On Saturday morning it was time to load the car up once more ready to drive to the county of Yorkshire, in the north of England for another leg of my 2022 tour. This time I was to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and The Signalman at the glorious stately home of Wentworth Woodhouse. This particular combination of shows requires me to load both the replica of Charles Dickens’ reading desk (for Mr Dickens is Coming) and the large clerk’s desk which features on the set of The Signalman, meaning that, with all of the rest of the props, this is the most difficult programme to squeeze into the car. I spent quite a long time trying different combinations of packing, until finally everything fitted in successfully. I took a few pictures so that I could remind myself how it worked, and then prepared to leave for to long drive North.
I was accompanied on my journey by coverage of the third cricket test match between England and New Zealand which, coincidentally, was being played at the Headingly ground in Yorkshire, not far from my destination. I had left a long time for the drive, and stopped for lunch at a motorway service station before continuing my journey through the beautiful scenery of The Peak District and on into what the locals call ‘God’s own Country’. I reached the village of Wentworth with an hour or so to spare so pulled into a small car park to relax before completing my journey. At Headingly the commentators talked of heavy rain storms preventing play, and sure enough, shortly afterwards, the skies darkened and the same weather swept over me, but almost as soon as the rain fell so the clouds parted and the sun shone once more.
At 5 o’clock I started the car up and drove down the long driveway into the grounds of the great stately home, which unlike it’s counterparts at Chatsworth or Blenheim, is little known. But Wentworth Woodhouse is a truly remarkable building, boasting the largest Façade of any stately home in Europe. The house is actually two houses, one facing to the West made out of red brick and the other facing East made of honey-coloured stone with grand Palladian columns, and it was in front of the latter that my little red car sat dwarfed by the opulence and splendour.
The house was just closing to the public as I entered, and the young man behind the front desk greeted me with a a reference and awe which suggested that everyone was very excited about this event. This would be my first performance at the house, although I did visit last autumn just to discuss the practicalities of my performances and to see the rooms. Proceeds from the show would go towards the never ending restoration project.
My contact for the evening was Mark and he along with various volunteers who had either been working during the day, or who were arriving for our evening event, helped me to unload my car. I have had a wide variety of dressing rooms in my time ranging from modern well-lit ones to cramped toilet stalls, but none can ever be more grand than the painted drawing room at Wentworth Woodhouse – it was huge, lavish and impressive. The chair and table that had been placed for me looked lost in the space, but, I reflected, there was plenty of room to pace around going through my lines!
The two shows would be in different rooms. I would be starting with Mr Dickens is Coming in one of the grand state rooms upstairs, where the guests would be eating a Victorian-themed dinner (actually based on one described in Martin Chuzzelwit), and then everyone would move downstairs to a much smaller, and darker, room where I would finish the evening with The Signalman. Fortunately the majority of the furniture that I had brought was for the ghost story, so didn’t need carrying up the grand staircase, only the reading desk needed to be up there.
The staircase is wonderful, circling out to the right and to the left before curving back on itself. The huge wall of the stair well is painted white, with niches of rich deep Georgian blue for the display of ancient statuary. The house is a popular venue for filming and has featured in many TV series – it will make an appearance doubling as The Kremlin in a forthcoming season of The Crown. The room in which I was to perform the first half was lavish in the extreme, and already laid out with table for dinner, each of which bore a Dickensian name: Heep, Drood, Quilp, etc. I was to perform at one end of the room beneath a huge painting of a rearing stallion (I debated as to whether I should open the show with a little cough and then say ‘I am sorry, I was just feeling a little hoarse….’, but decided against it).
Everyone was very busy making final preparations for dinner, so I took myself back downstairs and set up the other room where I could be alone and do a little rehearsal, although on this occasion I was pretty confident with the lines.
I had an hour or so to myself and from my dressing room I could hear the noise and bustle echoing through the old stone hall of guests arriving. There was laughter and chat and noise, and I felt a wave of nerves, as I often do at a new venue, and thought ‘what are they expecting? Can I give them what they want?’
The hour for gathering and aperitifs passed quickly and soon Mark came to tell me that it was time to begin the show. I followed him up the staircase, and waited outside the room while a few of the guests returned from the loos, and then he said a few words of welcome to the assembly and then welcomed me – I was greeted with lots of applause and I knew straight away that we were in for a fun night. There was spontaneous applause after many of the character performances, and much laughter at the terribly contrived gags that make sure Mr Dickens is Coming remains a piece of entertainment primarily, rather than becoming a literary or academic performance.
The intimate nature of the room and the sheer exuberance of the audience made this one of the freest and most enjoyable performances of the show that I can remember. It was hot in the room and the sweat flowed freely (unfortunately so for the poor gentleman in the front row whose hand I limply shook in the moist character of Uriah Heep). Despite the heat I enjoyed myself thoroughly and seemingly, if the applause and shouts were anything to go by, so did the audience!
I left the room with a surge of adrenaline, a real high, and returned to my drawing room, where I paced around for a while calming down. I changed my shirt and swapped the bright golden garish waistcoat for the sombre black one, and then returned to the dining room where I joined one of the tables for a spot of dinner, although I don’t usually eat too much when I am performing. The menu featured a delicious meat pudding, with mashed potatoes and vegetables followed by a creamy posset (which I avoided so as not to risk my throat tightening during the second half) As I sat and chatted with my table mates, lots of other guests came and offered to buy me a drink, all of which offers I politely declined, restricting myself to water.
Each table had a quiz on it and as we ate the results were announced. I had very carefully NOT assisted my table with their answers for that may have been rather unfair, but the two they had answered incorrectly were ‘what is the nickname that Charles Dickens used for his first writing’ and ‘which is the only Dickens novel that does not feature London as a setting’ . Answers at the end….
When dinner was finished we all made our way downstairs to the smaller room which was laid out with theatre style seating. Mark and I had discussed the lighting in the room and decided to keep the overhead lighting on. The room is painted dark grey and would have had a supremely eerie atmosphere without the lights, but unfortunately there was not enough residual light to illuminate my facial expressions effectively.
Soon the room was full and I began talking about the Staplehurst rail crash as a prelude to The Signalman. This was a slightly risky piece of programming, considering that the comedy of Mr Dickens has proved so popular earlier in the evening and, to be honest, there aren’t many laughs in the The Signalman, but the audience appreciated the suspense and the characters and at the conclusion once again clapped and shouted and stood as I bowed. It had been a supremely successful evening and hopefully I will return to Wentworth Woodhouse in the future.
As the guests began to leave, I changed out of costume and started to collect all of my props and furniture which Mark and the volunteers helped to carry to my car. Having consulted the photograph I had taken of the boot that morning, I managed to get everything stowed and said my goodbyes before driving out into the night.
I was staying for the night at the home of Nick and Marie Cragg, who actually were responsible for this whole event. In 2007 I had performed for them in aid of a charity, and it was Marie who got in touch last year suggesting that I contacted Wentworth Woodhouse. Nick and Marie live in an amazing house that they built to their own exacting design – it is a house built for art: visual and performance (my performances in 2007 were in the house), and in fact the whole building is itself an artwork with lots of design features giving nods to James Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Nick and Marie are fine hosts and we sat up late into the night talking about all sorts of things, not just the show, and it was a wonderful way to wind down. Having lived there for 20 years the couple are now selling and are moving to Guernsey, where they have already bought a smaller property with spectacular views across the sea. As we chatted they suggested that there may well be an opportunity to perform on the island which would be very exciting.
When I finally went to my room I fell asleep instantly and slept well. I woke next morning and joined Nick and Marie for breakfast and as we chatted it came to light that Nick has a fascination of old cars and in the garage had two American cars from the 50s. My passion for all things automotive piqued, I asked if I may see them – they were magnificent: a Buick and a Cadillac all fins and chrome, and vinyl bench front seats, and steering column mounted gear shifts.
The engines, oh the engines. Nick started both up and the great big, low-revving V8s just purred and rumbled. When I gently put my foot on the accelerator pedal of each the whole vehicle shimmered and trembled, asking to be taken onto the long freeways and head west on Route 66.
It was a very special treat to see these particular works of art, and yes I do regard them as such, but it was time to leave Yorkshire behind me and head back south once more.
Answers to the two quiz questions: Boz and Hard Times