It was early December, 2015, in southern San Francisco. Bernie and I were on a week’s holiday in the USA. It was not cold, but was raining, which was good news for drought-ravaged California, as the first sustained rainfall for several years streamed from the skies across the state for most of our visit.
This very British rain did not dampen our spirits, because the primary destination for our trip was housed inside two huge, aircraft-hanger style buildings called the Cow Palace.
Within the two giant halls of the Cow Palace is laid out the most wonderful reconstruction of Dickensian London you could imagine, even down to a London Docklands ‘alley’ making use of the connecting space, where ‘rough folk’ will regale you as you make the dangerous crossing from one hall to the other!
Following a roller-coaster of a road trip to meet up with some old friends in Sacramento, we had just come to the last two days of our visit to the West Coast and the main reason for being here – the annual Dickens Christmas Fair. We were kindly given visitor tickets by the man who runs the fair, Kevin Patterson. We’ll meet him later…
Mr Dickens was speaking. In a very English voice. Bristling with oratorical skills, Robert Young, who has played Dickens for longer than anyone can remember, was welcoming the ‘early’ group – people like ourselves lucky enough to get tickets to the opening carols and the warm-up, as well as a day full of astonishing costume drama and historical reconstruction… Oh and a lot of fun, too…
As Dickens, Robert was new to us; as Robert Young, he has been a visitor to the UK many times.
It’s the 34th such Fair and something in the order of 6,000 people per day were due to follow our early group through those doors for a journey back in time to a literary twilight zone that is pure magic.
To quote from the event’s webpage ( http://www.dickensfair.com/general ) “The Great Dickens Christmas Fair is a one-of-a-kind holiday adventure into Victorian London – an elaborate party with hundreds of costumed players performing and interacting with patrons in over 120,000 square feet of theatrically-lit music halls, pubs, dance floors, and Christmas shops. It’s a twilight evening in Charles Dickens’ London Town – a city of winding lanes filled with colorful characters from both literature and history. Enticing aromas of roasted chestnuts and hearty foods fill the air. Cries of street vendors hawking their wares ring out above the bustling crowd. Dozens of lamplit shops are filled to overflowing with Christmas gifts. The Dickens Christmas Fair is a treasured Bay Area tradition since 1970 and a splendid way to celebrate the holidays.”
Traditionally, the Fair takes place on five weekends leading up to the weekend before Christmas.
Our ‘early’ welcome talk finished with a flourish of Dickensian characters acting their parts as the day well and truly began… and then, the doors opened into the main event space and the half-world of Mr Dickens’ erudite welcome became the full-blown setting of London Town. No-one new to the event can anticipate the sheer intensity of what follows as you are projected back in time… and into the attentions of hundreds of period-dressed people; so much so that you feel like the ones in odd dress!
We had been advised by Diana Young-Peak, one of our hosts (see below) to head for ‘Mad Sal’s establishment’ as our opening foray. This took us right across the twin spaces of the large halls to the farthest corner, where ladies of dubious repute were lounging outside a salon offering what looked like bawdy entertainment.
Bernie and I took our seats as the show began and a rather attractive Mad Sal took centre stage, with her singing team of entertainers around her. They called for volunteers, and, being mid-theatre and in a dark part of the auditorium, I kept quiet and hunkered down in my seat. Sadly, it did little good, as one of Sal’s girls came up behind me and marched me on stage to be seated, with one other victim, on a stool.
Sal began to sing, in an excellent voice, and moved to stand by my stool. As she sang, the word ‘kiss’ graced the verses several times and she seemed to be coming back to it, with more and more emphasis…
Being a slow Englishman in such matters, I began to notice that the entire audience was giggling. I looked up from my inattentive reverie to see Mad Sal standing with one hand on hip and pointing, with the other, to her recalcitrant visitor and directing him to her left cheek! I duly kissed… and was kissed in return, eventually being allowed back to my seat with good natured warmth, at the end of the song. The entire performance, lasting perhaps thirty minutes, was very professionally done, and great fun.
After such excitement, we needed a drink. There were several hostelries in the twin halls, so we made our way to one which, in addition to alcohol, offered tea, coffee and herbal drinks. Duly restored, we continued our explorations… It was still only late morning.
I had instructions from my co-directors in the Silent Eye to try to photograph the Punch and Judy show, which we knew was part of the Fair. The lighting was difficult, but the lady and gentleman running the show were very amendable to my moving around, using shelves as tripods and generally being a damned nuisance… I tipped them handsomely at the end of the show, while the audience of a hundred or so children were departing, and they let me take some posed shots in return. Some of these may feature in one of Sue Vincent and Stuart France’s forthcoming graphic novels…
We were getting hungry, and a very special treat awaited us. Kevin Patterson and his wife run the Fair through their company Red Barn Productions. Kevin had invited us to afternoon tea with Diana and Robert in one of the period tearooms. Soon, the five of us were tucking into sandwiches, crumpets, cakes and tea… heaven. To follow that, Kevin offered to show us a very secret place within the Fair. Kevin’s father had created the original event – known then as the Renaissance Fair, and located in Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
As a tribute to his father’s memory – and the latter’s sense of humour, Kevin has created a secret room at the show, known as ‘The Opium Den’.
We were treated to a cocktail in the succulent interior of the Opium Den; and enjoyed its seductive atmosphere. Its location within the Fair is a well-kept secret.
One of the delights of the Fair is the appearance of groups of actors playing related parts. You can be strolling along or having a drink, when everyone stands because members of a royal family, such as Queen Victoria and her entire entourage, are going past in procession – everyone takes this very seriously!
One of the most popular and intimate features of the Fair is the series of readings given in one of several reading rooms throughout the day by the great man, himself. Robert Young as Dickens will begin reading from one of the books, then, suddenly, will stand and begin to act the part of the chosen character – very much in the original style of the author, himself.
We spent the rest of that afternoon wandering, drinking tea (well, me, anyway – I was driving) and generally chilling out. Something rather more ‘adult’ was booked for the early evening ahead…
I mentioned that Diana Young-Peak was one of our hosts. She is also the writer of one of the most popular attractions of the Fair. Each year, Diana creates a “Saucy French Postcards Tableaux Vivants” show which operates on three levels: the audience; the front stage, populated by the three main characters in the story, who act as the narrators; and the backstage action, which features, at best, partly dressed figures drawn from classical mythology. Frequently members of the backstage are naked, or nearly so, but always tastefully posed… The backstage actors operate in a part of the stage which is separated from the front section by a ‘scrim’ screen, made from semi-transparent material that adds a further ‘classical’ feel to the whole show. In a time-honoured prohibition, the scantily-clad, whose time exposure for each shot is brief, may not move…
The whole ‘saucy’ feel is not subtly constructed, and the envisaged titillation can be deceptive in its delivery… and its effect. As Horatio and Letitia Everard, assisted by their housekeeper, our well-heeled married couple discuss current events in their own lives with reference to various classical scenes. The viewer’s eyes and ears are drawn from the innuedo-ridden Mr and Mrs dialogue to the ‘still life’ of the various human bodies assembled for the next snapshot of what each of the married pair is really thinking…
It should be just funny, and rude… but it’s not just that; it’s also really beautiful…
The naked or scantily-dressed forms behind the scrim are arranged with incredible artistry – often holding agonising positions for the long few seconds in which we get to gaze at the intensity of the twenty or so people who are literally ‘giving their all’ to support Diana’s creation. It’s worth the price of admission, alone. That it comes, included, at the end of each wonderful and well-filled is amazing. I took lots of vivid images, but they’re all in my head… photography, as you’d expect, is strictly prohibited, to protect the identities of those brave and dedicated players behind the veil.
Diana speaks of the spiritual egregore of the show. It’s not a word often used outside the esoteric community. It refers to the collective spirit or soul of a gathering, an organisation or endeavour, or even an idea whose time has come; but one in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The Dickens Fair has an egregore. It is a very powerful but subtle one. It is driven by hundreds of people who give their time and presence, freely in most cases, to bring the Fair to new life each year. It’s very much their home–and this is their Christmas…
Treat yourself to a trip to this astonishing event… put it on your bucket list. You’ll not be disappointed.
©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2016. Picture of the Cow Palace exterior taken from the Fair’s website.