(Although I write all of these posts in the present tense, I, of course actually write and post them on the morning after the events described.
This morning I want to write in real time for a moment):
Back home my partner Liz is a pianist and a wonderful pianist at that. Today she is playing a concert to commemorate Remembrance Day.
Good luck darling Liz, I wish I could be there and I’m sure it will be an amazing evening.
I Love You.
Back to the present yesterday
Now, this is taking waking up early to a new level. When my eyes pop open it is dark (no surprise there); when I check the clock it is 11.35pm. Oh dear.
When I do wake up for real I am feeling as if the cold that has been threatening for a week is beginning to take hold. I make sure I take my Vitamin C supplement.
My first job is to catch up with the latest load of clothes washing. I go to the shop in the hotel lobby to buy detergent, before going up to the guest laundry on floor six. Both washing machines are full, although the programmes have finished, so I carefully unload the wet clothes and leave them on top of the driers before loading my things.
Once the machines have swallowed $1.00 each and are humming quietly, I go back to floor two for breakfast.
After a plate of delicious scrambled egg, bacon, sausage, potatoes and toast, I go back to the laundry on six. The mysterious early morning washer has loaded his clothes into both driers, so I’m not able to dry mine at the moment.
Up to floor twelve and spend forty minutes rehearsing before making my way back to six. The driers are empty now and I set them running. Twelve again, and continue the work on Top Hole.
Down to six again, retrieve my dry clothes and return to twelve.
It is now time to get into costume ready for the day’s events all of which are to promote the Dickens’ Christmas Towne event.
I walk along the street, top hat-ed and flourishing my cane with a swagger.
I meet Stephen at the front of the Nauticus museum and we go into the construction site where the exhibit is being built. I am introduced to many other people involved in the project and the sheer scale of this project begins to become apparent. There are designers and builders and administrators and marketing people everywhere.
Later today Stephen will show a group of press through the site and at the end I will be waiting for them, ready to chat about Dickens, London and Christmas.
When we have finished downstairs we go up to see the space where I will be performing tonight. It is a beautiful room with one completely glass wall overlooking the Elizabeth River and to Portsmouth on the far bank.
We do a couple of vocal checks and decide that I will not need a microphone, as the acoustics are very good. It is slightly echo-ey but the amount of people in the room should deaden that.
We still have a bit of time before our first appointment, so Stephen takes me on board the USS Wisconsin, where I have a brief private tour. My admiration for all wartime mariners increases and I think particularly of my grandfather: Admiral Sir Gerald Dickens RN.
Our tour complete, it is time to drive across town to the local PBS radio station to record a short interview.
Our drive takes us part the remarkable Opera House where the Virginia Opera is performing HMS Pinafore. The lawn outside is surrounded by hundreds of Union Jacks, all of which are the correct way up, I am delighted to see.
I am interviewed by Cathy Lewis who just lets the conversation flow, with no stilted questions. She also promotes and re-promotes the Dickens’ Christmas Towne. A real pro. It is strange sitting in a radio studio in full costume, but PBS is the American home of Downton Abbey, so I suppose one must maintain one’s standards.
Once the interview is finished Stephen drives me back circuitously through some of the older and most beautiful neighbourhoods of Norfolk, pointing out the house on the waterfront that he and Sarah Jane would love to own one day.
Our next commitment is lunch with Denise, a journalist from the main local newspaper: The Virginian Pilot. We are joined by Bill Cofer who is Chairman of the board at Nauticus and a huge supporter of Stephen’s vision. Not only is Bill the Chairman, but he is also responsible for creating the model railway layout which features in the exhibition.
Lunch is in a private room at the modern World Trade Center building which glints and glistens in the sun.
After helping ourselves to the lavish salad bar we all sit and talk. Stephen and Bill start the ball rolling getting all of the important messages about the project across. Denise then asks me about Charles Dickens and my own career before we all start to chat about every aspect of the relationship between Dickens and this modern attraction.
One similarity is that when Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol he wanted it to have a lavish, rich look. The little volume would have leather binding with gold lettering. The illustrations would all be hand coloured and the pages would have gold edges. For all this luxury, Dickens was insistent that the volume would be sold cheaply making it accessible to the widest spectrum of society possible.
In the same way Dickens Christmas Towne is being created at vast expense, both financially and in terms of man-hours, but the charge to visit will be very small, meaning that as many people in the community as possible can experience it.
The time passes quickly and the time for the media walk-through is fast approaching. We all walk back to the site while Denise continues her questioning.
Once in the room I am introduced to many other people involved with the project, including Keith, who is the head of Virginia Stage, the theatre company building the entire set and supplying the actors who will bring it all to life.
I take my place, sat at a table and Stephen goes to greet the media at the front door. I can hear his spiel from the far end of the room, over the noise of drills, saws and hammering.
Eventually he rounds the corner and introduces me. I say a few impromptu words about Dickens, London and Christmas. I point out what a perfect venue this is for such a project seeing as Dickens was born in Portsmouth, which is over the water; his mother was called Elizabeth, as is the river outside; his papa was called John and Norfolk has a branch of Papa John’s Pizza!
After a few more questions and a television interview the press drift away. I have one more job before having a brief rest and that is to record some video and radio advertisements.
The scripts have been carefully timed and my natural pace of speaking is too slow so I have to re-record them at a faster pace. I feel like one of those voice over artists who detail all of the possible side effects at the end of drug advertisements on tv.
Apart from a few fluffed lines, I get the pieces recorded successfully and to everyone’s satisfaction.
The evening’s cocktail reception is due to start at 5.30, so I have a couple of hours back at the hotel to rest a little, before putting my costume back on and returning to the Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center.
The sun is setting as I walk towards the magnificent building. The sky is a vivid salmon pink and the reflections on the many modern glass buildings around the port are beautiful. Sadly I have forgotten to bring my camera.
The glass-walled room, where the reception is to be held, has been transformed. Christmas trees are in place along the glass wall; George C Scott’s version of A Christmas Carol is silently playing on video screens; a costume from the Virginia Stage’s own version of the show is displayed; waist high cocktail tables, covered in festive red cloths are scattered and the only things that are missing are the people.
At 5.30 they begin to arrive. Familiar faces at first: Bill arrives, Keith arrives, Cathy from the radio station is there, all of the Dickens Christmas Towne staff is there. And then the room starts to fill with people I don’t know.
I am not very good in a social situation like this at making the first move in a conversation. Fortunately most other people there are. In my costume I stand out like a beacon and people make a beeline for me.
Everyone seems wholeheartedly behind Stephen’s great plan and everyone seems genuinely grateful that I am here to help promote it.
A noisy, happy hum fills the room and it is a good party. At 6’0 clock the lights are raised and Bill Cofer makes a few words of introduction before handing over to Stephen, who speaks passionately for a few minutes before handing over to Keith from the theatre company. Keith talks about the artistic achievement of his staff and the creative vision of the whole project, before handing back to Stephen again.
Stephen now introduces me and I step forward into the great semi circular sweep of the room to begin my short presentation. I break the ice with my ‘Portsmouth, Elizabeth, Papa John’s’ gag, which everyone likes, and then start to perform the Ghost of Christmas Present’s chapter.
I am not sure about the acoustics, I am not sure about the lighting, I am not sure about the fact that everyone is standing through the ‘show’. I shouldn’t worry though, as everyone is listening attentively and responding perfectly.
I get into my stride and all too soon ‘the clock strikes twelve’. The applause and the cheering is magnificent! Everyone seems to have really enjoyed the short snippet.
I am quickly descended upon by people wanting to take my photograph. A young man introduces himself to me as an actor who performs one man shows based on Mark Twain: that would be a fun double hander to do.
Stephen has taken everyone downstairs to walk through the exhibition and Sarah Jane appears and suggests we all join him. However as we get towards the door people are starting to come back up and I am soon wrapped up in conversation again. We never do get downstairs.
Gradually the guests start to leave until there are only a few of us left. Stephen and Sarah Jane ask if I would like to join them for a glass of wine and a wind-down in a restaurant across the street and I am very happy to do so.
When we get there we find Keith and his wife already there, we join them at the table and chat about the day’s events. I am sat next to a gentleman who used to be a Naval pilot and is an expert on the battleship Wisconsin. I could listen to him all night as he speaks.
We order some crab cakes and have a nice relaxing evening.
Eventually it is time to leave. Stephen and Sarah Jane walk back to the hotel with me and we say our goodbyes.
I hope – I have no doubt – that I will be back. For now though I wish Dickens’ Christmas Towne well for its grand opening in eleven days.
It hardly seems as if I’ve only been involved with the project for one day. I care very greatly for it and I am sure that it will succeed.
In my room I set the alarm for five. Tomorrow is a different venue, a different group of people. Just as fun.