A Christmas Carol, BBC, Charles Dickens, Doctor Marigold, Knebworth House, Nicholas Nickleby, The National Gallery, The Signalman, Wentworth Woodhouse
The month of June sees me travelling the country to perform at a wide range of events, including the annual, albeit re-branded, Rochester Summer Dickens Festival, a podcast appearance chatting about my book, a visit to a historic railway centre where I shall be performing The Signalman in the shadow of a real signal box and a steaming locomotive, and finally a journey back to Cheshire to perform Great Expectations again – very busy, very exciting.
My professional month started on June 2nd with a return visit to the magnificent Wentworth Woodhouse estate near Rotherham in Yorkshire, where I was to perform Nicholas Nickleby and Doctor Marigold at a fundraising dinner. I first visited this remarkable house, which dates back to 1725, a year ago and my performances had been received so well that I have been booked for two dates this year, the second being as part of my Christmas tour in November. On Friday morning I loaded the car with all of the props and costumes that I would need and set off at 12.pm, in order to give me plenty of time to break the journey for some lunch, and still arrive at my hotel early, so that I could shower and rest before heading to the house. As it happened, I needed all of the extra time because the M1 was heavy with traffic and at one point came to a complete standstill for about 20 minutes. Why? I don’t know, for when we did start moving again there seemed to be no sign of an accident or blockage on the carriageway – maybe an errant horse or swan had meandered onto the road bringing the country’s main North-South thoroughfare to a halt.
I had hoped to reach my hotel at around 3pm, thereby giving me almost two hours to rest, but as it was I arrived at 4.15 meaning I just had time for a refreshing shower (and it WAS refreshing, more on the shower later), before driving the fifteen minutes to the village of Wentworth. I turned into the driveway at exactly 5pm and marvelled once again at the new East front of the house. The original Jacobean-styled 1725 architecture facing West had not been widely admired and an alternative Palladian-inspired building was commissioned which now dominates the gently rolling parkland around.
As I pulled up I thought how lucky I am to perform in such wonderful venues. Of course Highclere Castle is now a regular stop at Christmas, but in the past I have also visited the magnificent, and slightly bonkers, Knebworth House, where Charles Dickens himself was a frequent visitor. My time at Knebworth came back to me this week, when I read an article on the BBC website about using the ancestral home of the Bulwer-Lytton family for filming purposes. The feature mentioned that Netflix had asked for permission to remove a certain window, a request that had been declined. The article quoted the current owner, Henry Lytton-Cobbold (or the 3rd Baron Cobbold) who said ‘The last time a window came out was for Charles Dickens in the 1860s so he could get an instrument in. But we couldn’t do it for Netflix.’ Well! this piqued my curiosity no end, and I instantly emailed Lord C to ask him about the circumstances of Dickens’ visit. He replied almost instantly, saying ‘For the 1850 theatricals at Knebworth to provide music for the performance Dickens hired a huge hybrid musical instrument called a ‘choremusicon’, which he assured would be ‘better than three musicians’ and could be hoisted in through the Banqueting Hall window’ I can see that incident being the basis of a new Netflix mini-series, although of course the production team would not be allowed to remove the window, so we are back to square one….
Back to my Yorkshire trip, and as soon as I arrived I was warmly welcomed and given help to unload the car. For all its grandeur Wentworth Woodhouse is in a bit of a state (as well as being in an estate), and is owned by the Wentoworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, whose mission it is to restore and preserve the building. Much amazing work has already been done, but there is plenty yet to do, and peeling paint and cracked plaster are not hidden away, rather they act as a very visual reminder to the visitor of the monumental undertaking that lies before the dedicated staff.
I was to perform Nickleby in the Whistlejacket room, which is named in honour of the racehorse featured in a George Stubbs’ painting, a copy of which still dominates the room, although the original is the National Gallery in London.
I carried my furniture up the main staircase, overlooked by various marble statues and busts, and arranged it in front of the ten dining tables which were awaiting preparation for the guests, who would be sitting down to eat at 7.30. My performance space was beneath Whistlejacket (which would prove useful later that evening), but was quite limited, being very close to the front tables. Nickleby is a very theatrical show, with quite large scenes featuring a school-master’s cane being violently wielded, so I would have to be very careful not to inadvertently inflict wounds on my audience.
Last year I performed ‘Mr Dickens is Coming’ before dinner, and The Signalman after, and I had assumed that this year’s event would run along similar lines, but as I was preparing I was told that actually dinner would be served first, and then I would perform Nickleby, take a short interval and then go straight into Marigold, which meant a lot of work all squeezed together later in the evening. Fortunately my dressing room was in one of the mansion’s many bedrooms, and I was able to stretch out and nap, whilst final preparations were made and the guests began to arrive. My bedroom was situated off The Long Gallery, which is used to serve afternoon teas, and the sun poured in through a floor-to-ceiling bow window, casting a magnificent avenue of light onto the floor, and I took the opportunity to take a very atmospheric picture of my shadow cast onto the floor.
As the guests dined I was brought dinner too, and it was delicious – especially the dessert which was a small baked apple, filled with fruits and served with a small shortbread biscuit and a pool of custard. My mother used to make baked apple, and sitting in Victorian costume, I was swept back to happy childhood memories.
But now I had to bring myself back to the present moment and prepare to be an actor again. Mark Barthrop, who is in charge of fundraising and is my contact at WW, appeared to check that I was ready, and having received an affirmative answer went into the room to introduce me (having first thanked the chef and all of the volunteers who had made the evening possible.)
I managed to successfully squeeze the performance into the small space, without inflicting any injuries, but there was one aspect of the evening that made me very nervous (and had weighed heavily on my mind during the whole build up to the day), and that was the matter of my Yorkshire accent. Much of Nicholas Nickleby is set in the school kept by Mr Wackford Squeers and his family in North Yorkshire. ‘The Yorkshire Schools’ were a scandal at the time the book was written and Charles Dickens had taken on the cause with his usual campaigning vigour. The establishments in question took children, sometimes illegitimate, sometimes from a previous marriage, but usually an embarrassment to a respectable family, and in return for yearly fees made sure they were kept out of the way as far from London as possible. The boys were beaten, ill-treated and malnourished and many died and were buried in the school precincts.
So, here I was in Yorkshire, surrounded by Yorkshire folk, putting on my best (hopefully) Yorkshire accent and basically being very rude about the county! However fortunately the audience seemed to like the show and laughed and clapped along with me. In the scene when Mr Squeers is teaching a class he asks one boy ‘what is a horse?’ before instructing the poor child to go and see to the stables and clean the horses. As I got to the line I realised that behind me was the huge rearing image of Whistlejacket, and I was able to refer to the portrait as if it were a teaching aid in Dotheboys Hall: ‘An ‘orse is a quadruped, and quadruped is Latin for beast!’
The performance came to an end, and now I had a brief interval while everyone withdrew to a small drawing room downstairs, where chairs had been laid out in a theatrical style, meaning that the volunteers could clear the Whistlejacket room. I ran back to the Yellow Bedroom to change into my Doctor Marigold costume before getting the nod again from Mark, and starting on my favourite performance.
In a previous blog post I mentioned that Doctor Marigold is one of the scripts that I can almost do without much rehearsing, but as I had not performed it since last September, I had put a good few hours into rehearsal. The drawing room was perfect for the show, as it was much more intimate than upstairs, and the walls were lined with bookshelves, which ties in with the plot line. Regular readers will know how much I enjoy inhabiting the loving, caring, resilient character of Doctor Marigold, the fast-talking market cheapjack., and it was an honour to become him once again. As is so often the case, the audience were entranced by his story, and many gasped at the line towards the end of the show which, according to Dickens’ tour manager George Dolby, produced the same effect on Victorian audiences. I took my bows still in a highly emotional state as I always am when Marigold says farewell.
As the audience left many came up to shake me by the hand and to tell me how moved they had been, how beautiful the story was, and how they would definitely be back at Christmas to see me perform ‘The Carol’. When everyone had made their way into the night, I changed and when I got back to the entrance hall was delighted to find that all of my furniture and props had been brought to the door, meaning that the loading of the car was an easy and quick process. I said my goodbyes, and shook hands before driving away from the magnificent house. There was an almost full, and gloriously golden, moon out which accompanied me back to my hotel.
I didn’t sleep well that night, I rarely do after a performance, and as all of the rigours of this one had been late in the evening, the adrenaline was still in my veins, and my mind was buzzing but eventually sleep came.
Just a final word about my stay at the Rotherham-Sheffield Holiday Inn, and that is that it seemed to have been designed by someone who actually stays in hotel rooms. My suspicion is based on two facts, the first being that the controls for the shower are not under the shower head, behind the shower screen, but on the opposite wall, meaning that you don’t have to reach right in and get a very wet arm when turning it on. The second detail was the laying of the cutlery for breakfast (it is a Gerald Dickens blog post – you KNEW that there would be mention of breakfast sooner or later, didn’t you?) As is the way of things nowadays the breakfast was a buffet, and the tables were laid with a spoon, fork and two knives.
Why two knives? Well, you use one to cut into your bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, beans, mushrooms and whatever else you may have piled onto your plate, but what you don’t want is to use that same food-covered and flavoured knife to spread marmalade onto your toast or croissant – such a simple thing, but it made me smile and silently thank whoever had realised this and acted on it, to make a stay easier.
Next week I drive in the opposite direction, South to Kent where I will once again be performing Nicholas Nickleby at the Rochester Dickens Festival.