Having heard the news from England, I wasn’t going to write a blog post about my travels yesterday, somehow it didn’t seem right, but I have decided to go ahead, although it feels difficult to be light-hearted and entertaining today. But here is my account of Thursday, 8 September 2022:
The 2022 September tour is an extra trip and enables some of the venues that have asked me to perform something other than A Christmas Carol, to present non-seasonal events. Unfortunately some of the sponsors who had originally asked to be part of the tour have since backed out, meaning that there are a few gaps in the itinerary, but I may get time to run, possibly play some golf or be a bit of a tourist.
My day started early as I had to catch an 8am flight from Heathrow airport which meant a taxi pulling up outside our house at 5 o’clock in the morning. I had packed everything the day before, so having had a slice of toast and a cup of coffee, it was a case of saying farewell to Liz and disappearing into the darkness. The traffic at that time in the morning was very light and so I was at Heathrow in very very good time. The same was true of check-in and security and I was all cleared and ready to fly just after 6! I headed to a Pret a Manger where I had a little bowl of Bircher muesli topped with blueberries, some orange juice and a coffee, all of which passed the time until the screens showed that I should proceed to gate B31. The B gates at terminal 2 are in a separate building and getting to them means descending the longest escalator I have ever used, and about half way down I had a terrible sense of vertigo and had to cling to the rail for a moment and look anywhere but down, to control the sensations of dizziness which were making my head spin.
Continuing the theme of the day, boarding started soon after I arrived and it was calm, quick and efficient, meaning that we could push back from the gate ahead of schedule. I had a window seat with nobody next to me (thanks to continually checking the United Airlines website and switching my seat every time I noticed someone reserving the one next to mine), so I could spread out a little. I began to scroll through the huge amount of films on offer (so different now to those days when one film was shown on a single screen at the front of the cabin, as it was when I first toured). Out of a sense of nostalgia I chose Jaws, and settled back into my seat, reassured by the announcement that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that we would experience a water landing. As an early birthday present, to allow for this trip, Liz had bought me a set of noise-cancelling wireless headphones which did an amazing job of cosseting me in the world of Amity Island, and blocking out a rainy London.
It was odd to fly at that time of day, as usually I am used to lunch being brought round after an hour’s flying, but today it was breakfast – my third of the day (if I count the toast and coffee at home), and I tucked into pancakes topped with a hot fruit compote and an unnamed and unidentifiable white sauce, maybe cream or custard – I think not cheese, who knows?
A strange thing happened when the cabin attendant came to offer me beverages: I asked for an orange juice and a coffee, and she poured both and handed them to me (I grant, not too strange at the moment). Now, usually I am asked ‘cream and sugar?’ and I reply, ‘yes, thank you, one of each.’ But on this occasion she didn’t ask, so I said ‘may I have cream and coffee please?’ to whish she rather scolded me – ‘You didn’t ask for cream and sugar, so I just gave you coffee. I gave you what you asked for, I’m not a mind reader you know!’ I was slightly taken aback by this tirade, but tried to lighten the moment by replying. ‘Oh I am sure you are!’ but it was an odd moment, nonetheless .
Once Chief Brody and Matt Hooper had swum back to Amity, leaving the wreck of the Orca and the remains of Quint in the Atlantic Ocean, it was time to chose another film and this time I went for Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar winner performance as Abraham Lincoln. It is a long film, and I dozed bit, but it was truly a remarkable performance, and I had forgotten the quality of the supporting cast. By the time Lincoln was over I decided that rather than launching into another movie, I would investigate the TV programmes, and found a special recording of John Williams conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – and so my unintended theme (the films of Spielberg as scored by Williams) was settled. It was a magnificent concert and was nice just to let the music fill my ears for an hour or so.
For the final leg of the flight, over Nova Scotia and down the New England coast towards New York City I went full out with my theme and started to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind and got three quarters of the way through as we made our soft, smooth landing on American soil. It was now that my day changed completely.
As my phone came back to life so the news came to me that doctors had serious concerns about the health of Queen Elizabeth II, and that all of the family were making their way to the Highlands of Scotland to be with her. That fact, and the fact that there was no mention of her being taken to hospital, could only mean one thing and a great sense of emptiness and depression descended over me, for the one constant of my entire life was about to be taken away. I just wanted to be at home with Liz, I didn’t want to be in America, I didn’t want to be preparing to do shows, I didn’t want to be wearing a smile and chatting to audience members, I wanted to be back in my home country being able to mourn with everyone else.
I spent the layover at Newark listening to the news coverage and it became increasingly obvious that all of the broadcasters were starting to follow carefully prepared protocols to bring the news of the Monarch’s death to the world. I boarded by onward flight to Jacksonville, Florida, and by the time I landed the news was confirmed. Strangely the line of news that most brought the reality of the situation to me was the mention of ‘King Charles III’: the succession occurs at the very moment of death, and a new era had begun.
There is little that I can add to the huge amount of tributes to Queen Elizabeth II that are being constantly played out over the news channels, but in 2012 I and Liz were fortunate enough to meet her. I am currently writing a new book about my life touring on the road, and in it I recall our time at Buckingham Palace:
‘In 2012 the nation celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth and the most prestigious event was a reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh. Invitations were received by famous actors who have performed in adaptations of the novels, academics who have studied and written about Charles’ life, and members of the family: Liz and I were truly fortunate to have been included on the list.
On 14 February we drove our car through the great gates in front of the palace and parked in the courtyard before walking under the famous portico, up the small flight of steps and into the Queen’s official London residence.
We ascended the grand staircase and made our way into a gilded and packed reception room, in which there seemed to be celebrities at every corner. We were given a glass of champagne and waiters circulated with plates of hors d’oeuvre, beautifully created to allow for single-bite ease of eating. Somehow, seamlessly, we discovered ourselves in a long line and at the head of it we were presented to the Queen and the Duke, who shook our hands and said a few words, before moving on to the next guests. If that wasn’t enough of a thrill, the members of the family were gathered up and taken to a smaller room, where we were granted a second and more private audience with the Queen, who spent ten minutes or so chatting with us all, demonstrating a remarkable memory as she recalled meeting my Uncle Peter many years previously, wistfully remembering that he had been ‘rather dishy’. Peter had been a Royal Naval officer
Queen Elizabeth was quite amazing, the energy she demonstrated as she worked the room, making intelligent conversation with all of these literary and artistic folk, was remarkable. And the next evening, or later in the week, she would be talking to nuclear physicists, or footballers, or politicians, and she would share the same beaming smile with them and display the same levels of knowledge of their work and would delight them as she had delighted us.’
That occasion was a truly memorable one, but my feelings of grief are not due to that evening, but to the sense that a major part of our reality has gone. Our parents lived through multiple changes of monarch, through both death and abdication, but for the multiple generations that have been born since 1952 we have known nothing other than the leadership and care of Queen Elizabeth II
Life will go on, and our King will serve the country well, but it will never be the same again.
When I arrived at my hotel on Jekyll Island in Georgia I noticed that the flags that flew on the spacious lawns had been lowered to half mast.
I don’t want to write more about my journey or my evening, or why I am in Georgia, that can wait until tomorrow. For now just to say ‘Rest in peace, your Majesty, and God save the King’