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.
On Friday it was time to get to work. I woke early thanks equally to being in the wrong time zone, but also thanks to a tropical storm beating the roof and window panes of my room. I logged on to the BBC news coverage and watched as the news of the Queen’s death and the King’s accession still played out, eliciting the same emotions in me as the day before. I noticed that many of the correspondents wore black arm bands and decided that that was a suitable way to show my respects during the days and weeks of official mourning. The only problem with that plan was that I didn’t have a black arm band, or even any material to make one, but a quick online search showed me that there was a fabric store on St Simon’s Island, just a 30 minute drive away and as I had plenty of time on my hands I decided that I would make the journey.
I cant remember when I had last been at the Jekyll Island Club Resort, it must have been 15 or 20 years ago now, in a completely different era of touring, and readers of my blog posts will know nothing about it, for my performances there predate ‘On the Road With….’.
Having performed at The Dickens on the Strand festival in Galveston Texas in 1994 I was approached by Caroline Jackson, an entrepreneurial lady who wanted to build a tour around my show, and offered to become my US agent. At that stage I had no thoughts of touring and simply enjoyed the experience of the single trip to Texas, with a stop in Kansas City tagged on. Caroline, however, had bigger ideas, and promised great things if I signed with her, which I did, and so this amazing story began.
In her efforts to find venues for the first tours Caroline signed an agreement with The Historic Hotels of America chain, an umbrella organisation that marketed various hotels which were, naturally enough, historic, and it was through that connection that I first performed at Hershey, Williamsburg, Ojai, The Memphis Peabody and many others, including on Jekyll Island.
As I had driven towards the hotel on Thursday afternoon I had tried to remember what it had been like – I recalled the people I worked with and the sheer sense of fun, but had no real memory of the physical layout of the hotel. Vaguely in my mind I recalled the dining room being slightly awkward to perform in, I seemed to think quite long and narrow, but that was all. As I arrived I remembered the grandeur and elegance of the property – anywhere with a croquet lawn is quite special!
On Friday morning I went down to breakfast, which was served in The Grand Dining Room and it all came flooding back to me – yes the room was long, and had four rows of pillars through it, making five distinct corridors, albeit not filled in by walls.
I remembered that to perform A Christmas Carol I had to work the room, making sure I was always on the move, with no fixed area to focus the acting on. I also remembered that the banquet staff would be clearing the previous course as I performed, meaning that there were ample opportunities to include the waiting staff in the story (thinking back, I am sure that they must have hated it), and one poor guy always managed to be in the wrong, or the right, place during the Fezziwig ball and I would end up dancing a jig with him.
As I looked at the room over my eggs and bacon I dragged my mind from the past into the present and looked at the possibilities for my evening performance of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold. I knew that the evening was going to be an intimate affair and I doubted that we would need the whole dining room, so how else could we stage it? The answer was the door to the room, for as you enter there is a full width area, unencumbered by the pillars, at one side was a large bookcase (perfect as a backdrop for Marigold), and at the other a fireplace (suitable for The Signalman.) That seemed to be the perfect place to perform, I also noticed the large wooden desk with a sloping top, used to check guests in, and wondered if I could appropriate that for the desk in the Signalman’s hut.
After breakfast I immediately walked to the car and set off to St Simons Island. It was a beautiful drive, across flat wetlands where herons flew in such numbers that they reminded me of seagulls.
I drove on across various bridges and soon I was pulling up outside the fabric shop. To my dismay I realised that it actually sold fabrics for furnishing – curtains, drapes, furniture coverings etc, and didn’t have anything that would suit my purpose, but the owner did suggest the next shop which specialised in quilting, so I tried there instead. As I walked in a lady was using a huge machine, reminiscent of a Victorian cotton mill (except it was powered by electricity and had a laptop attached to it), to create a huge piece of work. She was concentrating hard, as the needles darted this way and that to create the elaborate pattern, and I thought it best just to wait quietly until she had finished that particular section, On she went, ignoring me completely, not even a quick ‘Ill be with you shortly’. Finally she stopped, looked up, saw me and jumped in the air at the same time shouting ‘JESUS CHRIST!! OH GOD!’ Such had been her concentration she had no idea I’d even entered the shop and then suddenly there was this apparent apparition standing at her counter watching her. After holding her chest and panting for a while, she calmed down and I apologised for scaring her so much. I explained what I wanted and why, and she immediately began to talk about The Queen and Charles and, inevitably, Diana and Camilla. She was very kind and she was the first actual person I had spoken to about the Queen since she died and I found myself becoming very emotional all over again. My new friend very kindly made no charge for the small amount of fabric, seeing as what it was for.
I drove back to Jekyll Island, returned to my room and fetched my sewing kit (which I travel with to patch up costumes if they suffer from the rigours of the tour), and started to hem the edges before completing a small hoop that snuggled onto my arm without slipping.
Having completed my needlework I went to the little pantry store in the hotel and bought a chicken salad, which I ate on an outside deck whilst admiring two little green lizards running to and fro.
I spent the afternoon running through my lines for the two shows and getting frustratingly tangled up in both, which was slightly worrying. The best thing would have been to gone for a walk, but yet another tropical rain storm had settled over the island and I was restricted to quarters.
Variety was provided by a meeting with the hotel staff about the evening’s event and to my delight they told me that they were indeed setting up in the wide space at the entrance to the room, and yes it would be fine to use the sloping desk for my set.
We chatted about the timetable (guests were dining at 7.30 and I would start performing after they had finished an hour later, which meant it was going to be a late evening.)
I went back to my room and did some more rehearsing, with more success this time (I actually put costume on, which helped me to concentrate more), and then settled back to wait for the start of the show. As I sat on my bed I remembered that I had a very early start in the morning, in fact I would need to set my alarm for 3am to leave the hotel at 3.30, so I began to carefully pack everything I could in my suitcase, and left it lying open on the floor at the end of the bed ready to add my costume and wash bag to it in the morning.
At 7.45 I got fully into The Signalman’s all black costume, including my black arm band which naturally didn’t show, but I knew I was wearing it, and made my way down two flights of stairs into the small bar area, which is just outside the dining room, and where quite a group was gathering and starting a rowdy evening. In the dining room a more sedate and elegant evening was progressing as the guests were served their main courses. I sat in a large leather arm chair to wait. At various stages some of the guests came out of the room to get some fresh air, or stretch their legs and chatted to me. One lady had actually been at one my previous performances here when she was a young girl, apparently I stole some asparagus from her plate during the show, and she has never forgotten it.
I received updates during the rest of dinner from the hotel’s audio visual guy, Dante, and eventually, at 8.30, I got the word that the dinner service was complete and cleared and that I could start. There was nobody to make introductory remarks or welcome me to the stage, so I simply walked into the room and began.
The lines for the Signalman flowed well and the dark eerie light that Dante had created with a couple of floor LED spotlights added to the atmosphere in the lonely signal box, and when I got to the end of the show the audience applauded warmly. I announced that I was going to disappear to perform a quick costume change and would be back in a few minutes to continue the evening, at which I made my way behind the large book case and changed costume in a sort of cupboard/passage way/storage area just a few feet from the stage itself. Soon I was in the corduroy trousers, collarless shirt with rolled up sleeves (black arm band showing clearly this time), plain waistcoat and rough laceless boots. I re-emerged with as little ceremony as I could so that I could move the furniture around and place the little flight of steps that would represent Marigold’s cart, without the audience thinking it was part of the show. When the set was ready, I waited until the guests had all returned and started once more.
Doctor Marigold went as smoothly as The Signalman, with just a couple of minor line errors, that while frustrating to me, didn’t effect the show itself. I reached the end and again received lovely applause and then stayed on the stage to do a little Q&A session, before everyone prepared to leave. I posed for some photographs and then collected all of my props and the Signalman’s costume and made my way up stairs to my room. In the bar the boisterous party was still in full fling, and at the centre of it were two British gentlemen, so I joined in with the banter for a while before retiring for the night.
I packed my costumes into the little roller case – it is amazing how much that can hold, set the bedside alarm and my phone for 3am and left the large case open ready for the morning.
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’
There are certain events in my schedule that mark the never-changing progress of the year – some are important dates for their historical significance and may, or may not, be linked to a performance (specifically February 7 and June 9 being the dates on which Charles Dickens was born and died respectively). The great Dickens Festival in Rochester is always held at the end of the spring half term, whilst Thanksgiving Day in America sees the start of my main tour of the United States. But there is another event, without which my year would seem fractured and incomplete: the Victorian Festival in the Welsh spa town Llandrindod Wells, which takes place during the second half of August.
I was introduced to Llandrindod many years ago by my good friend David Hawes who, although based in Kent, worked with the festival organisers to bring a flash of pizzazz and theatricality to the event. David has always been a great champion of my work and many of my current venues are thanks to his influence and powers of persuasion. Back in 2014 he looked at the Llandrindod festival programme and reckoned that one of my shows would fit in well, so he made sure that the committee booked me to perform at the perfectly named ‘Albert Hall’
I took to the festival straight away and have been returning ever since, meaning that August wouldn’t be August without driving to mid-Wales. Like so many events the LLandrinod festival suffered greatly during the two Covid years, but this year it was back – alive and kicking. The event has relied for many years on a group of both locals and visitors gathering, dressing in Victorian costumes and attending a series of themed events, talks and shows. The town boasts a wonderful small green, complete with a bandstand, and this has become the focus of the activities. In past years there has been a small funfair, a craft fair and some sideshows to provide entertainment for the locals who may have otherwise felt excluded. This year the committee had included a series of non-Victorian events to further boost the appeal, including concerts featuring Dolly Parton, Tom Jones and Witney Houston tribute acts (not to mention that well known Charles Dickens tribute…I must think of a suitable pun-laden name for my act). At the town’s large lake, nestling in the valley, a series of children’s piratical adventures was laid on, featuring treasure hunts and it seemed to me that the town itself was beginning to once more embrace the festival, meaning it was no longer the sole preserve of the stalwarts, although they still are very much the core and beating heart of the event.
My show at The Albert Hall was to be staged on Tuesday night and this year I had been asked to perform a double bill of Mr Dickens is Coming! followed by The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. These two shows were the first that I wrote back in ’95 and ’96 and whilst I have already performed Mr Dickens is Coming a few times this year, I have not revisited Nickleby for a long time and it was with great pleasure that I spent the days preceding my trip going through the lines and finding that they came back to me with a minimum of effort – not just the lines, but the timing, nuances and movements too.
My drive from Oxford to Powys took me on motorways at first, but in no time I was on smaller roads, driving through picturesque villages. Shortly after passing Tenby Wells I realised that the car was in need of fuel and so I stopped at a small filling station. In fact I queued at the small filling station, for the price of a litre of Unleaded was £1.62, by far the lowest I had seen since the prices were coming down from their £2.00 peak of a few weeks before, and obviously people were coming from miles around to avail themselves of a bargain top up. I took the opportunity of the stop to buy a sandwich for my lunch, and I chose a magnificent door-stop cheese and pickle example. This wasn’t a typical pre-packed, limp, flabby, sweaty sandwich, such as you might expect to find in a petrol station, oh no, this had been lovingly built by hand by someone who wanted to make sure that drivers didn’t go hungry!
Shortly after finishing my sandwich I decided that I fancied a cup of coffee, maybe a slice of cake, and I was pondering where best to purchase these items when I saw brown tourist signs for the National Trust property Croft Castle. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘I have a National Trust membership card, so I wont have to pay an entrance fee, and the property is sure to have a tea room, so why not give myself a little treat?’ I was not disappointed, for the tea room served up an excellent slice of coffee and walnut, and the setting was fabulous.
I stretched my legs by walking to the ‘castle’ itself and admiring the views, before returning to my car and completing the journey through the gorgeous Welsh scenery
I arrived in Llandrindod at around 3pm and checked into my home from home in the town, The Portland Guest House where I settled into the room I always have on the very top floor. I lay on the bed, watched a little cricket on the television and had a short nap before it was time to shower and make my way to the theatre – a drive of 0.1 mile, which took me maybe less than a minute. I unloaded my various props, and with the assistance of theatre manager Ben carried them to the stage.
It was at this point that I realised that I had left my top hat and walking cane at home. These items do not have a huge role in the show, in fact they only appear in a single scene very early on in Mr Dickens is Coming to create the jaunty demeanour of Mr Micawber, who uses the cane to as a metaphoric set of scales to measure the happiness or misery of his income. The show can be played without these simple items, but it would be a shame, and as the large majority of the audience would be in costume, I reckoned that I may be able to borrow a hat and cane from somewhere: I asked Ben to make appropriate enquiries on my behalf.
I had plenty of time to prepare, for the show wasn’t due to start until 8pm, although some of the audience arrived expecting a 7.30 curtain up. Having carefully set the stage I ran through parts of both shows, until the first of the public began to arrive, festival regulars in full costume, and having said a few hellos I made my way back to the dressing room, where I changed into costume and waited. As time passed Ben appeared holding a hat which he had commandeered. No cane yet, he was working on it!
I could hear the audience gathering and eventually, with ten minutes to go, a walking cane appeared too: I was ready to go.
At 8 o’clock Queen Victoria (aka my good friend Rita) made her entrance and the whole audience were asked to stand as she processed to her front row seat, as I stood waiting in the wings, desperate to get going (I am like a caged beast in those last minutes before a show starts, pacing to and fro waiting to be released). When the Queen was seated Ben faded the houselights to black and then illuminated the stage and I walked on to a round of applause. The Albert Hall could really have been built to suit my style of shows – the size and elegance of the auditorium and the imposing and powerful height of the stage, makes it perfect for me. Mr Dickens is Coming went well, getting laughs at the right moments, and I was very careful with the top hat (a particularly fine vintage example), and cane during the Micawber section, but as I made my way into the sinuous, repulsive Uriah Heep passage and then to the exhausting sword fight of The Bagman’s Uncle (masquerading as a 1960’s James Bond movie), I threw everything into the show.
At the interval I waited until most of the audience had left the auditorium then changed the furniture round in readiness for Nicholas Nickleby (not a huge set change, it must be said, just changing the red reading desk from stage left to stage right, and moving the chair from stage right to stage left.) I made sure that various prop letters that are needed for Nickleby were where they should be, and then waited until the Queen returned and I could begin once more.
As I had discovered during my rehearsals Nickleby came back to me as if I had been performing it regularly all season and I had lots of fun leaping from character to character. I used a slightly different voice for Ralph Nickleby, making him a little older than he used to be, but it didn’t go well as my throat began to tighten, so I reverted back to a safer option for the balance of the show.
The story raced from Devon to London to Yorkshire back to London to Portsmouth back to London again and finally to Devon once more before reaching its conclusion over Smike’s grave. I left the stage and returned to take my bows as the audience applauded my efforts. It had been a fun night.
As soon as I was off stage I began packing up my costumes and props as the 8.00pm start time meant that it was late, and I had dinner to enjoy yet. Ben and the rest of the Albert Hall Crew helped me load my car up and I drove back to the Portland from where I walked back to John Abell’s home where we traditionally have a late night Chinese take away in the company of his mum Julie, and this year we were joined by Marina from the festival committee and her daughter Mia. We tucked into the meal, drank some champagne that John had bought for us, and finished off with chocolate brownies. There was lots of chat about films, running, the festival and various other topics, and it was a perfect way to wind down after such an energetic and exciting evening.
It was late when I walked back to Portland but even then the adrenaline was still keeping me awake so I switched on the television and found an old episode of Inspector Morse. I knew it was time to turn the lights out when the murderer was revealed and I hadn’t realised that anyone had yet been murdered!
On Wednesday morning I woke to find the town wrapped in cloud with a wet drizzle soaking everything, this was a pity for I’d planned to head up into the hills and play some golf that morning. I went downstairs to breakfast and devoured bacon, sausage, egg and toast and as I ate, the skies seemed to brighten a little and I decided to go ahead with my original plan after all.
Llandrindod Wells golf club is a lovely course which I have played on a number of occasions and the weather Gods welcomed me as I pulled into the car park, for the clouds disappeared and revealed a blue sky behind. I was greeted by the club pro Phil Davies, and we chatted for a while about the festival and Charles Dickens, before I set off on my morning’s adventure. The course is very hilly, especially over the first 4 holes as they rise up to the highest point, and I asked Phil if I could rent an electric trolley for my heavy golf bag. I have not used one before and it took me a while to get used to the controls – at first I had the speed setting too high and the thing flew off up the course dragging me behind it. I would have reduced the setting if I’d bothered to ask how to do that, but I had no idea how to control the thing as it threatened to pull my arm from its socket. Eventually I discovered a little dial on the handle and my journey up the mountainside became more sedate.
The round of golf was wonderful and I actually had the course to myself for the morning. The scenery surrounding me was stunning, the air was clear and little swifts swooped around me as I walked.
I actually played very well until the last few holes when maybe the effects of the show took their toll, but for whatever reason I rather lost focus and talent at the same time, but it didn’t spoil what had been a great morning.
I had one more commitment at the festival and that was to attend a strawberry and champagne picnic on the green. I asked Phil if I could change in the golf club’s locker room, and he asked if I would pose on the course in costume, which I was delighted to do. I even tried a drive from the first tee but my frock coat didn’t allow for me to swing properly and the ball bobbled embarrassingly before coming to rest a few yards in front of me. Phil very kindly said it looked as if I had a good swing!
Back down in town I made my way to the green where another of the costumed ladies was setting up her champagne table. Joyce has always put this event on, she brings all of the champagne and punnets of strawberries; It is her gift to all of those who make the festival such fun. Over the last year Joyce has been through many difficult times and it was doubtful whether she would be attending this year, but just a week before she announced that she would be present and the reception would be on!
At 1 o’clock the costumed folk began to gather and set up tables for their picnics. linen cloths were laid, teapots filled, china cups and saucers laid and cake stands filled – it was so splendidly British!
Marie, another regular visitor, helped Joyce set up and when the ‘bar’ was complete Joyce looked as if all the woes of the world had left her and she looked genuinely happy with a beaming smile. We all had a glass of champagne (fortunately there was a non alcoholic version that I could drink) and we all toasted to happy times.
And that was the end of my 2022 visit to Llandrindod Wells. I said my goodbyes and set off back to Oxfordshire. I have left in previous years wondering if the festival could survive and not sure if I would be returning, but this year it seemed in rude health indeed and the future looks bright!
Now that my intense period of touring is at an end I can get back to my running, and resume training for The Oxford Half Marathon in October.
To remind you of the story so far, on April 16th this year my sister in law Sheila died after suffering from the effects of a brain tumour for 18 months. During her illness her husband, Martin, had undertaken a charity bike ride to raise funds and awareness for The Brain Tumour Research charity, and I thought that I would like to make some kind of effort to do the same to help continuing research into this most awful scourge that continues to indiscriminately rip so many families apart.
During the various periods of lockdown I had taken up running in a very minor way, originally setting myself the modest target of being able to run 5km. Of course I started looking to purchase various pieces of equipment: shoes, shorts, shirts, a thing to hold my phone so that I could track my progress, and that meant that those little creatures deep inside the internet began to send me links to all sorts of running-associated sites, one of which asked me to run 50 miles in January to raise money for a local cancer charity. The challenge was exhilarating and I actually began to enjoy the whole process of pushing myself a little harder, a little further. I found that actually I could run 3 miles all at once, without stopping, and then 5, 8 and even 10
Having run 50 miles in 2 successive Januarys I wanted to look for another challenge, and those little internet mites went to work once more and slipped into my inbox details of a ballot to enter the 2022 Oxford Half Marathon. Well, a half marathon is of course for real runners and there was no way that I would be selected, but I filled out the form anyway and submitted it (thereby guaranteeing the short term careers of the Google Gremlins for a few more months to come). It was with a sense of shock, and some alarm, that a couple of months ago I received a notification to tell me that my entry had been accepted and that I would be expected on the start line surrounded by the dreaming spires, a week after my 59th birthday. It was at this stage that I contacted Brain Tumour Research and offered to use the opportunity to raise finds for them. Not only did they accept my offer with open arms, but they even sent me a branded running vest to train and race in.
I launched a fundraising campaign and, even though I hadn’t achieved anything yet, a most generous group of people donated straight away, giving me the responsibility to see this project through to the end.
So, back to training it was. I had rather let my running lapse over the previous weeks, and I miserably discovered that I was right back at a stage when I couldn’t manage 4 miles without stopping to recover along the way, which was annoying. Occasionally I did a 5 mile run, but it certainly didn’t feel easy, for the muscle/mass coefficient was literally heavily weighted towards the latter. My progress wasn’t helped by the many shows I have had, for I didn’t like to run on the morning of a performance, preserving my energy for the evening’s events, and I was never in a condition to run on the morning after a show, so the regularity of training runs was disrupted and there I stayed, mired at the 5 mile mark.
At the end of June, however, things began to calm down professionally and I was able to get out onto the Oxfordshire roads more often, and during the week commencing 27 June I found myself able to complete three runs of over 7 miles each, which was an important number, for it is over half the eventual race distance. The following week I was able to hit 9 miles, and things seemed to be going well.
From a pace point of view I was a little disappointed, as I was continually coming in at an average of 10 minute miles, whereas a year or so ago I was getting down to 9.5, but I am sure that will come and actually it is of no importance at all – whatever pace I run at in October I will achieve my PB in a Half Marathon!
I have various routes for my training runs, one of which takes me out of Abingdon to the village of Culham, where I then run on the River Thames tow-path back into town. At this time of year the river is alive with swans, gulls, moorhens, ducks and other wildfowl, whilst boats make their way through the various locks and downstream towards London, or upstream to the source. The sound of the narrow boats, especially, is wonderful, a very slow throb throb throb, as they cleave the water at 4 mph. Typically the skipper at the stern will offer a cheery wave and we will exchange a mutually inaudible morning greeting.
Another route takes me into farmland on the other side of town and on that run I cross fields of growing wheat, which is ripening now and the smell is so fresh and healthy that it seems to put an extra spring into my steps.
If you would like to encourage me and follow my training then why not add me on the Strava app and send me a few motivational messages to see me over that 13 mile target?
For company I like to listen to audio books that reflect my surroundings and mood: last year I worked my way through all of the James Herriot stories, whilst during this recent training I have listened to Three Men in a Boat and currently am relishing the beautiful Cotswold accent of Laurie Lee in his own recording of Cider With Rosie. I studied the book at school, and now I see why, for the imagery throughout is stunning. I particularly loved Lee’s childhood memory of fresh spring water being drawn from a pipe in the garden, he said it ‘was like liquid sky’ I smiled as I ran when I heard that.
I am not a fan of music when running, as it seems to dictate a rhythm or pace which I may or may not want to achieve on any given morning, I much prefer the spoken word.
Besides challenging myself, the real reason for all of this is to raise money, and over the next few weeks I will be bombarding you with requests for support, so maybe its best to get it done now, so that you can forget all about it! I have set a target of £3,000, but of course I would like to raise more – double it, treble it, I, or Brain Tumour Research, wont mind. As an extra fundraising event I am also going to stage a show in Abingdon during the week before the race, and all profits from the ticket sales will go into the pot, so if you are local then watch this space for further announcements soon.
I am posting this blog on 16th July which marks the exact halfway mark between Sheila’s death on 16th April and the race itself which takes place on the 16th October.
What’s that? How can you donate? Ah, a very good question. Follow the link to my Just Giving Page and all will become clear!
On Tuesday 5 July my fairly intense tour came to an end, and appropriately it was with the same show that I started with back in May – Great Expectations. In the intervening weeks I have travelled to ten venues up and down the country (and one in Germany), performing six different scripts along the way.
My final venue of this tour was the Market Theatre in Hitchin, which, in pre-Covid days, was a regular summer stop for me. The theatre is in the very heart of Hitchin, just off the old market square, and shares a car park with a large and very popular pub. In previous years, it seems to me, I have always visited on the hottest day of the Summer and often when the England football team are playing a match, meaning that The Sun Hotel is packed with well lubricated football supporters chanting and shouting and cheering and groaning, which hasn’t always proved to be the perfect backing soundtrack to my shows. This year, although hot, it was by no means unbearable and the 2022 World Cup Football Tournament, which would normally be played in the Summer, has been scheduled for November to avoid the extreme temperatures in Qatar, and the Women’s European Cup had not yet begun, so the stars were much better aligned for me.
I arrived at 5 O’clock and was greeted by Glyn, the theatre manager, who unlocked the doors so that I could unload. The Market Theatre is a small venue, converted from a couple of old industrial units. There are two performance spaces, some meeting rooms and an upstairs bar, and the whole place has a very friendly atmosphere. Unloading the car couldn’t have been easier, as the auditorium has a side door which opens onto the car parking area, so I could simply carry everything straight onto the stage. The fact that Great Expectations has a relatively small set helped too.
The first thing to be done for Great Ex is to ‘create’ Miss Havisham in the upstage left corner of the stage. When I adapted Dickens’s 13th novel I decided that I wanted to have the jilted spinster who has such an influence on Pip to be permanently looking over him. I achieve this effect by means of dressing a white hat stand with draped fabrics creating the hint of a human shape. The great thing about this stage of my preparations is there is no ‘set’ way of doing it, so I never quite know how she is going to look on any given evening. On Tuesday she looked stately and severe, which is a good look!
The stage at The Market is small, but Glyn had studied my script and managed to provide me with distinct lighting areas to suggest different locations within the story: the graveyard on the marshes, the forge, Satis House, Jaggers’ chambers and Mr Wemmick’s castle. Fortunately the theatre has recently invested in LED lights, so colours can be changed as the plot demands, meaning that we could play with the atmosphere of each scene also.
When everything was set I retired to the dressing room behind the stage (actually a space that also encompasses a set store and workshop) and tucked into a small salad that I had brought with me. As 6 became 6.30 and moved on towards 7 I played a little Backgammon on my phone as well as watching the news, and so learned of the seismic shift that was beginning in the British political scene as two senior members of the Conservative Party resigned.
I had to get my mind back to the job in hand, as the audience were now arriving and taking their seats, and I paced around in the first costume of the show – the breeches and rough shirt that represent both the appearance of Magwitch and the young Pip in the forge.
At 7.30 Glyn popped his head into the dressing room to check that I was ready, and then disappeared back to the little technical box, where he brought the lights down to an icy, chilly blue, and played my first voiceover, the famous narration that sets the scene in the little churchyard on the edge of the marshes (incidentally, the inspiration for the churchyard in the novel is Cooling Church, where I filmed much of my A Christmas Carol video two years ago).
I bounded onto the stage ‘Hold your noise!’ and so the plot was underway.
I am never certain as to how well Great Expectations will be received, as it is quite a wordy and heavy show, but I am constantly pleasantly surprised by the reaction, and this occasion proved to be no different, for when I reached the end of the first act there was a loud round of applause and lots of talking, which is always a good sign.
I changed from the rough working Pip into the smart London Pip and then slipped onto the stage to clear various items of costume that get discarded through the first half, as well as a scattered pack of playing cards, and I was ready to go again.
Once again Glyn popped in and once again he disappeared to start the Act 2 voiceover which sets the plot firmly in London, and therefore starts Pip’s second stage of his Expectations.
The second act ran as smoothly as the first and Glyn did a wonderful job with the lighting at the point when Miss Havisham’s dried clothes catch fire and consume her in flame. From there the narrative rushes on towards the end as the various plotlines are resolved. I was very pleased with the show and it was a wonderful way to bring my tour to a close.
When the audience had left I loaded the car up once more, said my goodbyes and set off for the drive home. Usually after a show I stay at a hotel close by, meaning that I do not run the risk of falling asleep at the wheel on my way home, for once the adrenaline generated by the thrill of performance subsides, fatigue comes quickly, but on this occasion I wanted to get home so as to be able to watch our daughters’ school sports day the next morning.
The drive was about 90 minutes, and sure enough I did feel drowsy as I drove on, but plenty of water and a few sweets kept me going until I pulled up outside my front door at around 11.30.
It has been an exciting couple of months and I have been fortunate to perform in a marvellous variety of venues, from a tiny yurt in Rochester to the splendour of Wentworth Woodhouse.. The audiences have been plentiful, amazingly supportive and enthusiastic. I have performed for old friends as well as a number of new venues all of which I hope will become a regular part of my travels in the future.
Actually, I was not quite finished, for there was one final venue to perform at, and that was at home. On the 16th of July the Dickens Fellowship is holding its annual conference. Originally we were all due to travel to Haarlem, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, but sadly that event was cancelled and so the conference is being held online instead. I have been asked to give a reading from David Copperfield featuring the plotlines involving the Peggotty’s, Steerforth’s elopement with Little Em’ly and the great storm scene (the conference theme being ‘Dickens and the Sea’) Sadly, I am not going to be available to perform ‘live’, but have said that I shall record the reading at home so that it can be played at the appropriate point in proceedings.
With the house to myself on Friday I originally planned to film in our garden office, sat behind a desk with the laptop close to capture every expression. The room was extremely hot and as I was only going to be seen from waist up there didn’t seem to be much point in wearing the thick Victorian trousers, and so it was that if anyone had been watching they would of seen an odd sartorial display, featuring a frock coat, waistcoat and cravat topping off a rather lurid pair of checked shorts!
In the end the lighting in the shed wasn’t right, for as branches briefly obscured the sunlight, so the built-in camera struggled to compensate meaning that my face was one minute flaring brightly as if it were on fire, and then fading almost into darkness. I moved my ‘set’ inside and recorded the reading a couple of times until I was happy with the result, and then sent it off to the conference organisers.
And now I have a period of rest, my next performance coming in August when I return to the beautiful spa town of Llandrindod Wells in Wales, where I will be performing The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which I haven’t done for years…now, where did I leave that script………?
On Saturday morning it was time to load the car up once more ready to drive to the county of Yorkshire, in the north of England for another leg of my 2022 tour. This time I was to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and The Signalman at the glorious stately home of Wentworth Woodhouse. This particular combination of shows requires me to load both the replica of Charles Dickens’ reading desk (for Mr Dickens is Coming) and the large clerk’s desk which features on the set of The Signalman, meaning that, with all of the rest of the props, this is the most difficult programme to squeeze into the car. I spent quite a long time trying different combinations of packing, until finally everything fitted in successfully. I took a few pictures so that I could remind myself how it worked, and then prepared to leave for to long drive North.
I was accompanied on my journey by coverage of the third cricket test match between England and New Zealand which, coincidentally, was being played at the Headingly ground in Yorkshire, not far from my destination. I had left a long time for the drive, and stopped for lunch at a motorway service station before continuing my journey through the beautiful scenery of The Peak District and on into what the locals call ‘God’s own Country’. I reached the village of Wentworth with an hour or so to spare so pulled into a small car park to relax before completing my journey. At Headingly the commentators talked of heavy rain storms preventing play, and sure enough, shortly afterwards, the skies darkened and the same weather swept over me, but almost as soon as the rain fell so the clouds parted and the sun shone once more.
At 5 o’clock I started the car up and drove down the long driveway into the grounds of the great stately home, which unlike it’s counterparts at Chatsworth or Blenheim, is little known. But Wentworth Woodhouse is a truly remarkable building, boasting the largest Façade of any stately home in Europe. The house is actually two houses, one facing to the West made out of red brick and the other facing East made of honey-coloured stone with grand Palladian columns, and it was in front of the latter that my little red car sat dwarfed by the opulence and splendour.
The house was just closing to the public as I entered, and the young man behind the front desk greeted me with a a reference and awe which suggested that everyone was very excited about this event. This would be my first performance at the house, although I did visit last autumn just to discuss the practicalities of my performances and to see the rooms. Proceeds from the show would go towards the never ending restoration project.
My contact for the evening was Mark and he along with various volunteers who had either been working during the day, or who were arriving for our evening event, helped me to unload my car. I have had a wide variety of dressing rooms in my time ranging from modern well-lit ones to cramped toilet stalls, but none can ever be more grand than the painted drawing room at Wentworth Woodhouse – it was huge, lavish and impressive. The chair and table that had been placed for me looked lost in the space, but, I reflected, there was plenty of room to pace around going through my lines!
The two shows would be in different rooms. I would be starting with Mr Dickens is Coming in one of the grand state rooms upstairs, where the guests would be eating a Victorian-themed dinner (actually based on one described in Martin Chuzzelwit), and then everyone would move downstairs to a much smaller, and darker, room where I would finish the evening with The Signalman. Fortunately the majority of the furniture that I had brought was for the ghost story, so didn’t need carrying up the grand staircase, only the reading desk needed to be up there.
The staircase is wonderful, circling out to the right and to the left before curving back on itself. The huge wall of the stair well is painted white, with niches of rich deep Georgian blue for the display of ancient statuary. The house is a popular venue for filming and has featured in many TV series – it will make an appearance doubling as The Kremlin in a forthcoming season of The Crown. The room in which I was to perform the first half was lavish in the extreme, and already laid out with table for dinner, each of which bore a Dickensian name: Heep, Drood, Quilp, etc. I was to perform at one end of the room beneath a huge painting of a rearing stallion (I debated as to whether I should open the show with a little cough and then say ‘I am sorry, I was just feeling a little hoarse….’, but decided against it).
Everyone was very busy making final preparations for dinner, so I took myself back downstairs and set up the other room where I could be alone and do a little rehearsal, although on this occasion I was pretty confident with the lines.
I had an hour or so to myself and from my dressing room I could hear the noise and bustle echoing through the old stone hall of guests arriving. There was laughter and chat and noise, and I felt a wave of nerves, as I often do at a new venue, and thought ‘what are they expecting? Can I give them what they want?’
The hour for gathering and aperitifs passed quickly and soon Mark came to tell me that it was time to begin the show. I followed him up the staircase, and waited outside the room while a few of the guests returned from the loos, and then he said a few words of welcome to the assembly and then welcomed me – I was greeted with lots of applause and I knew straight away that we were in for a fun night. There was spontaneous applause after many of the character performances, and much laughter at the terribly contrived gags that make sure Mr Dickens is Coming remains a piece of entertainment primarily, rather than becoming a literary or academic performance.
The intimate nature of the room and the sheer exuberance of the audience made this one of the freest and most enjoyable performances of the show that I can remember. It was hot in the room and the sweat flowed freely (unfortunately so for the poor gentleman in the front row whose hand I limply shook in the moist character of Uriah Heep). Despite the heat I enjoyed myself thoroughly and seemingly, if the applause and shouts were anything to go by, so did the audience!
I left the room with a surge of adrenaline, a real high, and returned to my drawing room, where I paced around for a while calming down. I changed my shirt and swapped the bright golden garish waistcoat for the sombre black one, and then returned to the dining room where I joined one of the tables for a spot of dinner, although I don’t usually eat too much when I am performing. The menu featured a delicious meat pudding, with mashed potatoes and vegetables followed by a creamy posset (which I avoided so as not to risk my throat tightening during the second half) As I sat and chatted with my table mates, lots of other guests came and offered to buy me a drink, all of which offers I politely declined, restricting myself to water.
Each table had a quiz on it and as we ate the results were announced. I had very carefully NOT assisted my table with their answers for that may have been rather unfair, but the two they had answered incorrectly were ‘what is the nickname that Charles Dickens used for his first writing’ and ‘which is the only Dickens novel that does not feature London as a setting’ . Answers at the end….
When dinner was finished we all made our way downstairs to the smaller room which was laid out with theatre style seating. Mark and I had discussed the lighting in the room and decided to keep the overhead lighting on. The room is painted dark grey and would have had a supremely eerie atmosphere without the lights, but unfortunately there was not enough residual light to illuminate my facial expressions effectively.
Soon the room was full and I began talking about the Staplehurst rail crash as a prelude to The Signalman. This was a slightly risky piece of programming, considering that the comedy of Mr Dickens has proved so popular earlier in the evening and, to be honest, there aren’t many laughs in the The Signalman, but the audience appreciated the suspense and the characters and at the conclusion once again clapped and shouted and stood as I bowed. It had been a supremely successful evening and hopefully I will return to Wentworth Woodhouse in the future.
As the guests began to leave, I changed out of costume and started to collect all of my props and furniture which Mark and the volunteers helped to carry to my car. Having consulted the photograph I had taken of the boot that morning, I managed to get everything stowed and said my goodbyes before driving out into the night.
I was staying for the night at the home of Nick and Marie Cragg, who actually were responsible for this whole event. In 2007 I had performed for them in aid of a charity, and it was Marie who got in touch last year suggesting that I contacted Wentworth Woodhouse. Nick and Marie live in an amazing house that they built to their own exacting design – it is a house built for art: visual and performance (my performances in 2007 were in the house), and in fact the whole building is itself an artwork with lots of design features giving nods to James Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Nick and Marie are fine hosts and we sat up late into the night talking about all sorts of things, not just the show, and it was a wonderful way to wind down. Having lived there for 20 years the couple are now selling and are moving to Guernsey, where they have already bought a smaller property with spectacular views across the sea. As we chatted they suggested that there may well be an opportunity to perform on the island which would be very exciting.
When I finally went to my room I fell asleep instantly and slept well. I woke next morning and joined Nick and Marie for breakfast and as we chatted it came to light that Nick has a fascination of old cars and in the garage had two American cars from the 50s. My passion for all things automotive piqued, I asked if I may see them – they were magnificent: a Buick and a Cadillac all fins and chrome, and vinyl bench front seats, and steering column mounted gear shifts.
The engines, oh the engines. Nick started both up and the great big, low-revving V8s just purred and rumbled. When I gently put my foot on the accelerator pedal of each the whole vehicle shimmered and trembled, asking to be taken onto the long freeways and head west on Route 66.
It was a very special treat to see these particular works of art, and yes I do regard them as such, but it was time to leave Yorkshire behind me and head back south once more.
Answers to the two quiz questions: Boz and Hard Times