Throughout the last few weeks there has been a great sense of uncertainty about the possibility of me returning to America for the first time in two years. There was a moment of relief and excitement when an announcement was made by the US government stating that the travel ban to visitors from the UK would be lifted and fully vaccinated passengers would be allowed to disembark onto American soil once more. The devil, however, is in the detail and it soon became apparent to me, the Byers family and Stacey, our brilliant immigration attorney in PA, that in all likelihood the lifting of restrictions would not encompass my first scheduled trip due to begin on 4 November. We had to return to plan A, which would involve me pleading.
Under the terms of the ban, the only individuals who would be admitted into the country were those who could prove that they deserved an NIE, or a National Interest Exemption. This ‘loophole’ for want of a better word, was included so that those such as scientists, doctors, charity and aid workers etc could offer their expertise to help America through the worst of the pandemic, but as restrictions began to lift it became apparent that travelling in the National Interest could embrace so much more, including bringing live entertainment to communities starved of it for almost two years, To be granted an NIE an individual has to submit a 500 word letter explaining the reasons for the request, and then present themselves at the US Embassy (in my case in London) to be interviewed, at which point they would be invited to plead their case. Not only did the national interest have to be proven but in the case of a theatrical production there had to be no doubt that it couldn’t happen without the applicant being present (this last point was fairly self-evident in my case, it being one man theatre.) The decision would be at the whim of a particular agent and could not be challenged, or a further plea made – it was a one shot deal.
In America Bob and Pam Byers encouraged all of the venues where I was due to travel to submit their own letters of support, focussing on the economic benefit of me travelling – this not only being for their individual businesses but also for the local communities which will benefit from people journeying from other states and therefore using hotels, restaurants and retail outlets. The other thing we focussed on was joy! I have been touring the USA since 1995 and most of the venues on the 2021 schedule have hosted me for many years (in the case of The Mid Continent Public Library in Missouri, every year), and there is a huge sense of tradition: many attendees say that ‘It is not Christmas until we’ve seen Gerald’. In Missouri there are mothers who bring their babies to my shows, having been bought by their own parents as babies 25 years ago! That is tradition, and although unquantifiable it is definitely tangible.
So, early on the morning of October 13th I drove into London, not wishing to jostle with others on public transport, and at 8am I presented myself at the first checkpoint, on the pavement outside the impressive cube-like structure that is the new Embassy at Nine Elms on the south bank of the River Thames. Behind the anonymity of our masks all the hopefuls there shuffled forward until out paperwork and passports had been checked and we were permitted into the building. I was glad not to have made the mistake of the man in front of me who had turned up a full twenty four hours early for HIS appointment and was sent away. Inside the building there were airport-style security checks, as well as further document checks (at which point I was issued number N33), and we were herded into a large elevator (we were on US soil, so I shall use the native language), and disgorged into to the first floor room where everyone took a chair and stared at screens waiting for their number to ping up.
Unbeknown to me in the same room sat Liz’s cousin, who works for one of the major airlines, and who was also applying for a visa, Our appointments were at exactly the same time but thanks to being masked, we didn’t see or recognise each other as we waited.
PING. N 17. PING. N23. PING. N 30. Each time the screen added a new number everyone looked anxiously at their ticket, as if the number that they had memorised had somehow changed and they were in danger of missing their slot. Eventually N 33 was shown and I presented myself to window number 7 where a serious young agent looked at all my papers. I began to plea: ‘I believe that I need to apply for a National Interest Exem…’ but I was cut short with, ‘that’s all we are doing here, Sir.’ Ohhhh Kayyyy then. I resumed silence. Having satisfied himself that I was who I said I was and that the documents that I had given him belonged to me: ‘mask down!’ He told me to take another seat and wait for my number to be called once more. The next interview would give me my chance to plead.
I sat and I looked at other applicants as well as trying to eavesdrop on their interviews, not in a suspicious or creepy way, but to gauge the tone of the conversation in case there was anything useful I could learn. It seemed to me that everyone was quite cheerful and nobody seemed to be sloping away in deep disappointment.
Eventually N 33 was called again and I went to window 17 where a cheery young lady greeted me with a ‘good morning, how are you doing today?’ This was getting off to a good start. ‘Now sir, Have you had a visa from us before?’
‘Thats great! let’s have a look,’ and she tapped away at her keyboard. ‘Oh, my, you have had a LOT of visas! What is it that you do?’ I explained about my show and the venues that I have visited over the years. She seemed terribly impressed and added lots of ‘that’s amazing!’s and ‘wow, so interesting!’s into the conversation.
I was now definitely ready to plead my case and to convince her how vital I was to the American economy, and to the celebration of Christmas in the USA in general, when she rather disarmed me by saying ‘OK, you’re all set!’ She checked that the words ‘National Interest’ were on her screen and sent me on my way.
I left the embassy at 9.20am (later, chatting to my cousin-in-law on Facebook, I discovered that she had left at 9.14! Both of us having sent messages to our respective other halves to tell them our news).
It was a beautiful morning in London and I decided to walk along the river, past Westminster Abbey (where I gave a little nod of respect to Charles Dickens who is buried there, across Horse Guard’s Parade, over the Mall, around Piccadilly Circus and to Hamleys toy store in Regent’s Street. The purpose of my visit was not simply to regress into childhood, although that was a pleasant biproduct, but to buy a white fluffy toy cat. In my show Mr Dickens is Coming I dramatize a passage from the Pickwick Papers as if it were from a James Bond film (circa late 70s, early 80s) and at the conclusion of the piece produce a white cat as I hiss ‘Not so fast, Meeester Bond!’ It is a cheap gag but it has worked well over the years. Unfortunately this year our shed was overrun with mice who gnawed at everything destroying, with great irony, my old prop cat. With a performance of ‘Mr Dickens’ fast approaching I needed a replacement.
Kitty purchased I set out to return to my car and the route took me across Green Park and past Buckingham Palace where to my amazement the Changing of the Guard ceremony was taking place. For a few minutes I became a delighted tourist and watched the band of whatever regiment it was marching down The Mall and through the iron gates of the palace.
I continued on with a jaunty step (perhaps even with the hint of a march) and retrieved my car from the garage in Pimlico
My trip to London complete I drove home in the happy knowledge that my 2021 tour of the United States is on!