Just over a week ago I returned from the USA following my Mid-West tour, I was due to have about a week and a half at home before returning to the east coast over the Thanksgiving weekend. You may think that I would take that opportunity to spend a little time at home to relax and recharge the batteries, but at this time of the year it is a question of making hay while the sun shines (a rather unsuitable metaphor for November), so almost as soon as I was back I was on the road again. Over the period of the last week I have passed through most of England with only the south eastern corner being untouched by the wheels of my Renault, and that will be added to the list later this week.
My first venue was The Lit & Phil in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the far north eastern corner of England, any further north and I would be over Hadrian’s Wall and into Scotland. The Lit and Phil has been a regular stop for me over the past few years and I love visiting Tyneside, as Charles Dickens did 150 years earlier.
The journey from Oxford to Newcastle takes about 5 hours, and with a couple of stops for lunch and coffee I arrived just in time to check into my hotel, have a quick refreshing shower and then get to the venue ready to set up. The Lit & Phil (Literary and Phillosophical Society) has an arrangement with the Sleeperz Hotel which is only 100 yards away, and I found a parking space on the street that was equidistant between my accommodation and the library itself.
At 5.00 I returned to my car and started shifting all of the props and furniture into the grand hallway and was greeted by the very welcome sight of a poster for the show with ‘SOLD OUT’ emblazoned across it: very heartening.
Soon I was met by Kay who was responsible for bringing me to Newcastle a few years ago, and together we sorted out the room where I was to perform. Soon my set was in place as were all of the chairs waiting for an audience. Kay very generously agreed to look after my sound effects and settled herself down at a large CD player and practised with the script that I had given her. I am not sure if I have ever seen anyone look quite so nervous!
Soon the first members of the audience began to appear, so I hid myself away in a very elegant meeting room which was doubling as my dressing room this year, and which was off the main entrance hall meaning I could here the growing hubbub as the crowd gathered.
At 7 o’clock Kay came to fetch me and after a short introduction I made my way to the front of the room in the character of Scrooge to begin the show. Being in a sort of drawing room (albeit a very large and grand one) the narrative passages worked very well, as if I were telling the story to a gathering of friends (albeit a very large group!). Everything worked well and Kay brought all of the musical cues in bang on time proving that her earlier fears were quite unfounded.
My performance at The Lit and Phil was a single act one but with a mix and mingle session afterwards and having taken the applause I joined the audience in a large ante room chatting and signing copies of my souvenir programmes which sold well. The audiences in Newcastle are always very friendly and enthusiastic and it was a pleasure to chat.
Eventually the audience started to leave and I was able to pack up all of my furniture and carry it back to the car. Having said my goodbyes to Kay and the rest of the Lit and Phil team I returned to my hotel where I was able to squeeze a dinner order in before the kitchen closed for the night.
The next morning I had a quick breakfast and then got on the road at 8.30. Why so early? Well some fool had booked me another performance that evening, in Dorset. If Newcastle is as far to the North East as it is possible to go then Dorset is not far off being as far to the South West and a majorly long drive lay before me. If Pam Byers booked me a show after a 7 hour drive in America I would be furious, but on this occasion there was no one to blame but myself! I am not sure what I was thinking of when I made the bookings, but here I was driving diagonally across the country.
Actually the drive went well and I was able to use the time to rehearse the extra passages that turn my one act show into a two act one – in the first act Scrooge lingers a little longer at his front door pondering the vision of his deceased partner’s face in the knocker and Jacob Marley himself gets a little more time to play. Scrooge gets to see his old school chums as they ride home on shaggy ponies and the Ghost of Christmas Past also shows him a second Christmas in the school when his little sister Fan comes to bring him ‘home. home, home! Home for ever and ever, home for good and all!’
In the second act Scrooge is seized by a fit of violent trembling when the Ghost of Christmas Present does NOT arrive at 1 o’clock in the morning and Mrs Cratchit asks Bob how Tiny Tim behaved at Church. Each of these scenes are fairly short and simple to learn and after I had gone through them a few times I devoted my time to my alphabet game on the road, which involves spotting cars whose make or model begins with each letter of the alphabet in order.
I was making good time until I noticed that my arrival time was starting to slip back, just by a minute at first, then 5, then 15. At the same time as the satnav on my phone started to deliver the bad news so a radio bulletin confirmed that the M1 was closed northbound due to a ‘police incident’ and that southbound traffic had also been halted to allow the air ambulance to land. There was nothing for it than to switch off and wait. I got out of the car and chatted to some of the other drivers who suddenly had personalities instead of being purely ‘arrogant BMW’ or ‘middle lane hogging Ford’.
Eventually a solitary ambulance appeared on the deserted north carriageway travelling at great speed unhindered by traffic. Somewhere in the sky I heard a helicopter flying away and shortly afterwards traffic began flowing again. As I passed the scene of the hold up I saw no wrecks, no skid marks, no battered barriers and the awful truth behind the phrase ‘a police incident’ became clear: the incident must have involved a pedestrian on the carriageway either by accident or design. As I drove on in my comfortable warm car I gave a thought to a family whose whole world had just been shattered.
In a strange quirk of navigation my route actually took me passed Abingdon and I could almost see our house as I sped on down the A34 and further westward.
My destination was the town of Blandford Forum and having skirted the Cathedral City of Salisbury I arrived with a good couple of hours to spare. I was staying at the beautiful Crown Hotel which is familiar to me thanks to both my work and Liz’s and it had a reassuringly familiar feel to it as I checked in and walked up the old creaky staircase.
The Crown doesnt do generic for the rooms are stylishly and quirkily furnished. No paper mugs for tea of coffee here, but bone china cups and saucers and my room even boasted a classically gorgeous wooden pipe on a stand. The sweet smell of my father’s pipe tobacco suddenly wafted over me.
Once again I was close to the venue and at 5.30 I drove the few hundred yards to the old Corn Exchange standing proudly in the main High Street. Once again I as greeted with a publicity poster on an A board with a ‘SOLD OUT’ banner pasted over it which gave me a warm glow for the second time in as many days.
I had performed Mr Dickens is Coming and Doctor Marigold in Blandford a couple of years ago but this was the first time that I’d taken A Christmas Carol there and it seemed to have captured the imagination. The fact that my show was also part of the very first Blandford Literary Festival helped too.
The Blandord Forum Corn Exchange consists of a single huge room with a high ceiling supported by wonderful iron arches and a large stage at one end. Although there were no theatre lights built into the hall itself the council had provided six lights divided between two large stands.. When I arrived the lighting stands were actually on the stage but once we had moved them to floor level and adjusted them there was more than enough illumination on the stage.
The sound effects were more difficult to sort out for the only way of getting into the system was to plug a phone into the sound board which was hidden in a backstage cuppboard. Linda, my contact in Blandford, was happy to do the first music effect but the idea of her huddled in a dark dusty corner for the whole show wasn’t appealing, so I decided to do without the other effects.
Once again the audience began to arrive early and I was particularly pleased to see my old colleague Michael Jones who was one half of the production company that used to promote all of my UK theatre shows. Michael and Derek have retired from the world of theatrical production now so Michael could actually sit and watch the show rather than running the lighting desk as he did for so many years.
Having caught up with Michael I retired to the dressing room and got into costume and waited for Linda to come and tell me that we were ready to start. There was a slightly awkward moment as I had told Linda that I would enter from the back of the hall after she had introduced me from the stage but we hadn’t determined where we would ‘meet’. I waited back stage ready to get the nod to take my position whilst she waited at the back of the hall for me to come and tell her that we were ready! Unfortunately the houselights had already been dimmed so the audience sat in quiet anticipation while nothing actually happened. It was Linda who eventually blinked first and came up to the stage meaning that I could go and get in my place to make the long walk to the stage when the music played.
It was lovely to be on a big stage with bright lights and I got completely into the story, relishing the additional scenes as much as the old familiar words. The longer show is oddly easier to perform in that I get a break in the middle meaning that I can change my costume and refresh myself a little. I was applauded off the stage at the end of act 1 and applauded back onto it at the start of act two.
It was a really fun evening and I definitely felt that I had done my best as I brought the story to a close with ‘God bless us, every one!’
Having left the stage I dried myself off and then made my way into the hall to chat and sign, but unfortunately the organisers were already packing the chairs away which rather encouraged the audience to leave rather than waiting to chat. I talked to a few people who had waited behind but soon I was changing and packing my car up once more.
Unfortunately the Crown was no longer serving food when I got to the bar so my dinner on Saturday night was a packet of crisps and a packet of peanuts!
The next morning I enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, followed by a croissant accompanied by honey carved off from spectacular comb.
Saturday was a day off and I was able to drive home and spend a day with Liz and the girls which was a rare treat indeed! It was not a treat that was to last, however, for on Sunday I was back on the road driving to the North again, this time to the north west and the city of Preston where I was to perform two shows at The Preston Playhouse.
The drive to Preston was not as long as the Newcastle trip but I still had plenty of time to play the alphabet game, unsuccessfully as it turned out (the most difficult letter to spot is ‘W’ and this is invariably where my progress shudders to a halt. The only three cars that qualify are a Jeep Wrangler, a Renault Wind and a Suzuki Wagon R, none of which are paritcularly numerous on the British roads).
I arrived at the Playhouse at 1.30, having stopped on route for a lunch of fish and chips. The shows on Sunday were being staged to raise money for a charity and we were only able to get in to the theatre an hour before the show was due to start, so it was quite a rushed get in. Fortunately there was a superb tech duo on duty who took my script and reassured me that everything would be fine. I relaxed a little.
The foyer of the theatre was swarming with volunteers who prepared to take tickets, sell raffle tickets and staff the refreshments bar. I descended into the building’s basement where the dressing rooms were situated and changed.
At 1.30 Joe Cornford (who with his wife Karen bring me to Preston) knocked on my door and we were ready to go.
Joe and Karen are trustees of a charity called PIES which stands for Partners In Education Swaziland. PIES does amazing work in the small African country by raising money to provide food and education for children who otherwise would have none. Corruption is rife and the King of Swaziland has recently made the headlines by spending £13 million on 19 Rolls Royces for his wives (there were 120 BMWs too, but they must only have been mere run-a-rounds). Meanwhile children in the villages starve and have no access to schooling.
In a Christmas Carol the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two children, Ignorance and Want, ‘Are they yours spirit?’ asks Ebenezer. ‘They are man’s, but they cling to me!’ replies the ghost. PIES is the Ghost of Christmas Present and the children of Swaziland cling to the organisation, literally for dear life. Never has that particular passage meant more to me than last Sunday.
The two shows were packed to capacity and the response was again amazing. During the second show a new little of business came accidentally to me – prior to the moment when Jacob Marley appears in Scrooge’s bedroom the old miser takes a look through his apartment to check for anything suspicious before sitting down in his fireside chair. I usually remove the thick wollen scarf and hang it on the hat stand before he sits, but on Sunday I forgot to so it was still there all through Marley’s scene and suddenly, for the first time in my 26 years of performing, Jacob Marley had a chain! I love it when happy accidents such as that occur.
The most important thing to tell you about Sunday is that PIES raised over £4,000 which will all be put to vital and good use.
Having packed up my things I thanked the tech crew as well as Joe and Karen before following Norman and Lynn (two more of the PIES trustees) to their beautiful home where I was to stay for the night.
We sat and chatted for a while as the adrenaline gently subsided. We talked about the show and my tours and golf and cruise ships, but most of all we talked about Norman and Lynn’s repeated and numerous trips to Swaziland, for PIES isn’t a charity in which a few kindly middle class folk feel better about themselves for the fundraising they do, oh no: PIES is a real hands on, practical charity whose trustees visit Africa often and actually do something to help. I am full of admiration for them and what they achieve.
On Monday morning it was time to drive home again, having filled the car up with fuel for the third time in as many days. As I guided the Renault through the rainy suburbs of Preston I realised that only seven days before I had been getting off the plane from Chicago. In the intervening days I had driven 1,185 miles and performed A Christmas Carol four times.
The drive home was difficult through heavy rain and thick spray, but as I neared Abingdon a Renault Wind passed me, followed soon by a Citroen Xsara and a Vauxhall Zafira thereby allowing me to complete the alphabet for the first time in my British tour.
It had been a most succesful and satisfying week!
For more information of PIES and the amazing work they do here is a link to their website: