My busy week continued on Thursday when I drove across the country to the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, and this had been a show which was a long time coming. About three years ago I first had an email from Clifford Hind asking me to appear in the town as part of the 2020 Bury St Edmunds Festival, and arrangements were made as to which show I should perform and what my fee would be. Charles Dickens had visited the town three times, and Cliff was keen to bring the Dickens name back after a gap of 159 years. February came and confirmatory emails were exchanged. March came and the spread of Covid began to take its grip. Inevitably I had another confirmatory email (among many others from various venues), this time with the news that the festival had been cancelled, but asking that we go ahead with the plan for the 2021 festival. A year passed and still Covid held sway, and the Bury St Edmunds Arts Festival was cancelled once more. It seemed more unlikely that the show would ever come off, but Cliff asked that we keep in touch and hopefully we could do something, sometime.
As Autumn of 21 passed it seemed as if things were improving and Cliff was back in touch asking of May 26, 2022 would work – the show wouldn’t be part of the Festival but would be a benefit for the Moyse’s Hall Museum, a 12th Century building housing an comprehensive collection of items telling the story of the town’s long and fascinating history. Cliff wanted me to perform The Trial from The Pickwick Papers and Doctor Marigold, as well as giving a brief talk about Charles’s connection with Bury St Edmunds. The latter request always fills me with terror, for the truth is that local historians will always have access to a great deal more information than me, and the danger is that I just trot out a few easily discoverable facts, promoting local ire. I would need to make sure that my research was sound and that I delivered it in my own way.
On the 16th May, shortly after my return from Kent and before I set off for Cheshire, another email from the Hind household came in, but this time it was from Diane, Cliffs wife with the very sad news that Cliff had unexpectedly died. Our show had occupied so much of his time and attention that Diane and the committee had made the decision to go ahead with the plan and stage the evening in his honour. Suddenly the pressure to do a good job mounted.
On the morning of 26 May I loaded the car with my reading desk and the various rustic paraphernalia for Marigold, as well as the costumes I would need. For some reason I was incredibly nervous about the day and had woken that morning with a pit-of-the-stomach sense of panic, which didn’t leave me all day. As I drove I had my script laid out on the passenger seat and made constant reference to it when I was stopped in traffic.
I arrived in Bury St Edmunds at 4pm, an hour before I was due at the Guildhall where I was to perform, so I parked in front of the famous Angel Hotel, which is where Charles stayed on each of his three visits. As with many hotels across the country, the Angel is proud of its association with Dickens and boasts a blue plaque on its ivy-covered façade, honouring him.
I went in and sat in the stylishly designed lobby and ordered a coffee. A nearby bookcase had copies of Dickens books, as well as a little figurine representing Mr Pickwick and I quietly raised my cup to him. Having finished my coffee I left the hotel and walked through the great stone arch into the abbey gardens where beautifully manicured lawns are dotted with various flint ruins. My home town of Abingdon has similar gardens, where our own Abbey once dominated the skyline, but Henry VIII changed the landscape of Britain forever with his dissolution act of the 1530s, and these beautiful buildings were destroyed. In the case of Abingdon we are not even left with even ruins, for not only was the gold, silver and other treasures taken but the stone itself was taken on barges down the River Thames to be used in the building of new and grand palaces.
Bury St Edmunds Abbey Ruins
After a peaceful and relaxing walk I returned to my car and drove to the Guildhall building, just a few steps away from The Angel, but quite a drive as I had to navigate through a narrow warren of one-way streets, before turning through an opened gate into a small driveway with a space reserved for me. I was greeted by Jill Badman who is not only the manager of The Guildhall but also lives in a charming cottage on site. As I took in my surroundings (beautifully tended gardens) Jill took me into the main building and showed me the room in which I was to perform, and an elegant space it was indeed. A small stage had been erected in front of the fireplace, which would be a perfect setting for my red reading desk.
The Guildhall has a definite history that dates back to 1279 and there are possible references to it over100 years before that, making it senior to my ‘other’ Guildhall in Leicester, which is a little scamp having been built in 1390!
Jill showed me my dressing room which was in the Tudor Kitchen complete with a huge fireplace complete with a pulley operated spit. When she was sure that I had all that I needed Jill left me to my own devices and I began to ferry my props, furniture and costume from my car to the hall. I erected my red screen behind the stage and set up the desk and while I was doing that Diane Hind arrived and introduced herself. I don’t know if Diane is a hugger, but I gave her a big hug and we agreed that Cliff would have been pleased that we were staging ‘his’ event and that we would all make it a memorable evening in his honour. Diane and her son were incredibly strong throughout the evening
As more volunteers and committee members began to arrive, I retreated to my kitchen (where I learned from an educational sign that the Tudors only ate strawberries if they have been cooked) and pondered as to how I would present the first act. Cliff had asked me to talk a bit about how The Pickwick Papers had been written (the novel having connections with Bury), and I was torn between academic and entertaining…I plumped for the latter. In my mind I ran through the various talks I had given about CD’s childhood, his seeing Gad’s Hill and his father’s motivational words about it. I would talk about the creation of Sketches by Boz, his meeting with artist Robert Seymour and the creation of Pickwick. All of those stories are delivered in a light-hearted way, and occasionally take liberties with strict fact (for example, I don’t think that Frederic Chapman really did cry out ‘Who the Dickens is Boz?’ when trying to engage the young author to provide text for Seymour’s illustrations), but they are all based in reality.
Having satisfied myself as to the shape of Act 1 I relaxed in the gardens as the audience gathered. At 7pm I waited at the back of the hall while Margaret Charlesworth introduced me. When I had walked to the stage to welcoming applause Margaret also took a moment to say a few words about Cliff before handing over the evening to me.
My cobbled together first act worked very well and I brought the whole story back to Bury St Edmunds by quoting two letters that Dickens had written during his reading tour of 1861. He had debuted a new reading based on David Copperfield in the city of Norwich and had complained that the audience there were ‘lumpish’, however two days later after another performance of the same piece he described a ‘very fine audience. I don’t think a word – not to say an idea – was lost!’ and that audience was from Bury St Edmunds. There is a natural geographic rivalry between Norfolk and Suffolk, so this mini victory was well received.
Having finished my biographical performances I stepped up to the reading desk to perform The Trial from Pickwick. This was one of Dickens’ favourite readings and is the one that he performed more than any other during his years of touring. It is filled with wonderful characters such as Sergeant Buzfuzz, Justice Stareleigh, Mrs Cluppins and, of course Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller, and pokes fun at the sheer pomposity of the legal system. The reading went well with plenty of laughter and when I concluded I received a very warm round of applause.
I was rather worried that I had over run somewhat, but nobody seemed to mind and I called to mind Jill’s words from earlier, ‘Remember, we are on Suffolk time here’. I returned to my kitchen and changed into my Doctor Marigold costume before returning to the hall, removing the reading desk and screen, and replacing it with the little wooden steps, the 3-legged stool, the rustic wooden box and a kettle and shovel which go to make my set for my favourite performance.
When everyone was seated I took to the stage in the character of the lovable cheapjack and told his story with all of its highs and lows. The audience were transfixed and were with me the whole way through (even when a rather loud motorcycle revved his engine in a most un-Victorian manner outside). Charles Dickens’ tour manager George Dolby described how the audiences gasped when a revelation is made in the last two lines of the performance, and I would love to be able to tell Dolby and his Guv’nor that a 21st century audience gasp in the same way – there was hardly a dry eye in the Guildhall on Thursday evening, and I include my own in that. It was a wonderful performance and one I was extremely proud of.
Margaret returned to the stage, clearly very moved, and thanked me, and after taking more applause I made my way to the back of the room and signed some copies of my books and chatted to the audience as they left. It rounded off a most enjoyable evening.
Margaret had very kindly offered me hospitality at her home, and when I had changed and packed up all of my things into the car she rode with me and directed me to her wonderful Victorian house where her husband Roger was waiting. We sat around the kitchen table and chatted as we ate some bread and cheese and sipped a little wine. We finished the evening with a cup of tea and my mug had a facsimile of the Magna Carta on it. Margaret’s email address features the word magnacarta and its turns out that she is a renowned export on the subject. This was a curious coincidence as earlier in the week on a run I had been listening to an audiobook of ‘Three Men in a Boat’ in which the narrator imagines being present at Runnymede in 1215. As I listened I realised that I know so little about such an important moment in English history and vowed that I would purchase a book on the subject and educate myself. So, in Margaret’s kitchen, as I sipped my tea, I mentioned to her this happy twist of fate, and explained that other knowing that the Maga Carta had been signed at Runnymede I knew little of the political background and circumstances. Well, I had clearly failed my first test, for Margaret pointed out that ‘It was never signed! It was sealed!’ Oops!
It was late now and as the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins that evening gently dissipated, I began to feel tired and said my goodnights to Margaret and Roger.
I slept very well and next morning enjoyed a simple breakfast of fruit juice, muesli and toast. Before I left, Margaret showed me their beautiful garden, as well as asking me to sign their visitor’s book. I had been their first guest, other than family, since the first lockdown of 2020. Soon it was time to get on the road and as I drove away I reflected on a very happy day in the company of kind and hospitable people, and I hope that the gap before the Dickens name returns to the town will be a little shorter this time.