The mornings are dark, and a heavy fog hangs over the countryside as the slightest of grey tinges bring an out of focus relief to the flat countryside.
As the sun struggles to break through, carefully-spun cobwebs laden with precious pearls of dew glisten like expensive necklaces.
On the ground the mulch of russet leaves is damp and thick, and animals scurry beneath it in search of warmth and protection.
It is almost November.
It is the time of the year when my relaxed lifestyle at home is about to be shattered, when Liz and I have to prepare ourselves for the long separation of the annual Christmas Carol Tour. Around the house piles of costumes are laid out, ready to be packed. The itinerary (an incredibly intense and busy one this year) is printed and bound, and the various scripts that I will need during my seven weeks away have been collected.
This blog site, unused for many months, has a new image at its head, and is ready to receive the daily updates as I travel throughout the United States.
So, what have I been up to during the year – here is a brief description of some of the events that have stood out:
In the UK it has been a year of change for me, professionally, as the small production company I have worked with over the last ten years or so has closed – the two partners have decided that they would like a quieter more relaxing life and so have retired. This means that from now on I am solely responsible for booking my own shows, and also means that I can look at what I decide to perform in the future.
The Double Bill
Although I haven’t introduced an all-new show, as such (although there are some ideas floating around), the main change has been to sell my Double Bill, which features The Signalman and Doctor Marigold harder. The two short stories were written in 1864 and 1866 respectively and complement each other wonderfully well. Some venues have been slightly reluctant to book the show, as the titles are not familiar to the wider public, but once I have convinced them the programme has been very well received indeed.
During the last few weeks Liz and I have been sourcing some new furniture and props, especially for The Signalman, which will make the show more theatrical. So far I have bought a wonderfully aged Clerk’s desk which fits the story (‘….there was a desk for an official book in which he had to make certain entries….’), an old enamel kettle and a galvanised bucket. The overall effect is of a well-used signal box, without having to build a complete set.
As a lucky bonus, the kettle and the bucket can also be used for Marigold, suggesting the exterior of the cheapjack’s caravan.
To Begin With
In March and April I returned to Minneapolis to reprise my performance of Charles Dickens in To Begin With. I covered my time in the Twin Cities in a series of blog posts, so I won’t go over that ground again, but the most exciting thing is to try and bring it to the UK. Initially the difficulty was in building a suitably high-profile theatre tour, that would attract press attention and lead to major venues in London.
So, instead of chasing theatres, I decided to approach some of the venues actually mentioned in the show, such as East Dene house on the Isle of White (the former home of Algernon Swinburne) and the Portsmouth Grammar School (which is built on the site of the Theatre Royal, which is visted by Dickens during the play). I also marketed the idea to other venues with a strong Dickensian connection and am delighted to report that there has been an incredibly positive response.
Hopefully, if I can agree terms with the show’s producer Dennis Babcock, I will be performing To Begin With on home shores very soon!
In the summer I attended the annual conference of the Dickens Fellowship, which this year was held in the small town of Carrara in Italy. Usually the conferences are held in university towns, but this year an enterprising group of Italian Dickensians decided to break the mould and stage a completely different style of event.
In the 1840s Charles Dickens travelled extensively through Italy, and recorded his impressions in a volume entitled ‘Pictures from Italy’. As he journeyed from Genoa to Pisa he passed through Carrara, built high in the mountains, and which is the centre of the Italian marble industry. The quarries are cut into the mountains surrounding the town and the marble taken from them is the whitest, purest marble that can be found. Michael Angelo used it for his David and was a frequent visitor to the region, so that he could chose the perfect blocks for his work.
The conference itself was a triumph, and everybody had an amazing time exploring the region. My contribution was to have been a show based on Dickens’s writings but on my first night I went to watch another theatre show, and was horrified to find out that the company were performing almost the exact same script as I had written – in the same style! After a few discussions, it was decided that I would abandon my show and instead perform To Begin With, which was very well received on the closing night.
The New Souvenir Programme
Much of the summer was taken up preparing the 2017 edition of the Souvenir Programme. After last year’s successful first edition we were determined to come back with an even more impressive edition this year. My brother Ian and I worked closely together to create a varied and entertaining series of articles and features. This year we have aimed for a more personal edition, so there are descriptions of our own Christmas day memories, as well as further details of the show and of Charles Dickens’s visits to Boston.
Ian took all new photographs and the whole lot were passed over to our trusted designers at May Creation, who have produced something truly spectacular. The 2017 programme is a perfect accompaniment to last year’s and together they make the start of a truly collectable set. Naturally they will be on sale throughout the tour, and also available directly from my website or from Byers Choice.
The Christmas Tour
And so we are back to the Autumn and the preparations for the tour itself. As a British precursor to my American travels I have already performed in the historic cities of Chester and Liverpool, both of which were visited by Charles Dickens during his reading tours. The venue in Liverpool will be familiar to regular readers, as I have performed there many times: The Concert Room in St George’s Hall.
This year I was performing The Double Bill, which had added poignancy as Dickens himself performed Doctor Marigold from the same stage on two occasions, in 1866 and 1867, so I hope he approved of my interpretation as he looked down from the gallery!
As ever Liverpool gave me a warm and enthusiastic welcome, and I took the opportunity to do a bit of sight-seeing whilst in town. The city boasts two magnificent cathedrals, one Roman Catholic and one Anglican, and they sit close to each other on top of a hill overlooking the Mersey. The RC Cathedral is a modern structure (it looks rather like a Mercury space capsule from the 1960s NASA programme), whilst the Anglican structure is much more traditional and grand. Strangely they are both 20th century designs and constructions, and both are beautiful and awe-inspiring in their own way.
My final show before boarding my Delta Flight was in the North Eastern city of Newcastle Upon Tyne, where I performed at The Lit & Phil (Literature and Philosophy). On the evening of 27 October I broke out A Christmas Carol for the first time this year.
Although I have been performing Charles Dickens’ ‘ghostly little book’ for 24 years now, it still needs a degree of preparation each season. Firstly I looked back at my blog posts from last year to remind myself of the changes that occurred during the tour, and was reminded how the show changed for the better when I made the narrative passages much calmer, and less dramatic.
The next stage was to run through the script and I was delighted to discover that 90% of the lines came back to me with no effort. The final 10% was a matter of perfecting some fiddly sequences of words, such as the description of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s throne: ‘Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, seething bowls of punch….’
As show time came closer I paced around the wonderful reference library which doubled as my dressing room going through the lines over and over again. I even videoed the opening sequence to post on Instagram (how very modern I am becoming! If you are interested my ID is DickensShows).
Finally it was time to launch the 2017 season – I waited at the back of the room until the familiar strains of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen began and I walked onto the stage…..
The story continues in Cambridge, Ohio on 3rd November and as ever I will be writing my daily blog throughout the tour and I look forward to sharing my adventures with you.