Today is the 31st January and 2021 has certainly stumbled into life bringing with it the heavy baggage of uncertainty and misery that we all hauled through 2020. But January has been a positive month for me as I have taken on, and completed, a running challenge to raise funds for an amazing charity.
If you have been reading my previous blog posts you will know that I signed up for the ’50 Miles in January’ fundraising event organised by Maggie’s Centres, an organisation that provides comfort and respite for patients and their families who are facing the battle of cancer together. The idea was to inspire as many athletes as possible to join in, each sporting a bright orange running vest, so that the Maggies message would be vividly seen across the country. In Oxfordshire an active Facebook group was formed and it was soon filled with updates as various peoples’ progress was updated. Most of the participants were at a similar level to me – those more serious athletes seeing a mere 50 miles in a month as too simple – so the motivational messages and words of encouragement that were added every day really meant something. When someone reached a goal the community celebrated together; when someone was struggling we encouraged them; when an individual hinted at an injury words of caution and advice poured in.
When I took on the challenge I was not sure if I would be able to complete it but, as events transpired, I passed the 50 mile mark on 19th January (completing my longest run to date to do so), but I have kept pulling on the shorts and orange vest to push on towards 75 miles for the month, a figure that I passed this morning with a final ceremonial Maggies run of 3miles.
For our fundraising efforts Maggie’s tempted us with medals if we raised over £150. Now call me shallow, but I have often looked enviously at cascades of medals dangling in the houses of friends who have been running for years – bits of metal hanging from a ribbon sporting the logos of various 10k events, half marathons and even the 26.2 mile daddy of them all have filled me with an impressed jealousy, so the opportunity of actually having my own award was too good to miss. I have been so fortunate in the support that I have received and have been astounded by the generosity of those who have been following me which saw me surge past the £150 mark (thereby qualifying me for my medal!) within just a few days of starting. At present I have raised £314 on the Maggie’s Facebook page with another £320 pledged via my JustGiving page, making a running total (excuse the pun) of £634. But of course Maggie’s needs more, much more, for the battle with Cancer is ever increasing, so if you are able to add to the fund please do, even the smallest pledge will be used to help others. Even though the efforts of the many runners, cyclists and walkers who have got out in the rain, wind and snow of January ’21 are coming to an end, the work of Maggie’s Centres is never ending
And so it is time to look for a new challenge to motivate me, to keep my momentum up, and I have found such a scheme: Through the coming weeks I will be running the length of Hadrian’s Wall, with my progress being updated by an app which sends me regular postcards of the views as I make my way from South Shields (not far from the magnificent National Centre for the Written Word where I performed in 2019), to Carlisle. And when I achieve the 90 mile distance I will be sent another medal!
Thank you for your support during January and if you would like to make a donation to Maggie’s centres there is still time. Either visit my fundraising page on Facebook, or follow the link below to my JustGiving page.
It is the 15th January and Britain is in the depths of an ever-deepening lockdown which sees us permitted to one session of exercise outside the home per day. Fortunately for me I decided to undertake the ’50 Miles in January’ charity run to raise funds for Maggie’s Centres Cancer charity, and so have motivation to use that daily exercise effectively.
Those of you who read last week’s blog post will know that I came to this project not only as a means of raising money and spreading awareness of an amazing charity, but also to give me a target to aim for to get me back out on the streets. When I signed up with Maggie’s I had no idea if I could achieve the 50 miles or not, but I have been inspired and encouraged by the large community of runners, cyclists and walkers who are attempting the same feat.
So, half way through the month, how is it all going? Well! very well, actually. The weather has warmed up a little since last week and replacing the icy fog is damp mist which is quite refreshing to run through. During week one I was running and walking for about 4 miles per session but us the regularity of the runs has started to have an effect so I have found myself able to run for longer without feeling the need to slow down for a breather. This week my runs have seen me complete 4.16 miles on Monday, 5.02 on Tuesday, 5.05 on Thursday and a painful 5.65 on Friday all without walking.
A few months ago during those balmy Summer days we were all out for a walk when we bumped into a friend who was completing a run of her own. ‘How far have you been?’ we asked, ‘6 miles’ she replied. We looked at her in disbelief, it seemed such a huge distance for someone to cover, especially as I was struggling to achieve 5 k (3 miles) at that time. But now I am approaching that very landmark and feeling fairly good about it. On each run I have tried to imagine a finishing line over which I could collapse in glorious triumph as I have seen the athletes do at the London Marathon. Usually I use a red post box or a particular road junction as my line but on one occasion this week I decided to make my final sprint past the statue of Queen Victoria standing with an imperious air in Abbey Gardens, Abingdon. The Queen has always been a source of amusement to us as a family, our daughters love to run up to her and ask ‘what knickers are you wearing today?’ (this is inspired by a brilliantly irreverent children’s book called The Queen’s Knickers by Nicholas Allan, in which we are granted a glimpse of the Queen’s collection of ceremonial undergarments!)
In the context of the Maggie’s project I have now ticked off over 40 miles leaving me less than ten to complete the challenge, although I will go on running to the 31st to see how high I can raise the bar.
When I am out on the road I am very aware that I am running in the midst of Covid. In one sense the invisible fog of the coronavirus makes being outside more pleasurable in that there is little traffic on the road, but I have to be aware that other pedestrians taking their own exercise may well be nervous so I try to make every effort to keep as far away from anyone else as I can, switching my path early so as to signal my intentions, maybe actually running in the road itself if all is clear. When others afford me the same courtesy I make sure I show them my thanks with a wave of the hand, rather than actually saying ‘thank you’, having noticed that some folk wince as they imagine that they are being engulfed by a miasma of disease.
As an incentive to aspiring runners and fundraisers Maggie’s promised to send every participant a bright orange running vest. The uptake was so big that there has been a bit of delay in dispatching them all (leading to a degree of rather unreasonable grumbling on the Maggie’s 50 group on Facebook.) My own vest arrived yesterday meaning that my last run of the week was the first in which I proudly sported the garish colours, which clash horribly with my red face – but which hopefully diverts attention from my ponderous running style to the real purpose of the run: cash.
I have been so fortunate to have been supported by many very generous friends and family and the pledged amounts are way over my initial targets of £150 (as suggested by Maggie’s), but like any charity the more that is raised the better the work Maggie’s can do and in these current days of overflowing hospitals, the spacious calming centres where cancer sufferers and their families can stay become even more vital.
I have never met Maggie. I have met some Maggies, indeed one of my sister in laws is called Maggie, but I have never met THIS Maggie because she died in 1995. But Maggie is shaping the first days of 2021 for me. Let me explain:
As regular readers may remember during the first UK lockdown I began to run, following an app called ‘Couch to 5K’ which encouraged novice runners to gently build a regime that would eventually see them conquering the apparently mythical 5 kilometre barrier. After a slow start with much wheezing and panting, I eventually managed to reach the end of the programme which gave me a ridiculous sense of pride and achievement. However as the year went on and I became more involved in making my film of A Christmas Carol and trying to salvage some sort of ‘tour’ from the ashes of 2020, my runs became more and more infrequent until they petered out again, becoming a distant memory of an extraordinary Summer.
During the weeks running up to Christmas, and because I wasn’t actually performing, I was able to spend some time in the virtual company of audiences conducting some Q&A sessions. One such event was for my good friends at the Mid Continent Library Service in the Kansas City area and one question from an avid reader of my blog dealt with my running: I was asked if the new fitness regime would help me on stage, perhaps giving me greater stamina and strength. I answered (rather guiltily as I wasn’t currently running) that I wasn’t sure, but probably yes. We moved onto another question, but the seed to resume running had been planted and sat in the back of my brain throughout Christmas.
Now, we all know that Social Media, especially Facebook, is controlled by little witches who scan your innermost thoughts and then bombard you with advertisements relevant to them. True to form no sooner had the possibility of resuming running entered my brain than the adverts become to arrive. New trainers! New shorts! New leggings! All were sent to tempt me, but alongside the rigorous commercialism of the sport so a few charities began to appear asking me to ‘Run For….(film in name as applicable)’, one of which was Maggies.
The reason that the Maggies programme appealed to me was that it would be a challenge, a target, but I reckoned which was achievable to one of my abilities: the idea was to run 50 miles during the month of January and if you raised over a certain amount of cash you would be awarded a medal! I have never received a prize for running, indeed for any sporting activity before, so the idea of getting a medal certainly appealed. I signed up.
You may suppose, having read this far, that I had chosen this particular charitable exercise purely for selfish reasons, just to get a medal, but The Maggies Charity is a very special one and Id like to tell you a little a bit about what they do.
Maggie Keswick Jencks was a writer, gardener and designer, highly successful in her field, until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment was initially successful in the short term, but five years after her first diagnosis Maggie was called to hospital to be told that the cancer had returned and that she had maybe three months to live. Maggie and her husband were then given a little time together to digest this bombshell, being ushered to a windowless hospital corridor. No privacy, no comfort, no care.
Maggie was not going to give in easily and signed up for an advanced chemotherapy trial which would prolong her life by eighteen months and that was time she didn’t waste, for working with her medical team she developed an all new approach to cancer care which would see peaceful, comforting surroundings for sufferers to meet and discuss their conditions both with other patients but also with the doctors and consultants who were treating them, so that each individual felt part of their own treatment and future.
Maggie was a positive soul and the day before she died in 1995 she sat in her beloved garden facing the sun and said ‘Aren’t we lucky?’ The first of the Maggie’s Centres was opened the following year and now they are all over the country giving support and comfort to not only the patients themselves but their families too, providing a positive, supportive and uplifting environment.
Cancer has touched everyone’s life, there can be very few of us who do not know someone close to us who has suffered and whilst the big research charities raise vitally needed funds, so an organisation like Maggies which actually makes life better is equally needful and deserving.
The first week of January has been cold and foggy and so has not been conducive to lovely early morning runs, but I was determined to begin on the 1st, knowing that every day I delayed was one less opportunity to chip away at the 50 mile mountain. In launching the ’50 in January’ initiative Maggies created a Facebook group for all those who registered and this is a really motivating place as everyone posts their progress there, as well as encouraging and congratulating other runners on their achievements. We all use running apps (Strava in my case) to log our miles and each day sees a wide variety of stories pop up: ‘I haven’t run for thirty years, just done 2 miles and feel exhausted!’ lots of comments, ‘Wow!’ ‘Keep going, amazing!’ ‘Finding it really difficult, did 1 mile today, I’m not a runner…’ ‘The fact you went running MAKES you a runner! Great job!’ And at the other end of the scale people are pounding the streets for hours on end clocking up 12 miles or so in a single run, making the target achievable within a week (indeed, as I write this on the 7 January a runner has just posted that she has topped 50 already, as well as completing her first week of radiotherapy!)
My achievements are modest but in line with my expectations, in 7 days my total mileage so far is around 21 miles made up from 5 runs. If I keep up this rate I will be able to reach my goal easily, but of course that is all irrelevant if I don’t get sponsorship, so here is the plea: I know that charities are bombarding us in the post Christmas period and I know that many of us have suffered a severe drop in income thanks to the spread of Covid during 2020, but if you are able to pledge a small amount you will be helping to make lives of ordinary folk, possibly like you and me, immeasurably better.
In the meantime I will be pulling on my running leggings, shorts, shirt, jacket, gloves and cap, lacing up my trainers, and heading onto the icy streets of Abingdon. Every now and again I will see another runner in the orange ‘Maggies 50 in January’ running vest and we will exchange a wave and a smile (or grimace, depending on how we are feeling) knowing that we are both running for Maggie, whom we have never met.
To sponsor my efforts go to ‘Gerald’s fundraiser for Maggie’s Centres by Gerald Dickens’ and Thank You
Throughout this Christmas season I have been sharing some of my memories of Christmas Tours Past with you, being prompted by my phone’s ‘on this day’ function. I have told you about performing with the Vaillancourts in Massachusetts and at The Country Cupboard in Pennsylvania. I have described trips to Tennessee and to California, as well as the luxury of Williamsburg and the friendship at Winterthur. However there is one venue that I have not shared with you because I wanted to save it until Christmas and that is the headquarters and visitor centre of a company called Byers’ Choice.
Around 15 years or so ago, when I was represented in America by Caroline Jackson, a member of the Byers’ Choice team came to watch me in a show at Hershey PA, with a view to my performing for them the following year. Caroline told me about the Byers family and the company that they had created, she explained that they had a huge network of collectors across the country and to perform for them could be a major development – little did any of us know back then exactly how big. The lady that came to meet me in Hershey was Lisa Porter and obviously I made a positive impression for the following year Byers’ Choice appeared on my schedule. But things were about to change – my contract with Caroline Jackson was coming to an end and I had to make the decision as to whether I would renew it; she wanted a 5 year extension and I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit for that long. In the end I took the decision to retire from travelling to America and it seemed as if my relationship with Byers Choice, fun as it had been, was going to be a very short one.
At this point let me break the narrative a little by explaining who the Byers are and what they have achieved: In the 1960s Joyce Byers was a struggling student in fashion, and despairing at the over-priced and garish Christmas ornaments available at the time she decided to create some Christmas table decorations of her own made from scraps she found in the house. By twisting an old wire coat hanger into a basic skeleton she could created a body by wrapping soft tissue paper around it. Off-cuts of material from her studies became coats or dresses, and Joyce used modelling clay to form features on the figures’ face. To celebrate to joy of Christmas Joyce decided to pose her creations as if they were lustily singing carols, so pinched their mouths into a little ‘o’ shape and from that time the figures became Carollers.
In no time the Carollers attracted attention, friends wanted a set for their own tables and it became apparent that there may be a wider market for them. Towards the end of the decade Joyce’s husband Robert was finding that a downturn in the economy was hurting his construction business but his fine business brain could see that the Carollers had a future, if only he could have his dining room table back (it having become the centre of production each Christmas), and in 1978 the couple employed their first staff: the Byers’ Choice company was formed.
The new company rapidly grew thanks to the American public’s three passions: Christmas, collecting and products that are patriotically handmade on home soil, and soon there was a need to move into new surroundings. The dining table gave way to a barn which eventually was replaced by the magnificent visitor centre and production facility which sits in Chalfont, PA. Joyce still designed each Caroller, Bob still sat at the helm of the business and their two sons Bob Jnr and Jeff, came into the family firm to take it to even greater heights. Christmas was always the vortex around which Byers’ Choice swirled and at some point Joyce included characters from one of her favourite Christmas stories into the range. By manufacturing Scrooge, Marley, the three spirits and the Cratchit clan, the company put into motion the series of events that would lead to me working so closely with them.
Back in the early 2000s I had made the decision to retire from touring in America and when that first Christmas season came around it felt as if something was missing, and I wasn’t sure that I had made the correct choice. But I had made my bed and burnt my bridges, indeed, I had apparently mixed my last metaphor. The process of getting the correct visa had become increasingly difficult over the years, and required a great deal of expertise: nobody would want to take that job on just so I could get on stage again. But a year later I received an email from Bob Byers Jnr asking if I would like to return to America to perform at the company’s anniversary (30th, I think) celebrations. I reluctantly declined and explained that even to perform for a single event we needed to spend months, and a lot of money, preparing a visa application with no guarantee that it would even be approved. What would be the point for a single weekend? I don’t know if Bob Jnr is a fisherman but he should be, for he now gently played me like a salmon in a peaty Scottish river. Maybe we could look at a visa if I would return to perform a few dates the following Christmas season too, that would make it more worthwhile for us all….wouldn’t it? He landed his catch.
Back in Chalfont the production of the Carollers takes place in a huge warehouse, dotted with benches, the open expanse is divided into different areas so as you walk through you can see the wire frames padded with tissue awaiting heads which are being carefully individually painted at other benches. Miniature coats, cloaks, dresses and bonnets are sewn with the the precision and skill of a Saville Row tailor and the whole collection are brought together to produce another completely individual and therefore collectable piece.
But each Christmas when I arrive all of these benches are removed and the warehouse floor becomes a theatre of giant proportions. Bob Jnr loves to think of himself as Mr Fezziwig clearing the warehouse on Christmas Eve ready for the great party!
A large stage is erected at one end and David Daikeler leaves his normal job in sales to become the stage manager, rigging a superb theatrical lighting system and installing state of the art sound equipment. Joyce (still very hands on within the company that) dresses the stage with fine furniture, whilst hundreds of white seats are laid out – I think the largest audience we had in that room was around 900, but we are limited by parking space!
My dressing room is in a large conference room surrounded by fine American artwork, and I have plenty of space to spread out. The corridors of the office space are filled with plaques, certificates and awards which tell another story about Byers’ Choice: their philanthropy. In 1982 Bob Senior created The Byers Foundation which donates a large portion of the company profits to various charities, local, national and international. This was never a cynical business ploy, the donations are made because the Byers family are good, kind, caring people. I feel it a privilege to have met them and an even greater privilege to continue to work with them.
Bob Byer’s Jnr and his wife Pam construct and manage my tours, generously and thoughtfully, striking long and deep relationships with the various venues I have already written about.
This year of course it was Bob who initiated the idea of making a film and put the funding in place, alongside various other partners, to get it done. Even when orders for the Carollers went through the roof at the end of this year as people were desperate for some joy in 2020 he was always there at the end of a phone, answering questions, arranging the systems through which people around the globe could rent the movie and doing it all with the grace and care inherited from his parents.
I wanted this to be special celebratory Christmas tribute to my dear friends, Joyce, Bob Snr, Bob Jnr and Jeff, as well as all of the artisans who make the figurines, but this week brought sad tidings from Chalfont: Bob Byers senior passed away after a period of ill health. His family had been able to spend quality time with him through recent weeks and were at his side when died on 21st December, in the heart of season during which he had brought so much joy to so many people over the years. You can read the family’s tribute to Bob on the company website, I shall put the link at the end of this post, but I can only say that to me he was a great fun man to spend time with, his passions for fine red wines and vintage cars engaged us in long conversations as he proudly showed off his latest acquisition. During the days of my shows Bob would be running around the factory checking that there was a goodly supply of toilet roll in the bathrooms, and that everything was perfect. He was that kind of man – not expecting anyone else to do something if he could do it himself
I know the family will spend this Christmas mourning a great husband, father and grandfather, but oh what an impression he has left on this earth and what a fine legacy remains.
Christmas is behind us but, heeding the advice of Charles Dickens, we are going to keep it all the year! Before the festive season reached its climax I set a little quiz based on the original text of A Christmas Carol, and here are the answers:
1: Which publishing house produced A Christmas Carol (even though it was funded by Dickens himself)?
A Christmas Carol was published by Chapman and Hall
2: Who was the illustrator of the first edition?
3: On what date was the book published?
19 December 1843
4: How many copies were printed for the first edition?
The first run was of 6,000 which sold almost instantly
5: What is the full title of the book?
A Christmas Carol In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas
1: Assuming the story is set in 1843, in what year did Jacob Marley die?
‘He died seven years ago, this very night’ Therefore on 24 December 1836
2: Who would have been on the throne at the time of Marley’s death?
William IV reigned until his death on 20th June 1837, when he was succeeded by Queen Victoria
3: What time of day is it when we first enter Scrooge’s office?
The clocks had just struck 3
4: What does the Clerk use to warm himself?
His comforter (scarf) and his candle
5: What is the name of the first visitor to the office on that evening?
Scrooge’s nephew, Fred
4: How many charity collectors come to solicit Scrooge on Christmas Eve?
6: where does Bob Cratchit slide on the ice before going home?
He slides on Cornhill, which sets Scrooge’s office in the very heart of the financial heart of London
7: Where is his home and what connection does it have to Charles Dickens?
Bob Cratchit’s home is in Camden Town, the region in which the Dickens family resided when they moved to London in 1822. Charles was aged 10 at the time.
8: Who built Scrooge’s fireplace?
‘The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago.‘
9: After Jacob Marley floats through the window who else does Scrooge see?
‘The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they may be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar, with one old Ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.’
10: In my film what Churchyard did I use to film the opening scenes?
The Churchyard of St James’ Church, Cooling, Kent, which inspired Charles Dickens in the creation of the opening chapters of Great Expectations.
1: What is the second Chapter called?
The First of the Three Spirits
2: What does the Ghost of Christmas Past carry under its arm?
‘A Great extinguisher’, or candle snuffer
3: What book was the young Ebenezer reading at school?
4: Who wrote it?
Daniel Defoe, in 1719
5: What did the Headmaster of the school give to Ebenezer and his sister before their journey home?
‘Here he produced a decanter of curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake, and administered instalments of those dainties to the young people….’
6: What country dance did the fiddler accompany at Fezziwig’s party?
Sir Roger de Coverley
7: What was the name of Ebenezer’s fellow apprentice at Fezziwig’s?
8: When Ebenezer is shown the house of his ex fiancée, there is a scare about the baby – what did the family think had happened?
‘The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken the act of putting a doll’s frying pan into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having swallowed a fictitious turkey, glued on a wooden platter.’
9: When Belle’s husband walked past the office window of Scrooge and Marley’s what day of the year was it likely to have been?
As he tells Bell that ‘Jacob Marley lies upon the point of death so I hear’ it is likely to be Christmas Eve.
10: In my film all of the scenes from the past were filmed in the Crypt of Rochester Cathedral – which of Dickens novels does the Cathedral feature strongly in?
The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Charles Dickens’ final, unfinished, novel is set in the fictional cathedral city of Cloiseterham, and also features Eastgate House which also appears in my film as various different locations.
1: What is the time when Scrooge finally gets out of bed?
2: What does the Ghost of Christmas Present wear around its waist?
An empty Scabbard
`3: Outside the fruiterers’ shop there were ‘piles of filberts’. What is a filbert?
4: What was Bob Cratchit’s weekly wage?
15 shillings, or 15 ‘bob’
5: How many children did Mr and Mrs Cratchit have?
6: Peter, Belinda, Martha, Tim and the ‘two youngest Cratchits – boy and girl’
6: In my film version of A Christmas Carol I used an an Elizabethan alms house called The Six Poor Traveller’s House to represent the Cratchit’s home. Charles Dickens wrote a short story about the house – what was it called, and why?
The essay was called The Seven Poor Traveller’s House. The house could only accommodate 6 people, but Dickens as the narrator became the seventh
7: Why did Mrs Cratchit’s Christmas pudding smell like a washing day?
Traditionally a Christmas pudding is wrapped in muslin while it steams
8: After leaving The Cratchit’s house the Spirit suddenly removes Scrooge from the city and shows him simple Christmas celebrations in three remote locations: where are they?
A mine, in a lighthouse and onboard a boat at sea
9: According to Charles Dickens ‘..there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as…’ what? (hint, it is NOT Covid19!)
Laughter and good humour
10: What is the answer to Fred’s ‘Yes or No’ game?
1: What is the title of Stave 4?
The Last of the Spirits
2: How many wealthy merchants in total does Scrooge watch discussing his own death?
3: What is Mrs Dilber’s occupation?
She is a Laundress
4: How does old Joe keep a tally of how much he will pay each of his visitors?
Keeps a record by chalking figures on the wall
5: When Scrooge sees the vision of a dead body under a ragged sheet, there is an animal in the room also, what is it?
6: Scrooge is shown the vison of a husband and wife who are in debt to him – what is the wife’s name?
7: What is Mrs Cratchit doing when Scrooge returns to the house?
8: Where does Tiny Tim’s body lie in the vision of the future?
In the upstairs room of the house
9: The Spirit leads Scrooge to a churchyard, but what establishment do they pass on the way?
His own house which he notices is occupied by someone else
10: There is an actual grave to Ebenezer Scrooge in the UK – where and why?
In the city of Shrewsbury, where the George C Scott movie was filmed. It was a clause in the filming contract that the stone be left in the churchyard for tourism purposes.
1: How does Charles Dickens describe the ringing of the church bells on Christmas morning?
He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!‘
2: How much does Scrooge promise the boy on the pavement if he brings the poulterer back to the house?
3: How much does he promise him if returns within 5 minutes?
4: ‘I shall love it as long as I live!’ cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. ‘What an honest expression it has on its face!’ What is Scrooge talking about?
The knocker on his door
5: How many times did Scrooge pass his Nephew’s door before he plucked ‘up the courage to go up and knock?
A dozen times
6: What time did Bob Cratchit arrive for work on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas)?
7: What did Scrooge tell Bob to buy for himself, before he dotted ‘another i’?
A coal scuttle
8: And what drink did he promise him?
9: Who was responsible for filming and editing my film version of A Christmas Carol?
10: What are the final words of the novel?
‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’
I hope that you enjoyed this little diversion, have a very happy and safe 2021
Over the last few days I have spent quite a bit of time sitting in front of my laptop in a Christmas sweater (red with snowmen, to be precise) chatting via Zoom about my new film of A Christmas Carol. Yesterday I spent a very entertaining hour in the company of audience members from The Mid Continent Public Library Service in Kansas City who posed some fascinating questions, and I thought it may be fun to air some of them here so that the debate can move onto a larger platform. The answers to these questions are open to interpretation and derive not so much from fact but from a few clues buried deep within the text that was written so quickly in December 1843. I hope you have fun coming to your own conclusions:
Friendship: was Jacob Marley Scrooge’s only true friend?
We know that Scrooge and Marley were close in that they formed a business and ran it together for ‘I don’t know how many years’. The two men presumably shared the same opinions, morals and aspirations and the firm had the name of Scrooge and Marley. Ebenezer, we are told, never painted out Jacob’s name after his death, although that was probably less to do with friendship and more to do with the cost of paint! Scrooge was, as Dickens points out, his sole friend and his sole mourner. So, yes a friendship was certainly there, but does it go deeper?
The opening chapter of the book bears Marley’s name and it is also in the first sentence of the novel, in fact it is the very first word, so we know from the outset that Jacob Marley is important to what will unfold, but just how strong is his influence over old Ebenezer will be confirmed in the following pages. For the rest of the first chapter not a single other character is referred to by their name, even though there is plenty of traffic passing through Ebenezer’s office on Christmas Eve: apart from his faithful clerk who sits in a ‘sort of a tank’, Scrooge’s ever cheerful and faithful nephew comes to call, as do two gentlemen collecting for charity. A carol singer stoops to the keyhole in the hope of making a penny. Not only does Scrooge dismiss all of these individuals but neither he or the narrator refers to any of them by name, they are simply ‘the clerk’, ‘the nephew’ and ‘the gentlemen’. The next time a name is mentioned is when Scrooge is standing in front of his door: ‘Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley since his last mention of his seven years dead partner that afternoon.’ Marley again.
When the ghost eventually appears, the two men, after a bit of ill-tempered banter (‘Can you sit down?’ ‘I can!’ ‘Do it then’, ‘You don’t believe in me’, ‘I don’t!’), fall into a conversation as Marley warns his friend what lies in store and, more to the point, Scrooge listens Ebenezer doesn’t simply call him Marley, but actually uses his first name, ‘Jacob, tell me more, speak comfort to me Jacob.’ Indeed, Scrooge goes so far as to say that ”you were always a good friend to me. Thank ‘ee’.
The chains that Jacob bears belong also to Ebenezer and Dickens uses this imagery to shackle them together in genuine friendship. Unless Scrooge can change, unless he learns from the three spirits, only then will those chains be broken.
Of course Scrooge has little choice but to spend time with the ghosts and indeed he does repent and change his ways and at the end of the book he refers to Jacob just once before he rushes into the streets and visits his nephew whom he addresses as ‘Fred’ upon arrival. The next morning he surprises his clerk and wishes him ‘A Merry Christmas Bob!’ And of his old long deceased friend? ‘Scrooge had no further intercourse with the spirits….’, there is no name, Marley has now become a function, as the mortal characters were in the opening chapter, and is consigned to the skies to continue his long and weary journey – unless by helping his only true friend Jacob is also released from the shackles that bound him to Ebenezer and is allowed to leave purgatory to spend eternity at peace.
A final observation about friendship was pointed out by the questioner in Kansas City: when Fred, the nephew, is pleading with Scrooge he says ‘I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?’ At that point friendship seems to be out of the question but it is obviously an important target for Fred to aim for.
Was Scrooge’s father visited by spirits too, thereby softening his attitude and bringing his son home at Christmas?
When Ebenezer is taken to see his old school by the Ghost of Christmas Past he is saddened to see ‘his poor forgotten self as he used to be’ and can only mutter ‘poor boy’ as he remembers the solitude and despondency of the Christmas holidays when he alone was left in the long bare room. Every other child had been taken home but Scrooge’s father seems not to have cared for his son. When the spirit shows Scrooge another Christmas we can assume that a number of years have passed, for the description of decay is more than might be expected in a single year: ‘Scrooge’s former self grew larger at the words and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell from the ceiling and the naked laths were shown instead.’ We are certainly led to believe that every Christmas that past was the same and young Scrooge was simply abandoned. But suddenly a ray of light bursts into the scene, in the person of Scrooge’s younger sister Fan, who skips and squeals and jumps and hugs before telling Ebenezer that ‘I have come to bring you home dear brother, to bring you home, home, home! Home for good and all, home for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven. He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him again if you might come home; and he said Yes you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you’re to be a man! And are never to come back here; but first we are to be together all the Christmas time long and have the merriest time in all the world!’
I have always assumed in the past that Scrooge’s father only recalled him from school because he is of an age at which he can work and earn his keep, and this is undoubtedly true, but there is more, there is a tenderness in the gesture and little Fan’s words tell a deeper story: ‘Father is so much kinder than he used to be….’, we have to ask ‘how was he before?’ Fan intimates that she used to be scared of him at her bed time, so was he violent and abusive to his children? It is plain that he is looking after the family alone for there is no mention of a mother, so perhaps he was depressed or possibly alcoholic, but now the little girl tells us that ‘home is like Heaven’: a huge change has come about somehow. If Scrooge was simply to be sent to work by a dominant, abusive patriarch it is unlikely that he and Fan would be allowed to be together all the Christmas time long having the merriest time in all the world. Something has definitely altered in the Scrooge household, and it is entirely possible that in this world of ghosts, the spirits have already been at work (later in the book, the Ghost of Christmas Present tells Ebenezer that ‘my time on this globe is very brief….’ – the word THIS suggests that he has plenty of other Christmas days to visit.
A lovely little touch is that little Fan explains to Ebenezer that father sent her in a coach to bring him home and this is mirrored at the very end of the book when he sees the prize turkey and exclaims ‘Why, it is impossible to carry that to Camden Town. You must have a cab!’
The reconciliation of Scrooge and his father is repeated in the reconciliation of Scrooge and his nephew, his only living relation and the only link to his little sister Fan.
Charles Dickens also had a sister named Fan, short for Frances, although she was two years older than he and not younger as in the book, but the difference in their childhood lifestyles was just as profound. Whilst young Charles was sent to work at Warren’s blacking factory and his education was paid scant attention to, his sister was sent to the Royal Academy of Music where she won two prizes. The gulf between the siblings never led to any open jealousy between them although Dickens would confide later in life how much it secretly hurt him. Frances had two sons, one being very sickly and weak – a certain model for Tiny Tim. But unlike the fictional child, Harry would die in 1848, shortly after his mother. They were buried together at Highgate Cemetery.
The Charity Collectors
This section is based purely on my invention and I cite little evidence from the text for my conclusions, but there is a question to be asked: who are the charity collectors?
We know that Scrooge is well known in the City of London and that his office is in a most prestigious area close to the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange During the vision of the future Ebenezer is shown other affluent merchants discussing his death as they fiddle with gold seals on their watch chains (an important detail to establish wealth and success), and we are told that Scrooge recognises them. One of the gentlemen says ‘When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met.’ The reason for pointing all of this out is to ask why on earth the charity collectors didn’t know if Scrooge was Scrooge or if he was Marley? If they had any background in the City they would have known that soliciting Scrooge for a donation would have been futile and it would have been much better use of their time to pass by the door and head towards a more benevolent gent.
So, we must come to the conclusion that these particular collectors are new to town and I have invented a scenario in which their other more experienced and hardened colleagues have sent them into the lion’s den as a kind of prank, or possibly an initiation test. Of course they feel the full force of Scrooge’s ire even though they try to convince him with their carefully prepared statements, but leave with nothing seeing that it would be ‘useless to pursue their point’ No doubt they slouch back to the office where they are greeted with huge guffaws of laughter.
Imagine then, only a few hours later, next morning indeed, when old Ebenezer bounds up to them, wishes them a Merry Christmas and whispers that he wants to make a huge pledge to the charity, ‘a good many back payments are included in it, I assure you!’. I imagine they rush back to the office with the news and calmly tell their astounded friends ‘oh, that old Scrooge, he just needed the right approach, that’s all! Simple really, I don’t know what all of the fuss was about!’
I am sure that there are plenty of other scenes in the book which can be disassembled and explored, and I would be fascinated to know of anything that you may have spotted or questioned. The film has given me the opportunity to look at my script, and the original material, from a different perspective and it may well be that come Christmas 2021 the show might have changed a little…..
On 23rd December, 2019 I stood on the low wooden stage of the ancient Guildhall in the heart of Leicester, I looked at the audience and began the last sentence of A Christmas Carol, ‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’ and to that I added, ‘Have a very merry Christmas’ The audience applauded loudly and I took my bows before leaving the stage and changing out of my costume. Christmas was upon us and I would be returning to my family the next morning after many weeks of being on the road. Another season of performances was over.
It seems extraordinary to look back on that evening now, almost a year later, and think that it was my last time on stage. In January and February Coronavirus began to spread throughout the country and by March everybody’s lives changed beyond all recognition as the first period of lockdown was imposed upon us.
But now on Saturday 12th December, 2020 I am preparing to perform A Christmas Carol once more and I have to say I am quite nervous about it!
Those of you who follow this blog will of course know that I have performed ‘The Carol’ this year, by making my brand new film version of the show. What’s that you say? You didn’t know? Goodness I must have been remiss in not mentioning it in this forum before. Well, if you visit http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html you will be able to rent the film for seven days and watch it as many times as you like. There, I’m glad that I have cleared that one up.
So, with the filming in October and November, I have spoken the words of my scrip and I have re-found the voices and expressions that bring each character to life, but running it all together in an 85 minute show is a different matter. For the past few days I have pacing up and down, throughout the house and in the local supermarket, muttering lines to myself, dwelling over passages that don’t quite flow as they should.
Last weekend I introduced our daughters to A Christmas Carol as we sat down together to watch The Muppets do their thing, and it was fascinating to watch the film itself (which actually is a very useful resource for the script is very much grounded in Dickens’ original text) through the eyes of someone who has NEVER heard the story before. In a way watching my 8 year old’s reaction gave some insight as to how the citizens of London must have felt on December 19 1843, the day on which the book was first published. As Gonzo, Kermit, Fozzie and Miss Piggy told the story I expected my daughter to giggle and laugh manically, but throughout the film she asked questions about Scrooge and the plot as it unfolded, trying to make sense of the fantasy world that our ancestor had drawn us into. Her main concern was an interesting one, it wasn’t about Tiny Tim, or about Scrooge’s schooldays, she was most upset by the fact that Ebenezer never married the girl he truly loved. We see that Belle finds her own happiness , but Scrooge’s loss is permanent – in fact this is the only factor in his journey that is not resolved in some way.
Anyway, during our movie night I was sort of going through my script in my head along with the felt cast and at the point that Scrooge is cowering by the graveside with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come standing over him I had a realisation that there is a line from the novel that I MUST introduce to my script – a very sensible realisation to come to when I haven’t performed for 11 months! The line in question is: ‘Men’s courses foreshadow certain ends to which, if persevered in, they must lead, but if the courses be departed from the ends must change. Say it is thus with what you show me spirit.’ The line is so important to what comes next and I have no idea as to why I have never included it before.
For the last few days I have concentrated on getting the new line well and truly wired into my brain, and then running the whole scene over and over (hopefully not to the detriment of the rest) to make sure that the lines around it aren’t affected by it either.
Now, on Saturday morning, I think that it is ready to be taken on the road with me.
The theatre for the great comeback is a new one to me: The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre, and it was only a week or so ago that I knew for certain that we would be good to go, as it was then that the UK government announced the various tiers of restrictions throughout the country. In fact my first show should have been on the 9th December in Kent, but that county was placed under the highest restrictions (Tier 3) leading to the cancellation of the performance. Sharnbrook fortunately is in Tier 2 and although the show will be presented with strict social distancing measures in place we are good to go.
The staff and volunteers at The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre are a persistent group and actually we first talked about a show way back in 2019; ever since they have reeled me in as an expert salmon fisherman might land a catch. The show is sold out for two performances, each followed by a question and answer session from the stage.
At 3 o’clock this afternoon I shall walk to the centre of the stage and as the sound effect of a ringing church bell dies away I will say – ‘Marley was dead to begin with’, and in doing so will breathe a tiny bit of life back into live theatre once more.
It has been a week or since last I reminisced on my American adventures as prompted by my phone and Facebook, because this has coincided with a period when traditionally I could spend a few days at home with Liz and my family.
But now the great memory generators have cranked back into life again and provided me with a series of images from Massachusetts and Maine. For the last 12 or so years the second part of my tour has begun in Sutton Mass. at the wonderful premises of Vaillancourt Folk Art where the senses are assaulted by Christmas! As you walk into the store every inch is utilised to display a variety of Christmas gifts but mainly the beautifully hand-painted chalkware Santa Claus figures which are cast from antique chocolate moulds.
The company was formed by Judi and Gary Vaillancourt in 1984. Originally based in their house, the demand for the collectables soon outstripped the confines of a kitchen, dining room and bedrooms and over the following years the business expanded until it eventually landed in its present home the Manchaug Mills in Sutton. The buildings date back to 1826 and are a perfect venue for the Vaillancourt family to promote tradition.
Gary and Judi are justifiably proud that they are one of a very few Christmas businesses which are truly American, and it was their connection with Byers’ Choice, another genuinely American Christmas company (it feels so right to be writing about both businesses on Thanksgiving Day), which led to my performing in the mill.
For my first visit The Vaillancourts made an arrangement with the owners of the mill to convert an empty space next to the store into a theatre, which they named Blaxton Hall. With Judi’s artistic flare a stage set was created surrounded by 200 seats, and over the years my performances of A Christmas Carol have become as much a Christmas tradition for me as they have for the audiences who return every year.
I always have a wonderful time with the Vaillancourts and we have had our fair share of adventures over the years. On one occasion my flight from Philadelphia was delayed by thick fog and it quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t get to the store in time for the show. After a flurry of panic, phone calls and emails were exchanged and a plan was hatched: Luke Vaillancourt (Gary and Judi’s son, now very much a part of the team) was dispatched to wait for my arrival at Logan airport ready to drive me back as fast as was legally possible, whilst his father-in-law Bob was placed on the Blaxton Hall stage with his guitar in hand to entertain the crowd until I could take over: that warm-up performance is still spoken of in Sutton to this day! When I eventually arrived and relieved Bob, whose repertoire was beginning to get rather stretched, the atmosphere in the room was fantastic: a real sense of camaraderie among friends, and when Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning and discovered that there was ‘no mist, no fog….’ there was a great ironic cheer.
Vaillancourt Folk Art is more than a venue to me, I count the family as close personal friends and it feels most odd not to see them this year.
The other memory that my phone provided me with this week was from Portland, Maine. Portland is a more recent addition to my tour but the city has a special resonance for me. Many years ago when my father David was the President of the International Dickens Fellowship organisation (a post that I was greatly honoured to hold a few years later and one that my brother Ian now undertakes with a great sense of duty, wit and professionalism), he asked me to perform with him a short story that he had discovered. The ‘show’ was based on a piece of writing titled ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ and recounted the childhood memories of Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. In 1868 Charles Dickens was touring America, performing his readings in cities along the Eastern seaboard. Most of the events were in Boston and New York but there were other venues too, one of which was in Portland. The young Kate, 10 years old at the time, was a huge fan of Dickens and devoured his works, even naming her pets and belongings after his characters – her dog was named Pip whilst her red sled was christened ‘The Artful Dodger.’
Dickens’ reading was one of the biggest events ever seen in the city and the tickets sold out in no time. Of course there was no possibility for a ten year old girl to attend and so Kate simply lingered outside the hall hoping to catch a glimpse of her hero. Sadly she did not.
The next day Kate and her mother were due to take the train to Boston and during the journey the little girl discovered that Charles Dickens was actually sitting in the next carriage and in a moment of Victorian infant chutzpah she plucked up courage to run up and sit down next to the great author! Once he overcame his surprise Dickens fell into conversation with Kate, asking her about her favourite books and characters. She told him that she’d read all of his books and he questioned her, ‘those great thick long books and you such a slip of a thing?’ She simply replied that she skipped the dull bits – ‘not the short dull bits, just the long ones!’
A Child’s Journey with Dickens is a charmingly beautiful account of the meeting and a visit to Portland always brings it to mind. When I was in the city I performed on behalf of the Maine Historical Society and as well as staging a lovely evening in a beautiful venue, they were extremely generous with their research resources and enabled me to build a complete picture of Charles’ visit.
As a final observation when last I was in Portland, two years ago, I stayed at The Press Hotel on Exchange Street which is housed in the old offices of The Portland Press and Herald (formally the largest newspaper in the State and mentioned by Kate in A Child’s Journey). The owners of The Press have honoured the newspaper trade in the décor and dressing of the rooms and it is a fabulous change to the many identikit boxes that proliferate.
My main memory however was the breakfast I ate there – a Fruit and Quinoa Bowl, which comprised of: Pineapple, Banana, Blueberry, Black Quinoa, Basil, Orange Blossom Ricotta and Local Honey. It was quite simply one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten and won my award for ‘Breakfast of the Tour’!
Back in England in 2020. 26 November has really felt like the beginning of Christmas. We have spent the day listening to Christmas songs and driving through neighbourhoods looking at Christmas lights. I even bought myself a Christmas sweater!
What else happened on 26th November? The film has finally been unleased upon the world!
Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers in America
The extraordinary year that is 2020 continues to play tricks and confuse. In Britain we are entering a new period of lockdown whilst in America it is not only the pandemic that is occupying the thoughts and passions of a nation. Nothing seems settled or ordered.
My smart phone and various social media sites delight in telling me what I was doing on this day last year, two years, five years, seven years ago, and I have been reminded that I would normally have been in America by now, performing in those beautiful venues filled with happy folk celebrating the holiday season.
So I thought that it would be an enjoyable exercise to allow my phone to set the agenda and to remind me of years past:
Today, images from Pigeon Forge popped up and I realised that I would usually be in that extraordinary resort at the foot of the Smoky Mountains. On the garish strip where the Titanic crashes into its iceberg just across the street from King Kong clambering up the Empire State Building, and where food outlets jostle with dinner theatre joints, the Inn at Christmas Place stately reposes like a respectable Alpine hotel looking upon the neon sprawl around it with an air of elderly resignation (the hotel is not old, I should point out, but it has the demeanour of a respectful yet indulgent aunt presiding over the unseemly bustle of Pigeon Forge).
The atmosphere within the Inn has always been friendly as most of the audience members are also residents and many have become close friends over the years. For example a couple of years ago one regular audience member Gary took me up into the mountains and let me drive his magnificent ‘Batmobile’ Corvette and as a self-confirmed petrolhead I was in Heaven!
The Inn has a season-long series of events and many is the time I have bumped into Father Christmas and posed for photographs with him in front of the great Glockenspiel that dominates the lounge at the base of the staircase.
Time spent in Pigeon Forge has always been a happy one, and on days off there is the single road that leads out of town towards Gatlinburg and from there up into the sheer natural splendour and beauty of The Smoky Mountains. My visit is usually at the beginning of November and sometimes the sun has been brightly shining giving spectacular displays of fall colours, whereas in other years the cloud has hung low and the mountain road has been impassable due to snow and ice.
As Pigeon Forge often came at the very start of my annual tour it was always a venue where the show began to develop for another year. The way my one man performance of A Christmas Carol has grown and morphed over the decades is fascinating, and is based purely on a natural progression rather than on any specific or conscious decisions on my part. Occasionally I have decided to introduce a new passage or phrase (there is so much of the novel that I am unable to bring to the stage – so much rich material that it pains me to leave in the wings that occasionally I slip in a favourite sentence or scene), but on the whole changes to the performance arise out of audience reaction or just a sense that comes to me during the telling of the story. In fact the whole look of the play arose out of an improvisation in 1996 when I found myself in a library in Alabama about to give a reading (that is how I performed in the first couple of years) only to discover that I had left my book in the previous venue!
Once I had got over the sense of helpless panic that enveloped me and realised to my surprise that I knew the words by heart and did not actually need the book, I started to move around the space available to me. I grabbed a chair that could represent not only the chair in Scrooge’s office but which also doubled and tripled up as that at his fireside and even his bed. A stool that had been left in the room was commandeered for Bob Cratchit to sit at and when it had been moved during the Fezziwig scene (‘Clear away? There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away with old Fezziwig looking on!’) it sat at the back of the stage until I realised I could use it to represent poor Tiny Tim later in the show. In fact very little has changed with the general blocking, the shape, of the show since that empathetic day in Alabama.
But every year the performance takes on its own feeling or flavour, sometimes it is more comedic and sometimes it is darker, more sombre. Over recent years the narrative has become less dramatic and more conversational, which has improved it beyond measure.
And so it was that each year in Pigeon Forge the small audience of 80 or so would get to see that particular year’s version show for the first time and being regulars and friends would feel not only able to pass comment, but expected to, and over the following five weeks or so the show would grow and develop and change some more until it arrived back at The Inn at Christmas Place, ready to begin another cycle.
This year of course the show takes on a new format all together as for the first time it will be available to watch on film and hopefully all of my old friends in Pigeon Forge will be watching, as will those in every other venue that I have visited over the last 25 years or so. But there will new audiences too, those who have been brought to the film by word of mouth and rigorous marketing. It is an exciting time, but at the very heart of whatever develops are people like the 80 in Pigeon Forge who have been part of creating my one man show.
The official trailer for the film will be released very soon, along with details of how to access and rent it: watch this space!
‘Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.’ When I walk onto a stage and the lights come up as the sound effect bells toll I can launch into that memorable opening line with sheer confidence that I will be able to spend the next 90 minutes telling the story of A Christmas Carol in a professional and effective manner. For over 25 years I have lived with the book and pretty well know every nuance and mood within the text. It may be boastful, but I think I am quite an expert on performing A Christmas Carol.
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But recording it? Videoing it? That was a whole different field of expertise and a field that I had not yet entered – indeed I was struggling to even find the gate!
When the opportunity to film A Christmas Carol was presented to me it meant that I had to learn quickly and that is something that always excites and challenges me. Initially the plan was to film the show as it appears on the stage, which would be quite simple to do – probably the work of a single day. I was introduced to a talented young videographer, Emily Walder, who specialises in the filming of stage shows and she confirmed that the project would be a relatively simply one. A couple of cameras at most, a sound engineer, a couple of takes to capture a few close ups and different angles, and then patch it all together in the editing suite. Emily’s talent lays in editing and she has even been part of a project that won an Oscar, so I had absolute confidence in her to bring my show digitally to life.
My first job was to find locations and, as I mentioned in my previous post, I was originally looking for beautiful theatres. The architect Frank Matcham was renowned for his spectacular interiors and even though his work came after Dickens’ death, a number of his finest creations still exist and would suit my purpose exactly. I approached a few and received encouraging messages back; during the period of lockdown theatres were shut up, dark, locked, so the opportunity to breathe some life back into them, and receive a small income too, appealed to managers.
But then the project took a turn: initially it started by thinking about using different scenes within the theatre space – brick walls back stage could be suitably bleak and sparse, maybe a bar or box office space would be warm, plush and welcoming. Perhaps we could use exterior walls……and that is when the search for locations widened.
Encouraged by Liz to think further and further outside whatever box my mind was in, I started imaging fantastic backgrounds for the story. Although I know a lot of people didn’t approve of it but much of our inspiration came from the latest BBC2 adaptation staring Guy Pearce which was premiered in the UK last Christmas. There was plenty wrong with the production but the darkness and bleakness of many of the scenes appealed and I was keen to take that tone.
My first location idea was Highgate Cemetery in North London, where I have performed a couple of times. Not only does the site boast a wonderful array of gothic gravestones and monuments, but a little chapel would suit the interior scenes as well. The mood board started to overflow with pictures of dark, lichen-covered, higgledy-piggledy gravestones with slips of grass rising like fingers from the graves below, and my script became a confusion of angles and views which would challenge the viewers’ minds
But Highgate Cemetery wanted too much money
It was then that my thoughts came around to Rochester and the various venues that I described in my last blog post. With clear images of the scenes in my mind I started re writing the script again, complete with costume changes and lighting effects and sound effects and long tracking shots and tight close-ups. It was at this stage that I received a very polite, if somewhat nervous, email from Emily reminding me that when I’d contacted her I had asked her to attend a theatre and film a couple of run throughs of my show: The project seemed to have changed somewhat and she wanted me to understand that what I was asking for may not be possible with a crew of 2.
Emily is completely professional and of course her concerns were valid for when I looked back at the script I realised that I would need a crew of 700, with a budget in the millions and the end film may just be ready for Christmas 2021…..
We agreed to use my complicated script as an extension of the various mood boards that I had created and I began to pare things down until I had another, albeit simpler, version of the text.
We met for the first time in the crypt at Rochester Cathedral. The lighting and the arches formed the perfect confusing background for Scrooge’s memories, but we instantly had to come to terms with modernity: Exit signs, fire alarms, electric outlets, stylish glass doors with carefully designed logos etched into them – all seemed to be in the back of every shot we wanted. However we soon managed to find the spaces we needed and began to work.
Without too much discussion we quickly fell into a routine which served us well throughout all of our shooting days: I would say which scene we were to film and suggest any ideas I may have had when working on the script (filming over shoulder, close up of face etc), and then I would actually run through the scene allowing Emily to walk around me searching for suitable shots and angles.
The first scene to be filmed was Scrooge waking up as The Ghost of Christmas Past visits him. I had made a decision not to actually physically portray the spirit (it is an impossible challenge anyway as Dickens describes it as an ever changing form: ‘For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.’) My idea was for the ghost to be an indistinct presence represented by its voice coming from a different place each time it spoke. The echoes of the low stone vaulted ceiling only added to the mystery and eeriness of the scene.
I was delighted that Emily immediately bought into my vision and filmed the action from all sorts of obscure angles, whilst the sound engineer Jordan wielded the unwieldy sound boom as effectively as he could so as to counteract the natural echo.
We filmed all of the ‘past’ scenes in various settings around the Crypt: Scrooge on the road, at school, losing Belle and seeing her later in domestic bliss. The vergers and staff in the Cathedral couldn’t have been more welcoming to us and allowed us to film uninterrupted all morning.
Our next venue was the tiny, cramped 6 Poor Travellers’ House, which would become the Cratchit’s home – it seemed apt that the happy, close-knit family should be housed within the comforting walls of a charity alms house.
Once again our first job was to move as many indications of modern life as we could before finding suitable angles to film, which was in some ways easier in the cramped confines of the room than it had been in the cavernous crypt – here we just didn’t have much choice! In fact the space was so small that we decided to shoot some of the scenes through the tiny windows, which not only gave us an extra perspective but also a sense of Scrooge being apart from the action, and a slight feeling of voyeurism in the way that Alfred Hitchcock used so effectively over and over again,
At 5pm we had everything filmed that we had planned for the day, which was just as well for in a couple of days the curator of the 6 Poor Travellers’ House was due to leave the grey of Britain and head to Portugal for the winter months, meaning we would not be able to return until the Spring, which would be rather too late for our purposes.
We re-grouped a week later to continue the filming. Due to the constraints of the various locations’ availability we were filming out of sequence, so it was a good thing that I have become so completely familiar with every scene of the story over the years, meaning that it was easy to pick up the various emotions as we went on.
Our first location was at St James Church in Cooling, out on the marshes, looking over the rivers Medway and Thames towards the county of Essex. It was 7.30 in the morning and a beautiful clear sunrise was bathing the scene in an amazing light so Emily and Jordan unpacked their equipment quickly in order that we could begin as soon as possible.
A tiny quiet village church in the midst of remote marshes: what could possibly interrupt us at that hour of the morning? The answer, everything. Nearby is Cooling Castle, now owned by a famous musician who obviously doesn’t like the marsh’s resident crows gathering on his roof for he, or one of the farmers nearby, had installed a bird scarer, which went off with a loud retort every twenty minutes or so, meaning we had to time our shoots carefully.
We were not only battling with the shotgun, but as the church is situated on an s-bend, a sort of chicane around the graveyard, we also had a series of cars dropping down gears as they approached it, and then accelerating away again on the other side. As time passed so a very large tip-up truck, whose traditional signwriting proclaimed it was the property of GORDON’S, rumbled and rattled past, only to return ten minutes later with a full load. Rattle. Bump. Grind of gears. Whining transmission. Surge of diesel engine. Rattle. Bump. After a few of these drive pasts the driver of Gordon’s truck would give us a cheery wave of apology each time he guided this monster along the little lane.
The supposed silent idyll was also punctuated by horns from far away ships and the odd executive jet screaming overhead!
We were joined on the second day by our very good friend Martin Smith who is a superb photographer and had offered to come along to take a few stills for publicity purposes. It was Martin who introduced me to Emily as they have worked together on various theatrical shoots on many occasions. As Emily, Jordan and I picked good locations for various shots, so Martin hovered in the background recording the scene.
Our first shots were filmed on a couple of pathways across the marshes, which eventually will form the opening and closing of the story. Charles Dickens loved to walk in this very countryside, so the idea of the narrator of the book striding across the fields as he talks seemed like a good way to begin. The light was beautiful, so were the clouds, although the strong wind made recording the sound a tricky proposition (not to mention bird-scarers. aeroplanes, cars and ‘Gordon’.)
Having captured the open countryside shots we then moved into the churchyard itself, where we spent a good couple of hours filming a number of scenes in different corners. The obvious ones: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’ and Scrooge being shown the vision of his own death were filmed at various ancient stones, whilst we also recorded shorter patches of narration which may, or may not, be used at other points in the story.
The appearance of the terrible visions of Ignorance and Want was filmed against a gnarled old Yew tree in which the bark seemed to form into the grotesque faces of generations of starving children.
When we finished at St James’ we loaded all of the equipment into our cars and headed back into the heart of Rochester and to Eastgate House, our final location for the day.
Our first job was to reconnoitre the entire building and decide which rooms to use for the various scenes that would be filmed there: Scrooge’s office, Scrooge’s home and nephew Fred’s party. It took a while to come to a final decision but eventually we set up in a small oak panelled upstairs room, with my clerk’s desk next to an empty fireplace. The stool which would represent Bob Cratchit in the scene I placed in a little alcove with light streaming in, suggesting the ‘little cell, a sort of a tank’ which Dickens described in the original.
Having run through the scene a couple of times and tried various angles, during which Martin had got some fantastically dramatic photographs, we decided to go for a take.
I concentrated on the lines, Emily concentrated on getting the shot, Jordon kept the boom mic out of sight and Martin…well Martin slid down the wall! Suddenly we aware of a scraping of furniture on the floor and I suppose our first thought was that he had simply leaned against the cabinet which moved, but it was more serious than that. Martin had fainted and as we watched he slowly tumbled to the floor (ever the professional he somehow managed to fall in such away that he didn’t crush any of his expensive and heavy photographic equipment which was hanging from a harness strapped to his body.
There was a moment when time stopped – just a moment – and then Emily, Jordan and I rushed over to him, and made sure he was comfortable. In just a few seconds his eyes flickered open and he gradually became aware that the little room was at a different angle than the last time he saw it. We explained what had happened and slowly he began to remember feeling as if ‘everything was was swimming’. We took him downstairs and into the fresh air where we gave him a glass of water, but he was still not feeling 100% and we thought it may be best to call an ambulance, just so that he could be checked over.
The paramedics arrived in a few minutes and were fantastic (God bless the NHS!). They chatted, asked questions, tested blood pressure and heart rate, and came to the conclusion that the fainting was simply a result of a very early morning and not enough sustenance.
The team in green phoned their findings back to head office and while they waited for the official advice to come back down the line they asked us about our work and were terribly impressed by our various theatrical endeavours. One of the paramedics said, rather forlornly, that he wished he had an exciting job, to which we all chorused ‘What? Saving lives every day is a pretty amazing thing to do!’ The modest reply maybe didn’t install a huge amount of confidence in any of us but perhaps not in Martin the most: ‘Oh, actually I don’t save the lives of about 85% of the people I see!’ I think he meant that most cases he saw were mundane. I hope that is what he meant.
When Martin was given the all clear, our new friends packed up their equipment and bade us a cheery adieu with a parting reminder to ‘drink more water!’
Somehow it didn’t feel right to continue filming now and as we had got some amazing footage in the can (or megapixels on the chip), we took the decision that it had been a valuable and productive day and that we would re-group in a week’s time to finish up.
Martin and I found a dainty café where we had a restorative lunch of quiche and a little salad, and then went our separate ways.
Another week on and Emily, Jordan and I were back at Eastgate House (Martin had decided it may be better not to make the trip this time), with a long day ahead of us, but what we did not have to do was spend lots of time trying to work out where to shoot.
We set the little office space up again and picked up with the scene we had been filming before. Spookily, eerily (and the house is about 400 years old so perhaps not surprisingly), at the very moment we reached the point in the scene where Martin had fainted the week before, so one of Emily’s lights failed. We all looked at each other, but chose to press on in spite of whatever spirit floated around us in that confined space…..
We finished all of the scenes in the office, then moved to another very sparse room on the top floor in which we filmed all of the scenes in Scrooge’s home, including leaning out of the window and shouting to the little boy on Christmas morning, much to the surprise of the residents of Rochester.
When we had finished the filming upstairs it was almost 1 pm, so learning the lessons from the week before we decided that it was time to eat and drink water.
In the afternoon we had one more location – a bright large room, where we re-created Nephew Fred’s party, and had plenty of space for the lascivious Topper to flirt with the niece’s sister. For the game of Blindman’s Buff I tied one of my cravats over my eyes and managed to complete the scene without bumping into anyone or anything.
With all of the scenes completed we tidied up all of the rooms we had used and returned them to the state they had been that morning, and then made our way outside to film a few exterior ‘linking’ shots that would be used to join some of the scenes together. The sun was beginning to go down and we had to work quickly against the rapidly fading light, but he golden glow was beautiful on the honey stone of the cathedral and even as we walked back to our cars Emily was filming a few extra scenes to have in reserve should they be needed.
And that was that. a wrap. No hugs or handshakes in our masked socially distancing world, just thanks and goodbyes.
Now it is time for Emily to work her Oscar-winning magic over the show as she stiches all of the scenes together in an order that Charles Dickens would recognise. The next time I write my 2020 version of A Christmas Carol will be ready to view.