Following my late return home from Highgate Cemetery on Tuesday night I was back in the car early on Wednesday morning to make the three hour drive to Liverpool where I would be performing in the beautiful and historic St George’s Hall.
In a British winter of almost unremitting rain the morning dawned sunny casting a tranquil and peaceful glow over the flooded fields of North Oxford. Before heading onto the M40 and North I wanted to buy some lunch to take with me, as well as a cup of coffee to assist me on my way. I stopped at a service station and once I had picked up what I wanted I waited to be served at the coffee counter. A very large young gentleman who, judging from his sweatshirt was a landscape gardener by trade, stood behind me. A stream of inevitable Christmas songs was playing over the PA system and at that particular moment Santa Baby was on. As I waited I was aware that my foot was gently tapping and I was sort of moving from foot to foot, dancing (I use the word in its loosest sense) in time with the music, and at the same moment I noticed that the gardener was doing the same. It was as if we were replaying the famous supermarket scene in ‘The Full Monty’ but fortunately that was where the similarity ended!
I was due in Liverpool at 12 o’clock and I made excellent time, eventually pulling up at around 11.45. St George’s Hall is a venue I have played often so I knew exactly how to navigate to the little cobbled cul-de-sac next to the hall.
As I unloaded my furniture and costume a lady came up to me, ‘Are you Mr Dickens?’ I replied in the affirmative. ‘I am coming to your afternoon show, but am not sure how to get into the hall. I recognised you from your website.’ That was a nice welcome! I showed her where the door to The Concert Hall was and off she went to get some lunch before returning for my show.
The staff at St George’s Hall welcomed me in and were really helpful as we loaded all of the furniture into the lift to take it up to the beautifully gilded hall on the 2nd floor where Charles Dickens himself had entertained the Liverpool crowds in the 1860s. I was feeling very tired thanks to the rigours of the American tour, the previous night’s show and the jet lag, and I spent a little time just sitting in my quiet dressing room relaxing.
However time was pushing on and I had a sound check to do and I met up with Nathan from the AV company, who would be looking after me throughout the two performances. He had just driven from Wrexham where he was looking after a huge pantomime: my show would be a little easier and less stressful for him.
After we had successfully checked the microphone and run through the sound cues I went downstairs to the lobby where the event’s producer, Lynne Hamilton, was busy setting up a table for mince pies and a spicy mulled wine which simmered in a large urn.
Back upstairs in my dressing room I just sat quietly preserving my energy whilst in the next room the members of the Liverpool Philharmonic choir warmed up, unaware that they were serenading me with my favourite carol from childhood, Away in a Manger.
Soon it was time for the show to start, the choir would perform for ten minutes (it would inevitably be more like twenty!) before it was my turn to take to the stage. I slipped upstairs to the gallery from where I could watch the small group of singers. The pure sound and the harmonies filled the hall, the notes floating across the audience and it struck me that this was the space being used to perfection.
I went back down to the stage level ready to begin my show and congratulated the choir as they came off the stage. Lynne welcomed me onto the stage, Nathan began the music cue and I walked into the light.
The audience was slightly smaller than in previous years as the only day that Lynne could book was a Wednesday and at the weekend a touring production of A Christmas Carol would be moving in, but as ever the Liverpool audience was lively and boisterous and great fun. The show was in two acts so I had a chance to change costumes during the interval before returning to the stage as The Ghost of Christmas Present.
It was a good performance, I kept everything together and when Topper came to flirt I used one of the scantily clad marble statues which support the golden pillars that frame the stage. I probably have done that in the past, for it is too good an opportunity to miss, but the audience enjoyed it.
At the end of the show I received a typically Liverpudlian standing ovation complete with shouts, whistles and whoops. It is such a great venue to play.
When all of the signing was done I packed up quickly and walked to my hotel, the Shankly Hotel, which is very comfortable and very convenient for the hall. As I waited to check in the gentleman in front of me told the clerk behind the desk that he and his wife had booked supper for 6 and then they would be going to the ‘A Christmas Carol’ show in St Georges. It was an amazing reminder how much people invest to watch me, way over and above the buying of the tickets this couple had travelled to the city and were staying overnight, just to come to my show.
As I’d left the hall Lynne had told me that she had asked for me to be upgraded room and I discovered that meant the 5th floor, only accessible by a special lift. The corridor was painted in a lurid pink shade and all of the rooms had names: Adam, Eve, Sin. I was in Desire!
I was exhausted so ran a bath (a lovely deep jacuzzi) and let the stresses and strains and weariness bubble away. I didn’t have a long break and in no time I had to prepare myself for the evening show. There was a Christmas market outside St George’s Hall so I bought myself a thick Bratwurst hot dog and went up to my dressing room to eat it.
There was a much larger choir at the evening show, called ‘Off Pitch’ not due to any lack of singing prowess but because they were formed out of a rugby club membership. Again I sat in my dressing room quietly while they warmed up next door.
The evening’s audience was almost a full house and there was a great sense of anticipation and excitement in the room. At 7.30 I went up to the gallery once more to listen to the choir (this exercise not only allowed me to enjoy the music but also to get a feel of the audience too). Off Pitch pulled a great stunt by opening their set with two 11 year olds, Mia and Georgia singing the first verse of, you guessed it, Away in a Manger completely unaccompanied. You could have heard a pin drop in the hall. It was beautiful, as was the swelling of low harmony as the rest of the choir joined in. It was an amazing moment and a great way to start the evening.
I returned downstairs just as Mia and Georgia were coming off stage accompanied by their grandfather and I was able to congratulate them on their incredibly mature performance.
After a few more carols the 60-strong main choir took their applause and filed off the stage and it was one again my turn.
I started the show and was determined to do a good job so really concentrated on giving it my all. I was aware that Mia and Georgia were up in the balcony leaning forward on the rail entranced by the story.
Everything went well and as Jacob Marley floated out of his window and Ebenezer slumped into his bed I was confident that all was under control. But suddenly I became aware of a commotion in the audience, to my right, three rows back, there was loud urgent talk and someone ran from the room, it soon became obvious that an audience member had collapsed and was being tended by her family and those in that part of the theatre. There was nothing for it but to stand and announce, ‘ladies and gentlemen, I think it best if we take a slight pause in the show’, and I left the stage.
By this time the St George’s Hall staff were coming to help, and I went down to tell Lynne who was busily preparing for the interval in the lobby. She hurried up and after a brief discussion we decided to call an early interval so that the audience could leave the auditorium while whatever treatment that needed to be carried out could be given without the scrutiny of a full house.
I lingered around the hall, chatted to some of the audience and when it felt as if it would not be too intrusive I made my way to where the patient was. She was in a wheel chair and talking by now and more than anything was intensely embarrassed by the whole thing. It seemed as if she had been slightly overdoing things during the day and the heat of the hall had caused her to faint. I chatted to her and we laughed and I held her hand and assured he that it was fine and that she hadn’t ‘spoiled the evening’ at all. Her daughter and son in law (I am guessing as to their exact relationship) were insisting quite rightly that if she didn’t go to hospital she certainly needed to go home, but the lady wasn’t having any of that, she wanted to stay and watch the rest of the show, and so started a family argument! I told the group that I would be back to perform a Christmas Carol again at the end of January to some school groups, and I would arrange for a ticket to that performance for her. Slightly calmed she allowed her family to wheel her away.
The bulk of the audience were down in the lobby enjoying their mulled wine and mince pies by this time but I hung around in the hall and chatted to some of the people who had remained in their seats.
The evening was slowly being dragged back to its natural course and when everyone was back in their seats (almost everyone, a few had decided to leave), Lynne got up to announce the raffle winners and then she handed back to me. I couldn’t just proceed with the show without making some mention of the dramas that had unfolded earlier, but how should I pitch it? I decided to strike a slightly light-hearted note, so said ‘Many of you know that Charles Dickens gave readings in this very room but what you may not know is that he would often judge how well a performance was going by the amount of ladies in the audiences who fainted…’ The audience laughed, which was a relief. I had certainly emulated my great great grandfather but not in the way I had wanted!
The second half was much longer that I had anticipated for our enforced break had come after the visit of Jacob Marley rather than in its usual place after the Ghost of Christmas Past, so I had a long slog ahead of me. It was hot work and I was very tired by the end but the audience clapped and cheered and stood once more, thereby bringing an end to my single day in Liverpool.
I got changed, and then packed my car up before driving to the hotel and returning to my pink room – Desire. All I desired on that evening was to sleep soon my wish was granted.