Luxury! The Café Royal and The Williamsburg Inn

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This week the British government announced new lockdown measures which place London in the very highest tier of restrictions. Many people’s work and social lives will be affected by this measure but it was absolutely necessary as the infection rates in the capital city were doubling every five days and beginning to spiral out of control. For me this has meant the cancellation of eight shows over the course of the next week which were due to be performed in one of the most prestigious locations in the city: The Hotel Café Royal on Regent’s Street. The relationship with the Café Royal is a new one for this year and together we were greatly looking forward to entertaining guests with my performance of A Christmas Carol whilst they ate a sumptuous afternoon tea in the spectacular gilded and mirrored surroundings of the Oscar Wilde Lounge.

We are very hopeful that we can reschedule, and perform early in the new year, so watch this space!

The disappointment of the loss of my opportunity to experience the luxury of the Café Royal was slightly mollified by today’s phone memory photographs, for this was the day a few years ago when I was performing at one of my favourite USA venues: The Williamsburg Inn in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg.

The Inn is a truly elegant and spectacular hotel with surroundings and service of the highest calibre. Each suite (no such thing as something so mundane as a ‘room’ there) is different and furnished with items of antique furniture, whilst soft music purrs from a Bose sound system. Coffee makers sit ready to fill tiny china cups which will sit on tiny china saucers. The bath tubs are the size of small swimming pools and the towels are soft and fluffy. I have visited Williamsburg for many many years now and have formed a great relationship with the staff, as well as with the guests who return each year to watch my shows.

Any stay at The Williamsburg Inn is special but on a few occasions I have been very fortunate to be given the suite that was used by the Queen herself when she visited in 2007. Oh what luxury! As I entered and walked from room to room I imagined the Queen doing the same: Her Majesty sat on that sofa, she wrote at that desk, she slept in that bed, and in the bathroom….no, I couldn’t allow myself to imagine her in there!

As would have happened at The Café Royal I always performed during a meal service at the Inn, either afternoon tea or dinner, and all of the events were held in the beautiful Regency Room. My ‘stage’ is on the dance floor in the centre of the room and the tables are set all around meaning that I can roam and run into the audience and even cajole individuals to become part of the story, which is always fun.

I have may close friends in Williamsburg, most especially Ryan Fletcher – a gentle giant who always made my introductions at the beginning of each performance. Ryan is an opera singer, who passes his great knowledge and skill to students at the nearby William & Mary College. Ryan and I have shared many convivial evenings discussing life on the road and on occasion we have been fortunate enough to be joined by his wife Jeannie, and also Liz who for a few years was able to fly from England to join me for the last week or so of my tours and share the luxury of The Williamsburg Inn.

A few years ago I was asked to do a photo and video shoot for the marketing team at Williamsburg, the team set me up in one of the lounges where I was surrounded by lights, flash units and reflectors. Would I mind simply reading from A Christmas Carol while they captured the footage that they needed and during that afternoon my show changed completely.

As I relaxed into an armchair I realised that the a simple telling of the story was much more effective than the overly dramatic way I was currently utilising. I used to be scared if I didn’t get emphasis from every single word, so a passage of charming dialogue was used like a sledge hammer to batter my audiences into submission: EV-ER-Y SYL-L-A-BLE WAS EMPH-A-SISED TO MAKE IT MORE DRA-MA-TIC! There was no light and shade. For that evening’s show I decided to try in a new style and the show was transformed, it became much more personal and re-captured the beautiful device that Charles Dickens used to place the narrator at the reader’s shoulder. It is for this reason that in the film version I have used lots of narrative direct to the camera.

So, my 2020 Christmas season has been culled a little further but there are still two events that have survived: in Liverpool and Henley. keep your fingers crossed!

To watch my film version of A Christmas Carol go to: http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html

Back to the Stage and a Muppet Inspiration

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On 23rd December, 2019 I stood on the low wooden stage of the ancient Guildhall in the heart of Leicester, I looked at the audience and began the last sentence of A Christmas Carol, ‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’ and to that I added, ‘Have a very merry Christmas’ The audience applauded loudly and I took my bows before leaving the stage and changing out of my costume. Christmas was upon us and I would be returning to my family the next morning after many weeks of being on the road. Another season of performances was over.

It seems extraordinary to look back on that evening now, almost a year later, and think that it was my last time on stage. In January and February Coronavirus began to spread throughout the country and by March everybody’s lives changed beyond all recognition as the first period of lockdown was imposed upon us.

But now on Saturday 12th December, 2020 I am preparing to perform A Christmas Carol once more and I have to say I am quite nervous about it!

Those of you who follow this blog will of course know that I have performed ‘The Carol’ this year, by making my brand new film version of the show. What’s that you say? You didn’t know? Goodness I must have been remiss in not mentioning it in this forum before. Well, if you visit http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html you will be able to rent the film for seven days and watch it as many times as you like. There, I’m glad that I have cleared that one up.

So, with the filming in October and November, I have spoken the words of my scrip and I have re-found the voices and expressions that bring each character to life, but running it all together in an 85 minute show is a different matter. For the past few days I have pacing up and down, throughout the house and in the local supermarket, muttering lines to myself, dwelling over passages that don’t quite flow as they should.

Last weekend I introduced our daughters to A Christmas Carol as we sat down together to watch The Muppets do their thing, and it was fascinating to watch the film itself (which actually is a very useful resource for the script is very much grounded in Dickens’ original text) through the eyes of someone who has NEVER heard the story before. In a way watching my 8 year old’s reaction gave some insight as to how the citizens of London must have felt on December 19 1843, the day on which the book was first published. As Gonzo, Kermit, Fozzie and Miss Piggy told the story I expected my daughter to giggle and laugh manically, but throughout the film she asked questions about Scrooge and the plot as it unfolded, trying to make sense of the fantasy world that our ancestor had drawn us into. Her main concern was an interesting one, it wasn’t about Tiny Tim, or about Scrooge’s schooldays, she was most upset by the fact that Ebenezer never married the girl he truly loved. We see that Belle finds her own happiness , but Scrooge’s loss is permanent – in fact this is the only factor in his journey that is not resolved in some way.

Anyway, during our movie night I was sort of going through my script in my head along with the felt cast and at the point that Scrooge is cowering by the graveside with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come standing over him I had a realisation that there is a line from the novel that I MUST introduce to my script – a very sensible realisation to come to when I haven’t performed for 11 months! The line in question is: ‘Men’s courses foreshadow certain ends to which, if persevered in, they must lead, but if the courses be departed from the ends must change. Say it is thus with what you show me spirit.’ The line is so important to what comes next and I have no idea as to why I have never included it before.

For the last few days I have concentrated on getting the new line well and truly wired into my brain, and then running the whole scene over and over (hopefully not to the detriment of the rest) to make sure that the lines around it aren’t affected by it either.

Now, on Saturday morning, I think that it is ready to be taken on the road with me.

The theatre for the great comeback is a new one to me: The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre, and it was only a week or so ago that I knew for certain that we would be good to go, as it was then that the UK government announced the various tiers of restrictions throughout the country. In fact my first show should have been on the 9th December in Kent, but that county was placed under the highest restrictions (Tier 3) leading to the cancellation of the performance. Sharnbrook fortunately is in Tier 2 and although the show will be presented with strict social distancing measures in place we are good to go.

The staff and volunteers at The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre are a persistent group and actually we first talked about a show way back in 2019; ever since they have reeled me in as an expert salmon fisherman might land a catch. The show is sold out for two performances, each followed by a question and answer session from the stage.

At 3 o’clock this afternoon I shall walk to the centre of the stage and as the sound effect of a ringing church bell dies away I will say – ‘Marley was dead to begin with’, and in doing so will breathe a tiny bit of life back into live theatre once more.

The Country Cupboard in Lewisburg and The Bogata

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Being guided by my Facebook and OneDrive memory bank has meant that for a few days there has been nothing new to describe, as all of the posts have concerned the venues that I have already described: Nashua, The Berkshires, Omaha and Kansas City, but today a new one popped up: The Country Cupboard in Lewisburg, PA.

The Country Cupboard is a an amazing complex of destination, gift store and restaurant, the latter which offers the MOST SPECTACULAR buffet. I perform in a large function room on a wide stage, well lit and furnished, therefore giving me plenty of scope to play every scene properly. In my early years there the performance would be to a cabaret style audience, sat at large tables, but in recent years we have moved to a more traditional theatre setting. The audience are always enthusiastic and join in at the appropriate moments with great gusto, for many have seen the show multiple times and know when to, and more importantly when not to, shout out.

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As with all of my venues there is a small group of people that I work with at The Country Cupboard and we have become a good and close team over the years. Firstly there is Missy who runs the whole show with quiet efficiency, juggling my various needs with those of the huge audiences all of whom need to be fed at the buffet before being marshalled into ‘the theatre’ in time for the show to start. Missy always pays huge attention to detail and remembers exactly what is needed, for example one year I had a scratchy throat that needed soothing and I asked it were possible to have a cup of black tea with some honey before the show and now, every year when I arrive in the store and stand at the back of the room, watching the audience gather, there will always be a cup of tea and honey waiting for me. The other arm of our Lewisburg triumvirate is Kj Reimensnyder-Wagner a singer and songwriter who entertains the gathering crowds before the show. Kj has such a peaceful and gentle touch as a performer and soothes away any anger or frustration that may be welling up in the audience with her chat and beautiful voice. We make a good team, the three of us.

But the Lewisburg experience is so much more than the performances at The Country Cupboard, for the journey there has become a hugely important tradition for me. I will usually be driving from the south of the state, through Harrisburg and then hugging the banks of the beautiful Susquehanna River as I drive north.

The drive is an impressive and familiar one to me now and I look out for little landmarks along the way: there are the amazing long bridges crossing the river, which Charles Dickens vividly described in American Notes when he visited the city in 1842, and there is the strange replica of the Statue of Liberty which sits on a crumbling parapet which once supported a bridge but which long ago fell into the waters. The current statue is made of metal, but the original Harrisburg Lady was made as a prank in 1986 out of old venetian blinds!

Further on I always make sure I stop at the little township of Liverpool where I can walk to the river’s edge and take photographs.

Pennsylvania is regarded as a microcosm of America as a whole in that the state boasts large liberal affluent metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, but also swathes of rural farmland and mountainous hunting regions. The drive to Lewisburg encompasses pretty the whole range of demographics.

I am always afforded a warm welcome when I arrive and I stay in a small hotel next to the store. I always have the same room with its little kitchen area and a huge whirlpool bathtub in which I can relax between the matinee and evening performances. Everything about performing at the Country Cupboard is familiar and easy and above all FUN!

Another venue that appeared on my memories was from longer ago: my two years at the Bogata Casino in Atlantic City, on the New Jersey coast. I am not a gambler and never have been, so casinos hold a sort of unreachable and dangerous fascination to me. I have visited Vegas in the past (officially I can say I played on The Strip) as well as Monaco and Macau and each time I have felt as if I had landed in an alien environment. If someone made me sit at a gaming table I wouldn’t have known what to say or do. It is strange therefore that one of my favourite opening passages to a book is set in such a setting:

“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.”

I was invited to The Bogata not only to perform but also to make a special guest appearance, in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, at a huge holiday party thrown for the high rollers who had won and lost big during the year. The party was a celebration of wealth and greed and during it huge swathes of cash and prizes were handed over in thanks (as one of the directors whispered to me it was no skin off the nose of the casino for most of the money would be handed back over the tables later that night.) Usually old Ebenezer is a figure of fun but on this occasion he was there to be admired for his singular pursuit of wealth. I have to say the whole experience didn’t sit comfortably with me.

What I did enjoy at The Bogata, however, was the theatre itself: a huge space akin to one of the theatres on a cruise ship and packed with every technical gizmo that I could wish for: lighting of all moods and colours, as well as dry ice that would seep across the stage like ghostly fingers groping toward the audience.

I had asked if we should perform the show in two acts but the staff said definitely not for if we let the audience out in an interval they would head straight for the gaming tables and slot machines and we’d never see them again!

The Bogata was never destined to be a constant on tour, in the way that Nashua, Sutton and Chalfont are, but my two years there certainly opened my eyes and were an amazing experience.

Back in 2020 the season moves on and I am getting ready to actually perform at the weekend. Over the next few days promotion for the film continues with a series of interviews as well as some Q&A sessions with various organisations around the globe. Exciting times, indeed and in a few days I will be able to announce a new collaboration which means a great deal to me.

For those who are unable to see my show this year don’t forget that the film version is available on Vimeo throughout the Christmas season and is available via my website:

http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html

The Season Begins (Virtually)

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On 7 December, 2020 my Christmas season as a performer finally begun. For the first time (if for now we discount the four days in October when I was filming), I actually had the opportunity to address an audience and hopefully entertain them! The stage was my kitchen, and the auditoria were various homes in and around the Kansas City area, as I took part in a Webinar (one of those words which, like the virus itself, has seeped into our lives and taken residency there unbidden and unnoticed) organised by my dear old friends at the Mid Continent Public Library System in Missouri. You may remember from previous blog posts that the library service had been instrumental in the making of my film and so had asked if I could attend a virtual session to take questions from their patrons, a request that I was happy to agree to even it meant waiting up until midnight, which would be 6pm in the central time zone in America.

As the evening passed by I tried to find a suitable spot in our kitchen to speak from, where the detritus of our everyday could be shuffled out of camera shot. There were certainly areas elsewhere in the house that would work, but I wanted to ensure that I didn’t wake the rest of the household who would be snoozing soundly at that hour. In the end, by moving a food mixer, a toaster, a bread bin, various pieces of fruit and a couple of cake tins, I could sit at our table with an empty counter over my shoulder. To make the scene more festive I gathered together 2 carollers from Byers’ Choice and some of the chalkware Santas from The Vaillancourts and set them behind me, carefully disguising the electrical outlets.

At 11.30pm I logged onto the Zoom link and watched a screensaver made up of various still promotional photographs from the film, and some pictures taken at branches of the library service over the years. Goodness, my beard is grey these days: Ho, ho, ho!

At midnight up popped Cheryl, and welcomed the audience, whom I could not see, to the event. She explained that I would be talking for around twenty minutes and then we would virtually open the virtual floor to questions and then handed over to me. I began by expressing my sorrow that I could not be in Kansas City this year but was delighted that I could chat through this forum. It was a heartfelt and good opening I thought but one which fell entirely on deaf ears! Suddenly lots of ‘Mr Dickens, we cant hear you’ ‘Is your microphone on?’ ‘Try clicking unmute’ interrupted my flow. Ahh, technology: the saviour and bane of 2020. After checking various settings on my laptop without success I switched to my phone and the evening was rescued.

My opening remarks concentrated on the gestation of the film, how the idea had developed, how I had chosen the locations and how Emily Walder, the amazing videographer and editor, had captured my dream for the project and collaborated in creating something that I am truly proud of.

After my twenty minutes were up we threw open the floor to questions, and there were some good ones:

‘Who is your favourite character to perform….’ Ah, an easy one to start, ‘….except Scrooge!’ Oh, not so easy then! I chose Bob Cratchit because there is a most important change of emotion during the course of the book as he moves from cheerful and resigned to truly heartbroken. The portrayal of Bob has to be genuine and realistic in comparison to some of the more grotesque caricatures elsewhere in the story, so he creates a greater challenge which I was able to explore more fully on film than I can on stage – the scene when he breaks down for his lost child is a moment that genuinely brought tears to my eyes the first time I watched the completed movie.

‘If you were to meet Charles Dickens what would you ask him?’ Wow! I think I would I would be so nervous I wouldn’t be able to say anything. However, having found my tongue, I would want to chat about theatre – his feelings as he performed, and how the voices and expressions of the characters come to him. I’d like to know if he imagined his literary characters in 3D (there is evidence that he would perform passages of dialogue to himself as he walked or in front of a mirror). I would like to know about the details of his life on the road: the ups and the downs. Basically, I would like to compare notes, but more than anything I would love to stand at the back of a hall and watch him perform.

‘What is your favourite passage in the novel’ (this from a teacher who has taught A Christmas Carol for many years). This is an interesting question because probably my favourite piece of writing doesn’t feature in my show, it is the wonderful passage when Scrooge is taken on his travels by the Ghost of Christmas Present:

‘And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed, or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse rank grass. Down in the west the setting sun had left a streak of fiery red, which glared upon the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye, and frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.

`What place is this.’ asked Scrooge.

`A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth,’ returned the Spirit. `But they know me. See.’

A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song — it had been a very old song when he was a boy — and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.

The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade Scrooge hold his robe, and passing on above the moor, sped — whither. Not to sea. To sea. To Scrooge’s horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.

Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birds — born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water — rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.

But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.

Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea — on, on — until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.

It is such an evocative passage and one I wish I could capture it for the stage somehow.

‘What was your favourite filming location?’ All of the locations brought something to the film and each is special because they have all featured in various Dickens novels, but I think the best location was the churchyard at Cooling which we not only used for the various ‘grave’ scenes, but also as a background for the narrator to tell the story. Cooling is in the middle of the countryside, so we should have enjoyed perfect peace, but our time there was beset with a surprisingly large amount of traffic using the little street, as well as huge heavy diesel truck going to and from a nearby quarry. A nearby farm had a bird scarer which let off a loud retort every twenty minutes or so sending flocks of crows into the sky, and we seemed to be on the flightpath of Rochester airport as executive jets screamed overhead. The fact we got such wonderful material is a testament to our patience and the wonders of good editing. My favourite shot from Cooling is the very final shot of the film as I walk away into a sunset (actually a sunrise, but let’s not quibble about that), and a little green light flare, an orb if you will, hovers like one of the three spirits saying its farewell.

All too soon 1am came around and it was time to say my goodbyes and sign off. It had been a lovely evening and the opportunity to finally have contact (virtual) with my audience again was very special. Next week the Library will be hosting another session, but before then I will actually be back on stage, for on Saturday I will be performing A Christmas Carol at the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre in Bedfordshire. I can’t wait!

to View the film and see the locations visit my website: http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html

A Christmas Carol, the Weekly Report: Becoming Movie Moguls.

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A week has past since my film version of A Christmas Carol was released and the word is spreading across the globe!

In the fog and rain of an English winter my thoughts have gone back to those few days of gloriously bright sunshine and crisp autumn colours when Emily, Jordan and I worked as quickly as we could in order to complete our filming before further lockdown measures were imposed. Only this week the government have announced new restrictions across the country and the county of Kent, where we filmed, is in the highest tier meaning it would have been impossible for us to return. So what we achieved in those few days was quite remarkable.

As I watch the film now I can remember setting up the scenes as I had imagined them but also those ‘happy accidents’ when an idea suddenly came to us. The room at Eastgate House that we used as Scrooge’s bedroom was on the top floor and it was only as I looked out of the window to the street below that I began to wonder if we could film from two different angles so as to create the conversation between Ebenezer and the little boy who runs to fetch the prize turkey.

It is one of the most successful sequences in the film and I hope that we can re-film a couple of other scenes next year, using the same idea, (although as has been pointed out to me, I will have to make sure that my beard has EXACTLY the same degree of bushiness with no further grey in it!)

The original reason for making the film was so that venues that I would normally be visiting (led in particular by the Mid Continent Public Library) could have access to my performance even though I couldn’t tour this year. The film would be made available to any of our sponsors who wanted to distribute it to their patrons. But with the amount of work that we put in we wanted to ensure that the end product was available to as many people as possible, however not being film distributors we didn’t have a network in place to get it out there: it was then that Bob Byers had a brilliant idea – we use every one else’s networks! The plan that Bob proposed, and we adopted, was that an organisation could sign up with us to act as distributors of the film. They would have a specific access link to Vimeo which they would promote in their emails and general marketing, and for each rental made as a result the organisation would receive a commission: the more rentals, the higher the end payment and all for no capital outlay – it was a win, win plan for everyone!

Many of our established venues, both in America and in England, leapt at the idea and are even now encouraging their customer bases to celebrate Christmas with Gerald Dickens, but now other groups are seeing the benefits too, for example our local school has signed up so that local families can all watch together over the next few weeks in lieu of nativity plays and carol concerts. Festivals have come on board as have museums and libraries and city councils. As more people watch our ‘ghostly little film’ (to borrow Charles Dickens’ own words in his preface to the first edition), the reviews and comments have started to come in too:

‘Bravo! This is wonderful – what a treat!’

 ‘It’s strange to know a text so well, anticipate what is coming, and still feel delight when it arrives.’

What the Dickens!  Gerald Dickens IS Charles Dickens for my money!

Gerald Dickens brings his great-great-grandfather’s story to life with so much humour and heart and truth.   This is A Christmas Carol told as it should be told – by Mr Dickens himself.

A plum pudding of a show – stuffed full of delights – and served with authentic Dickensian relish.  5 stars!

‘Wowza!! Amazing!!

‘It’s so cleverly put together. So we’ll observed. Dark where it needs to be dark, funny and uplifting where it should be, deeply emotional at all the places one expects.’

‘It’s a brilliant merging of a one-man stage performance with the luxuries that locations and sound effects allow.’

‘I LOVED IT !! FANTASTIC!!’

‘It is the story just as it should be – wonderfully ghostly but also fun, sad, happy and Christmassy.’

‘The Christmas Carol was awesome’

‘Well done – a great piece of work and a very entertaining hour of classic Christmas joy!’

‘Glorious – loved it loved it loved it!’

‘The film is wonderful! To see A Christmas Carol brought to life by Charles Dickens’ talented and delightful great-great-grandson has always been special, but to see it done against the backdrop of historic places Dickens himself knew brings the story to life in a unique and meaningful way that truly stirs the imagination.’

Looking ahead there is more and more media interest building as newspapers, radio, podcasts and TV all contact us daily for interviews. In England A Christmas Carol is a text on the GCSE exam syllabus and teachers are asking if they can use the film next year as a resource for their ongoing teaching. We are finding interest and enthusiasm from quarters that we hadn’t even considered

The film is taking on a life of its own and all in all I think that we as a team can be pretty pleased with our first week as movie moguls.

To watch the film visit my website: http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html

To enquire about being a distributor: gerald@geralddickens

Burlington, New Jersey

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I was surprised when Facebook furnished me with a memory from Burlington, New Jersey as I associate my visits there as being much later in my tour, but the truth is that the team at The Broad Street United Methodist Church have always been amazingly accommodating in fitting in with the rest of my schedule, meaning that events there have been staged at various different times.

Burlington is another venue that goes way back to the years before I started working with Byers’ Choice and in the first years I didn’t perform in the wonderful old church that has become as close a friend as Laura, Joe, Marica and the rest of the team there. I cant quite remember the circumstances but there was another church in town that happened to be staging a production of A Christmas Carol and had a magnificent set built, so we used that. I remember not quite understanding how the scenery and the building worked and so at one point when I exited I discovered that I couldn’t find my way back onto the stage again – the panic must have only been for an instant and the audience probably didn’t even notice, but to me in the backstage dark it felt like an age! I was more careful with how I used the set after that.

Burlington sits on the banks of the Delaware River and is closer to Philadelphia than any major city in New Jersey. Broad Street is, as the name suggests, very wide and has a tram service which rattles and clangs along its centre providing extra sound effects at the most inopportune, or if I am very lucky at the most opportune, moments. The Church was originally formed in 1770 (making this year their 250th anniversary) and construction of the present began in 1847. The new church was dedicated in 1854 and comprised a bright, airy and spacious sanctuary, complete with a balcony wrapping around three walls.

The altar and the organ are situated on different levels on a stepped dais and a gently curving rail separates the area from the wooden pews. All of this actually creates a wonderful stage area for me to play with, and the whole space is friendly and comfortable.

When I look back at my years performing in Burlington it is amazing how many times I have tried out something new in the show, which has found a permanent place in the production – I think that I must feel very safe in the environment and know that the audience are supportive, allowing me to take slight risks without fear.

And here I would like to say a word about the Church in the community: to me The Broad Street United Methodist Church is everything that a Church should be, there is never a feeling that a particular doctrine is being forced upon one, and there is never a feeling of resentment that an individual does not share those beliefs (I have definitely felt that in some Church communities that I have been involved with over the years). The main feeling at BSUMC is one of caring, nurturing and acceptance. My dressing room is in a small room beneath the stage and at Christmas time the shelves are stacked high with canned goods to distribute among the homeless and needy, meaning that the scene with the charity collector visiting Scrooge on Christmas Eve who points out that ‘many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.’ takes on a greater poignancy and meaning for me.

The team at Burlington are a cheerful and fun lot, lead by Laura Jaskot and her husband Joe. They are ably assisted by a large group of volunteers but I particularly want to mention Marcia and her late husband Bob. Marcia has always taken it upon herself to provide me with a cup of tea! Served in a bone china teapot, with a matching bone china cup and saucer the tea waits for me in my dressing room and again on the table when I begin my signing sessions after the performance has been concluded. At some point the team discovered that my favourite biscuit (or cookie), is a very plain Rich Tea, made in England by McVities. Somehow an American outlet which stocks Rich Teas was discovered and Marcia made sure that I felt truly at home.

Marcia’s husband Bob used to operate the sound system in the Church and would take great pride in making everything perfect – we would undertake long sound checks as he tweaked balances and levels until he was absolutely satisfied that all was right. It was a pleasure to work with him but a few years ago I arrived in Burlington to learn that Bob had passed away, so that year the show was performed in his honour: never has the usually comical line ‘No Bob’ held such weight of feeling. Marcia and I had a long hug that year as we remembered a true gentleman.

I had so hoped to be part of the BSUMC’s 250th anniversary celebrations this year, but fate has ruled otherwise but I have no doubt that by embracing technology the Church has continued its outreach programme and pulled the community closer together than it might otherwise have been.

I may not be on the stage this year, but the congregation and the wider audience will be able to see my new performance on film and hopefully next year we can all get together again to drink tea, eat Rich Tea biscuits and put the world to rights once more!

To view the film of A Christmas Carol visit: www,geralddickens.com/films.html

#AChristmasCarol2020

Lowell and The Berkshires.

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As we leave the Thanksgiving weekend behind us so the memories of tours and performances past are tumbling daily onto my phone and many are based firmly in New England.

The first recollection is of the mill town at Lowell where Charles Dickens visited during his first trip to the United States in 1842. The young, brash author had enjoyed success after success following the publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836 and was riding a wave of popularity, a wave that he would surf right across the Atlantic and into Boston harbour where he was greeted and feted with huge banquets, or ‘Boz Balls’, thrown to celebrate his achievements.

But the young Charles Dickens’ visit was not just travelling to greet his adoring public and to play the celebrity role, he had a genuine enthusiasm to observe aspects of American life and to see if there was anything that he, and ultimately Britain, could learn from how a relatively young nation was dealing with issues that the old one was failing with. At the top of his list was the conditions in the mills that proliferated in and around Boston, and he had asked to be taken to Lowell to observe a modern mill at first hand. He was astounded by what he saw and wrote glowingly about his experience in his travelogue American Notes commenting particularly on how well the workers were treated, noting that that in their lodgings they had access to a piano and were allowed to publish their own magazine, The Lowell Offering.

I was invited to Lowell by the University of Massachusetts to celebrate the anniversary of my ancestor’s visit and I remember writing a terribly complicated (and I thought at the time a very clever) show, called ‘A Tale of Two Speeches. The premise was to tell the story of Charles’ difficult relationship with America, using first a speech given in 1842 when he spoke of the need for an international copyright agreement, thereby antagonising the American press who were happily profiting from his works, which in turn led to a battle of words that would become heated and toxic; and secondly his final American speech in 1868 when he unreservedly apologised for the many hurtful things that he had written about the nation and pleaded that such apology be reprinted as a preface to every future edition of American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit (a wish that has duly been honoured).

I don’t recall much about that show, except that at one point I rather clumsily addressed the audience as a flight attendant might at the start of a long journey: ‘Sit back and relax, once we have reached a cruising height we will bring you some peanuts which will tell you how smartly you are dressed, how nice your hair looks, how intelligent you are and what an all-round fine human being you appear to be : Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the peanuts are complimentary’ Oh, dear!

I have returned to Lowell since then and one other particular happy memory was when I performed Doctor Marigold, the beautiful story of a cheerful cheapjack travelling the country and selling his wares from the steps of his caravan. Marigold addresses the audience directly and tells his life story which is both tragic and wonderful. He explains how at a country fair he discovered a little unwanted girl unable to hear or speak and felt so drawn to her that he adopted her on the spot. The two learned how to communicate by developing their own rudimentary sign language. When I performed the piece in Lowell I was accompanied on stage by an interpreter who not only signed the entire show for a largely deaf audience, but also taught me a few signs so that I could include them in my show: it was a profoundly moving experience.

Another New England venue which has become part of my tour more recently is the small town of Lenox in the Berkshires where I perform in a beautiful historic home, the Ventfort Hall Mansion. I have visited Lenox twice and on each occasion have been greeted with thick snow which has made the experience even more special. The mansion itself is tucked away from the road and on when I first drove up the driveway my jaw dropped for I had driven straight into the scene described by Charles Dickens when Scrooge sees the vision of his old school: ‘They left the high-road, by a well-remembered lane, and soon approached a mansion of dull red brick, with a little weathercock-surmounted cupola, on the roof, and a bell hanging in it. It was a large house, but one of broken fortunes’

Ventfort doesn’t have a bell, and is not of broken fortunes, although it is undergoing a process of restoration and rescue, giving one the impression that just a few years earlier it probably had lived down to Dickens’ description: ‘The spacious offices were little used, their walls were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their gates decayed. Fowls clucked and strutted in the stables; and the coach-houses and sheds were over-run with grass. Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open doors of many rooms, they found them poorly furnished, cold, and vast. There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat.’

Thank heavens there are people who care so passionately about the past and wish to preserve it, for Ventfort Hall Mansion is now a warm, welcoming home and a perfect venue for me to perform in.

With thoughts of my film very much in mind, it would have been wonderful to use the house as a location, and the snow would have added a perfect backdrop. The town centre of Lenox itself also reminded me of a film location, this time not A Christmas Carol but Frank Capra’s fabulous ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. With street lights twinkling onto the thick snow it was easy to imagine gawky James Stewart running through the streets shouting out with joy.

When I drove away from Lenox I left the magic of the snow behind me as if the whole experience had been a dream – a series of visions to make me feel better about myself….

To rent my version of A Christmas Carol use this link to my website:

http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html

Black Friday Eve and Nashua

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The memory posts on my phone will come in thick and fast now, as traditionally the week following the Thanksgiving weekend sees me hopping from venue to venue spending only a day at each. Sure enough I had quite a collection pop up on my screen this morning.

The first picture was that of a broken suitcase. At this point of the tour the opportunity to launder clothes can be limited so I have to pack around 10 white shirts, as well as two complete costumes (black frockcoats, gold waistcoats, grey high-waisted trousers, cravats, top hat and a woollen scarf). I need to bring along props such as my walking cane, a candlestick with candle and a red cloth which changes from a bedspread into Tiny Tim and back again. Besides that there may be other costume and props to use for any other shows which I may be performing during the trip, and that is all before packing any ‘normal’ clothes. All of that needs the largest suitcase I can find and for many years a suitably cavernous grey model gave sterling service. But being lifted in and out of cars, dragged into hotels, thrown around airports eventually takes a toll and sure enough a few years ago as I checked into a hotel the extendable pulling handle broke clean away in my hand and I was left with the immediate need to find replacement case. I was in Connecticut at the time and remember saying to the hotel desk clerk ‘if only there were to be a day when all of the major stores offered discounts….’ the words being spoken on Black Friday Eve (formally known as Thanksgiving Day) .

The following day I made my way to the nearest large mall with a sense of trepidation (for years I’d watched news footage of near riot conditions) but was pleasantly surprised at the ease with which I was able to find a case and make my purchase, In fact, maybe secretly I was a little disappointed!

The Black Friday Case did a couple of tours of duty but has also fallen by the wayside and I am on to yet another model now, which is certainly having an easy time of it this year.

More pictures from years past see my memories settling in Nashua, New Hampshire. My sponsors in Nashua have always been the Fortin Gage Florist and Gift Store which is located in the heart of the old city. Nashua was originally a textile town and along the banks of the River Merrimack sit wonderful old red brick mills and warehouses that would not look out of place in an illustration from a Dickens novel.

As part of the gift side of Fortin Gage’s operation the store carries the collectable Carollers made in Pennsylvania by Byers’ Choice and when I began to work with the latter company some twelve years ago a number of the new venues were those who had a professional relationship with them. Fortin Gage has remained a constant on my tours ever since.

Originally my performances were held in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Nashua, which was great for me because that is also where I stayed, meaning that I didn’t have too much trouble getting to the theatre on time! We took over a ballroom where a large stage was set up with plenty of seating for a large audience and enthusiastic audience.

The Crowne Plaza stage

The events were organised by Jody and Jill Gage who were assisted in their marketing by Sandy Belknap: we became quite a team and the post show celebrations in the hotel bar have become a little hazy in the memory.

Although the large show in the ballroom was the main event of my visits to Nashua we also staged dinner performances where I would perform each chapter of the book in between the courses of a dinner. It was during those evenings that the ‘Supposin!’ curse settled on Nashua. As those of you who are familiar with the show will know there is a moment when poor Mrs Cratchit leaves the room to see if her Christmas pudding has cooked properly and in her nervous state she ponders: ‘supposin….supposin it should not be done enough! ‘Supposin….supposin it should break in the turining out! Supposin….supposin somebody should have climbed across the wall and stolen it!’ at which she goes running, screaming from the room. Well, Jill Gage would become almost hysterical during the ever longer pauses and eventually gave up trying to stifle her laughter. As Dickens himself points out in A Christmas Carol ‘there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter….’ When Gill laughed it infected others throughout the room, until even I was not immune – keeping a straight face when I heard the titters start in the darkness was not easy, I can assure you.

In more recent years we have moved our show to the superb auditorium at the Nashua Community College where I even have a back projection representing the skyline of London to help me create the scene.

Nashua Community College

The audience has swollen with the move but the old familiar faces who have been loyally coming to every show in Nashua are still there too, waiting until the signing line has cleared so that we can chat, catch up and exchange news.

Over the last few years I have also been performing at the Nashua Senior Centre and these shows have shows have become a fun addition to the trip: Mr Dickens is Coming, Nicholas Nickleby, A Child’s Journey With Dickens, The Signalman, Doctor Marigold and Sikes & Nancy have all been performed in the sparse, bright meeting room to a most enthusiastic audience.

Nashua Senior Center

As with so many of the venues I have been writing about it will be such a shame not to be in Nashua this year but Fortin Gage have taken the role of promoting my new film to all of the customers on their database, so the show will still be part of the Nashua Christmas celebrations, and they can giggle at Mrs Cratchit without fear of putting me off my stride.

With Jody

The other great connection from my years in New Hampshire is that Sandy, who helped Fortin Gage with their promotion in those early years and again more recently, has come on board to handle the publicity and promotion of the film. She is coaching me in the use of social media and how to take the message to as many influential people as we can. She is a great asset to the the team and it is a pleasure to work with her alongside Bob and Pam Byers.

To rent the film: http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html

#AChristmasCarol2020

Mass, Maine and Christmas Begins

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It has been a week or since last I reminisced on my American adventures as prompted by my phone and Facebook, because this has coincided with a period when traditionally I could spend a few days at home with Liz and my family.

But now the great memory generators have cranked back into life again and provided me with a series of images from Massachusetts and Maine. For the last 12 or so years the second part of my tour has begun in Sutton Mass. at the wonderful premises of Vaillancourt Folk Art where the senses are assaulted by Christmas! As you walk into the store every inch is utilised to display a variety of Christmas gifts but mainly the beautifully hand-painted chalkware Santa Claus figures which are cast from antique chocolate moulds.

The company was formed by Judi and Gary Vaillancourt in 1984. Originally based in their house, the demand for the collectables soon outstripped the confines of a kitchen, dining room and bedrooms and over the following years the business expanded until it eventually landed in its present home the Manchaug Mills in Sutton. The buildings date back to 1826 and are a perfect venue for the Vaillancourt family to promote tradition.

Gary and Judi are justifiably proud that they are one of a very few Christmas businesses which are truly American, and it was their connection with Byers’ Choice, another genuinely American Christmas company (it feels so right to be writing about both businesses on Thanksgiving Day), which led to my performing in the mill.

For my first visit The Vaillancourts made an arrangement with the owners of the mill to convert an empty space next to the store into a theatre, which they named Blaxton Hall. With Judi’s artistic flare a stage set was created surrounded by 200 seats, and over the years my performances of A Christmas Carol have become as much a Christmas tradition for me as they have for the audiences who return every year.

I always have a wonderful time with the Vaillancourts and we have had our fair share of adventures over the years. On one occasion my flight from Philadelphia was delayed by thick fog and it quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t get to the store in time for the show. After a flurry of panic, phone calls and emails were exchanged and a plan was hatched: Luke Vaillancourt (Gary and Judi’s son, now very much a part of the team) was dispatched to wait for my arrival at Logan airport ready to drive me back as fast as was legally possible, whilst his father-in-law Bob was placed on the Blaxton Hall stage with his guitar in hand to entertain the crowd until I could take over: that warm-up performance is still spoken of in Sutton to this day! When I eventually arrived and relieved Bob, whose repertoire was beginning to get rather stretched, the atmosphere in the room was fantastic: a real sense of camaraderie among friends, and when Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning and discovered that there was ‘no mist, no fog….’ there was a great ironic cheer.

Vaillancourt Folk Art is more than a venue to me, I count the family as close personal friends and it feels most odd not to see them this year.

The other memory that my phone provided me with this week was from Portland, Maine. Portland is a more recent addition to my tour but the city has a special resonance for me. Many years ago when my father David was the President of the International Dickens Fellowship organisation (a post that I was greatly honoured to hold a few years later and one that my brother Ian now undertakes with a great sense of duty, wit and professionalism), he asked me to perform with him a short story that he had discovered. The ‘show’ was based on a piece of writing titled ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ and recounted the childhood memories of Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. In 1868 Charles Dickens was touring America, performing his readings in cities along the Eastern seaboard. Most of the events were in Boston and New York but there were other venues too, one of which was in Portland. The young Kate, 10 years old at the time, was a huge fan of Dickens and devoured his works, even naming her pets and belongings after his characters – her dog was named Pip whilst her red sled was christened ‘The Artful Dodger.’

Dickens’ reading was one of the biggest events ever seen in the city and the tickets sold out in no time. Of course there was no possibility for a ten year old girl to attend and so Kate simply lingered outside the hall hoping to catch a glimpse of her hero. Sadly she did not.

The next day Kate and her mother were due to take the train to Boston and during the journey the little girl discovered that Charles Dickens was actually sitting in the next carriage and in a moment of Victorian infant chutzpah she plucked up courage to run up and sit down next to the great author! Once he overcame his surprise Dickens fell into conversation with Kate, asking her about her favourite books and characters. She told him that she’d read all of his books and he questioned her, ‘those great thick long books and you such a slip of a thing?’ She simply replied that she skipped the dull bits – ‘not the short dull bits, just the long ones!’

A Child’s Journey with Dickens is a charmingly beautiful account of the meeting and a visit to Portland always brings it to mind. When I was in the city I performed on behalf of the Maine Historical Society and as well as staging a lovely evening in a beautiful venue, they were extremely generous with their research resources and enabled me to build a complete picture of Charles’ visit.

As a final observation when last I was in Portland, two years ago, I stayed at The Press Hotel on Exchange Street which is housed in the old offices of The Portland Press and Herald (formally the largest newspaper in the State and mentioned by Kate in A Child’s Journey). The owners of The Press have honoured the newspaper trade in the décor and dressing of the rooms and it is a fabulous change to the many identikit boxes that proliferate.

My main memory however was the breakfast I ate there – a Fruit and Quinoa Bowl, which comprised of: Pineapple, Banana, Blueberry, Black Quinoa, Basil, Orange Blossom Ricotta and Local Honey. It was quite simply one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten and won my award for ‘Breakfast of the Tour’!

Back in England in 2020. 26 November has really felt like the beginning of Christmas. We have spent the day listening to Christmas songs and driving through neighbourhoods looking at Christmas lights. I even bought myself a Christmas sweater!

What else happened on 26th November? The film has finally been unleased upon the world!

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers in America

http://www.geralddickens.com/films.html

#achristmascarol2020

Returning to Highclere

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To miss-quote the opening lines of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: ‘Yesterday I went to Highclere again’. Last December on a very wet night I performed at the magnificent ancestral home of the Carnarvon family for the first time and loved every second of what was an elegant and spectacular evening. The castle was fully decorated for Christmas and the great hall embraced the guests as if that was its sole purpose in life – to entertain and delight. Lord and Lady Carnarvon had erected a small stage in front of the huge stone fireplace and somehow had managed to squeeze 80 chairs around it, and as the audience arrived they were in their finery, as befitted such a venue and occasion.

The evening was a great success and Lady Carnarvon confidently announced that we would repeat the event in 2020….Ah, 2020. Of course all of the best laid plans were abandoned early this year and the thought of returning to Highclere Castle disappeared from my mind.

The great building came to my thoughts once more when I was thinking of locations to use for my film, but when a building has such clients as Downton Abbey beating a path to their door, the location costs would have been exorbitant and actually in retrospect, wouldn’t have provided suitable locations for the sparsity of the story – Highclere would have been too lavish for my version of A Christmas Carol.

However as the summer continued there was a call from Lady Carnarvon, asking if I would be available to join her at the Castle to recreate a little of my performance for a national television network who wanted to make a documentary about Christmas in one of England’s stately homes. I was happy to agree, even though this was not a fee paying event, for the relationship with the Carnarvons is so good and the opportunity to gain some exposure for both my live shows and the film was one I couldn’t turn down.

On Tuesday 24th November, just two days before the release of the film on Vimeo, I drove up the long driveway, taking the opportunity to stop and admire the great building against a beautiful late afternoon winter sky. The drive was lined with mini Christmas trees and two larger versions guarded the front door. I swung the car round on the gravel drive (I knew that this is how you are supposed to arrive as I’ve seen it done so many times before on Downton Abbey). Granted, the staff with Carson the butler at the centre, didn’t line up en masse to greet me, but the house manager John did fling open the door and welcome me back in cheerful, hearty tones. In fact my arrival was such a triumph that I had to repeat it three more times as the TV crew from ITN wanted to capture the moment from a few different angles.

The film crew was of two, Brent and Amy, who both dutifully wore masks as they trailed me around. When I finally entered I stood in the Great Hall of the house with a huge lavishly decorated Christmas tree soaring to the ceiling above me. It seemed extraordinary to me that a year ago we had fitted a stage and eighty people into what now looked like a very small space, but the memories of laughter and bonhomie waved over me as I surveyed the scene. Such was my wonder and such was the splendour that I surveyed the scene three more times, as Brent and Amy recorded it from a few different angles….

Lady Carnavon arrived and we greeted each other from the prescribed safe distance and then made our way into the Smoking Room where we were to record an episode of the Highclere Castle podcast which the Countess has been hosting since June. We sat in comfortable armchairs with the rolling landscape bathed in the glow of a winter’s sunset outside the windows. For such a large house some of the rooms, including the Smoking Room, are surprisingly intimate and it proved the perfect setting for our convivial chat. We talked about Christmas and Charles Dickens’ influence on it, as well as the heavy toll of the pandemic on both the entertainment and tourism sectors, and from there discussed how the lack of opportunities to perform in front of a live audience had presented other opportunities: cue promoting the film!

Having wrapped up the podcast recording it was time to prepare for a performance of a few extracts of A Christmas Carol to the massed audience of their Lord and Ladyship, John the manager, and their assistant Cat, who was also recording the snippets of show for an Instagram link. I was directed to my ‘dressing room’, which is in fact a spare room in the castle and in which I was surrounded by photographs of ‘Porchie’, Henry George Reginald Molyneux Herbert to give him his full name, the 7th Earl of Carnavon, to give his him his title – the Queen of England’s trusted confidante and horse racing trainer.

Once I was nearly changed there was a knock at the door and the voice of Brent asked if he could film me preparing for the show. I let him and Amy in and for the next 15 minutes or so I took cufflinks off and put them on again, took my cravat off and put it on again, took my watch out of the waistcoat pocket and studied it before replacing it, all whilst chatting about the experience of being at, and performing in, Highclere Castle.

Eventually we were ready to go. Lord and Lady Carnarvon settled themselves in two armchairs, whilst John hovered deferentially in the background and Cat set up her recording equipment. After a brief introduction by Lady Carnarvon I began.

Oh, it felt good! Oh, to move in that space saying the lines, creating the poses, telling the story. As I performed I could feel the room full of twelve months before, hear the laughter, see the tears. The idea was to perform very short snippets but I just didn’t want to stop and carried on throughout the first scene until nephew Fred leaves Scrooge’s office on Christmas Eve: complete self-indulgence.

I was more restrained for my second piece, the appearance of The Ghost of Christmas Present represented by the magnificent tree, and for a final clip I performed the closing words of the story to neatly wrap everything up.

When Brent, Amy and Cat were happy we wrapped up the performance aspect of the afternoon and mingled while a bottle of Highclere champagne was produced and we all toasted to the strangest of Christmases.

Having posed with Lady C in front of the tree, keeping a strict two-bough distance (in line with government festive guidelines), I changed out of costume, collected my things and drove away into the night.

For a couple of hours I had been back doing what I should be doing at this time of year – performing. But as I drove a strange thought came to me and that was that in 2020 my show will probably be seen by more people than ever before because on 26th November, the day I would usually be flying into Boston, to begin the final weeks of my tour, my film of A Christmas Carol will finally go live!

Film Link: Films (geralddickens.com)

Lady Carnarvon’s Podcast: Lady Carnarvon launches new Podcast | Highclere Castle