The week before my very first attempt at a long-distance running event is slowly passing and now, on Wednesday, the week is half over, and the weekend is looming large. Yesterday Liz and I drove into Oxford to do some shopping, and at the sight of someone running through the streets a wave of nerves ran through me.
My journey to this point began way back in 2020 with the arrival of Covid 19 in the UK. With lockdown conditions becoming ever more severe it became necessary, indeed essential, to get out into the open air whenever possible. Our eldest daughter had said that she wanted to run, because one of her best friends did, so together we started using a Couch-2-5K app to help us along. My target, if I had one, was to complete a Park Run event at some stage, as my sister Nicky and brother Ian had done previously, but the thought of running a distance of 5k seemed completely out of my league as I struggled to keep going for the minute or so that the app suggested at the beginning of the programme. Little by little, however, things began to get easier and there was a moment of supreme pride when I managed to run the 5k, a little over three miles, without stopping, for the first time (I never did attend a park run, but at least the distance was achieved).
And so, it continued, and the distances that I was able to achieve went up, and the exhaustion went down. I ran 5 miles, then 6, then 8 and 10, and I began to feel a bit like a runner, although I never felt that I truly compared to those committed folk that pound the pavements every day in their expensive shoes and reflective glasses, and who stop their watches as they pause for cars to pass at an intersection, so as not to skew a potential PB.
In April my sister-in-law Sheila died as a result of a brain tumour, and I really wanted to do something to help the cause of other families in the same situation and try to raise some money towards the ongoing research into the condition. Sheila’s husband Martin had undertaken a charity cycle ride on behalf of Brain Tumour Research so I decided to donate to the same cause, except I didn’t have an event in mind. In a moment of perfect synchronicity, it was at this time that I happened to receive a Facebook notification suggesting that I enter the Oxford Half Marathon, and I followed the link to be told that I would have to enter a ballot. Well, this was perfect! I could tell all and sundry that I had entered and would be fundraising, and then sorrowfully inform everyone that I hadn’t been selected and I would try again next year – then I got the notification that the buggers had accepted me! I was committed.
In life I always need a strong motivation to spur me into action, for example I will often take a booking for a show that I have not yet written, which forces me to get on and create it before the deadline of walking onto an empty stage and facing an audience of expectant people – the thought of being unprepared for them focusses the mind wonderfully. So it was with my running, I somehow had to get myself to a level to run 13.1 miles.
Regular readers will know that I have been training over the last few weeks, and apart from a few niggling injury worries, I have managed to complete my goal…almost…in that on my last long run I stopped at 13 miles, meaning that when I complete the event itself (0.1 of a mile longer), I am assured of a personal best time.
Why am I nervous? It is not about the running, because I know that I can do that. Of course, on Sunday I might pull a muscle. turn an ankle or feel unwell, but I know that I CAN do it. My nerves are much more to do with never having done an event like this before and not knowing how it all works – what do I do on the day, how will it feel mingling with all of the other competitors? Will it be obvious where to leave my bag, and how will the run feel with crowds lining the route? I am used to running alone and being able to control my pace, so will I be able to restrain myself in a crowd of other runners? How will I feel seeing large signs and banners marking the miles, will seeing a 7- mile board create negative feelings as I realise that I still have 6.1 miles still to go? The answer to all of this is ‘I don’t know’, but in less than a week I will have all of the answers for you.
The event organisers have sent a comprehensive pack with all of the details of the day in it, so some of the logistics are clearer to me now and I have no doubt that the other runners will be helpful and encouraging. I have my number (1391) and have details of an app that tracks my progress, so everyone can follow along. There are also photographers along the route and their pictures will be published in real time – again there is a website that anyone can log onto, to view the images.
It is now down to me. On Sunday. At 9.30 am. There is only one thing left to do: to run.
To donate to my sponsorship Brain Tumour Research fund please visit my JustGiving Page at:
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.
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!
My busy week continued on Thursday when I drove across the country to the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, and this had been a show which was a long time coming. About three years ago I first had an email from Clifford Hind asking me to appear in the town as part of the 2020 Bury St Edmunds Festival, and arrangements were made as to which show I should perform and what my fee would be. Charles Dickens had visited the town three times, and Cliff was keen to bring the Dickens name back after a gap of 159 years. February came and confirmatory emails were exchanged. March came and the spread of Covid began to take its grip. Inevitably I had another confirmatory email (among many others from various venues), this time with the news that the festival had been cancelled, but asking that we go ahead with the plan for the 2021 festival. A year passed and still Covid held sway, and the Bury St Edmunds Arts Festival was cancelled once more. It seemed more unlikely that the show would ever come off, but Cliff asked that we keep in touch and hopefully we could do something, sometime.
As Autumn of 21 passed it seemed as if things were improving and Cliff was back in touch asking of May 26, 2022 would work – the show wouldn’t be part of the Festival but would be a benefit for the Moyse’s Hall Museum, a 12th Century building housing an comprehensive collection of items telling the story of the town’s long and fascinating history. Cliff wanted me to perform The Trial from The Pickwick Papers and Doctor Marigold, as well as giving a brief talk about Charles’s connection with Bury St Edmunds. The latter request always fills me with terror, for the truth is that local historians will always have access to a great deal more information than me, and the danger is that I just trot out a few easily discoverable facts, promoting local ire. I would need to make sure that my research was sound and that I delivered it in my own way.
On the 16th May, shortly after my return from Kent and before I set off for Cheshire, another email from the Hind household came in, but this time it was from Diane, Cliffs wife with the very sad news that Cliff had unexpectedly died. Our show had occupied so much of his time and attention that Diane and the committee had made the decision to go ahead with the plan and stage the evening in his honour. Suddenly the pressure to do a good job mounted.
On the morning of 26 May I loaded the car with my reading desk and the various rustic paraphernalia for Marigold, as well as the costumes I would need. For some reason I was incredibly nervous about the day and had woken that morning with a pit-of-the-stomach sense of panic, which didn’t leave me all day. As I drove I had my script laid out on the passenger seat and made constant reference to it when I was stopped in traffic.
I arrived in Bury St Edmunds at 4pm, an hour before I was due at the Guildhall where I was to perform, so I parked in front of the famous Angel Hotel, which is where Charles stayed on each of his three visits. As with many hotels across the country, the Angel is proud of its association with Dickens and boasts a blue plaque on its ivy-covered façade, honouring him.
I went in and sat in the stylishly designed lobby and ordered a coffee. A nearby bookcase had copies of Dickens books, as well as a little figurine representing Mr Pickwick and I quietly raised my cup to him. Having finished my coffee I left the hotel and walked through the great stone arch into the abbey gardens where beautifully manicured lawns are dotted with various flint ruins. My home town of Abingdon has similar gardens, where our own Abbey once dominated the skyline, but Henry VIII changed the landscape of Britain forever with his dissolution act of the 1530s, and these beautiful buildings were destroyed. In the case of Abingdon we are not even left with even ruins, for not only was the gold, silver and other treasures taken but the stone itself was taken on barges down the River Thames to be used in the building of new and grand palaces.
Bury St Edmunds Abbey Ruins
After a peaceful and relaxing walk I returned to my car and drove to the Guildhall building, just a few steps away from The Angel, but quite a drive as I had to navigate through a narrow warren of one-way streets, before turning through an opened gate into a small driveway with a space reserved for me. I was greeted by Jill Badman who is not only the manager of The Guildhall but also lives in a charming cottage on site. As I took in my surroundings (beautifully tended gardens) Jill took me into the main building and showed me the room in which I was to perform, and an elegant space it was indeed. A small stage had been erected in front of the fireplace, which would be a perfect setting for my red reading desk.
The Guildhall has a definite history that dates back to 1279 and there are possible references to it over100 years before that, making it senior to my ‘other’ Guildhall in Leicester, which is a little scamp having been built in 1390!
Jill showed me my dressing room which was in the Tudor Kitchen complete with a huge fireplace complete with a pulley operated spit. When she was sure that I had all that I needed Jill left me to my own devices and I began to ferry my props, furniture and costume from my car to the hall. I erected my red screen behind the stage and set up the desk and while I was doing that Diane Hind arrived and introduced herself. I don’t know if Diane is a hugger, but I gave her a big hug and we agreed that Cliff would have been pleased that we were staging ‘his’ event and that we would all make it a memorable evening in his honour. Diane and her son were incredibly strong throughout the evening
As more volunteers and committee members began to arrive, I retreated to my kitchen (where I learned from an educational sign that the Tudors only ate strawberries if they have been cooked) and pondered as to how I would present the first act. Cliff had asked me to talk a bit about how The Pickwick Papers had been written (the novel having connections with Bury), and I was torn between academic and entertaining…I plumped for the latter. In my mind I ran through the various talks I had given about CD’s childhood, his seeing Gad’s Hill and his father’s motivational words about it. I would talk about the creation of Sketches by Boz, his meeting with artist Robert Seymour and the creation of Pickwick. All of those stories are delivered in a light-hearted way, and occasionally take liberties with strict fact (for example, I don’t think that Frederic Chapman really did cry out ‘Who the Dickens is Boz?’ when trying to engage the young author to provide text for Seymour’s illustrations), but they are all based in reality.
Having satisfied myself as to the shape of Act 1 I relaxed in the gardens as the audience gathered. At 7pm I waited at the back of the hall while Margaret Charlesworth introduced me. When I had walked to the stage to welcoming applause Margaret also took a moment to say a few words about Cliff before handing over the evening to me.
My cobbled together first act worked very well and I brought the whole story back to Bury St Edmunds by quoting two letters that Dickens had written during his reading tour of 1861. He had debuted a new reading based on David Copperfield in the city of Norwich and had complained that the audience there were ‘lumpish’, however two days later after another performance of the same piece he described a ‘very fine audience. I don’t think a word – not to say an idea – was lost!’ and that audience was from Bury St Edmunds. There is a natural geographic rivalry between Norfolk and Suffolk, so this mini victory was well received.
Having finished my biographical performances I stepped up to the reading desk to perform The Trial from Pickwick. This was one of Dickens’ favourite readings and is the one that he performed more than any other during his years of touring. It is filled with wonderful characters such as Sergeant Buzfuzz, Justice Stareleigh, Mrs Cluppins and, of course Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller, and pokes fun at the sheer pomposity of the legal system. The reading went well with plenty of laughter and when I concluded I received a very warm round of applause.
I was rather worried that I had over run somewhat, but nobody seemed to mind and I called to mind Jill’s words from earlier, ‘Remember, we are on Suffolk time here’. I returned to my kitchen and changed into my Doctor Marigold costume before returning to the hall, removing the reading desk and screen, and replacing it with the little wooden steps, the 3-legged stool, the rustic wooden box and a kettle and shovel which go to make my set for my favourite performance.
When everyone was seated I took to the stage in the character of the lovable cheapjack and told his story with all of its highs and lows. The audience were transfixed and were with me the whole way through (even when a rather loud motorcycle revved his engine in a most un-Victorian manner outside). Charles Dickens’ tour manager George Dolby described how the audiences gasped when a revelation is made in the last two lines of the performance, and I would love to be able to tell Dolby and his Guv’nor that a 21st century audience gasp in the same way – there was hardly a dry eye in the Guildhall on Thursday evening, and I include my own in that. It was a wonderful performance and one I was extremely proud of.
Margaret returned to the stage, clearly very moved, and thanked me, and after taking more applause I made my way to the back of the room and signed some copies of my books and chatted to the audience as they left. It rounded off a most enjoyable evening.
Margaret had very kindly offered me hospitality at her home, and when I had changed and packed up all of my things into the car she rode with me and directed me to her wonderful Victorian house where her husband Roger was waiting. We sat around the kitchen table and chatted as we ate some bread and cheese and sipped a little wine. We finished the evening with a cup of tea and my mug had a facsimile of the Magna Carta on it. Margaret’s email address features the word magnacarta and its turns out that she is a renowned export on the subject. This was a curious coincidence as earlier in the week on a run I had been listening to an audiobook of ‘Three Men in a Boat’ in which the narrator imagines being present at Runnymede in 1215. As I listened I realised that I know so little about such an important moment in English history and vowed that I would purchase a book on the subject and educate myself. So, in Margaret’s kitchen, as I sipped my tea, I mentioned to her this happy twist of fate, and explained that other knowing that the Maga Carta had been signed at Runnymede I knew little of the political background and circumstances. Well, I had clearly failed my first test, for Margaret pointed out that ‘It was never signed! It was sealed!’ Oops!
It was late now and as the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins that evening gently dissipated, I began to feel tired and said my goodnights to Margaret and Roger.
I slept very well and next morning enjoyed a simple breakfast of fruit juice, muesli and toast. Before I left, Margaret showed me their beautiful garden, as well as asking me to sign their visitor’s book. I had been their first guest, other than family, since the first lockdown of 2020. Soon it was time to get on the road and as I drove away I reflected on a very happy day in the company of kind and hospitable people, and I hope that the gap before the Dickens name returns to the town will be a little shorter this time.
Throughout my working year most of the venues that I perform at are repeat bookings, meaning that I know who I am going to meet, where I am going to change and how the room feels. The fact that I have so many requests to return is a wonderful compliment, and makes me feel very satisfied about what I am doing. Occasionally, however, I will receive an email out of the blue asking me to visit a new city and organisation and this is always exciting but slightly nerve-wracking. Such a thing occurred last year when I was contacted by The Leeds Literary Festival with a request to appear as part of their 2022 event. In fact they had wanted me two years ago, but the onslaught of Covid put paid to that. We communicated via email and phone until we settled on Wednesday 2 March as a suitable date, and I would perform my double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold in The Leeds Library.
The day dawned grey and rainy and I spent the morning loading the car up with the various props that the two shows require, and it is quite a collection: for The Signalman I have a large clerk’s desk, which is in two parts – stand and top, a small table, a chair and a stool. On top of the desk is a large wooden box with the image of Victorian signalling equipment pasted to the front, representing the ‘telegraphic instrument with its dial, face and needles’ that Dickens describes. There is a large book, a railwayman’s lamp (complete with a battery-operated candle to make it flicker) and a new addition – a theatrical spotlight (or at least, an interior designer’s approximation of one) on a stand to double for the dismal danger light at the mouth of the tunnel which is so important to the telling of the story. For Marigold I have a small set of wooden steps, a stool (a smaller one than that which features in The Signalman), a wooden crate, an anodised pail with a small metal shovel, a kettle and a rolled up blanket. Alongside all of the hardware I had to pack two costumes and of course a box containing copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’ All of this filled pretty well every square inch of a Renault Kadjar and it was with a sense of relief that all of the doors shut successfully.
The drive to Leeds takes about three hours and I left with plenty of time in hand just in case the notorious M1 roadworks should delay me. As it happened my journey was very smooth and I had plenty of time to stop for lunch before arriving in the heart of the city at around 3 o’clock, ready to check in at my hotel, The Plaza Park. Being in the very centre the hotel had no car park, but I was able to leave the car for a few minutes in order to get directions to a large parking garage nearby, from where I could easily walk back. I had an hour in my room, during which I had a shower to freshen myself up before going to the venue.
Even though the Library was only a five minute walk from my hotel, I needed to drive so that I could unload all of the furniture and props ready for the show, but as I made my way to the car I had a phone call from Carl, who had booked me. In our various emails I had mentioned to him that I would arrive at the library at 4, unload and then go to park the car, and he had suddenly realised that he hadn’t told me that there was no vehicular access to the library at all, so I would need to park in another parking garage, where he would meet me and help me unload.
By the time I was finally parked on the second level of the QPark garage it was almost 4.30 and I had agreed to appear on a Leeds Lit Fest live podcast at 5, so other than taking my costumes and a few smaller articles, Carl and I decided to delay the unloading process until later. We took the lift down to the ground level and walked along a typical city centre street, through the bustle of a weekday evening, past a McDonalds and a Starbucks until we arrived at a rather nondescript door, squeezed in between a branch of the CoOp Bank and a Paperchase stationery shop.
A blue plaque on the wall suggested that the may be more to this building than met the passing eye, and Carl pushed the door open and I found myself in a small marble hallway at the bottom of a curling grand staircase, which lead up to an Aladdin’s cave filled with the treasure of books!
The Library was founded, so a small wooden sign informed me, in 1768, but moved to its current location in 1808. At the top of the stairs is ‘The Main Room’ and this is the modern section of the library where up to date novels, audiobooks and DVDs can be found but, even so, it has a wonderfully antiquated feel to it, with an iron spiral staircase at one end and books packed into the shelves from floor to ceiling.
Through a small door between shelves and then I am in the ‘New Room’ which was built 140 years ago. It was in the New Room that I was to perform and I had to pause for a moment to take in the grandeur and splendour of my surroundings. The room was narrow and again the walls from floor to ceiling were lined with books over two stories. Opposite my small stage was a magnificent wooden staircase leading to the upper level and around 70 chairs were laid out in the body of the room, this was going to be a wonderful space to perform in.
For now though, I had to concentrate on the podcast and was shown into the Old Librarian’s Office, which would also become my dressing room.
There waiting to greet me was Molly Magrath, who would be interviewing me, and huddled behind two laptops was Jack who would be looking after all the technical side of the session. We had a few minutes before the broadcast was due to start, so they pulled out some gems from the shelves – a travel book dating back to the 1400s (the author never left England so it was a complete work of fantasy!), and a second edition of The Hobbit. Molly also handed me a beautifully bound first edition of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming and this was a real treasure for a Bond fanatic like me to hold.
5 O’clock came round and without ceremony Molly was talking to the little webcam about my visit, and we had a great conversation about the theatricality of Dickens and how I prepare my shows for the stage. It was a really good interview, not too rigidly bound by questions, just a flowing chat. I had done a little research into Dickens’ visits to Leeds and unfortunately he hadn’t seemed to be too impressed by the City. He first visited in 1847 to give a speech at The Mechanics Institute. The visit was in December and he had a terrible cold, but the experience of Leeds wasn’t a pleasant one. He didn’t return for a further 10 years but his memories still burned brightly, for he wrote home to his sister in law on that second occasion that ‘we shall have, as well as I can make out the complicated list of trains, to sleep at Leeds-which I particularly detest as an odious place-tomorrow night.’ Charming!
He did, however, return to Leeds 3 further times to give readings, and indeed actually performed Doctor Marigold, as I would be doing later on the evening of March 2.
When Molly wrapped the podcast up I went to find Carl and together we walked back to the car park and began the task of shifting all of my stuff back to the library; it took as three trips to get all of the furniture into the lift, down to ground level, past McDonalds and Starbucks, into the front door, up the narrow staircase, through the Main Room and into The New Room. And it was raining!
At last everything was in and I began creating the set for The Signalman. The stage was not large, but there was plenty of room to place the clerk’s desk with the telegraphic instrument and bell atop it, and the stool beneath. I placed the table a little downstage and placed the chair at the back, so that the Signalman, unused to visitors, could grab it, dust the seat off, and place it for the stranger to sit on. Immediately behind the stage was a display case which was the only bit of furniture in the room that was not an antique, and I was able to put my new red light on top of it, meaning that it towered above the scene in a suitably imposing manner. When the first act set was in place I took the opportunity of running through a few lines and as I did another member of the library staff, Ian, busied himself putting programmes on chairs and preparing a makeshift bar for the evening. When I had finished my brief rehearsal Ian introduced himself and asked if I would like to see the basement, an offer that I was delighted to accept. We descended into the bowels of the building where there is a huge collection of very old books, many in a terrible condition. Ian explained that in days of yore the library had been lit by gas jets which had created acidity in the air causing irreparable damage to the leather bindings. The plan is to restore every volume, but at a cost of over a million a shot, that project is a very long term one. I looked along the shelves and there was a first edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’ final, unfinished, novel. It was such a treat to hold in my hands something that connected me so closely to my great great grandfather. Elsewhere in the basement were racks of periodicals and newspapers just waiting for keen-eyed researchers to discover some wonderful long-lost fact. As we ascended the stairs once more, Ian said wistfully that he never tires of showing off the collection in the basement and that everybody notices something new.
Back upstairs I retired to the Librarian’s Office, my very grand dressing room, and ate a small salad and some fruit before getting into costume for the first act. Outside, the audience gathered and began to take their seats. Ian had told me that this was the largest audience that the New Room had held since the beginning of lockdown. At 7.30 Carl poked his head in and asked if I was ready, and on my replying ‘yes’, he said a few words of introduction and then left the stage to me.
I welcomed the audience, made reference to CD’s rather uncomplimentary words about Leeds, and then launched into a brief description of the circumstances behind the Staplehurst rail crash, vital to both the telling of The Signalman and to the selling of my book at evening’s end. Soon I was into the dark, claustrophobic ghost story and , as ever, I surprised myself by the sheer physicality of what is a very short performance. The emotional intensity of the piece is exhausting and I continually find that by the time I finish every limb is aching from the tension.
On my concluding the story and then announcing the spooky fact that although Dickens was not killed at Staplehurst, he did die exactly 5 years, to the day, after the crash, there was a gasp from the audience, partly in surprise and partly out of relief that they too could relax back into the real world.
Having left the stage and allowed a little time for the audience to drift away, I started clearing the furniture from The Signalman away and setting the stage for Doctor Marigold. In the office I changed into a new costume (long corduroy Victorian-style trousers, rather than the breeches I used to wear), and after twenty minutes or so I returned to the stage to perform my favourite show in the character of the ever resilient and cheerful cheapjack, Doctor Marigold. At one point in the monologue, Marigold describes building a cart with books in ‘rows upon rows’ and so the book-lined walls of the New Room formed the perfect setting for the second half of the story. The audience were rivetted and entranced, as audiences tend to be when witnessing this little gem of a story for the first time.
I finished and left the stage and there was generous and warm Yorkshire applause when I returned to take my bows. Having taken a few minutes to cool down, I made my way back into The Main Room, where I chatted, sold and signed my book, until the audience drifted away into the night.
I changed back into everyday clothes, having briefly donned my black frockcoat again for a couple of photographs that Ian wanted to take on the New Room staircase, and then faced the proposition of taking all of my furniture downstairs, up the street, into the car park, up the lift and back to the car again, however Carl suggested that I actually left everything in the Library, for in the morning the bollards closing off the pedestrianised street would be down, allowing access to the shop fronts for deliveries, and so I would be able to drive to the front door, which would make things much easier.
I walked through the streets of Leeds, back to my hotel and was delighted to discover that they offered a 24 hour room service, so I ordered a plate of fish and chips and let the adrenaline of the evening gently subside, until eventually I fell asleep in the early hours of Thursday morning.
I woke with a start at around 7.40, and decided to get the car loaded before having breakfast, so I quickly showered and retrieved my car, before driving slowly past pedestrians hurrying to work, along the pavement of Commercial Street. Carl and the library caretaker were there to assist and in no time all of my furniture was squeezed into the Renault – actually, we seemed to have hit on an improved system of loading, in that there seemed to be more space than when I had loaded up the day before.
I said farewell to Carl, promising that I would endeavour to find a date for a repeat visit in the winter tour, and returned to the hotel where I enjoyed a hearty full English breakfast before getting on the road for home. The journey was smooth once again and I arrived back in Oxfordshire at midday.
As I unloaded the car I discovered the reason that loading had been so easy, for I had left the ‘telegraphic instrument’ prop in the library. I will next need it for a performance in Preston, Lancashire, at the end of March, so Carl and I will have to work out how to reunite it with the rest of the set, but that is all for another day. For now I could reflect on a wonderful evening, in a beautiful setting, and a new venue for my future tours.
And so my week of celebrating came to an end as Monday 7th February dawned – 210 years since Elizabeth Dickens gave birth to her second child Charles. It is sometimes reported that Elizabeth and her husband John had been dancing at a party the night before the birth, thus imbuing the infant with a love of entertainment and fun.
My birthday celebrations would involve driving to London to be present at a dinner to honour the event, hosted by the Central Branch of The Dickens Fellowship. My brother Ian, who is currently The President of The Fellowship had a busier day in store, as he travelled from his home on The Isle of Wight, and attended celebration events in Portsmouth, the city of Charles’ birth. Firstly a visit to the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum and then onto the UK’s only statue of the great man where a garland of red geraniums were placed over his head (Charles’s not Ian’s!).
My journey to London began after I had taken my daughter to her dance class, and as I was getting on the road straight away I was the best dressed dad there, looking rather like James Bond in my dinner jacket and hand-tied bow tie (no clip-ons here!). The traffic to London was light and I had booked a parking space ahead of time, so I would not have to trawl around the city centre, panicking that I would be late for the dinner. As it happened I arrived almost an hour before the reception was due to start, so I simply sat in my car and read for a while, until it was time to make the short walk through the Waterloo district of London, to The Union Jack Club where the dinner was to be held. The main road in the area is Waterloo Road which is a busy, bustling thoroughfare filled with buses, taxis and bikes. Pedestrians take their lives in their hands as they dash across the road to reach the huge Waterloo railway terminus, rather risking being struck by a car than missing that all important train home. But running parallel to Waterloo Road is Cromwell Road and that is quiet and peaceful street, lined with a terrace of elegant Victorian houses, now much sought after and no doubt eye-wateringly expensive, but presumably built as mass housing for manual labourers, maybe those who built Waterloo Station. It is a lovely part of London, and surprisingly very peaceful and it was along Cromwell Road that I walked from my car to the club.
The Union Jack Club has no Dickens connections, but exists for the use of servicemen and veterans. It was first built on the site in 1907, but was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and eventually (in 1975) a new building was erected on the same spot.
The Fellowship dinner was being held in small dining room, and we had 46 attendees. Paul Graham, the Hon Gen Sec of the Fellowship had not been sure how many members would actually attend this first meeting since lockdown restrictions were eased, but it was a goodly crowd who gathered. Ian, in his role as President was hosting the event, and it was lovely to hug him and his wife Anne when I arrived.
There were many old friends and familiar faces in the room and we all chatted until Ian called the evening to order and recited the traditional Dickens Grace:
‘In Fellowship assembled here; We thank thee Lord for food and cheer; And through our saviour, thy dear son; We pray ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ We all joined in the last line and then took our seats to dine and converse.
Many of the guests had watched my streamed performance the night before, and were kind enough to compliment me on it. Cindy Sughrue, from the museum, was also there and told me that the feedback from the event had been very positive, which was immensely pleasing.
Ian, Anne and I shared our table with Adrian Wooton OBE, the Chief Executive of Film London and The British Film Commission. Adrian became involved with the Fellowship in 2012, when we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, by curating a series of events based on Dickens in Film and has been an active member ever since, he was due to speak at the end of the dinner, and was a marvellous companion. Ian and I in particularly relishing a shared love of Formula One motor racing!
Dinner was delicious, consisting of a smoked salmon and horseradish starter, a steak with mashed potatoes and broccoli for main , and a crème brule for desert. At one point, when the steak was served, Michael Eaton, another table mate, was spooning mustard onto his plate. Unable to shift the thick yellow paste he knocked the little silver spoon against the china plate sending a ringing retort throughout the room, which was immediately followed by a pushing back of chairs and a silence descending, for everyone thought it was time for the speeches!
Ian hosted the dinner with such grace and ease, moving everything along, and speaking effortlessly whenever he needed to. When desert had been cleared and coffee cups filled he announced a 5 minute comfort break and when all were gathered once more it was time for me to do my party piece. At such events it is the job of The President to introduce the speakers, and this usually involves quite a bit of research to create factual and witty remarks to welcome the guest. On this occasion Ian just had to talk about his baby brother, and did so with such a sense of pride that I got rather emotional.
I had decided to speak about my own personal milestones in my relationship with Charles Dickens, and spoke about becoming aware of his importance to our family at the age of 6 when I shared a pew with the Queen Mother in Westminster Abbey. I recalled being made to study Oliver Twist at school (quoting Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ along the way), and I recounted the story of my first ever performance of A Christmas Carol in 1993, and how Dickens’ brilliant descriptive text helped me morph into the characters. I finished by telling the story of visiting the site of The Staplehurst Rail Crash and sinking up to my neck in muddy water. When the bemused farmer saw this bedraggled man trespassing in his field, and listened as I explained that I had been visiting the site of the rail crash, instead of taking a pitchfork to me he said simply ‘Charles Dickens’. I wound up my talk by saying that ‘he didn’t know I was there to research a book. He just knew of the celebrity who had been at that exact spot 154 years before. And that says everything about the long shadow that Charles Dickens has cast across our globe – much longer and more influential than just 21,307 days of life. He left a legacy that can never be measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, or years. Charles Dickens’ influence over our society is timeless.’
I invited the guests to stand, charge their glasses and I proposed the toast to the immortal memory of Charles Dickens.
It seemed to be well received, and there was some nice applause as I sat down. The truth is that I really feel uncomfortable giving speeches, it is not where I am happy, and I feel exposed and vulnerable. Give me some voices and contorted facial expressions to hide behind and I am relaxed as anything, but put Gerald Dickens in a dinner jacket and ask him to stand and talk…..
I was relieved when I was finished, and envious as I listened to the naturalness with which Ian and Adrian spoke, but it was a great fun evening and it was wonderful to meet so many old friends.
In closing this quartet of birthday blogs I would like to point out a remarkable coincidence: Charles Dickens died when he was 58 years old, in fact he lived for 21,307 days (hence the reference to that number in my speech). On Tuesday 8 February, (the day after I spoke in London), I was also 21,307 days old.
It was a wonderful week and I will conclude by once again offering a birthday wish up to Charles Dickens, and to thank him for making my professional life so unbelievably exciting.
I had to be up fairly early on Wednesday morning, as I had a three-hour drive ahead of me before a sound check and performance at Winterthur that afternoon.
The sky was still dark as I carefully packed my case, making sure that I retrieved two white shirts for my costumes, and placed two pairs of rolled black socks into my little mini case, ready to be used at the other end of the journey. I loaded everything into the car and then went to the lobby and grabbed a very quick breakfast of cereal and a muffin, before returning to my room to brush my teeth and finish packing. I was on the road at 8, and after a short stop to top up the Rouge with fuel, I started off on what is one of my favourite drives of my tour, following the banks of The Susquehanna River as far as Harrisburg. I have made this drive in so many different weather conditions over the years: in snow, ice, fog and heavy rain, and on Wednesday morning it was overcast but clear. I drove through the little community of Liverpool thinking, as ever, that I would be performing in its big cousin in a little over a week.
From Harrisburg my route this year seemed to be different, I think that new roads may have been constructed over the past two years, but I didn’t get to drive through Amish country, through Intercourse and Chatham before arriving in Centerville and Winterthur. This time the journey was less interesting, just the inevitable strip malls and fast-food outlets, until obeying my Satellite Navigation unit I took a right-hand turn into a narrow lane running through rural fields, and suddenly the hustle and bustle of the main road was gone. The lane rose and fell, not only with the natural contours of the fields, but also in smaller swells and dips making it feel like a fairground ride, actually bringing on a sort of seasickness! At one point as I crested a hill, and descended again, I found myself approaching an old, covered bridge, and rumbled slowly through on the wooden boards before emerging back into the light once more. I was on this lane for only a matter of ten minutes, maybe, possibly fifteen, but it was one of the most magical moments of driving that I can remember.
My journey through the magical fantasy land soon ended and I was once more on a major road, the very familiar Kennett Pike, which would lead me to the Winterthur estate. I turned into the driveway and followed the long, languid curves, down the hill passed the lake where a flock of geese are always gathered, up the other side and into the visitor center parking lot. All was as it has always been.
I unloaded the car, making sure that I had everything that I needed for one show and walked down the sloping path to the main entrance. Still everything was familiar, the large room with the ticket desk at one end, the glass wall allowing the sunlight to stream in, and reflect off the shiny floor tiles, and to my left the door to the bookstore which is always such a hive of activity, especially prior to my shows when the audience is mingling there. I open the doors and…..nothing. The room was empty, the shelves were bare, the counter deserted. There was nobody there. A great wave of sadness came over me, so many exciting and happy memories were wrapped up in that room. Ellen greeting me with a smile, and Barabara, who was in charge of the store, bustling about and laughing, but most of all memories of Liz who in the old days would fly out to join me for the last week of my tour, which used to be much longer, and usually we would have our first meeting for weeks right there in the Winterthur bookstore.
The store, well the room, was not quite empty, for I was greeted by Lois, who has been instrumental in my return to Winterthur. Most of the staff, including Ellen and Barabra, were laid off during the pandemic closures, but now the great estate is slowly coming back to life.
We walked through the ghost of the shop, and I automatically put my bags and costumes in the little office that doubles as my dressing room, which was similarly Marie Celeste-like. A few staplers and file trays were on the desk but all of the funny cartoons and postcards that used to adorn the walls were gone. The room was the same, but the spirit had left.
I joined Lois in the auditorium which, thank the heavens, was exactly as it has always been. On the stage a beautiful set had been created, and as we spoke, I could hear our voices echoing back from the room with the best acoustics that I visit anywhere. We were joined by Dennis, who looks after all the technical requirements at Winterthur, and we went through the script with him. In the past he has only played the opening sound effect, but this year I convinced him to do all 5. He agreed, but with the caveat that having played an audio file to the end, his laptop immediately cut back to his own music files, so there was a danger that having danced The Sir Roger de Coverley, Mr and Mrs Fezziwig might suddenly find themselves cavorting to the strains of Motley Crue or Pink Floyd. I was willing to take my chances!
Lois asked a few questions, so that she could create an introduction, and we discussed the joys and difficulties of raising adopted children (both Lois and her husband, and Liz and I adopted children three years ago).
It was now 12 0’clock, and the audiences at Winterthur are notorious for arriving early, so I returned to my office and Lois briefed the volunteers who would be acting as ushers, and we all got ready for the show.
Before changing I ate some fruit and snacks that Lois had provided, and drank lots of water, and then started to prepare. The only benefit of the deserted office was that I had much more space to lay my things down, in fact a shelving unit became a sort of locker for my clothes, top hat, scarf and cane.
I listened to the audience filing past my door and was reassured that the buzz of anticipation and, indeed, the numbers, were just as they had always been. At 12.55 I wrapped my scarf around my neck and went into the auditorium and waited for the programme to begin. When the last of the audience were seated, Lois went to the podium and made her introduction, during which she asked how many people had attended the show before, which led to a forest of hands going up, which is always very gratifying. She finished her remarks and then the music started, and I slowly made my way onto the stage, wondering what music from the 70’s and 80’s would accompany my opening words! Fortunately, Dennis managed to shut the audio down before his playlist took over and I was left to narrate the opening moments of A Christmas Carol alone.
As always at my first show at Winterthur, I tried a bit too hard at the beginning, it is very difficult to convince oneself that the words can be heard at the very back of the long auditorium without the aid of a microphone, so the temptation is to over-project, but as the show progressed, I was able to relax and bring the dialogue back to a level at which I was more comfortable, and could give a more measured performance.
In the second row of the audience, I had noticed my good friends David and Teresa who always support me, and for the last few years have come to Winterthur to see my show. David is a one-man performer too, specialising in Poe, so we have a lot in common. There were other familiar faces too, many pre-empting certain lines and soon the cast rose from 26 to about 236, as everyone bacme part of the show.
At the end end I ‘hosted’ my usual question and answer time, making sure that I repeated any questions so that the rest of the audiemce knew what I was talking about, and after twenty minutes or so, I brought the afternoon’s events to an end.
Unfortunately, at Winterthur the only way from the stage to the dressing room is via the main door at the back of the auditorium, so I got rather trapped by a few people who wanted books signed, or just to talk. One lady, who is always at my shows here, apologises that the gentleman who normally attends with her couldnt be there, as he is in London attending a meeting of the Pickwick Club, hosted by my brother Ian, and she showed me a picture of a menu signed by Ian just an hour or so before! The Dickens boys are slowly taking over the world….
Eventually I managed to untangle myself from the group, and returned to the office where Lois brought a couple of books to be signed and personalised, and when that was done I slowly changed.
The matinee was my only performance of the day so when I was back in regular clothes I said goodbye to Lois, and drove to another reassuringly familiar place, the Fairville Inn where I always stay when I am performing here. But even The Fairville has changed since my last visit, as I checked in, I became aware that the decor was modern and bright, and that the old, quaint look had gone. The lady at the desk informed me that new owners had taken over two years ago (that mist have been very shortly after my last visit), and the entire place had undergone a complete restoration. It looked much brighter, much more modern and very impressive; this is not to say that it was not good before, it was beautiful and had the soul of Laura and Rick all through it. It was good then and it is good now.
I was shown to my room in The Carriage House and was delighted to find a Keurig coffee maker in the room! In the old days I had to wait until Rick opened the kitchen at around 7am before I could get my first cup, so this was one improvement that I heartily approved of.
Tired from the early start, the drive and the physical performance, I watched a film on the TV, until evening fell. I had arranged to meet David and Teresa for dinner at our regular haunt, Buckley’s Tavern just along the road. Usually, we pop in after an evening show, but on this occasion we could eat a little earlier. We were shown to a large table in the corner of a large room, well distanced from other diners and spent a lovely evening chatting and sharing anecdotes from our respective careers.
After a while a couple sat at another table, and they carefully set a baby’s seat, lifted from a buggy or the car, onto the floor. The father was a large man, tall, broad and bearded with arms like Popeye’s. After a while little snuffling noises and tiny cries started to come from the baby and the man leant down to pick his child up – it could not have been more than a week or so old, and to see this mountain of a man holding the infant so gently and tenderly was incredibly moving. I wanted to take a picture of the moment, but of course that was impossible, but it made me quite emotional. Soon more members of the family joined the group and after a while the baby was handed round the table for everyone to have a cuddle and a coo. It was a bit like watching a human game of La-di-da (for those of you who own the red version of my souvenir programme, look it up, while for everyone else I am referring to a Christmas game in which a walnut gets passed around the table). At our table the evening came to a lovely gentle end, and we went back to the Fairville Inn.
It had been a day that in many ways was so familiar but also strangely different in others. Slightly confusing but ultimately very successful and enjoyable.
Friday saw me moving on once more, although this time only twenty minutes away to the city of Manchester and as my only show was not until 7.30 that night, I had plenty of time to relax in the morning.
Fortunately for me, a chance to remain in the hotel coincided with the first practice sessions from the brand-new Grand Prix in Jedda, so I made sure that I had my breakfast and was back in my room before the action happened. When practice finished, (and it was truly scary to watch, being a very high-speed track, running within a tunnel of walls and no room for error), I started dealing with the increasing number of emails relating to my forthcoming performances in England, and in particular, on that morning, the ones scheduled for December 20 and 21 at Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Carnarvons and also the setting for Downton Abbey. Before answering their questions about arrival time, length of the show, sound cues, and would I be bringing any guests, I allowed myself to wallow in nostalgia and recalled my first performances there two years ago.
I delt with a few other inquiries until it was time to pack my cases and continue my itinerant lifestyle. Although sunny there was quite a wind blowing, and as I drove along the freeway, I could feel my little car being buffeted; I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be driving one of the huge high-sided jaggernaut lorries (or semi-trailer trucks) that pound the roads of America every day.
Soon I was in the city of Manchester, with the beautiful, broad Merrimack River running through it and the old, red-bricked mill buildings well preserved along its banks. Before heading to my new hotel, where I hoped I could get an early check-in to allow me to watch the second Formula One practice, I made a detour to a nearby Walmart store, to stock up on a few essentials, as well as to buy a salad for lunch.
I was booked to stay at a Comfort Inn, and sure enough there was a room available for me, so I was able to catch the last half of the practice session which was eventually terminated when one of the drivers inevitably lost control and had a huge crash.
As the afternoon progressed, I was also able to call home again and have a lovely video chat with the family, who excitedly told me all of their news, until it was time for their baths and bed.
And I just relaxed.
During the afternoon an email came in from Kimberly at the Mid-Continent Library Service, who wanted to share some of the feedback from the guests who had attended my shows back at the beginning of November, and oh, were they wonderful to read. So positive and exciting and humbling, I found myself growing quite tearful and emotional as I read.
Darkness fell outside my window and soon it was time to drive to the evening’s venue: The Dana Center for the Humanties, at St Anselm College. St Anselm is a private school founded in 1889 and is based in a beautiful campus which includes a fully active Benedictine abbey.
I would be performing in the Koonz Theater, which was another new venue to me, although during the days of lockdown last winter I was able to deliver a Zoom lecture for the school, talking about my career and how I bring the works of Dickens to the stage.
As I pulled into the gates of the college, I followed the well-lit, blue signs along a variety of roads, until I found the Dana Center building. On entering I was instantly greeted by the sound of piano playing, as a recital was being given in one of the studios, the piece came to an end and appreciative applause broke out. On the walls were large posters advertising the many cultural programmes that are coming up, including one promoting my show that evening.
I soon found the theatre itself where I was greeted by Joseph Deleault, the Director of the Center, who had arranged for my Zoom event last year and who had been so keen to have me perform live, Joseph was working alongside a young man who was introduced as Aiden, and who was, as he put it, the ‘sound and light monkey!’ I had been in touch with Joseph over the past few days and had sent him all of the details of the show and the requirements for the staging, sure enough there on stage was the chair, stool, coat rack and table that make up my set.
Meanwhile Aiden was working through the script, and we spent plenty of time discussing lighting and sound requirements which he carefully programmed into the respective desks. Nobody had mentioned a microphone, so I tentatively asked if I would need one, Aiden replied that they could give me one, but the theatre had excellent acoustics and I really probably wouldn’t need one. I went up onto the stage and tried a few lines and got confirmation that I would be fine without any electronic aids, which is always my preference, and besides that, it seemed somehow disrespectful to come into a venue so dedicated to perfection in the performing arts and not to perform ‘unplugged’.
The next question to be resolved was whether I was going to do a one or two act show? I had sent both scripts to Joseph in the week and told him that as I had performed both versions within the last week, I could do either, as he wished. Now was decision time, and after a brief discussion we decided to go for one act. Both versions have their benefits: the one act performances builds and maintains the atmosphere right up to the end, whereas the two-act script allows Jacob Marley especially to have much more time in the limelight (maybe that should be ‘the lobster light’). Joseph made his decision: one act it was.
When Joseph, Aiden and I were fully satisfied that everything was ready, I went downstairs into the Green Room, where I relaxed until it was time to prepare for the show. I got into costume, and took a dark, brooding, arty picture of myself in the mirror, and then went up into the wings of the stage, from where I could hear the audience gathering. I find that staying in a remote dressing room is not a good way to ready myself for a show, I feel cold and detached; I much prefer being on stage feeling the flutter of nerves as I try to gauge how the audience are going to respond.
At 7.30 Joseph came to check that I was ready and then he walked onto the stage to welcome the audience and introduce the evening’s events.
As I described a few days ago, when I was on Long Island, performing for a new audience is always an interesting experience, for they don’t know what to expect from the show, and many of the little ‘asides’ are included in the script to reassure them that it is ok to respond, that we are on this journey together: don’t be intimidated. And in that effort I succeed, for the audience were soon laughing, calling out and enjoying themselves immensely. I was enjoying myself as well, for it is always such fun to perform on a large stage, looking out into the darkness and hearing the reactions. For his part Aiden did a brilliant job with the lighting and sound, gently fading between the cool mysterious tones that accompany Marley’s ghost and the warm joyful atmosphere of Mr Fezziwig’s ball.
I slipped a few extra lines in from the two-act script, but felt confident that Aiden would trust in me coming back to what he had in front of him, and sure enough he hit every cue perfectly.
At the end I took my bows to another, this time quite raucous, standing ovation, and left the stage with the cheering still filling the auditorium. I had agreed with Joe that I would do a Q&A session, but he had forgotten to mention it in his welcoming remarks, so when I returned to the stage everyone was gathering their coats and getting ready to leave, but Joe calmed them all down and said if they would like to remain then I would be taking questions. A few left but most resumed their seats, and soon the questions started coming from all sides of the house.
Eventually everything wrapped up at around 9.30 and this time the audience left for good while I went back down to the dressing room, elated and energised by a very succesful evening.
While I was packing up my things, Aiden came down to say that some audience members who had seen me perform before, had a gift for me, so I put my mask on and returned to the theatre where I was greeted by a couple from Salem who presented me with a hand-made, miniature witch’s besom, so that I may brush evil spirits away from the various hotel rooms that I would be staying in for the rest of my trip. I remembered the couple well as being immensely kind and generous and it was lovely to catch up and chat for a while.
With that it was time to leave, I thanked Aiden for his brilliant performance on the desks, and shook Joseph’s hand warmly, as we agreed that a repeat performance next year would be something that we would both enjoy very much. I loaded my car and, on my way back to the Comfort Inn stopped at an Applebee’s restaurant to pick up a takeout bowl of fish and chips, with coleslaw and tartare sauce, which I consumed in my room as the adrenaline slowly subsided, and I relaxed once more.
The second half of my 2021 tour began on Tuesday, when Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and all the rest packed themselves into my car for the journey to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, where I would be performing at the Literary and Philosophical Society in the city, more commonly known these days at the Lit and Phil.
However before I could drive North I had to make a brief stop in Oxford to get an official PCR Covid test so that I can gain my Fit to Fly Certificate which will allow me to return to the USA on Friday morning. This was a repeat of my previous appointment a few weeks ago and once again I entered the Courtyard by Marriot hotel in the centre of Oxford and rather furtively announced to the front desk that I was there to be tested. ‘Of course, sir, through the double doors and knock on the door of suite 1, then wait.’ It all seemed very covert, and I thought that when the door opened I should have some code phrase to say: ‘The tulips are surprisingly lacklustre this year.’, to which the voice on the other side of the door would reply, ‘unless you are in Spain, where they are glowing’. However any James Bond fantasy that I may be imagining was swept away when the door was opened and I was welcomed in with a friendly smile and a ‘Good morning. Mr Dickens?’
When the paperwork was filled in I was asked to administer my own test, which I hope I did effectively, and within 15 minutes I was saying ‘goodbye’ and hoping that I have not caught Covid in the week since I last took a test.
Now I could take the cast, as well as the props to Newcastle. The drive was very uneventful and there were no traffic delays on the M1 motorway, which is almost unheard of. I had plenty of time in hand and stopped once for a coffee and leg stretch and then again for lunch. It was around 3pm when I passed Anthony Gormley’s amazing ‘Angel of the North’ sculpture and then crossed the Tyne by one of the many Newcastle bridges, The Lit & Phil is in the very heart of the city and my hotel, SleeprZ is about one hundred yards down the street from it and I found a parking space half way between the two buildings and carefully reversed into it. My first job on arrival was to find a branch of my bank so that I could get some loose change as a float: my new book, Dickens and Staplehurst, A Biography of a Rail Crash (I’m not sure if I have mentioned it before, but it is available through my website, or Amazon), retails at £8.99 meaning that I would need change. I had also invested in a contactless card reader to help me with my after-show sales. Newcastle was definitely ready for Christmas with twinkling lights strung over the streets, department store windows seasonally decorated and. buskers singling carols with varying degrees of tunefulness. It was a lovely sight and the streets were bustling and full of energy.
I found the bank and having got a small bag of coins in various denominations, made my way back to the hotel to check in. The SleeperZ hotel is a very simple one, with compact rooms, but they are brilliantly designed and are bright and colourful. For my performances at the Lit & Phil it is perfect for my purposes. I lay on the bed and watched TV for a while until it was time to return to my car and onload the props. At The Lit & Phil building I was greeted by Kay who books all of my events at the venue. Even though I hadn’t been in the lovely old building for two years, thanks to last year’s lockdown, it seemed like I had only just been in the same room, setting up my furniture in readiness to perform. The large and somewhat heavy chair, carefully draped with the red cloth, the hat stand, the little table with the candlestick and the simple stool which starts the show as Bob Cratchit’s office stool and ends up as Tiny Tim’s shrine. This last piece of furniture was making its theatrical debut, as I had managed to leave my old stool at a venue somewhere in the summer and a search online found a new one which looks much more rustic and aged.
Having prepared the set, I then arranged my merchandise (the Staplehurst book, and my souvenir brochures that Ian and I produced a few years ago). I had designed and printed a price list proudly bearing the legend ‘Contaclass Payments Accepted’ but realised that it was still laying on my desk at home, so Kay kindly offered to print off another one (I had the relevant file on my laptop). It was 6 o’clock now and with a full hour before I was due to begin the show the audience were starting to arrive and take their seats, so I withdrew to a large meeting room that Kay had given me for a dressing room. My costumes had just been dry cleaned, and felt fresh and stiff as I got into them. I applied new velcro pads to the lapels, and made sure that the Victorian penny was in the waistcoat. I tied the cravat, using a large flat screen TV as a mirror, and set the pocket watch to the correct time. I was ready. With twenty minutes to go I ran through some lines, actually the extra pieces that make up the two act version of the show, although I wasn’t not performing that programme, I would be on the following evening so it was a good opportunity to remind me of the lines.
Shortly after 7 Kay knocked on the door and said that we were ready to go, so I wrapped my scarf around my neck, placed my top hat on my head and made for the room where I would be preforming. After a short introduction Kay clicked play on the CD player and my opening music filled the room (during the week I had emailed Kay to ask her if she wouldn’t mind operating the sound, and when she replied that she would do that I responded by asking would she rather just do the first cue or would she like to follow the script and do all 5 sound cues? I have never known a faster response to an email and almost before I had hit send, the reply came back ‘JUST ONE!’
The show went well, I was not on a stage but performing on the floor in close proximity to the audience, some of whom remained masked but most not. The small room meant that I didn’t have to project too much and it was nice to be able to be quiet and reflective especially in the Cratchit scenes. The new cast member played his role to perfection, by the way, and looked perfect with the wooden cane laid on it, creating an atmosphere of true pathos. An extra bonus was a deep resonance to the knocking as Scrooge arrives at his Nephew’s house on Christmas morning.
The applause at the end of the show was very generous and long, and after I had taken my bows I stayed on the stage to do a brief Q&A session which was fun, before putting on my mask and taking up station at the merchandise table where I sold plenty of books and the new contactless terminal performed well.
The audience drifted away into the night and I was able to get changed again. By the time I emerged from my meeting room all of my props and furniture had been carried to the front door, and as I emerged onto the streets the bells were ringing out from the nearby cathedral (Tuesday night is campanology practice night), it was a lovely way to be welcomed to the street and reminded me of Scrooge flinging his windows open on Christmas morning to be greeted by the joyous peal of bells: ‘He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!’
I was back in my hotel just after 9 but the kitchens in the small lobby restaurant had already closed, so I ordered a pizza via Uber Eats, which was duly delivered and I wound down my evening laying on the bed watching a documentary about the super volcano under the Yellowstone National Park.
On Wednesday morning I have a 6 hour drive to the other end of the country to perform again and then it is time to make preparations for my return to America on Friday.