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Downton and Lansbury are antidotes to US freeze

Downton offers a chance to catch up with theatrical friends Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival
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I began this year by promising myself not to get too personal on this blog, so forgive me if I break that pact by mentioning that I’m currently on holiday in Florida in a bid to find some sunshine, and for the last two days, at least, have found only falling temperatures, grey skies and rain.

According to a news story in The Guardian, “Temperatures in all 50 US states dipped below freezing on Tuesday in a rare nationwide chill… Florida, a state that normally basks in its reputation as a warm winter escape, experienced unusually low temperatures.”

And the story went on to state,

The so-called polar vortex that funnelled an Arctic low pressure system into the upper US this week swung south and east on Tuesday. Polar conditions settled over two-thirds of the US. It was colder in the southern state of Georgia than Alaska as Atlanta plunged to 6F (-14C) – the lowest temperature since 1966 – while Anchorage, Alaska, recorded 27F (-3C)

Well, at least I’m not in New York, where temperatures on Wednesday went down to -7C. We only just managed to get out of New York last Friday, where the previous night’s first storm of the year yielded more than 5 inches of snow, and saw us trudging through the snow to find a cab to take us to the airport after the car we’d booked got cancelled at 5.30am for a 6am pick-up.

Luckily, there’s a petrol station four blocks from our New York apartment where cabs go to refuel, so we went down there and found an exiting cab who agreed, at a price, to take us to La Guardia. (The metered rate was just $30, but we agreed to pay him double that!) But even leaving the petrol station forecourt was an ordeal – cabs in New York are astonishingly not four-wheel drives, and it became stuck even before we exited onto the street!

The cab driver turned out to be quite a New York character – a corporate photographer who doubled up as a cab driver, who turned out to be nearly deaf as well. (“Shout at me like my wife does,” he told us to make ourselves understood). He was full of premonitions of doom along the way about whether we’d ever get there. But we did, eventually.

And astonishingly, our flight was still listed as being on time when we got there. But of an actual aeroplane there was no sign at all at the departure gate. Eventually, four hours after our departure time, it was eventually brought to the stand from the other side of the airport, and we were able to leave.

It’s at times like this when one wonders who needs the theatre when real life can be fraught. But coming to Florida, of course, was also an attempt to skip the theatre for a bit – although I was greatly looking forward to seeing the great Audra McDonald in concert on Sunday in West Palm Beach. 

Except that I woke up on Sunday morning to an e-mail she had sent personally via a friend in New York who had set up my tickets with her to say that she was being forced to cancel out because she was ill.

Somehow, this trip was not going to plan. But it has meant one thing: we’ve stayed in a lot in our apartment – and thanks to Amazon Prime, we’ve finally been catching up with Downton Abbey which I’ve never seen before.

As always, British TV’s debt to theatre is extremely high – and it’s been rather marvellous to bask in the theatrical glow of such performers as Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, as well as countless other actors I also know from the stage from Jim Carter to Brendan Coyle, Iain Glen, Phyllis Logan, Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens, Iain Glen and Robert Bathurst. There’s also Hugh Bonneville, of course, whom I’ve known since we were first year undergraduates at the same Cambridge college, over 31 years ago.

Nor have I stopped working entirely. On Wednesday morning, for instance, I had a half an hour on the phone with the theatrical legend that is Angela Lansbury, ahead of her leaving for London next week to re-rehearse Blithe Spirit, which she did on Broadway in 2009 (and won her 5th Tony Award for doing) and is soon to reprise in the West End with an almost all-new British cast, with only British actor Simon Jones joining her from the Broadway company. (“It will be fun to have somebody I can gossip with backstage,” she remarked to me).

When I posted an update on Facebook about having just spoken to, over 50 friends posted a ‘like’ status. It may have been raining outside as I spoke to her – and much, much colder in New York where she was speaking to me from – but somehow it felt like the sun was shining.

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