June 9. Fonthill
Having returned from the Wirral on the 6th I had a three day wait for my next event which was in 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: