A Christmas Carol, Byers'Choice, Califormia, Downton Abbey, Garrison Keeler, George Bush, George Washington, Highclere Catle, INS, King George III, Lake Wobegon, Lit&Phil, Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, Lockdown, Mid Continent Public Library, Nebraska, Omaha, Prairie Home Companion, Revelation Ashford, Rogers Gardens, The Word, Tony Blair, Vaillancourt Folk Art, Visa
‘Its been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, my home town, out there on the edge of the prairie.’ So began Garrison Keillor’s ever brilliant weekly monologue, performed as part of his A Prairie Home Companion programme show which was broadcast weekly for nearly fifty years. Somehow I feel much the same way (albeit with a difference in timescale), about life over the last year and a half: ‘It’s been a quiet 18 months in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, my home town, out there on the edge of the Cotswolds…..’
My life as a performer has been cut from beneath me by the global pandemic and such performances as there have been have been spasmodic to say the least. Don’t get me wrong, for I have the loved time at home with Liz and the children, I have enjoyed becoming a runner, I have enjoyed being able to write and research, I have enjoyed our neighbourhood and a less frenetic way of life, but the natural rhythm of my professional life was interrupted, disturbed, fractured, meaning that my sense of self has been confused and disturbed, possibly changed forever.
But as Spring turned to Summer, and the heat became unbearable for the British nation, so the possibility of a conventional Christmas tour began to form, both in the UK and the USA. There are many hoops to jump through before it all becomes a reality but the venues are committed and the dates are in the diary, so this is a brief description of my year as it unfolds and hopefully you will be able to attend one of the events and welcome back Christmas!
Firstly the dates:
27-28 August: The Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, Wales. Great Expectations. Dickens & Staplehurst.
23 October: The Victoria Hall, Sutton Scotney, Hampshire UK. Mr Dickens is Coming & Doctor Marigold
31 October: The Word, Jarrow, South Shields UK: Dickens & Staplehurst. The Signalman.
5-6 November: The Douglas County Historical Society. Omaha, Nebraska. A Christmas Carol
8-10 November: Rogers Gardens, Corona del Mar, California. A Christmas Carol
12-15 November: Mid Continent Public Library. Kansas City, Missouri. A Christmas Carol
23 November: The Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. A Christmas Carol
24 November: Revelation Arts Centre, Ashford, Kent. A Christmas Carol
27-28 November: Vaillancourt Folk Art, Sutton, Mass. A Christmas Carol
30 November: Historic Christmas Barn, Connecticut. A Christmas Carol
1-2 December: Fortin Gage, Nashua, New Hampshire. A Christmas Carol
3 December: St Anselm College, Manchester, New Hampshire. A Christmas Carol
4-5 December. Ventfort House, Lenox, Mass. A Christmas Carol
7 December. Country Cupboard, Lewisburg, PA. A Christmas Carol
8-9 December. Winterthur Museum, Winterthur DE. A Christmas Carol
10 December. Lewis Public Library, Lewis DE. A Christmas Carol
11-12 December. Byers’ Choice, Chalfont PA. A Christmas Carol
15 December. Henley upon Thames. A Christmas Carol
17-18 December. St George’s Hall, Liverpool. A Christmas Carol
19 December. The Word, Jarrow, South Tyneside. A Christmas Carol
20-21 December. Highclere Castle, Highclere, Berkshire. A Chritsmas Carol
23 December. Leicester Guildhall, Leicester. A Christmas Carol
So, lets have a little amble through that lot: I have included the Victorian Festival in Llandrindod Wells not because it is part of my Christmas tour but because of what it represents. The Victorian Festival has been running since 1982 and each summer has brought the community in the elegant spa town in mid Wales together. Featuring a huge variety of events, such as parades, craft fairs, Victorian pageants, costume workshops, afternoon teas and various performances, the festival has reminded an increasingly modern and hectic world of a slower pace of life, a more genteel way.
I am not sure how many years I have been attending the festival, six or seven maybe but it feels an intrinsic part of my summer and last year was the poorer for not being able to attend. Fortunately out of the Covid ashes the committee have managed to resurrect the festival for 2021, albeit with numerous restrictions in place, and I am returning to perform Great Expectations. However the sad news is that due to dwindling financial assistance from the local council and a lack of enthusiasm from the younger generations it is all too probably that this year will mark the end of the festival. Crinolines and top hats will be packed away for the last time and the elegant green park and bandstand will echo to the town crier announcing each event no more. I hope it is not so, but the prognosis is not good. It therefore was very important to me to include Llandrindod into my diary and to give the best performance I possibly can to make my days there a huge celebration of all that has been achieved over 4 decades.
The Victoria Hall, in the village of Sutton Scotney is a venue that I stumbled on by accident, albeit thanks to Charles Dickens himself. My brother and I had attended a celebration of the birth of Dickens in Portsmouth one February. As we drove home we discovered that the A34 road was blocked with traffic (not an unusual occurrence), so we looked at a map (remember them?) and found a route across country that wound through some of the Hampshire and Berkshire villages, one of which was Sutton Scotney. At one end of the village stood an impressive hall and I thought that it may be worth contacting them with a view to doing a show there. I have often made such approaches and usually they come to nothing but on this occasion I scored a bullseye because my email found Eryl Holt an actress with a long and varied career (including a role in one of my favourite TV comedy sketch shows). Eryl immediately took to the idea of a one man performance and arranged for me to perform a double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold. The audience wasn’t huge for that first foray, but I impressed enough for the word to go around the village meaning that when I returned the following year it was to a full house. I have returned to Sutton Scotney on a few occasions now and always enjoy my time in the Victoria Hall, so when I was beginning to build my tour it was a natural venue to include.
The Word in Jarrow is a wonderful library complex opened only a few years ago. The building is a magnificent white, circular, spiralling structure with multiple rooms and spaces all designed to promote a love of written and the spoken word and sits in the heart of the town where it is open and accessible to the entire community. I was due to perform at The Word in May 2020 and it was the first booking that I lost when the initial period of lockdown was introduced. I was delighted when South Tyneside Council made contact asking for not one but two dates during the autumn season. One to talk about my new book describing the circumstances of the Staplehurst rail crash, accompanied by a performance of The Signalman, and the other to perform A Christmas Carol in November. It is a long drive, Jarrow being in the far North East of the country, but it is a worthwhile one!
The first part of my American tour has a familiar feel to it with visits to Omaha and Kansas City where I will be the guest of my old friends at the Douglas County Historical Society and the Mid Continent Public Library Service once more. Those who follow my blog will know that the folks in both venues are old and close friends and it seems perfect that my USA tour should begin there. The two venues are separated by a quick jaunt to the west coast where I will perform beneath the blazing Californian sun in the open-air amphitheatre at Rogers Gardens once more
But, and it is a big ‘but’ the chances of being able to travel still hang in the balance, with the scales tipped rather unevenly at the moment. All of the dates are booked and all of the venues are ready to go, but confusion still reigns over international travel. As countries deal with their own domestic policies regarding the containment of Covid and the vaccinating of their population, each has their own policy as to travel to and from other nations. The need to keep the approach of the disease and its variants at bay balanced against the need to open up the economy again has led to governments coming up with their own policies.
For many years Britain and America has shared ‘a special relationship’, (although it has become more or less special depending on the respective administrations – George III/George Washington marking the nadir and maybe Blair/Bush the zenith), and it is one that I like to think that I have contributed a tiny amount to. Earlier this year it was proposed that the relationship would be preserved with the creation of a travel corridor between the two nations, a sort of vortex through which no virus could travel. Now, though, as reality hits it has become apparent that everyone has to protect their citizens and travel restrictions have been imposed.
In a usual year The Byers’ Choice company would create the tour and secure contracts from every venue, then a huge document has to be submitted to the Immigration and Nationalization Service (with the approval of the Actor’s Equity union who quite naturally wish to protect the rights of American performers.). The INS then approve the visa application at which point I have to apply to the US Embassy in London for an in person interview where an agent can pose a few more questions, should they feel the need, and then grant the visa proper. But this year the Embassy is closed for interviews, meaning it is impossible to get a visa approved, the only exceptions being emergency visits for urgent situations and humanitarian travel. Additionally, in order to enter the United States directly from the United Kingdom, I will need to be granted a National Interest Exception (NIE). So before I can commence my 2021 US tour I have to fulfil one of those criteria. The scary part is that I can not apply yet as anything over 60 days before travel is not seen as an emergency (I must say it makes me smile to think of my show in that way: ‘Quick! We need A Christmas Carol and we need it NOW – this is an urgent plea!, thank Heavens that AChristmasCarolMan is on call!’), and we are only permitted one application so we have to time and use it wisely.
As always Byers’ Choice have engaged an immigration attorney and they are monitoring the situation carefully, for it is more than likely that the situation will change over the summer months and if it does we need to be ready to jump at the earliest opportunity.
So, back to my dates, and if I get to America and if I am allowed back in to the UK again without needing to isolate for 2 weeks, I will then travel to the far North East again to the beautiful city of Newcastle where I will return to the elegant surroundings of the Lit&Phil (Literary and Philosophical Soicety) before making my way back down the country to the Revelation Arts Centre in Ashford where I was able to return to the stage in June. I am one of the centre’s ambassadors and am proud to be so, it is always a wonderful space to perform and with a great audience.
Back in the USA (as The Beatles never sung), the second and longer part of the tour takes me to very familiar terriorty, starting in Massachusetts with the Vaillancourts, and moving around New England and Pennsylvania, with a brief foray into Delaware, until I finish up with the Byers’ family in Chalfont PA.
Back to the UK and I return to the beautiful setting of St George’s Hall in Liverpool where Dickens himself performed and for a second year I get to perform again in the great hall of Highclere Castle, the star of Downton Abbey, before bringing my season to an end in the ancient Guildhall in the city of Leicester.
I will keep you posted with progress as the weeks pass, but in the short term it is time to dust off Great Expectations once again and to prepare for Llandrindod Wells later this month.
That’s the news from Abingdon where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.