Today is my last day of performing in Pigeon Forge, and it will follow the routine of the last few days. I wake at a decent time, and as I am going down to breakfast I share the lift with another couple. There is a little notice detailing all of the events during the day, and the wife says: ‘Oh look, there is a Dickens show tonight! Maybe that would be fun, instead of going out?’ I am wearing regular clothes and my glasses this morning, so they don’t connect me with the smiling figure in a top hat looking back at them from the advertisement.
The breakfast room is full this morning, and many were in the audience yesterday, so there are plenty of conversations. I have a bowl of fruit, but give in to gluttony and make myself a waffle also, which is delicious.
After breakfast I have an hour or so before I need to be in costume ready for a book signing session in the main Christmas store across the street, so I use the time to rehearse Doctor Marigold, which I will be performing later today. I have been fortunate enough to inhabit the character of the market cheap jack quite often this summer, so the words come back easily. Quite what my neighbours in the adjoining rooms must think, I can’t imagine.
For the book signing I decide to don my green waistcoat once more – it has now become the ceremonial one – and I carefully button up the eight buttons, and tie the cravat in a flamboyant manner to match the slightly dandyish look of the green silk.
I arrive in the forest of Christmas decorations that is The Amazing Christmas Place a few minutes before 11, and Janet is waiting there to guide me to the table, which is quite close to the main entrance. Unfortunately the hotel and the store are different entities, although under the same umbrella, so there is no stock of my programmes at this event, just copies of A Christmas Carol itself.
Almost at once a teenager starts to loiter around the table, reading the signs and looking at the books. I am next to a tree decorated with a bronze and golden theme and he is wearing a camouflage jacket, along with a rather incongruous Santa hat. I joke that whenever he walks in front of the tree all I can see is a floating hat.
We get chatting and he tells me that A Christmas Carol is his favourite book and movie. After a while he disappears and other people start forming a line. I dedicate the books as requested and chat and pose for photographs. Some people are coming to the shows later today and we talk about that as well.
After a while my camouflaged young man returns with his mother. He rather shyly shows him the book, and she asks him if he really wants it. Of course he does!! Here in the lower valleys of the Smoky Mountains, with his hunting jacket on, he wants nothing more than copy of A Christmas Carol. His mum agrees, and he approaches the desk. ‘What name would you like in it?’ He looks to his mother, maybe wondering if it should be dedicated to the family as a whole, but she says ‘yours, of course!’ He looks so relieved and a beaming smile is on his face as he says ‘ to Nic, please. N I C, no K’
I open the book to the title page and as I write ‘To…’ I point at his Santa hat and say ‘is that Saint Nic?’ And when I look back at the page I find that I have already written the ‘S’ of ‘Saint’!
I put the book to one side and remember to try and find someone whose name begins with S. Nic takes his copy and proudly holds it as he and his mother walk away. My brief connection with Nic has been strangely moving.
The signing continues. It is steady, but not very busy. I sign books for Jennifer, Danny and Holly, Julie, Annika and more, but not until very near the end of my time does Sharon come to the table and I am at last able to use Saint Nic’s discarded book. What a relief it is to meet Sharon.
After an hour at my table the session is over and I go back to the hotel to change.
I now have a two-hour window during which I can get some lunch. Forgoing my usual haunts, I go to a sports grill called The Blue Moose, as recommended to me by Bob Byers. It is very quiet and I am shown to a table near the bar, where I order a plate of good old fish and chips, which should see me through the afternoon and evening.
As I walk back I notice the most remarkable vehicle in the hotel car park. It looks like a Lamborghini, or something from a Batman movie. It is steely grey, with red brake callipers being the only flash of colour. The exhaust pipes are lined up like four flame throwers and the whole vehicle seems to hug the ground. It is an extraordinary piece of automotive engineering and I am amazed to see that it is, in fact, a Corvette. The whole thing is quirkily set of by the licence plate: ‘Thx Santa’!
My performance of Doctor Marigold will be the first time it has been seen here and there has been a lot of conversation about it in the hotel. Guests have been going online and trying to discover as much as they can about it, before the event. Kristy tells me that the audience numbers 50, which is very good for a totally unknown piece. I dress in a black waistcoat (Marigold is a market place cheap jack, and wouldn’t own garish golden waistcoats), and I roll my shirt sleeves up beneath my frock coat.
To help promote the Souvenir Programme sales, I lay out a table in the auditorium itself, laying copies open at different pages so that people can see the extent of the content. I also place my first edition copy of Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round, in which Doctor Marigold first appeared, next to the display.
With thirty minutes to go the Team Pigeon machine rumbles into life, and the doors are opened. Dwight checks tickets and greets, while Kristy and Debbie encourage people to register for next year’s shows as well as filling in their door prize slips. I stand next to the programme table and chat.
At 3pm Dwight takes to the stage and introduces me. I give a brief explanation about the history of Doctor Marigold and suggest that people may like to view the first edition copy (next to the souvenir programmes!). I look rather like an undertaker in my black frock coat, waistcoat and cravat. But, as I use the words that Dickens himself said when introducing Marigold, I take my frock coat off revealing the rolled up sleeves which change the entire look; ‘And now, I shall let Doctor Marigold address you in his own words’. No longer does Gerald Dickens stand on the stage, but the audience are in the company of a fast-talking cockney man. ‘I am a cheapjack. My own father’s name was Willum Marigold. It was in his lifetime supposed by some that his name was William, but no he always said it was Willum.’
It is actually rather apt to be performing this today, as the American nation is casting its votes, for Dickens, through Marigold’s voice, gives his withering opinion of campaigning politicians, or the ‘Dear Jacks’ as he calls them:
‘But on the Monday morning, in the same market-place, comes the Dear Jack on the hustings — HIS cart — and, what does HE say? “Now my free and independent woters, I am a going to give you such a chance” (he begins just like me) “as you never had in all your born days, and that’s the chance of sending Myself to Parliament. Now I’ll tell you what I am a going to do for you. Here’s the interests of this magnificent town promoted above all the rest of the civilised and uncivilised earth. Here’s your railways carried, and your neighbours’ railways jockeyed. Here’s all your sons in the Post-office. Here’s Britannia smiling on you. Here’s the eyes of Europe on you. Here’s uniwersal prosperity for you, repletion of animal food, golden cornfields, gladsome homesteads, and rounds of applause from your own hearts, all in one lot, and that’s myself. Will you take me as I stand? You won’t? Well, then, I’ll tell you what I’ll do with you. Come now! I’ll throw you in anything you ask for. There! Church-rates, abolition of more malt tax, no malt tax, universal education to the highest mark, or uniwersal ignorance to the lowest, total abolition of flogging in the army or a dozen for every private once a month all round, Wrongs of Men or Rights of Women — only say which it shall be, take ’em or leave ’em, and I’m of your opinion altogether, and the lot’s your own on your own terms. There! You won’t take it yet! Well, then, I’ll tell you what I’ll do with you. Come! You ARE such free and independent woters, and I am so proud of you,— you ARE such a noble and enlightened constituency, and I AM so ambitious of the honour and dignity of being your member, which is by far the highest level to which the wings of the human mind can soar,— that I’ll tell you what I’ll do with you. I’ll throw you in all the public-houses in your magnificent town for nothing. Will that content you? It won’t? You won’t take the lot yet? Well, then, before I put the horse in and drive away, and make the offer to the next most magnificent town that can be discovered, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Take the lot, and I’ll drop two thousand pound in the streets of your magnificent town for them to pick up that can. Not enough? Now look here. This is the very furthest that I’m a going to. I’ll make it two thousand five hundred. And still you won’t? Here, missis! Put the horse — no, stop half a moment, I shouldn’t like to turn my back upon you neither for a trifle, I’ll make it two thousand seven hundred and fifty pound. There! Take the lot on your own terms, and I’ll count out two thousand seven hundred and fifty pound on the foot- board of the cart, to be dropped in the streets of your magnificent town for them to pick up that can. What do you say? Come now! You won’t do better, and you may do worse. You take it? Hooray! Sold again, and got the seat!”
Dickens didn’t like politicians very much, and I can only imagine what he would have made of the current campaign.
The audience follow Marigold closely (no mean feat with the very fast patter of the opening passages) and are moved to tears as the gentle man’s life descends into tragedy. Tears come again, but this time of joy, as the story reaches its heart-warming and uplifting conclusion. Everybody loves the piece, and once again I find it extraordinary that it is not more widely known.
The signing session is a lot less formal than usual, being a smaller group, but the extra display of programmes has obviously worked as Janet sells plenty. One gentleman who has been to many of the events over the last few days wears a Corvette t shirt and indeed he is the owner of the beast I admired earlier. He is, justifiably, very proud of his toy.
Before my evening performance there is going to be a lighting ceremony outside the hotel, so at 5.45 I go down to the courtyard in regular clothes and mingle with the all of the guests. It is a little chilly, and people are drinking hot cider, and eating hot food. It is rather like an English Bonfire Night Party on November 5th. It is a lovely atmosphere, with Kristy and Debbie and Janet and Dwight mingling and chatting. Father Christmas is there as are the owners of the hotel. At exactly six o’ clock Dwight counts down from three and the switch is thrown There is a slight delay and then all of the trees in the hotel gardens burst into glorious light. There are almost a million tiny bulbs around the hotel grounds.
Carol singers take over and if you could find a more festive scene tonight I would be truly surprised.
I leave the party so that I can go and get ready for my final show of my Pigeon Forge stay this year. The audience is another big one, with a lot of the hotel staff being included. I set out the programme display once more (unfortunately without the bait of a first edition this time), and wait for the audience to arrive.
Somehow the show doesn’t quite work for me tonight. I can’t say why – technically it is fine, with no major mistakes or complications. But I struggle to make a connection with the audience, who remain slightly quiet. Oh, there are laughs and plenty of reaction, but it doesn’t have the ‘fizz’ of other evenings. Sometimes this just happens, and there is no particular rhyme nor reason for it. Perhaps people’s minds are elsewhere, for across the nation votes are being counted.
By morning we will know who the new President will be and the consequences for America and indeed the world could be immense. In the overall scheme of things whether a one man show of A Christmas Carol is perfect is somewhat irrelevant.
However, I am left in a slightly flat frame of mind. Everyone in the signing line says how much they enjoyed it and Kristy says it is the best one of the trip, but lingering at the back of my mind is the couple who left three-quarters of the way through.
When the audience has dispersed, I say goodbye to all of Team Pigeon, and return to my room. Tonight I am going to flout tradition and have my late supper at the Blue Moose, instead of the Mellow Mushroom: I could go to Bullfish, but I decide to stick with the Moose – what incredible names the restaurants have in this locale.
I sit at the bar surrounded by television screens, most of which are showing sports. But there is one on the far side on which I can see a graphic which seems to be showing two columns, one blue and one red. The red one seems a little taller……