Friday would see me driving to the tour’s headquarters, Byers’ Choice in Chalfont PA, but as I didnt have a show until 7 pm I had plenty of time to myself during the day.
I was due to meet David and Teresa for breakfast at 8 o’clock again so having written the blog post I walked up to the main house where we all settled down at ‘our’ table and picked up the previous night’s conversation as if the intervening hours had never passed.
The room was full of other guests, two of whom had been at my afternoon’s show the previous day. Laura and her staff moved between us all taking orders and filling coffee cups. The choice for breakfast was a spinach omelette, waffles or scrambled eggs and we all plumbed for the waffles. Laura explained that Rick had a large cast iron waffle iron which only produced a certain amount at a time, and as some of the other tables had also ordered them, she would bring them in ‘tranches’ and sure enough soon after our first plates arrived and we tucking in so the second wave of waffles arrived, followed not long after by a third. They were delicious.
An hour past quickly and I realised that I had to hurry a little for although I didn’t have any professional commitments until later in the day, I had arranged to return to Winterthur in order to view a special exhibition that was running featuring the costumes from the Netflix series The Crown. I returned to my room and packed my cases, discovering that I had left a sweater somewhere along the way, which was frustrating as I had thought Id been doing rather well on this tour so far. I returned my key to Laura and said my goodbyes before making the familiar drive to the great house, where I parked in a small staff car park and was met by Ellen. The exhibit was not yet open to the public so I was to have a private viewing which felt rather special. Ellen walked with me to the entrance to the exhibition room and left me to wander in my own time.
The costumes were stunning, of course, and it was difficult to remember that these were theatrical recreations for they were so perfect – especially the Coronation robes and Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress. Each item was displayed with pictures from the series as well as with archive photographs of the Queen when the costume had been based on an actual garment. There were video clips and design sketches and other paraphernalia, including the fat suit (complete with a modesty-preserving fig leaf attached) that John Lithgow had worn as Winston Churchill.
Some of the best pieces were those inconsequential costumes such as the ones that Vanessa Kirby wore as Princess Margaret during her courtship with Anthony Armstrong-Jones.
It took me the best part of an hour to complete the tour and what really struck home to me was how brilliant seasons 1 and 2 had been, and how difficult it must have been for the new cast to fill those shoes. When I reached the end Ellen was waiting for me, and she was chatting with Jeff who had introduced my show the day before. It was Jeff who had actually curated the exhibition, diligently working with Netflix, Left Bank Pictures and the two costume designers to produce a stunning and stylish event that has proved incredibly popular. I asked if there plans to tour it, but at the moment there are not, so if you want to see it you will need to travel to Winterthur!
It was around 10.30 when I said goodbye to Ellen and Jeff and got into my car to head to Pennsylvania. It was starting to rain and the traffic was heavy meaning that an hour journey took me ninety minutes. As I neared my hotel I decided to stop for a bite of lunch and drove to a Panera Bread outlet that I had visited before. I selected a bowl of their 10 vegetable soup which was hearty and delicious and which would set me up for the afternoon ahead.
Having finished lunch I drove on to the Joseph Ambler Inn where I was welcomed effusively but told that my room was not yet ready and could I come back in two hours time? I therefore decided to drive to Byers’ Choice where I knew that Bob and the team would be busy setting the stage up in readiness for me show.
For those of you new to my blog I should explain that Byers’ Choice manufacture caroller figures each one of which is hand painted and dressed.
Within the impressive buildings in Chalfont is a visitor centre and shop as well as the huge space where the carollers are actually made. When it is time for my shows all of the work benches are stored away, a stage built, set dressed, theatre lights hung, sound system installed and around 800 chairs are laid out. It is quite an operation.
When I arrived the room was almost complete and I was greeted by Bob Byers who was setting the last of the chairs out. Byers’ Choice is not only a venue for my performances but they actually sponsor, manage and book my entire tour. Bob and his wife Pam make the whole thing possible.
Not only was Bob busy in the room but also David, who looks after all my technical requirements, was setting up the lighting and sound desks. As Bob pointed out David has probably seem more complete shows of mine than anyone in the world!
I chatted to Bob for a while, catching up on how the tour had been up to that point, and then David was ready to do a sound check. The audience at Byers’ Choice is one of the largest on tour, rivalled only by The John Knox Pavillion in Kansas City, and getting the sound right is a vital part of our preparations.
I stood on the stage and went through my lines as David walked about the room before returning to the desk to adjust the levels. In the end he was happy and I joined him at the desk to go through the cues for the various sound effects in the show.
Eventually we were done and I returned to the board room that becomes my dressing room to lay out my costumes for the evening and following day. Once all was ready for my return I drove back to the Ambler Inn where my room was now ready.
I was feeling very very tired and I simply rested on the bed whilst I ran a bath to relax in. The Penn Suite boasts a large whirlpool bath which took an age to fill, so I watched the latest edition of the Grand Tour car show (which anarchically featured boats), until it was ready.
After the bath, with its energising bubbles, and a shower as well, it was time to return to Byers Choice and get ready for the show.
I sat in my dressing room and listened to some piano ragtime music, which always gets me prepared for a show and then got into costume and pinned the microphone into place.
With twenty minutes to go before curtain up I went to the hall which was already filling up only to find David in a sense of controlled panic with a man I didn’t know called Allan. Apparently the lighting desk had blown, or at least had a bit of a crisis, an hour before and whileI had happily been listening to the Maple Leaf Rag phone calls had been flying around to get another one. Allan had answered the call and he and David were busily trying to programme the new board with all of the effects from the show (David does like to play with the lighting, giving me lots of different colours and moods). It was going to be tight. On the stage the brilliant CB West High School choir were entertaining a huge audience all of whom were blissfully unaware of the drama being played out behind them.
With about two minutes to go the last light was patched in and the show was ready to go. Phew!
Bob had decided to take Calvin, the family Boston Terrier, onto the stage as he made my introduction, but before we did that we went backstage to meet the choir as they came off stage and congratulate them on their beautiful performance. Naturally the talented students were much more interested in the puppy than our words of praise!
When Bob did take to the stage Calvin stole the scene once more and the audience ‘ahhhed’ and ‘ooohed’ over him: a successful theatrical debut one might say.
But in a few moments it was time to get down to work and perform a Christmas Carol
It went well, the audience responded and laughed and clapped, but I found it very difficult. I felt weak and, how can I describe it? as if I were not quite there. I was saying all of the right lines, and making all the right moves, but I felt detached and awkward and clumsy. It was a horrible feeling, actually, and one I am sure that was borne of tiredness thanks to all of those very early mornings.
I reached the end of the show and the applause and the shouts affirmed that the performance had been a good one, despite of my internal worries, there was even a cry of ‘Bravo! Bravissimo! as I took my bows.
I came off stage and was making my way back to the dressing room to change before what would be a marathon signing session, when I met Allan (the lighting saviour), who congratulated me on the show: ‘I only came to fix the lights, but I couldn’t leave!’ That made me feel an awful lot better about things.
Back in my dressing room I changed out of my sodden costume and hung the various component parts over separate chairs, before slowly getting into the dry one and preparing to go to the heart of the visitor centre to chat and sign.
The line was very long, as it always is at Byers’ Choice, but everyone was very patient and Pam did her usual amazing job of taking pictures and keeping the queue moving along.
Eventually we reached the end and the last couple in line were David and Sherri, friends of Bob and Pam’s, with whom we were going out to dinner.
Bob, David and Sherri would make their own way to the restaurant and Pam would ride with me. When I was changed we got into Franz and drove the short distance to the restaurant that specialised in fish dishes. I chose a sea bass cooked in lime juice, served on rice: it was superb, delicious and restoring.
It was a very nice evening, but the weariness that had been upon me all day was beginning to get heavier now and we all said our goodbyes and I drove back to the hotel.
I couldnt tell you what film was on, or even if I tried to watch anything at all, for I was asleep very very soon.