Jarndyce and Jarndyce: A Story For Our Times?

Although A Tale of Two Cities always takes the plaudits with its ‘It was the best of times,   it was the worst of times’ opening, I think that it is Bleak House that boasts the greatest, the most intriguing and the atmospheric introduction of any Dickens novel:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

And then the fog – the fog that shrouds everything and renders any form of navigation or direction impossible:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

From a city shrouded in fog Dickens then leads us to the heart of the story:

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

It could equally be the seat of government on the bank of the Thames.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

The High Court of Chancery ‘most pestilent and hoary of sinners’.  That is how many look upon our present parliament!

And what is being heard in Chancery?  What is it that is causing the court to grope and flounder?

Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.

How does the World view Great Britain now?

Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke. That is the only good that has ever come of it. It has been death to many, but it is a joke in the profession. Every master in Chancery has had a reference out of it. Every Chancellor was “in it,” for somebody or other, when he was counsel at the bar. Good things have been said about it by blue-nosed, bulbous-shoed old benchers in select port-wine committee after dinner in hall. Articled clerks have been in the habit of fleshing their legal wit upon it. The last Lord Chancellor handled it neatly, when, correcting Mr. Blowers, the eminent silk gown who said that such a thing might happen when the sky rained potatoes, he observed, “or when we get through Jarndyce and Jarndyce, Mr. Blowers” — a pleasantry that particularly tickled the maces, bags, and purses.

Have those in power become so wrapped up in their own procedures and conventions that there can never be a solution?  Never be an end? Will the case simply go on and on and on until the real reason for it is obscured by the fog of legality?

In 2019 Britain I need say nothing, for as ever Charles Dickens has said it all before.

 

 

This week….

The week since my last blog post has been a quiet one and subject matter for a new essay has not readily presented itself to me.  I realised yesterday that I missed a trick on Monday and should have written an April Fools post, describing how I had discovered the handwritten conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood in an old suitcase – I could have had lots of fun with that and may tuck the idea away for another year.

Instead I decided to look at Charles’ reading tour schedule and see what he was doing, and where he was doing it, during the week commencing Monday 25th March in years gone by.  It would be interesting to see if any of the venues brought to mind any particular memories;  it maybe that the pieces he performed have a relevance to me, or it maybe that I have never performed them and need to investigate.

This is what I discovered:

26 March

26 March 1858.  Edinburgh Music Hall.  A Christmas Carol.

Of course A Christmas Carol has meant more to me than any other work by Dickens.  Since 1993 I have been performing my one man version of The Carol each Christmas and this ‘ghostly little book’ has taken me all over the world.  By now you would think that I know everything there is to know about the story and yet each year I discover something new.  This is not to say that I discover passages that I have never read before, but what I search for are new slants.  By slightly changing the emphasis in a sentence it can completely alter how a character feels or acts in a scene and thereby effect the tone of the whole story.

The interesting thing about Charles’ 1858 performance in Edinburgh however is that it came at a time when he was making wholesale changes to the script.  Edinburgh was one of his final ‘amateur’ charity performances before deciding that he should tour professionally.  There is a whole world of difference between giving a reading for charity, when the audience are sympathetic to ones motives and are willing to forgive some flaws in your performance, and how they might react when they have parted with their hard earned cash and are demanding to be entertained.  Dickens knew that there was a huge potential income from the readings which would most likely also result in increased sales of his novels thanks to a resurgence in his visibility, but it had to be successful – he had to get it right.

By the 26th of March Dickens must have already tweaked his script and come up with a version that he was satisfied with.  Originally his reading took in most of the book and lasted an eye-watering (or eye-closing) 3 hours.  Charles Dickens was at heart a theatrical man and knew that a commercially viable show would have to be tighter and shorter not only for the audience’s sake but also for his own health.  He edited and adapted the script so that by the time he stepped onto the professional stage it was down to 2 hours.  By the end of ’58 he made more tweaks to bring it to 90 minutes, which is coincidentally the length of my current show.

On that evening in March Dickens walked to the centre of the stage in the Edinburgh Music Hall  and saw 2,000 faces looking up expectantly at him.  Surely he must have felt a surge of adrenaline within him as he began and when the audience stood and cheered him at the conclusion of the performance he must have known that he was ready to realise his longest held ambition: to become a professional actor.

When I stand on a stage at either the St George’s Hall in Liverpool or the Mechanics Hall in Worcester Mass I always feel an amazing sense of connection when I think that across the centuries Charles and I are looking at the same view and I always silently ask him to look after me!

 

26 March 1867.  St James’ Hall, London.  Doctor Marigold & The Trial from Pickwick

By 1867 Dickens had established himself as a performer par excellence and indeed his tours were now his main source of income for he hadn’t written a major novel since Our Mutual Friend which had been completed during the Summer or ’65.  Although he hadn’t performed much between ’62 and ’66 he was now on the road almost constantly and his tours had slotted in to a well-oiled groove.  A tour would typically start in London at The St James’ Hall and he may well take the opportunity to introduce a new reading which would generate plenty of publicity and excite the audiences in other venues around the country.  He had done this in ’66 with the introduction of Doctor Marigold, would do it again in ’67 with The Barbox Brothers and The Boy at Mugby Junction and most famously in ’69 with ‘Sikes and Nancy’ also known as ‘The Murder’.

The performance on 26th March did not come at the start of a new tour however, but was just one date in the middle of a flurry of travel.  Since the 15 January (when the tour DID begin at St James’)  he had performed in – take a deep breath – London, Liverpool, Chester, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Leeds, Manchester, Bath, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, York, Bradford, Newcastle, Wakefield, Dublin and Belfast.  The performance on the 26th March must have been a chance for him to metaphorically wash his socks and to figuratively sleep in his own bed.

What interests me about this date are the two pieces that Dickens chose to perform for I have widely differing experiences of them both.  Regular readers will know of my love affair with Doctor Marigold which has become a major part of my repertoire.  Back in 2014 I wrote a blog post entitled ‘Dad and Doctor Marigold’ which can be found at:

https://geralddickens.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/dad-and-doctor-marigold/

I love the joy it brings to modern audiences and how much I feel every conflicting emotion of the fast-talking market cheapjack. Last Summer I performed the piece in a peaceful Oxfordshire garden in front of an old gypsy caravan as the audience sipped drinks and sat on bales of straw – it was one of the most memorable settings of my career and brought Marigold alive even more.

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But the other reading on 26 March 1867 is one I just have never felt comfortable with.  ‘The Trial, from Pickwick’ or ‘Bardell and Pickwick’ is a short comic piece that brought a Dickensian evening to a riotous and hilarious conclusion (this was the way that Charles worked – one major reading, a short break and then a much more light-hearted performance that would send the audience home with smiles on their faces.)

The Trial was the reading that Charles performed more than any other and featured throughout his reading career.  He first performed it in 1858 and it was also on the playbill at his final farewell performance in 1870.  The scene is in court as Mrs Bardell, encouraged by her solicitors Messrs Dodson and Fogg, is suing Mr Pickwick for a breach of promise of marriage.  It is Dickens poking fun at the legal profession at his absolute best.

The chapter in the original novel is brilliant and filled with fantastic characters.  Quite apart from the central protagonists we are treated to Mr Justice Stareleigh who is a perfect stereotypical judge who dozes through much of the evidence, is unaware of popular culture and is unable to discern whether Mr Winkle’s real Christian name is Nathaniel or Daniel:

‘Have you any Christian name sir?’

‘Nathaniel, sir’

‘Daniel, any other name?’

‘Nathaniel, Sir – my Lord, I mean’

‘Nathaniel Daniel, or Daniel Nathaniel?’

‘No, my Lord, only Nathaniel – not Daniel at all.’

‘What did you tell me it was Daniel for then, sir?’

‘I didn’t my Lord’

‘You did sir.  How could I have got Daniel on my notes unless you told me so, sir?’

It is great stuff!  Then we have Serjeant Buzfuzz who argues on behalf of Mrs Bardell, and who twists and turns every action of Mr Pickwick to suit his case:

‘Two letters have passed between these parties, letters which are admitted to be in the handwriting of the defendant, and which speak volumes, indeed……. Let me read the first: “Garraways, twelve o’clock. Dear Mrs. B. — Chops and tomato sauce. Yours, PICKWICK.” Gentlemen, what does this mean? Chops and tomato sauce. Yours, Pickwick! Chops! Gracious heavens! and tomato sauce! Gentlemen, is the happiness of a sensitive and confiding female to be trifled away, by such shallow artifices as these?’

And so it goes on.

My problem with the Trial is not that it is unfunny because it isn’t – it’s brilliant comic writing – my problem is that I have never managed to do it as well as it deserves.  I don’t feel natural and relaxed when I perform it.  Perhaps a reason is that I still give it as  a reading whereas other items such as Marigold or The Signalman are now performed ‘off the book’ but I committed to learning both of those pieces because they had been successful as readings, so that argument doesn’t work.

Perhaps the reason can be found in Philip Collins’ introductory notes to the script in his book ‘Sikes and Nancy and Other Public Readings’:

‘Since 1837, this had been a favourite comic episode, often adapted for the stage, and ‘done to death’ in Penny-readings and other such performances.  Every public reader, amateur or professional, had it in his repertoire.  Dickens’ rendering topped everyone’s, it was generally reported, both in narrative powers and in characterizations less hackneyed and more credible than those of platform-tradition.’

Collins then goes on to quote the Bath Chronicle from 67:

‘Those public readers or actors who have read or performed this scene have unavoidably given it an air of burlesque or farce.  Mr Dickens, with the privilege of the author, has done what no one else has ventured to do…..The humour is still exaggerated but it no longer runs riot with excess of caricature’

Maybe that is what I do, I allow the characters to become too big thereby missing the actual joy of the writing.  I have performed it at a legal dinner where there was a collective gasp of horror when the verdict of guilty was announced and an even louder one at the severity of the damages awarded, so it is believable and it does work.  Maybe there is no problem at all and the issue is in my perception of the performance rather than the reality.

The Trial has frustrated me for too long and having left it at the bottom of a drawer for years I think it is time to look at it with fresh eyes and try again!

 

31st March 1868.  The City Hall, Portland.  USA.  A Christmas Carol and The Trial

The rest of the week shows Dickens performing on the 27th at the Ashford Railway Institute in ’55,  London in ’62 and in New Bedford in ’68.  On the 28th he was in London again in ’61 and in Cambridge in ’67.  After the Cambridge show he travelled to Norwich and performed there on the 29th.  But the date that jumps out at me and means more to me than any other is his performance in Portland Maine on 31st March in 1868.

Dickens was in the middle of his exhausting American tour and to ease the pressure of performing at  huge venues in New York and Boston he had taken bookings in smaller halls along the way, of which the City Hall in Portland was one.  The city was full of excitement as the day of the great event arrived and crowds flocked to the hall on a cold, snowy evening to witness the great man perform.  But in a truly Dickensian scene there was one small girl left outside. In the darkness her face must have had a yellow glow as she stood on tiptoes and peered in at a window hoping for a glimpse of her hero.

The girl was called Kate and she adored everything that Charles Dickens had written, even naming her pets after her favourite characters (her dog was called Pip and his companion Pocket).  Even the family sledge had been christened ‘The Artful Dodger’!  On the evening of 31st of March Kate’s mother was inside the hall listening to Dickens but the family could not afford an extra ticket so Kate shuffled sorrowfully home to her bed.

On the next morning Kate and her mother boarded a train to Boston and when they stopped at a station along the way Kate noticed Mr Dickens standing on the platform talking animatedly.  Dickens was on the same train as her!  This was far too wonderful an opportunity to let pass and in no time Kate had slipped into Dickens’ carriage where she stood staring at him.

This excitement would have been enough for most little girls but Kate wanted more, so when she saw that Charles was alone for a moment she rushed through the carriage and sat down next to him!

What followed was recalled by Kate when she wrote a reminiscence of her journey and called it ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’  It is a most charming story and one that I perform on occasion and beacause it is not by Dickens but about Dickens it gives me a sense of seeing him through another’s eyes, which is fascinating.

On my book shelves is a slim volume of A Child’s Journey and on the title page Kate has actually signed it: ‘I was the child. Kate Douglas Wiggin’ and it is one of my most treasured volumes.

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It has been fun meandering through a random week in the life of Charles Dickens and it has brought a lot of things to mind, not least that I HAVE to nail The Trial once and for all!

 

 

 

 

Who Was Miss Havisham?

Last week I talked about adapting Mr Dickens is Coming to include a passage relating to the character of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations because the venue in the North East of England believes that Charles Dickens may have been inspired by a local story.  This week therefore it is time to investigate that story and possibly to introduce you to the real Miss Havisham.

Charles travelled extensively throughout his career and wherever he stayed he would work, that is why so many old coaching inns have notices boasting that ‘Charles Dickens wrote such-and-such here’.  Working for Charles involved not only sitting at a desk writing, but also observing and researching.  Everywhere he went Dickens insisted on being shown prisons, hospitals, mills, factories, police forces, docks, workhouses and institutions of every description, and from these observations came the squalor or Oliver’s London, the detail of William Dorrit’s imprisonment, the tragedy of Dotheboys Hall and the World of inspector Bucket.

Then there were the characters: The eye that never sleeps was the slogan for the Pinkerton Detective Agency but may equally be used to describe Charles Dickens, for nothing or nobody, escaped his gaze.

When the reading tours began in 1858 Dickens performed in Sunderland and Newcastle and again in the latter city the following year and maybe it was on one of these visits that he stayed with his old friend George Cooper Apps at Cleadon House.  Apps was a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle (I now perform annually at the Lit & Phil which makes the connection even more interesting to me), so must have enjoyed many stimulating discussions with the great author.  Cleadon House was a large red-bricked building although in appearance was less like Satis House in Great Expectations but more like Gad’s Hill Place, Charles’ Kentish home that he admired since childhood and had recently purchased , so maybe that attracted him there too.

000615:Cleadon House Front Street Cleadon South Tyneside around 1900.

It seems on one occasion, let’s say as the two gentleman sat down in front of a roaring fire and sipped a glass of brandy or port, George decided to tell Charles of a family legend which may interest him:

A relative, a male relative, had been preparing for his wedding day and everything was laid out in readiness.  The dining room was still as it had been the night before when the couple had shared a celebratory meal.  Our un-named relative was ready to leave for the church when he received notice that his bride was abandoning him at the alter.  Seized with grief and passion our jilted hero rushed through the house stopping all of the clocks and forever consigning the dining room to the state it had been during their last dinner together (WHAT did he say to her over their oysters?)

I wonder if George noticed a faraway look in Charles’s eye as he recited his story and I wonder if Dickens took in the ramshackle nature of the house in which he sat, with papers and books piled high everywhere and the hugely overgrown garden outside the windows.

If I were researching this more completely I would trawl through Dickens’ letters in search of references, I would travel to Newcastle and search through parish records to find out where bans had been read with no marital result.  I would be able to gradually build a picture of the life of a man who became a recluse and whose clocks were stopped as they looked over the remnants of the last happy meal of his life.

Sadly I am not able to undertake such research at the moment and these details come from the work of Newcastle historian John Joe Cox who sadly passed away in 2010.  Cox’s work on the history of Cleadon was taken up by Michael Bute who lectured on the subject.  Bute is also dead and for now the subject lies dormant, but the coincidences of circumstance and timing make it easy to believe that in the North East of England Charles Dickens heard a story that led him to create one of his most famous characters.

Unless he heard it on The Isle of Wight.

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting my brother and as we drove past the little town of Bonchurch our conversation turned to our great great grandfather, for he had stayed in the town during the summer of 1849.  Almost as a postscript to our chat Ian said ‘did you know that Charles might have based Miss Havisham on a lady who lived on the island?’

‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’ I replied,  and Ian proceeded to tell me that a mutual friend of ours had suggested that a close read of Richard Hutchings ‘Dickens on an Island’ would throw new light on the subject.

I am fortunate to be the temporary custodian of that little volume (generously lent to me a year ago by my friend David Hawes , and woefully overdue for return for which I apologise), and as soon as I returned home speed read until I found the relevant chapter.

The story ran thus:

In the town of Ventnor, close to Bonchurch, is a house called Madeira Hall which was purchased by a Mr AG Burt in 1848.  Understandably interested in the history of his new house Mr Burt started to do some research and uncovered an article published in ‘The Idler’ in 1902 by John Eyre and titled ‘Ventnor as a Health and Pleasure Resort’.  Burt must have felt a sense of excitement when he saw the name of his new cottage mentioned:

‘Madeira Hall is worthy of notice, as it is described in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and its then proprietor was Miss Dick, who is supposed to be the Miss Havisham in that work.’

According to the two ladies who had sold the house to Mr Burt Miss Dick had been jilted on her wedding day (this in turn recounted to them by Miss Dick’s doctor).  Distraught, she left her wedding feast untouched and drawing the shutters never again let the daylight into her house until her death in 1879. She was only 52.

However in 1849, when Dickens stayed at Winterbourne House in Bonchurch Miss Dick had yet to move into Madeira Hall and would not in fact take ownership until 1860 so Charles could not have heard of the story during his holiday, and according to his friend  John Forster never returned to the island so would have been unlikely to discover this little gem.

However Mr Hutchings, the author of Dickens on an Island, did a little more digging and discovered that a Mr and Mrs Dickens actually visited Ventnor for a few days in November 1860.  The details of that visit are intriguingly shrouded in mystery, thanks to the fact that ‘Mr and Mrs Dickens’ had separated two years before, but there are enough ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ to make it possible that Dickens heard the story of Miss Dick and thought ‘how perfect for my next novel!’

If I were researching this more completely I would trawl through Dickens’ letters in search of references, I would travel to Ventnor and search through parish records to find out where bans had been read with no marital result. I would find the copy of ‘The Idler’ and I would be able to gradually build a picture of the life of a woman who lived in Madeira Cottage and became a recluse and whose shutters were closed for the rest of her life as the remnants of her wedding feast remained untouched.

Sadly I am not able to undertake such research at the moment but it is easy to believe that Charles Dickens heard a story on the Isle of Wight that led him to create one of his most famous characters.

Unless he heard it from Sydney.

Eliza Donnithorne arrived in Sydney in 1846 to join her elderly father Judge James Donnithorne who had retired there heartbroken following the death of his wife and other daughters in the 1832 cholera outbreak in Calcutta, where he had been stationed with the East India Company.

The judge died in 1852 and the bulk of his estate was left to Eliza who instantly became quite a catch.  Four years later Eliza was betrothed to George Cuthbertson and the wedding was to be held at St Stephen’s Church, just across the street from Camperdown Lodge, Eliza’s home.  One would imagine that the wedding of such a woman would draw quite a crowd so there must have been widespread shock and scandal when Mr Cuthberston failed to arrive.

Eliza waited and the clock ticked on, and on, and on.  The guests became more restless and indeed hungry until a few decided to make a start on the lavish wedding breakfast laying in wait across the street.  With the realisation that her fiancé had stood her up Eliza ran back to Camperdown Lodge and threw the gluttonous guests out.  Eliza’s staff were forbidden to clear away what remained of the feast and it was left on the table in case George should return.  It has also been recorded that Eliza remained in her white wedding attire which gradually became rotten and threadbare.  Children would run past the house terrified of the ghostly woman in white (maybe Wilkie Collins was also inspired by this particular tale?) within.

A local clergyman recalled visiting Eliza in her later years and noticing how decrepit everything was.  He remarked:

‘There wasn’t a decent bit of furniture in it. Everything had gone to wrack and ruin; even the tablecloths were rotting and falling to pieces….’

That certainly sounds like Satis House.

How would Charles Dickens have heard about this particular legend,  after all unlike Newcastle and Ventor he never visited Australia.  The most likely answer is from the Australian Social advocate Caroline Chisolm who’s husband was also attached to the East India Company at the same time as Judge Donnithorne.  Both families left India and headed to New South Wales within two years of each other so it is more than likely that they would have become friendly.

Dickens met with Caroline Chisolm in 1850 when she had returned to London for a short spell, and he was astounded by her non-existent housekeeping and the dirty faces of her many children.  It seemed that Caroline was so busy being an activist on behalf of emigrants that she neglected her own family.  A year after Dickens met her he created the character of Mrs Jelleby in Bleak House.

Dickens was always a champion of social activists and would have remained in contact with Chisolm, despite his literary lampooning of her.   If the case of Eliza Donnithorne was as scandalous as I imagine it must have been there can be no doubt that she would have passed the news gleefully on.

If I were researching this more completely I would trawl through Dickens’ letters in search of his correspondence with Caroline Chisolm.  I would travel to Sydney and delve into the archives of newspapers to find contemporary accounts of the scandal until I found full details of that fateful wedding day.  I would try to find out more about Miss Donnithorne’s mysterious maid Sarah Bailey who guarded her mistress’s secret to the end of her days.

Sadly I am not able to undertake such research at the moment and all that I have written is thanks to a blog posted by Pauline Connolly  to whom I apologise for what borders on plagiarism.  But it is easy to believe that Charles Dickens was told a story from Sydney that led him to create one of his most famous characters.

I have outlined three very plausible stories, any one of which could have influenced Dickens, but I am sure that the truth lies in all of them.  The nameless Apps ancestor stopped his clocks.   Miss Dick shut out the daylight.  Miss Donnithorne remained in her wedding gown.  Miss Havisham did all three.

I don’t know the figures, but I can make an assumption that in an era when divorce was so much more difficult and scandalous than it is today the instances of people getting cold feet on the morning of a wedding must have been more common place, leaving a whole list of potential Miss Havishams around the globe.

If I were able to research this more completely it would make a fascinating book and if anyone would like to fund that research, I am ready to go!

 

 

I am indebted to the following:

Geoff Woodward for his information on the Newcastle connection

Richard J Huthchings for his work on Miss Dick on the Isle of Wight

Pauline Connolly for her research into Eliza Donnithorne

 

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Revisiting Old Friends

With no shows for a couple of weeks my attentions turn back to preparations for the year ahead.  On one hand this means trying to fill my diary up and I have meetings with various new venues, as well as shoring up dates with some old friends.  On the Wirral Lynne Hamilton is working hard to book events on the run up to Christmas whilst in the south I am busy talking to the folks at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Highgate Cemetary and the Ffestiniog & West Highland Railway about returning to their respective venues.

Another conversation is with representatives of various venues on the Isle of Wight (also the home of my brother Ian ), with a view to spending a couple of days in September performing there.

Apart from filling my diary I am also revisiting a couple of my oldest scripts with a view to modifying them for the specific needs of two bookings that are fast approaching.

In May I will be visiting The Word, The Museum of the Written Word in Jarrow and have been asked to perform Mr Dickens is Coming, but with a new section added referencing Great Expectations.  The changes have been requested because the museum is launching a special exhibition telling the story of a possible local inspiration for the character of Miss Havisham (more of which to come in a future post), and wanted to link the show to that particular novel, which will pose an interesting and welcome challenge for me.

My first performance in 1993 was, as you know, A Christmas Carol and the following year I was invited to give a reading from Nicholas Nickleby, for which I used the version that Charles Dickens had edited for his own tours (Nicholas at the Yorkshire School), but I very soon realised that I needed a one man show that got away from being a ‘literary reading’ which held all the wrong connotations in my mind.  My fascination with my great great grandfather lay in his love of the theatre and I realised that this was a shared passion that I could utilise.  By creating a show that described Dickens’ various theatrical exploits I could include some of his most extraordinary characters.  I sat down to write.

The script included the writhing, ugly, conniving, contorted Uriah Heep from David Copperfied, as well as Mr and Mrs Micawber from the same novel (Mr M being a rather cruel portrait of John Dickens, Charles’ improvident father).

As a running gag I continually returned to my great great grandfather’s numerous refusals to meet Queen Victoria (on one occasion informing her that he did not perform for ‘individuals’ a quote to which I rather cheekily added the word ‘mere’ to increase the sense of impropriety).

As well as the well-known characters that are performed in every Dickens one man show you will ever see I wanted to include some more obscure passages and to this end I dug up ‘The Tale of the Bagman’s Uncle’ from The Pickwick Papers.  The tale is told by a bagman to the members of The Pickwick Club as they rest at an inn (one of those moments in Dickens’ early career when he needed extra pages to complete his monthly commitment, you can spot them a mile off: ‘gather round and I shall tell you a tale……’  The stories have nothing to do with the plot itself but fill a few extra pages).

The bagman’s uncle is a swashbuckling fellow who rescues a beautiful young lady by fighting off two villains who are attempting to abduct her.  The story has everything that a good adventure story should and culminates in a fight of flying furniture and flashing foils (oh, I do like a bit of alliteration!).  Whilst our hero is struggling with one rival, so the beautiful and resourceful girl takes care of the other by driving a sword ‘through him and the panelling right up to the hilt’ Eventually the bagman’s uncle emerges victorious by making  ‘his adversary retreat in the same direction, and plunging the old rapier into the very centre of a large red flower in the pattern of his waistcoat, nailed him beside his friend;’ and the conflict is done.

As I first read these words I realised that I was reading a James Bond adventure, albeit one written 100 years before Ian Fleming ever sat at his Imperial typewriter.  Having brought the fight to an end the central character even delivers a light hearted quip, as if to camera, noting that this is the surest way he knows of killing an enemy, although he objects to it on the grounds of cost as it necessitates the loss of a sword for each enemy!  Roger Moore would have raised an eyebrow and straightened his tie at this moment.

I used the Bagman’s Uncle to imagine how Dickens may have written if he had been working in the 20th century, embracing the film industry as he surely would have done.

I had to find a away to open the show and the solution came from a desire to show the audience that it would be OK to laugh and that I wouldn’t be lecturing them, as well as a wish to prove how knowledgeable I was. At that time most of my readings were for the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Dickens Fellowship (I am very proud to be the President of that branch now), the chair of which was a lady of supreme Dickensian knowledge Thelma Grove.  Thelma knew everything about every novel – every character, every scene, every quotation and so I decided that I wanted to start with the show with a passage that she didn’t know, which of course was an impossibility.  The only answer was to make up my own quote to catch her out.

I would walk onto the stage, solemnly greet the audience and then say these words:

Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen. It is such a privilege and honour to be standing here in this wonderful theatre and to be talking to you about the life of my great great grandfather, Charles Dickens. And there is no better place to tell you his story, as the theatre was his first love, he never felt happier than standing on a stage and before I begin tonight’s programme I’d like, if I may, to read to you the words of Charles Dickens:

I then picked up a small volume (GK Chesterton’s biography of Dickens) and read
‘Throughout my lifetime, as boy, youth and man I have derived a love of the stage. Today I am fortunate to stand upon the stages of the great theatres of the world and read from my own works. I pray, that when my lifetime is done, my characters may still live on these same stages. This, then, is my legacy to my family; The audience would be quite, listening intently, sitting up.  I continued: ‘…those members known to me today and those descendants whom I shall never meet.   The atmosphere would now be electric, for this was a letter written directly to me from my great great grandfather.  ‘May they take the pleasures that I have taken from the institution of the theatre.’

I wood slowly close the book, wipe a tear of emotion from my eye and let the full significance of the words settle in the auditorium.  Then would add:

As I said, those were the words of Charles John Huffham Dickens….unfortunately for me, he never actually used them in that order, but they were all his words at some stage or another!

At the first performance Thelma was in the audience and the effect was everything I had wanted it to be.  As I started she sat up looking confused, then curious, then suspicious and as I delivered the final line she looked me in the eye and burst out laughing!

I had my opening.

The script came together very well with a nice mixture of original text mixed with humour and anecdote, and it took the audience from Charles’ childhood, through his early forays into the world of theatre and on to his hugely successful reading tours.  But over the years I just couldn’t find a satisfactory way of bridging the gap between the start of the touring life and Dickens’ death on 9 June 1870.

At first I described his American adventures using the pithy criticisms from American Notes which, although funny, was written during his 1842 trip and therefore had no connection to his performing career which, after all, was the theme of the show.  Next I tried performing the charming story ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ which at least took place during his 2nd tour to America, but somehow the tone didn’t fit in with the rest of the script.

My next choice was to perform the most famous of Dickens’ readings, the brutal murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist.  When Charles performed it he judged the success of an evening purely on the amount of women who fainted as he bludgeoned the poor teenage prostitute to death.  In this version of the show I actually performed the end of the reading, but although it was dramatic it made the act too long and ponderous.

The current version of the script retains my description of Sikes and Nancy without the actual performance and it is has remained in that state for a couple of years now.

So the final quarter of the script is perfect for change and if it so happens that a venue wants something specific then there is the natural place to include it and so it will be for The Word in Jarrow.  Miss Havisham is a wonderfully theatrical character and the scenes in which she is described could be from a stage play, so the scene should slot in to the script with the greatest of ease, and the fact that Dickens may have been inspired by a local character will add anecdotal interest.

I don’t think that Miss Havisham will take up permanent residence in my show, but I rather like the idea that she can make a guest appearance now and again.

The other script which needs a little work is The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby which I originally performed as a one act show at around the same time as I wrote Mr Dickens is Coming.  The script follows Nicholas’s adventures to Yorkshire where he meets not only the villainous Wackford Squeers but also the pathetic Smike.  Having given Squeers a heroic beating Nicholas and Smike return to London, before heading to Portsmouth where they encounter the larger than life Mr Vincent Crummles and his theatrical troupe.

The script was written as a whistle-stop tribute to the RSC’s 8 hour epic from 1980, but now I want to extend it so that it stands on its own two feet as a 2 act play.  I am due to perform it at the Market Theatre in Hitchin later this summer, so work needs to start now.

The problem with extending a Dickens novel is that by including one scene it inevitably means returning to those characters later in the plot and that gets unwieldy, so I need a few stand alone scenes to introduce.

One that springs to mind is when Nicholas, seeking employment, goes to the politician Mr Gregsbury.  Having ascertained that Nicholas is not a rival or from the press Gregsbury outlines a secretary’s duties which involve doing everything!  Nicholas would be required to write speeches, listen to debates, table questions, scour the newspapers for stories about which a caring member of parliament can pass comment (such comments written of course by Nicholas).  In addition Nicholas would be expected to lounge anonymously around in the lobby and talk in a  loud voice about how marvellous Mr Gregsbury was and point him out to those who may not have noticed him.  All of this for 15 shillings a week.  Nicholas not surprisingly declines and goes on his way.

It is a short self contained scene and is a delicious satire on the world of politics which in our current climate is under greater scrutiny than ever before, and doesn’t seem to have moved on an awful lot!

Mr Gregsbury is one scene that can be used, and one of the other changes I want to make involves the ultimate fate of Mr Squeers who at the moment just disappears from the story without comment.  The conclusion of the Squeers story more difficult to achieve because in the book he becomes involved with a fraudulent plan initiated by Ralph Nickleby, to discredit Nicholas.  Unfortunately the plot is very complicated and involves a whole new cast of characters which would be incredibly confusing for an audience, so I need to sit, think and experiment with that section for a while before actually writing anything new

It’s just as well I have time on my hands!  I will you keep you posted with progress over the coming months.

Next week I shall return to Great Expectations and try to find an answer to the question ‘who was Miss Havisham?’  It is a question that will take me around the world.

 

 

World Book Day

Dickens and Dahl

Thursday March 8 was designated as this year’s World Book Day, on which it is traditional for school pupils to dress up as their favourite book characters for the day.  The idea is to think about books and possibly do some research into the actual character although the reality is often that children sport a costume based on a film adaptation.

One of our local primary schools decided to be more specific in their advice and suggested that the students should chose a costume from their favourite Roald Dahl story, which still gave them plenty of opportunity to raid their dressing-up boxes.  As the school day started there were plenty of Matildas, Miss Trunchbulls, Willy Wonkas, Oompa Loompas and Fantastic Mr Foxes. Danny and George were there, as were a few Twits and Witches.  Also there were the normal children: Charlie, Sophie and James, for many of Dahl’s protagonists are so splendidly ordinary that the reader can believe that the amazing adventures could actually happen to them.

As I watched this parade of imagination fill the pavements it set me thinking about the many connections between Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens and the influence each had on their readership.  Dahl was once asked in an interview why so many of his central characters had lost one or both parents, and in his answer he compared himself to Dickens, saying that he had ‘used a trick to get the reader’s sympathy’  In his list of favourite authors, and those which influenced him in his writings Dahl always named Charles Dickens first, so it is no surprise that great great grandad pops up again and again in the Dahl canon.

When the BFG wanted to learn English it was a copy of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’  that he borrowed from a bedside table,  ‘by Dahl’s Chickens’ he proudly tells Sophie.  What an interesting use of spelling and the apostrophe too.  Dahl doesn’t directly spoonerise the name as Darles Chickens but instead uses his own name to make the sound of the name  – the apostrophe almost gives him ownership.

Like the BFG when a 4 year old Matilda asks the kindly librarian Mrs Phelps for advice as to which grown up book she should try the answer is:

‘Try this’, she aid at last.  ‘It’s very famous and very good.  If it’s too long for you, just let me know and I’ll find something shorter and a bit easier.’

Great Expectations,’ Matilda read, ‘by Charles Dickens.  I’d love to try it.’

Matilda devours the story of Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham in just a week and returns to the library:

‘I loved it,’ she said to Mrs Phelps.  ‘Has Mr Dickens written any others?’

‘A great number,’ said the astounded Mrs Phelps.  ‘Shall I chose you another?’

And so Matilda embarks on Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist before surfing a wave of literature that includes works by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Mary Webb, Rudyard Kipling, HG Wells, Ernest Hemmingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, JB Priestly, Graham Greene and George Orwell.

Later in the book Matilda enrols at the local primary school and again the influence of Dickens is evident, although not in such a positive persona.  The  nightmarish headmistress Miss Trunchbull is teaching the class of the delightful Miss Honey and is barking at pupils and teacher alike:

‘Oh, do shut up, Miss Honey!  You’re as wet as any of them.  If you can’t cope in here then you can go and find a job in some cotton-wool private school for rich brats.  When you have been teaching for as long as I have you’ll realise that its no good at all being kind to children.  Read Nicholas Nickleby, Miss Honey, by Mr Dickens.  Read about Mr Wackford Squeers, the admirable headmaster of Dotheboys Hall.  He knew how to handle the little brutes, didn’t he!  He knew how to use the birch, didn’t he!  He kept their backsides so warm you could fry eggs and bacon on them!’

Miss Trunchbull is the perfect embodiment of her hero; the two schools both boast suitably foreboding names: Dickens uses Dotheboys (Do the Boys) Hall, whereas Dahl places The Truchbull at  Cruncham Primary.  Both headteachers regularly bully and abuse their charges to an extent that they are in mortal danger (starvation and beating in Nickleby, hurling high by into the air by pigtails and force feeding chocolate cake in Matilda.)

In Nicholas Nickleby our hero is employed as a young teacher and encounters the pathetic character of Smike whom he befriends as Miss Honey befriends Matilda. At the conclusion of both novels the teachers effectively adopt the children as their own.

A more obscure work of Charles Dickens is ‘The Tale of Captain Murderer’ which is one The Nurses Tales published in All the Year Round, and which is based on Charles’ own infant memories of a drunken nurse would try to terrify him to sleep.  Captain Murder is a splendidly gruesome story of piratical cannibalism culminating in our villain being poisoned from within by one of his victims – the effect on him is bizarre, terrifying and, to students of Roald Dahl, surprisingly familiar:

‘…and Captain Murderer had hardly picked her last bone, when he began to swell, and to turn blue, and to be all over spots, and to scream. And he went on swelling and turning bluer, and being more all over spots and screaming, until he reached from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall; and then, at one o’clock in the morning, he blew up with a loud explosion.’

Step forward and take a bow Violet Beauregarde!

I am sure there are many more Dickensian references in Dahl’s work and if anyone knows of them I would be fascinated to hear them.

 

King Alfred School

My own World Book Day took me to the King Alfred School in North London to perform The Signalman to the Key Stage 3 group who have been studying the gothic novel in their English lessons.

I had visited the school last year and then I had driven through heavy snow falls to get there.  This year it was rain and strong squally winds that accompanied me; maybe one year I will motor down in warm sunshine and a soft breeze.

I arrived at the school with 45 minutes to spare before I was due to perform and was given a parking space right outside the hall meaning that I could get all of my ‘set’ unloaded with a minimum of fuss.

The school is a well-to-do and artistic sort of a place with many of the students being children to well-known singers and actors.  It is surprising therefore that King Alfred’s does not boast a state of the art performance space, but the show was to be on the stage in the ‘main hall’ which at the time  of my arrival was doubling as the lunch hall.  As I lugged the clerk’s desk, chair and table onto the stage so the school staff packed away tables and swept up bits of potato, cabbage and sponge pudding which are the staple of the British school luncheon.

Having changed into costume I found myself alone in the hall and thought that I would do a little rehearsing before the audience arrived.  When I performed The Signalman in Henley I had got a little tangled up with a few of the lines towards the end, so I wanted to run them through.  As I rehearsed so the wind outside battered the building, rattling the old windows and generally adding a very authentic feel to the words.

At 2.50 the first students arrived in a trickle, which turned into a stream and then a flood so that by 3.00 the hall was full.  English teacher Alex made a short introduction and I was welcomed to the stage with a loud round of applause.

By way of introduction I talked about the Staplehurst Rail disaster, as is my wont, describing in detail the dying souls that Dickens came across in the wreckage: the man with ‘the moon-shaped gash across his head’ and the beautiful young woman in the unmarked dress who sat against a tree.  I pointed out how the press relished the story of the crash because it involved a celebrity- a celebrity, what’s more, who just happened to be travelling with the ‘wrong’ woman.

And then I started.

I got the first line wrong!  All of that rehearsal concentrating on the tricky middle section and I buggered up the easiest and most memorable line of the script.  Hey, ho.  Actually it was fine and I got back on track quickly.  In fact the performance became more and more intense as I went on and by the time I got to the part that had given me difficulties at The Kenton Theatre I was in full flow and really enjoying myself.  It was an energetic, physical and ultimately good performance.

When I finished I returned to the aftermath of the Staplehurst crash and told the students (who had been remarkably attentive throughout the hour) about the coincidence of Dickens’ death on the 5th anniversary of the accident – 9th June 1870.

And then it was question time: quite a few hands went up and there some very good enquiries, mainly about the train crash: was the lady in the untouched dress who died in Dickens’ arms the model for the lady who died instantaneously in the story?   (Almost certainly) Does the rail line outside Staplehurst go through a steep cutting and is there a signalbox there?  (No, the line it Staplehurst is over very flat countryside and in fact the bridge where the crash happened carries the line over marshland, rather than any sort of ravine.  However near Dickens’ home at Gad’s Hill Place there was a deep rocky cutting with a dark tunnel and this was his inspiration for the claustrophobic setting for the story).  What did everyone at your school think of you?  (Goodness, how do I answer that?!  Actually my school was not strong academically and nobody really cared less whether I had a famous forbear or not, apart from the moment when we started to study Oliver Twist and my English teacher helpfully pointed my ancestry out to the class.  At that point I think sheer hatred rained upon my head.).

Of course there was interest in ‘the other woman’ and I honestly told the group that Charles was travelling home from France in the company of Ellen Ternan and her mother.  Dickens has separated from his wife Catherine seven years before and had been involved with Ellen for a long time, but to protect his wholesome image the affair was kept secret, even though London was rife with rumour.  Image the joy of today’s press if a major incident occurred and it involved an uber, mega, superstar and he just happened to be in the company of someone with whom he had long been suspected of having an affair – the same was true in 1865.

At 4 o’clock so our session drew to a close and I received another, even louder, round of applause as I left the stage.  As the students left a few came up and asked other questions and one young man informed me that all of the depressing events I had talked about occurred on his birthday – June 9th.  I apologised but he airily replied ‘Oh that’s all right, it’s hardly your fault!’ With a firm shake of the hand and a cheery ‘goodbye’ he left with the rest of his classmates.

The English department helped me pack away the set into my car and I drove back onto the streets of North London still in costume.  Now it was my turn to celebrate World Book Day and I started to play a recording of a book that encouraged me to read when I was young and which shaped my childhood:  A Bear Called Paddington.

I drove home with a big smile on my face!

 

 

 

February: A Theatre, Two Schools and Forward Planning

I have made a decision and it is this:

Throughout the year I would like to write a much more regular blog, as well as the Christmas tour’s daily diary.  Of course every day is not made up of interest-filled journeys, sell-out shows or mouth watering repasts, but there is usually something or other going on either in my mind, or on stage, which hopefully will be of interest to you and may pass a quiet 20 minutes or so of a morning.

So, here goes:

February is always a quiet month in the Dickens calendar, despite it including Charles’s birthday on the 7th, so usually it is a time where I look at the coming year and make my plans.

This year the evening of the birthday itself was spent in The Kenton Theatre in Henley-on-Thames performing a double bill of Mr Dickens is Coming and The Signalman, which is a combination that I do not usually use.

I was working on a box office split with the theatre so it was in my interest to sell the show well, and I embraced Twitter as never before, with each Tweet liked and retweeted by a growing number of people.  I arranged interviews for both BBC Oxford (which resulted in the intriguing possibility of narrating a special radio version of The Carol utilising the talents of the presenters as the cast) and BBC Berkshire.  The theatre PR team organised a wonderful double page feature article in the local newspaper, and as the day came closer so the audience numbers crept up.

The evening was great fun and it was great to back on stage for the first time this year.   An enthusiastic audience enjoyed the show and asked some great questions in a short Q&A after the final curtain.

Mind you the evening wasn’t all plain sailing for the get-out wasn’t an easy, or enjoyable experience.   The theatre has no off-street parking and I had to leave my car double parked in the main road whilst I carried all of the furniture down a long narrow alley from stage to street.  On a number of occasions I emerged from the alley, struggling with some awkward load or other, only to discover a bus or a lorry unable to get past my car and a queue of increasingly irate drivers forming behind it.  At such times all I could do was get in the car and drive round the long one-way system in Henley before returning to the theatre and getting the next load.  I got home rather late that night.

On the following day I drove down to my home county of Kent to talk in two schools, one in Canterbury and one in Sandwich, about Charles Dickens and specifically A Christmas Carol which the students are studying for their GCSE exams.  My first appointment was at The Spires Academy in Canterbury which is a very new purpose-built school.  My performance space was in the open plan reception area surrounded by giant video screens showing a slide show of memorable events on that day in history.  I asked if the screens could be turned off, as they would not only be distracting to the pupils, but to me also – they were fascinating!

The pupils at The Spires were most respectful and attentive and asked good questions afterwards, but I couldn’t stay long as I had to get on the road to my second venue at The Sandwich Technology School some twenty minutes away.  I had performed at the school before and was greeted by the English staff like an old friend.  The performance space in the school gymnasium was somewhat gladiatorial as a small stage had been surrounded  on all four sides by over 200 seats waiting for 200 year 10 students to fill them: there would be no hope of escape.

The larger audience was more difficult to deal with than the morning’s smaller group, and it was with a great deal of noise that the students poured in.  As I worked my way the show the show there was a degree of shuffling, sniggering and chatting but members of staff from all departments (including a rather terrifying sports teacher) were spread through the room and moved in to keep order if a particular individual stepped out of line.

In both schools I performed an hour long version of the show (which is about long enough, but frustrating as there is so much that has to be cut), and at the end of my show I got a long and loud round of applause which I didn’t quite expect.

Once again there was plenty of time for questions, one of which was ‘Did all of that actually happen to Scrooge, or was it in his imagination?  Did he dream it all?’

Discuss!

Looking forward into the year I have some exciting new venues coming up, including the Museum of the Written Word in the North East of England, which looks to be an amazing site, and where I will be performing the same double bill as in Henley.  Another very exciting addition is that of the Severn Valley Railway in August where I will, of course, be performing The Signalman.  The historic setting will be exciting enough but of even greater interest to me is the fact that part of the BBC’s classic 1976 adaptation of the story starring Denholm Elliott was filmed on the line.

What else does did February hold?  Planning for Christmas, of course.  Due to the difficulty of getting a USA Visa the process of booking my tour has to start early in the year and as soon as we decide on dates then all of the UK venues start to fall into place too.  I have spent the last week with my diary starting to work out where in the country I would like to be.  Liverpool has already come online, as well as venues in Newcastle, Kent and Dorset.  There are plenty of others to talk to and it will be good to have the whole tour fully sorted so early in the year.

I will keep you in touch with progress through as well as anything else that I think may be of interest as the months roll on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sad Loss

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Last week I had my first two shows of 2019 the first of which was in a theatre.  I was due to perform a double bill of ‘Mr Dickens is Coming!’ and ‘The Signalman’ at The Kenton Theatre in Henley-on-Thames (which incidentally is the 4th oldest active theatre in Britain, which is quite a claim).

‘Mr Dickens is Coming’ requires a replica of Charles Dickens’ red reading desk on stage, while The Signalman needs an old clerk’s table both of which are stored in a garden shed, so last Thursday I had to remove bikes, golf clubs, garden tools, jacks, axle stands and various other paraphernalia before I could get to my props.

The long winter had taken its toll on the structure of the shed and far from being a warm dry environment it is now rather damp and is held together by a few layers of paint and very little else.  As I got to my prop box I found a leather folder blooming with blue mould on the surface and a wave of sadness came over me, for this item represents a major part of my performing career and many memories are nestling in it.

in 1993 I was a thirty year old actor who was teaching people to drive in order to make ends meet.  It must have been around May that I was approached by a lady who was involved in raising funds for a local charity.  ’93 marked the 150th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol and the lady in question had hit upon the idea of recreating one of Charles Dickens’ own readings of the novel in a candle-lit village hall and would I like to take on this challenge?

To be honest I wasn’t keen on the plan as I hadn’t enjoyed a close relationship with my great great grandfather during my school years.  I couldn’t see anyone enjoying 90 minutes of reading, and I certainly didn’t feel up to the job of taking on the huge responsibility of representing my family name.  My charitable lady was persuasive however and by the time I left the house I had agreed to perform two evenings of readings in November.

I was all at sea as to how to perform though, and tentatively broached the subject with my Dad, David Dickens, past President of the Dickens Fellowship and a great student and expert on all things Dickens.

Dad always been good in not forcing his passion for CD onto his children.  His mantra had always been ‘do whatever you want to do in life, but do it to your best ability’.  About Dickens he would say ‘you will discover a love of Charles Dickens one day.  It maybe when you are twenty, or when you are fifty or when you are eighty, but you will discover it one day’  Now he saw the first glimmers of my moment of discovery and responded enthusiastically!

Firstly he purchased me a little paperback book called ‘Sikes and Nancy and Other Readings’ which had the texts of all of Charles’ own readings in it.  The battered volume is still on my shelves and I refer to it often.  Discovering the chapter on A Christmas Carol I found a brief description of the original readings as well as the version of the story that the great man had created for his performances, and that seemed as good a place to start as any other.

Then Dad started steering me towards various biographies which told the story of Dickens the performer which he felt would be beneficial.  At this stage I ignored my father’s advice because I wanted to perform as myself and not trying to ‘be’ Dickens (what was the point of  imitating  a man long dead?  Nobody would know if it was accurate or not, and it would detract from the story which had to be the star turn).  My father respected that decision and was happy that I wanted to do things in my own way.

Nothing happened until maybe September or October, when I was called to asked if everything was ready for the show. ‘Of course!’ I untruthfully replied:  ‘I am thoroughly looking forward to it!’ and immediately started to work on the script.  I had no time to learn the text so the performance would have to be a reading and that was fine as it had been advertised as such.  I printed out the text and had it bound between two A4 sheets of cardboard which looked terribly modern and shabby, so I had a cloth sleeve made to cover my book.

The rehearsals went well, for each and every character found their own voice with no real input from me.  Scrooge naturally became Scrooge as I described him as a ‘Squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scratching, covetous old sinner.’  Bob Cratchit took on a nervousness that was reflected in his voice (a soft west country burr to contrast the harsh, grating dialect of his employer) and his movements.  Marley’s voice was based on the description of his dislocated jaw, whilst the Ghost’s of Christmas Past and Present reflected previous representations of the characters that my audience would be familiar with: light and ethereal for the former and bluff Yorkshire for the latter.

It was an exciting time for me as an actor to discover this cast coming together, and to find them working in harmony, complementing and helping one another through the story.

Eventually I read for Dad.  There were tears in his eyes (at the time I took that to be a good thing and I am sure it was!).  He told me that he wouldn’t come to the show as he wanted me to be the centre of attention, but he couldn’t wait to hear all about it.  There would be another night years later when he said the same thing to me.

Well the evening was fabulous and for the first time I discovered the magic that Charles Dickens’ ‘ghostly little book’ could weave.  The audience were entranced and became completely immersed in the story: they laughed, they cheered and they cried.

The following Christmas I performed The Carol more often and by this time the little cloth sleeve had been replaced and this is where today’s  blog subject makes its appearance.  I wanted a folder in my hand that looked antique, that would be part of the set and one day in an antiques shop I saw an old leather cover which had probably been made in the 1970s to cover copies of either of the two television listing guides, the BBC’s Radio Times or  ITV’s TV Times (probably the latter, for the type of person who would want to cover a Television listing guide would not want their guests to know they stooped so low as to watch ITV!  If you want to see who I am talking about then watch episodes of ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ and you will understand.)

Soon the folder and I became inseparable as I started to travel farther and wider.  Until one afternoon in Tennessee when we became separated on a day which changed the shape of my career and life.  I had performed an afternoon reading of The Carol in a hotel function room in Fayetteville TN, and the show went well, and as I finished with ‘God bless us, every one!’ I put the folder down and took my bows.  I didn’t have time to stay and chat however for in just a couple of hours I had another performance in Alabama and had to get into a car straight away.  I travelled in costume and slept in the back seat while my agent at the time drove. Time was tight.  Along the way we got lost and had to phone ahead to warm the audience members that I would be a little late.

I had been travelling in costume so when we eventually arrived I could bound straight onto the stage and start the reading for the patient folk who sat expectantly in rows…except my leather folder and my script were three hours behind me in Fayetteville!  Panic!  What would I do?  The little folder contained not only my words, but also was a comfort blanket and crutch: suddenly I was alone and exposed.

I had no choice but to try and ‘wing it’ and tentatively began with ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’  As I continued I discovered that actually I knew the whole show by heart, and rather than being metaphorically tied to a lectern I could roam about the stage and start acting.  I grabbed a chair which could double as the one in Scrooge’s office, as well as that in his chambers – it even became his bed.  I found a stool which became the image of Tiny Tim, I hung my hat and scarf over a hat stand which stood in the corner of the room. And so the show that I perform now was born.  The reading script and folder had led me to a point where I could recite 90 minutes of script.

There was an amusing post script to the performance in Alabama when a lady complimented me after the show on my ability to act with my medical condition.  On asking what she meant she pointed out that my ability to gesture despite the paralysis of my left arm was truly inspiring….I had spent so much time with the leather folder clasped in my left arm that all of my gestures had been developed for the right and now my unencumbered free arm hung useless by my side!  Even today the show is very much ‘right handed’.

As the years went on I introduced more shows into my repertoire, including the brutal Murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist, using the script that Charles had developed and which had made ladies in his audiences faint.  The climax of the reading comes as Bill Sikes batters the poor girl with a heavy club and at that moment I took to bringing my right fist hard down onto the script.  The heavy leather gave a solid base for the blow and the drama of the scene was enhanced by the loud noise that is produced.

Many of my favourite performances have started their lives as readings – Nicholas Nickleby, The Signalman, Doctor Marigold and A Tale of Two Cities all nestled between the leather covers before they became fully fledged shows in the own right.  The Death of Little Paul Dombey and The Haunted Man were both attempts at developing new readings which never made it passed their first performances, meaning that many memories good and bad are held in the folder.

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But now it is time to move on and say goodbye to a piece of…what? furniture? equipment? costume? Who knows what category it falls into, but it has been a constant companion to me throughout my career and I am sad to say goodbye.

I hinted earlier that there was a second occasion that my dad was not present and asked me to report back.  I had been asked to take on the great honour of being the President of the Dickens Fellowship and would begin my term at the conference in Canterbury.  At the conference dinner I would be expected to make a speech and dad asked me if I would thank all of his friends in the organisation, for he wasn’t well enough to travel.  I didn’t realise, although I am sure that he did, that he was actually saying good bye.  He insisted I come to the house the next morning to tell him all about the dinner, as well as to climb a ladder and prune his wisteria which was starting to overwhelm the house.

After dinner I stood to speak, I relayed Dad’s message and there was a long period of warm and heartfelt applause for him.  I picked up my leather folder and gave a short reading (of what I cannot remember, probably something from Copperfield as we were in Canterbury) and I know that my father was proud of me.  That night, probably as I was actually speaking, my father passed away in his bed.  I received the news as I left the event and drove straight to my parents home in costume to be with my mother.  Next morning I duly clambered up a ladder (in waistcoat and striped trousers) to tend to the wisteria, as I had promised.

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The Final Stretch

With Christmas out of the way, let me take you back to the last two days of my 2018 tour.  You will recall that I left you in Liverpool:

Following my two days in Liverpool it was time to head home and into the final stretch of the 2018 tour.

I left Merseyside at around 9am, after a good breakfast of course, and the day was cold, foggy and misty.  I turned the car’s heater on and was surprised the engine didn’t seem to be heating up.  Oh well.  A quick stop at a petrol station to refuel and continue south, eventually joining the M6 but still no heat was forthcoming.  My memory went back to the ‘old days’ of hand-to mouth motoring when I became expert in every frailty in my cheap cars and remembered that no heat from the heater used to mean no water in the system, no water in the system meant engine overheating, engine overheating meant BANG!

But surely not in a modern car governed by electronics and with no temperature gauge to look at – surely if there is no gauge then there cannot be anything that needs monitoring.  However as these thoughts weaved their way around my brain a startling alert appeared on the screen:  ENGINE OVERHEATING!!

I pulled in at the next service station and opened the bonnet, which fortunately did not release clouds of steam, but sure enough the header tank for the cooling system was empty, so I topped it up and was relieved to see that the water did not just cascade through a large hole onto the floor.  I crossed my fingers for the rest of the journey.

The overheating did not return and my homeward progress was uninterrupted.

It was lovely to be home and to see the family, but it was only for a brief couple of hours as I had to get on the road again for an evening show at The Stables Theatre, Wavendon (in Milton Keynes).

To be honest I didn’t want to do it.  I was exhausted from the Liverpool gigs, the cold was threatening and being at home seemed a much more sensible option.  Liz too, who has been coping with the children single handed for the last few weeks, desperately needed my help and the thought of me driving away again was almost too much for either of us to bear.  It was a difficult afternoon, but at 4 o’clock we said the inevitable goodbyes and I headed away again towards the most magnificently huge moon shining low in the sky.

I have performed A Christmas Carol at The Stables Theatre once before and it was a most successful evening, so apart from the tiredness I knew that I would be well looked after.

Sure enough as soon as I arrived I was taken in hand by the lighting and sound teams who made sure that every cue in my script was as I wanted it, that the cross fades between lighting effects were the right speed, and that each sound effect was the perfect volume to complement the action.

When the tech runs were complete I was shown to my dressing room and the green room where a plate of sandwiches, a bowl of fruit, a tin of biscuits and bottles of water awaited me.  Peter, the duty manager for the evening, also asked if I would like a bottle of wine an offer which I foolishly declined as it could have graced our Christmas table in a couple of days time.

I then settled down in my green room to while away the time until the audience started to arrive.  With about twenty minutes to go I changed into my costume at which point I started to pace the back stage corridors as is my wont – as a show approaches I am fairly hopeless at sitting still.

The sound team had selected a CD of a brass (it may have been silver) band performing Christmas carols to play as the audience took their seats and the gentle evocative sound set such a perfect atmosphere that I may encourage all venues to do the same in the future.

At 8.00 I was given the all clear and I waited in the wings until the lights went to black, the sound effect started and, an blue light came up and I walked onto the stage to begin.  The stage at the stables is quite low and although there is a proscenium arch, it is a long way back.  The main part of the stage thrusts way forward into the auditorium terminating in a half octogen shape.   Frustratingly the lighting rig was set for a children’s theatre production which only used half the stage so I couldn’t get all the way forward to the audience and I felt a little remote, but nonetheless I had plenty of space to perform in and the lighting was wonderful.  I was able to use my full range of sound effects again and the whole atmosphere was perfect.

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Considering I had not wanted to be here I loved the sensation of being in a real theatre, in the pool of light with the audience surrounding me, and I got fully into each and every character that I perform.

The interval came and the audience’s applause rang in my ears as I returned to my dressing room and took the opportunity to change shirt.  Most of the interval was spent pacing up and down again, anxious to get back onto the stage again.

The second half of the show engaged the audience straight away and they all joined in at the Cratchit’s Christmas lunch and made suitably appreciative gasps to greet the goose.

The drama and passion of the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come worked really well in this crucible and by the show’s conclusion the audience was as wrapped up in the story as I was.

The applause and ovation was fabulous and it felt great to be on stage.

I changed quickly and although we hadn’t planned any formal signing session I went into the foyer just in case and found quite a line of people waiting to chat.  There was a girl who is studying the book for her GCSE, and a teacher who was teaching it, but last in line was a gentleman so fulsome in his praise that I was almost blushing!  The best comment though was when he told me that he had also seen Simon Callow’s one man production of A Christmas Carol and that he vastly preferred not only my performance but my scrip too, as it took less liberties with the original text.  That sort of comment I will happily accept any day of the week!

Once back stage I got changed as quickly as I could and by the time I emerged from my dressing room I discovered that all of my furniture had been lifted out to my car and it didn’t take long to load up before saying my goodbyes and driving into the night. The journey home took little more than an hour and it was lovely to sleep in my own bed for once!

The 22nd December marked a day off and it was lovely to spend it at home with Liz and the girls.  We finished decorating our house and met up with some old friends, all of which was a world away from life on the road, and all of which was perfect.

But there was still one more day left and early on the morning of 23rd December I left home again and headed towards Leicester.  I have been performing in the ancient Guildhall in Leicester for about 6 years now and it is a perfect place to bring my tour to a close.

Despite a journey through heavy rain and mist I arrived at 11 o’clock and unloaded my props before parking in the large city centre NCP car park that is attached to the Holiday Inn, my home for the night.  Back at the Guildhall I was welcomed by my good friend Ben Ennis and his colleague Carolyn, who were the only staff available to look after my matinee.

As I set up my furniture Carolyn was making mulled wine in the Mayor’s Chamber (which doubles as a bar for events such as mine) and Ben made sure everything else was in order whilst also manning the reception desk (for the Guildhall is one of the main tourist attractions in Leicester.)

The first show was at one and the audience started to arrive very early, as those who have come year after year know that the seating is unreserved and therefore the best spots get filled quickly.  My dressing room is in the Jury Room, a grand panelled library which looks down on the main guildhall, and I am always able to sneak little looks as the audience arrive.  Last week they were noisy and excitable and there was a really festive atmosphere to the afternoon.  Outside shoppers were finishing their gift buying and revellers were just getting started.

The Guildhall is in a little alley and could answer the description of Scrooge’s home:

He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of a building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again. It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge, the other rooms being all let out as offices. The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands. The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.

Very definitely the atmosphere of the room enhances the story.

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The show went very well, despite my voice and body being tired by now.  The audience sat wrapped up in their coats, despite the roaring fire in the grate, but were enthusiastic and demonstrative.  Once again the show was in two halves and it was nice to be able to take a breather at the interval.

At around 3.00 my penultimate show came to a close and I took my bows to loud applause once more.

Between shows Ben always lays on a Christmas dinner for me, his family and everyone involved, so at 4.30 we all gathered around a table in the Mayor’s Parlour and munched on turkey and stuffing sandwiches followed by mince pies.  Ben’s family have become good friends over the years and it was lovely to share some time with them once again.

As we sat in good fellowship so the cathedral bells started to ring an energetic peal on the other side of the narrow alleyway and the perfect scene was complete!

But, there was one more show to do, so after dinner I popped back to the hotel (only a 5 minute walk) to have a little rest and a shower before getting ready for the last show of 2018.  When I arrived the audience were already lining up and I rather had to play the ‘do you know who I am’ card, to get to my dressing room!

Once again it was a full house, and once again the festive city seemed to permeate the ancient room.  There was even more noise from outside by this time and the revellers had obviously been revelling hard!  In my years at the Guildhall I have sometimes managed to time the line ‘the bell struck twelve’ with the tolling of the cathedral; it doesn’t always work because the line comes in the second act so it depends how speedy or tardy the audience are in getting to the bar and back, but last Friday it worked and there was a oud cheer, wholly at odds with the tone of the scene, as the heavy bell intoned the hour.

The show ended at around 9.30 and after I’d said good bye to the audience and signed a few programmes, I walked out into the street to fetch my car.

Guildhall Lane was deserted and quiet, with the exception of one man selling copies of The Big Issue magazine.  He approached me and explained that he’d been on the streets selling all day and he had only three copies left.  He needed the money raised to get himself into a shelter over the Christmas period.  So there we were, just him and me in a deserted street in the shadow of a cathedral.  I scrabbled in my pocket for some change and brought the magazine, giving him the rest of the coins I had too.  It was not much, not enough, but I hope he found the shelter and comfort he needed.  His gratitude as he walked away was a superb Christmas present to me.

And so I returned home early in the morning on Christmas Eve and the professional life of Gerald Dickens became a home life once more.  The most important thing was to finish decorating the house which involved stringing lights around the door frames (the effect looking in from outside is beautiful).  I carefully secured a string of red lights around the kitchen door, pinning it in place with tiny panel pins.  When all was done I stepped back and admired my handiwork!

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Everything was ready, with only one cloud – we had no internet connection, no dialling tone to our phone.  Of course being Christmas eve it would be impossible to get anyone out to look at it for a few days, so we had a wifi-free Christmas (which apart from preventing us downloading a few films, and using up our mobile data allowance, didn’t really matter at all).

Christmas was lovely with a gorgeous tree, acres of wrapping paper strewn across the floor, a huge turkey, a flaming pudding, an afternoon walk to admire the neighbourhood lights and all the rest of the nonsense!

When our kindly Sky TV engineer came to see us he tested the line, prodded and probed and evaluated the situation and then reported to us:  ‘You said that  your phone line went down on Christmas eve?’  Yes.  ‘Did  you put your decorations up on Christmas Eve?  Um, well, yes.  It transpired that I had driven a panel pin straight through the phone line as I hung the decorations!

Thank you for accompanying me on my journeys and for all of your kind comments and thoughts.  It has been another lovely tour but now I am at home and ready to begin 2019 with the family and who knows what adventures will come along.  As they say, ‘watch this space!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming an Usher for a Night

Thursday, 20 December

I want to begin by mentioning two incidents that occurred yesterday that I forgot to mention in yesterday’s blog post:

You will recall that 19th December marked the 175th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol and at the evening show when Lynne announced the fact from the stage the audience broke out into a long and heartfelt applause.  If there is such a thing as a spirit world, then what a wonderful thing for Charles Dickens to hear from above.

The second incident may also have been guided by the spirit hand of CD.  On the set there is a small table which is where I place the carefully folded cloth to represent Tiny Tim’s frail little body.  On the table is a candle in a brass candle stick, and usually the candle remains unlit as most venues don’t like live flames on stage.  St George’s Hall however were surprisingly co operative and I was able to light the candle, which adds the scene even more poignancy.  The candle in the stick was quite a small one, and burnt down during the course of the show.  By the time I reached the point where Bob sits next to Tim the candle was almost gone, and at the very moment – and I mean the absolute instant that he kissed Tim’s face before laying his body down to rest the candle popped and died.

Of course the rational explanation is that the candle had around 90 minutes of life left in it and it after 90 minutes had passed it burnt out.  The moment in the show was completely coincidental and it could equally have happened in Old Joe’s shop, or on the streets of London.  Yes, that is the rational explanation.  But, in a room filled with so many memories, and on such an important day the symbolism and timing was just too perfect to be coincidental, wasn’t it?

So back to the present and I have a morning free before having to be at the Hall at 1.  I have my breakfast and then do a little work back in my room, before heading out into the city.  I have a little last minute Christmas shopping to do and the Liverpool 1 shopping complex is right next to the hotel, so I stroll out and become part of the Christmas melee.

Liverpool 1 is a modern complex but as I walk I catch a glimpse of an older building up an alley and it sets me thinking as to how much Charles Dickens would recognise if he was in the same streets now.  Obviously all of the buildings around St George’s Hall would be known to him, but the iconic Liver Building wasn’t yet built.  The Albert Docks were under construction so he would recognise the warehouses that now host the Tate and all of the restaurants but the rest of the waterside would be an alien landscape to him.

The building that inspires this reverie is the Bluecoat, ‘Liverpool’s Creative Hub’, but the building is the oldest in the City, built in 1716 as a charity school so I have no doubt that Charles would have visited this particular site.

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It is lovely being out in the streets so close to Christmas as, on the whole, everyone is in good spirits.  Lots of people are wearing Santa hats and Christmas sweaters and in each shop there is festive music playing, ranging from discreet choral performances of classic carols to Roy Wood screaming ‘IT’S CHRISTMAS!!!!!!’

Having finished my shopping I walk up to St George’s Hall where there is a Christmas market in full swing, so I decide to treat myself to an early lunch of German sausage and  a crepe (stop sniggering, at the back).  The Brockwurst is good and is made even better by ketchup and mustard and I sit people watching as I eat it.  For my dessert I go for the classical lemon and sugar option on my pancake which I munch from a paper cone as I walk through the various stalls and fairground rides.

I still have a little time on my hands, so I walk to the Walker Art Gallery to have a coffee. As I am standing in line to order my Americano the lady in front asks ‘Are you Gerald Dickens?  We saw your show in Chester last year and are coming to see you this afternoon!’  How nice to be recognised.

Now it is time to go back to the hotel where I have a quick shower and then head to the hall at 1pm.

Johnny is there waiting for me and the first thing I ask him to do is to take a picture of me on stage wearing my G&V tie.  The G&V is a chop house in the heart of the City of London, and its correct name is The George and Vulture.  The tavern features by name in The Pickwick Papers and many take it to be the setting of Scrooge’s counting house, its location being in the heart of the exchange (or ‘change as Dickens describes it) region of London.

For many years the Dickens family has celebrated with a lunch at the G&V in the week before Christmas and the model is that of the Pickwick Club, meaning that the affair is spectacularly chauvinistic and boozy.  Every attendee has to wear a G&V tie which features a vulture with a bone in its beak.  The original sketch was made by my grandfather Gerald, and bore the caption ‘Alas, poor George’.  Anyone who does not wear the tie is fined a bottle of port.

In recent years it has been the tradition for those who cannot attend the lunch to send pictures of themselves wearing the tie in unusual settings, so here is my offering to the group.

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Actually Gerald has been travelling with me throughout the tour as I have two items that belonged to him in my kit.   The first is a silver cigarette case bearing the monogram GCD, which I use to store spare ink cartridges for my fountain pen, and the other is a little locket complete with pictures of Henry and Marie Dickens (Gerald’s parents) who gave it to him.  The locket now is on the end of my watch chain.  I really must find something of my father’s that I can include so that every generation is represented from Charles down to me.

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I get ready for the show and soon the audience are starting to take their seats, and it is another excellent house.

The show is OK but not perfect, unfortunately I am beginning to be aware of a cold building, which is not surprising as I have been going flat out for quite a while now.  I inadvertently drop a few lines, mostly from the sections that get added in for my two act version of the script, for example I completely bypass the conversation between Bob and Mrs Cratchit discussing Tim’s behaviour on the way home from Church.  In itself it doesn’t matter particularly but it is annoying to me and proves that my concentration is not quite where is should be today.

For all that the performance goes very well and once again the audience are on the feet and stamping the floor once more as I take my bows.

After my meet and greet session in the lobby I change head for a nearby restaurant where I have a plate of fish and chips to sustain me through the evening and then return to the hotel to relax.

I have another bubbly energising jacuzzi bath and then lay on my bed watching TV until it is time to return to St George’s Hall for the last time.  This year the hall has been vibrantly lit in various shades of blue, and with twinkling white lights strung in the branches of trees and a hazy moon above it is quite a sight.

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My cold is really coming on now, and my throat is feeling a little tight, so I tuck myself away in my room so that I don’t need to talk more than is necessary, although I am very happy to chat to Johnny’s 9 yr old daughter who has come to see the show tonight, and wants a photo taken with me.

Once again we have a choir to open proceedings but they are a much smaller group tonight and at 7.30 they take to the stage.  I decide to sneak in at the back of the balcony to listen and it is truly beautiful.  The Concert Hall’s acoustics are perfect for their performance and it is easy to let the music wash over me.  As I stand I am aware of movement on the other side of the semi-circular balcony.  A rather angry man walks up to me and says ‘I need to be re seated.  I cant see anything from where I am.  This has to be sorted out.  I’m not staying there, it’s not happening.  If nothing is done then it will ruin the evening for everyone else!’

So Mr Gerald Dickens, taking on the guise of an usher, gently makes sure we step out of the door, as the little fracas is already ruining the music for the audience sat near us, and I take him down to Lynne to try and sort it out.  Alternative seating is found on floor level and the crisis is averted.  I would love to see his face when I walk on stage at the start of the show, for he obviously had no idea that I am the performer.

After the choir has finished I get ready to start and when Lynne welcomes me I walk onto the stage to loud applause.  I walk to Marley’s grave side, and then back to centre stage where I deliver my first line directly to the empty seats which our friend and his family have just vacated!  Silly and childish I know, but rather satisfying.

My voice is struggling a little which is annoying for I know that the range of voices and tones is not as great as it could be, and I am aware during the first act of Johnny increasing the levels on the mic system slightly which is good of him.

In the interval I slump in my chair, and drink a lot of water ready for the final push.  Following the drawing of raffle prizes (raffles are the bane of my life!) I return to the stage to commence act 2.  Only a few minutes in I hear a crackle from the mic and it goes dead meaning that I have to get through the next 40 minutes unamplified, which actually isn’t too difficult thanks to those beautiful acoustics.  However what I must do is keep control over the show and not over stress myself and try too hard which I can be guilty of, and am slightly guilty of today.

I also notice that my wooden stool on stage is starting to fall apart too, with one of the cross beams that keep’s the legs in position having pulled out – we are all feeling the strain!

I get to the end of the show hot, sweating and completely drained but once again the Liverpool public stand and whoop and cheer me on to the stage as I take my bows.

Today’s shows were not great ones but everyone who came seemed to enjoy them very much and once again my experiences at St George’s Hall have been remarkable and memorable.

Thank you to Lynne for making it happen, to Jacqui for selling my programmes so effectively, meaning a goodly donation to the Charles Dickens Museum is on the way, to Johnny for looking after my sound and lighting and for being such a positive colleague, and too all the staff at the St George’s Hall who have been brilliant to work with, and who have now loaded my car for me before I drive back to the hotel garage.

I am tired, there is no doubt whatever about that, but elated also.

 

 

175 Years Young

Wednesday 19 December

 

On 19 December 1843 A Christmas Carol was first published.  Exactly 175 years ago Charles Dickens’s ‘ghostly little book’ hit the bookstands and began a journey which apparently will never end.

The day’s festivities start at 7.30 with a radio interview for BBC Radio Solent, whose area includes the city of Portsmouth where Charles was born in 1812.  It is a fun interview in that my brother Ian is on the line from the Isle of Wight too, so The Dickens Boys banter around for a while, chatting about the book as well as our own Christmas memories.

Apart from talking about A Christmas Carol the breakfast show is also discussing festive drinks and Julian Clegg, the presenter, asks us if there is any particular tipple that the Dickens family traditionally enjoy, to which Ian and I, separated by a couple hundred miles, answer in absolute unison:  ‘Horse’s Neck’!

A ‘Horse’s Neck’ is a Naval drink and our family is very much a Naval family (my father, his two brothers and my grandfather all served in the Royal Navy).  Dad would proudly mix brandy and dry ginger as pre-Christmas lunch drinks and we children had to wait patiently until all the adults had a Horse’s Neck in their hands before we were allowed to open the presents under the tree.  I feel a nostalgic glow as I remember those days and I’m sure that Ian is feeling the same.

Once the interview is done so the house descends into chaos as Liz and I bundle the children out of the door and off to school.  Sadly Liz and I have no time together when we get home, as I need to get in the car and drive to the city of Liverpool.

Today and tomorrow mark the second of Lynne Hamilton’s series of shows this year and we are reprising an event that we have staged every second year for the last ten.  The drive up the M40 and M6 is a familiar one and I have the radio on to keep me company.  The main news item and discussion point is the sacking of Manchester United Football Club’s manage Jose Mourinho and the announcing of his temporary replacement Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.  Fans from Man. U are trying to sound upbeat and positive whilst those from rival clubs are gleefully gloating.  Eventually someone texts the programme pleading ‘can we talk about Brexit again!’ which says everything about the banality of the football phone in.

I arrive in Liverpool at around 12 and in heavy traffic crawl past the magnificent cathedrals before making my way to St George’s Hall, my venue for the next two days, and Charles’ on many occasions during his reading tours of the 1860s.

As I pull up outside I see Lynne and Jacquie on the pavement unloading trayfuls of mince pies and raffle prizes, which are being piled onto a metal trolley and taken inside.  I unload all of my furniture and add it to the next cartload. Eventually most of my furniture is taken inside leaving just the hat stand and 2 costumes, which look like a surrealist’s take on the scene, and one which wouldn’t be out of place in the Walker Art Gallery which is behind us.

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Once into the Concert Hall which is a beautifully gilded and chandeliered room I set the stage and take a moment to take in the scene before me.  I am standing on the same stage that Charles stood in and I am looking into the same auditorium.  Later I will be saying the same lines and it is always a breath taking feeling, but today especially.

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Lynne has booked a professional audio company to provide the sound equipment, as well as an operator so the issues that we suffered in Buxton will not be repeated here.  Johnny is to be my techie for all of the performances so we sit with the script and go through it cue by cue until we are both satisfied that we know what we are doing.

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Having got the stage set I go to my huge dressing room, and start to get into costume for the 2 o’clock show.  The audience are arriving and the large majority of it are school groups made up of students who are studying the book.

If Lynne’s hip was painful and difficult in Buxton it is a major handicap at St George’s Hall where there are steps everywhere (even onto the stage).  However she is organising everything and everyone, making sure that everything runs smoothly with a walkie talkie in one hand and a microphone in the other.

When the audience are in their seats Lynne clambers up onto the stage and makes a short introduction before I walk to my place and mouth the words that join the echoes of their counterparts from a hundred and fifty years ago.

As the main part of the audience are school students the response is different to an adult group, but they are very attentive and as the show goes on they begin to realise that they are ‘allowed’ to laugh and respond (taking their lead from the members of the general public who are seated behind).  It is a lovely show and all of the sound effects work very well as Johnny brings them in bang on cue.

As I get to Fred’s party I notice that at the side of the stage there is a rather shapely plaster lady forming part of the stage’s structure and she becomes the object of Topper’s affections.

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When I get to the end the applause is loud and the a lot of the students whoop shout and whistle as they clap.  It is a wonderful ovation and a great start to the Liverpool adventure.

I change into my dry costume and go to the foyer and sign quite a few programmes and CDs as well as posing for photographs with one of the school groups.

It is around 4pm by the time I can change and leave the building, and I walk the short distance to the Shankly Hotel, where I always stay when I’m here, and check in.  I haven’t eaten since breakfast and the rigours of the show have left me feeling a little light-headed and faint so even before I go to my room I head to the restaurant and order a simple dish of grilled chicken and potatoes, which hits the spot.

Once in my room I only have about an hour to rest before I have to be back at St George’s but there is a great big deep jacuzzi bath and I have a long soak which is lovely.

The evening show is at 7.30 and I walk back to the hall at 6.30 so that I can make sure everything is in order before the audience is let in.  A large grand piano has appeared on the stage for the audience are to be entertained by a choir before the show tonight, and my space is slightly restricted but not enough to really make a difference.

The choir is in the next dressing room to me and there are obviously a lot of them judging by the loud merriment coming through the door.  I sit quietly in my room and get into costume whilst the singers make their way to the foyer for their first set.

Tonight is a sell-out and soon the audience are making their way up the stairs and into their seats.  The choir having finished their lobby entertainment now reform in the long backstage corridor and prepare to open the show formally.

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Start time is put back slightly as there has been an emergency at Lime Street rail station meaning that many people are delayed, so it is not until around 7.45 that the choir takes to the stage and begins the first of their three songs – The Little Drummer Boy, which is beautiful.  They are a well rehearsed and talented bunch and the acoustics of The Concert Hall are perfect for their amazing harmonies.  The audience show their genuine appreciation and clap loudly as the final notes of each song gently drift away.

Performing to a capacity audience in a venue such as this is an actor’s dream (well, this actor’s anyway, others may have other dreams, I can’t honestly speak for them!) and from the very start the room is alive.  I have made much over the last couple of weeks regarding the differences between an American and English audience and it is a strange quirk of geography and sociology that a Liverpool audience is always more like those to the west of the Atlantic Ocean than the rest of their own country on the east.  This bunch are completely engaged and hang on every word.

At the end they go ballistic, there is no other word for the standing ovation that they give me.  Not only do they clap, and cheer and whistle but as they stand they stamp their feet creating a cacophony of noise which reverberates around the rotunda and back into the hall.

Amazing, moving, and an entirely fitting tribute to a little book written in just six weeks and which was first published on the 19th December 1843.

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