Today is the most arduous day of the tour. It is true that there will be no long drives, no flights or tight connections to panic over; I am sure that the audiences will be responsive, and enthusiastic in their praise; I know that the event organisers will be friendly, caring and will have my very best interests as their first priority.
The fact is that I will be performing for approximately thirteen hundred people in the space of a few hours, as well as signing smiling and chatting to pretty well all of them: Definitely an arduous day in store.
It starts, inevitably, with coffee. The rooms at the Joseph Ambler Inn do not have coffee makers, but there is a Keurig (of course), machine in main reception area. I swap a large bag of laundry for two cups of coffee and come back to my room to write the daily blog.
While I am writing, an email comes in from Bob, alerting me to the fact that a TV crew is coming to the first show and would like to do an interview at some time during the day. I reply that I will come to the visitor centre at eleven, so that we can have some flexibility with the arrangements.
Breakfast at the JAI is a delicious buffet. I fill my plate with French toast and bacon, drizzling maple syrup all over the whole thing. As an afterthought I also have a glass of water, which makes me feel ever so slightly more virtuous. Actually, no it doesn’t: decadence all of the way.
In my room I iron two shirts for the day, and set off for Byers. The weather is misty, rainy, cold and dank. I am so glad that I insisted on a 4 wheel-drive SUV back in Boston – I haven’t seen a flake of snow since.
The parking lot at Byers is already full, and I drive to the overflow car park at the back of the building. A covered walkway leads from the car park directly to the staff cafeteria, but I can’t use that door today, as there is a rather elegant ‘afternoon’ tea being served in there this morning.
I walk to the front of the building with a couple who have parked in the same lot as me and we ponder the question: ‘Rain or Snow – which would you prefer?’ We all come down on the side of snow.
Once in the building, I lay all of my things in the board room before finding Bob and Dave chatting in the latter’s office, which has bits of computers all over the place. It would seem that every electronic malfunction at Byers’ Choice occurs during the Christmas season, and that every recalcitrant computer ends up in Dave’s office.
Bob and I chat for a while about a few business matters, including the possibility of having a book published ready for next year’s tour. We talk over a few ideas and discuss the timings of such a project. I am due to be working on a show in Minneapolis during the spring, and I should have plenty of time, after the rehearsal period is complete, to write then. It is an exciting idea and I really hope that it comes to fruition.
When we have finished our meeting, I go to the kitchen where Joyce Byers is scurrying around, making sure that the tea service is continuing well. Joyce is the reason that Byers’ Choice exists; it was her that first created the carollers in the late 60’s.
The whole company, which attracts avid collectors from far and wide, was built around her vision and talent. You may expect her to be taking it easy somewhere, and touring the factory only occasionally, but that is not Joyce’s style and here she is in an apron, working away behind the scenes.
Of course she immediately starts fussing over me and when I ask if there is any honey, she immediately calls the store and within five minutes a jar is delivered to the little kitchen. I make a cup of tea, mix the honey into it and sip it gently.
The TV crew has arrived, so I get into costume, in case they want to film the interview straight away, before the first show. I go to the theatre, where I find Bob talking to the splendidly named Grover Wilcox, who is the lead journalist on the project. He has a big bushy moustache, which curls up into a big smile as he shakes me by the hand.
It turns out that Grover is a member of the Philadelphia Pickwick club, so the inevitable question is: ‘who are you?’
‘I am Angelo Cyrus Bantam’
Everyone else looks rather confused at the course of this brief conversation. Every member of any Pickwick Club takes the name of a character from the novel. Bantam is the Grand Master of Ceremonies in Bath, when Mr Pickwick and his friends travel to that beautiful city.
Inevitably a member of the Pickwick Club in Philly has plenty of memories of Cedric and soon everyone is smiling and laughing. Cedric’s influence is eternal.
The plan is for the entire show to be filmed. Will, the sound engineer will look after a tripod mounted camera at the back of the hall, while Katie will roam surreptitiously with a camera on a steady-cam unit, capturing close ups.
After the show (and after the signing), Grover will then interview me about the performance.
But now, it is time to move on. Dave is anxious to do a sound-check, which we complete without any fuss and I go back to my dressing room to prepare for the biggest show of the tour.
The audience starts to arrive.
Over seven hundred seats have been laid out and extras are required as the advertised start time comes and goes. The choir of carol singers are enthusiastically applauded after each song, and everyone seems to be in the most excellent spirits.
Looking across the sea of heads in the hall I am thankful that I am not the sort of person who gets nervous by large audiences. Actually, for me, a small audience is much more intimidating.
A lady comes up to me and asks if I am Mr Dickens? On receiving the affirmative reply, she tells me that she is a neighbour of my cousin Rowland, and that he has brought a group here to watch the show. I had no idea that he was coming, but soon there he is, with his wife Andi and their children.
It is great to see him! Here is a fact about my show: my earliest memory of hearing A Christmas Carol, was on one Christmas Eve at my home in Tunbridge Wells. Rowalnd’s family (Uncle Claud, Aunt Audrey, Kate and Rowland), were staying with us for Christmas.
The children shared a room and once we were tucked into our beds Uncle Claud read A Christmas Carol to us. I remember distinctly being scared of the ghosts and being amazed to discover that Scrooge had not missed Christmas Day and that the spirits had ‘done it all in one night’.
So the fact that Rowland is here with his own children makes this a very special telling of the story for me.
At last Bob is satisfied that everyone is seated and he and I walk through the stacks of cartons in the shipping department, to the little door next to the stage.
I wait in the darkness as Bob makes his introductions.
As I walk onto the stage the applause is amazing and I take a moment to relish the experience of standing in front of seven hundred people.
The show is tight and good. Dave has tweaked the lighting since last night and the effects he creates enhance the story. I absolutely hit my mark for the special spotlight which illuminates the vision of Marley’s face and there is a gasp from the crowd as it appears.
The ‘new’ script works well and there is a lot more light and shade to it.
Throughout the performance I am aware of Katie creeping around with her steady-cam. She always seems to pop up in perfect spots for individual scenes and I imagine that the end result is going to be superb. I hope that I can get to see the footage sometime.
The show ends to great applause. I run back to the board room to change as quickly as I can, as this is going to be one mighty signing line.
When I get to the room I find that I am not alone, as Bob’s son, George, and his friends are using it as green room. The lads have been assisting with the car parking, which for an audience like this is a mammoth undertaking, not made any easier by the pouring rain today.
When I come in one of the guys says: ‘Wow, have you been out in the rain?’
‘No, just the show!’
They get moving to assist the audience out and I towel down and get into my other costume.
My signing table is situated in its own room, which houses a display of Nativity scenes from around the World. The table is in the centre of the room and the line enters at the door, goes all around the room, behind my table, to the other side where Pam stands. She lets each group up to the table individually, which gives me lots of space but also means that the photographs taken look individual and special.
This is a very busy signing session as everybody seems to have multiple books and carollers to be autographed. As the time goes on there is no sign of the line ending. I am very aware that I have another performance looming in little over an hour, not to mention the TV interview with Grover.
And still they come. And still I am talking and smiling and signing. I am aware that my voice is beginning to feel a little scratchy and I drink as much water as I can.
The strain on my voice during a day like this comes much more from the signing than from the shows. Firstly the microphone system is good, but also there is a technique for projecting your voice, which comes from the diaphragm. The vocal power comes not from my vocal chords, but from the amount of air I can push over them.
Here in a small room I cannot use that technique: ‘I AM DELIGHTED THAT YOU ENJOYED THE SHOW!! HOORAH, HUZZAH! NEXT PLEASE: HOW LOVELY TO SEE YOU!
It just wouldn’t work and it is the vocal chords that are taking the strain.
On the line goes. People have returned to the shop and bought more product and are joining on to the end of the snake again.
At last the line doesn’t disappear from my sight out of the door any more. That still means another thirty minutes or so, but the end, quite literally, is in sight.
And there, waiting to the very last, is Rowland, Andi and the family. We have a brief chat and I wish that I could spend more time with them. We pose for family snaps together, before they head home and I head for my interview.
Sometimes a television interview can drag on while the lights and sound are made perfect, but Grover, Katie and Will have got everything prepared and I just slot into the chair and we begin.
Grover has obviously loved the show and he asks me lots of questions about the performance itself: how have I worked on the transitions between characters; how did I develop the different voices. These are all subjects about which I am very happy to talk about.
Time is moving on, however, and the second audience is already here.
Bob has ordered me a grilled chicken salad and as I sit in the little kitchen eating I can hear them arriving.
Oh! I suddenly realise that in the rush I haven’t re set the stage for the second show, so I grab my hat and cane and make my way to the theatre.
Grover had complimented me on my use of body language through the performance, and this skill comes into play now: head down, looking neither to left or right, purposeful walk says: ‘yes, I am Gerald Dickens but do not talk to me now!’ It works and nobody approaches me.
Back to the dressing room where Bob is showing some guests the painting that hang there.
It’s a strange build up to a performance. My biggest concern is my voice, I really don’t know how it has been effected by the long signing session and the interview. I make myself tea and honey again and hope for the best. I really won’t know until I speak the first lines.
In the hall another large audience is gathering and I again watch on with Dave from the back. Everyone gets seated in good time and for this show we pretty well start on the dot of five thirty.
‘I have endeavoured, in this ghostly little book…..’ The voice is clear and I am not straining. Thank heavens for that! I can relax in the knowledge that I have the vocal capability to get through the second show.
As is always the case, the evening audience is quieter, but not so much as to worry me: there are plenty of laughs, and indeed sobs.
My mind is wandering a bit during the performance and I’m thinking of slogans to put on t shirts for merchandising at events: ‘Supposin!’ is obvious. ‘Like a bad lobster in a dark cellar’ and ‘One, vast substantial smile’ are others which come to mind.
Looking at Dave’s lighting this year, I also think of other effects that we could include: a stained glass window effect as Scrooge goes to Church, and a projection of the business name: Scrooge and Marley, across the top of the back wall.
Concentrate! Thanks to the fact that I have lived with this story for twenty years I don’t lose control of the show, or make any errors, but it is not very professional.
It is another rousing reception at the end and I take a couple of extra bows. I have pushed to the limit today, and I am so glad to have come through the test successfully.
In the signing room the queue winds round and out of the door again but it is not as strenuous as this afternoon.
One gentleman shakes me heartily by the hand and says: ‘I’ve seen you for seven years and you are like a fine red wine: you just get better and better with age!’
With the end of the signing I slowly collect all of my things together in the board room, listening to Liz playing the piano as I do so. Pam comes in and we chat for a while, which is nice.
When I am all packed up I go back into the theatre, which is a theatre no more. Bob, Jeff and Dave are re-creating the factory floor. George and his friends are providing the brute force.
I say good bye to everyone and walk out into the rain to drive back to the Joseph Ambler Inn, where I sit in the bar eating a gorgeous thick, juicy, medium rare steak.
You know what? I think I’ve earned it.