So, the tour starts for real today, as I have my first performances and it promises to be quite an introduction; no gentle easing in for me! My first show promises to be to one of the largest audiences of the entire tour, consisting of over 500 loud, boisterous, energetic, enthusiastic, excitable, possibly bored 11-12 year olds.
At the inn I wake stupidly early again and spend plenty of time writing the blog and getting ready for the day ahead. At 8 o clock I go down to the kitchen where Sandy is already busy making sausage and eggs, which I devour gratefully, along with fresh orange juice and delicious coffee – a wonderful start to the day.
In my room, I change into costume which is all new for this year. I have had two black frock coats made to measure for the first time ever, as well as new waistcoats which I am testing this morning. Earlier in the year I visited an amazing fabric warehouse in Birmingham and found the most sumptuous green silk material. For many years I have wanted a double-breasted waistcoat, so I found a pattern online, and asked my very dear friend David Hawes to make the waistcoats up. David certainly didn’t thank me for my choice of fabric as it frayed and rucked up and caught and wrestled with him at every turn. However last week he delivered two gorgeous, flamboyant new waistcoats. And now, in Cambridge, I make sure the adjustment is perfect and button the eight buttons: yes, it looks good!
The weather is foggy and damp and it is like an English autumnal morning as I drive to the Scottish Rite Auditorium. Pulling up outside I see that my name is, if not quite in lights, certainly proudly displayed on the theatre marquee.
In the theatre Tom is shifting furniture for my evening’s performance of A Christmas Carol and there are various members of staff from the hall all of whom welcome me back to Cambridge. It is my third year as part of the annual Victorian Village Festival and it feels very much a regular part of my schedule now.
As early as 9.15 (the event is due to start at 10) the first bus load of students arrives. At the time I am outside taking pictures of some of the Victorian mannequins, for which The Cambridge Victorian Village festival is famous, and as the students see me they all start pointing and waving. They are let off the bus and there are lots of high fives, and shouts of ‘Hi there!!’ and whispers of ‘is that HIM?’
It is never too early to get an audience on side, so I stand in the lobby and exchange greetings with them as they file in to take their seats.
More busses arrive and disgorge their payloads. By this time I am sitting with Tom in the auditorium and as we watch the seats filling he whispers: ‘You are a very brave man.’ as if I had a choice in the matter. The noise in the hall is terrific. I am not actually sure how long this ‘show’ should be, so we ask one of the teachers what time they need to meet the busses. She says, ‘Oh no particular time, as we are taking them all to McDonalds afterwards’
By ten o’clock everyone is in and the numbers have meant that the balcony needed to be opened. The estimate is over 600 students. Ann, one of the Victorian Village board members steps up to introduce me. Ann had been a school principal before her retirement and her presence is amazing, for suddenly there is silence. She says a few words about Charles Dickens and then welcomes me to the stage. Gulp. Here goes.
My presentation is based on a slightly embellished life story of Charles, including his walks to see Gad’s Hill Place as a child, his time working in the blacking factory, where he was spurred on by a young lad called Bob, his first forays into writing and his rise to fame.
The attention and concentration of the kids is quite remarkable; they remain quiet and attentive but laugh at the right moments. They are a huge credit to their various teachers.
When I finish my ‘scripted’ presentation I ask if there are any questions. At this point in England there would be a nervous shuffling, followed by silence, which would be broken by a teacher politely asking something that they think may be of interest. But here, in Cambridge, 600 hands fly up into the air!
At the end of around fifteen minutes Ann steps in to bring the Q&A to an end, even though the entire auditorium is still reaching for the skies. The questions have been intelligent and thoughtful: one girl asked how it felt to live in a Monarchy, whist another asked if Charles Dickens ever met Bob, from the blacking factory, again. The latter was a fascinating question, because Dickens never forgot Bob, and in honour of their brief friendship named one of his most famous characters in his honour – not Bob Cratchit as you may suppose, for Dickens used Bob’s surname: he was called Bob Fagin! History does not relate how Bob felt about being remembered as one of the greatest villains in Dickens’ work.
The session ends and I am given a wonderful round of applause, during which I heave a huge sigh of relief.
When the hall has cleared I go back to the inn and change, and discover a major flaw in the new waistcoat. Where I had got hot during the show, my perspiration has caused the fabric to leach its green dye into the shirt. Sadly my wonderful new waistcoat can only make appearances at ceremonial (ie non-stressful) events from now on.
My next commitment is not until 2pm, when I am due to spend an hour at the Dickens Village Visitor Center for a short meet and greet/signing session, so I have time to pop out for a bite to eat. Unhealthily I decide to visit the local McDs and as I pull into the car park I notice two school busses in the car park, and the words of the teacher come back to me: ‘oh no particular time, as we are taking them all to McDonalds afterwards’. Fortunately for me they are just leaving and nobody notices me as I walk in.
The restaurant staff are looking a little shell-shocked and it is taking a while to get orders out. By way of apology the girl behind the counter says ‘we are so sorry, but we’ve just had a group of 5th graders in and they were SO loud!’ The pressure of remaining so quiet in the theatre must have had quite an effect and they have just let off steam. Who would have thought that a 6-year old Charles Dickens gazing at a red-bricked mansion in England in 1818 would eventually cause a branch of McDonalds in Ohio to come to a standstill in 2016?
I decide to give the green waistcoat another outing, as the meet and greet will be easy going and I want some photographs to send back to David, so that he can see how it looks.
When I arrive there already quite a few people waiting, and I have a fun time chatting and signing. The Souvenir Programme is selling well, and Tom has displayed them right next to my signing table, and is telling all of the visitors how this is the first one ever, and how it is filled with pictures from the show. Actually, it works on two levels as some people look at the brochure and then decide to buy tickets for the evening’s performance.
One lady comes and says hello in a good old Kentish accent – she originally came from Sittingbourne, not far from Rochester and Chatham. Her husband (an American) proudly wears the baseball cap of his old regiment – he served at Greenham Common in the 1980s, tending to the nuclear missiles that were pointing towards Russia at the time: quite a responsibility. He seems a calm sort of fellow, which is just as well! Nowadays he loves nothing more than buying English bone china items in charity shops in the UK, bringing them back to the US and giving them away to people who want them.
Another gentleman in the line follows my blog avidly and we chat about a few of my past adventures. He gently and kindly berates me for visiting Pleasant City, but bypassing his home village of Senecaville. He also offers to make up a USB stick with some music that I may like to listen to in my little Jeep (he also owns a Renegade and knows that there is a USB port into the entertainment system.) Finally he asks if the line ‘There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate’ is in the show, as it is his absolute favourite. I have to think for a moment. I know that it IS in the show, but somehow it doesn’t seem familiar and then I realise that over the years my attention to detail has slipped, and I in fact say something like ‘Marley was dead. This must be clearly understood or nothing wonderful can come from the story that I am about to relate.’ It’s not greatly different but I want to get his line exactly right, so I give myself a mental note to go over it before the show.
The signing lasts for an hour, giving me plenty of time for a little nap before getting ready for the big show. I hang two complete costumes (with my old red and gold waistcoats) on coat hangers and pack everything else I need into my carry-on roller bag. I had left my hat, scarf and cane on stage earlier (on purpose), so I don’t need to worry about them.
The first job is to get my opening musical effect cued up with the sound guy, but we discover that the disk it is on is so dirty and worn that the CD reader sometimes can find the file and sometimes can’t – this may lead to a rather awkward start to the show. I also have the file on a USB stick, so Troy goes off to find a laptop to use instead. As I go back stage I have no idea what the solution will be, but I realise that I am going to have to burn a new disk for this trip.
Backstage I go through a few lines (particularly the ‘There is no doubt that Marley was dead…..’ one), until it is time to wait in the wings. Tom makes the initial introduction mentioning the brochure, and doing all of the usual housekeeping jobs, before he welcomes Queen Victoria (Connie) onto the stage. She makes a regal and eloquent speech about Charles Dickens before commanding her subjects to welcome Mr Gerald Dickens to the stage. I rather like having the Monarch as my warm-up act!
The applause dies away and there is silence………and in that silence……YES the music starts! What a relief.
The stage at The Scottish Rite Center is large and gives me plenty of room to move; it is a lovely venue to perform in. The audience is very receptive and become involved in the show and I am very happy with my performance. I remember that last year the show was a little stilted at first, but this year it feels strong from the very start.
One of the little changes that I can make this season involves my new frock coats, which button at the front (the old ones didn’t do that). This feature means that I can use the coat to further denote certain characters. For instance, when Scrooge is at Marley’s graveside at the opening, the coat is buttoned up, thereby hiding the garish waistcoat, but I can flip the button when Nephew Fred breezes in, suddenly introducing colour to the story. With the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, so the button gets fastened again creating the dark presence that the scene demands. It is always fun to have something new to play with – I am a boy of simple tastes.
The show finishes and I am greeted back to the stage with loud cheers and applause, and everything feels good.
As the audience leaves the auditorium, I make my way down to the dressing room, which is in the basement, and change into my second costume for the signing session. The lobby is crowded but slightly disorganised, as nobody has created a line to where I am seated, meaning that there is a bit of a scrum around the table with lots of people thrusting programmes, books and ornaments towards me. It is all good natured, and everyone is in good spirits, but it’s not a relaxing way to do a signing. I am pleased to see that the Souvenir programmes are selling well – all of that work during the Summer is paying off now.
When the theatre finally empties I say my good byes to Tom, Julie, Connie and the rest. As a final parting comment Ann (the retired principal who introduced me this morning) tells me that she had some feedback from the students: ‘Epic, Awsome. Ten out of ten’: That is a review I will take any day of the week!