Having returned from America last week, and having solemnly and proudly spending Monday watching the funeral of Queen Elizabeth (wearing a dark suit and black tie in respectful honour of my Monarch), it was time to turn my attentions to the two projects coming up in October.
The first is a performance of Mr Dickens is Coming and Doctor Marigold in my home town of Abingdon, to raise funds for Brain Tumour Research. My fundraising efforts began in April when Liz’s sister Sheila died from the condition and I decided to turn my hand to working on behalf of the charity. The main push to my efforts was entering the Oxford Half Marathon on October 16th, and much of my year has been spent pounding the Oxfordshire roads trying to get myself into shape to complete 13 miles. However I also decided to stage a benefit performance (which will require rather less effort than the Half), and that is due to be performed on 7th October, so my initial work was to put in place publicity for the show. I designed posters and had them printed and started sending press releases out to all and sundry. Ticket sales are looked after by Eventbrite and it was with a smile that the first email confirmations of bookings came into my inbox.
With publicity rolling, I also needed to get back to training. I had run a couple of times in America, but not with any great intensity, so I went out one afternoon to run the 6 mile ring road which surrounds Abingdon. Everything was going well and my breathing was good and the legs felt powerful….until the 3 mile mark when suddenly a searing pain came from my right calf. I immediately stopped (I had promised myself, and Liz, that if anything felt untoward I wouldn’t push on thereby risking further damage), and limped home. What I hoped might be a cramp lingered annoyingly into the evening and through the night, so I feared that I may have suffered my first running injury just as I should be in my final stages of preparations. The next day I called a sports physiotherapist, but he was unavailable, so I just went about my ordinary business without putting too much strain on my leg. The next day it felt better, and I tried a few little runs, just a few hundred yards at a time, and felt no adverse effects, so I was confident that I could get out for a proper training run again.
Today, 23 September, I dropped our children to school and then set off to do two laps of the ring road, which would mean a 12 mile run – the little loop back to home would mean that I would be completing around 13 miles, the very distance that I will need to achieve to complete the event in October. I knew that I had to prove to myself that I could complete 13 miles before arriving in Oxford, and it needed to be done sooner than later, for if I were still pounding out long distances in the week of the event I wouldn’t have any energy for the race itself, so today was the day (leg muscles allowing)
At 8.50 I started to run, and it felt good. I kept a steady pace, not wanting to go off too quickly, and soon was in the centre of the town. I passed the spot where my calf had gone a few days before and still everything was OK. On I ran, past the fire station and later the police station, then turning right opposite McDonalds and climbed gradually towards the point I’d started from.
For much of my training I have been listening to audiobooks to accompany me, but a good friend and keen runner had told me that actually he runs better with nothing playing in his ears, so today I tried this and it seemed to work. My mind, rather than concentrating on the unfolding story, just ambled around. I thought of my forthcoming show, I thought of the performances in the USA, I admired a motorcyclist’s crash helmet livery which was charmingly old fashioned, rather than the multi-coloured ones that are usually so popular. I listened to birds, looked at trees, read the names of haulage companies on the cabs of lorries, and the miles just slipped away under the soles of my feet
I still felt strong, so set off for a second 6 mile lap. I had a choice to make at this point, did I turn round and complete lap two in the reverse direction, which in hindsight would have been the sensible thing to do, or just plough on through familiar scenery? I decided to carry on. Of course it was getting harder, but I was soon in town again (where my 10 year old’s class was gathering to sing Status Quo’s ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ in the market square for reasons I am not sure of), and on towards McDonalds again, which would be the ten mile mark. At this stage, I admit, I began to find the going tough and I slowed to a walk a few times during those final 3 miles, but I never stopped, I was moving forward the whole time, and when I reached home I checked my Strava app and saw that I had clocked up exactly 13 miles. I had done it! When I had thought about this run I reckoned I could do it in around 2 hours, 10 minutes (I run at an average pace of 9.30 minute miles, but I knew I wouldn’t keep that up over thirteen and had estimated an average of 10 minute miles), and my final time was 2 hours 9 minutes, despite the walking: I was very very proud of that!
So I am in a good place, I know that I can do it, and now can rein back the distances a little to leave me with plenty of energy for the big day – I even have a PB to aim for now, I would like to get to around 2 hours if I could on the day.
So, I think that deserves some more sponsorship donations! Thank you so much to all of those who have already contributed so generously, taking the fund up to nearly £1,000, but we need more! So please do check out the link and come with me on my 13 mile journey.
Wednesday had promised to be another relaxing day in the cabin, possibly doing some work on the script for A Child’s Journey With Dickens, until I had received a text the day before from Bob’s son George asking me if I would like to join him for a round of golf (I had mentioned to Bob that I had brought my golf shoes just in case there was time for a round, and he had passed the message on). I readily agreed and George arrived at the cabin to pick me up at 8.45 in readiness for a 9.40 tee off. The course that he had selected was Heron Glenn Golf Club near to the town of Flemington from where I would be collecting a rental car later in the day.
We arrived at the club in good time and sorted out a set of rental clubs for me, which would provide a perfect excuse for poor play in the early holes, and made our way to the first tee, where another two players introduced themselves as Bill and Michael and told us that they would be playing with us, which turned out to be a good thing as they were able to show us the way around and warn us of hidden areas of rough. They had broad New York accents and George and I tried to guess what they had been during their working lives: we came up with either police officers, or maybe in the newspaper industry. We never did find out.
We had a wonderful time, I wont go into it hole by hole, but we all played some very good shots and we all played some woeful shots. On the whole George played more good shots than the rest of us, and if we had been competing he would have vanquished us, but we weren’t and instead we all had fun
From the golf course I had to pick up a rental car which will be with me until I arrive at Logan airport on Saturday to fly home. We were to go to a Hertz dealership in Flemington, and it took a bit of finding. In our defence the venue didn’t look like a Hertz office. In fact it was a very small car repair shop, with scattered bits of wounded automobiles lying on the ground. The only clue that the office may be part of one of the world’s leading car rental concerns was a tiny sign on the wall outside the office. I walked in and said I was due to collect a car and that my name was Dickens. ‘Ah, yes.’ said the lady in the office, its the white Nissan Rogue, here are the keys. Its got 3/4 of a tank, just drop it off with the same wherever you’re leaving it.’ And that was it! No signatures, no driving licence check, no credit cards: nothing. Easy, but I was not entirely sure that Hertz head office knew that I had their car.
I said goodbye to George, although we’d be meeting up again for dinner, and drove back to the cabin, where I took the Mustang out for one final journey to fill it up with petrol (during my drive to Burlington I’d watched the fuel gauge go down as quickly as the speed went up!) When I returned, I sorrowfully guided it into the garage and said my goodbyes.
George had booked a table for dinner in the town of New Hope, 30 minutes away, in a very smart restaurant overlooking the river. Maura, George’s girlfriend was also there and it was a great pleasure to meet her. She is going to be working with Pam on the administrative side of my tour and she was keen to find out as much as possible as to how it all works. She will be a great asset to the team, I think. We all dined well, I had a spicy Asian trout dish which was absolutely delicious, and it was a very pleasant evening with good company.
I returned to the Cabin for my final night in the woods
Although I had only one show on Thursday, in the evening, I did have a little extra work to do at Byers’ Choice, for David wanted to record a few promotional videos for the forthcoming Christmas tour. Firstly I sat at a large table and, looking into the camera, cheerily invited people to come and see A Christmas Carol at Byers’ Choice. Next I cheerily asked them to come and see A Christmas Carol at their local venue (this means that sponsors can put their own captions and booking details on the screen.) Then I told people that they may like to buy my book, and finally a piece about my DVD of A Christmas Carol (Yes! It is available this year). When all those short clips had been filmed Dave and I created a mini Byers’ Choice travel show as I walked through the visitor centre pointing out things of interest, especially relating to Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.
When the filming was finished I said my final goodbyes to Dave, Bob and George (who returned my golf shoes that I’d left in his ca)r, and I set out on the road East, towards Long Island. The traffic wasn’t too bad until I reached the environs of New York City, at which time I inevitably hit long tailbacks – some because of accidents, some because of roadworks and some just due to heavy city congestion. I had plenty of time in hand, though, so it was not a concern.
To skirt around Manhattan my route took me across the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn, and it has to be one of the world’s most truly impressive bridges to be sure, rivalling The Forth Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sidney Harbour Bridge, and even its near neighbour, the Brooklyn Bridge. The heavy traffic continued onto the misnamed Long Island Expressways but I arrived at the Marriott Hotel in good time. I had stayed at the same venue last Christmas so everything was familiar to me.
I had an hour or so at the hotel before I was due at the East Meadow Library where I was to perform the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold that evening. The drive to the library was only a matter of minutes and in no time I was greeting my friends from December Jude and her husband Mark, who helped me to unload my costumes and props ready to set up in the small auditorium. The first job was to reconstruct the danger light for The Signalman, using the screws and screwdriver that Dave had sent along with me. Mark used to be involved in Broadway theatre in the tech, set and props fields and as we built the light he was commenting on the construction of it, with a certain sense of admiration, but also with the inevitable ‘Ah, if I’d made this I would have……’
Soon we had the set in place and Jude suggested that we all went to get some dinner before the show, so we piled into Marks huge RAM truck and headed to a lovely Italian restaurant, where we dined alfresco, beneath huge sunshades. I had a simple chicken dish in a white wine and lemon sauce, which was delicious, but I was aware that time was pushing on towards six pm and we were due to start at seven. Mark noticed my unease and offered to drive me back to the Library so that I could finish my preparations in as relaxed way as possible.
The priority was to do a sound check with Larry, who had looked after my performance in December and who I knew to be a safe pair of hands on the faders, because of that I had also given him the wind sound effect to play during the first half. With the sound check completed and the set checked once more I left the room, so that the audience could take their seats, and went downstairs where I changed in a small staff cafeteria room.
At seven o’clock Jude came down to say we were holding for 5 minutes as guests were still arriving, but soon everything was in place to begin. Jude opened the door to the auditorium (the seating was raked, and I would be performing on the floor level), and I slipped in behind her, which elicited a round of applause form the audience, to which Jude hissed back at me in a loud pantomime-style whisper ‘you were supposed to stay outside!’ It was all good fun banter, and Jude is a natural entertainer.
With the introductions completed I started the show. The audience weren’t as responsive during the two performances as some others, there was not the same laughter at Marigold for instance, but oh my they were appreciative and applauded long and loudly afterwards. I learned long ago that audiences respond in different ways and just because there isn’t an instant response, it doesn’t mean that they are not enjoying, or appreciating the performance, and the crowd at East Meadow were a case in point. After Marigold was finished (and, yes, they gasped at the correct moment), I opened the floor up to questions and we had an enjoyable session covering lots of ground, including how do I learn lines? What is my favourite film or TV adaptation of any Dickens novel? (David Lean’s Great Expectations, or the BBC’s Bleak House), and how did I feel about the Queen? which brought the emotions that have been there all week bubbling up to the surface again. Soon it was time to wrap up and I took another round of applause before leaving the room. I loitered outside as the audience left and the questions continued until the library emptied and it was time to pack up my belongings, say my goodbyes and head back to the Marriott where I set my alarm for 5.45, as I had a three hour drive ahead of me to Massachusetts.
On Tuesday it was back to work, with two more performances of the same double bill that I performed in Georgia and at Byers’ Choice, in Burlington, New Jersey.
The two down days were spent at Bob and Pam’s cabin and enabled me to relax, follow the continuing news coverage from home, and to prepare for forthcoming shows. On Sunday the rain fell from dawn till dusk, and as Bob and Pam were at the cabin too, we all had a very lazy day, watching sport, reading, and completing a jigsaw puzzle that featured scenes and characters from the works of, guess who? Charles Dickens if course.
On Sunday evening Bob and Pam said their goodbyes and drove back to their home in town ready for the working week, leaving me in the middle of the woods alone with just a cacophony of insects in the trees to keep me company.
On Monday morning I woke early and looking out over the Delaware River valley I saw that although it was misty, the rain had abated, so I decided to go out for a training run.
At the bottom of the hill there is a canal with a towpath that runs for miles in both directions, so I set off at 6.15 and spent just over an hour running out and back, at one time being accompanied by a family of deer who bounded and skipped alongside me for a while. Unfortunately my running app on the phone refused to pick up a GPS signal, so I have no idea how far or how fast I ran, but based on previous experience it must have been about 5 or 6 miles all told including the long slow trek back up the steep driveway.
After I had showered and cooled down a little I decided to drive out to a nearby general store to pick up a few things for breakfast, and the rest of my stay, and it was now that I was introduced to my transport for the next couple of days, and what a splendid beast it was! In the garage sat a magnificent midnight blue Ford Mustang Convertible. I got into the drivers seat (the car sort of swallows you up, you sit so deep within it that you become part of it) and turned the key which opened the stable for all those horses to be freed. I assume it is a V8, it certainly sounded like one. I carefully reversed it out of the garage, and then placed my foot on the gas pedal (somehow I have to use the American terminology for this car) to propel it forward up the cinder track, and such was the power that the rear wheels simply spun on the loose surface leaving two little marks in my wake. My second attempt was much more gentle and off I went with the roof down. The lanes and roads around the river are narrow and have speed limits no greater than 45 mules per hour, so I couldn’t exploit the sheer power deep within (which was probably just as well), but to slowly cruise was wonderful. I think I love that car and may pop it into my hand luggage when I leave and steal it!
After I had shopped I returned to my woodland retreat atop the hill, had some breakfast and then settled down to various bits of work. The main focus of my morning was to work on the script for ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ which I am due to perform on Friday in Massachusetts. I have performed this little tale on many occasions and know the script very well, but this week’s performance is slightly out of the ordinary. During lockdown the Charles Dickens Museum in London asked me to perform an online version of the story, and I cooperated with my friend and fellow actor Jennifer Emerson, who is based in Massachusetts. Together we reworked the script, so that she took on the role of Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, whilst I enhanced the narrative with the recital of letters from Dickens, giving accounts of the planning for his American tour, his journey and his observations during his stay. It is an interesting challenge to learn, or at least re-learn, lines which have to fit within a script featuring another character. I am used to learning large chunks of text for my shows, and I have become quite adept at that over the years, but returning to the fragmented nature of dialogue, and having to make sure that another performer gets the correct cues is a much more disciplined task, so I have been spending quite a lot of time just pacing around the cabin muttering to myself.
At 10 o’clock on Monday morning I had a Zoom call with Jennifer and we went through the script together, making a few changes and discussing how we would actually stage the performance (of course last time we did it we were in different countries, so it was very much a vocal performance rather than a physical one).
When the call was over I did some more work on the lines, and then prepared myself to drive back to Byers’ Choice where 200 copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’ were waiting to be signed. Once more I settled myself deep within the Mustang and rumbled my way into Chalfont. The boxes of books were in the Conference Room, and I settled down to add my autograph to each copy, whilst listening to the BBC news coverage of events in Edinburgh as the Queen’s coffin was laid in state for the first time.
The signing didn’t take too long and when I had finished I went to find Bob to discuss another issue. The wonderful warning light that David had built for my performance of The Signalman was so impressive that I had suggested it would be great if I could take it to each of the forthcoming venues where I am due to perform the piece again. I will be driving to each, but the prop is over 6 feet tall and, especially in the case of Burlington, I would be driving in the Mustang which, for all its beauty, is not built to transport goods. I’d suggested that I keep the roof down and we had the light sticking up out of the top, maybe we could connect it to the brake pedal, so that it glowed ominously every time I slowed, but of course Dave and Bob had a more practical solution. I was taken to a workshop and witnessed the frame being sawn into two parts, with brackets to re-assemble it. Both parts would now fit in the Mustang and Dave had even installed a switch into the unit so that I could turn it off at the appropriate point of the show. I arranged to drop by in the morning, on my way to Burlington to pick up the finished article, before driving back to the cabin where I did a little more line learning, and then played myself at pool in the basement – and won!
Tuesday promised to be a busy day as I had two performances of my double bill, making it more like four performances. I gathered all of my costumes and props, loaded them into the Mustang and left the cabin at 9.15 and drove to Byers’ Choice to collect the light. As it would have to go into the back seat of the car, and as it had four metal plates to attach it again, Dave had also made some covers to avoid the metal edges damaging the upholstery, a very sensible precaution that I would never have thought about. I finished loading the car and then started the hour’s journey to Burlington, and the beautiful old United Methodist Church on Broad Street.
Burlington is one of my regular venues and I have been performing A Christmas Carol there for many years, so it was a pleasure to bring some more of my repertoire there this year. I pulled up outside the Church and went in, where I found Laura in the office preparing for the day’s events. Laura is our main contact at Broad Street and has been at the helm of the events since the very beginning, she is the centre of an active and deeply committed group of volunteers who put on amazing events. Laura told me that the audiences would be smaller than at Christmas, and we needed to decide where to stage the events. We could use the beautiful sanctuary, with its wrap around balcony and multi-level performing space, but a small audience may look rather lost in there, and also the day was hot and humid and there was no air conditioning in the hall.
The alternative was the basement room, also used for services, but much smaller and less beautiful, however it was cooler and the smaller space would suit the intimate nature of the double bill, whilst giving the impression of a larger crowd – the decision was an easy one in the end.
I unloaded the car, reconstructed the danger lamp, and then we all (me, Laura and the crew) worked on making the performance space look good. Lecterns and flags were removed, as well as large amounts of crucifixes and other religious iconology (I felt somewhat heretical, but as it was the members of the church community who were suggesting it, and doing the clearing I reckoned it was OK!). Laura asked if I wanted a large black cloth that is usually draped over the organ in the Sanctuary to be draped over the altar table, but an idea came into my head – was there any way we could hang it on the wall behind to create the great black void of the railway tunnel? Before I knew it people were clambering onto the altar, stretching up and trying to pin the cloth in place. In the end, the effect was perfect, but I am sure that I will be going to Hell for this.
The help continued as the team provided me with a very old book to represent the ‘official book’ that lies on the Signalman’s desk, and also a rather lovely miniature bell to stand on top of the signalling equipment. Both of these items looked superb on my set: along with the Mustang, my luggage promises to be bulging with nefariously purloined contraband when I leave on Saturday.
Even as we were setting up the first audience members began to arrive, so having checked that everything was in place, I retreated to my changing room, where the ever-attentive Marcia brought me my traditional pot of tea and biscuits – what a pre-show treat.
At 12.50 I made my way back downstairs in my Signalman costume, complete with black armband, and at 1 on the dot Laura welcomed the guests and handed the room to me. The audience were attentive and engaged, and the performance was intense and powerful, I enjoyed myself a great deal. The fact that I am continually performing the same repertoire on this trip means that it is becoming tighter and more effective with each show and I can relax much more. I finished the half, as I have done throughout this trip, by relating the anecdote of performing The Signalman on the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway in Wales##, where the audience had been brought up the mountain side, through the dark sombre slate hills, by train, and when I finished the show they all got back onto the (unlit) train and began the precipitous and precarious descent. Feeling that I should wave goodbye I had stood on a foot bridge across the line and waved in the manner of the spectre in the story, with one arm across my face. It is a good way to finish the act as it gets a bit of a laugh and just raises the spirits a little after the solemnity of the show itself.
At the interval I changed into my Marigold costume, with sleeves casually rolled up, thus displaying my war wounds from Jekyll, which have yet to heal fully and then returned to the room to change the set round in as anonymous a way as possible. When all was ready Laura called the room to order and Doctor M took over in his entertaining way. The audience laughed, were shocked, gasped and sobbed as the story toyed with their emotions and the applause at the end was wonderful – another group of people had become Marigold converts.
When the show was over and bows taken, we all made our way into another hall where tables are laid out, whilst tea, cakes, cookies and large slices of pumpkin pie are served. This is always a very nice informal way to conduct a meet and greet, autograph session, as everyone just watches until there is no line and ambles up to my desk to chat. On this occasion a very kind gentleman presented me with a large resin beer stein complete with characters from A Christmas Carol in relief – people are so generous. Throughout the session everyone offered sincere condolences for my country’s loss, there is a very genuine sense of grief and sorry here too.
The session drifted to its end and I returned to the hall to re-set for the evening’s performance of The Signalman, so that everything was ready. I changed and all of the Broad Street team walked to Francesco’s restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner. I enjoyed a salad with crispy chicken and honey mustard dressing, whilst the chat and banter was as entertaining as ever – these people are good people, kind people, generous and fun people.
Back to the church, and I had an hour or so to rest before the 7 o’clock show. My dressing room was in a large room used for Sunday school teaching, as well as for games and play. In the middle of the room was a pool table, so I had a few frames and once again I beat myself – I must be getting quite adept at the game as I keep winning.
Soon it was time to get back to business and I got back into costume ready for the 7 o’clock start. The evening audience was smaller, but just as attentive. My good friend Kevin from the New York branch of the Dickens Fellowship was there, which was great to see, but it meant I couldn’t get away with any incorrect facts as I spoke of Staplehurst (he knows his Dickens, does Kevin!), fortunately he was nodding a lot, which was a good sign.
Both shows went well again, although I was feeling the fatigue during Marigold, but the effect at the end was the same as in the afternoon and many a tear was surreptitiously wiped away.
At the reception I chatted with Kevin and his wife, and with many other regular fans, who have been coming to see A Christmas Carol for many years and who were delighted to see some of my other material. Soon, though, they drifted away and it was time to get changed and then start to dismantle the set, break down the light, and carefully pack everything into my mighty steed ready for an hour’s drive back to the cabin. I really felt very tired, but had the windows wide open as I drove. There were lots of deer along the way, but fortunately none ran into my path, which was a relief. At about 11pm I pulled the car into the parking space outside the house, locked it, and went inside.
Friday night wasn’t very long for me, but even so I managed to injure myself during it. I woke somewhere around 1am and made my way through the dark to the bathroom. It was as I returned to the bed that I tripped over my suitcase, let open ready to pack in the early hours. As I fell forward I was vaguely aware that the wooden bed was close and stuck my hands out to break my fall but in doing so I scraped my right wrist along the sharp edge of the case, leaving a nasty graze.
I got back to bed and fell asleep. The next thing I knew alarms were bleeping and chiming and it was time to get up. I made a cup of coffee and quickly showered before packing my wash bag and closing up my guillotine suitcase. I left the room at 3.30 and made my way along a series of wooden walkways and was amazed to see a couple sat at a table talking, they said a polite ‘good morning’, as if chatting to fellow guests at 3.30 in the morning was the most natural thing in the world.
The drive back to Jacksonville airport was just over an hour, so my phone’s navigation app told me, and I drove through the darkness and duly arrived at 4.30. I drove to the Hertz rental return and then walked into the terminal where I was amazed how busy it was. I joined a queue for the United airlines bag drop and then made my way through security and arrived at my gate with 15 minutes before boarding was due to commence. I grabbed a little pot of yoghurt, a bottle of orange juice and a cinnamon roll and had a very quick ‘breakfast’ before being called to board.
I also studied my injury which was looking quite livid and raw. The shape of the wound looked rather like a collection of islands in an Australasian archipelago, and was feeling a little sore, I could also feel a scrape on my shin, where first I tripped and also an ache on my upper lip, where I banged my face – not bad work for a 4-hour night!
The flight took off in darkness and I dozed a little, but when the coffee service came round I was awake for good, so opened the United Airlines app and watched Local Hero, which made me have thoughts of longing to be back in the Highlands of Scotland again.
The sun had risen during the flight and it felt as if it should be around 10 or 11 in the morning, in fact it was a little before 8am. As I waited at the carousel in baggage claim I was greeted by the cheery face and hug of Pam Byers who had driven out to pick me up. My home for the next few days would be the Byers’ cabin overlooking the Delaware river and having loaded my bags into her little white Golf GT we set off for the beautiful remote spot in the woods. We had a couple of hours during which I could just catch my breath a little, and I showered again to wake me up, before we had to set off to the Byers’ Choice headquarters where I was due to perform that afternoon. On the way Pam stopped at a WaWa petrol station and I grabbed a sandwich, some fruit and some crisps for a brief lunch, and then on to the building that is so familiar to me – my office in the USA. Whenever I come to Chalfont I feel so much apart of the Byers’ Choice team, it is a very special place to be.
As with all of the shows on this mini-tour the audience was going to be smaller than those for A Christmas Carol, so the team had taken the decision to build a more intimate theatre in the cafeteria space rather than in the cavernous manufacturing room. I said hello to David Daikeler, who looks after all of my technical requirements at Byers’ and then to Jeff and finally to Bob Byers. They had done a fantastic job in building the theatre, and the stage not only had the furniture for The Signalman’s hut, but also a magnificent red danger light built by Dave specifically for this occasion. At each side of the stage were a couple of antique carts which set the scene for Doctor Marigold. David had hung a series of theatre lights, and would be able to control the various lighting effects that I use in theatres at home.
We were also experimenting with something new – a sound effect. In The Signalman the narrative talks about the wind whistling through the deep railway cutting, indeed it almost becomes part of the haunting itself. For a few years I have thought about using sound, sparingly and subtly, and I had decided that the Byers’ Choice performance, with Dave at the rudder, would be the perfect time to try it out. Over the previous weeks I had spent many hours, becoming rather obsessed with the project, listening to various wind sound effects, some were too stormy, others too calm, some too sci-fi and others too artificial, but eventually I found one that fitted the bill. Now, it was my first chance to see how it sounded, and I began a run through of the script as Dave played around with sound levels. My suggestion had been that I wanted to audience to feel cold and uneasy without actually knowing why, so the effect should be very much used as an ambient sound, rather than being too intrusive. It sounded perfect.
Having finished our technical rehearsals I went to the large conference room that doubles as my dressing room on such occasions, and ate my lunch before signing 30 copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’, which would be sold at the performance. Back in the theatre the audience were arriving and I changed into costume ready to start the show at 3 0’clock, twelve hours after I woke up.
There was a good audience in the room and once we were sure that nobody else was going to arrive, Bob turned off the lights and we made our way towards the stage. Bob is always superb at welcoming the audience to the shows, but on this occasion he completely caught me off guard, by sombrely offering his condolences to me and my country, before calling the audience to observe a moment’s silence in memory of and in tribute to The Queen. I stood with my head bowed and had to wipe away a tear or two before stepping up to the stage. I have been amazed and deeply touched by the response of America during these days, with all flags flying at half mast, and this in a week of such commemoration and sorry in their own country as they remember the horrors of 9-11.
On the stage I thanked the audience and then, as Marigold likes to say, had to ‘thoroughly shake myself together’ to get the show going. I talked about Staplehurst, remembering to shameless plug my book (by the way, it is available on Amazon), before I was ready to place my left arm over my face and cry out ‘Halloa! Below there!’ Oh it was intense and dark and wonderful. The sound effect worked very well, and certainly added a chill to the atmosphere, whilst the various lighting effects were expertly conducted by Dave at his tech console. When I finished the show and had taken my bows I left the room to quickly change costumes, and in my wake Bob, his son George and Dave reset the stage ready for Doctor Marigold.
I returned to the theatre and when everyone was in their seats I took to the stage once more and introduced the audience to Doctor Marigold. I was beginning to feel tired by now and there were a few fumbles in lines, but the story of the cheapjack was wonderfully received by the audience, and the gasp at the end of the performance (which Dickens’s manager George Dolby remarked on in his memoir of the reading tours) was as loud and heartfelt as ever with a few hands going up to a few tear-filled eyes. 157 years after Doctor Marigold first appeared, the effect is still the same.
The applause was long and I took a number of bows, before opening the floor to questions. At most Q&A sessions I can be fairly certain of the questions that will be asked, but the first one on Saturday was definitely a first, nobody has ever asked me this before: ‘Is it true that the actor who played Alfred in Batman is related to you?’ Yes! it is! In the 1960’s series featuring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, the loyal butler Alfred was played by Alan Napier, an English actor who in 1944 married Aileen Hawksley a direct descendant of Charles Dickens through his son Henry, the same line as myself. I remember as a child looking at our family tree and being much more excited about having a relative (albeit through marriage) who was in Batman than I was about being related to a Victorian author!
Another question also moved me to silence but for a completely different reason, I was asked ‘how do you pack?’, the point of the question being do I travel with all of the props and furniture, and how on earth do I manage that. But in a moment of confusion I sort of thought that I was in Boston or New Hampshire and to my mind he was asking with a broad New England accent ‘how do you park?’ It seemed an odd question to ask and I floundered around for a while wondering how to answer. Eventually I realised my error and explained that individual venues provide the furniture and I travel as lightly as I could! I must blame my confusion on the 3 o’clock start to my day!
I kept on taking more questions and answering as fully as I could, until Bob came up onto the stage and rescued me from myself.
Back in the conference room I changed back into my regular clothes and when I had collected everything up Pam and Bob took me out for an early supper before heading back to the cabin where I was asleep by about 8.30 pm. It had been a long day, indeed.
On Friday it was time to get to work. I woke early thanks equally to being in the wrong time zone, but also thanks to a tropical storm beating the roof and window panes of my room. I logged on to the BBC news coverage and watched as the news of the Queen’s death and the King’s accession still played out, eliciting the same emotions in me as the day before. I noticed that many of the correspondents wore black arm bands and decided that that was a suitable way to show my respects during the days and weeks of official mourning. The only problem with that plan was that I didn’t have a black arm band, or even any material to make one, but a quick online search showed me that there was a fabric store on St Simon’s Island, just a 30 minute drive away and as I had plenty of time on my hands I decided that I would make the journey.
I cant remember when I had last been at the Jekyll Island Club Resort, it must have been 15 or 20 years ago now, in a completely different era of touring, and readers of my blog posts will know nothing about it, for my performances there predate ‘On the Road With….’.
Having performed at The Dickens on the Strand festival in Galveston Texas in 1994 I was approached by Caroline Jackson, an entrepreneurial lady who wanted to build a tour around my show, and offered to become my US agent. At that stage I had no thoughts of touring and simply enjoyed the experience of the single trip to Texas, with a stop in Kansas City tagged on. Caroline, however, had bigger ideas, and promised great things if I signed with her, which I did, and so this amazing story began.
In her efforts to find venues for the first tours Caroline signed an agreement with The Historic Hotels of America chain, an umbrella organisation that marketed various hotels which were, naturally enough, historic, and it was through that connection that I first performed at Hershey, Williamsburg, Ojai, The Memphis Peabody and many others, including on Jekyll Island.
As I had driven towards the hotel on Thursday afternoon I had tried to remember what it had been like – I recalled the people I worked with and the sheer sense of fun, but had no real memory of the physical layout of the hotel. Vaguely in my mind I recalled the dining room being slightly awkward to perform in, I seemed to think quite long and narrow, but that was all. As I arrived I remembered the grandeur and elegance of the property – anywhere with a croquet lawn is quite special!
On Friday morning I went down to breakfast, which was served in The Grand Dining Room and it all came flooding back to me – yes the room was long, and had four rows of pillars through it, making five distinct corridors, albeit not filled in by walls.
I remembered that to perform A Christmas Carol I had to work the room, making sure I was always on the move, with no fixed area to focus the acting on. I also remembered that the banquet staff would be clearing the previous course as I performed, meaning that there were ample opportunities to include the waiting staff in the story (thinking back, I am sure that they must have hated it), and one poor guy always managed to be in the wrong, or the right, place during the Fezziwig ball and I would end up dancing a jig with him.
As I looked at the room over my eggs and bacon I dragged my mind from the past into the present and looked at the possibilities for my evening performance of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold. I knew that the evening was going to be an intimate affair and I doubted that we would need the whole dining room, so how else could we stage it? The answer was the door to the room, for as you enter there is a full width area, unencumbered by the pillars, at one side was a large bookcase (perfect as a backdrop for Marigold), and at the other a fireplace (suitable for The Signalman.) That seemed to be the perfect place to perform, I also noticed the large wooden desk with a sloping top, used to check guests in, and wondered if I could appropriate that for the desk in the Signalman’s hut.
After breakfast I immediately walked to the car and set off to St Simons Island. It was a beautiful drive, across flat wetlands where herons flew in such numbers that they reminded me of seagulls.
I drove on across various bridges and soon I was pulling up outside the fabric shop. To my dismay I realised that it actually sold fabrics for furnishing – curtains, drapes, furniture coverings etc, and didn’t have anything that would suit my purpose, but the owner did suggest the next shop which specialised in quilting, so I tried there instead. As I walked in a lady was using a huge machine, reminiscent of a Victorian cotton mill (except it was powered by electricity and had a laptop attached to it), to create a huge piece of work. She was concentrating hard, as the needles darted this way and that to create the elaborate pattern, and I thought it best just to wait quietly until she had finished that particular section, On she went, ignoring me completely, not even a quick ‘Ill be with you shortly’. Finally she stopped, looked up, saw me and jumped in the air at the same time shouting ‘JESUS CHRIST!! OH GOD!’ Such had been her concentration she had no idea I’d even entered the shop and then suddenly there was this apparent apparition standing at her counter watching her. After holding her chest and panting for a while, she calmed down and I apologised for scaring her so much. I explained what I wanted and why, and she immediately began to talk about The Queen and Charles and, inevitably, Diana and Camilla. She was very kind and she was the first actual person I had spoken to about the Queen since she died and I found myself becoming very emotional all over again. My new friend very kindly made no charge for the small amount of fabric, seeing as what it was for.
I drove back to Jekyll Island, returned to my room and fetched my sewing kit (which I travel with to patch up costumes if they suffer from the rigours of the tour), and started to hem the edges before completing a small hoop that snuggled onto my arm without slipping.
Having completed my needlework I went to the little pantry store in the hotel and bought a chicken salad, which I ate on an outside deck whilst admiring two little green lizards running to and fro.
I spent the afternoon running through my lines for the two shows and getting frustratingly tangled up in both, which was slightly worrying. The best thing would have been to gone for a walk, but yet another tropical rain storm had settled over the island and I was restricted to quarters.
Variety was provided by a meeting with the hotel staff about the evening’s event and to my delight they told me that they were indeed setting up in the wide space at the entrance to the room, and yes it would be fine to use the sloping desk for my set.
We chatted about the timetable (guests were dining at 7.30 and I would start performing after they had finished an hour later, which meant it was going to be a late evening.)
I went back to my room and did some more rehearsing, with more success this time (I actually put costume on, which helped me to concentrate more), and then settled back to wait for the start of the show. As I sat on my bed I remembered that I had a very early start in the morning, in fact I would need to set my alarm for 3am to leave the hotel at 3.30, so I began to carefully pack everything I could in my suitcase, and left it lying open on the floor at the end of the bed ready to add my costume and wash bag to it in the morning.
At 7.45 I got fully into The Signalman’s all black costume, including my black arm band which naturally didn’t show, but I knew I was wearing it, and made my way down two flights of stairs into the small bar area, which is just outside the dining room, and where quite a group was gathering and starting a rowdy evening. In the dining room a more sedate and elegant evening was progressing as the guests were served their main courses. I sat in a large leather arm chair to wait. At various stages some of the guests came out of the room to get some fresh air, or stretch their legs and chatted to me. One lady had actually been at one my previous performances here when she was a young girl, apparently I stole some asparagus from her plate during the show, and she has never forgotten it.
I received updates during the rest of dinner from the hotel’s audio visual guy, Dante, and eventually, at 8.30, I got the word that the dinner service was complete and cleared and that I could start. There was nobody to make introductory remarks or welcome me to the stage, so I simply walked into the room and began.
The lines for the Signalman flowed well and the dark eerie light that Dante had created with a couple of floor LED spotlights added to the atmosphere in the lonely signal box, and when I got to the end of the show the audience applauded warmly. I announced that I was going to disappear to perform a quick costume change and would be back in a few minutes to continue the evening, at which I made my way behind the large book case and changed costume in a sort of cupboard/passage way/storage area just a few feet from the stage itself. Soon I was in the corduroy trousers, collarless shirt with rolled up sleeves (black arm band showing clearly this time), plain waistcoat and rough laceless boots. I re-emerged with as little ceremony as I could so that I could move the furniture around and place the little flight of steps that would represent Marigold’s cart, without the audience thinking it was part of the show. When the set was ready, I waited until the guests had all returned and started once more.
Doctor Marigold went as smoothly as The Signalman, with just a couple of minor line errors, that while frustrating to me, didn’t effect the show itself. I reached the end and again received lovely applause and then stayed on the stage to do a little Q&A session, before everyone prepared to leave. I posed for some photographs and then collected all of my props and the Signalman’s costume and made my way up stairs to my room. In the bar the boisterous party was still in full fling, and at the centre of it were two British gentlemen, so I joined in with the banter for a while before retiring for the night.
I packed my costumes into the little roller case – it is amazing how much that can hold, set the bedside alarm and my phone for 3am and left the large case open ready for the morning.
My busy early summer continued last Friday with a trip to the home of the traditional British pork pie – Melton Mowbray. An online recipe for this delicious pastry product states that you should set the oven at 180 degrees Celsius before beginning the preparation, and it seemed as if someone had set the weather gauge to the same temperature last week. It was the hottest day of the year in Britain and as a race we don’t do very well in the heat (or in snow, or fog, or ice, or wind; although we are quite good at rain), and a typical conversation of the day would have run: ‘Oh, my, it’s too hot, isn’t it?’, ‘Yes, it is. Unbearable. But we shouldn’t grumble.’ ‘No! of course not, but a little cooler would be nice.’ ‘I hear there is a storm due this evening, that will break it!’ The same exchange would have taken place up and down the country.
I was due to perform my double bill featuring The Signalman and Doctor Marigold and the set for that programme only just fits into the back of my car and then only if I get everything in the correct order and alignment. By the time everything was in and the boot lid shut successfully without the glass shattering into a million pieces (which actually happened to me many years ago), I was a dripping sodden mess. I had a shower to freshen myself up again and after having a hearty lunch I set off towards Leicestershire, with the various items of the set rattling in the back.
I had booked a hotel in the town and when I checked in I found that the sun had been beating on the front of the hotel (where my room was situated) all afternoon and the atmosphere was oppressive. Fortunately there was a huge fan in the room which, as well as giving the feeling that I was in a Caribbean villa, also stirred the air a little and created a comforting breeze as I relaxed.
I was due at the venue at 4.pm, so didn’t have long at the hotel, and at 3.45 I returned to my car to make the very short drive across town to The Hope Centre, the base of Melton Vineyard Christian Church. Although the Church’s services are not actually held at the Centre, it is open throughout the week as a drop-in centre and a foodbank, serving the entire community; the sad fact being that it’s services are being called upon more and more frequently as the country’s economy continues to suffer.
I have performed at The Hope Centre before and my contact there is Gillian Ennis. Those readers with a keen eye and good memory may recognise the surname, for her brother Ben Ennis is responsible for staging my shows at the Guildhall in Leicester. I arrived a little after 4.15, having become considerably tangled up in the Melton one-way traffic system, but I had plenty of time in hand and a parking place had been left for me close to the back door, into which I could unload my two sets of furniture. My performance space was on the second floor of the building but I was assisted in the process of heaving everything into place both by Neal, who runs the centre, and a small lift which has been installed into the old building. It is a quirky lift in that it has no walls and ceiling, just a floor, which means if you happen to be leaning against the side as it begins its journey you discover that you are sort of pulled down because you are actually leaning against the lift shaft. Similarly as you approach the top of the building you can see the roof getting ever closer and there is a feeling for a moment that the lift wont stop and that the end is nigh…..such dramatic imaginations, as if from a big-budget disaster movie, seem curiously out of place in a building filled with such compassion and love.
In the room on the top floor Neal began to erect a stage and when all was fixed in position I placed the furniture for The Signalman. Being on the very top floor the room was, of course, very hot (one complete wall being large windows through which the sun had shone all afternoon), and although there were two air conditioning units rattling away, they were fighting a losing battle.
When the set was in place, a call came up from one of the rooms below that supper was ready: Gill had very kindly prepared a fish pie with peas, followed by a choice of rhubarb crumble with cream or a fruit salad. What a treat! As we dined Neal decided to open an emergency exit to allow some air in, knowing that the action would set off an alarm, so he disappeared to override the security system, before returning to resume his meal. After a few minutes he had a phone call from the security company just checking that everything was OK at The Hope Centre, and he was able to reassure them that yes, it was.
When dinner was finished I returned to the room upstairs and began to rehearse Doctor Marigold, as I hadn’t performed it for a few weeks (Back in Bury St Edmunds) and so many other scripts had come and gone since that I wanted to be sure that everything was in place. Having satisfied myself that Marigold was ok, I moved onto The Signalman, although I was less worried about that having performed it regularly over the last couple of weeks.
As the time for the show came ever closer I withdrew into Neal’s office which was repurposed as my dressing room for the evening, and drank lots of water, before getting into costume. I could hear the audience gather and they sounded to be a lively, enthusiastic bunch. At 7.30 Neal welcomed all present and introduced me. I took to the stage and began by talking about Staplehurst (taking care to mention my book, which would be on sale at the end of the evening), and then began with The Signalman. In no time the sweat was dripping down my face so much that my eyes began to sting. The audience were also using anything that came to hand to fan themselves. The sensible ones, who knew the room, has sat in the very back row, directly under the two air con units.
As the suspense of the story built the atmosphere was a little hindered by the distant sounding of an alarm siren, and I noticed that each time Neal left the room to see what was happening. He told me afterwards that apparently there was another group using a space in the building and they had tried to open an emergency door, as Neal had done earlier. Of course the alarm went off, but when it was re-set they fastened the door on its safety chain meaning it kept pulling closed, then blowing open again, setting the alarm off each time! It didn’t really effect the show too much and the first half ended with lovely applause and I returned to my dressing room, where I stood in front of a large fan with a towel draped over my head until I had sufficiently cooled down to change into Doctor Marigold’s costume ready for the second half.
I needed to change the set around, so whilst the audience were chatting and enjoying their interval drinks I bumbled around the stage removing the signal box set and replacing it with the wooden steps, which represent Marigold’s cart, the plain wooden crate with a rolled up blanket inside, a little rustic wooden stool, and a few other pieces of set dressing. Although I didn’t actually say anything or interact, in my mind I was Marigold arriving at a new pitch, setting up his cart ready to sell to the gathering crowd.
I returned to the dressing room, drank more water and waited for Neal to give me the go ahead for part 2
Marigold, once more, charmed the audience and the applause at the end was long and heartfelt. A few days later Neal emailed me to say that one gentleman in the audience had ‘come to support the event and that it wasn’t really his ‘thing’, but he’d been absolutely held throughout and now he won’t miss any future events.’ which is a lovely compliment to both the performance but more especially to the wonderful creation of my great great grandfather.
When the show was over I chatted to audience members as they left, as well as signing copies of my book, until the only people left were the volunteers and staff from Melton Vineyard. I changed and then began the process of loading up the lift for multiple journeys to the car park, where I tried to remember the order in which I had stacked all of my props that morning. When everything was in, I said my goodbyes and drove back to my hotel.
The room was cooler now and the large fan still whirred as another day of performing drew to a close.
My busy week continued on Thursday when I drove across the country to the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, and this had been a show which was a long time coming. About three years ago I first had an email from Clifford Hind asking me to appear in the town as part of the 2020 Bury St Edmunds Festival, and arrangements were made as to which show I should perform and what my fee would be. Charles Dickens had visited the town three times, and Cliff was keen to bring the Dickens name back after a gap of 159 years. February came and confirmatory emails were exchanged. March came and the spread of Covid began to take its grip. Inevitably I had another confirmatory email (among many others from various venues), this time with the news that the festival had been cancelled, but asking that we go ahead with the plan for the 2021 festival. A year passed and still Covid held sway, and the Bury St Edmunds Arts Festival was cancelled once more. It seemed more unlikely that the show would ever come off, but Cliff asked that we keep in touch and hopefully we could do something, sometime.
As Autumn of 21 passed it seemed as if things were improving and Cliff was back in touch asking of May 26, 2022 would work – the show wouldn’t be part of the Festival but would be a benefit for the Moyse’s Hall Museum, a 12th Century building housing an comprehensive collection of items telling the story of the town’s long and fascinating history. Cliff wanted me to perform The Trial from The Pickwick Papers and Doctor Marigold, as well as giving a brief talk about Charles’s connection with Bury St Edmunds. The latter request always fills me with terror, for the truth is that local historians will always have access to a great deal more information than me, and the danger is that I just trot out a few easily discoverable facts, promoting local ire. I would need to make sure that my research was sound and that I delivered it in my own way.
On the 16th May, shortly after my return from Kent and before I set off for Cheshire, another email from the Hind household came in, but this time it was from Diane, Cliffs wife with the very sad news that Cliff had unexpectedly died. Our show had occupied so much of his time and attention that Diane and the committee had made the decision to go ahead with the plan and stage the evening in his honour. Suddenly the pressure to do a good job mounted.
On the morning of 26 May I loaded the car with my reading desk and the various rustic paraphernalia for Marigold, as well as the costumes I would need. For some reason I was incredibly nervous about the day and had woken that morning with a pit-of-the-stomach sense of panic, which didn’t leave me all day. As I drove I had my script laid out on the passenger seat and made constant reference to it when I was stopped in traffic.
I arrived in Bury St Edmunds at 4pm, an hour before I was due at the Guildhall where I was to perform, so I parked in front of the famous Angel Hotel, which is where Charles stayed on each of his three visits. As with many hotels across the country, the Angel is proud of its association with Dickens and boasts a blue plaque on its ivy-covered façade, honouring him.
I went in and sat in the stylishly designed lobby and ordered a coffee. A nearby bookcase had copies of Dickens books, as well as a little figurine representing Mr Pickwick and I quietly raised my cup to him. Having finished my coffee I left the hotel and walked through the great stone arch into the abbey gardens where beautifully manicured lawns are dotted with various flint ruins. My home town of Abingdon has similar gardens, where our own Abbey once dominated the skyline, but Henry VIII changed the landscape of Britain forever with his dissolution act of the 1530s, and these beautiful buildings were destroyed. In the case of Abingdon we are not even left with even ruins, for not only was the gold, silver and other treasures taken but the stone itself was taken on barges down the River Thames to be used in the building of new and grand palaces.
Bury St Edmunds Abbey Ruins
After a peaceful and relaxing walk I returned to my car and drove to the Guildhall building, just a few steps away from The Angel, but quite a drive as I had to navigate through a narrow warren of one-way streets, before turning through an opened gate into a small driveway with a space reserved for me. I was greeted by Jill Badman who is not only the manager of The Guildhall but also lives in a charming cottage on site. As I took in my surroundings (beautifully tended gardens) Jill took me into the main building and showed me the room in which I was to perform, and an elegant space it was indeed. A small stage had been erected in front of the fireplace, which would be a perfect setting for my red reading desk.
The Guildhall has a definite history that dates back to 1279 and there are possible references to it over100 years before that, making it senior to my ‘other’ Guildhall in Leicester, which is a little scamp having been built in 1390!
Jill showed me my dressing room which was in the Tudor Kitchen complete with a huge fireplace complete with a pulley operated spit. When she was sure that I had all that I needed Jill left me to my own devices and I began to ferry my props, furniture and costume from my car to the hall. I erected my red screen behind the stage and set up the desk and while I was doing that Diane Hind arrived and introduced herself. I don’t know if Diane is a hugger, but I gave her a big hug and we agreed that Cliff would have been pleased that we were staging ‘his’ event and that we would all make it a memorable evening in his honour. Diane and her son were incredibly strong throughout the evening
As more volunteers and committee members began to arrive, I retreated to my kitchen (where I learned from an educational sign that the Tudors only ate strawberries if they have been cooked) and pondered as to how I would present the first act. Cliff had asked me to talk a bit about how The Pickwick Papers had been written (the novel having connections with Bury), and I was torn between academic and entertaining…I plumped for the latter. In my mind I ran through the various talks I had given about CD’s childhood, his seeing Gad’s Hill and his father’s motivational words about it. I would talk about the creation of Sketches by Boz, his meeting with artist Robert Seymour and the creation of Pickwick. All of those stories are delivered in a light-hearted way, and occasionally take liberties with strict fact (for example, I don’t think that Frederic Chapman really did cry out ‘Who the Dickens is Boz?’ when trying to engage the young author to provide text for Seymour’s illustrations), but they are all based in reality.
Having satisfied myself as to the shape of Act 1 I relaxed in the gardens as the audience gathered. At 7pm I waited at the back of the hall while Margaret Charlesworth introduced me. When I had walked to the stage to welcoming applause Margaret also took a moment to say a few words about Cliff before handing over the evening to me.
My cobbled together first act worked very well and I brought the whole story back to Bury St Edmunds by quoting two letters that Dickens had written during his reading tour of 1861. He had debuted a new reading based on David Copperfield in the city of Norwich and had complained that the audience there were ‘lumpish’, however two days later after another performance of the same piece he described a ‘very fine audience. I don’t think a word – not to say an idea – was lost!’ and that audience was from Bury St Edmunds. There is a natural geographic rivalry between Norfolk and Suffolk, so this mini victory was well received.
Having finished my biographical performances I stepped up to the reading desk to perform The Trial from Pickwick. This was one of Dickens’ favourite readings and is the one that he performed more than any other during his years of touring. It is filled with wonderful characters such as Sergeant Buzfuzz, Justice Stareleigh, Mrs Cluppins and, of course Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller, and pokes fun at the sheer pomposity of the legal system. The reading went well with plenty of laughter and when I concluded I received a very warm round of applause.
I was rather worried that I had over run somewhat, but nobody seemed to mind and I called to mind Jill’s words from earlier, ‘Remember, we are on Suffolk time here’. I returned to my kitchen and changed into my Doctor Marigold costume before returning to the hall, removing the reading desk and screen, and replacing it with the little wooden steps, the 3-legged stool, the rustic wooden box and a kettle and shovel which go to make my set for my favourite performance.
When everyone was seated I took to the stage in the character of the lovable cheapjack and told his story with all of its highs and lows. The audience were transfixed and were with me the whole way through (even when a rather loud motorcycle revved his engine in a most un-Victorian manner outside). Charles Dickens’ tour manager George Dolby described how the audiences gasped when a revelation is made in the last two lines of the performance, and I would love to be able to tell Dolby and his Guv’nor that a 21st century audience gasp in the same way – there was hardly a dry eye in the Guildhall on Thursday evening, and I include my own in that. It was a wonderful performance and one I was extremely proud of.
Margaret returned to the stage, clearly very moved, and thanked me, and after taking more applause I made my way to the back of the room and signed some copies of my books and chatted to the audience as they left. It rounded off a most enjoyable evening.
Margaret had very kindly offered me hospitality at her home, and when I had changed and packed up all of my things into the car she rode with me and directed me to her wonderful Victorian house where her husband Roger was waiting. We sat around the kitchen table and chatted as we ate some bread and cheese and sipped a little wine. We finished the evening with a cup of tea and my mug had a facsimile of the Magna Carta on it. Margaret’s email address features the word magnacarta and its turns out that she is a renowned export on the subject. This was a curious coincidence as earlier in the week on a run I had been listening to an audiobook of ‘Three Men in a Boat’ in which the narrator imagines being present at Runnymede in 1215. As I listened I realised that I know so little about such an important moment in English history and vowed that I would purchase a book on the subject and educate myself. So, in Margaret’s kitchen, as I sipped my tea, I mentioned to her this happy twist of fate, and explained that other knowing that the Maga Carta had been signed at Runnymede I knew little of the political background and circumstances. Well, I had clearly failed my first test, for Margaret pointed out that ‘It was never signed! It was sealed!’ Oops!
It was late now and as the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins that evening gently dissipated, I began to feel tired and said my goodnights to Margaret and Roger.
I slept very well and next morning enjoyed a simple breakfast of fruit juice, muesli and toast. Before I left, Margaret showed me their beautiful garden, as well as asking me to sign their visitor’s book. I had been their first guest, other than family, since the first lockdown of 2020. Soon it was time to get on the road and as I drove away I reflected on a very happy day in the company of kind and hospitable people, and I hope that the gap before the Dickens name returns to the town will be a little shorter this time.
Throughout my working year most of the venues that I perform at are repeat bookings, meaning that I know who I am going to meet, where I am going to change and how the room feels. The fact that I have so many requests to return is a wonderful compliment, and makes me feel very satisfied about what I am doing. Occasionally, however, I will receive an email out of the blue asking me to visit a new city and organisation and this is always exciting but slightly nerve-wracking. Such a thing occurred last year when I was contacted by The Leeds Literary Festival with a request to appear as part of their 2022 event. In fact they had wanted me two years ago, but the onslaught of Covid put paid to that. We communicated via email and phone until we settled on Wednesday 2 March as a suitable date, and I would perform my double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold in The Leeds Library.
The day dawned grey and rainy and I spent the morning loading the car up with the various props that the two shows require, and it is quite a collection: for The Signalman I have a large clerk’s desk, which is in two parts – stand and top, a small table, a chair and a stool. On top of the desk is a large wooden box with the image of Victorian signalling equipment pasted to the front, representing the ‘telegraphic instrument with its dial, face and needles’ that Dickens describes. There is a large book, a railwayman’s lamp (complete with a battery-operated candle to make it flicker) and a new addition – a theatrical spotlight (or at least, an interior designer’s approximation of one) on a stand to double for the dismal danger light at the mouth of the tunnel which is so important to the telling of the story. For Marigold I have a small set of wooden steps, a stool (a smaller one than that which features in The Signalman), a wooden crate, an anodised pail with a small metal shovel, a kettle and a rolled up blanket. Alongside all of the hardware I had to pack two costumes and of course a box containing copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’ All of this filled pretty well every square inch of a Renault Kadjar and it was with a sense of relief that all of the doors shut successfully.
The drive to Leeds takes about three hours and I left with plenty of time in hand just in case the notorious M1 roadworks should delay me. As it happened my journey was very smooth and I had plenty of time to stop for lunch before arriving in the heart of the city at around 3 o’clock, ready to check in at my hotel, The Plaza Park. Being in the very centre the hotel had no car park, but I was able to leave the car for a few minutes in order to get directions to a large parking garage nearby, from where I could easily walk back. I had an hour in my room, during which I had a shower to freshen myself up before going to the venue.
Even though the Library was only a five minute walk from my hotel, I needed to drive so that I could unload all of the furniture and props ready for the show, but as I made my way to the car I had a phone call from Carl, who had booked me. In our various emails I had mentioned to him that I would arrive at the library at 4, unload and then go to park the car, and he had suddenly realised that he hadn’t told me that there was no vehicular access to the library at all, so I would need to park in another parking garage, where he would meet me and help me unload.
By the time I was finally parked on the second level of the QPark garage it was almost 4.30 and I had agreed to appear on a Leeds Lit Fest live podcast at 5, so other than taking my costumes and a few smaller articles, Carl and I decided to delay the unloading process until later. We took the lift down to the ground level and walked along a typical city centre street, through the bustle of a weekday evening, past a McDonalds and a Starbucks until we arrived at a rather nondescript door, squeezed in between a branch of the CoOp Bank and a Paperchase stationery shop.
A blue plaque on the wall suggested that the may be more to this building than met the passing eye, and Carl pushed the door open and I found myself in a small marble hallway at the bottom of a curling grand staircase, which lead up to an Aladdin’s cave filled with the treasure of books!
The Library was founded, so a small wooden sign informed me, in 1768, but moved to its current location in 1808. At the top of the stairs is ‘The Main Room’ and this is the modern section of the library where up to date novels, audiobooks and DVDs can be found but, even so, it has a wonderfully antiquated feel to it, with an iron spiral staircase at one end and books packed into the shelves from floor to ceiling.
Through a small door between shelves and then I am in the ‘New Room’ which was built 140 years ago. It was in the New Room that I was to perform and I had to pause for a moment to take in the grandeur and splendour of my surroundings. The room was narrow and again the walls from floor to ceiling were lined with books over two stories. Opposite my small stage was a magnificent wooden staircase leading to the upper level and around 70 chairs were laid out in the body of the room, this was going to be a wonderful space to perform in.
For now though, I had to concentrate on the podcast and was shown into the Old Librarian’s Office, which would also become my dressing room.
There waiting to greet me was Molly Magrath, who would be interviewing me, and huddled behind two laptops was Jack who would be looking after all the technical side of the session. We had a few minutes before the broadcast was due to start, so they pulled out some gems from the shelves – a travel book dating back to the 1400s (the author never left England so it was a complete work of fantasy!), and a second edition of The Hobbit. Molly also handed me a beautifully bound first edition of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming and this was a real treasure for a Bond fanatic like me to hold.
5 O’clock came round and without ceremony Molly was talking to the little webcam about my visit, and we had a great conversation about the theatricality of Dickens and how I prepare my shows for the stage. It was a really good interview, not too rigidly bound by questions, just a flowing chat. I had done a little research into Dickens’ visits to Leeds and unfortunately he hadn’t seemed to be too impressed by the City. He first visited in 1847 to give a speech at The Mechanics Institute. The visit was in December and he had a terrible cold, but the experience of Leeds wasn’t a pleasant one. He didn’t return for a further 10 years but his memories still burned brightly, for he wrote home to his sister in law on that second occasion that ‘we shall have, as well as I can make out the complicated list of trains, to sleep at Leeds-which I particularly detest as an odious place-tomorrow night.’ Charming!
He did, however, return to Leeds 3 further times to give readings, and indeed actually performed Doctor Marigold, as I would be doing later on the evening of March 2.
When Molly wrapped the podcast up I went to find Carl and together we walked back to the car park and began the task of shifting all of my stuff back to the library; it took as three trips to get all of the furniture into the lift, down to ground level, past McDonalds and Starbucks, into the front door, up the narrow staircase, through the Main Room and into The New Room. And it was raining!
At last everything was in and I began creating the set for The Signalman. The stage was not large, but there was plenty of room to place the clerk’s desk with the telegraphic instrument and bell atop it, and the stool beneath. I placed the table a little downstage and placed the chair at the back, so that the Signalman, unused to visitors, could grab it, dust the seat off, and place it for the stranger to sit on. Immediately behind the stage was a display case which was the only bit of furniture in the room that was not an antique, and I was able to put my new red light on top of it, meaning that it towered above the scene in a suitably imposing manner. When the first act set was in place I took the opportunity of running through a few lines and as I did another member of the library staff, Ian, busied himself putting programmes on chairs and preparing a makeshift bar for the evening. When I had finished my brief rehearsal Ian introduced himself and asked if I would like to see the basement, an offer that I was delighted to accept. We descended into the bowels of the building where there is a huge collection of very old books, many in a terrible condition. Ian explained that in days of yore the library had been lit by gas jets which had created acidity in the air causing irreparable damage to the leather bindings. The plan is to restore every volume, but at a cost of over a million a shot, that project is a very long term one. I looked along the shelves and there was a first edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’ final, unfinished, novel. It was such a treat to hold in my hands something that connected me so closely to my great great grandfather. Elsewhere in the basement were racks of periodicals and newspapers just waiting for keen-eyed researchers to discover some wonderful long-lost fact. As we ascended the stairs once more, Ian said wistfully that he never tires of showing off the collection in the basement and that everybody notices something new.
Back upstairs I retired to the Librarian’s Office, my very grand dressing room, and ate a small salad and some fruit before getting into costume for the first act. Outside, the audience gathered and began to take their seats. Ian had told me that this was the largest audience that the New Room had held since the beginning of lockdown. At 7.30 Carl poked his head in and asked if I was ready, and on my replying ‘yes’, he said a few words of introduction and then left the stage to me.
I welcomed the audience, made reference to CD’s rather uncomplimentary words about Leeds, and then launched into a brief description of the circumstances behind the Staplehurst rail crash, vital to both the telling of The Signalman and to the selling of my book at evening’s end. Soon I was into the dark, claustrophobic ghost story and , as ever, I surprised myself by the sheer physicality of what is a very short performance. The emotional intensity of the piece is exhausting and I continually find that by the time I finish every limb is aching from the tension.
On my concluding the story and then announcing the spooky fact that although Dickens was not killed at Staplehurst, he did die exactly 5 years, to the day, after the crash, there was a gasp from the audience, partly in surprise and partly out of relief that they too could relax back into the real world.
Having left the stage and allowed a little time for the audience to drift away, I started clearing the furniture from The Signalman away and setting the stage for Doctor Marigold. In the office I changed into a new costume (long corduroy Victorian-style trousers, rather than the breeches I used to wear), and after twenty minutes or so I returned to the stage to perform my favourite show in the character of the ever resilient and cheerful cheapjack, Doctor Marigold. At one point in the monologue, Marigold describes building a cart with books in ‘rows upon rows’ and so the book-lined walls of the New Room formed the perfect setting for the second half of the story. The audience were rivetted and entranced, as audiences tend to be when witnessing this little gem of a story for the first time.
I finished and left the stage and there was generous and warm Yorkshire applause when I returned to take my bows. Having taken a few minutes to cool down, I made my way back into The Main Room, where I chatted, sold and signed my book, until the audience drifted away into the night.
I changed back into everyday clothes, having briefly donned my black frockcoat again for a couple of photographs that Ian wanted to take on the New Room staircase, and then faced the proposition of taking all of my furniture downstairs, up the street, into the car park, up the lift and back to the car again, however Carl suggested that I actually left everything in the Library, for in the morning the bollards closing off the pedestrianised street would be down, allowing access to the shop fronts for deliveries, and so I would be able to drive to the front door, which would make things much easier.
I walked through the streets of Leeds, back to my hotel and was delighted to discover that they offered a 24 hour room service, so I ordered a plate of fish and chips and let the adrenaline of the evening gently subside, until eventually I fell asleep in the early hours of Thursday morning.
I woke with a start at around 7.40, and decided to get the car loaded before having breakfast, so I quickly showered and retrieved my car, before driving slowly past pedestrians hurrying to work, along the pavement of Commercial Street. Carl and the library caretaker were there to assist and in no time all of my furniture was squeezed into the Renault – actually, we seemed to have hit on an improved system of loading, in that there seemed to be more space than when I had loaded up the day before.
I said farewell to Carl, promising that I would endeavour to find a date for a repeat visit in the winter tour, and returned to the hotel where I enjoyed a hearty full English breakfast before getting on the road for home. The journey was smooth once again and I arrived back in Oxfordshire at midday.
As I unloaded the car I discovered the reason that loading had been so easy, for I had left the ‘telegraphic instrument’ prop in the library. I will next need it for a performance in Preston, Lancashire, at the end of March, so Carl and I will have to work out how to reunite it with the rest of the set, but that is all for another day. For now I could reflect on a wonderful evening, in a beautiful setting, and a new venue for my future tours.
Sunday 5 December saw my second day in The Berkshires and with one show at 3 o’clock it meant that there was a quiet morning in store. Maybe I could take a drive into the mountains, maybe I could explore some of the delightful neighbouring towns and villages, maybe I could breathe in the cold, clear, unpoluted air. No! There was a Grand Prix to watch! The TV coverage from Jeddah would begin at 11 am, and I had a little bit of housekeeping to do before then. Having bought breakfast (a yoghurt, granola and fruit collation, along with a muffin, orange juice and coffee), from the little Starbucks Cafe that the Courtyard hotels favour, I piled a load of laundry into a machine, and then took the car to a nearby grocery store to buy myself some lunch, as well as picking up a few other essentials.
As I drove back to the hotel, I noticed a signpost to ‘The Pleasant Valley Nature Reserve’, and apart from immediately breaking into my best Monkees impression, I thought that it sounded like a perfect way to spend a day off, as I would have on Monday.
I moved my laundry into the dryer, had another coffee and then settled down to watch the Formula One coverage. I know that this blog isn’t a Grand Prix fan site, but the events from Saudi Arabia did dominate my morning, so I can’t skip over it completely, but I promise I will not turn into an F1 journalist. The tension and excitement for the race, and the championship (this being the penultimate weekend) was obvious as soon as the coverage began, but before any action occurred there was a very moving tribute to the former team owner Frank Williams, who died last week. As all of the drivers and team members gathered around a large photo of Williams on the track, and a video compilation of his extraordinary career was shown, it was as if the current combatants were being told ‘honour him, perform to the standards that he would have performed to: win, but win well.’ It was a lesson that they should have heeded.
As the race time got closer, I popped my chicken and pasta dish into the microwave and settled down to watch. The start of the race passed without much incident, with Britain’s Lewis Hamilton leading easily and his great young Dutch rival, Max Verstappen stuck back in third, but then another driver crashed, and the race was stopped. Due to various decisions made by the two main teams, things were about to get spicey and at times downright dirty. Unfortunately for me, the delays to the race meant that I wouldn’t be able to watch it to its conclusion, as I actually had a show to do!
I continued listening to the coverage via my phone, until I once again pulled up at Ventfort Hall, where in the parking lot I was greeted by an audience member, who had arrived very early, saying ‘You must be Mr Dickens, I recognise you from your picture. Good luck today!’ That was very nice way to arrive and reminded me that I was there to entertain.
In the house Hayley and Chris were making the preparations for the afternoon and I checked that all of the furniture and props were in the right place, before retiring to my spacious dressing room, where I once again put the race coverage on as I dressed. Eventually, Lewis Hamilton emerged triumphant, with Max in 2nd place, but it didn’t sound a nice race with everyone playing every underhand trick that they could to gain an advantage. There was dangerous driving, there was bizarre driving, there was winging from the teams to the race director, who, in turn, sounded confused and weak, bartering with the Red Bull team over the severity of a particular penalty. Although incredibly exciting, it didn’t show F1 to the world in a good light. The final upshot was that Lewis and Max go into the final race next weekend absolutely level on points.
Fortunately, the race finished at around 2.20, which meant I had time to re-adjust my priorities and to become an actor again. Having got into costume and checked all of the things that had to be checked (watch wound, penny in waistcoat pocket, etc) I went and sat on the landing, looking down into the hall as the audience gathered. There was a very obvious sense of excitement and plenty of noise, and I soaked it up.
At 2.55 I creaked down the wooden staircase and Hayley confirmed that everyone had arrived, and that we were good to go. Chris sat at his laptop, ready to play the music cue, and Hayley welcomed everyone before starting the show. Straight away I could tell that this was a fun audience, they responded to everything from the very start (the first moment in the script that I can tell how a performance is going to go is when the narrator says ‘mind, I don’t mean to say that I know what there is particularly dead about a doornail….’ On this occasion they took the hint and laughed, obviously understanding that they were expected to be, and allowed to be, part of the show). We all had great fun, and it was a very satisfying performance. I had, quite naturally, been worried that my build-up to the show was not a conventional one and I might not have prepared myself well, but my fears were unfounded – I did a good job!
The Q&A was also fun, and there were some very good questions and lot of to-and-fro conversation, that makes sessions like this such a joy. After a while I became aware of Hayley hovering at the back of the room and knowing that pots of tea had been brewed and would be in danger of getting cold and stewed, I started to bring the session to an end, but there was one last question: ‘Is this your first time to The Berkshires?’ ‘No, it is my third visit, and I love it here!’, which got a loud round of applause and was a perfect time to sign off. There is indeed something very beautiful about the area, not just the scenery, but the community as well: it is a special place, and I would very much like to return during the summer months to perform some of my other shows: The Signalman would work well at Ventfort, as would Marigold and Sikes & Nancy. I know other venues would be interested in ‘out of season’ shows, so it would be lovely to try and put something together one day.
As the guests piled their plates high, I returned to my upstairs room and sat at my little table to eat my tea, before changing. I gathered up all of my belongings and went downstairs where I found Hayley and Chris to say goodbye, and to thank them for being such amazing colleagues over the last two days, and then I drove back to the hotel.
I had a quiet evening in, and at around 7 I logged on to my Uber Eats app and ordered a pizza from a nearby restaurant. I love going out and dining in restaurants, but the importance of remaining healthy and safe is paramount at the moment. It looks as if things are ramping up in Britain again, and the government has changed the regulations for entering the country yet again, meaning that the second Covid test, the PCR, that I purchased last week is also now redundant and I will have to have a test in the USA before I am allowed to fly home. With no idea as to how to get a test here I had earlier emailed Bob Byers, who had replied that he was looking into it on my behalf. It looks as if we will have to book something on my route from Lewes, Delaware to Byers’ Choice in Pennsylvania (the test has to be done within two days of flying), and this just adds a new logistical challenge to the end of the tour.
I watched a bit of TV, but felt myself nodding off, so retired for an early night.
On Monday I have a travel day with no shows and no commitments, and I think that the Pleasant Valley Nature Reserve sounds like an excellent way to relax!
After getting through the first day’s performing unscathed day two dawned with the prospect of a lovely, lazy morning to catch up, and the chance to rest and regroup. With nothing officially due to happen until 1 I had the first half of the day purely to myself.
I wrote my blog post in bed, and sipped coffee whilst watching the TV. After a while I got up and did a ‘gabble rehearsal’ of Doctor Marigold which I was due to perform in the evening. A gabble rehearsal is when I run through the lines of a show as fast as I can, with no pauses or even any intonation, purely to ensure that the words are fixed in the memory. Having performed Marigold only a week or so ago back in England, everything seemed well set. It would have been interesting to time the run through and see what my personal best is! At 7 I went to the lobby for breakfast and once again sat apart from the other guests. I am reading a lovely book that Liz gave me for my birthday, ‘A Large Measure of Snow’ about a tiny Scottish fishing village marooned by a blizzard, and it was a lovely change to turn pages instead of scrolling.
Back in my room I sorted out costumes for later on and then flicked through TV channels until I found live coverage of the Manchester football derby match (football in the British sense when the players kick the ball with their feet, rather than the American version when they throw the ball to each other). It was a rather one sided match and Manchester City beat United 2-0.
With the match over I decided to take a stroll outside, and the weather was surprisingly warm as I walked through the little park outside the hotel and through the streets. In the summer this park is the venue for music concerts and as it is set on the side of a hill it must be a perfect spot to picnic and listen. The Midtown Crossing development was built in 2010 and horseshoes around the top of Turner Park featuring blocks of apartments, as well as restaurants and cafes, it is a lovely spot and I enjoyed my walk.
I finished up in the grocery store which is built into the development and purchased a few things for my lunch – the room at the Element is a little suite with a cooker and fridge built in, so I bought a microwavable Chicken stir fry and some fruit and returned to my room.
Now it was time to give The Signalman the gabble treatment and having completed that run I prepared my lunch which I ate while listening to the final practice session from the Mexican Formula 1 Grand Prix which is being held over this weekend.
1 o’clock was fast approaching so I collected up the various costumes and props that I would need for the afternoon and went down to the lobby where Frank was once again waiting for me. We loaded everything into his truck and drove the short distance to the Daniel J Gross High School in Omaha where I was to perform A Christmas Carol. The event was The Historical Society’s traditional tea performance, which in past years has always been held at the Field Club – a golf club with an elegant clubhouse. This year, however, Kathy couldn’t get a booking for love nor money, for all of the weddings that had been postponed in 2020 had now re-booked meaning there was not a chance of securing a weekend date, so the search went for another venue and the High School came up trumps. It boasts a very large reception area where tables could be set out for tea and then right next door an impressive auditorium where the guests could watch the show.
As Frank and I drove up we were deep in conversation about auto racing, having discovered a mutual passion for the sport – Frank had raced a little in Omaha and shared some wonderful memories of those times. We pulled up in the parking lot and there to greet us was ‘Flat Gerald’ a life sized cardboard cut out that Kathy had made many years ago: Flat Gerald is a great deal flatter and slimmer than the current version!
Having said hello to everyone I was shown into the beautiful auditorium where I was introduced to Becca, the drama teacher at the school, who would be looking after my lighting and sound requirements during the afternoon. Becca used to be an opera singer, before family and teaching, and now she is looking to get back to the performance side of her career again, having been teaching at the school for 9 years. It is always nice to tolk with a like minded soul about theatre and life on the road. I went onto the stage and started a few lines of the show and discovered that the acoustic in the hall was amazing. Without even making any effort I could hear and feel the air resonate with my words. It was apparent that I could quite easily do this show without amplification, but we decided to try with a mic too, which sounded equally good. Becca and I talked it over for a while and decided to go with the mic, bearing in mind the demographic of much of the audience.
Having made all of the preparations, and hidden the two little mice under the chair, I retired to a large room which had been designated as my dressing room and waited until the guests outside devoured their sandwiches, cones, fancies and cakes. At 3 o’clock I was ready to go and made my way into the wing space and waited for Kathy to welcome me. It was interesting that knowing how amazing the acoustic was, I couldn’t hear a word that she said – the stage and auditorium were perfectly designed to project the words forwards, not back. I knew that it was time to start because in the lighting box Becca brought the lights to black and started my first music Cue. As I walked onto the stage the lights slowly rose again creating a suitably eerie atmosphere for Marley’s funeral cortege as it makes its way to the graveside.
I was really really pleased with the show – plenty of space to roam around in, a receptive and playful audience, an expert on the tech side – everything came together to work perfectly. I felt very energised and buzzy at the end as I got changed and packed my things up. By the time I emerged from my dressing room all of the guests had left (we are not doing any signing sessions at any of the shows this year, for obvious reasons) and Frank had collected up all of props from the stage. Alarmingly he had also loaded Flat Gerald into the boot of his car, and as we sat in the front seats there was a terrible sensation of being watched from the back…..
I had a little time to spare before we were due at the next event, so Frank dropped me off at the hotel and I could relax for a little. I drank plenty of water and ate a banana before showering and getting into costume for the second show of the day: The Signalman. Frank picked me up at 6.15 and drove me to The Crook House, the headquarters of the DCHS, and where I would be giving my evening performances. The Crook House is a charming Victorian mansion and is a perfect setting to give a smaller performance in – this year Kathy had chosen the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold both of which suited the intimate nature of the venue.
As I walked in the back door the pre show buffet, catered as ever by the supremely talented Chef Mario, was in full swing and the first person I bumped into was Lee Phillips – my former driver in Omaha, who had relinquished the duties to Frank due to the terrible year that he and his wife Suzie have endured. Suzie and Lee are dear friends to both Liz and I and came to stay with us in Abingdon a few years ago, so it was with great alarm when we heard that Suzie had sustained a serious head injury when she had fallen doing some weeding in a neighbour’s garden. But she is a strong lady, and when she greeted me in the hallway of The Crook House she looked fit, well and happy, it was lovely to see her and Lee again.
At 7 pm the guests gathered in the dining room (converted into a theatre with a small stage at one end) and Kathy introduced me. I talked a little bit about the circumstances behind the Staplehurst rail disaster, not forgetting to mention the title of my book: (‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’, available via my website or Amazon), and then I addressed the audience in the guise of the elderly man recollecting the circumstances of meeting a lonely signalman in his remote signal box. Behind me the bay window was framed with a giant dark wood arch which represented the tunnel to perfection, and on a lighting sconce to one side a lavish bow of red ribbon had been hung which doubled as the mournful danger light which so torments the poor signalman. A perfect setting for a gothic ghost story.
When I brought the performance to an end, I dived into Kath’s office and shed the all black Victorian garb that I had been wearing and clambered into the rustic britches, shirt and waistcoat of Doctor Marigold who was to entertain the guests for the second half of the evening. By the time I returned glasses had been recharged and everyone was ready to go again. Once more the style of Marigold fitted the venue perfectly, as the story features a single character talking directly to his audience in a very intimate way – he entertains them with is witty sales patter, but also shares his darkest saddest hours with them.
When Charles Dickens used to perform the piece his tour manager George Dolby, who would watch the show from the wings, remarked how there was an audible gasp at the very end of the piece, and I can assure the ghosts of both Dolby and Dickens, that in 2021 the gasp and sobs are still there. Doctor Marigold is an amazing piece of work and my favourite to perform. Whenever I finish it, and this was certainly the case on Saturday night, I am very emotional and take quite a while to, as Marigold himself would say, ‘shake myself together’
From the dining room we moved into the parlour (although it had been repurposed as a dining room) and gathered around the table as Suzie delivered one of her beautifully written toasts to my visit and the Historical Society. We all chinked glasses and sipped champagne.
The guests gathered their coats and made their way into the warm night unto once more it was only Kathy, Frank and myself in the old pile.
Getting these two days together had been difficult for Kathy, but it was an important statement of intend from the Historical Society: ‘We are here! We are open! Things are happening!’ and I was glad, very glad, to have been part of it – I have so many good friends in Omaha and it was a pleasure to return in 2021.
Frank drove me back to the hotel and we said our goodbyes, and I returned to room 615 where I stayed up a while eating the delicious food that Mario had plated up for me.
And so the first leg of the trip is over. On Sunday I fly east where I will have a few days to myself in Philadelphia and a performance in New Jersey, before returning to the Midwest next week to perform for the Mid Continent Public Library Service in Missouri.