A New Era of Touring Begins

Where does my annual tour of the United States begin?  For Pam and Bob Byers it starts as soon as the previous one has finished.  Enquiries build up and venues push to grab their favoured dates creating a giant logistical and personal challenge to satisfy everyone’s needs.

This is a part of the process that I sit out of (apart from answering occasional questions regarding travel, or would I mind performing three times in South Carolina on Tuesday and in California on Wednesday!).

As Pam and Bob move the cards around to make the dates work there is also another process rumbling on, this time in the offices of an immigration attorney, to prepare my visa application to present to the US Government.

When I started touring I was granted a five year visa, but post 9-11 the government have unsurprisingly been more careful who they let in and for how long.  These days my visa is granted for the length of my tour and no longer and the process is complex and exhaustive.

Once again I am not involved until the INS has approved my petition, a document that allows me to actually apply for the visa  Once the petition is granted it is time to fill in an online form complete with a picture taken within the last six months (in case my hairline has noticeably changed).  I have to give details of my parents and significant others and give an account of all the countries that I have visited in the last five years, which with my cruise line work can sometimes be difficult to recall.

Finally comes THE list of questions – the ones that on the face of it seem ridiculous, but are there so that if I happen to act in a way that contradicts my answers the authorities can at least arrest me for lying on an official document.  I have to carefully tick ‘NO’ when asked if I am planning to overthrow the United States of America, and if I am planning on operating a prostitution racket, and if I am planning (alone or in a group) any act of terrorism.

Form completed it is submitted to the Embassy and I am given an appointment date so that the application can be completed.  In the past I have made my way into west London by bus and taken a short stroll to the impressive fortress in Grosvenor Square, one of the richest addresses in London.  However grand the old Embassy was, once inside it was a typical civil service building, with fluorescent tube lighting and beige walls darkened by years of coats, bags, sweaty palms and heads of hair brushing against it.

But 2018 would see a new routine for me as the old Embassy has been de-commissioned in favour of a brand new, purpose built building in Nine Elms, south of the river.  There was quite a flurry of controversy earlier in the year when President Trump announced that he was refusing to cut the ribbon at the official opening ceremony because the new building was situated in  a horrible part of London, where nothing happens.  He claimed that the move from Grosvenor Square was a bad deal (the real estate millionaire’s experience showing through) and that he would cancel his trip to the UK rather than visit this waste of money.

It was with a degree of interest that I set off on Tuesday 16 October to attend my interview.

The day began with a ride on the historic Great Western Railway into Paddington station.  Recently GWR have re-branded their trains into the nostalgic dark green hues of a bygone time.  The brand new streamline Inter City Express locomotives evoke the beauty of the record breaking Mallard steam engine, built and used by the old LNER organisation.

 

On arrival at Paddington the nostalgia continued, as the lattice of wrought iron so symbolic of the Victorian age creates a canopy over the bronze statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer responsible for this network.

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There is another statue at Paddington Station too, in honour of a young bear gentleman who introduced me to reading.

The London underground system took me to Oxford Circus and then beneath the river to Vauxhall, where I emerged into the light and began the short walk to the Embassy.

The location is beautiful!  It is set right on the river bank with views across to the Chelsea Embankment where dear old Henry Fielding Dickens (eighth child of Charles Dickens and my great grandfather), was knocked down in 1932, giving him injuries to which he would succumb.  My father wrote about that day in his memoirs:

‘…he had gone out for his usual walk on the Embankment.  At about lunch-time there was an unexpected ring at the door.  Diffused in the stained glass panel of the front door was the unmistakable outline and blue bulk of a large London policeman.  There were urgent, furtive, whispers and I was bundled away out of sight and hearing. Pan-Pan had been crossing the road and had been knocked down by a motor cycle.  He was now lying critically injured in hospital.  He died a day or two later’

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As I reflected on the scene a large wide-bodied jet meandered its way across the blue sky, and I realised that this is a view I had looked down upon at the end of many tours.  If the winds are from the west then the flightpath into Heathrow comes right over London, taking in all the sights, over the Royal Chelsea Hospital, over Twickenham rugby stadium before finishing on the tarmac at London’s main airport.

A view that so often heralds the end of my adventures was today launching a new one.

The Embassy itself sparkles (at least it did on Tuesday)  in the sun and is surrounded by carefully planted grasses and wildflowers.  I have to say, Mr President, that it didn’t look horrible to me, and the amount of construction and development going on suggests that this is a part of London that is very much on the up.

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At the old Embassy I would have to show my appointment letter to a clerk at a podium and then be told to stand at the back of a long queue, open to the elements, before shuffling to a security checkpoint, to be allowed to join another queue.  I was astounded then when the clerk waved me straight into the building.  The security check was quick, the only thing that caused concern was a silver cigarette case that I sometimes use as a business card case, which had been given to my grandfather Gerald by his wife Pearl.

The routine now was now a familiar one.  Another clerk checked my details and gave me a number (N433) and told me to go to the 1st floor to wait.  In the old building the waiting room was a cavernous, soulless, windowless room with row upon row of seats for bored or anxious  (or bored and anxious) applicants to sit at.  Although the new room is still huge it has been broken up by subtly lit dividers, so that each block of seating holds only 16 people (8 opposing), meaning that there is no longer the feeling of being a tiny number in the huge crowd.  The lighting is hidden and stylish, enhanced by the huge picture windows that let in lots of natural light and which afford fine views of the River Thames and the London skyline (including a rather shy Houses of Parliament peeping out from between more modern edifices).

Television screens flashed up the numbers of each applicant as they were called, accompanied by a little electronic ‘ping’ at which everyone glanced up and straight down again to their books or phones.  One person would rise clutching their documents and make their way to the particular window for the first interview.  Everyone else continued reading until another ‘ping’ jerked the heads up again.  For this first stage of the process the numbers are called in order, so my ‘ping’ would come after N432, but a terrible sense panic always descends over me and I become terrified that I will miss my moment.  Am I truly sure that I have the number 433?  What if it is 344, or 343 instead? So my reflex action changed from a simple glance at the screen to be followed by a check at my paperwork again – just to check.

Eventually 433 arrived and I duly went to window number 7 where a young girl greeted me cheerfully.  She took my paperwork and then looked at my old visa and tried to establish if I had indeed submitted a new photograph.  Every question was asked with a high laugh and the same greeted every answer.  I noticed that on her desk was a mug decorated with the character Little Miss Giggles – never was there a more appropriate piece of china ware.

When Miss Giggles had finished her initial interview I was sent to sit down and wait to be called again.  The second interview goes into more depth as an officer establishes what line of work the applicant is in, how long they plan to stay in America and any other pertinent questions.

As I sat waiting for my number to come up I could hear snippets of other answers: ‘Yes, I’m a professional….’ something or other; ‘I’m a team leader’; ‘I’m a vision mixer for a TV programme…..no, not a cameraman, a vision mixer.  It means I mix the pictures together….’  The last speaker sounded weary as if he had needed to answer the same question, and provide the same explanation on many previous questions.

All of our details were now being looked at by faceless officers in unseen offices and because each one was being dealt with on its own merit the numbers were not necessarily coming up in order, making the ‘ping’-induced head twitches even more pronounced.

N430.  N431.  N432.  All in order.  Me next, but no!  The next ‘ping’ was N434 then N435, then N500 and so on.

For some unknown reason it seemed to take an age before N433 appeared with ‘Window 18’ next to it, but no sooner had it flashed onto the screen it disappeared again, and the officer at window 18 looked blankly at me saying ‘No sir, I don’t have a case pending, please take a seat and wait for your number.’ Once more I was consigned to my chair whilst all of the applicants who had arrived with me an hour before cheerfully left the building one by one.

I was beginning to get a bit nervous about my prospects of successfully being welcomed to America when at last I was called.  I have no idea what the delay was, because there was no probing interview, no searching questions.  My officer simply asked what I would be doing in America and noticed that I had indeed been granted permission on multiple previous occasions.  With a cheery ‘you’re set, have a great day’ my first visit to the new embassy came to an end.

I strolled along the path that winds through the waving grasses and around the pond that not only surrounds the building but serves it too.  I walked along the bank of the river wondering to myself how the London Eye always seems to be where you least expect it to be and came to the conclusion that the new Embassy is indeed in a lovely part of town!

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And now to the tour itself, and I am contemplating a couple of changes – but that is for a different blog post.

 

 

 

 

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It Is the Best of Times

A year ago I was in Llandrindod Wells in the middle of Wales, appearing at the town’s annual Victorian Festival.

 
Thanks to the influence of my good friend David Hawes, I first appeared in Llandrindod in 2015 and have performed there annually ever since. Llandrindod is a sleepy Victorian spa town, rather off the beaten tourist track, that comes alive each summer thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers and a crowd of eager supporters all of whom don their Victorian garb and partake in a variety of events.

There is a large green space in the centre of the town and this is filled with small marquees, sideshows and fairground rides forming the hub of the festival.

Over the years I have performed Mr Dickens is Coming! Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations – even A Christmas Carol (despite the August date). They have seen The Signalman, The Murder of Nancy, Doctor Marigold and A Child’s Journey with Dickens, and as I packed up my things last year I realised that I had nothing left in repertoire to perform.

My first thought was to bring To Begin With to Wales. To Begin With, as regular readers will remember, is the show based on Dickens’ writing of The Life of our Lord and I have performed it for two seasons in Minneapolis, where it was written and produced. The stumbling block in my plan was that the producer, Dennis Babcock, was keen to premier it in the UK with all flags flying and bugles sounding prior to a national tour which would eventually take the show to the West End…..He was not keen on my performing it in mid-Wales and without his permission my plans foundered.

(By the way, there are as yet no firm plans for me to perform To Begin With in the UK – on tour, in the West End or anywhere else for that matter!)

So, I had to go back to the drawing board, and in what seemed like an inspired moment, I told Chris Hartley (who runs the Llandrindod festival) that I would write an entirely new show based on A Tale of Two Cities and that it would receive its world premiere at the festival. Chris pounced on the idea and within hours his Facebook page proudly broadcast the news: I was committed.

Now, in the usual course of things this wouldn’t have been too much of a problem as I had the best part of a year to prepare, and after all the source material was not alien to me, but there were other things going on in my life that would make this one of the most difficult and stressful shows I have ever embarked upon.

Almost two years ago Liz and I decided to explore the adoption process. My son Cameron is now 19 and away at University and we were keen to experience the joy of parenthood in our little house in Oxfordshire together. At first we put all the obstacles that we could in our own way – age, the fact we are both self-employed performers for whom time off means no income, size of house, lack of immediate family close by to be a support network etc etc. Oh! The problems we found. In the end we decided to go to an introductory meeting held by the local adoption service and see what was what. After that we decided to start stage 1 of the process and let the professionals tell us we were unsuitable – which we were sure that they would.

And so we leapt on board (well, rather slowly crawled on board) the wagon that would take us towards parenthood.

This is not a blog about adoption, but the various stages and processes began to dominate our lives as it became apparent that the authorities were not going to say ‘no’, but instead seemed extremely anxious to move us onward.

My Christmas tour came and went, and as the winter transformed into Spring we were completely consumed by workshops, seminars and interviews. Focussing on anything else was proving to be difficult, if not impossible, and in the middle of all this the thought kept nagging, that I had to write A Tale of Two Cities.

Chris, in Llandrindod, had told me that they were building me a guillotine for the show, and that it would be in pride of place on the stage – would that fit in with my script? The truth is that as I didn’t have a script anyway it neither fitted nor didn’t fit.

Our minds were bursting with the information and case histories that were being given to us, not to mention all of the official paperwork that we had to complete, but little by little I began to create my new script.

There is a famous photograph of Charles Dickens sitting in the garden of his Kentish home Gad’s Hill Place, he is flanked by his daughters Mamie and Katie, reading to them; the book in his hand is ‘The French Revolution. A History’ by Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle’s work had inspired Dickens with its vibrant account of the Reign of Terror and when he was searching for subject matter for a new novel the French Revolution inspired him.

I decided that this picture should be the inspiration for my storytelling (although the dates don’t actually work, as the novel was written in 1859 and the picture taken in 1865, but I made the decision to flash my artistic licence a little.

Dickens and daughters

The decision to use Dickens as narrator had two benefits: firstly it meant that I could fill in any holes in the plot that might have arisen from the editing process, simply by having Dickens explain it to his daughters: ‘Now, we leave the dingy garret in Paris and return to stuffy old Telson’s Bank in London’, for example.

The second benefit is that Dickens would be dressed in the light day suit that features in the picture which would negate to need for 18th century costume and wigs at a stroke. I would have a few ‘dressing up’ props to hand such as a scholar’s gown which could be used in the courtroom scene and a fancy cloak for the Marquis to wear as he drives in his carriage to the Chateau, but otherwise the suit would suffice.

And so I started the script. It opens with Dickens sat on his chair, perusing a copy of Carlyle’s history, a brief exchange of letters between the two men, an idea forming in Charles’s head, calling to his daughters: ‘Mamie! Katie! Do you remember how when you were young I would read you stories, and you would tell me what you thought? Well, I have a new story. Sit down – it begins like this….’  And now I could introduce the most famous opening lines in literary history ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of reason, it was the age of incredulity….’ Etc.

The time constraints imposed by the ongoing adoption process limited the amount of time I could spend on the script, but I caught time when I could (usually early in the mornings), and created scenes that would lead Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay to the prison cell in Paris. The novel is almost like a modern screenplay in its pace and structure, so it was easy to take the characters from scene to scene.

Eventually I had a script. It was too short for a 2 act show, but it told the story.
In February Liz and I went to the adoption panel. The decision as to whether we would be allowed to adopt would be made.

 

We nervously sat in front of the official group and answered their questions as clearly and honestly as we could (from the start of the process we had decided to be up front and open, and not simply to ‘talk the talk’ just for the purposes of getting through the system)
Having had our moment in the spotlight we retired as the various luminaries discussed our future. When we were called back into the room the chairman of the panel began his sentence with: ‘We are delighted to inform you…..’

If we thought that life was full on up to that point, then we had to re-calibrate our thoughts, for things were ramping up a step.

We were required to attend a long series of parenting skills workshops, which certainly proved to be an eye opener, and we were shown and taught many strategies and tricks that would help in the inevitably difficult days ahead. Our tutors kindly told us that they would give us a toolbox of techniques to draw on. But as one of the other people on the same course said ‘we don’t want a toolbox – we want an arsenal!’

One of the most important messages from the workshop was that we MUST look after our own wellbeing if we were to be of any use to vulnerable children, ‘filling your cup’ it was called. My mind was becoming more and more panicked about the thought of doing any more work on the show, and it loomed large as a major barrier to me. I had to find time to work.

As we attended the workshops, so moves were being made behind the scenes to find us the perfect child or children, and soon our social worker presented us with details of siblings (Obviously I can’t go into detail and I am sure you will forgive me for intentional vagueness).

After another series of meetings and interviews we returned to the panel, and once again the chairman said ‘We are delighted to tell you…..’ And now it was real!
For official reasons there would now be a 14 day hiatus before we could start the introduction phase of the process, and as both our cups needed filling we thought we’d see if our favourite cottage in the Highlands of Scotland was free – amazingly it was. So we booked it and ran away to Cromarty for relaxation, a few deep breaths and the chance to do nothing.

It was here that I was able to start working on the script again. On most days Liz would stay in the cottage or do some shopping, while I walked up and down on the large green expanse of grass known as The Links, overlooked by the two amazing headlands that protect the Cromarty Firth, the Sutors.

Every day, with my black ring binder that held my script in my hand, walked in these beautiful surroundings, head down, oblivious, talking to my self in a variety of accents. The Links is a favourite spot for dog walkers, and I was vaguely aware that there seemed to be more each day, and that they would gather in a little group chatting. I supposed that being such a small town this must be a good meeting spot, but I’d never noticed such groupings of people before. Eventually one dog walker ‘accidentally’ threw a ball very close to me and came to fetch it (just beating his dog in the race). ‘I’m sorry, but we have to know: are you from the Highland Council? Are you surveying for a new toilet block on this land….?’  My perambulations had caused great alarm in Cromarty!

I got a good deal of work done in Scotland but didn’t get to the end of the script, and things were about to get much more difficult.
Two days after we returned home the introduction process would begin. This meant driving to the children’s foster carers house and meeting them for the first time, and then taking them out on trips, cooking meals, reading them stories, getting them to bed etc etc.

We had been warned that introductions were intense but nothing had prepared us for being completely wiped out at the end of each day. We would sit, staring at each other, talking through the highs and lows, before retiring to our bed at about 9pm.

10 days of introductions. 10 days of no work. The end of July was approaching, and the world premiere of A Tale of Two Cities was less than a month away. I started having stress dreams, which involved a variety of scenarios, but basically involved being on a stage not knowing what to do….funny that, I wonder what they could have meant?
Liz was worried for me and was extremely anxious to give me time, and help me, but we were hurtling headlong towards the day when the children would arrive at our house and time was a commodity we did not have.
On a Friday night at the end of July the children spent their first night with us. We had five weeks of summer holidays in front of us – a perfect time to build bonds and create a new family, but an awful lot of hours to fill for two children who need constant stimulation.
The first days were manic and hard and tiring. Our life as we knew it was turned upside down and there were tantrums and fights and crying. But also there were hugs and stories and giggles and love.

In the background though……radio interviews about the brand new show, questions from the theatre about technical requirements, queries from David about costume (that is his metier). There was no way I could get this show done. The only time of day I had was at 5am in the morning, and I would pace around the kitchen trying to commit at least the sense of the script to memory – the specific words could come later if I had time.

The children would wake early though, and my time was limited. I became more anxious. Liz became more anxious and one day she bravely said that she would take them out for a couple of hours, on her own, to let me have time. I paced in the garden, worrying about her, wondering what meltdowns were occurring, listening for the slamming of a car door…but, no! They were perfect with her, as they fed the ducks on the river, and played in the playpark, and helped with the shopping, whilst I had committed more of the script to memory. There were still passages that absolutely refused to be remembered, and I had to start referring to old tricks. For example the phrase ‘Destructive upheaval’ came in an intense description of the Reign of Terror and I stumbled at it every time. I had to convince my memory that the initial letters of the passage were D and U and in my mind all I could think of was the Irish Political Party the DUP. (The Democratic Unionist Party was formed I 1971 and was active throughout the Irish troubles of the 70s and 80s, so perhaps was a suitable choice of prompt for the French Revolution).
We were able to repeat this exercise a few times, and Liz was simply amazing – as were the children, who knew that daddy had ‘to work for his show’

And suddenly one day, or morning, I was at the end! There were a few sketchy passages that I needed to go over again and again, but I could start and the beginning (or, as Monsieur Defarge says ‘commence at the commencement’) and end at the end. I had a show.

Staging was a little more approximate, however, and I had no idea how the show would look – how I was going move around, and of course I had no perception of what the guillotine would look like, or how much it would dominate the stage. All of that I would have to improvise. I knew I wanted to base everything around the garden furniture featured in the Gad’s Hill Photograph and I was fairly sure this would work apart from the problem that I do not own any Victorian garden furniture. My problem was solved as I drove past our local florist, Fabulous Flowers, who always mount superb displays outside their shop in Abingdon, I happened to notice that they were featuring a wrought iron table and chairs which would look perfect. I popped in and asked if I could rent or borrow the furniture for a couple of days and the owners were delighted to oblige (one of the partners happened to have been brought up in Rochester and is quite the Dickens fan).

The biggest problem I now faced was the length of the show. The main script came in at around an hour and I didn’t really want to break it for an interval. One of the main features of the novel is the sheer pace that it moves (thanks to it being published in a weekly, rather than monthly periodical) and I wanted to preserve that sense of energy and pace leading toward the famous ending. Also, of course, they would have been two very short halves and I certainly didn’t have time to write and learn any extra passages. What to do?  In the end I came up with an instant, short-term fix, which would get me through the first performance at least. Inspired by Rowan Atkinson and Joyce Grenfell (For those of you who do not know Joyce Grenfell’s ‘Don’t do that George’ monologue, I entreat you to track it down online and listen. It would be one of my Desert Island tracks, along with Gerard Hoffnung’s ‘The Bricklayer’) I would perform a largely improvised monologue.

I decided to introduce the audience to some of the influences that inspired Dickens to write AToTC in the first place. I would take the stage as a crusty old British schoolmaster welcoming his English Literature class back after the Summer break.

I created a script that was essentially 30 minutes of improvisation, and in which the master would ask the boys what they had discovered about A Tale of Two Cities . The fact that there would be a huge guillotine in the centre of the stage was explained by congratulating ‘young Brunel on his exciting art installation….’ The script was going to be a bit silly, with lots of jokes in it, but amongst all of the froth I would talk about Carlyle’s French Revolution, Wilkie Collins’ The Frozen Deep (in which the main character, played on stage by CD, sacrifices himself for the good of others), Benjamin Webster’s play Dead Heart (which was set at the time of the French Revolution and featured a swap at the foot of the guillotine so that a life could be spared whilst another was taken. Dickens knew the play and Webster took him to court for plagiarism), and Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni in which the titular character cannot fall in love without losing his immortality. Of course he DOES fall in love and eventually loses his earthly life to the blade of the guillotine, as the book is set during the French Revolution.

The ‘class’ which the teacher addresses is made up of various names, some obscure, some more obvious. For example young Hill, Benjamin Hill, named after the risqué British comedian Benny Hill, is constantly coming out with crude innuendo.

Most of the factual information comes from the class swot young Slater (Michael Slater is one of the foremost experts in the studies of Victorian Literature and particularly Dickens). All a bit silly, but it suited a purpose.

I was due to perform A Take of Two Cities on Tuesday 21 August in Llandrindod Wells, and on Saturday 18th I was booked to perform my Double Bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold in Leicester. This was a blessing in that I know that show well and it gave me a chance to remember how to be an actor, as I hadn’t been on stage for a good many months. My appearances in Leicester are regular and the audience is loyal and generous, it was a perfect way to begin the week.

The Saturday trip to Leicester would mark the first day that I had left the children with Liz for a show, and of course they will have to get used to that over the coming years. We talked them through the timetable, and I wouldl phone from the venue and send pictures of the hall and the set, as well as trying to squeeze in a Skype conversation between their bedtime and my show start.

The two short stories delighted the audience in Leicester and it was good to be on a stage again and finding that the timing and voices came easily back to me.
But even as I walked upstairs to my changing room, the applause still echoing, I found myself muttering: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times……’.

Tuesday saw an important meeting with various social workers to assess how the children were settling in with us. Children who have been in the care system are naturally suspicious of authority, as they have tended to represent change and turmoil, so we were uncertain as to how this visit would pan out. Fortunately the meeting was scheduled for 10 and I did not have to leave until 12, so Liz and I could be there together and hopefully cope with any emotional fallout that may ensue.
As it happened the meeting passed fairly calmly, and we soon had our house back with just the four of us. I said my goodbyes and we all hugged and kissed and promised to talk on the phone later. As I drove I started rehearsing again, to that extent that I completely missed the turning for the M6 Toll road, but fortunately the motorway through Birmingham was relatively clear for once.

My journey allowed me to get a couple of complete run-throughs of the script done and as I started winding through the beautiful countryside of the Welsh borders I was feeling a little more confident, although still woefully under-prepared.

Over my years of performing in Llandrindod my home from home has become The Portland Guest House, and I arrived and checked in with an hour to spare before I needed to be at the theatre itself. There is always something very reassuring in returning to a familiar event, and a familiar hotel and in this case a familiar room.

This year I was performing in The Pavilion Theatre for the first time (Llandrindod is fortunate in that it boasts two amazing theatres for such a small town. In previous years I had performed at the Albert Hall). The pit of my stomach felt empty as I drew up outside – I really was entering uncharted waters.

Waiting for me was my friend David, Chris the organiser of the festival, Jacob a film student who acts as my stage manager for my shows at the event and various others from the organising committee, as well as the folk from the theatre itself.

I tried to appear confident and professional but inside I was completely terrified! I looked at the stage and there in the centre was my guillotine: waiting figuratively and metaphorically for me. My sense of panic was not improved by the eerie red light that Jase, the tech guy, was trying at that moment, which cast a portentous shadow on the black tabs at the back of the stage.

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Anyway, I had to get on with it. I tried a few passages and they seemed to work. I tried the end sequence using the guillotine which made an incredibly dramatic echoing THUD every time it dropped. The scene takes place against the constant rising and falling of the blade as the knitting women count the number of severed heads. By delivering the lines next to the structure, almost as if I were a guard, I could pull the rope and release it perfectly on cue – it is always nice to be in charge of one’s own effects.

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The acoustics of the hall sounded great, which was a relief, and I began to feel a little more confident about the hours ahead. Just a little, mind.
I went back to my dressing room and arranged the costumes, and muttered some lines. Although the phone signal was too weak to allow a Skype exchange, I was able to chat to the children and send them some pictures of the theatre (I hoped the guillotine wouldn’t scare them!), and of me in costume.

As Charles Darnay counts down the hours to his execution, so I watched the clock remorselessly turn, moving on towards 7.30.
Every event at the Llandrindod Festival is graced by Her Majesty, Queen Victoria and she is always welcomed with great ceremony. On this occasion A master of ceremonies (David) asked the audience to rise and in a great triumphal fanfare the Queen made her stately way to her front row seat. Before I could panic any further, the show began.

In my schoolmaster’s costume I walked slowly from the back of the auditorium, the audience completely unsure how this related to A Tale of Two Cities. They sat in silence as I walked on to the stage. I looked at them. They looked at me.

Deep breath.

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‘QUIET! QUIET! QUIET! QUIET PLEASE.’ Pause. ‘QUIET!’ A few giggles, oh good. ‘QUIET!’ (The first act is rather short, so the longer I can keep this opening gambit going, the better!) ‘I can wait, I have all day!’

And then I launched into the script. They got it, thank you Llandrindod, they got it! As I named each of the pupils – (Ah, Mr Blanc, Im glad to see you here and not in the Home economics kitchen as usual: so what can you tell me about the French Revolution? That you plan to remove sugary and fatty foods from your diet this year. You want to give up smoking, and especially those awful gauloises. You will help your mother more and keep your rooms tidy. That’s very interesting, but I think you are talking about your French Resolution, not Revolution.) -they chuckled. In the meantime I managed to explain all of Dickens’s influences in a comedic and non-threatening way, preparing them for the drama to follow.

After just twenty minutes or so I left the stage with laughter and applause filling the theatre. Half the job had been done.

After the interval I took to the stage in the light day suit that David had sourced, sat in the garden chair, the lights came up and I began.

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I couldn’t have dreamed that the script would work so well. The characters and the drama moved the plot along, and the audience were hanging on every word. I improvised movements, previously untried, for example as Monsieur Defarge leads Mr Lorry and Lucie up to the little garret room, I clambered over the garden furniture. I use the various bits of costume that David had found to represent the Marquis and lawyers in the courtroom. So the plot raced to Paris and the Reign of Terror, the lighting became a reddish hue, and a single spotlight picked me out as I slowly backed towards the guillotine. The first execution..rummmmmmmble THUMP! A gasp from the audience as I held the imaginary head aloft. I had thought of trying to do something with water melons, but was worried that it would just provoke laughter, which would ruin the atmosphere.

Second execution. Carton and the little seamstress move towards the guillotine. She is taken up and with no pause ‘CRASH!’ is gone. And then Carton’s turn. ‘CRASH!’ And now, in a low tone I channelled my best Dirk Bogard:

‘It is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far far better rest I go to than I have ever known.’ ‘CRASH!’ Blackout. Get off stage. Red light up over the solitary guillotine. Fade to black.

The audience reaction was everything I could have wished, there were calls of ‘Bravo!’ A process that had begun a year before was completed successfully
I have written about developing shows before but thanks to our amazing new life, this time had been much more of a struggle.

One wonderful side effect of trying to learn a show over such a length of time is that various passages were attached to various memories. For example as I performed the sequence in the French Court I could feel the sea breeze and recall the beautiful views across the Cromarty Firth, and one of the script pages is crinkled due to a sudden rainy squall one day.
Back in the dressing room I took a few deep breaths and calmed down. I had never felt so under-prepared before walking onto a stage before and it is not a feeling I ever want to repeat, but I suppose in a theatrical version of an extreme sport the extra adrenaline rush made the performance all the more exciting.

After a minute or two I returned to the stage for a most important ceremony, which considering the subject matter of A Tale of Two Cities was ever so slightly surreal. It had been arranged that thanks to my five years of performances at the festival I would be awarded with the KCVO (Knight Commander of my Victorian Order). The Queen rose and I duly knelt on a cushion as the ceremonial sword was passed to her (I’d escaped the guillotine, could I survive this second assault?). For all of the pantomime and silliness this was a very generous thing that the festival did for me and as we posed for pictures I knew I was among true friends.

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So, there we are: a tale of two major developments in my life.

I am due to perform the new show again at the Leicester Guildhall in October, so there is more work to be done, but I know I have the foundations in place.

As to the other: well every day is an adventure, as our new family forms and develops. There are dark times and there are amazing times. But taking all things into consideration these are indeed the best of times!

Coram, Dickens and Schumann

When one reads the works of Charles Dickens, or performs them as I do, one thing quickly becomes apparent: the importance of the child in his books.

With the publication of his second novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens established a model that he would return to throughout his career by making the main protagonist a child. The welfare of children in Victorian society was something that greatly concerned Dickens, and he knew exactly what he was talking about.
As is well known when Charles was 12 his parents were incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors prison, and he was sent to work in the Strand warehouse of Mr Warren, who produced shoe blacking, what is less known is that after his day’s work was finished Charles would walk along the embankment, to London Bridge and into Southwark where he would be allowed to meet John and Elizabeth before the gates were locked up for the night – all of this can be imagined by reading the opening chapters of Little Dorrit as Amy makes the same pilgrimage. No doubt there were occasions that little Charles was too late and found the gates shut before he arrived, at such times he may have sought sanctuary in the Church of St George the Martyr as the titular character of the novel does.
The walk from Warren’s Blacking to The Marshalsea is a long one, and Charles would have seen all of London life laid bare. He would have seen the rich in their carriages, he would have seen the criminal underworld and he would have seen poverty and neglect. Even to a twelve year old the sight of neglected children seeking shelter or warmth, desperate only to be loved, must have been truly shocking and it left a lasting impression on him.

Thomas Coram
Almost 100 years before the young Dickens made his way through the thoroughfares another gentleman had also walked the streets in London and had been appalled at the plight of the children that he saw, so much so that he used his considerable influence (as well as his own fortune) to raise subscriptions for the formation of a Foundling Hospital.

After initially opening in a series of houses at Hatton Garden, a large tract of land was soon purchased in Bloomsbury and a purpose-built hospital was constructed.
Coram, and his board of governors, wished to take children who could not be adequately cared for and look after their physical and emotional needs. Because of the huge amount of foundling children on the streets of London there had to be some sort of limit as to who would be admitted, and a ballot system was introduced, with the successful applicants rarely being more than twelve months old. Most children were left with a small token (often a coin), so that they could be identified if their mothers returned, and to give some small connection and memory to their birth families.
The children would be educated and eventually sent to work (often needlework for the girls and apprenticeships for the boys).
Coram himself maintained a strong connection with the hospital and in 1740 the great artist William Hogarth presented an impressive portrait to the museum which hung proudly over the staircase.
However only two years later in 1742, his fellow governors voted him off the board, for reasons obscured by history, and he lost control of his creation.
Thomas Coram died in 1751 at the ripe old age of 83, and his legacy is strong, for the leading charity for looked-after children and adoption is named after him and even today has a great influence over the entire adoption process.

 

Charles Dickens
The first meeting of guardians for The Foundling Hospital was held in 1739 at Somerset House and approximately 100 years later a young author and his wife moved into an elegant property which had recently been built in Bloomsbury. As the crow flies it was but a few hundred yards from The Hospital.
Charles Dickens was in the glow of a meteoric start to his writing career. After spells as a lawyer’s clerk and journalist he had started to submit short stories, or Sketches as he called them, to The Monthly Magazine. These illustrations of London life had caught the imagination of the city and soon people were desperate to read whatever the anonymous author, known only as Boz, produced.
A full novel would surely follow and sure enough, in 1836, Boz published the first instalment of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Initially it was warmly, if not enthusiastically, received, but as soon as Dickens introduced the character of Sam Weller, so sales soared. The readers knew that they were in safe hands and that the author was not just another privileged man of means but someone who completely understood real life.
As The Pickwick Papers continued, so Boz started a new book, Oliver Twist or ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress’ (the sub title a reflection of William Hogarth’s famous series of paintings ‘A Rake’s Progress’), and now Dickens’s intimate knowledge of the underbelly of London life was fully on display. Crime, vice, deception, corruption, prostitution, filth and squalor all poured off the pages, and the readers devoured it as voraciously as they had the light comedy of Pickwick.
The young Dickens, safely ensconced at 48 Doughty Street, quickly realised how much influence he held, and his novels continually highlighted issues of public life that demanded close scrutiny and reform. But his social conscience was not restricted to his fiction for Dickens took actively supported many causes that he felt strongly about, one such being the Foundling Hospital of which he became a patron as well as renting a pew in the hospital’s chapel. In Little Dorrit it is of course no coincidence that a young apprentice girl has the name Tattycoram, and in No Thoroughfare, written in collaboration with Wilkie Collins, the plot begins with two boys from the Foundling Hospital being given the same name: Walter Wilding.
Dickens would return to the plot device of a foundling or an adopted child on many occasions, (David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The Old Curiosity Shop among many others), and one of his most popular readings, Doctor Marigold, features the adoption of a ragged deaf and dumb girl by the narrator of the piece.
Charles Dickens continued to write until the end of his life, on the morning of June the 8th 1870 he was working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, featuring the characters of Edwin, Rosa Budd, Neville and Helena Landless – all orphans. That evening he suffered a massive stroke and died the following afternoon.

Robert Schumann
The 8th June was also an important day in the life of German composer Robert Schumann, for in 1810 he was born on that day in Zwickau Saxony.
Schumann’s interest in music was sparked when as a boy he was taken to listen to Ignaz Mocheles give a piano recital (incidentally, Mocheles’s daughter was called Emily and she married Antonin Roche, whose daughter Marie would marry Henry Fielding Dickens, Charles’s son, who had been named in honour of writer Henry Fielding whose novel Tom Jones’s full title is ‘The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling’….I hope that you are keeping up with the numerous coincidences and connections!)
Schumann’s musical ambitions were crushed when he was 16 years old and his father died. August Schumann had encouraged and supported his son’s love of the piano, but his mother had no such passion for music and from 1826 she steered him towards a career in law.
But the fire burned deep and when Robert was studying he attended a concert in Frankfurt given by the violin virtuoso Paganini.  He wrote to his mother ‘My whole life has been a struggle between Poetry and Prose or call it Music and Law.’ He chose Music.
In Leipzig he took piano lessons from Friedrich Wieck, who assured him that with hard study and perseverance he could become an accomplished concert pianist. But Schumann suffered from a condition that effected his right hand and he was unable to play to the standards that he demanded of himself. It was at this time that Schumann began to compose.
In 1838 (the year that Dickens was wowing his readers with Oliver Twist) Schumann started to write a suite of 30 short pieces, which he entitled ‘Leichte Stücke’ (‘Easy Pieces’). He eventually chose 13 of his favourites and called the final collection Kinderszenen, or ‘Scenes from Childhood’. He would later admit that the title was inspired by a comment from his wife Clara who told him that he sometimes seemed ‘like a child’, which was ironic in the extreme…..(she was the daughter of his teacher Friederich Wiek and had been only twelve years old when he fell for her, and sixteen at the time of their wedding.)
Each of Kinderszenen’s pieces reflect an adult’s reflection of a childhood emotion, starting with the scared and inquisitive (‘Of Strange Land’s and People’, ‘A Curious Story’ and ‘Pleading Child’), to the boisterous and adventurous (‘Knight of the Hobbyhorse’) Along the way there are moments of ‘Daydreaming’ in the suite’s most famous tune ‘Traumerei’. The music can certainly be seen as an allegorical journey from childhood to adulthood, and the last piece is Schumann’s own adult voice in ‘The Poet Speaks.
Robert Schumann was plagued with depression throughout his life and eventually was admitted to an asylum after attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself off a bridge into The Rhine. He died on the 29th July 1856.

So, what did these three men have in common (apart from Coram being friends with William Hogarth, which was the maiden name of Dickens’s wife Catherine, who bore him ten children, the eight being Henry Fielding who was named after the author of Tom Jones a novel about a child from the Foundling Hospital formed by Coram, HF Dickens then marrying Marie Roche whose Grandfather was Ignaz Mocheles who had played in Germany and inspired Robert Schumann……apart from that)?

The work and achievements of these three men are all celebrated in a show which Liz and I will be performing in London on May 18th. In an evening jointly staged by the Foundling Museum and the Charles Dickens Museum, we are performing 2 acts, the first of which sees Liz playing Schumann’s Kinderszenen which we have linked to various short readings featuring children in Dickens. With each piece we have tried to select a reading that fully captures the tone and feel of the music, and David Copperfield features strongly, although there also passages from Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. We present each of the thirteen pieces in different formats, so that in some of them I read as Liz plays, in others (such as the beautiful Traumerei) Liz performs the music in its entirety before I take over.
The most difficult challenge for us comes with the 11th piece, ‘Fürchtenmachen’ (‘Frightening’), which we have coupled with the scene from David Copperfield in which young Davy is running away from home and enters a shop to try and sell his jacket to make a little money. He is confronted with a terrifying man who has claw-like hands and keeps uttering an awful noise in the back of his throat, which sounds like ‘GAROOOOOO!’ Over the years of performing Kinderszenen Liz has worked out how to perform the piece so that whenever I am performing as the shopkeeper the music is scary and sinister, whereas when the innocent David is speaking the music has a lighter feel to it. To achieve this effect we have experimented a great deal with various arrangements and repeats, and Liz’s score is covered with various marks that only an expert in hieroglyphs could decipher. The other major problem with that particular performance is that my throat can only survive so many GARROOOOOOs before it gives up the ghost completely!
Schumann’s Kinderszenen finishes with ‘The Poet Speaks’ and so we have accompanied that with Charles Dickens’s preface to David Copperfield in which he admits that the hero of the story is his ‘favourite child’.
In the second half of the evening I will be performing Doctor Marigold, which as regular readers know, is one of my favourite pieces to perform, and features the bond forged between the market cheapjack of the title and a neglected and abandoned girl, whom he rescues and educates as his own daughter, despite her not being able to hear or speak.

Marigold is a perfect show to perform in the halls of the Foundling Museum.
Currently Liz and I are busy rehearsing, and making sure that all of the subtle timings of each piece from Kinderszenen work perfectly. As the performance is the day before the Royal Wedding we have constant reminders of how soon the show is, which is a great motivation to us both!
I will post more about the evening, hopefully with a few photos, after the event, but if you are in London do come and see us, tickets are available through The Foundling Museum’s website.

 

https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/whats-on/special-events/

 

 

 

It’s All About the Shows

For the final part of my Aurora trilogy I would like to tell you about my professional life on board and how my shows were performed.

I had been booked by P&O cruises last year to appear on this particular leg of the South American Adventure.  A quick look at the itinerary showed me that I would be on board over multiple sea days, and assumed that my performances would be part of the daytime lecture programme to pass the long hours as we headed southward. I first performed on a cruise ship in October 2006, and then a couple a year for the next few years, and I had always been booked to perform during the day, which was a situation I greatly enjoyed.

I was somewhat surprised then, upon joining Aurora, to discover that my first show would be in the evening of our one and only port day, and it was in the main cabaret slot at 8.30 and 10.30.  Yikes!  I am confident in what I do, and I know that my shows work for a cruise ship audience, but this was an altogether different thing.  Within an hour or two I was talking to the production director on board so that he could understand all of my technical requirements in good time:  Lighting?  Did I have a lighting plot, and a fully marked up script for his team to use during the show?  Umm, really just general stage lighting, if that’s OK.  Alright.  Now, the orchestra, do you have the parts for your musical arrangement with you, and will you be needing a hand held microphone for singing?  Umm, no orchestra, no music, and really just me talking.  OK, will you be using the screen for slides and images.  Umm, no, just the tabs closed behind me please.  OK, How about follow spots?  Umm, don’t really need them, but I suppose we could.  OK, Will you be introducing guests during the show?  Umm, no, just me.

It didn’t sound very cabaret!

 

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The Curzon Theatre

 

That night I made sure that I went to watch the cabaret show, both to enjoy the entertainment, but also to study the reaction of the audience so as to fully understand their expectations and the relationship to the performer.  The show was given by harpist Rebecca Mills and she delighted the audience with her superb playing and her great banter.  Rebecca is from Tyneside and after playing two beautiful pieces she welcomed the audience in her broad Geordie accent and proceeded to tell us her life story (including the brilliant fact that her first car was a converted hearse, it being the only vehicle that her harp would fit in).  Back to the music and the pieces became more flamboyant and virtuosic, which impressed the audience.  At the next chat break Rebecca told us how as a girl she had been inspired by watching Marx Brothers films with her grandfather and of course most particularly by Harpo.  Then she introduced an old Marx Brothers video clip featuring her hero, and left the stage whilst we all wallowed in nostalgia.  When Rebecca remerged she was in a new dress and then proceeded to play a duet with Harpo from the screen – brilliant!

So my show, Mr Dickens is Coming, was looking rather timid and limp in comparison.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is not that I had doubts about the show, for I have performed it many times before and know that it is always well received and greatly enjoyed.  My doubts were how it would be received by this particular crowd.  Usually audiences come to see Mr Dickens is Coming because they have an interest, or the very least a curiosity,  about Charles.  The cabaret audience go to the Curzon theatre because they have just enjoyed a delicious dinner and now want to be entertained, no matter who is on stage.  However if the fare on offer does not satiate their appetite word very soon goes around the ship: ‘Did you see the show last night?  Very poor, very disappointing, not the standard we expect!’

So that was my mind-set as we made our way south.  My first job was to go through the script and come up with a lighting plot to make everything look a little more theatrical, I even managed to find some places to pump smoke onto the stage (another staple of the cabaret performer’s arsenal).  With the script all marked up I sent it to the Production Office so that they could be ready for my show.

If truth be told I was probably making far too much of an issue of a problem that didn’t really exist:  I had performed on the main stage of Aurora, Oriana and Arcadia many times and the shows had always gone down well, what bugged me was this ‘cabaret’ label. I made sure that I went to all of the other shows and watched all of the performers, trying to picture myself in their shoes.  What all of the acts had in common, apart from their artistic prowess, was the connection to the audience – almost flirtatious – so in my mind I worked out how to deliver my lines in such a way as to build that same relationship.

On the day before our arrival in the Falklands I went to the theatre at 11.15 to listen to ex marine Tony Green give the final account of his 1982 experiences and the theatre was packed.  We all listened until the end and then applauded enthusiastically.  Tony bowed modestly and left the stage, to be replaced by John the Cruise Director who announced that Tony had agreed to do a question and answer session in Carmen’s Lounge on the following evening (ie, the evening of my show in the Curzon) at 7.30 and 9.30.

I looked back at the audience and realised that in all probability Tony’s show would be much better attended than mine, as he had built up a following over the past few days, whereas none of the passengers even knew I was on board yet!  I made my way back to the technical booth where I told John that Tony should be in the big venue, and I would perform in Carmen’s instead.  He replied that he had already thought of that but couldn’t decide if it would be the right thing to do, but to leave it to him.

The strange thing was that by this time I was rather looking forward to trying my show (complete with lights and smoke) in the Curzon slot, but I really did genuinely feel that Tony deserved the larger venue and that there would be a lot of disappointed passengers if he was put in the smaller lounge.

That evening, when the Horizons newspaper was delivered to be my cabin I discovered that sure enough Tony Green would appear in the Curzon Theatre at 8.30 and 10.30, whereas Gerald Dickens would perform Mr Dickens is Coming! in Carmen’s Lounge at 6.30 and 9.30.  I’m glad that Tony had been more careful when he was in the Falkland Islands than I had been during that day – I appeared to have shot myself in the foot!

I have described my day on the Islands themselves in a previous post, so I shall pick up the story on the quay side, where I found myself at the back of a very long queue waiting to join a tender and suddenly the wisdom of coming ashore seemed questionable!  I was due to have a production meeting in Carmen’s an hour before the show and it was looking doubtful as to whether I’d even be back on board the ship in time for it.

The P&O Crew were efficient however and in no time I was at the front of the line and boarding the little craft ready to bump my way back to the mother ship.  Without even going back to my cabin to dump my coat and camera I rushed straight to Carmen’s where the production crew were patiently waiting for me.  I made my apologies and we got down to the meeting.  The guys had a copy of my new script, with all of the lighting changes and smoke added, and are worried that they will not be able to give me all that I required, so we reverted to the original plan and I asked just for a plain lighting rig.  The room in Carmen’s is more of a dance venue, so has a very small stage at the back (where a band can be housed behind the curtains), and then a large circular dance floor, surrounded by seats and tables where I would do my stuff.  I did a microphone check and paced around the floor as I would during the show and discover that in the very centre of the floor, under a dome, there is an odd acoustic spot where everything echoes, so I had to be sure not to stand there too much during the performance itself.

Finally we did a quick safety briefing so that I would know where the exits to the deck were, and having signed an official document saying that I had been thus briefed, I went back to my cabin to shower and gather my costume, etc.

I returned to Carmen’s in plenty of time, and it was still deserted.  Would anyone want to come to my show?  Would anyone be interested?  The waiters arrived ready to sell drinks to the audience, and there were twelve of them spread through the room patiently waiting for…..no one!

I sat in a corner wondering if the stewards would actually outnumber the audience, when they started to file in: slowly at first, one by one, but soon Carmen’s was filling up and by the time the 7.30 start time came around there was a goodly crowd waiting for me.

I waited to one side of the stage whilst my introduction was made and then I walked onto the dance floor to the warm applause.  The show starts with a rather serious and stuffy  ‘quote’ which, I explain, is taken from ‘the words of Charles Dickens,’ and which explains how Dickens wanted to pass his legacy down to ‘his family: those members known to me today and those descendants whom I shall never meet.  May they take the pleasures that I have taken from the institution of The Theatre!’  When the quote is over I lay the book down, look to the audience: ‘As I said those were the words of Charles John Huffam Dickens.  Sadly for me he never actually used them in that particular order, but they were all his words at some time or another!’ Lots of laughter, ice broken and we can get on.  That is the plan, anyway, but in Carmen’s, just as I launched into the speech, so the Captain decided to make a long announcement which was broadcast throughout the ship, and I just had to stand waiting patiently until he signed off.    It was rather an anti-climatic start to the evening.

However the rest of the show went well.  The audience squirmed along with Uriah Heep, and laughed when I produced the toy white cat at the end of the James Bond spoof; they gasped in disbelief to hear that Charles refused to meet Queen Victoria on multiple occasions and were silent during the final lines from The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In short the show was superbly received and I could breathe a huge sigh of relief!

The next day my identity on board changed.  From being the rather curious man travelling alone, I was now ‘the Dickens man’, as in: ‘Excuse me, but aren’t you the Dickens man, who did the show?’  People came up to me on deck, in restaurants, or as we sat in the audience at other shows and complimented me, told me about their particular memories of reading Charles Dickens and most importantly asked: ‘when is your next performance?’

Our sail around Cape Horn and through the Beagle Channel took up the next two days and as I have already described it was stunning.  My second show was to be back in Carmen’s at 3.00pm on my last day before leaving Aurora in Punta Arenus and the ship’s grapevine was working overtime.  One gentleman was indignant, ‘You shouldn’t be in Carmen’s!  That’s ridiculous, I’m going to see the Cruise Director to have a word!’

In the meantime I had work to do on my programme, as I had to be confident with the changes that I had made to it. The show was to be Doctor Marigold, which was one of Charles Dickens’ most popular readings in his time, but which is little-known today. The story is told by the titular character who is a market cheapjack. At the start he addresses the audience directly, as if they were a crowd at a country fair, and he is on the back of his waggon selling his wares. The patter is fast-paced and funny and the audience settle down to be entertained in the same manner. After a while however Doctor Marigold decides that he can trust these people and begins to recite his life-story and the audience are suddenly brought crashing back to Earth when he admits that his wife had been an alcoholic abuser who beat their little daughter who subsequently died. Despite this, and other, tragedies Marigold is man of great resilience and the story continues to describe his adoption of a little deaf and dumb granddaughter and how they learn to communicate.

 
The only problem with the show is that it lasts for 60 minutes and the P&O slot is a strict 45, so every day I found a place on the ship (my outside for’ward deck was not an option in the cold and high winds of the Cape, not to mention with the crowds gathered on deck to admire the views), to rehearse. I discovered that Carmen’s itself was quiet in the morning, until the dance instructors turned up at 9 to give private lessons, so each day Doctor Marigold was to be found on the dancefloor perfecting his patter.

 
On the morning of the performance day I rehearsed as usual and then spent the day walking and reading. Lots pf people came to ask when I was on again ‘Carmen’s this afternoon, at 3’. Eventually a lady who was at my dinner table approached me and said ‘are you sure its Carmen’s because the Horizon paper says you are in the Curzon’ A quick check proved her to be correct! The grapevine had done its work and in a reversal of two days before I had been ‘promoted’ into the large theatre.

 
As before I had a technical meeting an hour before curtain up, and I found a set of two steps back stage which would perfectly stand in for the footboard of Marigold’s cart, and that is all I required from the team. The auditorium filled up and by 3pm there was a goodly audience waiting to listen to a piece of Dickens that none of them knew.

 
‘I AM A CHEAPJACK!’ Instantly I (or more accurately he) had the audience’s attention. The Curzon stage was a perfect setting for this show, and in my mind’s eye I was looking over a muddy fairground entertaining the revellers and gentry who had gathered to watch.

 

Whenever Dickens performed a new piece in his repertoire the press would review it as if it were a  west end premiere , and one of the contemporary reviews of Marigold mentioned that the crowd audibly sobbed during the final passages. I am glad to report that the passage of time has not dulled the sentimentality of the human race, for as I uttered the relevant line, so I could hear little gasps from the audience.

 
Marigold had worked its magic as it always does, and I left the stage to great applause. My professional duties on board were over and both shows had gone well. I have not performed on a cruise ship for around three years now, but I greatly enjoyed my time on board Aurora and hope to do more trips with P&O in the future.

 
All of the entertainers who had joined in Montevideo were leaving the next morning, making our ways back to our various homes, so a group of us decided to meet for dinner at Sindhus, which is the signature restaurant designed by Michelin-star celebrity chef Atul Kochha. And so it was that Tony and Jill Green, Rebecca Mills, David Fairclough and myself all dressed up in our dinner jackets and ball gowns (in due deference to the formal night status on board) toasted to a very successful and very happy cruise!

 

ej

Farewell.  l-r: David Fairclough, Jill and Tony Green, Rebecca Mills and GRCD

 

 

 

It Turns a Little Chile as we Round the Horn

Leaving the Falkland Islands behind us we steamed (diesel-ed?)into the night, and when I awoke next morning I discovered that my porthole was blocked by something, for no sun was getting in.  I pulled the curtain back only to discover that the object blocking my view was a view.

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We were heading towards Cape Horn and making our tentative way through a narrow channel whose banks seemed to plunge straight down into the sea.  It seemed that only a few feet from our flanks icy waterfalls cascaded from terrific heights to the shores below.

I hurriedly changed and went up onto deck 12 where I joined many other passengers wrapped up against the cold, most of whom were touting cameras with lenses of various lengths and girths (I am sure that a psychologist would come to some very interesting conclusions:  I myself have a little compact model from Olympus…..)

All morning, all day, we made slow progress through the ever changing scenery as cormorants and other sea birds accompanied us, swooping close to the waves and dipping their wingtips in for fun.  Massive glaciers hove into view and we all tried to remember our ‘O’ level geography lessons,  glibly pulling out such terms as ‘terminal moraine’ as if we all had 1st class degrees in the subject.

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At mid morning the bows were aimed towards a narrow channel with an island on one side, the mainland on the other and the most perfect Toblerone-shaped mountain dead ahead.  We were at Cape Horn and for the next couple of hours we lazily circumnavigated the Isla Hornos (darned if I can work out what THAT means).

I am reliably informed by one who knows that having passed the Cape from East to West I am now eligible to have a hoop in my right ear.  Although as we went all the way round the island maybe I’m allowed one in the left ear as well, and another in my nose.

It was the most extraordinary thing but the terrain on the northern side of the island was almost exactly the same as the North Sutor which guards the Cromarty Firth in the Highlands of Scotland, where Liz and I retreat to each year.

 

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Isla Hornos

 

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North Sutor, Cromarty

 

 

As we turned south, so we seemed to pass The Needles from the Isle of White, and I began to doubt whether P&O had brought us to South America at all, and that this was all a great plot to save fuel.

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Any doubts of our position on the globe were swept away however when we finished our circle and the captain guided Aurora towards The Beagle Channel.  In the distance were massive snow capped peaks of the Southern Andes, which brought forth more ‘O’ level geography memories such as the well remembered joke:

Teacher: ‘Where are the Andes?’

Pupil: ‘At the end of the Armies!’

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I had to feel sorry for those who were giving lectures during the day for very few people ventured from the decks, terrified that they might miss that perfect view.

Into the evening we sailed and so the sun shone brightly and the views remained spectacular.

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The routine of life on board continued, and we all dressed for dinner, squirted alcohol hand sanitizer onto our hands, and rubbed them like hundreds of Uriah Heeps.  Into the restaurant we went, greetings were exchanged, menus consulted, choices made.  With remarkable haste the amazing meals were served and the noise of the chat grew in proportion to the amount of bottles that were uncorked.

Starters, salads, soups, main courses, deserts, cheese boards, coffee and mints came and went and slowly the restaurant began to empty as the guests made their way through the ship to watch Victor Michael, who was performing in the Curzon that night, but sadly for Victor the theatre remained sparsely populated because alongside the ship dolphins and whales had been spotted.  There are many things that performers can overcome, but what they cannot compete with are cute dolphins and majestic whales: sometimes it is just a question of excepting defeat!

Into another night we sailed, and it had to have been one of the most remarkable day’s travelling that I have ever experienced – I had no idea that we would get so close and personal to the scenery and it left an impression that I will never forget.

In my final blog post from this trip I will talk about my time on board, and my shows.

 

To The Falklands and Beyond

Safely aboard P&O’s mid size cruise ship the Aurora I joined the 1,873 other passengers as we prepared to sail from Montevideo and into the South Atlantic Ocean, or next destination being The Falkland Islands where we were due to arrive three days later.  I had been booked to be on board for a week, but the cruise itself was a 65 day marathon, so my shipmates were seasoned travellers by this time.

Life on board soon settled down into a regular routine, which on sea days basically meant filling the time between meals.  I usually wake early in the morning and being on a ship didn’t change that, and  often used that time to go over my lines.  On Aurora there is a small bit of deck, just above the bridge, that I used to pace around and mutter the lines to Doctor Marigold (at least I muttered some of the lines, as I had to shorten my performance from an hour to 45 minutes – the official P&O time for shows and lectures).

 

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Ready to Rehearse

 

With the line learning completed I would go to the buffet and pile up a plate for breakfast – sometimes fruit and cereals, sometimes cooked.  Sometimes poached fish, sometimes the full English.  Sometimes toast, sometimes croissant.  With such variations did I pass my mornings!

Being on board as an entertainer who hasn’t done anything yet can be a lonely existence as nobody quite knows why you are there, so I tended to read a lot and walk the decks.

At 11.15 each morning the lectures began and on this trip I was in for a real treat.  P&O had booked a gentleman of my age by the name of Tony Green to talk about the Falklands war, but these were to be no dry, academic lectures recounting endless statistics and dates – in 1982 Tony was a 19 year-old Marine, getting ready to leave his barracks and go home to Hartlepool for Easter.  However the word came through from Westminster and overnight all leave was cancelled, Hartlepool became Goose Green.

Tony’s talks were masterpieces of delivery, he just told his story in the most personal manner you can imagine – yes he listed dates and casualty figures, but we knew we were listening to a frightened young boy in the heat (or cold) of war.  Churchill once wrote that ‘Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at….’  Tony strongly disagreed!

What made the lectures even more moving was the fact that Tony would be returning to the Falklands for the first time since the war, and was planning to climb Two Sisters Mountain and visit the remains of the Argentinian machine gun post that he had destroyed by flinging a grenade into it 36 years ago.  By quirk of coincidence he left the Falklands on board a P&O ship (the requisitioned Canberra) and was now returning on another.

After the lecture is was back to the buffet for lunch (usually a salad) before spending an afternoon either reading or watching films in my cabin or the small cinema on deck 8.

To fully accommodate all 1,874 guests the dinner service is divided into two sittings, one at 6.30 and the second at 8.30.  The evening entertainment is arranged so that each group of diners can watch everything that is going on.  I was placed on a table at the first sitting, and very much enjoyed the company of a group of committed cruisers who had circumnavigated the globe many times.  This wealth of experience did create a slight shadow over the cruise, for one of our number – a 91 year old – had visited The Falklands on three previous occasions and because of strong winds had never been able to get ashore.   To think of Tony making his pilgrimage and having to sail straight by was too awful to think about; we had to hope that the Gods would be smiling on us.  As John, the Cruise Director muttered after one of Tony’s lectures, ‘If General Galtierie could get ashore then so can we!’

After dinner was finished (5 courses is you wished to avail yourself of everything, although I restricted myself to 3), most people made their way to the Curzon Theatre to watch the evening cabaret show.  On this leg of the journey we had a harpist and two vocalists, all of whom I got to know during the trip.  The shows featured lots of dry ice and swirling lights to back up the fabulous performances.  Every performer was backed by the seven-piece Aurora Orchestra who only get a single rehearsal for each show, learning new arrangements for songs they have played many times before.

The days and the sea passed by and the weather reports for our arrival in the Falklands were promising.  Every day I made my way round the ship refusing to take lifts between decks, so that I could walk off some of those calories that I took on three times a daily.

As we got closer to land I had a decision to make:  my first show was scheduled for the evening of the Falklands visit, and the professional thing to do was to stay on board and rest or rehearse, but when would I ever get the chance to return here?  I so wanted to see the landscape, and get up close and personal with the penguins which inhabit the beaches.  In the end my decision was made by the harpist Rebecca Mills, who was booking a private trip to Volunteer Point, and was looking for three others to share the cost.  ‘Bugger professionalism’, I recklessly thought and told her ‘yes’.

The day of the Falklands dawned bright, and more importantly calm.  We navigated carefully between the islets until we were just outside the harbour of Port Stanley where we dropped anchor.

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Soon the little tenders were ferrying passengers from Aurora to the shore where we were met by a fleet of various 4x4s.  Rebecca’s group was completed by Liverpool football legend David Fairclough and Jill Green (Tony’s wife, who came with us while he faced his memories on Two Sisters).  We were introduced to Michael, our driver for the day, folded ourselves uncomfortably into a proper British Land Rover Defender and headed off.

The drive to Volunteer Point would take us two hours, even though it looked to be no distance on the map.  The reason for the tardy journey soon became apparent as we turned off the road and started to pick our way through the bogs of the Falklands.  Michael kept the car in high range and low gears with the differentials locked, gently letting the rugged tyres find whatever grip was available to them.  We plunged down steep banks and mounted impossible climbs.  There were five cars in our convoy and we stuck together so that if anyone got stuck another car could winch them out again.

Michael knew his territory well and seemed to be using the Force to navigate. The way in which he gently guided the wheels brought to mind Tony’s description of the way that the Marines gently  eased their boots into the soft ground, trying to feel the hardness of a landmine beneath their soles, before allowing their full weight to fall on the trigger.

Eventually we arrived at Volunteer Point and spent an hour and a half among the penguins.  Oh, oh how amazing these creatures are: so proud, so trusting, so comical, so smelly!

From the Land Rover I walked straight to the beach, which has the most extraordinary sand – white with a hint of coral pink streaked through it like raspberry ripple ice cream.

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A few birds were making their way back from a quick bathe, whilst a group of four were waddling down to make their ablutions.

 

One of the sea-bound penguins was so keen that he kept flinging himself onto his stomach in the slightest of puddles, only to struggle back onto his flippers to continue the march, whilst the others looked on dismissively.

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Having spent time on the beach I then walked back towards the main colony, pausing only to marvel at the strange sight of penguins sharing a field with sheep and cattle.

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At the main colony a few circles had been marked out with white stones, and the penguins crowded into this safe haven seemingly knowing that the humans had been given instructions not to cross the line.

There are three species at Volunteer Point – the Kings, the Megellanic and Gentoo and each species has its own circle where they can lay and protect their eggs.

After a packed lunch (cheese and pickle sandwiches, prawn cocktail flavoured crisps and of course a Penguin chocolate bar), it was time to climb back into our Land Rover for the slow crawl back to Port Stanley.

Michael was not only a great driver but also a fascinating guide, giving us many insights of life on the Falklands.  There seems to be a real sense of community and everyone looks out for everyone else.  There have been occasions when cruise ships have disgorged their passengers in the morning only for the winds to get up during the day meaning that they can’t get back, and then the phone call goes round to see who can offer beds – 1 here, 2 there, the Finlayson’s children are away so they can provide three beds, and so on.

As far as groceries are concerned the Islands are quite self sufficient (a lot of lamb is consumed), but would you believe many people order online from Asda, and approximately eight weeks later the goods arrive from Blighty.

At one point Jill asked if there is a majority wish to remain British and Michael chuckled: ‘We had a referendum a couple of years ago and the result was 98.8% in favour.  We never found out who the .2% were – they must still be in hiding!’

Finally we made our way back to the road and turned towards Port Stanley but before we got there Michael pulled over and pointed out two twisted piles of metal in the middle of the landscape: the wrecks of Argentinian helicopters left where they crashed in ’82 are a stark and morbid reminder of the war.

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All in all it was an amazing day and I felt greatly privileged to have been there.  I joined the queue on the quay to get a tender back to Aurora and that night we left this little piece of Britain behind us.  On board the routine of the cruise resumed, and at 7.30 passengers made their way to Carmen’s lounge to watch Mr Dickens is Coming! before dining.

In my next post I will describe our journey around Cape Horn and through the Beagle Channel.

 

 

 

 

 

Flying South for the Winter

For the past seven days I have been bobbing about in the South Atlantic.  Over the next few days I will post a few selections of my adventures:

 

Since Christmas I have been at home with Liz. The long weeks of the tour are a series of happy memories, and home life has taken over. Much has gone on in Oxfordshire: we have been starting to market my shows various grand stately homes, and we have discovered a brand new cinema in Oxford that is extremely civilised and serves humous and flatbreads, as well as allowing you to take a glass of wine (in a real glass) into the film with you. Oh yes, the Curzon is an extremely middle classed cinema geared perfectly to the local clientele. In the comfy seats (little sofas to snuggle up on) we have watched The Greatest Showman, The Darkest Hour and The Post, all of which we have enjoyed immensely.

 
But this week it was time for me to travel again as last year I had been booked by P&O Cruises to provide some entertainment on board Aurora as part of her South American Grand Tour.

 
Sunday 21 January
I am used to flying of course, but usually I have to be at Heathrow airport good and early ready to board a flight at 9.00am, or some such time. Today however I am not due to leave British soil until 8.20 in the evening so we have the entire day to get ready. As the shroud of night is pulled back and dawn allowed to make her presence felt I am amazed to see snow – real snow with heavy flakes – falling over our garden. Not only is snow falling, but it is laying too and soon the grass, the flower beds, the paths, the shed and our cars is covered in white. There is something about the snow that brings back such happy memories of childhood and Liz and I watch from our upstairs window in delight.

 
This being England the snow doesn’t last long and by 10 o’clock the precipitation has changed to rain, accompanied by a thick misty fog which doesn’t lift for the rest of the day.

 
I spend the day packing my cases not entirely sure what weather conditions will await me in the South Atlantic, but hopefully covering a few bases. The traffic can be very heavy on a Sunday night as various London folk return from their weekend homes, so we decide to leave plenty of time to get to the airport. If anything the fog is thicker and the rain heavier than at any time of the day, and seems to mirror our moods as we prepare to part once more.

 
We were right to leave plenty of time, for soon after joining the M40 we run into the back of a long traffic jam. We edge forward inch by inch, getting dazzled by the very bright brake lights of the Jaguar in front of us. The Sat Nav gives us gloomy predictions of our arrival time and has no better suggestions, so we inch and we inch and we inch, wondering if I might not be heading south after all.

 
Eventually we see a smear of emergency lights flashing through the fog and we crawl pass the wreck of a car, which seems to have damage to every single panel, being loaded onto a flatbed truck. Once clear of the accident scene we speed on our away again and reach the airport bang on schedule.

 
The curb side drop off zone at Terminal 3 has been the scene of many tearful goodbyes over the years and today we add another one as we hug not caring about the rain. I pull my suitcases out of the car and watch Liz drive away, before starting to walk towards the terminal. For some reason I don’t seem to be able to maintain control of my luggage and it is only in the dry of the building that I discover that one of the wheels on my large case has sheared clean off (presumably as I was unloading it just now), meaning that I have only three wheels on my wagon from now on, which promises to make things rather awkward.

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I am due to fly with Latam Airlines, a carrier that I have never heard of, but was reassured a couple of days ago to see that they had flown the Pope to Brazil, so they must be OK. I check in quickly (having to sign a form declaring that my case was damaged before entrusting it to their care), and in no time an walking to the gate and getting ready to board. The plane is a nice modern 777 and the Brazilian crew are friendly and welcoming. I do not understand Portuguese but I have flown enough to know exactly what they are saying. I do up my seat belt, I stow my carry on bags, I put my tray table in the upright and locked position and I remind myself that smoking in the lavatory is not to be attempted as there are smoke detectors there – yes my Portuguese is coming on well.

 

 

Also on the flight is a large group of P&O crew (wearing sweatshirts and carrying kit bags with the company logo), who will all be joining Aurora for the beginning of a new contract. My time onboard is only seven days and I can’t imagine the pain of the goodbyes that they have had to say as they leave for 3, 6 or 9 months away from their homes.

 
The flight is bound for Sau Paulo in Brazil, and will last just over eleven hours through the night. I scroll through the movie options and decide to re-watch The Artist which did so well at the Oscars a few years ago. I plug in my headphones (surely somewhat superfluous?) and settle back to enjoy the film.

 
Dinner is served – I have a smoked salmon salad, which is rather nice – and watch to the end of The Artist. Next up Skyfall, and I cover myself with a Latam rug and lean on a Latam pillow and let myself doze off. Bond fails to keep my attention and half way through the film I turn the monitor off and settle down to sleep. The night is restless, but I do manage to get some shut eye and when I wake and check the flight map I am amazed to discover that we are only an hour and forty minutes from Sao Paulo.

 
I resume Skyfall and watch to the end before, enjoying a breakfast omelette and potatoes which is served an hour before arrival.

 

 

Monday 22 January
Flying into Sau Paulo brings many childhood thoughts to my mind, for it sums up (to me, at least) the centre of the Brazilian Formula 1 industry. Back in the early 1970s when I first became interested in the sport the Grand Prix was held at The Interlagos circuit in the city, a sinuous switch back circuit built in a valley between two lakes (the name of the circuit means ‘between the lakes’). The local heroes of the day were Carlos Pace (who the circuit is now named in memory of) driving for the Brabham team, and Emerson Fittipaldi who drove one of my beloved Lotuses to the World Championship in 72. These men opened the flood gates and soon the racing world was filled with talented Brazilian drivers including Nelson Piquet and of course the mercurial and brilliant Ayrton Senna who is buried in the city.

 
Although the GP switched to Rio in the late seventies and early eighties, it came back to a shortened version of Interlagos and now is permanently homed here. I’d love to spend time in the City and pay a visit to the both the track and Senna’s grave but unfortunately I only have a couple of hours layover before my next flight (and it is 5am!).

 
As I am transiting straight to Uruguay I don’t have to clear immigration in Brazil so apart from a quick security check I am soon at the gate awaiting to board a smaller plane to Montevideo along with the rest of my P&O colleagues.

 
By the time we take off it is daylight again and I look hopefully down at the massive sprawling city trying to catch a glimpse of the racing circuit and although I can see lots of lakes there doesn’t seem to be much between any of them. I do however see miles and miles of the favelas – the poverty-stricken shanty towns that blight all large Brazilian cities.

 
The flight lasts for about two hours and follows the west coast of South America, with rivers and sea glinting through the high clouds.

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Latam come up trumps and serve a choice of ham and cheese roll or a muffin to accompany my coffee – the major airlines struggle to serve a bag of peanuts these days, so the snack is welcome. A babble of Portuguese comes over the intercom and my newly-discovered linguistic skills help me to deduce that we are beginning our descent into Montevideo airport.

 
As we break through the clouds I see that we are over the docks and immediately below me is my home for the next 7 days – Aurora moored next to a massive cargo ship, and resplendent with her blue funnel. I haven’t been on a cruise ship for around three years and in the intervening period P&O have undergone a re-branding. The ships had traditionally been white-hulled with pale yellow funnels, but now the prows have a large Union Flag design painted on them and the funnels are blue. ‘Harrumph!’ say us traditionalists, although I must admit it does look rather smart.


The airport is right on the other side of the city and it takes quite a while to make our landing. As in any airport I stand with hundreds of other people waiting to clear immigration (although I am able to use an electronic passport reader and get through quickly), and then waiting for my bags which take an agonisingly long time to come through.

 
Eventually I grab my large suit carrier and my three-wheeled case and make my way out into the lobby where I am greeted by a man holding an ‘Aurora’ sign. I will be on board as a passenger, whilst all of the others on my flight are crew, so have to go through different immigration checks and will be taken to the ship in a mini bus. I get a car and we start the long drive back to the docks.

 
Montevideo is an impressive city, and is on the banks of the River Plate, although the mouth of the river is so wide that you cannot see the opposite bank. A huge sweeping curve of a beach is filled with people playing in the surf or just soaking up the rays. It is like a Californian city with the Spanish architecture and palms alongside the sands. Inevitably much of the building caters to the holiday market and there is a succession of rather drab, dare I say Eastern bloc-looking hotels, but as we get nearer to the docks it is apparent that here lies the ancient part of the town and the architecture becomes more interesting again.

 
Aurora is the only cruise ship in port, although the container ship that I saw from above dominates the skyline with its multi-coloured metal containers piled high, ready to take whatever to wherever.

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My taxi pulls up along side Aurora and in the cool of the shade that her hull provides I complete the paperwork to allow me onboard. My cabin is on deck 10 (so quite high up), and right towards the bows which means if we hit heavy oceans in the Southern Ocean I could be in for quite a rollercoaster ride!

 
Even though it has been a few years since last I was on a ship like this everything is reassuringly familiar. I unpack and then go for a walk to discover my bearings. Theatre, restaurants, bars, library, cinema all as and where I remember them.
On returning to my cabin I see that I have received a packet from the Production Manager informing me of my show times and I am quite surprised to discover that my first show (Mr Dickens is Coming!) has been scheduled in the cabaret slot in the main theatre on 26 January – 2 shows at 8.30 and 10.30. Usually my gigs are during the day as part of the lecture programme, so this is quite a promotion! The passengers are used to seeing top comics, brassy singers, old-fashioned crooners and large glitzy shows with high-kicking dancing girls: I hope that I’m up to it (not the high-kicking, I think I’ll give that a miss this year).

 
I mooch around the ship for the rest of the day and admire the scenery. Also in port is the might of the Uruguayan Navy (rather a motley collection of small ships, including one that proudly boasts number ‘1. It would appear that Uruguay is not too worried about an imminent attack from the sea.

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The Might of the Uruguayan Navy

Another feature of our birth is just outside the harbour walls, where there is a boat’s graveyard. A collection of what appear to be fishing boats rust in various states of submergence. It is a rather sad reminder of Montevideo’s moment of international fame when the German warship Graf Spee scuttled in the bay.

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I have a salad lunch from the buffet and do a little rehearsing in my cabin, before going to a ‘safety briefing’ in one of the meeting rooms. There is only me and a harpist (Rebecca Mills who has also joined the ship today) present. We are greeted by a member of the Entertainment team who runs through the required briefing knowing full well that we have both heard it many times before.

 
For dinner I sit out on the rear deck and have a delicious steak as a 5 piece band serenades the guests with a selection of easy-listening songs from the 70s (Neil Sedaka features prominently), each of which is followed with ‘thanks guys, thank you so much, yeah, thanks guys’ even when nobody applauds: it is a tough gig for a band.

 
Having finished dinner I return to my cabin fairly early and get ready for bed. It has been a long day, or days, and I am looking forward to catching up with some real sleep and then tomorrow I will explore a little of Montevideo.

 

 

The End of the Tour

And so it has arrived.  After 47 days on the road the final day of the 2017 USA tour has dawned.  Strictly speaking I beat the dawn as I have to get up and ready to be at a television studio at 7.15.  I decide not to wear costume today and simply don a smart shirt and cashmere sweater for the interview.

The Fox 9 station is actually situated in Eden Prairie where I performed two days ago, and there is hardly any traffic at this hour.  I arrive in good time and pull into the almost empty parking lot shortly before the Martin, the PR guru also arrives.

The station is almost deserted with one man on the front desk, one girl in the news room, one floor manager, one meteorologist and Leah, the anchor who will interview me.  Martin and I go to the greenroom and manage to track down some coffee which is greatly needed.

After waiting for around twenty minutes I am called into the studio where I am fitted with a microphone and sat at a large Perspex desk to await Leah.  The interview is very good and Leah has done plenty of research and is genuinely interested and excited about the prospect of me performing in The Twin Cities (she is better prepared than one breakfast TV team I remember who had a reputation for bad research and asked the founder of the Cirque du Soleil how many animals the troupe travelled with).

With the interview done I go back to the car and as I drive back towards Minneapolis I can truthfully repeat my opening statement: the final day of the 2017 USA actually dawns.

As I enter the lobby of the hotel it is a sea of purple and white, for the Minnesota Vikings are playing today and the hotel is full of fans (one would of thought that a hotel might be full of the visiting fans, but there is not a Cincinnati Bengals shirt to be seen, although there is one rather incongruous Green Bay Packers fan swimming against the tide.

My breakfast is positively British this morning (I must be getting truly homesick), I start with porridge, then toast some bread, heap scrambled eggs on it, adding bacon and sausage to the side; not a waffle or pancake, or a drop of maple syrup in site.

I have a couple of hours to kill before I am due to meet Jeff, the owner of the Aster Café, to go over the day’s events.  At ten o’clock I return to the lobby and watch the hoards of fans leaving the hotel and heading for the game.  Many are sat at the bar where the beers and wines are already flowing.  After a while I see Jeff pull up in an immensely impressive pick up truck and I jump up next to him.  Jeff and I first met in March when I was in town with To Begin With, but he has a long relationship with the family, originally getting to know Cedric and more recently Ian.

Our first stop is a house that Jeff is selling, which sits in the shadow of the football stadium and we drive through the purple lava that is flowing through the streets of Minneapolis and pull into the driveway.  The house is an extraordinary Tolkeinesque dwelling with quirky iron work and stained glass everywhere.  Jeff had been hoping to sell it to a microbrewery, and one would of thought that its proximity to the stadium would have been a huge bonus, but sadly the sale fell through.  There is a viewing of the house tomorrow and Jeff wants to check how the decorating is going.

The upstairs accommodation gives the most remarkable view of the US Bank football stadium, which was only built two years ago.  The stadium is fully enclosed and is designed to represent the prow of a Viking ship sailing into the city, although its matt black finish make it look more like a stealth warship – it is a truly remarkable building and dominates the skyline.

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From the stadium we drive to the Aster Café where Jeff shows me the River Room where I am to perform: the stage is small and surrounded on three sides by chairs and reminds me rather of the set up at the Vaillancourts mill in Massachusetts.  Jeff has been holding music events here for years but is keen to branch out into theatre and my show is the first dip of the toe.  There is a definite charm about the room and I am sure that the atmosphere will be superb tonight.

With the site check finished Jeff drives me back to the Hilton, although I don’t go back to my room yet as I want to walk in the city for a while.  When I was here in March the whole of Nicollet Mall (one of the main thoroughfares)  was undergoing a major remodelling, and the great gashes in the ground suggested that something remarkable was going to be created – the US Bank Stadium is testament to the vision of the city.  So I was somewhat surprised and disappointed to discover that the finished mall looks just as it did three years ago!  The project has cost the city 60 gazillion dollars, and led to many businesses closing during the years of disruption, and for what?  Not very much would seem to be the answer.

 

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60 gazillions worth….

 

For old time’s sake I walk up to the Lund’s grocery store which is where I regularly shopped when I was here for To Begin With, and buy a salad for my lunch.  From Lunds I walk through the snow covered Loring Park, where a Christmas Market is on, featuring a giant mechanical Arctic wolf and a similarly animated Moose which children can move by pulling on ropes or by peddling a fixed bicycle.  The air is filled with the scent of cooking and spicy punches.

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From the park I continue my nostalgic walk past the two apartment blocks where I stayed, and then past the two venues where I performed, The Music Box and the Old Wesley Center, and then I am back at the Hilton where the bar is still full of fans.

I go back to my room and turn the TV on and discover that the Star Wars Marathon is still going on, fortunately it has now reached the original movies and as I eat my lunch I revel in the brilliance of the ‘first’ film.

The afternoon passes slowly until it is time to pack my things up and drive back to the Café.  I am aware that the first hints of a cold are starting to make themselves felt, which is not surprising I suppose, but I hope I can ward off the worst of it until all of my shows (including those in England) have been completed.  At around 3 O’ clock I can get online and check in for my flight home, which is a wonderful moment for it marks the first step in the two days that will lead to my reunion with Liz.

At the café the staff are busy preparing for the event, David is my tech guy and we do a microphone check, although I really don’t think I need one in this small space.

The doors are due to open at 6, even though the show is not until 7.30, but the audience is already gathering outside the door.  Sonia, who is looking after front of house, does a good job of chatting to them and keeping them informed.

With all the preparations completed I absent myself from the River Room, and take a few photographs of the café and of the remarkable view back towards the city – there is a slight fog in the air that gives the skyline an extraordinary golden aura.

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Back inside I meet up with Dennis Babcock who has come to watch the show tonight, which is kind of him.  He is wearing his Pickwick Club Tie, and if Jeff should happen to turn up without his then a bottle of port will be the forfeit (such are the rules of the club).

I retreat to my dressing room, which is actually an empty shop unit on the upper floors of the old mill building and far removed from the bustle downstairs.  The time seems to pass slowly but I have plenty of time to reflect on the last few weeks and on the adventures that I have had.

Eventually Jeff comes up and says that we are ready to start the show (I notice that he does NOT have his club tie on and wonder if the forfeit has been paid).

The audience are packed in and there is a fabulous atmosphere in the room, I really can’t think of a better venue to finish up the trip.  Outside the windows the lights of Minneapolis twinkle, whilst the stage lighting is enhanced by candlelight throughout the room.

The intimacy of the show is wonderful, and I am able to capture the gentle narrative of the novel itself as I tell the story.  Sometimes a Minnesotan audience can be quiet and stoic, but this group are not – they react and are completely engaged in the show from beginning to end.  I give one of my best performances for quite a while and love every minute of the evening.

When I leave the stage having taken the applause a very kind young gentleman hands me a glass of beer, which is very welcome, and I toast the tour before taking a large gulp.

I quickly run back to my upstairs shop and change before returning to the River Room to mingle with the audience.  This sort of sums up the atmosphere of the whole event, there is no formal desk to sign at, no orderly line, just lots of people who want to chat.  And there are so many people here that I have met before: people with a book that I signed at The St Paul Hotel in 2002, people that I met at The Abbey resort in the mid 2000s and shared dinner with (who give me a bag of presents which include a Chicago scarf, a baseball cap and a toothbrush – the gentleman is a dentist and it is an old joke between us), there are people who saw me at the Arboretum last year, and others who watched To Begin With at The Wesley Center: really quite the fan club!

In particular it is great to see a  contingent from To Begin With, for as well as Dennis, there is Bob who was the production designer of our second run, and Kasey who looked after the social media promotion as well as my wig (a strange combination of talents!).  We all chat and catch up and pose on the stage and discuss the show.

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Eventually it is time for everyone to leave, and I hug my goodbyes, before changing upstairs and gathering all of my belongings.  I say goodbye to Jeff, who is very pleased with the event and would like to expand it to more nights next year, and make the Aster my new home in the Twin Cities.

I drive back to the hotel where the bar is STILL full of Vikings fans.  There is a guard at the lifts making sure that no non-guests make it up to the bedroom floors, and I have a great deal of trouble finding my room key whilst balancing two costumes, a top hat, a cane and various gifts, not to mention the little roller case.  Eventually I prove that I am indeed a resident at the hotel and not some suspicious stalker, and get back to my room on the 11th floor where I hang my costumes and shirts up to air for the last time.

I go back to the bar where I look incongruous among the Vikings.  I order a dessert and a glass of wine and congratulate myself on a job well done.

As I sit alone on my bar stool a sad little footnote to the tour pops up onto my Facebook feed: Pat and LaVerne from the Golden Goose in Occoquan have decided to retire and close the store in February.  I have had such happy times in that little shop and shared such close friendship with them.  I send a message wishing them a happy retirement and thanking them for all of the great opportunities that they have given me to perform in the little Ebenezer Chapel.

I return to my room and know that I will sleep very well tonight.

 

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The Tour’s End

 

 

NB: Two of the most ardent followers of this blog back in the UK are Liz’s colleague Penny Durant and her husband Jon.  Please share my congratulations with them for the birth of little Beatrice Esme.  I look forward to meeting her soon.

 

 

 

 

 

The Final Day Off

Today is my final day off, which seems a bit strange on the penultimate day of the tour, but I have nothing that I need to do and nowhere that I need to be.  The day is mine!

I had thought about driving out to the Mall of America to look for some Christmas presents but that seems like a ridiculous idea for a couple of reasons: firstly the second last Saturday before Christmas in the largest shopping mall in America sounds like an extra circle of Hell that Dante would have incorporated if he had lived to see it.  Secondly my flight on Monday is not until 3 pm and the mall is close to the airport, so it makes sense to kill those two birds with one stone.

Instead I decide that after breakfast I will drive up to the magnificent Minneapolis Institute of Art and spend a morning admiring the beautiful paintings and artefacts there.  Over the past three years I have had 2 extended stays in Minneapolis to perform To Begin With and MIA has always been one of my favourite diversions.

Having enjoyed the Hilton’s buffet breakfast and got myself ready, I fetch the car from the ludicrously expensive parking garage beneath the hotel and drive out into the streets of Minneapolis.  At the first red light I discover that the Ford Escape is one of those cars that automatically shuts itself down when you stop, which is very disconcerting and I have to keep reminding myself that this is an effort to reduce emissions and that I have not rented a frighteningly unreliable vehicle.  The drive to MIA is very short, and if the weather had been better I would have walked, but the pavements (sidewalks) are covered with icy snow and it is a grey cloudy day which would make perambulatory activities uncomfortable and possibly dangerous.

At the museum I spend a very happy couple of hours wandering through the galleries, and admiring many pictures that have made an impression before, and others which I am seeing for the first time.  When I have seen about as many paintings as I think I want to see today I go and have a coffee before mooching around the coffee and gift shops and I am delighted to find my cousin Lucinda’s book about beards and moustaches on the shelf (of the gift shop, of course, not the coffee shop!)

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Firmly in tourist mode I now decide to drive towards the Mill City museum by the river, which celebrates the city’s milling trade.  The museum is right next to the Guthrie Theatre and it is a struggle to find anywhere to park because the audience are arriving for a matinee performance of, you guessed it, A Christmas Carol!  I notice that the other show playing this month is Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, so it is obviously the British ghost story season at the Guthrie.

Eventually I find an on-street parking spot and having worked out how to pay I go to Mill City.  The museum is, as the name suggests, built in an old mill that was partially destroyed by fire, but they have mounted an interesting exhibition using a mixture of the ruins and more modern additions.

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The central part of the visit is a ride in a huge industrial elevator which hops from floor to floor, showing us various rooms and machines as they would have been in the mill’s heyday, whist a recorded narration from people who actually worked here tells the story.  The museum does the best it can with a rather limited story to tell, but the highlight of the trip is standing on the observation platform at the very top of the building looking over the St Anthony’s Falls, around which the entire City grew.   And as I  admire the view I can see the Aster Café on the other side of the river, where I will be performing tomorrow evening.

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Having learnt as much about grain and flour as I want to, I return to my car and drive back to the hotel once more.  Although I said that I didn’t have any work to do I realised when I was out that I have two three shows to perform in England next week, and they have to be the longer 2-act version, so I spend a little bit of time going over the extra lines that I will have to shoehorn in to what has become such a  familiar script.

I don’t spend too long working, and soon I have the television on am watching Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, which is the first of the prequel trilogy featuring that woeful creation Jar Jar Binks.

At 5 o’clock I am due to meet my old friend, and producer of To Begin With, Dennis Babcock, and I make my way back to Brits Pub which is our rendezvous point.  The place is heaving just like a British pub would be on a Saturday night.  I am first to arrive so put my name down for a table and at the very instant that my name is called, so Dennis walks through the door, which is a perfect piece of timing.

We sit at our little table before a roaring fire, and begin to talk about what has been going on in our lives since I left Minneapolis in March.  Dennis also produces the incredibly popular show Triple Espresso, which is set to play in cities across America once more after a couple of quieter years.  The future looks bright.

We both eat Brit’s signature dish of fish and chips and talk and talk, until Dennis has to leave to watch a student of his in a play based on The Great Gatsby.  I walk the short distance back to the Hilton and go back to my room where I discover that the Star Wars marathon is still playing,  so I watch some more of that.

I get ready for bed quite early, as I have to be up and out of the hotel at 6.45 in the morning for a live TV interview to promote the show in the evening.

The last day of the USA tour is about to begin.

 

 

 

No Name Day

As I wake up this morning the first thing I see is a blinking red light on the phone next to the bed.  I press the button for messages and listen to an electronically generated message informing me that I have a package waiting for me at the front desk.  I dial ‘O’ and speak to a real person who confirms that indeed it is my suitcase that has been delivered overnight.

I have a fairly early breakfast and then retrieve my case and take it upstairs, much to the confusion of the bell hops who are not used to the sight of someone apparently checking in at 7am.

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Up in my room I open the case up and have my second huge relief of the day when I discover that I had indeed packed my favourite scarf and hadn’t after all left it in the rental car or at Richmond airport.  It is therefore in a good frame of mind that I continue into my day.

My first commitment is a live TV interview to promote my final USA performance on Sunday.  I get into costume and also take everything that I will need for my show later so that I can drop it into the car on my way out.  The TV station is across the street from the hotel so I stride out into the cold morning and get a good blast into my lungs before entering the offices of WCCO, and being greeted by Martin Keller, who’s company is handling all of the PR for the Aster Café where my show is to be held.

Martin guides me to the green room where we make polite conversation about the theatre scene in Minneapolis and the  release of the new Star Wars film (neither of us can quite remember where we are up to in the plot, and what has been prequel and sequel).  After a while we are ushered into the TV studio and I am fitted with a microphone and sat under the hot lights on a cosy part of the set, while the presenters do their stuff behind a more formal news desk on the other side of the room.

There is a local story running about the re-naming of Lake Calhoun in Minnesota: apparently there is a move to change the name because the Mr Calhoun in question was a keeper of slaves and honouring him in this way is now deemed inappropriate.  However the powers that be seem to be saying that the Calhoun was not THAT Calhoun, Oh no, the lake is named after quite another Calhoun – a good man, very honourable and patriotic who did lots of wonderful things and never forgot his mother’s birthday and helped elderly ladies across the street and rescued kittens from trees: One gets the sense that the City would rather not take on the expense of re-branding when they can simply change the story.

The news moves on to viewers reactions to Star Wars, and while the screen is filled with tweets and texts the presenters pick their way across the studio, still talking which is an impressive thing to see.  Their journey complete they sit on the sofa next to me and before I know it the floor manager is waving to one of the remote cameras and our interview begins.

I am sorry to say that I don’t know the name of either presenter as I wasn’t really concentrating when the floor manager told me, but we chat as if we are old friends anyway.  I have some slight doubts when the girl announces that I will be performing at the Aster Café on Sunday, but she pronounces it ‘Aister’ whereas I assumed it was in Lady Astor.  I decide to refer to just ‘the Cafe’ for the rest of the interview.

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It is quite a long slot, in TV terms, and we talk about my show, my previous appearances in the Twin Cities and the friendship of the Café owner Jeff with my brother Ian via their mutual membership of the Pickwick Club in London.  Our chat comes to an end and the male presenter, who is also the meteorologist, repeats warnings of light snow falls, and I leave the set saying thank you to all of the nameless people who fill the studio.

I have a very brief time to go back to my hotel but within twenty minutes I am on the road driving to the small community of Eden Prairie which about thirty minutes away, and where I am to perform this afternoon.  There doesn’t seem any point in changing out of my costume, so I drive Victorian.

My venue is the Wooddale Church and it is an impressive sight as I pull into the parking lot.  It is a modern building with an impressive metal, industrial ‘spire’ on the top.

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I find my way into the main lobby area and am greeted by a lady whose name I don’t hear and then am introduced to another lady whose name I also don’t get.  I am not on terribly good form today in the name stakes and I apologise to everyone involved for my inability to listen!

I am given a brief tour of the Church and shown the main worship space which is remarkable and dominated by the largest pipe organ in the USA.  Then I am taken into the room where I am to perform, which is smaller and beautifully laid out.  The guests are going to be served with a delicious lunch before the show ad already the tables have been set with plates of salad, while at the side of the room plates of delicious desserts are lined up waiting to be served.

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Along one side of the room a large stage has been prepared and theatre lights hang over it, so that it will be well illuminated when I come to do the show.  The Pastor (David – I made sure I listened) and the sound guy (Richie) introduce themselves, and we start the sound check.  Unfortunately the only microphone they have is one of the ear clips, which always fall off, but my experiences at the Mid Continent Library have told me that a few mini binder clips can hold such a microphone in place on my shirt and so it becomes a lapel unit instead.

The first members of the audience are beginning to arrive, so I go to the little vestry which is where I am to wait until lunch has been served and it is time for the entertainment to begin (scheduled for 12.35 which seems terribly precise!)  There is a TV set in the room and I assume that it is only an internal system broadcasting proceedings from the sanctuary, but I discover that actually it is properly connected, so I wile away the time watching the quiz show Jeopardy, and realising now lacking my general knowledge is!

Just before 12.30 I am collected and taken back to the room, where everyone has enjoyed their lunches and are settling back to watch the show.  The event has been a huge success, with the lunch tickets selling out in a matter of minutes, and the organisers adding a few rows of theatre style seating at the back of the room to accommodate as many audience members as they can.  David takes to the stage and announces me, and the music starts right on cue allowing me to walk, as if behind Marley’s coffin, to my place on the stage.

It is always an interesting to perform for a new group in a new venue, and for a while it is as if we are feeling each other out, and setting down the ground rules.  I have plenty of space to perform, and soon the room is fully immersed in the story: the intensity and concentration of the audience is remarkable, and is most palpable.

I enjoy the performance but as in Williamsburg I am aware that my energy levels are still not where they should be,  I concentrate on giving a measured, and not a strained show, which everyone seems to enjoy.

When I have taken my bows and made my way through the standing crowd, many of whom pat me on the back and shake my hand, I return to the vestry, change quickly and come back to the lobby where a few people are waiting to see me.  The Church haven’t been selling any products, so there is no formal signing session, but it is very nice to meet and chat anyway.  A lot of people have seen me in the past at various venues in the Twin Cities and one lady has pictures from my old performances at the St Paul Hotel dating back 17 years.  How young and slim I looked, with even the trace of a fringe!

Another audience member is Peggy who was responsible for bringing my version of A Christmas Carol back to Minnesota when she encouraged the Arboretum to stage my show two years ago.  Peggy has been a long standing supporter and has been behind a good many of my appearances.  We hug and chat and she sends her love to Liz whom she met at the Arboretum last year.

I thank David and pose for some photographs and then soon it is time to get changed and leave the  church.  Of course I travelled here in my costume, but remembered to bring regular clothes, meaning that when I emerge back into the lobby the staff and volunteers get their first sight of a modern Gerald!

I say my goodbyes and offer my thanks to everyone who has made the event so enjoyable and start to drive back to downtown Minneapolis.  Almost straight away I run into heavy traffic queues; it is only 2.30 and it seems as if the Friday rush hour has started very early.

Back at the Hilton I buy a sandwich and a slice of cake for my lunch, not to mention more bottles of water (the air is so dry here that I am constantly needing to drink), and go back to my room where I spend the rest of the afternoon.

I just seem to have no energy to do anything today, and even when I try to watch the second episode of Mrs Maisel I fall asleep almost before it has started.  I turn all the lights off, get under the covers and have a long afternoon nap.

When evening comes I decide just to stay in the hotel and go down to the lobby bar where I have a delicious pork chop and risotto dish.  A group of ladies at the end of the bar are out celebrating, one is sporting a Santa hat, and on hearing my accent (as I chat to the barman), they start to converse and soon are asking all about the shows and getting a little flirty.

 

I pose for a few pictures but really need to get some sleep, so I politely say my goodbyes and return to my room.

Tomorrow is a complete day off, with no media commitments or appearances, and it will be good to have a final day to recharge before the final show on Sunday night.  I am thinking of joining the hundreds of thousands of other people who will visit the Mall of America tomorrow, just to pick up a few gifts, and I may well visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art which is always a favourite place when I am here.

But that is all for the morning.  For now I bring a close a day when I couldn’t remember anybody’s name!