Wednesday 19 December
On 19 December 1843 A Christmas Carol was first published. Exactly 175 years ago Charles Dickens’s ‘ghostly little book’ hit the bookstands and began a journey which apparently will never end.
The day’s festivities start at 7.30 with a radio interview for BBC Radio Solent, whose area includes the city of Portsmouth where Charles was born in 1812. It is a fun interview in that my brother Ian is on the line from the Isle of Wight too, so The Dickens Boys banter around for a while, chatting about the book as well as our own Christmas memories.
Apart from talking about A Christmas Carol the breakfast show is also discussing festive drinks and Julian Clegg, the presenter, asks us if there is any particular tipple that the Dickens family traditionally enjoy, to which Ian and I, separated by a couple hundred miles, answer in absolute unison: ‘Horse’s Neck’!
A ‘Horse’s Neck’ is a Naval drink and our family is very much a Naval family (my father, his two brothers and my grandfather all served in the Royal Navy). Dad would proudly mix brandy and dry ginger as pre-Christmas lunch drinks and we children had to wait patiently until all the adults had a Horse’s Neck in their hands before we were allowed to open the presents under the tree. I feel a nostalgic glow as I remember those days and I’m sure that Ian is feeling the same.
Once the interview is done so the house descends into chaos as Liz and I bundle the children out of the door and off to school. Sadly Liz and I have no time together when we get home, as I need to get in the car and drive to the city of Liverpool.
Today and tomorrow mark the second of Lynne Hamilton’s series of shows this year and we are reprising an event that we have staged every second year for the last ten. The drive up the M40 and M6 is a familiar one and I have the radio on to keep me company. The main news item and discussion point is the sacking of Manchester United Football Club’s manage Jose Mourinho and the announcing of his temporary replacement Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Fans from Man. U are trying to sound upbeat and positive whilst those from rival clubs are gleefully gloating. Eventually someone texts the programme pleading ‘can we talk about Brexit again!’ which says everything about the banality of the football phone in.
I arrive in Liverpool at around 12 and in heavy traffic crawl past the magnificent cathedrals before making my way to St George’s Hall, my venue for the next two days, and Charles’ on many occasions during his reading tours of the 1860s.
As I pull up outside I see Lynne and Jacquie on the pavement unloading trayfuls of mince pies and raffle prizes, which are being piled onto a metal trolley and taken inside. I unload all of my furniture and add it to the next cartload. Eventually most of my furniture is taken inside leaving just the hat stand and 2 costumes, which look like a surrealist’s take on the scene, and one which wouldn’t be out of place in the Walker Art Gallery which is behind us.
Once into the Concert Hall which is a beautifully gilded and chandeliered room I set the stage and take a moment to take in the scene before me. I am standing on the same stage that Charles stood in and I am looking into the same auditorium. Later I will be saying the same lines and it is always a breath taking feeling, but today especially.
Lynne has booked a professional audio company to provide the sound equipment, as well as an operator so the issues that we suffered in Buxton will not be repeated here. Johnny is to be my techie for all of the performances so we sit with the script and go through it cue by cue until we are both satisfied that we know what we are doing.
Having got the stage set I go to my huge dressing room, and start to get into costume for the 2 o’clock show. The audience are arriving and the large majority of it are school groups made up of students who are studying the book.
If Lynne’s hip was painful and difficult in Buxton it is a major handicap at St George’s Hall where there are steps everywhere (even onto the stage). However she is organising everything and everyone, making sure that everything runs smoothly with a walkie talkie in one hand and a microphone in the other.
When the audience are in their seats Lynne clambers up onto the stage and makes a short introduction before I walk to my place and mouth the words that join the echoes of their counterparts from a hundred and fifty years ago.
As the main part of the audience are school students the response is different to an adult group, but they are very attentive and as the show goes on they begin to realise that they are ‘allowed’ to laugh and respond (taking their lead from the members of the general public who are seated behind). It is a lovely show and all of the sound effects work very well as Johnny brings them in bang on cue.
As I get to Fred’s party I notice that at the side of the stage there is a rather shapely plaster lady forming part of the stage’s structure and she becomes the object of Topper’s affections.
When I get to the end the applause is loud and the a lot of the students whoop shout and whistle as they clap. It is a wonderful ovation and a great start to the Liverpool adventure.
I change into my dry costume and go to the foyer and sign quite a few programmes and CDs as well as posing for photographs with one of the school groups.
It is around 4pm by the time I can change and leave the building, and I walk the short distance to the Shankly Hotel, where I always stay when I’m here, and check in. I haven’t eaten since breakfast and the rigours of the show have left me feeling a little light-headed and faint so even before I go to my room I head to the restaurant and order a simple dish of grilled chicken and potatoes, which hits the spot.
Once in my room I only have about an hour to rest before I have to be back at St George’s but there is a great big deep jacuzzi bath and I have a long soak which is lovely.
The evening show is at 7.30 and I walk back to the hall at 6.30 so that I can make sure everything is in order before the audience is let in. A large grand piano has appeared on the stage for the audience are to be entertained by a choir before the show tonight, and my space is slightly restricted but not enough to really make a difference.
The choir is in the next dressing room to me and there are obviously a lot of them judging by the loud merriment coming through the door. I sit quietly in my room and get into costume whilst the singers make their way to the foyer for their first set.
Tonight is a sell-out and soon the audience are making their way up the stairs and into their seats. The choir having finished their lobby entertainment now reform in the long backstage corridor and prepare to open the show formally.
Start time is put back slightly as there has been an emergency at Lime Street rail station meaning that many people are delayed, so it is not until around 7.45 that the choir takes to the stage and begins the first of their three songs – The Little Drummer Boy, which is beautiful. They are a well rehearsed and talented bunch and the acoustics of The Concert Hall are perfect for their amazing harmonies. The audience show their genuine appreciation and clap loudly as the final notes of each song gently drift away.
Performing to a capacity audience in a venue such as this is an actor’s dream (well, this actor’s anyway, others may have other dreams, I can’t honestly speak for them!) and from the very start the room is alive. I have made much over the last couple of weeks regarding the differences between an American and English audience and it is a strange quirk of geography and sociology that a Liverpool audience is always more like those to the west of the Atlantic Ocean than the rest of their own country on the east. This bunch are completely engaged and hang on every word.
At the end they go ballistic, there is no other word for the standing ovation that they give me. Not only do they clap, and cheer and whistle but as they stand they stamp their feet creating a cacophony of noise which reverberates around the rotunda and back into the hall.
Amazing, moving, and an entirely fitting tribute to a little book written in just six weeks and which was first published on the 19th December 1843.