Protected by Little Nell

It is lovely to wake in the comfortable bed at the Byers’ house and know that I do not have to be anywhere very soon.

Having written my blog post and showered I hear noises downstairs so go down to join the others.  Pam and Bob are sharing breakfast duty and they are definitely spoiling me: bacon is sizzling, and a huge bowl of batter is waiting to be poured into a waffle machine.  Chilled orange juice and freshly brewed coffee complete the set.

Before breakfast is served though there is an important duty for Bob and Pam to carry out, and that is to play with their Boston Terrier Bing.  The game involves Bob and Pam kneeling at each end of their long living room and tossing a ball to each other as Bing tries to catch it: running, twisting, skidding and leaping in his efforts.  Its a wonderfully happy time, and  a game that Bing obviously relishes.  Eventually Bing manages to jump high enough to intercept a throw from Pam and proudly lies down protecting his prize.

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Back to the table and breakfast is superb, the waffles light and fluffy and the bacon crispy.

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After breakfast Pam goes over a few additions to the tour (interviews etc), and Bob and I discuss the ongoing sales of the souvenir programmes as well as a few ideas for next year.  I sign a stack of the programmes, so that we can offer them at the Byers’ Choice shows in a week’s time, in an effort to cut down the huge signing line at the event, and the morning drifts amiably on, until I have to get ready to go to work.

My shows today are in Burlington, New Jersey, and it is a drive of just under an hour.  I make sure that I have everything I need before waving goodbye and taking to the road once more.  The Byers’ home is a converted stone barn and although it is now surrounded by more modern buildings it used to be amidst fields of corn, the nearest neighbour being one Oscar Hammerstein II, who presumably gazed at the scene outside his window before penning the ‘corn is as high as a elephants eye’ line from Oklahoma.

The drive to Burlington is an easy one, and soon I am guiding the car over the terrifyingly narrow Bristol-Burlington bridge, which is like something from an Alec Guinness war film.  I pull up outside the Broadstreet United Methodist Church and am greeted by the event organiser Laura, her husband Joe and the Pastor Kim.  Between us we carry my costumes into the church and straight away undertake a sound check, so that Laura can open the doors to the enthusiastic audience.

My dressing room is under the stage, and right next to the only men’s room in the building and in previous years I have often been surprised as I am changing by someone who has got the wrong door.  This year Laura has put a notice on the door, featuring the statue of Dickens and Little Nell in Philadelphia: I feel very protected!

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Soon the audience is seated and it is time to go to the back of the hall and prepare for the show.  Laura makes her cheerful introductions from the stage, encouraging everyone in the audience to take a selfie, and then as they have their phones in the hands switch them off!  I walk to the stage, mount the steps and gaze out at the large and colourful crowd.

The Sanctuary at the United Methodist Church ha always been a wonderful auditorium for me: it is not the largest, the space on the stage is limited, the lighting is difficult, I am separated from the audience by a wooden rail, but there is just a feeling of comfort and intimacy here.  I have often tried new ideas at Burlington, many of which have become permanent features of the show, for example the idea of having the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leading Scrooge to his grave backwards (so as to place him in the correct part of the stage to dwindle down into the bedpost), was born here.

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Today, in a  similar vein of experiment, I play about with a couple of moments in the show, including having the charity collector reciting his sales pitch as if he is delivering a script that he is learned by rote.  The inspiration for this comes from Russell, the boy scout in the movie Up!  The change works well, and means that the man is completely thrown off his stride when Scrooge asks if there are no prisons or workhouses.

The afternoon show is great fun, and many of the audience are regulars.  I use the space available to me, and the steps become part of the action, leading from the street up to Scrooge’s door.  At one point, as I am clambering up them, I think to myself that I would like to draw my image of the set as it would be if I were in a theatre with no touring constraints.

It is hot work, but enjoyable work and the audience are very responsive and enthusiastic, as they always are here.  I take the ovation from both the floor and balcony and then go back downstairs to change as Little Nell protects me from intruders.

The signing session is in a small chapel on the lower floor, and the audience are served with cookies and coffee meaning they mingle and talk for a long time.  I am supplied with a beautiful china tea service, as well as a plate of Rich Tea and Jammy Dodger biscuits (peculiarly English and where they find them I do not know, but my signing table becomes a tiny British territory!)

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Eventually the audience drift away and I change back into my normal clothes, before joining Laura, Joe, Kim, Marcia and the rest of the team for dinner at Francesco’s restaurant just around the corner – this is another long held tradition in Burlington, and a particularly welcome one.

Usually we have Francesco’s to ourselves but today it is much busier as the town’s Christmas Parade is due to make its way down Main street a little later.  A couple of tables are made up of some audience members from the first show and Laura notices them surreptitiously trying to take pictures of me!

I order a large plate of spaghetti bolognaise, which is delicious and reviving, and we chat happily like the old friends we are.  I am sitting opposite Kim, the pastor, and he regales us  with various long jokes – including one featuring a bagpipe player and a cesspit….its probably better that you don’t know….

By the time we leave the restaurant the crowds are building for the parade, with children wrapped up against the cold.  The street looks beautiful with lights wound around the trees and once again there is a real sense of community, which is something that Burlington does so well.

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Back in the church I have a rest in my dressing room (indeed I actually fall asleep and am glad I thought to set an alarm on my phone).  The evening performance is fast approaching and I get changed before gulping down a bottle of water to wake and hydrate me before the rigours of the show.

The evening audience is slightly smaller, which is usual here, as a slightly older demographic prefer to come to a daytime show, rather than having to get home in the dark, but once more they are an enthusiastic bunch.

The show goes very well and again the people of Burlington stand to applaud.

I change and return to my tea table where I chat and pose for quite a while, as the cookies and coffee are enjoyed.  At the very last Laura gathers all of her volunteers together and we pose for a group photograph, before I go and change and get ready to leave.

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The 50 minute drive is easy and soon I am pulling up into Bob and Pam’s drive where I find them watching TV.  We share a glass of wine and I tell them about my day, as Pam cuddles one of her pet rats (Pam collects quite the menagerie, the rats being the latest addition), but soon I am ready for bed and say my goodnights.

Tomorrow I will be leaving this beautiful home and driving on to the next part of my 2017 tour, but I am so grateful to the Byers for their genuine and generous hospitality.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lenape

Today sees me driving from Connecticut to Pennsylvania, flirting with New York City on the way through.  It is a drive that I have done before and I know that I could get caught in heavy traffic, so I need to leave myself plenty of time.

I take the lift and discover that the ‘Concierge Lobby’, to which my exalted status as a 5th floor resident permits me to attend, is situated in the restaurant on the 1st floor -which doesn’t seem to be a huge benefit.  The buffet is a good one, with plenty of delicious fresh fruit and I load up a plate with melon, blueberries and blackberries, as well as a few pastries.

As soon as I have finished and have exchanged a very cheery ‘goodbye’ and ‘have a nice day’ with the server, I return to my room and pack everything up once more.  These single night stops are beginning to become wearisome, and I look forward to the luxury of keeping the same bed for two.

I am on the road by 8 and it is another glorious day to be driving.  I have built in an extra two hours to allow for delays, and straight away I join the slow, seemingly never-ending  crawl on the Merritt Parkway.

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My James Bond listening has seen me move onto Live and Let Die, which is one of the ‘American’ novels, in which Felix Leiter shows James around New York and as I am travelling close to the city it seems a good one to listen to.  I am amused at Felix’s advice to Bond as to how she should assimilate himself under cover as an American:

He was reminded to ask for the ‘check’ rather than the ‘bill’, to say ‘cab’ instead of ‘taxi’ and (this from Leiter) to avoid words of more than two syllables (‘You can get through any American conversation,’ advised Leiter ‘with ‘yeah’, ‘nope’ and ‘sure’).  The English word to be avoided at all costs, added Leiter, was ‘Ectually’.  Bond said that this word was not part of his vocabulary.

My SatNav comes into her own today, for instead of guiding me the main route down the i95 and across the George Washington Bridge (the scene of so many delays in the past), she takes me instead on the 78, which heads further North, giving NYC a wide berth.  In theory it is a longer route, in practice it is a much better one.

Soon the countryside is becoming softer, with gentle hills and the first Amish buggy at the roadside suggests that I am nearing Pennsylvania.  I arrive in the gorgeous historic town of Doylestown with plenty of time to spare, and drive straight to the house of Bob and Pam Byers where I am to stay for the next two nights.  Bob and Pam book and manage my tour, and are very close friends.  It will be wonderful to be here and to be able to spend time with them, which is a rare luxury on tour.

Unfortunately there is no one at home when I knock at the door, so I drive into the centre of town to grab some lunch before my first appearance of the day, which is to be at a local Middle School.  I find a little café and order a huge salad with chicken and avocado which is absolutely delicious.  I give my name as Gerald, but the order comes out for Jeremy.  As nobody else leaps to grab the plate I take it as mine and tuck in.

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When I have finished lunch I drive to the Lenape Middle School where I am due to talk to the 7th grade who are currently studying A Christmas Carol.  Bob and Pam’s sons attended Lenape (as did Pam herself), so this is a wonderful opportunity to be part of their community and history.

I am greeted at reception by Christy (one of the teachers here who has been watching my shows at Byers’ Choice for many years), Geanine the Principal and Frank the Assistant Principal.  Frank is particularly excited about my visit, and as we have plenty of time he asks if I wouldn’t mind looking in on the various 7th grade English classes.

We walk through the various corridors and Frank knocks on doors an introduces me.  Some classes are busy reading and discussing the book, one class is watching the Patrick Stewart movie version and I am horrified to see that one class are diligently studying my blog – the page in which I described my rather hungover morning in Nashua!

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Having chatted in the various classrooms for a while, we leave the students to their studies and make our way to the huge gymnasium where I will be talking to the entire year group.  Soon the students start to arrive, and the gym is filled with noise – this is becoming quite intimidating.  I am not in costume today, just in my regular clothes, which also feels odd, and I feel very exposed when I take to the floor and start to talk.

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The students of Lenape are amazing, and a credit to their school.  They listen and respond, and when I ask if there are any questions a forest of hands go up: good questions, too.  Intelligent and well prepared questions.

My session is actually quite short as the bell to herald the end of the school day is due to ring at 2.30.  Frank steps in and thanks me – as do the students with loud applause and stamping of feet which is amplified in the expanse of the gymnasium.

I am taken back to reception, where I am presented with a Lenape Middle School sports top – very fetching in black and which will be superb for golf next year.

I drive back to the Byers’ house where I am welcomed in by Pam with open arms.  Soon after Bob comes home to and we all sit around the table and discuss our years (Pam in particular has enjoyed many adventures and travelled extensively).

Oh, priorities of course: Pam takes a mountain of laundry from me and sets it running as we chat.

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Time passes easily, and soon I have to make preparations for my evening performance of A Christmas Carol back at Lenape.  I hang two of my freshly laundered shirts with my costumes, and get ready to leave.  Bob and Pam will be coming to the show later, but for now I drive back to school alone.

Christy is waiting in the lobby for me, and we go to the theatre where Annie, an incredibly helpful student at the school, shows me the facilities and where to change (actually in the wings of the stage).  Annie is part of a choir who will be entertaining the audience tonight, and having checked that I have everything that I need, she runs off to join the rest at their final warm-up and rehearsal.

I do a sound check with the George, my Tech guy for the evening, and then get changed so that I can go to the main lobby where Annie and the rest are singing beautifully to an appreciative crowd.

As the audience starts to take their seats it is very heartening to see so many of the 7th grade students in attendance, and I hope that my show will add to their understanding of the little book.

At 7 o’clock Christy welcomes the goodly sized audience and then introduces me.  From the start the sound is a bit odd – a little cowl on the top of the microphone broke off just as before the start, and there is a rather annoying distortion to my voice, which I try unsuccessfully to control.

However the audience are very intent and concentrate hard on the show.  I make sure that I make the most of the language, as so many in the crowd are students, and I want them to really get the full Charles Dickens experience.  I cut out some of the audience participation sections, but don’t lose a syllable of the text.  Hopefully the various teachers can discuss my version with their classes, and I may be able to answer questions via social media about how I edited the entire book down to my stage version.

The end of the show is greeted with enthusiastic applause and brings an end a wonderful day at Lenape Middle School.

After a little signing, and a few photographs, I get changed and say my goodbyes to Christy and Kaitlyn, another of the English teachers.  Bob, Pam and I go to my car (they have walked the two miles from their house to the show), before I realise that I have left my cane on the stage – I run back in just as Christy and Kaitlyn are locking up.  With the help of the flashlights on our phones I retrieve the cane and finally leave the school.

Bob guides me to a local restaurant where we enjoy a lovely and convivial dinner, before returning to the house where I say good night and go to my room – a room that I will enjoy for two nights!

 

 

 

 

 

If I Could Bottle It….

I wake up feeling ever so slightly fuzzy – perhaps the celebration and toasting to a successful day was rather more prolonged than it should have been.  This fact is borne out when I discover that I manage to leave my roller case, my scarf and my car ley in the hotel bar last night!   Fortunately I don’t have to be on the road too early, and I can make my morning preparations slowly and gently.

I have a good breakfast and make sure that I collect everything from the room, although as in Boston and Portland I have only inhabited it for one night, and haven’t unpacked very much.

It is another clear bright day and my insistence on having a four wheeled drive car is beginning to look slightly ridiculous although I have driven through heavy snow here in Nashua in previous years.  I set out onto the road, having let the rush hour traffic pass, and head off towards yet another state – Connecticut today.  My drive will take around three hours, but as I do not have to be at my venue until 5.30, I have plenty of time.

My route initially takes me back to Worcester, and as I pass the twin towers of the old railway depot (which are reminiscent of the original Wembley football stadium in London), it is difficult not to take exit 12 and head to the Vaillancourts again.  However I stick to my pre-planned route and obey mistress SatNav.

I have been warned that the Connecticut State Troopers are particularly enthusiastic so I make sure that my cruise control is set at the various speed limits along the way, which results in spending most of my journey staring at the huge radiator grilles of Mac and Peterbilt trucks in my rear-view mirror, as they thunder up onto my tail, before accelerating past in a cloud and cacophony of diesel.

Let me tell you about my SatNav lady – she is English, not like her American GPS cousins, and as I have mentioned before she possesses a very correct and clipped accent, but occasionally I have noticed that she tries to go a little bit native.  For example when pronouncing the word ‘avenue’ she drops the final syllable, so that Av-En-Knew becomes Av-En-U.  She also gets slightly confused over abbreviations, so if an instruction on the screen reads ‘take i95 SO’, that is what she says: rather than telling me to go south, she tells me to ‘Go So’, which is very lyrical and musical, but not very helpful.  She saves her best as we head towards New York however, and rather then saying ‘head towards N.Y. City’, or even ‘New York City’, she makes the abbreviation a word in its own right: ‘head towards Ny City’, to rhyme with ‘my city’

Such frivolities help to pass the time, and soon I am passing the beautiful skyline (one of my favourites) of Hartford which means I am nearly at my destination.  I stop for lunch and then drive the last fifteen minutes or so to my hotel in Trumbull.  I check in and once more am given a room on the concierge level, which means using my room key in a special slot in the lift, which makes everyone else terribly envious and impressed.  I am not sure what benefits this gives me, other than an over-inflated sense of importance.

I have plenty of time to rest, and settle in to check emails and see what news is coming from home. One email in particular contains very exciting news, and it is from Kate McBrien in Portland.  I had asked her if it would be possible to do a little research work for me, to confirm a line in ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’.  At one point in the story Kate tells us that ‘part of our conversation was given next day to one of the Boston newspapers….’ and I have always been keen to track down this article.

The email informs me that Kate has found a short news snippet that was circulated around the country reporting that ‘A very pleasant and amusing incident occurred when Mr Dickens was returning to Boston from Portland.  A little girl, about 11 years old, whose parents reside in Hollis, was on board the train…….’  The article goes onto detail and confirm Kate’s version of events, which up to now has been the only evidence that the meeting ever took place.  This is a wonderful document to have and I immediately email Kate to thank her and her researchers for acting so speedily.

My other job is to book hotel accommodation for my performances when I get back to England, which involve travelling into London to attend the traditional George and Vulture family lunch for the first time in years.  For ‘family’ read ‘male family’, as this event is a spectacularly traditional and chauvinistic affair, held in the G&V pub which is mentioned in the Pickwick Papers, and is almost certainly the location of Scrooge’s counting house in A Christmas Carol.  This year my son Cameron is eligible to attend for the first time, and I am particularly keen to accompany him.

With my various work done I lay on the bed and have a short nap before getting ready for the evening show at The Black Rock Church in Fairfield.  I am returning to the Church for the second time, performing on behalf of Gary and Jennifer Bean who own a Christmas store nearby, and who have produced my shows at different venues for five or six years now.  They are a quiet couple, but boy do they get things done!  The events in CT are always extremely well attended and superbly staged.

The auditorium (I can’t call it a sanctuary) in The Black Rock Church is astounding, and boasts a technical capability that must be the envy of many a theatre.  I don’t know what the capacity is, it must be close to a thousand, but the seats are cossetingly wrapped around a circular stage, meaning that the auditorium does not feel cavernous or impersonal.

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The sound and lighting crew are stationed behind their banks of computers on ‘the bridge’, and are already playing my intro music, and cueing up various lighting effects for the show.  A smoke machine adds a sense of Victorian verisimilitude to the set too.

The sound check completed I then move on to chat to ‘Big Mike’ who is a radio presenter from Long Island and who has been keen to interview me for his show ever since he saw me in Occoquan, Virginia, last year.  We chat in the auditorium, as a string quartet tunes upon stage (‘like fifty stomach aches’), and he is passionate about A Christmas Carol – telling me all of the passages that he thinks are vital to the plot (none of which appear in my version!)  It is  great interview and Mike is a pleasure to talk to, we even do a short piece over the Facebook Live feed to the radio station, simply using his smart phone to film our conversation.

 

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With Big Mike

 

The audience are starting to gather now, and the quartet are well into their stride, filling the hall with the most beautiful sounds.  I briefly played violin at school but never made music like this!

I return to my little changing room and get into costume ready for the show and as seven O’clock approaches I go to the back of the auditorium and stand in the tech booth which gives me a superb view of the stage and the audience.

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Gary and Jennifer are staging this year’s show as a benefit for a charity called Operation Hope, which dedicates itself to caring for and helping to house vulnerable members of the community who have been overlooked by the official channels: a charity of which Charles Dickens would approve and wholeheartedly support.

After a short address and video about the charity’s work, Jennifer introduces me and I walk through the auditorium and onto the stage.

If I could bottle a venue and take it on tour with me, this would be close to the top of the list. There is an intimacy about the hall, despite its size, and the lighting is amazing.  The audience feel fully engaged, and the smoke machine certainly adds a great sense of drama and foreboding to the passages in which it is used (essentially the arrival of Jacob Marley, and also that of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come).

I feel unconstrained and full of energy throughout the performance and really enjoy myself, as does the audience who hang on every word and cheer and clap wildly at the conclusion.  Yes, this is a great venue in which to perform: Gary and Jennifer have once again produced a remarkable show.

The signing line is quite a long one, and I receive many congratulations and sincere handshakes as I sign and pose for pictures, which is always a sign that things have gone well.

Another sponsor of the event has been a restaurant chain called The Colony Grill, and Gary and Jennfier are keen to take me there to eat this evening, which sounds very appealing.  As Gary dismantles the stage set and loads it into his truck, I get changed and load all of my belongings into my Hyundai which is positively dwarfed by his Dodge Ram.

The restaurant is great and has a simple menu of Pizza.  That’s it – a thin crust pizza, and chose your toppings, nothing fancy, nothing else, just that.  We chat about this and that as we inelegantly guide the delicious slices into our mouths, and the opportunity to wind down from such a good show is very welcome.

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On the way back to the Church, where I will pick up my car, Gary asks if I wouldn’t mind signing a few more books that he can give to a group from another charity who attended the show and who will otherwise have nothing at Christmas. And so in the parking lot at Black Rock, under the tailgate of my Hyundai, with rain starting to fall, and with Jennifer trying to protect me with an Umbrella, I sign 32 copes of A Christmas Carol which hopefully will make their new owners very happy at a time of year went ‘want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices’

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When the last of the books have been boxed up I say goodbye and thank you to the Beans, and drive back to my hotel, where sleep comes quickly.

Dickens on Ice

It is one of those mornings when I have no idea where I am when I wake.  I peer both ways until I find a clock that informs me that it is already 6.45 which is remarkably late for me.

I get the blog written and shower, then take the lift down to the lobby for breakfast.  The Parker House is an elegant, expensive and exclusive hotel but the buffet still consists of fruit, cereal, eggs, bacon and sausages.

I take a seat at a table, laid with crisp linen and no sooner have I sat than a server approaches with coffee and orange juice.  The food is deliciously cooked, and every time I return to the buffet my napkin is folded for me and laid over the chair – you don’t get that in a Hampton Inn!

I return to my room, but don’t rush as I want to allow the rush hour traffic to clear before I get on the road.  I don’t have much packing to do, so I just pass the time writing emails and watching TV.

At 10 o’clock I close my cases and start to leave the room, until I remember that I had left my costume hanging in the walk in wardrobe, phew! that was a close thing.

I had entrusted my car to the valet parking service last night and so I have a bit of a wait until it is retrieved from heaven knows where.  The charge is $50 per night – I’m glad that I’m not paying

It is another clear, crisp cold morning, and I put my sunglasses on as I navigate away from the busy city centre.  Bond is up to his old tricks (this time taking on Dr No, in the company of Quarrel and Honychile Rider), and keeps me company as I head for Nashua in New Hampshire.  In less than an hour I cross the state line and am soon making my way to the Nashua Senior Center, where I am to perform.

Although my main show in Nashua is the evening performance of A Christmas Carol, the organisers have asked me to appear with one of my shorter shows at the Senior Center for the last five years, and it has become quite a tradition.  I am warmly welcomed by staff and shown to my dressing room, which is in one of the administrative offices.  There is a plate of fruit, crackers and cheese laid out for me.  I never eat cheese before a show, or any dairy item, as they constrict my throat and make it hard to project, but the rest I devour gratefully.

The audience starts to build early, and there must be around 150 in the hall as showtime approaches.  I chat to Jill Gage (the sponsor of me events here), and Judy from the center, who will be introducing me.  For some reason over the years she has taken to calling me Gerry, which always sounds odd from a non-family member (equally being called Gerald from within the family circle sounds strange too).

When everyone is gathered Judy makes a short announcement (introducing me as Gerald), and I walk to the front of the room, to perform A Child’s Journey With Dickens once again.  It is strange how this little story has kept me company during this leg of the trip and as I recite it I am thinking of the streets and buildings back in Portland.

It is very well received, and my revelation that my book arrived signed by Kate gets the usual gasp of delight.  Jill has set up a table for me to sign at, but not many people buy products, although a lot want to chat and have pictures taken.  They are always an appreciative audience here.

When I return to the office I have some of the cheese and crackers, and then change back into my normal clothes.  Unfortunately Jill is nowhere to be seen, so I am unable to say goodbye and thank her for the hospitality she has shown me.

From the Senior Center I set my SatNav to guide me to the home of a dear friend in Nashua, Sandy Belknap, who used to work on my events in the city, and generally looked after me.  We haven’t caught up for a couple of years, so it was with much delight that I accepted her invitation to meet for coffee.  Sandy knows my routine well, and offers to do a load of washing as we chat, which is a godsend as none of the hotels since I left Omaha have had guest laundries, and I am getting rather short of regular clothes.

Sandy is a keen gardener and proudly shows me around her ‘yard’ (that never sounds right!  In England a yard is a neglected untended area, usually laid with concrete. What Sandy has created is certainly NOT a yard!).

We go back into the house and have coffee and cookies, and chat about all sorts of things, until the washing is ready to be dried. Sandy’s mother comes home too, and it is nice to catch up with her also. The afternoon is a very relaxing one and a nice antidote to hotel living.

However time is getting on, and I do need to check in at the Crowne Plaza, so I thank Sandy for her hospitality, grab my bag of washing, and drive the short distance to the hotel.

In the past my performances have been in the main ballroom at the hotel but this year I am to do the show in a nearby community college, so there is not the usual bustle of preparation when I arrive.  I am given a room on the ‘executive level’ which means I have to use my room key in a special slot in the lift, and am welcomed back with genuine warmth by the reception staff.

I have about an hour before I need to leave for the sound check so, inspired by Sandy’s gardening exploits, I go online and read Liz’s gardening blogs – they are so beautifully written and as I read her words it is as if I am listening to her voice.  It is a lovely moment, but one that makes me feel a little homesick too.

The drive to the Nashua Community College is only a short one, but the campus is huge, so it takes me quite a while to find the auditorium, and even longer to find a parking space for the college has a full programme of evening classes which are apparently very well attended.

Jill and her colleagues are waiting for me, and in no time I am being shown onto the stage by the resident techie, Doug.  It is a lovely auditorium, with three rows of seats at floor level and thereafter stadium seating creating a capacity of 350.  My set of a fireplace, chair and hat stand looks a little lost on the large stage, but Doug has focussed the lights well, so as to concentrate the audience’s view.  Behind the set there is a London street scene projected, which is rather fun.

The sound check goes well, and now it is a question of waiting for show time.  I change in a small room just off the stage and can hear the enthusiasm and excitement of the audience as they arrive, which is one of the best sounds an actor can hear.

We delay the start of the show slightly, as many people have also struggled to find parking spaces, but at around 7.10 I am in the wings ready to start.  I thoroughly enjoy myself in the large space available to me, although I do have to be rather careful of a rug which is a bit slippery – any quick changes of direction have to be made on the wood of the floor, otherwise I would go skating across the stage: Dickens on Ice.

The audience are a loyal group and have dutifully followed the show from the Crowne Plaza to here, meaning that they all know when to shout out, and when not to.

Everything runs very smoothly and effectively, the sound is great and there no pops or bangs from the little microphone. At the end the audience stands up and claps loudly and I take my bows to the strains of Percy Faith’s rousing rendition of Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly.

Having changed I go to the lobby and sign for a while, and greet many audience members who have become close friends over the course of my 9 years coming to Nashua.  The signing line isn’t as long as it sometimes has been at the hotel (Jill usually does a huge display of merchandise there, whereas here she has not had time to prepare anything so grand), so my duties are done quite early.

I change and collect all of my belongings and thank Doug for all of his help and expertise – he is brimming with excitement about the show and tells me all the things he wanted to do with lighting, sound and back projection: maybe if we return to the auditorium we can think about those ideas in more depth!

I drive back to the hotel and go to the bar, where Jill and her colleague Cindy are waiting for me for our traditional post-show celebration.  I order a dessert and we toast to our successes.

The bar is noisy and friendly and soon Jill is telling everyone about the ‘celebrity’ in their midst, which is all rather embarrassing really: actors love the attention, but are inherently a shy race of creatures.

I get back to my room and switch out the lights.  Tomorrow I move on again – another city in another state.

 

 

Back to the Parker House

I wake at a decent time and can reflect on a good evening and a job well done.  The Maine Historical Society are particularly active on social media and there are a good many comments swirling around Twitter and Instagram.

In the restaurant I am greeted by a young man checking guests in, so give him my room number: 403.  I must have mumbled because he asks for confirmation.  ‘403’, I repeat.  He looks a bit confused, but picks up a menu and leads me to a big table.  This seems a bit strange, considering there is a small one right next to it, so I ask which one he actually wants me to sit at.  ‘The large one’, his expression seems to suggest that as far as he is concerned I have lost my marbles.  And then I realise: we have both been stuck in our own conversation, hearing and saying what we each believe is expected.  I was giving my room number, he was asking how many guests (‘4 or 3, doesn’t he know?),

Confusion cleared up I sit at the small table and enjoy a delicious plate of eggs (sunny side up), bacon and potatoes.

I have quite a relaxing day today, as I don’t have to be in Boston for my next event until 6pm.  I do have some work to do this morning, though, as two journalists have sent me lists of questions relating to events later in the tour.  I sit at my desk and try to compose answers that are informative and entertaining, which all takes quite a bit of time.

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The next job is to decide what I am going to read at this evening’s event in Boston.  I am to be guest of honour at a swanky dinner in the Parker House Hotel (which was Charles’ home in Boston during his reading tour of 67-68), and they would like me to read an extract from the story lasting around 15 minutes.  The event is being held to raise money for a hunger charity based in the city, so somehow I want to reflect that issue in what I perform.  In a somewhat selfish way I chose one of my favourite passages from the book, that doesn’t appear in the show, and that is when the Ghost of Christmas Present first takes Ebenezer into the London streets on Christmas morning, and together they observe the bustle:

‘The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed’

I decide to read from where the spirit first booms ‘Touch my robe!’ to Scrooge, all the way to the moment that they stand at Bob Cratchit’s house.  I read it through aloud a couple of times, before saving the passage to be printed when I get to Boston.

By the time I have finished all my work it is time to leave pack my scarcely disturbed bags and leave Portland, headed to The Parker House in Boston (exactly as Dickens himself had done on the morning of March 31st 1868.

I am still in no rush so I eschew the main Interstate, and amble down route 1 which is a much nicer drive (although the lady deep within my SatNav unit gets very frustrated with me).  The road is beautiful and the small communities along the way could have come from a previous age – motels the like of which you never see now, with their single storied cabins, are numerous, and they have wonderful non-corporate names: ‘Woodside motel’, ‘Shore view cabins’ and the like.  Perfect New England Churches stand proudly over every town, their slender white needle-like spires piercing the blue sky.

I drive through the busy but charming town of Saco and on (confusingly) to Arundel via Biddeford.  Soon I see a sign to Kennebunk and as I am still in very good time deviate again from my route.

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The coastal town is beautiful, almost too much so, and it sort of reminds me of Amity in Jaws- it doesn’t seem quite real.  Elegant and no doubt very expensive houses teeter on the cliffs overlooking the vast dark expanse of the Atlantic ocean.

I stop to fill up the car with fuel and to buy a sandwich for lunch before heading on towards Boston.  The sun is low in the sky as I arrive in the city, and I appear to be driving west which makes navigating through the busy streets of the city very difficult.  However with a combination of my own memories and the assistance of the SatNav (I’m sure that I can still detect a tone of  grumpiness in her voice), I guide the car to School Street and the Parker House Hotel.

It is lovely to walk back into the lobby and I instantly feel at home, even though I have stayed here for maybe 20 years or so.  The Parker House is one of the great Historic Hotels of America, and celebrates its connection with Charles Dickens vigourously.

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Having checked in to my suite (they are spoiling me), I call the front desk and ask if they have a business centre where I can print out my reading.  ‘Sure, Mr Dickens, lower lobby, next to the gift store.’  I take the memory stick and return to the busy lobby, only to find that to use the computers you need to swipe a credit card – the charge cannot be billed to your room.  I get back in the elevator and suddenly realise that I have no idea what room I am in (the curse of the frequent traveller).  I think it may be 406?  I go to the 4th floor….no. Key doesn’t work.  403?  No.  Maybe third floor?  Take lift down one.  303?  No.  Try to remember where I walked when I checked in.  306?  YES! phew.  I imagine that the front desk is fielding calls from worried guests ‘someone just tried to get into our room!’

I collect my wallet (and the little card sleeve with my room number written onto it) and return to the business centre, where I put in my card details and gain access to the system.  I open the document and click print, but the printer is not working!  I go to the front desk and ask if they can help me, and they direct me to the concierge, who says ‘of course we can print, but not from a memory stick, you will have to email it to us’.  Once more I return to my room and send the file, before returning to the lobby to collect it.  Never has the printing of 5 pages taken so much time and energy!

I am due to meet the various staff in the rooftop ballroom at 6, so I shower and get into costume ready for the evening and take the lift to the 14th floor, where I am greeted by Lori, in the marketing department, and John Murtha the general manager of the hotel, who greets me warmly as if welcoming me home.  Also present is Susan Wilson who is the official historian at the hotel, and who has written a fabulous book which of course features Dickens’s visits.

The guests are arriving and soon I am posing for photographs, and signing copies of the book, before dinner is served.  Susan and I are at the same table and she is able to tell me many fascinating anecdotes about the hotel.  The current building was actually only built in the 20s, on the site of the original structure that Dickens knew.  During the demolition they managed to keep a tiny annexe with just a few rooms open, so that it can be truthfully claimed that this is the longest continually running hotel in America!

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Dinner has been created by the Executive chef and is inspired by the kind of fare that Charles Dickens would have known during the winter of 1867.  WE start with a delicious soup or celeriac and bacon, with apple lending a delicious sweet crunch, followed by a small plate of goose breast before the main course of beef in a rich mushroom gravy.

My other dinner companions are George Montillo and his wife.  George is a baker, who supplies the hotel with pastries.  A baker is rather an inadequate description, actually, as George’s company has supplied cakes to almost every celebrity and politician in Boston – including the Kennedy’s wedding cake, George Bush’s inauguration cake, and a huge creation that was presented to the Queen when she visited in 1977.

They are good company and have just returned from a visit to Ireland.  ‘Where did you go?’  ‘Oh, a little south of Dublin.;  ‘Did you happen to visit Kilkenny?’  George’s wife’s eyes light up ‘Yes! my favourite place!’  ‘My sister Nicky happens to own a bar in the middle of the city: Kyteler’s Inn, maybe you saw it?’  Eyes light up even more: ‘We went there, twice.  We loved it!’ and in no time her mobile phone is out showing me pictures of Kyteler’s, where I have spent so many happy hours.  Nicky – you are truly international!

Soon it is time for the performance aspect of the evening to start.   Susan is first up and gives a short speech about Dickens’ time in Boston.  The evening of the dinner is the 150th anniversary of the very first reading by Dickens of A Christmas Carol in America (maybe a little tenuous, this one, as it is documented that Charles read it to his close friends in the hotel, before his first public reading on the 2nd December).  When Susan has finished I walk to the podium and read my passage, which is very well received, and even gets a standing ovation, which I wasn’t quite prepared for.

Dinner is over (although my duo of Christmas pudding inspired deserts is waiting for me), and lots of guests come up to have their books or menus signed, and to have photographs taken.  I say good night to my new friends, and soon am going back to my room (306!).  I take a slight detour to the Mezzanine level where the mirror that originally hung in Dickens’ suite is located.  It is imagined that he would have stood in front of this mirror rehearsing before making his way to the theatre next door.

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These past two days have well and truly seen me walk in Dickens’ tracks, and they have been very emotional and moving.

The sounds of Boston outside my window lull me to sleep.

 

 

 

The Duelling Dickenses

Sadly it is time to leave my grand and spacious room at The Beechwood Hotel, which has been a very comfortable home for the last couple of days.  After a good breakfast of bacon and eggs I pack up everything and haul my cases down to the front desk and, after a brief hiatus to check out, from there to the car.

The weather has changes and there is a definite chill to the air this morning.  In fact I can see tiny flurries of snow against the grey clouds – OK, maybe one flake, possibly two, not enough to justify my four wheel drive SUV, but there is a feel of winter now.

I set the SatNav for Portland and start to drive.  My route takes me past the signs to many familiar places, and it strikes me that on this journey Charles Dickens’ trips and mine merge: I pass Marlboro (me), Lowell (both of us), Boston, (both), Salem (me), Portsmouth (me) and on towards Portland, which at the moment is Charles’ preserve but will soon be added to my list too.

I listen to the end of Goldfinger and then start to play my Christmas playlist and remember Liz’s complete hatred of Johnny Mathis’s rendering of Winter Wonderland with its soaring modulations and quivering, lingering vocals.  It is almost as if she is sat next to me in the car and I smile at the memory.

When I was writing my James Bond spoof the other day there was one thing that I did not include, and that was the name of a Bond girl, in the Pussy Galore, Kissy Suzuki, Mary Goodnight mould: I couldn’t think of a name that would be suitable for my tender readership, but that would capture Fleming’s sense of the sexually ridiculous.  Well, as I drive this morning I receive inspiration from a truck belonging to a noodle bar that is based in Veranda Street, Portland: it is the company’s website address that gives me the name.  Back to my new book:

The beautiful slender figure of a girl walked towards him, flicking a strand of blonde hair from her face.  This must be the agent that M had sent to help him in the field.  She looked up at him and introduced  herself in husky tones ‘Good morning, my name is Veranda Noodlebar!’

The journey is a little over two hours and soon I am leaving Massachusetts and driving into the state of Maine, where I enter the county of York, as mentioned by Kate Douglas Wiggin as her county in A Child’s Journey with Dickens.  A railroad track runs parallel to the road for a while and I wonder if those were the rails that guided Dickens and Kate to Boston in 1868.

I am soon driving through the outskirts of Portland and follow the directions to The Press Hotel, where an early check-in should have been organised for me.  The Press is so called because it is situated in the building formally used as the offices of the largest newspaper in the area, The Press and Herald, and the owners have gone to great length to theme the hotel in tribute to the newsmen who worked here.

At the main reception desk a wall is covered with a large artwork consisting of old manual typewriters, and another wall has a similar installation constructed out of typewriter cases.  Even the modern computers that the staff use feature retro-styled typewriter keyboards propped up on old books.  It is wonderful, and the staff are so friendly and cheerful.

I go to my room, marvelling at the corridor carpets with tiny typewritten letters woven in, and drop my bags off before walking into the streets of Portland.  I am very anxious to find the various places mentioned in A Child’s Journey, and to follow in the footsteps of Dickens.  I do not have a long walk, for right opposite the hotel is the City Hall, the site of Dickens’ reading on March 30th 1868 (this is actually a slightly newer City Hall, but it is on the same spot).

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From the hall I walk up Congress Street, past the beautiful First Parish Church, where I will perform later this evening, and Longfellow’s childhood home.  Dickens and Longfellow were good friends and corresponded for years over many issues.  I get to the junction of Congress and Preble Street and try to guess which corner of the intersection was the site of the Preble Hotel, where Dickens stayed.

Kate says, in her memoir, that she ‘gazed at all of the windows and all of the entrances of both buildings, without beholding any trace of my hero.’ and as I stand in the cold I can almost see her little figure running up and down Congress Street, as the ‘..throng of excited, happy, lucky people crowded into the City Hall’

It is difficult to explain but I feel closer to Dickens here than ever before and it is a very moving emotion.  I continue my walk and find that Portland is a thriving, bustling, artistic city with a vibrant culinary scene.

I return to The Press where I relax for a while but it is not long before the telephone is ringing and the front desk informs me that Kate McBrien is here to meet me.  Kate is the chief curator of the Maine Historical Society, who have brought me into town, and although I have only one evening show today, my afternoon is busy doing various media events to promote the visit.

My first interview is in the hotel itself and having briefly shaken hands with Kate, I am sat in front of a camera answering questions put to me by the reporter.  The interview is a brief one, and soon I am sat in Kate’s car as we drive to the local Public Radio station.

As we drive I quiz Kate for further details of Dickens’ visit (after all if the curator of a Historical Society doesn’t know then who does?).  She shows me the site of the Preble House (roughly where I guessed it would be), and informs me that Charles had been very critical of the hotel, which may come up in some of the interviews….

The Radio interview goes well, but is over in a flash, and we have time for some lunch before heading to a TV station to record a slightly longer slot.  As we wait in the greenroom Kate tells me a great story concerning my visit: for the past couple of years the Historic society has staged a performance of a short play based around the meeting of Longfellow and Dickens.  The show features two actors who do a very good job.  Well, because of my performance this show isn’t happening this year, and before the Historic Society knew it, a rival venue, a grand Victorian mansion, have ‘stolen’ Dickens and set up their own Christmas event.  Kate refers to it as ‘the Duelling Dickenses’ and is confident that we will emerge victorious!

When the final interview of the day has been completed, Kate drops me off at the hotel, where I have a couple of hours to rest before my sound check at the First Parish Church.

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The Church is stunning and the acoustics sound amazing.  I do a sound check and Kate walks to all corners of the hall to see if she can hear me with no amplification.  The final decision is made for me when we discover that the only microphone available is one of those head things, that always fall off when I use them.  It will be a good old fashioned unplugged performance tonight.

The audience are already arriving to get the best seats in the large hall, so I retreat to my ‘changing room’ (actually  a Grade 4/5 classroom), to prepare.

After twenty minutes or so Kate pops her head round the door and says that Jeff and Elaine O’Donal have arrived and would like to say hello.  Jeff and Elaine have been following my shows for more years than any of us would care to remember, and it is thanks to them that I am in Portland this year.  We chat for a while and they tell me that they would like to take me to dinner after the show, to feature the local speciality – lobster.

The audience is really building now, so I go back to my room to change into costume and watch as the minutes tick by towards 7.

The hall is very full when I return, certainly over 300 I would guess, both on the floor and in the gallery too.  Just as I am waiting to start a TV crew arrives to record some of the show, and the cameraman lays a mic on the stage to capture my words.

Steve Bromage, the society’s Executive Director, makes my introduction and then I begin the long walk down the central aisle of the church, until I reach the stage.

It is always interesting to perform to a group who have never seen the show before, and initially they are quiet, yet respectful (the event had been marketed as a reading, which creates a certain perception for the audience), but as the show goes on so the crowd begins to relax and join in a little more; they ooh and ahhh over Mrs Cratchit’s goose and chime in with ‘NO BOB!’ loudly.

The reaction at the end of the show is superb and the audience are on their feet and shouting out with enormous enthusiasm, in the same way that I am sure their ancestors hailed Charles just down the street.

The Historic Society has no merchandise to sell, but I have told Kate that after changing I will come back to the lobby and chat for a while.  Well, when I return to the Sanctuary most of the audience are still seated in the pews, and I receive another loud ovation, before conducing a Q&A session from the stage, which is  fun.

Time is pushing on however, and the restaurant where Elaine and Jeff want to take me stops serving at 9, so I wrap things up and to even more applause leave the stage for the final time.

I pack up all of my costumes, and return to the hall where I say goodbye to Kate, who has looked after me so well today, and hopefully we can work together in the future (in the meantime, I have left her with some more research to do on my behalf!).

Ellaine has hurried over to the restaurant to try and order our lobster before the kitchen closes, and Jeff walks with me through the chill of a Portland night.  Unfortunately all that Elaine could get the kitchen to prepare were lobster rolls and fries, but they are delicious, and we munch our way through them as we chat about the various venues where they have seen me in the past, and how they arranged for me to come to Portland after many years of trying.

Plates cleared and glasses drained it is time to leave (the waiting staff in the restaurant have been conspicuously stacking chairs on tables), and we say final goodbyes before I return to the Press and they drive home.

It has been a great day, in so many ways and I am fairly confident that our opening salvo will have won the Duel of the Dickenses before it has even started.

 

 

 

 

A Prelude to Portland

Once again my first show at the Vaillancourts is not until 2, so once again I have the morning to myself.  I go to the restaurant and this morning decide to ‘upgrade’ and have two eggs, sunny side up and a couple of rashers of bacon thrown in (protein, as advised by my marathon-running friend Chris!).

When I am finished I return to my room, pull a large armchair and footstool in front of the TV and settle down to watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final Formula One race of the 2017 season.  It is dull. Nothing very much happens during the entire race and the finishing order is exactly the same as the starting order.  The only exciting battle that the cameras can find is that over 12th and 13th place, and even that petered out in the end.  Not a great advert for the sport.

When the race is over, and the NBCsN team have somehow managed to fill an hour discussing it, I start to get ready for my day’s work.  I pack fresh shirts, and also my ‘A Child’s Journey’ waistcoat, before driving off towards Sutton.  There is a huge Wal-Mart on the way and I dive into there to buy a few supplies, as well as a tube of extra strong glue to repair my cufflink (although the Dickens Fellowship in London have been mobilised to send me a new pair as soon as possible.)

No sooner do I arrive at the Vaillancourt’s store, than Gary says ‘Have you ever cut your own Christmas Tree?  Here, I want to show you an American Christmas tree farm’, so before I know it I am sat in his truck and off we go.  The farm in question is very close to the old mill, and each year I drive past the gate and see cars pulling out with trussed up trees carefully tied to their roofs.  It as always been a rather lovely subliminal indication that Christmas is on the way.

Spread over a huge site of gently rolling hills, rocky outcrops and inky black ponds, the farm is swarming with families.  It is many people’s tradition to make an excursion to the farm, arm themselves with a saw and walk until they find the perfect tree.  There are different sizes and different species (trees, not families, that is), so there is something for everyone – including some tiny ‘Charlie Brown’ trees.  There is a barbecue, and a huge vat over a fire in which popcorn colonels of corn are heaped, which soon start to pop.  Hot chocolate is grasped in young mittened-hands, and many families are posing for their official Christmas pictures.  It is a happy, festive scene and a complete antidote to the teeming commercialism of Black Friday.

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We drive back to the mill and I go into the theatre to check that everything is where it should be.  While I am there Luke and Anna brig their two sons to visit: Nate I met last year, but there is a new edition to the Vaillancourt clan, and I get to meet Charles for the first time.  Whilst the older brother takes to the stage and runs around with an energy that I can only dream of, Charles sits and stares curiously.  They are great boys obviously the apples of their parents’ eyes (and of their grandparents’ too, of which there is a full complement of four present today).

 

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Nate, Luke and Charles

 

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With ‘uncle’ Gerald!

 

 

With show time approaching I say good bye and Nate gives me a huge hug, which is lovely, before I have to go and change into my costume.  I can hear the audience gathering and they certainly sound as if they have come out to enjoy themselves, for there is lots of noise and laughter.

The show routine is well grooved now, and Gary stands on the stage and talks about my souvenir programme before instructing the audience to check under their seats for the lucky tickets.  Three people are delighted, and the proud owners of prize ornaments.

As we had all suspected, the audience are in great spirits, and are a joy to perform for.  I get off to a slightly slow start today, but soon am drawing energy from the crowd and really get into my stride as the story progresses.  As I leave the stage everyone stands and cheers once more – they are always such enthusiastic audiences here in Sutton.

By the time I have changed, the signing line is winding all around the store, so I sit down to talk to everyone.  My old friend Robin is in line, and as is her tradition, she presents me with a large bag of goodies to take on the road with me, including a large variety tin of English biscuits, which is perfect as I have almost finished the delicious cookies made for me in Kansas City.

During the lull between shows I change into my regular clothes and re-arrange the stage for the night’s performance of A Child’s Journey With Dickens.  The little story of Kate Douglas Wiggin’s meeting with Dickens is still fresh in my mind from Omaha, but I take the opportunity to rehearse it once more anyway.

Supper is served in the office, and everyone gathers to eat and chat as if they were one large family, which in a way we are.

A few years ago Gary, Judi and Luke decided to use the Sunday night show (always a difficult one to sell) to stage one of my other programmes.  Over the years I have performed The Signalman and Doctor Marigold in this slot, and the audience is made up from my most loyal fans.  The first year saw an audience of only 18, but the event is gathering a following and a momentum so that this year sales have been much better.

The performance of ‘A Child’s Journey with Dickens’ has an added poignancy this evening for tomorrow I am driving to Portland, Maine to perform A Christmas Carol in the city.  The little story is based around a reading of the Carol that Dickens himself gave in Portland in March 1868, before he boarded a train to return to his hotel inBoston.  In 24 hours I will be walking in the same streets and hopefully will visit the railroad station, as well as the sites of the Old City Hall (where CD performed) and the Preble House (where he stayed).  On the following day I too will be returning to Boston, to stay in the Parker House Hotel.

The show is a short one and we have plenty of time afterwards to conduct a lovely Q&A session, which is always fun and gives an extra sense of intimacy to the evening.  I talk about Henry Fielding Dickens (not forgetting to display his photograph in the souvenir programme which has sold extreme well here), and also the gestation of my version of A Christmas Carol.

The signing session is not long, as most of the audience have been to other events this weekend, and have already purchased their books and programmes, but there is much handshaking and smiling.

I return to the dressing room and collect all of my belongings (as usual I have spread myself out throughout the room, so have to carefully check every surface), before joining Gary and Judi at their new house, which I am keen to see as it was not finished last year.

Judi designed the home based on one of the colonial cottages in Wilimasburg and it is truly beautiful.  Multiple Christmas trees throw and festive glow throughout the rooms, and it is added to by a roaring fire in the huge grate.

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Luke joins us and we sit down to drink wine and eat cheese, and reflect on another successful weekend.

The Vaillancourts are genuinely nice people and it is always a shame to leave them, but leave I must.  I say goodbye for another year and drive back to the hotel, admiring many beautifully decorated houses along the way: Christmas is definitely coming.

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A Little Bit of Home

Today the tour leaps into life again, but not until this afternoon, so I have morning to potter.

Breakfast in the Beechwood is an impressive Continental buffet, with plenty of choice of fruit, cereals and pastries, although I could opt for the ‘enhancement package’ which would allow me to order eggs and meats.  I decide to stay healthy this morning, however.

I am back I my room by 8 in order to watch the qualifying session from the final Grand Prix of the year which is being held in Abu Dhabi.  The cars look so impressive as night falls and the floodlights come on.  It looks as if the weekend could be a bit of a Mercedes rout though.

Once qualifying is over I set to doing a few running repairs on the costume – one pair of trousers has a sliding clip at the waist which doesn’t grip any more, meaning that when I am leaping around the waistband suddenly expands.  I have been meaning to sew it into place for months, but have only gotten round to it today.  The other repair is to replace two buttons (purely for show) to the cuff of one of my coats.

Sewing complete I assemble all that I will need for two shows and get ready to make the drive from Worcester to Sutton.  If I were travelling between the same towns in the UK the drive would take me over two hours, but in New England it is a matter of twenty minutes.  The sky is beautiful this morning – Wedgewood blue with the dappling of cirrocumulus, overlaid with feathery cirrus high in the atmosphere.  It is stunning.

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In no time I pull into the parking lot of Vaillancourt Folk art, my home for the next two days.  I make quite an entrance, as I accidentally press the door lock button on my key fob before I get out, thereby setting off the alarm – the horn of the car sounds long, regular hoots until I can re-press the button.  Dickens is here!

The store at the Vaillancourts is situated in a beautiful old mill building, and is a wonderland of Christmas.  Obviously prominent are the Santa figures which are at the heart of the operation – made of chalkware poured into vintage chocolate moulds and then hand painted.  It is a true family success story built on the foundations of Judi’s passion for the antique moulds and her superb artistic talents in both design and painting.  The business nous for the operation originally came from Gary, and now they are ably assisted by their son Luke.

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I greet all of my old friends, before going to the theatre, in another part of the mill, to do a sound check with Randy, who is expert.  We spend plenty of time on the stage and walking through the ‘audience’, until he is satisfied that everything works well, and then we repeat the operation with a back-up mic just in case.

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The only way to play my opening music effect is for Randy to plug my phone into his system, so we test that too.

Randy has not been in good health this year, but points out that three of the best hospitals are located nearby, and he is in expert hands.

The audience are already arriving, and shopping, so I retire to my little dressing room and relax until it is time to change.  The auditorium holds around 200 and this is a near sell-out.  There is plenty of noise and a real sense of excitement as the crowd take their seats.

At 2 o’clock Gary walks to the stage and welcomes everyone, before announcing that lucky tickets have been fixed to the bottom of three chairs and immediately there is a frenzy as everyone stands, and turns their chairs upside down hoping that they will be the winners of various the Christmas ornaments being offered as prizes.  When the winners have been found, and everyone has settled down again, it is time for the show.

Gary introduces me and to great applause I walk to the stage in character.  The Saturday afternoon show always boasts a good audience (maybe recovering from the rigours of Thanksgiving and Black Friday), and they respond enthusiastically all of the way through the performance/

Sadly, however, there is a casualty during the show – as I fall to my knees at Scrooge’s graveside I crush one of my geranium cufflinks against the stage and the little red flower pops off.  I manage to retrieve it so that I do not step on it, but in no time the actual cufflink piece drops out of the shirt, meaning that I play the whole scene with a flapping French cuff which is rather distracting.Finally Scrooge gets dressed all in his best, and the frock coat hides the loose shirt until the end of the show, which is greeted by loud applause and a lovely standing ovation.

I am drenched as I come off stage (the theatre lights are very close to the stage and make the shows here a real workout), but Luke is waiting at the door with a bottle of iced water for me, which I gulp down.

I change as quickly as I can, and then go into the store where there is a long line waiting for me, the majority of whom are clutching my souvenir programmes, which Gary has done a great job in hawking as the audience leaves.

It is a cheerful signing session, with many familiar faces of loyal followers beaming their thanks.  The ‘like a good wine, you get better with age’ analogy is made more than once.

Finally the audience drift away into the early evening and the store is quiet once more.

I go to my dressing and change, before studying the remains of my cufflink – I could try to glue it, but the break is where the head was brazed to the link, and I don’t think that glue will give it enough strength.  There is only one thing for it, and I put an emergency message through to the Dickens Fellowship for a replacements!  Of course I travel with other cufflinks, so I will not be without in the meantime, but wearing the geranium is an important tribute to CD, who sported the flower in his buttonhole whenever he performed.

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Between the shows a delicious dinner is brought in by Mary and her husband, who are local dairy farmers and caterers, and we all sit in Gary’s office tucking into turkey, mashed potatoes and asparagus and talking about nothing in particular.

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Dinner finished, I have some time to lay on the little sofa in my room, and relax, getting ready for the evening’s show.

With around 45 minutes to go I get into my costume and go into the store to mingle with the gathering audience.  I don’t normally do this, but I want to be there when a particular group arrives:  Liz’s sister’s husband’s brother (are you following), and his wife are visiting their daughter in Connecticut at the moment, and have generously made the two hour drive to come and see me at home.  Sure enough Dave and Sue, and the rest of the party arrive and a little English reunion takes place in the heart of Massachusetts.

I introduce them to Gary and give them a quick tour of the mill, explaining the history of the Vaillancourt company, before ending up in the theatre where we pose for a group photograph.

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Showtime is approaching, and everyone starts to take their seats.  Once more Gary does the hidden ticket routine and more winners are announced, before it is my turn to take the stage.

It is a strange fact that the Saturday night audience here are always very quiet throughout the performance, which is always disconcerting.  It is also a fact that they tend to go berserk at the conclusion of the show, and I carry on through the script remembering that fact and not trying to impress them too  hard with silly business – just let the show do the work, (although I do permit myself one adlib – a gentleman’s phone rings just as Scrooge sees his ex fiancé Belle – it is too good an opportunity to miss)

I get to the last scene of the show and when the entire audience cry out ‘NO BOB!’ with no prompting from me, I know things are OK.  Sure enough as I leave the stage the whole room erupts into whistles and shouts and cries; the noise is terrific!  I cant imagine what my little English party must think – this is such an American reaction, most un-British!

I return to the stage to take my bows, and the cacophony continues.  I really do enjoy my work, you know……

Once more Luke has water for me, and once more I take plenty of time to change costume and towel down, before returning to sign.

I am able to spend some time with Dave and Sue, which is lovely, and we make arrangements to meet up in the new year, possibly to do a show in their village, which would be fun (Dave is also a keen golfer too, so any event will involve a few rounds, I am sure!).

At last the Mill, which has seen so much noise and excitement today, is quiet once more and it is time to leave.  I change, leaving all my costumes hanging neatly in my dressing room, and drive back to the Beechwood Hotel where Gary, Judi and Luke join me for a wind-down drink and desert, which is quite a tradition here.

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It has been a tiring day, but a very successful one.  Tomorrow we do it all again.

 

 

 

The Platinum VIP

I am wakened early by the sound of a plane overhead, engines screaming at full power as it leaves Omaha airport, which is a perfect reminder that I have to be at the Eppley Field soon to move on to the next leg of my tour.

There is not much to prepare this morning as I had efficiently packed last night – so efficiently that I forgot to leave any clothes out to wear today.  I liberate a pair of jeans, a shirt and a sweater, before showering and getting myself ready for a day of travel.

As I drive through the dark deserted streets of Omaha I think that is remarkably like Worcester, Mass, which oddly is where my journey will take me today. The run to the airport is not a long one and in no time I am pulling into the car rental returns garage.  Suddenly, however, I realise that I have no memory of who I rented the Sonata from, and have to scrabble around for the little wallet of paperwork to find out.  Thrifty.

I pull up in the appropriate lane and, as there are no agents on duty at this hour of the morning, simply drop the key in a large bin provided for that purpose.  I walk to the little bus stop to in order wait for the shuttle that will take me into the terminal, but no wait is necessary as the bus pulls up instantly.

My check-in is swift, as is the security check and all of the extra time that I have built into my schedule to allow for potential delays is completely superfluous, meaning I have a long wait before boarding.

The first priority, of course, is breakfast and I go to the little café, where I have sat often in past years, and order a croissant and a muffin.

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There is a beautiful sunrise outside the window, and the terminal has a golden glow to it as I eat.

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When I have dragged out the meal for as long as possible I relocate a few yards to gate A3 and start to send a few emails home.

As the time for boarding approaches I realise that I am alone at the gate which means one of two things:  a) I am going to have a very quiet flight today, or b) the gate has been changed and I missed the announcement.  The latter seems more likely and a quick check on the departures board confirms the fact.  I have been wrapped up in my own little world, completely oblivious to what is going on around me.  Fortunately, though, I have not missed the flight!

The first leg of my journey takes me to Detroit, where after a long walk through Terminal A, I have a very short wait before boarding again to take me to Boston.  In one of those strange quirks of coincidence there are a lot of people on this second flight who had started their journey this morning in Omaha with me.  In fact I am sat across the aisle from a  family who were in the check-in line in front of me in the early hours of the morning.

The second flight takes us over Lake Erie, and then across up-state New York where I get to see the first dustings of snow on this year’s trip.  We fly over the finger lake region of the state, and somewhere beneath us, I imagine, is the Watkins Glenn race track that I visited a couple of years ago.  The journey takes us on towards Massachusetts and soon we are beginning our initial approach to Logan Airport, Boston.

The captain has been positively chatty during this flight, acting more like a tour guide than an airline pilot, but as we begin to descend over the sea he makes an announcement which I find rather alarming, for although we must still be over 10,000 feet in the air he informs us that ‘we will be on the ground momentarily!’

The airport at Boston is a familiar one to me, and as soon as I have collected my bags I am on the shuttle bus that takes me to the car rental plaza.  As I will be keeping this car for the next few weeks, and the potential for snow and ice during that period is high, I have asked to be furnished with an all wheel drive machine to keep me safe.  In the garage I am shown to a row of cars and told to take my pick – and the smartest among them is another Hyundai, a Tucson this time.   I pair my phone to the entertainment system, so that I can continue listening to Goldfinger as I drive, and then make my way into subterranean Boston (the city’s road system is made up of a vast network of tunnels).

Once back in the daylight I drive past the ramshackled stands of the Fenway Park baseball ground (home to the Red Sox), and see the signs to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Charles Dickens visited in 1843, and where I have performed on a number of occasions in the past.

The journey to Worcester takes less than an hour (although my ex-pat SatNav system takes me a rather strange route), and soon I pull up in the car park of the Beechwood Hotel with its circular tower reminiscent of a modern Windsor Castle.

My room is very large and grand, with a comfortable seating area in front of a fire, a coffee table and a work desk.

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On one of the tables is a beautifully wrapped plate of fruit and cheese, accompanied by a bottle of wine.  A sticker on the wrapping proclaims that this amenity is for a ‘Platinum VIP’.  I feel very important!

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I unpack my costumes and hang them in the wardrobe and nibble at the cheese and crackers as I didn’t have time for any lunch today, but soon the phone rings and I am chatting to a reporter from The Portland Press about a performance that I am giving in the city on Monday.

As soon as the interview is over I get changed and then wait for Gary Vaillancourt to arrive, as he has very kindly offered to take me to an early dinner this evening, and at 5.45 a call comes from the front desk informing me of his arrival.

It is good to back here for, like so many other event sponsors on the tour, Gary and his wife Judi have becomes close friends.

As we drive to the restaurant (111 in the heart of Worcester), Gary Judi and I catch up on each other’s news: they have now moved into their new house that was still being built to their own design last year, and they have a new grandson, Charles (what a good name!)

We talk about the film ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’, which they also watched on the opening night, and greatly enjoyed, and about our upcoming events over the next two days..

The restaurant is superb, and I devour a delicious lamb shank, so perfectly cooked that the meat just falls from the bone.  The atmosphere is loud and buzzy and it is apparent that the season for Christmas parties (or possibly late Thanksgiving ones) is in full swing.

It is a lovely evening, and having finished our dinner we adjourn to the Beechwood where we have a nightcap before Gary and Judi leave to drive back to Sutton and I return to my room, where I watch a film, before realising that I am falling asleep.

I take myself to my Platinum VIP bathroom and from there to my Platinum VIP bed, where I drift off into a Platinum VIP night’s sleep.

 

 

 

Thanksgiving Day

For the first time since my first day of performance on the 3rd November I have no official duties today – no shows, and no travel.  In a schedule such as mine a day’s rest is something to be thankful for.

Having written my blog and posted it I go to breakfast and exchange greetings for the American holiday with staff and other guests.  I love being in America for Thanksgiving day, as it seems to me to be a particularly genuine holiday: it is not commercialised in the way that Christmas has become, and the sole reason for it is for families and friends to come together and share their blessings.

Back in my room  I watch the traditional Macy’s Parade from New York City, as I always do.  It is just so American – a pageant perfectly choreographed and which celebrates a way of life, an ethos, that is so easy to forget in these troubled times.

I cannot ignore the tour completely, as another mountain of laundry has built up, and I want everything to be ready for the next leg of my adventures.  Upon inquiring at the front desk I am informed that the guest laundry is on the 1st floor – and it is free!  Free!  No quarters required.  A Free laundry?  Now that is something that I can be very thankful for!

 

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No Quarter Given

 

I spend the morning watching the TV and carefully packing my cases.  This will be the last time I have to fold my costumes and stuff my hat with socks for many weeks, for when I arrive in Boston tomorrow I will rent a car that I will keep until I leave Williamsburg on December 14.

I have been invited to share a Thanksgiving lunch at the home of my dear friends Susie and Lee Phillips, and I am very honoured to do so.  I drive to their home at 2pm, and complete the party of 7.

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I don’t want to say too much about our lunch, as it is a private and personal memory, but the bonhomie and hospitality around the table is truly moving.

Susie and Lee have just had their house remodelled and there is not yet a stove in place with an oven large enough to take the huge turkey, but another of the guests has cooked it and it is a truly impressive bird.

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We talk and we laugh and we pull Thanksgiving crackers and, yes, we are thankful.  I wish Liz were here to share the day, but we talk about her too, and raise our glasses to her.

It is dark when I leave the house, having said my goodbyes for another year and as I drive back to the Element Hotel (where I stayed last week), many houses are already bedecked in Christmas lights, and the neighbourhoods look cheerful and festive.

I check in and the guy in the front desk says ‘Ah, I don’t need your ID – I know you!’ and soon I am in a lovely small suite, made up of three rooms, which seems rather a waste for just one night.

I decide finally to watch Frost/Nixon, that I downloaded on the day that I had visited the Nixon Library in California, and thoroughly enjoy the superb performances by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, as well as the stylish Ron Howard direction.  It is not a very festive film, it is true, but one that is well worth re-watching.

And so my time in the Midwest is coming to an end, for early tomorrow I leave Omaha and head to Boston.  The tour is about to burst into life once more, but for now I can sleep soundly after a truly happy day.