The start of a new year is always a time when, with the rigours of Christmas behind me, I can look forward and see what is on, and over, the horizon.
For a few reasons 2016 looks to be one of the quietest for many years and although that may seem to be a frightening prospect for one whose income is based solely on performances given, I actually go into the new year in a very positive state of mind, as there are lots of new ideas and plans in my head.
This enforced period of inactivity has given me time to stand back and look at where I am now and where I need to go. Hopefully over the year you will get a sense of how things are developing.
Firstly, why are things so quiet this year?
To Begin With
You may remember that this time last year I was starting to learn lines for an exciting new project that was supposed to become a regular part of my year. ‘To Begin With’ was a show commissioned by my good friend, and theatre producer, Dennis Babcock. After many years of trying Dennis had found enough investment to launch the show in Minneapolis.
After a short rehearsal period in England, I flew to the USA and spent a month working in The Music Box Theatre to bring the new show to the stage. We were a small team and it was an amazing experience.
To Begin With was well received both by the audiences and the press and we got some great reviews but sadly almost as the word was beginning to spread, so our run came to an end. We had proved however that the show worked and Dennis assured me that we would revive it as soon as possible, and to clear my diary from January to Easter in 2016 as the only thing that would limit our USA tour of To Begin With would be my availability and willingness to be away from home.
I duly put a large line in my diary and waited for news. And waited and waited. Deadlines for English theatres came and went, and still I waited for news from Minneapolis, but none came. In America Dennis was struggling to find suitable investors and eventually he let me know that we couldn’t tour To Begin With in 2016.
January, February and March lay empty in my diary.
The Derek Grant Organisation
In England my work comes from a number of sources, but for the last seven years or so my theatre bookings have come from a small company called The Derek Grant Organisation. DGO is run by Derek himself and his partner Michael Jones who have been involved in variety performances for many years. They have produced their own shows and represented many artistes. Sadly, however, over the last decade or so it has become increasingly difficult to attract large audiences to theatres (unless you are a tribute band, which in a way I am: perhaps I need to gather a few performers together and find a more cheesy name for the act such as ‘The Twisting Olivers’, ‘Those Dickens Dudes’, ‘A Tale of Two Dickies’, or, if I want a whole new audience ’The Knickerless Nicklebies….’ Mmmmm, maybe I’ll stick with what I have).
Just before Christmas Derek informed me that he and Michael would be stepping back and no longer working as full-time producers and while there may be a few repeat bookings filtering through their books, the regular appearances in regional theatre would stop.
So 2016 lay before me: an arid desert, with a few oases of regular bookings shimmering here and there; that made me sit back and consider what the next move should be.
The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices
The first big idea came to me as Liz and I were getting ready to visit her sister and brother-in-law in Cambridge for a post-Christmas get-together. Martin, a very talented amateur actor, whose ability has often far outstripped the productions he has been in, is due to retire as a solicitor this year and it struck me that it would be fun to find a show that we could work on together.
In the back of my mind there was the glimmer of an idea which had been planted three years ago in Santa Cruz, when I was listening to a lecture about the relationship between Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, which quite fascinated me. The two authors were close friends for many years and in 1857 Dickens proposed that they should go and have a walking adventure in Cumberland which they could use to create a short story for Dickens’s magazine Household Words.
The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices is a fun account of the adventures befalling Francis Goodchild (Dickens) and Thomas Idle (Collins) and starts with a day’s walking on Carrock Fell, during which they get hopelessly lost in the rain and cloud.
As the idea took hold I began to realise that there was an opportunity to interweave the biographies of these literary giants by using letters and diary extracts, alongside the Lazy Tour text, which could create a show of great interest.
I immediately ordered two copies of the book and let my mind wander. The weekend in Cambridge was fun (somehow Liz and I ended up in Capt Jack Sparrow wigs and costume), and Martin embraced the idea of The Lazy Tour with great enthusiasm. The first new project was underway.
For the next few weeks I started to search for the letters that Charles Dickens had written to Collins before the trip, as well as those written to other friends during their time away. Unfortunately the letters from Collins TO Dickens will be more difficult to find – in a fit of pique brought on by constant public scrutiny Charles burnt all of his personal correspondence in the gardens at Gad’s Hill Place.
To further my research I emailed Melisa Klimaszewski, the academic who had originally given the lecture in Santa Cruz, and to my delight she replied almost straight away with great enthusiasm for the project. In her reply Melisa happened to mention that Professor Michael Slater was currently editing a new edition of The Lazy Tour and perhaps I should chat to him as well. Professor Slater is one of the leading Dickens academics in the world, who has published a great many fabulous biographies: As far as Dickens is concerned If Michael doesn’t know about it, it didn’t happen! Michael also happens to be a great friend and supporter of my shows, so an email to him also elicited a positive response.
I now had all that I needed to begin work on the script, so how should this work…..?
The second week of January saw my only performance of the month, at Highgate Cemetery in London, where I had been asked to perform The Signalman in the chapel.
Highgate Cemetery is one of the largest in the capital and is the final resting place of many famous people, including Karl Marx. On a more personal level many of the Dickens family are buried there, including Charles’s parents John and Elizabeth, his wife (my great great grandmother) Catherine, his sister Fanny (who won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music while Charles was working in a shoe blacking factory and who became the model for ‘Little Fan’ in A Christmas Carol,) and his brother Alfred.
On a dark and wet night Liz and I drove towards London in the height of the rush hour. One would have thought that all of the traffic would be heading away from the city, but the fact is that it was just moving around, so we sat on the North Circular road watching the time tick by.
Fortunately The Signalman isn’t a complicated piece to stage and we arrived at the great iron gates of the cemetery with thirty minutes to spare. A few keen members of the audience were huddled together in the cold, trying to shelter from the rain as we unloaded a chair, a table and a railwayman’s lamp from our car.
The chapel itself was a lovely room, with a low stage set up at the far end. The wind outside and the knowledge that we were surrounded by thousands of dead bodies made it a perfect setting for the spine-chilling tale of The Signalman.
Having set the stage we were shown to a small office across the courtyard, where we tucked into a plate of sandwiches and waited for 7.30 start time.
The chapel was full and I started by recounting the circumstances of the terrible rail accident in which Charles had been involved in 1865. With the horror of Staplehurst vividly on the audience’s minds I launched in with that great opening line: ‘Halloa! Below there!’ The low lighting combined with the arches soaring up to the vaulted ceiling above threw eerie shadows across the room, which seemed to darken as the plot unfolded.
The performance went well and I’m sure that as the audience made their way out of the chapel and through the gothic gatehouse into the dark night more than one may have nervously glanced over their shoulder or started as a ghostly bough of the overhanging trees creaked.
As we packed up my props Melanie, the event organiser, pointed out that we were in the Anglican Chapel, where in the past a short service would have been held before burial , and that many of my ancestors would have gathered in this same room to pay their respects to John, Elizabeth, Catherine, Fanny or Alfred.
The tax year in the UK runs from April 5, and the deadline for submitting a return is January 31, therefore the sensible thing to do is to collate all of the figures and get them off to the accountant in April, leaving the rest of the year worry-free. Do I think that every year? Yes. Do I do it….?
Every January is filled with a mental struggle as I find any number of ways to put off ‘doing the books’ (this year the initial research for The Lazy Tour project was a superb excuse). Finally, with a week to go before the deadline, I dragged myself into the office, pulled out the various receipts and invoices from the year 2014-15 and began to work.
For a task that is purely number driven the job of preparing accounts is wonderfully evocative, for with each invoice, or hotel receipt comes a raft of happy memories: memories of a beautiful theatre with gilded boxes overlooking the stage; reflections on a show well performed and enthusiastically received by a responsive audience. I could almost taste the fish and chip lunch in a wind-swept Little Chef near Barnsley. Whitby Abbey reared before my eyes once more in all of its ruined majesty.
But the figures didn’t only bring happy memories, for there were also receipts from our trip to Ireland and Wales which was the prelude to losing our dear cat Kip. The pain and emptiness of that time returned as I ignored my financial responsibilities and tearfully opened pictures of him.
With such an empty diary it became obvious that I needed to find some more work to fill the gaps, and rather than hope for a few bookings dripping in here and there, I needed to be proactive in developing new opportunities.
As regular readers will know my brother Ian is a marketing man. For many years he worked with Olympus Cameras and rose to become their Director or Marketing and now has his own consultancy business.
It seemed sensible to get together and work out a way forward that would bring us both a new income stream, so on January the 27th we had a meeting.
I drove to Ian’s beautiful house in Bedfordshire and immediately it became apparent that we were doing things right, as he had erected a flip chart with the words ‘Gerald Dickens. The Brand’ written up.
After coffee was poured we got down to a long and varied discussion based on an agenda that I had drawn up during the week.
Ian’s great talent is his common sense approach to marketing. There are no gimmicks or buzz-words just plain sensible strategies. One of his mantras is to identify a goal and then work back from there; for example, imagine I want to play for a two month run in a thousand-seat theatre filled to capacity every night. That is not going to happen next week, so let’s first find a small theatre, and identify an audience and work until we have filled that for one night; then let’s see if we can fill it for three days, and then a week. The success and profile generated by our successful run means that we can talk to a larger theatre in a larger city with a theatre-going demographic, but there we will be starting again, so we work on the next step finding a new audience to fill every seat – and so it goes on until eventually the original goal has been reached.
The result of an hour or two around the kitchen table was that we are going to investigate self publishing a book based on my interpretation and performance of A Christmas Carol, and finally try to film the show either for DVD release or online streaming. We are going to investigate all of the festivals in the UK, and maybe try to create a tour of venues where Dickens himself performed.
Next year is the 160th anniversary of the Lazy Tour’s publication and will also see the publication of Michael Slater’s new edition, so there are plenty opportunities to launch the new show with a fanfare.
Our meeting broke up to make way for a delicious lasagne and salad. I have no doubts that from here on things are going to get very exciting.
As the month came to a close a strange thing happened with my blog. I was minding my own business when an alert came from WordPress reading: ‘Your stats are booming! On The Road With Gerald Dickens is getting lots of traffic’, which surprised me somewhat as I hadn’t posted anything for ages. Further investigation revealed that a post written almost a year ago about my childhood memories of Tunbridge Wells had been placed on a Facebook page dedicated to the town.
I watched in amazement as the skyscraper on the stats page grew and grew, far surpassing my previous best, and then doubling and almost tripling it! Messages came in from others who had spent their childhoods in the town and discussions went back and forth on Facebook about the town in the 1970s and where various shops had been. In an instant digital age the power of nostalgia is a remarkable thing.
I re read the post ‘Memories of Tunbridge Wells’ and once more my childhood came to life as a whole host of new recollections came to mind: there may well be a sequel written soon, and I certainly know who to share it with.
A New Blog
At the beginning of January as we pondered the year ahead Liz mentioned that she wanted some creative outlet and thought that she may like to write a blog about our garden. Liz is an amazing and creative gardener and the thought and artistry which goes into making our long stretch of mud into a thing of beauty is extraordinary.
Liz wanted to share not only her practical work in the garden, but also her influences and emotions as a new year began.
As we looked out across the dull dank vista we saw dots of colour as a few buds responded to the warm winter: It was the perfect time to begin the story. I know that you will enjoy it: