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.
Although my Friday alarm was set for 5.45 I woke before it and so it was easy to get ready and leave my room by 6.30. I had a three hour drive ahead of me and I was keen to get to Massachusetts by about 10am, therefore I decided to forego a hotel breakfast (as regulars know, this was a painful thing to do) and just grab something on the road. The traffic heading towards New York City was very heavy, even at that early hour, so it was as well that I left when I did.
I crawled and edged and trundled and inched and lumbered and crept, in fact I went so slowly that I would have had time to read a thesaurus if I’d had one to hand. Eventually I was passed New York and the heavy traffic was now filling the opposite carriageway and I could speed up and head towards New England. This is a journey I have done on many occasions, in one direction or the other, and it always brings to mind Charles Dickens’ American Notes, as I pass many of the cities that he visited and commented on.
After a while I pulled in at a service station and had a Panera Bread breakfast of oatmeal and fruit and a pastry, washed down with orange juice and coffee, before getting back into the Rogue and continuing north.
My destination was Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum near Worcester. I have heard a lot about it over the years but have never had the opportunity to visit, and on Friday I was to perform there. I made good time and pulled into the large car park a little after 10. My contact at Sturbridge was Ellen Taviano, with whom I have worked for many years at Winterthur House and Gardens in Delaware. Thanks to staff layoffs and changes during the pandemic, Ellen left Winterthur and took up a position at Sturbridge, heading up the retail operation. Having enjoyed such a close and successful relationship in the past she was keen to get me to to the museum to perform and the September tour proved to be the perfect opportunity. When I arrived, I left a voicemail on Ellen’s phone and made my way to the visitor centre, where the staff welcomed me and showed me into the empty auditorium where I was to perform. I say ‘I was to perform’, but actually I should say ‘where we were to perform’ for today I would be sharing the stage with fellow actor Jennifer Emerson, and this is the day I have been working towards and, yes, sometimes fretting over throughout the tour.
I took a look at the stage and saw that Ellen had placed a few articles of furniture for our set, but some were not quite right, so I took a look back stage and was delighted to find all sorts of bits and pieces that I could chose from Firstly, I pulled a few bits out, and brought them to the stage and as I did a lady dressed in an elegant Victorian gown entered the theatre, and this was Jennifer.
Jennifer has a long history in working at museums, interpreting characters and performing a series of her own one-person shows (including her version of A Christmas Carol). She has worked in costume and has directed and taught and is generally a very talented and committed go getter, and is also a member of the Dickens Fellowship.
When Ellen had chosen the shows for my visit she had asked for The Signalman (as she ordered plenty of my books), and A Child’s Journey With Dickens, which she had seen me perform at Winterthur. As soon as I saw that on the schedule I got in touch with Bob and suggested that we ask Jennifer to be involved. The performance is based around a speech made in 1912 by Kate Douglas Wiggin recounting the day that she met Charles Dickens on a train bound for Boston. The speech was made when Kate was 55, but the train journey had taken place in 1868, when she had been only 11, and the show features her at both ages. Now, I have performed it, with a degree of success in the past, but really? A balding, bearded Englishman trying to convince a New England audience that he is an 11 year girl from Maine is pushing it somewhat. Back in 2021 the Dickens Fellowship had asked me if I could give a Zoom performance, and I had suggested A Child’s Journey performed on the anniversary of the meeting on the train. One of the positives of the Covid pandemic was that it shrank the world, and people were suddenly communicating in ways that they had never realised possible. This extended to performance, and Id contacted Jennifer to ask her if she would like to work with me on the project. We developed a script together using purely archive material – letters, newspaper articles, memoirs, and of course Kate’s speech itself. As the story involved Dickens’ reading tour, we also featured a scathing review of one of his performances written by Mark Twain. Again the shrinking world had enabled me to ask yet another performer, Mark Dawidziak (who ‘does’ Twain), to record the piece for us – this was going to be a show performed by three actors each of whom specialised in performing on their own! The Zoom performance had been a great success and at the time I had said to Jennifer if there was ever a chance to actually perform it live, then we should grab it. Old Sturbridge Village was that chance.
We didn’t change the script very much, but had to think about how we would actually stage it. The idea was to have a lectern at one side of the stage where Jennifer would give the speech, as if addressing the guests at Delmonico’s restaurant in 1912, and on the other side would be a desk where I would sit as Dickens, writing letters about the tour, which were slipped into Kate’s dialogue at suitable moments. For example at one time Kate recalled praying fervently that Dickens didn’t suffer the pangs of seasickness as he sailed to America, and on that line I would recite two letters that he wrote from the SS Cuba as he sailed across the Atlantic detailing rough weather and sickness throughout the ship. The writing desk was angled away from where Kate stood, meaning that there was absolutely no connection between the two characters, until the key moment when the child Kate saw Dickens on the train, at which point we both sat next to one another on a small bench at centre stage, representing a seat in the railroad car.
When Jennifer arrived we continued foraging for the perfect furniture and when we were satisfied we started a rehearsal, our very first run through together. It went well, we both fumbled a few lines, but the the basic setting and idea seemed to work perfectly and we retired to the green room behind the stage in a state of great excitement
At 1 o’clock Ellen came to check that we were ready and then went to the stage and introduced us both and we emerged to applause. I welcomed everyone and made a very brief introduction to the show, and then introduced Kate as if I were chairing the meeting of the New York Dickens Fellowship in 1912. And so the show started. Oh, it went well, Jennifer had adopted two very different personas – the 55 year old Kate who had spent a life in education especially in the field of the Kindergarten movement, had a a teacher’s voice and demeanour, direct, factual but kindly, but as soon as she was on the train she became the 11 year old, excited fidgety, crossing and uncrossing her ankles, and gazing at her idol, Charles Dickens. I knew that all of this working superbly, although I could not see her performance as I was turned away, thanks to the laughter and joy coming from the audience. When it came to the moment that she precociously sat next to Dickens and he first saw her there was an instant connection between the two character. The audience responded wonderfully and laughed at all of the appropriate places (including during the Twain voiceover, saying of Dickens ‘His pictures are hardly handsome, and he, like everybody else, is less handsome than his pictures!’ Ouch.
Laughter turned to tears as Dickens asked Kate if she had wanted to go to his reading very much, and she had sobbed, ‘yes more than tongue can tell’ causing Dickens to cry also. Both Jennifer and I had tears in our eyes and we could see members of the audience wiping theirs too.
The applause at the end was wonderful and we knew that we had created a very special show which had worked just as we’d imagined it.
With all of the concentration and nerves that had surrounded the first act, it would have been easy to forget that I had The Signalman to perform in the second half and it required quite a mental re-set to get myself prepared for that. Actually I gave a very good performance of it, I think. It was dramatic and tight and the lines flowed well. The audience were hooked and applauded loudly when I had finished. During the applause I gestured to Jennifer (who had taken a seat in the auditorium to watch) and the clapping increased again as we both took more bows.
What a wonderful success.
After the show Ellen took me to the gift store for a signing session and it was wonderful to see many people who had come to see me in shows at other venues over the years. One man showed me a picture of me posing with his sons and said ‘Yes. that was seven years ago: look how young you look!’ Thanks!
When the signing was over I went to find my accommodation for the night. Sturbridge had built a small collection of cabins which were originally to be hotel accommodation for visitors to the museum, but Covid closed them and now they are used for staff, professors and visiting entertainers. My room was large and very comfortable and I slumped onto the bed and dozed a little for an hour or so, before it was time to return to the theatre and get changed ready for the second performance. After a while Jennifer appeared (she had stayed in costume, so hadn’t needed to arrive as early as I), and we chatted about the first show and how it had been received.
Soon Ellen appeared once more to check that all was well, and the evening show was under way. It was a larger audience than the afternoon, and once again they followed the story with rapt attention. I would say that at both performances it took a little while before everyone accepted the premise behind our performance, but it didn’t take long until they were fully involved and were laughing and crying. Once again our closing bows were met with a standing ovation.
The Signalman was also superbly received, and my most unsubtle plugging of the book was greeted with loud laughter, even applause. What a wonderful, and exciting day, and what a superb way to end what has been a difficult tour, not because of the schedule, or the venues, or the shows, but because I had wanted to be at home in England. I had wanted to file past the Queen’s coffin in Westminster Hall with Liz so that we could pay our respects to the only Monarch we have ever known; to be part of the national mourning. My home-made black arm band had been a token of my respect, but I had so wanted to do more.
After another signing session where many friends came to say hello, including Gary and Judi Vaillancourt, I returned to the theatre, got changed and collected all of my props, with the exception of the danger light, which would be collected by someone, sometime. Ellen had booked a restaurant for her, Jennifer, myself and her colleague Jacqui who had been helping with the lights and changing the set between shows. We had a lovely dinner, although conversation was awkward due to a singer who was performing throughout the evening. He was very good and had a wonderful set of songs, but with my tinitus it made hearing conversation extremely problematic.
The restaurant was emptying as we finished our dinner and it was clear that they wanted to close, so we said our goodbyes and headed back to our respective homes and lodges.
On Saturday I would be flying home, but the morning was taken up to roaming around Old Sturbridge Village, and what an amazing place it is. The attraction was opened in 1946 and featured various historical New England buildings that had been dismantled and moved to the site. Now it covers 200 acres and features 59 properties. There is a blacksmith, a pottery, a cooper and various mills, all working. There are farms with cattle, sheep and pigs, there are demonstrations of 19th century cooking and crafting, and all in all it is a fascinating place to spend a day. On Saturday the sun shone, and I not only visited all of the properties, but also took the trails into woods and across pasture – I even ran a little.
After lunch it was time to head to the Logan Airport in Boston and board a 777 to fly home to a different England to the one I left 10 days before.
Wednesday had promised to be another relaxing day in the cabin, possibly doing some work on the script for A Child’s Journey With Dickens, until I had received a text the day before from Bob’s son George asking me if I would like to join him for a round of golf (I had mentioned to Bob that I had brought my golf shoes just in case there was time for a round, and he had passed the message on). I readily agreed and George arrived at the cabin to pick me up at 8.45 in readiness for a 9.40 tee off. The course that he had selected was Heron Glenn Golf Club near to the town of Flemington from where I would be collecting a rental car later in the day.
We arrived at the club in good time and sorted out a set of rental clubs for me, which would provide a perfect excuse for poor play in the early holes, and made our way to the first tee, where another two players introduced themselves as Bill and Michael and told us that they would be playing with us, which turned out to be a good thing as they were able to show us the way around and warn us of hidden areas of rough. They had broad New York accents and George and I tried to guess what they had been during their working lives: we came up with either police officers, or maybe in the newspaper industry. We never did find out.
We had a wonderful time, I wont go into it hole by hole, but we all played some very good shots and we all played some woeful shots. On the whole George played more good shots than the rest of us, and if we had been competing he would have vanquished us, but we weren’t and instead we all had fun
From the golf course I had to pick up a rental car which will be with me until I arrive at Logan airport on Saturday to fly home. We were to go to a Hertz dealership in Flemington, and it took a bit of finding. In our defence the venue didn’t look like a Hertz office. In fact it was a very small car repair shop, with scattered bits of wounded automobiles lying on the ground. The only clue that the office may be part of one of the world’s leading car rental concerns was a tiny sign on the wall outside the office. I walked in and said I was due to collect a car and that my name was Dickens. ‘Ah, yes.’ said the lady in the office, its the white Nissan Rogue, here are the keys. Its got 3/4 of a tank, just drop it off with the same wherever you’re leaving it.’ And that was it! No signatures, no driving licence check, no credit cards: nothing. Easy, but I was not entirely sure that Hertz head office knew that I had their car.
I said goodbye to George, although we’d be meeting up again for dinner, and drove back to the cabin, where I took the Mustang out for one final journey to fill it up with petrol (during my drive to Burlington I’d watched the fuel gauge go down as quickly as the speed went up!) When I returned, I sorrowfully guided it into the garage and said my goodbyes.
George had booked a table for dinner in the town of New Hope, 30 minutes away, in a very smart restaurant overlooking the river. Maura, George’s girlfriend was also there and it was a great pleasure to meet her. She is going to be working with Pam on the administrative side of my tour and she was keen to find out as much as possible as to how it all works. She will be a great asset to the team, I think. We all dined well, I had a spicy Asian trout dish which was absolutely delicious, and it was a very pleasant evening with good company.
I returned to the Cabin for my final night in the woods
Although I had only one show on Thursday, in the evening, I did have a little extra work to do at Byers’ Choice, for David wanted to record a few promotional videos for the forthcoming Christmas tour. Firstly I sat at a large table and, looking into the camera, cheerily invited people to come and see A Christmas Carol at Byers’ Choice. Next I cheerily asked them to come and see A Christmas Carol at their local venue (this means that sponsors can put their own captions and booking details on the screen.) Then I told people that they may like to buy my book, and finally a piece about my DVD of A Christmas Carol (Yes! It is available this year). When all those short clips had been filmed Dave and I created a mini Byers’ Choice travel show as I walked through the visitor centre pointing out things of interest, especially relating to Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.
When the filming was finished I said my final goodbyes to Dave, Bob and George (who returned my golf shoes that I’d left in his ca)r, and I set out on the road East, towards Long Island. The traffic wasn’t too bad until I reached the environs of New York City, at which time I inevitably hit long tailbacks – some because of accidents, some because of roadworks and some just due to heavy city congestion. I had plenty of time in hand, though, so it was not a concern.
To skirt around Manhattan my route took me across the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn, and it has to be one of the world’s most truly impressive bridges to be sure, rivalling The Forth Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sidney Harbour Bridge, and even its near neighbour, the Brooklyn Bridge. The heavy traffic continued onto the misnamed Long Island Expressways but I arrived at the Marriott Hotel in good time. I had stayed at the same venue last Christmas so everything was familiar to me.
I had an hour or so at the hotel before I was due at the East Meadow Library where I was to perform the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold that evening. The drive to the library was only a matter of minutes and in no time I was greeting my friends from December Jude and her husband Mark, who helped me to unload my costumes and props ready to set up in the small auditorium. The first job was to reconstruct the danger light for The Signalman, using the screws and screwdriver that Dave had sent along with me. Mark used to be involved in Broadway theatre in the tech, set and props fields and as we built the light he was commenting on the construction of it, with a certain sense of admiration, but also with the inevitable ‘Ah, if I’d made this I would have……’
Soon we had the set in place and Jude suggested that we all went to get some dinner before the show, so we piled into Marks huge RAM truck and headed to a lovely Italian restaurant, where we dined alfresco, beneath huge sunshades. I had a simple chicken dish in a white wine and lemon sauce, which was delicious, but I was aware that time was pushing on towards six pm and we were due to start at seven. Mark noticed my unease and offered to drive me back to the Library so that I could finish my preparations in as relaxed way as possible.
The priority was to do a sound check with Larry, who had looked after my performance in December and who I knew to be a safe pair of hands on the faders, because of that I had also given him the wind sound effect to play during the first half. With the sound check completed and the set checked once more I left the room, so that the audience could take their seats, and went downstairs where I changed in a small staff cafeteria room.
At seven o’clock Jude came down to say we were holding for 5 minutes as guests were still arriving, but soon everything was in place to begin. Jude opened the door to the auditorium (the seating was raked, and I would be performing on the floor level), and I slipped in behind her, which elicited a round of applause form the audience, to which Jude hissed back at me in a loud pantomime-style whisper ‘you were supposed to stay outside!’ It was all good fun banter, and Jude is a natural entertainer.
With the introductions completed I started the show. The audience weren’t as responsive during the two performances as some others, there was not the same laughter at Marigold for instance, but oh my they were appreciative and applauded long and loudly afterwards. I learned long ago that audiences respond in different ways and just because there isn’t an instant response, it doesn’t mean that they are not enjoying, or appreciating the performance, and the crowd at East Meadow were a case in point. After Marigold was finished (and, yes, they gasped at the correct moment), I opened the floor up to questions and we had an enjoyable session covering lots of ground, including how do I learn lines? What is my favourite film or TV adaptation of any Dickens novel? (David Lean’s Great Expectations, or the BBC’s Bleak House), and how did I feel about the Queen? which brought the emotions that have been there all week bubbling up to the surface again. Soon it was time to wrap up and I took another round of applause before leaving the room. I loitered outside as the audience left and the questions continued until the library emptied and it was time to pack up my belongings, say my goodbyes and head back to the Marriott where I set my alarm for 5.45, as I had a three hour drive ahead of me to Massachusetts.
Friday night wasn’t very long for me, but even so I managed to injure myself during it. I woke somewhere around 1am and made my way through the dark to the bathroom. It was as I returned to the bed that I tripped over my suitcase, let open ready to pack in the early hours. As I fell forward I was vaguely aware that the wooden bed was close and stuck my hands out to break my fall but in doing so I scraped my right wrist along the sharp edge of the case, leaving a nasty graze.
I got back to bed and fell asleep. The next thing I knew alarms were bleeping and chiming and it was time to get up. I made a cup of coffee and quickly showered before packing my wash bag and closing up my guillotine suitcase. I left the room at 3.30 and made my way along a series of wooden walkways and was amazed to see a couple sat at a table talking, they said a polite ‘good morning’, as if chatting to fellow guests at 3.30 in the morning was the most natural thing in the world.
The drive back to Jacksonville airport was just over an hour, so my phone’s navigation app told me, and I drove through the darkness and duly arrived at 4.30. I drove to the Hertz rental return and then walked into the terminal where I was amazed how busy it was. I joined a queue for the United airlines bag drop and then made my way through security and arrived at my gate with 15 minutes before boarding was due to commence. I grabbed a little pot of yoghurt, a bottle of orange juice and a cinnamon roll and had a very quick ‘breakfast’ before being called to board.
I also studied my injury which was looking quite livid and raw. The shape of the wound looked rather like a collection of islands in an Australasian archipelago, and was feeling a little sore, I could also feel a scrape on my shin, where first I tripped and also an ache on my upper lip, where I banged my face – not bad work for a 4-hour night!
The flight took off in darkness and I dozed a little, but when the coffee service came round I was awake for good, so opened the United Airlines app and watched Local Hero, which made me have thoughts of longing to be back in the Highlands of Scotland again.
The sun had risen during the flight and it felt as if it should be around 10 or 11 in the morning, in fact it was a little before 8am. As I waited at the carousel in baggage claim I was greeted by the cheery face and hug of Pam Byers who had driven out to pick me up. My home for the next few days would be the Byers’ cabin overlooking the Delaware river and having loaded my bags into her little white Golf GT we set off for the beautiful remote spot in the woods. We had a couple of hours during which I could just catch my breath a little, and I showered again to wake me up, before we had to set off to the Byers’ Choice headquarters where I was due to perform that afternoon. On the way Pam stopped at a WaWa petrol station and I grabbed a sandwich, some fruit and some crisps for a brief lunch, and then on to the building that is so familiar to me – my office in the USA. Whenever I come to Chalfont I feel so much apart of the Byers’ Choice team, it is a very special place to be.
As with all of the shows on this mini-tour the audience was going to be smaller than those for A Christmas Carol, so the team had taken the decision to build a more intimate theatre in the cafeteria space rather than in the cavernous manufacturing room. I said hello to David Daikeler, who looks after all of my technical requirements at Byers’ and then to Jeff and finally to Bob Byers. They had done a fantastic job in building the theatre, and the stage not only had the furniture for The Signalman’s hut, but also a magnificent red danger light built by Dave specifically for this occasion. At each side of the stage were a couple of antique carts which set the scene for Doctor Marigold. David had hung a series of theatre lights, and would be able to control the various lighting effects that I use in theatres at home.
We were also experimenting with something new – a sound effect. In The Signalman the narrative talks about the wind whistling through the deep railway cutting, indeed it almost becomes part of the haunting itself. For a few years I have thought about using sound, sparingly and subtly, and I had decided that the Byers’ Choice performance, with Dave at the rudder, would be the perfect time to try it out. Over the previous weeks I had spent many hours, becoming rather obsessed with the project, listening to various wind sound effects, some were too stormy, others too calm, some too sci-fi and others too artificial, but eventually I found one that fitted the bill. Now, it was my first chance to see how it sounded, and I began a run through of the script as Dave played around with sound levels. My suggestion had been that I wanted to audience to feel cold and uneasy without actually knowing why, so the effect should be very much used as an ambient sound, rather than being too intrusive. It sounded perfect.
Having finished our technical rehearsals I went to the large conference room that doubles as my dressing room on such occasions, and ate my lunch before signing 30 copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’, which would be sold at the performance. Back in the theatre the audience were arriving and I changed into costume ready to start the show at 3 0’clock, twelve hours after I woke up.
There was a good audience in the room and once we were sure that nobody else was going to arrive, Bob turned off the lights and we made our way towards the stage. Bob is always superb at welcoming the audience to the shows, but on this occasion he completely caught me off guard, by sombrely offering his condolences to me and my country, before calling the audience to observe a moment’s silence in memory of and in tribute to The Queen. I stood with my head bowed and had to wipe away a tear or two before stepping up to the stage. I have been amazed and deeply touched by the response of America during these days, with all flags flying at half mast, and this in a week of such commemoration and sorry in their own country as they remember the horrors of 9-11.
On the stage I thanked the audience and then, as Marigold likes to say, had to ‘thoroughly shake myself together’ to get the show going. I talked about Staplehurst, remembering to shameless plug my book (by the way, it is available on Amazon), before I was ready to place my left arm over my face and cry out ‘Halloa! Below there!’ Oh it was intense and dark and wonderful. The sound effect worked very well, and certainly added a chill to the atmosphere, whilst the various lighting effects were expertly conducted by Dave at his tech console. When I finished the show and had taken my bows I left the room to quickly change costumes, and in my wake Bob, his son George and Dave reset the stage ready for Doctor Marigold.
I returned to the theatre and when everyone was in their seats I took to the stage once more and introduced the audience to Doctor Marigold. I was beginning to feel tired by now and there were a few fumbles in lines, but the story of the cheapjack was wonderfully received by the audience, and the gasp at the end of the performance (which Dickens’s manager George Dolby remarked on in his memoir of the reading tours) was as loud and heartfelt as ever with a few hands going up to a few tear-filled eyes. 157 years after Doctor Marigold first appeared, the effect is still the same.
The applause was long and I took a number of bows, before opening the floor to questions. At most Q&A sessions I can be fairly certain of the questions that will be asked, but the first one on Saturday was definitely a first, nobody has ever asked me this before: ‘Is it true that the actor who played Alfred in Batman is related to you?’ Yes! it is! In the 1960’s series featuring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, the loyal butler Alfred was played by Alan Napier, an English actor who in 1944 married Aileen Hawksley a direct descendant of Charles Dickens through his son Henry, the same line as myself. I remember as a child looking at our family tree and being much more excited about having a relative (albeit through marriage) who was in Batman than I was about being related to a Victorian author!
Another question also moved me to silence but for a completely different reason, I was asked ‘how do you pack?’, the point of the question being do I travel with all of the props and furniture, and how on earth do I manage that. But in a moment of confusion I sort of thought that I was in Boston or New Hampshire and to my mind he was asking with a broad New England accent ‘how do you park?’ It seemed an odd question to ask and I floundered around for a while wondering how to answer. Eventually I realised my error and explained that individual venues provide the furniture and I travel as lightly as I could! I must blame my confusion on the 3 o’clock start to my day!
I kept on taking more questions and answering as fully as I could, until Bob came up onto the stage and rescued me from myself.
Back in the conference room I changed back into my regular clothes and when I had collected everything up Pam and Bob took me out for an early supper before heading back to the cabin where I was asleep by about 8.30 pm. It had been a long day, indeed.
On Friday it was time to get to work. I woke early thanks equally to being in the wrong time zone, but also thanks to a tropical storm beating the roof and window panes of my room. I logged on to the BBC news coverage and watched as the news of the Queen’s death and the King’s accession still played out, eliciting the same emotions in me as the day before. I noticed that many of the correspondents wore black arm bands and decided that that was a suitable way to show my respects during the days and weeks of official mourning. The only problem with that plan was that I didn’t have a black arm band, or even any material to make one, but a quick online search showed me that there was a fabric store on St Simon’s Island, just a 30 minute drive away and as I had plenty of time on my hands I decided that I would make the journey.
I cant remember when I had last been at the Jekyll Island Club Resort, it must have been 15 or 20 years ago now, in a completely different era of touring, and readers of my blog posts will know nothing about it, for my performances there predate ‘On the Road With….’.
Having performed at The Dickens on the Strand festival in Galveston Texas in 1994 I was approached by Caroline Jackson, an entrepreneurial lady who wanted to build a tour around my show, and offered to become my US agent. At that stage I had no thoughts of touring and simply enjoyed the experience of the single trip to Texas, with a stop in Kansas City tagged on. Caroline, however, had bigger ideas, and promised great things if I signed with her, which I did, and so this amazing story began.
In her efforts to find venues for the first tours Caroline signed an agreement with The Historic Hotels of America chain, an umbrella organisation that marketed various hotels which were, naturally enough, historic, and it was through that connection that I first performed at Hershey, Williamsburg, Ojai, The Memphis Peabody and many others, including on Jekyll Island.
As I had driven towards the hotel on Thursday afternoon I had tried to remember what it had been like – I recalled the people I worked with and the sheer sense of fun, but had no real memory of the physical layout of the hotel. Vaguely in my mind I recalled the dining room being slightly awkward to perform in, I seemed to think quite long and narrow, but that was all. As I arrived I remembered the grandeur and elegance of the property – anywhere with a croquet lawn is quite special!
On Friday morning I went down to breakfast, which was served in The Grand Dining Room and it all came flooding back to me – yes the room was long, and had four rows of pillars through it, making five distinct corridors, albeit not filled in by walls.
I remembered that to perform A Christmas Carol I had to work the room, making sure I was always on the move, with no fixed area to focus the acting on. I also remembered that the banquet staff would be clearing the previous course as I performed, meaning that there were ample opportunities to include the waiting staff in the story (thinking back, I am sure that they must have hated it), and one poor guy always managed to be in the wrong, or the right, place during the Fezziwig ball and I would end up dancing a jig with him.
As I looked at the room over my eggs and bacon I dragged my mind from the past into the present and looked at the possibilities for my evening performance of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold. I knew that the evening was going to be an intimate affair and I doubted that we would need the whole dining room, so how else could we stage it? The answer was the door to the room, for as you enter there is a full width area, unencumbered by the pillars, at one side was a large bookcase (perfect as a backdrop for Marigold), and at the other a fireplace (suitable for The Signalman.) That seemed to be the perfect place to perform, I also noticed the large wooden desk with a sloping top, used to check guests in, and wondered if I could appropriate that for the desk in the Signalman’s hut.
After breakfast I immediately walked to the car and set off to St Simons Island. It was a beautiful drive, across flat wetlands where herons flew in such numbers that they reminded me of seagulls.
I drove on across various bridges and soon I was pulling up outside the fabric shop. To my dismay I realised that it actually sold fabrics for furnishing – curtains, drapes, furniture coverings etc, and didn’t have anything that would suit my purpose, but the owner did suggest the next shop which specialised in quilting, so I tried there instead. As I walked in a lady was using a huge machine, reminiscent of a Victorian cotton mill (except it was powered by electricity and had a laptop attached to it), to create a huge piece of work. She was concentrating hard, as the needles darted this way and that to create the elaborate pattern, and I thought it best just to wait quietly until she had finished that particular section, On she went, ignoring me completely, not even a quick ‘Ill be with you shortly’. Finally she stopped, looked up, saw me and jumped in the air at the same time shouting ‘JESUS CHRIST!! OH GOD!’ Such had been her concentration she had no idea I’d even entered the shop and then suddenly there was this apparent apparition standing at her counter watching her. After holding her chest and panting for a while, she calmed down and I apologised for scaring her so much. I explained what I wanted and why, and she immediately began to talk about The Queen and Charles and, inevitably, Diana and Camilla. She was very kind and she was the first actual person I had spoken to about the Queen since she died and I found myself becoming very emotional all over again. My new friend very kindly made no charge for the small amount of fabric, seeing as what it was for.
I drove back to Jekyll Island, returned to my room and fetched my sewing kit (which I travel with to patch up costumes if they suffer from the rigours of the tour), and started to hem the edges before completing a small hoop that snuggled onto my arm without slipping.
Having completed my needlework I went to the little pantry store in the hotel and bought a chicken salad, which I ate on an outside deck whilst admiring two little green lizards running to and fro.
I spent the afternoon running through my lines for the two shows and getting frustratingly tangled up in both, which was slightly worrying. The best thing would have been to gone for a walk, but yet another tropical rain storm had settled over the island and I was restricted to quarters.
Variety was provided by a meeting with the hotel staff about the evening’s event and to my delight they told me that they were indeed setting up in the wide space at the entrance to the room, and yes it would be fine to use the sloping desk for my set.
We chatted about the timetable (guests were dining at 7.30 and I would start performing after they had finished an hour later, which meant it was going to be a late evening.)
I went back to my room and did some more rehearsing, with more success this time (I actually put costume on, which helped me to concentrate more), and then settled back to wait for the start of the show. As I sat on my bed I remembered that I had a very early start in the morning, in fact I would need to set my alarm for 3am to leave the hotel at 3.30, so I began to carefully pack everything I could in my suitcase, and left it lying open on the floor at the end of the bed ready to add my costume and wash bag to it in the morning.
At 7.45 I got fully into The Signalman’s all black costume, including my black arm band which naturally didn’t show, but I knew I was wearing it, and made my way down two flights of stairs into the small bar area, which is just outside the dining room, and where quite a group was gathering and starting a rowdy evening. In the dining room a more sedate and elegant evening was progressing as the guests were served their main courses. I sat in a large leather arm chair to wait. At various stages some of the guests came out of the room to get some fresh air, or stretch their legs and chatted to me. One lady had actually been at one my previous performances here when she was a young girl, apparently I stole some asparagus from her plate during the show, and she has never forgotten it.
I received updates during the rest of dinner from the hotel’s audio visual guy, Dante, and eventually, at 8.30, I got the word that the dinner service was complete and cleared and that I could start. There was nobody to make introductory remarks or welcome me to the stage, so I simply walked into the room and began.
The lines for the Signalman flowed well and the dark eerie light that Dante had created with a couple of floor LED spotlights added to the atmosphere in the lonely signal box, and when I got to the end of the show the audience applauded warmly. I announced that I was going to disappear to perform a quick costume change and would be back in a few minutes to continue the evening, at which I made my way behind the large book case and changed costume in a sort of cupboard/passage way/storage area just a few feet from the stage itself. Soon I was in the corduroy trousers, collarless shirt with rolled up sleeves (black arm band showing clearly this time), plain waistcoat and rough laceless boots. I re-emerged with as little ceremony as I could so that I could move the furniture around and place the little flight of steps that would represent Marigold’s cart, without the audience thinking it was part of the show. When the set was ready, I waited until the guests had all returned and started once more.
Doctor Marigold went as smoothly as The Signalman, with just a couple of minor line errors, that while frustrating to me, didn’t effect the show itself. I reached the end and again received lovely applause and then stayed on the stage to do a little Q&A session, before everyone prepared to leave. I posed for some photographs and then collected all of my props and the Signalman’s costume and made my way up stairs to my room. In the bar the boisterous party was still in full fling, and at the centre of it were two British gentlemen, so I joined in with the banter for a while before retiring for the night.
I packed my costumes into the little roller case – it is amazing how much that can hold, set the bedside alarm and my phone for 3am and left the large case open ready for the morning.
Having heard the news from England, I wasn’t going to write a blog post about my travels yesterday, somehow it didn’t seem right, but I have decided to go ahead, although it feels difficult to be light-hearted and entertaining today. But here is my account of Thursday, 8 September 2022:
The 2022 September tour is an extra trip and enables some of the venues that have asked me to perform something other than A Christmas Carol, to present non-seasonal events. Unfortunately some of the sponsors who had originally asked to be part of the tour have since backed out, meaning that there are a few gaps in the itinerary, but I may get time to run, possibly play some golf or be a bit of a tourist.
My day started early as I had to catch an 8am flight from Heathrow airport which meant a taxi pulling up outside our house at 5 o’clock in the morning. I had packed everything the day before, so having had a slice of toast and a cup of coffee, it was a case of saying farewell to Liz and disappearing into the darkness. The traffic at that time in the morning was very light and so I was at Heathrow in very very good time. The same was true of check-in and security and I was all cleared and ready to fly just after 6! I headed to a Pret a Manger where I had a little bowl of Bircher muesli topped with blueberries, some orange juice and a coffee, all of which passed the time until the screens showed that I should proceed to gate B31. The B gates at terminal 2 are in a separate building and getting to them means descending the longest escalator I have ever used, and about half way down I had a terrible sense of vertigo and had to cling to the rail for a moment and look anywhere but down, to control the sensations of dizziness which were making my head spin.
Continuing the theme of the day, boarding started soon after I arrived and it was calm, quick and efficient, meaning that we could push back from the gate ahead of schedule. I had a window seat with nobody next to me (thanks to continually checking the United Airlines website and switching my seat every time I noticed someone reserving the one next to mine), so I could spread out a little. I began to scroll through the huge amount of films on offer (so different now to those days when one film was shown on a single screen at the front of the cabin, as it was when I first toured). Out of a sense of nostalgia I chose Jaws, and settled back into my seat, reassured by the announcement that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that we would experience a water landing. As an early birthday present, to allow for this trip, Liz had bought me a set of noise-cancelling wireless headphones which did an amazing job of cosseting me in the world of Amity Island, and blocking out a rainy London.
It was odd to fly at that time of day, as usually I am used to lunch being brought round after an hour’s flying, but today it was breakfast – my third of the day (if I count the toast and coffee at home), and I tucked into pancakes topped with a hot fruit compote and an unnamed and unidentifiable white sauce, maybe cream or custard – I think not cheese, who knows?
A strange thing happened when the cabin attendant came to offer me beverages: I asked for an orange juice and a coffee, and she poured both and handed them to me (I grant, not too strange at the moment). Now, usually I am asked ‘cream and sugar?’ and I reply, ‘yes, thank you, one of each.’ But on this occasion she didn’t ask, so I said ‘may I have cream and coffee please?’ to whish she rather scolded me – ‘You didn’t ask for cream and sugar, so I just gave you coffee. I gave you what you asked for, I’m not a mind reader you know!’ I was slightly taken aback by this tirade, but tried to lighten the moment by replying. ‘Oh I am sure you are!’ but it was an odd moment, nonetheless .
Once Chief Brody and Matt Hooper had swum back to Amity, leaving the wreck of the Orca and the remains of Quint in the Atlantic Ocean, it was time to chose another film and this time I went for Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar winner performance as Abraham Lincoln. It is a long film, and I dozed bit, but it was truly a remarkable performance, and I had forgotten the quality of the supporting cast. By the time Lincoln was over I decided that rather than launching into another movie, I would investigate the TV programmes, and found a special recording of John Williams conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – and so my unintended theme (the films of Spielberg as scored by Williams) was settled. It was a magnificent concert and was nice just to let the music fill my ears for an hour or so.
For the final leg of the flight, over Nova Scotia and down the New England coast towards New York City I went full out with my theme and started to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind and got three quarters of the way through as we made our soft, smooth landing on American soil. It was now that my day changed completely.
As my phone came back to life so the news came to me that doctors had serious concerns about the health of Queen Elizabeth II, and that all of the family were making their way to the Highlands of Scotland to be with her. That fact, and the fact that there was no mention of her being taken to hospital, could only mean one thing and a great sense of emptiness and depression descended over me, for the one constant of my entire life was about to be taken away. I just wanted to be at home with Liz, I didn’t want to be in America, I didn’t want to be preparing to do shows, I didn’t want to be wearing a smile and chatting to audience members, I wanted to be back in my home country being able to mourn with everyone else.
I spent the layover at Newark listening to the news coverage and it became increasingly obvious that all of the broadcasters were starting to follow carefully prepared protocols to bring the news of the Monarch’s death to the world. I boarded by onward flight to Jacksonville, Florida, and by the time I landed the news was confirmed. Strangely the line of news that most brought the reality of the situation to me was the mention of ‘King Charles III’: the succession occurs at the very moment of death, and a new era had begun.
There is little that I can add to the huge amount of tributes to Queen Elizabeth II that are being constantly played out over the news channels, but in 2012 I and Liz were fortunate enough to meet her. I am currently writing a new book about my life touring on the road, and in it I recall our time at Buckingham Palace:
‘In 2012 the nation celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth and the most prestigious event was a reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh. Invitations were received by famous actors who have performed in adaptations of the novels, academics who have studied and written about Charles’ life, and members of the family: Liz and I were truly fortunate to have been included on the list.
On 14 February we drove our car through the great gates in front of the palace and parked in the courtyard before walking under the famous portico, up the small flight of steps and into the Queen’s official London residence.
We ascended the grand staircase and made our way into a gilded and packed reception room, in which there seemed to be celebrities at every corner. We were given a glass of champagne and waiters circulated with plates of hors d’oeuvre, beautifully created to allow for single-bite ease of eating. Somehow, seamlessly, we discovered ourselves in a long line and at the head of it we were presented to the Queen and the Duke, who shook our hands and said a few words, before moving on to the next guests. If that wasn’t enough of a thrill, the members of the family were gathered up and taken to a smaller room, where we were granted a second and more private audience with the Queen, who spent ten minutes or so chatting with us all, demonstrating a remarkable memory as she recalled meeting my Uncle Peter many years previously, wistfully remembering that he had been ‘rather dishy’. Peter had been a Royal Naval officer
Queen Elizabeth was quite amazing, the energy she demonstrated as she worked the room, making intelligent conversation with all of these literary and artistic folk, was remarkable. And the next evening, or later in the week, she would be talking to nuclear physicists, or footballers, or politicians, and she would share the same beaming smile with them and display the same levels of knowledge of their work and would delight them as she had delighted us.’
That occasion was a truly memorable one, but my feelings of grief are not due to that evening, but to the sense that a major part of our reality has gone. Our parents lived through multiple changes of monarch, through both death and abdication, but for the multiple generations that have been born since 1952 we have known nothing other than the leadership and care of Queen Elizabeth II
Life will go on, and our King will serve the country well, but it will never be the same again.
When I arrived at my hotel on Jekyll Island in Georgia I noticed that the flags that flew on the spacious lawns had been lowered to half mast.
I don’t want to write more about my journey or my evening, or why I am in Georgia, that can wait until tomorrow. For now just to say ‘Rest in peace, your Majesty, and God save the King’
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.
There are certain events in my schedule that mark the never-changing progress of the year – some are important dates for their historical significance and may, or may not, be linked to a performance (specifically February 7 and June 9 being the dates on which Charles Dickens was born and died respectively). The great Dickens Festival in Rochester is always held at the end of the spring half term, whilst Thanksgiving Day in America sees the start of my main tour of the United States. But there is another event, without which my year would seem fractured and incomplete: the Victorian Festival in the Welsh spa town Llandrindod Wells, which takes place during the second half of August.
I was introduced to Llandrindod many years ago by my good friend David Hawes who, although based in Kent, worked with the festival organisers to bring a flash of pizzazz and theatricality to the event. David has always been a great champion of my work and many of my current venues are thanks to his influence and powers of persuasion. Back in 2014 he looked at the Llandrindod festival programme and reckoned that one of my shows would fit in well, so he made sure that the committee booked me to perform at the perfectly named ‘Albert Hall’
I took to the festival straight away and have been returning ever since, meaning that August wouldn’t be August without driving to mid-Wales. Like so many events the LLandrinod festival suffered greatly during the two Covid years, but this year it was back – alive and kicking. The event has relied for many years on a group of both locals and visitors gathering, dressing in Victorian costumes and attending a series of themed events, talks and shows. The town boasts a wonderful small green, complete with a bandstand, and this has become the focus of the activities. In past years there has been a small funfair, a craft fair and some sideshows to provide entertainment for the locals who may have otherwise felt excluded. This year the committee had included a series of non-Victorian events to further boost the appeal, including concerts featuring Dolly Parton, Tom Jones and Witney Houston tribute acts (not to mention that well known Charles Dickens tribute…I must think of a suitable pun-laden name for my act). At the town’s large lake, nestling in the valley, a series of children’s piratical adventures was laid on, featuring treasure hunts and it seemed to me that the town itself was beginning to once more embrace the festival, meaning it was no longer the sole preserve of the stalwarts, although they still are very much the core and beating heart of the event.
My show at The Albert Hall was to be staged on Tuesday night and this year I had been asked to perform a double bill of Mr Dickens is Coming! followed by The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. These two shows were the first that I wrote back in ’95 and ’96 and whilst I have already performed Mr Dickens is Coming a few times this year, I have not revisited Nickleby for a long time and it was with great pleasure that I spent the days preceding my trip going through the lines and finding that they came back to me with a minimum of effort – not just the lines, but the timing, nuances and movements too.
My drive from Oxford to Powys took me on motorways at first, but in no time I was on smaller roads, driving through picturesque villages. Shortly after passing Tenby Wells I realised that the car was in need of fuel and so I stopped at a small filling station. In fact I queued at the small filling station, for the price of a litre of Unleaded was £1.62, by far the lowest I had seen since the prices were coming down from their £2.00 peak of a few weeks before, and obviously people were coming from miles around to avail themselves of a bargain top up. I took the opportunity of the stop to buy a sandwich for my lunch, and I chose a magnificent door-stop cheese and pickle example. This wasn’t a typical pre-packed, limp, flabby, sweaty sandwich, such as you might expect to find in a petrol station, oh no, this had been lovingly built by hand by someone who wanted to make sure that drivers didn’t go hungry!
Shortly after finishing my sandwich I decided that I fancied a cup of coffee, maybe a slice of cake, and I was pondering where best to purchase these items when I saw brown tourist signs for the National Trust property Croft Castle. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘I have a National Trust membership card, so I wont have to pay an entrance fee, and the property is sure to have a tea room, so why not give myself a little treat?’ I was not disappointed, for the tea room served up an excellent slice of coffee and walnut, and the setting was fabulous.
I stretched my legs by walking to the ‘castle’ itself and admiring the views, before returning to my car and completing the journey through the gorgeous Welsh scenery
I arrived in Llandrindod at around 3pm and checked into my home from home in the town, The Portland Guest House where I settled into the room I always have on the very top floor. I lay on the bed, watched a little cricket on the television and had a short nap before it was time to shower and make my way to the theatre – a drive of 0.1 mile, which took me maybe less than a minute. I unloaded my various props, and with the assistance of theatre manager Ben carried them to the stage.
It was at this point that I realised that I had left my top hat and walking cane at home. These items do not have a huge role in the show, in fact they only appear in a single scene very early on in Mr Dickens is Coming to create the jaunty demeanour of Mr Micawber, who uses the cane to as a metaphoric set of scales to measure the happiness or misery of his income. The show can be played without these simple items, but it would be a shame, and as the large majority of the audience would be in costume, I reckoned that I may be able to borrow a hat and cane from somewhere: I asked Ben to make appropriate enquiries on my behalf.
I had plenty of time to prepare, for the show wasn’t due to start until 8pm, although some of the audience arrived expecting a 7.30 curtain up. Having carefully set the stage I ran through parts of both shows, until the first of the public began to arrive, festival regulars in full costume, and having said a few hellos I made my way back to the dressing room, where I changed into costume and waited. As time passed Ben appeared holding a hat which he had commandeered. No cane yet, he was working on it!
I could hear the audience gathering and eventually, with ten minutes to go, a walking cane appeared too: I was ready to go.
At 8 o’clock Queen Victoria (aka my good friend Rita) made her entrance and the whole audience were asked to stand as she processed to her front row seat, as I stood waiting in the wings, desperate to get going (I am like a caged beast in those last minutes before a show starts, pacing to and fro waiting to be released). When the Queen was seated Ben faded the houselights to black and then illuminated the stage and I walked on to a round of applause. The Albert Hall could really have been built to suit my style of shows – the size and elegance of the auditorium and the imposing and powerful height of the stage, makes it perfect for me. Mr Dickens is Coming went well, getting laughs at the right moments, and I was very careful with the top hat (a particularly fine vintage example), and cane during the Micawber section, but as I made my way into the sinuous, repulsive Uriah Heep passage and then to the exhausting sword fight of The Bagman’s Uncle (masquerading as a 1960’s James Bond movie), I threw everything into the show.
At the interval I waited until most of the audience had left the auditorium then changed the furniture round in readiness for Nicholas Nickleby (not a huge set change, it must be said, just changing the red reading desk from stage left to stage right, and moving the chair from stage right to stage left.) I made sure that various prop letters that are needed for Nickleby were where they should be, and then waited until the Queen returned and I could begin once more.
As I had discovered during my rehearsals Nickleby came back to me as if I had been performing it regularly all season and I had lots of fun leaping from character to character. I used a slightly different voice for Ralph Nickleby, making him a little older than he used to be, but it didn’t go well as my throat began to tighten, so I reverted back to a safer option for the balance of the show.
The story raced from Devon to London to Yorkshire back to London to Portsmouth back to London again and finally to Devon once more before reaching its conclusion over Smike’s grave. I left the stage and returned to take my bows as the audience applauded my efforts. It had been a fun night.
As soon as I was off stage I began packing up my costumes and props as the 8.00pm start time meant that it was late, and I had dinner to enjoy yet. Ben and the rest of the Albert Hall Crew helped me load my car up and I drove back to the Portland from where I walked back to John Abell’s home where we traditionally have a late night Chinese take away in the company of his mum Julie, and this year we were joined by Marina from the festival committee and her daughter Mia. We tucked into the meal, drank some champagne that John had bought for us, and finished off with chocolate brownies. There was lots of chat about films, running, the festival and various other topics, and it was a perfect way to wind down after such an energetic and exciting evening.
It was late when I walked back to Portland but even then the adrenaline was still keeping me awake so I switched on the television and found an old episode of Inspector Morse. I knew it was time to turn the lights out when the murderer was revealed and I hadn’t realised that anyone had yet been murdered!
On Wednesday morning I woke to find the town wrapped in cloud with a wet drizzle soaking everything, this was a pity for I’d planned to head up into the hills and play some golf that morning. I went downstairs to breakfast and devoured bacon, sausage, egg and toast and as I ate, the skies seemed to brighten a little and I decided to go ahead with my original plan after all.
Llandrindod Wells golf club is a lovely course which I have played on a number of occasions and the weather Gods welcomed me as I pulled into the car park, for the clouds disappeared and revealed a blue sky behind. I was greeted by the club pro Phil Davies, and we chatted for a while about the festival and Charles Dickens, before I set off on my morning’s adventure. The course is very hilly, especially over the first 4 holes as they rise up to the highest point, and I asked Phil if I could rent an electric trolley for my heavy golf bag. I have not used one before and it took me a while to get used to the controls – at first I had the speed setting too high and the thing flew off up the course dragging me behind it. I would have reduced the setting if I’d bothered to ask how to do that, but I had no idea how to control the thing as it threatened to pull my arm from its socket. Eventually I discovered a little dial on the handle and my journey up the mountainside became more sedate.
The round of golf was wonderful and I actually had the course to myself for the morning. The scenery surrounding me was stunning, the air was clear and little swifts swooped around me as I walked.
I actually played very well until the last few holes when maybe the effects of the show took their toll, but for whatever reason I rather lost focus and talent at the same time, but it didn’t spoil what had been a great morning.
I had one more commitment at the festival and that was to attend a strawberry and champagne picnic on the green. I asked Phil if I could change in the golf club’s locker room, and he asked if I would pose on the course in costume, which I was delighted to do. I even tried a drive from the first tee but my frock coat didn’t allow for me to swing properly and the ball bobbled embarrassingly before coming to rest a few yards in front of me. Phil very kindly said it looked as if I had a good swing!
Back down in town I made my way to the green where another of the costumed ladies was setting up her champagne table. Joyce has always put this event on, she brings all of the champagne and punnets of strawberries; It is her gift to all of those who make the festival such fun. Over the last year Joyce has been through many difficult times and it was doubtful whether she would be attending this year, but just a week before she announced that she would be present and the reception would be on!
At 1 o’clock the costumed folk began to gather and set up tables for their picnics. linen cloths were laid, teapots filled, china cups and saucers laid and cake stands filled – it was so splendidly British!
Marie, another regular visitor, helped Joyce set up and when the ‘bar’ was complete Joyce looked as if all the woes of the world had left her and she looked genuinely happy with a beaming smile. We all had a glass of champagne (fortunately there was a non alcoholic version that I could drink) and we all toasted to happy times.
And that was the end of my 2022 visit to Llandrindod Wells. I said my goodbyes and set off back to Oxfordshire. I have left in previous years wondering if the festival could survive and not sure if I would be returning, but this year it seemed in rude health indeed and the future looks bright!
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!
On Tuesday 5 July my fairly intense tour came to an end, and appropriately it was with the same show that I started with back in May – Great Expectations. In the intervening weeks I have travelled to ten venues up and down the country (and one in Germany), performing six different scripts along the way.
My final venue of this tour was the Market Theatre in Hitchin, which, in pre-Covid days, was a regular summer stop for me. The theatre is in the very heart of Hitchin, just off the old market square, and shares a car park with a large and very popular pub. In previous years, it seems to me, I have always visited on the hottest day of the Summer and often when the England football team are playing a match, meaning that The Sun Hotel is packed with well lubricated football supporters chanting and shouting and cheering and groaning, which hasn’t always proved to be the perfect backing soundtrack to my shows. This year, although hot, it was by no means unbearable and the 2022 World Cup Football Tournament, which would normally be played in the Summer, has been scheduled for November to avoid the extreme temperatures in Qatar, and the Women’s European Cup had not yet begun, so the stars were much better aligned for me.
I arrived at 5 O’clock and was greeted by Glyn, the theatre manager, who unlocked the doors so that I could unload. The Market Theatre is a small venue, converted from a couple of old industrial units. There are two performance spaces, some meeting rooms and an upstairs bar, and the whole place has a very friendly atmosphere. Unloading the car couldn’t have been easier, as the auditorium has a side door which opens onto the car parking area, so I could simply carry everything straight onto the stage. The fact that Great Expectations has a relatively small set helped too.
The first thing to be done for Great Ex is to ‘create’ Miss Havisham in the upstage left corner of the stage. When I adapted Dickens’s 13th novel I decided that I wanted to have the jilted spinster who has such an influence on Pip to be permanently looking over him. I achieve this effect by means of dressing a white hat stand with draped fabrics creating the hint of a human shape. The great thing about this stage of my preparations is there is no ‘set’ way of doing it, so I never quite know how she is going to look on any given evening. On Tuesday she looked stately and severe, which is a good look!
The stage at The Market is small, but Glyn had studied my script and managed to provide me with distinct lighting areas to suggest different locations within the story: the graveyard on the marshes, the forge, Satis House, Jaggers’ chambers and Mr Wemmick’s castle. Fortunately the theatre has recently invested in LED lights, so colours can be changed as the plot demands, meaning that we could play with the atmosphere of each scene also.
When everything was set I retired to the dressing room behind the stage (actually a space that also encompasses a set store and workshop) and tucked into a small salad that I had brought with me. As 6 became 6.30 and moved on towards 7 I played a little Backgammon on my phone as well as watching the news, and so learned of the seismic shift that was beginning in the British political scene as two senior members of the Conservative Party resigned.
I had to get my mind back to the job in hand, as the audience were now arriving and taking their seats, and I paced around in the first costume of the show – the breeches and rough shirt that represent both the appearance of Magwitch and the young Pip in the forge.
At 7.30 Glyn popped his head into the dressing room to check that I was ready, and then disappeared back to the little technical box, where he brought the lights down to an icy, chilly blue, and played my first voiceover, the famous narration that sets the scene in the little churchyard on the edge of the marshes (incidentally, the inspiration for the churchyard in the novel is Cooling Church, where I filmed much of my A Christmas Carol video two years ago).
I bounded onto the stage ‘Hold your noise!’ and so the plot was underway.
I am never certain as to how well Great Expectations will be received, as it is quite a wordy and heavy show, but I am constantly pleasantly surprised by the reaction, and this occasion proved to be no different, for when I reached the end of the first act there was a loud round of applause and lots of talking, which is always a good sign.
I changed from the rough working Pip into the smart London Pip and then slipped onto the stage to clear various items of costume that get discarded through the first half, as well as a scattered pack of playing cards, and I was ready to go again.
Once again Glyn popped in and once again he disappeared to start the Act 2 voiceover which sets the plot firmly in London, and therefore starts Pip’s second stage of his Expectations.
The second act ran as smoothly as the first and Glyn did a wonderful job with the lighting at the point when Miss Havisham’s dried clothes catch fire and consume her in flame. From there the narrative rushes on towards the end as the various plotlines are resolved. I was very pleased with the show and it was a wonderful way to bring my tour to a close.
When the audience had left I loaded the car up once more, said my goodbyes and set off for the drive home. Usually after a show I stay at a hotel close by, meaning that I do not run the risk of falling asleep at the wheel on my way home, for once the adrenaline generated by the thrill of performance subsides, fatigue comes quickly, but on this occasion I wanted to get home so as to be able to watch our daughters’ school sports day the next morning.
The drive was about 90 minutes, and sure enough I did feel drowsy as I drove on, but plenty of water and a few sweets kept me going until I pulled up outside my front door at around 11.30.
It has been an exciting couple of months and I have been fortunate to perform in a marvellous variety of venues, from a tiny yurt in Rochester to the splendour of Wentworth Woodhouse.. The audiences have been plentiful, amazingly supportive and enthusiastic. I have performed for old friends as well as a number of new venues all of which I hope will become a regular part of my travels in the future.
Actually, I was not quite finished, for there was one final venue to perform at, and that was at home. On the 16th of July the Dickens Fellowship is holding its annual conference. Originally we were all due to travel to Haarlem, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, but sadly that event was cancelled and so the conference is being held online instead. I have been asked to give a reading from David Copperfield featuring the plotlines involving the Peggotty’s, Steerforth’s elopement with Little Em’ly and the great storm scene (the conference theme being ‘Dickens and the Sea’) Sadly, I am not going to be available to perform ‘live’, but have said that I shall record the reading at home so that it can be played at the appropriate point in proceedings.
With the house to myself on Friday I originally planned to film in our garden office, sat behind a desk with the laptop close to capture every expression. The room was extremely hot and as I was only going to be seen from waist up there didn’t seem to be much point in wearing the thick Victorian trousers, and so it was that if anyone had been watching they would of seen an odd sartorial display, featuring a frock coat, waistcoat and cravat topping off a rather lurid pair of checked shorts!
In the end the lighting in the shed wasn’t right, for as branches briefly obscured the sunlight, so the built-in camera struggled to compensate meaning that my face was one minute flaring brightly as if it were on fire, and then fading almost into darkness. I moved my ‘set’ inside and recorded the reading a couple of times until I was happy with the result, and then sent it off to the conference organisers.
And now I have a period of rest, my next performance coming in August when I return to the beautiful spa town of Llandrindod Wells in Wales, where I will be performing The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which I haven’t done for years…now, where did I leave that script………?