Isn’t it extraordinary how the body’s internal clock works?  Even though my alarm is set for 4.45, I still wake up fifteen minutes before it rings.

I write a little of my blog before getting up and packing carefully.  Today I am flying with Spirit Air, whose fares are remarkably cheap but who will charge you for everything extra, including $95 for an extra carry-on bag.  It pays to follow the guidelines to the letter.

Having got everything correctly placed I load up my car and drive to the front entrance to check out.  Although it is far too early for breakfast there is a coffee pot steaming away, as well as a selection of little muffins.  I load myself up for the journey and get on my way.

The drive from Newport Beach to Los Angeles airport should be about forty five minutes, and my flight is not until nine.  Why, then, am I leaving so ridiculously early?  Everybody I’ve spoken too about the journey has told me the same thing, with Monday morning LA traffic it could take two hours, and if there is an accident – well, anything is possible.

As soon as I join the main freeway I see what they mean.  Even at 5.30 the road is choc-a-block with traffic and the high-speed, aggressive Californian driving style would easily lead to multiple accidents that could block the entire road in an instant.  I sip my coffee and concentrate harder.

5.30, nr Long Beach

5.30, nr Long Beach

We are all travelling much faster than the speed limit and in my mind I expect to see Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada astride their CHiPs motorcycles, flagging me down (the reference will be lost on many, I am sure.  But to me, now, the TV series of my youth is vividly in my memory).

My mind is playing all sorts of tricks this morning and almost every town, intersection, or road sign puts a thought into my head.

It all starts with Long Beach.  I, as I’ve mentioned before, am a Formula One fan and in the mid seventies to the early eighties the Grand Prix circus came to Long Beach.  I can picture the individual races, the triumphs and the tragedies of the circuit.

In my mind’s eye the Queen Mary stands proudly.  The Queen Mary:  I once heard a story, I don’t know if it’s true, about the naming of the ship.  The executives of Cunard wanted to call their new ship the Queen Victoria, and went to King George V to ask his permission.  In their presentation they said: ‘Sir, we would like to name our new ship after the greatest Queen this nation has ever had.’  The King replied, ‘Excellent, my wife will be delighted and honoured!’  A quick change of plan and name ensued!

I drive past a sign for Santa Monica and find myself singing ‘All I wanna do is have some fun, I got a feelin’ I’m not the only one….’

Almeda Drive: whatever happened to the character of Tony Almeida in 24?

Avalon Blvd: singing again, this time as Bryan Ferry.

The traffic is heavier than ever but I am getting closer to LA.  There is the Goodyear blimp, tethered and apparently being prepared for a flight.

Past a sign: ‘The Martin L Ganz Memorial highway’.  Last year I took to investigating the stories behind these stretches of highway and inevitably they are full of tragedy.  Officer Ganz’s story is no exception: he pulled over a car for some minor traffic violation and as  walked toward it, the driver got out and gunned him down.  Officer Ganz’s twelve year old nephew was riding with him in the car that day and witnessed everything.

Police Officers should never be in that sort of danger: it was not as if he was making some dangerous raid on a gang’s HQ, he was stopping someone for a traffic offence. I am glad that he is honoured in this way and that I can tell his story here.

The final part of the journey is actually the easiest and in no time I am pulling up outside the Fox Car Rental Office.  It is 6.45 and I am in plenty of time.  I could have left later after all, but then I would have hit even heavier traffic and who knows what would have happened then.

The shuttle bus arrives quickly takes me to terminal three, where I check in and clear security without delay.

I settle myself into a seat and continue writing.  I have a long wait, but it is a beautiful morning outside: the sun has risen and the sky is blue.  In the distance the Hollywood sign stands proudly over the city.

I buy a bottle of orange juice, some fruit and a sandwich for my breakfast and wait for the flight to be called.

Spirit Airlines: what can one say?  Actually the service is very efficient, friendly and quick.  Once on board we are packed in.  The seats are very close together and they do not recline, so you are bolt upright for the entire flight, knees against the seat in front.  Needless to say, there is no snack or beverage service (unless you want to pay for it).

Before departure the Captain’s comes over the intercom as he makes his pre-flight broadcast: ‘Hi ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Spirit flight 424, with service to Minneapolis.  It is a lovely day in the Twin Cities…..if you are a penguin!’

I watch a bit of Field of Dreams, which I have downloaded to my phone, but soon am dozing off.  The last thing I see before I fall asleep is the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the Rockies.

When I wake again the terrain has changed, and we are flying over the extraordinary circular fields of the Midwest.

Midwest fields

Midwest fields

The plane begins its descent into Minneapolis airport and I can see how thick the snow is here.  When we land it is obvious that this has been a major fall and that it must have happened sometime ago as the ice is hard packed.

Once the plane has arrived at the gate and as everyone stands, I can see that the locals returning home are ready for this: woollen hats, scarves and gloves get pulled out of bags and are donned.  As I leave the plane the sudden chill blast hits me.

I follow the signs to baggage claim where I am met by my dear, dear friend Dennis Babcock who is the reason that I am here today.

As we stand at the carousel, we chat about the project that we are working on (more of that in a moment).  As Dennis talks I see my main suitcase coming round towards me, but as I watch another man takes it off, passes it to his mother and they start to leave.

I interrupt Dennis in full flow and run up to the family.  On checking we discover that it is indeed my case.  Thank heavens they were standing on my side of the carousel, if not I would never have noticed them, and they would have been in for a surprise when they got home: ‘Mama, why have you bought a top hat?’

Once both of my cases are safely reunited with me, we walk to the car and head into town.

To Begin With

Dennis is a theatre producer. I have known him for many years and he has always said that he would like to do a show with me one day.

Last year that process started to happen.  Dennis is a devout and committed Christian, and has long had a dream to create a show based on Charles Dickens’s little book The Life Of Our Lord, which he wrote for his children.

A few years ago the project began to move on from being a dream, towards reality.  Dennis found a playwright to create a script and last year we all worked together on a series of rehearsed readings to get public feedback.

In the intervening period Dennis has been frantically searching for funding and now the project is ready to go.  The show will open, with me as Dickens, next February right here in Minneapolis.

As we drive away from the airport Dennis brings me up to speed with all of the developments and in no time we are at the Millenium hotel in downtown Minneapolis.

I go to my room where I have just under an hour before having a meeting with the show’s designer and Jeffery Hatcher, the writer and director of the piece.

The time passes quickly and before I know it there is a call from the front desk telling me that Nayna is here for our meeting.  Nayna is designing the show and is here to measure me for my costume and, yes, for my wig.

I have never had to wear a wig before, except once for a ‘do famous people’s descendents look like their forebears’ photo shoot many years ago.

Which is which?

Which is which?

We chat for a while until Dennis arrives, closely followed by Jeffrey.  We discuss how the character of Dickens is going to look, should he have a beard, how long should it be, or do I need to be clean-shaven for the show (a subject that has caused much alarm to Liz, since it was first mooted a few months ago).

Nayna measures my head in every direction and, once satisfied, leaves the rest of us to our evening.

Dennis is taking us out to dinner so that we can discuss the project in a convivial setting and has chosen a nearby steak house. ‘We can walk, it is only four blocks’.  I look out of the window at the hard-packed ice on the sidewalks and remember Dennis telling me that the temperature is dropping to -20.  I don’t really relish the idea of a walk.

However I am forgetting where we are:  Minneapolis has a huge network of skywalks – covered walkways that take you anywhere in the city.  After a ten minute walk, we arrive at the restaurant, warm, dry and in good spirits.

The steaks are delicious and the conversation is superb.  When the plates have been cleared away we start to talk about the rehearsal period for the show.

Working back from the opening date of February 19, we have to find blocks of time during which Jeffrey and I can work.  This process is complicated somewhat by my commitments in the UK, but we find a suitable week when Jeffrey can fly to London and work with me there.

Diaries suitably annotated, we say good-bye to our waitress (Dennis, ever the good producer, has furnished her with brochures about the show and made the introductions), and we leave the restaurant.

Back in the hotel, I say goodbye to the creative team behind this exciting project and go back to my room.

‘To Begin With’ is going to be an extraordinary experience for me.  Most – well, all actually – of my shows are written, directed and designed by me.  I do my own thing and live or die by the consequences. But with this project I am going to be part of a team, an ensemble.  There are people who have invested large sums of money to make this happen; there is Dennis’s life-long dream; there are Jeffrey’s carefully crafted words;  there will be costumes and make up and wigs;  there is marketing and promotion.  And, when I say the opening lines next February I will be responsible for all of them.

It is a new challenge for me, and a very exciting one.