Charles Dickens, Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biogrpahy of a Rail Crash, PIES, Preston Playhouse, Staplehurst Rail Crash, The Signalman, Wentworth Woodhouse
On Sunday morning I left my Oxfordshire home at 9am, to drive to the North West of England, specifically to the city of Preston in Lancashire where I was due to perform The Signalman at a matinee and evening show. My venue was to be The Playhouse, a lovely small theatre in the town, and the show was promoted by PIES, a charity which raises money to help feed and educate children in southern Africa, the acronym standing for Partners In Education Swaziland
This was the third appearance for the organisation, and I have gained a loyal following in Preston, having previously performed Mr Dickens is Coming with Doctor Marigold, and A Christmas Carol. My preparations for the trip were less smooth than they might have been for, as regular readers will remember, I had left an important prop for The Signalman in Leeds following my appearance there a few weeks ago, and somehow needed to get it back to appear on the stage in Lancashire. I had originally thought that I would drive to The Leeds Library on the morning of the show and pick the piece up, but understandably the Library does not open on a Sunday. However, Carl, the manager there, offered to meet me somewhere convenient so that we could make the exchange like some seedy contraband deal. This arrangement would mean a very early departure, as I would have to drive for three hours to get to Leeds, meet Carl, and then drive a further 90 minutes to Preston, perform two shows and then drive another 40 minutes to Manchester, the reason for which will become apparent later….
In the week prior to the trip I had an extremely apologetic message from Carol to say that when making our arrangement he had temporarily forgotten that Sunday was his daughter’s 18th birthday and an absence of an hour or so wouldn’t be terribly well thought of within the family circle. For a day or two we toyed with the idea of me going to his area of Leeds, but that would add another hour or so to the journey, and didn’t seem to be a terribly good idea for anyone involved.
The prop in question is a representation of a block signalling console, described in the story as a ‘telegraphic instrument with its dial, face and needle’ I had taken a photograph of a genuine unit at a local railway preservation centre and fixed it to an antique wooden display box. Using two large wooden rods this unit could be slotted into corresponding holes drilled into the top of a clerk’s desk. The unit was far too large for accuracy’s sake, but for a piece of theatrical furniture it has done the job just fine over the last few years. Alongside the signalling unit sits a small wooden box with a brass bell on top of it (again, referenced in the text), and on the Saturday before my show I suddenly had the brainwave of printing a much smaller photograph of the equipment and sticking it to the back of the little wooden box, and using that in lieu of the big wooden box. I contacted Carl and said that I wouldn’t interrupt the birthday celebrations and would instead retrieve the prop from the library itself on Monday morning.
So, without the pressure of driving to Leeds, I set off at 9am with the various pieces of furniture rattling away in the back of the car. It was a beautiful sunny day, and on a Sunday morning the traffic was light, which allowed me to arrive in Preston with plenty of time to spare, indeed enough to stop for a cup of coffee and a lemon drizzle muffin at a nearby motorway service station.
I pulled up outside The Playhouse Theatre at 12.45, having arranged to meet at 1, but the loading doors were already open as a gentleman was busy removing a set from the previous evening’s performance. I went in and was met by a manager at the theatre, and we briefly discussed certain technical requirements for my shows, before the team from PIES arrived. Joe and Karen Comerford first saw me perform in Liverpool a few years ago and got in touch to book me to perform on behalf of the charity. Having exchanged greetings and made suitable enquiries as to how we had all made it through two years of Covid, we all got on with our respective jobs – Joe and Karen setting up the raffle, while I placed all of my furniture on the set and tried to convince a slide projector that it might like to talk to my laptop, sadly in vain.
My show was to be in two acts, the first of which was my talk about the circumstances behind The Staplehurst Rail Crash, and the writing of my book on the subject. I have a short PowerPoint presentation to go with the talk, made up of a few photographs from the book, and it is nice to give the audience something else, other than me, to watch, but on this occasion they would have to put up with my features, as we couldn’t get the projector to co-operate.
The show was due to start at 2 o’clock and a goodly sized audience were already crowding into the bar. The front of house manager asked if we could open the doors, and I retreated down to the dressing rooms in the basement to change into the casually formal combination of trousers, open-necked shirt and jacket, that I wore for my first publicity shot as a writer.
I looked over my notes for the first act talk and panicked as to whether it was actually long enough. I had said to the front of house team that the first act would be around 40 – 45 minutes, but I wasn’t confident. Despite having given this speech on a few previous occasions I am still not comfortable in delivering it, which once again shows my insecurities of speaking as myself, rather than in the fantasy world of one man theatre.
Just before 2 Joe came to find me and together we waited in the wings of the stage until it was time for him to walk onto the stage and introduce me. I walked into the light to generous and welcoming applause, and began to speak. The talk concentrates on the circumstances of the terrible crash itself, as well as some of the personalities involved, and is lifted directly from the book which, I pointed out on a number of occasions, would be on sale during the interval and after the show. When I got to the end of the talk, I spoke briefly about the second half and then left the stage with the sound of applause in my ears. I checked my watch: 45 minutes, I needn’t have worried about a thing!
Back in the dressing room I changed into the all-black costume that I favour for The Signalman and waited while the folk upstairs drank, ate and hopefully purchased books!
I was on much firmer ground when I returned to the stage, although of course was unable to deliver my usual introduction to The Signalman, which is a brief description of Staplehurst, having given a long description in the first act, so launched into the story itself quickly. The simple black stage with the few pieces of furniture arranged on it (including the little telegraph unit, making its debut), provided a suitably sparse atmosphere, and my red light shone dimly as a portent of the doom that was to follow.
When the the three distinct acts of the story had played out I took my bows and then returned to the stage to take questions, as I did all of the way through last year’s American tour. I chatted for around twenty minutes and it was great fun, gently batting away the constant requests to make a dramatisation of Hard Times, in which Preston was the model for Coketown. They will grind me down in the end and I will relent, but the thought of trying to achieve an accurate Lancashire accent under such local scrutiny is a nerve-wracking one!
After the show had finished I made my way to the foyer, to chat and sign books, which were selling well. Gradually the audience drifted away and the foyer was quiet once more. Joe and Karen said that they were popping home for a bite to eat and I retreated to my dressing room where I ate a salad am some fruit that I had brought with me, and passed the time by reading a magazine, playing some backgammon on my phone and running through the lines again.
After a while in my subterranean lair I became aware of voices upstairs and went to see who was about, and was surprised to discover that there was quite a gathering of PIES volunteers, including Norman and Lynne who have kindly provided hospitality to me in previous years. They were surprised to see me, for they assumed that I had walked into town, taking advantage of the sunny afternoon. ‘Gerald! We have some food for you’ and a plate loaded with pieces of pork pie, crisps, salad and a hunk of cheese was produced. It would have been rude not to accept the offering, and my salad had been a small one, so I sat down and tucked in to all but the cheese (dairy products effect the throat, and I avoid them on performance days). Soon the second audience began to arrive and it was time to repeat the earlier process.
The first act went well, and prior to the second commencing Norman went onto stage and said a few words about PIES. The fundraising work that the group undertake helps children in Swaziland, and he pointed out that the money raised from the day’s events would feed 40 children for an entire year, which is quite a thought. Norman then went on to announce the winning raffle tickets: ‘the first is a blue ticket, 34, then another blue ticket, 107, yet another blue, 63. A yellow ticket, 73, and another yellow 137, blue 89 and another blue 43….’ and so it went on. From the wings it dawned on me that all of the winning tickets that had been drawn were in the colours of the Ukranian flag, as if somehow we were able to show our support for the extraordinary spirit that the citizens of that nation are displaying in such terrible times.
When Norman had finished I returned to the stage and performed The Signalman once more, and I was particularly pleased with how it went – the piece is in a good place at the moment.
After I had bowed I once again opened the floor for questions and one was about Dickens’s spirituality and by extension his attitude to religion. I told the audience that Charles had a strong faith and followed the teachings of the New Testament, but as far as aligning himself with any particular religion was concerned he had a distrust of anything organised (seeing the human influence as one of potential corruption), so followed his own faith rather than being dictated to by others. I also talked about the little book based on the gospels which he wrote for his children, ‘The Life of our Lord’. I moved onto other questions, and after a while a gentleman in the front row put his hand up and asked ‘I thought Dickens described himself as a Unitarian?’ I picked up from my previous answer and continued to plough my furrow of not trusting organised religion, although, I conceded, he certainly did not dismiss people or organisations that he saw were doing good and would support such groups. The end of my answer was met with a sort of ‘Hmm’ sound. It is amazing how a single syllable can say so much, and this one said ‘you really don’t know what you are talking about, but OK, I will let it drop!’
The incident niggled at me, so when I got home I did a bit of research about Dickens and Unitarianism, and discovered that, in a way, we were both correct. When Charles visited America in 1842 one of the first people he met in Boston was Dr William Ellen Channing, the city’s leading Unitarian preacher and he was very impressed. Other leading Bostonians, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, followed Channing, and Dickens become more and more enamoured with the doctrine, which purely followed the teachings of the New Testament without, as he wrote once, forcing the Old Testament ‘into alliance with it’. When he returned to England he began to attend the chapel in London where the first Unitarian congregation had met, and later another chapel presided over by the Reverend Tagart. He was a regular attendee for nearly two years, and even afterwards he would occasionally return to listen to particular sermons. He was not only attracted by the spiritual comfort that the Church offered but also by the passionate stance on the campaign for abolitionism, a cause that was particularly close to his own heart.
I hope the gentleman from the front row is reading this and will accept an apology for my ignorance into this aspect of Dickens’s life. In a way we were both correct, for his was not a life long member of the Church, but it certainly had a major effect on his life at that time.
Back in The Preston Playhouse the question and answer session ended and I returned to the foyer, where there was not much to do, other than chat, for all of my books had sold out during my first show!
Having changed and made sure that I had retrieved everything from the dressing room, I returned to the theatre and discovered that Norman and Joe had moved all of my props and furniture to the loading door, so my get out was much quicker than it might otherwise have been. When the car was full, and I checked carefully that I had everything on this occasion, I said goodbye to Norman, who said that he was sorry I wouldn’t be staying with him and Lynne this year, as he would miss the Full English breakfast that Lynne has traditionally prepared in my honour!
On Sunday night, however, I had to drive to a hotel near Manchester, for I had two meetings in Yorkshire the following morning, and I wanted to break the journey a little. As I drove there was the most remarkable giant amber moon sitting low in the sky, which looked as if it were a special effect from a science fiction film. I reached my hotel at around 10.30 and called my new best friends at Uber Eats for a late night pizza as I gently wound down from a long but successful day.
On Monday morning I enjoyed a large breakfast and wondered what Norman was eating back in Preston. At 9 o’clock I checked out and headed for Leeds where I was at last reunited with the large box that I had left there, although the little replacement had done an admirable job standing in during the Preston performances.
From Leeds I headed towards Rotherham where I had a meeting at one of the most impressive stately homes in the country. Wentworth Woodhouse is a truly impressive pile, but without the fame and popularity of Chatsworth or Blenheim. The house is undergoing a major restoration project and there are many events taking place to help raise money to that end. The building is also used as a filming venue and has doubled up as Buckingham Palace in various TV dramas and big-budget films
I am due to perform there later in the year and wanted to see the spaces where I would be, and to check acoustics, which can be problematic in some large spaces, and came away very excited at the prospect of returning in July.
As I drove up the long, serpentine driveway, my obligations in the North of England were done and I was soon on the M1 heading home.