A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Carol film, Doctor Marigold, It's a Wonderful Life, James Stewart, Lowell, Massachusetts, The Berkshires
As we leave the Thanksgiving weekend behind us so the memories of tours and performances past are tumbling daily onto my phone and many are based firmly in New England.
The first recollection is of the mill town at Lowell where Charles Dickens visited during his first trip to the United States in 1842. The young, brash author had enjoyed success after success following the publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836 and was riding a wave of popularity, a wave that he would surf right across the Atlantic and into Boston harbour where he was greeted and feted with huge banquets, or ‘Boz Balls’, thrown to celebrate his achievements.
But the young Charles Dickens’ visit was not just travelling to greet his adoring public and to play the celebrity role, he had a genuine enthusiasm to observe aspects of American life and to see if there was anything that he, and ultimately Britain, could learn from how a relatively young nation was dealing with issues that the old one was failing with. At the top of his list was the conditions in the mills that proliferated in and around Boston, and he had asked to be taken to Lowell to observe a modern mill at first hand. He was astounded by what he saw and wrote glowingly about his experience in his travelogue American Notes commenting particularly on how well the workers were treated, noting that that in their lodgings they had access to a piano and were allowed to publish their own magazine, The Lowell Offering.
I was invited to Lowell by the University of Massachusetts to celebrate the anniversary of my ancestor’s visit and I remember writing a terribly complicated (and I thought at the time a very clever) show, called ‘A Tale of Two Speeches. The premise was to tell the story of Charles’ difficult relationship with America, using first a speech given in 1842 when he spoke of the need for an international copyright agreement, thereby antagonising the American press who were happily profiting from his works, which in turn led to a battle of words that would become heated and toxic; and secondly his final American speech in 1868 when he unreservedly apologised for the many hurtful things that he had written about the nation and pleaded that such apology be reprinted as a preface to every future edition of American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit (a wish that has duly been honoured).
I don’t recall much about that show, except that at one point I rather clumsily addressed the audience as a flight attendant might at the start of a long journey: ‘Sit back and relax, once we have reached a cruising height we will bring you some peanuts which will tell you how smartly you are dressed, how nice your hair looks, how intelligent you are and what an all-round fine human being you appear to be : Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the peanuts are complimentary’ Oh, dear!
I have returned to Lowell since then and one other particular happy memory was when I performed Doctor Marigold, the beautiful story of a cheerful cheapjack travelling the country and selling his wares from the steps of his caravan. Marigold addresses the audience directly and tells his life story which is both tragic and wonderful. He explains how at a country fair he discovered a little unwanted girl unable to hear or speak and felt so drawn to her that he adopted her on the spot. The two learned how to communicate by developing their own rudimentary sign language. When I performed the piece in Lowell I was accompanied on stage by an interpreter who not only signed the entire show for a largely deaf audience, but also taught me a few signs so that I could include them in my show: it was a profoundly moving experience.
Another New England venue which has become part of my tour more recently is the small town of Lenox in the Berkshires where I perform in a beautiful historic home, the Ventfort Hall Mansion. I have visited Lenox twice and on each occasion have been greeted with thick snow which has made the experience even more special. The mansion itself is tucked away from the road and on when I first drove up the driveway my jaw dropped for I had driven straight into the scene described by Charles Dickens when Scrooge sees the vision of his old school: ‘They left the high-road, by a well-remembered lane, and soon approached a mansion of dull red brick, with a little weathercock-surmounted cupola, on the roof, and a bell hanging in it. It was a large house, but one of broken fortunes’
Ventfort doesn’t have a bell, and is not of broken fortunes, although it is undergoing a process of restoration and rescue, giving one the impression that just a few years earlier it probably had lived down to Dickens’ description: ‘The spacious offices were little used, their walls were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their gates decayed. Fowls clucked and strutted in the stables; and the coach-houses and sheds were over-run with grass. Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open doors of many rooms, they found them poorly furnished, cold, and vast. There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat.’
Thank heavens there are people who care so passionately about the past and wish to preserve it, for Ventfort Hall Mansion is now a warm, welcoming home and a perfect venue for me to perform in.
With thoughts of my film very much in mind, it would have been wonderful to use the house as a location, and the snow would have added a perfect backdrop. The town centre of Lenox itself also reminded me of a film location, this time not A Christmas Carol but Frank Capra’s fabulous ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. With street lights twinkling onto the thick snow it was easy to imagine gawky James Stewart running through the streets shouting out with joy.
When I drove away from Lenox I left the magic of the snow behind me as if the whole experience had been a dream – a series of visions to make me feel better about myself….
To rent my version of A Christmas Carol use this link to my website: