Having returned from America last week, and having solemnly and proudly spending Monday watching the funeral of Queen Elizabeth (wearing a dark suit and black tie in respectful honour of my Monarch), it was time to turn my attentions to the two projects coming up in October.
The first is a performance of Mr Dickens is Coming and Doctor Marigold in my home town of Abingdon, to raise funds for Brain Tumour Research. My fundraising efforts began in April when Liz’s sister Sheila died from the condition and I decided to turn my hand to working on behalf of the charity. The main push to my efforts was entering the Oxford Half Marathon on October 16th, and much of my year has been spent pounding the Oxfordshire roads trying to get myself into shape to complete 13 miles. However I also decided to stage a benefit performance (which will require rather less effort than the Half), and that is due to be performed on 7th October, so my initial work was to put in place publicity for the show. I designed posters and had them printed and started sending press releases out to all and sundry. Ticket sales are looked after by Eventbrite and it was with a smile that the first email confirmations of bookings came into my inbox.
With publicity rolling, I also needed to get back to training. I had run a couple of times in America, but not with any great intensity, so I went out one afternoon to run the 6 mile ring road which surrounds Abingdon. Everything was going well and my breathing was good and the legs felt powerful….until the 3 mile mark when suddenly a searing pain came from my right calf. I immediately stopped (I had promised myself, and Liz, that if anything felt untoward I wouldn’t push on thereby risking further damage), and limped home. What I hoped might be a cramp lingered annoyingly into the evening and through the night, so I feared that I may have suffered my first running injury just as I should be in my final stages of preparations. The next day I called a sports physiotherapist, but he was unavailable, so I just went about my ordinary business without putting too much strain on my leg. The next day it felt better, and I tried a few little runs, just a few hundred yards at a time, and felt no adverse effects, so I was confident that I could get out for a proper training run again.
Today, 23 September, I dropped our children to school and then set off to do two laps of the ring road, which would mean a 12 mile run – the little loop back to home would mean that I would be completing around 13 miles, the very distance that I will need to achieve to complete the event in October. I knew that I had to prove to myself that I could complete 13 miles before arriving in Oxford, and it needed to be done sooner than later, for if I were still pounding out long distances in the week of the event I wouldn’t have any energy for the race itself, so today was the day (leg muscles allowing)
At 8.50 I started to run, and it felt good. I kept a steady pace, not wanting to go off too quickly, and soon was in the centre of the town. I passed the spot where my calf had gone a few days before and still everything was OK. On I ran, past the fire station and later the police station, then turning right opposite McDonalds and climbed gradually towards the point I’d started from.
For much of my training I have been listening to audiobooks to accompany me, but a good friend and keen runner had told me that actually he runs better with nothing playing in his ears, so today I tried this and it seemed to work. My mind, rather than concentrating on the unfolding story, just ambled around. I thought of my forthcoming show, I thought of the performances in the USA, I admired a motorcyclist’s crash helmet livery which was charmingly old fashioned, rather than the multi-coloured ones that are usually so popular. I listened to birds, looked at trees, read the names of haulage companies on the cabs of lorries, and the miles just slipped away under the soles of my feet
I still felt strong, so set off for a second 6 mile lap. I had a choice to make at this point, did I turn round and complete lap two in the reverse direction, which in hindsight would have been the sensible thing to do, or just plough on through familiar scenery? I decided to carry on. Of course it was getting harder, but I was soon in town again (where my 10 year old’s class was gathering to sing Status Quo’s ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ in the market square for reasons I am not sure of), and on towards McDonalds again, which would be the ten mile mark. At this stage, I admit, I began to find the going tough and I slowed to a walk a few times during those final 3 miles, but I never stopped, I was moving forward the whole time, and when I reached home I checked my Strava app and saw that I had clocked up exactly 13 miles. I had done it! When I had thought about this run I reckoned I could do it in around 2 hours, 10 minutes (I run at an average pace of 9.30 minute miles, but I knew I wouldn’t keep that up over thirteen and had estimated an average of 10 minute miles), and my final time was 2 hours 9 minutes, despite the walking: I was very very proud of that!
So I am in a good place, I know that I can do it, and now can rein back the distances a little to leave me with plenty of energy for the big day – I even have a PB to aim for now, I would like to get to around 2 hours if I could on the day.
So, I think that deserves some more sponsorship donations! Thank you so much to all of those who have already contributed so generously, taking the fund up to nearly £1,000, but we need more! So please do check out the link and come with me on my 13 mile journey.
As summer turns to autumn my thoughts turn to a series of trips to America, but before I fly to Jacksonville on Thursday, I had one performance in Britain. I was returning to The Word, the magnificent National Centre for the Written Word in the north eastern city of South Shields.
In a remarkable attempt at efficiency I had decided to load the car the day before and had even created a spreadsheet with all of the props and costume pieces that I would need listed and a little check box waiting to be ticked next to each. I was due to perform Great Expectations and of all my major shows this one probably has the smallest set, meaning that packing the car is a relatively quick process, albeit one that always leaves me with the feeling that I have forgotten something. But, I had checked all of the boxes on my list, so it was all OK.
South Shields is tucked away in the far North Eastern corner of England, not far from the Scottish border, indeed just over the River Tyne is the town of Wallsend which marks the end (and also, presumably, the beginning) of Hadrian’s Wall. The drive from Oxford is around 4 1/2 hours, and allowing for a couple of stops for lunch and leg stretching I needed to get on the road at about 10.am.
Last time I drove to The Word I suffered a puncture within 20 minutes of starting and had to carry out a tyre change in the darkness and rain, so I was relieved that this year the journey was smooth and adventure-free. I listened to some podcasts and coverage of the morning practice sessions from the latest Grand Prix weekend, and in between took the time to run the lines of Great Ex. which still resolutely refuse to permanently in the way that the words of A Christmas Carol and Mr Dickens is Coming! do.
I stopped for lunch at a motorway service station and as I returned to the car I thought I would just check my costumes, which were hanging over the passenger seat, and to my horror I realised that I had failed to include a fancy waistcoat, despite ticking the relevant box. The costumes of Great Expectations lead from ragged at the opening (representing the convict Abel Magwitch and the Spartan life of the Gargery family in their tiny forge,) to a slightly old fashioned tail coat in which young Pip is sent to meet the intimidating Miss Havisham. At the end of the first act Pip is informed that he is to receive a huge income and be raised a gentleman by the largesse of an unknown benefactor (assumed to be Miss Havisham, of course) and at that point he changes into expensive and extravagant clothing.
As I drove on I debated as to how I could sort this problem out and decided I couldn’t really get away with wearing the very drab and plain waistcoat from the first act, so began looking for a shopping centre along the route where I could maybe find a store where I could purchase a fancy waistcoat – a wedding supplier would be perfect. In the end I found an outlet village in the Yorkshire town of Castleford and made my way in.
There used to be a television in the early 90’s programme called ‘Challenge Anneka’ in which the host, Anneka Rice, would leap out of a helicopter and try to find some equipment or products to complete the week’s challenge (usually refurbishing a community centre or school). She would run around shouting to anyone who happened to be present, ‘where can I find a timber merchant? Hello! can you help, I need a supply of timber, can you tell me where I need to go?’ and off she would run with camera crew in tow. Well, I felt a little in the same boat as I arrived at the crowded mall and I wanted to grab passers by and shout ‘Waistcoats, I need colourful waistcoats, help me, where is a waistcoat shop, can anyone help?’ Fortunately for the residents of Castleford the very first shop I saw was a men’s outfitters called Eden, and I thought I’d make a start there. At the very back of the shop I found a very smart double breasted waistcoat in a midnight blue with a pale check across it. Although not garish and bright, it exuded a sense of style and actually reminded me of one of the waistcoats that Dickens himself wore, and which was highlighted in the recent exhibition at The Charles Dickens Museum ‘Technicolour Dickens’.
Fortunately they had my size and, being an outlet centre, the price was very reasonable, so I bought it on the spot and resumed my journey north with a sense of relief.
I was due to stay in a hotel at Gateshead, on the banks of the Tyne, and just had time to check in , before continuing my journey along the river to arrive at the magnificent cylindrical building that houses The Word. I have performed at The Word on three previous occasions, so I know the form, which is to ignore all accepted traffic laws and drive up onto the pavement and park outside an anonymous looking door, through which my props can be easily carried to a lift. I was greeted by Pauline Martin and together we emptied the car before I could go and park a short distance away.
When I returned, Pauline had kindly loaded the lift and got everything to the top floor and all I had to do was to set the set, which involves draping and dressing a white hat stand to represent the figure of Miss Havisham and placing a few bits of furniture, as well as carefully leaving some items of costume on stage that are required during the first act (including my new waistcoat which was due to make its debut without rehearsal…).
It was an early start, 6.pm, and at 5.30 Pauline asked if she could let the public in and I retired to my little backstage store room to change and prepare for the show. From what I could hear there was a goodly-sized audience gathering and I was keen to begin. The problem with the room at The Word is that it is not a particularly theatrical space, especially as regards to lighting. Pauline had told me that when the building was built they had been promised spot lights, but that they have never materialised, meaning that the choice is strip lighting on, meaning my face is illuminated but so is the rest of the room, or strip lighting off, meaning that my face and figure is in shadow. We went for lights on.
At 6 o’clock I hid myself behind the stage and waited for the voiceover taken from the opening passages of the book to finish and then bounded onto the stage in the guise of Abel Magwitch: ‘Hold your noise, or I’ll slit your throat!’
Great Expectations takes quite a bit of concentration from the audience, and I am always a little concerned that it may not work, but the crowd in The Word followed every scene intently, meaning that I could tell the story without further worry. As I came towards the end of the first act I arrived at the moment when Pip has to change into his new smart London clothes, and so I picked up the new waistcoat. There was one problem in that whilst the fabric of the garment itself is suitably traditional, the lining is VERY garish and modern. This wouldn’t normally be a issue, but as I had to actually put the thing on, I couldn’t help the audience getting a glimpse of modernity. Maybe in the future I will get somebody to make a plain lining, but for now it did a good job and I was proud of its debut.
The end of the act arrived and the applause was long, loud and greatly appreciated. During the interval I changed properly (the ‘posh’ clothes are simply put on over the rough costume in the final scene of the act) and then snuck back to the stage as surreptitiously as I could, to remove a few props and discarded pieces of costume, before waiting for Pauline to give me the nod that Act 2 could begin.
The second half was as successful as the first and when I left the stage as Pip holding hands with Estella (my ending is based on Dickens’s second version, rather than on his terribly downbeat first attempt), the applause was once again very generous in both volume and longevity, and Great Expectations had hit the mark.
I took my bows and then changed and started to pack up my props and costumes. By the time I re-emerged onto the stage most of the audience had departed, but a few folk were still in the room and came up to chat, congratulate and pose for selfies before they headed down in the lift.
Various staff members at The Word helped me to get all of my stuff downstairs while I fetched the car and drove it up onto the pavement once more. I said my goodbyes (hopefully I will be back next year, possibly in March to celebrate World Book Day), and drove back to Jury’s Hotel in Gateshead.
The great thing about starting a show at 6pm was that the hotel restaurant was still serving food when I returned, and I was able to sit in the bar and have a piece of chicken roasted with lemon and thyme and wind down slowly.
I didn’t sleep terribly well through the night: fitful describes it, but towards morning I was beginning to doze off when suddenly the fire alarm went off screeching loudly in my room and flashing a red light, meaning I had to vacate the room, follow the green emergency exit signs and make my way down to the street with all of the other guests, where we waited for about half an hour as two fire engines arrived and investigated.
Fortunately there was no inferno, or even a smoulder, and we were allowed back to our rooms to catch a few more winks until the breakfast service began.
I treated myself to a ‘full English’ (ignoring mushrooms and black pudding) from the buffet and sat at a window seat looking over the Tyne towards the city of Newcastle on the opposite bank.
My fast suitably broken I packed up my bags and began the drive home, making sure I drove past Anthony Gormley’s amazing Angel of the North sculpture that towers over the A1 road. It is always a lovely experience to be in the North East and I shall be back in Newcastle in November to perform A Christmas Carol at The Literary and Philosophical Society.
And now thoughts turn to two important projects, the first being my trip to America during which I will mainly be performing the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold at a variety of venues. At my very last stop, however, I am due to perform A Child’s Journey With Dickens, and was able to ask the venue if I may share the stage with actor Jennifer Emerson. Jennifer and I gave a Zoom performance of the piece last year, during which she took the role of Kate Douglas Wiggin whilst I played Dickens, so I was especially keen to reprise our performance whilst actually being in the same room, city, state, country and continent!
The other event which is looming ever larger is the Oxford Half Marathon which is to be run on 16 October. I have been in training for a few months now, and need to make sure that my efforts don’t flag, even though I am travelling and performing. When our daughters go back to school next week I shall make sure I get a few runs in, and hopefully a few in America too, even if that means availing myself of treadmills in various hotel gyms.
You will remember that I am running the race to raise much needed funds for Brain Tumour Research, and as an extra event I have scheduled a performance of Mr Dickens is Coming on 7 October in my home town of Abingdon with all profits going to my JustGiving page.
Please do support me in my efforts, you can donate to the fund by following the link at the end of this post. I am so grateful to all of those who have donated already and am keen to raise as much as I can for a cause that has had such a big impact on the life of Liz and me this year.
I shall let you know how the training is going in another post soon.
Now that my intense period of touring is at an end I can get back to my running, and resume training for The Oxford Half Marathon in October.
To remind you of the story so far, on April 16th this year my sister in law Sheila died after suffering from the effects of a brain tumour for 18 months. During her illness her husband, Martin, had undertaken a charity bike ride to raise funds and awareness for The Brain Tumour Research charity, and I thought that I would like to make some kind of effort to do the same to help continuing research into this most awful scourge that continues to indiscriminately rip so many families apart.
During the various periods of lockdown I had taken up running in a very minor way, originally setting myself the modest target of being able to run 5km. Of course I started looking to purchase various pieces of equipment: shoes, shorts, shirts, a thing to hold my phone so that I could track my progress, and that meant that those little creatures deep inside the internet began to send me links to all sorts of running-associated sites, one of which asked me to run 50 miles in January to raise money for a local cancer charity. The challenge was exhilarating and I actually began to enjoy the whole process of pushing myself a little harder, a little further. I found that actually I could run 3 miles all at once, without stopping, and then 5, 8 and even 10
Having run 50 miles in 2 successive Januarys I wanted to look for another challenge, and those little internet mites went to work once more and slipped into my inbox details of a ballot to enter the 2022 Oxford Half Marathon. Well, a half marathon is of course for real runners and there was no way that I would be selected, but I filled out the form anyway and submitted it (thereby guaranteeing the short term careers of the Google Gremlins for a few more months to come). It was with a sense of shock, and some alarm, that a couple of months ago I received a notification to tell me that my entry had been accepted and that I would be expected on the start line surrounded by the dreaming spires, a week after my 59th birthday. It was at this stage that I contacted Brain Tumour Research and offered to use the opportunity to raise finds for them. Not only did they accept my offer with open arms, but they even sent me a branded running vest to train and race in.
I launched a fundraising campaign and, even though I hadn’t achieved anything yet, a most generous group of people donated straight away, giving me the responsibility to see this project through to the end.
So, back to training it was. I had rather let my running lapse over the previous weeks, and I miserably discovered that I was right back at a stage when I couldn’t manage 4 miles without stopping to recover along the way, which was annoying. Occasionally I did a 5 mile run, but it certainly didn’t feel easy, for the muscle/mass coefficient was literally heavily weighted towards the latter. My progress wasn’t helped by the many shows I have had, for I didn’t like to run on the morning of a performance, preserving my energy for the evening’s events, and I was never in a condition to run on the morning after a show, so the regularity of training runs was disrupted and there I stayed, mired at the 5 mile mark.
At the end of June, however, things began to calm down professionally and I was able to get out onto the Oxfordshire roads more often, and during the week commencing 27 June I found myself able to complete three runs of over 7 miles each, which was an important number, for it is over half the eventual race distance. The following week I was able to hit 9 miles, and things seemed to be going well.
From a pace point of view I was a little disappointed, as I was continually coming in at an average of 10 minute miles, whereas a year or so ago I was getting down to 9.5, but I am sure that will come and actually it is of no importance at all – whatever pace I run at in October I will achieve my PB in a Half Marathon!
I have various routes for my training runs, one of which takes me out of Abingdon to the village of Culham, where I then run on the River Thames tow-path back into town. At this time of year the river is alive with swans, gulls, moorhens, ducks and other wildfowl, whilst boats make their way through the various locks and downstream towards London, or upstream to the source. The sound of the narrow boats, especially, is wonderful, a very slow throb throb throb, as they cleave the water at 4 mph. Typically the skipper at the stern will offer a cheery wave and we will exchange a mutually inaudible morning greeting.
Another route takes me into farmland on the other side of town and on that run I cross fields of growing wheat, which is ripening now and the smell is so fresh and healthy that it seems to put an extra spring into my steps.
If you would like to encourage me and follow my training then why not add me on the Strava app and send me a few motivational messages to see me over that 13 mile target?
For company I like to listen to audio books that reflect my surroundings and mood: last year I worked my way through all of the James Herriot stories, whilst during this recent training I have listened to Three Men in a Boat and currently am relishing the beautiful Cotswold accent of Laurie Lee in his own recording of Cider With Rosie. I studied the book at school, and now I see why, for the imagery throughout is stunning. I particularly loved Lee’s childhood memory of fresh spring water being drawn from a pipe in the garden, he said it ‘was like liquid sky’ I smiled as I ran when I heard that.
I am not a fan of music when running, as it seems to dictate a rhythm or pace which I may or may not want to achieve on any given morning, I much prefer the spoken word.
Besides challenging myself, the real reason for all of this is to raise money, and over the next few weeks I will be bombarding you with requests for support, so maybe its best to get it done now, so that you can forget all about it! I have set a target of £3,000, but of course I would like to raise more – double it, treble it, I, or Brain Tumour Research, wont mind. As an extra fundraising event I am also going to stage a show in Abingdon during the week before the race, and all profits from the ticket sales will go into the pot, so if you are local then watch this space for further announcements soon.
I am posting this blog on 16th July which marks the exact halfway mark between Sheila’s death on 16th April and the race itself which takes place on the 16th October.
What’s that? How can you donate? Ah, a very good question. Follow the link to my Just Giving Page and all will become clear!
My busy early summer continued last Friday with a trip to the home of the traditional British pork pie – Melton Mowbray. An online recipe for this delicious pastry product states that you should set the oven at 180 degrees Celsius before beginning the preparation, and it seemed as if someone had set the weather gauge to the same temperature last week. It was the hottest day of the year in Britain and as a race we don’t do very well in the heat (or in snow, or fog, or ice, or wind; although we are quite good at rain), and a typical conversation of the day would have run: ‘Oh, my, it’s too hot, isn’t it?’, ‘Yes, it is. Unbearable. But we shouldn’t grumble.’ ‘No! of course not, but a little cooler would be nice.’ ‘I hear there is a storm due this evening, that will break it!’ The same exchange would have taken place up and down the country.
I was due to perform my double bill featuring The Signalman and Doctor Marigold and the set for that programme only just fits into the back of my car and then only if I get everything in the correct order and alignment. By the time everything was in and the boot lid shut successfully without the glass shattering into a million pieces (which actually happened to me many years ago), I was a dripping sodden mess. I had a shower to freshen myself up again and after having a hearty lunch I set off towards Leicestershire, with the various items of the set rattling in the back.
I had booked a hotel in the town and when I checked in I found that the sun had been beating on the front of the hotel (where my room was situated) all afternoon and the atmosphere was oppressive. Fortunately there was a huge fan in the room which, as well as giving the feeling that I was in a Caribbean villa, also stirred the air a little and created a comforting breeze as I relaxed.
I was due at the venue at 4.pm, so didn’t have long at the hotel, and at 3.45 I returned to my car to make the very short drive across town to The Hope Centre, the base of Melton Vineyard Christian Church. Although the Church’s services are not actually held at the Centre, it is open throughout the week as a drop-in centre and a foodbank, serving the entire community; the sad fact being that it’s services are being called upon more and more frequently as the country’s economy continues to suffer.
I have performed at The Hope Centre before and my contact there is Gillian Ennis. Those readers with a keen eye and good memory may recognise the surname, for her brother Ben Ennis is responsible for staging my shows at the Guildhall in Leicester. I arrived a little after 4.15, having become considerably tangled up in the Melton one-way traffic system, but I had plenty of time in hand and a parking place had been left for me close to the back door, into which I could unload my two sets of furniture. My performance space was on the second floor of the building but I was assisted in the process of heaving everything into place both by Neal, who runs the centre, and a small lift which has been installed into the old building. It is a quirky lift in that it has no walls and ceiling, just a floor, which means if you happen to be leaning against the side as it begins its journey you discover that you are sort of pulled down because you are actually leaning against the lift shaft. Similarly as you approach the top of the building you can see the roof getting ever closer and there is a feeling for a moment that the lift wont stop and that the end is nigh…..such dramatic imaginations, as if from a big-budget disaster movie, seem curiously out of place in a building filled with such compassion and love.
In the room on the top floor Neal began to erect a stage and when all was fixed in position I placed the furniture for The Signalman. Being on the very top floor the room was, of course, very hot (one complete wall being large windows through which the sun had shone all afternoon), and although there were two air conditioning units rattling away, they were fighting a losing battle.
When the set was in place, a call came up from one of the rooms below that supper was ready: Gill had very kindly prepared a fish pie with peas, followed by a choice of rhubarb crumble with cream or a fruit salad. What a treat! As we dined Neal decided to open an emergency exit to allow some air in, knowing that the action would set off an alarm, so he disappeared to override the security system, before returning to resume his meal. After a few minutes he had a phone call from the security company just checking that everything was OK at The Hope Centre, and he was able to reassure them that yes, it was.
When dinner was finished I returned to the room upstairs and began to rehearse Doctor Marigold, as I hadn’t performed it for a few weeks (Back in Bury St Edmunds) and so many other scripts had come and gone since that I wanted to be sure that everything was in place. Having satisfied myself that Marigold was ok, I moved onto The Signalman, although I was less worried about that having performed it regularly over the last couple of weeks.
As the time for the show came ever closer I withdrew into Neal’s office which was repurposed as my dressing room for the evening, and drank lots of water, before getting into costume. I could hear the audience gather and they sounded to be a lively, enthusiastic bunch. At 7.30 Neal welcomed all present and introduced me. I took to the stage and began by talking about Staplehurst (taking care to mention my book, which would be on sale at the end of the evening), and then began with The Signalman. In no time the sweat was dripping down my face so much that my eyes began to sting. The audience were also using anything that came to hand to fan themselves. The sensible ones, who knew the room, has sat in the very back row, directly under the two air con units.
As the suspense of the story built the atmosphere was a little hindered by the distant sounding of an alarm siren, and I noticed that each time Neal left the room to see what was happening. He told me afterwards that apparently there was another group using a space in the building and they had tried to open an emergency door, as Neal had done earlier. Of course the alarm went off, but when it was re-set they fastened the door on its safety chain meaning it kept pulling closed, then blowing open again, setting the alarm off each time! It didn’t really effect the show too much and the first half ended with lovely applause and I returned to my dressing room, where I stood in front of a large fan with a towel draped over my head until I had sufficiently cooled down to change into Doctor Marigold’s costume ready for the second half.
I needed to change the set around, so whilst the audience were chatting and enjoying their interval drinks I bumbled around the stage removing the signal box set and replacing it with the wooden steps, which represent Marigold’s cart, the plain wooden crate with a rolled up blanket inside, a little rustic wooden stool, and a few other pieces of set dressing. Although I didn’t actually say anything or interact, in my mind I was Marigold arriving at a new pitch, setting up his cart ready to sell to the gathering crowd.
I returned to the dressing room, drank more water and waited for Neal to give me the go ahead for part 2
Marigold, once more, charmed the audience and the applause at the end was long and heartfelt. A few days later Neal emailed me to say that one gentleman in the audience had ‘come to support the event and that it wasn’t really his ‘thing’, but he’d been absolutely held throughout and now he won’t miss any future events.’ which is a lovely compliment to both the performance but more especially to the wonderful creation of my great great grandfather.
When the show was over I chatted to audience members as they left, as well as signing copies of my book, until the only people left were the volunteers and staff from Melton Vineyard. I changed and then began the process of loading up the lift for multiple journeys to the car park, where I tried to remember the order in which I had stacked all of my props that morning. When everything was in, I said my goodbyes and drove back to my hotel.
The room was cooler now and the large fan still whirred as another day of performing drew to a close.
Call it a busman’s holiday, but when Liz asked me last year if I would like to go to theatre to see a production of A Christmas Carol as one of my Christmas presents, I leaped at the chance. I never tire of the story and any opportunity to see someone else’s vision of it is a privilege, and is also useful for the ongoing development of my own show as I always notices different ways of presenting a scene, or even just an alternative method of delivering a line.
The production that Liz had chosen was at The Old Vic Theatre which is situated near to the Waterloo railway station just south of the River Thames. The Old Vic is not in the heart of the West End theatre district, but has a reputation for imaginative and innovative programming. I remember being taken to the venue on a school trip to see the British actor Timothy West play Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice, which we were studying, and realising that seeing a play in its natural setting rather than grinding through it in an academic environment can teach a student so much.
Saturday January 8 was our performance day, and having dropped the girls off at a friend’s house, we drove to London in thick fog and heavy rain, it was a foul day to be travelling and a slightly tight timescale meant that we couldn’t dawdle. Our matinee was due to commence at 1pm, but we had to present ourselves at the theatre between 12 and 12.30 – in these days of Covid restrictions the management were trying to get blocks of audience seated at different times, to avoid everyone rolling up together at 12.45.
The traffic was heavy and fast moving, although the visibility was low, and the opportunities for catastrophe was high. Inevitably we were soon rolling to a standstill behind a long queue of stationary traffic, and away in the distance the thick cloud was pierced by flashing blue and red lights as a police car blocked the road, presumably to allow for an accident to be cleared. We sat and sat and sat, and the idea of making our time slot became more and more unlikely. Eventually the flashing lights were extinguished and we drove on once more.
We made good time for the rest of the journey and we wound around Buckingham Palace before crossing the river Thames and finding our parking space close to the the theatre (in the absence of any parking garages in the vicinity we had found a parking space available for rent on someone’s driveway and booked a four hour slot).
The rain was still falling as we walked to the theatre and joined the long line waiting to be admitted. In an attempt to expedite the process, one of the front of house staff made her way along the line scanning tickets, so that by the time we got to the door we could walk straight in….or so we thought.
The producers of the show had sent a detailed email the day before entitled ‘Everything You Need to Know About Your Visit’, and we had followed the instructions to the letter, however one may have supposed that in an email with such a title, they might have mentioned the need to take a Lateral Flow Test for Covid on the day of the show, rather than putting that instruction in a second email with the title ‘We Are Looking Forward to Your Visit’, which sat, unread, alongside many other similarly titled emails most of which were purely of a promotional nature.
So, when a second box office member walked the line asking to check on everyone’s LFT status Liz and I exchanged a look of horror, for we had no idea! The young man was sympathetic, but unmovable, there would be no entry to the theatre without proof of a negative test in the past few hours. However, he did offer to call his manager who may be able to explain. So we were asked to leave the queue and stand aside until the aforesaid manager appeared. He was equally sympathetic and equally intransigent until he produced a pair of test kits, as if they were Class A drugs, and secretively handed them over to us, suggesting that we find somewhere nearby to carry out a test (‘don’t do it in front of the others, ok?)
We looked helplessly around us, until I noticed a tiny little tent in the square outside the main theatre entrance, which bore the legend: ‘NHS Mobile Testing Centre’ well, that seemed as good a place as any other, so we poked our heads in and asked if we could do our LFTs in the dry, ‘We don’t do Lateral Flow, only PCRs’ we were told, so we had to explain that we had the kits, we didn’t need to be given any, but just required a dry space and as they had no one in their tent at the present, could we huddle under the dripping canvas? They agreed, and we both undertook the least clinical and probably least hygienic tests imaginable. As we waited for the tell-tale line to appear, some more people arrived from the theatre queue, making the same request, but they were turned away. We were lucky.
Fortunately both tests were negative and soon we were back in line and were finally admitted to the theatre with 8 minutes to spare, rather than the 30 that we should have had. Liz had booked amazing tickets in the stalls and we were nestled close to the action, as a temporary circular stage had been built in the centre of the auditorium, meaning that the whole show was performed in the round, with extra seating having been installed on the traditional stage looking out through the proscenium arch and into the auditorium. As the audience gathered, so the cast (with the exception of Mr Scrooge) mingled on the stage, greeting us all with smiles and waves – they were all dressed in long black coats and top hats, but were in no way ‘in character’, they were simply welcoming us to their club, encouraging us to join them. Earlier on in the process they had been handing out mince pies and satsuma oranges, but at that time we had been taking our secret Covid tests, so missed out on the tasty treats. Bah, Humbug!
In the text of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens goes out of his way to make the reader feel as if they have company throughout the story, for example when Scrooge first encounters the Ghost of Christmas Past Dickens says: ‘The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow’. There is the storyteller, close at hand, looking after us.
As an audience we weren’t allowed to feel that the cast were one group and the audience another, in fact we were encouraged to believe that we were ‘really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’ and that would be a central theme to the entire performance.
At the centre of the stage a trio of musicians played country folk tunes on a fiddle, an accordion and a whistle, and then suddenly, imperceptibly, the story began, the music became louder, the audience began to clap in time and the cast began to sing, just like that: no announcement, no lowering of house lights, but we were off an running. During the first musical number the entire cast provided accompaniment on hand bells, which sounded sublime.
I wont give a detailed review of the show, for there are many available online, but I want to share our feelings of the adaptation and the performance: it was beautiful, it was intensely moving and it was very very clever. The set and staging was very simple, with little more than four doorframes (one at each compass-point of the stage) which rose up when Scrooge was in the reality of his office or home, but which tilted backwards and laid flat, recessed in the stage, when he was on his supernatural journeys.
Much of the narrative and dialogue was lifted directly from the original, but the writer Jack Thorne had not shrunk away from including his own changes and way of telling the story (for example the three spirits in no way resemble those written by Dickens, but were extremely effective nonetheless). Some scenes were moved around within the plot but settled into their new homes with ease, and the whole journey of Ebenezer was utterly believable and so moving. Much of Scrooge’s torment was shown to arise from his childhood fear of debt, and in these scenes there was a sense of Dickens’ own personality (when Charles was only 12 years old his father had been imprisoned for debt leaving a scar on the great man’s personality that would never heal).
There was a lovely moment when the young Scrooge was seen chatting to his little sister, Fan. Ebenezer had just been released from the lonely torment of his school but was now faced with the anger and abuse of their debt-ridden father. As Fan skipped onto the stage she held a violin in her hand and happily told her brother that she had been told she had talent and if she practiced hard she would become even better. In Dickens’ own childhood he had been sent to work in the squalor of a shoe blacking factory, whilst his little sister was sent to The Royal Academy of Music, where she had won a scholarship. The young Dickens never begrudged her successes and loved her dearly: her name was Fanny, or Fan.
And what of Mr Scrooge himself? The role was played by the very popular actor Stephen Mangan who in recent years has enjoyed a stellar career as a television ‘personality’. Apart from his roles in both comedy and drama series he has also found a niche as a presenter, winning prime-time audiences over with his flashing smile and easy wit. When such personalities are cast in a leading theatrical role it is often to satiate the marketing department, and the performance is little more than an extension of their television persona, but Mangan is so much better than that. We were fortunate to have seen him in a previous theatrical role, and had been super impressed by his performance as Sidney Stratton in ‘The Man in the White Suit’, but his performance as Ebenezer Scrooge moved the bar up many levels. He played Scrooge as an angry man, tormented by his background and his fears. I have said before that I do not like versions of A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge is angry throughout and refuses to listen to the ghosts, and to some extent Mangan’s performance took this route, but you could tell that beneath the apparent rage the new Scrooge (or, more to the point, the old Scrooge) was struggling to burst forth. And when it DID burst forth, OH! What JOY! The tears of sheer elation poured down our cheeks and I am sure many others too. Suddenly the entire audience became part of the celebrations. The young boy who is sent to fetch the turkey from the poulterer’s shop became three young boys selected from the audience being sent to the bakers, from where hey nervously and proudly carried the largest, wobbliest, fruit jelly you have ever seen onto the stage and received a rousing round of applause and a cheer (we were all cheering and applauding everything by this time!) We all joined Fred’s party and took the feast to the Cratchit’s house where old Ebenezer and Tiny Tim connected in the most moving way imaginable. And it snowed! Throughout the auditorium it snowed on us all.
Among this finale of celebration there were moving scenes too, as Scrooge tried to make his peace with those he had wronged, and the meeting of him with Belle at her house door was a particularly effective moment. There was also a reminder from the three spirits that this was not a magical overnight conversion, but one that had to be continually worked at.
As the show ended, Liz and I were on our feet clapping and cheering loudly, and the entire cast looked deeply moved by the reception. Their emotions would have been heightened by the fact that this was the final day of their run and they now had only one more opportunity to present A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas
OK, I promised not to review it. Too late!
The performance, the experience, stayed with us during the walk back to the car, throughout the journey home and on into the evening. We both felt moved, uplifted and improved by being part of it and it will stay with us for a long time to come
It was a spectacular afternoon of live theatre and I thank the entire ensemble and production team for bringing it to us.
At the end of the show Mr Mangan made a short speech pointing out that Dickens was writing about the huge poverty gap in the 1840s and the sad fact is that the problem still exists, we were encouraged to donate to the FareShare charity, who raise money and campaign to bring food poverty and food waste to an end. It is a superb and appropriate cause and if you are able to support it then please visit the website and give what you can.
On Small Business Saturday (the day set aside to promote independent retailers after the huge corporate splurges of Black Friday and ahead of the online bean feast of Cyber Monday), I would be travelling to my old friends at Vaillancourt Folk Art, the true embodiment of a successful small business, to perform for the first time on the second leg of my tour. There can be few more welcoming venues in the USA, not only thanks to the very genuine friendship of Gary, Judi and Luke, but also thanks to the venue which is decorated in wonderful style. Old Ebenezer Scrooge’s gravestone is there, as is a replica of Charles Dickens’ reading desk, whilst a huge larger-than-life cut out of Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing hangs in the old warehouse where my dressing room is situated. The Vaillancourts ‘make Christmas’ and to be surrounded by so many seasonal icons means that one can hardly fail to put one’s best foot forward and do the best job possible.
The day didn’t get off to a promising start when I woke at around 1.45 am, but I dozed on and off for the next few hours before waking properly at around 5. I stayed in my room until around 7.30 at which point I went to have some breakfast in a deserted restaurant. It was a quiet morning, as I didn’t have to be in the small community of Sutton until 12. I spent the time catching up with some emails and admin for future venues on the trip (sending sound effects and stage plans etc), and generally lounging around in my room, even occasionally catching up on a few more winks here and there.
As the morning moved on, I made sure that I had everything that I would need for two shows, and at around 11.15 I loaded up my Rogue and set off through the streets of Worcester for the twenty-minute drive. The drizzle and snow of the evening before had cleared and it was a beautifully crisp bright winter’s day. If I had thought about it earlier, I would have stopped off for a brief walk in the spectacularly named Purgatory Chasm, which would have helped to blow the jet lag cobwebs away and energise me a little, but as it was, I had to speed by.
Vaillancourt Folk art is housed in an old warehouse building and features a large store selling the exquisitely produced hand painted Santa ornaments which Judi designs based on antique German chocolate moulds. To the right as you enter are the benches where artists carefully create the figures and beyond that a ramp which leads to the Blaxton Theater where I perform.
It was to the latter space that I made my way so that I could offload my costumes and bags and there I found Luke making preparations for the afternoon’s events. Luke is Gary and Judi’s son who over the last few years has become ever more involved in the company and is now starting to take over the tiller from his parents and to steer his own course.
As with all venues the Vaillancourts had to find a way of reducing audience numbers, to allow for a degree of social distancing, while still making the event profitable, and the solution that they came up with was to remover three rows of theatre seating and replacing it with a series of VIP tables each seating 2 people, which could be sold for a premium rate.
Luke has a background of hospitality and recently has been becoming more and more involved in the selling of fine wines, even commissioning a Vaillancourt wine, so the move towards a cabaret style event was a natural progression.
Luke and I chatted and I arranged the set as I wanted it, draping the red cloth over the chair and setting Bob Cratchit’s stool in the correct place, then I took my costumes into my dressing room at the back of the building.
We had plenty of time before the first show which was to be at 2pm, and having hung my costumes up I returned to the theatre where Luke introduced me to Curtis who was to be looking after all of the sound requirements for the two days. He produced a head mic which I always dread for they never stay hooked over my ears, but we did a good sound check and he roamed throughout the room to check the quality throughout. We then spent a little time discussing the various sound cues before we all went our separate ways to prepare.
In order to maximise the wine and glühwein sales Gary had asked for the two act version of my show this year, so I spent a while going over the extra lines in my dressing room. It was not, as I would point out later during the Q&A session, a question of remembering the lines per se, but remembering to actually say them: the one act version of the script is so grooved that it is easy just to skip over the spot where the extra passages should be.
Soon I could hear the audience gathering, so I started to get into costume and waited for the off. I paced around the warehouse unto Gary called to me ‘5 minutes!’ I stood at the door while he introduced me and then I made my slow way through the audience to the strains of The Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The afternoon audience were very obviously made up of hardened fans who were out to enjoy themselves, for they were coming in with lines a few seconds before I said them, as if two years had been too long to wait and they wanted to get to their favourite passages as soon as possible! When I performed Mr Fezziwig’s dance I even got a round of applause for my efforts.
I arrived at the interval and left the stage to applause, and spent the next 20 minutes pacing constantly to keep my energy levels up. As I walked to and fro, I noticed a huge crate in which my sound equipment had been transported in – ok not quite backstage at Live Aid, but it did look very impressive.
After twenty minutes Gary came to say that we were ready to get going again. The second act was dramatic and intense and went very well leading to a whooping standing ovation at the end.
As at all venues this year I was not doing a signing session, but instead took questions from the audience: one was an interesting variation of a common query – ‘which movie version would be Charles Dickens’ favourite?’ He probably wouldnt have liked the change to the ending of the Alastair Simm one, so the popular vote was out, maybe George C Scott, possibly, or even one of the animated versions (he would have been astounded by the modern technology which would be magic to him – a huge advance over the magic lantern shows which he enjoyed.)
Gary nicely asked me about my researching of The Staplehurst book which enabled me to promote it: He had ordered thirty copies for my performances and all had already sold, so he was busily taking orders for new stock.
After a few more questions Gary wrapped proceedings up and the audience made their way home while I changed back into my regular clothes. A between-show supper had been laid on and I joined Gary, Judi, Luke and other staff members to eat sandwiches, soup and salad, followed by the most delicious apple pie. The banter between the workforce was great and showed what a close-knit team the Vaillancourts have put together.
There was plenty of time before the next show so I excused myself and returned to my little dressing room where I curled up on a sofa and fell asleep. When I woke I looked at my phone, 5.45, plenty of time to get ready and dressed for the 7pm start (I usually get into costume with thirty minutes to go). Just as I was getting up and stretching Judi appeared asking me to sign an ornament for an audience member, goodness they arrive early here…and then Gary called, ‘5 minutes Mr Dickens!’
Somewhere our communication had broken down and the show was actually due to begin at 6! Any thought of leisurely building up towards the show was gone and I got into costume as quickly as I could, as Gary stood on the stage regaling the audience with whatever he could think of to say, until he saw me appear in the doorway (about 15 minutes after the scheduled show time), at which point, he said to the crowd, ‘So how do we welcome Mr Dickens to the stage?’ and everyone joined in, ‘Herrrrrrrresssss Gerrrallllddddd’
This performance was not destined to be one of my easiest! As I started to walk through the audience, I discovered that there was no route to the stage (the folk sitting at tables understandably having pushed their chairs back to watch the currently non-existent show), I took one turn and then another but still no path opened up to me and I had to rely on the generosity of those at the front to shuffle out of my way, which wasn’t very Scrooge like.
Unsurprisingly and completely understandably the audience were a little ‘terse’ with me, during the opening salvos without the joyous atmosphere of the earlier show, but I didn’t panic or try too hard, I just kept on doing what I knew works, and slowly everything settled down (although I didn’t get a round of applause for my dancing skills this time!) By the time that I left the stage for the interval there was plenty of applause and the damage was repaired. But I was SO annoyed with myself.
The second act went very smoothly and the audience had relaxed appreciatively (thanks in part to a second round of glühwein) and I once again took a standing ovation which had perhaps seemed unlikely 90 minutes previously…..
Once again, we opened the floor to questions and once again Gary gave me the opportunity to plug the book, telling the tale of how I nearly drowned (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration, but it makes for a good story) when I visited the site of the crash.
It was soon time to finish and Gary called an end to proceedings and I took the final applause and left the stage, still mentally kicking myself for my earlier mistake.
When the audience had left, I returned to The Beechwood Hotel where Gary, Judi and Luke joined me. Although I have another day with the Vaillancourts, this was sort of a goodbye to Gary and Judi as they are due to fly off to Germany to tour the Christmas markets with a group. Unfortunately for them Covid is starting to rear its head in mainland Europe again, and a large percentage of their tour group has cancelled, but they have a commitment and are flying on Sunday. We toasted our friendsip and the success of the day, and then I went to my room and they returned home to pack.
When I came off stage at the end of the evening show any petty thoughts about my day’s performances became meaningless. When I switched on my phone, I received the desperately sad news that Dawn Byers had passed away quietly, surrounded by her family.
Dawn, Bob and Pam’s sister-in-law, was one of the strongest, most strong willed, most courageous people you could ever have hoped to meet. Married to Bob’s brother, Jeff, Dawn was diagnosed with cancer over two years ago and has fought the fight with her typical energy and spirit.
When I perform at Byers Choice the most difficult aspect of the event is getting almost 800 people into the room and seated, and on these occasions all of the family and a lot of the staff are called in to assist. Dawn was in her element during these times, as she sat folks as if it were a military operation, collecting them at the door and conducting them to empty chairs before they even knew they had been helped. Nobody ever quibbled about where they had been sat, or asked to change, for Dawn, although short of stature, had ruled and you didn’t answer back. But this strength and authority was delivered with a smile, a laugh and great good humour. I always enjoyed watching her in action!
Dawn tackled her cancer with the same tough, yet cheerful spirit and over the last two years has posted a series of completely inspiring video diaries – being honest enough to tell us when she was scared or weak, but always looking forward with great positivity to the next course of treatment, the next trial, the next stage of her life.
It is typical that in lieu of flowers, donations are being invited for The Kid’s Castle community playground In Doylestown PA – a cause that Dawn had supported and championed for a long time. Future generations will therefore benefit from her legacy which is exactly as it should be.
I send my deepest condolences to Jeff, Ashlyn, Jake and the rest of the Byers Family.
Sunday 14 November was to be my final day of the the first leg of my 2021 tour, and I would be performing a Christmas Carol twice more. Kimberly was due to pick me up at 11.45, so I had the morning to myself. Slowly my body clock was beginning to catch up with reality (just in time to be completely confused again), and instead or waking at 3, I slept through to 4.45 which I know sounds ridiculously early (it is), but it marked some kind of progress! Having written and then breakfasted I returned to my room ready to enjoy a full morning of Grand Prix racing! I had discovered that not only would ESPN be showing the Brazilian Grand Prix live, but also the full British Sky F1 pre race build-up, which would start at 9. I made sure that I had fresh shirts for the two shows and that my second costume (the first was still in Kimberly’s car along with my hat and cane), was complete and ready. There would be no chance to return to the hotel between shows so I needed to have everything prepared for the whole day.
Preparations completed, I switched on the TV and became immersed in the murky world of Formula 1 politics – there had been lots of controversy over the weekend and various penalties had been meted out, not least to Lewis Hamilton, the British champion, who due to a technical infringement had been relegated to the back of the field for the ‘Sprint Race’ (held on Saturday to determine the starting grid for the main race), and even though he had fought through the field to finish 5th in that encounter, he had another penalty which took him back to 10th on the grid, so it had been a difficult weekend for him so far. There was a real sense of anticipation from Brazil which was infectious.
As race time approached I made another coffee and ate a muffin that I had brought up from the breakfast buffet. For 45 minutes I was able to relish what seemed to be one of the classic races as Hamilton surged through the field to be close behind the leader, his championship rival Max Verstappen. The race was just building towards a very exciting second half when the phone rang and the cheery girl on the front desk told me that ‘your ride is waiting’! Sigh, but work called.
We were returning to the Midwest Genealogy Center again, so there were to be no surprises in store, and as we arrived everything was being readied: Sara and her team were getting the stage ready and Lindsey was practising the sound cues in the technical booth. Philip and Ruby were setting up their i-phone cameras ready to broadcast my show to those who wanted to follow the live stream, rather than being in a live audience and in general there was a sense of concentrated activity in the room. Having hung my costume in the green room, I draped the red shawl (which represents Scrooge’s blanket, as well as becoming a representation of Tiny Tim), over the chair and once again hid the mice in the foliage of the Christmas tree which decorated the set. Lindsey had a couple of questions about the sound effects for A Christmas Carol, so we discussed those and also developed a system to ensure that the microphone was on, to avoid a repetition of the previous day’s mistake.
When all of the preparations were complete Kimberly drove me to the same petrol station that we had visited the day before where we bought a sandwich, fruit and a protein bar (finding one without chocolate was very difficult) and returned to the green room to eat our lunch, as the audience started to arrive. The Dickens carollers were back and doing an amazing job entertaining the crowd with a great zeal and energy which one more was bringing lots of applause and appreciation. At 1.30, with 30 minutes to go, Kimberly left to help the rest of the team and I started to get into costume. At 1.45 I made all of my final checks, shoes tied with double bows to make sure that the laces didn’t unravel with all of the movement, genuine Victorian penny piece in my waistcoat pocket, cravat carefully tied, pocket watch set to the correct time, and I was ready to go.
At 1.55 I switched the mic on and slipped out of the green room and stood at a spot where I could make eye contact with Lindsey, she checked on the sound board that the mic was on and gave me a thumbs up. At 2 Sara began the introductions, encouraging everyone to switch off their phones, and the show began. Once more it felt a very good performance, although annoyingly an electronic beep kept going off – at first I thought it was someone’s phone receiving messages, but as the show went on I began to think that it must be something in the room, for no one would repeatedly let their phone interrupt a show….would they? The most annoying moment was as Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come visited Cratchit’s house and just as I was saying ‘It was quiet. Very quiet’, sur enough the beep beeped. Annoying, but it didn’t disrupt the flow of the story and when I got to the end and took my bows the audience were standing and cheering. The show is in a good place this year, I have kept the pace up and not allowed myself to drift back to the ponderous, overly dramatic performances of previous years in which I tried to give every line drama and gravitas which just led to a serious of long pauses which fragmented the natural rhythm of the narrative.
Back on stage for the Question and answer sessions, and the first came from a young audience member Levi, aged 7, who asked did I prefer being an actor or an author? – A great question which gave me yet another opportunity to shamelessly advertise my new book! The answer though is of course being an actor. The session went on with plenty of good questions, including how did I come up with all of the different voices for the show which led to a sort of masterclass session running through not only the voices but also some of the theatrical ‘tricks’ I use to differentiate characters (citing the conversation between Scrooge and the charity collector on Christmas morning, in which Scrooge holds the hat and cane in one hand and the collector holds them in separate hands – a simple device to create two characters on the same stage together).
Eventually the session came to an end, and having taken another bow I left to change once more as the audience left. When I was back in 21st century garb and my costume was on its hanger, I returned to the room to say good bye and to thank Lindsey, Philip and Ruby for their help through the afternoon.
It was 4pm and Kimberly and I set off for the next venue, the Colbern Road branch of MCPL. As we walked to the car all of the furniture from the set was being loaded onto a large truck ready to take it on to Colbern Road. I have performed there before, but since my last visit the old branch had been flattened and a new, modern, shiny, futuristic steel and glass structure had risen in its place. It made for an impressive sight as we turned off the road and into the parking lot.
Inside was just as impressive, presenting an airy open spacious feel to the lucky library goers who have this in their community. We met with the branch manager, Seth, who showed me around: the room where I was to perform was already laid out with a temporary stage, with a black screen behind, at one side. Having performed in larger spaces over the last two days, this was a return to an old school style of Library performance, under the regular room lighting meaning I would be able to see every expression on everyone’s face throughout the show.
Having checked out the space Seth showed me an area of the library tucked away where I could lay and rest for an hour or so, before I needed to start preparing again, and before laying on couch I glanced at the shelves and what was there? An audiobook of A Christmas Carol recorded by yours truly, featuring a very young and slim image of me.
The rest was very welcome and I lay on the couch until 6, when it was time to go and do a sound check. Back in the room I found Chris, a sound engineer, testing microphones. He had set up two very large speakers (perhaps larger than the space truly warranted), at the front of the stage. I introduced myself and we did a good sound check during which he walked to all corners of the room making adjustments on an i-pad until he was quite satisfied.
Phil and Ruby were back to stream this performance too but Phil was having trouble connecting to a wifi network, without which the streaming would be impossible to achieve. Eventually a system was cobbled together using a personal cell phone as a hotspot and connection was complete. It had been a tense atmosphere in the room and we had to delay letting the audience in until everything was sorted, but that didn’t matter for the good old Dickens Carollers were doing the stuff in the main library.
I retreated to my dressing room (actually an electrical plant room and store room, but quite spacious enough for me to change and relax in) and got into costume. The carollers were now in the ‘theatre’ and I knew their set well enough by this time to know when it was almost show time, I didn’t need to look at my watch.
At 7 they took their much deserved applause, I slipped into the room, Seth stood on the stage and introduced me and the show began.
Seth returned to the stage to host the Q&A and the first question came from Colin in Lincoln. Now, this was an important question, for Colin has been a regular attendee to my shows along with his dad Doug, but this year Colin had suffered a serious illness while at college in Lincoln, Nebraska and was unable to return home to join us (Doug had been at shows the day before and generously given me a gift of banana bread and his favourite blend of coffee!) Colin’s question therefore was his chance to be a part of the event and he was watching the live stream from Lincoln (I was so relieved that Phil had managed to establish the connection therefore.)
The Q&A carried on, with thoughtful questions such as ‘what relevance does A Christmas Carol still have today’ and ‘what lesson would you like us to take away from your performance?’ I was asked if I had ever tried Kansas City barbeque, as my blog mentions all of the places that I eat along the way and BBQ didn’t seem to feature. I am ashamed to admit it in the heart of the best barbeque city in America, but I am not a great fan – I was taken to plenty of restaurants when I used to stay in the heart of downtown Kansas City in my early years, but maybe my delicate British constitution is not fully prepared!
And so my final appearance in Missouri this year wound down to a close, and I returned to my store room to change once more. I thanked all of the library staff and Chris the sound engineer who had done a superb job with all of the effects, and made sure I had everything with me before leaving the magnificent new library at Colbern Road.
Kimberly and I found a restaurant still open on the way home, although we seemed to be the only diners, and then continued the journey back to The Hampton Inn where we arranged to meet at 10 the next morning to get me to the airport in plenty of time to board the first part of my homeward journey,
In my room I hung all of my costumes up on the shower rail in the bathroom, so that they could air well before being packed away in a suitcase, and then it was time to sleep.
It is the 15th January and Britain is in the depths of an ever-deepening lockdown which sees us permitted to one session of exercise outside the home per day. Fortunately for me I decided to undertake the ’50 Miles in January’ charity run to raise funds for Maggie’s Centres Cancer charity, and so have motivation to use that daily exercise effectively.
Those of you who read last week’s blog post will know that I came to this project not only as a means of raising money and spreading awareness of an amazing charity, but also to give me a target to aim for to get me back out on the streets. When I signed up with Maggie’s I had no idea if I could achieve the 50 miles or not, but I have been inspired and encouraged by the large community of runners, cyclists and walkers who are attempting the same feat.
So, half way through the month, how is it all going? Well! very well, actually. The weather has warmed up a little since last week and replacing the icy fog is damp mist which is quite refreshing to run through. During week one I was running and walking for about 4 miles per session but us the regularity of the runs has started to have an effect so I have found myself able to run for longer without feeling the need to slow down for a breather. This week my runs have seen me complete 4.16 miles on Monday, 5.02 on Tuesday, 5.05 on Thursday and a painful 5.65 on Friday all without walking.
A few months ago during those balmy Summer days we were all out for a walk when we bumped into a friend who was completing a run of her own. ‘How far have you been?’ we asked, ‘6 miles’ she replied. We looked at her in disbelief, it seemed such a huge distance for someone to cover, especially as I was struggling to achieve 5 k (3 miles) at that time. But now I am approaching that very landmark and feeling fairly good about it. On each run I have tried to imagine a finishing line over which I could collapse in glorious triumph as I have seen the athletes do at the London Marathon. Usually I use a red post box or a particular road junction as my line but on one occasion this week I decided to make my final sprint past the statue of Queen Victoria standing with an imperious air in Abbey Gardens, Abingdon. The Queen has always been a source of amusement to us as a family, our daughters love to run up to her and ask ‘what knickers are you wearing today?’ (this is inspired by a brilliantly irreverent children’s book called The Queen’s Knickers by Nicholas Allan, in which we are granted a glimpse of the Queen’s collection of ceremonial undergarments!)
In the context of the Maggie’s project I have now ticked off over 40 miles leaving me less than ten to complete the challenge, although I will go on running to the 31st to see how high I can raise the bar.
When I am out on the road I am very aware that I am running in the midst of Covid. In one sense the invisible fog of the coronavirus makes being outside more pleasurable in that there is little traffic on the road, but I have to be aware that other pedestrians taking their own exercise may well be nervous so I try to make every effort to keep as far away from anyone else as I can, switching my path early so as to signal my intentions, maybe actually running in the road itself if all is clear. When others afford me the same courtesy I make sure I show them my thanks with a wave of the hand, rather than actually saying ‘thank you’, having noticed that some folk wince as they imagine that they are being engulfed by a miasma of disease.
As an incentive to aspiring runners and fundraisers Maggie’s promised to send every participant a bright orange running vest. The uptake was so big that there has been a bit of delay in dispatching them all (leading to a degree of rather unreasonable grumbling on the Maggie’s 50 group on Facebook.) My own vest arrived yesterday meaning that my last run of the week was the first in which I proudly sported the garish colours, which clash horribly with my red face – but which hopefully diverts attention from my ponderous running style to the real purpose of the run: cash.
I have been so fortunate to have been supported by many very generous friends and family and the pledged amounts are way over my initial targets of £150 (as suggested by Maggie’s), but like any charity the more that is raised the better the work Maggie’s can do and in these current days of overflowing hospitals, the spacious calming centres where cancer sufferers and their families can stay become even more vital.
I have never met Maggie. I have met some Maggies, indeed one of my sister in laws is called Maggie, but I have never met THIS Maggie because she died in 1995. But Maggie is shaping the first days of 2021 for me. Let me explain:
As regular readers may remember during the first UK lockdown I began to run, following an app called ‘Couch to 5K’ which encouraged novice runners to gently build a regime that would eventually see them conquering the apparently mythical 5 kilometre barrier. After a slow start with much wheezing and panting, I eventually managed to reach the end of the programme which gave me a ridiculous sense of pride and achievement. However as the year went on and I became more involved in making my film of A Christmas Carol and trying to salvage some sort of ‘tour’ from the ashes of 2020, my runs became more and more infrequent until they petered out again, becoming a distant memory of an extraordinary Summer.
During the weeks running up to Christmas, and because I wasn’t actually performing, I was able to spend some time in the virtual company of audiences conducting some Q&A sessions. One such event was for my good friends at the Mid Continent Library Service in the Kansas City area and one question from an avid reader of my blog dealt with my running: I was asked if the new fitness regime would help me on stage, perhaps giving me greater stamina and strength. I answered (rather guiltily as I wasn’t currently running) that I wasn’t sure, but probably yes. We moved onto another question, but the seed to resume running had been planted and sat in the back of my brain throughout Christmas.
Now, we all know that Social Media, especially Facebook, is controlled by little witches who scan your innermost thoughts and then bombard you with advertisements relevant to them. True to form no sooner had the possibility of resuming running entered my brain than the adverts become to arrive. New trainers! New shorts! New leggings! All were sent to tempt me, but alongside the rigorous commercialism of the sport so a few charities began to appear asking me to ‘Run For….(film in name as applicable)’, one of which was Maggies.
The reason that the Maggies programme appealed to me was that it would be a challenge, a target, but I reckoned which was achievable to one of my abilities: the idea was to run 50 miles during the month of January and if you raised over a certain amount of cash you would be awarded a medal! I have never received a prize for running, indeed for any sporting activity before, so the idea of getting a medal certainly appealed. I signed up.
You may suppose, having read this far, that I had chosen this particular charitable exercise purely for selfish reasons, just to get a medal, but The Maggies Charity is a very special one and Id like to tell you a little a bit about what they do.
Maggie Keswick Jencks was a writer, gardener and designer, highly successful in her field, until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment was initially successful in the short term, but five years after her first diagnosis Maggie was called to hospital to be told that the cancer had returned and that she had maybe three months to live. Maggie and her husband were then given a little time together to digest this bombshell, being ushered to a windowless hospital corridor. No privacy, no comfort, no care.
Maggie was not going to give in easily and signed up for an advanced chemotherapy trial which would prolong her life by eighteen months and that was time she didn’t waste, for working with her medical team she developed an all new approach to cancer care which would see peaceful, comforting surroundings for sufferers to meet and discuss their conditions both with other patients but also with the doctors and consultants who were treating them, so that each individual felt part of their own treatment and future.
Maggie was a positive soul and the day before she died in 1995 she sat in her beloved garden facing the sun and said ‘Aren’t we lucky?’ The first of the Maggie’s Centres was opened the following year and now they are all over the country giving support and comfort to not only the patients themselves but their families too, providing a positive, supportive and uplifting environment.
Cancer has touched everyone’s life, there can be very few of us who do not know someone close to us who has suffered and whilst the big research charities raise vitally needed funds, so an organisation like Maggies which actually makes life better is equally needful and deserving.
The first week of January has been cold and foggy and so has not been conducive to lovely early morning runs, but I was determined to begin on the 1st, knowing that every day I delayed was one less opportunity to chip away at the 50 mile mountain. In launching the ’50 in January’ initiative Maggies created a Facebook group for all those who registered and this is a really motivating place as everyone posts their progress there, as well as encouraging and congratulating other runners on their achievements. We all use running apps (Strava in my case) to log our miles and each day sees a wide variety of stories pop up: ‘I haven’t run for thirty years, just done 2 miles and feel exhausted!’ lots of comments, ‘Wow!’ ‘Keep going, amazing!’ ‘Finding it really difficult, did 1 mile today, I’m not a runner…’ ‘The fact you went running MAKES you a runner! Great job!’ And at the other end of the scale people are pounding the streets for hours on end clocking up 12 miles or so in a single run, making the target achievable within a week (indeed, as I write this on the 7 January a runner has just posted that she has topped 50 already, as well as completing her first week of radiotherapy!)
My achievements are modest but in line with my expectations, in 7 days my total mileage so far is around 21 miles made up from 5 runs. If I keep up this rate I will be able to reach my goal easily, but of course that is all irrelevant if I don’t get sponsorship, so here is the plea: I know that charities are bombarding us in the post Christmas period and I know that many of us have suffered a severe drop in income thanks to the spread of Covid during 2020, but if you are able to pledge a small amount you will be helping to make lives of ordinary folk, possibly like you and me, immeasurably better.
In the meantime I will be pulling on my running leggings, shorts, shirt, jacket, gloves and cap, lacing up my trainers, and heading onto the icy streets of Abingdon. Every now and again I will see another runner in the orange ‘Maggies 50 in January’ running vest and we will exchange a wave and a smile (or grimace, depending on how we are feeling) knowing that we are both running for Maggie, whom we have never met.
To sponsor my efforts go to ‘Gerald’s fundraiser for Maggie’s Centres by Gerald Dickens’ and Thank You