9-11, A Christmas Carol, Adam West, Alan Napier, Batman, Byers'Choice, Charles Dickens, Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biogrpahy of a Rail Crash, Doctor Marigold, Hertz Car Rental, Jacksonville Airport, Jekyll Island Club Resort Hotel, Local Hero, Queen Elizabeth II, Scotland, The Signalman
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.