Last night at Gloria Dei Susan had told me that snow was on the way and hoped that it would hold off until after her evening show. I saw no flurries on my drive back, but this morning I wake up with the excited anticipation of a child and run to the windows. I would fling the curtains open, but the Ambler Inn has venetian blinds which do not have the same sense of excitement to them. What an anti-climax, for there is nothing on the ground – no mantel of white or any other real life recreation of any of the lyrics from my Christmas playlist.
The excitable child has just discovered that his Christmas stocking is hanging empty at the end of his bed. It will just be another day.
I write my blog, and when I have finished I walk from my building to the main restaurant of the Ambler to grab two cups of coffee to take back to my room. Today sees the launch of the new season of Grand Tour and as I have a while to wait before breakfast is served, I settle back to watch. The new series is much more like the old Top Gear, without all of the silly experimental stuff that spoiled series 1, and there is a feeling of reassuring familiarity to it. I watch half of the show then go to breakfast, where I am aware of a new nudges and whispers. Sure enough as I leave two ladies ask if they can have a picture with me. I am looking a bit dishevelled, but duly smile and pose with them.
Back in the room I resume the programme and as I watch I suddenly become aware of a movement outside the window, and the first flurries begin to fall from the grey sky. The Christmas stocking is slowly being filled after all!
Throughout the morning the snow continues to fall and the trees and grass begin to turn white, although it looks as if the road surfaces have been well treated, meaning there should be minimal interruptions to my day.
I finish watching Grand Tour and then make sure that I have everything for my shows today (including two bulging bags of laundry for Pam), before crunching to my car, and starting the engine to clear the screens while I brush the loose snow from the windows.
The drive from The Ambler Inn to Byers’ Choice is little more than ten minutes and as I suspected the roads are fine, although this amount of snowfall in the UK would bring the country to a grinding halt!
I pull into the magnificent complex that is the Byers’ Choice HQ, where all of the caroller figurines are created, and find a parking space near to the main administrative entrance. I load myself up with two costumes, my top hat and cane, two bags of laundry, and somehow balance it all on my little roller case and leave a set of footsteps that will soon disappear, for the snow is coming down much heavier now.
In the building I am greeted by all the staff I know so well, for I have been coming here for around twelve years and feel like one of the family now. I dump my belongings in the huge boardroom that doubles as my dressing room, before going to the theatre space to meet with Dave, who looks after all of the technical aspects of my performing.
The Byers’ Choice shows are the largest on tour and over the next two days I am due to perform three shows, each with audiences of over 600, the seats have been carefully laid out and look rather intimidating.
Dave loves the show and is always thinking of ways to tweak and add to it, which I am happy for him to do. A few years ago he managed to find a lighting effect that projects a stained glass window onto the back wall, to use when Scrooge goes to Church. Last year Dave discovered some sound effects, so now the show comes complete with ringing bells and street sounds as well.
We complete our sound check, and I return to the boardroom, where Pam brings me a bowl of soup, which is very welcome.
With about an hour to go I sign a few books that have been ordered from previous venues, and a whole stack of our programmes to offer to people who do not want to stand in line later.
The snow is still falling, and however pretty it looks, it is causing problems in the various car parks, so everyone is mobilised to help get the audience settled before showtime. I get into my costume, making sure that I have the Victorian penny in the pocket of my waistcoat, and with twenty minutes to go I walk to the back of the hall to watch the crowd grow.
Usually I stand with Dave by the sound and lighting desks, but today he is strolling through the audience selling the programmes – Byers’ Choice are making a big effort to sell them properly here, rather than simply placing them on a merchandise table as has been the case at many venues.
On the stage the choir from the CB High School East entertain the crowd with Christmas Carols and the whole scene is very festive. Amazingly the whole crowd is seated pretty well on time and Bob goes to the stage to introduce me, and soon after I walk into an atmospheric pool of deep blue sombre light (Dave is playing!)
The show is, of course, big, there are a lot of people to include, but everything here is proportionally in scale, so the stage is high and there is plenty of room for me to move. This is the wonderful thing about my tour – just twenty four hours ago I was performing to around thirty people, and now almost 700. This is why the shows never become routine for there is always a new set of challenges to overcome.
The audience at Byers’ Choice are a loyal bunch and it is always a pleasure to perform to them. The show is an adrenaline filled adventure and I work very hard, trying to bear in mind that I have another show in just a couple of hours’ time.
When we get to the church visit and Dave very slowly brings up the stained glass window effect there is an audible reaction from the audience, which is very satisfying. I bring the show to a close and receive another amazing Byers’ Choice ovation.
As I leave the stage there begins the most exhausting part of the day – as Bob makes a few closing comments on the stage I have to run the entire length of the factory, so that I can get back to the board room before the mass exodus begins. I achieve my goal and start to slowly change into my spare costume, letting my heart rate come down, and controlling my breathing.
I take my time, but I know that there will be a massive line waiting for me, so I tie my cravat, pick up my fountain pen, and make my way into the Visitor Centre, where Pam is waiting for me in the Nativity room. As I arrive she starts a round of applause which is taken up by the patiently waiting fans.
The signing lasts for around an hour, with Pam managing it very efficiently, making sure that books are open to the correct pages, and mastering a wide variety of photographic devices, as she moves the line on quickly, but without diminishing the personal touch.
As soon as the last guest leaves Bob and Pam take me back to the little kitchen, give me a ham sandwich to eat, and leave me alone to relax. I eat the sandwich and then get down to making repairs to my second pair of trousers, with the broken expandable waist, which I haven’t been able to use for a few days. The repair isn’t pretty but should be effective for the rest of the tour I think.
Before the audience arrives I need to collect my woollen scarf from the set and move Bob Cratchit’s stool to the correct position for the opening of the second show. The theatre is deserted, except for one figure, busily putting reserved signs on a number of seats in the front row. Dawn Byers is the wife of Jeff (Bob’s brother), and always helps with seating the audience – she is energetic, strong and sparky. Her Facebook feed has always been full of exciting adventures, with skiing featuring prominently, at least it was until June.
Completely out of the blue Dawn was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer, and through the second half of this year has been undergoing major Chemo treatment. Dawn being Dawn has tackled the issue head on and continually posts amazing video updates of her treatment and progress – not just lovely, fluffy, positive ones, but telling it as it is, sharing her downs as well as her ups.
She is approaching the end of the current course of chemo, and is hoping to be put on a trail programme for an amazing sounding drug. Always looking forward, never feeling sorry for herself and her situation, she is a beacon of positivity.
We chat for a few minutes, and she is amazing. I know that I speak for all of my blog readers in wishing Dawn continued success in her ongoing treatment, and thank her for all she is doing to raise awareness.
The audience numbers will be slightly down tonight some folk have cancelled do to the snow, but it will still be a crowd of over 600. I get changed and return to my post at the back of the hall, and watch the ‘other’ high school, CB West, sing. West is an incredible choir, that regularly performs at the Whitehouse and at other major national events. Most of the programme is made up from traditional Christmas songs and carols, but as the session nears its end they begin their rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus. Now of course it is traditional for audiences to stand when the piece is performed, but I don’t think anyone expected that from the huge audience gathering to watch A Christmas Carol, but there, on the factory floor of Byers’ Choice, the audience begins to get to their feet and humbly listen. It is an incredibly moving moment, started by a few people in the middle, but gradually spreading throughout the room.
Quite the warm-up act!
The second show is just as energetic and good as the first, and the audience are just as fun and responsive. As I leave the stage I once more make my sprint to the dressing room, ready for the signing session. The line is not quite as long this time, as a few people have left straight away, for the snow has continued to fall all day and they want to get off the roads as early as they can. Hopefully they have all availed themselves of those pre-signed programmes. However I am still sat at my desk for a good long time, and the smile starts to get a little more forced, and the conversation a little more brief.
At the end of the one of the most exhausting days of the tour, I wearily change into street clothes, leaving the costume in the boardroom, as I will be back tomorrow, and go to my car, which looks like a cup cake with white icing poured over it.
I clear the snow and scrape the ice (this is the first time on the tour that I have had to wear my gloves), and drive back to the Ambler Inn. At last my insistence of a 4 wheel drive vehicle has paid off.
Back at the Inn I order a ribeye steak, and then go back to my room. I switch on the TV and am delighted to discover that It’s a Wonderful Life is playing – my favourite Christmas film. I settle down and wallow in the gentle nostalgia of Jimmy Stewart doing his thing.
But the day has been about one thing: to take the opening lyric from another of my Christmas songs ‘Snow, snow, snow, snow, snow.’
Happy Birthday to my wonderful sister Nicky! Have a great day