On Saturday morning, I was due to leave Liverpool,. although I would be staying in the North West. The first thing to do was to retrieve my furniture and props from St George’s Hall, which I had to do before 10. I had breakfast, this time in the comfort of the Shankly without needing to cross the road from red to blue, and retrieved my car from the parking garage and drove up to the hall, having been admitted through the security barrier which was monitored round the clock. I was told to drive up a curb and onto the pavement, which was as slick as an ice rink, as a result of the heavy rain of the day and the sub-zero temperatures of the night. The car simply slid over the paving, and for a moment I thought that I would take the helter-skelter and the huge ferris wheel out, but actually my Renault slithered into a perfect position by the door, as if I were an expert stunt driver. All of my props and costume were waiting by the door, so it hardly took any time to load, but while I was lifting the heavy chair into the car, my feet slipped on the ice, and in an effort not to fall I could feel my back twist and I knew instantly that I had strained a muscle, just to add to my current physical woes!
I returned to the hotel and relaxed until my check-out time of 11, and then drove into the beautiful county of Cheshire, towards the town of Alderley Edge, where I would be performing that evening. Alderley Edge is not too far from Manchester, and is known for being the home of many of the Premier League’s top footballers, meaning that the property prices in the town are some of the highest in the country. Indeed, as I drove across the bridge into the main street one of the first cars I saw casually parked by the curbside was a yellow Ferrari, and there were copious Aston Martins and other luxury brands on display, as if they were just regular run-arounds. I parked and strolled up and down the street, looking into the windows of high-end restaurants and boutiques with no price labels, but it was raining heavily by now and I wasn’t really in the mood for walking. As I reached the upper end of the street I noticed a sign to The Alderley Edge Hotel where I was due to stay, so walked up the drive and into the stylish reception area, where I asked if there was any possibility of an early check in, and I was told that yes, my room was indeed ready! I walked back into town, retrieved my car and drove back to the hotel, and in ten minutes or so was seated in the restaurant ready for lunch.
Being sat a single table can be a lonely experience, but of course one becomes used to it when on tour, but to be sat at a table laid for a Christmas celebration with just one Christmas Cracker made it seem even more so!
Around me were groups of people in Christmas jumpers and sparkly dresses, laughing and exchanging gifts. I ordered a large plate of fish and chips, and as I waited, another single gentleman was shown in, and the staff called him by name, asking him not to go to his usual table, as that was reserved for another party. He didn’t look at a menu, just ordered what he wanted, and it was obvious that he was a permanent resident at The Alderley Edge, and the character of ‘The Major’ from Fawlty Towers came to mine. Actually the hotel itself was not dissimilar, being an elegant old house situated up a short driveway. I should say, however, that is where the similarity ended, for the service and staff were impeccable!
I ate my lunch, and took my cracker to my room, where I pulled it. My treat was a pink hair bobble, and my joke was ‘What do vampires sing on New Year’s Eve? Old Fangs Syne’. I didn’t put the paper hat on.
I had a couple of hours before I had to be at the venue, so rested and snoozed, before showering to wake myself up again. The Festival Hall was only a couple of minutes’ drive away, and I was soon pulling up outside. The hall was originally built in the 1920s, but has recently been renovated, and was very smart and clean. It had a plastered barrel roof, which gave away its age, but everything else looked very up to date. I was greeted by Colin, who was one of the hall managers, and who had agreed to run my sound effects for me. There was no sound desk available, but we worked out that if we plugged my laptop into the amplifier (hidden away in the kitchen), we could make it work. I went through the script with him, and was confident that everything would be OK. The stage was at one end of the room and although very wide, was quite narrow, it had a black cloth behind (actually a star cloth with lots of tiny lights sewn in, but we decided not to use that effect).
When I had set everything up I chatted with Colin and the other staff at the hall, until Lynne and Jacqui arrived too. The show was another that Lynne was producing and she had booked the hall at Alderley Edge. Even as we chatted, some audience members began to arrive, so I went to my dressing room, and the bar sprang into action!
To be honest, the effort and expenditure of adrenaline from two days in St George’s Hall was taking its toll, and I felt very weary. The cough had returned, and I was feeling very weak, but I could hear the audience arriving, could hear the usual sense of excitement, and gave myself a good talking to: the audience in the Alderley edge had invested just as much (I mean from the point of view of choosing to spend their evening at my show), as those in the heart of Liverpool, and therefore deserved just as much effort and commitment from me. The show was due to start at 7, but as the audience arrived Lynne realised that one of the promotional fliers was printed with 7.30 instead, meaning that the lovely early start time was delayed. We had decided to go for a 7.15 start, assuming that people expecting a 7.30 start would probably be arriving then, but they were still entering as the half-hour passed. At last Lynne welcomed everyone and I made my way through the audience and up onto the stage. I gave the show my all, but the annoying coughs, which have been a constant companion since Lewes, Delaware, continued to interrupt the flow., However, the audience enjoyed the evening and gave me a lovely ovation at the end.
Having sold out all of the merchandise at St George’s Hall, there was no formal signing session, but a few people wanted to say thank you, and pose for photographs with me afterwards, so we gathered around the sparkling Christmas Tree next to the stage until everyone was happy, and I could change and start to pack up. I thanked Colin for his efforts with the sound (he had stood in the open door of the kitchen following the script, and as the cue approached had withdrawn back to the laptop – every cue came in perfectly on time), and drove back to the hotel where Lynne, Jacqui and I sat in the bar and drank a toast to the success of our events over the past three days.
I left Alderley Edge as soon as I had finished breakfast on Sunday morning, and was on the road by 8.45. I felt exhausted and after an hour’s driving I needed to stop at a service station, drink coffee, and get some fresh air, before continuing home, where I arrived at lunchtime. It was so good to see Liz and the girls again, but my time at the hose was all too short, for that afternoon I was due to be at the amazing Highclere Castle. The weather was awful as I drove the 40 minutes or so, and as I arrived some of the audience were already gathering and my car had to be escorted at walking pace up the drive, for visitors were making their way towards the house. The timetable stated that the doors would be opened at 4.30, but folk were welcome to explore the grounds before that – there was not much exploring going on.
As I drove across the expanse of gravel in front of the main door, where countless lovely old cars have swept in during the various seasons of Downton Abbey, a voice called out from beneath an umbrella: ‘Hey Mr Dickens! This is a LONG WAY from Pigeon Forge!!’ I was astounded, for Pigeon Forge is a tourist town in Tennessee where I performed for a number of happy years in a very small hotel, and here were two audience members from those days who had made the journey to England, building their Christmas trip to around their plans to watch me perform at Highclere.
Inside the castle the preparations were being made for the evening events, and I arranged my set on the small stage which is dwarfed by the magnificent central saloon of the castle. Lord and Lady Carnarvon were there, as was Charlotte, who a few years ago drew the short straw of operating my sound effects. ‘Is the script the same? Nothing new?’ she nervously asked, and I reassured her that nothing had changed, and then I remembered the new voice over that I had recorded in Liverpool for the start of the second act. ‘There is just one thing,,,,,’
The audience were gathering at the door, deciding that a stroll in the grounds during a rainstorm was not such fun, and were keen to take their seats. I disappeared off to one of the private rooms in the castle, the studio, and changed ready for the evening ahead.
At 5 o’clock I went to the top of the grand staircase and looked down n the audience below, which included our good friends Anthony and Andrea, who we had invited to the show, but sadly not Liz, who had tested positive for Covid a few days earlier, and was miserably at home. This was very sad for us both, as the Highclere performance is traditionally the only one on tour that Liz can get to, being close to home,and having been apart for so long it is a treat of an evening that we both look forward to.
Lady Carnarvon welcomed the gests, and then passed the castle over to me for the next couple of hours. I made my slow walk down the staircase, channelling my inner Hugh Bonneville, through the audience and onto the stage. As with all recent shows, I got though with a few coughs, but managed to tell the story well, and the audience lapped it up – laughed, clapped and sobbed a little. When both acts were over I quickly changed, and made my way to the marquee in one of the courtyards, to join Anthony and Andrea for dinner. The other guests took their seats around us, but respected our privacy generously. When we had finished and I stood to leave, a man, sat at a table with his companion, approached me and aske if I wouldn’t mind having a picture taken, and I of course agreed. As we posed, the couple happily told me that he had proposed during the interval, and that they were now engaged to be married! We chatted for a while, and soon other audience members were asking for pictures, and wanting to chat. It was a very nice and relaxed way to finish the evening. It was still raining hard when I left, and drove home, and I was very glad to be back on our sofa, with Liz.
the following evening, Monday, was petty much a repeat of Sunday, albeit without a proposal of marriage. Before the show Lady Carnarvon and I recorded a short video for TicToc (she is quite the social media expert),and chatted about A Christmas Carol, the season and my performances. The Monday audience were lively and fun, as the Sunday one had been, and I revelled once more beneath the high stone walls of the magnificent home. The shows a Highclere Castle have very much become a traditional part of my tour, and I love performing there. Hopefully next year we will add an extra night to the run.
And so, my 2022 tour was reaching its final stages, and I will tell you about the closing days in my next post.