After a late, and difficult night last night it is up and at it first thing this morning, as Jill has arranged for me to be interviewed by one of the local Nashua radio stations at 7.30am.
At 7.10 I am in the foyer and Jill pulls up in her car. She looks like I feel. The journey to downtown Nashua only takes about 10 minutes and we are soon pulling into park at the side of Main Street among the banks of shovelled snow.
We enter the anonymous door and make our way upstairs to the offices and studios of WSMN 1590 am. It would be fair to say it is sparse. No reception desk, no walls showing pictures of the various presenters, no lavish green room. Nobody bustling about with sheaves of scripts and running orders. In fact, nobody at all, except for one voice.
Jill and I make pour way through the deserted offices until we find one rather drab room at the far end of the building. The ‘On Air’ light is glowing but the door is open nonetheless. In this small room George Russell is broadcasting his daily morning show. He speaks to his listeners at a billion miles an hour, loud, brash, crazy. Off the wall, is a good term.
When he sees Jill and me he calls us into the studio and immediately the banter starts. He is definitely in his zone. He offers me coffee and fetches a cup of strong dark roast that he has ground especially. He calls it his Fog Lifter. Here, then, is what fuels the WSMN 1590 Breakfast show.
We all settle into our seats and our segment begins. For all of the bluster and mania, George is a very good interviewer. He is well researched and allows the conversation to roll. Of course we talk about Dickens and the shows but also about the British Parliamentary system and how the Americans have destroyed the English language (his phrase not mine, I hasten to add). It is a great fun 30 minutes and I think that I give as good as I get.
When we are finished and today’s shows have been duly promoted, we shake hands, pose for pictures and then head back through the deserted building and to Jill’s car. The radio is tuned to WSMN and George is still at it ‘broadcasting live, overlooking Main Street here in Nashua, from our penthouse studios.’ I think of the little drab room and love the magic of radio.
Jill drops me back to the hotel and I am in my room by 8.10. Today the Executive level concierge is Maureen who has been with the hotel since it opened and is their treasure. Every year Maureen bustles and fusses over me and today she brings me breakfast and talks about the show tonight. In 5 years she has never been able to get to one of my performances but she is determined to tonight. She has already talked another guest into buying tickets and attending.
The morning is spent writing up yesterday’s blog and starting to make arrangements for my journey home on Sunday. I really am feeling exhausted and I’m sure that is because my body knows that this abuse of it is soon to end. However, I cannot let things go, I still have four more shows to do.
A Child’s Journey With Dickens
At 11.30 I get into costume and go to my car for the short drive back into Nashua to the Senior Center, where I am to perform ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’. Jill is waiting for me outside and takes me into the room where I am to perform. It is a light, bright day room with chairs laid out and a little lectern on a table at the front.
The audience are already arriving and many of them have seen me perform A Christmas Carol and are intrigued by a different programme. Jill sets out a table of books and straight away people are buying and I am signing. At a big show it doesn’t do to start signing beforehand because it tends to start a rush but for a smaller venue like this it is an opportunity to meet the majority of the audience first, make a connection and guarantee that they are on side before proceedings start. As 12.30 gets closer so the seats fill up and by the time Jill gets up to make the introductions there must be about 70 there.
A Child’s Journey With Dickens is a very sweet show. The events detailed in it took place during Charles Dickens’s second trip to America in 1867/8. In March 1868 he had performed in Portland, Maine and was making his weary way by railroad back into Boston. On the same train was a 10 year old girl who completely idolised him and devoured everything he wrote. Her pets all bore names of Dickens characters and even her sled was named The Artful Dodger. During the train journey she discovered that Dickens was onboard and eventually actually ended up sitting next to him and engaging him in conversation, telling him that she loved all of his books but ‘skipped the very dull parts’.
Years later, as an old lady, she published her memories in a book entitled ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens.’. I have a first edition of the book, signed by the author Kate Douglas Wiggin, who wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. In a neat script she has written ‘I was the child’. It is very precious and I love holding the slim volume, as it seems to reunite her with the Dickens family.
The show is gentle, reflective and charming. It is completely different to the histrionics of A Christmas Carol and actually does me a great deal of good to do it. The audience absolutely love it.
There is a short and very informal signing session afterwards during which Jill runs out of books, leading to a slight delay during which a fresh stock is fetched from the store, which is only 5 minutes away and then the signing resumes.
When the last book has been signed and the last picture posed for I shake hands with everyone and leave the building. As I am getting into my car I realise that I have left my copy of the script in the room. I don’t need it, I can print another easily at home but I haven’t left anything anywhere yet on this trip and I’ll be damned if I’m going to start now. I go back and fetch the script.
Driving back through Nashua there is an amazing cemetery, with the old crooked headstones looking bleak and mournful in the thick snow. It would be a fabulous setting for a moody monochrome publicity picture for A Christmas Carol.
I have time for a room service lunch and a brief rest before getting ready for the evening’s show. We have an early sound check today, as there is a dinner reception at 5, but when I get to the ballroom a previous event has overrun, so things are not ready.
The sound and lighting guy that Jill uses is busy setting up his stuff. In previous years the lighting in this larger ballroom setting has been an issue but this year he has brought much more equipment along and it looks as if it’s going to be impressive. However, until the stage can be put in place we can’t do a proper sound check. Half of the seating has been put out so I lay one of my blog business cards on each seat and when I’ve finished that go back to my room and change into costume.
The dinner reception is not something that Jill has laid on but is hosted by an audience member who invites many of her friends and family to the show each year and treats them to dinner. She is an English Lady, MaMa (I have no idea as to the correct spelling or if it is her real name or a nickname but that is how everyone knows her). She is an active lady, also inviting all of her American friends to celebrate Guy Fawkes night on November 5th.
The party is in a private room behind the main hotel restaurant and soon I am chatting to lots of people. As usual just before a show I am not really able to eat much but I do have a little soup and turkey. The party is in full swing but I have to leave early to get back to the main hall and the final sound check.
Outside the ballroom there is a lobby which is already filled with audience members waiting to get the best seats and even as I walk up there is a round of applause. This could be a good night.
The hall has been transformed, 350 seats are ready, the stage set, the lighting looking superb. We do the sound check quickly, so that the doors can be opened. It is a good crowd, a big crowd, near capacity and the room fills up from the centre out to the far extremities at each side.
A Christmas Carol
As start time gets closer a couple arrive who have come to each of my shows here. Last year they told me one of the most moving things and it is something that lives with me during every performance that I give. After the signing session had finished they said that they wanted me to know that they had lost a son and the way I portrayed Bob Cratchit’s grief was exactly how they had felt. The pain, the emptiness, the desolation. It was probably the most intensely moving moment of my 20 years of performing the Carol. I feel a very strong connection to them and am delighted to see them back.
You know who you are and thank you.
The show starts slightly late but it is a good one. Not perfect, but much better than last night and I’m certainly getting back to where I should be. It is strange, but performing ‘A Childs Journey’ today created a break in the treadmill of the tour and had the effect of hitting a reset button. I am much happier with the show tonight and the audience reaction is fantastic.
I leave the ballroom, dive into a little closet behind my signing table and effect a quick change of costume before emerging to a loud, busy, excitable signing line. Lots of lovely comments, lots of photographs, lots of scrawls. All of the usual questions and remarks: ‘How do you remember all those words?’, ‘How do you do it without a drink?’ ‘I LOVE your signature, how long have you been working on that?’ ‘Which is your favourite movie version (the absolute most commonly asked question throughout the tour!)?’, ‘do you have writer’s cramp yet?’ and on it goes for a good hour or so after the show’s conclusion. I am delighted to see that Maureen, ‘my’ concierge, is there with her husband.
Eventually the room clears and I gather my things, go back up to my room to change and then join Jill, Jody, Darcy and some other audience members for a drink and some dessert. It has been a long long day.
Everyone is shattered and soon the others leave for their respective homes. I sit at the bar to finish my dessert and wine. As in any bar in America there are TV screens all around but they are not showing sports, as is the norm: no, they are showing what is probably my favourite Christmas film and as I sit at the bar and think of the last few weeks and of all of the people that I’ve met, all of the things that I’ve seen and all of the venues that I have appeared in, I reflect that the title of the film sums up my experiences perfectly.
It IS a Wonderful Life.