Welcome to another of my retrospective Blog posts in which we go back to 2001.
As I sat at Byers’ Choice this week signing copies of my new book my mind went back many years to another similar time, albeit on a rather larger scale.
In the early years of touring my former agent, Caroline Jackson, mainly sold my show as a dinner event, in which I would perform each chapter of A Christmas Carol between course of a fine festive feast. This format originated in a book published by my parents and my father’s cousin Cedric. Caroline, in her entrepreneurial way, had published am American edition of that little book and designed it to resemble the first edition of A Christmas Carol as published by Dickens in 1843. The volume not only contained the script for the readings but also recipes, serving ideas, traditions and games, all of which could be used to create a Christmas party with a difference.
Many of the venues at that time were hotels as Caroline had signed an agreement with The Historic Hotels of America register, and I got to visit and perform in some sumptuous surroundings. But in 2001 she pulled off a real coup by signing a contract with a large software company based in Dallas, Texas, for me to be the entertainment at their annual staff Christmas party. Not only would I be performing during dinner but every guest would be presented with a signed copy of Christmas With Dickens as a token of their employer’s generosity.
This was in Texas, Things are big in Texas. There would be 2,000 guests at the dinner.
In order to get all 2,000 copies of the book signed Caroline booked a motel room in Arlington, Virginia, close to where she lived, and for two or three days I sat in that small space scrawling ‘Gerald Charles Dickens’ over and over again. Sometimes it was GrldChsD, sometimes Charlesgeraldcharlesdickens, sometimes it bore no form at all! Caroline made occasional appearances to remove completed boxes of books away, only to replace them with others – it seemed to take forever.
The event in Dallas came somewhere towards the end of the trip so after I had signed the books I was on the road as usual but always hovering in the background was the prospect of performing for 2000 people. Eventually the great day arrived and before we went to the hotel where the dinner was to be held, the senior board members of the company hosted an exclusive meet and greet session over lunch – at Southfork Ranch! The CEO gave a speech during which he welcomed me in a typically Texan style and presented me with a souvenir Stetson. At he ended his remarks he signed off with a flourish declaring ‘Happy Yule Y’all!; I was sure that he was trying this line out on us, and having received a loud laugh I assumed that it would make a re-appearance at the evening’s event.
After lunch we drove to the hotel and for the first time I saw what 2000 seats looked like, The tables were already set with linen, silver and crystal and seemed to spread as far as the eye could see. In pride of place at every setting lay a signed copy of Christmas With Dickens. It was with a sigh of relief that I thought that I wouldn’t have to do a signing session that night – the hours in the Arlington motel would pay off now, I could just do the show and leave.
The huge ballroom had a stage along one wall, where I would be performing, and I climbed up to try and get an idea of what I would be dealing with.
The room was very wide but not very deep (I suppose I was going to be a landscape artiste, not a portrait one) and I was very aware that those people sitting at the far extremities of the room would struggle to see me. The organisers had thought of this and had mounted two huge screens on each side of the stage and a video camera immediately in front of me. The audio visual equipment were handled by a professional company and we spent a long time doing effective sound checks to make sure nothing was left to chance. When all the preparations were complete I went up to my room until it was time for dinner.
When I returned the ballroom was packed and noisy. Everyone was dressed in ridiculously expensive suits and dresses. Diamonds glistened, huge Rolex watches were conspicuously displayed. Hair, perfume, aftershave and make-up were perfect and cosmetic surgery of varying degrees was on bountiful display. Quite how everyone was called to order I don’t remember, but everyone dutifully took their seats and were welcomed by the CEO who sure enough wished everyone ‘Happy Yule Ya’ll’ and then he handed over to me to begin my first performance. It was a fascinating exercise for me, at first I wanted to be as inclusive as I could, so was making a real effort to perform to the very far extremities of the room, but in doing this I glanced the images of myself on the big screens and realised that the camera was only getting my profile and any facial expressions that I was making were completely lost. Therefore when I returned for the second and subsequent chapters I began to concentrate on the camera in front of me, and from being a HUGE performance it became a very small, intimate one. Ignoring 70% of the room seemed counter intuitive to me, but in doing so I was giving those folk a much more complete show as they watched the screens.
Much wine and many cocktails were consumed that night and by the time I got to Tiny Tim’s death scene there was much emotion in the room, and some high spirited, or highly spirited, revellers stood at the back and gently waved their cigarette lighters in the air as if they were at a rock concert. It was very late, maybe midnight, when the dinner finally ended and I took the applause. I had finished for the night and was looking forward to getting back to the solitude of my room, until the CEO returned to the stage and announced ‘You will see that you all have a signed copy of A Christmas Carol on your table and I am sure that if you want them personalised Gerald Charles will be happy to facilitate that’. And so the night was extended as a large proportion of the group gathered around me asking for books to be inscribed to ‘Jason J Jackson III’ or ‘Mary Lou’ or ‘Grandma and Gramps’. Some wanted me to write passionate declarations of love for a fiancé or significant other, whilst others managed to grab whole piles of apparently ignored, forgotten and abandoned books and wanted me to sign them all. It was a very very long night.
So, signing 150 copies of Dickens and Staplehurst during a quiet morning at Byers’ Choice wasn’t really a chore!
Although Wednesday was another day without a performing commitment, I did have work to do. Two media outlets wanted to interview me via Zoom and as the apartment in Philadelphia does not have a any Wi-Fi at the moment we decided that the best thing would be to drive to the Byers’ Choice HQ in Chalfont and do the interview there.
I was just about to cook myself a plate of scrambled eggs when I got a message from Bob saying that the Condominium board had been in touch to say that there was a gas leak in the building. ‘It’s not dangerous,’ said Bob, ‘but….don’t use the cooker!’ I decided to eat on the road.
The first thing to do was to retrieve the car from the parking lot where I had left it the night before and as I walked through the morning sun a fire truck wailed and whooped and screeched past me – this was a proper fire truck, the sort of fire truck that a child might draw – huge, articulated, covered in chrome and metallic red paint. It assaulted the senses as the blinding lights flashed and the screaming siren filled the morning air. The joy and excitement of watching this leviathan make its way down the street was only tinged with sadness that some terrible emergency had led to its being summoned.
I retrieved the Tesla and set the navigation system to take me to Byers’ Choice, where I have performed so many times over the years. I stopped for my breakfast at a McDonalds on the way and arrived at 9am, ready for my first interview at 9.35. Bob was there to meet me and, along with David who looks after all of my technical requirements when I perform, we set me up in the large board room with a microphone and headphones (which rather effectively covered up the shiny glare reflecting off the top of my head!).
The first interview was with a TV network in Kansas City to promote my upcoming performances for the Mid Continent Public Library Service, and particularly my two performances of The Signalman there – this also gave me ample opportunity to mention (and show) my book – all publicity opportunities gratefully received! Being a live TV slot, the interview was quite short, sandwiched between a cooking demonstration and the Kansas City weather prospects for the next few days. I signed off just in time to log on again for the second interview, this for the Harrisburg Magazine. Although a Zoom call it was not for broadcast but a traditional conversational chat with Randy, the journalist who was writing the piece. It was a very enjoyable interview as Randy asked fascinating questions and let me talk at length about the show, the story, my career, the tours etc. One question was ‘which character in A Christmas Carol do you think merits being fleshed out a little more?’ There was an ulterior motive behind this as Randy had actually written a screenplay about Dick Wilkins, Scrooge’s fellow apprentice in Mr Fezziwig’s business. It is an interesting point and I have wondered the same over the years about a few of the characters. I love to think that the poor charity collector is new in town and his colleagues in the charity give him the unenviable task of visiting Mr Scrooge on Christmas Eve (surely if he was long term resident of London he would know that Marley had died seven years before and that getting money out of Ebenezer would be an impossibility). So the poor man gets sent packing, but the very next morning he is approached in the street by Ebenezer bestowing unimaginable riches upon the charity. I imagine that our gent would return to the office looking very smug: ‘Old Scrooge? I don’t know what the trouble is, a charming gentleman really!’
And then there is the Ghost of Christmas Present when he says ‘My time on THIS globe is very brief……’ Oh, my! What other globes? Where else does he visit?
Anyway, I digress, the interview was most enjoyable and I look forward to reading the finished article when I return next month.
With the interviews completed it was now time to get down to some serious book signing. As we are not doing any post show book signing sessions on this years’ tour Bob suggested taking the time available to us to sign as much stock as possible so that audience members could at least take away a signed copy.
120 copies of Dickens and Staplehurst, as well as piles of A Christmas Carol, The Life of our Lord and some souvenir programmes, took plenty of time and by the time I was finished it was lunchtime. Bob and his mother Joyce (who created the company) brought a collection of salads and we all had a lovely time chatting. On a practical level we pondered how best to negotiate a question and answer session for the large audience’s that typically attend the Byers’ Choice shows, and decided that the best solution would be to get audience members to write their questions as they arrive and then at the end of the show Bob will host a sort of ‘audience with’ type session. So, if you are coming to Byers’ Choice in December, think of your questions now!
Lunch finished, I drove back to the City where I had to find a charging point to re-energise the Tesla. There was a charging point very close to the Barnes Art Gallery that I had visited a couple of days before, so I plugged the car in and then had a very pleasant coffee at a café just off Logan Square. 45 minutes and the car was raring to go again but my final drive in it lasted just five minutes, back to the parking garage in the basement of the apartment block, where I would leave it for Bob to pick it up later.
It was now time to pack my cases again as I would be leaving early the following morning, and I wouldn’t have much time to pack that evening, for the ever generous Byers family had arranged a very special treat for me. At 4.30 there was a knock at the door and I opened the door to welcom Bob, Pam and their son George into their own property, which seemed a bit odd.
Through a rather complicated set of circumstances, too complicated indeed to fully explain here, Bob and Pam had secured tickets for the touring production of Hamilton which was playing in Philadelphia. Liz and I have never seen the musical itself but over the past year or so we have both become rather obsessed with it, listening to the sound track repeatedly and, in my case, reading the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create the show. I couldn’t believe it when Pam told me about the trip, but I did feel very guilty and a sad that Liz could not share this evening with us.
We dined before the show and then at around 7 o’clock made our way to The Academy of Music, a very grand looking theatre and joined the throng of excited people waiting to be admitted.
We all had to wear masks throughout the show and also show certificates of vaccination before being admitted (I was worried that my British paperwork would not be accepted, but it was all OK). Our seats were close to the stage, to one side and I loved watching the audience fill the 5 levels of the impressive auditorium and hearing the buzz and bustle as the anticipation increased.
Eventually all of the doors were closed and the house lights dimmed to black, which produced a round of applause before anything had even happened on stage!
I wont offer a full review of the show, but my word it was just as great and as exciting as I had wanted it to be. It was wonderful just to be in a theatre again, and to witness such amazing performances of such a brilliantly conceived piece of art made it a very special evening. I cannot thank Bob and Pam enough for treating me to such an amazing final night in Philly.
After the show we walked through the streets of the city chatting about the show, humming the songs and discussing the actual history behind the story (Bob in particular has a fascination in that particular period and is well versed in the facts), Eventually we arrived back at the apartment block, where I sad good bye to all. It had been a really fun few days but now it was time to move on again once more. The next time I am in a theatre it will be back on the stage again.
On Sunday morning, Hallowe’en, the winter tour continued to pick up pace as I was due to perform in the far North East of England. The booking marked a return to the magnificent ‘The Word – The National Centre for the Written Word’, and it was a poignant visit as my proposed performance of Great Expectations at the venue was the first show lost to the pandemic back in May 2020. The Word is set in the heart of South Shields, on the banks of the Tyne River and required a drive of around 5 hours to get there. As the show was an afternoon one, with the audience due to arrive at 1.30, it meant an early start.
I had loaded the car the pervious day and my alarm was set at 5.15am (allowing for the fact that the clocks had fallen back an hour over night). As the rest of the house slept I had some breakfast, showered and prepared to leave ready to drive through a rainy, windy, squally morning. A goodbye to Liz and it was time to hit the road. Having set the SatNav I was relieved to notice that the journey time was considerably less than it had intimated the day before, so I would have plenty of time to stop for coffee breaks on the way. I decided to run through the script of The Signalman as I was driving, and as I turned onto the A34 I began: ‘Halloa! Below there!’ But I was interrupted, my flow was destroyed by a very strange sound: ‘slap slap slap slap’. At first I thought it was coming from the props in the back, maybe something was badly stowed and was rattling, but no, it definitely was coming from the front wheel, although the steering felt fine and no warning lights were showing, it was very odd. I continued to drive and got back to the script, but the slap slap slap continued and it was very obvious that something was wrong. I pulled into a petrol station and in the pelting rain investigated the front right tyre of my car. Sure enough part of the tread on the inside shoulder of the tyre had failed, sort of peeled away, exposing the metal bands that form the construction of a tyre. The strip of rubber hadn’t actually come off but was whipping the car body with every revolution of the wheel. The tyre was close to complete and catastrophic failure, and if it happened when I was driving at 70 miles per hour through the driving rain the consequences were too awful to think of. There was nothing for it but to change wheels. A Renault Kadjar only has a space saver wheel, which is much narrower than a standard one, and can only be driven at relatively low speeds, but it would have to do as there would be no tyre centres open at that hour. The other issue was that the spare is stowed under the floor of the boot space, meaning that I had to unload all of my props before being able to get to it.
In the dark and the rain I performed a reasonably fast tyre stop (OK, not quite the 1.9 seconds that the Formula One teams manage, but pretty good nonetheless), loaded up the car again, and set off once more towards South Shields. In one way it was fortunate that the weather was so awful because it kept my speed down which, with the space saver tyre, was necessary. Really the skinny wheel isn’t designed to undertake such a long journey, but on Sunday I had no choice.
The traffic was light and I passed the time by continuing my rehearsal, as well as listening to various podcasts, including a couple of episodes of ‘You’re Dead To Me’, which is a light-hearted look at various historical figures and events. It is hosted by Greg Jenner, one of the team behind the brilliant Horrible Histories series, and each episode runs to a carefully formulated and regulated plan. Two guests, one an expert historian and the other a comedian, banter with Greg over the topic selected. One episode which accompanied me was based on the history of Ivan the Terrible who certainly did justify his terrifying moniker, for some of the details of his later activities were quite eye-watering. At one point during the episode the comedian for Olga Koch, who originates from Russia, was making a gag that involved the use of a passport and it suddenly flashed upon me the literal meaning of the word. It is not a document to travel, but a document to allow you into a foreign country: to allow you to pass through the port. A simple revelation, I know, but one that I rather liked that and I will remember it as I arrive in America next week.
The journey continued and I still had some time in hand to allow a coffee stop, and chance to send a message home to Liz to let her know that all was well.
The weather was getting worse again as morning became day and traffic increased the visibility became less and less, It was not a nice drive at all. Somewhere in Derbyshire or Yorkshire, I am not quite certain where, the traffic ahead of me suddenly slowed, with cars putting on their hazard warning lights to alert drivers behind that there was a hold up. Looking ahead it became apparent that there was some sort of blockage in the left and centre lanes of the motorway as vehicles were moving across, and then I saw what had happened. Skid marks scribed a terrible slew to the left where the metal barrier had been bowed in and flat, creating a sort of launch pad, the two inside lines were covered with dirt and metal and plastic, and laying on its side in the middle of the road was the remains of a small blue car, the front end was smashed (presumably where it had hit the barrier) and the glass in the windows was crazed (although not shattered). The modern airbag system had deployed, meaning that the interior of the car was fortunately shrouded from view. A few other cars had pulled to the hard shoulder and the occupants stood shocked, chatting. No one was tending to the crashed car and I hoped, even maybe prayed, that one of those people was the very very fortunate driver of the blue car who had emerged unscathed from the horror ride. It was obvious that the crash had only just happened, probably the blue car had overtaken me just minutes maybe seconds before. There were no emergency crews on the scene yet and the rest of the traffic filed slowly by, before tentatively speeding up and continuing their journeys. For me the scene was particularly frightening as it brought to mind what could have happened if my tyre had failed at high speed, but I drove on, cautiously and thankfully.
Eventually, after one more rest stop, I arrived at South Shields where the heavy rain continued to batter down, moored on the northern banks of the Tyne was an old friend, the P&O cruise ship Arcadia, on which Liz and I enjoyed happy holidays and on which we both performed. Seeing Arcadia was a lovely welcome to the town. I pulled up outside The Word, at a little loading bay, and called my contact at the venue Pauline Martin who appeared and helped me unload all of the furniture ready to be taken up in a lift to the third floor where I would be performing.
The room in which I perform at The Word is not a theatre space as such, but it is a beautiful circular space with views across the river (dominated by Arcadia). A temporary stage was erected at one end, and chairs were laid out ready for the arrival of the audience. I was due to give a talk about the Staplehurst rail crash in the first half of the programme and then perform The Signalman in the second, so Pauline and I connected a laptop to the projector so that I could show the inevitable PowerPoint slides to accompany the lecture.
The original idea was to use this event as a sort of launch for my new, indeed my first, book: ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’, but unfortunately the publishers hadn’t manage to send me any copies, so the merchandise table stood empty at the doorway. However, book or no book, the story is a fascinating one and a good tale to tell before the Signlaman.
When we were set up Pauline disappeared to grab some lunch and I got changed into my all black costume, and then sat down to a sandwich, It was 1 o’clock so I had plenty of time to eat before the audience were due to arrive in 30 minutes time. But as I embarked upon my tuna and sweetcorn feast the door opened and a lady ran in, she stopped with an air of great surprise, ‘where is everyone? I hope that more people than this come. It is raining and wild, I suppose, but still!’ and she sat down ready for the show – she certainly wanted to bag a good seat! We chatted a little, and I made a few notes on my script, and then it occurred to me what had happened, the lady had forgotten to put her clocks back that morning, and was convinced that it was showtime and that she would be the only audience member. Fortunately Pauline returned at that moment and politely pointed out that the audience were not going to be admitted until 1.30, at which point the mistake was realised!
When the correct hour arrived the room was filled with a capacity crowd, and many came to say hello (I was hovering at the back of the room), to say they had seen me previously at other venues, and were so excited to see me again, which is always very gratifying. On the stroke of 2 Pauline introduced me and I stepped up to a lectern to begin the talk. I am not altogether at home giving a lecture, but I have presented this one on a few occasions, so I know that it works. The talk follows the plot of the book, although without the biographical aspects of Dickens’ early life, concentrating on the train journey and the building works at Staplehurst, and the aftermath of the crash. Everything went well and bang on time I brought the first half to a close. The audience had a few minutes to stretch their legs, whilst I prepared the stage for The Signalman. When the set was complete, we encouraged everyone back into the room and I began. Naturally the introduction to the show was much shorter (most of it having been given in the first half), so in no time I was launching in to ‘Halloa! Below there!’
The passion and the mystery of the story worked well and I felt quite exhausted and elated as I brought the piece to its end. Having taken my bows, I opened the floor up to questions and the first was ‘what happened to Ellen?’ Ellen Ternan was Charles Dickens’ mistress and was travelling on the train with him. While he assisted with the rescue effort for 2 or 3 hours, Ellen and her mother Frances are conspicuous by their absence from any accounts. The press were ravenous and collected names of all of the passengers involved, but the Ternan name was absent from every one of those reports. Maybe a clue lies in a letter that Dickens wrote a few days after the crash. He described looking out of the carriage window and seeing two guards running beside the wreck, he called to them ‘Look at me. Do stop for an instant and look at me, and tell me whether you don’t know me.’ One of them answered, ‘we know you very well, Mr Dickens’. ‘Then,’ I said, ‘my good fellow, for God’s sake give me your key and send one of those labourers here and I ‘ll empty this carriage’….Charles Dickens ensured he had a few moments to get Ellen out of the train and away before he clambered down into the wreck and very visibly assisted in the rescue effort. In my book I suggest that although that his very public actionss were certainly not a cynical ploy to divert attention from his travelling companions, it was certainly a fortuitous opportunity to perform a sleight of hand as befitted a talented conjurer!
Some of the wounded were looked after in the village of Staplehurst itself whilst others were taken back to London on specially commissioned trains. I imagine that Dickens ensured that the Ternan’s were onboard one of the first trains to leave the scene.
Ellen appeared in London a few days later, for Dickens visited her there and wrote a letter to his manservant asking him to take her a fresh basket of foods and treats every day, so that she may be comfortable. He also wrote to the station master at Charing Cross station asking if a quantity of gold jewellery, engraved with the name Ellen, had been found, as his travelling companion had lost it during the crash. It was at this moment that the mystery of Ellen Ternan began to emerge.
Another question was in response to a comment I had made during my introduction to The Signalman about the fact that although Charles had prepared the story as a reading, he never actually performed it in public. I surmised that his reluctance to perform the piece may have been due to the mental trauma he suffered post Staplehurst, or the fact that being a relatively short reading it would only fit into the ‘comedy slot’ which typically came after a longer, more dramatic reading. The Signalman wouldn’t send an audience home with a cheery skip to their step.
Next came the Q&A ‘market place’: the local branch of The Dickens Fellowship promoted their meetings (I performed at their conference held in Durham a few years ago and they are a vibrant and enthusiastic bunch, indeed) and that was followed up by The Gateshead Little Theatre plugging their own performance of The Signalman which is due to open in a week’s time. I was very happy to give both groups the opportunity to ‘sell their wares’.
I then joined in the general commercial break by not only mentioning my book once more (Dickens & Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash. Published by Olympia Publishing), but also my return visit to The Word in December to perform A Christmas Carol, and then it was time for the audience to leave and for me to pack up my things.
Once the car was loaded I said my goodbyes and tentatively headed south as far as York, where I was due to stay overnight, thus breaking the long journey home.
I was staying in an elegant hotel called the Elmbank Lodge, although I had booked a ‘courtyard room’ rather than one of the more expensive rooms in the main building. Unfortunately I discovered that the restaurant would not be open to me, as they only had one chef on duty so the only guests who could dine were those who had booked a ‘dinner and breakfast’ package, However the young man at the front desk recommended Valentinos, an Italian restaurant just a 5 minute walk away, which took me past some beautiful Georgian town houses. I also walked past a branch of KwikFit tyre repairers which would be very uselful come the morning.
Dinner was superb, the restaurant was busy and vibrant, with one of the waiters breaking out into snatches of song with a fine baritone voice. I overheard him telling a neighbouring table that he came from Calabria, his house in the shadow of Stromboli. He certainly played the role of opera-singing Italian waiter to a tee, but I rather uncharitably wondered if in fact he came from Barnsley or somewhere similar! When I had finished my Sea Bass and was sipping a strong coffee he came to chat, noticing that I had been reading Motorsport Magazine: ‘Ahh! Motorsport, Ferrari – Ascari, Alboretto, Rossi!’ Yup, he was a genuine Italian!
I returned to the hotel and after a very long day retired early.
On waking on Monday morning and watching the television news I saw the story of a train crash that had taken place on Sunday night, on Hallowe’en. A train had struck some debris on the line and derailed, knocking out the signalling equipment as it did so, therefore there was no warning to a following train which ploughed into the wreck. Fortunately there were no fatalities but seventeen were wounded. The news footage focussed on the scene of accident – the two entwined trains at the mouth of a dark, dismal tunnel deep down in a cutting……..