A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Carol film, Byers' Choice, Henley-on-Thames, Liverpool, Orgin8 Photography, St George's Hall, The River Mersey, The Spice Merchant, The Wirall, Thornton Hall Hotel and Spa
My extensive 2020 tour of three venues continued and concluded over this weekend as the country was plunged ever deeper into more complicated layers of lockdown.
On Saturday morning I loaded my car with the various pieces of my set (carefully designed to fit into the rear of a Renault Kadjar) and set a course for The Wirral – the beautiful peninsula to the south of the River Mersey. In past years I have regularly performed in the city of Liverpool, specifically at The St George’s Hall where Charles himself gave readings, but harsh restrictions in the city led to a nervousness of many venues to stage events meaning that Lynne Hamilton, the producer who promotes my shows in this region, had to search for alternative sites. With time rapidly running out to organise and market a show Lynne finally came to an arrangement with the Thornton Hall Hotel and Spa, and the date was to be the 19th December, the anniversary of the day that A Christmas Carol had been published in 1843. It seemed as if the stars were truly aligning.
My SatNav set I made the journey north on roads which were very much quieter than in more more normal years of yore. The hotel sits on the outskirts of the very pretty village of Thornton Hough which was originally built as a model village by a mill owner in 1866 before being developed by William Lever as a community for his executive staff working at the Sunlight Soap factory nearby.
Having checked in to the hotel I found my way to the Torintone Suite where I was due to perform. The large room had been set up with a stage at one end and tables and chairs very carefully placed to abide by the strict regulations. Members of staff, all masked, bustled about making final preparations. I introduced myself and received muffled greetings and welcomes in reply, before starting to arrange my furniture on the stage.
Every venue has its own particular challenges and I immediately realised what those would be here: over the stage hung two beautifully designed chandeliers, modern in design, made up of hundreds of glass droplets which dangled from little hooks…unfortunately with the raised stage they dangled to a lower height than 5’10 plus top hat – I was going to have to very carefully navigate my way around.
Soon Lynne arrived and we made the final preparations, the most complicated of which was to arrange my opening music and sound effect to play at the correct moment, for the CD unit was in a completely different room (actually a tiny stock cupboard behind the bar area), meaning that we had to set up a chain of people to allow Zak, one of the staff members, to hit the button bang on cue.
Soon the time for the audience to arrive was approaching so I made some final checks to the stage, before waiting for the start time of 2.30. Although the hotel had not staged any events like this for months they had worked out a system of taking bar orders and serving drinks which they carried out like clockwork. Soon everyone who wanted one had a drink and we were ready to start. Lynne got on the stage and welcomed everyone, who were revelling in a tiny moment of normality in turbulent times, and the show began.
I performed in two acts, and successfully managed to not destroy the chandeliers, the audience responded enthusiastically throughout. After I had finished I chatted to a few audience members (all masked up, of course and from a distance), and learned that many people had seen me perform in Liverpool before and had made the journey across the Mersey to catch up with me this year.
Between shows I went to my room and as soon as I switched on the TV I discovered that the Prime Minister was announcing even tighter restrictions on the country, and the jolly plans that had been put in place to temporarily allow a few household bubbles to meet over the Christmas season were henceforth rescinded. Inevitably Mr Johnson would now be slammed in the press as the PM who cancelled Christmas. It was all too depressing to watch, so I flicked the channel and was instantly rewarded with Alastair Sim skipping around his room in sheer undulated joy: once again A Christmas Carol had come to the rescue.
The evening show was at 7.30 so I had plenty of time to rest before the second audience, slightly larger than the first, took their seats, ordered their drinks and prepared themselves for a dose of escapism to treat the depressing malaise that has spread across the country.
Again the show was a success, and again I was able to chat and pose with some of the fans who had tracked me down!
When I returned to my room the day’s duties were not quite done for I had a Q&A call from America, which was arranged to celebrate the 177th anniversary of ‘The Ghostly Little Book.’ The video session had been arranged by Sandy Belknap, my good friend from Nashua, who has been doing a lot of marketing work to promote the film during the last few weeks. I was to be interviewed by Pam Byers, who would usually be organising and managing my American tour. The whole technical aspect was overseen by Scott, a colleague and friend of Sandy’s. We virtually forgathered in our virtual studio and ran through the running order that Sandy had drawn up and then with a couple of minutes to go Pam and I were left to our own devices, but with Sandy and Scott feeding chat messages to us, guiding the session.
Pam welcomed me and invited me to chat about the gestation and publication of A Christmas Carol, before opening the ‘floor’ to questions, which started to pour in. I was asked if I had a favourite copy of A Christmas Carol and I talked about the ‘reading’ version upon which I based my first show. The volume in question was first published in 1969 with a white cover (and that is the one that was read to me by an uncle – my first experience of the story), then re-published with a red cover (I am not sure when that was), and finally with a green cover which is the copy I have marked up with some of my own performance suggestions from 1993.
Another question was about Dickens development of characters and did he base any on real people, also the names, where did they come from? Of course Charles Dickens was an observer above all things, so his greatest characters were an amalgam of many character traits that he had noticed around him. As for the names, they were very important to him, having to capture the essence of the character in an instant.
I was delighted to notice a couple of questions pop up from ‘Martin at Orgin8 Photography’ Martin is a good friend who took the fantastic still photos for the film’s promotion. Martin’s questions focussed on the making of the film and the challenges I faced in creating it, which was a lovely avenue to go down, and useful in that the point of the session was to stimulate plenty of rentals. I assure you Martin was not a plant and his presence online was a complete, yet very happy, surprise’
Our thirty minutes ran its course, with Pam and I keeping up a dialogue, whilst watching for Sandy and Scott’s comments to guide us. It was a fun session and the whole thing can still be watched online and I will post the link at the end of this article.
I was still buzzing with adrenaline when we finally signed off, and it took quite a while to get to sleep. It had been a fun day and I think we honoured the anniversary of A Christmas Carol in a suitably celebratory fashion.
On the next day I left the hotel after a large breakfast and headed home to be with the family for a few brief hours before setting off to perform my final show of 2020. Once again this was a new venue to me and an unusual one at that! I had been booked by a friend of many years (I was going to say an old friend, but that is ungallant), who works as an event promoter. I had first met Paula when she worked at a theatre in the Oxfordshire riverside town of Henley and had booked me to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and The Signalman. We have kept in touch ever since and this year she contacted me to ask if I would perform A Christmas Carol as a dinner theatre show for her client: The Spice Merchant Indian restaurant. Dickens and an Indian restaurant do not seem to be a natural fit, but there was plenty of enthusiasm for the project and I was very happy to sign off my year in this way.
The drive to Henley from Abingdon is a short one, so I travelled in costume, admiring the beautiful Christmas lights which are adorning Britain more extravagantly this year than ever before. The room I would be performing in was long and narrow with tables on either side, so allowing for distancing I only had a single track to move up and down along.
The guests arrived and ordered their meals, before I performed chapters 1 and 2. As I performed so the waiters were carrying plates of food and drink, meaning that I had to be careful not to send a plate of Lamb Pasanda and Pilau flying with some theatrical and flamboyant gesture. I was however able to include some the waiters in the performance, one unwittingly becoming Dick Wilkins, Scrooge’s fellow clerk in Mr Fezziwig’s warehouse.
After a brief interval I returned to fisnish the story, taking care not to roam too far up the room this time as one table has an elderly and therefore vulnerable lady in their party and had asked Paula if I could not come quite so close to them during my show, a request which of course I honoured.
The show was another great success and after I had finished we spent a little time chatting in an informal Q&A until I packed up my things, said goodbye to Paula and drove away from my 2020 tour, which has involved 5 performances!
To view the online Q&A with Pam Byers visit my Facebook page: Dickens Shows
To watch my film of A Christmas Carol go to my website: http://www.geralddickens.com