On the Friday following my return from Rochester I was back on the road once more, driving to the city of Leicester, where I was due to perform The Signalman at the ancient Guildhall which has been a regular part of my tours for many years.
The week had been mainly spent going over my lines, as once again I was performing a different script, I have not managed my 2022 tour very effectively when it has come to booking my shows, for I haven’t done the same script twice in a row for weeks now. Since I travelled to Cheshire on 21 May I have performed Great Expectations, Mr Dickens is Coming, Sikes and Nancy, The Trial from Pickwick, Doctor Marigold, Dickens and the Queen and now The Signalman, and my mind is getting more and more addled with all of those lines!
My regular visit to Leicester is as the final date on my winter tour, always performing A Christmas Carol as a matinee and evening show on 23rd December, so it felt odd to arrive in the warm sunshine of a June afternoon. The Guildhall is situated half way along a narrow cobbled lane, with the mighty spire of Leicester Cathedral above it. Even though the cathedral is currently closed for restoration work, the bells (which regularly accompany my shows) were still ringing loudly. I parked the car at the end of the lane and started carrying the first pieces of furniture that make up my Signalman set to the Guildhall’s front door, where I was met by Ben Ennis who runs the museum there and who has become a good friend over the years. He returned to the car with me and assisted in the unloading until everything was in and we could find a parking place. Ben hopped into the passenger seat to show me where we would most likely to be able to find an on-street spot, but as soon as we set off a car pulled out from the kerb and we were able to park straight away and conveniently close to the Guildhall which was a relief.
We walked back and I began setting up the room for the evening’s event. I was due to start by giving my talk about my book, ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’, as an introduction to ‘The Signalman’ the performance of which would take up the second act. The first job was to see if my laptop would talk to The Guildhall’s projector, as it is nice for the audience to have a few pictures to look at as I tell the story of the great 1865 rail crash. Last time I performed this programme, at Preston back in March, I never managed to get the projector connected, and I wasn’t confident that it would be any different this time round, so I was delighted when the screen flickered and images appeared.
With everything in place I made my way up to the huge room in which I change, and ate a small salad and some fruit and continued running through the lines of The Signalman, to make sure they were absolutely in place before the audience arrived for the 7.30 start. At Christmas I perform in the main Guildhall chamber and we have an audience of over 200, but because this was a smaller event Ben and I decided that the Mayor’s Parlour would be a better, more intimate room. The Parlour is directly under my changing rom, so not only could I hear the audience taking their places, but I am sure they could trace my footsteps as I circled the room above (whenever I run lines I have to be on the move constantly)
The Parlour was full when Ben welcomed me, and I walked to the front of my room in the blue trousers, pink shirt and grey checked jacket that is my casual ‘costume’ for the book talk.
The show was on 10th June, which was the 157th and a day anniversary of the crash itself, and the historical significance of the date was not last on the audience who followed every word with interest. The horrors of that June afternoon built the atmosphere perfectly for the intensity and darkness of the second half and I left the room, having heavily and shamelessly promoted my book which would be on sale after the event.
I changed into the all black Victorian costume, and went back to the Mayor’s Parlour to move the scenery into place once Ben had removed the screen and projector. I switched on the red spotlight which represents the danger light at the mouth of the tunnel and then returned to the Jury Room until Ben gave me the nod that it was time to start.
The words were firmly in place and the atmosphere in the room was perfect, even the Cathedral bells added to the intensity as they tolled solemnly adding a mournful soundtrack to the poor Signalman’s tale. At the end of the show I remained in the room and chatted with the audience, and sold a few books too. It was a fun, intimate, evening in great surroundings with some very nice people
I was not staying in Leicester that night, as one of our daughters was due to play in a football tournament early on Saturday morning, so when the audience had left I changed and with the help of the Guildhall staff loaded up the car before driving through the night back home to Oxfordshire.
Incidentally, the late night was well worth it, for our daughter scored an amazing goal in her tournament, firing a powerful shot into the roof of the net. Her celebrations with the team mates would not have been out of place in the UK Premier League, whilst her dad stood on the touchline with his arms aloft!
I didn’t bother to unload the car when I got home because I was due to be on the road again on Sunday afternoon, to drive to another cathedral city, Canterbury in the county of my birth, Kent. The fact that I was keeping the same furniture in the car may tell you that, thanks be to God, I was actually performing the same show for a second night! No new words to learn or revise, just the confidence of repeating a script which was firmly in my mind, and which had gone so well just two days earlier. It was a lovely afternoon to drive and the Sunday traffic was light as I listened to the radio commentary of the second cricket test match between England and New Zealand which was swinging one way and another between the two teams. The hedgerows and fields were alive with white frothy blossom, pricked with colour from poppies, cornflower and buttercups, the sky was blue, streaked with wisps of white cloud and the whole scene was perfectly British.
In Canterbury I drove to my hotel and just had time to check in and have a quick refreshing shower, before trying to find the venue for the show which was at The Canterbury Cathedral Lodge Hotel. Canterbury is an ancient city, dating back to the Roman times and beyond, and the centre is a spider’s web of tiny lanes, mostly closed to traffic. I followed my sat nav unit which took me to the very gates of the cathedral among groups of languid tourists and students ambling through the streets gazing at the views. Unfortunately at this particular point there was no vehicular access to the precincts so I had to double back and try an approach from the other side of the city. This time I got a little closer, but still wasn’t able to get to the hotel. I managed to find a parking place and went to the cathedral gift shop to ask advice. The staff directed me to a tiny driveway, next to one of the city’s many pubs, and so finally I was able to pull into the oasis of the cathedral’s grounds.
Canterbury Cathedral is magnificent and towers proudly over the city calling pilgrims to the tomb of Thomas Becket who was brutally murdered there in 1170 by followers of King Henry II. Naturally the bells were pealing loudly, as they had in Leicester.
The Cathedral Lodge Hotel is a modern building (by which I mean 1970s), and is more of a conference centre than a tourist hotel. I have actually performed there before at a conference for The Dickens Fellowship many years ago. I carried all of the Signalman furniture through the gates and up a long path, negotiated the swing doors into the entrance hall, and from there up a staircase to the room where I would be performing.
I was due to perform for a small tour group of ‘mystery readers’ from America. The tour had been arranged by Kathy, who I had met many years ago at a Rochester Dickens Festival. Kathy is based in America and has been putting these tours together in association with a company called Tours of Discovery, owned an operated by Nicky Godfrey-Evans, a certified Blue Badge tourist guide from Cumbria.
As I was setting up both Kathy and Nicky arrived and checked that all was well and then disappeared to freshen up after a long day out on the road (the group had been visiting Rochester where I had been just a week before). I finished positioning the set, and then stepped out onto a little balcony which overlooked the quiet gardens above which the cathedral tower towered.
The show was due to start at 6 and the various members of the tour started arriving and taking their place as the clock ticked around and when everyone was ready Kathy welcomed the group and introduced me. On this occasion I was not doing the first half about my book, but still prefaced The Signalman by talking briefly about the Staplehurst crash. Obviously quite a few of the audience didn’t know of the accident as there many gasps and shocked expressions as I continued telling the story. The Signalman had the same effect, especially the final moments, and it proved to be a most successful evening. Having taken the applause and been thanked by Kathy, I took some questions and was able to tell a few anecdotes and talk about my acting life and how the Dickens shows came about (incidentally all of which is the subject matter for my next book!)
When I had finished speaking everyone gathered around the table at the side of them room and a large proportion of the group ensured that they would be taking home signed first editions of a Dickens book.
I changed out of my costume and a few of the group very kindly helped me to ferry all of my furniture back to the car where I carefully loaded it. Kathy and Nicky had offered to take me to dinner after the show so we walked into the centre of Canterbury and ate at a Cote Brasserie in the company of Diane, another member of the group who had written her dissertation on Dickens and who is a massive fan of my ancestor.
We sat outside the restaurant as it was still a warm evening. It was very quiet in the city centre, and we ate our meal at a Parisian pace, enjoying the good food, chilled wine and fine companionship. It was so nice to be able to have a relaxed meal after a show, for so often I finish late and end up with a take away in my hotel room. It was getting dark when we walked back to cathedral, subtly floodlit against the dark blue of the night sky.
I said good by to Kathy, Nicky and Diane and returned to my car and drove the five minutes back to my own hotel.
The Carnegie Forum, Abingdon
I had to leave Canterbury early the next morning as I had another commitment back in Oxfordshire at lunchtime, so as soon as I had enjoyed the Premier Inn breakfast, I was back in the car and edging along in the morning rush hour. I had plenty of time to get home and passed the time listening to podcasts about the weekend’s Grand Prix and the Test Match.
I was due to speak at the Carnegie Forum event in Abingdon and was due to be there for 1pm. The Carnegie award is given to the best work of children’s literature each year and has been awarded to many influential and notable authors. Alongside the official announcement schools around the country are encouraged to stage their own events based on the shortlisted novels. In Abingdon pupils from 6 schools come together to work in teams, preparing short presentations extolling the virtue of each novel. Many of the students have also written reviews of the books, and these are judged also (in past years I have been on the judging panel and certainly didn’t envy the task of this year’s judges!) I had been asked to give a 20 minute talk on the art of public peaking and presentation. As public speaking is not something I enjoy, or think I’m particularly good at, I talked about the ability to ‘assume’ a character as a speaker – a more confident version of oneself, just as if I were playing Scrooge, or Cratchit, or Marigold.
I arrived on time and the pupils were all working hard in their groups under gazebos in the middle of a large school playing field. One of the great things about the event is how students from a wide variety of backgrounds – independent fee-paying schools, and state funded schools, just work together and create some amazing things.
My talk was inside a small sports pavilion and as there were so many kids working I gave the speech twice, taking half of the participants each time. I hope it was alright and hit the brief – everyone seemed to listen quietly and they all applauded at the end, so it must have been OK! The best bit was the opportunity to extol the virtues of my own favourite book from my childhood – A Bear Called Paddington, by Michael Bond, and I wallowed in nostalgia as I explained what that little book (and that little bear) had meant to me. I also tried to communicate my sheer pride and emotion at seeing Paddington’s starring role as part of the Jubilee celebrations.
With my talks done, we all went outside and watched the presentations. Part of my speech had been about the practicalities of being heard and understood effectively, but as the sketches were being performed in the open air with the busy A34 road just behind the field, it was very difficult for all of the performers, (although some really shone out).
The conclusion to the afternoon was to announce the winning presentation, the best book reviews and then the result of the student’s vote for their favourite shortlisted novel, and it is always interesting to see how that compares with the official announcement, which will be made on Thursday.
It had certainly been a busy few days and now I have a few days rest before getting back on the road on Friday.