Charles Dickens, Festival, Jubilee 2022, Mystery of Edwin Drood, Pickwick Papers, Queen Victoria, Rochester, The Empty Chair, Wordsmithery
For as long as I have been performing, and indeed for a few years before that, the first weekend in June has meant attending the Rochester Summer Dickens Festival. The city of Rochester in Kent has long associations with Charles Dickens, as he lived nearby in both his childhood and at the end of his life. Many of his novels are set in Rochester, including his first (The Pickwick Papers) and last (The Mystery of Edwin Drood). The local residents and the council are proud of their connection with Dickens and treat him as their own, so each Summer the streets are given over to a celebration of his life and works with costumed characters mingling with the colourful crowds.
It has to be said that over the years the festival has become more of a huge party and carnival and less of a Dickens event but I have always been invited back to perform a variety of my shows, thereby maintaining a familial connection.
In 2020 and 2021 there were no festivals due to Covid, so 2022 would see all of the participants back on those ancient streets for the first time in 3 years, but this year we wouldn’t be attending a pure Dickens Festival for the first weekend in June coincided with a weekend of patriotic pride as the nation came together to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. A city such as Rochester would be amiss indeed if it didn’t honour the Monarch so the plan was to subsume the Dickens Festival into the Jubilee party.
As far as I was concerned the biggest change was that I would not be performing in the beautiful Guildhall museum, that has been my ‘home’ in recent years, but instead my show would be part of a fringe festival celebrating the spoken word, and which was organised by an organisation called Wordsmithery. From the sumptuous surroundings of the Guildhall I would be instead performing in a small tent in the shadow of the ancient castle
When I first attended the Dickens Festival there was a large programme of talks, lectures and performances, but this aspect has declined in recent years, but I need to congratulate Wordsmithery and the Medway Council for providing this opportunity. Over the two days there was a constant programme of events and I definitely think that this an opportunity to be encouraged and developed.
Having driven to Kent on Friday night (after attending the most brilliant circus with Liz and the girls in the morning), I woke quite early on Saturday morning to be greeted with a grey windy day. I was glad of a little time for I wanted to run through my show, which was a brand new one. Usually my performances run for about 45 minutes to an hour, but to fit into the Wordsmithery timetable I had been asked to produced something that ran at 25 – 30 minutes. I had suggested ‘A Child’s Journey with Dickens’ or ‘The Signalman’ both of which are relatively short, and I had also flown the idea of creating something new, detailing the only meeting between Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria – that idea was leapt on, as it tied in so well with the Royal theme, and just a few weeks ago I had begun researching in an attempt to tell the story effectively.
I was assisted by a script that had been written many years ago by an actress in America who portrayed Victoria at various festivals and events. Anne Hamilton had worked closely with my father over a play called ‘The Queen and the Commoner’, and her script was a superb place to start. I also discovered various other accounts of the private audience – the Queen herself wrote about it in her journals, and of course Dickens wrote letters. There is a detailed account by Arthur Helps, the Clerk of the Privy Council who made the meeting possible, and Charles Dickens’ tour manager George Dolby published his memories of sharing a dinner with the author immediately after he had left Buckingham Palace.
The choice of the Queen script was made late in the day meaning that it would be impossible to write and learn it in the time available, but Barry from Wordsmithery assured me that most of the acts, including his own poetry recital, would be ‘on the book’ and it was fine to give the show as a reading.
My first writing of the new script concentrated purely on the meeting between the two great figures – covering their discussion of America (Dickens had just returned from his second tour), including a description of President Lincoln’s dream in which he had a premonition of his own death 10 days before the fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. They also spoke of the gulf between the rich and poor and the necessity of solving that issue; they discussed the price of beef and bread and the difficulty of finding good servants in England. The Queen presented Dickens with a copy of a book that she had written (which he had previously read and detested), and he offered to tell her the proposed plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood – she declined the offer meaning that our only hope of unravelling Dickens’s final mystery was taken from us.
When I had finished the script I discovered that it was woefully short, running at around 15 minutes, so I decided to include some other incidents involving the two. In 1840 on the day of Victoria’s wedding to Albert the young Charles travelled to Windsor Castle with friends and there, beneath the window of the Royal bed chamber he flung himself to the ground professing his undying love for the Queen! This behaviour could be put down to high spirits and an excess of celebration, but in the days following he continued to write a series of letters telling all and sundry that his life was not worth living without Victoria, and that he hated his wife, his parents and his children. He wanted to run away and commit murder (the queen should have to sign the warrant for his death penalty and therefore his name would come before here eyes), or suicide. He theatrically and flamboyantly asked that his body be embalmed and placed on the arch outside Buckingham Palace when she resided in London or on the round tower at Windsor when she was there. These were the type of letters that a celebrity may rather have wished would not resurface!
In the end the script ran at half and hour and seemed quite fun.
Saturday morning in Rochester was grey and very windy. I parked my car and walked to the mote of Rochester Cathedral where Wordsmithery were based. There were two venues each in a tent – one was called The Raven (Dickens had a pet raven, Grip), and the other ‘The Empty Chair’ after the sketch made of Dickens’ study on the day of his death.
My first show was due to be at 11.30 in the smaller tent – The Raven, and as the start time came closer a steady stream of audience arrived and took every available seat with more standing outside peering through the flap. Barry announced me and I began by issuing a warning that if the wind kept up we may not be ‘in Kansas anymore!’ when we finished
The script worked very well and people laughed at appropriate moments and applauded at the end, which was a huge relief.
And now I had time to explore the rest of the festival – to celebrate the Jubilee in style, and I have to say I was somewhat disappointed. It seemed to me that the event had rather missed the target, for there were no large events to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s reign. In the castle grounds there has traditionally been a stage and it would have been wonderful to have brass bands playing, energetic dance shows, tribute bands and the like, but there was no arena or stage this year and the area looked rather forlorn. There was a large screen which was playing a programme of Royal-themed cookery programmes, but nothing more. In previous Dickens festivals the long High Street has been filled with entertainers, and there were a few stages along the way where theatre and dance schools would do shows, while jugglers, one-man bands and storytellers gathered crowds, laughing and cheering around them. There were no entertainers in the streets and no talks, lectures or exhibitions. It all seemed a bit flat.
Fortunately there were still plenty of costumed characters to engage with the public, and these volunteers go to great lengths to make wonderful costumes and are happy to pose for photographs and chat with the visitors to the town. The centrepiece of the Dickens Festival are the two great daily parades but this year there was only to be one, at 1pm. All of the costumed characters gathered at the end of the High Street behind the pipe band, and off we set. We waved and smiled and the crowds waved back, but still there was not the same buzz, the same excitement as in previous years. When we all arrived in the Castle Grounds the Mayor made a short speech and the parade dispersed. I stayed around for a while, making myself available for photo ops, but soon my day at the festival was done.
Knowing I had an early finish I had booked a round of golf at a nearby course and I was amazed to discover that I was about the only player on it! The wind was still strong which effected my game, but most of the errors I made were down to me being very out of practice rather than the prevailing weather conditions. It is so nice to play without being held up, or indeed feeling as if you are holding up the players behind, and it was a very relaxing evening.
My show on Sunday would not be until 3pm, so my first actual commitment would be the parade at 1pm. However I got into costume and drove to Rochester quite early in the hope that the crowds would be out in force and that the party atmosphere that was gripping the country would make this a day to remember. Throughout the nation there would be street parties and the British would do what they do best! But in Rochester that flat feeling of the day before continued, perhaps even more so. There were not large crowds and even a number of the costumed characters were mumbling and grumbling. I took the opportunity to visit the Guildhall, wondering if they had a display of the many Royal connections with the City, but there wasn’t anything going on there. ‘My’ room was empty with chairs stacked at the sides. The staff had wondered whey I was not doing a show there and indeed a few confused potential audience members had arrived during the day before asking when I would be on.
As I walked back down the High Street it was almost empty and the thought suddenly came to me that if this was to be a real Jubilee celebration then the opportunity to have a HUGE street party taking in the entire length of the thoroughfare would have been amazing! What a spectacle that would have been!
At 1 we paraded again, and waved and smiled and posed once more until we all went our different ways in the afternoon. My show was at 3, so I made my way to the ‘Empty Chair’ yurt at 2.30 to prepare. The wind was considerably less on the Sunday, so I didn’t have that to contend with, however the bells of the Cathedral were being loudly rung on one side whilst the Pipe band, with their rat-tat-tat-ing drums, gave an impromptu concert on the other. ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’
Again the yurt filled and again people stood outside peering in, and once more the new script was a success. It is an interesting subject and something that I will look more closely at in the future, I think.
And now my 2022 Festival was over. Jubilee Celebration or Dickens Festival? Sadly it was neither – it could and should have been a wonderful opportunity to wave the Union Flag high and proud, and I don’t think that anyone in the Dickensian community (I certainly wouldn’t) would have begrudged being gently eased aside to celebrate a remarkable time in our country’s history, but somehow, it just didn’t happen that way.
I drove away from Kent feeling a little sad.