Having landed at Heathrow airport on Monday morning I had a little over twenty four hours at home before I was on the road once more. Those few hours however did give me some time to let the Christmas spirit envelop me for we all decorated our Christmas tree together on Moday evening which was a very special time.
On Tuesday afternoon, having spent the morning with Liz writing Christmas cards, it was time to load up the car and to start the final leg of the 2019 tour. My first venue was to be in the chapel at Highgate Cemetery in North London. I was driving in the rush hour but I’d left myself plenty of time and arrived at the great wrought iron gates nice and early. Indeed it took quite a deal of shouting and rattling to alert anyone that I was there – maybe they are used to the mysterious rattling of iron gates and put the noise down to the many ghosts that must surely inhabit the sacred ground.
Highate Cemetery is one of the largest and most prestigious burial grounds in the capital, and boasts some illustrious skeletons beneath the turf, most famously Karl Marx. There are many actors buried there including Jean Simmons who found stardom as the young Estella in David Lean’s classic telling of Great Expectations, made in 1946.
There is even greater interest to the Dickens family at the site for it is there that Charles’ parents John and Elizabeth Dickens lie, as does Alfred Dickens, Charles’ younger brother. Catherine Dickens, Charles’ wife and mother to his ten children, and of course my great great grandmother, is buried in the Cemetery alongside the couple’s daughter Dora who died at only 8 months old. It is entirely possible that memorial services for some, if not all, of those ancestors of mine would have taken place in the very chapel in which I was to perform.
As I set up my furniture I was greeted by Nick Powell who was responsible for organising the evening and who couldn’t have been more helpful. We played about with different variations of the little spotlights and came up with a combination that lit me and my face adequately whilst still maintaining a sense of theatricality within the chapel.
When our preparations were completed Nick showed me to the room which would be my changing room and which was in a separate building. It was like a school staff room with a sink, a dishwasher, a microwave. Through a door I could hear a television and it was with some surprise that after a little while the door opened and a gentleman came in holding some mushrooms and packets of pasta sauce. This was Victor, and he was about to cook his supper. We got chatting and I soon learned that Victor was the sexton at Highgate Cemetery and loved his job. He had been digging graves for ‘thirty years officially, more like forty unofficially’: his father had been the sexton before him, so he used to help out! He reckoned that he must be the longest serving grave digger in history.
Victor needs to write a book and he has been asked to on many occasions but so far ‘I have only written one page. The first page.’ When he gets round to getting the rest of the stories down it will be a fabulous read for he spins a great yarn. Example: ‘I remember one service: there was a horse in the chapel with a nun on it, and a pony. The pony was there because the horse wouldn’t go anywhere without it and the pony wouldn’t go anywhere without the horse. The nun wouldn’t go anywhere without either of them….’ Sheer magic!
We chatted about various memorable funerals, many of them for household names that I cant divulge, but Victor had an amazing recall of every detail. A major publisher has told him that when he is ready to talk they will send their best ghost writer to chat with him, which somehow seems apt.
Show time was coming round so we went our separate ways, him to his supper and me to my costume. It had been one of the those delightful moments in life.
The chapel was full as I stood at the back next to Peter, one of the cemetery guides, who was operating my sound. Towards the front sat the comedian Eddie Izzard who had come to see the show.
The show went well although there was lots of re-adjusting to be done: firstly I had to adapt to a very small stage, so my ability to move was limited (actually it was rather like being back in Ventfort Hall in The Berkshires), secondly I had to remember the two act script again with its few additions and lastly I had to adapt to the rather more reserved nature of an English audience after the boisterous fun-loving American ones.
Everything went well and the soon the plot was rattling on at a good pace, the interval was heralded by plenty of applause, and the second act, with all its playfulness, picked up where I had left off.
Considering I had only been back in the UK for a day I was pretty pleased with my efforts. I received a very load round of applause with a few whoops and whistles included (there were some American guests in the crowd), and gratefully took my bows. When I had left the stage I lingered at the back of the chapel and signed copies of my souvenir programmes and chatted to the audience. Eddie Izzard offered his congratualtions and as he was leaving a girl said to me, ‘wow, I loved it – you should be a comedian!’ Maybe I wont change my day job (or my evening job more accurately) quite yet.
Soon the chapel was quiet again and I was able to pack up my furniture and say good bye to Nick who was beaming all over his face.
As I drove through a foggy and misty London I reflected on two things: an enjoyable show in a memorable setting, and the chance encounter with Victor, a natural born storyteller who will, must, record all of his memories soon – when he does I urge you to buy the book!