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After the fallow period of recent years, the spring of 2022 is proving to be a busy one as I travel around the country performing in a wide variety of venues. Having returned from Preston on Monday morning, I had a day to collect my thoughts before heading off once more on Wednesday, south this time, to the city of Canterbury in Kent, the county of my birth.

I was due to visit The Spires Academy, a relatively new school, built in 2007 in a rural setting to the east of the city. This would be a second visit to Spires for me, where the year 10 students are studying A Christmas Carol for their GCSE course. It is a impressive modern building, standing proudly with its lime green cladding welcoming visitors into a large central atrium, which acts not only as a dining hall at lunchtime but also as a performance space.

My contact at the school is one of the English teachers, Sarah Turrell, who is also a keen member of the Dickens Fellowship, and she loves to share her passion for Dickens with her students. Sarah has come to many of my shows in Kent over the years and is currently writing an article about the teaching of Dickens in the modern era for that most academic of journals, The Dickensian.

The journey was a beautiful one with the chill of early March giving way to Spring, there were even fields of Rape beginning to paint their broad, yellow splashes across the countryside, and the blossom of trees speckled the deep blue sky. I arrived at 11.30, and Sarah was there to meet me and help me unload. With the help of the facilities staff we found a small cupboard in the main atrium to store my furniture and then headed up three floors to a conference room (in my day, schools never had ‘conference rooms’!)

My first commitment of the day was to meet a small group of students who, inspired by Sarah, had formed their own Dickens Society within the school. The group comes from a wide variety of year groups (yrs 8 – 11) and meet at lunchtimes when their respective timetables allow. Sarah’s suggestion to the team was that they study Charles Dickens’ final, unfinished novel, and try to create their own solution to ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, and it is this project that gave the group its name: The Drood Dudes.

Before the group arrived, in dribs and drabs from their various morning lessons, Sarah gave me a printed essay, showing what has been achieved so far, and I only had time to cast a very quick eye over it before the seats around the table were full and we began to chat. ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood….Unveiled. A Work in Progress’ is not only an amazing feat of imagination, but also a great piece of well-researched writing too. Students have paired up and worked on specific chapters, and making sure that the language that they use is suitably Victorian in structure. An example:

”The cabin windows blurred by innumerable layers of smog which further added to the uncomfortable aura that had latched onto the room. ‘Where were you on the night of the storm, Miss Budd?’ Gerald’s tone had indicated that he had no longer been welcoming of her diversion to his prompts. Stubborn in her innocence, her annoyance had quickly been replaced with a monotone seriousness. Straightening her posture and clasping her hands together, she responded.

‘My homestead. And only my homestead’

Yes! the detective introduced to the story to get to the bottom of the disappearance of Edwin Drood, is named in my honour, although the character is certainly not an accurate representation of me, for later the narrative mentions that ‘Gerald could tolerate no more. Adjusting his hair, he exclaimed ‘Miss Bud, I think I’ve heard enough.’ It has been many years since I have been able to adjust my hair.

We went through the piece chapter by chapter and the authors of each talked through their inspiration and the motivation for steering the plot as they did.

When Charles Dickens was writing Drood, during the early months of 1870, it was his first novel for 5 years, and marked a new direction: a mystery novel. Perhaps influenced, or piqued, by the success of his good friend Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Dickens set out to weave as many false avenues and red herrings as he could into the plot. Unfortunately, Charles Dickens died on June 9 1870 when only 6 of the planned 12 monthly instalments had been published, meaning that he unwittingly created one of the greatest mystery novels ever written – one that had no denouement. He didn’t leave a detailed plan behind him, although a few letters to friends have a few suggestions as to where the plot may have lead. But, as one of the leading Dickensian scholars pointed out to me a few years ago, if you stop reading Great Expectations at the half way point you would have no clue what is to come, and it is reasonable that Charles would have pulled the same trick with Drood.

I shall not tell you what conclusion the Dudes have come to, for I hope that when the piece is complete I may be able to share it in its entirety, but it is obvious that they have considered and discussed every angle of their plot and stand by it. As we chatted I threw a few alternative thoughts into the mix, not because I felt they were needed, or superior, but because I was keen to hear them defend their choices, which they firmly and passionately did.

When we had finished discussing their work Sarah asked if I would sign copies of The Mystery of Edwin Drood for each of the Dudes, and as I signed they asked me questions about Dickens and one man theatre, until the bell rang heralding the end of a truly exciting morning.

It is obvious that Sarah has inspired this group of students, and they all have immense pride not only in what they have created but also of their society (they even have their own handshake!). In a world that is so fraught with negativity at the moment, this hour was a shining beacon of positivity and hope for the future.

Sarah took me to the dining hall where we met the school’s interim principal, David Thornton, who said that he had never known such success in an extra curricular club.

After a quick lunch the hall was cleared and a stage erected. I just had time to place all of my props, and change before the year 10s arrived – a typical bunch of secondary school pupils: some noisy, some quiet, some defiant, some intrigued, some confident, some troubled. When everyone was seated, the head of the English department welcomed the group with dire warnings about behaviour, and then welcomed me to the stage. I started the show by talking a bit about how and why Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, as the exam syllabus calls for a degree of contextual knowledge as well as a familiarity with the book itself, and then began. This was the first time that I had performed A Christmas Carol since 23 December in Leicester, but the words and movements came back to me as if I had done it the day before.

It wasn’t an easy performance, for the space was cavernous and the audience was not altogether attentive (two members being removed and sent to a classroom to write essays in silence), but I was pleased with what I did. I am currently writing a book about my performances of A Christmas Carol, which includes a detailed account of how I perform each scene, and it was interesting to recall my written words as I performed. I became a lot more aware of where I was on the stage and how I delivered the various lines, and mentally stored some details for the next time I write. The show had a slight break in the middle as there was a bell heralding a change of lessons, and the hall being at the centre of the school building would become packed with students moving from one room to another, so we had agreed that I would simply pause and wait until peace was restored. While I sat on stage during the hiatus some of the students shouted out ‘Mr Dickens! Can we have a selfie with you later?’ I said yes, and the request came in from others too….

When I resumed, my main concern was the timing of the show, as I had to be finished before the school day ended at 3.15. Fortunately there was a clock on the wall opposite me and I could carefully make decisions as to how much of the text to included so that I finished and left time for some questions. I said the final ‘God Bless Us, Every One’ with 10 minutes to spare, and the year 10s gave me loud and raucous applause, born to some extent out of the relief to be able to make noise again! When the tumult had died down I took questions for a while, the answers to only a few of which were going to help the students in the exam, for example I doubt the paper will ask for my age, or details of how much I earn, but it was a fun session nonetheless.

At 3.15 the bell sounded the end of the day and the group dispersed, although plenty of students gathered around to take their selfies with me, before heading home. Soon the atrium was quiet once more, and having changed I loaded the car, said farewell to Sarah and headed back onto the road.

As I drove away I smiled at the memory of a successful day, but in particularly of my hour in the company of a talented, enthusiastic and inspiring group of students: Maxwell, Jasmin, Honey, Ryan, James, Chloe, Maisie, Rosenevi, Jasmine, Katy, Ali, Phoebe, Kaiya and, of course, Sarah: The Drood Dudes.