In 1863 Charles Dickens’ hall clock stopped striking. In an effort to effect a speedy repair the great man wrote a brilliant letter to his clock mender:
‘Since my hall clock was sent to your establishment to be cleaned it has gone (as indeed it always has) perfectly well, but has struck the hours with great reluctance, and after enduring internal agonies of a most distressing nature, it has now ceased striking altogether. Though a happy release for the clock, this is not convenient to the household. If you can send down any confidential person with whom the clock can confer, I think it may have something on its works it would be glad to make a clean breast of,
Last week my laptop also lapsed into an electronic stupor and without the same wit I similarly approached my local computer repairer.
For this reason I am slightly behind on my blog posts, but the laptop is now back to rude health and so here are my recent musings:
There are certain events throughout my performing year that are set fixtures, stalwarts, old friends. The Summer Dickens Festival is one such.
I must have been travelling to Rochester for about 35 years or so, initially as a punter, accompanying my dad who would inevitably have been be called upon to give a talk or maybe the annual oration at the memorial service in the cathedral. I used to watch him with a sense of awe at the ease with which he spoke and of his great knowledge (both of which were the result of immense amounts of work and rehearsal, of course)
As my career as a performer of Dickens’ work took off in the mid 1990’s so our roles reversed and it was I who became the artiste and it was dad who watched proudly on.
This year’s Rochester Festival took place over the weekend of the 1 and 2 June and I set out from home on Friday afternoon so that I could settle in to my hotel and be ready for a pressure-free start to Saturday. I had left in good time and had in mind that I may even manage to squeeze a few holes of golf in before my supper, the car park that is the M25 on a Friday night would put paid to that, though.
Driving from Oxford I have a choice as to which way I can go around the orbital motorway to get to Kent. On this occasion my phone suggested I go north, avoiding the bottle neck around Heathrow Airport, but running the risk of being held up at the Dartford river crossing, although in reality on Friday 31 May the entire circle was crawling.
As I joined the M25 the SatNav told me that my journey would last for a further 2 hours, which would get me to the hotel for about 6pm and allow me a little twilight round of golf. Perfect.
I sat in traffic. I edged forward. I sat in the same traffic. And however much I edged in 1st gear, or even surged forward in 2nd, the journey time stayed resolutely at 2 hours – it never went up strangely, but never decreased either. My arrival time became 7 (maybe just 9 holes then), 7.30, 8 (5 holes?) and then finally 8.30. There would be no golf that night, then.
At one point as I sat musing I noticed an aeroplane lumbering towards me, with its unpainted fuselage glinting in the evening sun. It was obviously something historic and I opened the window so that I could fully appreciate and enjoy the wonderful sound of its engines as it flew directly overhead. As it came closer I saw it to be a Dakota and I now realise that it must have been arriving in readiness for the following week’s D Day celebrations.
Finally I reached the Dartford crossing and soared up high over the river having my usual melancholy and reflective thoughts as I did so. To my right the skyline of the city of London shimmered in the lowering sun and I passed from Essex into Kent.
Finally freed from the M25 my journey sped up considerably and soon I was driving past the village of Cobham on my right, meaning that the only house that Charles Dickens ever owned, Gad’s Hill Place, was somewhere in the woodland to my left. I gave a reverential nod to the old place and drove on my way. Soon the M2 reached the river Medway and from huge span of the bridge I could look downstream to see the ancient castle and cathedral of Rochester. At this point the river meanders around a long bend and it was on these banks that the Short Brothers Flying boats were built. Maybe it was having seen the Dakota earlier but as I looked at the view I could quite clearly imagine one of the great lumbering Sunderlands throwing up spray as its throttles were opened and, defying the natural laws of physics, take to the sky.
After a little more driving I was pulling up outside my hotel in Gillingham, the golf clubs remained firmly in the car and I was soon enjoying a steak pie and mash for my dinner.
Over my years attending the festival there have been many changes at the organisational helm as personnel at the City Council are moved on, move on of their own volition or retire , and after a period of relative stability this year marked one such change.
Of course a new hand on the tiller means new ideas and the main one for this year was that we would only have one grand parade each day, instead of the two in previous years. Personally I think that this was a good innovation for the second parade of the day was always a bit of a damp squib, but I had no doubt that lots of the regular Victorian characters would complain most vociferously!
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!’
After breakfast I got into my Victorian costume and drove into the heart of Rochester to set up for my show at 12. With the change to the parade timetable my performance was earlier in the day than in the past, so I had to make sure that all of my furniture and props were in place in good time. As a performer I had been allocated a free parking place in the city’s ‘park and walk’ facility, but that would mean dropping off the props, driving to the car park (about a mile away), walking back to the Guildhall, setting up and being ready for the audience at 11.30.
I pulled up in front of the large iron gates that form the entrance to the Guildhall’s car park, pushed them open and drove in. I started to unload my stuff and in no time the museum’s staff were helping me. I was secretly hoping that an offer may be forthcoming to leave my car in the little courtyard but I wasn’t hopeful as it seemed to be rather full, however the offer was made, so long as I could free the other cars I would be blocking by 4.45 – that wouldn’t be a problem – and I was thus saved the long walk in blisteringly hot weather.
In the grand Guildhall chamber (in which Pip was formally apprenticed to Joe Gargery in Great Expectations) I arranged my set and when all was done I took a stroll into the High Street to meet and greet as many old friends as possible.
The 2019 Summer Dickens was rather a special one for me because a photograph of me smiling and waving had been selected to be the main poster image for the event: quite the ego boost. My grinning mug was on the front of every programme of events and even more alarmingly ‘I’ looked down upon the massed crowds from a huge banner on the castle wall
Having soaked up the atmosphere I went back to the Guildhall where an audience were already gathering for my show, which is always a relief. On the street outside the Guildhall there was a Punch and Judy show in full swing and a crowd of children from a generation that apparently only care about ‘screen time’ and video games cheered, laughed and shouted at Mr and Mrs Punch, not to mention the crocodile, the policeman and the string of sausages.
It was a scene that could have come from any fair or fete since 1662 when Samuel Pepys first witnessed a puppet show featuring Mr Punch in front of St Paul’s Church. Charles Dickens himself wrote about Mr Codlin and Mr Short who toured a Punch and Judy show in The Old Curiosity Shop.
It was a lovely sight.
Back upstairs in the main Council chamber the audience were gathering and I started gathering my thoughts for the show to come. This year I was performing my 1 hour version of Nicholas Nickleby. and on the stroke of 12 I walked to the front of the room (accompanied by a most agreeable round of applause). I always start Nickleby by talking about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s epic 8 hour adaptation of the novel which opened my eyes to the brilliance of Charles Dickens, and having finished that little preamble I launched into the show. I begin by apparently reading the opening lines of the novel from a huge book:
‘There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr Godfrey Nickleby….’
And from there launch into the multi-character show.
My Nickleby is a rush through the novel taking the basic plot of Nicholas’s antagonistic relationship with his evil uncle Ralph who visits the family in meagre lodgings kept by a painter of miniatures Miss La Creevey Ralph grudgingly organises employment for his nephew by sending him to work at the Yorkshire school of Wackford Squeers where he meets the young, beaten, malnourished pupil Smike. Having witnessed terrible cruelty in the school and beaten the schoolmaster Nicholas flees to London (with Smike in tow) and from there to Portsmouth, thereby creating the model for the charity walk which Ian and I undertook in 2012.
Whilst in Portsmouth Nicholas meets up with the outrageously theatrical Vincent Crummles and the members of his troupe, before he is called back to London to look after his mother and sister Kate, who has been used by Ralph as a sweetener for some underhand financial deals with a group of unsavoury business men. Realising that he has to support his family Nicholas is employed by the ever-smiling and beneficent Cheeryble Brothers and their long serving elderly clerk Tim Linkinwater.
But, evil plots are afoot and Ralph colludes with Squeers to recapture Smike, which they do but he is then set free by the bluff Yorkshireman John Browdie.
Smike returns to Nicholas but becomes ill and has to be removed from the city. The family return to Nicholas’ childhood county of Devon where Smike dies in a very perfect and Dickensian manner.
Meanwhile in London Ralph is confronted by his past – Smike was his son! Overwhelmed with remorse Ralph runs back to his house rushes up to a garret room, where Smile slept as a child, and hangs himself.
The plot is wrapped up as we are told that Nicholas, Kate, Miss La Creevey and Tim Linkinwater all married and that their offspring bowed their heads and spoke softly of their poor dead cousin.
It’s a fun show with lots of characters and action, and in the heat of Saturday 1 June I worked up quite a sweat. The audience applause lasted a gratifyingly long time and I took my bows thankfully. When the clapping finally died down I returned to the reading desk, turned a page of the book and said ‘Chapter 2’, which got a huge laugh.
I spent quite a long time chatting to some of the audience members and signing a few copies of the event programme until eventually everyone left and headed to different parts of the city-wide festival to seek their fun.
I had time for a brief bite of lunch (a hog roast sandwich with apple sauce) in the performer’s green room, which was located in a large marquee nestled in the dried up moat of the Norman Castle. I chatted to some of the other performers until we all started gathering our things to join the parade. In my case this involved picking up my top hat and walking cane, but for two of the others it meant dressing themselves as Mr Philleas Fogg and partner from ‘Around the World in Eighty Days and then installing themselves into two hot air balloons which were built on Segways meaning they appeared to float along the street. Although not Dickensian these two added a fabulous flavour to the whole event.
I made my way to the far end of the High Street where I joined the fabulous collection of characters, a few Nancys, a couple of Miss Havishams, a Fagin or two. Our venerable Mr Pickwick had retired last year, and the character was now being portrayed by a gentleman who used to be Mr Bumble, which was all very confusing.
Before we started I was introduced to the new Mayor of Medway, Councillor Habib Tejan and the Mayoress Bridget. The Rochester festival is always the first event that a new Mayor attends and I have ushered a few of them through the excitements of the parades. Cllr Tejan was smiley, full of laughter and confident and I had no doubts that he would have a great weekend.
At 2pm the bagpipes and drums of the Rochester Pipe Band droned into life and off we went waving to the crowds. The parade is always fun and the crowds, although slightly smaller than years past, were in fine form. At the front the Mayor and Mayoress were chaperoned and flanked by two huge security guards but after about ten minutes the Mayor broke ranks to start high fiving some children in the crowd and I thought to myself ‘he will make a very good Mayor!’
The parade ran its course and on the stage between the castle and cathedral crowds were welcomed (in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Cantonese – the Mayor was REALLY trying hard to impress!), before we all drifted away again to continue entertaining the thousands of people who had taken the time and trouble to attend.
I made my way into the castle grounds which surround the keep and strolled around perusing the entertainment on offer. Alongside the garish modern fairground rides from which came flirtatious teenage screams, there was of course the magnificent carousel which is always a favourite, but this year there were a few stalls that really captured the essence of a Victorian fairground.
For a few years The Amazing Camera Obscura has set up its little tent, but this year it was joined by The Insect Museum and Mr Aexander’s Travelling Show both of which utilised large truck trailers to create their sets: they were perfect and if this is the direction that the festival is heading then things look good.
As I ambled my attention was caught by the Great Kentspectations Steam Punk tent who were encouraging guests to try their hand at Familiar Flinging. Over the last few years the Steampunk crowd have become more and more involved in the festival and have brought a colour and life to it that has been a joy to witness. Familiar Flinging entails placing a soft toy into a large leather catapult hidden in a metal cannon and firing it at a distant target. When I was spotted at the edge of the crowd I was hauled in to try my hand, unfortunately my shot was too big and my toy sailed over the target and landed in the grass beyond, allowing someone else to claim the prize.
I had one more engagement on Saturday afternoon, although I wasn’t convinced that anyone would turn up for it. Q&A sessions after my shows have always proved popular and fun, so I had suggested that it may be an idea to have a specific session where people could ask me anything about Charles Dickens or myself. Although no expert I can certainly get by and there would no doubt be ample opportunity to trot out a few funny stories and anecdotes from my years on the road. Unfortunately I was scheduled to appear at 3.45 when most of the crowds would be wending their way home.
On my return to the Guildhall I was pleasantly surprised to find a goodly collection of people patiently waiting in their seats, many of whom had been at Nickleby earlier in the day. As I stood at the back waiting for 3.45 to tick around I suddenly had a major pang of nerves – I was laying myself bare, completely unprepared and I wasn’t sure if I was up to it after all.
I took a deep breath and walked to the front of the room. The ‘stage’ that had felt so safe earlier in the day when I had been performing Nickleby now suddenly felt claustrophobic and intimidating . All of those feelings were irrelevant I had to do it and that was that.
I opened proceedings by saying that this was a completely informal session and it would be driven purely by what came from the floor, and so let the questions commence. There was a lull, as is usual at such moments, when everyone waits for everyone else to make the first move. Eventually (actually it was probably only a couple of seconds) a gentleman at the back raised his hand. Excellent, let’s hope for a nice, gentle, easy question to start:
‘Mr Dickens, thank you for being here this afternoon. I assume that you are aware of the recent find of letters in the archives of Harvard University relating to the relationship between Charles and his wife Catherine and that she suggested that he wanted to have her committed to an asylum? What are your thoughts on this?’
OK, a nice, gentle, easy question to begin with then!
I am aware of the letters, but have not researched them in depth, but I gave the honest answer and that is that the thought of the suggestion made me profoundly sad for, as I pointed out, Catherine was my great great grandmother and therefore exactly the same to me emotionally and genetically as Charles and I hate the way he treated her during the period of their separation.
This answer proved an acceptable one and opened the way for others to chime in with their thoughts and opinions.
Soon the whole room was involved and other, less contentious, questions were being asked. I loved every second of the session and my pre-show nerves were forgotten. The time flew by, fact it was only when I saw a member of the Guildhall staff nervously looking around the door that I remembered that I was supposed to be moving my car out of the way by 4.45 or no one would be able to get out!
I brought the session to a close and still chatting to a few of the audience made my way down the magnificent staircase. I said goodbye to my friends at the Guildhall and drove back to the hotel.
It was 5.15. There was time for golf.
So far as my shows were concerned Sunday was a repeat of Saturday: Nickleby at 12, parade at 2, Q&A at 3.45, so I wont go over all that again, but there was a fun addition to proceedings and that was an interview with a children’s TV show who were filming at the festival.
I was due to meet them at 10am, so I set off early and arrived at the Guildhall (which had rather become my own private green room) at 9.30. Inside the staff were getting ready for a new day and one of the jobs was to vacuum the grand staircase. The plush red pile was perfectly flat and as I walked up it I left the imprints of my shoes as if I was walking on virgin snow.
Having made sure that all of my props were in place for my first show I popped into the aptly named Quills coffee shop and had a cuppa, before heading to the castle at 10, where I found the film crew which comprised of a director, two camera operators and a sound technician busily getting ready.
On a low wall sat two costumed figures, apparently Scrooge and the Artful Dodger, concentrating hard on what appeared to be scripts.
The PR lady from Medway Council introduced me and put me in the hands of the director who ran through the morning’s proceedings. We were filming for a programme called ‘All Over the Place’ which airs on the CBBC channel, in which the presenters, Ed and Lauren, investigate various events around the country.
The scenario was as follows:
Ebenezer and Dodger (aka Ed and Lauren both of whom I recognised from a variety of other programmes on the BBC children’s networks) have arrived in the middle of the Dickens Festival and spotting me standing there with my top hat on come and chat:
Ebenezer: ‘Ah, my good man, are you Mr Charles Dickens perchance?’
Me: ‘No, but I am his great great grandfather Gerald Dickens!’
Dodger: ‘No way! That’s amazing. Why do people still like reading stories by your great great gramps?
I then explained how popular he was in his lifetime, his connection with Rochester, and the reason for the festival. Ed then took up the script:
Ebenezer: We both want to be more Dickensian than the other, can you help us?’
Me: ‘I can, you will be visited by three judges…’
Ebenezer: ‘Ah from the past, present and future, like in A Christmas Carol! You see I know my Dickens.’
Me: ‘No, all from the past you will talk to three Dickens characters and they will help you!’
Ebenezer: ‘Well, we’d better get on, what’s the time?’ As he fumbles for his watch he realises that the Dodger has stolen it and is running away. The scene ended in a flurry of ‘Bah! Humbugs ‘ and off they went to explore.
We filmed the scene a few times from different angles and to avoid Cathedral bells ringing – alright it WAS Sunday morning, but didn’t they know this was for the BBC? – and various other extraneous noises.
Eventually we had the scene completed and we all moved on to another location in the High Street to film the end of the programme.
In the show Ed and Lauren had been amongst the characters all day and now came back to me to perform a short piece and I was to judge who had done the best job. Quite a crowd gathered around us as we filmed, and other costumed folk heckled and joined in, all of which was great fun.
Ed went first and performed the ‘Christmas? What is Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills with no money….’ speech.
He needed a couple of takes but did well and remained in character throughout, obviously a serious contender!
Lauren was next up and she had the speech from Oliver Twist when the Dodger first offers to take Oliver back to Mr Fagin. Lauren was great with the crowd and played the scene with huge fun, maybe not quite what Mr D had intended, but everyone enjoyed it immensely! She used members of the audience (including one of the Fagins who had fortuitously stopped by to watch.) Lauren’s more improvisational approach led her to repeatedly forgetting her lines and we did quite a few takes before the crew were satisfied. All I had to do was to watch, nod, and stroke my beard thoughtfully.
And now it was down to me, who got the vote?
You had better watch ‘All Over the Place’ which will air in October to find out!
Rochester 2019 was great fun, as Rochester always is. The crowds were lower than in years past and some naysayers put that down to there only being one parade each day, instead of two, which I don’t think was true.
Somehow the festival felt better for the lower numbers, in the past it has been noisy, unwieldy, rowdy and the reason for the celebration has felt lost, whereas this year there was a definite Victorian feel to the proceedings.
Next year will be a special one for 2020 marks 150 years since the death of Charles Dickens. The festival itself will change dates so that events can be held over the anniversary itself and moves are afoot to mark Charles’ wishes to be buried in the grounds of Rochester Cathedral, which were ignored at the time so that he could take his place among the literary greats in Westminster Abbey.
It could be an emotional one!