An Early Start
I think I may have been on course for sleeping late for once. Until 4am. My phone rings and seeing it was a UK number and worrying that there may be bad news I fumble it to my ear.
The call is from James Matthews, a producer who is making a DVD of my performance of Doctor Marigold. He has a few questions and suggestions concerning the finished product but had forgotten that I was in the USA. I grunt and slurr a few answers to him (goodness knows what he thinks I am saying) and fall back to sleep almost instantly.
When I wake again it is getting on for 7 which is a good time to wake. Unfortunately the Ambler Inn doesn’t have coffee making facilities in the room, so it is a trip to the reception desk to grab a cup. On the way, however, I pass the restaurant and the very kind lady who is serving gets a flask of coffee for me to take up to my room.
I start working on the blog and check on the news from home. The country is being battered by huge storm surges along the east coast, which has always been vulnerable to high tides. The counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent not to mention inland counties such as Cambridgeshire are especially prone, so there has been a massive evacuation of homes and business. It sounds terrible and I hope that friends and families living in the effected regions are safe.
I have a shower and get re-dressed go to breakfast which is a delicious country style buffet. The French Toast is to die for.
Although today is not actually a day off, it almost feels more like one than yesterday. I have one show this evening, so the rest of the day is mine. I spend the morning in my room doing a few chores. I finish yesterday’s blog and write some programme notes for a forthcoming production of A Christmas Carol in New York City and then try to log on. Unfortunately the internet connection is down this morning, so I have to wait until I kind find some wifi somewhere.
Tomorrow I will be performing at the Byers Choice headquarters and the building will be overrun with audience, so I think it will be nice to go there today and see it in relative peace. It is only a 10 minute drive and I’m soon pulling into the car park among the lawns, trees and statuary that make up the grounds.
As soon as I walk into the office I am greeted and hugged by everyone! I have been performing at Byers Choice for about 8 years now, and they have been managing my tours for the last 5, so I have made many good friends over the years.
Jeff Byers, Bob’s brother, is there as is David who looks after all of my technical details here. I walk into the main work room where the carollers are made. Rows upon rows of desks and benches: at these some are shaping wire into the skeleton shape of the figurines, some are padding the bodies with tissue paper, some are shaping the clay faces into the distinctive caroller pose, some are dressing and finishing. Everywhere there is deep concentration and dedication.
Tomorrow the room will have been cleared of the benches and will have been transformed into a 600 seat theatre, with a well lit stage against the back wall. It is an extraordinary thought when I look at it now.
The headquarters of Byers Choice is not only a manufacturing facility but boasts a visitor centre too, with displays of figures dating back to the very first ones that were made.
In the 1960’s Joyce Byers, who had trained in textile and fashion design, decided to make some Christmas table centrepieces using off cuts of fabric. She roughly constructed body shapes, using coat hangers and tissue paper, made faces and then dressed them. As the figures were singing carols she gave each one a little ‘o’ shaped mouth.
Friends and family loved the figures and suggested that she should make more and so the story continued. Today Byers Choice is a huge company with loyal collectors all over the country but you will still find Joyce bustling around, being involved, watching everything. It is a truly successful American business.
I spend plenty of time walking through the displays in glorious anonymity, which will not be the case tomorrow.
When I leave I head to a general store to pick up a few supplies: some throat lozenges, batteries for the microphone, some sticking plaster (US translation: Band Aid) as the micropore tape that I have brought from home isn’t up to the task of holding my microphone in place, and a sewing kit.
I find a sandwich restaurant that has wifi and manage to get my blog posted and emails sent, as well as having lunch, before going back to the Inn.
It is time to start making preparations for this evening, so I iron 2 shirts and sew the button back on to the waistcoat, before packing my bag up. Then I have my usual nap and shower before heading to the car at around 4.
Tonight I am driving to Bethlehem, Pensylvania: a drive of about 45 minutes. The weather is horrible, there is a constant grey drizzle not dissimilar to the weather in ‘our’ North Wales, whenever I have been there.
The traffic is very heavy and slow also and my projected arrival time slips from 4.45, to 4.50 and then to 5.00pm and 5.15. Unfortunately in the drizzle and rain I miss my exit to the centre of Bethlehem and eventually arrive at 5.30.
My show is in a magnificent auditorium at the Moravian College and is promoted by the Moravian Book Store in Main Street. I have been coming here for 5 years now, so once more there are plenty of familiar faces and good friends. The driving force behind the event is Lisa Girard and it is Lisa who meets me as I arrive, hops into my car and drives with me to the theatre itself.
The stage is lovely. The performance space is on the floor and the auditorium rises up in front. It is very similar to the theatre in Kent where I performed as a teenager and learned my trade.
The hall is usually used as a music venue, as we are in the music school campus of the college. Back stage there are drum kits, timpani, gongs, tubular bells. The corridor is lined with lockers of different sizes and shapes: small ones for violins and trumpets, huge ones for tubas and euphoniums.
Dinner arrives and we set up on Scrooge’s table on the stage, eating salads and sandwiches:‘Scrooge’s Sandwich Bar’, or ‘Cratchit’s Café’ How about ‘Marley’s Munchies’?
While we are eating Blair, the technical guru at the college arrives. We discuss the lighting for the 2 act version and do a sound check which is over in a trice as Blair knows his hall and knows my voice.
It is now 6.15 and the audience are starting to arrive in the foyer, so we clear our things away from the stage and the house doors open at 6.30. I get into costume and we all gather in the large corridor and wait for 7.00 o’ clock. Lisa is very nervous about speaking in front of an audience, so delegates the introduction duties to Kristy, another staff member at the shop itself. Kristy has a very good, clear voice and always does a great job.
The shows here are always good. There is something in the shape and layout of the hall as well as the demographic and size of the audience that brings out the best in me and tonight is no exception. It is an all or nothing kind of show.
The interval comes, Blair blacks the stage out and the audience applaud. I towel down backstage before slowly getting back into costume for the 2nd half. The buzz of conversation from the audience is loud and enthusiastic and I know that I have them on side.
House lights down, blackout. Find my way to the chair. First lines in the darkness and then the lights come up and away we go again.
Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future come and go leaving Scrooge to celebrate on Christmas morning. The narrator takes over from Scrooge, brings the story to its close and the audience go wild. But there is something else. Kristy comes back onto stage and calls for quiet and reads a letter from a local High School who are also performing A Christmas Carol this week. Their adaptation was written by a teacher who was inspired by watching my show last year. In the letter they wish me good luck for my tour and invite me to see their show. I would love to go but sadly my own performance schedule will not allow it. It is a very moving thing and lovely of them to write.
Now it is back into the usual routine. I get back to my dressing room and flop briefly to catch my breath before changing from one costume to another.
Once I am feeling a little more normal and I have calmed down a bit, I collect up my belongings and prepare for the signing session, although here the signing is back in the bookstore. The audience has already left and will be waiting patiently.
Lisa helps me to pack all of my things into the car and we drive the short distance to the shop. As I walk in I am greeted by another round of applause. Even allowing for the fact that the audience has had to walk through the drizzle and fog , the queue is very long. Lisa has delegated herself as the ‘Line Nazi’ and keeps it moving very efficiently. She takes people’s books, opens them to the correct page, and passes them to me. I smile and respond to comments and before I know it the next book is in front of me. Everyone catches the idea and even photographs are achieved in double quick time.
It is just as well for the shop that Lisa is so efficient because after the public have gone there is a huge stack of books to be signed. Some have been pre ordered by customers, some are for the staff themselves, some are just to have in stock. And still they come. My signing session is due to finish at 10.00pm and at 9.59 Lisa hands me the last book.
The staff here are lovely. For the past 2 years Liz has been with me during my visit to Bethlehem, so all of the ladies are asking after her and sending their love to her which is very nice.
I get back into the car still in costume and head back to North Wales. The fog has closed in and it is not a very nice journey but the roads are quiet now and I make good time.
At the Joseph Ambler Inn I have a drink at the bar and it is there that I learn the news about Nelson Mandela’s death.
So much has been and will be written about him. All I have to say is this:
Here was a man who left the World a better place than it was when he joined it.
You cannot ask for more than that.