Shows can be like London busses, you wait for ages and then three come along at once, and so it has been for me at the beginning of June.
June 5 Hillbark
Following my busy weekend in Rochester I had 2 days to relax before loading up the car again and heading off to the Wirral peninsular to perform at The West Kirby Literary Festival.
The booking was a good lesson in never knowing what might, as Mr Micawber may say, ‘turn up’. In November last year I agreed to attend a product launch in Liverpool. I was working with Owen Drew Luxury candles and the lavish event in the heart of the Albert Dock had been planned by the company’s PR guru, Paula. I hadn’t been called upon to perform, or even to speak at the event, but the new candle had been inspired by A Christmas Carol and was called the 1843, so my job was just to smile and be photographed, which I did to the best of my abilities.
In my mind this was a one off event which I greatly enjoyed but never for a moment did I expect anything would come from it, however earlier this year Paula got in touch to ask would I be available to perform at a brand new literary festival on the weekend of June 8th and 9th; this proved impossible due to a prior engagement (more of which later), however the week proceeding would be fine and we settled on Wednesday 5th.
The festival had grown from an idea suggested at a West Kirby book club based in the Wro Bar where the members discussed the finer points of literature in a convivial surrounding, sipping chilled white wine.
What show to perform? I suggested Mr Dickens is Coming which is always a a good ice-breaker at a new venue. It is fun, varied, not too challenging and always works well but how about the second half? My first choice was my favourite Doctor Marigold (and I would be performing it a few days later too, meaning it would be fully brushed up and ready), or the Signalman, but Paula asked me if I had anything from Oliver Twist? Oliver is a novel that I have never adapted for a show – the 1960 stage musical is so popular that it is difficult to tell the story without the audience expecting you to plunge your thumbs into your braces and break into song. There is one passage, though, that would fulfil the brief. The murder. Sikes and Nancy.
I made sure that Paula knew that the piece was delivered as a reading (that’s ironic considering that in my last post, I was ranting about my shows being billed as readings, when they plainly are not!) and when she expressed satisfaction with the choice, everything was confirmed.
I set off on Wednesday afternoon and for once the journey was problem free and easy. The drive is now familiar to me for over the last few years I have found myself performing more and more often on Merseyside thanks mainly to my good friend Lynne Hamilton who has done a fabulous job promoting me in this corner of the world.
As I peeled off west onto the peninsula I passed the impressive hillside looking down on the town of Frodsham,where I performed at another literary festival a few years ago.
On past the huge Vauxhall factory at Ellesmere Port and then I left the Mersey behind me as I headed towards West Kirby and the Hillbark Hotel where I was to stay for the night.
Hillbark was quite a surprise! I am used to pulling up at Premier Inns or Travelodges, maybe something better, but usually corporate, bland and sensible. Hillbark was certainly none of those things. I drove up the long serpentine driveway and among the trees and shrubs I noticed impressive equine sculptures fashioned out of old horseshoes. Around the final corner and the majesty of Hillbark house welcomed me. The half-timbered black and white building looked welcoming and a lively fountain bubbled energetically in the courtyard to the front. My Renault looked rather out of place for parked to one side was a pearlescent puce Bentley.
I unloaded my bags and was met at the door by a young man who took them from me with the deference of a butler and ushered me in. In the ‘reception area’, which was in fact the main hall beneath the impressive wooden staircase, was Paula, Lynne and members of the hotel staff. I greeted the former two with hugs and was greeted by the others, one of whom positively gushed at meeting a relative of Charles Dickens, ‘if Brad Pitt was here I couldn’t be more excited!’
We had about an hour before we needed to leave for the show’s venue, but Lynne wanted to shoot a few short videos that she could use to promote my Christmas shows in Liverpool, so I needed to change into my costume.
I was shown up to my room and was informed that I would be sleeping in the same bed as Beyonce. I was startled at this revelation until it was explained that this was the best suite and all of the VIPs who visited stayed here, even Take That. I was once more startled: all of them?
It was a magnificent room with views across the Dee estuary to the hills of Wales beyond, and it was with regret that I surveyed it for I would only be in it for a few hours, as I had to leave early the next morning.
I changed into my costume and then went back down to the bar where coffee was served, and I joined Lynne and Paula who filled me in about the history of this wonderful place. It had originally been built in 1891 and stood proudly on Bidston Hill.
In 1921 the house was owned by Sir Ernest Bland Royden and his wife but unfortunately she suffered from ill health and desired better views to aid her recovery, so Ernest decided to move. He knew the perfect site but the house that stood there was not what he and Rachel wanted, they were very happy with what they had, thank you very much! What a conundrum, so what they did was to demolish the old Hillbark House and then moved their own beautiful home brick by brick, panel by panel to its new position.
The project took two years, so one presumes that Rachel’s illness was not too serious…..
Apparently today if you remove the panelling that dominates the interior you can still see the handwritten numbers that ensured the house was re-assembled correctly.
The current owners Craig and Lisa took over the business in 2002 and have made it a stylish, elegant hotel which celebrates the craftsmanship and design of the original, yet with spectacular splashes of modernity and style. It has five stars and is the smallest hotel in the UK to have been afforded that honour.
Paula left us to go and start preparing the hall for the evening and Lynne and I started recording a few short video clips:
‘Hello, I am Gerald Dickens, great great grandson to Charles Dickens, come and join me at the St George’s Hall in Liverpool for my one man dramatisation of A Christmas Carol….’
That was the gist of it, but some versions had a ‘Bah! Humbug!’ or a ‘God bless us, every one!’ thrown in for good measure.
When we were finished we got into our respective cars and I followed Lynne to the Westbourne Hall in West Kirby where I was to perform. The stage was impressive and soon I was illuminated by a fine array of theatrical lights as I arranged my furniture for Mr Dickens is Coming! I have to say that the set looked rather good.
The show was due to start at 7 but at 6 there was a VIP reception to thank all of the festival’s sponsors and supporters so having finished my preparations I spent some time chatting and posing for pictures. A local bookshop had copies of Oliver Twist to sell, and I flicked through until I found the illustration of Noah Claypole eavesdropping on Nancy and Mr Brownlow, a scene that features heavily in The Murder. The picture was on page 498 and I tucked that information away for later.
As the reception continued, and I continually declined glasses of wine and canapes which came around with great regularity, the main audience started to arrive and a goodly crowd it was. Paula and the festival team had done a brilliant job marketing my show with repeated online posts bigging me up (on one occasion mentioning that I would be performing my ‘multi award-winning show’. I am not sure WHICH awards I have won, but I am delighted to hear about them anyway)
The clock ticked towards 7 and I absented myself from the reception and went back to my dressing room to sit quietly until the show began. As in all such events there were a few words said by the organiser of the festival in this case Sally from the Wro Bar, and when she had finished thanking everyone who had to be thanked, and announcing the various other events, I was away.
I have performed Mr Dickens is Coming a few times recently, so it flowed freely and easily with good timing. I had a slight issue about the end of the act as I usually finish up with a description about Sikes and Nancy, but on this occasion I would be doing that as a precursor to my second act. Once again I used the Great Expectations passage, which seems to have found a permanent home now, and finished off with a teaser for The Murder, finishing off by saying that if during the interval the audience wanted to do some research they should buy a copy of the book from the table at the back of the hall and refer to page 498! Hopefully that would generate a few extra sales.
I went back to my dressing room and changed from garish gold waistcoat to sombre black and then went to the stage to remove most of the furniture, leaving just the reading desk and the red screen – the set that Charles used for his readings.
Our 20 minute interval inevitably turned into a 30 minute one, but eventually everyone was encouraged back to their seats and it was time to kill.
I introduced the piece and stepped up to the desk and began to read.
Right, the reading thing: In my last blog post I wrote ‘The other thing that ALWAYS happens when there is a change of leadership is that my shows are billed as ‘readings’ which is always a source of great frustration to me. Anyone who has seen me perform will no that the one thing I do not do is ‘read!’ One week on and I am reading, why? The truth of the matter is that I believe Sikes and Nancy works best in this format, that is how Charles Dickens envisioned it and that is how he adapted it to be performed. Whilst something such as Marigold or The Signalman lend themselves to an off the book performance, Sikes and Nancy would be confusing and clunky if performed in that way.
The characterisations (Fagin and Sikes in particular) are brought into sharper focus by the fact that the audiences attention is concentrated on one spot – the reading desk which can also be used as a prop. Illustrations of Dickens himself performing as Fagin show him crouched low over the desk, chin jutting forward gesturing wildly with his hand.
Just because Sikes and Nancy is performed with a book in hand it is by no means a dull, dry, monotone recitation, quite the opposite indeed for it is electrifying, violent, terrifying and brilliant.
The script is very cleverly conceived -it is divided into three scenes the first of which sees Fagin engage Noah Claypole to spy on Nancy and bring back all of the information he can. As an audience we are privy to only to Fagin and Noah’s conversations, we know nothing of Nancy’s movements or motives, thereby placing us firmly in the villain’s camp. Scene 2 and once again we are placed with Noah as he tries to listen to Nancy as she tells her story. The most important line here is ‘After receiving an assurance from both that she might safely do so she proceeded in a voice so low that it was often difficult for the listener to discover even the purport of what she said, to describe the means by which this one man Monks might be found and taken. But nothing would have induced her to compromise one of her own companions; little reason she had, poor wretch! to spare them’
So we are still alongside Noah, we as an audience have now become complicit in the crime to come. We are helpless to stop the inevitably tragedy, and even if we could stop it we have no idea what Nancy actually said to Mr Brownlow, it is a clever device and raises the tension in the audience.
The final scene sees the entrance of Bill Sikes and we watch as Fagin very very carefully pulls his strings, making him angrier and more violent by the second before he rushes through the streets to find Nancy half dressed on their bed, he pulls her up by the hair, has the presence of mind to realise that a gunshot will attract attention, and bludgeons her to the floor.
Having assured himself that she is quite dead he rushes into the countryside but is haunted by the memory of what he has done and is driven back to London where he is discovered by a raging mob. He climbs to a rooftop and as he is fixing a noose around himself to escape he has a vision of Nancy’s dead eyes, slips and is hung.
It is all shocking, but Dickens wanted to outrage his audience more, so to finish off he had Sikes’ dog leaping for his master’s shoulders, missing his aim and tumbling down into the ditch…‘turning over as he went, and striking his head against a stone, dashed out his brains!’
It is truly shocking and brutal and always leaves the audience in stunned silence. Such was the case last week, I became more and more intensely involved in the scene, and smashed my fist into the reading folder (newly made for this event and making its professional debut), imagining Nancy’s upturned face was there before she staggered and fell to the floor.
It was a really good performance, I may say enjoyable if that is not too disturbing and as the applause started to come in I stood on the stage panting, exhausted, trying to come back to the present moment in the Westbourne Community Hall.
We had a few minutes of Q&A on the stage and then I went to the book shop’s table to sign copies of Oliver Twist, as well as one of Monica Dickens’ ‘An Open Book’ which the owner had proudly brought to the event.
I was tired and when the audience had left and the members of the book club sat drinking wine and discussing the evening I wasn’t fully engaged in the conversation, but floating away somewhere else.
I needed to get back to the hotel and Lisa, the owner of Hillbark, suggested that I give her a lift. I gratefully acquiesced to this idea and soon the props were loaded into the car and we were on our way.
Even then the evening was not quite over for we joined Lisa’s husband Craig in the bar and had a nightcap as they told me more about the building and its history. We also talked about cars – their Bentley and an Ascari, whilst I rather meekly told them about my old Lotus!
Eventually the rigours of the Murder began to tell and I had to absent myself. I went to my room, set the alarm for 6am, as I had an early start in the morning, and slipped wearily under the covers.
June 9. Fonthill
Having returned from the Wirral on the 6th I had a three day wait until the next bus arrived, and this one would take me to Dorset.
The 9th of June is a very important day in the Dickens calendar as it is the day on which Charles Dickens died, and if I can perform at a particularly special event on the anniversary then it is a bonus – this year was very special indeed.
The story dates back many many years when my brother Ian worked as the Marketing Director for Olympus Cameras He often used a husband and wife team of graphic designers to assist in some of his memorable advertising campaigns. Graham and Diane May then decided to forgo the rat race and to continue their freelance work in Dorset.
Three years ago when Ian and I were planning our Souvenir Brochures (still on sale via my website, by the way) it was to Graham and Diane that Ian turned. We all had a lovely meeting in London and they went to work and anyone who has seen the finished products will know it was a job superbly done.
Last year Diane got in touch with me and asked me if I would attend a special fundraising garden party at a country pile called Fonthill Park near Salisbury. There would be other entertainers throughout the day and we would all be strutting our stuff in a ‘performance marquee’ situated in the grounds. After discussion we decided that Doctor Marigold would be the perfect piece for the event and June 9th, 2019 was firmly in the diary.
The charity in question was one very personal to Diane, it was Secondary 1st which is committed to find a cure for secondary breast cancer. To understand the ethos and passion behind the fundraising efforts I can do no better than to quote the website http://www.www.secondary1st.org.uk:
‘We want to put secondary breast cancer first. Front of mind. Top of the list. This is a disease that has spread to the rest of the body. It affects men and women everywhere. Finding a cure means a diagnosis is no longer the end. It means people will have more days doing what matters most. It means daughters, mothers, fathers and sons will go on living a life they love’
Secondary 1st is not one of the popular ‘sexy’ cancer charities but it is every bit as important and needs every penny that can be raised to allow the valuable research to forge ahead. The event at Fonthill would not only raise funds but also to raise awareness of the work being done.
Fonthill is owned by Lord Margadale and he generously donated his house and gardens for the event which hopefully would be graced by fine weather. Although my show was not due to take place until 2.30 proceedings would kick off at 11 with a champagne and canapes reception hosted by his Lordship. Always a nosy soul the chance to peek inside the big house was too good to miss and I set off from home at 9.30.
The drive west was fine and took me passed Stonehenge which appeared to be surrounded by an ant’s nest of tourists, and just beyond there was the most extraordinary field of poppies. This wasn’t the usual corn field speckled with red, this was a plush carpet of poppies the brightness of which was astounding. Further along the road was another carpet, but this one was only half-dyed, the vibrant red fading into green as if it were a watercolour painting.
Turning off the main trunk road I found myself winding through country lanes before turning through the magnificent stone arch that forms the entrance to the Fonthill estate. The scene couldn’t have been more English, the driveway took me past a small cricket pitch with its boundaries marked and stumps placed ready for the contest to come later that afternoon.
I followed the road over a bridge that crossed a lake and then the drive wound uphill until I arrived at the house itself which, considering the grounds it presided over, was quite modest (listen to me! Modest!)
It was around 10.45 so I just had time to unload the car and parking it in one of the nearby fields before the drinks reception began. The performance marquee was in the lower part of the garden, in a paddock beyond the formal gardens and the swimming pool. The word ‘marquee’ maybe slightly oversold the venue, but it looked as if it would be a lovely space in which to perform Marigold.
Under canvas was a stage with some speakers and cables waiting to be plugged in for various bands who would be performing throughout the day. There was some audience seating inside, but most of the chairs were in the open air beneath the warm sun which was trying its best to join the party.
Surrounding the tent were lots of stalls all manned by folk adorned in the Secondary 1st T-shirts, resplendent in white pink and purple. There were tombola stalls and craft stalls and clothing stalls and a raffle and a silent auction, each waiting to plead with the public to support this most worthy and admirable charity, and in the middle of all the bustle were Diane and Mary busily checking and organising everything.
11 o’clock was approaching so we all made our way up the steep garden and into the house. What a civilised way to begin an event, I rather think that this should be in the rider to all of my contracts – ‘the artiste will be entertained by a member of the British aristocracy no less than three hours before the performance’
We sipped champagne nibbled on elegant canapes and chatted to strangers – in my case a gentleman who was providing a hot air balloon ride as a raffle prize. I asked him if he had ever been here before and he replied that the only thing he knew about the estate came from a colleague who had inadvertently landed his balloon in the grounds thus raising the anger and ire of Lord Margadale!
On the current day however his Lordship was all smiles and bonhomie, welcoming us to his home and pledging his support to the fundraising efforts ahead, and with that we made our way into the gardens to begin the day’s fun.
I wandered through the gardens looking at the stalls, buying raffle tickets (Liz and I would LOVE to go up in balloon!) and soaking up the atmosphere.
Down in the performance marquee there was due to be a short performance of a scene from The Importance of Being Ernest and I made my way down to get a seat. The excerpt was the splendidly catty meeting between Gwendoline Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, both of whom are of the opinion that they are engaged to Jack Worthing.
Actors Helena Payne and Marie Fortune gave brilliantly funny performances getting every ounce of humour from the scene and the audience revelled in it. I enjoyed it as much as the rest but I got even more from the experience for it was a chance for me to listen and judge how easily I could hear the words (very easily as it happened for Helena and Marie had superb voices) and study the site lines – all of this would be invaluable when I took to the stage later.
With the show over I found a quiet bit of garden and went through my lines for a while (I only had a 45 minute slot, rather than the full hour that Marigold normally takes, so it was another of those times when I had to go through the process of remembering which lines to un-learn.)
A particular bonus of the day was that Liz was coming down with the children to join me, and at around 12.30 I got a message that she was making the ascent from the cricket pitch, over the bridge and into the car park. We all met up and made our way to the refreshment tent where we bought sandwiches and cake. I didn’t have much time to linger over lunch though as the time for my show was getting closer and I needed to get changed, which I was able to do in a Portaloo just behind the marquee (such glamour).
When I reemerged into the sunlight quite a reasonable audience was gathering which was reassuring. At 2.30 I walked onto the stage, gave my little history of Marigold and then launched into the show.
It was a strange experience, for the audience were very much divided into two camps, firstly there were those sat at the front, under canvas, who were watching and listening intently and laughing at Doctor’s rapid sales patter and one liners, then there were those further out who maybe stopped by out of curiosity but were not so fully involved, maybe chatting to friends, or just watching for a few minutes before moving on to another part of the gardens. Through it all Doctor Marigold bared his soul and told his story to half committed and half transient crowd as he would have done in fairgrounds up and down the country.
With about a quarter of the monologue still to go I began to hear pitter patter on the canvas over my head and it was like being a child lying in a tent on a rainy afternoon. As I continued I could see people huddling under coats, and putting umbrellas up. Doctor Marigold thought ‘my poor audience’ whilst Gerald Dickens thought ‘Damn! I left my linen suit laying on a table outside!’ Doctor Marigold however was the stronger of us and in the middle of his recitation said, ‘come on, get out of the rain, bring your seats in here, shuffle forward, plenty of room for all, in you come’
I (he) paused as everyone huddled into the small tent, and when pretty well everyone who wanted to be thus accommodated was, I continued the story in a much more intimate setting.
The final lines of the grandchild speaking drew the usual gasp and sobs from the audience and I took my bows to lovely applause. Diane was in the front row and I gave her a great big hug and thanked her for inviting me to be part of this amazing afternoon.
The rain was still falling outside, and I was delighted to discover that someone had seen my suit and moved it under cover. I changed into it, and made my way back to the tent where Helena, one of the actors from earlier, was now performing a beautiful operatic aria as the rain fell hard.
Once she had finished and taken her bows the drones of a bagpipe sounded in the distance and soon the members of the Clayesmore School Pipe Band marched damply into the space between all of the Secondary 1st stalls. An appreciative audience stayed in the tents and watched as the stoic performers shivered and dripped in the teeming rain. I wished I could have poured a little bubble mixture into the pipes, which would have made quite a spectacle!
The band finished their set and as they marched away they received huge applause both for their musical ability and their great resilience. As we stood the rain passed and the sun came out again shining brightly onto the old house which looked spectacular against the retreating black clouds.
It was now time to perform my final duty of the day which was to assist in the drawing of the raffle. Wouldn’t you just believe it, but the rain had got into the electrical connections rendering the PA system useless. There was nothing for it but to bring out my biggest, boomiest voice and to announce each of the winning tickets to the damp, dripping, expectant crowd.
Lord Margadale drew the tickets, handed them to me and I bellowed the colour, the number and the name on the back and waited for an excited cry from the audience as the lucky soul went scurrying to the table to choose their prize. Unfortunately Liz and I were not victorious so our hot air balloon trip will have to wait for another day.
And so the event came to an end and I fetched the car and packed up all of my belongings. I said good bye to Diane, Mary, Lord Margadale, Helena and Marie before leaving the beauty of Fonthill behind me. I’d spent an am amazing day in fantastic surroundings, but the most important thing was that we had all raised lots of funds for Secondary 1st.
But they always need more, and I would strongly encourage you to visit their site and donate even a little – every penny helps.
This is the link to the donations page: