To miss-quote the opening lines of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: ‘Yesterday I went to Highclere again’. Last December on a very wet night I performed at the magnificent ancestral home of the Carnarvon family for the first time and loved every second of what was an elegant and spectacular evening. The castle was fully decorated for Christmas and the great hall embraced the guests as if that was its sole purpose in life – to entertain and delight. Lord and Lady Carnarvon had erected a small stage in front of the huge stone fireplace and somehow had managed to squeeze 80 chairs around it, and as the audience arrived they were in their finery, as befitted such a venue and occasion.
The evening was a great success and Lady Carnarvon confidently announced that we would repeat the event in 2020….Ah, 2020. Of course all of the best laid plans were abandoned early this year and the thought of returning to Highclere Castle disappeared from my mind.
The great building came to my thoughts once more when I was thinking of locations to use for my film, but when a building has such clients as Downton Abbey beating a path to their door, the location costs would have been exorbitant and actually in retrospect, wouldn’t have provided suitable locations for the sparsity of the story – Highclere would have been too lavish for my version of A Christmas Carol.
However as the summer continued there was a call from Lady Carnarvon, asking if I would be available to join her at the Castle to recreate a little of my performance for a national television network who wanted to make a documentary about Christmas in one of England’s stately homes. I was happy to agree, even though this was not a fee paying event, for the relationship with the Carnarvons is so good and the opportunity to gain some exposure for both my live shows and the film was one I couldn’t turn down.
On Tuesday 24th November, just two days before the release of the film on Vimeo, I drove up the long driveway, taking the opportunity to stop and admire the great building against a beautiful late afternoon winter sky. The drive was lined with mini Christmas trees and two larger versions guarded the front door. I swung the car round on the gravel drive (I knew that this is how you are supposed to arrive as I’ve seen it done so many times before on Downton Abbey). Granted, the staff with Carson the butler at the centre, didn’t line up en masse to greet me, but the house manager John did fling open the door and welcome me back in cheerful, hearty tones. In fact my arrival was such a triumph that I had to repeat it three more times as the TV crew from ITN wanted to capture the moment from a few different angles.
The film crew was of two, Brent and Amy, who both dutifully wore masks as they trailed me around. When I finally entered I stood in the Great Hall of the house with a huge lavishly decorated Christmas tree soaring to the ceiling above me. It seemed extraordinary to me that a year ago we had fitted a stage and eighty people into what now looked like a very small space, but the memories of laughter and bonhomie waved over me as I surveyed the scene. Such was my wonder and such was the splendour that I surveyed the scene three more times, as Brent and Amy recorded it from a few different angles….
Lady Carnavon arrived and we greeted each other from the prescribed safe distance and then made our way into the Smoking Room where we were to record an episode of the Highclere Castle podcast which the Countess has been hosting since June. We sat in comfortable armchairs with the rolling landscape bathed in the glow of a winter’s sunset outside the windows. For such a large house some of the rooms, including the Smoking Room, are surprisingly intimate and it proved the perfect setting for our convivial chat. We talked about Christmas and Charles Dickens’ influence on it, as well as the heavy toll of the pandemic on both the entertainment and tourism sectors, and from there discussed how the lack of opportunities to perform in front of a live audience had presented other opportunities: cue promoting the film!
Having wrapped up the podcast recording it was time to prepare for a performance of a few extracts of A Christmas Carol to the massed audience of their Lord and Ladyship, John the manager, and their assistant Cat, who was also recording the snippets of show for an Instagram link. I was directed to my ‘dressing room’, which is in fact a spare room in the castle and in which I was surrounded by photographs of ‘Porchie’, Henry George Reginald Molyneux Herbert to give him his full name, the 7th Earl of Carnavon, to give his him his title – the Queen of England’s trusted confidante and horse racing trainer.
Once I was nearly changed there was a knock at the door and the voice of Brent asked if he could film me preparing for the show. I let him and Amy in and for the next 15 minutes or so I took cufflinks off and put them on again, took my cravat off and put it on again, took my watch out of the waistcoat pocket and studied it before replacing it, all whilst chatting about the experience of being at, and performing in, Highclere Castle.
Eventually we were ready to go. Lord and Lady Carnarvon settled themselves in two armchairs, whilst John hovered deferentially in the background and Cat set up her recording equipment. After a brief introduction by Lady Carnarvon I began.
Oh, it felt good! Oh, to move in that space saying the lines, creating the poses, telling the story. As I performed I could feel the room full of twelve months before, hear the laughter, see the tears. The idea was to perform very short snippets but I just didn’t want to stop and carried on throughout the first scene until nephew Fred leaves Scrooge’s office on Christmas Eve: complete self-indulgence.
I was more restrained for my second piece, the appearance of The Ghost of Christmas Present represented by the magnificent tree, and for a final clip I performed the closing words of the story to neatly wrap everything up.
When Brent, Amy and Cat were happy we wrapped up the performance aspect of the afternoon and mingled while a bottle of Highclere champagne was produced and we all toasted to the strangest of Christmases.
Having posed with Lady C in front of the tree, keeping a strict two-bough distance (in line with government festive guidelines), I changed out of costume, collected my things and drove away into the night.
For a couple of hours I had been back doing what I should be doing at this time of year – performing. But as I drove a strange thought came to me and that was that in 2020 my show will probably be seen by more people than ever before because on 26th November, the day I would usually be flying into Boston, to begin the final weeks of my tour, my film of A Christmas Carol will finally go live!
Film Link: Films (geralddickens.com)
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