On Wednesday morning I continued my road back to being able to perform. On Tuesday I had finally left Manchester and driven south, so that I could be closer to my planned events over the weekend, in the hope that I would feel physically up to getting back on stage. The drive from New England to New York, specifically Long Island, is one that I should have been doing on Sunday, in readiness for the two hows I had booked there, but of course sadly that never happened. It is a route I know well from previous years, and actually follows in the wheel tracks of Charles Dickens’s first trip to the USA in 1842, As he made his way south he commented on Worcester ‘ a pretty New England town’; Hartford ‘The town is beautifully situated in a basin of green hills; the soil is rich, well-wooded, and carefully improved’; and New Haven ‘ ….known also as the City of Elms, is a fine town. Many of its streets (as its alias sufficiently imports) are planted with rows of grand old elm-trees; and the same natural ornaments surround Yale College, an establishment of considerable eminence and reputation.’ All three of these well-remembered quotes came to me as I drove by, thinking about how quickly I was travelling, compared to the days it took him to complete the same journey by train and steamboat. I passed the time by listening to a new Audible dramatization of Oliver Twist.
My destination was Bob and Pam Byers cabin set high on a hill above the Delaware River, and the most perfect place to isolate, if only I’d been able to get there earlier in the week. The drive was a long one, and Bob and I had agreed that if I was feeling tired, I would just find a hotel and stop for the night. As I neared New York the traffic became heavy, of course, and the weather closed in with low cloud and heavy rain, so I decided to do the sensible thing and find a place to stop, and thanks to the wonder of the smart phone I was soon pulling up outside a Hampton Inn at White Plains, and carefully masked, checked in for a single night.
A Hampton Inn beside a huge highway intersection on a very wet night does not present me with much to talk about, but I spent a comfortable night, enjoyed a perfect waffle for breakfast, and prepared to finish my journey. I waited for the New York morning traffic to clear, and got on the road at 11 to complete the final 1 hour and thirty minutes of my journey.
The cabin is familiar to me, as I stayed here as recently as September, and it was wonderful to be back. I opened the sliding door to the decking and enjoyed the amazing view across the river, as well as taking lungfuls of chilled, pure air. Pam had kindly stocked up the refrigerator in preparation for my arrival, and I sat at the table with a plate of cheese, humous and an apple. As soon as I had finished, and cleared away, I began to rehearse, get back to work. I knew that I wanted to perform on Friday (the first after my recommended period of quarantine was over), but would I be able to? would my lungs have the strength and capacity to project? Would I be able to get more than one line out with coughing and spluttering? The answer seemed to be yes, I could, and I happily bounded around the large room as Ebenezer, Bob, Fred and the charity collector. It all felt fine!
The afternoon drifted on towards evening and I made myself a salmon and hard-boiled egg salad for my supper, which I ate in front of the television, watching the amazing film The Dig, about the archaeological find at Sutton Hoo in England, in 1938.
Although it was dark outside when I went to my bedroom, it wasn’t that late, so I decided to listen to one of my favourite podcasts, ‘You’re Dead to Me’ which is a lighthearted history pod, presented by a young historian, Greg Jenner. This week his subject was ‘A Dickensian Christmas’ featuring, as his expert, Dr Emily Bell, the editor of The Dickensian magazine. It was a fascinating listen, and I urge anyone reading this with an interest in Dickens and A Christmas Carol (which I am guessing is most of you), to give it a try. The link is below.
One more day of isolation, and then on Friday, everything being OK, I can get into costume again, walk across the stage as my sound effect plays, and say ‘Marley was dead, to begin with!’
I arrived back home from Minneapolis on Tuesday morning and on Thursday morning, after just one full day at home, it was time to set off on my travels once more. My first UK venue of the season was to be at The Lit and Phil society in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a drive of about 4 1/2 hours. When I came to load, I had to think carefully about what I needed for my shows, as I have become used to turning up to a venue in America and having the set all laid out for me. As I was about to drive away, I took one final look at the load and was worried that I didn’t seem to have enough equipment and realised that I had omitted to put the hat rack in, so I went back to the house and fetched it. Hmmm, it still didn’t look right, so I did a mental skim through the script, and discovered that I hadn’t put the little table in either. Back to the prop store to liberate the table and at last I was on my way.
The weather on Wednesday was foul and the whole drive was carried out in heavy heavy rain, with patches of the road flooded with standing water. To pass the time I discovered a new 8-part podcast about a particular scandal in Formula One racing, dating back to 2007, when one team illegally obtained a complete dossier about a competitor’s car design. The scandal only came to light because the designer of the team with the stollen information sent his wife to a high street copy-shop where she asked them to photocopy the entire 780 pages of information. Unfortunately for her, and the designer, the man who ran the copy shop happened to be a fan of the aggrieved team and emailed them, setting in place the course of events that became known, unimaginatively, as ‘Spygate’.
Newcastle is in the far Northeast of England, so my journey took me through the whole range of countryside that the country has to offer. Earlier in the week my brother and I were discussing the question ‘where does the north begin?’ For my part I always think that when I get to Derby I am in the north of England.
I arrived at my hotel, the Sleeperz at 3.30, which gave to me 90 minutes to relax before I needed to be at the venue, the Literary and Philosophical Society, a very fine and historic library in the heart of the city. I have been performing for the Lit and Phil for the last 5 years, or so, and the routine is a familiar one. The only parking for the hotel is on the street, but fortunately the library itself is only a few doors away, so I did not have to move the car when it was time to leave. I left my room to get into the lift and for a moment forgot that I was back in the UK, rather than in America, for I automatically hit ‘1’ and was surprised when the doors opened into a corridor of rooms – in England the bottom floor, or lobby. level is called the Ground Floor, whereas the 1st floor, is actually the 2nd. In America, of course, the ground floor is the first, and the 2nd is the 2nd. I don’t know why I should have been confused
I walked to the car, unlocked the boot and started to unload the props in the pouring rain and. After three or four trips everything was inside. I was greeted by a poster for my show with the very happy tidings ‘SOLD OUT’ stuck across it.
I laid out my set on the floor, there not being a stage, and as is tradition we played around with various combinations of overhead florescent tubes and standard lamps to create some sort of theatrical atmosphere. The room at The Lit and Phil is not a particularly atmospheric one, but the shows here have always worked very well there, with the enthusiastic Newcastle audience bringing it to life.
When everything was set, and before the audience arrived, I popped to the loo, in which there was a notice pinned to the wall: ‘Please do NOT empty the basin when the urinal is flushing. Thank you.’ Goodness, what would happen? The sign had the sort of effect on me that a large red button bearing the legend ‘UNDER NO CIRCUSMTANCES PRESS THIS BUTTON’ You just have to, don’t you? There is an inner curiosity to do the complete opposite, despite the warnings. Fortunately, for the continued stability of the Lit & Phil building, I managed to conquer my rebellious nature and did NOT empty the basin while the urinal was flushing.
I settled myself into my dressing room, actually a large meeting room with a large table, and spent some time going over the extra lines for the 2-act version of A Christmas Carol which I will be performing later in the week. There are not too many additions, but Marley gets a little extra time to tell us that he only has little time and cannot stay, rest or linger. When Scrooge first stands in the snow with the Ghost of Christmas Past, he sees his school friends making their way home and he recognises them all, feeling strangely moved to see and hear them wish each other ‘Merry Christmas!’ There is an extra scene at the school, in which Scrooge’s little sister bounds in, and there are a few extra lines at the start of the second act, when Scrooge wakes expecting to see the second spirit. The wisdom of learning lines that I was not about to use may be debatable, but I was confident that I would be able to perform the very familiar 1 act version without a problem. I also attached black Velcro strips to my frock coat, as I did last year, so that I could create a fully black creature, with no gold waistcoat showing, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come makes his first appearance.
I could hear the audience arriving and just before 7pm there was a knock on the door, and it was time to make my way to the back of the room. As I mentioned earlier, the Lit and Phil audiences are always excellent, and this year was no exception. The show went really well, with lots of reaction, leading to a very noisy standing ovation at the end. I took my bows and then lingered in the large room through which the audience exited to chat and answer questions. I had copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’ as well as the DVD version of ‘A Christmas Carol’, and both sold well. It was lovely to discover that there were audience members who had seen me perform at The Word on South Tyneside (the same has been the case the other way round), meaning that although geographically the venues are fairly close, they actually support each other.
When the audience had left I changed and loaded up the car (it was still raining hard), and strolled back to my hotel, where I ordered my supper from a local Chinese restaurant and twenty minutes later an Uber Eats courier delivered it to me. I ate in my room and then after a long, but successful, day went to sleep knowing that I had a quite relaxing day ahead of me on Friday.
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.
On Sunday morning, Hallowe’en, the winter tour continued to pick up pace as I was due to perform in the far North East of England. The booking marked a return to the magnificent ‘The Word – The National Centre for the Written Word’, and it was a poignant visit as my proposed performance of Great Expectations at the venue was the first show lost to the pandemic back in May 2020. The Word is set in the heart of South Shields, on the banks of the Tyne River and required a drive of around 5 hours to get there. As the show was an afternoon one, with the audience due to arrive at 1.30, it meant an early start.
I had loaded the car the pervious day and my alarm was set at 5.15am (allowing for the fact that the clocks had fallen back an hour over night). As the rest of the house slept I had some breakfast, showered and prepared to leave ready to drive through a rainy, windy, squally morning. A goodbye to Liz and it was time to hit the road. Having set the SatNav I was relieved to notice that the journey time was considerably less than it had intimated the day before, so I would have plenty of time to stop for coffee breaks on the way. I decided to run through the script of The Signalman as I was driving, and as I turned onto the A34 I began: ‘Halloa! Below there!’ But I was interrupted, my flow was destroyed by a very strange sound: ‘slap slap slap slap’. At first I thought it was coming from the props in the back, maybe something was badly stowed and was rattling, but no, it definitely was coming from the front wheel, although the steering felt fine and no warning lights were showing, it was very odd. I continued to drive and got back to the script, but the slap slap slap continued and it was very obvious that something was wrong. I pulled into a petrol station and in the pelting rain investigated the front right tyre of my car. Sure enough part of the tread on the inside shoulder of the tyre had failed, sort of peeled away, exposing the metal bands that form the construction of a tyre. The strip of rubber hadn’t actually come off but was whipping the car body with every revolution of the wheel. The tyre was close to complete and catastrophic failure, and if it happened when I was driving at 70 miles per hour through the driving rain the consequences were too awful to think of. There was nothing for it but to change wheels. A Renault Kadjar only has a space saver wheel, which is much narrower than a standard one, and can only be driven at relatively low speeds, but it would have to do as there would be no tyre centres open at that hour. The other issue was that the spare is stowed under the floor of the boot space, meaning that I had to unload all of my props before being able to get to it.
In the dark and the rain I performed a reasonably fast tyre stop (OK, not quite the 1.9 seconds that the Formula One teams manage, but pretty good nonetheless), loaded up the car again, and set off once more towards South Shields. In one way it was fortunate that the weather was so awful because it kept my speed down which, with the space saver tyre, was necessary. Really the skinny wheel isn’t designed to undertake such a long journey, but on Sunday I had no choice.
The traffic was light and I passed the time by continuing my rehearsal, as well as listening to various podcasts, including a couple of episodes of ‘You’re Dead To Me’, which is a light-hearted look at various historical figures and events. It is hosted by Greg Jenner, one of the team behind the brilliant Horrible Histories series, and each episode runs to a carefully formulated and regulated plan. Two guests, one an expert historian and the other a comedian, banter with Greg over the topic selected. One episode which accompanied me was based on the history of Ivan the Terrible who certainly did justify his terrifying moniker, for some of the details of his later activities were quite eye-watering. At one point during the episode the comedian for Olga Koch, who originates from Russia, was making a gag that involved the use of a passport and it suddenly flashed upon me the literal meaning of the word. It is not a document to travel, but a document to allow you into a foreign country: to allow you to pass through the port. A simple revelation, I know, but one that I rather liked that and I will remember it as I arrive in America next week.
The journey continued and I still had some time in hand to allow a coffee stop, and chance to send a message home to Liz to let her know that all was well.
The weather was getting worse again as morning became day and traffic increased the visibility became less and less, It was not a nice drive at all. Somewhere in Derbyshire or Yorkshire, I am not quite certain where, the traffic ahead of me suddenly slowed, with cars putting on their hazard warning lights to alert drivers behind that there was a hold up. Looking ahead it became apparent that there was some sort of blockage in the left and centre lanes of the motorway as vehicles were moving across, and then I saw what had happened. Skid marks scribed a terrible slew to the left where the metal barrier had been bowed in and flat, creating a sort of launch pad, the two inside lines were covered with dirt and metal and plastic, and laying on its side in the middle of the road was the remains of a small blue car, the front end was smashed (presumably where it had hit the barrier) and the glass in the windows was crazed (although not shattered). The modern airbag system had deployed, meaning that the interior of the car was fortunately shrouded from view. A few other cars had pulled to the hard shoulder and the occupants stood shocked, chatting. No one was tending to the crashed car and I hoped, even maybe prayed, that one of those people was the very very fortunate driver of the blue car who had emerged unscathed from the horror ride. It was obvious that the crash had only just happened, probably the blue car had overtaken me just minutes maybe seconds before. There were no emergency crews on the scene yet and the rest of the traffic filed slowly by, before tentatively speeding up and continuing their journeys. For me the scene was particularly frightening as it brought to mind what could have happened if my tyre had failed at high speed, but I drove on, cautiously and thankfully.
Eventually, after one more rest stop, I arrived at South Shields where the heavy rain continued to batter down, moored on the northern banks of the Tyne was an old friend, the P&O cruise ship Arcadia, on which Liz and I enjoyed happy holidays and on which we both performed. Seeing Arcadia was a lovely welcome to the town. I pulled up outside The Word, at a little loading bay, and called my contact at the venue Pauline Martin who appeared and helped me unload all of the furniture ready to be taken up in a lift to the third floor where I would be performing.
The room in which I perform at The Word is not a theatre space as such, but it is a beautiful circular space with views across the river (dominated by Arcadia). A temporary stage was erected at one end, and chairs were laid out ready for the arrival of the audience. I was due to give a talk about the Staplehurst rail crash in the first half of the programme and then perform The Signalman in the second, so Pauline and I connected a laptop to the projector so that I could show the inevitable PowerPoint slides to accompany the lecture.
The original idea was to use this event as a sort of launch for my new, indeed my first, book: ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’, but unfortunately the publishers hadn’t manage to send me any copies, so the merchandise table stood empty at the doorway. However, book or no book, the story is a fascinating one and a good tale to tell before the Signlaman.
When we were set up Pauline disappeared to grab some lunch and I got changed into my all black costume, and then sat down to a sandwich, It was 1 o’clock so I had plenty of time to eat before the audience were due to arrive in 30 minutes time. But as I embarked upon my tuna and sweetcorn feast the door opened and a lady ran in, she stopped with an air of great surprise, ‘where is everyone? I hope that more people than this come. It is raining and wild, I suppose, but still!’ and she sat down ready for the show – she certainly wanted to bag a good seat! We chatted a little, and I made a few notes on my script, and then it occurred to me what had happened, the lady had forgotten to put her clocks back that morning, and was convinced that it was showtime and that she would be the only audience member. Fortunately Pauline returned at that moment and politely pointed out that the audience were not going to be admitted until 1.30, at which point the mistake was realised!
When the correct hour arrived the room was filled with a capacity crowd, and many came to say hello (I was hovering at the back of the room), to say they had seen me previously at other venues, and were so excited to see me again, which is always very gratifying. On the stroke of 2 Pauline introduced me and I stepped up to a lectern to begin the talk. I am not altogether at home giving a lecture, but I have presented this one on a few occasions, so I know that it works. The talk follows the plot of the book, although without the biographical aspects of Dickens’ early life, concentrating on the train journey and the building works at Staplehurst, and the aftermath of the crash. Everything went well and bang on time I brought the first half to a close. The audience had a few minutes to stretch their legs, whilst I prepared the stage for The Signalman. When the set was complete, we encouraged everyone back into the room and I began. Naturally the introduction to the show was much shorter (most of it having been given in the first half), so in no time I was launching in to ‘Halloa! Below there!’
The passion and the mystery of the story worked well and I felt quite exhausted and elated as I brought the piece to its end. Having taken my bows, I opened the floor up to questions and the first was ‘what happened to Ellen?’ Ellen Ternan was Charles Dickens’ mistress and was travelling on the train with him. While he assisted with the rescue effort for 2 or 3 hours, Ellen and her mother Frances are conspicuous by their absence from any accounts. The press were ravenous and collected names of all of the passengers involved, but the Ternan name was absent from every one of those reports. Maybe a clue lies in a letter that Dickens wrote a few days after the crash. He described looking out of the carriage window and seeing two guards running beside the wreck, he called to them ‘Look at me. Do stop for an instant and look at me, and tell me whether you don’t know me.’ One of them answered, ‘we know you very well, Mr Dickens’. ‘Then,’ I said, ‘my good fellow, for God’s sake give me your key and send one of those labourers here and I ‘ll empty this carriage’….Charles Dickens ensured he had a few moments to get Ellen out of the train and away before he clambered down into the wreck and very visibly assisted in the rescue effort. In my book I suggest that although that his very public actionss were certainly not a cynical ploy to divert attention from his travelling companions, it was certainly a fortuitous opportunity to perform a sleight of hand as befitted a talented conjurer!
Some of the wounded were looked after in the village of Staplehurst itself whilst others were taken back to London on specially commissioned trains. I imagine that Dickens ensured that the Ternan’s were onboard one of the first trains to leave the scene.
Ellen appeared in London a few days later, for Dickens visited her there and wrote a letter to his manservant asking him to take her a fresh basket of foods and treats every day, so that she may be comfortable. He also wrote to the station master at Charing Cross station asking if a quantity of gold jewellery, engraved with the name Ellen, had been found, as his travelling companion had lost it during the crash. It was at this moment that the mystery of Ellen Ternan began to emerge.
Another question was in response to a comment I had made during my introduction to The Signalman about the fact that although Charles had prepared the story as a reading, he never actually performed it in public. I surmised that his reluctance to perform the piece may have been due to the mental trauma he suffered post Staplehurst, or the fact that being a relatively short reading it would only fit into the ‘comedy slot’ which typically came after a longer, more dramatic reading. The Signalman wouldn’t send an audience home with a cheery skip to their step.
Next came the Q&A ‘market place’: the local branch of The Dickens Fellowship promoted their meetings (I performed at their conference held in Durham a few years ago and they are a vibrant and enthusiastic bunch, indeed) and that was followed up by The Gateshead Little Theatre plugging their own performance of The Signalman which is due to open in a week’s time. I was very happy to give both groups the opportunity to ‘sell their wares’.
I then joined in the general commercial break by not only mentioning my book once more (Dickens & Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash. Published by Olympia Publishing), but also my return visit to The Word in December to perform A Christmas Carol, and then it was time for the audience to leave and for me to pack up my things.
Once the car was loaded I said my goodbyes and tentatively headed south as far as York, where I was due to stay overnight, thus breaking the long journey home.
I was staying in an elegant hotel called the Elmbank Lodge, although I had booked a ‘courtyard room’ rather than one of the more expensive rooms in the main building. Unfortunately I discovered that the restaurant would not be open to me, as they only had one chef on duty so the only guests who could dine were those who had booked a ‘dinner and breakfast’ package, However the young man at the front desk recommended Valentinos, an Italian restaurant just a 5 minute walk away, which took me past some beautiful Georgian town houses. I also walked past a branch of KwikFit tyre repairers which would be very uselful come the morning.
Dinner was superb, the restaurant was busy and vibrant, with one of the waiters breaking out into snatches of song with a fine baritone voice. I overheard him telling a neighbouring table that he came from Calabria, his house in the shadow of Stromboli. He certainly played the role of opera-singing Italian waiter to a tee, but I rather uncharitably wondered if in fact he came from Barnsley or somewhere similar! When I had finished my Sea Bass and was sipping a strong coffee he came to chat, noticing that I had been reading Motorsport Magazine: ‘Ahh! Motorsport, Ferrari – Ascari, Alboretto, Rossi!’ Yup, he was a genuine Italian!
I returned to the hotel and after a very long day retired early.
On waking on Monday morning and watching the television news I saw the story of a train crash that had taken place on Sunday night, on Hallowe’en. A train had struck some debris on the line and derailed, knocking out the signalling equipment as it did so, therefore there was no warning to a following train which ploughed into the wreck. Fortunately there were no fatalities but seventeen were wounded. The news footage focussed on the scene of accident – the two entwined trains at the mouth of a dark, dismal tunnel deep down in a cutting……..
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!