The final UK leg of my 2021 tour began on Friday when I drove north from Oxfordshire to the city of Liverpool. With only one evening performance on Friday I didn’t need to leave home until around 11am, giving me plenty of time to ensure that the car was fully loaded with all of the props and costume that I would need for three days of shows.
Initially the drive went well, but after I had stopped for lunch and was nearing Cheshire, the traffic ground to a halt and warnings of lane closures due to an accident were flashed up. Fortunately I had plenty of time in hand, and even the 45-minutue delay didn’t cause me any real problems, other than not allowing me time to get into my hotel and relax. Having cleared the blockage, I was soon swooping downhill towards the River Mersey, and more specifically the beautiful St George’s Hall.
In previous years I have been able to drive right up to the side door of the amazing venue and unload my car, before parking in one of the staff car parking spaces behind the hall, but this year the City had extended its traditional Christmas market, which previously had only occupied the plaza at the front, to surround the entire building, meaning I couldn’t get my car anywhere near, without convincing various security guards that I really did have a good reason for unloading. Of course following the spate of Christmas market terrorist attacks involving vehicles being driven through crowded festive celebrations you can quite understand why such rigid precautions were put in place.
When I had parked my car as close as I could to the hall, some members of staff brought a trolley out and we loaded it up as best we could, while I carried the chair and a case into the building, and then took my car to the car park beneath The Shankly Hotel, just a 5 minute walk away.
The Shankly Hotel, named in honour of one of Liverpool Football Clubs most famous and successful managers, is perfectly situated for my stays in the city, and there is a welcoming sense of familiarity to it now. The foyer was spectacularly decorated for Christmas, and as I stood waiting to check in, I was approached by a member of staff, proudly wearing a Great Expectations t shirt: ‘In your honour! I heard you were coming, so I put this on for you!’ Rosalie introduced herself as a huge Dickens fan, and was so excited that I was staying and proceeded to make a great big celebrity fuss of me!
Having checked in and got up to my room, I discovered a beautiful platter of little cakes, with the message ‘Good Luck!’ scrolled in icing. There was also a card in which Rosalie had included the quote: ‘There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour!’. A few days ago Liz and I were watching a very VERY trashy Christmas movie, in which one of the characters was reading A Christmas Carol to some guests in a remote hotel, and it was that particular line that was featured. Liz had commented what a great line it is, and I’d mentioned that it was one that I wanted to get into the show sometime, but never had. The card from the staff at The Shankly seemed to be the final push to make me do it: the new line would be in the show that evening.
I really only had time to drop my bags before returning to St George’s Hall to prepare for the evening’s show. When I walked in there was Lynne Hamilton, the producer of the shows here, and a friend of many years, and we greeted each other warmly, but ‘safely’. With the recent increase of the Omicron variant, Lynne had spent a very nervous week listening to each new wave of restrictions and guidelines from government briefings, not knowing if the events would even be allowed to go ahead. Final confirmation came on the day before, but even so she had received quite a few cancellations as people elected to remain safely in their homes rather then venturing out to a theatre.
From the quite dour entrance hall, I made my up the dour staircase, into a dour hallway and through a pair of wooden doors into the majestic, sparkling, gilded, ornate and utterly spectacular Concert Room at the top of the building.
I would be truly fortunate to perform in this space in any circumstances, but the fact that Charles Dickens stepped out onto the same stage to say the same words, and pronounced the room as one of his favourites to perform in, always adds an extra frisson to my times in Liverpool. I introduced myself to Tas, who was looking after my audio and lighting needs for the duration of my stay, and soon we started doing a series of sound tests, before discussing if there was anything we could do in the way of lighting effects. The hall does not have an extensive lighting rig, so I suggested that he watched the Friday night show and then he could decided if there was any scope to do anything extra on Saturday. Tas explained that he had a background in cabaret and comedy, and was keen to do whatever he could to enhance the performance. His first action was to find some squares of blue lighting gel to fix over a series of uplighters set into he stage floor, just to take the edge off the golden glare on the pillars behind where I would be doing my stuff.
When all of our technical conversations were completed, I went to my large dressing room and ate a simple salad before getting into costume ready for the 7.30 start. Lynne made a few appearances, and we discussed the selling of my book, Dickens and Staplehurst, as well as the souvenir brochures that Ian and I had created a few years ago. As the rail crash book is not really a Christmas volume, we didn’t think that sales would be strong at this event, but we laid some copies out on the merchandise table hoping that a few people would respond to the opportunity of owning a Dickens first edition.
In the dressing room I went through the lines that needed to be re-inserted for the two act version of the show, and with about ten minutes to go Tas appeared to check the microphones (he had given me a back-up pack, just in case)., and then it was time take a final swig of water, and switch my ‘show brain’ on.
The route to the stage is via a small ante room, which has a monitor in it showing the stage, and on the screen I could get some idea as to the size of the audience. With Covid cases rising rapidly across the UK, Lynne had received calls from audience members cancelling at the last moment, and we had no idea as to the extent of possible ‘no shows’, but on the tiny TV screen it looked as of a very impressive crowd had turned up. And then an extraordinary thing took place on the stage which sent the years rolling back: Tas lit the candles.
When Charles Dickens toured with his readings he travelled with a gas man, whose responsibility it was to erect the lighting rig, consisting of two upright pipes, with gas jets backed by reflectors at head height, connected by a further pipe overhead, with a number of lights shining down on Dickens’ face. 5 minutes before my great great grandfather took to the stage (including the very stage I was about to walk on to) the gas man would pre-empt the show by opening the valves and igniting the various lights, and now, 152 years after his last performance in the hall, Tas was recreating the ‘gas man’s moment’
When the last audience member had been admitted, Lynne went onto the stage and as soon as she said hello, the audience erupted into applause – we were going to be in for a fun evening, and so it proved. The crowd were out for a great time and laughed and cheered at everything.
However, I got muddled up! Would you believe it, after all these years, I got muddled up: When Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past left the school, instead of heading to Fezziwig’s warehouse, I took then straight to the scene with Belle. I only realised my error when I noticed that the stool was in the wrong place on the stage, in other words, it hadn’t been cleared away prior to the ball. I ploughed on, and at the end of the scene, I returned to Fezziwig’s and danced my jig, before leaping forward in time once more to see the married Belle and her husband – what a mess! Well, I got to the end of the half and the applause as I left the stage let me know that there was nothing to worry about, and I could continue knowing that I hadn’t destroyed the story, but I was annoyed with myself.
During the interval Lynne came rushing into the dressing room asking if I had any more of the Staplehurst books, as the audience had gone mad for them and we had run out! Sadly I didn’t, and she went back to the lobby.
After a nice rest and towel down, I prepared to return for act 2, which would begin in a blackout, so that I could say the first lines (a reprise of Jacob Marley’s warning) in the darkness, but even as I groped my way towards the chair, the audience burst out into applause again!
The second act went more smoothly than the first and when I came off the stage at the end of the show I received a great big, happy, cheering, foot-stomping Liverpool ovation. It was wonderful.
With so many books sold, I had said that I would sign, but on the understanding that I would be masked, and that the line would be carefully controlled so that there wouldn’t be a mass of humanity crowding around me (with another week of performances, I had to be so careful to remain safe). When I came into the foyer the queue was backed up on the stairs, but it was well ordered, and I signed my books until everyone was gone.
Fortunately I had another day in Liverpool, so all of the set and costumes could remain at The Hall. I walked back to The Shankly, where various Christmas parties were in full, and loud, swing, and I ate a salad and some sausage rolls in my room – Rock and Roll!