After an unusually busy start to the year through April and the first half of May was empty, which actually was fortunate for, as many as you know, Liz’s sister Sheila died from the brain tumour with which she had been suffering for eighteen months. The end, when it came, was more of a relief than a shock, as we had watched her go steadily downhill for many months. Sheila was moved from her home into a hospice but was able to celebrate Easter and her 70th birthday with her family around her, before she finally slipped away on the 16 April.

So after those quite and reflective weeks, my work came back with a bang in the middle of May with a succession of events which will take me to the end of June and on into July.

Broadstairs: A Child’s Journey With Dickens

The first of these was in the seaside town of Broadstairs on 11 May, at the South coast of England, where I was due to address the local branch of The Dickens Fellowship. The group had asked me to make an after dinner speech and propose the toast of the Immortal Memory to Charles Dickens, but I am never confident about making speeches, so I asked if I could cheat a little and read an address given at a previous Fellowship event, to which the answer was in the positive. The piece I had chosen wasn’t any old speech, but it was my old favourite ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’, originally delivered by the author Kate Douglas Wiggin to the New York branch of the Fellowship, in 1912. I have performed A Child’s Journey on many occasions, and a year ago I joined forces with my great friend and fellow actor Jennifer Emerson to perform a Zoom version of the piece.

For the Fellowship I decided not to present the piece as a show, but simply to read it from the signed copy of the book that Kate published. When I arrived in Broadstairs I made my way to The Albion Hotel where the branch chair, Christine Ewer, had booked me into room 15 – the very room where Charles Dickens stayed when he completed Nicholas Nickleby in 1839.

Room 15

The room, is at the back of the hotel with a beautiful view over the great sickle curve of Viking Bay with its unblemished sandy beach where the Dickens family played when they stayed in the town for a number of summer holidays. Looking to the left I could see the imposing building atop the cliff, now known as Bleak House, properly called Fort House, which is where the family based themselves, renting the property for the entire summer. It is said that it was from the little garret study overlooking the sea that Charles found inspiration for the terrible storm that took the life of Steerforth in David Copperfield.

Before walking to the venue for the evening’s events I was visited by Andrew, one of the branch members, who wanted to take some photographs of me in the famous room, so I donned my suit, and posed gazing wistfully out to sea, thinking about Charles himself taking in the same view.

The evening was lovely, for the Broadstairs branch of the Fellowship are an enthusiastic and fun group, who particularly embrace the performing of Dickens, so it is always a pleasure to visit. I dined on a seafood timbale, followed by a delicious piece of roasted beef, and rounded the meal off with a Tarte aux Citron. I was rather glad that I wasn’t due to be cavorting around in a theatrically active performance, for I’m not sure that my mobility would have been up to the challenge!

The reading of A Child’s Journey was wonderful, and the group hung on every one of Kate’s words – the highlight being when I announced that I had bought an edition of the story from Ebay and discovered that it had been personally signed by her, meaning I had a direct personal connection back to Charles himself (in the account she mentions that he held her hand, so the signature in my book was written by a hand that had touched my great great grandfather’s). I proposed the toast to the Immortal Memory, and the evening came to a pleasant conclusion (which included selling a few copies of my book, which is always a good thing!)

Plumley: Great Expectations

My next commitments were over the weekend of May 21 and 22 when I had been booked to perform in two venues in the county of Cheshire to the North West of England. Over a year ago I had been approached by an organisation called Cheshire Rural Touring Arts which stages an arts festival with a difference. Rather than placing all of the events in a particular town or city, requiring potential audience members to travel, the organisation offers all of the performances to rural communities and the shows go out to small halls across the county. I have worked on a project like this before, in my very early years of touring (it must have been 1994 or 5) when my friend and first manager Paul Standen and I travelled to the Yorkshire Dales and took Mr Dickens is Coming to a succession of village halls. I hadn’t really learned the art of touring a one man show at that time, and I wasn’t terribly good, so I was hoping for better things in Cheshire!

Plumley is a small village located not far from Northwich and as with most villages this spring it was bedecked in bunting and had posters advertising various celebrations of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. I was welcomed at the door of the hall by Harry Allen who had made all of the arrangements for this performance. I unloaded the simple Great Expectations set and Harry made me a cup of coffee, before he left me with the hall key and popped back home. There is something lovely about being alone in a theatre, and I spent an enjoyable hour just running through the script on stage to an audience of none.

At around 6’oclock Harry returned, and little by little more volunteers appeared and starting bustling, so I withdrew to the room behind the stage and sat quietly until it was time to begin.

Great Expectations is still a show that I am nervous about, and I am never quite sure if an audience will respond to it or engage with it. These doubts come purely from my own head for I have never had a failure with it and it is a very popular choice, but I still get into quite a state about performing it.

In Plumley Village Hall a goodly audience packed in, and at 7.30 I waited in the wings to begin, and as soon as I burst onto the stage in the persona of Magwitch the convict, I knew that the evening would be alright, and when I left again at the end of the first act and the audience’s applause echoed I could relax a little. During the second act I fell awkwardly at one point (the fall was in the script, so not an accidental trip), and I bent one of my fingers right back on itself and for a while I was uncertain as to whether I had broken it or not. This would not have been good, for a month or so before I had sliced the tip of another finger off whilst putting cutlery away in a drawer which contained a very sharp bladed tool to create mandoline vegetables. After spending an afternoon and evening in an A&E department as various nurses and doctors tried to stop the bleeding, I have been carefully protecting the shortened digit and changing the dressings every day. The weekend in Cheshire was the first time my finger had been exposed to the air without risk of infection and it would have been a real bugger to break another: to misquote Oscar Wilde ‘To injure one finger is unfortunate, to injure two is carelessness’ Fortunately I had not broken my finger on Plumley Village Hall’s stage.

The second act proceeded to its end and I was welcomed back to the stage with a very generous round of applause. I wound the evening up with a short Q&A session, which was fun before leaving the stage for the final time.

When the audience had departed back to their nearby homes I packed up my set, said my goodbyes to Harry and the team, and drove back to my hotel room in Northwich, having stopped at a take away and picked up a box of fried chicken and chips. As ever on a performance night sleep took a while to come, but eventually I slept well into the morning.

Weaverham: Mr Dickens is Coming and Sikes & Nancy

My second show for Cheshire Rural Touring Arts was in the village of Weaverham, also close to Northwich but in the opposite direction to Plumley. As the show was not until 7pm I had a whole day to myself and I was keen to explore a little of a county about which I know very little.

In my hotel there was a huge picture of the Anderton Boat Lift, which I had seen on television, so I thought that would be a good place to start exploring. I had a slap up English breakfast, and spent a little time running through my script for the show (the purpose of this exercise was not only to cement the words in my mind, but also to push those of Great Expectations out), and then I got into the car and drove to Anderton. What a beautiful county Cheshire is, and I quite fell in love with the villages, cottages, farm houses and beautiful rural scenery. I drove past the old Lion Salt Mill, which is now a museum dedicated to one of the main industries of the area – salt mining having been a vital part of the community since the 17th Century and possibly since Roman times too (many salt deposits have been excavated around Roman villas).

Arriving at Anderton I drove alongside the Trent and Mersey Canal with its pretty narrow boats and well tended tow-path gardens before parking and exploring. Firstly I walked into Anderton Nature Park which is a beautiful are of woods, pools, meadows and fields with plenty of paths criss-crossing it so that it is rare to see anyone else.

The park is boarded by the River Weaver at its lowest edge and I took the footpath along the river’s edge back towards Anderton. The birdsong was cheerful, the views calming and there was plenty to explore. It was a very healing sort of a morning.

At the end of my walk I found the great boat lift that opened in 1875. With the River Weaver flowing 50 feet beneath the canal it was decided that it would be beneficial to connect the two waterways therefore allowing greater traffic for the salt to be taken to the potteries of Stoke on Trent. Various designs for linking river and canal were discussed until in the end a hydraulic boat lift was decided upon. The theory was simple but relied on watertight pipes feeding water from one chamber to another, therefore changing the weight and buoyancy of two lifts operated alongside one another so as one went down it displaced water to the other sending it up. Unfortunately the engineers hadn’t taken into account the natural corrosiveness of the water and as time went on pipes, seals and pistons began to fail. Eventually it was decided to convert the lift to electric power, and the great frame had to be strengthened to support the extra weight.

Today the lift sits at the middle of a visitor centre, but it is still a working piece of equipment and boats still ride up and down – it is an extremely impressive structure and is beautifully shown off amongst beds of wild flowers, planted to create an amazing contrast between the brutal iron structure and nature. Having admired the lift from all angles I then walked for a while along the canal before returning to my car and then to the hotel.

I had decided to have a bite of lunch in the pub, as I wouldn’t be eating much in the evening, and was delighted when the waiter offered me the Sunday roast menu – I’d forgotten that it was Sunday, and happily settled down to roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, greens, parsnips and gravy. Perfect.

In the afternoon I rested in my room, whilst watching coverage of the Spanish Grand Prix. When the race was finished I had time for a refreshing shower and slight beard trim, before heading over to Weaverham.

My second venue of the weekend was in a Sea Scout hut and as I was unloading my furniture I was met on the pavement by Brian, the organiser of this show. The setting was different to the village hall, as I would be performing on the floor with a great semi circle of chairs and tables around me. As I walked in it rather looked as if I would be facing a panel for a job interview!

Brian had chosen Mr Dickens is Coming for his show and it was a very good choice, for it is a conversational, informal performance and would suit this particularly intimate setting very well. A large theatrical show, like Great Expectations for instance, would have been difficult to pull off in the hut.

I erected my new red screen (sewn by Liz the day before I left) behind the reading desk and arranged the other furniture ready for the show. It was an earlier start than the night before, so as soon as the set was in place I got changed before the first of the audience arrived. There was no dressing room to sit quietly in so I mingled in the hall as people arrived, and chatted, which is a good thing for it gets people on side, and also gives me an idea as to how they may respond to various aspects of the show, allowing me to tailor it as necessary. At just before 7 the last people took their seats and I was able to begin the show.

The opening of Mr Dickens is Coming is designed to make people laugh, allow them to relax and reassure them that this isn’t going to be a weighty, academic sort of evening, and fortunately they laughed loudly at the line, so I knew we would be alright. I haven’t performed Mr Dickens is Coming for a while (other than filming it at The Dickens House Museum in London earlier this year), so it was fun to do it again – Uriah Heep made people squirm and my woeful Sean Connery impression got a laugh – everything hit the mark.

When I reached the end of the first half I warned everyone that they weren’t in for a bundle of laughs in the second act, before leaving them to their interval treats. Brian had an imaginative idea to serve his guests a suitably Victorian high tea and had created this menu:

Kedgeree, royal anchovy biscuits, mushroom puree on crackers. The sandwiches were ham and mustard, cucumber and herby cream cheese, and egg & cress mayonnaise. For desert there were slices of Victoria sponge and mince pies made with real minced meat!

As the audience munched they busied themselves with filling in the questionnaires that Cheshire Rural Touring Arts send out. What is written on these sheets would seal my fate for future years, so I hoped that everyone was in good spirits! I recalled a time when I performed on a cruise ship, where audience feedback was equally important, and one of the lecturers said to the audience ‘I know that you have your questionnaires to feel in, but surely you would rather be enjoying the swimming pools and decks, so why not just drop your forms to my cabin, and I shall fill them in on your behalf!’ I felt like suggesting the same at Weaverham….

When everyone had finished their nibbles I returned to the stage to perform Sikes and Nancy, the dark, brutal reading that Dickens gave during his final your of touring. He would delight in seeing ladies in the audience faint so shocking was his performance. Even today, when we have become so tragically inured to violence, Sikes and Nancy still packs a punch. It is exhausting to perform, more because of the physical tension that slowly builds until the moment of the murder itself, and tends to leave the audience silent at the conclusion, as the full realisation of what they have witnessed becomes apparent.

In the brightly lit scout hut, surrounded by tables, Sikes and Nancy still had the same effect, although no ladies actually fainted on Sunday night. When we had all calmed down for a bit, I opened the floor to a few questions and answers, and then it was time to bring the evening to a close. Brian thanked me, and the residents of Weaverham returned to their homes whilst at the hall Brian and his team cleaned up and I packed my props into the car. I drove back to the hotel and so came to an end a thoroughly enjoyable two days in Cheshire. I will have two days at home before I am on the road again, this time to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.