Saturday 15th December
With a three hour drive ahead of me this morning the first thing I do upon waking is to look out of the window to check on the state of the weather. Instead of the feared snowy and icy conditions the view, albeit dark, is beautiful: the clouds are broken by the first hints of sun which renders the famous Tyne bridge in silhouette. As I watch, a LNER train makes its way from Newcastle station headed to who know where. LNER is one of those railway companies that evokes thoughts of times gone by, in the same way that our own GWR does.
Breakfast is a buffet in the lobby of the hotel and as I peruse the fare on offer I ponder the differences between an American breakfast and an English one: the British bacon is much larger and less crispy, the sausages are thick and plump. Grilled tomatoes and baked beans would never feature in the US, nor do half grapefruits, unsegmented.
I load up a large plateful as I am not sure if I will get lunch later, and sit quietly eating as the restaurant area begins to fill up. When I finish I go back to my room and makes sure that I have everything before checking out and getting on the road.
My route out of the city takes me along the A1 and past the remarkable Angel of the North which looks beautiful in the early morning light, and I stop briefly to admire the view.
I am headed towards the spa town of Buxton, which is in the High Peaks area of Derbyshire and my route will take me across the North York Moors and into the Peak District. Buxton is the highest market town in the country so if the bad weather is going to effect anywhere it is going to effect there. Forecasts have been warning of the impending arrival of Storm Deidre which is going to wreak havoc across the north of England. Somehow Deidre doesn’t seem a terribly threatening name bringing to mind a rather prim lady from an era past. Storm Gargantua, or Storm Destructa would be more unnerving.
The drive is a highly spectacular one although the mist and clouds are closing in as I drive ever higher. Bleak moorland, deep dales, impressive viaducts and steely cold reservoirs pass by on either side until eventually I turn into the drive of the impressively imposing Palace Hotel in the very heart of Buxton.
As I walk in through the door there is a huge banner promoting my show, and on the reception desk there are plenty of fliers informing residents of the hotel that they can buy tickets for my shows at a discounted rate.
‘Hello! I am Gerald Dickens, I am here to perform the show tonight’
‘Yes’, replies the girl behind the desk, after which there follows a long pause. ‘I’m sorry, what do you need to know?’
‘Oh, I just wondered where I should go? Where is the show going to be held?’
Another long pause and a blank stare.
‘I don’t really know anything. let me see if I can ask someone else’, at which she disappears. Meanwhile I notice a bulletin board displaying the various events that are going on that day: ‘A Christmas Carol. High Peaks Ballroom’ So when the girl returns I simply ask the way to that venue.
‘Go through those doors and turn left’ she says, confusingly gesturing to the right. I follow the directions and discover that the gesture was more accurate than the verbal instruction.
The ballroom is beautiful with a high vaulted ceiling, at one end a stage has been erected in front of a large high fire place and a huge gold mirror. Around 200 seats have been laid out in theatre style and each has been covered in black shrouds, making it look like an auditorium filled with mini-Ghost-of-Christmas-yet-to-Comes, which is quite unsettling!
I am alone in the room and start to test the acoustics, as I rehearse Lynne Hamilton makes her entrance: Lynne is my unofficial northern agent and we have been working together for almost 10 years. It was Lynne who first suggested that I should perform in the amazing St George’s Hall in Liverpool (more of which next week), and this year she has offered to secure more shows for me.
Lynne has produced the Buxton version herself, so is anxious that everything works well. Ticket sales have not been great and she has driven from The Wirral a number of times to distribute leaflets and spread the word.
We hug, say hello and chat about this and that. Poor Lynne has a very dodgy hip which is due to be replaced by a brand new state of the art ceramic one in January, but for now she is limping around in agony.
I set the stage as I want and we experiment with the lighting. The chandeliers in the room are grand, but can only be controlled from a room far away in the hotel, meaning lots of shouted instructions in a walkie-talkie until we find a level that combines a good atmosphere with enough light on my face (the latter is assisted by two LED uplighters which suit me well but which blind everyone else. Lynne is worried that I wont be able to see anything during the show and I reassure her that actors really don’t mind being in a bright light, and I recount the tale of the poor actor who died swimming round and round a lighthouse because he wanted to stay in the spotlight!)
Mike, from the hotel’s technical department is going to be in charge of the sound effect and as this involves crouching in a tiny cupboard we decide that it is probably best just to use the opening music rather than the other new effects.
It is 1pm now and the first audience members are beginning to arrive, so I go up to my room on the third floor to change. The Palace is typical of an old English hotel which has now fallen on slightly hard times, the paint is peeling here and there, the carpets are of an undetermined vintage, the facilities in the rooms are sparse. My room is impressively large but the main thing I notice, as I try to find somewhere to plug my phone in to charge, is the dearth of electrical sockets.
Whilst in America the thought came to me that the biggest improvement in hotel design over my years of touring has been the increase in electrical outlets, with sockets built into lamp bases and desk tops. Sadly the Palace has not been part of this revolution.
In my costume I go back to the ballroom and chat with Mike, Lynne and her colleague Jacqui, as well as meeting the audience as they arrive. One of the crowd is Peter Hooper, brother of my oldest schoolfriend Chris. Chris now lives in New Zealand but Pete is based in Matlock, not twenty miles from here, and has very generously braved storm Deidre to come and see the show. Peter can proudly boast that he shared a stage with me in the very formative days of my career, as the Hooper clan (Chris, Pete and their sister Sandra) staged a pantomime to be performed for all of their neighbours, and invited me to be part of the cast. It was Aladdin, if memory serves, and Chris and I must have been around 12 or 13 years old.
At 2.30 it is time to start. Lynne hobbles to the front and makes a nice introduction, at the end of which Mike starts the music from his kneeling position in the cupboard and I begin the show.
Once again the audience is slightly quiet and reserved, and I can see that they are all rather cold, many wrapped up in their coats and shawls. Storm Deidre is forecast to bring freezing rain (or ice storms as I know them in America) and many folk have slipped and slithered in.
A very nice feature of the audience is the amount of young students who have come. A Christmas Carol is currently on the GCSE syllabus so many year 9 and 10s are studying it and one particular lad sat in the front row is thoroughly enjoying the show.
Lynne has asked me for a two act show, and I have to remember to stop at the midpoint, the temptation being to plough on as I have been doing for the past month. I slump in my chair at the end of Stave 2 murmuring ‘Scrooge fell asleep upon the instant and dreamt of the interval!’
There is no adjustable lighting in the room so I have to stand walk off the stage in full view, fortunately this walk is accompanied by a loud round of applause.
Sadly the Palace is slightly understaffed and the young lad who is supposed to be manning the ball room’s bar is nowhere to be seen, meaning a queue quickly forms and Lynne’s blood pressure ratchets up a few notches. The punters however seem remarkably unperturbed and simply disappear to find alternative bar facilities in the hotel. Fortunately they all return.
Eventually our barman is found and the remaining audience get their drinks (mainly hot chocolate) and return to the auditorium for the second act. As soon as everyone is in I return to the stage and recommence to story.
At one point during the second act I get a bit too enthusiastic and knock one of the LED uplighters off the stage. A very kind gentleman in the front row gets up and surreptitiously replaces it, so when I descend from the stage on Christmas morning I make a point of shaking his hand and referring him to as ‘the lamplighter’
The show finishes to great applause and I take my bows before going to the back of the room where I have a pleasant time chatting to the guests as they leave, as well as signing copies of my programme and CD which are selling well. In particular I have a long chat with Pete and his wife, which is very nice.
As the audience disappears into Deidre’s grip I go back to my room and change, before returning to the restaurant where Lynne and Jacquie are sat taking afternoon tea. I join them and we spend a lovely time eating sandwiches, scones and cakes, sipping tea from china cups.
We are sat in a glass conservatory and outside the rain is lashing down as the storm batters Buxton. Hopefully this wont put off any audience members for this evening’s performance, alternatively it may encourage those staying in the hotel to forgo the pleasures of Buxton town centre and come to the High Peaks Ballroom instead.
Having finished tea I go upstairs to rest for a while, and set an alarm in case I snooze on the bed. Although I don’t fall into a deep sleep, some of my blinks are extended ones.
The evening show is at 7.30, so at 6.30 I have a shower to wake me up and get back into costume. The hotel is packed tonight, as there are various other events being held, and the staff will be stretched thinly. Unfortunately Mike is unavailable to do my sound, but another member of management, Carolyn, will come to look after it, I just hope that she has been properly briefed.
The audience is bigger this evening and many are very excited to be seeing the show. 7.30 arrives, but Carolyn does not. Eventually she is found elsewhere looking after a large Christmas party, and takes up her place in the cupboard next to the sound desk.
Lynne makes her introduction and the music fills the room. That’s good. I reach the stage and the fourth bell tolls. Good. Now, Carolyn needs to stop the CD before the second piece of music starts, otherwise Scrooge will be dancing to Sir Roger de Coverley at Marley’s graveside! No folk music comes through the system, and all is well….for a moment.
As soon as I start to speak I can tell that Carolyn has shut off the entire system as my microphone is as dead as a doornail. Of course Carolyn has returned to her other event, so she cant help out, whilst Lynne and Jacquie are not in the room, as they are making preparations for our forthcoming events in Liverpool at the end of the week. Although the acoustics in the room are not bad, and I can be heard quite adequately, I can sense that the show isn’t as good as it could be, and certain audience members are having to lean forward to catch every word. I try not to over compensate and force my voice, knowing that I only have to get to the half way point of the show before I can turn the system on again.
The applause at the interval is not as fulsome as this afternoon and neither is the chat at the back of the room. Sure enough as soon as I check the sound system I find that Carolyn had brought the master volume slider right down to 0. I set it back to the correct level (making sure that the hitherto silent microphone pack is set to ‘mute’) and simultaneously reset myself, forgetting the struggles of the first half and readying myself for an energetic second.
Meanwhile Lynne’s frustration levels are almost through the roof as once again there is no one to man the bar. Fortunately there are a few other members of staff in the audience, including Dave the Night Manager, who manage to locate the girl who was supposed to be looking after the bar, and also coming up with a solution to dim the main lights thereby creating more atmosphere, whilst maintaining enough light on my face.
Act 2 is much better and the show comes alive: I am better, the sound is better, the light is better and the audience respond most enthusiastically. This was a show that was rescued.
Lots of people want to linger and chat afterwards, and I pose for many photographs, particularly with one family who are particular fans of Charles Dickens and the Carol. One lady from America just happened to be staying in the hotel to celebrate her birthday and had seen the promotional material in reception and had decided to come, and she adored it too.
From an unpromising start the evening has been a great success. After changing in my room I return to the now deserted ballroom and load all of my props into the car, for I have another early start in the morning. The rain is still pelting down and the wind is still howling as I make my way to and from the car and by the time I am finished I look like a rather bedraggled dog after he has swum out into a river to fetch a stick. I join Lynne, Jacqui and a large bowl of chips and mayonnaise (courtesy of Dave, the Night Manager) in the bar and we discuss the events of the day.
Quite a few of the audience are staying in the hotel and come and chat as we all wind down which is lovely. Eventually I say good night and go back to my room. I have an early morning drive to Oxfordshire for a very special performance, but this team will reunite in Liverpool on Wednesday.