2020 has been an empty vessel for me. With the spread of the global pandemic and the resultant periods of lockdown and government-induced precautions the theatre sector has died a death and the opportunities to perform have been non-existent since March. I have walked, cycled and run; I have tried to make the most of the situation I have found myself in, and I have continued to contact possible venues in the hope that my very simple one man show will prove a concept that can suit these new days of restricted audience numbers and social distancing.
But despite all of that potential negativity 2020 has been a remarkable year for me for I have undertaken two projects entirely new to me, both out of any comfort zone that I have slipped into: I have written a book and I am making a video.
Ok, strictly speaking I had started the book last year but I have managed to complete the manuscript and it is in the hands of my publishers (oh, to be able to type those two words is an extraordinary thing!). throughout this year the proof-read manuscript has been returned for me to check, I have made a few changes and returned it ready for the process to begin again and at the moment I am waiting for the next stage to begin and the exciting thing is that I have no idea what that will be! It is all new to me.
The second project is more nerve-wracking for me as I am in charge of it and have no background in writing, directing or acting in videos, my experience lies within the great broad brushstrokes of theatre and the subtleties of film have past me by.
But 2020 is a year of change and it has been essential to embrace whatever prospect has presented itself. This, then, is the story of the video.
As many of you will already know a major feature of my performing year is taken up with an extensive tour to the United States. I have been travelling for over 25 years and many of the venues have become regular stops where amazingly loyal and enthusiastic audience members return over and over again to watch me perform A Christmas Carol. Very early in the year it became apparent to me that the 2020 tour would be impossible to organise. The future was extremely uncertain and infection (and death) rates were soaring in both Britain and America. The introduction of a 14 day quarantine period for anyone returning to the UK from overseas sealed my decision, for if I were to travel to the USA in December I would not be able to perform at home at all in the run up to Christmas: I took the decision to cancel the tour, and that, or so I thought, would be the end of it.
But I had not counted on the generosity of my venues and little by little word came back that some locations would love the opportunity to have a streamed performance which they could offer to their regular patrons. Over the years I have often been asked ‘who don’t you film your performance’ and my answers have always been evasive – ‘I wouldn’t know how to capture the connection between me and the audience’, ‘I don’t know how to get the right venue’, ‘The performance would have to be specially staged and directed to film each scene properly – that may destroy the pace of the show.’ The real reasons of course were more down to earth and basic: firstly, I have no experience in creating the script for, or actually directing the filming of a video, and secondly I have never had a budget to do the job.
When my American agent Bob Byers first approached me to float the idea of making a film it was because some of my regular venues, and one in particular – The Mid Continent Public Library service based near Kansas City – had offered to invest in a production of the show which could be distributed and shown to my regular and very loyal audiences. The budget was in place and that was one excuse that I’d lost!
Initially my plan was to find a suitably Victorian theatre and simply run the show a couple of times with a camera taking a few different shots which could be edited together to create a record of the performance, but as I began to research suitable venues Liz suggested that this was too good an opportunity to miss and we should look at creating something more impressive and memorable. I therefore broadened my location search: a gothic cemetery in London would be too expensive, as would some impressive stately homes that I have visited over the years.
In the end my choice came down to the opening shot I wanted to use: a bleak churchyard with the figure of the story’s narrator standing respectfully over a grave as the opening lines of the novel are heard. The inspiration for this image was the churchyard at Cooling in Kent, which in turn had inspired Charles Dickens to create one of his most memorable opening chapters, that of Great Expectations. Rather than looking for a church that looked like St James’ at Cooling it made rather more sense to use the original, and if I was going to be doing some of the filming near the city of Medway (made up of Rochester, Chatham and Strood as well as many other villages and small towns), it made sense to look for other locations within that conurbation.
I have worked closely with Medway Council over the years as their spectacular Dickens festival has been a regular part of my calendar, so I started to approach some old friends in the tourism and events departments and their desire to assist me and to open doors was very moving. Rochester is internationally seen as being to Charles Dickens what Stratford Upon Avon is to William Shakespeare, so the idea of featuring the old city as a character in its own right was appealing.
As well as the church in Cooling the venues I was looking at were Eastgate House, The Six Poor Travellers’ House and Rochester Cathedral, as well as a few exterior shots which would help to link one scene to another. Each of these buildings, remarkable in their own right, have appeared in Dickens’s works, so their presence in my film is a little nod to the complete canon of work and not just his ‘ghostly little book’.
To describe St James’ Church in Cooling I can do no better than to quote the opening chapter of Great Expectations:
I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister – Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle – I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.about:blank
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!
Today the Church still sits on remote marshland and the low leaden line of the river still slashes the green in half. Standing proudly against the grey sky there are no longer gibbets or prison hulks but cranes and derricks at the London Gateway shipping container port. On a cold misty morning it is easy to believe that the wretched convict is still lurking ready to terrify us.
In his description Charles mentions the five little stone lozenges nestled against the grave stone. Dickens would often exaggerate fact by increasing numbers, but in this case he couldn’t bring himself to record the true extent of a family’s tragedy: in reality there are thirteen little graves – a horrific reminder to the mortal danger of marsh fever.
Field paths near to the church were perfect to stride along, as Charles Dickens would have done, narrating the opening of the story until I stand before a grave and look straight down the camera lens to address the viewers directly for the first time….
I also used the churchyard as a base for short lines of narration throughout the story, as well as the setting for the appearance of Ignorance and Want and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (not to mention Scrooge’s own grave stone)
Eastgate House is a remarkable building dating back to the 16th century. Originally built for a Mayor of Rochester, the red-bricked house stands proudly at the end of the High Street, which in former times was part of the main route from the south coast to London and therefore a very important thoroughfare.
Charles Dickens featured the venerable pile in two of his books, in fact it bookended his career appearing in his first novel The Pickwick Papers and his final, unfinished story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
For me the darkly panelled rooms with their tiny mullioned windows are perfect to represent both Scrooge’s office and also his home (the staircase particularly giving me plenty of scope for an eerie Hitchcockian sequence as Scrooge ascends to his rooms), whilst the newly renovated rooms with the Georgian-styled duck egg blue interiors offer a superbly cheerful setting for the Christmas celebrations of Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as well as the flirtatious Topper as he chases Scrooge’s niece’s sister about the room
The Six Poor Travellers’ House was built at around the same time as Eastgate and was funded by the estate of Richard Watts to be used as an alms house for travellers. The accommodation was spartan, boasting six bedrooms complete with fireplaces, and an area where the residents could eat and share their stories in comfort
In 1854 Charles Dickens wrote a short story about the house which he called ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ (he was the seventh) which of course brought greater attention to the admirable work of the Watts’ charity.
The house today is open as a museum and provides a superb background for the scenes involving the Cratchit family in their simple yet cheerful home.
But the Six Poor Travellers’ House had a surprise in store for us: Liz, the current curator, mentioned that although not open to the public the house also boasted a ‘the house of correction’ in the basement which we were welcome to use if we wanted to: Old Joe and Mrs Dilber selling Scrooge’s bed curtains and clothes had found their home!
The use of Rochester Cathedral will perhaps prove to be the most controversial of my locations as it represents Scrooge’s mind, rather than specific scenes. When I was researching the various locations I saw a photograph of the Cathedral’s crypt and instantly saw in the low gothic arches a series of interconnecting neurological pathways. The scene is perfect for Scrooge’s past – the images don’t exist in the real world, they are jumbled, confused and forgotten. So within the Crypt Scrooge sees his school room, Fezziwig’s warehouse and the scene of Belle leaving him all represented by a single piece of furniture.
The entire project has been exciting, terrifying and exhilarating and, as with so many performers across the world, from the warm ashes of live theatre is rising a phoenix of hope
In my next blog post I will discuss the development of the script and how I have come to work with a brilliant videographer and editor to bring the story of A Christmas Carol to your screens this Christmas.