loud and long standing ovation. Having done the Q&A preshow there was no need to do another one now, but I was aware of Lois standing at the edge of the stage clutching a book and when the audience sat down, she thanked Dennis for his efforts in the sound box (every cue had worked perfectly at every show), and then thanked me for coming and presented me with a Winterthur gift book, which had been signed by many of the staff as well as lots of audience members.

I felt very moved by the kind gesture and left the stage to yet more applause.

The first thing I did on returning to the dressing room was to check the bottom of my shoe, and, to mis-quote my show, there was ‘Noooooo Bug!’

Now I had to pack up and make sure that I had everything, as I would be moving on the next day, so I took quite a time hanging costumes collecting cufflinks and the watch, making sure I had my signing pen, and everything else. When I emerged, there was a young man waiting for me clutching a very early edition of A Christmas Carol, maybe a second, third or fourth edition. Unfortunately, I am not an expert, so I couldn’t verify exactly which it was, but I gave him some suggestions as to how to find out. It was such a privilege to hold the little edition, and although it was not in pristine condition, the quality of the coloured illustrations was extraordinary. The books were originally printed with black and white engravings of John Leech’s illustrations, and each of those was then hand tinted with watercolour, meaning that no two early editions can ever be exactly alike. The richness of the colour in this edition was amazing, particularly the Ghost of Christmas Present whose robes were an incredibly deep and rich emerald green. To hold an edition from 1843 or 1844 is always a very special connection to the origins of the story.

It was time to leave, and Lois had invited me to share dinner with her family, so I followed her car into a neighbourhood in the suburbs of Wilmingtom, where her husband and two sons were waiting. The two boys were fascintaed to know about England and pressed me with a never-ending series of probing questions., some more difficult to answer than others: ‘What is your favourite British word?’, for example. It was a lovely, relaxing way to come down from the two days of performances at Winterthur, and we ate Barbeque in rolls, and salads, followed by cheesecake and cookies, and we talked and laughed. Soon it was time to leave, and after having a picture with the boys in front of the Christmas tree, and saying goodbye and thank you to Lois, I drove back to the Fairville Inn, where I hung my shirts from the day’s performances in the cupboard to air, and then retired for the night.

Friday morning promises to be quite busy, with a radio interview at 9.30, followed by my Covid test at 10 – fingers crossed, one and all!