Saturday 19th October saw my final theatrical performance of the year, before A Christmas Carol takes over for the season, and with a remarkable synchronicity it was to be at the same venue that my final performance of A Christmas Carol will be: the beautiful historic Guildhall in Leicester.
I drove to Leicester early in the day so that I could meet my son Cameron for lunch. Cameron is now in his third year at Leicester University studying Physics with Astro Physics, a subject about which I can offer no comment, other than that I am so proud of him and completely in awe of what he is achieving.
After lunch we said our goodbyes and I spent a little time walking around Leicester in search of a special site. In 1867 and 1869 Charles Dickens performed in the Temperance Hall (which if you have ever seen the document detailing the contents of his wine cellar at the time of his death, seems to be strange choice of theatre). A little online research gave me the street address, although sadly building had been demolished years ago.
121 Granby Street was shrouded in scaffolding as it is being converted into accommodation but in Dickens’ day it was a grand theatre owned by Thomas Cook, who founded the travel company which so recently closed its doors for the final time. In a strange quirk of coincidence Thomas and Charles both had parents named John and Elizabeth. I grant it would be a greater coincidence had their parents been named Chopper and Kylie, but lets go with it anyway.
I stood in Granby Street as the traffic crawled along filling the atmosphere with carbon monoxide but I was blind to the scourge of the modern age, for in my imagination I saw only the old Palladian Façade as a Victorian audience excitedly gathered to listen to the great man speak.
On Friday January 25th, 1867 Mr Charles Dickens would read Doctor Marigold and The Trial from The Pickwick Papers, and on Saturday 19 October, 2019 Mr Gerald Dickens would be performing The Trial also.
Having paid my silent tribute to my great great grandfather, I continued my walk around the city, culminating in a stroll along the beautiful ‘New Walk’ an elegant vehicle-free promenade lined with smart Georgian town houses. As I walked I could hear cheers from the nearby football stadium where Leicester City were entertaining Burnley and by the sound of things were doing rather well in their endeavours.
It was beginning rain as I found myself close to the King Richard III Visitor Centre and I thought it may be fun to visit. I did not have long as it was already 4.30, but I was told that my ticket lasts for a year so I could always come back and complete my tour next time I am in town.
It may be difficult for my American readers to understand and, in truth, I think it is difficult for me to understand, but we in Britain managed to lose a King. Richard of York was slain at the Battle of Bosworth Field not far from Leicester, and his body brought to the city and buried in an unmarked grave at Greyfriars Church. Unfortunately a couple of hundred years later the church was destroyed as Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and Richard’s grave was forgotten. Centuries passed and Leicester grew and eventually a car park for some council offices was laid on Greyfriars’s Lane.
Richard would have been lost forever where it not for a keen bunch of experts from the Richard III Society who had a hunch that the remains lay beneath that very car park. With the co-operation of Leicester City Council and a team of archaeologists, from the university a dig was planned. Remarkably no sooner was the ground broken that a skeleton was discovered, curled into an almost foetal position.
DNA tests were made involving Richard’s known living relatives and the results came back that there was absolute certainty that Richard III had been discovered. Over a few years there followed a rather bitter battle between the cities of Leicester and York as to where the slain monarch should be formally buried, but Leicester played the ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’ card and triumphed. Today Richard has a modern and elegant tomb in the beautiful Leicester Cathedral which is, as it happens, right opposite the Guildhall, my venue for the evening.
I arrived at 5.30 and with the help of Ben, who runs the hall as part of the fantastic museum network in Leicester, loaded my furniture in before parking my car in a municipal car park (I wondered ‘who is buried beneath this one!’)
The Guildhall dates back to the 14th Century and is an excellent venue for my shows. I have been returning to Leicester for many years and now have a loyal, and enthusiastic, following in the city.
I was scheduled to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and the aforementioned Trial from The Pickwick Papers, and it was the latter piece that gave me most concern, for it is not a regular part of my repertoire. I decided to do a complete run in the hall, just to put my mind at rest and soon a ‘set’ became clear in my mind: the judge, Mister Justice Stareleigh, would be in a grand chair up stage right, the witness box would be at centre stage right, whilst the jury would be situated in the front block of the audience (where there happened to be twelve chairs arranged in three rows of four).
Mr Pickwick, the defendant and Mrs Bardell, the Plaintiff in the great case of breach of promise of marriage, would be sat in the stage left block of the audience.
Next: the voices. Whenever I had performed The Trial before, and in rehearsal, the voice of Sergeant Buzfuzz became positively Churchillian, not helped by his first line being the word ‘Never!’ so I wanted to find a slight variation on that. I toyed with a lisp, a growl, a splutter of phlegm and saliva until I found the gravity and self-importance of the man.
Next I moved onto Sam Weller, and he was more difficult to find for Dickens didn’t give him many lines in the Trial and yet he was such an important character in the original book, almost single-handedly turning the failing fortunes of the publication around and launching Dickens to stardom. In Mr Dickens is Coming I relate an anecdote about the artist WP Frith telling Dickens that Sam Weller was not performed as he’d expected during The Trial – what did Frith mean, what had Dickens got wrong, how could I correct it? Weller is a cockney and reverses his Vs and Ws and some of his accent is written phonetically, but there had to be a voice…..could I find it?
The audience soon arrived and the time came for Ben to welcome me to the stage, and in doing so he pointed out that whenever I visit Leicester City seemed to triumph at home (they had seen of Burnley 2-1 that afternoon). Maybe I should become the club’s official mascot.
I took to the stage and the first act of Mr Dickens is Coming went well, and I built up a nice relationship with the audience. I included the Miss Havisham sequence that I have been using all through the year, and brought the half to an end with a description of Dickens’s death using the final completed passages of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
And now it was time for The Trial. How would my voices work?
In the second episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, called Corporal Punishment, Captain Blackadder, played by Rowan Atkinson, is charged with shooting a favourite carrier pigeon belonging to Colonel Melchett who sits in judgement at the Court Martial proceedings. Fair justice is impossible from the moment that the indignant, florid, furious colonel brands Blackadder as ‘The Flanders Pigeon Murderer!’
There was my Sergeant Buzfuzz.
But the inspiration of the television classic went further, for in the court Blackadder relies upon the witness statement of his trusted, yet dim-witted batman, Baldrick, who admits that: ‘ We didn’t get any messages, and Captain Blackadder definitely did not shoot that delicious plump-breasted pigeon.’
And so it was that Baldrick, who always had a ‘cunning plan’, became Sam Weller for the evening!
The reading of the Trial is quite short, and it comes to rather an abrupt and unsatisfying end, so to bring the evening to a more complete finish I opened the floor up to a question and answer session.
As is always the case on these occasions initially everyone was reticent in putting their hands up (I am the same in such situations), but soon one lady broke the ice by asking the exact address of the Temperance Hall in Granby Street, and so began a very cheerful and enjoyable dialogue.
I was particularly looking forward to one question that I am always asked during such sessions: ‘Mr Dickens, have you ever written a book?’ to which the answer has always been always ‘no’, but on Saturday night I was ready to drop the bombshell that currently I AM writing a book! Unfortunately nobody asked.
So, here is my news: having become more and more intrigued by the circumstances surrounding the terrible rail crash at Staplehurst in 1865, I have decided to pull all of the available information together and create an account of the entire day – from Charles Dickens’ departure from Paris, to the aftermath of the event in London.
I will tell the story from the perspective of Dickens himself and from his travelling companions Ellen and Fanny Ternan, as well as observations from other passengers. I will describe the train journey from Paris to Boulogne and that from Folkestone to Staplehurst. I will talk about the crossing of the English Channel and describe the boat that made it. I shall put the reader at the site of the repair works that were being carried out over the River Beult and describe just what went wrong on that fateful day and I will investigate the aftermath of the crash and just how it affected Charles.
Now, don’t get excited and put your orders in quite yet, for the project has no publisher at the moment (any offers or suggestions will be welcomed), but the discipline of working in, a logical and methodical manner has been fascinating and one which I am greatly enjoying.
Watch this space.