Oh, what a night. The bed at the Fairville Inn is a beautiful four-poster, the room is warm, the road outside is quiet. Everything is conducive to a good night’s slumber.
However, having gone to sleep at 10, I wake up at midnight. I nod back off again, before waking once more at 1 am. This time I just cannot get myself back to sleep. In the end I decide to start work on the blog.
Worryingly, the blog-writing finally gets me back to sleep. I sincerely hope it hasn’t been having the same effect on everyone who has been reading it.
I wake for the final time as the alarm goes off at 6. I get the laptop fired up again and am about to post the blog, when I realise that I have left my camera in the car. I throw some clothes on and go to retrieve it. To my horror I discover that I have left the car lights on all night, although it is only the small side-lights and not the main headlights.
I am relieved to discover that the central locking mechanism responds when I hit the button on the key fob, so there must be charge left in the battery.
In my room I successfully upload text and pictures and then start to pack for the day. I will have plenty of time this afternoon before I have to be at Byers’ Choice for my evening show, so there is no need to prepare a costume case.
At 7.20 I walk from my little house, into the main building at the Inn, for my breakfast. Laura, the owner, greets me and congratulates me on the show yesterday afternoon, which she attended with her mother.
I am sat down and fussed over, which is always nice. Grapefruit juice, coffee, fruit and a delicious baked omelette, which Laura’s husband Rick has been preparing behind the scenes, all serve to bring me into the real world.
Not surprisingly, after my broken night, I am feeling a little jaded this morning.
As I am finishing up my breakfast, another couple come in for theirs. They had also seen the show yesterday and are as generous in their praise as Laura had been. We all chat for a while about the show and the tour, and they ask me if I wouldn’t mind signing their books, which of course I am happy to do.
The Fairville Inn is a wonderful B&B, run by cheerful, friendly and most attentive hosts. I heartily recommend it to anyone who is exploring the Brandywine Valley.
I get the car loaded up and breathe a sigh of relief when the engine starts at the first turn of the key.
My first appointment for the day is back at Winterthur, to meet Ellen and to tour the house. The traffic is busier now and it takes me a little while to turn left across the carriageways. Once on my way, I realise that the road is a little blurry and quickly come to the deduction that I have left my spectacles in my bedroom.
I turn the car round, and head back.
In the dining room there is yet another couple who saw the show yesterday and the previous conversation is resumed.
After another round of hand-shaking and goodbyes, and with my eyesight suitably enhanced, I get back on the road once more.
Ellen is waiting for me in the staff car park behind the main house gift store and takes me in ‘back stage’.
My tour of the house is due to start at 9.30, but first Ellen wants to show me the current exhibit in the gallery, that is attached to the main house: The Costumes of Downton Abbey.
Over the past few years Winterthur has struck up a remarkably close relationship with the hit television series. There is no specific connection, other than the fact that the life of the DuPonts at Winterthur was very much the American equivalent of that led by the Grantham’s at Downton.
The exhibition is superb and very well laid out. No glass cases here: each costume stands on its own stage, in front of a huge photograph from the series. Sometimes there is a video clip playing too. Accompanying each ‘scene’ is a large panel with a fragment of Julian Fellowes’ script.
Among the costumes are articles from the DuPont’s wardrobe, to compare how the two families (one real, one fictional), lived. One exhibit that particularly appeals to me is Mr DuPont’s travelling trunk: I think that would be very useful for me on the road!
As the official opening time gets nearer (for I have being granted a before-hours view), the official guides start to arrive and can fill me in with a few interesting stories. For instance: Shirley Maclaine had it written into her contract that no still photographs of her could be used, so she is not included in any of the cast shots.
One of the scenes shows Matthew Crawley striding out across the moors in his hunting tweeds. Closer inspection of the picture might give a clue as to why he was so rudely disposed of during the 2012 Christmas episode: there, clearly visible in his front pocket, is the outline of an iphone….as an actor you displease Julian Fellowes at your peril!
Ellen tells me that the exhibition has been amazingly successful, with many visitors coming dressed in costume. It is extraordinary how huge the Downton phenomenon has become in America.
It is soon time to join the rest of the visitors who are gathering for the 9.30 tour of the house itself. I am included in a small group under the supervision of our guide, Lois, and we set off for our tour of a most beautiful house, decorated for Christmas.
Although the DuPonts were among the rich elite of America, the house is not ostentatious. The rooms are small and homely, and you can really get a feel for the family that lived there.
One room is laid out with baskets containing gifts for all of the visitors and the packages are wrapped in cellophane which was a DuPont product. Clearly Mr DP liked to impress his guests and do a little extra marketing on the side!
As our tour comes to an end, Lois (the guide), whispers ‘are you Mr Dickens? Our director would like to see you when we finish’. Sure enough there, waiting for me with a big smile on his face, is David Roselle. He thanks me once more for the events yesterday and seems keen to put on some of my other shows in the future, which would be lovely.
I say good bye to both David and Ellen and thank them for giving me the opportunity to see the house.
It is 10.30 and I am in perfect time to drive to Bala Cynwyd for a radio interview at 12.00. I am making good time, but beginning to doubt that I have put the correct information into my SatNav, as I appear to be heading right into Philadelphia itself.
I check the address and it is correct. My fears stem from my knowledge of the town in North Wales, of the same name. It is a sleepy little resort town, on the banks of the beautiful Bala Lake and certainly doesn’t have any buildings containing more than two floors.
I pull up outside a modern office building, with the Philadelphia skyline in the background, and take the lift to the tenth floor where I am met by Paul Perello.
We go to the studio, and straight away Paul begins by telling me that he met Cedric Dickens years ago and that he made quite an impression.
Cedric was my father’s cousin and was as an ebullient and fun-loving man as you could ever have wished to meet. He left a trail of smiles in his wake.
‘Uncle Ceddy’ had many connections in Philadelphia and travelled here a great deal. It is always lovely to hear stories about him (and there are plenty to be told), when I am travelling.
The interview is recorded ‘as live’, and we spend a very happy thirty minutes chatting about A Christmas Carol, my show, Charles Dickens, Byers’ Choice and the season in general.
As Paul signs off he says. ‘Well, folks, this has been fascinating and I could carry on talking to Gerald for an hour…’ In fact, he is almost as good as his word, for our conversation continues long after the tapes have stopped rolling (or the memory chips have stopped doing whatever memory chips do).
We continue talking as we walk to the lifts, before shaking hands and returning to our respective worlds.
My car journey continues through the sprawling suburbs of Philly and takes me towards my home from home when on tour: Chalfont PA.
Chalfont is the home city of Byers’ Choice, the company (or rather the group of friends), who promote my American tours and look after me while I am on this side of the Atlantic.
I have been working with Byers for almost ten years now and I could not ask for more.
My hotel is the Joseph Ambler Inn, a collection of historic cottages. I am greeted at check-in like an old friend. My room is the Penn Suite on the second floor.
A few years ago the suite was renovated to include a state-of-the-art bathroom, with a deep Jacuzzi bathtub. I know where I am headed straight away.
I have a lovely long, hot soak and let the bubbles pummel my weary body, before laying on the bed and having a much needed afternoon nap.
I have to leave at around 4.30, so I set my alarm to give me plenty of time to get shirts ironed and everything prepared for the show.
The route to the Byers’ Choice factory is so familiar to me that I don’t need to set the SatNav and within ten minutes I am pulling up outside the magnificent facility, which houses not only the administrative offices and manufacturing floor, but also, a beautifully designed visitor centre, which charts the history and development of this family run company.
I am greeted at the door by Bob Byers, jnr, who runs the operation with his parents Joyce and Bob snr, and his brother Jeff.
It is Bob who manages my tour and deals with all of the contracts and enquiries. It is Bob that looks at a confused list of venues and requests and somehow sees an order and shape, which eventually will become my tour. It is Bob who books airlines and hotels. It is Bob who is now shaking hands and giving me a big hug of welcome.
In the offices are many good friends and everyone is as delighted to see me as I am to see them.
The sound check for the Byers’ Choice shows is essential to get right. The stage is erected on the factory floor and we are expecting three audiences of between five hundred and seven hundred people. It is a massive space and without good sound the shows would be a disaster. Fortunately Byers’ Choice has David working for them, who does a superb job on the technical aspects of my show.
This year he is very excited as he has introduced some new lighting effects into the show, and he is keen to try them out.
I stand, lonely, on the stage at one end of the huge bare room, filled only with seven hundred white chairs. Somewhere, in the distance, David twiddles with the sound mixing desk and I am live.
When doing a sound check I have various parts of the show that I run through, to try and include all of the vocal highs and lows. I growl as Scrooge, boom as Present, sob as Cratchit and canoodle as Topper. My entire show: ‘Growl, Boom, Sob and Canoodle.’
When we are both satisfied with the sound and the lights, I go back to the offices, where I chat with the various employees who will be helping out at tonight’s event.
Tish, Wendy, Lisa all stop by and say ‘hello’. Wait, Lisa?
Lisa Porter was the very first person from Byers’ Choice to see me perform, and was my closest ally throughout my years of working with the company. Over the last five years it was Lisa who acted as my ‘fixer’ at Byers and who co-ordinated all of the day to day activities of my tours. Lisa and Bob made the trips work.
Why have I suddenly lapsed into the past tense? Because Lisa left Byers’ Choice earlier this year, to pursue new professional challenges. But here she is, in the office, just as she always was. For a moment I completely forgot that she was no longer working here. Her smiling face is so at home.
We have a lovely hug and talk about the tour, which she has been following through these pages. One by one other members of staff come up and greet her too: everyone is happy to see her back.
While she is occupied, I scurry back to my changing room, to fetch a special gift of thanks that I have been carrying throughout the tour, just for this moment.
The very kind shop staff at Winterthur gift wrapped it for me yesterday, and as I take it back to the office I have an awful thought that I might have picked up the wrong package. Who knows what Lisa will find when she un-wraps it? It feels slightly too large, and in a box.
Fortunately as the paper is peeled away (and there is plenty of it, for the Winterthur staff have been thorough, even going so far as boxing it for me), I see that it is after all the correct package.
One of Lisa’s main headaches in working with me, were the constant emails first thing in the morning saying: ‘I seem to have left my fountain pen/watch/cufflinks at last night’s venue. Would you be able to call them and get it/them shipped on to my next hotel?’ It was a scenario played out many times over the years.
So, as a permanent reminder of our days together I have created a box frame containing a fountain pen, a pocket watch and a set of cufflinks. She is delighted, and we pose for a picture together.
Now, however, I must get back to this year’s tour, for the audience are massing and it is time to get ready.
The microphone has no clip, so I pin it to my shirt, using two white-headed pins. It is a good system and wont slip, that’s for sure
The dressing room at Byers is in fact the board room and I have plenty of space to spread out, so I carefully lay my replacement costume out, ready for a quick change after the show is finished.
Then I sit down and listen to some music: firstly Rhapsody in Blue and then, to get me into the mood of A Christmas Carol, my show’s new anthem: the rock version of The Carol of the Bells.
With fifteen minutes to go I join David at the sound desk as the audience continues to swell.
Bob is scurrying here and there, coordinating everything and trying to get the last few people from the car park into the theatre. Moving such a large body of people can be difficult and we inevitably start slightly late.
Despite my lack of sleep, the show is great. I love the energy created by an audience of this size: it is infectious and I give it my all. David’s lighting effects work superbly and the sound is good.
My only problem occurs about fifteen minutes into the show, as one of my shirt buttons works its way undone. The button is question is under my waistcoat so there is no ‘costume malfunction’ issue but the effect is painful. The slight gape of the shirt turns it inward and for the rest of the show the two pins holding my microphone on, are either stabbing or scraping me. It is not the most comfortable show I’ve ever done.
However my discomfort doesn’t seem to have been noticed by the audience, because they go wild at the end.
With the applause still continuing I leave the stage and run back to the board room for my quick change.
When I arrive in the visitor center to sign, there is a large crowd waiting for me and I get a second round of applause
The well drilled process starts. Pam stands at the head of the line. She chats and offers to take pictures, (she is becoming extremely proficient with every make of smart phone). Quietly, efficiently, effectively she keeps everything moving.
The line is long and I am getting weary now, but everyone has lovely things to say.
Lisa stops by to say goodbye. She chats with Pam, and it is strange to see my two ‘fixers’ together.
The signing continues and one mother prompts her young son to tell me what he thought of the show: ‘I didn’t like your show!’ he says. Oh, OK, well, that’s honest and fair enough: ‘I LOVED IT!’ A great piece of timing – he will go far, probably as a stand-up comic.
The room is at last empty, apart from Bob and Pam and me.
The day is officially over, and I change back into twenty-first century Gerald. I chat a little with Bob about a few possible future projects, before driving back to the Joseph Ambler Inn, where I am sure I will have a much better night.