Dickens and Staplehurst, Gateshead Little Theatre, P&O Cruises, South Shields, Staplehurst, The Signalman, The Word, York
On Sunday morning, Hallowe’en, the winter tour continued to pick up pace as I was due to perform in the far North East of England. The booking marked a return to the magnificent ‘The Word – The National Centre for the Written Word’, and it was a poignant visit as my proposed performance of Great Expectations at the venue was the first show lost to the pandemic back in May 2020. The Word is set in the heart of South Shields, on the banks of the Tyne River and required a drive of around 5 hours to get there. As the show was an afternoon one, with the audience due to arrive at 1.30, it meant an early start.
I had loaded the car the pervious day and my alarm was set at 5.15am (allowing for the fact that the clocks had fallen back an hour over night). As the rest of the house slept I had some breakfast, showered and prepared to leave ready to drive through a rainy, windy, squally morning. A goodbye to Liz and it was time to hit the road. Having set the SatNav I was relieved to notice that the journey time was considerably less than it had intimated the day before, so I would have plenty of time to stop for coffee breaks on the way. I decided to run through the script of The Signalman as I was driving, and as I turned onto the A34 I began: ‘Halloa! Below there!’ But I was interrupted, my flow was destroyed by a very strange sound: ‘slap slap slap slap’. At first I thought it was coming from the props in the back, maybe something was badly stowed and was rattling, but no, it definitely was coming from the front wheel, although the steering felt fine and no warning lights were showing, it was very odd. I continued to drive and got back to the script, but the slap slap slap continued and it was very obvious that something was wrong. I pulled into a petrol station and in the pelting rain investigated the front right tyre of my car. Sure enough part of the tread on the inside shoulder of the tyre had failed, sort of peeled away, exposing the metal bands that form the construction of a tyre. The strip of rubber hadn’t actually come off but was whipping the car body with every revolution of the wheel. The tyre was close to complete and catastrophic failure, and if it happened when I was driving at 70 miles per hour through the driving rain the consequences were too awful to think of. There was nothing for it but to change wheels. A Renault Kadjar only has a space saver wheel, which is much narrower than a standard one, and can only be driven at relatively low speeds, but it would have to do as there would be no tyre centres open at that hour. The other issue was that the spare is stowed under the floor of the boot space, meaning that I had to unload all of my props before being able to get to it.
In the dark and the rain I performed a reasonably fast tyre stop (OK, not quite the 1.9 seconds that the Formula One teams manage, but pretty good nonetheless), loaded up the car again, and set off once more towards South Shields. In one way it was fortunate that the weather was so awful because it kept my speed down which, with the space saver tyre, was necessary. Really the skinny wheel isn’t designed to undertake such a long journey, but on Sunday I had no choice.
The traffic was light and I passed the time by continuing my rehearsal, as well as listening to various podcasts, including a couple of episodes of ‘You’re Dead To Me’, which is a light-hearted look at various historical figures and events. It is hosted by Greg Jenner, one of the team behind the brilliant Horrible Histories series, and each episode runs to a carefully formulated and regulated plan. Two guests, one an expert historian and the other a comedian, banter with Greg over the topic selected. One episode which accompanied me was based on the history of Ivan the Terrible who certainly did justify his terrifying moniker, for some of the details of his later activities were quite eye-watering. At one point during the episode the comedian for Olga Koch, who originates from Russia, was making a gag that involved the use of a passport and it suddenly flashed upon me the literal meaning of the word. It is not a document to travel, but a document to allow you into a foreign country: to allow you to pass through the port. A simple revelation, I know, but one that I rather liked that and I will remember it as I arrive in America next week.
The journey continued and I still had some time in hand to allow a coffee stop, and chance to send a message home to Liz to let her know that all was well.
The weather was getting worse again as morning became day and traffic increased the visibility became less and less, It was not a nice drive at all. Somewhere in Derbyshire or Yorkshire, I am not quite certain where, the traffic ahead of me suddenly slowed, with cars putting on their hazard warning lights to alert drivers behind that there was a hold up. Looking ahead it became apparent that there was some sort of blockage in the left and centre lanes of the motorway as vehicles were moving across, and then I saw what had happened. Skid marks scribed a terrible slew to the left where the metal barrier had been bowed in and flat, creating a sort of launch pad, the two inside lines were covered with dirt and metal and plastic, and laying on its side in the middle of the road was the remains of a small blue car, the front end was smashed (presumably where it had hit the barrier) and the glass in the windows was crazed (although not shattered). The modern airbag system had deployed, meaning that the interior of the car was fortunately shrouded from view. A few other cars had pulled to the hard shoulder and the occupants stood shocked, chatting. No one was tending to the crashed car and I hoped, even maybe prayed, that one of those people was the very very fortunate driver of the blue car who had emerged unscathed from the horror ride. It was obvious that the crash had only just happened, probably the blue car had overtaken me just minutes maybe seconds before. There were no emergency crews on the scene yet and the rest of the traffic filed slowly by, before tentatively speeding up and continuing their journeys. For me the scene was particularly frightening as it brought to mind what could have happened if my tyre had failed at high speed, but I drove on, cautiously and thankfully.
Eventually, after one more rest stop, I arrived at South Shields where the heavy rain continued to batter down, moored on the northern banks of the Tyne was an old friend, the P&O cruise ship Arcadia, on which Liz and I enjoyed happy holidays and on which we both performed. Seeing Arcadia was a lovely welcome to the town. I pulled up outside The Word, at a little loading bay, and called my contact at the venue Pauline Martin who appeared and helped me unload all of the furniture ready to be taken up in a lift to the third floor where I would be performing.
The room in which I perform at The Word is not a theatre space as such, but it is a beautiful circular space with views across the river (dominated by Arcadia). A temporary stage was erected at one end, and chairs were laid out ready for the arrival of the audience. I was due to give a talk about the Staplehurst rail crash in the first half of the programme and then perform The Signalman in the second, so Pauline and I connected a laptop to the projector so that I could show the inevitable PowerPoint slides to accompany the lecture.
The original idea was to use this event as a sort of launch for my new, indeed my first, book: ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’, but unfortunately the publishers hadn’t manage to send me any copies, so the merchandise table stood empty at the doorway. However, book or no book, the story is a fascinating one and a good tale to tell before the Signlaman.
When we were set up Pauline disappeared to grab some lunch and I got changed into my all black costume, and then sat down to a sandwich, It was 1 o’clock so I had plenty of time to eat before the audience were due to arrive in 30 minutes time. But as I embarked upon my tuna and sweetcorn feast the door opened and a lady ran in, she stopped with an air of great surprise, ‘where is everyone? I hope that more people than this come. It is raining and wild, I suppose, but still!’ and she sat down ready for the show – she certainly wanted to bag a good seat! We chatted a little, and I made a few notes on my script, and then it occurred to me what had happened, the lady had forgotten to put her clocks back that morning, and was convinced that it was showtime and that she would be the only audience member. Fortunately Pauline returned at that moment and politely pointed out that the audience were not going to be admitted until 1.30, at which point the mistake was realised!
When the correct hour arrived the room was filled with a capacity crowd, and many came to say hello (I was hovering at the back of the room), to say they had seen me previously at other venues, and were so excited to see me again, which is always very gratifying. On the stroke of 2 Pauline introduced me and I stepped up to a lectern to begin the talk. I am not altogether at home giving a lecture, but I have presented this one on a few occasions, so I know that it works. The talk follows the plot of the book, although without the biographical aspects of Dickens’ early life, concentrating on the train journey and the building works at Staplehurst, and the aftermath of the crash. Everything went well and bang on time I brought the first half to a close. The audience had a few minutes to stretch their legs, whilst I prepared the stage for The Signalman. When the set was complete, we encouraged everyone back into the room and I began. Naturally the introduction to the show was much shorter (most of it having been given in the first half), so in no time I was launching in to ‘Halloa! Below there!’
The passion and the mystery of the story worked well and I felt quite exhausted and elated as I brought the piece to its end. Having taken my bows, I opened the floor up to questions and the first was ‘what happened to Ellen?’ Ellen Ternan was Charles Dickens’ mistress and was travelling on the train with him. While he assisted with the rescue effort for 2 or 3 hours, Ellen and her mother Frances are conspicuous by their absence from any accounts. The press were ravenous and collected names of all of the passengers involved, but the Ternan name was absent from every one of those reports. Maybe a clue lies in a letter that Dickens wrote a few days after the crash. He described looking out of the carriage window and seeing two guards running beside the wreck, he called to them ‘Look at me. Do stop for an instant and look at me, and tell me whether you don’t know me.’ One of them answered, ‘we know you very well, Mr Dickens’. ‘Then,’ I said, ‘my good fellow, for God’s sake give me your key and send one of those labourers here and I ‘ll empty this carriage’….Charles Dickens ensured he had a few moments to get Ellen out of the train and away before he clambered down into the wreck and very visibly assisted in the rescue effort. In my book I suggest that although that his very public actionss were certainly not a cynical ploy to divert attention from his travelling companions, it was certainly a fortuitous opportunity to perform a sleight of hand as befitted a talented conjurer!
Some of the wounded were looked after in the village of Staplehurst itself whilst others were taken back to London on specially commissioned trains. I imagine that Dickens ensured that the Ternan’s were onboard one of the first trains to leave the scene.
Ellen appeared in London a few days later, for Dickens visited her there and wrote a letter to his manservant asking him to take her a fresh basket of foods and treats every day, so that she may be comfortable. He also wrote to the station master at Charing Cross station asking if a quantity of gold jewellery, engraved with the name Ellen, had been found, as his travelling companion had lost it during the crash. It was at this moment that the mystery of Ellen Ternan began to emerge.
Another question was in response to a comment I had made during my introduction to The Signalman about the fact that although Charles had prepared the story as a reading, he never actually performed it in public. I surmised that his reluctance to perform the piece may have been due to the mental trauma he suffered post Staplehurst, or the fact that being a relatively short reading it would only fit into the ‘comedy slot’ which typically came after a longer, more dramatic reading. The Signalman wouldn’t send an audience home with a cheery skip to their step.
Next came the Q&A ‘market place’: the local branch of The Dickens Fellowship promoted their meetings (I performed at their conference held in Durham a few years ago and they are a vibrant and enthusiastic bunch, indeed) and that was followed up by The Gateshead Little Theatre plugging their own performance of The Signalman which is due to open in a week’s time. I was very happy to give both groups the opportunity to ‘sell their wares’.
I then joined in the general commercial break by not only mentioning my book once more (Dickens & Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash. Published by Olympia Publishing), but also my return visit to The Word in December to perform A Christmas Carol, and then it was time for the audience to leave and for me to pack up my things.
Once the car was loaded I said my goodbyes and tentatively headed south as far as York, where I was due to stay overnight, thus breaking the long journey home.
I was staying in an elegant hotel called the Elmbank Lodge, although I had booked a ‘courtyard room’ rather than one of the more expensive rooms in the main building. Unfortunately I discovered that the restaurant would not be open to me, as they only had one chef on duty so the only guests who could dine were those who had booked a ‘dinner and breakfast’ package, However the young man at the front desk recommended Valentinos, an Italian restaurant just a 5 minute walk away, which took me past some beautiful Georgian town houses. I also walked past a branch of KwikFit tyre repairers which would be very uselful come the morning.
Dinner was superb, the restaurant was busy and vibrant, with one of the waiters breaking out into snatches of song with a fine baritone voice. I overheard him telling a neighbouring table that he came from Calabria, his house in the shadow of Stromboli. He certainly played the role of opera-singing Italian waiter to a tee, but I rather uncharitably wondered if in fact he came from Barnsley or somewhere similar! When I had finished my Sea Bass and was sipping a strong coffee he came to chat, noticing that I had been reading Motorsport Magazine: ‘Ahh! Motorsport, Ferrari – Ascari, Alboretto, Rossi!’ Yup, he was a genuine Italian!
I returned to the hotel and after a very long day retired early.
On waking on Monday morning and watching the television news I saw the story of a train crash that had taken place on Sunday night, on Hallowe’en. A train had struck some debris on the line and derailed, knocking out the signalling equipment as it did so, therefore there was no warning to a following train which ploughed into the wreck. Fortunately there were no fatalities but seventeen were wounded. The news footage focussed on the scene of accident – the two entwined trains at the mouth of a dark, dismal tunnel deep down in a cutting……..