To quote Jack Nicholson: ‘I’m back!’
The 2014 Christmas tour starts tomorrow with the first of 50 performances taking me from Pigeon Forge,Tennessee to Bethlehem, Pennsylvnaia, via California and the Mid West.
As is the case each year the tour will provide some extraordinary moments when I am least expecting them. There will be times of elation and times of fatigue. There will be long car journeys during which I will reflect on many things.
I will reunite with dear old friends at familiar venues and I will make new acquaintances who I hope will become new friends.
And all along the way I shall keep my daily diary and try to share with you as much as I can about life On The Road With Gerald Dickens.
The tour, for all of its excitement and joy, always starts with the most difficult moment as I say goodbye to Liz for the next six weeks. Standing at Heathrow airport prolonging a final hug before disappearing through the security lanes never gets any easier. You would have thought we’d have got used to it by now but it is just as hard to let go this year as it was last.
With the current political tensions, not to mention the creeping spread of Ebola, I expected the security lanes to be packed and slow-moving, but in fact I am through in double quick time.
At the gate it is apparent that the flight is going to be extremely full. I sit down and read my book, waiting for the call to board.
I have changed my packing regime this year and only have a small carry-on bag for my laptop, so I am not too worried about being first onboard to cadge the valuable overhead locker space.
I don’t leap up as soon as the first pre-boarding announcement is given, but sit maturely, sensibly reading. Of course every nerve in my body is screaming: ‘get up! Get up! Everyone else is going to get on before you: GET UP!’
Zone 3 is called and even then I slowly pack my book into my bag, and stroll nonchalantly to the desk: passport open to the correct page and boarding pass face down for the greater ease of scanning. Ah, the seasoned traveller.
Once on board I find a perfectly sized gap in a locker for my bag. And settle into my home for the next eight hours or so.
Once we are on our way the flight settles into a well rehearsed routine. The entertainment system is started up and everyone selects the film they want to watch. Everyone sits through an advertisement for a home thermostat, controlled from your smart phone. Everybody’s films start and just as the credits finish and the first dialogue begins: the captain makes an announcement.
Come on! They must know the timings by now, they must know how the passengers behave. Why not either make the announcement a little earlier, or delay starting the entertainment until after the Captain has regaled us with his words of wisdom.
Once informed that we will be flying (the exact height really is fairly irrelevant to us) and that we will get to Detroit at around the time Delta promised us we would, we are allowed to get back to our films.
It is interesting to look at everybody else’s screen and to see the huge variety of choices. I am watching the Grand Budapest Hotel; quite a few have what I think is Hercules: lots of armour, oiled muscles, swords, spears and axes. There is Scarlett Johansson with Morgan Freeman, there is Captain America. There are cartoons.
This wide differential in the viewing habits of the four hundred people on board puts a thought into my mind: How extraordinary it is that all of these individuals are bound together in this tiny instant of time.
Everyone here leads completely different lives. Some live in large houses and have well-paid jobs, others live in flats or terraces. Some are surrounded by huge families, some are single. Some are making their first flight and, for all I know, some may be making their last.
We have all been gathered together to go to Detroit but once there we will all go our different ways again. I am heading to Knoxville in Tennessee; others will go onto other cities. There is nothing to unite us and yet here we all are, strapped into this airplane, watching movies together.
The flight drones on and I work my way through some more films, interrupted briefly by a lunch which apparently is Thai green chicken curry.
The droning continues.
At last we are an hour from Detroit and we are served a snack box before starting our descent.
The first point of entry into America means immigration and this can always be a difficult moment, especially when there is a connecting flight to be made.
Today however I am lucky, the queues are not too long and there are enough agents on duty to keep things moving along nicely.
‘My’ agent is apparently not a Dickens fan or a theatre goer, for he seems very suspicious and disinterested all in one (which is quite clever if you think about it). He is only doing his job of course and grants my entry into the country with no delay.
Having collected my bags, cleared customs and re-checked them for their onward journey – which I hope is the same as mine – I find out where my next flight is departing from and make my way to the gate.
The flight to Knoxville is on a small plane and lasts only an hour. We swoop in over the Smoky Mountains and everything begins to feel familiar.
Knoxville airport is great. It has one concourse with probably 12 gates at most. Everything is calm and relaxed at Knoxville.
The walk from the plane to the baggage reclaim must take me all of four minutes and the car rental desk is right next to the carrousel, so I can be sorting my car out while I wait for the bags to appear.
As I sign the final piece of paper and have the car keys handed to me, the baggage carousel judders into life and bags start to appear and, wouldn’t you know it, mine are among them.
A short walk to the parking garage and there is my car for the next few days. A Volvo XC60. A Swede in America – he shall be called Sven.
I load my bags into the back, set the satnav to maybe the best address of the tour (The Inn at Christmas Place, Christmas Lane, Pigeon Forge) and I am on my way.
Again there is a lovely feeling of familiarity about the journey through Sevierville towards the Smoky Mountains on the horizon.
And now here is dear old Pigeon Forge. It is a very strange place, but I have grown to love it. There is the upside down hotel, there is The Titanic, there is King Kong.
Dusk is falling and the countless neon signs shine brightly against the sky. Everywhere there are bill boards telling me that Evel Knievel’s Harley is on display at the Pigeon Forge Motor Museum. Maybe I’ll try to visit during my stay.
Onward along the strip until I turn left into Christmas Tree Lane and left again into the hotel car park. The Inn is looking magnificent, every tree is strung with coloured lights. It is definitely Christmas here. It is always Christmas here.
As I pull my cases to the entrance I realise that Kristy Elder, who is my contact here, is up a ladder finishing the decorations around the main door. She climbs down and we say our hellos.
It certainly does not seem like it’s been a year since I drove away from the hotel but a year it has certainly been. It is very nice that the tour starts here, as there is a great sense of family at Pigeon Forge, making it a very happy and relaxing environment to perform in.
Having got checked in I go to the lifts and to my astonishment hear myself talking. Last year I recorded a feature for a TV station all about A Christmas Carol and my performances. Kristy has set up a Gerald Dickens display right opposite the lifts, featuring a TV screen playing the interview on a never ending loop.
Up in my room I have a brief lay down before heading to The Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant next door.
Dinner finished, I put the TV on and drop off to sleep on my bed.
I of course wake early but I won’t bore you with all of that. I do a little bit of rehearsing of A Christmas Carol, as I haven’t performed it since last Christmas, before going down to breakfast.
The hotel is busy, as always and there are definitely some familiar faces amongst the guests.
Once breakfast is over it is back to my room for some more rehearsal time before setting out for an adventure.
I have a completely free day today and have decided to drive up into the mountains and see what lies beyond Pigeon Forge. The first part of the journey takes me past adventure golf courses, go kart tracks, show venues, a ferris wheel: all the fun of the Forge. I drive past the turn off to Dollywood – Dolly Parton’s own theme park.
Soon I have left the city limits and start to head uphill and into Gatlinburg which is less brash but still very much geared towards the tourist. There are chairlifts and cable cars here, not to mention museums dedicated to moonshine. I can tell I’m heading into the wilderness for the adventure golf course in Gatlinburg has a Davy Crockett theme, rather than the dragons and pirate ships of Pigeon Forge.
And on I go, the road running through a tunnel of trees. Most of the leaves have fallen now but I can see how stunning the fall colours must have been here. The road winds on and up and suddenly there is the most magnificent vista of golden mountains before me. I pull into a lay-by and take a few pictures before driving on.
The road is truly magnificent and the view at every turn is more spectacular than the last. As I climb higher the happy cheerful fall colours give way to the more austere fir and spruce. And now there is snow on the ground – the road was closed last week after a very heavy fall.
The road winds on, switching back and forth: at one point it goes through a tunnel, then curls up and round to the left through 360 ̊ becoming the reason for its own tunnel. More views, more photographs, each still more impressive than the last.
It is a very slow drive up for all of the cars on the road as we are all keep pulling into laybys to gaze and click the shutter before moving onto the next viewpoint.
Finally I arrive at the Newfound Gap right at the top. The views across the mountains are amazing on such a bright sparkling clear day.
But as I’m talking to some other visitors (fellow Brits strangely enough), I find out there is another place, further on and higher yet, so I get into my car and drive a further seven miles up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smoky Mountains National park.
Of course the view from the car park is incredible, what is this, though? I can get higher? Further? Yes! There is a walk up to the observation post. I must do it, I can’t have come all of this way to falter at the last hurdle. So I head up the path which is good solid tarmac at first before becoming covered with ice and snow. A park ranger warns me that I make the trek at my own risk but on I go.
It is slippery, treacherously so in places and the air is thin but still I trek onward until I round the corner and find the observation tower at the summit. The tower itself is 45 feet high, which seems a bit pointless when you are already 6,643 feet above sea level. You wouldn’t think that 45 extra feet is going to improve the view that much. However I have done it and feel on top of the world.
The walk down is slippery but I manage to traverse the ice fields without injury and return to the safety of the tarmac path and stop to chat with the Ranger. He is clearly completely in love with this place and I can quite understand why. ‘This is my medicine’ he says gesturing to the horizon. ‘This was the Cherokee’s most sacred place. I just wish we could give it back to them’.
Looking out over what is certainly a very spiritual spot it is painful to think of the Trail of Tears: the driving out of the Native Americans in 1830. The only Cherokees here today are those in the car park made by Jeep.
I begin the drive back down towards Pigeon Forge once more. It is an interesting thought that each successive view as I came up was larger and more impressive than the last, whilst going down it becomes apparent that those views are by definition less impressive than those I have seen since. I am sure that there is some highly philosophical and profound metaphor for life somewhere in all of that, but I’m not sure what it is.
Back at the hotel I get straight down to a complete run of A Christmas Carol which I interrupt to conduct a telephone interview relating to my forthcoming appearances in California. The journalist is a died-in-the-wool, hard-core Dickens fanatic and her enthusiasm for the show spurs me on to rehearse even harder.
After a good two hour session I do a little admin (ie writing this) and then head out for dinner to TGI Fridays.
Now, here is a little known fact that I learned in London: Charles Dickens worked at TGI Friday. Oh yes, it is definitely true: on the side of TGIF in Covent Garden there is a blue plaque proclaiming: ‘As a boy Charles Dickens worked here: 1824-1825’
So there you have it.
Back to the hotel and in for an early night. Tomorrow the tour starts in earnest.