On 7 December, 2020 my Christmas season as a performer finally begun. For the first time (if for now we discount the four days in October when I was filming), I actually had the opportunity to address an audience and hopefully entertain them! The stage was my kitchen, and the auditoria were various homes in and around the Kansas City area, as I took part in a Webinar (one of those words which, like the virus itself, has seeped into our lives and taken residency there unbidden and unnoticed) organised by my dear old friends at the Mid Continent Public Library System in Missouri. You may remember from previous blog posts that the library service had been instrumental in the making of my film and so had asked if I could attend a virtual session to take questions from their patrons, a request that I was happy to agree to even it meant waiting up until midnight, which would be 6pm in the central time zone in America.
As the evening passed by I tried to find a suitable spot in our kitchen to speak from, where the detritus of our everyday could be shuffled out of camera shot. There were certainly areas elsewhere in the house that would work, but I wanted to ensure that I didn’t wake the rest of the household who would be snoozing soundly at that hour. In the end, by moving a food mixer, a toaster, a bread bin, various pieces of fruit and a couple of cake tins, I could sit at our table with an empty counter over my shoulder. To make the scene more festive I gathered together 2 carollers from Byers’ Choice and some of the chalkware Santas from The Vaillancourts and set them behind me, carefully disguising the electrical outlets.
At 11.30pm I logged onto the Zoom link and watched a screensaver made up of various still promotional photographs from the film, and some pictures taken at branches of the library service over the years. Goodness, my beard is grey these days: Ho, ho, ho!
At midnight up popped Cheryl, and welcomed the audience, whom I could not see, to the event. She explained that I would be talking for around twenty minutes and then we would virtually open the virtual floor to questions and then handed over to me. I began by expressing my sorrow that I could not be in Kansas City this year but was delighted that I could chat through this forum. It was a heartfelt and good opening I thought but one which fell entirely on deaf ears! Suddenly lots of ‘Mr Dickens, we cant hear you’ ‘Is your microphone on?’ ‘Try clicking unmute’ interrupted my flow. Ahh, technology: the saviour and bane of 2020. After checking various settings on my laptop without success I switched to my phone and the evening was rescued.
My opening remarks concentrated on the gestation of the film, how the idea had developed, how I had chosen the locations and how Emily Walder, the amazing videographer and editor, had captured my dream for the project and collaborated in creating something that I am truly proud of.
After my twenty minutes were up we threw open the floor to questions, and there were some good ones:
‘Who is your favourite character to perform….’ Ah, an easy one to start, ‘….except Scrooge!’ Oh, not so easy then! I chose Bob Cratchit because there is a most important change of emotion during the course of the book as he moves from cheerful and resigned to truly heartbroken. The portrayal of Bob has to be genuine and realistic in comparison to some of the more grotesque caricatures elsewhere in the story, so he creates a greater challenge which I was able to explore more fully on film than I can on stage – the scene when he breaks down for his lost child is a moment that genuinely brought tears to my eyes the first time I watched the completed movie.
‘If you were to meet Charles Dickens what would you ask him?’ Wow! I think I would I would be so nervous I wouldn’t be able to say anything. However, having found my tongue, I would want to chat about theatre – his feelings as he performed, and how the voices and expressions of the characters come to him. I’d like to know if he imagined his literary characters in 3D (there is evidence that he would perform passages of dialogue to himself as he walked or in front of a mirror). I would like to know about the details of his life on the road: the ups and the downs. Basically, I would like to compare notes, but more than anything I would love to stand at the back of a hall and watch him perform.
‘What is your favourite passage in the novel’ (this from a teacher who has taught A Christmas Carol for many years). This is an interesting question because probably my favourite piece of writing doesn’t feature in my show, it is the wonderful passage when Scrooge is taken on his travels by the Ghost of Christmas Present:
‘And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed, or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse rank grass. Down in the west the setting sun had left a streak of fiery red, which glared upon the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye, and frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.
`What place is this.’ asked Scrooge.
`A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth,’ returned the Spirit. `But they know me. See.’
A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song — it had been a very old song when he was a boy — and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.
The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade Scrooge hold his robe, and passing on above the moor, sped — whither. Not to sea. To sea. To Scrooge’s horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.
Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birds — born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water — rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.
But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.
Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea — on, on — until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.‘
It is such an evocative passage and one I wish I could capture it for the stage somehow.
‘What was your favourite filming location?’ All of the locations brought something to the film and each is special because they have all featured in various Dickens novels, but I think the best location was the churchyard at Cooling which we not only used for the various ‘grave’ scenes, but also as a background for the narrator to tell the story. Cooling is in the middle of the countryside, so we should have enjoyed perfect peace, but our time there was beset with a surprisingly large amount of traffic using the little street, as well as huge heavy diesel truck going to and from a nearby quarry. A nearby farm had a bird scarer which let off a loud retort every twenty minutes or so sending flocks of crows into the sky, and we seemed to be on the flightpath of Rochester airport as executive jets screamed overhead. The fact we got such wonderful material is a testament to our patience and the wonders of good editing. My favourite shot from Cooling is the very final shot of the film as I walk away into a sunset (actually a sunrise, but let’s not quibble about that), and a little green light flare, an orb if you will, hovers like one of the three spirits saying its farewell.
All too soon 1am came around and it was time to say my goodbyes and sign off. It had been a lovely evening and the opportunity to finally have contact (virtual) with my audience again was very special. Next week the Library will be hosting another session, but before then I will actually be back on stage, for on Saturday I will be performing A Christmas Carol at the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre in Bedfordshire. I can’t wait!
to View the film and see the locations visit my website: http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html