Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bye bye Buxton: August 20, blogging from the belly of Beluga's baby

Oh no. We headed for our gate and the spawn of Beluga is there waiting for us. You know, the Scarebus that killed off the last two 747 stretches. Le whale de la France. That doppeldecker everyone raves about. The A380. Oh well, we couldn't fly internationally this often without encountering one of the occupational Eurohazards. It was too late to say "If it ain't Boeing I ain't going" and ask for the 747 we saw on landing to be substituted, so we submitted to fate without unseemly wrangle.

There were three aerobridges instead of two - one for the top deck. We were in row 44, but that's the second row from the front of the plane! We hadn't flown at the front since flying Aldi Airways in the US when we went to Florida with Jodi. There was a stairway right next to us, and under it was the purser's desk. The stairway was roped off of course (no plebs allowed) so all we could see up there was the ornate bar we're missing out on (I think we'll survive). Whenever the crew came in and out we could see into the flight deck. It's a glass cockpit from window level down, but above the crew's heads there's still the array of buttons and switches which would be familiar to Wash if he was transferred from the Serenity to Emirates.

Seating is 3+4+3 just like on the 777s, but the luggage storage is a different design without as much depth. The rest of the interior is exactly like the newest 777s, like the one we got from home to Dubai a month ago. The windows seemed somehow smaller than they did on the 777, which amazes me. They're more rounded and have a much deeper recess, maybe that gives a false impression of their size.

The "no smoking" symbols are permanent stickers instead of lights - they've finally decided it's pointless to make it look like there's an option. But there's still ash trays in the back of the toilet doors...

The safety video seems to have been slightly updated, destroying a few of our peanut gallery comments by making the instructions slightly clearer.

At about takeoff time the captain came over the PA and told us that due to congestion there would be a delay of about 40 minutes. We were 15th in succession for the runway which meant we wouldn't get pushed back until there was a bit of capacity out there. They turned off the seat belt light which meant we were just as comfortable while waiting as we would be in flight.

But somehow this flight was the worst we've encountered. The other passenger in our row was very nice (unlike the one we had from Manchester to Dubai) so that wasn't it. The service was fine, the features of the cabin were fine, but somehow both of us felt really uncomfortable. Chris was off his food and feeling claustrophobic. I was feeling dried out and unable to concentrate on anything. There's no reason for it, same as there was no reason we both felt much better on Air New Zealand's 747 than we ever had on a 777 of any version. Mysterious!

It was daylight when we took off (about 10:45am) but since we were travelling in the double sunrise direction dusk fell about half way into the flight. We were fairly close to the equator at the time, and it went from sunlight to purple clouds to orange horizon to darkness in about the time it took the drinks trolley to travel three rows down the cabin. There was quite a bit of chop at the time (the cabin crew were told to take their seats at one point) but I have no idea whether it was due to islands, trade winds or dusk. The cabin crew are REALLY good - just before they were told to take their seats I saw one of them pour water into a cup on a tray and hand it to the lady in the window seat in our row, without mishap and without even seeming to make any concession to the way the plane was bouncing. I've heard of internal gyros but this is amazing!

We were over water for almost all of the journey but cut across the bottom of WA (making landfall right over Perth if the map is to be believed) and cut across to the Great Australian Bight (which on some of the maps is labelled the "South Australian Basin"), to avoid some dirty weather around Adelaide. As we passed Perth the display estimated 2.5hrs to destination - which goes to show how much it costs to take off and land, because flying domestic from Perth takes just over four hours. I guess there's a slight difference in speed between a long haul widebody and a 737, too.

Breakfast arrives, and the first thing I notice is that the cheese is branded "Rondele". That makes me think - we already had Jumping Joan as we crossed the equator. There's strawberry jam in the breakfast which is close enough to scarlet so we've covered Pimpernel. So the only dance Jack and Elsie can do that the A380 can't is the Saraband.

Eventually Melbourne came up on the map. Buxton is amazing, Manchester is lots of fun and Dubai blows your socks off, but there's absolutely no comparison with the feeling of home and familiar territory. I sure hope it'll be daylight when we land, the geography challenge around the suburbs is possibly the best thing about flying - apart from taking off of course.

I accidentally caught sight of my chin in the mirror in the toilet. It is rather rough, I'm afraid. At least on this leg I look at least vaguely like my passport photo. The bloodshot eyes are extra though.

What am I looking forward to when I get home?
1. People who know how to hug like they really mean it
2. A bed made for people the size of an R-class driving wheel, with covers I can pull over my head if I'm cold
3. A desk with a chair I can dangle my feet from
4. A radio station I can listen to without bringing the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty
5. Power points with the earth pin on the bottom where it should be

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bye bye Buxton: August 19, the long haul home

I woke in the night, in a terrible fright, and found it was perfectly true. Well, not quite. It was about 10am, and I wasn't frightened of anything except the fact that I'd have to pack some time between now and 5pm.

I decided against going out gunzelling, as the time I had available would hardly have taken me to Manchester and back. So I did very little - until my phone rang. Now normally this isn't all that unusual. But when I'm overseas and the only people in this hemisphere who have my number are finished and gone to Harrogate, it can only mean one thing - that Someone Special is taking advantage of cheap international calls!

You don't need to know what we talked about, even though it was incredibly funny. So fast forward to the middle of the afternoon when we realised I should be packing.

As always it seemed like there was ages to go until the last minute. I was in the middle of washing up when the alarm told us to get moving. Two backpacks, two wheely cases, down the stairs to the bus stop. Thank you, Buxton.

The bus was a few minutes late but we had plenty of time. As always the trip through the suburbs seemed to take forever, we'd be much better off taking a train to Stockport - at least the track would be smoother than the road, even if the train wasn't much faster. Once we got to Stockport it was freeway running all the way to the airport, which was much more fun. 100km/h in a low floor bus is exciting, and with the windows open on a hot day it's even better.

As we went into the airport I had one last look at the trains. Two Class 323 sparks and a Trans-Pennine 185. Plus the works for the new light rail terminus they're building as part of the massive expansion of the Metrolink. It'll be interesting to see how the Manchester area changes over the next year or two!

We made our way through the maze of twisty corridors all alike, and eventually found ourselves at Departures. The online check-in queue for EK020 was almost as long as the normal one, and when we got to the front we found out why - a couple of officious staff members were enforcing a rule which I'd never heard of, which was that carry-on had to be strictly one piece (including laptops, I had thought laptops and handbags were classed separately) and 7kg or less. Just about everyone in the queue was scrabbling to repack stuff. Uncharacteristically I made a fuss about it, but they insisted I check in my backpack. Since we'd already checked in the wheely cases they said to check it in at the departure gate, like people do for prams etc.

So we went through security, which of course means unpacking and repacking things like coat pockets, and when we got through to the other side I magically had less weight in what was classed as carry-on. Now to sneak on board without anyone officious noticing the "checked luggage" barcode on my backpack...

Of course nobody cared that I was carrying an overweight backpack. Welcome on board sir, just to your right. I shed my coat and put it in my backpack for safety (zipper security is better than trying to keep pockets upright). Did that make any difference to the plane's performance? Of course not. Stupid bureaucracy.

Once on board of course everything was fine. Takeoff was late due (according to the captain's speech) to the plane arriving late and needing a more thorough cleaning than normal. It was dark so there was nothing to see out the windows (or through the cameras for that matter) but we got fed fairly soon and then it was time to settle in for the duration.

By about half past midnight I wanted to sleep but couldn't, so I tried the old method of finding something boring to read. Unfortunately all I could find was Appendix B to the guidelines for design and construction of new tram tracks - which I found so fascinating that I was still wide awake reading it quite a while later.

There's really not much more to tell about the flight that we haven't said before. Airliner toilets can be slightly disturbing, because unlike ground ones where the level in the bowl stays constant, they keep everything right there until you flush. Was ALL THAT inside my bladder just a few minutes ago? No wonder I feel lighter.

Dawn broke at about 3am England time. For several minutes it was like an orange glow right along the horizon. Then there was this weird looking effect where the orange glow had a semi-circle under it - there must have been a cloud layer or something separating them. It didn't take long for the sun to rise, I was able to watch it and watch the shadows moving inside the plane. The semi-circle gradually widened and then at the middle of it the sun came up and of course I had to look away. The colours were beautiful, if I could recreate them on a stage I'd be over the moon. Inside the plane it was still basically dark (apart from the no smoking lights of course) and the few open windows cast rays of sunlight on the roof. The effect was like what we usually think of as a sunset. The recesses of the windows reflected the colour of the sky too, and the mainly beige interior of the plane acted as an almost perfect cyc screen. I hadn't realised just how much I miss being involved in lighting since moving into the role of SM!

As the light increased we saw a vast expanse of white - ten tenths cloud at about 18,000 feet with a few white caps (if that's not redundant) sticking up out of the layer. Soon we were on initial descent and basically dropped right into it. It was a bit bumpy as we went through - that's the power of water.

The cloud layer extended almost right to the ground, the cameras were showing a big fat blank until the runway loomed into view. We touched down, made our way through security and found our gate. Power. Wifi. Time to exercise the joints in ways that just aren't possible on a plane.

I visited the local Maccas to get a coffee. They accept all currencies, but in notes only, so I handed over 10 quid and got a pile of Dirhan back. The coffee is exactly the same as what we get in Maccas at home.

Apart from absorbing power and catching up on emails there was nothing much to do. Right now we're just double-triple-checking we're at the right gate and not going to be left behind.

Join us tomorrow morning for the final exciting installment of the 2013 Buxton Blog - if I think of anything worth posting that is.

In Buxton: August 16-18, a long weekend finale

Ooh? Ooh! Eureka! The story so far. We like to keep on doing what we're doing right now. It takes energy to make us do new things, or stop doing things.

Paying GBP7.50 to hear people singing hardcore opera in a language we don't understand is one of those new things. But when our lovely Kate invites us using the words "I'd love to see some friendly faces in the crowd" and our lovely Phoebe mentions that she's in it too, that's enough to overcome our inertia.

Eureka describes inertia as a kind of laziness, and I have to say, I could have done with a lazy morning after all the gunzelling I've done. If you think travelling by train means sitting down and watching the scenery go by, you haven't been out with me. Stephen knows all about this from when we used to do surveys on Sunday afternoons instead of rehearsals. David, Tim and Thea might remember it too, though years have rolled over their heads. Suffice it to say that 20km of walking with a 15kg backpack completely offsets the fact that I eat at the station cafe.

Anyway, so I dragged my weary eyelids open, hit my knees with a rubber mallet until they could bend again, gave my shoulder blades an instant massage (find the spot where it's stiff and pinch it til the pinch hurts more than the stiffness) and to my amazement found myself able to maintain an upright position. We had arranged to help the pros move Princess Ida costumes into the Opera House - earlier than usual this time, as they had a matinee to do so the dress rehearsal had been moved forward to 10am.

We got to the Octagon (where costumes are stored) at about 8:45, thinking to get the move done quickly before the Master Class started at 9:30. Nobody was there so it was a case of hanging around until the place opened. At about nine we got in, and the festival volunteers were unhurriedly starting to set up tables to sell tickets to the Master Class - which actually started at 10:30, thank goodness.

So with time up our sleeves we did the job of moving costumes without any pressure, and then went home for breakfast and a shave (two breakfasts and one shave).

The format of the Master Class was that each contestant (who had to be in the middle of a singing-related uni course) came prepared to sing a song, and was announced just like it was a concert. Then they'd go on and start singing to an ex-D'Oyly Carte professional, who would stop them at any time and comment on their performance (not just the singing, the first one was given tips about how to walk up the steps to the "stage" in high heels). We in the audience got to vote on who gave the best performance, and the top two went into the finals.

The finals included songs from G&S, other musical theatre pieces and opera, which made it hard to pick who was best. But that didn't matter, we were there to skew the vote in favour of our own people so we did. We could each only vote for one person, so we sneakily looked at each other's ballots and made sure we did one for each.

As it turned out first prize was tied between Caroline (our Kate) and one other person, and Rachel (our Phoebe) came next! We were thrilled, as were several other Savoynetters in the audience.

We didn't have tickets to the afternoon or evening shows so it was a case of going home, pottering around for a bit, catching up on things that needed to be done etc. One of those things was taking photos of Alice.

The sun was out so we decided to go for a walk. First stop, the office of the halls of residence. "Hi, we're just taking photos around town with our little Alice in Wonderland here, do you mind if we get one here?" So Alice checked in to the halls, standing on the bench.

Then the Railway Hotel next door. To get some perspective I had to practically lie down on the ground and take the photo from an angle of 45 degrees, which drew a look from an innocent bystander. "This is Alice, she's going round Buxton town and we're taking photos of her." "Oh, sure."

Next stop, Spring Gardens - some fairly ordinary shots of her sitting on the decorative rocks, and then a perspective shot of her walking into some of the shops we like best. More looks from passers by. Most of them were incredibly polite, they stopped to let us take the shot before walking in front of the camera. Very kind.

Then to the famous Buxton fountain, that deserved quite a few. So did the Opera House and surrounds. The light wasn't perfect at that time of the afternoon but we got some more that evening on our way in to the festival club. As we were doing so a Savoynetter came past and said "Now if I had to look over the membership list of Savoynet and pick two members who I could imagine would lie down on the footpath in front of the opera house taking trick photos, which two would be the top of my list?" This, folks, is a person we had only met once, and briefly because we were carrying costumes at the time. Everything he knows about us is from our posts on Savoynet. Obviously they're a fairly accurate indicator of our personalities.

It's great when that happens - you meet someone in real life and they are exactly how you expected them to be from their emails. We had a situation like that in Grand Duke four years back. I used to have them on Railpage all the time, but that was in a bad way because people who are annoying online are also annoying IRL.

At the festival club that night we scoped out our plan of a tack for the awards ceremony - we knew the day would be busy with two shows to watch and two sets of costumes to carry. On the expectation that we wouldn't be finished with that by the time the ceremony started, we decided to split up - Chris after all had solemnly promised to transmit the results live over Multi-Player Notepad. The original plan had been for me to man the programme, looking up spellings of names so he could broadcast them without embarrassment. But the dbadmin's creed is "Always have backups" so he roped Chris Hall into the scheme to be ready in case I couldn't make it. Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory.

Except perhaps a pot-luck, because pot-lucks are amazing. The nice thing about Gondoliers is that it has a lot of minor roles, which means I get to share a stage with some amazing people. Videos are on Facebook, check them out. I just wish I had Someone Special with me to play Vittoria... Still, a very good time was had by all, especially Luiz and Casilda.

Saturday dawned cool and cloudy. In case you think I'm about to recycle that Ballagundi joke again, be it known that finding a rhyme for "cloudy" is just not worth it. Twice was enough, and only the first time was clever enough to be funny.

Anyway, so Saturday dawned and Chris took Alice and the camera to the opera house to try for a shot in morning light. (It faces east so afternoon photos don't work all that well - hence the night shots.) When he got back in we realised there was still some time before we were needed for our big day of costume carrying. Higher Buxton, here we come!

First stop was the fish and chippery that had put a very British sign up "congratulating" Harrogate for "winning" the festival, and "thanking" the local council and the opera house management for their assistance. When we got there the sign was gone - apparently someone had come in and complained and they'd taken it down as a gesture of goodwill. They still had it though, so they reinstalled it long enough for us to take photos of Alice reading it.

After that, Scriveners. Being a gunzel with a BritRailPass every time I've been in Buxton I'd never actually been - although I'd been told by many people that it's a bookworm's paradise. And it was! A tiny place but crammed to the gills with old books. All neatly categorised to make things easy to find. PLUS there was a book binding museum - and they run classes in the ancient art, with a view to helping people learn the best way to take care of, and repair, classic books.

Alice found the Lewis Carroll section and asked us to take her photo there. I found the transport section and mentioned that "If I find a curves and grades book for the Buxton line I'm going to wet myself". Unfortunately (or fortunately) I didn't - although there were a number of really interesting looking books that I'd love to have borrowed if they were in the Monash library. They just weren't worth spending money on and carrying home at $80/kg excess baggage fee to join our already overcrowded shelves.

There was a music section too, and Alice got photographed xxxxxxx xxx xx xxxxxxxx xxxxx xx Xxxxxxx xx x xxxx xx xxx xxx xx XxxxxXxx [censored so we can all enjoy the joke together when we get home].

Eventually we gathered our purchases and wandered to the front desk. Near the front desk was a collection of Xxxxxxx books [censored as they may end up being birthday gifts] which reminded me to go looking for any we don't already have. Now there's a big gap in their shelves, which I'm sure they'll fill pretty soon. Right, are we really ready to pay now? Oh hi Amy, what are you doing here? Just looking at the place, I've heard it's amazing! Yes it is, well we'll let you look because you're on stage in about an hour and a half aren't you? So she looked at books and we donated 45 quiddages to the cause and left with some treasures.

Chris mentioned that he hadn't factored in the possibility of me having never been to Scriveners before when he planned the timetable for the day. It was now high time to head for the Octagon and carry some costumes.

It was going to be a logistical nightmare - one show out and one show in, and all in the time between a matinee Princess Ida (longish running show) and an evening Merry Widow (multiple costumes per person). Luckily we ran into the experts and planned the operation in complete detail. By the time we had finished it was time to get to the Opera House to see the show!

It was a very good Princess Ida, as a pro show should be. When Hildebrand and Ida faced off in Act 2 we could see them looking daggers at each other all the way from the gallery. I haven't seen a face-off like that since Rachel Sztanski did Ida with Savoy many years ago. Unfortunately the chorus seemed a bit badly directed - what they did was mainly choreography rather than direction, and in quite a few places it didn't fit with the plot of the show. I'm sure Ron will do a much better job.

From there, straight down the fire escape to the stage door. Bunch of costumes, meet my left arm. Unlike Ko-Ko I have a strong left arm (good for hugging people with - and since today's the last day of my week of safety under xkcd 684 I may as well say something soppy) which makes it possible to carry lots of costumes at once.

Chris did the same thing on a slightly different angle, because he wears gloves so he prefers the weight to go on his hands rather than his arms.

We had Princess Ida out in fairly good time, and started carrying Merry Widow stuff in. Only trouble was, it was raining hard enough to do a lot of damage to the delicate costumes, so instead of wheeling a whole rack in one hit we had to carry them a few at a time with a plastic bag over the top to protect them.

As we were going back and forth I remarked "This is good, the rain's coming from the west so I'm protecting the costumes with my body!" Just call me Pollyanna because that's taking positive attitude a bit too far.

At several points there were kids in highly colourful costumes darting in and out of the Octagon. I asked one of them who they were and it turned out they were the cast of the Mikado we were seeing that evening. This promises to be a good show!

Eventually we were done. Princess Ida had to be loaded into a truck (along with set and props) to be taken direct to Harrogate to take part in the ClassicFEST which is coming up some time very soon. Harriet (the head costume volunteer) went with them so this was goodbye for another year. I can't believe this festival is breaking up already! Haven't we only just started?

Chris had long since headed off to the awards ceremony, with Traal and Alice of course. I was just thinking of following him when on the last trip I passed a random carrying a whole stack of photo frames. Then I ran into one of the many festival club acquaintances who told me "Hey, congratulations!"

Ah, so Savoynet won something. That would be Best Female Voice for Anne (our lovely Elsie). Two Elsies in a row getting Best Female Voice, nice work. Didn't I tell her to hang around for the end of the festival to save on postage? These were my thoughts; at the time I kept them to myself and only spake thus: "Oh, thanks, what did we win?"

"Haven't you heard? You walked away with the lot! Won the festival and half a dozen other prizes too!"

That sounded good. I continued carrying my load but when I got in to the Octagon the assembled Savoynetters were all there, desperately trying to fit all the trophies and certificates onto a table for a group photo. It wasn't easy.

They greeted me with all good will, and once I'd put my load down I joined them. Shame I wasn't in uniform, because everyone else was - so I went to the back of the crowd so they couldn't tell.

Now this is overwhelming on several levels. We were in a show that won - that's amazing. We cleaned up a fair percentage of the other awards - that's astounding. But the funny thing is, Savoynet have done amazingly top quality shows before, and never won. The international championship has been since 1994 the one thing that's always just beyond reach. So let the joy bells ring!

Our amazing lighting designer pulled my leg and that of Savoynet's regular SM (who had been unavailable for this year's show due to a paid gig elsewhere) by telling him to ask me for some tips about how to SM a show that wins. ;) I love the English sense of humour.

So we were on cloud nine when went to see Mikado by an Irish group with an average age of 17. It was unlike any show we've seen before - lots of modernisations in acting and choreography, and yet the dialogue was Gilbert's own (with a very few changes for comic effect eg "I have an email from his majesty the Mikado" and "This is all very interesting, and I'll look it up on Youtube later, but we came about a different matter") and the characterisation was respectful. Finally, a show which has "My object all sublime" recast into 2/4 time but which isn't calculated to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty.

It finished just on 10pm so we went straight from there to the Opera House to help bump out Merry Widow. It was still raining but luckily the truck was right outside. After several attempts we managed to get everything into one costume rack and one "skip", aka a wheeled aluminium container about the size of the six wheel trolleys we used at work. After that we just hung around until the whole place was bumped out completely - after all, this is the last bump-out of the G&S Festival from the Buxton Opera House for the foreseeable future. It's not like we can come back and grab anything we missed.

Unfortunately that meant we got to the Festival Club just as the Mikado cast were finishing their cabaret! They were carrying a drum kit, which indicates that it would have been a lot of fun to be at. Still, duty demands that we look after our friends when they're short-handed and in a panic, and at all costs we do our duty.

In celebration of Savoynet's victory the room was invited to sing the chorus numbers from Yeomen. The assembled cast all did their moves perfectly. We had a volunteer Elsie as ours was already at home, and a volunteer Jack Point who hammed it up completely. I called the curtain but nobody laughed.

Then with a final Hail Poetry the festival was over and the club was transformed back into a genteel tea shop (not quite a tea house). Sound and video equipment was packed up, the stage was dismantled, tables were put back into their normal positions. But the young Mikado cast were still hard at it. Their conductor too - he made sure their rowdy drinking songs were in time and their cut-offs simultaneous. Some were G&S and since Chris and I were hanging around listening we were invited to take part. This is what the festival is all about. Thank you, Buxton.

Of course we stayed until the place closed. Even then the farewell hugs probably took the staff into overtime...

A "last thing before bed" check of Facebook and emails took several hours because of the number of congratulations. It must have been 3am before I went to sleep, and I regret nothing.

In the morning I realised I still had a few days to go on my BritRailPass. That means it's time to visit the sparks in Liverpool again. They have bogies like our Comengs and vaguely similar body proportions.

From Manchester I took the first Liverpool service, which was stopping all stations via Eccles. Ehee! I was fascinated to see electrification works along the line - first staunchions with no overhead, then a catenary wire, then the full finished product. If they're electrifying one of the lines north of Piccadilly they might start running frequent electric services from Hazel Grove, and let the Buxton trains run express. That would be smart. I'll watch progress with interest.

Liverpool's main intercity station is Lime Street, but its suburban services go through Central. Lime Street is only served by one of the three suburban lines, which does a one-way loop calling at both. But Lime Street's suburban section was closed for refurbishment, so I had to walk to Central. Luckily it was well signposted because the streets go on all sorts of odd angles and have weirdly spelled Liverpudlian names.

Liverpool Central was like Inigo Montoya - "You don't look so good." "Pfffffffffffft" "You don't smell so good" "But I feel fine!". The light in the station itself was OK but the tunnels were quite dark, so it made the place look wet and cold. And the smell of the bottom of the river seeping in was fairly strong.

I got on a train and went for a ride, but the expected sound just wasn't there. On top of that, the scenery was nice but in a really boring kind of way - the track was lowered into a cutting and the cutting was lined with trees and shrubbery. That and sky were all I could see.

So I took a train to Chester. Now I'd seen Chester as a destination for interurban services from several different places, so I knew I could get just about anywhere from there. But it was also the terminus of the Liverpool suburban system - sort of like Glen Waverley except with trains instead of buses.

When I got there I was blown away by the size of the place - lots of platforms, trains all over the place. The suburban side of things was just a little dock platform.

Wanting a place to plug in to power I took a Virgin Voyager bound for London Euston, with the idea of finding out how far I could go and still get a train back to Buxton. Unfortunately there was no 3G coverage and Virgin's wifi costs money. So I played it safe and baled out at Crewe.

The first thing I saw as we pulled in was long line of Class 90 electric locos in storage. When the Fat Controller said Crewe was a fine place for sick engines, I assumed he meant it would make them better. Maybe that's changed since the 50s...

By this time the light was fading and it was time to head home. What kind of train runs up the main line to Manchester? The Pendolino. 200km/h on top of howling electric motors. Staunchions looking like a picket fence. Southbound Pendolinos passing us, looking like machine gun fire. When can we have these on the Melbourne-Sydney line?

All too soon we arrived at Manchester. The train to Buxton was fairly crowded so I sat on the floor and worked on my proposals to the GSOV committee based on what I've learned here.

Chris was slightly surprised to see me, expecting that I'd stay out all night. But I wanted some dinner. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we fly.

Friday, August 16, 2013

In Buxton: August 15, strolling casually through Sherwood Forest

It's another day out gunzelling today - that's rule of three. On today's agenda: Leeds to see the Siemens trains, Sheffield to see the Siemens trams, and Huntingdon to see how it's possible to evade Robin Hood's merrie men by sheer speed (it's very difficult to say "Harkye my good Sheriff of Nottingham, wouldst partake of an honest meal of the King's venison for the price of half of all in thy purse?" when the Sheriff is passing at 200km/h).

But first, here's how yesterday finished. When I signed off on the train home from Blackpool I didn't think it was worth reporting a blow-by-blow of the way I get from Manchester Piccadilly to Buxton as I've done it often frequently. But crowded trains tend to throw people together, which can sometimes cause a chain reaction of humour. I guess in a way that means funny people are radioactive - or at least that humour decreases with the square of the distance. Anyway, I got the last train that would get me to Buxton in time for the show, and it was the tail end of peak hour. Sardine room only on the Sprinter. The guy next to me was talking on the phone, which is considered slightly rude, except that he made it funny instead of isolating to the rest of the carriage. "You know me, I'm a perfect gentleman! Well maybe not a gentleman, but certainly perfect!" That set the tone for the trip, and soon every one of the dozen or so people crowded into the section of aisle next to the toilet were exchanging witticisms.

By the time we got to Hazel Grove the crowds had cleared, which says to me that it deserves a suburban level service instead of just an hourly Sprinter plus the Buxton trains. Trouble is they'd have to terminate them all at Piccadilly because none of the lines out to the north of Manchester are electrified. Running that many services into dead end platforms could be a challenge.

So we all got to sit down, and the family of three who were the last remaining Former Toilet Aislers sat at a table opposite me. The witticisms continued all the way to Buxton! It turned out one of them works at Cafe Nerd, and we know a barista's job is more about entertaining the customers while they wait than making coffee.

That's all about last night, if you want to know about the show ask Chris.

So, this morning. Train from Buxton. Pasty from my favourite shop at Manchester Piccadilly. Head for the Trans-Pennine Express platform to get me to Leeds.

As I glanced up and looked at the train approaching the platform it looked different. It was a 170, not a 185! Without trying to make the 185s jealous, I think the 170s are very graceful - a rare example of a fairly flat front which still looks streamlined. And internally they have all that is required to make a trip thoroughly comfortable, to wit, soundproofing and in-seat power points.

Leeds station is huge - 17 platforms, half for through-running and half for terminating. (If any smart aleck says you can't halve an odd number I'll tell them there were some dock platforms, which are half way between a through platform and a terminator.) I spent quite a bit of time just getting the layout in my head. One difficulty is that the suburban services are operated by Northern Rail, same as the middle distance ones, which makes it hard to know which is which. The rail album helped a lot though.

I got onto the nearest Class 333 spark (a Siemens Mo-Mo, same as ours but with slightly different nose styling) and there was a suburban network map inside, that helped even more. Once on board I thought I might as well go right through to Skipton. I'm glad I did - 100mph running on good track was quite exciting. This is what these trains were designed for - not trundling up and down the Sandringham line stopping every 800m.

I'm getting quite accustomed to seeing junctions to tourist railways. Pulling in to Keyleigh at the same time as we did was a short rake of Mk.1 carriages, and as we pulled out I saw an LMS steam loco at the front. It was a four-platform station laid out like Footscray with a split down the middle island, and "that side" was all done up in art deco as befits a tourist railway.

Then when we got to Skipton there was a Class 37 loco in the platform next to us. Jump out, grab camera. It's just pulling out. What's it pulling? A Class 47 and a BR steamer. My mild foaming was observed by a grandmother and grandson who were also very interested in the classics. The grandson said he'd never seen a steam train before! How, in the land of the long white plume of steam, can one reach the age of five without ever seeing live steam? That would be like being Australian and never seeing a gum tree. Or being Russian and never seeing snow. Poor kid. Hopefully Grandma takes him down the line to Kayleigh soon.

From there I went back to Shipley, which is a kind of hyperspace junction - a classic triangle but with platforms on each leg. I looked around but there was nothing really worth looking at. This is something I've observed in quite a few places - junctions and interchanges have been put in the middle of nowhere, because there isn't space to put them at population centres. That's part of being in the old world, I guess.

The next train to Leeds was a long distance service, already full so I didn't get to sit down - but that didn't matter because it wasn't far. From Leeds I had to decide what to do - could I get to Sheffield and back to Buxton without cutting my time too short to look at the trams? Probably not. How about down the East Coast Main Line to video fast trains? Doable. It's a lovely day for photography anyway. So Sheffield can happen another day.

So I got onto a Mk.4 set, plugged in to charge the batteries (which a long and very enjoyable chat from Skipton to Shipley had depleted badly) and settled down to enjoy 200km/h running. Opposite me at the table were a couple of distinguished looking gents tapping away at their iPads and talking about pushing more sales through the National Health. At the one across the aisle were a doctor and his secretary making multiple phone calls to try to arrange a delivery of some medical supplies on Saturday. I wonder if I fit in on this train?

At one point, just after we had crossed a set of points that needed some TLC, the on-train staff got on the PA which made it go ding. Sounded just like the fasten seat belts light on the plane, which goes ding when the air gets rough. Heehee!

I jumped ship at Grantham on the expectation that not all trains stop there. And boy was I rewarded! First thing that went through was a Mk.4 set. At full line speed. Trouble is by the time you see it, it's too late to scrabble around for the camera. If you're not ready all the time you lose the shot.

So I just pottered around with the camera for a bit. The station's quite nice - especially the yellow line, which is about 1.5m back from the platform edge. Nice. Incidentally Stephen, that means whenever we plan a platform with high speed trains running through it, we need it to be extra wide so we can do the same and still have the standard four meters of clear space for disability access.

Next thing that comes in is for London Kings Cross, but at the bottom of the screen it says "First Hull Trains" rather than "East Coast". This promises to be interesting. When it turns up it's a Class 180, the slightly rare class of trains with the super streamlined nose. As I'm photographing it from all angles (First Group livery always makes a good photo) the PA comes on announcing a First Hull Trains service to Hull. It's not in sight yet which means they're going to cross just outside the station! Set cameras to stun, I mean video. It came out perfectly, I'll post it when I get home.

Since I've never had a ride on a 180 I thought I'd jump on. Unlimited travel is great. First stop was Retford, which has middle roads for fast trains to run through and platforms on the east-west line which connects to the West Coast Main Line at Stockport. That means I can hang around longer, because I'm topologically closer to home. At least I think so - train frequencies might change that. And the through platforms are a very broad hint that they designed this station for high speed run-throughs.

Unfortunately I reckoned without a six foot picket fence blocking the northbound platform from the high speed tracks. For some reason they built the platform between the stopping and express tracks instead of on the outside, which means they had to fence it off to stop people staggering into the path of a high speed train. But it also means it's very difficult to take photos. The sun was out so it wasn't much use taking photos from the other side. I took a few anyway but they don't satisfy me like they should.

As predicted the best way to get home from here is via the cross-country line, which takes me through Sheffield. By taking an earlier train I can spend a bit of time there, possibly even enough time to look at the trams. That would make it three gunzelling goals in one day, as long as you count videos on the East Coast Main Line as the goal and not visiting Robin Hood territory. I don't think I've done three in a day since the time when my goals were simple (eg "Ride the Upfield line").

The Sheffield train was a Railbus, but the track was in pretty good shape so I didn't get bumped around too badly. There's no air con and it's quite a warm day so all the windows were open, which meant the sound came in properly - including one slightly square wheel. But the breeze was great - breeze on a train on a warm day is always good fun, that's why I love the Hitachis so much. The Railbuses only have hopper windows but when you're cruising at 80km/h they do the job.

Depending on the type of track and the exact speed we were going the flat in the wheel and the swaying of the body could synchronise to make a hollow clip-clop sound exactly like the sound of someone riding a pair of coconut shells along a cobblestone road. :)

Sheffield station is very easy to navigate - all the platforms run the same direction and there's clear signage. I followed the signs to the tram stop, asked a conductor about buying tickets and got on board. I asked for a ticket to Meadowhall because it was the only stop I know - and I only know it because I remember being on a long distance train one other year and seeing trams there. One of the other passengers told me which stop to change at, since I was on the wrong route. That was nice of him. I've actually had a lot of brief conversations with other passengers - normally along the lines of "Excuse me, is this the train to Huddersfield?". How DO people know to ask me that sort of thing? Maybe the glasses make me look like I know stuff.

Meadowhall looks like it's fairly new, especially since there's an old ruined station a few hundred meters down the line. I had underestimated the time it takes to get from Meadowhall to Sheffield which meant I missed by Trans-Pennine Express by one minute. Ah well. I took another train back to Sheffield and then looked at options. I could take an East Midlands Trains service to Stockport and get to Buxton just before 10pm - that sounds good, just in time to drop stuff home and then go to the Festival Club. I wonder what kind of train it'll be? The one at the other platform is a super long Meridian tilt train, which in East Midlands livery is quite a looker. That's the one for London St Pancras though, they get the best. Liverpudlians won't be so fortunate.

As it turned out we got a Class 158 DMU - basically a modern intercity interior in a vestibule body on a Sprinter underframe and drive train. It's quite as nice to ride as any of the other long distance stock, except that it doesn't have in-seat power points. Ah well, I'd charged up enough on the East Coast train that I still had enough to go on with.

The refreshment trolley went past and I was feeling in the mood for hot chocolate. Just after she started pouring I noticed it had a Starbucks logo. I don't approve of Starbucks, they're the ones that opportunistically tried to muscle in on Gloria Jeans after that stupid storm in a teacup (if you'll excuse the pun) about them supporting the Australian Christian Lobby. Also they've got that whole "supersize me" thing going, with their normal serving size being huge and their mega one being really mega. That was the one Dan and Kel used for one of their first sound bites after Cassie left - "Imagine being addicted to those and trying to give it up. You'd get the shakes so bad Bunnings would pay you to stand there and hold cans of paint!"

Well my first experience of Starbucks (outside the US anyway) wasn't a good one. I could have made a drink tasting like this for a tenth of the price, it's basically Milo, and not the proper sort made with about five spoonfuls and a bit of extra sugar either. She gave me a paddle pop stick with it, saying it'd need a bit of a stir. Nobody would say that on an Australian train, the track would do all the required stirring at no extra charge! Almost like a recovering Starbucks addict, our track is.

As I was finishing the drink we stopped for a single track section. There are quite a few on this cross-country line, I guess that's excusable since it must (by virtue of the fact that there's plenty of other lines around) be fairly lightly trafficked. Once we got the path we went over a bridge and through Hazel Grove - ah, I know where we are now! We ran express through Woodsmoor and Davenport, which I haven't done for years because now the Buxton trains stop all stations.

We got to Stockport with half an hour before the Buxton train. It was starting to get dark and there was a bit of rain so any attempt at taking photos was likely to be useless. So I just sat in the waiting room on Platform 0 stealing Virgin Group's electricity. The waiting room doors open inwards, but Susan isn't here to tell Mr Branson how unsafe that is so it's OK.

Well this was the end of my three days out on the trains - tomorrow we go to a master class to be a friendly face while two of our lovely Savoynetters sing up a storm and try to impress a G&S legend. That can't be easy. Hopefully our presence makes them feel like it's just another rehearsal and they do well. And then of course it's the beginning of the weekend so we get to carry costumes for the pros again. This will be the last weekend of the festival...

Thursday, August 15, 2013

In Buxton: August 14, the story of the film of the book of the tram

We open our story, dear listeners, on the carpeted floor of a Class 185 - because no good story opens with someone eating a salad. So far today I have washed my hair (what there is of it - low maintenance is great), run full tilt up a 1 in 10 gradient with a 15kg backpack, caught my train, caught my breath, chatted via an on-screen keyboard, eaten a pasty and waited while a PIDS wavers to and fro about which of two late trains expected at 11:50am will occupy the platform first.

So I'm sharing this doorway with one suitcase, two prams, three toddlers, four parents and five other people. Apparently this time of day is a kind of peak hour for the trip from Manchester to Blackpool, I have no idea why. A lot of people were using it as an ersatz suburban service to travel between the various Manchester stations. Why can't we have dedicated metro services for that?

The crowds emptied out somewhat at Salford Crescent, leaving just the two prams - and even though the conductor told the mums to make sure they weren't blocking the aisle they don't seem to have worked out that they would very easily fit side by side between the doorway wind barriers. Ah well.

Four years ago when I visited Blackpool the trams were a mix of 1930s timber bodied classics (mostly double deckers) and some metal ones from the 80s which had a motor sound just like our As and Bs. Since then I've heard the whole system has been modernised - a fleet of new trams, track upgrades, the lot. It'll be interesting to see whether it's become boring.

Also it'll be interesting to see whether they've kept the high wires. Having double decker trams the overhead was higher in proportion, which meant the few single decker trams, and all the 80s ones, had a sort of scaffold amidships which held the pole or panto up off the roof so it could reach the trolley wire. Mystery! Will the new trams have a scaffold? Will they have super long pantos that can reach the wire from a normal roof height? Or will they have lowered the wires? Time alone can tell.

Staffing will be another question. The double decker trams needed a crew of three, one driving, one selling tickets and one closing the door at every stop. It was a folding door and had a sort of padbolt arrangement with an electronic sensor to stop the tram from moving until the door was closed (which obviously wasn't there in the 30s, they must have added it - so why didn't they add completely automatic doors?). Most modern trams are set up for single person operation, with an automatic ticket machine. We'll see!

There's a lot of different ways to get from Manchester to Blackpool by rail, but this service is running on what looks like the most direct route - not the fastest (because it's possible to use more of the high speed main lines) but the shortest. We're forming a kind of interurban service stopping every 5min or so, which really isn't what these Class 185 sets are good at. We're never getting near top speed, and most people aren't going to have a chance to take advantage of the in-seat power points or buffet trolley. And who wants to pay for first class on a 15 minute trip? Still, it could be worse - at least they're not a vestibule layout which makes loading and unloading painfully slow. First Trans Pennine have the contract and this is the rollingstock they own, it's not worth buying or leasing some Sprinters just because they could better use 160km/h trains elsewhere.

Listeners we cross now to our correspondent in Fleetwood, at the northern terminus of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramway. So over to him.

Yes dear listeners, I'm posting from a waterfront cafe at the ferry pier. But first for the story so far.

I arrived in Blackpool and after four years of wondering what it reminded me of it came to me - it's just like the photos of Spencer Street in the 50s. Bare, windswept asphalt platforms, no benches or shelters for waiting passengers, and not all that many trains either. Somehow the light under a grey sky makes it look like a very early colour photo too.

Heading out the main exit I saw that the entire area is being refurbished or redeveloped, all the roads look different, and almost nothing was recognizable. Still, the beach and tramway are that-a-way.

Half a kilometer later I was at North Pier stop, and an unmistakable five section Flexity was approaching. The pantograph looked fairly natural but double decker buses were driving under the wires with no ill effects, so I'm not quite sure what they did there. Further investigation to come.

It's a bit of a distance to Fleetwood, and a good bit of it is city running so it takes a while. It's almost 100% off road though, so if a tram's running late it shouldn't be too hard to juice the thing a bit and catch up time.

The floor in the doorways is painted blue, and the conductors actively move people out of them to either sit down or stand in the aisle. It's a good idea.

There are still two conductors on each tram, and since they don't have to lock the doors any more they have time to announce the various landmarks at each stop. I still can't make up my mind if this is a tourist service or a commuter one - although in the summer there probably isn't much difference.

I'll have to go through old photos to see what the stops were like before, but the ones we're using now are very strange. From a distance they look like platform stops like ours, but there's still a step up from there into the tram! On examination it looks like the stops are slightly lower, and we know from the press releases about our own Bombardier trams that they have a sloped floor to reach "normal" height. These ones slope down to the doorway, but just not quite far enough.

On the Fleetwood section most of the track is open railway-style rail on concrete sleepers, because it's the right thing to do. At stops there's a steel treadplate cover between the rails, in sections about 1m long, bolted to the sleepers. It's quite thick tread plate, about 20mm I'd estimate. Clever way to pave the surface between the rails - easy to remove for trackworks, and probably even reusable.

The next stop bell on these things is quite piercing. It sounds like a bell sound (as you might find in any Volgren bus) layered over an electronic tone like some of the older Custom Coaches bodies. At least the "door closing" alarm is fairly unobtrusive.

Last time I was here one of the things that really surprised me was mid-line balloon loops. With double-ended trams that shouldn't be necessary. Now there are crossovers at various places, which is much more sensible because it doesn't take up extra land. The Little Bispham loop is still in place, but it looks very rusty. I wonder whether the new trams are allowed around corners as sharp as that?

A few other "operational flexibility" features look fairly rusty too - there are just a few triple track sections, just long enough for a tram, which can be used for terminating a tram short or as a refuge for a failed vehicle. If there were express services it would allow them to overtake stoppers too, but there aren't. But as I said, they're pretty rusty.

Curves are heavily checkrailed, and it looks like they haven't been renewed since four years ago. A lot of it has had the rail grinder applied though, because the ride is smoother now, on a low floor tram with an unforgiving fixed wheel base, than it was last time around with a proper bogie tram.

As I look out the cafe window on the vast expanse of damp sand and blackish water, with the timber pier jutting out across my field of view, it feels like I've been transported into a different century. I could imagine "The Leaving of Liverpool" being written here (maybe under a different title) because the scene seems to go with that kind of music.

As I turn around and look at the cafe, that feeling only gets stronger. Most of the furniture and fittings date back to the 20th century, if I'm not mistaken. Prominent notices tell us that "TOILETS ARE FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY" and that anyone using them without buying something will be asked to pay 20p, which will be donated to charity. The only nods to the modern era are a recycling bin and a notice saying "The hours from 10am to 3pm are to be completely mobile phone free. This applies to all staff". This is true 1950s customer service, dear listeners. A rare find.

Still, the mushroom soup tastes good and the table is clean enough that I'm not afraid to get Clippy out and write some blog - easily as clean as the carpet of the Trans-Pennine Express I was on just before.

I'm going to hand you back to the studio now, because it's time to catch a tram back to Blackpool and check out the line to Starr Gate. Hopefully I can get a seat up front with a view forward. Midga di Macaroni, Fleetwood Ferry Pier.

Thank you Midga. Yes the tramway has been significantly modified and is now quite similar to other tramways in other cities. Listeners we're going to cross now to our correspondent at the south end of the tramway, Starr Gate. Mike?

Thank you Michael, yes I'm posting from Starr Gate tram stop, and I have to say it looks very different from four years ago. There's a brand new tram depot here in the middle of what used to be the balloon loop. The western arm of the loop has become the depot access track, and the eastern end has the stop and then another access track which runs through the depot's tram wash road. It's really a very clever use of the available land Michael.

Now on the way here this afternoon I saw that the access to the old depot is still in place. I presume that's where they're keeping their heritage fleet, which I've seen advertised as giving tours. Hopefully they keep them in better condition than number 237, which sits at the South Pier balloon loop to mark the heritage tour booking office. It's been painted gold all over with some modern artwork over it, but on closer inspection it's pretty clear that the bodywork is in a very sorry state.

Michael I know you and the listeners were wondering about the height of the trolley wire, well I can tell you that the pantographs I've seen have been stretched out quite a bit higher than what we're used to seeing in Melbourne, I think we can say for sure that the manufacturers went for a hybrid option of using a pantograph with plenty of reach, and allowed it to run just a bit further out than it would on a network with wires at a normal height. Mike Macropus, Starr Gate tram stop.

Thank you Mike, and we're going to return now to Blackpool North station, where it's nearly time to catch the train home. By dint of stronger muscle we have arrived with six minutes to spare before our Trans-Pennine Express departs. However, due to the low train frequency, Blackpool North Station has the option of locking the doors giving access to the platforms one minute before a train departs, which prevents passengers from delaying trains by rushing onto them at the last minute. While an admirable goal, this has the side effect of causing a queue of about fifty people to form at the locked door. This system belongs in the 1950s along with the Fleetwood cafe.

Before we leave Blackpool I'd like to thank our sponsor Fisherman's Friend, whose magic lozenge factory is between Blackpool and Fleetwood, facing the tram line. Fisherman's Friend, for all your radio-equipped headwear needs.

And that wraps up the news bulletin for tonight. Your team tonight was Clippy and the Android, with 240V power provided by Trans-Pennine Express. You have been listening to Goodnight.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

In Buxton: August 13, part the second!

I left you in Cafe Nerd in Sunderland Central shopping centre. For this I sincerely and profusely apologise, because it's not a nice place - way too many bogan parents with bratty kids, almost like Werribee or St Albans.

I got on the next Metro service back to Newcastle, but only went one stop because near St Peters station I had seen a billboard for Monkwearmouth Station Museum. It turned out to be mostly a kid's play area, with a useful-looking sideline selling Meccano sets. One which was set up as a demo unit was a very accurate rendition of the California combination trams which we now associate with the Ballarat and Bendigo tramways but which operated just about all electric tram services until the drop-centre bogie cars (an Australian invention, incidentally) took over in the early 20th century.

The station obviously used to be quite significant. Lacking official records they had pieced together old photos and railway archeology to make an N-gauge model of the station and surrounds as at 1910, and it seems to have had one main line platform, a dock with an extra spur siding, a goods yard with about a dozen roads, and sheds for unloading. They even did a door-to-door service, with horse drawn wheelie carts to deliver everything to the shops in town and pick up anything for despatch.

They had converted the old dock platform into a demo of the early form of Motorail, done with what amounts to a normal four wheel van but with an end door instead of side doors. It also had a completely gratuitous O-gauge model on a hanging track just above head height - but a button within reach of kids from age 2 to 32 made it move. That makes a display interactive, it's not all that difficult.

From there I continued back toward Newcastle, but jumped off at Pelaw to ride the South Shields line. That meant going through Pelaw Junction, possibly one of the most complex railway junctions I've seen. Network Rail lines come in from several directions and the Metro splits into two lines. To make it even more fun there's a stack of industrial single-track lines coming off at various directions. Some is double track and some is single. Strangely they only grade separated the bits least likely to need it - the main line going through is independent of everything, but it doesn't have all that much traffic. The two metro lines split at a flat junction of two into two plus two, and the South Shields line merges down to a single track soon afterward. This carries a service every eight minutes in peak time!

I remember from last time that South Shields is a boring place unless you like looking at large, angry seagulls, so I took the same service straight back. With half the network down for maintenance I didn't see the point of hanging around any further so I went back to the main line. And just in time - with a roar like an old pre-noise-restrictions diesel locomotive a coal train thundered into the station. It was headed, believe it or not, by an old pre-noise-restrictions diesel locomotive - 56312 was the number on the cab, and the good rollingstock book tells me it's one of these "formerly preserved" locos that have been dragged out of retirement to work freight trains for small private operators. Quite a find!

It was moving at a fairly good clip but it managed to pull up at the end of the platform, which meant I could chase it down and take a few more photos. There were bearded men on the opposite platform doing the same thing... and it looked like the fireman had a very sophisticated video camera in the cab too.

That was as much excitement as I could expect at Newcastle so I decided to head home. Oh horror, that means riding the Flying Scotsman (or at least his modern electric equivalent) as far as York and then picking up a Class 185. Every day is a good day when you've got a BritRailPass.

By this time it was heading towards peak hour, so there wasn't a seat to be had. The East Coast service to London seems popular - just about every spot had a "Reserved" ticket on it. Eventually I found one that was only reserved from York to London and sat in it. On-board power? Don't mind if I do.

The East Coast Main Line is four tracks for most of its distance, so there's fast tracks in the middle and slow ones on the outside. In our 200km/h Mk.4 set we were overtaking freight trains on a regular basis. And it seemed there was a train going the other way every few minutes! Not all of them were long like the Mk.4 sets but even a two-car set is a service that's going somewhere. The Melbourne-Sydney line should be so lucky...

At York I toyed with the idea of going to Blackpool since that train was departing before the one for Manchester, but it was a Class 158 set - basically a Sprinter with a slightly upgraded interior. No in-seat power points and a lot noisier than the Trans-Pennine. Nah, I'll pass.

I got lucky at Piccadilly - the Buxton train was due to leave in just a few minutes. I'll be home by 8, do a load of washing, and have it all ready to go by the time we're due to carry costumes at 9:30!

I'm not seeing the show tonight so you'll have to rely on Chris's account. Tomorrow is another day out gunzelling - we know not where and we don't much care. Leeds maybe, to ride their Siemens trains. As always, news and updates exclusive to

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

In Buxton: August 13, in which I demonstrate a cure for gunzel homesickness

I visited Newcastle one previous trip, and commented on the fact that the Tyne & Wear is actually very comparable to the Melbourne suburban system - same voltage, similar loading gauge, similar station spacing, similar intrusion of freight and long-distance trains on the network.

On boarding the train, the very first thing that happened was the driver accelerated too hard, cut off too fast and made the motors flash over. The popping sound and the sudden jerk of the train were pure Comeng set.

I should have mentioned that there's a new ticketing system here (and they take the view that a BritRailPass is only for main line trains). It looks very much like Metcard would if it were implemented today - touch screen ticket machines but paper tickets with a magstripe. Interestingly the magstripe is centred on the ticket which means it can be inserted in the validator either way and still validate correctly. That's pretty good. Not as good as a real smart card of course, but they cost a bomb.

The trains here are a kind of articulated two-car set, but on three bogies like a B-class tram. They're full scale trains though, with high level platforms and wide bodies on solid underframes, and obviously (because they share tracks with main line freight and passenger trains) are compatible with the rest of the system - apart from the voltage.

I found myself wondering what it would be like to throw some standard gauge Y-class loco bogies under a Tait set and run it around here. Just to show the Novocastrians what real electric trains sound like.

There's an extensive works program on at the moment, and half the system is shut down - apparently there's been very little maintenance since the network was built in the 80s, and night/weekend shutdowns won't cut it. The line to Sunderland is still open though, so I thought I'd have a look. For some reason I hadn't remembered that the driver's cab in these things is only half width, so there's a seat with a front window! This is living! This is style! THIS IS ELEGANCE BY THE MIIIIIIIIIIIIIILE!

The rail atlas I bought at York tells me why there's main line trains at Sunderland - it's a separate branch coming up from the south, the metro just happens to link the two. There seem to be lines linking lines all over the place, it can be very confusing. There's a full double page spread at the beginning of the book telling how they manage to do mile pegs in a non-radial system. I haven't read it yet, I don't have the courage. I mean, it's bad enough when we have to say Ararat to Portland is up because most trains run there from the Mallee. Or that there's an illuminated billboard at Newport telling drivers that the distance markers now jump by about 9km because the freight line runs via Brooklyn instead of Yarraville. But when it's just a few anomalies I can handle it - this is going to be another story completely. Maybe I'll tackle it tonight.

That's about it from me for now - watch for photos and videos on Facebook because I'll be pushing them through the phone as I travel. Assuming I can get a signal - it seems Sunderland is part of the third world with five bars in shopping centres and one or none in the rest of the place. The only way I found that out was by heading to a shopping centre to find a phone shop which might be able to tell me why my SIM had stopped working...

Well I've occupied this table at Cafe Nerd long enough, back to the trains.

In Buxton: August 12, which will live in song and story

The bombshell I left you on when we last spoke was actually a nine pounder bombshell - it was that we were going to see the first Pinafore of the festival.

It was very good. The Irish pro company did it, with a few principle parts overlapped with their Mikado (not major ones though) and a full overlap of chorus. Poor chorus! That's incredibly rough. Still, this is what they get paid for. And if we hadn't been told we would never have guessed, because the precision was as good as if they'd been doing nothing but rehearse for weeks.

I'm going to rush a bit here, you'll see why in a minute. Anyway, you can check Chris's blog if you want to know about Pinafore.

So I woke up on Monday morning with nothing much on my mind. Open Clippy, look at emails. Oooooh, there's another message in a Certain Conversation. I opened it with some trepidation, because, unlike 99.99% of all emails (or 99% if you ignore spam ones) it was the sort of email conversation which could have a lot of bearing on my future life.

Let me just say that it is a fortunate girl indeed whose father trusts her judgement. It's also a fortunate boy indeed who applies titles to girls of that description. I wasn't expecting to apply the magnificent title of girlfriend to Asha until after getting home, but after an unexpected green signal (clear normal speed) and a hurried email home to get a proceed order, the we were under way with permission to run as far as the junction with the main line.

From there, of course, the day couldn't possibly get any better. Not even with a performance of Gondoliers done by the St Andrews Uni G&S group which includes so many of our favourite Buxtonian friends.

It was a very good Gondoliers. Our lovely Kate was Casilda (call it typecasting if you will, since we sang Happy Birthday for her 21st just before our rehearsals started), and successfully broke up all the fights between her parents like a good Casilda should. Marco and Giuseppe were Savoynetters too, and I'd have to say they're the best M&G I've ever seen - each individually of sufficient talent to play their parts (which I've seen before) and as a pair they looked similar enough to pass as brothers (which I haven't).

Unfortunately the PAC doesn't lend itself to a stunning lighting design to match the stunning performance. Also the tiny orchestra is a slight disadvantage (although this one was orders of magnitude better than some we've seen in UniFest). The show deserved to go into the Opera House!

Home and dinner. As we ate Chris grilled me (if that's not an excruciating pun) as to what may have triggered this change in my condition. He hadn't been watching the antics over video chat, you see, or he'd have wondered why it took so long.

Incidentally, out of consideration for everyone I will be operating under rules. As I write on Tuesday morning there are six days to go.

And so to the Opera House as usual. A group by the name of Grosvenor, at the festival for the first time. And with a name like that how could they bring anything except Patience?

As we stood up to sing God Save the Queen I realised that even though my nose keeps making rude noises to itself every now and then my voice is almost back to normal. Yay!

When the curtain rose we were amazed to see the minimalist design style taken to such a length that the only things on stage were a bust of Bunthorne and a divan to sit on. Everything else was bare - no false floor, no floor cloth, no flats. Just a backcloth.

The director was obviously a big fan of the aesthetic movement because the costumes and mannerisms of Bunthorne and his adoring fans were spot on. Unfortunately the rest of the show suffered - dialogue wasn't acted, and in the songs most of the long notes weren't given their true value. The dragoons did a good acting job though - which made it a shame there weren't enough of them.

The cabaret in the Festival Club was something to see. First the St Andrews group did theirs, which was conventional but of a very high standard - including audience participation, which is always a plus. Lots of "our" people were involved.

Then the Grosvenors did theirs. Well, they say that to stick in people's minds you have to do something new. I have no idea how they knew what was same-old-same-old so they could avoid it, but they did. Some of it was mash-ups of G&S songs, which were of very high quality in rhythm and rhyme. Then there were songs and non-musical skits from other genres, recast with a G&S theme. In all I would have to say it was one of the best cabarets we've had in the Club, and that is high praise indeed.

I took an early night, because with no rehearsals to attend and shows being technically optional, I had a chance to gunzel! How best to get to Newcastle to revisit the Tyne & Wear Metro? Get up early and catch the 6:53 train.

So here I am on one of Cross Country's Voyager sets. The tilt mechanism is working perfectly, with just enough cant deficiency that I feel the curves as we thunder through them at 200km/h. So far I've been on a Sprinter and a Class 185, and seen several freight trains and a steam-and-47-hauled luxury heritage train. I'm making good use of the in-seat power points to ensure I don't suffer any flat batteries in Newcastle, and enjoy the inestimable privilege of being right at the front of the carriage where there's seats with extended leg room which also line up with the window.

We're due in to Newcastle in about ten minutes. The Tyne & Wear deserves a post of its own, so I'll wrap it up here. For news as it happens, with photos complete, check Facebook or Google Plus.

Monday, August 12, 2013

In Buxton: August 8-11, Oh rapture, how Buxtonian

Fans of listening to G&S in the form of MIDI files may have noticed a heavily veiled Iolanthe reference in the title. Or may notice it now that it's been pointed out. Or it may be too heavily veiled even for that. No matter.

Well I woke up after the late night at the end of our show, wondering what to do. My body clock wanted me to get up but my nose didn't. I stayed in the horizontal position for a few minutes while they argued but they made so much noise I got up and took a cup of tea while Mr C (that's my body clock, keep up) was off in town. I was feeling bad - after all, what a day I'd had! I was feeling pretty happy on the whole though.

So, what to do. Ooooh, Patience is on at the PAC!

I don't get to see Patience very often. Partly because I've been in it the last few times it's been on... It was done very well, as you who follow Chris's blog will already know. I actually liked the pre-curtain stuff during the overture, especially the heartbroken girl who couldn't face the goodbyes and decided instead to put on a dragoon's jacket (which was about a dozen sizes too big for her) and join the regiment. The off note was done beautifully and the Bunthorne-Grosvenor scene was hilarious. And the Duke got to give his "truly lovely" speech because they didn't restore the cut song (which I think was all very well for a once-off but I'm completely over it now). And I still think the Act 2 finale is too short.

That evening, Gondoliers done by the Canadians. Unlike most visiting companies they did it in their own accent, which was a mental gear-change because all through Savoynet rehearsals everyone had been prevailed upon to work very hard on a sort of middle class English accent, and any hint of anything else was sufficient reason to stop the rehearsal and correct it.

As the curtain opened I was very impressed, because in set and costume it was completely Italian, as were the hand gestures everyone gave whenever they opened their mouths. (How do you keep an Italian quiet? Tie his hands behind his back.) Unfortunately though every other aspect of the show lacked sparkle - and Gondoliers more than any other show in the canon needs to be done excellently or it's just a disappointment. I did like Marco's aria though - they managed to find a tenor with a strong top range, AND managed to make him look similar enough to Giuseppe to have us believe they were brothers. The whole Inez scene was done well too, with none of the ridiculous excesses some directors use to pad the part of one of the smallest singing roles in the canon.

Friday was basically the same! This time it was Yeomen in the PAC, and having it running through my head so strongly this festival I was able to take a higher level view, just like I had done on the book of Job - and like in Job I managed to make a discovery. One of the songs really belongs in a slightly different place in the script. I discussed the point with Chris, then with the Halls at the Festival Club, and was listened to politely. So I put it out on Savoynet and our resident Dour Scots Gentleman (who we met in 2009 when we did Grand Duke) agreed, and applied a compliment. Yay! My first useful post on Savoynet!!! Later there was a disputing post, and we'll see how it goes from there.

That evening the Irish professional company were doing Mikado, but we had tickets to the following night's performance so we had an evening off. And this wasn't "our" pro company so we weren't on duty carrying costumes. What to do? Stay home, cook in the oven instead of the microwave, and head for the Festival Club at about 9:30pm.

Now I put it to you - if one can't arrive early enough to get one's own TWROAPP, whose TWROAPP can one arrive early enough to get? Trouble is, the power point is attached to a massive pillar which blocks the view of the stage. The tables in front of the pillar are reserved for cast, the ones off to the side are rectangular and therefore have two seats which don't face the stage (most are round and have only one sub-optimal seat), and as for the ones behind it, well, you'd be lucky to see the stage at all. So the table we like also happen to be the one with the best viewing properties. Shame.

On closer inspection I saw that the person sitting at the TWROAPP was in fact Chris Hall - or at least most of him, I verily believe. He had shaved off his beard, and none could recognize him. He had been on babysitting duty, and hadn't seen the show either. But he had heard the gossip - a dry ice based fog machine had been incorrectly tuned, and had set off the fire alarms and triggered a full evacuation! I'm so glad that didn't happen on my watch, I literally can't imagine what the director might have said.

Well, apart from that it was a pot-luck Utopia! Can you even do that? Well as an indication of an answer to that question, Stephen Turnbull was doing the rounds of the room trying to cast three more roles. There just hadn't been enough volunteers on the sign-up sheet. He found them all on our table - Chris Hall as Tarara (the Chief Exploder to the Crown), Chris Rosuav as Lord D and me as the civil engineering chappie who only gets four lines to sing.

I'd have to say it didn't go all that well. A few people knew it but not nearly enough. Still, the tunes are still running through my head. They're good tunes, and we don't get to hear them all that often because it would be a very ambitious GSOV committee that would dare to put on Utopia - it's almost as much work as Phantom, if it's to be done well. Beauty Stone first, Utopia after that.

By the time we got to kick the flowers out of Utopia it was past midnight so it was time to wind up and go home. The weekend is beginning! Not that it makes any difference to us.

Saturday in the Pavilion Arts Centre was Ruddigore. It wasn't quite a concept show, but it was set in summer - so the Reddering waterfront was full of holidaymakers and the usual entertainments that follow them around, rather than fishing gear. Dame Hannah was a nun, but obviously the director knew nothing at all about Christianity (eg the "morals of a Methodist" line could have been gingered up a bit - even "morals of a monk" would at least be Roman Catholic). Like most of the university productions the principles sang with the chorus, which meant most people were on stage most of the time.

They played the original overture, not the normal one. It's longer but I think it's a good piece. Unfortunately the orchestra were really not all that good - whether it was the reduced orchestrations or just plain mistakes I'm not sure, but they let the singers down badly. But the madrigal (which is a capella) sounded really beautiful, probably as well balanced vocally as I've ever heard it.

In Act 2 the ghosts were on stage and visible for the entire act. They were dressed in black suits and in darkness against a black backdrop, but they still couldn't have moved much without drawing attention. Amazing. Or cruel, depending on your point of view.

Chris dropped in on the memorabilia fair after that, and I hung around to bolster up the economy of Buxton and prove to the local council that the G&S Festival contributes about GBP400m to the local economy - which means they should be a lot nicer to the Smiths, and make them want to stay here rather than go to Harrogate.

Which reminds me, they changed Basingstoke to Harrogate right through Act 2, which meant they had to fiddle with the finale to make it rhyme. They did it well. And of course they replaced Birmingham with Buxton. Nobody could see that coming. But it still got a laugh.

That evening we finally got to see the Irish pro Mikado. Like "our" own pro shows it was drawn from an excellent cast so all the details were sewn up better than they normally are. And yet there was nothing really remarkable about it. Nanki-Poo's address was Harrogate of course, and Ko-Ko's little list included adjudicators and stuff. Lighting was quite good - when Katisha had a go at exposing Nanki-Poo's identity it went to a fairly yellow state done with cross lights, some of which were very close to the stage. So when Katisha crossed down stage prompt in a fit of rage it looked like she was going to bite the head off the lamp!

With no adjudication we had no chance of getting the TWROAPP, or any table at all for that matter, so we headed upstairs to look at the projected image. The Irish group did a very good cabaret but the only other people there we knew were of the "polite society" type who sit in a circle sipping wine and conversing in low tones. So we sat alone and went home pretty soon after they finished.

It's very convenient that Stephen Turnbull announces the next day's activities at the end of the cabaret. He not only reminded us that the next day would be Sunday but told us what time the Sullivan service is held. So we set our alarms accordingly.

I have to put in a side note here, because I forgot to include it when it happened and I passed it and thought to blog it. We have a shopping list on the fridge, with pen complete, which we put up in the first few days when we knew there were a lot of essentials to be bought. John Wellington saw it and slyly added "SHEEP DIP" at the bottom of the list. :D

(When I asked him about it, wondering if he wanted some coffee in the kitchen, it turned out he didn't know that story. So I unintentionally replied to his joke with another. Cool!)

OK back to Sunday. Hey that's today, I'm almost up to date!

We got to Buxton Methodist Church at about 10:15 for a 10:30 choir practice and 11am service. We were welcomed without question and directed to the front where it said "RESERVED FOR CHOIR". Rehearsal was VERY difficult. It was a piece I was basically unfamiliar with, printed in 19th century score where minims were the normal note instead of crotchets, scanned in at 72dpi and then printed out with "fit to page" selected so most of the vertical lines were missing. How do you tell a minim from a semibrieve? You see our difficulty, don't you. Plus we were rehearsing to a pipe organ, so almost no attack on the notes.

Anyway, we muddled through eventually. The rest of the service was pretty much the same as last time, although with a different sermon - not that it was any improvement. The reading was from Kings where Elisha called for a harpist before prophesying. It's the only time any prophet ever did that (well, the only one recorded) so of course you can draw a lesson out of it that covers all times and all situations. Basically the sermon consisted of retelling the reading a bit slower and with a bit more context, then the words "And I think" and then a long speech about how music made him feel.

I think I'll skip the Sullivan service next time. (Assuming there is a next time, which I've been wrong about for the last three times.) Still, Diana seemed to enjoy it - it was apparently a double first for her, first time in a Methodist church, and first time she'd been named from the pulpit.

Chris hung around afterward to chat to the organist, but we basically went straight home for a quiet afternoon.

And so to HMS Pinafore - the first Pinafore we've seen this festival, apart from the pot-luck. Hopefully there's some community singing either before or after. But I'll tell you all about that when we get back.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

In Buxton: August 7, our joy day unalloyed

As promised, this story starts with a joke, straight from the pages of Bugs Bunny. You see, for the past ten years or more I have lived in a room with a bed on the off-prompt side of the room. So naturally, when I wake up, I merely list heavily to port, raise my right leg and apply pressure to the floor until I arrive in a standing position.

Now the room I'm in here in Buxton has the bed on the prompt side - probably because we're in the northern hemisphere (although it could be that hemispheres are irrelevant and it's simply a nod to the fact that European and American students stay here as well as Poms, and they drive on the right). This hasn't been a problem so far, because I've been able to wake slowly, orient myself based on the sun (get out of bed toward the window, not the wall) and alight without incident. But on Yeomen Day, the most critical of my stage career so far, I was still tired from having prepared dressing room allocation lists and sign-in sheets the previous night. So of course when my alarm went off I immediately pivoted at the waist and rolled over to port in double quick time, thinking I was at home and about to be late for work.

The walls here are made from painted concrete bricks. The mortar between them is perfectly flush, which makes for a wall that's as smooth as it can be considering the uneven texture of concrete bricks. Well I'll put you out of suspense now - the wall is still perfectly smooth, my head did absolutely no damage to it.

OK that's the end of the joke.

My nose started to run as I was in the shower, and I knew that the various drugs I had subjected myself to had been ineffective. After all, if you treat a cold seriously and take all the right medicine it will clear up in a mere 72 hours - but if you just try to soldier on it will hang around for three whole days!

So I loaded Clippy's case with all the remaining medicine, a spare water bottle and a spare hanky. Then off to the theatre.

First job was to collect lighting gear and bring it to the theatre. The last show I was in where extra lights were brought in was Yeomen in 2009. And before that, Orpheus. Both of which turned out to be amazing. I have a good feeling about this, except in my nose.

When the theatre opened and I'd dumped my stuff at the prompt desk the job of rigging lights began. Yes, this is a lamp, I recognize it and its clamp and its safety chain. It's just the British style power plug on the end that's unfamiliar. But what's this other thing? I see it has a gobo inside it but what's with the little electric motor? It SPINS the gobo? Coolness!

Rigging lights didn't take long and we were able to lay the floor cloth while the designer was focusing them. The set crew laid out rostra and flats without wanting our help so I was able to think about props and cast members and stuff. In a brilliant display of timing the set was basically in place by the time the crew took their mandatory half-hour tea break, so I made my first backstage call for the show, telling everyone to come down and rehearse on it.

Everything went quite smoothly. Unlike two years ago the set was exactly as we expected it to be, so it was just a matter of running a few of the more complicated bits to make sure they'd work as well on a real set as on a masking tape outline of one. A few minor issues to work out, that's normal. I stood in a little hide-away on the apron to relay Diana's directions (yelled from the Upper Circle) to the cast, especially those in the wings who could hear literally nothing.

The crew came back and there were some lighting issues to deal with, which didn't require my input. Time to go back to my list. Test the cues to the MD. Five minutes, no problems at all. But I felt much better after having tested them (despite having used them before and the memory coming back vaguely). Get the expert to rig the pyros. Ah, is that what that box at my desk is.

The expert did his magic and handed me a control box. Use the key to turn it on. Then switch on circuit A. Check the light goes from red to yellow, indicating no electrical fault. Then press the button. No, don't do it now. I felt rather like Douglas Bader did when he was given his first walk-around of a Spitfire and looked at the EIGHT machine guns. This is not a prop, this is a real pyro firing rig.

Lunch time. Unlike two years ago I had no real problems to be solved, so I actually went and ate something. Now I have nothing in particular against cheese and onion pasties, but I swear when I get off the Skybus at Southern Cross I'm going to go to one of the eateries and get myself a meat pie. They don't seem to sell them here, so I haven't had one since... pi day.

After lunch I took a last look at my list and realised that I'd done all the things that needed me to talk to other busy people but hadn't finished putting stand-by cues into my score. Some or all of you may have seen Jack Point's photo of me and Chris sitting in the doorway of the stage door office, Chris typing on Traal and me writing in my score. Well now you know what I was writing. Why were we there? Because the stage was closed and there was literally no space anywhere else. All the dressing rooms were fully occupied and the rooftop area where people were having a mini-picnic was a place for conversation, not work.

Emily (our completely brilliant MD, who looks about 25 but conducts better than some MDs do at 50) wanted ten minutes of music at 2:20 and then ten minutes with the orchestra at 2:30, and I'd to see to that. No problem at all, apart from my nose I was completely unstressed. Besides, it meant I didn't have to worry too much about giving half-hour calls and all that. Not that any of that mattered much in this show - we had to have a Smith make his pre-curtain talk, a longish overture and then an opening scene before the main company were due to come on stage.

The dress rehearsal went off flawlessly all through the first act. The lighting director was plotting each cue live, giving the usual tech rehearsal talk over the cans ("Can I have channel 59 at 30... at 50... Now can I have channel 80 at full... Now save that as cue 14, over 8 seconds") and usually managed to have it plotted by the time the next one was due to be called. Amazing. I guess a lot of the cues (especially when there's three in the space of one song) were basically the same but with a special coming up to highlight a certain piece of action because we don't have spots - but still it's fairly brilliant.

We had a very brief interval and then went on. We got to the only slab of dialogue which goes over two pages and I switched on the ignition of the pyro control. We got to the second page of it and I checked the switch. What, it's already on? Curious. I'd better not do that tonight. We got the cue and I pressed the button.

Nothing. Except Diana yelling.

I checked the switch again. OH NO! It's actually off... the switch for the second circuit (which wasn't plugged into anything) was the one that was on. Me: "Sorry everyone, can I have that line again?"
Fairfax: "Nay Elsie, I did but jest, I spoke but to try thee!"
Elsie: "Try me?"
Pyro: Bang.

Now just in case you think that bang was just a small one, like a firework going off in the distance or a bass drum being tapped with a gentle hand, let me take that notion away from you. I can best sum it up by saying that seasoned performers were put totally off their stride, I was seeing stars, and a few of the orchestra had to emerge from the pit during dialogue to cough up smoke. It was later described as sounding like the start of Wordly - I mean, World War Three. And not one of the modern noise abatement legislation compliant World War Threes either, a really loud smoky one with real JT3s from the 60s.

The technical term for a pyro of that description is "maroon", and in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny... WHAT a maroon!

A few more yells from Diana (which I thought a little unfair, she was shielded from the blast by the proscenium arch) and we got back on track and the rest of the rehearsal went flawlessly.

Until the finale, that is, when there were so many lighting cues that we weren't ready to close the curtain on its cue. Shout shout shout. Calm down, I haven't dropped the ball. Ok we're done plotting, let's go from the last couple of notes. And into the curtain calls. There, done without a hitch and two minutes before the orchestra walk out. You should learn to rely on your stage managers.

There were just a few things to sort out after the dress rehearsal of course, and then a few more, and by the time I got to head home for dinner it was 6.14pm. What are the chances of getting home, cooking, eating and getting back an hour before a 7:30pm curtain? Nil. Good thing I had a big lunch.

So I just sat at my desk and chatted with the crew. Having the extra time to chill out was exactly the right thing to do, stress dropped to zero and the buzz of audience chatter was the perfect lift.

The show went perfectly. Nobody got out of sync with the orchestra, nobody lost a line, nobody missed a cue, acting was flawless, props worked fine (even the spinning wheel), singing was exquisite, and the audience applauded it.

Forewarned this time I had told the cast to block their ears for the explosion. I'd double checked the switch was on too. "I spoke but to try you" "Try me?" BANG! Several audience members commented afterwards on its effectiveness.

Well Jack Point had his dramatic death scene, we got to LX96 and the audience finally stopped applauding and let us go. I never did get to use the jumbo size Aussie flag Chris had put on my desk though.

The adjudicator came around to my desk and the Opera House crew knew he wanted the mid-stage red curtain in and the main house curtain out, to give him a bit more room to stand. They did that and I thought he'd go on straight away, but he gathered his notes together in the wings first. I was a bit impatient but eventually just busied myself with packing stuff up.

He was very complimentary! He's a polite person, unlike some adjudicators, and it takes a while before you know he's actually disliked a show. But this time he was really enthusiastically on our side. Who knows, Savoynet might finally win the festival!

Bump out? We've only just started! Just like the morning we didn't have to worry about set, just props and costumes - and the added lights just had to be stacked out the way, ready for another show four or five days hence.

So it wasn't much past 11pm when we got to the Festival Club to hear our lovely cast do a cabaret. One of our first time chorus gentlemen opened with a hilarious song about a bassoon and all the useful noises you can make with it - demonstrating as he went of course. Our principles did solos, and to do them justice they did them extremely well. There were a few chorus numbers, including a full cast and crew rendition of "Strange adventure". See if you can tell Chris and I aren't singing, I challenge you. :D Strange adventure, that we're trolling...

They closed the bar, we were still all talking. Eventually they came and said lights were going out in five... so we had to farewell these wonderful people. Dame Carruthers and a few others specifically came up to thank us for what we'd done too. Now it is not easy to make a principle smile on a crew member.

Hopefully one day we'll work with these people again. Ah, but tush, I am puling. I always say that after a show.

Don't forget to tune in tomorrow for the exciting tale of how we deal with post-show blues in Buxton.

Friday, August 9, 2013

In Buxton: August 6, oh day of terror

I woke up and that ominous tickle in the throat was getting worse. Chris had taken pity on my lonely state and promised to do all the necessary work on props, so I was free to drug myself up with whatever it took to keep me in a fit state to work for the next 48 hours. First stop, the super discount shop. I saw garlic there earlier. Next stop, the Buxton fountain. Fill bottle. Drink it all and fill it again. Take a dozen deep breaths. Tell oneself off for procrastinating. Break one clove out of the head and peel off the husk. Bottle at the ready? Eat garlic.

Now there's a scene in one of the Asterix books where they discover a violent cure for being over .05 - which involves the face turning white, red, green and blue. There's a plot point in Jeeves and Wooster where Jeeves mixes up a special cocktail which causes the eyeballs to spring from their sockets, bounce off the far wall like racquet balls and then return. For those of you who haven't tried Michael's Patent Cure For Colds And Runny Noses Of All Sorts, it's a little bit like that. My stomach started to turn and I staggered to the nearby park bench, and drained my water bottle in about zero seconds. (It's a 750mL bottle, I'll leave you to calculate the flow rate if you feel so inclined.) After a few minutes I filled it again and drained it. The water consumption is part of the cure, you see.

Five minutes later the tickle had gone completely. The burning sensation (which I knew to be caused by the sulfurous fumes of the garlic rising out of the violent chemical soup in my stomach) was less annoying than the tickle, and could be quashed with a drink of water any time. I think we have a chance at this, folks!

So to rehearsal. A full run, in costume. Just like at home, this is where the cameras come out and the photos explode over Facebook. The difference is, at home we have a long, long season before us, whereas here we know that in less than 48 hours it'll all be over.

Now I mentioned up there that Chris had to go shopping for a few props. I'd like to insert a parenthesis here and talk about the whole experience of being responsible for props in Buxton.

Last time we were here we got to the dress rehearsal and suddenly realised we had no spinning wheel. So I sent Chris round the corner to borrow one from the pro company (who owed us a favour) during the overture.

This time it wasn't so easy. One had been arranged, but it was a ricketty old thing (probably older than me, I was told) and on the first rehearsal it jammed solid. I left my desk and took a look at it, diagnosed a loose nut behind the wheel, tightened it (at the expense of a square half-millimeter of skin on my thumb, which cost me the last band-aid in my wallet - must remember to get more) and rehearsal went on.

But guess what. Every rehearsal was the same. Eventually Chris and I spent our entire lunch break examining its workings and thought we had found its secrets. A few quick ground rules and it was all working - for a couple of rehearsals. Then a bushing broke. Who makes a bushing out of timber??? Funny thing is, it seemed to work better that way... way too much play in the motion gear of course, but we're not at that advanced level of engineering here.

So, another half a lunch break later we had some new ground rules and everything was going to go fine. Then Diana said the chip in the flywheel looked terrible. OK that's fine, I can repair a chip with masking tape and paint, I've done it heaps of times. No wait, we don't have any paint. How about a couple of flipchart markers? There's one black and one green. Plus we have a Papermate Profile 1.0RT in black, and as we know, pens have more intense ink than markers. We have to recreate a darkish black-brown with a black stripe through it. Well Dave G and Trevor D, stand up and take a bow because you taught me well. Once repaired I had to specifically point it out before it was noticed - not only by Diana by also by Paul who owned the thing.

To put masking tape on the rim of the wheel we had to move the wool aside. That apparently stretched it which interfered with the motion again. Why? Because it was one strand of wool wrapped around several times, and had been broken for ages and nobody had noticed. Stretching it was the straw that broke the camel's back, if I'm not mixing my metaphors. Luckily, even though we didn't have a prop-and-set workshop on hand (I can't tell you how much I've come to rely on a steady supply of pencils, access to tools, random bits of timber, scenery from old shows and all the rubbish that clutters up the Scenery Store) we did have costume people on hand. A short piece of wool to tie the two ends together? Certainly, here's a whole bag of offcuts, what colour would you like? Two knots later, and Chris's leatherman to snip off the excess, and we were in business. A few revolutions to even out the tension and the mechanism was doing what it always should.

Sudden thought - that offcut from the offcut, could we use it as a spring washer? Go ahead and laugh, but if we wrap it round the bolt and screw the nut on tight it should increase the friction, maybe just enough to stop it from working loose! It seemed to work, for a good while. Let's leave it there for a few rehearsals and see. Ground rules? What ground rules? They just keep changing.

The rest of the Saga of the Spinning Wheel is really an anti-climax - except that poor Phoebe was nervous about it jamming at the crucial moment so she relied heavily on Chris to make sure it was in good working order. This, folks, is how you make a name for yourself while working backstage.

Well, after that gripping tale of woe how can we go on to the sagas of the other props? Put a seal on the dispatch, says Diana. Where to get a seal from? I think I've told this one before, about there being no Officeworks in this underprivileged continent. Chris managed to get some thick oil paint, which was recommended for its ability to stand up off the paper like wax. Unlike Alice I've never learned anything about fainting in coils, so I put out an SOS on Facebook. I would have thought at least one person would be able to help... oh well.

I took a different colour and made a round blob on a piece of scrap paper. As I finish this post on Friday it still isn't dry... I'm used to paint which dries in 20 minutes (with adequate temperature and ventilation). What shall we do?

Chris thought of glad wrap over the top of it, but I could go one better - invisible tape, squashed down hard to eliminate the whiteness. Much easier to apply. As a bonus it wouldn't reflect light.

Just one more prop to look after. Kate's tablet (an iPad 0, not a medicinal one) was covered in mathematical formulas, and Diana wanted it to be writing instead. Having black paint in the set of oils Chris painted it - but as we have already found out it didn't dry in time. So he had to go find a mini blackboard instead. White out was cheaper than chalk and safer (chalk would rub off, all over delicate costumes most likely) so all that remained was to somehow include the Savoynet @ symbol in the text. Watch the DVD and see if you can spot it. ;)

Props - sorted. And not a moment too soon. My stage management list - items being ticked off faster than new items being added. Which is good, kinda.

So, for the benefit of the OCD "sufferers" among us, this is the close of the parenthesis. I now return you to the chronological story of the rehearsals held on the 68th anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima.

The lighting designer was in attendance, so we spent every possible break writing cues into my score. How many cues, you ask? A thundering lot! The last one was LX96, but there were at least two "point five" cues when a number was accidentally allocated twice, and the opening of each act had quite a few decimals too. I can't remember much about Orpheus (except that 26, 26.1, 26.2 and 27 were the thunder and lightning for Pluto's transformation) but I'm fairly sure this is the first time I've been in a show that has broken the ton. This is going to be amazing.

Quite a few of the cues and stand-bys are inside a repeat bar, which makes things a bit complicated, because I have to write all of "Stand by LX56 (2nd time only)" in my score, AND read and parse all that in the middle of the show. Luckily my score is a new layout, very clearly printed and with enough space between musical systems for all the notes I need. Normally I try to avoid putting cues inside repeat bars (which meant a few of the stand-bys in Ruddigore were a smidge short) but this time it was unavoidable.

Lunch. Video chat with my favourite Geisha. That's always good for calming the nerves - not that my nerves need calming, no of course not! Still it's nice to have them calmed.

Incidentally, video chat was over 3G - my phone's portable hotspot. I'm on a plan which has a month's unlimited usage! And since the wifi at the rehearsal place (part of Derby University's facilities) is a bit of a pain to use, lots of people are asking me if they can connect too. What's the password? Thanks. Why did you pick that? Because on my last laptop that key was dodgy so I changed the password to avoid using it. Makes sense!

Afternoon rehearsal, calling the lighting cues to the lighting designer. The cast are obviously saving their voices, which is good, but that coupled with the fact that we've already done the show once today makes it feel like a Saturday evening show after a big dinner and a few glasses - the crew are allowed to fall asleep between cues. Not literally of course (too many cues for that) but that was how it felt.

At the end of rehearsal we had to get all our stuff out of the place - props and costume stacked in one room ready for tomorrow's bump-in, masking tape off the floor, chairs and tables packed away, personal belongings back to their owners... it all takes time.

After all that I didn't feel up to going to the show. An early night and staying warm couldn't do my nose any harm, and I needed it to be on top form for tomorrow.

And this is where we leave our hero, bravely hiding in his bed. Don't forget to tune in for the next exciting episode, which will start with a bump on the head.