Expectations Fulfilled

Yesterday was supposed to begin with a 5.15 alarm call, although that became irrelevant as I was already awake thanks to my body clock not fully being readjusted yet.  Not only is it not properly adjusted, it feels like it could do with some new batteries, or a good winding.

The early start was necessary because I had to make the 90 minute journey back to Charlotte airport to catch a flight at 9.20.  I reckoned that if I left at 6am I would be at the airport by 7.30, and by the time I gave my rental car back I could clear security and have time for breakfast before flying.  When I had driven to Greenville two days before I had noticed some roadworks which would possibly have delayed me, and I was also aware that Charlotte airport is a major hub, so the security lines might be long.  All reasons to leave early.

I had packed my cases the night before so it was just a matter of closing them up and taking them to the car.  I grabbed a coffee from the hotel lobby to accompany me on my journey, and went out into the darkness to load the car up.  The atmosphere was still humid and damp and the air was filled with the sound of crickets , or maybe cicadas I never know which (and Liz and I never know how to pronounce the name of that insect, is the middle syllable long to rhyme with car, or is it very short as in mat. Does it rhyme with aid – cic-aid-a?  What a conundrum).

The early morning drive was not too bad and there were no specific traffic hold ups, although the speed limit was restricted along certain stretches.  I passed the Peachoid again, proudly floodlit in all its glory and headed on through the gathering dawn.

I arrived at the airport in good time and left my car in the Hertz garage (there was no one there to check the paperwork, signs just told me to leave the keys and go, so I did)

At check-in I discovered that my big suitcase was slightly overweight so I had to move things around a bit between my other bags, so as not to incur any extra charges, as it was I had to pay $30 for the privilege of having a case put in the hold.  I was hungry now, and was in good time for breakfast, so off I went to the security line……long, slow, frustrating.  We inched forward, one step at a time, our world filled with the shrieking voices constantly reminding us to take off jackets, belts, remove laptops and tablets. Dante must have another circle of hell waiting for people standing in early morning security lines.

Eventually I was spat out the other side of security into the terminal building and I still had half an hour in reserve to eat.  I found a table in a NASCAR Café and ordered some eggs and bacon, as well as an orange juice and coffee and at last began to feel ever so slightly human again.

The flight was a direct flight to Newark NJ and it was very full, but the boarding process went smoothly and in no time the 737 was up into the clouds, heading north towards New York, where we landed a few minutes early.

As I disembarked I decided to stop in a rest room before getting to baggage claim, as it easier to navigate those moments without a huge suitcase in tow, and the thought of sitting in a car for an hour or so with a large glass of orange juice and a mug of coffee sloshing around was not a pleasant one.  Having successfully relieved my bladder and washed my hands I was ready to leave when I was faced with a poster – ‘How was your restroom experience today?’  Goodness!  Quite successful all in all, thank you.

At baggage claim I was met by George Byers, Bob and Pam’s youngest son who had kindly volunteered to drive me back to Chalfont in readiness for the afternoon’s show.  On the journey we picked up some sandwiches for me to eat in the car, as I wouldn’t have time for lunch when we arrived.

Byers’ Choice is my home in America (officially so as the address always goes on my immigration and customs forms as my place of residence when I am travelling), but it was strange to see the statues of children in the grounds without their Christmas hats on.  George helped me get my cases in, and I thanked him for being such a great chauffeur.

I went straight to the theatre where the Byers brothers Bob and Jeff were putting the final touches to the auditorium, and judging by the amount of chairs laid out they were expecting a goodly crowd.  David Daikeler, he who looks after all my technical needs at Byers’ Choice, was bustling about the stage, fiddling with lights, looking at the script and generally making final preparations for the afternoon.  I was to be performing Great Expectations once again and as this was a new show for the Byers team everyone wanted to get it right, there was a sense of nervous energy in the room.

One thing that I was delighted to see was a large black curtain hanging on the wall behind the stage.  Earlier in the week David had sent me a picture of the set asking me if it was ok, but with a huge expanse of white behind the few pieces of furniture, it looked very stark and sterile, not capturing the claustrophobic and intense settings of the book.  In my reply I had asked if there was any chance that a black drape could be hung?  Not really.  That would be difficult. Probably not, was the message that came back.  But I know Byers’ Choice better than that, and it should not have been a surprise that Bob and David had moved mountains to give me what I’d asked for: it looked fabulous.

I set the stage as I wanted it and David and I ran through some of the lighting cues for the show, giving me an opportunity to rehearse again, which was useful.

Miss Havisham (a brass hat stand draped with my white cloth) looked amazing in front of the black and she would certainly be a sombre presence throughout the show, which was my original idea when I first came up with this script

Time was moving on and Bob was keen to open the doors to the public, so I took myself off to my conference room changing space and got ready.    When I returned to the auditorium a very goodly sized audience was gathering, most of whom were regulars from my annual performance of A Christmas Carol.  As I watched them take their seats from David’s sound desk I had a wave of fear and self-doubt – Great Expectations is very different from the Carol and I was worried as to whether this generous and loyal crowd would embrace the long, dark and rather brooding script.

There was only one way to find out!

Bob made his welcome announcement and then David faded the lights to black,  In the darkness the recording of my voice began and the opening lines of Great Expectations filled the room.  I took my place on the stage waiting for my cue, when suddenly the narrative stopped.  Silence.  Nothing.  I knew that David would be searching for a quick solution, but what to do?  Should I just start with Magwitch’s attack on Pip, and hope that David would follow me and bring the lights up?  Would he take the initiative and flood the stage in light thereby encouraging me to start?  The silence seemed to last for an age, and then suddenly the sound came back, the narrative reached its conclusion and we were back on track.

The first act certainly seemed to go well and I was very comfortable with the show now, getting fully involved in the characters and the scenes.  David was doing a great job matching the lighting effects to the scenes as I moved around the stage.

I got to the interval and left the stage to a nice round of applause.  Yes, everything was going OK.

I hurried back to the conference room, got changed and was soon ready to continue the story.  As soon as I returned Bob encouraged the audience back to their seats by employing the old technique of flashing lights on and off, and off we went again.  The second act although longer, is faster moving as the plot ramps up and again I got very involved in the story, so much so that when I dragged Miss Havisham’s flaming body to the floor I felt the hat stand break beneath me.  Bob, I am so sorry!

The applause at the end was loud and people were standing to clap.  All of that hard work over the last few weeks was worth it.  Having left the stage I went to my signing table where a constant queue of people kept me busy for quite a while, although of course it wasn’t as manic as Christmas.  Most people in line were long time supporters and as we posed for pictures they would tell me how many times they’d seen me, and that they would be coming back at Christmas.  Everyone in line told me how much they had enjoyed the show.

As ever Pam was looking after the signing session, marshalling the line and one surprising feature was the amount of people who complained (too strong a word), that I wouldn’t be visiting their particular venue at Christmas this year – we had folks from Pigeon Forge, Hershey, Burlington and Bethlehem all of whom were disappointed.  Although hard to listen to it is rather a compliment too.

Eventually the last people left and I gathered up all of my things before going to thank Bob, Pam and David for everything they had done for me during the day.   I said my goodbyes and walked with Bob to the parking lot were I was entrusted with his rather nice Audi which will be my car for the next few days.

I drove back to the Joseph Ambler Inn where my cousin Rowland and his wife Andi were waiting with their sons.  I quickly checked in, dumped my bags and then joined them for a very relaxing alfresco dinner.

It was a perfect way to end a long and stressful day and we shared lots of laughter and stories into the evening until they had to drive back to New Jersey.  As I returned to my room I found myself muttering under my breath ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ in readiness for Sunday’s performance of A Tale of two Cities, another show about which I am rather nervous, but that is another story and one which will be told tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

Friday 13th

Friday 13th.  Unlucky for some.  First show of the tour – a show I haven’t performed for over a year.  A venue I have never seen.  Friday 13th.

There is not much to say about the bulk of yesterday, in that I spent most of it in my hotel room.  I decided to spend the morning working on A Tale of Two Cities, which I am performing on Sunday and then the afternoon tweaking Great Expectations for the evening’s performance.

The morning’s work went well although there are still some niggly little scenes which simply refuse to stay stuck, but there is definitely a show there which will entertain the audience in Burlington, NJ.

In the afternoon I  concentrated on Great Expectations but rather than doing complete runs I preserved some energy and just went over the lines of a few little sections.   Of the two scripts Great Expectations has settled itself back in my memory more successfully

Other than the line work I napped a little, played some patience, watched a documentary about the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and generally relaxed.

As the afternoon wore on I collected all the  costumes and props that I was going to need for the show and carefully packed them and at 5pm I carried it all down stairs to load into the car.  I think the man behind the desk was surprised to see me pulling an obviously heavy suitcase and carrying two hanger-fulls of clothing without checking out.

It was still a very hot and sultry afternoon but the clouds were gathering and a heavy wind was wipping litter, leaves and dust high into the air.  The venue, The Spinning Jenny, was only fifteen minutes away but my journey was lengthened when I discovered a road blocked due to a fallen tree over one of the roads.  There was already a team of people working hard to clear the branches so I left them to it and went on my way,

I arrive at The Spinning Jenny bang on the dot of 5.30.  I went in the main entrance and found an impressive, low-ceilinged hall which was obviously more of a concert venue than a theatre.  At the far end the small stage was bathed in blue, which would make a good Miss Havisham light, and chairs had been arranged in front of it.  Sharon, who runs the venue , welcomed me with a great big South Carolinian hug and showed me to my dressing room/green room which was very comfortable.

I needed to create my set, for the stage was bare, so I started scouring the venue for a suitable chair, table and stool, which I soon found.  The only thing missing was Miss Havisham who maintains a ghostly presence on the stage overseeing everything.  To create her I normally use my good old standby, a hatstand, but there wasn’t anything like that to be found, until Sharon suggested that we use the circular costume hanging rack from the dressing room.  I carefully draped my white cloth over her to create a sagging human form, even letting a length of it fall onto the chair, as if the old woman was leaning on it.  I was rather proud with my efforts.

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Judging by the number of chairs laid out Sharon was not expecting a huge crowd, and she said she wasnt sure what sort of response they would get, as this sort of performance was a new experiment for them, touring rock bands are more their thing.  As I prepared the stage we chatted and Sharon mentioned that she had seen me perform A Christmas Carol somewhere in South Carolina about 20 years ago, although neither of us could remember quite where that would be.  She said that the show had been very busy and she thought it may have been in a Church as she remembered sitting in pews.  If only I had written a blog in those days, I could have found out where and when that gig was.

Set built we started running through some of the lighting effects and the sound cues, which sort of led me into rehearsing most of act 2.  Although the stage was very wide, the lighting concentrated my action to the centre and I wanted to get a feel for where I could safely move to whilst remaining illuminated.  The acoustics of the hall, with its low tin ceiling, were good and we decided that I didn’t need a microphone.

With an hour to go I retired to my green room, drank water and rested.  I could hear the audience coming in, and although not a large group, they sounded like an enthusiastic one which is all one can ask for.

At 8pm Sharon made the obligatory cell phone speech and brought the whole venue into blackout before playing the first sound cue cut into the darkness: ‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip’

I crept onto the stage in the dark, so I was ready to burst out as Magwitch ‘Hold your noise!  tell us yer name!’ Sharon brought the lights up bang on cue and I was off and running.

The audience, although small, very much enjoyed the opening exchanges between Pip and Mrs Joe and laughed freely, which was good.  The lines flowed easily, the various characters’ voices worked well and each scene flowed easily into the next.  All of the hard work and pacing had paid off and I began to thoroughly enjoy myself.

In no time I reached the end of act one and I was whooped off the stage by one particularly enthusiastic lady who was really enjoying the performance.

Having changed costume and cleared the stage ready for act two I had a little time to rest before Sharon came to give me the nod. The second act is darker and more intense, except for the brilliant scene with Wemmick and the Aged P, which got plenty of laughs last night.

My only concern was my voice, and I hoped I hadn’t taken too much out of it in the early Magwitch scenes.  I was beginning to sound a little raspy.

Soon Miss Havisham had gone up in flames, Pip and Herbert were spiriting Magwitch away up the river, only to be caught, Joe Gargery nursed Pip to full health and the latter named paid off his various debts, sloughed off his pretentious delusions of grandeur and returned to the old forge to bring the whole story to its final scene.  In the ruins of Satis House Pip and Estella met once more (I use the second ending, as suggested to Dickens by Edward Bulwer-Lytton), and they walked away from the ruins hand in hand.

As I left the stage there was a pause and then a hugely enthusiastic round of applause, featuring my whooping uber-fan!  A job well done and I was very satisfied with how the show had gone.

I did a brief Q&A session from the stage, which is always fun, and there were some interesting questions about the editing of the script and how I approach building a character for a show (Sharon told me later that a large group of the audience were theatre majors).  We had a discussion about how old we felt Miss Havisham actually is, which was interesting, we settled on late 40s although she appears much older due to her hermit-like existence.  The final question was ‘Do you have a favourite story about Charles himself?’ and after floundering for a little I told them about A Childs Journey with Dickens, when Dickens chatted to the ten year old Kate Douglas Wiggin on the train to Boston.  That was a good place to finish and I took some more bows before leaving the stage for the final time.

I packed up all my things quickly and emerged into the auditorium where I chatted for a while, before getting into my car and driving back to the hotel.

Sharon and her team had looked after me so well all evening and I really hope that this might be the start of a regular booking, it would be great to come back with some of my other shows, and hopefully a little word of mouth will bring in a larger audience next time.

Back in Greenville I parked my car and went into the hotel.  MainStays Suites is one of those hotels that has a microwave in the room, and that sells frozen ready meals in a little pantry in the lobby.  I purchased a beef and pepper concoction which I carefully prepared and devoured quickly whilst watching Modern Family

The rigours of the evening were beginning to make themselves felt and soon I was ready for sleep.

Under the covers I could reflect on a very successful first night of my tour.

Oh, Friday 13th?  That was Charles Dickens’ lucky day!

 

Observations on Travel, and a Giant Peach

Yesterday I returned to America, and so begun the traditionally manic final third of my year.

You will recall that last week I expressed some concerns as to whether my passport, containing this year’s visa, would be returned by the US Embassy in time, but on Tuesday afternoon a courier rang at our door and held out the little package to me.  There followed a slightly awkward stand-off in that he asked for identification before he could release the parcel into my care, and that a passport would be best, I pointed out that I couldn’t show him my passport because he was clutching it in his hands and wouldn’t release it to me.  Eventually a driving licence sufficed.

Alongside continued rehearsing of Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities I packed throughout Wednesday, making sure that I had all of the required costumes not only for those two shows, but also for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Mr Dickens is Coming.  Various different waistcoats, trousers, shirts and cravats were folded around a stone bottle, a leather cane, a riding crop, an embroidered cloak, a collection of handwritten letters and an old book (Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution for A Tale of Two Cities, but which will also double as a volume for Pip’s studies, the text of Nickleby and Uriah Heep’s legal tome in Mr Dickens).  Amazingly everything fitted into my large suitcase and carry-on case as well as  coming in under weight which surprised me no end.

The goodbyes on Thursday were as tearful as ever as a taxi drove me away from Liz and the girls. When I had finished waving through the rear window I took out from my bag a tiny book that Liz gave me in 2007 called simply ‘Travel’ and which contains various quotes from writers on that subject.  The book stays in my leather shoulder bag (also a gift from Liz many years ago) and comes everywhere with me.  It is lovely to read and I always find something new, this time John Steinbeck provided it: ‘A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike’

In my planning of the morning I had booked the taxi early enough to allow me some breakfast at the airport before boarding, but the traffic had other ideas.  My driver told me that he was receiving reports of very heavy congestion on the M25 and M4, due to an earlier accident, so he would instead continue on the M40 towards Uxbridge and then cut across using local roads which of course were also busy.  Time moved on while my car did not, and images of scrambled eggs on toast faded into fantasy.  The roads were clogged and above us jet engines poured their hot gasses into the atmosphere, another quote sprung off the pages of my little book, in 1862 Henry David Thoreau wrote ‘Thank God men cannot as yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the Earth.’

Eventually the taxi made it through the traffic and delivered me to the airport.  Although I was not rushed (thank Heavens that the check in and security systems are so much more efficient these days), there was no time for breakfast as I had to begin the walk to gate 29 where my American Airlines Airbus A-300 awaited me. I sat in the lounge looking at my fellow passengers hoping, beyond hope, that the family with the screaming child would not be in the seats next to me or behind me.

Soon boarding commenced: Group 1, 2, 3, 4 (child included) and 5 were called before a few of us stragglers in groups 6 and 7 were reluctantly summoned to take their seats.  Actually I prefer boarding late on a transatlantic flight, I am going to be in my little seat for nine hours, I don’t think I crave an extra forty minutes!  The only reason to board early is to find room for carry-on bags, but that is never an issue in the big intercontinental jets.

I settled in next to a likeable gent and as the final preparations for the flight were completed I began my video marathon.  I have been fascinated over the past year with the various Apollo mission anniversaries and the first film I watched was the brilliant Apollo 11, a documentary made purely from archive video and audio clips, with no modern additions or narration.  Fabulous.

The clouds hung low over Southern England as we took off so sadly there was no great view to be had as we made our way up to 40,000 feet, although bursting from the grey and into the blue, looking down on the fluffy mountain ranges was as exciting as it always is.  There is always the childlike feeling that one could simply step out onto the tops of the clouds and explore.

Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, was next on my list before lunch was served which was a rather tasty Shepherd’s Pie rather than the usual ‘chickenorfish’.

After lunch I attempted to catch up on a little sleep before giving up the struggle and returning to the video screen for another biopic, albeit a rather less salacious one, about the early life of JRR Tolkien.

By this time we were over the east coast of America and making our way towards Charlotte.  My final film was Robert Redford in The Natural, although we landed just 5 minutes before the end, so I never got to see him in a cornfield pitching the baseball to his son with that famous gleaming white smile.

Back on terra firma the immigration formalities were swiftly dispensed with and  I was soon tugging my cases towards the parking garage where I was to pick up my transport for the next couple of days.  I was very pleased that I’d thought to pack woollen jumpers and a thick fleece bearing the legend ‘You wouldn’t understand, it’s a Dickens thing’, seeing that the temperature was in the high 90s, nudging 100.

In no time I was in a Chevrolet Malibu and driving in the afternoon sun towards Greenville South Carolina.  As my Sat Nav unit guided me from one freeway to another, my mind wandered back to my book of travel quotes: ‘Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything’  But Charles Kuralt was about to proved wrong.

This is a part of the country I don’t know well, so all of the city names were new to me (although I was a little surprised to find myself driving past Lowell, which has always been in Massachusetts up to now).  Suddenly however there was a name I knew: Gaffney SC.  A few years ago whilst touring I binge watched House of Cards, and Gaffney is the home town of Frank Underwood.  One early episode featured a fatal car crash caused by a girl texting as she drove past the town’s water tower, which is in the shape of a giant peach.  Would I actually get to see ‘The Peachoid’?  yes, there it was!  a towering great orange peach (or, as some have suggested, a giant pair of buttocks) right by the roadside.  I briefly considered trying to photograph it, but remembered the fate of the girl in House of Cards, and thought better of it, so here is a library shot:

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After 90 minutes of driving I arrived at my hotel in Greenville and gratefully slumped onto the bed and rested.  My body suggested that it was 9pm, but my watch told me it was only 4.

At 6.30 I went to a neighbouring hotel for some supper and was back by 8.  As I rode up in the lift to my room I noticed that the official safety certificate had been issued by Mr Duane Scott who is the Senior Administrator in the office of ‘Elevators and Amusement Rides’.  What a lovely job, and for a moment I wondered if this lift would turn into some bizarre ride, such as the Great Glass Elevator that belongs to Willy Wonka in two of Roald Dahl’s novels.  If it was a ride it was a disappointing one, because it simply sighed to a stop on the 2nd floor and let me out.

And so the day came to an end.  I lay in a bed in a hotel in a town that I do not know and a final quote from Liz’s book summed up my feelings perfectly:

‘A motel represents a peculiar form of nowhere.  You don’t know quite where you are, and for a brief time, perhaps, not quite who you are.’

 

Learning Lines

Hopefully on Thursday morning I will board an American Airlines flight and be fired into the air pointing in the vague direction South Carolina.  I say hopefully because my interview for a new visa only took place at the American Embassy  last Wednesday and I am still waiting for my passport to be returned…I am sure that it will be alright….gulp….

In the meantime preparations for my trip are in full swing.  I will be away for just over a week and in that time I will be performing four different shows:  I will be taking on three major novels, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, as well as my old stalwart Mr Dickens is Coming.  Mr Dickens and Nickleby are fine, they are deeply ingrained, hard-wired one may say, so they do not need too much work and besides both of those performances come at the end of my trip after a couple of free days, so there will be plenty of time to perfect them.

Great Expectations and particularly A Tale of Two Cities however are different matters, for I haven’t performed either for a long time and the words have all fallen out of order and are lying in a  stagnant puddle somewhere in the bottom of my brain.  For the last few weeks I have been trying to fish them out them and form them back into their respective shows.

Learning lines is an activity that for me is driven by fear.  When I was a schoolboy I was in a play and at some point alone on stage I forgot my line.  I hadn’t learned the play properly and I couldn’t get myself out of trouble, I simply froze.  I was playing a Lordly King, so I kept acting, I strutted and swished around the stage waiting for my line to be given to me by the prompter, who ineffectually whispered from her seat in the wings.  Angry at her ineptitude I made my way over to her side of the stage so that she could repeat the line, which she did equally quietly.  By this time it was obvious to the audience that I had forgotten my lines, and there was a muttering and giggling from the hall.  Once more the prompter delivered the line, but this time she shouted it at the top of her voice so that everyone in the audience heard it:

‘I AM LOST FOR WORDS!’

The humiliation of the laughter that filled the hall has never left me and the memory is what drives me still.

Great Expectations is the longer of the two major offerings, as it runs to two acts over a time of about two hours.  The script is intense and dark and follows Pip’s journey from childhood to adulthood as he encounters the characters of Magwitch, Joe and Mrs Gargery, Biddy, Miss Havisham, Estella, Orlick, Herbert Pocket, Wemmick and his Aged Parent.

There is a lot of material in the script and it has been a major effort to form it into a recognisable shape.  The one big positive for me is that I performed Great Ex quite a lot in the years after I wrote it, so the shape and form of the play is familiar at some level, even though I have to clamber down to that level!

My line learning technique relies on being alone and having space to pace around, either in our garden, a park, or in the house in the case of inclement weather. I start with a line, which I read from my script, for example:

‘All done.  All gone.  So much was done and gone, that when I went out at the gate, the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in.  For a while I hid myself in the lanes and by-paths, and then struck off to walk all the way to London.  It was passed midnight when I crossed London Bridge.’

Once I have read it a couple of times I start with the first words again, this time not looking at the script:  ‘All done.  All Gone.  So much was done and gone’ I go back repeat it over and over again, and when it flows I check the script and recite the next bit: ‘that when I was out at the gate the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in.’

Repeat, repeat, something doesn’t sound right, and maybe I am saying ‘when I went outdoors’, instead of ‘when I was out at the gate’  Repeat.  Repeat, then add it to the first line: ‘All done. All gone. So much was done and gone, that when I went out out at the gate, the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in.’  Repeat.  Repeat, before adding the next section.

‘For a while I hid myself in the lanes and by-paths, and then struck off to walk all the way to London’  Repeat. repeat.  Correct.  Repeat.  Repeat.  add to previous section:

‘All done. All gone. So much was done and gone, that when I went out out at the gate, the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in. For a while I hid myself in the lanes and by-paths, and then struck off to walk all the way to London.’

This way I just piece little sections together and the pages drift by until I get to the end of a scene or an act, each of which then becomes part of the larger whole, or if things are not going well, the larger hole.

Although there are not specific ‘scenes’ the script has naturally fallen into little self-contained chunks and in the first act they work like this: Magwitch and Pip on the marshes, Pip with Joe and Mrs Joe in the forge, back on the marshes with Magwitch, the Christmas party in the forge leading to the discovery of the two convicts, and so on.  A number of little scenes create a larger one (the 4 sections above take me to the end of a major section), so as I learn lines I have a whole series of little targets or achievements to aim for: little scenes, larger scenes and an entire act.  I don’t know if this is a recognised technique or if any other actors use the same system, but it works for me.

When I had worked my way through Great Expectations it was time to get on with A Tale of Two Cities and the whole process started again.  This time I did not have such a depth of knowledge as I have only performed the show twice, the last time being over a year ago.  But once again I started working in sections, going back doing it again, checking the script and persevering until  things were settled.

Sometimes when I go back to a script I find that passages that I originally found really difficult to commit to memory suddenly become easy, but this time that didn’t happen and the difficult bits in A Tale of Two Cities were still difficult!

Eventually I got to the end and then I thought that I would try Great Expectations again and guess what?  I really struggled with it, and passages that had been flowing a couple of days before now were completely alien to me again.  There was nothing for it but to go back to referring to the script to correct errors.  Once again I started to work through to the end of each mini section, each major section and each act and when that is done it will be back to A Tale of two Cities and no doubt those words will have scrambled themselves up as well.

The funny thing is by this time next week all of the work will be over, for I am performing Great Expectations on Friday and Saturday and A Tale of Two Cities on Sunday.

As I close up with ‘It is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done.  It is a far far better rest I go to than I have ever known’ and, hopefully, the audience applauds, the question will be ‘was all that time, effort and heartache be worth it?  Will the morose demeanour that the family have to put up with be worth it?  Will the fear and the spectre of humiliation have been worth it?’

Of course the answer will be ‘yes’  Theatre and performance is a highly addictive drug and I just keep coming back for more however painful the process may be.

 

 

I will be performing Great Expectations at The Spinning Jenny in Greer, South Carolina on Friday at 8pm

I will be performing the same show at Byers’ Choice in Chalfont PA on Saturday at 3.30 pm

I will be performing A Tale of Two Cities at the Broad Street United Methodist Church on Sunday at 2pm.

 

https://www.thespinningjennygreer.com/events

https://www.byerschoice.com/dickens-great-expectations.html

Welcome!

 

 

 

Gamp

Although it seems ridiculous to say it at the end of August/beginning of September, but this week my winter season began in earnest, and with an amazing event that I will never forget.

My audience was one of the smallest I shall ever perform for, maybe 30 people at most, and the majority of them didn’t know who I was and hadn’t come to hear me anyway.  Some were bored and spent the whole performance looking at their mobile phones, which they hadn’t even bothered to silence meaning that little tones rang out over my words as they scrolled and flicked through their important updates.  Others obediently sat through the performance, whilst others laughed loudly and hung on to every word.

So why was this rather unmemorable sounding evening so memorable?

For the last 55 years (for my entire lifetime!) a gentleman by the name of Lawrence Drizen has been amassing an extraordinary collection of Charles Dickens related items, letters, documents and more first editions than you could ever imagine.  Collectors such as Mr Drizen like to buy a piece and then look for a better, rarer, version of the same thing and then go after that.  The result of 55 years of such upgrading is a collection of astounding value and rarity with almost everything having been dedicated or annotated by Charles himself.

But, as Lawrence himself says ‘Having reached the age of 84 years…I have decided to sell my Charles Dickens collection through Sotheby’s London.

‘I have enjoyed the last 55 years immensely.  The dealers, auctioneers and fellow collectors have all become great friends of mine and I wish to thank them for their scholarship, help and devotion of the years.’

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In order to promote the sale Sotheby’s decided that it would be fun to hold an exclusive event for other collectors and interested parties, and approached the Charles Dickens Museum in London to see if they would host it.  Cindy Sughrue, the director of the museum, was delighted to help out and also offered to display part of the collection for a week or so.

Now, one lot in the auction is a bound copy of one of Charles’ reading scripts, as used by him on his 1867-8 USA tour.  The script for ‘Mrs Gamp’ has Dickens’ handwriting all over it, where he edited and perfected the script.  Some passages are crossed out and others underlined for emphasis.  Charles had the script bound and dedicated it to his American publisher Charles Ticknor, of Ticknor and Fields in Boston.

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The good gentlemen at Sotheby’s thought it would be a lovely idea to find someone who could read Mrs Gamp as Dickens had read it, using the original script and asked Cindy if she knew of anyone who could help.  Cindy duly approached me, I lept at the idea, and the details were settled.

On Tuesday afternoon I travelled to London and at 5.30 took a taxi to the museum.  On the route I passed the site of The St Martin’s Hall where Charles Dickens began his professional reading career, and that seemed to be a good omen for the connection that was to follow.

At the museum, after catching up with Cindy, I was introduced to Philip Errington from Sotheby’s who was bustling around excitedly making preparations.  The pieces from the collection were in well lit display cases around the room and as he and I chatted I looked at the scrawling handwriting of my great great grandfather and felt a real closeness to Charles.

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At one end of the room stood a replica of the old red reading desk and in the cabinet next to it was the copy of Mrs Gamp from which I would read.  In the weeks leading up to the event I had been rehearsing from my own script, edited to exactly match the one in the sale, but Philip was keen that I should actually hold the original at some stage during my performance.  I had looked up the catalogue online and was horrified to discover that the estimate for the tiny volume was £50,000 – £70,000!  What if I turned a page rather too enthusiastically and ripped it, what if I coughed or sneezed over it?  I’m not sure that genuine Dickens DNA would add to the value!

Philip and I agreed that I would begin the reading from the volume and then at a suitable point in the action I would hand it back to him and continue from my own copy. We decided at which point the switch would be made and practised, giving me the opportunity to stand in a brightly lit board room holding a tiny piece of my family history: a piece that links Charles and myself over 152 years – the link being performance.

The volume was locked back in the case, ready to be theatrically removed at the perfect moment, and I decided to have one final run through of Mrs Gamp, before the guests arrived.  As I rehearsed my cousin Mark poked his head into the room and having exchanged greetings we both laughed in amazement at the quality – and expense – of Mr Drizen’s collection.  I am sure we were both thinking ‘is there anything in an attic that we may have forgotten about?’  A spare £50,000 – £70,000 wouldn’t go amiss!

At 6.30 the guests started to arrive and Mark and I went downstairs to the café and garden to schmooze (he is much better at that than I am).  We met other collectors and I was introduced to Mr Drizen himself for whom this must have been a bitter sweet evening.  In the introduction to the auction catalogue he says ‘The sale will be a very sad occasion for me’ and the party with champagne and exquisite canapes must have been a wrench to his emotions.

At around 7 Cindy brought the room to silence, welcomed everyone to the museum and suggested that we all troop upstairs to the board room for the entertainment.  Amongst the crowd was one of Britain’s finest stand up comedians, a man I admire very greatly, and his presence set my nerves tingling and my heart racing a little faster.

People were rather slow in mounting the stairs so I took myself into the exquisitely presented drawing room (furnished as it was when the Dickens family were in residence) to collect my thoughts,  On entering the room I triggered an audio device which plays a loop of readings featuring famous characters and passages, and naturally what should begin but Miriam Margolyes reading Mrs Gamp!  That I could have done without.

I quickly left the drawing room and went back to see how things were going in the board room.  When all were gathered Philip welcomed everyone and talked about the collection, the sale and the reason for the evening, before welcoming me to the reading desk, and carefully handing me the precious book.

The connection with Charles this time was even greater than it had been an hour before, and I had to take a very deep breath and detach myself from my emotions so that I could actually do the job I was there to do.  I began ‘Mr Pecksniff was in a handsome cabriolet…..’

Mrs Gamp is one of the shorter readings and was used to lighten the atmosphere after one of the major performances (such as The Carol, Little Paul Dombey, Sikes and Nancy etc).  It runs at about 20 minutes and features not only the splendid titular character but also Mr Mould the undertaker who so admires Mrs Gamp that he is moved to say that she was the sort of woman that he would ‘really almost feel disposed to bury for nothing, and do it neatly too’!

The other lovely creation is Betsy Prig: ‘That interesting lady had a gruff voice and a beard’,  who dares to confront Sairey Gamp over the existence of the mysterious Mrs Harris.

It is a fun reading, and as I said at the beginning some enjoyed it, some ignored it, but for me it was a never to be forgotten evening as I stood holding such a valuable book and being overwhelmed with such a positive energy and sense of connection with my great great grandfather.

The sale of the Lawrence Drizen Collection is at Sotheby’s London on 24th September and I urge you to go online to look at the catalogue, the link is:

https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2019/charles-dickens-the-lawrence-drizen-collection

There are editions of A Christmas Carol ranging from a signed presentation copy (estimate £50,000-£70,000), to first editions (£7,000 – £10,000), to a 10th edition which could be yours for a paltry £700.  There is a signed first book edition of David Copperfield available for £90,000, and a printed copy of a speech made in London in 1851 for which you would pay only £40.

As Philip said in his introductory remarks ‘There is something for every pocket!’

Sadly I will not be able to be at the auction, although I would love to attend, but I shall try to follow it online and will pay particular interest to a little volume containing the Mrs Gamp reading.

 

 

 

 

An Annual Outing to Mid Wales

The Calender of the year is clearly prescribed, and has been ever since Augustus Caesar  threw in a couple of extra months way back in….well, a long time ago:  The long dark cold nights of January, the bright spring days of April and May, the sultry heat and thunderstorms of August, October, my birthday month and the parchment leaves are blown in the strong winds.  On into the cold rains and fog of November before the quiet snow blankets the ground in December.  All steady, routine, never changing.

As regular as the passing moths there are other occurrences in my world too:  My USA tour each November, finishing the Christmas season at The Guildhall in Leicester on 23 December, the Rochester Dickens Festival at the end of May and the Victorian Festival in Llandrindod Wells at the end of August.

I have been travelling to the mid-Wales spa town for the last five years and I love this little gathering of like minded people whomake their ways from all corners of the country to unite in Powys where they don their Victorian costumes and simply have fun.

I generally pop in for a couple of days to give an evening performance at the perfectly named, and beautiful, Albert Hall Theatre, and occasionally another presentation during the following day.

As you know from my previous blog post we have just bought a new car and this year’s journey to Wales was to be its first big test.  I was due to perform The Signalman, which requires my clerk’s desk, a chair, a stool, a table, a box of railwayana and associated bits and bobs.  For the second half I was completing a ‘Gothic Horror’ double bill with a reading of Sikes and Nancy, which requires the red reading desk.  My load, therefore, included the two largest pieces of furniture that I have and which only just fitted into the old, larger car – would Mr Goldfinger (the registration plate begins AU and the car is a golden colour), be up to the challenge?

We had bought a roofbox to give a little more storage room and I was delighted to discover that the top of the clerk’s desk, as well as my prop box, fitted snugly into that, meaning that the rest of the load could be easily accommodated in the car itself. Why, I even found room for my golf clubs and trolley!

The drive from Oxfordshire is about three hours and I left early to allow myself time to stop for lunch and also to have plenty of time to relax at the other end. The traffic was clear, the car behaved impeccably and I arrived at The Portland Guest House at around 4pm in the afternoon.  I was welcomed by Ruth, the owner, with a big hug and shown to ‘my’ room, number 5 on the third floor, the walk to which certainly gets the heart pumping.  Familiarity is a wonderful thing and soon I was laying on the bed drinking a cup of coffee and watching TV.

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At 6 O’clock I made my way to The Albert Hall for my get in (I do love being able to write those words.and only you and I know that it is not THE Albert Hall, but shhh, I wont tell, if you dont), and was greeted by many familiar faces from years passed.  Before I left Liz and I had decided that it would be best to perform The Signalman as the first act, as ‘The Murder’ takes a huge toll on my voice and it would be better to leave that until last.

I arranged the furniture to represent the lonely signalbox.  The last time I performed this was in Jarrow and on that occasion the little brass bell spookily slipped off its wooden plinth and crashed onto the stage, so this time I had brought a pack of Blu Tak with me to keep it firmly in place.

Once the set was in place I discussed a basic lighting plot with techie Ben, who managed to find a single red light that shone onto the curtains and represented the danger light at the mouth of the tunnel that plays such an important part in the story.

With an hour to go before the audience was due to arrive I started a run through of the show just to  make sure that all of the lines were in place, which they seemed to be.

At 7pm I retreated to the wings and listened as the audience shuffled into their seats.  At 7.30 a silence descended and Queen Victoria was announced.  I could imagine her making to her stately way towards her specially reserved position in the front row.

Once the Royal party was seated, thus allowing everyone else to assume the same state, there were a couple of speeches before I was introduced to the stage to do my thing.

An evening of The Signalman and The Murder does not offer much in the way of levity, so I tried to break the ice a little from the outset by welcoming the audience with ‘Good evening, I hope that you are not expecting any laughs tonight!’ which, of course, raised a laugh.  After that I began the familiar description of events at Staplehurst before pausing and then beginning the story itself with ‘Halloa!  Below there!’

The Albert Hall Theatre could have been designed and built specifically for my kind of show, and the atmosphere that built up as the story continued was truly memorable.  There was silence as the engine driver explained how the poor signalman had been cut down by the locomotive, and an audible gasp as he repeated the words he had shouted in warning.  Perfect!

With the first half done it was time to clear the stage of the signal box and bring the replica of Charles Dickens’ reading desk to centre stage, where it belongs.  A few of the audience were still mingling in the hall, and I decided that rather than hiding myself away in my dressing room I would take the opportunity to chat for a while.

As I mingled a lady, whom I did not know, came up and gave me a letter describing how her mother had told her that a relative was the post master in Rochester when Dickens lived there, and knew him well, which was a fascinating connection and actually brought my relative more alive minutes before I was to recreate one of his most famous readings.

As the interval came to a close the audience returned from the bar and I went backstage to prepare myself for murder.

Act 2.  Sikes and Nancy.  If The Signalman had created an atmospere it was nothing like that in the second half!  By the time I reached the battering of Nancy I was fully immersed in the scene and had almost forgotten the Albert Hall, the Queen and the rest of the crowd and when I delivered the very final line describing the death of Sikes’ dog Bullseye dashing out his brains on the rocks after leaping for his dead master’s shoulders it was with such vehemence that my reading folder flew across the stage and onto the floor where it lay as dead as Nancy, Sikes and and the dog.

At the conclusion of a show an actor likes to hear applause.  Call us old fashioned and vain, but that is what we crave.  On this occasion there was silence,  absolute silence.  nothing.

I loved it.

I brought the audience back by recalling the anecdote of an elderly lady having watched me perform The Murder many years ago who said to me: ‘Thank you very much Mr Dickens, that was very nice, but did you have to kill the dog?’  With a surge of relief the moment was broken and the applause started to fill the theatre.  A job well done.

 

DAY 2: THE QUEEN AND THE COMMONER

I usually try to play a round of early morning golf if I am in Llandrindod for a second day, as the mountainside course is glorious and it is a good way to wind down after an intense performance.  This year, however, I had an appointment with the Queen.

For my day two performance I had agreed to debut my version of The Queen and the Commoner, which recreates the famous – and only – meeting between Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens.  You may remember that American actor Ann Hamilton had written a script with help from my father.

Last year I had asked if the Victorian Festival’s resident monarch, Rita Clews, would like to take an active part in the show and she had readily agreed.  Over the course of the year, however, the script grew and became more involved as I had now included the correspondence between Ann and my dad into the script.

During the interval at The Albert Hall last night Rita had mentioned that she really was not comfortable taking on so much of the script, but was happy to ‘do’ the Queen bit.  This meant rather a re-think on my part and we had agreed to meet at 10 to discuss it.

I woke quite early on Wednesday morning and sat in bed looking at the script and working our how I could perform as dad, Ann and Charles.  I tried out a few passages and it seemed to work, so things might just be OK.

I met with Rita in The Commodore Hotel and we took ourselves off to a quiet room and began to run through play.  Poor Rita was so nervous of making mistakes and letting me down, but we developed a lovely rapport, especially in the fantasy scenes where the old Dickens and his monarch imagine that they were one again ‘ the breathless girl who delighted in dancing all night, and I, the spirited young writer who vowed himself madly in love with her.’  Dickens was wonderfully flirtatious and the Queen suitably coy yet thrilled at the attention.

We spent an hour or so rehearsing but a monarch’s duties called and the we arranged to meet up at 2.45 ready for our premier at 3.15.  I ambled to the town bandstand and watched as a fascinating talk and demonstration of Victorian bicycles was presented by the curator of the local bike museum.  From a wooden-framed bone shaker, to what we would recognise as a modern bike, we were shown a Penny Farthing,  a bamboo framed (light weight) ladies cycle and various other iterations of cycle design.

Once that was finished I returned to the Portland guest house to change into my Victorian garb and joined Rita for a ‘meet the Queen’ session on the bandstand. Unfortunately inclement weather restricted the amount of guests who approached, but we were able to chat about our forthcoming performance and just generally converse in a  most un-regal manner.

After lunch I went back to my room and carried on rehearsing my multiple personas and at 2.45 crossed the road to The Commodore (nowhere is very far from anywhere else in Llandrindod Wells) where Rita awaited me.  Poor lady, she was so nervous, but I assured her that the audience all loved her and she would carry it off with panache.

The script for The Queen and the Commoner not only features the two main characters but also calls for a servant to rush in and ask if tea is required.  Marina, who is a festival board member, had been shanghaied into a servant’s costume and complety showed up Rita and me by learning her lines!

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Soon the room was full.  I introduced the piece and launched into the first section in which Ann and dad share ever more affectionate letters as their script develops.  I had planned to use, and indeed had rehearsed, a splendid Texan accent for Ann’s dialogue, it was based on my understanding of the character of Felix Leiter from the James Bond novels; but when it came to it I just came out with a very dull, generic, middle American accent with no sign of the lazy drawl which I appeared to have left in my room at The Portland.

It was an extraordinary experience to play my own father, even if only in a rehearsed reading.  As I said the words that he had created I could picture myself in his old study in Sussex: the room was nicotine scented and stained, black and white photographs of battle ships hung on the wall as did a large reproduction of the Samuel Laurence portrait of a young Dickens. A black and red wooden bookcase stood near the door and contained the beautiful old green 1873 editions of the complete works, which are now in my office.  There was a watercolour of Mountgerald in the highlands painted by my Grandfather and namesake Admiral Sir Gerald Dickens, as well as other watercolours by my brother Ian.

On the desk was dad’s light blue portable typewriter and sheaves of wafer-thin typing paper.  There was a magnetic jar for paperclips, and an ashtray with the inevitable cigarette burning down to nothing.

As I recited his lines I could picture him in grey trousers and a rather shapeless jumper or cardigan laughing at some literary witticism that came to him.  Aside from his allotment this study was his space, his den.

Back at The Commodore I finished the letter section of the play and it was time to leave the stage and allow Rita (Victoria) to take the lead.  She was superb and funny and played her roll to perfection.  She stumbled over the odd line, and she ad-libbed on occasion, but none of it mattered for, as I had told her, the audience were all old friends and loved every second.

The applause at the end was loud and the beaming smiles were wonderful.  Somebody said to Rita that they thought she should be nominated for an Oscar for best performance by a newcomer, and I added that I hope I may also receive a nomination for best supporting actor.  Rita’s sense of relief was palpable as everyone filed into the lobby area to enjoy a spectacular afternoon tea.

And so my performances in Llandrindod were over and I took my leave of the crowd to spend some time alone.  It was around 6 o’clock and the weather was fine –  the siren call of the golf course sang in my ears.

I played 18 holes in super-quick time (little more than two hours) as the course was quiet and those folk who were playing let me through and on my way.  The views across the mountains and valleys always lifts the spirits and eases the stresses of the day, and my round was a perfect way to gently wind down after a busy and at times stressful two days.

On Thursday morning I had an early breakfast at The Portland, then crossed the road to The Commodore to say goodbye to such of the festivaleers who were in the dining room and set off towards home.

Sadly the Llandrindod Victorian Festival was not as well attended as in years passed and I only hope that it can flourish and continue, for my summer would not be the same without it.

One absentee was my good friend David who was responsible for bringing me to Llandrindod in the first place – the festival sorely missed him and we can only hope that he will return in the future with his larger than life personality, exquisite professionalism and filthy laugh!

 

Opening Lines 

On another subject altogether – I received a tweet in the week asking people for their favourite opening lines from a novel.  You may think I have plenty to chose from:  A Tale of Two Cities:  ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

David Copperfield: ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show’.

Bleak House: ‘LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.’

Or A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’

No, my favourite opening has always be the first line of the James Bond series of books, Casino Royale, in which Ian Fleming introduces us to the world of spies and fast living:

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

Perfect!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sad Loss. Part 2

In February I wrote a post entitled ‘A Sad Loss’, which described the memories wrapped up in my old leather folder which held my reading scripts.  The folder had been stored in a damp shed and a mould had formed meaning there was no alternative but to throw it away.  I felt a pang of sadness as it went for it had accompanied me during much of my professional career.

This week I felt the same pang, yet stronger, as Liz and I bade farewell to our Mocha Renault Grand Scenic, NV10 USJ.  Whilst the folder was part of my job NV10 has been part of our life together and has shared so many adventures: it was much more than just a means of transport.

We bought the Renault eight years ago using money inherited from my mother, and the purchase marked a major watershed in my life.  Up until that time I had been working at two careers – my acting and teaching people to drive; as far as the latter was concerned I worked for a national driving school on a franchise basis and in exchange for a large weekly sum of money I was provided with pupils and a car, which I was also allowed to use in my spare time.  The upshot of this arrangement was that I would turn up at theatres and venues in a fully branded AA Driving School car, which didn’t give a terribly professional impression, the nadir coming when we arrived at Althorp House, the home of the Spencer family, in the car and Lord Spencer and his butler rather sneered at the sight!

Unfortunately my Franchise payment to the AA was extremely high and I had to work from morning till night all week just to cover my costs and was left with nothing at the end of it, which made life for Liz and me extremely difficult.

The financial phoenix that rose from the sadness of my mother’s death gave me the chance to begin a new chapter in my life.  Liz suggested that I leave the driving instruction behind me (it was almost killing me for nothing but a garish yellow car), and concentrate completely on my acting.  This would mean the loss of my ‘free’ (ha!) vehicle, but I now had the money to buy a new one and so, one day, we were introduced to NV10 on the forecourt of the local Renault dealership.

The Renault Grand Scenic is a long multi-purpose vehicle with a huge boot space and when the rear seats are folded up so the cargo bay becomes enormous.  The car had another trick up its sleeve though, for you could actually take the seats out completely meaning that the enormous space became gargantuan.  All very useful for storing a replica of Charles Dickens’s reading desk, a chair, a table, a hat stand, a clerk’s desk, suit carriers, prop boxes, wooden steps, screens and all the other paraphernalia that go to make up my productions.

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For years I have loaded up the car in Oxfordshire and set off for some far-flung theatre.  I have driven to venues in the far north, south, east and west of England.  I have performed in Scotland, Wales and Ireland and each time NV10 has been a steadfast, reliable and cavernous companion for me.  It has always performed steadily and safely.

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But don’t believe for a minute that the Renault was merely a tool of my trade, it was truly a fully fledged member of our family.  It has taken us on holidays and on trips to family and friends.

Together Liz, I and NV10 have driven the 1000 mile round trip to our  favourite  spot in the Highlands of Scotland on countless occasions.  Each journey was a special one, for it is a special place, but two stand out particularly:

2013 marked my 50th birthday and I decided to celebrate it in Scotland where the happiest memories of my childhood originated.  We drove from Oxford, my brother Ian and his wife Anne drove up from their home in Bedfordshire and my sister Nicky came from Ireland, and there we gathered to party, reminisce and celebrate.

Just two years later we were there for another great celebration as Liz and I decided that there was no better place to get married than in our dear village of Cromarty.  On that occasion we had so much to take with us that the giant boot space wasn’t enough and we had to rent a roof box as well, but NV10 was more than up to the task and transported our special day from Oxfordshire to Scotland without a hiccough.

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On that occasion I scraped the front bumper trying to squeeze the car through the narrow lane where ‘our’ cottage is situated and I have never repaired the scrape for it is a reminder of an amazing time.

Last year NV10 started to sicken, and the electronics systems deep within started to do strange things to the car’s performance.  The ‘brain’ understood that there were terminal issues with the engine and so to save the oily mechanical bits  it shut down and only allowed the engine to idle along in ‘get home’ mode, which wasn’t at all convenient!  We took the car to a dealership who plugged a laptop in and happily announced that it was a failure of ‘…such and such sensor’, which was replaced at great expense.  I drove the car away only for it to lapse into get home mode once again.  Back to the garage, more tests another discovery, more expense, same result.  It was as if the Renault was teasing us.

After three such attempts at rectifying the problem we regretfully decided that next time it failed we would have to say good bye to the car, and I almost re enacted the famous scene from Fawlty Towers when Basil Fawlty beats his car with a tree branch screaming ‘that’s it!  I’m going to give you a damn good thrashing!’  NV10 obviously has an appreciation for classic British comedy for the next sensor that was changed did the job and we were back to normal for another year.

But last week the end finally came. NV10 went for an annual service but before they started to work the garage phoned me just to tell me what needed doing: radiator leak needed repairing, air conditioner condenser had rotted and was about to fall off, the rear brake discs and pads needed replacing, track rod ends were worn and just to top it off the mechanic announced cheerfully that the windscreen wipers were ‘a bit noisy’.  The cost of all these repairs would be almost £2,000, much more than the car was worth and we took the sad decision that at last enough was enough.

The beginning of last week was spent seeking a replacement, but there was to be one last hurrah for NV10 USJ, for I had to visit a venue where I will be performing in December, and it was with great pride that we drove up the long lane until we saw the view of the majestic Highclere Castle (otherwise known as Downtown Abbey) before us.

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It seemed fitting that the Renault’s last official role was in such a grand setting and that both Liz and I were there together.

The next day we finally found a new model: younger, curvier and blonder and signed the papers, and I am sure that it will be a fine motor car:  but it will never fully replace NV10 USJ.

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Cricket, Pickwick and Seymour

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On Saturday I found myself on a village green watching a cricket match.  I had not planned to watch it, I just happened to be there and soon became wrapped up in the great contest.  I did not know the teams involved, but after a short while spectating the various characters of the players emerged.  Batting was obviously the team’s star player, and boy did he know it: he strutted arogantly, prodded the pitch with his bat as if he were at Lord’s cricket ground during a test match.  When he received a ball he treated the bowler with disdain and struck it cleanly to the boundary of the field.  If he happen to miss a ball (which happened more often than he probably realised, and certainly more often than he would recount in the bar later that evening) he would admonish himself by smacking his bat into his pads and screaming some expletive.  Every cricket team has one of these players.

Eventually he hit a ball to the deep and started to run, his partner at the other end responded but our alpha male wanted a second and turned to run again.  There was a mix up! Both batsmen at the same end!  Shouts from the fielding side, ball thrown in, wickets broken and  with a cheer our hero had to depart from the field of play.  Oh his exit was spectacularly angry!  His erstwhile partner walked towards him to offer a word of apology and consolation, but he was rebuffed and ignored as the bat inflicted damage to the turf.  I am sure that when he reached the pavilion we would have thrown his bat against the wall and screamed abuse to all and sundry, and no doubt the rest of his team  giggled and exchanged glances as they lounged in the sun and prepared to watch the next stage of the game.

Anyway, the match went on and the batting side seemed to accumulate a good total, although wickets fell regularly until suddenly, and without ceremony, everything stopped and the players trooped back to the pavilion for tea.

It was a scene that was being repeated throughout the nation and in a world of political strife and uncertainty it provided a splendidly reassuring sense of normality.

I have loved cricket since I was around 10 years of age, I played it at school and at club level and followed both the Kent County Cricket Club and the England team through thick and thin (mainly the latter).

I am aware that many of my readers are from the United States of America where cricket is not a popular sport, indeed your knowledge of cricket is probably as extensive as mine is of what you call ‘football’ (a sport where the ball is predominantly thrown and the ‘foot’ seems rarely to come in contact with the ‘ball’ but that is just me being pedantic).

So, let me try to explain. The most important contests, internationally, are the test matches and these are played over 5 days (yes, that’s right – FIVE days).  Each team has 11 players and the side that is batting (let us call them a) has to try and amass as many runs as possible until the opposition (for arguments sake let us call then b) has got them all out, at which point they swap over and it all starts again.  When each team has had one innings the first team (a) goes in again and scores more runs, leaving their opponents (b) a target to score in the final innings.  If team (a) gets all of team (b) out before they have reached the target then (a) has won, but if (b) reaches the target amount of runs then they win.  However, if team (b) do NOT reach the target, but are NOT all out, then the match is a draw!  Yes, after 5 days of playing it is often the case that a match has no result!

For a much simpler and more concise explanation of our national game allow me to quote from tea towel which was in wide circulation during the days of my youth:

 

Cricket as Explained to a Foreigner 

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out. When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side thats been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.
When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay all out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out.

When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!

Simple.

What, you may ask, does all this have to do with the works of Charles Dickens?  Well, in Chapter 7 of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club Mr Pickwick and his friends, Mr Tupman, Mr Snodgrass and Mr Winkle, travelled to the town of  Muggleton where  a great cricket match was to be played against the team from Dingley Dell.

The scene was much the same as the one that I witnessed on Saturday:

The wickets were pitched, and so were a couple of marquees for the rest and refreshment of the contending parties. The game had not yet commenced. Two or three Dingley Dellers, and All– Muggletonians, were amusing themselves with a majestic air by throwing the ball carelessly from hand to hand; and several other gentlemen dressed like them, in straw hats, flannel jackets, and white trousers — a costume in which they looked very much like amateur stone-masons — were sprinkled about the tents, towards one of which Mr. Wardle conducted the party…..

….All–Muggleton had the first innings; and the interest became intense when Mr. Dumkins and Mr. Podder, two of the most renowned members of that most distinguished club, walked, bat in hand, to their respective wickets. Mr. Luffey, the highest ornament of Dingley Dell, was pitched to bowl against the redoubtable Dumkins, and Mr. Struggles was selected to do the same kind office for the hitherto unconquered Podder. Several players were stationed, to ‘look out,’ in different parts of the field, and each fixed himself into the proper attitude by placing one hand on each knee, and stooping very much as if he were ‘making a back’ for some beginner at leap-frog. All the regular players do this sort of thing; — indeed it is generally supposed that it is quite impossible to look out properly in any other position.
The umpires were stationed behind the wickets; the scorers were prepared to notch the runs; a breathless silence ensued. Mr. Luffey retired a few paces behind the wicket of the passive Podder, and applied the ball to his right eye for several seconds. Dumkins confidently awaited its coming with his eyes fixed on the motions of Luffey.
‘Play!’ suddenly cried the bowler. The ball flew from his hand straight and swift towards the centre stump of the wicket. The wary Dumkins was on the alert: it fell upon the tip of the bat, and bounded far away over the heads of the scouts, who had just stooped low enough to let it fly over them.

‘Run — run — another. — Now, then throw her up — up with her — stop there — another — no — yes — no — throw her up, throw her up!’— Such were the shouts which followed the stroke; and at the conclusion of which All–Muggleton had scored two. Nor was Podder behindhand in earning laurels wherewith to garnish himself and Muggleton. He blocked the doubtful balls, missed the bad ones, took the good ones, and sent them flying to all parts of the field. The scouts were hot and tired; the bowlers were changed and bowled till their arms ached; but Dumkins and Podder remained unconquered. Did an elderly gentleman essay to stop the progress of the ball, it rolled between his legs or slipped between his fingers. Did a slim gentleman try to catch it, it struck him on the nose, and bounded pleasantly off with redoubled violence, while the slim gentleman’s eyes filled with water, and his form writhed with anguish. Was it thrown straight up to the wicket, Dumkins had reached it before the ball. In short, when Dumkins was caught out, and Podder stumped out, All–Muggleton had notched some fifty-four, while the score of the Dingley Dellers was as blank as their faces. The advantage was too great to be recovered. In vain did the eager Luffey, and the enthusiastic Struggles, do all that skill and experience could suggest, to regain the ground Dingley Dell had lost in the contest — it was of no avail; and in an early period of the winning game Dingley Dell gave in, and allowed the superior prowess of All–Muggleton.

 

The original idea behind the Pickwick Papers was not Charles Dickens’ at all; he had been approached by a famous illustrator and caricaturist by the name of Robert Seymour who had built his reputation on creating either political or sporting cartoons.  Seymour’s idea was to produce a series of sporting prints chronicling the adventures  of a club called The Nimrod Club.  Rather than just publish the illustrations Seymour set out to find a young author to provide witty captions for his work.  Dickens, using the name Boz, was the succesful candidate.

Far from being a submissive junior partner 24 year old Charles rather took the project over and convinced Robert Seymour that a full-length serialised novel was the way to go, suggesting that comic prints were too old fashioned, the sort of thing William Hogarth had been producing a century before.  The idea of a club appealed however, but why not make it a corresponding society?  That way the members could travel throughout Britain and the book would be made up from their written accounts.  The subject matter could be so more far reaching than simply sport.

As to the clubs name?  How about the Pickwick Club?

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Seymour’s involvement did not last long, he provided the illustrations for the first monthly instalment, including the famous picture  Mr Pickwick addressing the club, but during the preparation of the second month’s adventures Dickens and Seymour had a disagreement over an illustration entitled The Dying Clown.

Dickens (remember very much the junior partner, unknown and writing under a pseudonym) vigorously argued that the face of the clown was too grotesque and terrifying, and suggested in no uncertain terms that Seymour should return home and produce a new picture that was more suitable.  Charles did send him on his way with a glimmer of hope, offering a grain of faint praise, for he suggested that the proportion and perspective of a little table in the foreground had been ‘achieved admirably’.

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That night Robert Seymour committed suicide.

Chapter seven of The Pickwick Papers contains not only the account of the cricket match but also a brilliant description of Mr Winkle trying to shoot rooks, but only succeeding in wounding Mr Tupman.

Above all others Chapter Seven represents Robert Seymour’s forgotten dream.

 

 

 

 

Catching my Breath

Following the show in Hitchin last week things have calmed down as I am now entering a quiet month or so.  One performance which was due for a couple of weeks time has been moved to later in the year, leaving me with a fallow period in which to relax.

So, there is not a huge amount to report this week, but there a couple of things that may be of interest:

 

The Lost Portrait

A snowy December day in The Berkshires seems like a long time ago now, but it was there that I wrote a blog post called ‘What Did Charles Dickens Look Like?’ in which I described the discovery of a long lost portrait of my great great grandfather and the fundraising efforts of the Charles Dickens Museum in London to purchase the miniature and put it on permanent display.

The target was £180,000 and at that time the sum seemed huge and unobtainable, but I am delighted to announce that this week the museum issued a statement:

 

A portrait of Charles Dickens that was lost for more than 130 years is “coming home” after a successful fundraising campaign.

 
The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street in London said the target of raising £180,000 had been reached to buy the painting by Margaret Gillies of the writer when he was 31.

 
It was once a famous image, displayed at the 1844 Royal Academy summer exhibition. But Gillies said in 1886 that she had “lost sight of the portrait”. It remained lost until, covered in mould, it was improbably spotted in a cardboard box of trinkets at an auction in South Africa.

 
The museum said it had received substantial grants from the Art Fund and the lottery-funded Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, as well as donations from admirers of Dickens.

 
Cindy Sughrue, the director of the museum, said: “We are so excited to be bringing the lost portrait home and we are extremely grateful, and touched by, the generous support that we have received.

 
“It is a magnificent affirmation of the enduring appeal of Dickens’s writing and the worldwide fascination that he continues to inspire.

 
Dickens was already an emerging literary star when Gillies painted him and would have been in the thick of writing A Christmas Carol. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning saw the portrait and remarked how it “has the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes”.

 
It re-emerged when someone paid the equivalent of £27 for a tray of stuff at auction in in Pietermaritzburg, which also included a metal lobster, an old recorder and a brass plate.
After some online research, the buyer realised the painting had the look of Dickens and contacted the art dealer Philip Mould.

 
Mould said its re-emergence was astonishing. “It is an epic tale with a supremely happy ending,” he said.

 
The Gillies portrait will go on display from 24 October and be a regular part of the programme although, to help its preservation, there will be times when it is not on display, the museum said.

 

Excellent news!  Thank you to all who supported the appeal, whether financially or just by sharing posts via social media and spreading the effort across the world.  I still haven’t actually viewed the portrait and I cannot wait to set eyes on it later this year.

 

Christmas

My other job this week has been to finalise my Christmas calendar and get the dates posted on my website.

This year my travels to America are divided into three different trips, one in September, one in November and one in December and there are a few interesting titbits within those dates.

The saddest omission from this year’s trips is The Inn at Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  This year the dates just didn’t work in such a way to allow a trip to Tennessee and I certainly hope that this is a temporary hiatus and that I can return next year.

 

Regular readers will know that the Inn has become a regular feature of my travels over the last ten years or so and I have forged close friendships with Kristy, Dwight, Debbi and the rest of the team at the hotel.  Not only have the staff become friends, but many of the audience too and it is with a heavy heart that I will not be enjoying myself in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains.

Whilst one Inn does not feature this year, so another returns and it is with great excitement that I can announce that I am scheduled to perform at The Williamsburg Inn after a year off in 2018.  The surroundings of the Inn are spectacularly elegant and I have enjoyed many wonderful times there.  It will wonderful to be back.

Some venues find new dates and even new shows, for example I will be performing both Mr Dickens is Coming, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cites during my September sojourn.  On that trip I will be at Winterthur and Byers’ Choice both of which I will return to in December, but I will also be performing at The Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington, New Jersey and at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee both of which have only had A Christmas Carol before.

The November hop takes in my Mid-Western venues in Missouri with my old friends at the Mid Continent Public Library Service and a return to Omaha, Nebraska to perform with the Douglas County Historical Society (you may remember that there were fears that last year may be my last in Omaha).

Beyond the American venues there are a few exciting additions to my UK dates too, most particularly a performance at Highclere Castle (the filming location for Downton Abbey).  Anyone who watched the episode in which Dame Nelly Melba performed for the Grantham’s will know what I will be doing and where I will be doing it!

I will also be at the beautiful St George’s Hall in Liverpool again, the Lit & Phil in Newcastle and back at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons for a second time.

For a full run down of my 2019 dates take a look at my website:

 

http://www.geralddickens.com

 

Girding my lines….and coming up short

As you know the last two weeks was  spent on my two current projects, the preparation of a new Nickleby script and the new play which describes my father’s assistance in creating ‘The Queen and the Commoner.’

The latter project took up my time at the start of the week before I suddenly realised that my performance of Nickleby was imminent so I had to concentrate on that instead.  I put ‘The Queen and the Commoner’ down and returned to ‘The Life and Adventures….’

The issue with my original two act script was at the very start.  When I first wrote Nickleby it was as a one act play and it lasted a little over an hour but a few years ago the theatre producers who promoted my work in the UK suggested that I lengthen it so that theatres could make bar profits in the interval.  As a short term solution I wrote a long passage about how Dickens actually wrote Nickleby, referencing Sketches by Boz, and quoting Pickwick and Oliver Twist, before moving on to his visit to Bowes where he saw a gravestone that inspired the pathetic character of Smike.

It’s all very interesting, but it was a very clumsy and unwieldy way to start the show and didn’t really match the fast-paced frivolity of the story itself, so my plan was to ditch it all.

In my last blog post I mentioned the new passages that I was including (the job interview with the MP Mr Gregsbury, and Smike seeing the dark withered character of Brooker watching him), but both of these come into the second half, meaning that without the original preamble Act1 was left in a very emaciated  state.  My answer to this was simply to move the interval, placing it later in the novel at the point when Smike and Nicholas begin their arduous trek from Yorkshire to London, which actually is a more suitable place to break and gives the audience a sense of the journey’s true length.

Having re-jigged the script it was time to start learning the new lines.  The main chunk was the three page Mr Gregsbury section and to my horror I just couldn’t learn it!  I read, I put the script down, I tried to repeat and nothing was there.  Back to the script and try again, still nothing.  This was rather a scary moment for it seemed as if my ability to learn new lines had deserted me which would not be good news in the years ahead.  I ploughed on and little by little the gist of the lines started to embed themselves and this is an important moment, for if I know vaguely what I have to say it is then easier to perfect the words themselves.

The most productive morning of learning came on a sunny day after I had completed the school run.  Instead of heading straight home I walked around the North end of the town using a network of little paths (we used to call them ‘twittens’ back in my childhood home in Kent).  For over an hour I walked and muttered, muttered and walked, getting a few strange looks along the way.  Maybe it was being away from home, but that hour really put the words into my memory and from that moment I could concentrate on perfecting the sentence structure.

With the new words memorised it was now time to slot them into the script, so I started to rehearse the whole show and it was with horror that I discovered that even with the interval moved the first act was only 25 minutes long!  That is just not long enough: an audience would settle into their seats, the lights would go down and they would get comfortable ready to enjoy the show, or to have a discreet snooze, when suddenly the lights would be up again!

It was too late to introduce any new passages, and anyway there really isn’t anything else I’d WANT to include in the first half.  I would still have a little bit of preamble to introduce the show, but that would not be enough.  I thought the problem through and the only solution I could come up with was to suggest to that the theatre that I forgo the interval altogether and perform it as a one act show, knowing that this would mean a huge lack of bar income.  I emailed and waited for the angry reply….which didn’t come; instead the theatre manager Glynn said, ‘that’s fine, we do a lot of one man shows here and they are all 1 act!’   I wish I had know that ten years ago.

The running time was still a bit short, but I suggested to Glynn that I would do a little meet and greet session in the theatre bar afterwards, and all was settled.

I continued to rehearse as the week went on until the new passages felt comfortable and on Wednesday afternoon I loaded the car up and set off for The Market Theatre Hitchin.

It is a great little theatre run by a collective of young actors.  It nestles in a little yard in the centre of Hitchin, next to a busy pub which, in previous years, has been showing major football finals meaning the cheers from the patrons could be heard from the auditorium but fortunately this year there are no football tournaments in progress.

I was greeted by Ollie and quickly got my set onto the tiny stage ( the roof is so low here that I was rather worried that as Ralph Nickleby climbs up a small step ladder to ‘hang’ himself at the show’s conclusion he might also give himself a nasty bump on the head.

Glynn arrived soon after and we set the lights to give me a nice warm sunny glow and a cool melancholy one, as well as a couple of ‘specials’ for certain specific scenes.

When everything was set I spent some time on the stage going through the new passages again and then retired to the little green room, which is actually a store room, wardrobe and workshop all rolled into one.

My performances at The Market Theatre are part of the Hitchin Festival and over the last few years I have performed ‘an Audience with Charles Dickens’, ‘Great Expectations’ and the double bill of ‘Doctor Marigold’ & ‘The Signalman’.  The shows always sell well and this year was no exception, the audience began to arrive early and took to their seats as Liz’s CD ‘Play’ serenaded them.

At 7.30 the house lights dimmed, Liz’s beautiful playing faded and the stage lights came up, I walked to the centre of the stage and an unexpected round of applause broke out, which is always a good way to start!

I went into my Nickleby preamble, and the audience responded well giving me the confidence that this would be a good evening. With all of the changes and additions it was important for me to remember that Nickleby is a well established show which has been successful for me over many years. Sure enough through the first ‘half’ all of the familiar business worked well and the audience responded just as I like them to.

The plot rushed to Yorkshire with Nicholas, a brief interlude with Kate Nickleby in London, and then back North as Nicholas beats Mr Squeers before running away with Smike.  This is where the interval should have been but now I plough straight on into my new scene, the job interview with Mr Gregsbury.  The words came to my lips easily (a couple of vocal fumbles and stumbles, but I’d built that into the characterisation anyway as an insurance policy), and before I knew it the two and  half pages that caused me so much grief in the last couple of weeks came and went and I was back to familiar territory in the company of Mr Crummles and his troupe of actors.

The rest of the show passed in a blink, although my ‘hour and 10’ turned into an ‘hour and twenty-five’ so I felt that after all I hadn’t short-changed the audience.  I took my bows, re-used the ‘chapter 2’ gag that I’d introduced in Rochester and after the laughter died down announced that I would be in the bar for a chat in a few minutes time.

Back in my dressing room/green room/store room/workshop I towelled myself down, re-shevelled myself a little and then headed to the little bar.

On the way I was waylaid by an impressively bearded gentleman (who reminded me of the actor Griffith Jones who played Tim Linkinwater in the old RSC production of NickNick), who took great delight in studying the coin on my watch chain and deducing that it was a copy of a commemorative coin struck for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, and then asking if my cufflinks represented the red rose of Lancashire.  I was able to correct him on the latter point explaining that they are a representation of a scarlet geranium, the emblem of the International Dickens Fellowship.

In the bar there were only a few people but we had a lovely chat about the show (one lady had actually been at my Rochester  performance a few weeks ago and loved the additions, in particular ‘the job interview’ which made me feel very good).  I showed them some original monthly instalments of Nickleby, bound alongside the blue (they were green when new but have faded slightly over the years) covers.  Everyone was fascinated by the advertisements which not only give a snapshot of 1838 society but also ensured that Charles Dickens had an extra income stream over and above the sales of the book.

Time and Tide wait for no man, and soon we all said our goodbyes and I returned to the auditorium to change and load the car.  As I said goodbye to Glynn and Ollie we chatted about the possibility of returning next year and Glynn said that having me perform during the festival was always ‘an easy sell’.

With those uplifting and cheering words in my mind I started the journey home.

Now it is back to The Queen and the Commoner, as well as starting to write a show based on ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and re-learning Great Expectations….

 

BOZ FOR HOW LONG?

An interesting question popped up on my Twitter feed this week, and that was ‘did Charles Dickens still use the name of Boz all the way through the Pickwick Papers?’  The simple answer to this was ‘yes’, but it set me scurrying around the internet to discover exactly how long he did publish under his pseudonym. This research is by no means academic and if anyone wishes to put me straight then I am happy to be corrected, but as far as I can tell the monthly instalments continued to be ‘Edited by Boz’ right up to and including Martin Chuzzlewit, which was published between 1842 and 1844.  However he did use the name of Charles Dickens for American Notes (1842) and the Christmas books which began with A Christmas Carol in 1843.