Last week I had my first two shows of 2019 the first of which was in a theatre. I was due to perform a double bill of ‘Mr Dickens is Coming!’ and ‘The Signalman’ at The Kenton Theatre in Henley-on-Thames (which incidentally is the 4th oldest active theatre in Britain, which is quite a claim).
‘Mr Dickens is Coming’ requires a replica of Charles Dickens’ red reading desk on stage, while The Signalman needs an old clerk’s table both of which are stored in a garden shed, so last Thursday I had to remove bikes, golf clubs, garden tools, jacks, axle stands and various other paraphernalia before I could get to my props.
The long winter had taken its toll on the structure of the shed and far from being a warm dry environment it is now rather damp and is held together by a few layers of paint and very little else. As I got to my prop box I found a leather folder blooming with blue mould on the surface and a wave of sadness came over me, for this item represents a major part of my performing career and many memories are nestling in it.
in 1993 I was a thirty year old actor who was teaching people to drive in order to make ends meet. It must have been around May that I was approached by a lady who was involved in raising funds for a local charity. ’93 marked the 150th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol and the lady in question had hit upon the idea of recreating one of Charles Dickens’ own readings of the novel in a candle-lit village hall and would I like to take on this challenge?
To be honest I wasn’t keen on the plan as I hadn’t enjoyed a close relationship with my great great grandfather during my school years. I couldn’t see anyone enjoying 90 minutes of reading, and I certainly didn’t feel up to the job of taking on the huge responsibility of representing my family name. My charitable lady was persuasive however and by the time I left the house I had agreed to perform two evenings of readings in November.
I was all at sea as to how to perform though, and tentatively broached the subject with my Dad, David Dickens, past President of the Dickens Fellowship and a great student and expert on all things Dickens.
Dad always been good in not forcing his passion for CD onto his children. His mantra had always been ‘do whatever you want to do in life, but do it to your best ability’. About Dickens he would say ‘you will discover a love of Charles Dickens one day. It maybe when you are twenty, or when you are fifty or when you are eighty, but you will discover it one day’ Now he saw the first glimmers of my moment of discovery and responded enthusiastically!
Firstly he purchased me a little paperback book called ‘Sikes and Nancy and Other Readings’ which had the texts of all of Charles’ own readings in it. The battered volume is still on my shelves and I refer to it often. Discovering the chapter on A Christmas Carol I found a brief description of the original readings as well as the version of the story that the great man had created for his performances, and that seemed as good a place to start as any other.
Then Dad started steering me towards various biographies which told the story of Dickens the performer which he felt would be beneficial. At this stage I ignored my father’s advice because I wanted to perform as myself and not trying to ‘be’ Dickens (what was the point of imitating a man long dead? Nobody would know if it was accurate or not, and it would detract from the story which had to be the star turn). My father respected that decision and was happy that I wanted to do things in my own way.
Nothing happened until maybe September or October, when I was called to asked if everything was ready for the show. ‘Of course!’ I untruthfully replied: ‘I am thoroughly looking forward to it!’ and immediately started to work on the script. I had no time to learn the text so the performance would have to be a reading and that was fine as it had been advertised as such. I printed out the text and had it bound between two A4 sheets of cardboard which looked terribly modern and shabby, so I had a cloth sleeve made to cover my book.
The rehearsals went well, for each and every character found their own voice with no real input from me. Scrooge naturally became Scrooge as I described him as a ‘Squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scratching, covetous old sinner.’ Bob Cratchit took on a nervousness that was reflected in his voice (a soft west country burr to contrast the harsh, grating dialect of his employer) and his movements. Marley’s voice was based on the description of his dislocated jaw, whilst the Ghost’s of Christmas Past and Present reflected previous representations of the characters that my audience would be familiar with: light and ethereal for the former and bluff Yorkshire for the latter.
It was an exciting time for me as an actor to discover this cast coming together, and to find them working in harmony, complementing and helping one another through the story.
Eventually I read for Dad. There were tears in his eyes (at the time I took that to be a good thing and I am sure it was!). He told me that he wouldn’t come to the show as he wanted me to be the centre of attention, but he couldn’t wait to hear all about it. There would be another night years later when he said the same thing to me.
Well the evening was fabulous and for the first time I discovered the magic that Charles Dickens’ ‘ghostly little book’ could weave. The audience were entranced and became completely immersed in the story: they laughed, they cheered and they cried.
The following Christmas I performed The Carol more often and by this time the little cloth sleeve had been replaced and this is where today’s blog subject makes its appearance. I wanted a folder in my hand that looked antique, that would be part of the set and one day in an antiques shop I saw an old leather cover which had probably been made in the 1970s to cover copies of either of the two television listing guides, the BBC’s Radio Times or ITV’s TV Times (probably the latter, for the type of person who would want to cover a Television listing guide would not want their guests to know they stooped so low as to watch ITV! If you want to see who I am talking about then watch episodes of ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ and you will understand.)
Soon the folder and I became inseparable as I started to travel farther and wider. Until one afternoon in Tennessee when we became separated on a day which changed the shape of my career and life. I had performed an afternoon reading of The Carol in a hotel function room in Fayetteville TN, and the show went well, and as I finished with ‘God bless us, every one!’ I put the folder down and took my bows. I didn’t have time to stay and chat however for in just a couple of hours I had another performance in Alabama and had to get into a car straight away. I travelled in costume and slept in the back seat while my agent at the time drove. Time was tight. Along the way we got lost and had to phone ahead to warm the audience members that I would be a little late.
I had been travelling in costume so when we eventually arrived I could bound straight onto the stage and start the reading for the patient folk who sat expectantly in rows…except my leather folder and my script were three hours behind me in Fayetteville! Panic! What would I do? The little folder contained not only my words, but also was a comfort blanket and crutch: suddenly I was alone and exposed.
I had no choice but to try and ‘wing it’ and tentatively began with ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’ As I continued I discovered that actually I knew the whole show by heart, and rather than being metaphorically tied to a lectern I could roam about the stage and start acting. I grabbed a chair which could double as the one in Scrooge’s office, as well as that in his chambers – it even became his bed. I found a stool which became the image of Tiny Tim, I hung my hat and scarf over a hat stand which stood in the corner of the room. And so the show that I perform now was born. The reading script and folder had led me to a point where I could recite 90 minutes of script.
There was an amusing post script to the performance in Alabama when a lady complimented me after the show on my ability to act with my medical condition. On asking what she meant she pointed out that my ability to gesture despite the paralysis of my left arm was truly inspiring….I had spent so much time with the leather folder clasped in my left arm that all of my gestures had been developed for the right and now my unencumbered free arm hung useless by my side! Even today the show is very much ‘right handed’.
As the years went on I introduced more shows into my repertoire, including the brutal Murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist, using the script that Charles had developed and which had made ladies in his audiences faint. The climax of the reading comes as Bill Sikes batters the poor girl with a heavy club and at that moment I took to bringing my right fist hard down onto the script. The heavy leather gave a solid base for the blow and the drama of the scene was enhanced by the loud noise that is produced.
Many of my favourite performances have started their lives as readings – Nicholas Nickleby, The Signalman, Doctor Marigold and A Tale of Two Cities all nestled between the leather covers before they became fully fledged shows in the own right. The Death of Little Paul Dombey and The Haunted Man were both attempts at developing new readings which never made it passed their first performances, meaning that many memories good and bad are held in the folder.
But now it is time to move on and say goodbye to a piece of…what? furniture? equipment? costume? Who knows what category it falls into, but it has been a constant companion to me throughout my career and I am sad to say goodbye.
I hinted earlier that there was a second occasion that my dad was not present and asked me to report back. I had been asked to take on the great honour of being the President of the Dickens Fellowship and would begin my term at the conference in Canterbury. At the conference dinner I would be expected to make a speech and dad asked me if I would thank all of his friends in the organisation, for he wasn’t well enough to travel. I didn’t realise, although I am sure that he did, that he was actually saying good bye. He insisted I come to the house the next morning to tell him all about the dinner, as well as to climb a ladder and prune his wisteria which was starting to overwhelm the house.
After dinner I stood to speak, I relayed Dad’s message and there was a long period of warm and heartfelt applause for him. I picked up my leather folder and gave a short reading (of what I cannot remember, probably something from Copperfield as we were in Canterbury) and I know that my father was proud of me. That night, probably as I was actually speaking, my father passed away in his bed. I received the news as I left the event and drove straight to my parents home in costume to be with my mother. Next morning I duly clambered up a ladder (in waistcoat and striped trousers) to tend to the wisteria, as I had promised.