My week celebrating the 210th birthday of Charles Dickens continued on Sunday 6th February in two homes – his and mine.
On Sunday evening a specially filmed version of my old show Mr Dickens is Coming was due to be streamed by The Charles Dickens Museum, which is based at 48 Doughty Street, the home that a young Charles moved into having enjoyed instant success with The Pickwick Papers.
Cindy Sughrue, the director of the museum, had approached me last year with the idea of my developing a version of the show that would utilise many of the rooms in the museum, meaning that I would have a wonderful backdrop for my performance whilst the museum could be shown in its best light. The original idea had been to film it before Christmas, but various issues with my tour, obtaining visas and some family concerns at the time meant that we decided to delay the project until early in the year, using the birthday as a suitable time to screen.
Monday 17th January was selected as a filming day, with the 18th being held as an extra. The advantage of these particular days being that the museum is closed on a Monday and Tuesday, thereby giving us full rein to use whichever rooms we needed, whenever we wanted without disturbing the paying public.
I arrived at around 10.30am, and was met by Jordan Evans who is the Marketing and Events manager at the House who was responsible for co-ordinating the entire project. We would be working with videographer Alex Hyndman who has filmed in the museum often, most particularly with actor Dominic Gerard who performs his brilliant A Christmas Carol from the house in December, and as I arrived Alex was setting up cameras and lights in readiness for the first takes.
I quickly changed into costume, which included one of my oldest waistcoats – a black one with shining golden embellishments, and bright patches of colour. I saw it back in the 1990’s hanging on a bargain rail outside a charity shop in the pouring rain. I had been looking for a garish waistcoat for the show, and this one seemed to be calling out to me: ‘buy me! buy me!’ And I did.
I had re-written my old script whilst taking the virtual tour of the museum, which is available on the Carles Dickens Museum website, and had tried to feature each room in a way appropriate to the part of the story I was telling. My opening shot would see me striding down the centre of Doughty Street towards the camera and then entering the famous red door to begin, and this, Jordan decided, would be the first scene to film. The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray, as Rabbie Burns wrote, and on the morning of filming we discovered that it was bin collection day, so the elegant street was lined with piles of rubbish and recycling rendering our idea for the long view of Doughty Street impossible to capture. The three of us stood in the street pondering our next move and I realised that I was holding my hand up to shade my eyes against the low-in-the-sky sun shining along the street (which apparently runs East-West). ‘Guys,’ I said, ‘why don’t we use my shadow on the pavement?’ and so the show opens with a panning shot of a top-hatted shadow striding along, until the camera pans up to show me walking up to the door.
For the rest of the day we moved from room to room, planning how to shoot each scene and taking care not to touch the historic furniture and artefacts as we did. In the nursery on the top floor I performed the passage about John Dickens next to his bust, and then Alex was able to swing the camera round as I walked behind the original prison bars from The Marshalsea Prison, where the family had been sent for debt. At the end of the scene I moved out of shot, revealing a picture of Mr Micawber on the wall behind me.
We managed to get the whole show filmed in the single day, wrapping with a final shot in the little courtyard garden, and I drove home again, leaving Alex to cast his editing magic wand over the whole thing.
During the intervening weeks Jordan made sure that social media was covered with information about the screening, and Alex had made a short trailer for the film too, which meant by the 6 February we had a goodly number of viewers signed up. I would be watching the film, and then taking questions afterwards, from our new garden office, which we have yet to paint, so it would look rather as if I were sitting in a sauna. During the afternoon, after I had driven back from Sharnbrook, I went up into our loft and grabbed a large picture of Charles Dickens as a young man, one of Henry Fielding Dickens, my great grandfather, and one of me on stage, and hung them in such a way as if to suggest I was in a picture-lined study (I am sure that I didn’t fool anyone!).
I was scared watching, for I knew that many viewers would have highly academic backgrounds, and Mr Dickens is Coming was never written with that in mind: it was always a light-hearted script designed to entertain primarily and doesn’t really bear serious analysis, but Alex had done a great job with the editing, and it came across pretty well, I thought. We had viewers from Australia, Japan, America, Georgia, Malta and many other countries, such is the international influence of Charles Dickens.
When the final shot in the garden faded to black, Cindy Sughrue’s camera flicked into life, which was my cue to switch mine on as well. The comments in the chat room scrolled quickly as various viewers from around the globe congratulated me and asked many questions, which Cindy put to me to answer on screen. We spent around 30 minutes chatting until Cindy would the session up, and having said farewell, I logged off, leaving Charles Dickens’ home behind me and walked back down the dark garden towards the warm, welcoming glow of my own house.