BBC A Christmas Carol 2019: Yay or Nay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK so far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original scene is written thus:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But, why?’ asks Marley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Highclere Abbey…or Downton Castle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Emulating CD, But Not Quite As I Would Have Liked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Heckled By The Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A Night for Celebration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So, there is the explanation!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

That would definitely make the plaster fall!

 

 

 

 

Detached and Clumsy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

A Curate’s Egg

In my beautiful room at The Fairville Inn the run of early morning’s continued on Thursday, meaning I had plenty of time to write before my scheduled breakfast slot of 8am ticked around.

I was welcomed to the dining room by the Inn’s owner’s Laura and Rick who have become good friends over the years.  Laura brought me a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice and in no time I was joined by my friends David Keltz (the actor who portrays Poe) and his wife Teresa, who always come to support me somewhere on tour and for the last few years have come to Winterthur.  We chatted and laughed and caught up until it was time for me to leave the party as I had a radio interview scheduled and I needed to be back in my room.

I sat at the desk doing some more research for my book until it was time to call Warren at the Kingston NY radio station.  This conversation has become rather a tradition over the years and we have a good long conversation about A Christmas Carol and my rendition of it.  The interview wasn’t promoting any specific show, although the last two venues of the tour at Byers’ Choice and Lakewood, New Jersey would both come under the station’s umbrella.

When the interview finished I started to get my things ready for the first show at Winterthur.  I arrived at the visitor centre at 11 where I immediately needed to get into costume as Ellen had told me that there was some kind of morning coffee reception for some of the guests who were attending the show and it would be nice if I could look in and chat.

I had left my costumes hanging on the coat racks in the auditorium, so I went to fetch them and found the hall in complete darkness except for a yellow glow from the standard lamp on my set and the red of the exit lights, it was quite spooky.

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I returned to the office, changed and went in search of the reception.   None of the staff in the shop seemed to know where it was, and after I’d looked around the cafeteria area for a while I returned to auditorium where I sat in silence playing backgammon on my phone until Ellen appeared and it was time to start preparing for the show.

I retired to the office drinking tea and honey as I listened to the audience arriving just a few feet away on the other side of the louvered doors.  Once again it was a sell-out show, so Ellen and the other volunteers were encouraging the audience to all get to the middle of the rows and ‘get to know your neighbors!’  Some people came in to get good seats leaving other members of their party in the store, and the volunteers were given various instructions: ‘my husband will be coming in soon, tell him to come and find me, he is tall with grey hair!’  ‘Ann will join me.  Ann in a blue coat.  Can you tell her where I am sitting?’ and so on.

If anything the buzz in the hall was louder than the previous days and it seemed as if I was in for another good show, certainly the audience were up for it.

When almost every seat was filled Jeff , the Historical Director at Winterthur, made my introduction and the show started.  As I had suspected it was another fun 90 minutes and the audience responded enthusiastically throughout.  The lady I picked to be the object of topper’s desires in the front row seemed to be delighted by the attention and her face broke into a huge smile whenever I (he) approached.

At the end of the show the applause again filled the Copeland Hall and accompanied me as I made my way up the aisle and back to my dressing room to change into the fresh costume ready to sign. While I was in the office I checked my phone for news from the UK.  It was general election day in which the country was to vote for our new government. I had been amazed that America hadn’t seemed to know that such an important event was taking place, even on the breakfast news channels there had not  been a passing mention.  Actually checking for news was pointless because under electoral rules nothing of importance could be reported until the polls had closed. All I gleaned was that our current Prime Minister had taken his dog to the polling station.

In the cafeteria there was another long signing line waiting for me, and everyone was patient and kind and generous in their comments about the show.  The party which included ‘Topper’s girl’ posed and laughed and as they left one of the ladies in the group came back to whipser in my ear ‘you chose the right person to make happy today, for she lost her son last week.  You did a good thing’  Wow, you never know who you may touch or how that moment will effect them.

I returned to the Inn between shows to get a little rest and watched some TV before I fell asleep on the bed for a while.  The break was a short one for by 5 o’clock I needed to be back to prepare for the evening performance and to retrieve my costumes from the coat rack before the audience started to arrive.

Back in the office I checked the news from home again, as the polls would now be closed and the first estimates of the results would be coming in.  Instantly it looked as if the incumbent Conservative party were heading for a large victory.  It was not the result I had wanted, but that result was clear and the electorate had spoken.  The majority was much larger than in the Brexit referendum three years ago so a very clear message had been sent out.  There is no point bleating or complaining about it and we must just get on with our lives in whatever Britain evolves from here.

The audience for the evening show was slightly smaller than the two afternoon ones, but still numbered over two hundred and there were many familiar faces in the crowd who welcomed me back.

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Carol was back to make the evening’s  introduction  and the show began.  It was  a strange show, a bit of a curate’s egg really: there were some great high moments, such as Fezziwig’s dance which earned yet another round of applause, and some other sections that didn’t quite work as well as I would have liked, but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and I received another lovely standing ovation at the end (rather kindly started by Teresa!).

I always get a sense of how a show has gone by the comments I receive at the signing session, so when I got to the chair and I asked the first lady in line ‘how are you?’ I was rather deflated by her answer: ‘Tired.  I am so tired.  I am so close to sleep.’  Anything about the show?  No.

Ok, second couple: ‘we came to your show two years ago and loved it so had to come back!’, good, this was going well.  ‘But last year we were a little disappointed.’  Oh.  ‘This year, better.  getting close to loving it again.’  Not fulsome, but the trajectory seemed to be going the right way again, that was something!

Things got more positive after that I am glad to report.

Eventually the last of the audience left and I was able to collect up all of my costumes and belongings from both the stage and the office before saying goodbye to Barbara and Ellen and driving to my old haunt Buckley’s Tavern where I was joined by David and Teresa for a late dinner.

We chatted, as we always do, about theatre and exchanged anecdotes that we have probably exchanged many times before, but we had a wonderfully happy time, as is always the case.  Some of the audience from the day’s shows were also dining at the Tavern and came up and congratulated me and shook my hand, which was very nice of them.

It was around 10.15 when we left Buckley’s and the rigours of a busy day were beginning to tell, I was feeling tired and needed to sleep.  We said our goodbyes, even though we were all driving to the Inn, and I made my way to my beautiful room and to my comfortable bed.

 

I mentioned that Musical choices were getting more difficult, so today’s is brilliantly tenuous:

For any scene featuring Tiny Tim I will play the carol The First Noel.  Why?  Because there is no L in Tiny Tim!

 

 

 

 

The Best Yet

On Wednesday morning I woke up at 4.15.  Why, after particularly busy and tiring days, do I tend to wake so early?  After a few unsuccessful attempts to get back to sleep I gave up the struggle and wrote my blog before starting to pack.  I needed to be on the road fairly early so it was a good thing to be ready to leave as soon as I’d had breakfast.

I remembered to retrieve my two costumes from the cupboard where I had hung them and with my hat, cane and scarf took them all to the car where they travel in the front passenger seats with the hangers hooked over the two metal rods that support the headrest.

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Back in the hotel I enjoyed a steaming hot bowl of porridge followed by a thick fluffy waffle all washed down with two glasses of fresh orange juice and a coffee.  Some of the audience from the previous night’s show were also staying in the hotel and we chatted briefly until I had to go back to my room to finish my packing.

One thing I definitely needed to remember was the load of washing that had been in the drier over night, for if I drove away without that I would only have two white shirts to get me through the rest of the season.  As I would be going straight to my next venue I made sure that my little roller bag had everything that I would need for a show, and when all was where it should be I left my room, checked out and got settled into the car.

My destination was the beautiful house and gardens at Winterthur in Delaware which would be a drive of around three hours.  The first section took me down route 15 along the banks of the Susquehanna which looked particularly beautiful with a low bright winter sun glinting off the slightly disturbed surface.  It was another gorgeous sunny day making the drive much more enjoyable than that of two days before.  The miles flew by and soon I was crossing the river, passing the little Statue of Liberty that proudly stands on a ruined bridge parapet, heading towards Harrisburg and from there to Lancaster.

As my journey continued the ground began to take on a white tinge to such an extent that it was difficult to know if it was a heavy frost or snow, but as I continued into Amish country it became clear it was a light sprinkling of the latter.  The Pennsylvania countryside looked absolutely glorious with the farm silos and red barns standing proudly out against the white.  Occasionally a  pony-pulled gig came the other way.

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As I drove a phone call came in from a radio station in the UK wanting to talk about my show at Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey) next week.  It was odd driving through the American countryside talking to the BBC and I had to remember to Anglicise my answers, for example talking about films not movies.

The route is a familiar one to me as Lewisburg and Winterthur always nestle side by side in my schedule, so every landmark was like an old friend.  I drove up the hill past the lighthouse-like clock tower in Gap and was soon approaching Chadd’s Ford where I turned towards Centreville and across the state line into Delaware.

I arrived at Winterthur at 11 and took all of my things into the gift store where I was welcomed by Barbara ‘has it really been a year?’ we joked, because actually it had only been a little over two months since I performed Nicholas Nickleby there.

In no time my costume was in the little office which becomes my dressing room and I was in the Copeland lecture theatre arranging my set and making sure that everything was ready for the show.  I was joined by Dennis who looks after the tech side at Winterthur and shortly afterwards by my dear friend Ellen.  We chatted and caught up, our conversation underscored by various sound effects as Dennis ran through the script up in the sound box.

Ellen told me that the shows had sold incredibly well this year with two of the three being sold out completely and the other almost so.  I looked at the huge long auditorium and tried to visualise it packed out, and then doubted the wisdom (as I do every year) of performing with no microphone.  I reminded myself that the acoustics of the room are amazing and that the only time I used a mic here nobody could hear anything because the natural amplification of the room just echoed the electronic amplification and created a series of never ending echoes.

It was only 11.45 but the audience for the  1 o’clock show were already standing in line, so I made myself a tea and honey and retired to the office to relax.

I changed into costume at 12.30 and then went through the secret door behind the cash register and up the narrow staircase to the sound box from where I could watch the audience gathering beneath me.  There was a definite buzz in the air, for this crowd seemed to be imbued with the Christmas spirit and it was infectious.

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Start time came closer and I joined Ellen and Carol, the director of Winterthur, at the back of the hall ready to begin.  A little after 1 Carol went to the podium and made the introductions and when she had finished, the Trans Siberian Orchestra’s ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ (there has been a long Twitter conversation in the UK about correct punctuation of carol names, and that is indeed where the comma should reside in the  title), filled the hall and I walked slowly to the stage.

I looked at the audience.  Oh my there were a lot of them.  Supposing so much clothing, so many coats and hats and shawls and scarfs and gloves might kill the accoustic, what if those people right at the back, 356 seats away, couldn’t hear anything?  WHY didn’t I have a microphone?!

‘Marley was dead, to begin with’  A reassuring echo came back to me, yes the room was alive.  It would be alright.

The show was the best of the tour so far.  I was giving it everything and the audience were responding in kind: they loved every moment. After Fezziwing’s dance I received a loud round of applause (‘next stop Dancing With The Stars’ I ad-libbed), and another for Topper’s game of Blindman’s Buff and a third for Old Joe’s excretions.  Ellen later told me that the shop staff, on hearing the applause, assumed that the show had finished and prepared for the audience to come out.

It was such fun and when I did actually reach the end the ovation was loud, enthusiastic and truly memorable.  I was buzzing with adrenaline as I returned to the office and took my time to get changed before making my way to the visitor centre cafeteria for the signing session.

A lot of people had remained behind to have things signed and to have photographs taken and the line was longer than either Ellen or I could remember at Winterthur.  About half way through the session I could feel the adrenaline begin to subside and a weariness came over me. I was very relieved when I signed Samantha’s programme, for she was the last.

It was 3.30 now and with no further shows I was able to hang my costumes up, re-set the stage ready for the next day and then got ready to leave.  Ellen had kindly offered to take me out to dinner that night so we set an early time of 6 to meet and I drove off to the Fairville Inn where I always stay when visiting Winterthur.

This year I was given a ground floor room in The Carriage House which meant I didn’t have to haul my cases upstairs and in no time I was relaxing in front of the fire until I dropped off into a much needed nap.

I was due to meet Ellen at a rather lovely pizza restaurant called Elizabeth’s and as I drove I marvelled at the most perfect full moon shining from the clear sky.  Ellen was waiting for me and we had a lovely time chatting about the tour and about ideas for alternative events in the future, along the lines of the exclusive dinner in Omaha, or the Library Lover’s receptions in Kansas City.

All of the Pizzas at Elizabeths are named after famous Elizabeths and I felt that I should really have dutifully chosen the Queen, but as the first listed ingredient was muchrooms of which I am not a fan, I plumped instead for a regular Montgomery, whilst Ellen chose a mini Shannon.

It was a very nice, unpressured, evening and we left the restaurant at around 7.30.  After my ridiculously early start, and a very energetic show I was feeling completely drained and as soon as I returned to the Fairville Inn I lay on the bed.  I flicked through TV channels knowing that whatever I chose would not remain on for long, and I settled on one of our favourite films of recent years Hidden Figures.  I remember seeing the famous scene in which Kevin Costner demolishes the ‘coloured washroom’ sign, but after that nothing.

It had been a good day, though.  The best yet.

 

Today’s musical choice accompanies the Cratchit family as they share their meagre Christmas lunch enjoying not a great feast but the simple joy of being together as a family.

Paul McCartney accompanies them singing ‘Simply having a wonderful Christmas time’

 

‘When Shall We Three Meet Again?’

Being already settled in to the Best Western Inn at Lewisburg I had plenty of time on Tuesday morning which in previous years would have been spent driving from the Hotel Hershey through the Susquehanna valley to arrive for a sound check at around midday.

When I opened the curtains I found that the cloud still hung heavily and the rain still fell hard.  I had thought about driving into Lewisburg to explore but the idea didn’t seem very appealing now, so I spent the morning doing some more research into the circumstances of the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash for my book and doing a little proof reading and correction of what I had already written.  I also used the time to do a large load of coloured laundry ready for the last few days of my American tour.

My work took me to 11 o’clock when I was due to meet with Missy Swartz for a sound check.  I gathered up my costumes and props and walked over to the Country Cupboard Store where the large function room had been converted into a lavish theatre with a big stage, bright lights and two Christmas trees so extensively decorated in gold that they appeared to shimmer.  There to meet me was KJ, the brilliant singer who always entertains the audiences before my show, and in a moment Missy joined us too.  The three of us have made quite the team over the 9 years I have been performing at The Country Cupboard and it was wonderful for the three of us to meet again (that makes us sound rather like the Macbeth witches, which may not be an altogether flattering comparison to make).

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I put on one of my waistcoats so that we could clip the microphone to the correct spot on my shirt and I started performing the opening passages of my script as Missy and KJ roamed around the room to check the sound levels.  Occasionally Missy would return to the sound desk and tweak the levels slightly until both were satisfied that the sound was good.  With the check finished we all sat down and chatted for almost an hour, until Missy had to leave to welcome three tour buses which were bringing a large portion of our first audience.  I went back to the hotel to prepare for the show.

Back in my room I noticed that I was feeling a little shaky as if I needed a bit of a sugar hit so I went to the front desk in and bought an energy drink which did the trick.  I got into my costume and walked back to the store, noticing that the rain had stopped at last and the clouds were lifting once more.  The audience were starting to take their seats as I slipped into my little green room behind the stage and fixed my microphone on.  Last year I had problems with the little clip, it had broken when I was just about to go on stage and Missy and I had improvised with a bulldog clip (binder clip), which led to my now travelling with such items in my roller bag in case, as my literary hero Paddington would put it, of emergencies!  This year Missy had ensured that the microphone had a brand new clip to avoid a repeat of the previous year’s panic.

When I was ready I made my way to the entrance of the room where Missy was welcoming guests with the rest of her team and KJ was waiting to start her set.  Many years ago I had mentioned that if I have tender throat then black tea and honey does the trick and now every year Missy makes sure there is tea and honey waiting for me.  My throat was in no way sore but the tea and honey was a delicious and soothing way to prepare for the show.

With about twenty minutes to go KJ went to the stage slipped her guitar strap over her shoulder and began to entertain the growing audience with song and chat, she has a lovely gentle style of both and soon the crowd were laughing and singing along with her.

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At the back of the hall I stood and every so often people would shake me by the hand and welcome me back,  proudly telling me how many times they had seen me perform, which is very moving.  One gentleman, an eight year veteran of my Country Cupboard shows, also gave me a gift – a copy of Fred Kaplan’s brilliant biography of Charles Dickens. ‘I read this, I had never realised that your great great grandfather was a hero!  Saving all those people’s lives!’  It took me a moment to realise that he was referring to Staplehurst, the subject of my book and what I had been writing about just a few hours earlier.  It was a very thoughtful gift and I was greatly moved by the gesture.

Shortly afterwards another man approached me and gave me another present, this time a pack of mini Snickers bars, ‘I know that you sometimes need extra energy, so these may help!’  Again he had tapped into a need that I had experienced that very morning.  Again, so thoughtful.

The hall was almost full and Missy gave KJ the signal to start her final song so that we could move on to the next part of the show, A Christmas Carol.  Missy helped KJ remove the microphone and guitar from the stage and then started to welcome the audience as KJ made her way to the back of the room in order to start the opening sound effect.  It is a well honed operation now.  I went to make sure that my microphone pack was switched on and as I did the clip holding the pack to my waist band fell off!  There must be a microphone poltergeist in The Country Cupboard: there has to be, it is the only explanation for the repeated last minute clip disasters at the venue.  With no time to make a repair I just put the pack into my pocket and waited for my cue.

As a large part of the audience, those who had come on the coaches,  had never seen the show before it was great fun to surprise them with moments such as the appearance of Marley’s face, which caused a great gasp of fear followed by laughter of relief,  the moment doesnt always work but when it does it is very satisfying.

In the audience was a couple with a very young baby who was cuddled, rocked and comforted as the show went on.  When the infant became noisy they took it out, until it slept again allowing them to return.  The child cried loudly twice during the show, both times when  Scrooge visited the house of The Cratchit family.

On the second occasion Scrooge was  in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  Bob Cratchit returned home alone.  ‘It was quiet,  very quiet.’ The baby cried a little.  Bob explained to Mrs Cratchit how green a place the grave site was.  The baby cried louder.  Bob broke down, and went upstairs to where Tim’s body lay. The baby still cried and I could see the father standing to leave the room.  Bob needed to say goodbye, to release Tim, to let him go, and at the exact moment that he kneeled to kiss the little face, at the exact moment that the innocent little soul left the house, so there was no more crying and the room became silent.  So poignant.

Actually that scene left me thinking about a change that needed to be made, because the red cloth that represents Tim’s body, which is laid on the table remains there to the end of the show,  and when the narrator tells the audience that Tiny Tim did NOT die apparently his body is still laid out for all to see. I needed to find a way of removing that cloth somehow.  At the beginning of the show the cloth is draped over Scrooge’s chair and becomes his bedclothes when he retires for the night, so I decided that when he wakes up on Christmas morning and discovers that he is back in his own room, it would be natural for him to gleefully grab his blanket and fling it back over the chair, meaning that everything is back to how it should be.  It worked beautifully and I will include that bit of action in the show from now on.

The show came to its end with the audience unaware that they had witnessed me directing a completely new scene.   I took my bows and then disappeared into my green room to change.

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I hung my damp coat, waistcoat and shirt over three chairs before re-emerging refreshed ten minutes later for what was a very short signing session (the bulk of the audience had been with the coach tours, which had been scheduled to leave straight after the performance).  As Country Cupboard were not selling any merchandise most of the signing was of tickets and programmes although a few people had brought along their own books.  Many simply wanted to shake hands and say ‘thank you’

Between shows it is a tradition that Missy, KJ and I enjoy the fantastic dinner buffet in the restaurant so when I had changed out of my costumeonce more I joined them and heaped spaghetti and meatballs onto my plate.  Earlier in the day when we had been chatting at the sound check KJ had mentioned that when she was a little girl her grandmother had tried to teach her to use a knife and fork ‘like the English do’, for it was, in her mind, more refined and elegant.  Over the years the lessons had been forgotten but KJ wanted to learn again and I had promised her that at dinner we would hold a masterclass.

After a little confusion as to which hand should hold the fork and where the index finger should be, my student succeeded:  ‘By George, I think she’s got it! as Henry Higgins declared in My Fair Lady.

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After dinner I returned to the hotel where I napped for an hour before getting ready for the second show.  There was another large audience waiting when I returned and KJ was already on the stage doing her thing. I was extra careful when I put the microphone on so as not to have any further clip adventures.

The evening show had many more returnees than the afternoon one and we all had great fun together.

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It was hot and intense work but most satisfying with all of the business working well, including my new section.  At the signing table a young man told me how much he had appreciated how I ‘place’ the other characters in the scene, meaning that he could clearly picture where everyone was standing, even though there was only me on stage.  I really appreciated his comments for that is something that I have worked hard on over the years and in which I take a great deal of pride.

The signing line was longer in the evening and as I chatted and posed so the theatre was being dismantled in the background.  The decorations were taken down, the fireplace dismantled, the stage folded up and removed and the room that had been filled with warmth, laughter and applause just an hour before was now a large, empty  function room once more.  At the very end of the signing line was Dawn, a lady who always brings me very thoughtful gifts.  This year my little bag contained a lovely little copy of David Copperfield, a red bow tie, and quite astoundingly a set of cufflinks and a lapel pin featuring my photograph!  Amazingly generous.

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It was now time to leave so I hugged Missy and KJ and the witches parted once more, ‘When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain?’  well, hopefully in nice warm sunny weather, and probably in twelve months.

I wearily, very wearily, returned to the hotel and took all of my costume shirts to the laundry before making my way to Matty’s bar again where Missy had arranged for me to have dinner.  When I returned I transferred the shirts to the drier where they would remain through the night, and went back to my room.   I would have a fairly early start the next morning, so I set an alarm and very soon was asleep.

 

The musical choices are getting trickier now, but let’s return to the scene Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present are on their worldwide travels: ‘They stood on foreign lands, and they were close at home ‘  The song playing is Feliz Navidad.