A Christmas Carol, Abingdon-on-Thames, Brain Tumour Research, Charles Dickens, Doctor Marigold, Michaelmas Fair, Mr Dickens is Coming!, Oxford Half Marathon, Uriah Heep
As I celebrate my 59th birthday so my week of fundraising began in earnest. Of course, the main event will be on the 16th October with my debut run in the Oxford Half Marathon, and I will return to that story later, but on Friday night I performed in my hometown of Abingdon-on-Thames for the first time in many years.
I had chosen a new venue for me, and that choice had come about through a curious circumstance. My youngest daughter had been invited to the birthday party of one of her classmates at school, and the event was held at the Abingdon Baptist Chapel, where the birthday girl’s parents and grandparents not only attend, but administer too. The chapel is set a little back from the road and is an impressive building, with Palladian columns giving it an Acropolis-esque look. It is one of those buildings that I have driven passed a thousand times and thought how elegant it looks but had never investigated further. On the day of the party, I went to collect our daughter, and on walking through the main door I could see straight away what an impressive hall it was – simple, surprisingly modern and well lit, although the effect was somewhat obscured by a large bouncy castle, complete with an illuminated glitter ball in the centre. I tucked the memory away, ready to be used when next I needed a space to perform in.
The idea to give a benefit performance in aid of Brain Tumour Research came after I had been accepted to run in the half marathon, and I thought it would be a nice opportunity to raise funds by doing what I do, in addition to the terrifying thing that I do NOT do. I approached the Baptist Church and having checked the diary they were able to offer me Friday 7th October, which I grabbed with both hands. There was a slight moment of concern in that the ancient and traditional Abingdon Fair takes place at the start of October and the whole main street is closed for two days and filled with noisy, whirling, garish rides, and stalls selling candyfloss, hot dogs, burgers and other unidentifiable foodstuffs, whilst the Oxfordshire night air is filled with the screams of flirting teenagers. The Baptist Chapel sits on the very road where the fair is held, so not only would my audience be unable to get to it, but the accompanying soundtrack would not have been conducive to Victorian literature. Fortunately, tradition (and law) dictates that the fair be held on the Monday and Tuesday before the 11th October, and it is not built until the Sunday before, so my Friday date was safe. As an aside, the Abingdon Michaelmas Fair dates back to the 14th Century when it was created as a gathering to hire labour in the aftermath of the Black Death.
The next issue was to publicise the show, which was not easy. As I was producing the event, on behalf of Brain Tumour Research, I didn’t have a large budget to play with, indeed I had no budget to play with, so other than printing some leaflets and posters, all I had was good old fashioned leg work, and modern social media.
I had planned to start my publicity assault when I was in America in September, but of course that coincided with the death of the Queen, meaning that not only was I not in a state of mind to shout and scream about my show, but also the country and potential audience would not be responsive anyway.
When the funeral was over and life slowly started to get back to normal, I began distributing leaflets, initially in my own neighbourhood, hoping that curiosity and a sense of neighbourly support would bring in a few sales. After that I picked areas of the town the I felt would house the demographic that usually attend my performances and spent many mornings walking up and down leafy roads, slipping A5 fliers through letterboxes. The art of leafleting is not as easy as once it was in that most houses have highly sprung and insulated letterboxes making it a real struggle to push a flimsy piece of paper through. I had no idea if these operations would bring forth results, I didn’t know if anybody would even read the leaflet but clung to the hope that somewhere in the hundreds of houses was someone who loved either local theatre, Dickens or preferably both. I was startled by barking dogs and avoided the angry glares from people sitting in their front rooms watching me trespass on their properties.
In the town centre many businesses were kind enough to display posters and take leaflets and little by little the word started to spread. I bombarded local Facebook pages with posts about the show, but ticket sales remained frustratingly slow. I emailed large businesses in the town attaching the flier and asked them to circulate the information among staff, and I did the same to all of the local schools.
As the week of the show arrived the sales were still not great, but I could satisfy myself that the show was only part of my greater fundraising efforts, so from that point of view anything that I made would be a success, but I did want the atmosphere in the Church to be good and the evening to be an enjoyable one.
The day of the show arrived, and it was a very odd feeling not to have to pack up the car early and get on the road to some venue far away. The programme for the evening was to be Mr Dickens is Coming! and Doctor Marigold and that combination means quite the car full and, on this occasion, I also had a large box containing various promotional materials from Brain Tumour Research along with two collection buckets.
Naturally as I pulled into the small car park outside the church rain started to fall meaning that I was a bit damp by the time everything was inside!
The space was perfect with a small ‘stage’ at one end, a balcony around the top and a high vaulted wooden ceiling above.
I busied myself setting up the stage for Mr Dickens is Coming, which involves recreating the set that Charles Dickens used for his readings. I erected my red screen (fabric over a simple frame which, although Dickens’ was solid), placing my copy of his red reading desk, complete with the cube for the performer to rest their hand on, a handkerchief, and a small glass carafe, which bears my great great grandfather’s crest, and which is the only item I own that actually belonged to him. Once everything was in place, I started to rehearse a bit of Doctor Marigold and could hear the words echoing back to me, so tried to tone down my volume as much as I could.
There were other preparations too, for I had to make sure that the ticket sales table was in place, complete with a cash float (which I had withdrawn from the bank earlier in the day), and laid out my various items of merchandise, which this year includes the DVD version of ‘A Christmas Carol’, as well as ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’ and a DVD of Doctor Marigold. I also needed to lay another table out with all of the leaflets and publicity for Brain Tumour Research, and in the centre of all of that literature a large yellow bucket in case audience members who had already parted with their hard-earned money to attend the evening should feel disposed to donate further as they left.
When all of the preparations had been completed the audience started to arrive, so I dashed into my dressing room, quickly changed into my costume and then went out to meet and greet and mingle. As this was ‘my’ show I had decided to be present as the audience arrived, rather than theatrically hiding myself away – in this way I became actor, writer, producer, front of house manager and stage manager all in one, which didn’t allow me a lot of time to relax and prepare for the forthcoming performance.
The first arrivals were all from my own neighbourhood, and they gathered in the centre of the hall and chatted busily together, meaning that I could just as well have well given the performance in the middle of our street, and saved everyone the trouble of travelling. but soon others began to appear, and the small hall began to fill. It was by no means a full house, far from it indeed, but my efforts of the past few weeks produced a decent enough audience. Liz was there, with our two girls who have not seen me perform before and who would be staying for the first half, and there was a goodly sprinkling of friends and family, including Liz’s nephew Richard, a son of Sheila in whose memory these events are being held.
At 7.30 I made my way to the stage and began the show. Usually as I wait in the wings I listen as one of the organisers gets onto the stage and explains where the emergency exits are, as well as the toilet facilities, but being my own show, it fell to me to clumsily do that, before launching into the words of Charles Dickens, which begin the performance.
It was a fun half and the old script still got laughs where it always does. I felt slightly awkward writhing and squirming in the rather suggestive manner of Uriah Heep, and wondered what my daughters would make of daddy looking like that (and indeed when I was at home the next day they proudly told me that was their favourite part!), but gave the whole performance as much as I could.
The interval came and I rushed to change into Doctor Marigold’s costume, before returning to the stage to rearrange the furniture (thus adding stagehand to my growing job list!), and when I had completed the task I was able to give the girls a hug and say goodbye to them and Liz, before preparing to transform into Marigold.
The second half went well also, although the slightly boomy acoustics in the hall made some of the very fast paced dialogue difficult to hear, but the response to the ever-changing fortunes of the poor cheapjack was moving and generous as I took the applause at the end. Having taken my bows, I thanked the audience for their generosity once more and reminded them that in just a week’s time I would be running the Oxford Half Marathon for the same cause, thereby shamelessly encouraging them to part with yet more of their cash, and brought the evening to a close.
As the audience left, I stood at the door and thanked them for coming, and signed a few copies of my book, and one of my ‘A Christmas Carol’ DVDs, until the hall was empty with the exception of the staff and volunteers who had helped make the evening a success. As they began to rearrange the seating, I changed and started to pack up my belongings knowing that in the event of leaving something behind (a fairly common occurrence as regular readers will know), I wouldn’t have far to drive to retrieve it. I said my goodbyes and thanks, and set off into the night for my 5-minute drive home, where Liz was waiting for me.
The evening had been a success and added a few hundred pounds to my fundraising kitty. The audience had been incredibly generous and had donated an extra £78 into the Brain Tumor Research bucket. Now the focus will change as I prepare to line up at the start of The Oxford Half Marathon proudly bearing number 1391 and completing a challenge that began on April 16, 2022.
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Joe Hendrick said:
Truly enjoy reading your blog, Sir. Love the easy to read details of your encounters. Oh yes; Happy Birthday!!!!