December 19 1843 was the day that A Christmas Carol was published in England and it is always nice to mark the anniversary in a special manner: this year I achieved that in some style!
Having returned from Liverpool in the morning I had a little time at home before setting off once again to the magnificent Highclere Castle which is about 45 minutes from our home. I had been emailing Highclere year after year suggesting that it maybe a good venue for one of my shows but finally this year the stars aligned for Lady Carnavon has written a book called ‘Christmas at Highclere’ and the team at the castle had planned a full programme of Christmas events, of which my show was one.
Just after 5 o’clock on a rainy night I turned into the driveway, ignored the many ‘CASTLE CLOSED!’ signs and approached the magnificent house. The final sweep of drive was lined by Christmas trees while the floodlit house itself stood out proudly against the black of the sky.
In the first couple of seasons of Downton Abbey the Grantham family owned a 1911 Renault Landaulette which was usually seen pulling up at the front door of the house loaded with trunks and cases, so I felt very much at home pulling up at the same entrance in my 2016 Renault Kadjar.
The front door was opened for me not by Mr Carson, but by John the house manager who looked at my rather shabby furniture and said ‘you don’t need that! We have plenty of furniture’. I’m not sure that he would have been quiet so ebullient had I taken him up on his offer and jumped onto an antique chair as the fiddler at Fezziwig’s ball.
The stage was small and was surrounded on three sides by chairs all of which were packed into the great hall between the towering stone pillars which create the main ‘room’. Behind the stage was a huge fireplace, one of the oldest parts of the house, and above huge vaulted ceiling. As I stood on the stage arranging the furniture I was looking at the grand staircase and to my left was the largest Christmas tree that I have ever seen inside a house (obviously those in Trafalgar Square or at the Rockerfeller Center were taller, but those two examples did not need to carried through a doorway before they were erected)
When I had set up I was shown to a little back stage sitting room which was to be my dressing room and on the way passed the loos – I knew that I was in a fine venue because the signs didn’t say ‘gents’ and ‘ladies’ or have little pictorial representations of each gender. No, at Highclere the signs said ‘Gentleman’s Lavatories’ and ‘Ladies’ Powder Room’. In my green room I ate a little salad that I had brought with me. This room was comfortable but very simply decorated in great contrast to the lavishness of the rooms which the public get to see.
Downstairs the guests were arriving dressed in their finery and were being given glasses of champagne as they strolled through the ground floor rooms, guided by Lord and Lady Carnarvon themselves, proudly showing off their home. Among the guests were Liz and her sister Sheila and brother-in-law Martin. Liz hadn’t seen me perform A Christmas Carol for almost three years and the show had changed a bit in that time, including the introduction of the sound cues and the red cloth which transforms into the figure of Tiny Tim, so I was particularly anxious to know what she would think of the changes: I wanted to do a good job for her.
At 7.00 there was a knock at my door and I was led to the top of the staircase with its plush red carpet to await the start of the show. Below me John took to the stage and with his melodious voice and vowels formed at a fine school he welcomed the guests. He opened with a little light hearted comment suggesting that he was sure that nobody in the audience could possibly have a taller Christmas tree in their homes and the apparently throw away comment was greeted with laughter from most of the audience.
But one hand was raised. The tickets for the evening were expensive and there were some members of the audience who exuded sheer wealth. One thing that the wealthy do not like is being upstaged – size is everything and so it was obviously important for the gentleman to mention that his Christmas tree was larger! John retorted that the Highclere tree was actually originally seven feet higher than we now saw but it had to be cut down to size because in its original form nobody could reach the top to decorate it properly.
The moment of needless posturing passed and John continued his introduction before giving the stage to Lady Carnarvon who graciously welcomed her guests and took the opportunity to mention her brand new book ‘Christmas at Highclere’ which is a lavishly and impressively produced volume containing many family Christmas recipes as well as plenty of chapters describing various traditions. She pointed out that we were gathered on the 19th December the anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol and also mentioned that Dickens managed to sell some 20,000 volumes before Christmas – and that she would rather like to do the same!
And then my part of the evening began. The music filled the hall and I made my slow way down the staircase. when Liz and I had visited the castle in the Summer we decided that this would be a wonderfully dramatic way to open the show but now I was actually doing it I realised it was purely an exercise in vanity, for the audience were all sat with their backs to me (all except Liz, Sheila and Martin who were watching). When I reached the floor I made sure that the metal ferrule on my walking stick clicked on the wooden floor to alert the audience that I was among them. I stepped onto the stage and began.
It was an excellent show, one of the best of the season. The acoustics of the hall meant that I didn’t have to work hard and therefore the narrative was pacey and light, which is something that I had been concentrating on achieving during the 2019 season. I have mentioned in previous blog posts that English audiences can be a little reserved and don’t always appreciate the ‘audience participation’ elements of the show, but the group in Highclere were fun, enthusiastic and playful. There are a few moments early in the script where I can get a feel for a group and from those moments make decisions about what I will include in the rest of the performance. My decision on Thursday 19 December was to give them everything!
I was concentrating hard and becoming completely absorbed in the story and characters but there was one moment during the first act when out of the blue I suddenly thought ‘I am HERE! That’s where Lady Mary and Matthew first kissed as his fiancé looked down from the balcony over there. I am performing where Dame Nelly Melba (well, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa) sang. I am HERE!’ And those thoughts didn’t even take into account the many real ghosts from Carnavon’s past that haunted the halls.
At the interval I returned to my little sitting room and, once I’d changed, just sat an relaxed, waiting for the word that we were ready to recommence. After 15 minutes or so there was a knock at the door and Lady Carnarvon appeared. She congratulated me on the show and we sat chatting about this and that. In her book she had quoted Dickens (A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers), and had also related an anecdote about mourners at Charles’ funeral in Westminster Abbey leaning over the open grave in order to get a better view of Alfred Tennyson. It seems that the phenomenon of celebrity spotting is not a new one.
Soon there was another knock on the door and it was time to start act 2. With a top-up of mulled wine inside them the audience were in even higher spirits in the second half, which was just as well because that is where all of the Cratchit and Topper nonsense happens. The hall of Highclere Castle was filled with laughter and at the end of the show with loud applause too.
Having taken my bows I was briefly able to chat with Liz for a moment before stationing myself at the front door where I was able to shake hands, talk and bid farewell to the audience as they gathered their coats and made their way out into the rainy night.
When the guests had all gone I returned to my room to change and then went to fetch my car which I again parked outside the front door. All of the Highclere staff helped me pack the Renault and when I was ready to leave they all, including Lady Carnavon, stood outside the front door and waved me goodbye>
My Christmas special at Highclere Castle was over and it had been a highly successful evening and one which I hope that we will repeat in the future. I certainly know of a lot of people who would very much like to attend performances there.