This morning my alarm is set at 4.45, as I have to drive back to Omaha for two performances during the day. My first sound check is at 9am, and as I will have to stop for breakfast en route, I need to get on the road very early. I packed my cases last night, so it is just a question of having a quick shower and leaving the hotel.
To keep me company on the road I have downloaded the audio book of Goldfinger, read by Hugh Bonneville (he of Downton Abbey fame).
The James Bond novels are among my favourite, and I love the way that Ian Fleming wrote. As I described the road from Omaha to Kansas City a few days ago, I thought that this morning I would treat you to a James Bond-style journey. Here then, with apologies to the Ian Fleming Foundation, is the first chapter of a new novel:
Cocooned deep within the scarlet Hyundai, Dickens slipped his fingers sensually to the small hidden lever that would set the cruise control, and as the car surged towards the 70mph limit he relaxed and his mind wandered back to the events that had brought him to this moment.
Two hours earlier the sky had been inky black as he emerged from the hotel. The night manager had been attentive and confirmed that there were no charges on the account. It was of no consequence to Dickens, he knew that all of the charges had been picked up by his employer.
The experiences spy never relaxes, to do so could mean the failure of a mission, or worse. So even in the early hours, with tiredness till wrapping itself around him, Dickens had naturally noticed that the manager’s name was Squire (the badge on his shirt had stolen his anonymity – a mistake that Dickens would never let himself make) . Squire had worn a striped shirt of royal blue and white, that may have been handmade in Saville Row. The tie had been a garish mixes of blues and pinks, and the combination proved that Squire was not a man driven by convention. Dickens approved of him, and the positive image was confirmed by a firm dry handshake and a conspiratorial smile.
‘Drive Safe!’ Dickens grunted a reply and wondered why the loss of the final syllable was now acceptable.
The Hyundai (the 2.4 litre, 4 cylinder model with the flattened tail pipe) burbled into life as Dickens flicked his fingers over the device that Q branch had provided for this mission. The ‘Tom Tom’ unit (jokingly named after Thomas Tom from the Quartermaster’s design office, who was responsible for producing this masterpiece) would give him precise directions to anywhere in the United States. Dickens sighed, he missed the days of an old-fashioned map, but knew that his survival relied upon such technology.
The readout informed him that the journey would take 2 hours and 56 minutes, and he sent a silent word of thanks to Tom. Before caressing the transmission to drive Dickens took a sip of the hot coffee in a paper mug. The drink was rich and strong and immediately the caffeine coursed through his veins. He smiled grimly and reflected that today he would need all of the help he could get. As he drained the last of the liquid he crushed the cup and lusted for his royal blue Minton china service, with the three gold rings around the rim, at home.
The ice was clearing from the windscreen now, and he swung the steering wheel to the left, guiding the beast onto the empty road. The low-profile Pirellis briefly objected, but Dickens was an expert and in no time the rubber gripped the tarmacadam surface and propelled him towards Omaha and his destiny.
In the darkness he caught a brief glimpse of his face reflected in the glass – a face ravaged by so many years of such missions. He grimaced at the memory of the young man who once would have gazed back at him with clear eyes, a cruel mouth and a comma of dark hair falling carelessly over his forehead. What would that young man think if he knew how soon that comma would be deleted, thought Dickens.
For a moment Dickens pulled himself back to the present, the Sonata was eating up the miles, but the road demanded his full attention. He had been driving with that built-in auto pilot that every high quality driver possesses, but now every fibre of his being was required to execute a dangerous and complicated manoeuvre: the i29 curved gently to the left, Dickens let his left hand drop, pulling the soft leather of the wheel down, simultaneously pushing his right hand higher.
Would the car respond? Dammit, turn dammit, TURN! On the edge of the road a carcass of an animal lay mutilated. If he couldn’t complete this turn he would become its eternal companion.
No! the car was not turning, and beads of sweat began to form, but Dickens lived for moments such as this, it was his reason for being, and all of the training had prepared him for split seconds of such danger. He was resolute, holding the wheel lightly (the less experienced agent would grip far too tightly, Dickens knew, and over commit the machine), and just as it seemed that the cossetting vehicle which had been his protector for that last two hours would become his metal coffin, the nose began to turn.
Dickens let out a long exhalation and as Mound City flashed by to his right, he let his thoughts return to the morning’s events.
The darkness had enveloped the car and was broken only by the twin shafts of light reaching out from either side of the curvaceous bonnet of the car (why did the Americans insist on changing the names of everything? What on earth was a hood? A hood was a criminal, a hoodlum, a crook.) There was not much traffic on the road and what there was ignored the red saloon that was being driven so purposefully.
The mission had been a successful one, three days in and out. He had been required to report at six locations and had performed his duties effectively and efficiently.
Now he had to tidy up the previous mission, which had been left hanging when he had left early in the morning, how many days ago was it? Two? Three?
He glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw that the sun was, if not rising, certainly making its presence felt. The narrow strip of glass appeared as a bronze bracelet, with a Verdigris substrata.
He drove on.
This had been over an hour ago, and as he once more flicked his steel eyes towards the mirror he noticed that the sky was now golden: the celestial alchemist had completed his work.
And now he was hungry. Thomas Tom’s electronic device showed him that he was fast approaching the old trading post of Rock City, there would be somewhere there for breakfast he mused. It would not be the perfectly cooked soft-boiled eggs, which he had delivered daily from the farm operated by an ex chief petty officer from the Royal Navy, and there would be no wholemeal toast, browned for exactly 3 minutes and 42 seconds. The butter would not be the rich jersey butter that he preferred and the coffee would be a watery liquid which would not deserve to be described in the same breath as the fine blend that he had made up by the Drury Coffee company in the heart of London, and who had been supplying his family for generations.
He knew he had to make many sacrifices in the line of duty, but this? A tall, yellow neon sign which appeared to represent two huge arches, reaching into the sky, was the only beacon of sustenance, and he guided the car into the car park which was filled by huge trucks. The hot metal of the tortured engine clicked as he strode towards the door.
He felt conspicuous in this environment, and wished he had worn a baseball cap this morning, as everyone else here was. He ignored the curious glances that greeted him, and studied the menu with amused interest.
When the waiter, who obstinately remained behind a counter, asked for his order, Dickens said ‘I will take one of your Sausage McMuffins, with Egg and you had better make that a meal, I don’t want to miss out on the hash brown. I want coffee, hot and strong, and freshly squeezed orange juice. Make it quick, and there will be an extra dollar in it for you!’
The waiter looked at him cautiously, ‘what is your name?’ he asked.
‘Dickens. Gerald Dickens’
The order came speedily, and Dickens took a seat in a conservatory area and from where he studied the Truck Wash that was situated on a patch of rough ground to the west. From this vantage point he had a wide field of vison, which gave him the maximum opportunity to respond to danger.
The breakfast was surprisingly satisfying, and gave Dickens the boost he needed to face the day. When he had devoured the last scraps of meat and egg, and drained the coffee cup, he returned to the Sonata. Something about that car nagged at him: a memory. What was it? Of course! The Hyundai was made in Korea, and so many years ago he had come face to face with one of his deadliest foes, the mighty force that had been the Oddjob, the Korean henchman of Auric Goldfinger…..
And we are back, listening to Hugh Bonneville!
Actually the journey is not bad and the audiobook keeps me entertained. I arrive in Omaha bang on schedule and soon pull into the car park of The Arboretum Retirement community, where I am to perform. The Arboretum is part of the Immanuel Group of retirement homes, and last year I performed at two other venues in Omaha. The shows were so well received and such a success that this year I have been booked at two more of the sites.
Kathy and Roxanne from the Historical Society are there to meet me, and soon the furniture is in place and the microphone has been tested
The residents of the community make their way into the dining room and take their seats, and at 10 o’clock Kathy introduces me. I am performing on floor level, which is nice because it means I can move about freely, which after the small stages in the libraries of Kansas City, and the narrow one at the Field Club here in Omaha, is very welcome. I use the space as much as I can and re-introduce much of the blocking that establishes the various characters’ positions within the imaginary rooms.
The audience are a sprightly and enthusiastic bunch and love the show. Most are residents, of course, but there are also a few younger family members who are visiting, and I use one such lady as Topper’s girl. The lady is here with her son who squirms with extreme embarrassment as I flirt with his mother!
I feel quite strong and the effects of the early start do not really show, which is a relief. When I am finished I answer a few questions from the floor, and then chat as the audience leaves. It has been a nice show, I am in good spirits as I drive off to my hotel for the day, which is nearby. Kathy has made sure that I can have an early check-in, and I am able to relax for an hour or two, and even cook a chicken stir fry (purchased from the little pantry next to the front desk) in the microwave oven, which will keep me going through the afternoon.
The second venue is just five minutes away, and is the Lakeside community. It seems to be a larger facility, and the signs in the car park state that there are two entrances, one for independent living and one for assisted living.
Once more Kathy and Roxanne are there to look after me, and the set is already in place, laid out in an anteroom just off the main hallway. The chairs are arranged in a huge semi circular sweep, which will give the space a nice, intimate feel.
I change into costume as the audience starts to arrive very early. Because many are coming from the assisted living part of the centre, there are a great many wheelchairs and oxygen tanks that need to be placed. The staff of course are expert at looking after all of the varying needs of their residents and in no time rows of chairs have been removed to make plenty of room.
At 2.30 the audience are in place and I begin. Roxanne plays the intro music on an old CD player, and I walk through the audience in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, scowling at the floor. I am nearly at the stage, and am passing a lady in a white sweater who almost achieves the reformation of Scrooge in a second, by calling out in a loud and happy voice ‘WELL HOWDY!’ Scrooge almost laughs there and then!
The show here is more difficult it has to be said, the crow are more infirm than at The Arboretum, and many sleep through most of it At one stage staff seem to watch one of the residents with a degree of alarm, and soon after, gently take her from the room whilst I am still performing, which makes concentration a bit difficult, especially as she is sat right in the middle of one of the rows, and her exit requires lots of shuffling and moving of wheelchairs and walking frames.
Also, I am beginning to fade slightly, and the show follows the actions of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, as it shrinks, collapses and dwindles down…towards the end.
Once more there are some lovely questions, and as I chat to the audience as they leave they all seem to have greatly enjoyed it, and that is the most important thing.
I pack up all of my costumes and once more say goodbye to Kathy and Roxanne and return to the hotel once more. This time I have a longer break, but my day is not over yet, as this evening I have an exciting commitment.
Today marks the general release of the new Christmas Carol-inspired film The Man Who Invented Christmas, and I have been invited to a special screening here in Omaha. The event has been put on by Boomer 104, the radio station that I visited a few days ago, with the support of The Douglas County Historical Society.
I arrive at the cinema at 6.20 and there are the ubiquitous Kathy and Roxanne, as well as the two radio presenters Patrick and Dave. I am on hand to sign giant movie posters for anyone who wants them, and spend the 30 minutes before show time scrawling like a true Hollywood star!
Just before 7 we all go into the theatre itself, and Patrick introduces the evening, before handing over to Kathy, who hands over to Roxanne, who hands over to David, who hands over to me! I say a few words, hoping that they relate to the plot of the film, and then we all take our seats for the big feature.
The Man Who Invented Christmas tells the story of Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol in 1843. It concentrates on his ‘three flops’ (rather overstating the facts, but it is unquestionable that Martin Chuzzelwit was not selling as well as his previous novels), and the desperate need for a financial boost. To add to Dickens’ woes his feckless father John is on the scene, generally running up further debts in a Micawberish sort of a way.
Charles is played as a dashing energetic young superstar by Dan Stevens (also of Downton fame), and his demeanour and looks are accurate, although I am not convinced by his voice, which sounds rather modern to my ear (of course that could just be sour grapes on my part!). John Dickens is played by Jonathan Pryce, who is made up to look like the Charles Dickens that people will recognise, with goatee beard and wild hair. It is almost as if the producers have thought that the public wont respond to a young Dickens, so we must have the ‘real’ one in it too.
So, there are two images of Charles Dickens floating around the screen, and then things get even more complicated when Simon Callow, who has made a career of playing CD, appears as John Leech, so now there seems to be three Dickenses in the show!
The subject matter is great, and the idea of the various characters of A Christmas Carol appearing to Dickens to assist him in the creation of the Ghostly Little Book, fully ties in with the mania in which he wrote it. The visions of past, present and future are not Scrooge’s however, they are Dickens’s own, and we see many flashbacks to Warren’s Blacking factory, and John’s imprisonment for debt.
The characters from the book, and the characters in his own life ensure that Dickens finishes the novel and becomes a better man in himself, taking his parents in for Christmas and re-engaging a kitchen maid whom he had curtly dismissed (even though she told him that the character of Tiny Tim should not die!)
It is all lovely, but somehow it doesn’t quite work for me. I found myself getting very frustrated at the endless little nods to Dickens other works, and all of the shops in London are named after various characters – Spenlow, Brownlow and Trabbs among others. Grip, the Raven flutters about for no real reason, other than the director wanting to tell us that Charles Dickens had a raven – it doesn’t add to the story. Then right at the end a police constable says ‘Mr Dickens, I cant wait for your next book, what will it be called? By the way my name is PC Copperfield’ STOP!!!!!! ENOUGH!!!
There is a rather nice relationship played out in the Garrick Club between Dickens and Thackeray, the latter always goading Dickens by quoting the terrible reviews of his recent flops. For those of us in the know, however, we are aware that Thackeray will write a glowing review of A Christmas Carol, which, by the way, is quoted in the 2017 souvenir programme, available at all my shows and via http://www.geralddickens.com!
So, for what they are worth, those are my views on the film. I must say that everyone I spoke to after the event loved it, and that is important to include, for they are the target audience, not me.
It is 9.30 when I leave the cinema, and I have a brief supper in a nearby restaurant before returning to the hotel, and the prospect of a day off!