Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Being Santa. Leeds Castle and Jester Pain.

5th December. I had just done a half day as Henry at Holway Park Junior School in Taunton with some challenging kids and was due to be heading off ASAP to Kent to stay at my sister’s house before beginning my stint as Santa at Leeds Castle the following day. I had so much still to do that there was little chance of me shooting straight off, so I headed home and got things ready at a much statelier pace. I waited until Amanda and James were home before hitting the road. I got to Cathy’s near Sittingbourne and settled in for the night on my luxury sofa!
6th December. My first day as Santa. The grotto at the Castle is wonderful. It is housed in the old Tennis Pavilion with a skating rink under canvas alongside it and a refreshments tent. You enter through a big old gnarled wooden door to a waiting area with toys scattered about for the children to play with and with a DVD playing in the corner with a Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer film showing. You begin the walk through to Santa by sauntering past the old animatronics reindeer from last year. Through the arch leads you to a “Winter Garden” with a bridge over a “light waterfall” and a figure of a small girl skating (she packed up working after only a few days and was never properly fixed!). You then go past the best part of the tour – a full size “Toy Machine” with a conveyor belt churning out presents ready to be wrapped up. You then walk down a small tunnel lit with blue lights, turn right and there you are in Santa’s study with me sitting on a throne, with a fire place and some chairs for the children to sit on. They can chat to Santa before getting their presents. This year I am handing out Penguins. The opening couple of days are something of a “phoney war” period with long parts of the day with very few punters coming through.
7th December. After finishing at the Castle today I am off to the Hazlitt Theatre in Maidstone to appear at a party for the children of employees of a local company and to hand out presents in my capacity as Santa. I am driven to the event by a taxi driver who tells me the company in question is a debt collection agency. I do worry somewhat that this invitation to appear as Santa is just a cunning ambush ploy by disgruntled creditors of mine. At the event at the Corn Exchange part of the building, the children come up to a raised stage area to meet me and I hand out specially wrapped presents handed to me by a couple of elves. The children then pose for photos with me, taken by a photographer who prints them immediately. The actors appearing at the Panto at the Hazlitt come over to meet the children as well. Some of them pose for photos with me, including a couple of very leggy fairy ladies not wearing very much. This is the highlight of the evening by a long way! For the next few nights and to give my sister and her husband a break, I am staying at the castle. My room is called the “Creve Coeur Room” and is right up in the battlements of the main part of the castle. It is freezing cold outside and equally freezing inside when I get back from Maidstone. I phone down to “Housekeeping” to see if someone can sort out the lack of heating in my room. The phone rings a couple of times and is answered by a lady with the words “pantry – what?” in a very angry sounding voice. Now I could have been anyone – President of Peru, Princess Alexandra, or even a proper paying guest, not the free-loader I actually was, nevertheless she should have been careful. I explain where I am and my lack of heating. She interrupts me.
“You HAVE heating in that room.” I can see my breath as steam as I speak.
“No I don’t…” I start to say. She won’t have it and once more re-asserts that I do have heating in my room. I invite her up to my room to prove otherwise. She grudgingly offers to go off and talk to the butler and then promptly hangs up. Now I am no expert on customer relations, but I have a feeling that her performance was not straight out the manual. About 20 minutes later my radiator starts clanking and gurgling and finally some heat starts to seep out. By bed time the ice has melted and even the Polar Bears are complaining about the heat.
8th December. The first Saturday gives me an impression of what to expect as it gets closer to Christmas. This is like Zulu only with small children and their parents replacing the South African warriors. We are practically forming the wagons into a circle and hurling the penguins at the customers to hold them off. I end up with only about 10 minutes lunch break. Amanda and James come up to see me, as do my parents, Amanda’s parents, Amanda’s sister Maria and two of her children. I see them so fleetingly and it is only later that it dawns on me that the next time I shall see them is Christmas Eve.
The following two weeks chug slowly by. Weekdays are mostly quiet, weekends almost unbearably busy. I spend most of my evenings staying at Cathy and Julian’s, but I am due back to stay at the Castle again for the 20th to the 23rd inclusive.
On the evening of the 13th I have been invited to appear at another banquet at the Castle as Henry. I had been contacted by Hospitality a few weeks previously and Kerry there had mentioned something about the evening ending with me reading a ghost story to the punters after their meal. I had heard nothing since that phone call. Once at the castle I had made several attempts to hear from Hospitality about what the evening was going to comprise of, but again I had heard nothing. I wandered up to the Castle about 6.30pm and was shown to a side office which I could use as a changing room. After a quick cup of tea and a change I was out and about as Henry. I spoke to the temporary head butler and she informed me that they wanted me to meet and greet in the main library as guests entered. This was good fun and everything was going fine, when suddenly there is a commotion in the main hall and Davey the Jester enters. I have worked with this man before and he is a very fine Jester indeed, but by God is he loud. He hollers and shouts at a few of the punters and then wanders off towards the banquet hall. I continue being kingly and meeting and greeting when suddenly the lady butler asks me to announce dinner and progress everyone down to the Banquet Hall. I do my big booming announcement and lead them off playing my little Dordrecht recorder at their head. As I approach the Banquet Hall I can see Davey with his hands on his hips staring at me. I just walk past with the rest of the guests, lead them into the Hall and invite the honoured guests to be seated. As I walk outside Davey grabs me.
“What’s your game?” he shouts. “I progress them down from the library!”
“I was asked to by the staff…” I begin to explain, but Teddy has well and truly left the Pram by now.
“I always lead them down to the Banquet Hall. You’ll have to wait till the end and progress them back, pal.” Let me explain a little about Davey – he is from North of Watford and has that really grating Lancastrian drawl for a voice. Now I would be quite happy to apologise for progressing the guests down without realising it was his special-wecial jobby-wobby, but one thing guaranteed to put my back up is for some Lancastrian half wit to start referring to me in a derogatory way as “Pal” and telling me I had done wrong when I had done nothing of the sort. A magician had been booked as well apparently. He has only been booked for an hour, so after an hour and after not finishing going round the table completely he just clears off – much to the chagrin of some of the customers as they haven’t seen him in action. Davey is still in full war cry making frequent references to me as “pal” again and going on about people taking other people’s work. Subtle is not his nickname. It also turns out Hospitality have booked a harpist for the night but she has just not turned up full stop. The guests in the Banquet Hall are freezing cold. There is a big fire ablaze but it is not up to heating the full room and by now the ladies in their nice little frocks and dresses are fully wrapped up in coats and hats as they eat their meals. Arguments continue among the waiting staff as to whether they can risk extra heating in the ancient wood panelled Banquet Hall. And of course, can you get hold of anyone from Hospitality about this total cock up of an evening? No of course you can’t – all have long since left their offices and their mobiles are turned off. Davey finally shoves off with a few more unsubtly barbed remarks in my direction. I progress the now almost cryogenically frozen guests back to the Yellow Drawing Room, with promises of nice after dinner drinks and a roaring fire. The drinks are there, but the fire may have roared earlier, but it is barely whimpering now and has all but gone out. Pretty much like my enthusiasm for Hospitality and their banquets. Feeling pretty hacked off with life in general I wander back to the side office that I am using as a changing room and, admittedly rather childishly, kick the door open with a mixture of frustration and anger for the way the evening has gone. The door shoots open a short way before hitting something solid which makes a sort of “oomph!” noise. It turns out to be the Jester in mid-clothing change. I got him! So every cloud does have a silver lining! I get back to my sister’s house at around 11pm. It has been a long, long day. Hospitality had all but burnt their bridges with me by letting their only good contact there go (the divine Nikki Dorkings), but this evening has been the final straw, and I let Kerry know all about my feelings the next day. She makes a few noises but none of them conciliatory so forget it. And lest you think I am being a little uncharitable in my views of Davey, this man is a Vicar by day. You gotta love that Christian attitude of his.
The rest of the Santa weeks go by slowly but surely. I haven’t been away from my wife and son as long as this before and I cannot wait to see them. All the staff and helpers with the sainted Darlene Cavill and the Special Events team are fantastic and I would like to make it clear here and now that Darlene, the lovely Helen Budd, the wonderful Jean Beaton, Coralie, Carole, Helen, Helen, John, Dallas, Ian, Richard, Barry and everyone else who contributed to helping me be a successful Santa, it was a pleasure to work with you all. You are stars. And to Howard and Sue for the food, drinks and mulled wine – thank you as well!
I stayed at my sisters until the final few days when I slept in the Culpepper Rooms near the Fairfax Hall Dining Room. These rooms were very cosy and warm but unfortunately were too close to the Fairfax Hall when the evening bands were playing. All I can say is that most of them started at about 10pm and had amazingly loud bass amps. Thankfully I was so tired that I slept through most of it.
I finally finished at around 2.30pm on Christmas Eve and headed straight for home. I got to Clapton at about 5pm and was never more pleased to see my lovely wife and son. A fine Christmas Day was spent with Amanda and James, and Amanda’s parents.

1 comment:

Moonroot said...

You're not only a Santa, but also a saint to put up with all that. Well done!!