With Christmas out of the way, let me take you back to the last two days of my 2018 tour. You will recall that I left you in Liverpool:
Following my two days in Liverpool it was time to head home and into the final stretch of the 2018 tour.
I left Merseyside at around 9am, after a good breakfast of course, and the day was cold, foggy and misty. I turned the car’s heater on and was surprised the engine didn’t seem to be heating up. Oh well. A quick stop at a petrol station to refuel and continue south, eventually joining the M6 but still no heat was forthcoming. My memory went back to the ‘old days’ of hand-to mouth motoring when I became expert in every frailty in my cheap cars and remembered that no heat from the heater used to mean no water in the system, no water in the system meant engine overheating, engine overheating meant BANG!
But surely not in a modern car governed by electronics and with no temperature gauge to look at – surely if there is no gauge then there cannot be anything that needs monitoring. However as these thoughts weaved their way around my brain a startling alert appeared on the screen: ENGINE OVERHEATING!!
I pulled in at the next service station and opened the bonnet, which fortunately did not release clouds of steam, but sure enough the header tank for the cooling system was empty, so I topped it up and was relieved to see that the water did not just cascade through a large hole onto the floor. I crossed my fingers for the rest of the journey.
The overheating did not return and my homeward progress was uninterrupted.
It was lovely to be home and to see the family, but it was only for a brief couple of hours as I had to get on the road again for an evening show at The Stables Theatre, Wavendon (in Milton Keynes).
To be honest I didn’t want to do it. I was exhausted from the Liverpool gigs, the cold was threatening and being at home seemed a much more sensible option. Liz too, who has been coping with the children single handed for the last few weeks, desperately needed my help and the thought of me driving away again was almost too much for either of us to bear. It was a difficult afternoon, but at 4 o’clock we said the inevitable goodbyes and I headed away again towards the most magnificently huge moon shining low in the sky.
I have performed A Christmas Carol at The Stables Theatre once before and it was a most successful evening, so apart from the tiredness I knew that I would be well looked after.
Sure enough as soon as I arrived I was taken in hand by the lighting and sound teams who made sure that every cue in my script was as I wanted it, that the cross fades between lighting effects were the right speed, and that each sound effect was the perfect volume to complement the action.
When the tech runs were complete I was shown to my dressing room and the green room where a plate of sandwiches, a bowl of fruit, a tin of biscuits and bottles of water awaited me. Peter, the duty manager for the evening, also asked if I would like a bottle of wine an offer which I foolishly declined as it could have graced our Christmas table in a couple of days time.
I then settled down in my green room to while away the time until the audience started to arrive. With about twenty minutes to go I changed into my costume at which point I started to pace the back stage corridors as is my wont – as a show approaches I am fairly hopeless at sitting still.
The sound team had selected a CD of a brass (it may have been silver) band performing Christmas carols to play as the audience took their seats and the gentle evocative sound set such a perfect atmosphere that I may encourage all venues to do the same in the future.
At 8.00 I was given the all clear and I waited in the wings until the lights went to black, the sound effect started and, an blue light came up and I walked onto the stage to begin. The stage at the stables is quite low and although there is a proscenium arch, it is a long way back. The main part of the stage thrusts way forward into the auditorium terminating in a half octogen shape. Frustratingly the lighting rig was set for a children’s theatre production which only used half the stage so I couldn’t get all the way forward to the audience and I felt a little remote, but nonetheless I had plenty of space to perform in and the lighting was wonderful. I was able to use my full range of sound effects again and the whole atmosphere was perfect.
Considering I had not wanted to be here I loved the sensation of being in a real theatre, in the pool of light with the audience surrounding me, and I got fully into each and every character that I perform.
The interval came and the audience’s applause rang in my ears as I returned to my dressing room and took the opportunity to change shirt. Most of the interval was spent pacing up and down again, anxious to get back onto the stage again.
The second half of the show engaged the audience straight away and they all joined in at the Cratchit’s Christmas lunch and made suitably appreciative gasps to greet the goose.
The drama and passion of the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come worked really well in this crucible and by the show’s conclusion the audience was as wrapped up in the story as I was.
The applause and ovation was fabulous and it felt great to be on stage.
I changed quickly and although we hadn’t planned any formal signing session I went into the foyer just in case and found quite a line of people waiting to chat. There was a girl who is studying the book for her GCSE, and a teacher who was teaching it, but last in line was a gentleman so fulsome in his praise that I was almost blushing! The best comment though was when he told me that he had also seen Simon Callow’s one man production of A Christmas Carol and that he vastly preferred not only my performance but my scrip too, as it took less liberties with the original text. That sort of comment I will happily accept any day of the week!
Once back stage I got changed as quickly as I could and by the time I emerged from my dressing room I discovered that all of my furniture had been lifted out to my car and it didn’t take long to load up before saying my goodbyes and driving into the night. The journey home took little more than an hour and it was lovely to sleep in my own bed for once!
The 22nd December marked a day off and it was lovely to spend it at home with Liz and the girls. We finished decorating our house and met up with some old friends, all of which was a world away from life on the road, and all of which was perfect.
But there was still one more day left and early on the morning of 23rd December I left home again and headed towards Leicester. I have been performing in the ancient Guildhall in Leicester for about 6 years now and it is a perfect place to bring my tour to a close.
Despite a journey through heavy rain and mist I arrived at 11 o’clock and unloaded my props before parking in the large city centre NCP car park that is attached to the Holiday Inn, my home for the night. Back at the Guildhall I was welcomed by my good friend Ben Ennis and his colleague Carolyn, who were the only staff available to look after my matinee.
As I set up my furniture Carolyn was making mulled wine in the Mayor’s Chamber (which doubles as a bar for events such as mine) and Ben made sure everything else was in order whilst also manning the reception desk (for the Guildhall is one of the main tourist attractions in Leicester.)
The first show was at one and the audience started to arrive very early, as those who have come year after year know that the seating is unreserved and therefore the best spots get filled quickly. My dressing room is in the Jury Room, a grand panelled library which looks down on the main guildhall, and I am always able to sneak little looks as the audience arrive. Last week they were noisy and excitable and there was a really festive atmosphere to the afternoon. Outside shoppers were finishing their gift buying and revellers were just getting started.
The Guildhall is in a little alley and could answer the description of Scrooge’s home:
He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of a building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again. It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge, the other rooms being all let out as offices. The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands. The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.
Very definitely the atmosphere of the room enhances the story.
The show went very well, despite my voice and body being tired by now. The audience sat wrapped up in their coats, despite the roaring fire in the grate, but were enthusiastic and demonstrative. Once again the show was in two halves and it was nice to be able to take a breather at the interval.
At around 3.00 my penultimate show came to a close and I took my bows to loud applause once more.
Between shows Ben always lays on a Christmas dinner for me, his family and everyone involved, so at 4.30 we all gathered around a table in the Mayor’s Parlour and munched on turkey and stuffing sandwiches followed by mince pies. Ben’s family have become good friends over the years and it was lovely to share some time with them once again.
As we sat in good fellowship so the cathedral bells started to ring an energetic peal on the other side of the narrow alleyway and the perfect scene was complete!
But, there was one more show to do, so after dinner I popped back to the hotel (only a 5 minute walk) to have a little rest and a shower before getting ready for the last show of 2018. When I arrived the audience were already lining up and I rather had to play the ‘do you know who I am’ card, to get to my dressing room!
Once again it was a full house, and once again the festive city seemed to permeate the ancient room. There was even more noise from outside by this time and the revellers had obviously been revelling hard! In my years at the Guildhall I have sometimes managed to time the line ‘the bell struck twelve’ with the tolling of the cathedral; it doesn’t always work because the line comes in the second act so it depends how speedy or tardy the audience are in getting to the bar and back, but last Friday it worked and there was a oud cheer, wholly at odds with the tone of the scene, as the heavy bell intoned the hour.
The show ended at around 9.30 and after I’d said good bye to the audience and signed a few programmes, I walked out into the street to fetch my car.
Guildhall Lane was deserted and quiet, with the exception of one man selling copies of The Big Issue magazine. He approached me and explained that he’d been on the streets selling all day and he had only three copies left. He needed the money raised to get himself into a shelter over the Christmas period. So there we were, just him and me in a deserted street in the shadow of a cathedral. I scrabbled in my pocket for some change and brought the magazine, giving him the rest of the coins I had too. It was not much, not enough, but I hope he found the shelter and comfort he needed. His gratitude as he walked away was a superb Christmas present to me.
And so I returned home early in the morning on Christmas Eve and the professional life of Gerald Dickens became a home life once more. The most important thing was to finish decorating the house which involved stringing lights around the door frames (the effect looking in from outside is beautiful). I carefully secured a string of red lights around the kitchen door, pinning it in place with tiny panel pins. When all was done I stepped back and admired my handiwork!
Everything was ready, with only one cloud – we had no internet connection, no dialling tone to our phone. Of course being Christmas eve it would be impossible to get anyone out to look at it for a few days, so we had a wifi-free Christmas (which apart from preventing us downloading a few films, and using up our mobile data allowance, didn’t really matter at all).
Christmas was lovely with a gorgeous tree, acres of wrapping paper strewn across the floor, a huge turkey, a flaming pudding, an afternoon walk to admire the neighbourhood lights and all the rest of the nonsense!
When our kindly Sky TV engineer came to see us he tested the line, prodded and probed and evaluated the situation and then reported to us: ‘You said that your phone line went down on Christmas eve?’ Yes. ‘Did you put your decorations up on Christmas Eve? Um, well, yes. It transpired that I had driven a panel pin straight through the phone line as I hung the decorations!
Thank you for accompanying me on my journeys and for all of your kind comments and thoughts. It has been another lovely tour but now I am at home and ready to begin 2019 with the family and who knows what adventures will come along. As they say, ‘watch this space!’