A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Carol film, Best Western Hotels, Charles Dickens, Cheshire, Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biogrpahy of a Rail Crash, Frodhsam, NPR, Overton Hill, Weaver Words Literary Festival
My Spring tour continued on Saturday night when I headed North once more, this time to the county of Cheshire where I had been booked to perform as part of the Weaver Words Literary Festival in the small town of Frodsham which nestles at the point where the River Weaver joins the mighty Mersey. I have performed for the festival before, so this promised to be a nice return to a county that I very much enjoy.
As I mentioned last week, I was to perform Great Expectations, which is quite an involved and complicated script, and I had been going over and over the lines for a few weeks previously. Fortunately by Saturday Liz’s car had been fully repaired so I didnt need to hire another van, but could load up my trusty Renault with the various pieces of furniture that I required, including the white hat stand that forms Miss Havisham’s skeleton.
The drive was considerably shorter than that of 7 days earlier, taking only three hours, and I arrived at my hotel at 4pm, which gave me plenty of time to rest before preparing for the show. I was due to meet Philip Reeves, a radio journalist working for America’s National Public Radio, but based in England. We were due to contact each other by phone to arrange a good time to meet and talk before the show, but as it happened we didn’t need to, for we arrived at The Best Western hotel at exactly the same, and, having recognised me from my various online images, he introduced himself to me at the desk. We arranged to meet up in the lobby at 5.30 to record part of the feature that he was making.
I went to my room, watched some TV (the Snooker World Championship) before having a shower to freshen up and then heading to the hotel foyer where Philip was already waiting. We found a small conservatory space in which the inevitable muzak was not being played and settled down to chat, for his technique was very conversational, rather than a barrage of pre-prepared questions. We started talking about my background and career but soon he steered the conversation around to the current BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, which was his main focus. The show has created a great deal of controversy, for it doesn’t portray the soft-focus Victorian age than many would want or expect to see on a Sunday night. Instead the series is dark, violent, and not at all reflecting what Charles Dickens wrote in 1861. There are scenes of sadism, opium smoking, suicide, murder and all of this is laced with a foul-mouthed vocabulary which would make a maiden aunt blush.
So, what do I think about Great Expectations? Well, firstly I must say that I admire and accept any author’s attempt to adapt any work, by the very nature of the process every single adaptation (my own stage shows included) will be flawed and not reflect the original author’s vision. The only way to experience a pure telling of a novel is to read that novel. I therefore respect the producers and their decision to tell the story in their own way, I don’t even have an issue with their changing of plotlines and characters to tell their story. The truth is, that whatever a screenwriter does, however wild their vision, they will never taint the works of my great great grandfather – he is too big for that. Indeed, the very fact that hard-nosed producers are still investing millions of dollars into new adaptations is proof as to his standing, even a quarter of the way through the 21st century. So by mucking about with Great Ex, the memory and legacy of Charles Dickens will not be harmed, I am sure of that, So, what next? Well one of my major problems with the new version is why Great Expectations? It has been done so often (Helena Bonham-Carter, Gillian Anderson and Gwyneth Paltrow have all played Miss Havisham in recent years) and I don’t understand the need to do it yet again (says the actor who was preparing to perform his own adaptation!) If you are going ‘off the wall’ then why not choose one of the lesser-known novels which would not excite the same level of public outcry? I think the series was flawed as soon as they chose Great Expectations.
My second point about the show is that it has to stand up as a piece of theatre or entertainment on its own, without relying on the controversy to give it it legs, and this is where it disappoints me, I have found myself following it out of duty, rather than with any desire to see what is going to happen. I have found my mind wandering and getting a little bored by the whole thing. Some of the scenes and characters I admire, and can see how the original influenced them, but it will finish when it finishes and not leave any waves behind it.
Phillip and I chatted for about 40 minutes, with him gently prodding me to denounce the adaptation, raising many of the criticisms that have been aired and published in recent weeks for me to comment on. By 6.15 I needed to leave for the hall to prepare for the show, so we wrapped up the interview for now, and I drove the 5 minutes to The Frodsham Community Centre. In the carpark there were a few early audience members waiting for the doors to open (they are keen in the North West), and I unloaded all of my props. My contact with the Weaver Words Festival is Lynn Pegler and having greeted one another I started to place all of the furniture in the correct places. The set is dominated by a Miss Havisham figure standing upstage left, made from the white hatstand draped with various white and ivory fabrics to create the image of a stately bride.
When everything was in its correct place I went to the main hallway to introduce Phillip to Lynn (he was going to record some of the show for his feature) and found that there was a long queue waiting to come in, and many of them offered greetings as they had seen me in other venues throughout Cheshire and on Merseyside. I have quite a following now in this part of the country and love performing for what can be the most enthusiastic audiences imaginable. Having shaken a few hands and said a few hellos, I retired to my dressing room where I dressed and prepared for the evening ahead.
At 7.30 Lynn came to the dressing room to check that I was ready and then went to the stage to welcome the almost sell-out audience, and to introduce me. I stood in the wings, eager to begin like a caged Lion desperate to be released. Fortunately the opening lines are explosive, as the character of Magwitch pounces on Pip in the churchyard. The story is quite dark and intense, but is punctuated by Dickens’s trademark humour (rather overlooked by the BBC). In the opening scenes the audience chuckle and laugh at Pip’s sister, Mrs Joe Gargery, but are then taken into the confusing and domineering world of Miss Havisham at Satis House.
The first act went very well and was greeted by warm applause, which is always a relief with this particular show. I changed from the working clothes of the first act into the smart frock coat ensemble needed in the second, to reflect Pip’s progress from the Kentish Marshes to the respectability of London. I made sure the stage was cleared of the detritus of the first act (scattered playing cards and various items of costume), and then patiently waited until Lynn once again appeared.
The second act features dear old Wemmick and his Aged Parent as comic relief, before getting back to Pip’s frustrations regarding the beautiful Estella and the revelation as to the real provider of his great expectations. Very frustratingly I missed two lines of dialogue between Pip and Magwitch in which the convict, returned from Australia, introduces himself – this meant that the audience never knew that he is called Magwitch, or had used the pseudonym of Provis, making some of the later scenes potentially very confusing. Most annoying, especially after all the work I’d put in. Hey, ho, sometimes these things happen and I just had to put it from my mind and concentrate on doing a good job for the rest of the show.
In my script I use the second ending that Dickens wrote, in which he meets the ruin of Estella in the ruins of Satis House, the novel closes with them hand in hand, leaving the desolate grounds and hopefully into a life together.
Apart from my missed line, it was very good, energetic and convincing performance, and the applause at the end told me that it had hit the right marks with the audience. When the clapping had died down I opened the floor to questions, and was asked about the 2 endings to Great Expectations, about how Dickens had performed when he was on tour, naturally about the TV series, about my childhood experiences in the shadow of Charles and a few others. Eventually I wrapped up the evening and took another round of applause before making my way to the little merchandise table from which I sold my book, some A Christmas Carol brochures, as well as the DVD of A Christmas Carol. Lots of people came to chat and pose for photos. One particularly gratifying comment came from two separate ladies (I suppose that makes it two comments) who both told me that they were hard of hearing and yet could hear every word of my show. Good old fashioned projection and enunciation has always been a central part of my enjoyment when performing, and to have confirmation that my vocal talents are still working successfully is important to me.
Eventually the audience departed and having posed for a few photos on stage with the various volunteers from the festival, including Irina, a children’s author from the Ukraine, I started to change into my normal clothes and pack up the car again. It was around 10.30 when I left the hall, and realised that I hadn’t made any provision for dinner – the hotel restaurant would be closed, and there wasn’t much in the way of local restaurants who may be able to deliver at that time of night. Fortunately I had noticed a petrol station in the town, which had a convenience store attached and it lived up to its title for it was conveniently open. I bought a sandwich, some crisps, a box of little strawberry tarts for my dessert and drove back to the hotel where I sat on the bed watching a film on TV as my mind and my body gently wound down for the night.
The next morning I woke early and headed to the dining room at 7am, when the breakfast serviced started. The room was circular with floor to ceiling windows giving an impressive view of the landscape outside. The hotel is built on the top of Overton Hill which is a commanding position, and the scene before me was made more dramatic by squally rain that was sweeping across the countryside. I was looking over Mersey river, flowing inland from Liverpool, the Weaver and towards the towns of Runcorn and Widnes on the opposite banks.
Having finished my breakfast, it was soon time to get on the road and head back south once more, It had been a successful two weeks and it was good to back touring again and to feel the enthusiasm of the audiences. After a time away from the stage it is always reassuring to know that I can still do it, and that the public still enjoy it. The rest of my year is well booked with more visits to the North, the south and into Wales, and then of course I will be returning to America for my 30th anniversary tour in November and December – an exciting year, indeed.