Having returned from America last week, and having solemnly and proudly spending Monday watching the funeral of Queen Elizabeth (wearing a dark suit and black tie in respectful honour of my Monarch), it was time to turn my attentions to the two projects coming up in October.
The first is a performance of Mr Dickens is Coming and Doctor Marigold in my home town of Abingdon, to raise funds for Brain Tumour Research. My fundraising efforts began in April when Liz’s sister Sheila died from the condition and I decided to turn my hand to working on behalf of the charity. The main push to my efforts was entering the Oxford Half Marathon on October 16th, and much of my year has been spent pounding the Oxfordshire roads trying to get myself into shape to complete 13 miles. However I also decided to stage a benefit performance (which will require rather less effort than the Half), and that is due to be performed on 7th October, so my initial work was to put in place publicity for the show. I designed posters and had them printed and started sending press releases out to all and sundry. Ticket sales are looked after by Eventbrite and it was with a smile that the first email confirmations of bookings came into my inbox.
With publicity rolling, I also needed to get back to training. I had run a couple of times in America, but not with any great intensity, so I went out one afternoon to run the 6 mile ring road which surrounds Abingdon. Everything was going well and my breathing was good and the legs felt powerful….until the 3 mile mark when suddenly a searing pain came from my right calf. I immediately stopped (I had promised myself, and Liz, that if anything felt untoward I wouldn’t push on thereby risking further damage), and limped home. What I hoped might be a cramp lingered annoyingly into the evening and through the night, so I feared that I may have suffered my first running injury just as I should be in my final stages of preparations. The next day I called a sports physiotherapist, but he was unavailable, so I just went about my ordinary business without putting too much strain on my leg. The next day it felt better, and I tried a few little runs, just a few hundred yards at a time, and felt no adverse effects, so I was confident that I could get out for a proper training run again.
Today, 23 September, I dropped our children to school and then set off to do two laps of the ring road, which would mean a 12 mile run – the little loop back to home would mean that I would be completing around 13 miles, the very distance that I will need to achieve to complete the event in October. I knew that I had to prove to myself that I could complete 13 miles before arriving in Oxford, and it needed to be done sooner than later, for if I were still pounding out long distances in the week of the event I wouldn’t have any energy for the race itself, so today was the day (leg muscles allowing)
At 8.50 I started to run, and it felt good. I kept a steady pace, not wanting to go off too quickly, and soon was in the centre of the town. I passed the spot where my calf had gone a few days before and still everything was OK. On I ran, past the fire station and later the police station, then turning right opposite McDonalds and climbed gradually towards the point I’d started from.
For much of my training I have been listening to audiobooks to accompany me, but a good friend and keen runner had told me that actually he runs better with nothing playing in his ears, so today I tried this and it seemed to work. My mind, rather than concentrating on the unfolding story, just ambled around. I thought of my forthcoming show, I thought of the performances in the USA, I admired a motorcyclist’s crash helmet livery which was charmingly old fashioned, rather than the multi-coloured ones that are usually so popular. I listened to birds, looked at trees, read the names of haulage companies on the cabs of lorries, and the miles just slipped away under the soles of my feet
I still felt strong, so set off for a second 6 mile lap. I had a choice to make at this point, did I turn round and complete lap two in the reverse direction, which in hindsight would have been the sensible thing to do, or just plough on through familiar scenery? I decided to carry on. Of course it was getting harder, but I was soon in town again (where my 10 year old’s class was gathering to sing Status Quo’s ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ in the market square for reasons I am not sure of), and on towards McDonalds again, which would be the ten mile mark. At this stage, I admit, I began to find the going tough and I slowed to a walk a few times during those final 3 miles, but I never stopped, I was moving forward the whole time, and when I reached home I checked my Strava app and saw that I had clocked up exactly 13 miles. I had done it! When I had thought about this run I reckoned I could do it in around 2 hours, 10 minutes (I run at an average pace of 9.30 minute miles, but I knew I wouldn’t keep that up over thirteen and had estimated an average of 10 minute miles), and my final time was 2 hours 9 minutes, despite the walking: I was very very proud of that!
So I am in a good place, I know that I can do it, and now can rein back the distances a little to leave me with plenty of energy for the big day – I even have a PB to aim for now, I would like to get to around 2 hours if I could on the day.
So, I think that deserves some more sponsorship donations! Thank you so much to all of those who have already contributed so generously, taking the fund up to nearly £1,000, but we need more! So please do check out the link and come with me on my 13 mile journey.
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.
Wednesday had promised to be another relaxing day in the cabin, possibly doing some work on the script for A Child’s Journey With Dickens, until I had received a text the day before from Bob’s son George asking me if I would like to join him for a round of golf (I had mentioned to Bob that I had brought my golf shoes just in case there was time for a round, and he had passed the message on). I readily agreed and George arrived at the cabin to pick me up at 8.45 in readiness for a 9.40 tee off. The course that he had selected was Heron Glenn Golf Club near to the town of Flemington from where I would be collecting a rental car later in the day.
We arrived at the club in good time and sorted out a set of rental clubs for me, which would provide a perfect excuse for poor play in the early holes, and made our way to the first tee, where another two players introduced themselves as Bill and Michael and told us that they would be playing with us, which turned out to be a good thing as they were able to show us the way around and warn us of hidden areas of rough. They had broad New York accents and George and I tried to guess what they had been during their working lives: we came up with either police officers, or maybe in the newspaper industry. We never did find out.
We had a wonderful time, I wont go into it hole by hole, but we all played some very good shots and we all played some woeful shots. On the whole George played more good shots than the rest of us, and if we had been competing he would have vanquished us, but we weren’t and instead we all had fun
From the golf course I had to pick up a rental car which will be with me until I arrive at Logan airport on Saturday to fly home. We were to go to a Hertz dealership in Flemington, and it took a bit of finding. In our defence the venue didn’t look like a Hertz office. In fact it was a very small car repair shop, with scattered bits of wounded automobiles lying on the ground. The only clue that the office may be part of one of the world’s leading car rental concerns was a tiny sign on the wall outside the office. I walked in and said I was due to collect a car and that my name was Dickens. ‘Ah, yes.’ said the lady in the office, its the white Nissan Rogue, here are the keys. Its got 3/4 of a tank, just drop it off with the same wherever you’re leaving it.’ And that was it! No signatures, no driving licence check, no credit cards: nothing. Easy, but I was not entirely sure that Hertz head office knew that I had their car.
I said goodbye to George, although we’d be meeting up again for dinner, and drove back to the cabin, where I took the Mustang out for one final journey to fill it up with petrol (during my drive to Burlington I’d watched the fuel gauge go down as quickly as the speed went up!) When I returned, I sorrowfully guided it into the garage and said my goodbyes.
George had booked a table for dinner in the town of New Hope, 30 minutes away, in a very smart restaurant overlooking the river. Maura, George’s girlfriend was also there and it was a great pleasure to meet her. She is going to be working with Pam on the administrative side of my tour and she was keen to find out as much as possible as to how it all works. She will be a great asset to the team, I think. We all dined well, I had a spicy Asian trout dish which was absolutely delicious, and it was a very pleasant evening with good company.
I returned to the Cabin for my final night in the woods
Although I had only one show on Thursday, in the evening, I did have a little extra work to do at Byers’ Choice, for David wanted to record a few promotional videos for the forthcoming Christmas tour. Firstly I sat at a large table and, looking into the camera, cheerily invited people to come and see A Christmas Carol at Byers’ Choice. Next I cheerily asked them to come and see A Christmas Carol at their local venue (this means that sponsors can put their own captions and booking details on the screen.) Then I told people that they may like to buy my book, and finally a piece about my DVD of A Christmas Carol (Yes! It is available this year). When all those short clips had been filmed Dave and I created a mini Byers’ Choice travel show as I walked through the visitor centre pointing out things of interest, especially relating to Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.
When the filming was finished I said my final goodbyes to Dave, Bob and George (who returned my golf shoes that I’d left in his ca)r, and I set out on the road East, towards Long Island. The traffic wasn’t too bad until I reached the environs of New York City, at which time I inevitably hit long tailbacks – some because of accidents, some because of roadworks and some just due to heavy city congestion. I had plenty of time in hand, though, so it was not a concern.
To skirt around Manhattan my route took me across the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn, and it has to be one of the world’s most truly impressive bridges to be sure, rivalling The Forth Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sidney Harbour Bridge, and even its near neighbour, the Brooklyn Bridge. The heavy traffic continued onto the misnamed Long Island Expressways but I arrived at the Marriott Hotel in good time. I had stayed at the same venue last Christmas so everything was familiar to me.
I had an hour or so at the hotel before I was due at the East Meadow Library where I was to perform the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold that evening. The drive to the library was only a matter of minutes and in no time I was greeting my friends from December Jude and her husband Mark, who helped me to unload my costumes and props ready to set up in the small auditorium. The first job was to reconstruct the danger light for The Signalman, using the screws and screwdriver that Dave had sent along with me. Mark used to be involved in Broadway theatre in the tech, set and props fields and as we built the light he was commenting on the construction of it, with a certain sense of admiration, but also with the inevitable ‘Ah, if I’d made this I would have……’
Soon we had the set in place and Jude suggested that we all went to get some dinner before the show, so we piled into Marks huge RAM truck and headed to a lovely Italian restaurant, where we dined alfresco, beneath huge sunshades. I had a simple chicken dish in a white wine and lemon sauce, which was delicious, but I was aware that time was pushing on towards six pm and we were due to start at seven. Mark noticed my unease and offered to drive me back to the Library so that I could finish my preparations in as relaxed way as possible.
The priority was to do a sound check with Larry, who had looked after my performance in December and who I knew to be a safe pair of hands on the faders, because of that I had also given him the wind sound effect to play during the first half. With the sound check completed and the set checked once more I left the room, so that the audience could take their seats, and went downstairs where I changed in a small staff cafeteria room.
At seven o’clock Jude came down to say we were holding for 5 minutes as guests were still arriving, but soon everything was in place to begin. Jude opened the door to the auditorium (the seating was raked, and I would be performing on the floor level), and I slipped in behind her, which elicited a round of applause form the audience, to which Jude hissed back at me in a loud pantomime-style whisper ‘you were supposed to stay outside!’ It was all good fun banter, and Jude is a natural entertainer.
With the introductions completed I started the show. The audience weren’t as responsive during the two performances as some others, there was not the same laughter at Marigold for instance, but oh my they were appreciative and applauded long and loudly afterwards. I learned long ago that audiences respond in different ways and just because there isn’t an instant response, it doesn’t mean that they are not enjoying, or appreciating the performance, and the crowd at East Meadow were a case in point. After Marigold was finished (and, yes, they gasped at the correct moment), I opened the floor up to questions and we had an enjoyable session covering lots of ground, including how do I learn lines? What is my favourite film or TV adaptation of any Dickens novel? (David Lean’s Great Expectations, or the BBC’s Bleak House), and how did I feel about the Queen? which brought the emotions that have been there all week bubbling up to the surface again. Soon it was time to wrap up and I took another round of applause before leaving the room. I loitered outside as the audience left and the questions continued until the library emptied and it was time to pack up my belongings, say my goodbyes and head back to the Marriott where I set my alarm for 5.45, as I had a three hour drive ahead of me to Massachusetts.
On Tuesday it was back to work, with two more performances of the same double bill that I performed in Georgia and at Byers’ Choice, in Burlington, New Jersey.
The two down days were spent at Bob and Pam’s cabin and enabled me to relax, follow the continuing news coverage from home, and to prepare for forthcoming shows. On Sunday the rain fell from dawn till dusk, and as Bob and Pam were at the cabin too, we all had a very lazy day, watching sport, reading, and completing a jigsaw puzzle that featured scenes and characters from the works of, guess who? Charles Dickens if course.
On Sunday evening Bob and Pam said their goodbyes and drove back to their home in town ready for the working week, leaving me in the middle of the woods alone with just a cacophony of insects in the trees to keep me company.
On Monday morning I woke early and looking out over the Delaware River valley I saw that although it was misty, the rain had abated, so I decided to go out for a training run.
At the bottom of the hill there is a canal with a towpath that runs for miles in both directions, so I set off at 6.15 and spent just over an hour running out and back, at one time being accompanied by a family of deer who bounded and skipped alongside me for a while. Unfortunately my running app on the phone refused to pick up a GPS signal, so I have no idea how far or how fast I ran, but based on previous experience it must have been about 5 or 6 miles all told including the long slow trek back up the steep driveway.
After I had showered and cooled down a little I decided to drive out to a nearby general store to pick up a few things for breakfast, and the rest of my stay, and it was now that I was introduced to my transport for the next couple of days, and what a splendid beast it was! In the garage sat a magnificent midnight blue Ford Mustang Convertible. I got into the drivers seat (the car sort of swallows you up, you sit so deep within it that you become part of it) and turned the key which opened the stable for all those horses to be freed. I assume it is a V8, it certainly sounded like one. I carefully reversed it out of the garage, and then placed my foot on the gas pedal (somehow I have to use the American terminology for this car) to propel it forward up the cinder track, and such was the power that the rear wheels simply spun on the loose surface leaving two little marks in my wake. My second attempt was much more gentle and off I went with the roof down. The lanes and roads around the river are narrow and have speed limits no greater than 45 mules per hour, so I couldn’t exploit the sheer power deep within (which was probably just as well), but to slowly cruise was wonderful. I think I love that car and may pop it into my hand luggage when I leave and steal it!
After I had shopped I returned to my woodland retreat atop the hill, had some breakfast and then settled down to various bits of work. The main focus of my morning was to work on the script for ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ which I am due to perform on Friday in Massachusetts. I have performed this little tale on many occasions and know the script very well, but this week’s performance is slightly out of the ordinary. During lockdown the Charles Dickens Museum in London asked me to perform an online version of the story, and I cooperated with my friend and fellow actor Jennifer Emerson, who is based in Massachusetts. Together we reworked the script, so that she took on the role of Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, whilst I enhanced the narrative with the recital of letters from Dickens, giving accounts of the planning for his American tour, his journey and his observations during his stay. It is an interesting challenge to learn, or at least re-learn, lines which have to fit within a script featuring another character. I am used to learning large chunks of text for my shows, and I have become quite adept at that over the years, but returning to the fragmented nature of dialogue, and having to make sure that another performer gets the correct cues is a much more disciplined task, so I have been spending quite a lot of time just pacing around the cabin muttering to myself.
At 10 o’clock on Monday morning I had a Zoom call with Jennifer and we went through the script together, making a few changes and discussing how we would actually stage the performance (of course last time we did it we were in different countries, so it was very much a vocal performance rather than a physical one).
When the call was over I did some more work on the lines, and then prepared myself to drive back to Byers’ Choice where 200 copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’ were waiting to be signed. Once more I settled myself deep within the Mustang and rumbled my way into Chalfont. The boxes of books were in the Conference Room, and I settled down to add my autograph to each copy, whilst listening to the BBC news coverage of events in Edinburgh as the Queen’s coffin was laid in state for the first time.
The signing didn’t take too long and when I had finished I went to find Bob to discuss another issue. The wonderful warning light that David had built for my performance of The Signalman was so impressive that I had suggested it would be great if I could take it to each of the forthcoming venues where I am due to perform the piece again. I will be driving to each, but the prop is over 6 feet tall and, especially in the case of Burlington, I would be driving in the Mustang which, for all its beauty, is not built to transport goods. I’d suggested that I keep the roof down and we had the light sticking up out of the top, maybe we could connect it to the brake pedal, so that it glowed ominously every time I slowed, but of course Dave and Bob had a more practical solution. I was taken to a workshop and witnessed the frame being sawn into two parts, with brackets to re-assemble it. Both parts would now fit in the Mustang and Dave had even installed a switch into the unit so that I could turn it off at the appropriate point of the show. I arranged to drop by in the morning, on my way to Burlington to pick up the finished article, before driving back to the cabin where I did a little more line learning, and then played myself at pool in the basement – and won!
Tuesday promised to be a busy day as I had two performances of my double bill, making it more like four performances. I gathered all of my costumes and props, loaded them into the Mustang and left the cabin at 9.15 and drove to Byers’ Choice to collect the light. As it would have to go into the back seat of the car, and as it had four metal plates to attach it again, Dave had also made some covers to avoid the metal edges damaging the upholstery, a very sensible precaution that I would never have thought about. I finished loading the car and then started the hour’s journey to Burlington, and the beautiful old United Methodist Church on Broad Street.
Burlington is one of my regular venues and I have been performing A Christmas Carol there for many years, so it was a pleasure to bring some more of my repertoire there this year. I pulled up outside the Church and went in, where I found Laura in the office preparing for the day’s events. Laura is our main contact at Broad Street and has been at the helm of the events since the very beginning, she is the centre of an active and deeply committed group of volunteers who put on amazing events. Laura told me that the audiences would be smaller than at Christmas, and we needed to decide where to stage the events. We could use the beautiful sanctuary, with its wrap around balcony and multi-level performing space, but a small audience may look rather lost in there, and also the day was hot and humid and there was no air conditioning in the hall.
The alternative was the basement room, also used for services, but much smaller and less beautiful, however it was cooler and the smaller space would suit the intimate nature of the double bill, whilst giving the impression of a larger crowd – the decision was an easy one in the end.
I unloaded the car, reconstructed the danger lamp, and then we all (me, Laura and the crew) worked on making the performance space look good. Lecterns and flags were removed, as well as large amounts of crucifixes and other religious iconology (I felt somewhat heretical, but as it was the members of the church community who were suggesting it, and doing the clearing I reckoned it was OK!). Laura asked if I wanted a large black cloth that is usually draped over the organ in the Sanctuary to be draped over the altar table, but an idea came into my head – was there any way we could hang it on the wall behind to create the great black void of the railway tunnel? Before I knew it people were clambering onto the altar, stretching up and trying to pin the cloth in place. In the end, the effect was perfect, but I am sure that I will be going to Hell for this.
The help continued as the team provided me with a very old book to represent the ‘official book’ that lies on the Signalman’s desk, and also a rather lovely miniature bell to stand on top of the signalling equipment. Both of these items looked superb on my set: along with the Mustang, my luggage promises to be bulging with nefariously purloined contraband when I leave on Saturday.
Even as we were setting up the first audience members began to arrive, so having checked that everything was in place, I retreated to my changing room, where the ever-attentive Marcia brought me my traditional pot of tea and biscuits – what a pre-show treat.
At 12.50 I made my way back downstairs in my Signalman costume, complete with black armband, and at 1 on the dot Laura welcomed the guests and handed the room to me. The audience were attentive and engaged, and the performance was intense and powerful, I enjoyed myself a great deal. The fact that I am continually performing the same repertoire on this trip means that it is becoming tighter and more effective with each show and I can relax much more. I finished the half, as I have done throughout this trip, by relating the anecdote of performing The Signalman on the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway in Wales##, where the audience had been brought up the mountain side, through the dark sombre slate hills, by train, and when I finished the show they all got back onto the (unlit) train and began the precipitous and precarious descent. Feeling that I should wave goodbye I had stood on a foot bridge across the line and waved in the manner of the spectre in the story, with one arm across my face. It is a good way to finish the act as it gets a bit of a laugh and just raises the spirits a little after the solemnity of the show itself.
At the interval I changed into my Marigold costume, with sleeves casually rolled up, thus displaying my war wounds from Jekyll, which have yet to heal fully and then returned to the room to change the set round in as anonymous a way as possible. When all was ready Laura called the room to order and Doctor M took over in his entertaining way. The audience laughed, were shocked, gasped and sobbed as the story toyed with their emotions and the applause at the end was wonderful – another group of people had become Marigold converts.
When the show was over and bows taken, we all made our way into another hall where tables are laid out, whilst tea, cakes, cookies and large slices of pumpkin pie are served. This is always a very nice informal way to conduct a meet and greet, autograph session, as everyone just watches until there is no line and ambles up to my desk to chat. On this occasion a very kind gentleman presented me with a large resin beer stein complete with characters from A Christmas Carol in relief – people are so generous. Throughout the session everyone offered sincere condolences for my country’s loss, there is a very genuine sense of grief and sorry here too.
The session drifted to its end and I returned to the hall to re-set for the evening’s performance of The Signalman, so that everything was ready. I changed and all of the Broad Street team walked to Francesco’s restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner. I enjoyed a salad with crispy chicken and honey mustard dressing, whilst the chat and banter was as entertaining as ever – these people are good people, kind people, generous and fun people.
Back to the church, and I had an hour or so to rest before the 7 o’clock show. My dressing room was in a large room used for Sunday school teaching, as well as for games and play. In the middle of the room was a pool table, so I had a few frames and once again I beat myself – I must be getting quite adept at the game as I keep winning.
Soon it was time to get back to business and I got back into costume ready for the 7 o’clock start. The evening audience was smaller, but just as attentive. My good friend Kevin from the New York branch of the Dickens Fellowship was there, which was great to see, but it meant I couldn’t get away with any incorrect facts as I spoke of Staplehurst (he knows his Dickens, does Kevin!), fortunately he was nodding a lot, which was a good sign.
Both shows went well again, although I was feeling the fatigue during Marigold, but the effect at the end was the same as in the afternoon and many a tear was surreptitiously wiped away.
At the reception I chatted with Kevin and his wife, and with many other regular fans, who have been coming to see A Christmas Carol for many years and who were delighted to see some of my other material. Soon, though, they drifted away and it was time to get changed and then start to dismantle the set, break down the light, and carefully pack everything into my mighty steed ready for an hour’s drive back to the cabin. I really felt very tired, but had the windows wide open as I drove. There were lots of deer along the way, but fortunately none ran into my path, which was a relief. At about 11pm I pulled the car into the parking space outside the house, locked it, and went inside.
Friday night wasn’t very long for me, but even so I managed to injure myself during it. I woke somewhere around 1am and made my way through the dark to the bathroom. It was as I returned to the bed that I tripped over my suitcase, let open ready to pack in the early hours. As I fell forward I was vaguely aware that the wooden bed was close and stuck my hands out to break my fall but in doing so I scraped my right wrist along the sharp edge of the case, leaving a nasty graze.
I got back to bed and fell asleep. The next thing I knew alarms were bleeping and chiming and it was time to get up. I made a cup of coffee and quickly showered before packing my wash bag and closing up my guillotine suitcase. I left the room at 3.30 and made my way along a series of wooden walkways and was amazed to see a couple sat at a table talking, they said a polite ‘good morning’, as if chatting to fellow guests at 3.30 in the morning was the most natural thing in the world.
The drive back to Jacksonville airport was just over an hour, so my phone’s navigation app told me, and I drove through the darkness and duly arrived at 4.30. I drove to the Hertz rental return and then walked into the terminal where I was amazed how busy it was. I joined a queue for the United airlines bag drop and then made my way through security and arrived at my gate with 15 minutes before boarding was due to commence. I grabbed a little pot of yoghurt, a bottle of orange juice and a cinnamon roll and had a very quick ‘breakfast’ before being called to board.
I also studied my injury which was looking quite livid and raw. The shape of the wound looked rather like a collection of islands in an Australasian archipelago, and was feeling a little sore, I could also feel a scrape on my shin, where first I tripped and also an ache on my upper lip, where I banged my face – not bad work for a 4-hour night!
The flight took off in darkness and I dozed a little, but when the coffee service came round I was awake for good, so opened the United Airlines app and watched Local Hero, which made me have thoughts of longing to be back in the Highlands of Scotland again.
The sun had risen during the flight and it felt as if it should be around 10 or 11 in the morning, in fact it was a little before 8am. As I waited at the carousel in baggage claim I was greeted by the cheery face and hug of Pam Byers who had driven out to pick me up. My home for the next few days would be the Byers’ cabin overlooking the Delaware river and having loaded my bags into her little white Golf GT we set off for the beautiful remote spot in the woods. We had a couple of hours during which I could just catch my breath a little, and I showered again to wake me up, before we had to set off to the Byers’ Choice headquarters where I was due to perform that afternoon. On the way Pam stopped at a WaWa petrol station and I grabbed a sandwich, some fruit and some crisps for a brief lunch, and then on to the building that is so familiar to me – my office in the USA. Whenever I come to Chalfont I feel so much apart of the Byers’ Choice team, it is a very special place to be.
As with all of the shows on this mini-tour the audience was going to be smaller than those for A Christmas Carol, so the team had taken the decision to build a more intimate theatre in the cafeteria space rather than in the cavernous manufacturing room. I said hello to David Daikeler, who looks after all of my technical requirements at Byers’ and then to Jeff and finally to Bob Byers. They had done a fantastic job in building the theatre, and the stage not only had the furniture for The Signalman’s hut, but also a magnificent red danger light built by Dave specifically for this occasion. At each side of the stage were a couple of antique carts which set the scene for Doctor Marigold. David had hung a series of theatre lights, and would be able to control the various lighting effects that I use in theatres at home.
We were also experimenting with something new – a sound effect. In The Signalman the narrative talks about the wind whistling through the deep railway cutting, indeed it almost becomes part of the haunting itself. For a few years I have thought about using sound, sparingly and subtly, and I had decided that the Byers’ Choice performance, with Dave at the rudder, would be the perfect time to try it out. Over the previous weeks I had spent many hours, becoming rather obsessed with the project, listening to various wind sound effects, some were too stormy, others too calm, some too sci-fi and others too artificial, but eventually I found one that fitted the bill. Now, it was my first chance to see how it sounded, and I began a run through of the script as Dave played around with sound levels. My suggestion had been that I wanted to audience to feel cold and uneasy without actually knowing why, so the effect should be very much used as an ambient sound, rather than being too intrusive. It sounded perfect.
Having finished our technical rehearsals I went to the large conference room that doubles as my dressing room on such occasions, and ate my lunch before signing 30 copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’, which would be sold at the performance. Back in the theatre the audience were arriving and I changed into costume ready to start the show at 3 0’clock, twelve hours after I woke up.
There was a good audience in the room and once we were sure that nobody else was going to arrive, Bob turned off the lights and we made our way towards the stage. Bob is always superb at welcoming the audience to the shows, but on this occasion he completely caught me off guard, by sombrely offering his condolences to me and my country, before calling the audience to observe a moment’s silence in memory of and in tribute to The Queen. I stood with my head bowed and had to wipe away a tear or two before stepping up to the stage. I have been amazed and deeply touched by the response of America during these days, with all flags flying at half mast, and this in a week of such commemoration and sorry in their own country as they remember the horrors of 9-11.
On the stage I thanked the audience and then, as Marigold likes to say, had to ‘thoroughly shake myself together’ to get the show going. I talked about Staplehurst, remembering to shameless plug my book (by the way, it is available on Amazon), before I was ready to place my left arm over my face and cry out ‘Halloa! Below there!’ Oh it was intense and dark and wonderful. The sound effect worked very well, and certainly added a chill to the atmosphere, whilst the various lighting effects were expertly conducted by Dave at his tech console. When I finished the show and had taken my bows I left the room to quickly change costumes, and in my wake Bob, his son George and Dave reset the stage ready for Doctor Marigold.
I returned to the theatre and when everyone was in their seats I took to the stage once more and introduced the audience to Doctor Marigold. I was beginning to feel tired by now and there were a few fumbles in lines, but the story of the cheapjack was wonderfully received by the audience, and the gasp at the end of the performance (which Dickens’s manager George Dolby remarked on in his memoir of the reading tours) was as loud and heartfelt as ever with a few hands going up to a few tear-filled eyes. 157 years after Doctor Marigold first appeared, the effect is still the same.
The applause was long and I took a number of bows, before opening the floor to questions. At most Q&A sessions I can be fairly certain of the questions that will be asked, but the first one on Saturday was definitely a first, nobody has ever asked me this before: ‘Is it true that the actor who played Alfred in Batman is related to you?’ Yes! it is! In the 1960’s series featuring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, the loyal butler Alfred was played by Alan Napier, an English actor who in 1944 married Aileen Hawksley a direct descendant of Charles Dickens through his son Henry, the same line as myself. I remember as a child looking at our family tree and being much more excited about having a relative (albeit through marriage) who was in Batman than I was about being related to a Victorian author!
Another question also moved me to silence but for a completely different reason, I was asked ‘how do you pack?’, the point of the question being do I travel with all of the props and furniture, and how on earth do I manage that. But in a moment of confusion I sort of thought that I was in Boston or New Hampshire and to my mind he was asking with a broad New England accent ‘how do you park?’ It seemed an odd question to ask and I floundered around for a while wondering how to answer. Eventually I realised my error and explained that individual venues provide the furniture and I travel as lightly as I could! I must blame my confusion on the 3 o’clock start to my day!
I kept on taking more questions and answering as fully as I could, until Bob came up onto the stage and rescued me from myself.
Back in the conference room I changed back into my regular clothes and when I had collected everything up Pam and Bob took me out for an early supper before heading back to the cabin where I was asleep by about 8.30 pm. It had been a long day, indeed.
Having heard the news from England, I wasn’t going to write a blog post about my travels yesterday, somehow it didn’t seem right, but I have decided to go ahead, although it feels difficult to be light-hearted and entertaining today. But here is my account of Thursday, 8 September 2022:
The 2022 September tour is an extra trip and enables some of the venues that have asked me to perform something other than A Christmas Carol, to present non-seasonal events. Unfortunately some of the sponsors who had originally asked to be part of the tour have since backed out, meaning that there are a few gaps in the itinerary, but I may get time to run, possibly play some golf or be a bit of a tourist.
My day started early as I had to catch an 8am flight from Heathrow airport which meant a taxi pulling up outside our house at 5 o’clock in the morning. I had packed everything the day before, so having had a slice of toast and a cup of coffee, it was a case of saying farewell to Liz and disappearing into the darkness. The traffic at that time in the morning was very light and so I was at Heathrow in very very good time. The same was true of check-in and security and I was all cleared and ready to fly just after 6! I headed to a Pret a Manger where I had a little bowl of Bircher muesli topped with blueberries, some orange juice and a coffee, all of which passed the time until the screens showed that I should proceed to gate B31. The B gates at terminal 2 are in a separate building and getting to them means descending the longest escalator I have ever used, and about half way down I had a terrible sense of vertigo and had to cling to the rail for a moment and look anywhere but down, to control the sensations of dizziness which were making my head spin.
Continuing the theme of the day, boarding started soon after I arrived and it was calm, quick and efficient, meaning that we could push back from the gate ahead of schedule. I had a window seat with nobody next to me (thanks to continually checking the United Airlines website and switching my seat every time I noticed someone reserving the one next to mine), so I could spread out a little. I began to scroll through the huge amount of films on offer (so different now to those days when one film was shown on a single screen at the front of the cabin, as it was when I first toured). Out of a sense of nostalgia I chose Jaws, and settled back into my seat, reassured by the announcement that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that we would experience a water landing. As an early birthday present, to allow for this trip, Liz had bought me a set of noise-cancelling wireless headphones which did an amazing job of cosseting me in the world of Amity Island, and blocking out a rainy London.
It was odd to fly at that time of day, as usually I am used to lunch being brought round after an hour’s flying, but today it was breakfast – my third of the day (if I count the toast and coffee at home), and I tucked into pancakes topped with a hot fruit compote and an unnamed and unidentifiable white sauce, maybe cream or custard – I think not cheese, who knows?
A strange thing happened when the cabin attendant came to offer me beverages: I asked for an orange juice and a coffee, and she poured both and handed them to me (I grant, not too strange at the moment). Now, usually I am asked ‘cream and sugar?’ and I reply, ‘yes, thank you, one of each.’ But on this occasion she didn’t ask, so I said ‘may I have cream and coffee please?’ to whish she rather scolded me – ‘You didn’t ask for cream and sugar, so I just gave you coffee. I gave you what you asked for, I’m not a mind reader you know!’ I was slightly taken aback by this tirade, but tried to lighten the moment by replying. ‘Oh I am sure you are!’ but it was an odd moment, nonetheless .
Once Chief Brody and Matt Hooper had swum back to Amity, leaving the wreck of the Orca and the remains of Quint in the Atlantic Ocean, it was time to chose another film and this time I went for Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar winner performance as Abraham Lincoln. It is a long film, and I dozed bit, but it was truly a remarkable performance, and I had forgotten the quality of the supporting cast. By the time Lincoln was over I decided that rather than launching into another movie, I would investigate the TV programmes, and found a special recording of John Williams conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – and so my unintended theme (the films of Spielberg as scored by Williams) was settled. It was a magnificent concert and was nice just to let the music fill my ears for an hour or so.
For the final leg of the flight, over Nova Scotia and down the New England coast towards New York City I went full out with my theme and started to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind and got three quarters of the way through as we made our soft, smooth landing on American soil. It was now that my day changed completely.
As my phone came back to life so the news came to me that doctors had serious concerns about the health of Queen Elizabeth II, and that all of the family were making their way to the Highlands of Scotland to be with her. That fact, and the fact that there was no mention of her being taken to hospital, could only mean one thing and a great sense of emptiness and depression descended over me, for the one constant of my entire life was about to be taken away. I just wanted to be at home with Liz, I didn’t want to be in America, I didn’t want to be preparing to do shows, I didn’t want to be wearing a smile and chatting to audience members, I wanted to be back in my home country being able to mourn with everyone else.
I spent the layover at Newark listening to the news coverage and it became increasingly obvious that all of the broadcasters were starting to follow carefully prepared protocols to bring the news of the Monarch’s death to the world. I boarded by onward flight to Jacksonville, Florida, and by the time I landed the news was confirmed. Strangely the line of news that most brought the reality of the situation to me was the mention of ‘King Charles III’: the succession occurs at the very moment of death, and a new era had begun.
There is little that I can add to the huge amount of tributes to Queen Elizabeth II that are being constantly played out over the news channels, but in 2012 I and Liz were fortunate enough to meet her. I am currently writing a new book about my life touring on the road, and in it I recall our time at Buckingham Palace:
‘In 2012 the nation celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth and the most prestigious event was a reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh. Invitations were received by famous actors who have performed in adaptations of the novels, academics who have studied and written about Charles’ life, and members of the family: Liz and I were truly fortunate to have been included on the list.
On 14 February we drove our car through the great gates in front of the palace and parked in the courtyard before walking under the famous portico, up the small flight of steps and into the Queen’s official London residence.
We ascended the grand staircase and made our way into a gilded and packed reception room, in which there seemed to be celebrities at every corner. We were given a glass of champagne and waiters circulated with plates of hors d’oeuvre, beautifully created to allow for single-bite ease of eating. Somehow, seamlessly, we discovered ourselves in a long line and at the head of it we were presented to the Queen and the Duke, who shook our hands and said a few words, before moving on to the next guests. If that wasn’t enough of a thrill, the members of the family were gathered up and taken to a smaller room, where we were granted a second and more private audience with the Queen, who spent ten minutes or so chatting with us all, demonstrating a remarkable memory as she recalled meeting my Uncle Peter many years previously, wistfully remembering that he had been ‘rather dishy’. Peter had been a Royal Naval officer
Queen Elizabeth was quite amazing, the energy she demonstrated as she worked the room, making intelligent conversation with all of these literary and artistic folk, was remarkable. And the next evening, or later in the week, she would be talking to nuclear physicists, or footballers, or politicians, and she would share the same beaming smile with them and display the same levels of knowledge of their work and would delight them as she had delighted us.’
That occasion was a truly memorable one, but my feelings of grief are not due to that evening, but to the sense that a major part of our reality has gone. Our parents lived through multiple changes of monarch, through both death and abdication, but for the multiple generations that have been born since 1952 we have known nothing other than the leadership and care of Queen Elizabeth II
Life will go on, and our King will serve the country well, but it will never be the same again.
When I arrived at my hotel on Jekyll Island in Georgia I noticed that the flags that flew on the spacious lawns had been lowered to half mast.
I don’t want to write more about my journey or my evening, or why I am in Georgia, that can wait until tomorrow. For now just to say ‘Rest in peace, your Majesty, and God save the King’