Two Nights at Highclere

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My final week of performing continued on Monday, just a week after returning from America, with the first of two performances at the magnificent Highclere Castle.

I had left my hotel in York at around 9am and with a decent drive I managed to get home for some lunch and time with with the family (the latter having been a rarity over the previous month), but at 2.15 it was time to get back into the car and head to the beautifully castellated and be-towered cuboid home that in real life is the home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, and in fiction is the ancestral home of the Crawley family in the guise of Downton Abbey.

I first performed at Highclere two years ago, and the event had been a great success, but sadly one that we couldn’t repeat in ’20, for obvious reasons, but in 2021 Lady Carnarvon was anxious to celebrate Christmas well in the old house and booked me for a double stint, with shows on both Monday and Tuesday.

As the sun lowered in the sky I turned into the long driveway and was delighted when a security guard flagged me down and cheerily said ‘Hello Mr Dickens, just follow the road up to the front door where you can unload!’ so I swept into the large gravel area in front of the house and pulled up outside the great front door (such a spacious area deserves a good ‘sweep’). As I opened the car door I was cheerily greeted by John, the Castle Manager, who opened the large front door for me, and helped me load my things in to the Saloon, the great space, dominated by a huge Christmas tree, which forms the heart of the house and where I would be performing.

Two years ago a decent sized stage had been erected in front of the huge stone fireplace, and that had been surrounded by around 80 seats. This year numbers had been reduced to 50, to allow guests to distance as they required, and about a metre had been lost from the stage, to allow more room between me and the front row. Once I had my furniture placed I could see that the performances this year were not destined to be terribly active ones, as I wasn’t going to have much room to move.

I chatted to John, and Charlotte, the events manager with whom I have been corresponding during the year, and ran through the running plan for the event (start at 5, interval at 5.45, 30-minute interval, second act at 6.15, finish at 7 and then join the guests for supper). I also ran through the sound queues with Charlotte, and then took myself off to one of the ‘back stage’ private rooms where I laid out my costumes and changed into costume.

As I sat waiting waiting for 5 pm to tick around an email came in from The Café Royal in the heart of London, where I was due to be performing on Wednesday evening, saying that it was with great reluctance that they had been forced to cancel the event, due to the fact that many of the guests had decided that they didn’t want to be with groups of people in the middle of London, where the Omicrom Variant of Covid had been spreading rapidly through the previous week. I had fully expected to loose some shows as the national situation worsened and there was always the possibility that the government would introduce tighter restrictions on events, and scupper the lot. If the Café Royal event was to be the only victim, then I would be relieved.

At 5 o’clock I made my way through the various corridors and met with John, who would be introducing me to the stage. All of the guests had arrived, had been given a welcoming glass of champagne and were now sat in the Saloon ready for the show. I made my way to the top of the staircase, and John walked onto the stage where he said a few words and then welcomed me. Charlotte brought the music cue in perfectly and I walked down the stairs, through the audience and up onto my little stage. To my left sat Liz and our good friends Nikki and Martin. Highclere generously offer me the opportunity of bringing guests to the show, and it was so nice to see ‘my team’ among the audience (this would be the first time that Liz has actually seen the show for two years, and the first time that Nikki and Martin had ever seen it, although Martin worked closely with me on the creation of the video version, which is once again available to rent – details at the end of the post).

Despite the lack of space to move, indeed maybe as a result of it, the show was a very good one, concentrating more on the storytelling aspect, rather than the brash theatricality. I could tell that the little pieces of knock-about business wouldn’t play well with this group, so I didn’t bother with encouraging them to gasp at Mrs Cratchit’s goose, or to sigh in delight when the pudding was produced, I just told the story, and the show was the better for it.

The interval came and went, and I was soon calling to the young boy from Scrooge’s window. When I finally wished everyone a ‘Happy Christmas’ (remembering that I was now in England), and left the stage, the applause echoed loudly around the old walls, and I returned to take my bows to all sides, indeed I was called back once more for a second round of bowing. It was a lovely and rewarding experience.

I hurried back to my dressing room where I changed into a jacket and tie, so that I could join Liz, Nikki and Martin in the festive marquee which had been erected in the courtyard at the rear of the house and where tables had been prepared for each individual bubble of audience members. The menu featured salmon and beetroot, delicious Scotch Eggs with golden yolks, a demitasse of mushroom soup, all finished up with a mince pie and a chocolate caramel cup. Glasses of champagne were regularly refilled, although with a drive ahead of us all, we had to decline further top-ups. This was a rather different dining experience to the various meals delivered to me by Uber Eats over the last few weeks!

It had been a lovely evening, made so much more special by having Liz and our friends there.

The following evening I was back at Highclere for the second show and this time as I drove up to the house there was a beautiful golden setting sun behind creating an image that would have had the film crews of Downton Abbey running for their cameras to capture.

I made my way back to the dressing room and discovered that the staff had brought in a hat stand and hung all of my costumes up for me, as well as laying my shoes neatly out. It was as if the butler had come in, which was rather grand.

The preparations for the show, and the show itself followed the same routine as the day before, although the audience were a little more restrained. On stage it is very difficult to judge how people are reacting when most of their faces are hidden behind masks, but it seemed as if everyone was having fun, and the enthusiastic applause at the end certainly backed up that supposition.

After I had taken my bows I changed and packed my things up, and returned to the Saloon. I was not joining the guests for dinner tonight, so once I had retrieved the car and brought it to the front door, I could load up and return home by 8 0’clock, where I could have a supper at home with Liz – a rare treat!

Highclere Castle is a truly wonderful venue to perform A Christmas Carol in and I am delighted that it has become a fixture on my UK tour.

For any of you who haven’t been able to see the show this year, or who need an extra fix, remember that my film version is available to rent, and you can access it through the following link

TO RENT GERALD DICKENS’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL: https://tinyurl.com/ychp7t3r

Happy Birthday

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Sunday19 December was a birthday. A 178th birthday. Charles Dickens first introduced the characters of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit and his family, the various ghosts, Belle, Fred and all of the others to the world on that date in 1843 and so began one of the most extraordinary literary success stories of all time, for the book has never been out of print from that day on.

My birthday celebrations began with an early breakfast at The Shankly Hotel in Liverpool, as I had to get onto the road by 9am for a drive across the country and north to Tynseside, leaving one great shipbuilding city on The Mersey and travelling to another on The Tyne.

The morning was a foggy one, a very foggy one, and all of the cars on that Sunday morning had both front and rear high intensity lights shining so that they glowed like, as Charles Dickens says, ‘ruddy smears on the palpable brown air’.

As the morning went on my route took me eastwards on the M62 and gradually the fog began to clear, and a bright morning sun shone to my right. I was listening to the coverage of the second cricket test match from Adelaide (a day-night match), and it was extraordinary to hear the commentators describe the sun setting in the west, while I watched the same celestial body rising in the east. The clearing of the weather had less to do with the fog lifting but more to do with my climbing to a greater altitude. Various signs informed me that I was crossing Saddleworth Moor, a name which strikes repulsion and loathing into British minds, but which is also one of the most beautiful tracts of countryside I have ever seen. The low-lying fog nestled in the valleys whilst the hills were illuminated in a golden morning glow. I drove onwards and upwards until another notice proclaimed that I was at the highest point on the UK motorway network meaning, inevitably, that I was soon descending back into the thick fog once more.

Eventually I joined the A1-M road, one of the main North-South routes, and I was back on familiar territory as I headed towards the North East.

I was due to perform at The Word – the National Centre of the Written Word, in South Shields, where I had last appeared at the end of October, just before my A Christmas Carol tour commenced. At that time I had been talking about my new book, Dickens and Staplehurst, as well as performing The Signalman, but I hadn’t yet received copies of the book from my publishers, so had none to sell. Even though the book had sold so well in Liverpool, I had kept a few back so that any audience members in South Shields who had seen my previous performance could buy them.

The journey took around three hours and I pulled up outside the extraordinary circular building at the edge of the market square on the stroke of 12. I called June, who was looking after this event, and soon all of the furniture for A Christmas Carol had been unloaded and was being taken up to the third floor, while I took the car to a nearby car park next to the large theatre in the town, The Custom House.

The room where I perform at The Word is not a theatre, it does not have great stage lighting, and doesn’t have any of the history or atmosphere of St George’s Hall, but somehow performing A Christmas Carol in a venue dedicated to the written word was the perfect way to celebrate the birthday and honour Charles Dickens, so the room was excellent!

While I prepared the stage I chatted with June who admitted that she wasn’t sure how many people would actually attend – the library had received a few cancellations, due to the growing fear of the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid 19. I was also worried about the effect of the virus on my final week of shows and fully expected some cancellations along the way, either due to stricter government regulations, or simply because audience members would make their own decisions based on their levels of caution or fear.

At 1.30 the doors were opened and the audience began to arrive, all masked, and by 2 everyone who was expected had arrived. June formally welcomed them and when she mentioned the fact that we were honouring 178 years of A Christmas Carol there was a loud gasp of excitement.

The show itself was very different from those in Liverpool, as I didn’t have the same space to roam, and with the bright fluorescent lights shining brightly, I could see the audience clearly, but the effect of that amazing story was every bit as powerful as ever. The audience laughed, and sobbed and shouted and clapped with every bit as much enthusiasm as their Merseyside cousins and when I took my bows they stood and called out their appreciation. When the applause had died down I returned to the stage and spoke briefly about Dickens’s writing process of A Christmas Carol, and how it came to be published on the 19th December.

When I had finished I pulled on my mask (the Christmas Carol one that I had been given in Pennsylvania a week before) and went to the little merchandise table with its scanty stock of books. Soon they were all sold and signed, and the audience made their way to their homes, while I changed and packed up again. I walked to the car park to retrieve the car and noticed that at The Custom House it was interval time. I could tell this because huddled in the cold outside the front door was a group of audience members smoking, while on the other side of the building, at the stage door, were huddled a gropu of actors smoking! On the pavement outside The Word June helped me to load up my props and a little after 4pm I was driving again, this time heading south through drizzly rail towards the city of York, where I would break my journey home to Oxfordshire, with an overnight stay at The Elmbank Hotel, which has become my traditional staging post for this journey.

I had spent a great deal of the day driving to perform for a small audience in the far north eastern corner of Britain, but it had been well worth it, for in that little room at the very top of The Word we had given ‘A Christmas Carol’ a very good birthday party!

‘The people were so hurried and so eager….’

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Sleep didn’t come easy on my first night in Liverpool, as the Shankly reverberated to the various parties it was hosting late into the night and early into the morning. It didn’t help that the couple in the next room seemed to have had a disagreement, and he kept leaving and then coming back and continuing their argument through the door, as she refused to let him back in…..

The last time I checked my clock was at 2am, so I assume I must have dropped off around that time. Fortunately I didn’t have an early start, as my first show was not due until 2.pm, so I could sleep for as long as I needed into Saturday morning, which, naturally, was not that long.

Breakfast at The Shankly is an impressive buffet, and I availed myself of a full English, with plenty of refills of coffee (the cups were far too small and needing lots of replenishing). I went back to the room and caught up with some emails and waited for the city to come alive. I was planning to walk into the city centre and complete a little Christmas shopping in Saturday morning, as well as trying to get a float for the remaining merchandise sales.

Liverpool 1 is a large, open shopping mall that embraces many of the city’s historic districts and stretches down to the banks of the River Mersey. Like any port city Liverpool is exciting, brash, vibrant and loud and has its own distinct personality and on that Saturday morning the shopping district was busy.

Hopeful musicians performed their latest songs, or covers of old ones, hoping to be discovered and follow in the footsteps of The Beatles, whilst elsewhere various political factions shouted their opinions over small PA systems (at one point, two diametrically opposed groups had set up camp in the same street and spent the time shouting abuse at their rivals – even making occasional forays to pull each other’s displays down). Another stall was selling English translations of The Qur’an, and a recorded message continually broadcast the fact that it was available. It was a very strange phenomenon to see, but lots of people stuck their fingers in their ears as they walked passed, as if even hearing the words would somehow effect them.

Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men……

Having bought the gifts I needed, I then went in search of cash, and to my dismay discovered that my own bank wasn’t open. I tried a few other companies, but they all said the same – ‘you have to have an account with us to change money’. One helpful lady suggested the post office may be able to help, so I walked to the local branch and patiently stood in line, and here part of my show almost came true.

At the point in the story when Scrooge and The Ghost of Christmas Present stand on the streets of London, Dickens describes the people as being so busy and eager that ‘sometimes they tumbled up against each other’, at which point I strike a pugilistic pose, and if possible make a little ‘ad lib’. In America I suggest that this moment is like Black Friday, but in the UK I will often mention the local shopping mall, saying something like ‘Liverpool 1 on Christmas eve!’

Well, on Saturday as I stood in the post office, the guy in front of me was trying to draw his benefits from an account, but none of his cards were working, the patient cashier patiently explaining to him that he had already withdrawn all of his available funds. Unfortunately, such reasoning didn’t work as he was obviously much the worse the wear from some substance or other. Eventually a manager was called, which didn’t help either, at which time the queue behind me began to get impatient, and one man shouted ‘Just get out of here’, well that ignited the situation, as the guy at the counter rounded quickly, fists flying and screaming every obscenity he could think of. Fortunately in his impaired state none of the blows landed, but he stood staring with bulging eyes, daring his opponent to respond, which he was about to do, when security arrived. In reality there was none of the calm resolution described in A Christmas Carol and maybe there was no spirit present to shed drops of water on the two men. Instead of happily saying that ‘It was a shame to quarrel….’ the two were parted and led away. Phew. Oh, and the post office wouldn’t exchange cash either!

The morning drifted on and I returned to the hotel to prepare for the afternoon’s show. I showered to re-energise myself and took the short walk back to St George’s Hall, where Tas was already setting up. Having watched the show, and pondered overnight, he had had a few ideas, the most obvious one being to add a lingering echo to Jacob Marley’s final line as he floats away out of the window. We rehearsed the scene a few times just to be sure of the timing, and then I went back to my dressing room to prepare.

At the 2 o’clock Saturday show we had a small choir present to entertain the crowds as they arrived (in fact they had been booked for all of the shows, but had cancelled the two evening performances due to the members not feeling comfortable using crowded public transport at night.) Initially the singers sung in the large foyer area, and then at 2pm moved up onto the stage to perform in the Concert Hall itself which was perfectly suited for the beautiful choral harmonies that they created. The audience were suitably impressed and gave the singers a great ovation, as they filed off the stage.

Lynne made her introduction, the lights dimmed and I began once again. The Saturday matinee was played to an almost full house and was another excellent show. I was on good form (and even managed to perform all of the scenes in the order in which they had been written), as were the audience. We had great fun with the aromas of the goose, and with Mrs Cractchit’s pudding, and Tas subtly changed the levels of lighting, as well as adding his echoes to Jacob Marley’s voice (not only when the ghost left, as we had rehearsed, but also during the reprise of that line at the opening of act 2).

Again Liverpool gave me a huge and loud response and I lingered on the stage to make the most of it. It is very moving, but Merseyside has really welcomed me over the years, indeed almost adopted me as one of their own.

The afternoon audience had a good many children in it, which was lovely to see, and at the signing session one young boy asked ‘which ghost did I think helped Scrooge the most?’ I said I have always thought that Past is the one who starts everything, and prepares Scrooge to learn, but I also said that wasn’t the correct answer, just my opinion, and asked which one he thought. He plumped for ‘the jolly guy!’ because he showed him what might happen to Tiny Tim, which is an excellent answer too.

After I had finished and changed, I purchased myself a large Bratwurst hot dog from the Christmas market and returned to the hotel for a couple of hours. I discovered that ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ was on the TV, so I watched a little of that with great interest, before showering and getting ready for my last show in Liverpool for this year. Before leaving the hotel I asked the restaurant if they would put a slice of cheesecake aside for me (the kitchens would be closed by the time I got back), so that I could have a little something to wind down with.

The Saturday night audience was the smallest of the three and therefore, the quietest, and my performance wasn’t quite as strong as the other two, I could feel the tiredness effecting me and the temptation was to over-compensate a little, which I tried not to do. It was one of those shows where the audience response wasn’t as lively during the show, but at the end there was an explosion of cheering and clapping, showing me that they had been fully engaged throughout. Rosalie, my Great Expectations-loving hotel greeter, had come to the evening show, and I knew that the voiced that shouted out ‘EVERY ONE!’ to finish the final line, was hers.

There was not much signing to be done, as we had pretty well sold everything, so I could start the process of getting all of my things packed away quickly. I changed, packed my various cases, and loaded all of the furniture into the lift to take them down to the ground floor level, where the St George’s Hall team helped me to load the car (which I had retrieved from The Shankly’s parking garage.)

Back at he hotel I went to the bar and my cheesecake was produced. Rosalie was there and gushed with excitement about the show, and then introduced me to the social media manager of the hotel. It seemed a strange time of the night to conduct business, but I suggested that The Shankly should come on board as an event sponsor in the future!

Eventually I said my goodnights and went up to my room. On the following morning I would need to be on the road by 9am, so I made sure that everything was packed, and then retired for the night.

It had been a very enjoyable and very successful two days in Liverpool, and hopefully I will be back in 2022.

Quite the Welcome in Liverpool

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The final UK leg of my 2021 tour began on Friday when I drove north from Oxfordshire to the city of Liverpool. With only one evening performance on Friday I didn’t need to leave home until around 11am, giving me plenty of time to ensure that the car was fully loaded with all of the props and costume that I would need for three days of shows.

Initially the drive went well, but after I had stopped for lunch and was nearing Cheshire, the traffic ground to a halt and warnings of lane closures due to an accident were flashed up. Fortunately I had plenty of time in hand, and even the 45-minutue delay didn’t cause me any real problems, other than not allowing me time to get into my hotel and relax. Having cleared the blockage, I was soon swooping downhill towards the River Mersey, and more specifically the beautiful St George’s Hall.

In previous years I have been able to drive right up to the side door of the amazing venue and unload my car, before parking in one of the staff car parking spaces behind the hall, but this year the City had extended its traditional Christmas market, which previously had only occupied the plaza at the front, to surround the entire building, meaning I couldn’t get my car anywhere near, without convincing various security guards that I really did have a good reason for unloading. Of course following the spate of Christmas market terrorist attacks involving vehicles being driven through crowded festive celebrations you can quite understand why such rigid precautions were put in place.

When I had parked my car as close as I could to the hall, some members of staff brought a trolley out and we loaded it up as best we could, while I carried the chair and a case into the building, and then took my car to the car park beneath The Shankly Hotel, just a 5 minute walk away.

The Shankly Hotel, named in honour of one of Liverpool Football Clubs most famous and successful managers, is perfectly situated for my stays in the city, and there is a welcoming sense of familiarity to it now. The foyer was spectacularly decorated for Christmas, and as I stood waiting to check in, I was approached by a member of staff, proudly wearing a Great Expectations t shirt: ‘In your honour! I heard you were coming, so I put this on for you!’ Rosalie introduced herself as a huge Dickens fan, and was so excited that I was staying and proceeded to make a great big celebrity fuss of me!

Having checked in and got up to my room, I discovered a beautiful platter of little cakes, with the message ‘Good Luck!’ scrolled in icing. There was also a card in which Rosalie had included the quote: ‘There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour!’. A few days ago Liz and I were watching a very VERY trashy Christmas movie, in which one of the characters was reading A Christmas Carol to some guests in a remote hotel, and it was that particular line that was featured. Liz had commented what a great line it is, and I’d mentioned that it was one that I wanted to get into the show sometime, but never had. The card from the staff at The Shankly seemed to be the final push to make me do it: the new line would be in the show that evening.

I really only had time to drop my bags before returning to St George’s Hall to prepare for the evening’s show. When I walked in there was Lynne Hamilton, the producer of the shows here, and a friend of many years, and we greeted each other warmly, but ‘safely’. With the recent increase of the Omicron variant, Lynne had spent a very nervous week listening to each new wave of restrictions and guidelines from government briefings, not knowing if the events would even be allowed to go ahead. Final confirmation came on the day before, but even so she had received quite a few cancellations as people elected to remain safely in their homes rather then venturing out to a theatre.

From the quite dour entrance hall, I made my up the dour staircase, into a dour hallway and through a pair of wooden doors into the majestic, sparkling, gilded, ornate and utterly spectacular Concert Room at the top of the building.

I would be truly fortunate to perform in this space in any circumstances, but the fact that Charles Dickens stepped out onto the same stage to say the same words, and pronounced the room as one of his favourites to perform in, always adds an extra frisson to my times in Liverpool. I introduced myself to Tas, who was looking after my audio and lighting needs for the duration of my stay, and soon we started doing a series of sound tests, before discussing if there was anything we could do in the way of lighting effects. The hall does not have an extensive lighting rig, so I suggested that he watched the Friday night show and then he could decided if there was any scope to do anything extra on Saturday. Tas explained that he had a background in cabaret and comedy, and was keen to do whatever he could to enhance the performance. His first action was to find some squares of blue lighting gel to fix over a series of uplighters set into he stage floor, just to take the edge off the golden glare on the pillars behind where I would be doing my stuff.

When all of our technical conversations were completed, I went to my large dressing room and ate a simple salad before getting into costume ready for the 7.30 start. Lynne made a few appearances, and we discussed the selling of my book, Dickens and Staplehurst, as well as the souvenir brochures that Ian and I had created a few years ago. As the rail crash book is not really a Christmas volume, we didn’t think that sales would be strong at this event, but we laid some copies out on the merchandise table hoping that a few people would respond to the opportunity of owning a Dickens first edition.

In the dressing room I went through the lines that needed to be re-inserted for the two act version of the show, and with about ten minutes to go Tas appeared to check the microphones (he had given me a back-up pack, just in case)., and then it was time take a final swig of water, and switch my ‘show brain’ on.

The route to the stage is via a small ante room, which has a monitor in it showing the stage, and on the screen I could get some idea as to the size of the audience. With Covid cases rising rapidly across the UK, Lynne had received calls from audience members cancelling at the last moment, and we had no idea as to the extent of possible ‘no shows’, but on the tiny TV screen it looked as of a very impressive crowd had turned up. And then an extraordinary thing took place on the stage which sent the years rolling back: Tas lit the candles.

When Charles Dickens toured with his readings he travelled with a gas man, whose responsibility it was to erect the lighting rig, consisting of two upright pipes, with gas jets backed by reflectors at head height, connected by a further pipe overhead, with a number of lights shining down on Dickens’ face. 5 minutes before my great great grandfather took to the stage (including the very stage I was about to walk on to) the gas man would pre-empt the show by opening the valves and igniting the various lights, and now, 152 years after his last performance in the hall, Tas was recreating the ‘gas man’s moment’

When the last audience member had been admitted, Lynne went onto the stage and as soon as she said hello, the audience erupted into applause – we were going to be in for a fun evening, and so it proved. The crowd were out for a great time and laughed and cheered at everything.

However, I got muddled up! Would you believe it, after all these years, I got muddled up: When Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past left the school, instead of heading to Fezziwig’s warehouse, I took then straight to the scene with Belle. I only realised my error when I noticed that the stool was in the wrong place on the stage, in other words, it hadn’t been cleared away prior to the ball. I ploughed on, and at the end of the scene, I returned to Fezziwig’s and danced my jig, before leaping forward in time once more to see the married Belle and her husband – what a mess! Well, I got to the end of the half and the applause as I left the stage let me know that there was nothing to worry about, and I could continue knowing that I hadn’t destroyed the story, but I was annoyed with myself.

During the interval Lynne came rushing into the dressing room asking if I had any more of the Staplehurst books, as the audience had gone mad for them and we had run out! Sadly I didn’t, and she went back to the lobby.

After a nice rest and towel down, I prepared to return for act 2, which would begin in a blackout, so that I could say the first lines (a reprise of Jacob Marley’s warning) in the darkness, but even as I groped my way towards the chair, the audience burst out into applause again!

The second act went more smoothly than the first and when I came off the stage at the end of the show I received a great big, happy, cheering, foot-stomping Liverpool ovation. It was wonderful.

With so many books sold, I had said that I would sign, but on the understanding that I would be masked, and that the line would be carefully controlled so that there wouldn’t be a mass of humanity crowding around me (with another week of performances, I had to be so careful to remain safe). When I came into the foyer the queue was backed up on the stairs, but it was well ordered, and I signed my books until everyone was gone.

Fortunately I had another day in Liverpool, so all of the set and costumes could remain at The Hall. I walked back to The Shankly, where various Christmas parties were in full, and loud, swing, and I ate a salad and some sausage rolls in my room – Rock and Roll!

The End of It

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On Sunday the USA leg of my 2021 tour came to an end, with a single afternoon performance of A Christmas Carol at Byers’ Choice, but the business of the day began early, with the two issues that had haunted me the previous night.

Firstly, there was the subject of my Covid test, taken two days earlier on my way to Lewes, and from which I would need a negative result to be allowed back into England. As of Sunday morning, no notification had arrived, so I started researching the possibility of getting another test, hopefully with an instant turnaround, at Philadelphia airport after my show. The other issue was that of the TV and the coverage of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which was due to start at 7am. The televisions at The Montgomeryville Quality Inn give you the option of casting your own content from a phone or laptop, and if you happen to want to watch regular programming, you simply press the button marked ‘TV’. Unfortunately, in room 215, the TV button had no effect. At 6.30 I went to reception, where Cynthia, the night manager, was coming to the end of her shift. She gave me a new remote, in case the batteries in mine were fading, and I went back upstairs to try again, with the same result as before. Back down I went, and eventually she offered to let me change rooms, which was very kind of her. I was now in room 207, and to my relief I discovered that I could indeed get to ESPN2 and watch the full build-up to the race, as well as the epic event itself. Fortunately, I had spent the early part of the morning packing my suitcases, so it was easy to transfer all of my things along the corridor from one room to another.

As all of this was going on I was also doing a final sneaky bit of laundry, as I didn’t have a fresh shirt to wear during the day and on my flight home, and while I was shifting things from washer to drier, I also collected the ‘Grab and Go’ breakfast offered by the hotel: I chose a sachet of oatmeal, to cook in my room’s microwave, a sausage and egg muffin, some orange juice and a coffee, and as I settled down to eat in front of the TV I received a text message confirming that my Covid test result had come back negative. My stars were aligning.

At 8am the race started. I won’t go into details, but it built up to a suitably exciting and controversial climax to an exciting and controversial season – everything boiled down to the very last lap before we knew who was crowned the 2021 World Champion.

With the race over, I resumed my packing (remembering to retrieve my dried laundry) and loaded the car up ready to drive back to Byers’ Choice. When I arrived, I took all of my cases into the office as I would need to pack my top hat and cane into the large one, and the costume that I would be wearing into my hand luggage. The offices were deserted when I arrived, so I sat in the boardroom and completed all of the oxymoronic online paperwork for my flight home.

Soon Bob appeared and said hello, and shortly afterwards Dave appeared with the microphone. Outside the lines were beginning to form for the biggest show of the year and as they were ushered in, I got into costume. I drank water and sucked on a Fisherman’s Friend throat lozenge to ensure a smooth show, and then sat at the desk and played a little backgammon on my phone, until it was time to walk to the hall. The room was already packed, and the high school choir were struggling to make themselves heard over the general hubbub, indeed one disgruntled parent was suggesting to Dave that he should make an announcement to ask the audience to be quiet and listen to the carols.

1.30 soon ticked around, so Bob and I went into our well-grooved routine and to get the show started. The large audience were certainly enthusiastic (is it were or was? Is an audience a plural or a singular? hmmmm), and I gave a what I believed to be a very good final performance: no carolers fell off their table and I didn’t try anything clever with candlesticks, meaning that I had a problem-free run to the finish line. The cheering and whooping and loud cries of ‘BRAVO!’ that started almost before I had finished ‘God bless us, every one’ were amazing, and the applause continued loudly as I returned to bow to all corners of the room.

As I left the stage, Bob walked onto it, and called me back for the final question and answer session of the season. A question that has come up fairly often, in varying forms, is about the text I use and how much it is changed from the original, and I answer that everything is based on the text that Charles Dickens himself had prepared for his readings, so is almost completely lifted from the original. One fairly obvious modern departure is the gross manipulation of old Joe’s snot. Obviously, Dickens didn’t write that particular description, but the passage that he DID write passage creates the sense of repulsiveness, that I try to capture:

‘They left the busy scene, and went into an obscure part of the town, where Scrooge had never penetrated before, although he recognised its situation, and its bad repute. The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.’

One change I have made during this year’s performances, just in the last few days of the tour in fact, has been to keep that atmosphere through the following scene and and so have made Mrs Dilber and Joe less figures of fun, but more downtrodden victims of society.

Another moment is when Scrooge surprises Bib Cratchit by telling him that he will raise his salary, and I, in the guise of Bob, stand and use the stool to fend off this apparently madman. Again, as with Joe’s nasal explorations, in the book Cratchit doesn’t do this, but he does get ‘…. a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.’ So, once more, even though I don’t use the line of narrative, I do capture the essence of the .original text..

Bob had been careful to choose a variety of questions that had been submitted – some about Dickens, some about A Christmas Carol and some about me, and the sessions have proved to be very popular. Maybe it is something we will think about continuing next year, even if there are no Covid restrictions in place by then.

When we had finished up on stage I returned to the boardroom and began packing my cases for the journey home, and by the time the top hat hat had been stuffed with socks, and wrapped in the woolly scarf to protect its shape, and everything else had been carefully folded and stowed, the Byers’ Choice team were well into the task of converting the 700-seater theatre into a production floor once more.

I found David up a tower, taking all of the theatrical lights down, and called up my thanks for all of his amazing work.

Jeff and Jake were packing chairs away, and I said goodbye and wished them the best for what will be very difficult Christmas season. I said goodbye to Pam, who always does such an incredible job in creating my tour, and finally to Bob who masterminds this whole crazy project on my behalf.

I loaded up the Rogue and set off towards a golden sunset, destination Philadelphia airport, and ultimately London.

As ever it had been a fun tour, with so many enthusiastic audiences and great people to work with. It is strange, but I haven’t felt desperately Christmassy during the weeks on the road, and I think that there is still a nervousness hanging over society which looks to the next year with a sense of suspicion. But for 75 minutes in a variety of rooms and halls throughout the North East of America, hopefully we could all forget those concerns and revel in Charles Dickens’ ‘ghostly little book’ and convince ourselves that we can honour Christmas in our hearts and try to keep it ALL the year!

Merry Christmas and thank you to everyone who has followed my American adventures over the last month, or so.

A Byer’s Market

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From Lewes Delaware, I had to drive north again on Saturday morning to the final venue of my 2021 American adventures, the headquarters of my American agents Byers’ Choice,

The drive was scheduled to be about 2 hours, 30, and as I would driving around Wilmington, I wanted to be on the road early so as to avoid potential traffic delays and that meant getting into the breakfast room as soon as it opened at 7.30. I was first down and helped myself to some cereal, piled high with fruit, and a couple of pastries. I must say it looked most colourful and healthy.

I was back in my room by 8, closing my fully packed suitcase and getting ready to leave. The latest action from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend was just starting, so I listened on headphones as I pulled my cases back to the car, and then linked up my phone to the audio system, so that I could follow the action as I drove. It was an overcast day, and occasionally rain fell.

As I continued to listen to the Formula One qualifying session, I drove passed one of the centres of the NACAR world – the colluseum-like the Dover Motor Speedway, huge grandstands and floodlights surrounding a mile long oval. It must be amazing to spectate at a NASCAR race in such a couldron, and I’d love to do it one day.

Although the route was basically the reverse of the one I had driven the day before, it seemed a much quicker journey and in no time, I was crossing one of the bridges that span the Christina River in Wilmington. As I looked down at the waters beneath, and then to the city skyline beyond, I recalled an occasion many years ago when I was due to perform at a festival in the city. My entrance was to be a grand one, and I was taken downstream where I boarded a fireboat in the company of Santa Clause and we steamed towards a convention centre, where the crowd would be waiting to greet us. During the first part of the journey, we had nobody to wave at, so Santa and I sat in the back of the boat, enjoying the view and chatting. You may be as surprised, as I was on that day, to learn that Santa actually doubled as a private detective! What a perfect disguise, and I remember him telling me that one Christmas he was performing both roles at the same time and a gentleman whom he was tailing actually lifted a child onto his lap for a photograph.

I drove on and passed the intersection for Claymont, and more memories flooded back, for it is in that suburb of Wilmington that the artist Felix Darley lived. Darley was one of Dickens’ American illustrators and Charles stayed with him when he was touring in 1867. When I visited, my performances were organised by a gentleman called Ray Hestor, who then owned the Darley House, and ran it as a B&B. On my first visit I flew into Wilmington airport and as I came off the plane I was serenaded by a group of Victorian-costumed carol singers, led by Ray. In those days, pre-9-11, anyone could come to the gates at the airport. Simpler times!

On I drove, into Pennsylvania, and as I had made good time, I decided to drop into a branch of Kohl’s clothing store, as I had no clean black socks for the next two days, and anyway the ones that I do have were getting rather old, so a new sock stock would be a good thing. I made my purchase and got into the car to complete the final part of the journey to Byers’ Choice and as I turned from the parking lot and onto the road, my mind went back maybe four years, when I had driven to this neighbourhood to do some laundry. At the time I had been listening to the audiobook of ‘His Dark Materials’ and now the exact passage of the book returned to me (the first time that Lyra met the armoured bear, Iorek Byrnison). It is amazing how a seemingly insignificant stimulus can open such detailed memories.

I arrived at the Byers’ Choice HQ and visitor centre at around 11.30, and as soon as I walked into the offices Bob and Pam, with their Boston Terrier, Calvin, greeted me. I hadn’t seen either of them since we said goodbye on the streets of Philadelphia after we had all seen Hamilton, and a lot had happened since then. Not only had their sister-in-law Dawn passed away, but a day or two before that Pam’s mother had unexpectedly died. It has been a terrible time for the Byers family. Having greeted each other, I went to the ‘theatre’ (it had been the production floor just a day before) to do a sound check with Dave, who looks after all of the technical details of my show. We have worked together for 17 years, and he probably knows the show as well as I do now. As I walked in, the first person I saw was Jeff Byers, Dawn’s husband, ready to play his part in making the afternoon a success, whilst dealing with his grief. I offered my condolences and put an arm around his shoulder for a moment, but it seemed a small and helpless gesture.

We were all there to work, however, and the moment passed as we got on with what we had to do, which for me was to prepare the stage for the show. When I had arranged the furniture as I wanted it, and David checked that his lighting rig was correctly focussed, we started the sound check. Normally, I would just start the show from the beginning, but being conscious that Jeff and his son Jake were still at the back of the room it didn’t seem sensitive to be saying ‘Marley was dead…’, ‘There is no doubt that Marley was dead…’, ‘as dead as a doornail….’, etc, so instead I skipped to the scene with the nephew Fred and then to the charity collector. When I had finished my checks, I went to the large boardroom which doubles as my dressing room, and started to lay the costumes out, and while I was doing that Bob appeared with the glad tidings that we had almost sold out of the signed copies of Dickens and Staplehurst, although it was thought that there may be some more copies somewhere. In the meantime, the stock of other books was selling fast too, and various members of The Byers’ Choice staff would occasionally appear with another pile to be signed.

The matinee was due to begin at 1pm, so I was in costume by 12.30 and making all of the pre-show checks to ensure that nothing untoward would happen. At 12.50 I made my way to the hall, where I stood at the back with Dave at his tech console and watched the very large audience gather who were listening to a high school choir singing carols. Watching Jeff and Jake cheerfully greet the audience members and make sure they were seated, as Dawn had done so energetically in previous years, was a very emotional thing to see, and proved what an incredibly strong and impressive family they are.

At 1 o’clock Bob joined Dave and me and, having given the signal to the choir master to wind up, we went together through the large warehouse and waited behind the door next to the stage.

If you have ever been to a Byers’ Choice show you may wonder why after the choir leaves the stage there is a bit of delay before Bob appears to make his introductory remarks, well it is because we both like to spend a few minutes thanking the students and congratulating them on their efforts.

When the singers disappeared to the store to collect their gift cards, a token of Byers’ Choice gratitude, Bob opened the door and we slipped into the darkened room. Seeing us, the audience applauded, and when Bob took to the stage, they applauded again. When he said, ‘welcome back, it is SO good to see you all’ there was more applause and when Bob greeted me there was yet more applause! This was definitely an audience of applauders.

There is nothing like being under bright stage lights, knowing that a large crowd is fully involved with every move and word, and I was fortunate to have that experience on Saturday afternoon. There were a few niggly moments during the show: I had decided to experiment on a slight tweak to the moves and pick up my little candlestick when Scrooge was making his way upstairs, and then leave it on the stool at the front of the stage. Unfortunately, I did that without thinking that Scrooge’s ‘former self’ would need needed to sit on the stool later on. I had planned to move the candle during the clearing away scene at Fezziwig’s without remembering the school scene. I managed to get the candlestick back to the table, but it was a clumsy moment, and I won’t be repeating it for a while. I also stumbled a bit as I stepped up onto the chair, in the guise of Fezziwig’s fiddle player, and during a particularly energetic moment some of the Byers’ Choice carollers fell off the table at the back of the set, although I could clear them up very easily, for it was just before mention of the room with the large and boisterous family, which gave me a good excuse to tidy up. Despite these tiny distractions, the show was an amazing one, and the audience were very active and engaged right to the end. The ovation was incredible and when I joined Bob on stage for the question-and-answer session (for such a large audience, questions had been submitted before the show, responding to a notice at the entrance: AGA – Ask Gerald Anything!), every answer was greeted with a fresh round of applause.

It was around 3.30 when I came off stage and so I had two hours to relax before the evening show. I returned back to the dressing room and Pam brought me a salmon salad and a cup of chicken noodle soup, which was a perfect repast.

In the store still the books sold, and still any copy of anything that could be found was brought to me to sign, as stocks ran out. At one point there was a knock on the door and Pam reappeared, not with books, but bearing a gift from a regular Byers’ Choice audience member, on unwrapping the package I discovered a hand-stitched mask, featuring the original John Leech illustrations from A Christmas Carol – what an imaginative and beautiful thought!

As the time moved on, I readied myself for the evening show. As I only had one set of braces now, I needed to unbutton them from the trousers that I had used for the matinee and fit them to the dry ones that I would now be using. Once again Pam appeared, this time bearing a piece of artwork created by another regular audience member – people really are so creative and generous.

My preparations completed I once again joined Dave with around 5 minutes to go before the show. The evening audience was a smaller one, and noticeably quieter, and when Bob made his introduction, the response wasn’t nearly as excitable as the matinee group, but they were an excellent crowd as far as the show itself was concerned.

The question-and-answer session was fun again and concluded with an anonymous questioner asking what I felt to be the pivotal moment in the story. I answered that I always think that the moment Scrooge remembers the carol signer, when he is with the Ghost of Christmas Past, and says that ‘I wish that I had given him a little something’, is a vital moment, for the reformation begins there.

We wrapped up, and once I’d changed, I drove to my hotel a mile away, and got checked in before meeting Bob and Pam in the lobby, for they had very kindly offered to take me to dinner in their hoem town of Doylestown. It was a lovely way to bring the day to a close. During our conversation Pam confessed to being the anonymous questioner! We talked about the tour and the possibilities for future ones, and as we chatted the most torrential rainstorm raged outside. We had some desert, and the little bit of time spent ordering, being served and eating it allowed the storm to pass through, meaning that we could return to the car in relative dryness. Bob and Pam dropped me back to my hotel and the last full day of the tour came to an end.

I had two worries in my mind as I prepared to sleep: 1) My Covid test result had yet to come through and I would not be allowed to return to the UK without it, and 2) The TV in my room wasn’t working properly and as the final race of the GP season, at which one of the closest Championships in history would be resolved, would be showing the next morning, I needed to find a way to watch it.

But that was for Sunday, for now it was time to sleep.

The British Return to Lewes

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And still I woke early – 3.15 this time, and frustratingly I couldn’t get back to sleep properly. As I sat in bed, watching to the coverage of practice from the Abu Dhabi Grand prix, I realised that having been at Winterthur all the previous day, I had failed to let the owners of The Fairville know what time I wanted breakfast. As I would need to be on the road by 9am, and the breakfast service would start at 8.30, I needed to get in there early, so I decided to go over at around 8.15, hoping to get my order in right at the start.

I packed all of my cases, so I would be ready to go, and when I felt I could reasonably do so, went to the main house, where I was cheerfully greeted by Willie, the young owner. He brushed off my apologies for not letting him know about my breakfast needs and said that of course I could sit down right then, and he would make me my pancakes, and so I was well into my meal when the other guests began to arrive.

With my breakfast finished I was able to get the car loaded up and I was on the road by 9 o’clock. Friday was a strange day, in that I only had one performance scheduled at 7pm, and the drive to Lewes, Delaware, would take a little under three hours, but I had a duo of commitments first thing in the morning: at 9.30 I was due to speak to Warren Lawrence at the WKNY radio station in the Hudson Valley, and straight after that chat I was booked to take my Covid test. I had decided to drive to the branch of CVS where my test was scheduled, and do the interview from the parking lot, so that I was in the correct place to insert a swab up my nose. Unfortunately, there was a traffic issue and I had to pull off the road and park up in a parking space outside some small businesses and called into the radio station. I have spoken to Warren on many occasions, and it he always conducts a really good interview, feeding the questions and allowing me to elucidate my answers at whatever length I feel necessary. There is none of the time pressure of some media interviews. On Friday morning we talked about the character of Charles Dickens, the creation of A Christmas Carol, my adaptation and performance of it, as well as my book, ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’. Warren even mentioned that the book is available via Amazon in the USA…..

The interview finished at 9.50, and I was able to get back on the road and arrive at CVS by ten, where I drove through the Drive-Thru, and self-administered the test sat in my car as if I were about to handed a Big Mac Meal. The nice thing in America is that you only have to swab your nostrils, whereas in the UK we have to get samples from our tonsils as well, meaning we end up gagging with watering eyes. Having completed the test, I dropped it in the little metal box provided and offered a silent prayer for a negative result, that would be delivered swiftly, so that I can complete all of the official documents that are now needed to fly.

And now I could drive on towards Lewes, which is situated in the south of Delaware. The drive seemed to take forever, and the early start meant that I was feeling very tired. I drank a lot of water, and listened to the radio, or more specifically more podcasts, as I skirted the city of Wilmington, and on. As with my drives around Massachusetts, many of the place names were familiar to me, and I drove through Kent County (I was born in the County of Kent), passed Dover and on towards Sussex County, in which Lewes is situated, as indeed is the town of Lewes in England. Some names were less ‘English’, however and I am not sure that I want to sunbathe on Slaughter Beach any time soon

This would be my first visit to Lewes and it is always lovely to visit a new city. I pulled up in the parking lot of The Inn at Canal Square, which is situated on the water’s edge of a wide inlet, lined with wooden docks and boats of varying sizes and shapes.

The buildings are mostly wooden clad, painted in bright colours, and it is an extremely pretty town. I checked in to the hotel, although my room was not ready, but it meant that I could leave the car in the lot without fear of it being towed and started to stroll around Lewes. Instantly I was greeted by a variety of boards describing the history of the town, and the first one was entitled ‘The War of 1812’. Oh dear, Lewes and the British obviously had previous form.

I read the information and discovered that the British Navy had attempted to blockade the town in 1813, and demanded that the locals provide food to fettle the warships. The residents of Lewes unsurprisingly refused to comply with the British request, and the invaders decided that the best thing to do was therefore to bombard the little town. For almost two days canon ball and rocket rained down on Lewes with absolutely no effect at all, other than breaking the leg of one pig and killing one chicken. The Americans returned fire and managed to set ‘one gunboat aflame’ but there were no casualties among the British forces either. Eventually the ships withdrew from the bay and peace fell in Lewes once more. There is one relic of the violence in the town, for a British canon ball is lodged deep in the foundations of what is now a maritime museum.

I walked out towards the lovely sandy beach, where the only revellers were sea gulls. Actually, the whole place reminded me of the little town of Amity in Peter Benchley’s Jaws, and I imagine that when the tourists flock, as they do in the novel, the atmosphere must be amazing. The beach was lined by grassy dunes, which during the summer months must surely be the scene of late-night teenage campfires, and even a few midnight swims….Durrrr Dum….Durrrr Dum Durdum durdum durdum durdum Diddle deeeee!

I walked back into town and ambled around an antique store where I found the perfect Victorian Hall Stand for my set. It was made of iron and would be far too heavy to carry around, but it would make a magnificent gothic, and menacing addition to Scrooge’s furniture.

I hadn’t stopped for food during the drive, so was feeling a little peckish so I found a brilliant cafe where I had a sandwich, before going to the hotel to rest before the evening’s show. As I lay on the bed I had a message from Barbara, who had used to manage the bookstore, so sadly deserted, at Winterthur, saying that she had felt emotional reading my words, but reassuring me that she had kept all of her ‘goofy stuff’ from the walls of the office and was going to recreate that wall in her home office, the collection being just as carefully curated, as the main Dupont exhibit in the great house itself! I had been booked to perform at the public library and had arranged to arrive there at 5pm to prepare for the 7 o’clock show. Darkness had fallen as I got into the car and the Christmas lights around the city were spectacular – it looked so beautiful. The library was on the outskirts of the town, and was housed in a modern building, similar to those that I have already visited in Kansas City and on Long Island during this tour. I was greeted by the team putting on the show, led by David White, who is a theatre man through and through. David had seen me perform at Winterthur a few years ago and had very much wanted to bring me to Lewes, but various problems, not least the pandemic, had meant that the plans had never quite worked until now. We spent time arranging the stage and working out how best to work the sound cues, which could be run from a laptop, but mostly we simply talked about theatre. Although we were gathered in a modern meeting room in a library it was as if we were in a Victorian auditorium preparing for a show, because we were all theatre folk allowing our mutual experiences to be shared.

The audience started to gather at 6, and I retired to a small kitchen, which had been designated as my Green Room, and began to get ready. The microphone that I was to use was the sort that hooks over one ear, and I knew from previous experience that it would come loose and fall off during the show, but I managed to find a desk in the library offices with a roll of sellotape on it and stuck the unit to my cheek as best I could. I knew it wouldn’t last but thought that it may give me a little bit of time.

David continually poked his head around the door to give me the ‘half’, the twenty, the ten and the five, before it was show time. The room was packed but everyone was masked, and I made my entrance through the centre of the audience. Unfortunately, the little speaker that was supposed to amplify the opening music had disconnected from the laptop, so we could only hear the effect through the computer’s built-in speaker, and during the opening scenes, Jesse, David’s daughter (following the family business in theatre, but more on the tech side), crawled along the front of the stage to try and re-connect it. We wouldnt know if she had been succesful until Old Fezziwig stood out to dance.

The show was great fun, and I gave it my all. It was one of those days during which I had felt fatigued and lacking in energy, but A Christmas Carol cast its magic spell over me and brought me back to life, and Mr Fezziwig DID have music at his dance.

The audience were fully engaged, and at the end gave me a very noisy and enthusiastic ovation. As usual having taken my bows I remained on stage to conduct the Q&A session, and soon the questions were coming in from all quarters. I was asked about my family lineage and took the opportunity to include my new-found knowledge about my host town with a little affectionate and gentle teasing: when I spoke about my grandfather, Gerald, I mentioned that he had been an Admiral in the Royal Navy, and then added: ‘I know how fond you are of the British Navy in this town. I have seen the canon ball, and I have actually been sent by the Admiralty to retrieve it, they would like it back!’ I got a huge laugh and a round of applause and one audience member called out ‘He is OK!’

We finished up and I went back to my dressing room, where the pair of braces (suspenders) that I had been wearing broke, the rigours of the tour are beginning to tell. I will have to order a replacement pair when I get back to England, but for my final three shows I have another set.

The audience had departed when I re-emerged, and I gathered up my things and said goodbye to the whole team. Hopefully I can return and perform some of my other shows in this remarkable community.

It was getting on towards 9.30 when I got back to the hotel and all of the restaurants in town were closed, but I logged on to Uber Eats once more and arranged for a late-night dinner to be delivered to me.

On Saturday morning I will drive back into Pennsylvania and to Byers’ Choice, where the 2021 American tour will conclude with three final shows.

An Unexpected Audition and An Unexpected Companion

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I woke early on Thursday morning (to be honest, my body clock simply hasn’t adapted through this whole trip), so I sat up in bed writing my blog post and sipping coffee, until it was time to get ready for breakfast. I had arranged to meet David and Teresa at 8.30, and I walked from The Carriage House, where my room was situated, to the main building and, just as I was asking for orange juice and coffee my friends joined me. We sat a large table and soon were tucking into plates of pancakes (David and I), and a frittata (Teresa). The conversation picked up easily from where it had ended the night before and the time sped by, until we had three empty plates before us. As we sat and talked, a message came in from home – Liz was just settling down to watch our youngest daughter perform in her school’s Nativity play: great things can come from Nativity performances! I showed pictures to David and Teresa and they ‘oooo’d and ‘ahhh’d’ appropriately. Soon, though the time had come for me to get back to my room to prepare for a Zoom call to the UK, and David and Teresa had to pack ready to leave, so we posed for our annual photograph and then returned to our respective rooms, having hugged goodbye in the car park.

My Zoom call was due to be with the banqueting team at London’s prestigious Cafe Royal, to go through the format of a dinner event I am performing there on December 22. There wasn’t a desk as such in my room, so I removed the light and little vase of flowers from the bedside table and moved it so that it was in front of the small armchair in the corner, which gave a plain view of the wall behind, avoiding seeing my suitcase, overflowing with clothes and my unmade bed.

At exactly 10 (3pm London time) the call connected, and my contact Kerry popped up, she was in a tiny office and behind her the entire team, including chef, maître d’ and banqueting manager were squeezed in. We went over the format of the evening during which I will be performing between the courses of a fine dinner, and just as I thought we were ready to wrap up, Kerry said ‘could you do a bit of what you do now? None of us know what it is.’ And so, I suddenly was performing a completely unprepared and unexpected audition from my little room in Fairville, Pennsylvania. I chose the beginning of Stave 2, the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and fortunately my efforts were greeted with smiles and laughter, which was good, and when I finished, I even got a little round of applause. I promised that I would send a link to my video of the show too, to give them a better idea as to what is involved.

With the call over I emailed Kerry with the video link and also sent it to David and Teresa who were keen to see my efforts, and then I began to make preparations for the day ahead which would involve two more shows at Winterthur. I probably wouldn’t have time to return to the Inn between commitments, so I made sure that I had everything that I would need.

Back at Winterthur the old store was deserted, and I went into the auditorium to check that everything on the stage was correctly placed for the first show, and also retrieved my costume from the night before, which I had left airing on the coat check rack at the back of the hall. Lois arrived and we went through the schedule of the day, and then I retired to change, while she sorted out her volunteers who would be greeting the audience.

At 1 o’clock I made my way to the hall, and asked Lois to place a mask on the side of the stage for me, so that if I got collared by various audience members after the show again, at least I could have some protection.

The first show went very well, and the audience was full of a lot of people who had seen the performance often, meaning we all had great fun together. It felt more relaxed than the evening before as I had learned my lesson about not trying too hard. It was a good show.

When the question and answers were done, and I had posed for a couple of (masked) pictures, I went back to my office and changed, and when I was sure that the hall was empty, I hung my costume on the rack again. I had a couple of hours to kill now, and Lois bought me a salad from the cafeteria, which was much needed. When I had finished eating, I went back to the stage and sat in the big red armchair on the set, it being the most comfortable place to rest.

The evening’s timetable was slightly different from the previous two, in that the show was reserved for members of Winterthur, and they had been promised a special pre-show event, during which there would be canapes and wine served, and at which I would make an appearance. It had been decided that it would be a good idea to do the question-and-answer session then, so I needed to be in costume at 4.45. The reception was in the cafeteria and when I came in there were plenty of people already eating, but they were spread widely throughout the large room, which would make being heard difficult. I took up a position as centrally as I could, and opened the floor to questions, which flowed freely. One of the last inquiries was ‘Do you think that Charles Dickens would be proud of you?’ I had to pause to consider this, because that is quite a thought, but eventually I answered, ‘I think that he would be, yes, because I am following his theatrical dream’. I followed up by saying that ‘However, if you should see a lightning bolt strike me down on the stage, you will know I was wrong!’

It was now 5.15 and the show was due to start at 6, so I wound the session up and returned to the office, or ‘the bunker’ as Lois christened it, to relax and prepare. I was aware that I had over-used my voice in the cafeteria, so I drank a lot of water, sucked some Fisherman’s Friends lozenges, and did a few deep breathing exercises.

At 6 I stood at the back of the hall, which was almost full, and after Lois had made her introductory remarks, I took to the stage for the final time on this visit. The opening of the show was fairly uneventful, and I was keeping up a good pace, and then I noticed that I had company on stage – a little beetle, possibly a Shield Bug judging by its shape, was strolling around, apparently checking out what I was doing: I had joked about the lightning bolt coming from Charles Dickens, but perhaps he had come to check on me in the form of a bug! I became transfixed by my new companion, and whenever I could I checked his whereabouts so as not to tread on him (if it were a reincarnation of my great great grandfather, it would be a rather ignominious end to be squashed under a decsendant’s boot). As Fezziwig’s wild dance approached, the beetle crawled to the edge of the stage, as if he realised that he was in mortal danger, and then when the dance was over, he came back to centre again.

On the play went, and I managed to avoid him, until eventually he disappeared. At moments when I was on my knees, I checked the pattern in the rug to make sure I hadn’t squished him but there was no sign. Maybe he had deemed himself satisfied with my efforts and taken flight. My very own Sprit of Christmas standing by me!

Anyway! The show itself went very well and came to a great end with a loud and long standing ovation. Having done the Q&A preshow there was no need to do another one now, but I was aware of Lois standing at the edge of the stage clutching a book and when the audience sat down, she thanked Dennis for his efforts in the sound box (every cue had worked perfectly at every show), and then thanked me for coming and presented me with a Winterthur gift book, which had been signed by many of the staff as well as lots of audience members.

I felt very moved by the kind gesture and left the stage to yet more applause.

The first thing I did on returning to the dressing room was to check the bottom of my shoe, and, to mis-quote my show, there was ‘Noooooo Bug!’

Now I had to pack up and make sure that I had everything, as I would be moving on the next day, so I took quite a time hanging costumes collecting cufflinks and the watch, making sure I had my signing pen, and everything else. When I emerged, there was a young man waiting for me clutching a very early edition of A Christmas Carol, maybe a second, third or fourth edition. Unfortunately, I am not an expert, so I couldn’t verify exactly which it was, but I gave him some suggestions as to how to find out. It was such a privilege to hold the little edition, and although it was not in pristine condition, the quality of the coloured illustrations was extraordinary. The books were originally printed with black and white engravings of John Leech’s illustrations, and each of those was then hand tinted with watercolour, meaning that no two early editions can ever be exactly alike. The richness of the colour in this edition was amazing, particularly the Ghost of Christmas Present whose robes were an incredibly deep and rich emerald green. To hold an edition from 1843 or 1844 is always a very special connection to the origins of the story.

It was time to leave, and Lois had invited me to share dinner with her family, so I followed her car into a neighbourhood in the suburbs of Wilmingtom, where her husband and two sons were waiting. The two boys were fascintaed to know about England and pressed me with a never-ending series of probing questions., some more difficult to answer than others: ‘What is your favourite British word?’, for example. It was a lovely, relaxing way to come down from the two days of performances at Winterthur, and we ate Barbeque in rolls, and salads, followed by cheesecake and cookies, and we talked and laughed. Soon it was time to leave, and after having a picture with the boys in front of the Christmas tree, and saying goodbye and thank you to Lois, I drove back to the Fairville Inn, where I hung my shirts from the day’s performances in the cupboard to air, and then retired for the night.

Friday morning promises to be quite busy, with a radio interview at 9.30, followed by my Covid test at 10 – fingers crossed, one and all!

Unfamiliar Familiarity

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I had to be up fairly early on Wednesday morning, as I had a three-hour drive ahead of me before a sound check and performance at Winterthur that afternoon.

The sky was still dark as I carefully packed my case, making sure that I retrieved two white shirts for my costumes, and placed two pairs of rolled black socks into my little mini case, ready to be used at the other end of the journey. I loaded everything into the car and then went to the lobby and grabbed a very quick breakfast of cereal and a muffin, before returning to my room to brush my teeth and finish packing. I was on the road at 8, and after a short stop to top up the Rouge with fuel, I started off on what is one of my favourite drives of my tour, following the banks of The Susquehanna River as far as Harrisburg. I have made this drive in so many different weather conditions over the years: in snow, ice, fog and heavy rain, and on Wednesday morning it was overcast but clear. I drove through the little community of Liverpool thinking, as ever, that I would be performing in its big cousin in a little over a week.

From Harrisburg my route this year seemed to be different, I think that new roads may have been constructed over the past two years, but I didn’t get to drive through Amish country, through Intercourse and Chatham before arriving in Centerville and Winterthur. This time the journey was less interesting, just the inevitable strip malls and fast-food outlets, until obeying my Satellite Navigation unit I took a right-hand turn into a narrow lane running through rural fields, and suddenly the hustle and bustle of the main road was gone. The lane rose and fell, not only with the natural contours of the fields, but also in smaller swells and dips making it feel like a fairground ride, actually bringing on a sort of seasickness! At one point as I crested a hill, and descended again, I found myself approaching an old, covered bridge, and rumbled slowly through on the wooden boards before emerging back into the light once more. I was on this lane for only a matter of ten minutes, maybe, possibly fifteen, but it was one of the most magical moments of driving that I can remember.

My journey through the magical fantasy land soon ended and I was once more on a major road, the very familiar Kennett Pike, which would lead me to the Winterthur estate. I turned into the driveway and followed the long, languid curves, down the hill passed the lake where a flock of geese are always gathered, up the other side and into the visitor center parking lot. All was as it has always been.

I unloaded the car, making sure that I had everything that I needed for one show and walked down the sloping path to the main entrance. Still everything was familiar, the large room with the ticket desk at one end, the glass wall allowing the sunlight to stream in, and reflect off the shiny floor tiles, and to my left the door to the bookstore which is always such a hive of activity, especially prior to my shows when the audience is mingling there. I open the doors and…..nothing. The room was empty, the shelves were bare, the counter deserted. There was nobody there. A great wave of sadness came over me, so many exciting and happy memories were wrapped up in that room. Ellen greeting me with a smile, and Barabara, who was in charge of the store, bustling about and laughing, but most of all memories of Liz who in the old days would fly out to join me for the last week of my tour, which used to be much longer, and usually we would have our first meeting for weeks right there in the Winterthur bookstore.

The store, well the room, was not quite empty, for I was greeted by Lois, who has been instrumental in my return to Winterthur. Most of the staff, including Ellen and Barabra, were laid off during the pandemic closures, but now the great estate is slowly coming back to life.

We walked through the ghost of the shop, and I automatically put my bags and costumes in the little office that doubles as my dressing room, which was similarly Marie Celeste-like. A few staplers and file trays were on the desk but all of the funny cartoons and postcards that used to adorn the walls were gone. The room was the same, but the spirit had left.

I joined Lois in the auditorium which, thank the heavens, was exactly as it has always been. On the stage a beautiful set had been created, and as we spoke, I could hear our voices echoing back from the room with the best acoustics that I visit anywhere. We were joined by Dennis, who looks after all the technical requirements at Winterthur, and we went through the script with him. In the past he has only played the opening sound effect, but this year I convinced him to do all 5. He agreed, but with the caveat that having played an audio file to the end, his laptop immediately cut back to his own music files, so there was a danger that having danced The Sir Roger de Coverley, Mr and Mrs Fezziwig might suddenly find themselves cavorting to the strains of Motley Crue or Pink Floyd. I was willing to take my chances!

Lois asked a few questions, so that she could create an introduction, and we discussed the joys and difficulties of raising adopted children (both Lois and her husband, and Liz and I adopted children three years ago).

It was now 12 0’clock, and the audiences at Winterthur are notorious for arriving early, so I returned to my office and Lois briefed the volunteers who would be acting as ushers, and we all got ready for the show.

Before changing I ate some fruit and snacks that Lois had provided, and drank lots of water, and then started to prepare. The only benefit of the deserted office was that I had much more space to lay my things down, in fact a shelving unit became a sort of locker for my clothes, top hat, scarf and cane.

I listened to the audience filing past my door and was reassured that the buzz of anticipation and, indeed, the numbers, were just as they had always been. At 12.55 I wrapped my scarf around my neck and went into the auditorium and waited for the programme to begin. When the last of the audience were seated, Lois went to the podium and made her introduction, during which she asked how many people had attended the show before, which led to a forest of hands going up, which is always very gratifying. She finished her remarks and then the music started, and I slowly made my way onto the stage, wondering what music from the 70’s and 80’s would accompany my opening words! Fortunately, Dennis managed to shut the audio down before his playlist took over and I was left to narrate the opening moments of A Christmas Carol alone.

As always at my first show at Winterthur, I tried a bit too hard at the beginning, it is very difficult to convince oneself that the words can be heard at the very back of the long auditorium without the aid of a microphone, so the temptation is to over-project, but as the show progressed, I was able to relax and bring the dialogue back to a level at which I was more comfortable, and could give a more measured performance.

In the second row of the audience, I had noticed my good friends David and Teresa who always support me, and for the last few years have come to Winterthur to see my show. David is a one-man performer too, specialising in Poe, so we have a lot in common. There were other familiar faces too, many pre-empting certain lines and soon the cast rose from 26 to about 236, as everyone bacme part of the show.

At the end end I ‘hosted’ my usual question and answer time, making sure that I repeated any questions so that the rest of the audiemce knew what I was talking about, and after twenty minutes or so, I brought the afternoon’s events to an end.

Unfortunately, at Winterthur the only way from the stage to the dressing room is via the main door at the back of the auditorium, so I got rather trapped by a few people who wanted books signed, or just to talk. One lady, who is always at my shows here, apologises that the gentleman who normally attends with her couldnt be there, as he is in London attending a meeting of the Pickwick Club, hosted by my brother Ian, and she showed me a picture of a menu signed by Ian just an hour or so before! The Dickens boys are slowly taking over the world….

Eventually I managed to untangle myself from the group, and returned to the office where Lois brought a couple of books to be signed and personalised, and when that was done I slowly changed.

The matinee was my only performance of the day so when I was back in regular clothes I said goodbye to Lois, and drove to another reassuringly familiar place, the Fairville Inn where I always stay when I am performing here. But even The Fairville has changed since my last visit, as I checked in, I became aware that the decor was modern and bright, and that the old, quaint look had gone. The lady at the desk informed me that new owners had taken over two years ago (that mist have been very shortly after my last visit), and the entire place had undergone a complete restoration. It looked much brighter, much more modern and very impressive; this is not to say that it was not good before, it was beautiful and had the soul of Laura and Rick all through it. It was good then and it is good now.

I was shown to my room in The Carriage House and was delighted to find a Keurig coffee maker in the room! In the old days I had to wait until Rick opened the kitchen at around 7am before I could get my first cup, so this was one improvement that I heartily approved of.

Tired from the early start, the drive and the physical performance, I watched a film on the TV, until evening fell. I had arranged to meet David and Teresa for dinner at our regular haunt, Buckley’s Tavern just along the road. Usually, we pop in after an evening show, but on this occasion we could eat a little earlier. We were shown to a large table in the corner of a large room, well distanced from other diners and spent a lovely evening chatting and sharing anecdotes from our respective careers.

After a while a couple sat at another table, and they carefully set a baby’s seat, lifted from a buggy or the car, onto the floor. The father was a large man, tall, broad and bearded with arms like Popeye’s. After a while little snuffling noises and tiny cries started to come from the baby and the man leant down to pick his child up – it could not have been more than a week or so old, and to see this mountain of a man holding the infant so gently and tenderly was incredibly moving. I wanted to take a picture of the moment, but of course that was impossible, but it made me quite emotional. Soon more members of the family joined the group and after a while the baby was handed round the table for everyone to have a cuddle and a coo. It was a bit like watching a human game of La-di-da (for those of you who own the red version of my souvenir programme, look it up, while for everyone else I am referring to a Christmas game in which a walnut gets passed around the table). At our table the evening came to a lovely gentle end, and we went back to the Fairville Inn.

It had been a day that in many ways was so familiar but also strangely different in others. Slightly confusing but ultimately very successful and enjoyable.

The Country Cupboard Triumvirate

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Having done all of my driving on Tuesday, it meant that I could have a nice relaxing morning on Wednesday. I woke fairly early, and decided to fold all of my costume shirts, which were still in the laundry bag. As I carefully laid each one out on the bed, I counted them off in relation to my remaining shows and was delighted to discover that the number of clean shirts corresponds exactly with the number of performances remaining on this tour!

When shirts were folded and blog post written, I walked to the lobby for breakfast which, as is the norm at the moment, was a pared back version of what the Best Western usually offer. I chose a pot of oatmeal and poured water to the required level before putting it into the microwave for 2 minutes, as stated on the pot. When the ‘ping’ sounded, I opened the door to discover that my porridge had exploded and made a terrible mess. I called for the lady who presided over breakfast and confessed my breakfast sin to her. ‘Oh, that’s OK, I can clean that – it is always happening. Last week an egg exploded!’ She seemed to suggest that my folly with the oatmeal was much less serious that ‘egg-gate’.

After breakfast I still had over two hours before my sound check, so I decided to unpack my running and swimming gear for the first time and headed down to the fitness centre and pool. Over the last year I have ‘discovered’ running and have greatly enjoyed pounding the country lanes around our home, but the treadmill in the gym really didnt do it for me. I ran for a short distance, albeit at a much faster pace than I would normally run at home, and then swam lengths of the pool. I didnt push myself too hard as I was due to perform twice in the afternoon and I didnt want to use all of my energy before I even set foot on the stage.

At 11 o’clock I walked the short distance from the hotel to the large function room at The Country Cupboard store where I found Missy Grant Swartz placing individual seat numbers on all of the 250 chairs that had been laid out ready for my performances. We greeted each other like the old friends that we are, as Missy has been looking after my events at CC over the last decade or so. As ever the room looked spectacular, with a large stage at one end complete with a fireplace and furniture taken from the store. Two huge Christmas trees, decorated in gold, flanked the stage, and touches of greenery added the final touches.

As with so many venues on this years’ tour, it really didn’t feel as if we had missed a year and in no time we were chatting and going over the plans for the day as if Covid had never happened. I re-arranged a few pieces of furniture, and asked if we could not use the electric lamp that had been provided (it looked a bit anachronistic in a ‘Victorian’ room), and then did a mic check. I ran through various lines including some quieter moments as well as the more bombastic scenes, and when Missy was satisfied, we agreed to reconvene at 1.30 ready for the first show.

I walked back to the hotel and drove to a nearby store to buy a salad and some fruit for my lunch, which I ate in the hotel, before getting ready for the afternoon show. I got into my costume, making sure I had everything with me, and then walked through the hotel, masked of course.

Although The Country Cupboard is a store, it also features a large buffet-style restaurant, and the audience were enjoying a lunch before moving into the theatre. Missy had arranged for a separate room, just off the restaurant, to be available for me to wait in and I sat and listened as the audience gathered. I could also here Kj singing from the stage. Kj Reimensnyder-Wagner is the third part of our triumvirate, and a superbly talented singer/songwriter who always entertains my audiences by performing a series of carols and festive songs. I stood at the door to the hall, as the audience gathered, and could tell from the way that they joined in with the singing, that they were going to be a good crowd.

As 2 o’clock arrived, Kj signed off with her final song, and then her and Missy executed a well-rehearsed plan: Missy removed the microphone stand from the stage, whilst Kj unplugged her guitar and placed it on the floor. Next, Missy took the microphone from the stand and began to make her welcoming remarks, while Kj made her way to the back of the room to prepare the first sound cue. It all worked perfectly, and in a moment I was walking to the stage ready to begin.

I had been right about the audience; they were excellent and lively and fun. Many were old fans and knew the show well, but a show of hands to Missy’s question ‘who is here for the first time?’ had shown a goodly number of newbies were. The performance went very well, and I relished in the sheer space of the stage, giving me plenty of room to execute a very theatrical and physical performance, which had the sweat dripping from my forehead by Marley’s entrance.

The microphone was popping and banging against my costume a bit, which was slightly annoying, but on the whole, it was an excellent show and one that I was extremely happy with. At the end I took my bows and then remained on stage, while the audience sat down, and started another fun question and answer session: these have really proved popular throughout the tour and have been an excellent replacement for the very long signing sessions that I used to do after a show. Yes, it means remaining on the stage for longer, but it is no different to the time I would have spent working through a long queue of people, and not being able to give anyone much attention.

Having answered some interesting questions about Charles Dickens himself, especially how his readings were staged compared to my performances, and of course dealing with the ‘favourite film version’ issue, I eventually brought the afternoon’s events to a close and left the stage to more applause.

When the main room was clear I returned to reset the stage for the next performance, said hello to Kj at last and then went back to the hotel to change ‘for dinner’

It has become a tradition over the years that Missy, Kj and I get together for dinner, from the buffet, between the shows. This year has been a particularly difficult one for both of them, but they are both strong and resilient women and are both looking to what the future can bring, rather than back at the hand the past has dealt them. As always it was lovely chatting and exchanging news, and at the end of our meal we gathered on the stage for our annual ‘cast’ photo. I was wearing my Christmas sweater, and earlier in the day I had sent Liz a selfie of me in it sitting in front of a Christmas tree, she had pointed out that it looked like a cover shot for an Andy Williams Christmas LP and now on the stage, holding Kj’s guitar, it looked even more so!

I returned to my room, where I didn’t have long before needing to change back into costume and prepare for the second show. The routine was the same, and again I stood at the back of the hall sipping black tea and honey (another tradition here: back in the old days of a much longer tour I would often arrive at CC exhausted, with my voice scratchy and tired. A black tea and honey is an excellent way of soothing the throat and, even though my voice was fine this year, still Missy always provides me with the restorative elixir). Again, the audience were joining in and singing with Kj, and once more I knew it would be a lively show, which it was.

Strangely at first, I didn’t feel fully connected with the script, I can’t quite describe why, there was nothing wrong, I didn’t forget anything or stumble, but the words seemed to be coming out of someone else’s mouth, while I observed, but that passed very quickly and soon I was right back into the swing of things again, and at the end of the show the audience stood and applauded once more.

The Q&A followed a similar pattern as the afternoon, indeed with the same question about CD’s readings compared to my show, which was interesting. But the last two questions took a surprising turn: the penultimate query was the ‘what is your favourite movie version’, and I gave my regular answer actually listing my three favourties (I won’t give the game away….). When I had wound up that answer I suggested that we had time for one more question, and a hand shot up at the back of the room: ‘Have you ver seen the Barbie version?’ Barbie?! Barbie? There is a Barbie version of A Christmas Carol? I couldn’t get my mind around that at all! Does Ken come to haunt Barbie Scrooge? Are all of the characters Barbies? Even as I left the stage my mind was boggling over this most extraordinary revaltion. I am not sure if I will hunt it out, or not, but there is certainly an insane curiosity to see how my great great grandfather’s work has been adapted to suit a slim blonde plastic doll!

When most of the audience had left I returned to the hall to gather my things, and Missy told me that there was a lady and a boy who wished to say ‘hello’ What a wonderful surprise for there was Derek, who always came to see me when I performed at The Hotel Hershey. And here he was, grown tall now. Derek and his grandparents always gave me a gift at Hershey, most memorably a supply of beer (when Derek was 6), in honour of the line at Fezziwig’s party, ‘there were mince pies and plenty of beer!’, and now they gave me another gift, a copy of the Muppet’s Christmas Carol. They had travelled a good distance to see the show, and it was a wonderful way to end the day.

I collected up all of my things and said goodbye to Missy and KJ before going back to the room and enjoying a huge slice of apple pie that Missy had sent back with me. It had been an energetic day and I would have a fairly early start in the morning, so once the adrenaline subsided, sleep came quickly.