Sunday 16 December
On my travels a few people have been so kind as to tell me how much they enjoy reading my blog, and a few have mentioned that they like reading the descriptions of the food that I eat – are you in for a treat today!
My sleep in The Palace Hotel at Buxton is brought to a sudden and terrifying end as the fire alarm goes off at some ungodly hour. A high-pitched, screaming, electronic alarm rising to ear-piercing crescendos and dying to silence for a fraction of a second before soaring again. I get up and am about to leave my room (I can hear other guests doing the same), when the alarm abruptly stops again.
I return to my bed but never really get back to sleep.
I was hoping to have an early breakfast at 7 o’clock and be on the road by 8, but it is only in the now sleepless early hours that I notice that breakfast isn’t served until 8 at weekends. I decide therefore to leave early and find somewhere to stop on my route.
I gather all of my things up and make my way to reception where Dave is just about to go off duty. We chat for a while as I pay for my room and then I go to the car and load up. Fortunately Deidre has done her worst and blown away, the morning is clear and the air feels fresh. I drive through Buxton and back up onto the Peaks as I head towards Derby. Once again the journey is beautiful and it is a pleasure to be on the roads alone.
After I have driven for about an hour and I am on the point of joining the M1 I spy ‘The OK Diner’ and I pull into the empty car park. For 45 minutes or so I am back in America, surrounded by moody black and white images of straight roads disappearing into the horizon, cityscapes and rural landscapes. The walls are adorned with college football pennants and hubcaps from Cadillacs or Buicks.
I order a plate of eggs, bacon and tomatoes, and wash it all down with fresh OJ and coffee. When I have finished and paid I return to the car, fill it up with gas at the pumps next door (oh, I have gone back to America), and hit the road again, making sure I drive on the left!
I am heading back to Oxfordshire, but not home yet for firstly I have a lunch performance at one of the most prestigious venues I have ever performed at. In the little village of Great Milton lies a 15th century manor house which over thirty years ago was purchased by Raymond Blanc, one of the most influential chefs working in the UK, and boasting a galaxy of Michelin stars.
Le Manoir prides itself on perfection whilst maintaining an air of accessibility and relaxation not always found in high end restaurants which can often feel imposing and exclusive. I am due to perform ‘A Festive Audience With Gerald Dickens’ in the restaurant’s private dining room to forty guests. The show will be split into four different chunks, allowing the diners to fully enjoy the lunch service.
On my arrival I am welcomed at the front desk as if I had just landed in my helicopter (there is naturally a helipad in the grounds). ‘Ah, Mr Dickens, let me show you to the dining room where Thomas will look after you’
The private dining area is in a separate building with its own kitchen and wine cellar so as not to effect the service of the main restaurant. Thomas shows me the room in which dinner is to be served and we run through the order of the afternoon’s events and the timings and then he asks me if I’d like a coffee? Oh, that sounds good, and he takes me into one of the lounges back in the main building where I sit on a soft sofa and relax for a few minutes before reminding myself that I am actually here to do a job of work.
The guests are due to arrive at 12 when they will be served with canapes in the conservatory which looks out over a private garden and on towards the ancient village church beyond. At 12.30 I am to perform staves 1 and 2 roaming among the guests, before we all move into the restaurant and the guests take their seats.
I take the opportunity of a few moments to rehearse the opening of the show, remembering how to edit it so that I come in on time. The acoustics sound good in the Conservatory and with the church clock striking every quarter there is plenty of atmosphere.
As I rehearse I am interrupted (deferentially of course), by William who is presiding over the event and who studied drama at Aberystwyth University and who ‘recognises the sound of a fellow actor warming up!’ We chat for a while but time is moving on and other waiting staff are now appearing and making final preparations for service. It is time to change. I ask William where I should go and he suggests the disabled toilet as the best bet – however elegant the venue, some things do not change when performing in restaurants!
When I remerge in Victorian garb the guests are already arriving, and I try to gauge the mood of the party. There is always a danger at an expensive event that the attendees can be rather aloof and difficult to please, but this crowd seem to be loud, lively and up for a good time, which is reassuring.
I wait outside the conservatory as the slates of canapes are taken in and handed around. I idly look at the fire evacuation notice and smile at another indication of the standing of Le Manoir, for here in case of emergency we are not requested to muster ‘in the car park’, oh no, here we must meet on ‘The Croquet Lawn’!
When all of the guests have arrived and been checked off William’s list I get the nod and walk into the midst of the crowd.
‘Good afternoon, and welcome to a Festive Audience with, well, ME!’ It’s not going to win any awards at the Edinburgh Fringe but it gets a laugh and breaks the ice.
Some guests are seated, others are standing, so I make sure that I move around the room ensuring that everyone can see. It goes very well and by the time the Ghost of Christmas Past disappears into the dust and I break character and announce that it is time to proceed to the dining room everyone is fully involved in the event.
At the tables wine is poured and then it is time to become the Ghost of Christmas Present and I roam the room spreading good cheer. The table I select as the Cratchit’s household dutifully do NOT gasp as the goose is carved, and the replacement one dutifully does. Finally Scrooge and the ghost stand in an empty place and the clock strikes twelve…and it is time to eat.
So as not to disrupt the main meal service too much it has been decided that I should take a break of an hour while the guests eat their amazing dinners. I retire to the conservatory and discover a table especially laid for me, with all of the same style as the diners. A place card announces that this is the table for Gerald Dickens, and the menu informs me that I am going to enjoy:
LA NOIX DE ST-JACQUES
Roasted scallop, spiced cauliflower textures
Free range hen’s egg, watercress puree, Jabugo ham & toasted hazelnuts
Roasted fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef, braised Jacob’s ladder, alliums & red wine essence
Millionaire shortbread, salted butter ice ream
Not only am I served the same menu as the guests, but I am served it in the same way – the waiter brings the dish, carefully places it, explains what is on my plate and then deferentially withdraws leaving me to appreciate how incredible fine dining really is. Everything is on the plate for a reason, everything gives just the right hit of flavour, and balances the other flavours on the plate exquisitely.
At the commencement of each course the sommelier arrives and asks if I would like wine? Yes, I would like wine! Yes a chilled white with the scallops and a smooth red with the beef, however professional self control ensures that his only duty is to top up my water glass.
After I have cleared the plate of beef it is time to get ready to perform once more, as I have to squeeze Stave Four in before dessert. I am very glad that it is a small room and that I don’t have much space to move in, for I think it would be an ungainly waddle rather than a perfectly honed series of choreographed movements.
The guests are definitely enjoying their afternoon and the decibel levels have risen a few notches over the course of lunch. It is with some difficulty that I attract their attention but as soon as I do everyone settles down to listen. Stave Four, The Last of the Three Spirits is the most intense chapter in the book and sees Scrooge constantly faced with images of mortality. The atmosphere in the room is electric right up to the very point that the spirit shrinks, collapses, dwindles down into a bed post…. I realise I have to break the tension somehow so say ‘and after that you deserve pud!’ and slip out of the door I am standing next to. There is a moment’s silence as the words sink in and then I hear laughter and a loud round of applause.
The Millionaire’s Shortbread (decorated with 24 carat gold leaf, naturally) is delicious, and I finish my meal with a cup of coffee before returning to the dining room to finish the story. Stave 5 is very much a wash-up chapter and doesn’t take very long and soon it is time for God Bless Us Every One, and lots of applause: loud, boisterous, enthusiastic applause.
The guests all hang around for a long time, well why wouldn’t you, and I chat to lots of them and receive plenty of fulsome praise as well as suggestions of venues where I should perform in the future, which is generous.
It is getting dark by the time people begin to leave and we all shake hands as if we are the oldest of friends. The atmosphere is more that of a house party rather than a theatrical performance. When the last group departs I return to my disabled loo and change back into my normal clothes, before saying goodbye to Thomas and William. It has been a highly successful day and I have no doubt that it will lead to further appearances (and hopefully meals) at Le Manoir.