The Calender of the year is clearly prescribed, and has been ever since Augustus Caesar threw in a couple of extra months way back in….well, a long time ago: The long dark cold nights of January, the bright spring days of April and May, the sultry heat and thunderstorms of August, October, my birthday month and the parchment leaves are blown in the strong winds. On into the cold rains and fog of November before the quiet snow blankets the ground in December. All steady, routine, never changing.
As regular as the passing moths there are other occurrences in my world too: My USA tour each November, finishing the Christmas season at The Guildhall in Leicester on 23 December, the Rochester Dickens Festival at the end of May and the Victorian Festival in Llandrindod Wells at the end of August.
I have been travelling to the mid-Wales spa town for the last five years and I love this little gathering of like minded people whomake their ways from all corners of the country to unite in Powys where they don their Victorian costumes and simply have fun.
I generally pop in for a couple of days to give an evening performance at the perfectly named, and beautiful, Albert Hall Theatre, and occasionally another presentation during the following day.
As you know from my previous blog post we have just bought a new car and this year’s journey to Wales was to be its first big test. I was due to perform The Signalman, which requires my clerk’s desk, a chair, a stool, a table, a box of railwayana and associated bits and bobs. For the second half I was completing a ‘Gothic Horror’ double bill with a reading of Sikes and Nancy, which requires the red reading desk. My load, therefore, included the two largest pieces of furniture that I have and which only just fitted into the old, larger car – would Mr Goldfinger (the registration plate begins AU and the car is a golden colour), be up to the challenge?
We had bought a roofbox to give a little more storage room and I was delighted to discover that the top of the clerk’s desk, as well as my prop box, fitted snugly into that, meaning that the rest of the load could be easily accommodated in the car itself. Why, I even found room for my golf clubs and trolley!
The drive from Oxfordshire is about three hours and I left early to allow myself time to stop for lunch and also to have plenty of time to relax at the other end. The traffic was clear, the car behaved impeccably and I arrived at The Portland Guest House at around 4pm in the afternoon. I was welcomed by Ruth, the owner, with a big hug and shown to ‘my’ room, number 5 on the third floor, the walk to which certainly gets the heart pumping. Familiarity is a wonderful thing and soon I was laying on the bed drinking a cup of coffee and watching TV.
At 6 O’clock I made my way to The Albert Hall for my get in (I do love being able to write those words.and only you and I know that it is not THE Albert Hall, but shhh, I wont tell, if you dont), and was greeted by many familiar faces from years passed. Before I left Liz and I had decided that it would be best to perform The Signalman as the first act, as ‘The Murder’ takes a huge toll on my voice and it would be better to leave that until last.
I arranged the furniture to represent the lonely signalbox. The last time I performed this was in Jarrow and on that occasion the little brass bell spookily slipped off its wooden plinth and crashed onto the stage, so this time I had brought a pack of Blu Tak with me to keep it firmly in place.
Once the set was in place I discussed a basic lighting plot with techie Ben, who managed to find a single red light that shone onto the curtains and represented the danger light at the mouth of the tunnel that plays such an important part in the story.
With an hour to go before the audience was due to arrive I started a run through of the show just to make sure that all of the lines were in place, which they seemed to be.
At 7pm I retreated to the wings and listened as the audience shuffled into their seats. At 7.30 a silence descended and Queen Victoria was announced. I could imagine her making to her stately way towards her specially reserved position in the front row.
Once the Royal party was seated, thus allowing everyone else to assume the same state, there were a couple of speeches before I was introduced to the stage to do my thing.
An evening of The Signalman and The Murder does not offer much in the way of levity, so I tried to break the ice a little from the outset by welcoming the audience with ‘Good evening, I hope that you are not expecting any laughs tonight!’ which, of course, raised a laugh. After that I began the familiar description of events at Staplehurst before pausing and then beginning the story itself with ‘Halloa! Below there!’
The Albert Hall Theatre could have been designed and built specifically for my kind of show, and the atmosphere that built up as the story continued was truly memorable. There was silence as the engine driver explained how the poor signalman had been cut down by the locomotive, and an audible gasp as he repeated the words he had shouted in warning. Perfect!
With the first half done it was time to clear the stage of the signal box and bring the replica of Charles Dickens’ reading desk to centre stage, where it belongs. A few of the audience were still mingling in the hall, and I decided that rather than hiding myself away in my dressing room I would take the opportunity to chat for a while.
As I mingled a lady, whom I did not know, came up and gave me a letter describing how her mother had told her that a relative was the post master in Rochester when Dickens lived there, and knew him well, which was a fascinating connection and actually brought my relative more alive minutes before I was to recreate one of his most famous readings.
As the interval came to a close the audience returned from the bar and I went backstage to prepare myself for murder.
Act 2. Sikes and Nancy. If The Signalman had created an atmospere it was nothing like that in the second half! By the time I reached the battering of Nancy I was fully immersed in the scene and had almost forgotten the Albert Hall, the Queen and the rest of the crowd and when I delivered the very final line describing the death of Sikes’ dog Bullseye dashing out his brains on the rocks after leaping for his dead master’s shoulders it was with such vehemence that my reading folder flew across the stage and onto the floor where it lay as dead as Nancy, Sikes and and the dog.
At the conclusion of a show an actor likes to hear applause. Call us old fashioned and vain, but that is what we crave. On this occasion there was silence, absolute silence. nothing.
I loved it.
I brought the audience back by recalling the anecdote of an elderly lady having watched me perform The Murder many years ago who said to me: ‘Thank you very much Mr Dickens, that was very nice, but did you have to kill the dog?’ With a surge of relief the moment was broken and the applause started to fill the theatre. A job well done.
DAY 2: THE QUEEN AND THE COMMONER
I usually try to play a round of early morning golf if I am in Llandrindod for a second day, as the mountainside course is glorious and it is a good way to wind down after an intense performance. This year, however, I had an appointment with the Queen.
For my day two performance I had agreed to debut my version of The Queen and the Commoner, which recreates the famous – and only – meeting between Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens. You may remember that American actor Ann Hamilton had written a script with help from my father.
Last year I had asked if the Victorian Festival’s resident monarch, Rita Clews, would like to take an active part in the show and she had readily agreed. Over the course of the year, however, the script grew and became more involved as I had now included the correspondence between Ann and my dad into the script.
During the interval at The Albert Hall last night Rita had mentioned that she really was not comfortable taking on so much of the script, but was happy to ‘do’ the Queen bit. This meant rather a re-think on my part and we had agreed to meet at 10 to discuss it.
I woke quite early on Wednesday morning and sat in bed looking at the script and working our how I could perform as dad, Ann and Charles. I tried out a few passages and it seemed to work, so things might just be OK.
I met with Rita in The Commodore Hotel and we took ourselves off to a quiet room and began to run through play. Poor Rita was so nervous of making mistakes and letting me down, but we developed a lovely rapport, especially in the fantasy scenes where the old Dickens and his monarch imagine that they were one again ‘ the breathless girl who delighted in dancing all night, and I, the spirited young writer who vowed himself madly in love with her.’ Dickens was wonderfully flirtatious and the Queen suitably coy yet thrilled at the attention.
We spent an hour or so rehearsing but a monarch’s duties called and the we arranged to meet up at 2.45 ready for our premier at 3.15. I ambled to the town bandstand and watched as a fascinating talk and demonstration of Victorian bicycles was presented by the curator of the local bike museum. From a wooden-framed bone shaker, to what we would recognise as a modern bike, we were shown a Penny Farthing, a bamboo framed (light weight) ladies cycle and various other iterations of cycle design.
Once that was finished I returned to the Portland guest house to change into my Victorian garb and joined Rita for a ‘meet the Queen’ session on the bandstand. Unfortunately inclement weather restricted the amount of guests who approached, but we were able to chat about our forthcoming performance and just generally converse in a most un-regal manner.
After lunch I went back to my room and carried on rehearsing my multiple personas and at 2.45 crossed the road to The Commodore (nowhere is very far from anywhere else in Llandrindod Wells) where Rita awaited me. Poor lady, she was so nervous, but I assured her that the audience all loved her and she would carry it off with panache.
The script for The Queen and the Commoner not only features the two main characters but also calls for a servant to rush in and ask if tea is required. Marina, who is a festival board member, had been shanghaied into a servant’s costume and complety showed up Rita and me by learning her lines!
Soon the room was full. I introduced the piece and launched into the first section in which Ann and dad share ever more affectionate letters as their script develops. I had planned to use, and indeed had rehearsed, a splendid Texan accent for Ann’s dialogue, it was based on my understanding of the character of Felix Leiter from the James Bond novels; but when it came to it I just came out with a very dull, generic, middle American accent with no sign of the lazy drawl which I appeared to have left in my room at The Portland.
It was an extraordinary experience to play my own father, even if only in a rehearsed reading. As I said the words that he had created I could picture myself in his old study in Sussex: the room was nicotine scented and stained, black and white photographs of battle ships hung on the wall as did a large reproduction of the Samuel Laurence portrait of a young Dickens. A black and red wooden bookcase stood near the door and contained the beautiful old green 1873 editions of the complete works, which are now in my office. There was a watercolour of Mountgerald in the highlands painted by my Grandfather and namesake Admiral Sir Gerald Dickens, as well as other watercolours by my brother Ian.
On the desk was dad’s light blue portable typewriter and sheaves of wafer-thin typing paper. There was a magnetic jar for paperclips, and an ashtray with the inevitable cigarette burning down to nothing.
As I recited his lines I could picture him in grey trousers and a rather shapeless jumper or cardigan laughing at some literary witticism that came to him. Aside from his allotment this study was his space, his den.
Back at The Commodore I finished the letter section of the play and it was time to leave the stage and allow Rita (Victoria) to take the lead. She was superb and funny and played her roll to perfection. She stumbled over the odd line, and she ad-libbed on occasion, but none of it mattered for, as I had told her, the audience were all old friends and loved every second.
The applause at the end was loud and the beaming smiles were wonderful. Somebody said to Rita that they thought she should be nominated for an Oscar for best performance by a newcomer, and I added that I hope I may also receive a nomination for best supporting actor. Rita’s sense of relief was palpable as everyone filed into the lobby area to enjoy a spectacular afternoon tea.
And so my performances in Llandrindod were over and I took my leave of the crowd to spend some time alone. It was around 6 o’clock and the weather was fine – the siren call of the golf course sang in my ears.
I played 18 holes in super-quick time (little more than two hours) as the course was quiet and those folk who were playing let me through and on my way. The views across the mountains and valleys always lifts the spirits and eases the stresses of the day, and my round was a perfect way to gently wind down after a busy and at times stressful two days.
On Thursday morning I had an early breakfast at The Portland, then crossed the road to The Commodore to say goodbye to such of the festivaleers who were in the dining room and set off towards home.
Sadly the Llandrindod Victorian Festival was not as well attended as in years passed and I only hope that it can flourish and continue, for my summer would not be the same without it.
One absentee was my good friend David who was responsible for bringing me to Llandrindod in the first place – the festival sorely missed him and we can only hope that he will return in the future with his larger than life personality, exquisite professionalism and filthy laugh!
On another subject altogether – I received a tweet in the week asking people for their favourite opening lines from a novel. You may think I have plenty to chose from: A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
David Copperfield: ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show’.
Bleak House: ‘LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.’
Or A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’
No, my favourite opening has always be the first line of the James Bond series of books, Casino Royale, in which Ian Fleming introduces us to the world of spies and fast living:
“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”