It is late November, and three weeks after I hung up my wig and frock coat for the final time I’m back on the road again. The weather is still mild but Christmas is firmly within our sights and I’m on my way to give a presentation about how the tour went. I almost never thought this moment would come. So much time and focus went into preparing for the eight weeks of touring with Winston that I hadn’t even contemplated what would come after.
The evaluation process with Fol Espoir and the preparation for the presentation I am giving today has given me the opportunity to reflect on it however. In conversation with friends and colleagues I tend to play it down. I frame my experience within the narrative that I think people expect to hear from someone who has just returned from a two-month tour. I say “it was exhausting” but I never really felt exhausted at the time, I say “it was a hard slog” but I don’t think it really was, I sometimes even say “never again” which is not quite the same as actually feeling that it was a once in a lifetime experience.
“What was particularly difficult – and be honest” John keeps pushing the stage manager Matt and I to dish the dirt. But in all honesty there is none, apart from a cracked windscreen and the power being blown mid-performance – both on the same night incidentally – Winston passed off without a hitch.
One of the frequent questions I was asked during the tour was “don’t you get tired of saying the same lines every night?” Although it is true that I have found long tours of other people’s work hard in the past this one was entirely different. Saying the words that I researched, drafted and re-drafted every night was a pleasure. I believed in the story of this incredible character and I was very proud of the rigorous work John and I had done to craft it into a piece of theatre. Consequently performing it every night was a privilege, sharing our take on an already rollicking yarn with a new group of people was a joy.
And the audiences were invariably supportive and enthusiastic. Sharing their own tales of, and connections to Winston over the years. One woman told us that her great-grandfather had been a prisoner of war with Winston in South Africa. Churchill had apparently made an agreement with the guards that if they let him walk around the grounds of the camp he promised he wouldn’t escape. A foolish mistake on the Boers’ part from what we know now but in retaliation the remaining troops were duly punished. Her relative never liked Churchill from that day on she told us.
In Margate we heard the story of a woman’s grandfather who was head chef in the most expensive restaurant in town and had served Winston when he paid a visit on official business after the First World War. We even performed to a village hall where a genuine Victoria Cross was hanging on the wall. The much coveted prize that Winston so desired for his efforts was literally within reach! Upon closer inspection it was in fact given to a soldier for bravery during the Boer War and the text beneath suggested that the soldier was on the Dunottar Castle – the very ship which took Churchill and Colonel Buller to the Cape in 1899.
I discovered the history of the medal itself at the Lancashire Fusiliers museum in Bury after being encouraged to go by a father and son who had just seen the show for dad’s birthday. Created in 1856 the VC remains the highest order for valour a British soldier can be awarded. The medals themselves are made from a finite source – the bronze knobs from a set of Chinese cannon taken from the Russians at Sebastopol during the Napoleonic wars.
Matt and I were becoming oral historians, threading this ever accumulating story up and down the country, compiling what we learnt on the road and sharing it with a new audience every night.
And not only Churchill made it into our Winston on the Run almanac, we shortlisted our favourite Travelodge experiences and completed our highly publicised top ten list. Three cheers for Crewe and the Dean Clough Mill Halifax in the top two spots. In fact some of my fondest memories of the tour were spent waiting in the countless take-aways Matt and I frequented around the UK. Watching Father Ted on the little TV on the counter awaiting prawn crackers and chow mein to sate our hunger after the show. The satisfaction of another venue successfully under our belts.
Like John’s excellent tour road map on our website we threaded a journey – a six and a half thousand mile journey, connecting people and places, sharing stories and laughter and a thousand Churchillian quotations: “If you’re going through hell, keep going” “History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it”
And we did what he said – we kept going, through it all and we made history. 6,500 miles, 43 nights, 30-odd venues, a dozen Travelodges and eleven cigars worth of brandy-swilling, death-defying, restless, relentless, persistent Churchillian history.
We might even do it again sometime.