My final week of performing continued on Monday, just a week after returning from America, with the first of two performances at the magnificent Highclere Castle.
I had left my hotel in York at around 9am and with a decent drive I managed to get home for some lunch and time with with the family (the latter having been a rarity over the previous month), but at 2.15 it was time to get back into the car and head to the beautifully castellated and be-towered cuboid home that in real life is the home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, and in fiction is the ancestral home of the Crawley family in the guise of Downton Abbey.
I first performed at Highclere two years ago, and the event had been a great success, but sadly one that we couldn’t repeat in ’20, for obvious reasons, but in 2021 Lady Carnarvon was anxious to celebrate Christmas well in the old house and booked me for a double stint, with shows on both Monday and Tuesday.
As the sun lowered in the sky I turned into the long driveway and was delighted when a security guard flagged me down and cheerily said ‘Hello Mr Dickens, just follow the road up to the front door where you can unload!’ so I swept into the large gravel area in front of the house and pulled up outside the great front door (such a spacious area deserves a good ‘sweep’). As I opened the car door I was cheerily greeted by John, the Castle Manager, who opened the large front door for me, and helped me load my things in to the Saloon, the great space, dominated by a huge Christmas tree, which forms the heart of the house and where I would be performing.
Two years ago a decent sized stage had been erected in front of the huge stone fireplace, and that had been surrounded by around 80 seats. This year numbers had been reduced to 50, to allow guests to distance as they required, and about a metre had been lost from the stage, to allow more room between me and the front row. Once I had my furniture placed I could see that the performances this year were not destined to be terribly active ones, as I wasn’t going to have much room to move.
I chatted to John, and Charlotte, the events manager with whom I have been corresponding during the year, and ran through the running plan for the event (start at 5, interval at 5.45, 30-minute interval, second act at 6.15, finish at 7 and then join the guests for supper). I also ran through the sound queues with Charlotte, and then took myself off to one of the ‘back stage’ private rooms where I laid out my costumes and changed into costume.
As I sat waiting waiting for 5 pm to tick around an email came in from The Café Royal in the heart of London, where I was due to be performing on Wednesday evening, saying that it was with great reluctance that they had been forced to cancel the event, due to the fact that many of the guests had decided that they didn’t want to be with groups of people in the middle of London, where the Omicrom Variant of Covid had been spreading rapidly through the previous week. I had fully expected to loose some shows as the national situation worsened and there was always the possibility that the government would introduce tighter restrictions on events, and scupper the lot. If the Café Royal event was to be the only victim, then I would be relieved.
At 5 o’clock I made my way through the various corridors and met with John, who would be introducing me to the stage. All of the guests had arrived, had been given a welcoming glass of champagne and were now sat in the Saloon ready for the show. I made my way to the top of the staircase, and John walked onto the stage where he said a few words and then welcomed me. Charlotte brought the music cue in perfectly and I walked down the stairs, through the audience and up onto my little stage. To my left sat Liz and our good friends Nikki and Martin. Highclere generously offer me the opportunity of bringing guests to the show, and it was so nice to see ‘my team’ among the audience (this would be the first time that Liz has actually seen the show for two years, and the first time that Nikki and Martin had ever seen it, although Martin worked closely with me on the creation of the video version, which is once again available to rent – details at the end of the post).
Despite the lack of space to move, indeed maybe as a result of it, the show was a very good one, concentrating more on the storytelling aspect, rather than the brash theatricality. I could tell that the little pieces of knock-about business wouldn’t play well with this group, so I didn’t bother with encouraging them to gasp at Mrs Cratchit’s goose, or to sigh in delight when the pudding was produced, I just told the story, and the show was the better for it.
The interval came and went, and I was soon calling to the young boy from Scrooge’s window. When I finally wished everyone a ‘Happy Christmas’ (remembering that I was now in England), and left the stage, the applause echoed loudly around the old walls, and I returned to take my bows to all sides, indeed I was called back once more for a second round of bowing. It was a lovely and rewarding experience.
I hurried back to my dressing room where I changed into a jacket and tie, so that I could join Liz, Nikki and Martin in the festive marquee which had been erected in the courtyard at the rear of the house and where tables had been prepared for each individual bubble of audience members. The menu featured salmon and beetroot, delicious Scotch Eggs with golden yolks, a demitasse of mushroom soup, all finished up with a mince pie and a chocolate caramel cup. Glasses of champagne were regularly refilled, although with a drive ahead of us all, we had to decline further top-ups. This was a rather different dining experience to the various meals delivered to me by Uber Eats over the last few weeks!
It had been a lovely evening, made so much more special by having Liz and our friends there.
The following evening I was back at Highclere for the second show and this time as I drove up to the house there was a beautiful golden setting sun behind creating an image that would have had the film crews of Downton Abbey running for their cameras to capture.
I made my way back to the dressing room and discovered that the staff had brought in a hat stand and hung all of my costumes up for me, as well as laying my shoes neatly out. It was as if the butler had come in, which was rather grand.
The preparations for the show, and the show itself followed the same routine as the day before, although the audience were a little more restrained. On stage it is very difficult to judge how people are reacting when most of their faces are hidden behind masks, but it seemed as if everyone was having fun, and the enthusiastic applause at the end certainly backed up that supposition.
After I had taken my bows I changed and packed my things up, and returned to the Saloon. I was not joining the guests for dinner tonight, so once I had retrieved the car and brought it to the front door, I could load up and return home by 8 0’clock, where I could have a supper at home with Liz – a rare treat!
Highclere Castle is a truly wonderful venue to perform A Christmas Carol in and I am delighted that it has become a fixture on my UK tour.
For any of you who haven’t been able to see the show this year, or who need an extra fix, remember that my film version is available to rent, and you can access it through the following link
TO RENT GERALD DICKENS’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL: https://tinyurl.com/ychp7t3r