A Curate’s Egg

In my beautiful room at The Fairville Inn the run of early morning’s continued on Thursday, meaning I had plenty of time to write before my scheduled breakfast slot of 8am ticked around.

I was welcomed to the dining room by the Inn’s owner’s Laura and Rick who have become good friends over the years.  Laura brought me a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice and in no time I was joined by my friends David Keltz (the actor who portrays Poe) and his wife Teresa, who always come to support me somewhere on tour and for the last few years have come to Winterthur.  We chatted and laughed and caught up until it was time for me to leave the party as I had a radio interview scheduled and I needed to be back in my room.

I sat at the desk doing some more research for my book until it was time to call Warren at the Kingston NY radio station.  This conversation has become rather a tradition over the years and we have a good long conversation about A Christmas Carol and my rendition of it.  The interview wasn’t promoting any specific show, although the last two venues of the tour at Byers’ Choice and Lakewood, New Jersey would both come under the station’s umbrella.

When the interview finished I started to get my things ready for the first show at Winterthur.  I arrived at the visitor centre at 11 where I immediately needed to get into costume as Ellen had told me that there was some kind of morning coffee reception for some of the guests who were attending the show and it would be nice if I could look in and chat.

I had left my costumes hanging on the coat racks in the auditorium, so I went to fetch them and found the hall in complete darkness except for a yellow glow from the standard lamp on my set and the red of the exit lights, it was quite spooky.

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I returned to the office, changed and went in search of the reception.   None of the staff in the shop seemed to know where it was, and after I’d looked around the cafeteria area for a while I returned to auditorium where I sat in silence playing backgammon on my phone until Ellen appeared and it was time to start preparing for the show.

I retired to the office drinking tea and honey as I listened to the audience arriving just a few feet away on the other side of the louvered doors.  Once again it was a sell-out show, so Ellen and the other volunteers were encouraging the audience to all get to the middle of the rows and ‘get to know your neighbors!’  Some people came in to get good seats leaving other members of their party in the store, and the volunteers were given various instructions: ‘my husband will be coming in soon, tell him to come and find me, he is tall with grey hair!’  ‘Ann will join me.  Ann in a blue coat.  Can you tell her where I am sitting?’ and so on.

If anything the buzz in the hall was louder than the previous days and it seemed as if I was in for another good show, certainly the audience were up for it.

When almost every seat was filled Jeff , the Historical Director at Winterthur, made my introduction and the show started.  As I had suspected it was another fun 90 minutes and the audience responded enthusiastically throughout.  The lady I picked to be the object of topper’s desires in the front row seemed to be delighted by the attention and her face broke into a huge smile whenever I (he) approached.

At the end of the show the applause again filled the Copeland Hall and accompanied me as I made my way up the aisle and back to my dressing room to change into the fresh costume ready to sign. While I was in the office I checked my phone for news from the UK.  It was general election day in which the country was to vote for our new government. I had been amazed that America hadn’t seemed to know that such an important event was taking place, even on the breakfast news channels there had not  been a passing mention.  Actually checking for news was pointless because under electoral rules nothing of importance could be reported until the polls had closed. All I gleaned was that our current Prime Minister had taken his dog to the polling station.

In the cafeteria there was another long signing line waiting for me, and everyone was patient and kind and generous in their comments about the show.  The party which included ‘Topper’s girl’ posed and laughed and as they left one of the ladies in the group came back to whipser in my ear ‘you chose the right person to make happy today, for she lost her son last week.  You did a good thing’  Wow, you never know who you may touch or how that moment will effect them.

I returned to the Inn between shows to get a little rest and watched some TV before I fell asleep on the bed for a while.  The break was a short one for by 5 o’clock I needed to be back to prepare for the evening performance and to retrieve my costumes from the coat rack before the audience started to arrive.

Back in the office I checked the news from home again, as the polls would now be closed and the first estimates of the results would be coming in.  Instantly it looked as if the incumbent Conservative party were heading for a large victory.  It was not the result I had wanted, but that result was clear and the electorate had spoken.  The majority was much larger than in the Brexit referendum three years ago so a very clear message had been sent out.  There is no point bleating or complaining about it and we must just get on with our lives in whatever Britain evolves from here.

The audience for the evening show was slightly smaller than the two afternoon ones, but still numbered over two hundred and there were many familiar faces in the crowd who welcomed me back.

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Carol was back to make the evening’s  introduction  and the show began.  It was  a strange show, a bit of a curate’s egg really: there were some great high moments, such as Fezziwig’s dance which earned yet another round of applause, and some other sections that didn’t quite work as well as I would have liked, but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and I received another lovely standing ovation at the end (rather kindly started by Teresa!).

I always get a sense of how a show has gone by the comments I receive at the signing session, so when I got to the chair and I asked the first lady in line ‘how are you?’ I was rather deflated by her answer: ‘Tired.  I am so tired.  I am so close to sleep.’  Anything about the show?  No.

Ok, second couple: ‘we came to your show two years ago and loved it so had to come back!’, good, this was going well.  ‘But last year we were a little disappointed.’  Oh.  ‘This year, better.  getting close to loving it again.’  Not fulsome, but the trajectory seemed to be going the right way again, that was something!

Things got more positive after that I am glad to report.

Eventually the last of the audience left and I was able to collect up all of my costumes and belongings from both the stage and the office before saying goodbye to Barbara and Ellen and driving to my old haunt Buckley’s Tavern where I was joined by David and Teresa for a late dinner.

We chatted, as we always do, about theatre and exchanged anecdotes that we have probably exchanged many times before, but we had a wonderfully happy time, as is always the case.  Some of the audience from the day’s shows were also dining at the Tavern and came up and congratulated me and shook my hand, which was very nice of them.

It was around 10.15 when we left Buckley’s and the rigours of a busy day were beginning to tell, I was feeling tired and needed to sleep.  We said our goodbyes, even though we were all driving to the Inn, and I made my way to my beautiful room and to my comfortable bed.

 

I mentioned that Musical choices were getting more difficult, so today’s is brilliantly tenuous:

For any scene featuring Tiny Tim I will play the carol The First Noel.  Why?  Because there is no L in Tiny Tim!

 

 

 

 

The Best Yet

On Wednesday morning I woke up at 4.15.  Why, after particularly busy and tiring days, do I tend to wake so early?  After a few unsuccessful attempts to get back to sleep I gave up the struggle and wrote my blog before starting to pack.  I needed to be on the road fairly early so it was a good thing to be ready to leave as soon as I’d had breakfast.

I remembered to retrieve my two costumes from the cupboard where I had hung them and with my hat, cane and scarf took them all to the car where they travel in the front passenger seats with the hangers hooked over the two metal rods that support the headrest.

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Back in the hotel I enjoyed a steaming hot bowl of porridge followed by a thick fluffy waffle all washed down with two glasses of fresh orange juice and a coffee.  Some of the audience from the previous night’s show were also staying in the hotel and we chatted briefly until I had to go back to my room to finish my packing.

One thing I definitely needed to remember was the load of washing that had been in the drier over night, for if I drove away without that I would only have two white shirts to get me through the rest of the season.  As I would be going straight to my next venue I made sure that my little roller bag had everything that I would need for a show, and when all was where it should be I left my room, checked out and got settled into the car.

My destination was the beautiful house and gardens at Winterthur in Delaware which would be a drive of around three hours.  The first section took me down route 15 along the banks of the Susquehanna which looked particularly beautiful with a low bright winter sun glinting off the slightly disturbed surface.  It was another gorgeous sunny day making the drive much more enjoyable than that of two days before.  The miles flew by and soon I was crossing the river, passing the little Statue of Liberty that proudly stands on a ruined bridge parapet, heading towards Harrisburg and from there to Lancaster.

As my journey continued the ground began to take on a white tinge to such an extent that it was difficult to know if it was a heavy frost or snow, but as I continued into Amish country it became clear it was a light sprinkling of the latter.  The Pennsylvania countryside looked absolutely glorious with the farm silos and red barns standing proudly out against the white.  Occasionally a  pony-pulled gig came the other way.

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As I drove a phone call came in from a radio station in the UK wanting to talk about my show at Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey) next week.  It was odd driving through the American countryside talking to the BBC and I had to remember to Anglicise my answers, for example talking about films not movies.

The route is a familiar one to me as Lewisburg and Winterthur always nestle side by side in my schedule, so every landmark was like an old friend.  I drove up the hill past the lighthouse-like clock tower in Gap and was soon approaching Chadd’s Ford where I turned towards Centreville and across the state line into Delaware.

I arrived at Winterthur at 11 and took all of my things into the gift store where I was welcomed by Barbara ‘has it really been a year?’ we joked, because actually it had only been a little over two months since I performed Nicholas Nickleby there.

In no time my costume was in the little office which becomes my dressing room and I was in the Copeland lecture theatre arranging my set and making sure that everything was ready for the show.  I was joined by Dennis who looks after the tech side at Winterthur and shortly afterwards by my dear friend Ellen.  We chatted and caught up, our conversation underscored by various sound effects as Dennis ran through the script up in the sound box.

Ellen told me that the shows had sold incredibly well this year with two of the three being sold out completely and the other almost so.  I looked at the huge long auditorium and tried to visualise it packed out, and then doubted the wisdom (as I do every year) of performing with no microphone.  I reminded myself that the acoustics of the room are amazing and that the only time I used a mic here nobody could hear anything because the natural amplification of the room just echoed the electronic amplification and created a series of never ending echoes.

It was only 11.45 but the audience for the  1 o’clock show were already standing in line, so I made myself a tea and honey and retired to the office to relax.

I changed into costume at 12.30 and then went through the secret door behind the cash register and up the narrow staircase to the sound box from where I could watch the audience gathering beneath me.  There was a definite buzz in the air, for this crowd seemed to be imbued with the Christmas spirit and it was infectious.

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Start time came closer and I joined Ellen and Carol, the director of Winterthur, at the back of the hall ready to begin.  A little after 1 Carol went to the podium and made the introductions and when she had finished, the Trans Siberian Orchestra’s ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ (there has been a long Twitter conversation in the UK about correct punctuation of carol names, and that is indeed where the comma should reside in the  title), filled the hall and I walked slowly to the stage.

I looked at the audience.  Oh my there were a lot of them.  Supposing so much clothing, so many coats and hats and shawls and scarfs and gloves might kill the accoustic, what if those people right at the back, 356 seats away, couldn’t hear anything?  WHY didn’t I have a microphone?!

‘Marley was dead, to begin with’  A reassuring echo came back to me, yes the room was alive.  It would be alright.

The show was the best of the tour so far.  I was giving it everything and the audience were responding in kind: they loved every moment. After Fezziwing’s dance I received a loud round of applause (‘next stop Dancing With The Stars’ I ad-libbed), and another for Topper’s game of Blindman’s Buff and a third for Old Joe’s excretions.  Ellen later told me that the shop staff, on hearing the applause, assumed that the show had finished and prepared for the audience to come out.

It was such fun and when I did actually reach the end the ovation was loud, enthusiastic and truly memorable.  I was buzzing with adrenaline as I returned to the office and took my time to get changed before making my way to the visitor centre cafeteria for the signing session.

A lot of people had remained behind to have things signed and to have photographs taken and the line was longer than either Ellen or I could remember at Winterthur.  About half way through the session I could feel the adrenaline begin to subside and a weariness came over me. I was very relieved when I signed Samantha’s programme, for she was the last.

It was 3.30 now and with no further shows I was able to hang my costumes up, re-set the stage ready for the next day and then got ready to leave.  Ellen had kindly offered to take me out to dinner that night so we set an early time of 6 to meet and I drove off to the Fairville Inn where I always stay when visiting Winterthur.

This year I was given a ground floor room in The Carriage House which meant I didn’t have to haul my cases upstairs and in no time I was relaxing in front of the fire until I dropped off into a much needed nap.

I was due to meet Ellen at a rather lovely pizza restaurant called Elizabeth’s and as I drove I marvelled at the most perfect full moon shining from the clear sky.  Ellen was waiting for me and we had a lovely time chatting about the tour and about ideas for alternative events in the future, along the lines of the exclusive dinner in Omaha, or the Library Lover’s receptions in Kansas City.

All of the Pizzas at Elizabeths are named after famous Elizabeths and I felt that I should really have dutifully chosen the Queen, but as the first listed ingredient was muchrooms of which I am not a fan, I plumped instead for a regular Montgomery, whilst Ellen chose a mini Shannon.

It was a very nice, unpressured, evening and we left the restaurant at around 7.30.  After my ridiculously early start, and a very energetic show I was feeling completely drained and as soon as I returned to the Fairville Inn I lay on the bed.  I flicked through TV channels knowing that whatever I chose would not remain on for long, and I settled on one of our favourite films of recent years Hidden Figures.  I remember seeing the famous scene in which Kevin Costner demolishes the ‘coloured washroom’ sign, but after that nothing.

It had been a good day, though.  The best yet.

 

Today’s musical choice accompanies the Cratchit family as they share their meagre Christmas lunch enjoying not a great feast but the simple joy of being together as a family.

Paul McCartney accompanies them singing ‘Simply having a wonderful Christmas time’

 

‘When Shall We Three Meet Again?’

Being already settled in to the Best Western Inn at Lewisburg I had plenty of time on Tuesday morning which in previous years would have been spent driving from the Hotel Hershey through the Susquehanna valley to arrive for a sound check at around midday.

When I opened the curtains I found that the cloud still hung heavily and the rain still fell hard.  I had thought about driving into Lewisburg to explore but the idea didn’t seem very appealing now, so I spent the morning doing some more research into the circumstances of the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash for my book and doing a little proof reading and correction of what I had already written.  I also used the time to do a large load of coloured laundry ready for the last few days of my American tour.

My work took me to 11 o’clock when I was due to meet with Missy Swartz for a sound check.  I gathered up my costumes and props and walked over to the Country Cupboard Store where the large function room had been converted into a lavish theatre with a big stage, bright lights and two Christmas trees so extensively decorated in gold that they appeared to shimmer.  There to meet me was KJ, the brilliant singer who always entertains the audiences before my show, and in a moment Missy joined us too.  The three of us have made quite the team over the 9 years I have been performing at The Country Cupboard and it was wonderful for the three of us to meet again (that makes us sound rather like the Macbeth witches, which may not be an altogether flattering comparison to make).

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I put on one of my waistcoats so that we could clip the microphone to the correct spot on my shirt and I started performing the opening passages of my script as Missy and KJ roamed around the room to check the sound levels.  Occasionally Missy would return to the sound desk and tweak the levels slightly until both were satisfied that the sound was good.  With the check finished we all sat down and chatted for almost an hour, until Missy had to leave to welcome three tour buses which were bringing a large portion of our first audience.  I went back to the hotel to prepare for the show.

Back in my room I noticed that I was feeling a little shaky as if I needed a bit of a sugar hit so I went to the front desk in and bought an energy drink which did the trick.  I got into my costume and walked back to the store, noticing that the rain had stopped at last and the clouds were lifting once more.  The audience were starting to take their seats as I slipped into my little green room behind the stage and fixed my microphone on.  Last year I had problems with the little clip, it had broken when I was just about to go on stage and Missy and I had improvised with a bulldog clip (binder clip), which led to my now travelling with such items in my roller bag in case, as my literary hero Paddington would put it, of emergencies!  This year Missy had ensured that the microphone had a brand new clip to avoid a repeat of the previous year’s panic.

When I was ready I made my way to the entrance of the room where Missy was welcoming guests with the rest of her team and KJ was waiting to start her set.  Many years ago I had mentioned that if I have tender throat then black tea and honey does the trick and now every year Missy makes sure there is tea and honey waiting for me.  My throat was in no way sore but the tea and honey was a delicious and soothing way to prepare for the show.

With about twenty minutes to go KJ went to the stage slipped her guitar strap over her shoulder and began to entertain the growing audience with song and chat, she has a lovely gentle style of both and soon the crowd were laughing and singing along with her.

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At the back of the hall I stood and every so often people would shake me by the hand and welcome me back,  proudly telling me how many times they had seen me perform, which is very moving.  One gentleman, an eight year veteran of my Country Cupboard shows, also gave me a gift – a copy of Fred Kaplan’s brilliant biography of Charles Dickens. ‘I read this, I had never realised that your great great grandfather was a hero!  Saving all those people’s lives!’  It took me a moment to realise that he was referring to Staplehurst, the subject of my book and what I had been writing about just a few hours earlier.  It was a very thoughtful gift and I was greatly moved by the gesture.

Shortly afterwards another man approached me and gave me another present, this time a pack of mini Snickers bars, ‘I know that you sometimes need extra energy, so these may help!’  Again he had tapped into a need that I had experienced that very morning.  Again, so thoughtful.

The hall was almost full and Missy gave KJ the signal to start her final song so that we could move on to the next part of the show, A Christmas Carol.  Missy helped KJ remove the microphone and guitar from the stage and then started to welcome the audience as KJ made her way to the back of the room in order to start the opening sound effect.  It is a well honed operation now.  I went to make sure that my microphone pack was switched on and as I did the clip holding the pack to my waist band fell off!  There must be a microphone poltergeist in The Country Cupboard: there has to be, it is the only explanation for the repeated last minute clip disasters at the venue.  With no time to make a repair I just put the pack into my pocket and waited for my cue.

As a large part of the audience, those who had come on the coaches,  had never seen the show before it was great fun to surprise them with moments such as the appearance of Marley’s face, which caused a great gasp of fear followed by laughter of relief,  the moment doesnt always work but when it does it is very satisfying.

In the audience was a couple with a very young baby who was cuddled, rocked and comforted as the show went on.  When the infant became noisy they took it out, until it slept again allowing them to return.  The child cried loudly twice during the show, both times when  Scrooge visited the house of The Cratchit family.

On the second occasion Scrooge was  in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  Bob Cratchit returned home alone.  ‘It was quiet,  very quiet.’ The baby cried a little.  Bob explained to Mrs Cratchit how green a place the grave site was.  The baby cried louder.  Bob broke down, and went upstairs to where Tim’s body lay. The baby still cried and I could see the father standing to leave the room.  Bob needed to say goodbye, to release Tim, to let him go, and at the exact moment that he kneeled to kiss the little face, at the exact moment that the innocent little soul left the house, so there was no more crying and the room became silent.  So poignant.

Actually that scene left me thinking about a change that needed to be made, because the red cloth that represents Tim’s body, which is laid on the table remains there to the end of the show,  and when the narrator tells the audience that Tiny Tim did NOT die apparently his body is still laid out for all to see. I needed to find a way of removing that cloth somehow.  At the beginning of the show the cloth is draped over Scrooge’s chair and becomes his bedclothes when he retires for the night, so I decided that when he wakes up on Christmas morning and discovers that he is back in his own room, it would be natural for him to gleefully grab his blanket and fling it back over the chair, meaning that everything is back to how it should be.  It worked beautifully and I will include that bit of action in the show from now on.

The show came to its end with the audience unaware that they had witnessed me directing a completely new scene.   I took my bows and then disappeared into my green room to change.

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I hung my damp coat, waistcoat and shirt over three chairs before re-emerging refreshed ten minutes later for what was a very short signing session (the bulk of the audience had been with the coach tours, which had been scheduled to leave straight after the performance).  As Country Cupboard were not selling any merchandise most of the signing was of tickets and programmes although a few people had brought along their own books.  Many simply wanted to shake hands and say ‘thank you’

Between shows it is a tradition that Missy, KJ and I enjoy the fantastic dinner buffet in the restaurant so when I had changed out of my costumeonce more I joined them and heaped spaghetti and meatballs onto my plate.  Earlier in the day when we had been chatting at the sound check KJ had mentioned that when she was a little girl her grandmother had tried to teach her to use a knife and fork ‘like the English do’, for it was, in her mind, more refined and elegant.  Over the years the lessons had been forgotten but KJ wanted to learn again and I had promised her that at dinner we would hold a masterclass.

After a little confusion as to which hand should hold the fork and where the index finger should be, my student succeeded:  ‘By George, I think she’s got it! as Henry Higgins declared in My Fair Lady.

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After dinner I returned to the hotel where I napped for an hour before getting ready for the second show.  There was another large audience waiting when I returned and KJ was already on the stage doing her thing. I was extra careful when I put the microphone on so as not to have any further clip adventures.

The evening show had many more returnees than the afternoon one and we all had great fun together.

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It was hot and intense work but most satisfying with all of the business working well, including my new section.  At the signing table a young man told me how much he had appreciated how I ‘place’ the other characters in the scene, meaning that he could clearly picture where everyone was standing, even though there was only me on stage.  I really appreciated his comments for that is something that I have worked hard on over the years and in which I take a great deal of pride.

The signing line was longer in the evening and as I chatted and posed so the theatre was being dismantled in the background.  The decorations were taken down, the fireplace dismantled, the stage folded up and removed and the room that had been filled with warmth, laughter and applause just an hour before was now a large, empty  function room once more.  At the very end of the signing line was Dawn, a lady who always brings me very thoughtful gifts.  This year my little bag contained a lovely little copy of David Copperfield, a red bow tie, and quite astoundingly a set of cufflinks and a lapel pin featuring my photograph!  Amazingly generous.

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It was now time to leave so I hugged Missy and KJ and the witches parted once more, ‘When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain?’  well, hopefully in nice warm sunny weather, and probably in twelve months.

I wearily, very wearily, returned to the hotel and took all of my costume shirts to the laundry before making my way to Matty’s bar again where Missy had arranged for me to have dinner.  When I returned I transferred the shirts to the drier where they would remain through the night, and went back to my room.   I would have a fairly early start the next morning, so I set an alarm and very soon was asleep.

 

The musical choices are getting trickier now, but let’s return to the scene Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present are on their worldwide travels: ‘They stood on foreign lands, and they were close at home ‘  The song playing is Feliz Navidad.

 

 

A Grey Day

The weather had changed when I pulled back the curtains at The Seven Hills Hotel in Lenox on Monday morning.  Gone was the clear blue sky and the bright sun that made the snow twinkle like jewels,  to be replaced with a heavy cloud and icy rain.

I had no shows to perform on Monday and in fact it would be only one of three days off before Christmas (the others being the 16 December which will be  the day I arrive home in the UK, and the 22 December).  However I had a full day ahead of me which would see me on the road for almost five hours as I transferred from western Massachusetts to Pennsylvania.  Having written my blog and posted it I went down to breakfast and as I ate looked into the gardens of the hotel where everything dripped and thawed.  In the background members of staff were discussing leeks in the roof and what to do when huge slabs of melting snow fell into the parking lot.  There was a pessimistic air to the day which  never really lifted.

Back in my room I packed my cases and having swept the room a couple of times for chargers, pens, watches and any of the other things that I typically leave behind, I went to check out.  The lady behund the desk chatted happily and asked how the shows had gone and she hoped that I would return next year before bidding me a wary goodbye ‘Be careful on those roads, that is icy rain this morning, they may be slick and treacherous’.

Having loaded the car and instructed my SatNav unit to take me to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania I began my journey.  When I had strolled through Lee the day before it had been a sleepy town relaxing on a Sunday but on Monday it was busy and bustling, the snow banks at the edge of the road which had looked so pretty were now dirty and grey.  On I drove.

Bless my English SatNav unit, she really cant cope with America! When I was driving to Nashua a few days before she had struggled with the abbreviation for the Middlesex Turnpike  and instead told me to follow the Middlesex T.P.K. and now, rather than excitedly telling me to drive towards one of the greatest cities in the world she decided to tell me to drive to ny City (to rhyme with ‘my’).  My route west saw me leave Massachusetts and into New York where I crossed the Hudson River at a point where it has yet to grow into the mighty waterway it will become, in much the same way the River Thames is in our home town in Oxfordshire

On I went listening to the end of ‘Northern Lights’ and then starting on the second book in the trilogy ‘The Subtle Knife’, but outside there was nothing of note to see or admire, for the cloud and mist seemed to come down ever lower and thicker.

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After two hours of driving I stopped to stretch my legs, get some fresh air and have a coffee.  I refilled the car with fuel also and then resumed the drive.  I was skirting the Catskill Mountains and I am sure that the I-87 affords some spectacular views, but sadly not on Monday.

I passed Hyde Park, on the Hudson, and thought that I must re-watch the movie some time, and continued heading south until I was directed to the I-84 and west once more, into Pennsylvania.  The road seemed to be climbing constantly and for long stretches of the journey mine was the only car on the road.  On and on I went into the thickening gloom.  At one point I saw eerie red lights ahead and saw that there were police cars and fire trucks at the side of the freeway.  A car had apparently exploded, and the charred blackened shell with wisps of smoke still emanating from it was  being doused by the firefighters.  There was something in the way the car was parked, straight and neat to the emergency lane, that suggested that the driver had been able to pull over and get out safely before the fire took hold, and there certainly didn’t seem to be an urgency at the scene as would have been the case if the occupants had been injured.  I left the smouldering fusion of metals, plastics and rubber behind me and continued to climb.

At around 1pm I decided to stop for lunch and found a Panera Bread outlet which would perfectly suit my purpose.  When I parked the car and got out I could see the result of my long slow ascent throughout the morning for I was in the middle of a ski resort, the Montage Mountain resort to be precise, and above me were broad swathes of white cut between the dark trees and the tell-tale pinstripes of the ski lifts ready to take intrepid winter sports enthusiasts ever higher.

As I sat in Panera devouring a comforting bowl of Mac n’ Cheese I was suddenly aware that my phone was ringing, so I started to tap the screen in order to answer it, but I couldn’t.  How odd! Until I realised that the piped music in the restaurant was The Chain by Fleetwood Mac, the very tune I have as my ringtone.

I was on the final stretch now with just over an hour of my journey left and sure enough as I passed Wilkes-Barre and Scranton I began to descend once more and for the first time in over a week there was no snow at the roadside.

I knew I was reaching familiar territory when I crossed the Susquehanna River at Mifflinville, made my way passed Hemlock Township, and on to my destination – the Best Western Hotel at The Country Cupboard Country Store on the outskirts of Lewisburg.

The Country Cupboard has been a part of my schedule for many years now and it was lovely to pull up in front of the familiar building and to be welcomed back.  Usually I drive up on the morning of my shows and check in at lunchtime before heading to the store for sound checks and the like, but this year I would have a little extra time to relax.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that I was a day earlier than in the past my usual room with the lovely whirlpool bath wasn’t available, but I wasn’t too worried about that and in no time I was installed in an equally nice room where I simply lay on the bed and relaxed for an hour or so.

At 7 o’clock  I walked across the parking lot through the continuing  heavy rain to Matty’s sports bar where I ordered a steak and baked potato, which was delicious.  I have to say I think I was the only male in the bar who a) didn’t have a baseball cap on my head, and b) held a glass of wine instead of a beer!

When my dinner was complete I returned to my hotel and watched a film, before falling asleep.

It had not been a colourful day!

 

For todays musical choice I will take the scene when Scrooge is settling down into his chair before the fire on Christmas Eve:

‘As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with a chamber in the highest story of the building. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house.
This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The bells ceased as they had begun, together.’

The musical accompaniment is Bobby Helms performing ‘Jingle Bell Rock’

 

 

Farewell to Lenox

From a performance point of view Sunday was to be a repeat of Saturday with one show at Ventfort Hall at 3.30 pm, which meant I had a lovely long morning to relax in.  Although I woke at 4.30 I managed to go back to sleep and was only re-awoken at 6.00 thanks to the alarm clock in the room having not been turned off when the previous guests left.    I got up, made myself a cup of coffee with the Keurig machine (top marks Seven Hills!) and began to work on my daily blog post.

Breakfast at The Seven Hills was a continental buffet with fruit, cheese, pastries and cereals to choose from and I sat at a table in the huge drawing room area looking over the gardens that were still blanketed with snow.  It looked as if it was going to be another spectacularly beautiful day.

When I returned to my room I had to decide what to do with my morning and my thoughts returned to the night before when Tom had suggested that I might like to visit The Mount, the Lenox home of American author Edith Wharton.  Liz and I are always keen to visit historic homes so this seemed like a good plan.

The Mount opened for tours at 10.45 so I went to the car park at 11 and prepared myself for the drive ahead.  Actually the walk from the front door of the hotel to the car was probably longer than the drive from the hotel to The Mount, for they nestle next door to each other.  As soon as I left the gate and accelerated it was time to brake hard and I almost missed the gate, such was their proximity.  In finer days I would have simply walked but the terrain linking the two buildings was thick with snow and I didn’t want to risk disappearing under a drift.

I was able to walk from the car park to the house itself though for the main drive wound for 1/4 mile through woodland and the scene was certainly beautiful and peaceful.

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Having lived for a long time in Europe as a child Edith Wharton was heavily influenced by the architecture of the continent and brought that to bear when she planned to build her own house on a large estate next to the peace and calm of Laurel lake.

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Once she had finished the house she set to work on landscaping the gardens and became so personally involved in the project that she was moved to say that she was a far better landscape gardener than she was an author.

The house was certainly beautiful, airy and light, and maintained a close relationship with the environment in which it was set, for Wharton was keen to promote nature and our connection to it throughout her design.

I spent an hour walking from one room to another and discovering the story of a an author about whom I knew little.  Wharton loved The Mount, and it was sad indeed that she only spent ten years there until her marriage broke down and the estate was sold.

As with Ventfort Hall the building had fallen into disrepair during the 20th century and was in danger of collapsing completely until a group of passionate volunteers began putting the framework in place to save the old house.  In the kitchen and scullery some patches of wall had been left unrestored so that visitors could see the original structure and a line from A Christmas Carol came to me: ‘fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead’

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Today the house stands as a magnificent testament both to Edith Wharton and to the dedication of the people who restored it.

My visit, including the beautiful walk back up the drive to my car, lasted a little over an hour so I still had plenty of time to relax before the show.  I decided to drive into the town of Lee which had looked so beautiful when I was arriving the day before.

I parked in the main street through the town and ambled around taking in the atmosphere of this little town.  There seemed to be a proliferation of barber’s shops leading me to believe that everyone in lee must have beautifully trimmed hair although it was difficult to tell because everyone was wearing winter hats.  I found an antique store and spent some time in there too  In the window I found two toby jugs in the shape of Sarah Gamp from Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit.  Charles is certainly omnipresent, and it was curious that it should have been that particular novel that was represented for it was in Chuzzlewit that he criticised America so harshly, leading to copies of the book being burned in public squares!

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My walk took me to the beautiful First Congregational Church which dominates the skyline and whose spire gleamed white against the blue sky looking like a rocket waiting to soar into the heavens.

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I was interested to learn that the cornerstone of the current church was laid in 1857 when Charles Dickens was completing Little Dorrit and was about to embark upon his professional reading tours.

It was time for lunch and the ‘Starving Artist Café and Creperie’ looked a good bet.  I ordered a healthy salad and a cup of warming coffee, which I consumed listening to a female duo performing a cover of Bowie’s Starman among others.  It was a lovely atmosphere and by the time I finished the salad I could certainly not be described as a starving artist (if truth be told most of the clientele looked rather well to do!).

By now it was time to drive back to the hotel and pick up the things I needed for the show, which was not much for I had left my costumes at Ventfort the previous day.  By 2.30 I was back at the old house ready to perform once more.  Hayley, Nick and I made sure that everything was ready in the room.  Nick was looking particularly sharp, dressed in a tuxedo (he later told me he had been singing that morning and come straight to Ventfort.  He had elected not to change into his regular clothes as he thought it would look more classy to remain formal!) Soon the audience began to arrive so I retreated to my expansive dressing room whilst downstairs all of the volunteers and board members made the guests welcome and comfortable.

When I was dressed I laid out my replacement costume on the chaise so as to be able to change quickly after the show and noticed that it had taken on a human form, albeit a very flat one, with a little set dressing involving my cane, hat and scarf the figure stretched out looked just as I would feel two hours later.

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At 3.30 the parlour was filled and on this occasion it was Hayley who made my introduction.  The show worked just as well as it had the day before and there was lots of laughter and participation throughout.  When I flipped my top hat into the air it so nearly landed squarely on my head and there was a sort of gasp of anticipation from the audience which turned into a groan as it toppled off my head onto the stage and from there to the floor.  Once again the ovation at the end was loud and generous.

I made my way upstairs and put some bulk into the flat costume before returning to chat and share tea with the audience.

As well as posing for photographs with audience members I particularly wanted to catch one with Hayley and Nick who had looked after the production side of the show so well during my two days stay.

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For dinner Mary Frances and Susan would again be my hosts but on this occasion we would be joined by two of the Ventfort House board members Alice and her husband Irving.  Sometimes evenings with board members can be a struggle and tiring because it is important to schmooze and be on show so as to encourage future appearances, but Sunday night had none of that weightiness or sense of duty – all of my companions had grown up in New York (well, Alice confessed to be being a ‘Joisey Goil’), with Susan and Irving both having cut their teeth in the Bronx.  The tales of life under the Mafia (for the region was well and truly ruled from Sicily at that time) were amazing and the evening flew by in a trice.

At 9.30 we finished our dinner and said our farewells in the icy parking lot.  My time as a guest of Ventfort House in Lenox had come to an end but hopefully I will return soon.

 

 

Today’s musical connection is related to the scene when Scrooge and The Ghost of Christmas Present fly around the world to deep mine, to a lighthouse built on a dismal reef of sunken rock, to the wheel house of a ship tossed in the black and heaving sea and back to the land again.

To accopany their travels I give you The Pretenders performing 2000 miles.

Incidentally this whole section is one of my favourite passages in the book and even though it doesn’t feature in my show I urge you all to read it in full!

 

 

A Watercolourist’s Dream

 

 

On Saturday morning I was due to drive from Nashua to the farthest reaches of western Massachusetts where I would be spending two days nestled in The Berkshires.  Packing was easy as for the rest of the trip all of the paraphernalia that I need for the shows will stay in the car.  Both of my costumes, my hat and cane and the little roller bag were still in Franz from the night before and in no time my case was filled and closed.

Breakfast was a healthy option of a delicious frozen smoothie with fruit and muesli sprinkled through it. I felt very virtuous as I consumed it.  At one point there was a shriek of laughter from the staff at the Bistro counter and shortly afterwards the most senior of the group came to me and asked if I was having a nice day and was everything OK? I replied in the positive to both inquiries, and then she followed up with ‘I hope you weren’t offended by anything you may have heard us say?’  ‘Not at all,’ I replied, I hadn’t heard anything.  ‘Oh, it wasn’t anything really awful, maybe just sort of, you know, like innuendo.’  I assured her that I hadn’t heard anything and I am sure that I wouldn’t have been offended even if I had. However I was most curious and wish I had overherheard.

At 8.30 I was ready to drive and I carefully set my sat nav to take me back to Vaillancourt Folk Art where I was to drop the reading desk back.  It would have been so easy to drive to The Berkshires and forget all about the desk.  I initially followed route 3 and then was given directions to drive through the charming little town of Chelmsford which sparkled pretilly in the snow, before joining the I-95.

It was strange to find myself driving from Worcester to Sutton on such familiar roads again.  It was an extraordinary thought that it had been exactly a week since I had made the same journey for the first time this year and I had a sort of Pavlovian response to the scenery as if I were about to do a show in the Blaxton Hall theatre.  The journey to the mill took about an hour and when I arrived everyone was bustling about as usual.  I chatted briefly with Gary, Judi and Luke, before setting out on my way again (having remembered to leave the desk, incidentally.)

The day was absolutely glorious with a bright sun shining from a clear blue sky.  The snow from the great storm that had so threatened my travel plans was piled high at the roadsides and covered the countryside.  In woodlands the bare trees through beautiful shadows onto the white beneath.

Everywhere I looked I saw scenes that an expert watercolour painter would have adored:  they would leave great swathes of the paper white and then mix a little Ultramarine Blue with a dash of Alizarin Crimson and with a few deft brushstrokes elevate the flat page into a shadow-crossed landscape.

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As I drove I listened to my Christmas songs and when my playlist came to an end I switched back to ‘Northern Lights’ in which the plot had taken the characters to the frozen north into Svalbard and the land of the great armoured bears.  Somehow the winter scene outside helped me to become more involved in the story.

The journey was an easy one and in no time I was passing through the beautiful town of Lee and towards my hotel in Lenox, the Seven Hills Inn.  Unfortunately my room wasn’t ready when I arrived, the previous guests having only recently checked out, so I left my bags and decided to drive.

I had no plan as to where I would drive, I would just drive and if I saw an interesting road I would take it.  I vaguely wanted to go up, but other than that I set off in blissful ignorance of what I would find.

I drove out of Lenox and then started to turn this way and that and found myself climbing up Richmond Mountain Road from where there was a magnificent view across the lake and the valley.

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It was also a perfect spot to photograph Franz in his natural habitat.

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On I drove along lanes with such amazing names as March Hare Road, Turkey Trot Lane, Swamp Road and Sleepy Hollow Road.  The views were continually magnificent, as were many of the lavishly designed properties which nestled against the hillsides.  I am sure the properties here have magnificent price tags to match.

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After an hour of aimless exploring I found my way back to Lenox and checked into my room.  The hotel has recently been taken over by new management and they had opened the doors as part of a local ‘open house’ day, so the building was full of curious visitors enjoying complimentary hot chocolate and cookies while listening to the piano and vocalist duo who sang in the main drawing room space,

I didn’t have much time in my room as it was 1.45 now and I needed to be at the Ventfort Hall mansion at 2.15.  I performed at Ventfort for the first time last year and it was lovely to arrive back and to be welcomed by many friends.  This year I was due to perform twice on successive days and my stage had already been set up in the small parlour, where a large bus group were being told the history of the house.  I met Mary Frances who had looked after me last year, as well as Hayley who with her background of theatre stage management had been my fixer for all things technical.

My dressing room at Ventfort was a large ladies dressing room (I mean the room is large not, I am sure, the ladies who used it),  and as I went in to lay my costumes into the chaise longue I noticed a little gift bag waiting for me.  In it was a pair of black socks with a welcome card:  last year I had forgotten to bring socks with me and Hayley had found a rather fetching pair with a silver teapot woven into them.  The welcome gift gave me a lovely feeling of being part of the team and was a great affirmation of friendship.

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By the time I got downstairs again the lecture in the parlour had finished so I was able to set the stage as I wanted it.

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Hayley moved furniture around and her brother Nick prepared the sound system and ran through the cues with me.    On the stage was a chair to which was pinned a notice: ‘Please do not stand or sit on stage.  Thank you!’  well, this was going to make the afternoon difficult, so I took a picture and posted it on social media asking for advice and in no time the answers were flooding in: ‘Handstand?’, ‘Hop, skip and jump’, ‘Levitate’, ‘Be like Marley’s ghost and fly!’ ‘Dancing wasn’t ruled out,’ ‘What are you like at cartwheels?’  ‘Try laying down!  It says nothing about laying down!’

Only one correspondent supplied the correct answer: ‘Take the sign down!’ which I did.

The stage was very small, so the show would be a very different creature than the night before where I had roamed freely on the stage in Nashua.  I sat for a while looking at the room and as I pondered how things would work, Mary Frances brought me a cup of tea.

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As well as touring the house the large bus group would also be coming to my show and as time was moving on I needed to return to my room to change.  I relaxed on the chaise longue, not because I needed to but because it was there and I could, and at 3.20 I checked that I had my watch, my old penny in my waistcoat pocket, my hat cane and scarf and went down to prepare for the show.

The parlour was packed and at 3.30 Tom Hayes stood at the little lectern hidden in the corner and after welcoming all of the guests to Ventfort Hall introduced me.

There is something wonderful about telling a story in a historic parlour, I feel it at the General Crook House in Omaha too, it is as if this is where such a story belongs.  It was a fun show and the proximity of the audience really made it feel as if we were all living it together.  I used the floor space and the central aisle a great deal and of course found suitable victims throughout the story, all of whom played along happily. The time rushed by and in no time I was saying ‘God Bless Us Every One’ and leaving the stage, whilst the audience stood to applaud me back.

After the show the guests were to be treated to a lavish tea, so as I changed upstairs tables were placed and the chairs from the parlour arranged.  Sherry was served ‘chilled and dry’, or ‘nutty and warm’, and cake stands groaning beneath the weight of pastries, sandwiches and dainties of every description were raided by the grateful guests.

When I came back I chatted to various people and signed books and programmes as we sat and ate.  It was a much more relaxing and friendly than the traditional post-show signing lines and people asked lots of questions about the show.  Time meandered happily on, until it was time for the last cake to be eaten and the last drop of tea to be drunk, for the coach had arrived to scoop up the tour group and take them onto their next event, a choral concert.

I was to be taken out to dinner by Mary Frances and her friend, and fellow volunteer, Susan.  We were slightly early for our 7.30 reservation so we stopped for a quick libation at the stylishly-décored Kemble Inn.  In the mountains the sky was clear with no hint of light pollution and the stars shone brightly against the inky black.  The ghostly snow banks surrounded us and the air felt fresh and clean.  It was a beautiful moment just to stand and reflect.

Dinner was to be at the Bistro Zinc in the heart of Lenox, and Tom was waiting for us to join him.  What a fun evening we had, full of laughter and bonhomie.  the Berkshires boasts a vibrant arts scene and we talked about the possibility of bringing some of my other shows to the area at a different time of year; the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold would work well at Ventfort and it would be fun to include the area on one of my September visits in the future.

I enjoyed a delicious pork chop with a thick coating of apple sauce nestling on braised brussel sprouts and potatoes.  Delicious.

The evening drifted on and the bistro emptied until it was time for us to leave too.  Susan and Mary Frances took me back to my car, which we had left at The Kemble Inn and we said our goodbyes before I drove back to the Seven Hills Inn and my bed.

 

Today’s musical link is extremely tenuous:  To accompany the line ‘Some shaggy ponies now were seen trotting towards them with boys upon their backs‘ I offer ‘Dominick the Donkey!

 

Nashua

Friday started with two old favourites of touring life: breakfast and laundry.  My first commitment was not until 9.45 so I had plenty time to achieve both before getting into costume and waiting in the hotel lobby for Sandy to arrive.  Usually I would get into her car and be driven but on Friday we would be going straight from the two media opportunities to the venue of my lunchtime show and as I needed the large reading desk for that it was better to take my Jeep on our morning’s adventures.  Sandy settled into the passenger seat and became my living sat nav.

Our first appearance was at the Nashua Police Department where I was to be given a tour of the facility.  The evening show in Nashua was to benefit PAL, or the Police Athletics League, a charitable organisation which builds a positive link between children and the Police force.  Our guide was Ed and he explained that many people who come into contact with the police have a negative experience – either they are being arrested or being brought terrible news about a family member – so PAL is there to change that perception in the eyes of the younger generations.

Sandy Ed and I were joined in the lobby by Jody Gage, the owner of Fortin Gage Flower and Gift Shop who sponsor my even and Jen Miller from PAL. It was a fascinating morning as we were shown the  communications room, where the public’s calls are taken and then the dispatch room where the officers are sent out in their cruisers.  One wall was lined with television screens monitoring all areas of the police station and fortunately all of the holding cells were empty, it was a quiet day for the PD, ‘Just wait until my show empties out this evening, then there will be trouble!’

Deeper into the building we stood in the briefing room where each shift gathers to be assigned their duties before heading out onto the streets. It was in such a room that the Captain in Hill Street Blues used to send his officers into the field with the phrase ‘let’s be careful out there’.

Ed then took us down into the basement of the building to see the shooting range, but it was in use for training and we couldn’t go in, although there was slight smell of cordite in the air which reminded me of the scene in whichever Bond novel it is when James emergences from the MI6 range smelling of the substance to the satisfaction of a retired naval officer who operates the lift.

The most exciting part of our tour as about to occur however as we were shown the NPD’s pride and joy, the Bearcat.

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The Bearcat is an armoured vehicle used by the force’s SWAT team and looks like a stealth bomber, and it is aggressive, angular and intimidating, The Bearcat is used to protect the officers in a violent situation until they can be safely deployed and as the officer showing it explained is the safest place to be, ‘if my wife texts me when we are at a situation, and she is worried about me I can say “Hell!  I am in the Bearcat!  I am safer then you are in your bed!”‘  I’m not sure how reassuring that would be for his wife….

 

The body was bullet proof, and in the roof there was a tank-like revolving turret from which weapons could be discharged. At the front were mountings for battering rams capable of bulldozing walls down, as well as for fitting more ways of loosing off ordnance.  Cameras monitor every angle so there is no reason for an officer to leave the cocoon if it is not safe, ‘we just sit and eat pizza until we work out the best plan!’

Although like a giant Tonka toy one could only imagine the atmosphere inside the Bearcat as the highly trained officers go into a major incident knowing that death is close at hand, and is a fact of the job.  The SWAT officers who look after the communities in which they serve are truly brave men.

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Having clambered through the Bearcat we were then shown a robot which is used for bomb disposal and other duties when it is not advisable to send an officer in (maybe when suspected chemical weapons are present),  Once again the officer who explained the workings of the skeletal arm was full of pride for the equipment.

We ended our tour in front of the display cabinet once more and Ed presented me with a special Nashua PD medallion, which bore four names, the names of officers lost in the line of duty, the last of which was way back in 1974 – the force has an admirable safety record thanks in no small part to the magnificent equipment that we had been shown.

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From the Police Department we drove to the City Hall where there was supposed to be a proclamation read to celebrate my decade of performing in Nashua as well as recognising Jody’s contributions to the Nahua community.  Unfortunately the proclomation wasn’t ready, but we posed for photographs anyway.  As we milled around one lady who had come to the hall to renew her car license, or some such civic duty, suddenly caught sight of me in my costume, ‘Oh, my God, are you Mr Dickens? I saw you perform years ago in Boston!  Are you doing a show here?’  Sandy and Jody moved in and soon another ticket for the evening’s event had been sold!

From the City Hall we popped briefly into the Fortin Gage shop and met Jody’s team who were busy creating beautiful bouquets.

It was now getting on for 11.45 and as I had a show at 12.30 it was time to drive to the Nashua Senior Center to prepare.  I have been performing at the Center for around 5 years now and it is always a fun experience.  Usually I am driving from a previous venue and arrive after a long journey just in time to change and perform, but this year I was already in costume so everything was more relaxed.  While Sandy took my roller bag, hat and cane, I unloaded the reading desk and carried it into the large room where I was to perform.  It looked perfect and I offered a silent thank you to Judy Vaillancourt for making it however many years ago she did.

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Having set the stage as I wanted it I went to the finance directors office, which doubles as my dressing room, and nibbled at some fruit and a magnificent gingerbread man made by the center’s director Judy Porter, who made sure that I had everything I needed.

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The room quickly filled and at 12.30 I began Mr Dickens is Coming, which was greatly enjoyed by all.  It was a fun performance with lots of laughter.

When the show had finished and I had signed lots of tickets, it was time to return to the hotel and as we emerged we saw that the snow was falling heavily once again.  In England the country would have ground to a halt by this point and my evening performance cancelled probably, but in Nashua everyone just gets on with life: they are used to it.

I rested through the afternoon until 5pm when I gathered my costumes together and prepared for the evening show.  My first port of call was a little private meeting room where my old friend MaMa was hosting a dinner of her friends prior to the show.  I am always invited to join them in their annual get together but on Friday could only look in to say a brief hello, as I needed to drive to the Community College Auditorium to set up.

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With MaMa

It was still snowing as I drove but the roads were running freely and I arrived in good time.

In the auditorium I was due to work with Doug, who has manned the sound and light desks for my last two appearances there and who knew the show well.  We chatted about a few ideas and checked that the sound effects were working well, and then I went to my dressing room to prepare.

Last year Jody had arranged for some carol singers to entertain the crowd before the show and I had suggested that it may be fun to integrate them into the start of the show, with Scrooge marching up to them and sending them packing. I chatted with the leader of the troupe and we hatched our plan: they would perform a few carols and when they got to ‘Here we Come a Carolling’ I would make my entrance

From my dressing rom next to the stage I could hear the large audience (around 250) gathering, despite the continuing snowfall, and just after 7 Jody stood on the stage and welcomed everyone, before letting the carollers start to sing.  I was somewhat surprised that the first tune was ‘Here We Come a Carolling’, but that was my cue so out I went, I stood and stared at the singers incredulously for a few moments before brandishing my cane and telling them to ‘get out of the way! Humbug!’  It was a fun opening.

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The show itself went very well and I concentrated on keeping the narrative light and pacey so as not to allow the beautiful language to become bogged down in dramatic over-emphasis, a sin of which I am sometimes guilty.

Doug hit every cue (lighting and sound) perfectly and the whole show ran its course smoothly.  As I left the stage the audience were cheering and shouting and whistling and when I returned they were standing.

The signing line was a long but very friendly one, with lots of people who have seen me before giving me big hugs and posing for an annual picture.  Some had brought books from home, others purchased them there, others proffered their tickets to be signed, all were excited and generous in their praise for the evening.

It was quite late by the time I eventually packed up and left.  I drove in convoy with Sandy to the hotel where I left Franz, and she drove me to a nearby restaurant where Jody, his girlfriend, and a number of other guests were tucking into a late supper.  I was exhausted and famished so ordered a good old bowl of fish and chips which I devoured quickly and gratefully.  I chatted to Sandy about the show and she commented how she had liked the style of the narrative, which was the perfect comment for that, more than anything else, is what I have been trying to get right consistently.

I was properly tired now and soon it was time to bring my adventures in Nashua to a close.  Sandy dropped me back to the hotel and we said our goodbyes before I returned to my room and flopped onto the bed and slept.  After a little while I woke again, realising I was still in my coat, gloves and scarf!

I got ready for bed properly and in no time sleep returned.

 

Todays Christmas playlist choice unites the two great villains of Christmas, so that ‘Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!’ becomes pared with ‘You’re a Mean One Mr Grinch!’ by Burl Ives

 

 

 

Back to the Snow

Thursday 5 December was the day that I had to leave the luxury of The Queen’s Suite as well as the stylish sophistication of The Williamsburg Inn behind me and return to the snow of New England once more.

As my flight from Richmond was not due to leave until 11.20 I didn’t have to rise and get on the road too early and therefore had plenty of time to pack.  As soon as I began the process I realised that there was a top hat-sized hole in my case, for that item of my costume, along with my thick knitted scarf, were not to be found anywhere in my room.  I carefully packed everything else and then showered and got ready for breakfast.

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Before allowing myself to be taken into the nurturing care of the servers I went to the Regency Room which had already been prepared for an event later in the day and sure enough there was my hat and scarf on a little window ledge where I had put them behind Wyatt’s sound desk when I came off stage the night before.  With relief I took myself to the dining room and studied the menu.  I selected French toast with blueberry jam poured over the top, with a side order of scrambled eggs and bacon to complete the feast.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, was the probable winner of Breakfast of the Year.  Oh, my it was delicious!  The French toast was thick, light and fluffy and the blueberry sauce (jam was the wrong description, for this was a wonderfully decadent and gooey topping) was sweet yet tangy providing a perfect combination of flavours.  The bacon and eggs where an unnecessary addition and I didnt finish them.

Back up in my rooms I slotted the hat into my case (the space I had left was the perfect size) and closed everything up.  I checked the room over and over to make sure that I hadn’t left anything and it was this time that I realised I was carrying three different sets of car keys: 1 for the Rav 4 parked outside, 1 for Franz, my Jeep which was in the parking garage at Boston’s Logan airport and the third set for our little green Mazda back at Heathrow airport  – the opportunities for confusion and disaster were just so great.

I checked out and said good bye to as many of my old friends as were on duty that morning and loaded my cases into the Toyota before starting the hour long drive to Richmond airport, accompanied by my audio book.  The sky was clear and blue and the woods of Virginia swept quickly by until I reached the open plain upon which the airport is built.  I found a petrol station so that I could refill the tank and very nearly pumped diesel instead of regular unleaded fuel, because the colours of the nozzles in America are exactly opposite to what we have in Britain:  at home the diesel pump (dispensing the thick oily heavy fuel that creates large black exhaust clouds) is always black whilst the unleaded fuel is delivered through a nice environmentally friendly-looking green nozzle. Fortunately I realised my mistake before any damage was done.

Richmond airport was not busy and I was very soon checked in and passing through the security line.  I had plenty of time to relax and bought myself a cup of coffee which I sipped at the gate as various other passengers began to gather around me.  I was lost in my own little world when an announcement filled the terminal:  ‘Will passenger Mr Gerald Dickens please return to security lost and found to collect his bag.  Will passenger Mr Gerald Dickens please return to security lost and found to collect his bag’  I looked around me and sure enough my lovely leather shoulder bag in which I carry paper work and my computer was nowhere to be seen – I had left it at the Caribou Coffee counter.

I made my way back to the front of the terminal building to be told that to get to the  lost and found office I would have to go back out and downstairs, meaning that I would have to go through the whole security procedure once again – so much for having plenty of time to spare!

I was soon reunited with my bag (yet another present from Liz!) and was standing once more in my Union Jack Socks in the wooshy scanning machine (the device may have a more technical name, but to me wooshy scanning machine describes it perfectly).

I returned to the gate just as boarding was commencing and took my seat as if nothing had happened.

When I had flown from Bostin to Richmond a few days before I had discovered that the flight was exactly the length of an episode of the new BBC drama Gentleman Jack, so once we were airborne and the inflight WiFi entertainment service was available I logged on to watch episode two.  Once more the timing was impeccable for having flown over Cape Cod and banked hard left to begin our final approach to Logan Airport the show’s credits rolled.  Beneath me the ground was white with snow.

When we reached our gate I made sure that I had picked up everything (the way my day had gone it was likely that I would leave something vital on the plane), before walking through the terminal building to baggage claim where I was reunited with my big blue suitcase.  I had to wait a little while for a shuttle bus to take me to the parking garage and the biting cold of a winter’s day cut deeply through me.  I was very glad that I hadn’t lost my gloves in Williamsburg, for I certainly needed them in Boston.

The bus rumbled on its long circuitous route around the airport taking in every terminal, as well as a few other stops including the chapel and various administration buildings before eventually arriving at Economy Parking.  Franz was waiting for me, with the Dickens reading desk in the boot and in no time I was on my way to Nashua, New Hampshire.

The traffic was heavy but it didn’t matter for I had no commitments on Thursday and soon I was clear of the gravitational pull of Boston and was speeding along the freeway.  It was amazing to see how much snow had fallen over the previous days and the roads were lined with towering snow banks, way higher than a car.  Once again the miracle of my being able to get from Worcester to Boston and that my flight even got out at all, let alone on time, was brought back to me.

At around 2.30 I pulled into the car park at The Courtyard by Marriott in Nashua and was genuinely welcomed back by the desk clerk, which was a nice touch.  I was given the keys to a room on the second floor which was very nice, and I am sure that if the Queen of England were to visit Nashua then that would be the room she would ask for!

I spent the afternoon working on my book and actually writing a bit more, for much of what I have been doing recently has been research based, and now it was time to marshal all the new facts and get them into the story.

Afternoon passed into evening and at 7.30 I got wrapped up in my coat, gloves and scarf for I was due to meet my dear friend Sandy Belknap who had offered to take me out to dinner.  Sandy runs her own PR company and has been looking after all of the promotion for my two performances in Nashua, so apart from catching up on our news and enjoying a delicious dinner in an apparently haunted house, we went through the schedule for Friday which was to involve a couple of public appearances prior to my shows.  It looked as if it would be full, but enjoyable day.

Sandy drove me back to the hotel and another day of my 2019 tour was over.

 

 

Today’s musical connection:

As The Ghost of Christmas Present is on the point of leaving he produces from the foldings of its robe, ‘two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable….

‘They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.’

They are Ignorance and Want and are shown to Scrooge to starkly display the inequality and inadequacy of humanity.

In 1984 Bob Geldof did the same by highlighting the horrors of the famine in Ethiopia and so today’s song is:  ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ by Band Air

 

 

 

A Floppy One

This blog post detailing the events of Wednesday 4 December will not be a very long one, for I didn’t actually do very much all day.  It is what Liz and I call ‘A Floppy Day’, when the body’s sense of self-preservation takes over and sort of just shuts down.

I still woke in the early hours, and sat up on the plumped pillows to write my blog until  a sensible time for breakfast ticked around.  I showered and dressed then walked downstairs to the dining room where I selected a Continental Breakfast which included  a croissant, some smoked salmon, a little pot of granola and yoghurt, some scrambled eggs on the side and two lumps of soft cheese (possibly brie).   I would love to have devoured a lovely glass of grapefruit, which always used to be my juice of choice, but unfortunately the daily taking of statins precludes such a pleasure these days, so OJ and coffee it was.

During breakfast I looked at my phone to see if there was anywhere I fancied visiting during the morning and my attention was a little piqued by a nature reserve with the brilliantly unappealing name of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.  The photographs of the various trails looked much more appealing than the name suggested but the drive would have been over an hour, which wouldn’t have left me very much time to explore before needing to turn around and return to the hotel ready for the shows, but I would certainly like to visit the Great Dismal Swamp one day.

In my room I put the television on and lay on the sofa.  I did a little work on the book.  I watched some more television.  I answered some emails.  I watched some more television and I slept a little.  Before I knew it the clock was showing 11.45 so I ordered some lunch from room service and started to prepare things for the first performance.

The schedule for the afternoon was exactly the same as Tuesday had been with the tea commencing at 2, with my performance at 2.30.  Feeling a little refreshed, although not completely, I arrived in The Regency Room at around 1.30 and went through the sound checks with Wyatt and chatted with Bill and the rest of the team as we waited for the doors to be opened at 2.00.

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With (l-r) Wyatt and Bill

While we waited, Darryl, the banquet captain and Travis the Executive Chef, briefed the waiting staff on the upcoming service.  Travis explained exactly what each item on the tea plates was and how they were made before Darryl ran through the exact running order of the service, up until the point when the show was due to start.  I always enjoy being privy to these sessions and it is a reminder of the theatrical nature of a superb service.  Once everyone knew their roles in the great show the doors were opened.

Bill and I stood at the back of the room and watched as the guests were shown to their seats, many dressed in Christmas attire.  I had noticed the day before, and had mentioned it to Bill, that those guests who sported bright red sweaters or jackets all seemed to be seated on the right hand side of the room, whilst those in more muted hues congregated to the left.  Of course this phenomenon was completely random as the seating plan had been developed in an office weeks before, but as we watched the same pattern emerged.  Curious.

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Although from a dinner show, still the red on the right phenomenon is clear!

The entrance to the Regency Room is raised from the main floor by a little flight of about 5 steps and for those guests in wheelchairs or who are infirm there is a little lift to take them down.  Apparently this piece of equipment has quite an ego for the only person who can make it work is Travis, the Executive Chef, and at the tea performance his role was less of a mighty conductor creating magic in his kitchens but more that of an elevator attendant.  It says a great deal about his kind and humble demeanour that he took to the role with grace and warmth.  I have no doubt there are many lesser chefs who would refuse to perform a duty that they may see as beneath them.

Once again their were lots of people in the audience who had seem me on many occasions including one couple who are usually at my events in Pigeon Forge.  It is always a nice thing for an actor to know that the audience is friendly!  There was a positive buzz in the room and I was ready for a good show.  At 2.30 Darryl gave Bill the nod and he began his introduction from the centre of the dance floor (there is no stage in The Regency Room) while I waited in my top hat and scarf at the back of the room.

The show did indeed go well, although the girl I had originally marked out as the object of Topper’s affections looked rather bored so I changed plans, picking instead on Michele’s assistant who was watching the show for the first time and who played along superbly.

The atmosphere was excellent throughout and at the end everyone stood to clap and cheer, which after an 80 minute work out is all the reward I could wish for.

When I had quickly changed in my room and returned to the main hall there was a long signing line and Michele’s idea of giving away the photographs of me was proving popular, although many couldn’t comprehend that they were actually free!

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After the signing had finished I returned to the room and re-lapsed into my general lethargy.  I napped a little more until it was time to get ready for the evening’s performance.  I bathed, to relax, and showered, to wake myself up and was ready in costume at 6.45.

Once again Bill, Wyatt and everyone else gathered in the dining room and went through our routines until the audience were seated and dinner was served.  It was another audience packed with familiar faces  so once again I knew I was in friendly hands.

Once the dessert had been served Bill and I took up our starting positions ready for showtime.  Somehow I didn’t feel properly prepared and indeed the start of the show didn’t have the fluency that I like, but I soon became completely immersed and things improved markedly.  The audience was a fairly quiet one, but very involved.  They were a ‘listening’ audience who hung on every phrase and became wrapped up in every emotion.  Of course they laughed at Mrs Cratchit, and the disgusting nasal antics of old Joe, but on the whole they were a group who loved having a story told to them.

I reached the end and stood taking my bows as the group stood and clapped.  The night before I had forgotten to thank the staff at the inn who had prepared and served such a sumptuous feast, so on Wednesday night I called for quiet so that I could properly honour Travis and his team and allow them to be rewarded with a loud round of applause.  I finished the evening with a toast to the Christmas season before preparing for a long signing session.

When I had scribbled the last name on the last picture and posed for the last photograph I said goodbye and thanks to Bill who had become a wonderful addition to the show and an admirable stand in for Ryan.  I hope that we will be able to work together again in the future.

The hotel was closing up for the night, so there was to be no winding down in the bar.  I returned to the suite and decided to leave my packing until the morning.

Sleep would come quickly.

 

Today’s music choice is one of the easier ones:  ‘I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year’ will be accompanied by Wizzard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day’

 

 

 

 

For Ryan

On Tuesday morning I woke up in the Queen’s bed (which could be a treasonable offence) and took in the delightful surroundings of my room anew.  I made myself a coffee in a little cup which sat on a little saucer, with a little silver spoon, and sat up in bed as I wrote my blog.

Although it was to be a working day I had no commitments until the afternoon so there was no rush to be anywhere.  At around 8 ‘o’clock I showered and got ready to go to the restaurant for breakfast.  As soon as I walked in I was greeted by lots of the staff who had worked with me during my events here in the past.  Everyone said ‘we missed you last year!’

I sat at a table in the dining room and ordered an ‘Old English Breakfast’ accompanied by ornage juice and coffee, which was served with an accompanying amuse bouche of an avacado smoothy in a tiny cup.

The Gerald Dickens award for the best breakfast of the tour will inevitably go to The Williamsburg Inn, but is the Old English the one, or is there something else on the menu that might rival it in the coming days?

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I took plenty of time over the delicious meal before draining the last of my coffee and returning to my room.  I still had the morning before me, so I sat at a desk and started to do some more research for my book.  I had access to the UK censuses of 1861 and 1871 and it was fascinating to trace the lives of those who were involved in the rail crash.

After a couple of hours of work I decided that it was time for some fresh air, so I wrapped the scarf that Liz had given me for Christmas a few years ago around my neck, and dug the soft leather gloves (also a present from Liz) out from my bag and prepared to walk.

I made sure that I had my camera slung over my shoulder and I was anxious to see whether it worked, for the last time I was wearing it was when I was in the muddy River Beult and it was completely submerged.

The day was crisp and clear, the sky a bright blue and I walked to Duke of Gloucester Street which is the main historic avenue at Williamsburg, lined by wooden cottages, and peopled by costumed characters going about their daily (18th Century) lives.  It is a walk I have made often but on Tuesday it looked so beautiful with the last remnants of fall colours standing out vibrantly against the blue.

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The winter sun also cast some spectacular shadows and I spent plenty of time taking pictures, both with my camera which seemed to have survived its ordeal, and with my phone.

I walked all the way to the Capitol building, then all the way back again pausing along the way to admire some of the Christmas wreaths on the cottage doors, until I reached the Bruton Parish Church and the gorgeous little vegetable garden opposite it.

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I took some more pictures and then went to put my gloves back on, for it was chilly.  They were not in my pocket!  Not in my camera bag!  I must have taken them off whilst taking pictures earlier, so I walked all the way back again criss-crossing the street, trying to remember where I had stopped before.  I got back to the Capitol and no gloves were to be seen.  Once again I turned and for a third time covered the same ground without success.  I was very sad, not only because they were very nice gloves but because they were a gift.

I stood outside the little garden feeling a bit mournful when I was woken from the moment by a cheery cry of ‘Mr Dickens?’  A  slim dapper gentleman was hurrying towards me hand extended and a big smile.  ‘Mr Dickens, I am Bill Schermerhorn, I am the creative director here at Colonial Williamsburg and I will be introducing you at the show this afternoon!’  We had a brief chat and Bill seemed to be a very nice man, but there was something niggling in my mind, for every year that I have been coming here I have been introduced by Ryan Fletcher my generous, genial giant of a friend.  Ryan is an opera singer who teaches the subject at William and Mary College, and there was a slight pang of disappointment in me that he would not be with me this year.

Having shaken hands with Bill again I returned to the hotel and in the lobby bumped into Michele who runs all of my events at Williamsburg and has done for many years.  We hugged and she said ‘come and look at the Regency Room, we have changed it since you were last with us’  The Regency Room is a large space at the rear of the hotel looking out over one of the golf courses.  Michelle was right the room had indeed been freshened up and looked airy and welcoming.  I am sure that there were many complaints (those who come to Williamsburg don’t tend to like change), but I thought it was a change for the better.

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I chatted to Michele and it was then that she told me the news about Ryan, he had suffered a major heart attack just a week ago and the doctors had performed a successful bypass operation.  She assured me that he was doing well and had been discussing my shows with her, even offering to lend his costume to Bill for the event.

Ryan, if you are reading this, I missed you and wish you a complete and speedy recovery!

There was still some forty minutes before our scheduled sound check so I went back to my room where I found my gloves on the chair – I’d never had them in the first place, so they were not lost!

I got dressed in costume and at 1 o’clock returned to the Regency Room where Wyatt, the sound engineer, was setting up is desk.  I gave him the USB stick with my sound cues on together we went through the script as well as doing a full sound check.

Bill arrived and once he had done his sound check we chatted about his role at Williamsburg and his past career in New York.  Short of being Santa Claus himself Bill must have had one of the best jobs in the world because for over thirty years he was the creative director with sole responsibility for staging the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade!  How amazing is that?

Soon the audience started to arrive and the plates of a delicious tea were served, cups were filled and there was a loud buzz of chat in the room.  Many guests whom I recognized from previous years came to say hello, and told me how glad they were that I was back this year.

At 2.30 Bill took to the stage and delivered a beautifully written and eloquent introduction (although my thoughts were with Ryan) and I began the show.  It went really well, I captured a lightness of narrative that I had first stumbled on here three years ago during a photo shoot which I always strive to use now.  The audience were enthusiastic and joined in loudly, and being a tea service I could play with a few individuals a little more than at some other venues.  Wyatt was perfect with his sound cues bringing each on time with the verve and panache of a true professional.  There was laughter and there were tears and at the conclusion there was long loud standing ovation.

Having left the stage I rushed up the stairs to my room and changed into a fresh costume before returning to the main hallway to sign and chat.  Williamsburg didn’t have any product to sell, but Michele had printed copies of the photograph taken at the same shoot three years ago and I scrawled my name across that, as well as signing menus and a few copies of books that people had specifically brought to the event.

By the time I had finished the session and returned to my room I had just over an hour before it was time to get ready for dinner, so I had another of my hot bubble filled baths and relaxed on the sofa.

From a performance point of view the dinner show is the same as the tea but the ambience is different and when I returned to The Regency Room the tables had been set with silver and glassware.  It was dark outside now and behind the windows at the rear of the room a long fire pit flamed.  Chatting to Wyatt I mused how good it would be if those flames could soar upwards as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come made his first appearance!

When the chef, the banquet captain, the hosts and all of the waiting staff were ready the doors were opened and the audience took their seats.  The lovely thing about a Williamsburg Dinner is the smart and elegant attire that many of the guests don for the evening.  One very young couple had gone the whole 9 yards for he was in a tuxedo with red bow tie whilst she wore a long white and gold dress with a fur stole over her shoulders.  Others were equally lavishly dressed and it all made for a very special atmosphere.

I was at a table with Bill, his partner Dan and a few other guests and we chatted about this and that as a rich butternut squash bisque was served, followed by a thick slice of roasted ribye steak.  I didn’t eat much of mine for a full stomach is not a good bedfellow to an energetic performance, but what I did eat was delicious.

Coffee and dessert were served and then Bill stood to make his introduction once more.  Once again the performance was most enjoyable and I really got into the story, hopefully bring the guests along with me.  Again there were excellent responses and everyone had a great deal of fun.

Having taken my bows and having wished everyone ‘Merry Christmas’ I went to change before the signing in the hall.  This time there were not only pictures to sign but Michele had found some of my 2016 souvenir brochures which, as there was no method of selling them, she decided to offer for free (it didn’t make any difference to those of us who invested in producing the brochures, for they had already been purchased by Colonial Williamsburg).

Very early in line was the beautifully dressed young couple and he proudly showed me a picture of himself standing next to me after a Williamsburg show when he was only ten years old!  We recreated the picture and shared the hope that it would not be another ten years before he returned

I signed and posed and shook hands and the atmosphere was lovely. When the last guests drifted away I went to the bar and ordered a glass of wine and chatted to a mother and daughter who had been at the show, which was a lovely and relaxing way to bring the evening to a close.

And I raised a glass to Ryan with whom I had shared many a convivial evening in that bar.

I returned to my room, hung my costumes up and returned to the Queen’s bed where I fell asleep upon the instant.

 

 

Today’s musical connection features a passage not in my show, but when Scrooge sees his younger self reading at school he recollects the excitement of Robinson Crusoe on his dessert island:

‘There’s the Parrot!’ cried Scrooge. ‘Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is. Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing round the island. “Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe.” The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t. It was the Parrot, you know. There goes Friday, running for his life to the little creek. Halloa! Hoop! Hallo!’

There is only one choice to accompany this tropical scene and that is Bing Crosby signing Mele Kalikimaka