If only there a way to find out how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol; how fascinating it would be to learn about his extensive reading tours. Imagine if there was a resource from which you could be told bout the real-life places that were to appear in Dickens’ ‘ghostly little book’, and what a treat it would be to discover how Dickens’ relationship with America hit high peaks and low troughs. Add to all of that some sumptuous photographs of, shall we say, a theatrical one-man show of the story, and really you would have in your hands the most perfect Christmas gift imaginable.
Well, do I have good news for you, because such a tome exists! This year for the very first time I have an official Souvenir Programme to accompany and complement my show. Let me tell you the story of how this all came about.
Earlier in the year I was talking to my brother Ian about how best to promote my shows in England, and like the great marketing man that he is, he took our conversation and let it run past the simple process of posters and press releases and on towards other areas of promotion, until between us we arrived at the idea of a collectable brochure.
The idea took hold quickly, and we decided to start work immediately. The first thing was to decide on a size and format that we were happy with, so Ian and I met in London for the first of our many creative meetings. Our rendezvous point was Victoria rail station, which is conveniently close to The Apollo Theatre, where the hit musical Wicked has been playing for many years. Our purpose was to buy one of the show’s own glossy brochures, and glean as much information regarding layout, content, size and weight of paper as we could.
We sat in a coffee shop leafing through this sumptuous book, making notes and coming up with ideas as to how we could fill our own version. The Wicked programme has stayed close to us throughout the process and been a continual guide in our production and design choices.
We knew that our version had to be special and collectable. We were definite that it wasn’t to be a disposable leaflet which would be left on theatre seats when the show was over, but something desirable. We highlighted a few topics that would work well editorially, and I started to make notes so that when I came to write I had an idea of where I was heading.
Our next meeting was at my local theatre, The Unicorn in Abingdon, for our photo shoot. Ian has had a long career in photography, having trained at the Medway College of Art (situated in the very heart of Dickens country), and then going on to have a long and successful career at Olympus Cameras, in the field of marketing and PR.
It was a hot sunny day, so unloading all of the Christmas Carol paraphernalia seemed incongruous. When Ian had connected all of the lights, and I had changed into costume it was time to perform: I simple ran through passages of the script and if there was a moment that Ian particularly wanted to capture, we would stop and go back over it, until the perfect effect was captured.
We must have spent over two hours in that hot little theatre, but it was well worth it, and Ian returned home to start choosing the photographs that we would use, carefully fettling them ready for the design process.
As Ian worked on the images, so I had to make sure that each of the articles that would feature throughout our programme were carefully researched and written.
The subjects were easy, and I have done quite a bit of work on them before, but of course we would be constrained by space. A quick skim through the Wicked programme had told us that each page of editorial ran to around a thousand words, so that was my guide.
I worked at the pieces, surrounded by reference books and with many tabs open on my laptop until I was happy with the mix of historical fact and personal experience. As ‘a writer’ (I hesitate to use that appellation, as it puts me in the same bracket as my great great grandfather, which is a place where I certainly don’t feel qualified to be!), you end up with a text that you believe is finely honed and perfect, but I well knew that many changes would be in store: I placed my creations nervously onto the editing conveyor belt and waited…
Liz is always superb reading anything that I have written and edits it firmly but kindly. Firstly she took herself away and read each piece making notes, and then we sat together going through them line by line. Sometimes a particular phrase didn’t quite work, or perhaps didn’t make sense due to my own editing. Of course, the other aspect of Liz’s scrutiny was the grammar, most especially punctuation. Commas got changed into semi-colons, whilst colons became hyphens. Long, rambling, Dickensian sentences were broken down into more manageable bites, whilst phrases such as ‘broken down into more manageable bites’ were gently turned into recognisable English.
When Liz and I had finished, then the text was sent to Ian, and he went through it editing once more (mainly for length and content), before passing it on to his wife Anne who like Liz is a stickler for accuracy and correctness, and who was far enough away from the original to be completely dispassionate and able to see things with an objective eye.
As time moved on we began to think about the design of the brochure. We had the articles, which hopefully would be fascinating, informative and entertaining. We had the pictures from the show, but we needed a great deal more, so as to give the whole volume a varied and exciting look. Over the years I have read a great many biographies of Dickens, and know most of the images in the public domain, so it was fun to test my knowledge and memory as I selected pictures to accompany my words. With a comprehensive wish-list drawn up, Ian and I went to the Dickens House Museum in London where we were given free run of their extensive archive.
In a large airy boardroom, armed with laptops, we sat with museum curator Lousisa Price. As we went through the programme page by page, I tried to explain exactly what I wanted, and to her great credit Louisa always knew exactly where to find the precise picture, before suggesting alternatives.
Ian created a file folder on his laptop for each page and we collected as many pictures and documents as we could, so that the designers could have a free rein when it came to coming up with the end product.
We now had all of the content and it was time to pass everything over to our design company. To this end Ian was able to use the contacts forged through a career in high-level marketing. Diane and Graham May, of May Creation, had worked with Ian on some of Olympus Cameras’ most important advertising campaigns, and always understood his ideas and thoughts, so they were the perfect company to entrust our new product to.
We met with Diane in London and over coffee (in the rather excitingly-named Love and Scandal coffee shop), before moving our meeting on to an amazing restaurant featuring Brazilian cuisine. As Ian had expected Diane immediately grasped the idea and soon the brochure began to live in her creative mind, as well as in ours.
We said our goodbyes at Waterloo station, and Diane rode home to Dorset to begin a week’s work that would realise our dreams.
And now our attentions moved across the Atlantic and Bob Byers came into the decision-making process. Bob, as regular readers will know, is my manager and agent in America, as well as being a close friend, and he is very much part of the production. We had decided to use an American printer, to cut down on shipping costs, and of course Bob would be responsible for supplying each venue with the programme.
Emails went back and forth as we made decisions about paper and print quality, size of the print run, how to market it to the venues, and how to encourage the audience members at each show to buy it. We would receive regular bulletins from Bob keeping us up to date with numbers and projections.
And now, a week before I am due to leave for America, The brochure is ready (although I have yet to see a copy), orders have been taken and I now have to wait for the first signing line, the first show in Cambridge, Ohio.
The book will be on sale throughout the tour before and after every show, and for those of you who are not able to actually attend any of the performance it will be available to purchase on the Byers’ Choice website.
We have enjoyed creating it and have no doubt that you will enjoy reading it.