A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, Leicester Cathedral, Leicester Guildhall, Mr Fezziwig
The final day of my 2021 Christmas performance season was in the City of Leicester, in The Midlands. It has become something of a tradition over the years that on the 23rd December I perform a matinee and an evening show in the amazing surroundings of the Guildhall’s Great Hall, which was built at the end of the 14th Century. The room is timber framed and at the centre there is a huge fireplace which is always lit during my visit to warm the sell-out audiences that always attend.
With the Café Royal’s sad cancellation, I had spent my free day with Liz and the girls, and in the evening we had visited the Silverstone race track, where we had attempted to ice skate (I had a great fear that I would fall awkwardly, thus making my rendition of Tiny Tim rather too real), and then drove a very slow lap of the track to admire the light and laser show that had been installed for the Christmas season.
On Thursday morning the car was a prop carrying vehicle once more and I was back on the road. As I drove, the radio programme which was playing asked listeners to supply their favourite questions for Christmas quizzes, and one chap phoned in with the inevitable ‘How many ghosts visit Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol?’ The answer being, of course, four (Marley and the ghosts of Past, Present and Future), but then somebody else texted in with the pedantic opinion that as ‘Yet to Come’ was from the future it couldn’t be considered a ghost, so the answer was three after all. My solution to this celestial conundrum was to include the words ‘on Christmas Eve’ after the question, which means the answer is one, as only Marley appears before midnight, although there is the issue of the air filled ‘…with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.’, but technically they haven’t actually visited Scrooge, so don’t count!
I arrived at Leicester at 11, and parked as close as I could to the venue and started carrying the furniture down the narrow cobbled alley which runs between The Guildhall and Leicester Cathedral with its tall spire.
I was welcomed by Ben Ennis, a friend of many years standing, and we chatted for a while, catching up on our news. Ben had caught Long Covid very early on, and suffered for many months. Although understandably he had been extremely cautious, worn a mask and kept away from crowds, he actually caught it again, thankfully this second time he recovered within a couple of weeks. I asked him if the Guildhall’s audience numbers were being affected by cancellations (after the Café Royal’s experience I was nervous during these last days), and he said although some had called, their tickets had been snapped up by those on the waiting list, so he wasn’t too worried.
Once the car was unloaded I had to move it to a nearby car park and as I walked back I saw that Jubilee Square was filled with a huge Ferris Wheel and a skating rink – I knew from experience that noise from the square accompany would my performance, and I resigned myself to the fact there may be distractions for both me and the audience – little did I know then that later I would have given my right arm to just have the noise from the ice rink in the background!
My changing room at The Guildhall is The Jury Room, from where I can hear the audience gathering and on Thursday the afternoon crowd sounded a lively bunch, and very Christmassy. There was a lot of laughter and loud conversation, which boded extremely well.
At 1pm I went to the back of the hall, and slowly walked through the masked audience, with my scarf pulled up over my face, until I reached the stage. I was right, the audience were imbued with the spirit of Christmas, and we all shared a great afternoon together. Unfortunately there wasn’t a big enough staff to spare anyone to follow the script and look after the sound cues, so apart from the opening music I was performing unplugged, meaning that Mr Fezziwig had to dance without the strains of Sir Roger de Coverly to give him rhythm, but he managed quite well.
The show finished at around 3pm and I took my bows to loud applause and returned to the Jury Room to change. It has been a tradition in Leicester that between shows Ben has brought in a Christmas lunch of Turkey and all of the trimmings and so, with various staff members and his family, we have celebrated the season with good fellowship, but of course this year we couldn’t gather, which was a shame. Ben made up for this loss by presenting me with a turkey sandwich, some fresh fruit, and a trifle, which I took back to my hotel room, where I lay on the bed and watched television until it was time to get ready for the evening show.
When I arrived at The Guildhall, there were already audience members waiting for the door to be opened, and soon a steady stream were making their way in reserving their seats, before availing themselves of mulled wine.
Once again it was almost a full house and once again the audience seemed in great spirits, boding well for a fine send off to the ’21 tour. But, this wasn’t going to be an easy show by any stretch of the imagination.
I was not far in when the bell ringers in the cathedral began their weekly practice, and spent time perfecting their loudest and most complex peals. Every scene was accompanied, indeed almost drowned out, by the constant noise, making it difficult to concentrate. Every so often a particular peal would end, and you could almost feel the sigh of relief in the hall, which turned to disappointment as the next one began. The Leicester Cathedral bell ringers are a dedicated bunch, I will give them that! The interval arrived and still the bells rang and crashed. Ben apologised, although there is nothing he could have done to prevent it, and said that they would probably finish within about twenty minutes of the second half beginning. That SHOULD just about have been OK for Bob Cratchit returning home without Tim on his shoulder – the narrator says that it ‘was quiet. Very quiet’, and it is one of my favourite moments in the show, for I can feel the emotion and tension of an entire audience in that moment – crashing bells wouldn’t be appropriate.
I started act two and sure enough eventually the Cathedral Tinnitus ended, allowing me my moment of peace. The Cratchit scene passed and the atmosphere that builds through the final quarter seemed to be well established, until unbelievably a nearby security alarm went off and the rest of the show was accompanied by a loud, screeching ‘whoop whoop whoop whoop’ which didn’t end until the very final sentence of the story. I at least made was able to make an adlib, which broke the ice somewhat, by saying ‘Yes, the bedpost was his own, the bed was his own, the room was his own, the alarm was his own…..’ which was greeted by a loud cheer and even a cry of ‘Brilliant!’ That was rather overstating it, but it proved that we had all been battling the same intrusions into our fantasy world, together.
The show came to an end and the the hall erupted into applause and I earned a standing ovation which was a very fitting end to a wonderful season of performances – it has been apparent that audiences in both the UK and America have needed entertainment after such a difficult two years (I remember the same phenomenon in 2001, post 9-11) and have come out in good numbers to see the show, but have remained respectful of the wishes of others, whether that has meant wearing a mask throughout the show, or distancing in an auditorium.
My decision not to undertake long formal signing sessions has allowed me to conduct the question and answer sessions after the shows which have proved very popular.
What does 2022 hold for me? Of course we cannot tell, but there are a couple of new books in the pipeline, one of which is all about the history of my tours and the development of the show (I may even include the script…), and if everything works well that will be available for sale when I tour next year.
I will also get back to my running, which I have rather let lapse during the 2nd half of this year, with the aim of completing a half marathon before the year is out.
In the meantime, thank you to all of the audience members who have joined me for the ride this year and to the many people who have allowed me to perform in their venues, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year.