Friday, 29 January 2010

First love with a Zulu warrior (from Birmingham)

What does Leicester mean to you?  Now there’s a question you weren’t expecting.  Unless you’re an East Midlander, the answer is probably; not very much.

To me, though, it conjures up ancient images of a smiley, fit, young, black man, baby-oiled skin all of a-glisten, dressed as a schoolboy, Zulu warrior or leather freak.

Leicester is on my mind today because I’m on a train heading there.  As you may know from previous blogs, I’m between full-time jobs and so am gigging around the radio and TV stations of the land.  There’s a chance of some presentation shifts at BBC Radio Leicester, so I’m doing a Norman Tebbit and getting on my bike or, at least, getting on the 09.25 East Midlands Trains service from St Pancras.

But why the delightful mental imagines of the dusky, kinkily-attired hottie?  Well, he was my first love 30 years ago and, as The Walker Brothers so wisely told us, ‘first love never, ever dies’.

Actually, that’s not quite true; he was my first requited love.  I’d fallen truly, madly, deeply for several boys at school five years or so previously.  I never declared my feelings – this was the 1970s – but hinted unsubtly enough for most of them to get the message.  None were remotely interested, and one went so far as to kick me ferociously if I strayed within range of his platform shoe.  Lest you write off my adolescent self as pitifully desperate and cosmetically challenged, I should point out that other boys were infatuated with me but they were always the wrong ones.  

At times, our boys-only fifth form positively pulsated with suppressed, homosexual lust.  There were lingering, heartbroken looks; coquettish fiddling with our (then obligatory) long hair; heads just that crucial millimetre too close as they pored over shared set works; all of it noticed, gasped at and commented upon.

I don’t think any of my classmates ever got it together, although fair play to them if they did.  And I can’t decide, even now from a 51-year-old happy homo’s perspective, whether the torrid ambience was a damning indictment or ringing endorsement of single-sex schooling.

Anyway, back to the shiny black guy with the leopard print loincloth who happened along five years later……

Let us call him Luther, for Luther is not his name.  We met when we both had non-speaking parts in an episode of Angels, a hospital-based drama serial made at the BBC’s now demolished Pebble Mill Studios in Birmingham.

In those days, only members of Equity were allowed to undertake such work.  I had obtained my coveted union card through singing and playing the piano in pubs and restaurants.  Luther had procured his by stripping.  In fact, back then, it seemed possible to join the actors’ union by doing anything except acting.  Stories of actresses who’d become magicians’ assistants or club singers solely to gain membership were legion.

I was a virginal, naive, 20-year-old trainee journalist from Birmingham’s affluent white suburbs.  He was 26, a factory worker by day who got his kit off for money at hen nights by night, from the tough, multi-racial inner city.  He had fathered three children before realising he was gay, and lived in a council tower block with his boyfriend.

He was therefore both unavailable and my parents’ worst nightmare in terms of a partner for their son, being neither female, white, middle-class nor what they would have considered respectable.  All of this rendered him utterly irresistible, needless to say.

We spent most of the 12-hour shift at the BBC together.  Being extras or walk-ons in TV shows involves long periods of inactivity interspersed with brief spells of being man-in-pub or man-walking-past-building, so we had plenty of time to get to know each other.

He wasn’t remotely camp and had mentioned his children but not his shift in sexuality by the time we broke for dinner, yet I found myself unable to resist surreptitiously caressing his arm as we supped lagers in the bar, thereby risking a smack in the gob, such was the strength of my attraction.

He took my phone number and promised to call but didn’t.  A week went by.  Agony!  Then I discovered my phone was faulty.  It was fixed and, within an hour, Luther called.  He’d been trying every night.

Without a thought for his poor boyfriend, I positively hurtled into his bed.  It was thrilling and wonderful and fun and relaxed and comfortable and right and utterly, utterly overwhelming.  I have never been happier and it remains one of the top ten moments of my life.  How sorry I feel for those whose first time was a flaccid failure or painful error of judgement.

With all the arrogance of youth, I was soon demanding that Luther choose between his live-in lover of three years and me.  He chose me.

From then on, I often drove him to his stripping engagements, a disproportionately high number of which, for some reason, took place in Leicester.  I was introduced as his manager and was the only man allowed to remain in the room as baying, tanked-up woman tried to grab his tackle as he discoed past dressed as an African warrior or precocious schoolboy.  Friends were amazed that this never drove me to a frenzy of jealously.  In fact, it made me feel smug.  The women had to buy a £5 ticket plus their drinks merely to cop a feel – if they were exceptionally lucky; I’d be getting the full works a couple of hours later for free.  The thought of how they might have reacted had they known the truth of his relationship with his ‘manager’ only added to the frisson.

We were together for nearly a year but it was never quite right, except in the bedroom where it always seemed intensely right to me, not that I had anything to compare it with.  To (almost) quote from another song, this time by the sainted Elaine and Barbara, ‘And though I moved my world to be with him/Still the gap between us was too wide’.  Luther was happily plodding along as a factory storeman; I was writing for a newspaper and studying for my journalism finals.  I dreamed of a broadcasting career in London; his ambition was to make ends meet, spend time with his kids and enjoy a few pints and a boogie on a Saturday night.

I called time on the relationship, then was badly hurt by a string of one-night-stand merchants.  I went round to his flat to beg for forgiveness and a second chance.  His smile upon seeing me would have lit up a small town.  Clearly, he had missed me dreadfully and I was going to get my way.  Then he introduced me, thankfully before I could launch into my well-rehearsed take-me-back speech, to Ian who was quite obviously the new me.  I managed to hold it together long enough to have a cup of tea with them before hurrying home to bawl my eyes out.

I didn’t see Luther for nearly 20 years until we were reunited by a mutual acquaintance.  As I knocked on his door, I realised, to my surprise and annoyance, that my heart was pounding.  Of course, the Luther who answered my knock was just a pleasant-looking 50-year-old, well-preserved apart from a bit of a beer belly.  What else did my thumping heart expect?

And yet, after a couple – and only a couple – of glasses of wine and the delicious meal he’d made, I was back under his spell.  Had he said in his fabulous half Brummie-half Jamaican accent: “You’re not going home.  Get upstairs and get ready for bed,” I confess I would have obeyed with indecent haste and a shameful lack of dignity.

Thank God he didn’t.  We haven’t since become best mates, but we bump into each other every once in a while and it’s always a pleasure.

Whether he still keeps his Zulu spear, schoolboy’s satchel or head-to-toe leather gear in the attic, I’ve no idea.  If he does, it’s probably best, like so many things, left undisturbed.

He’d never squeeze the leather over that dear little beer belly in any case.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

A hair-raising, moving experience

Greetings from my sickbed, or sick-sofa, to be accurate.  I'm achy, weak and nauseous.  Tonight, I shall miss Burns' Night for the first time in 17 years.  So will my Filipino partner who splashed out £14 on a tartan tie for the occasion (see previous blog).  We are both beyond gutted.

I fear that three days of helping a friend clear 18 years' worth of clutter is to blame.  I inhaled huge quantities of ancient, filthy, black dust containing heaven knows what nasties, and became so cold and wet as I toiled at the skip that I lost all feeling in my fingers.  One or other has taken its toll.

The friend in question is professional pianist and all-round entertainer Bobby Crush who entranced the nation and became a serial winner of Hughie Green's Opportunity Knocks in 1972.  Younger readers may not know that Op Knox, as it was affectionately referred to, was a long-running, much-watched TV talent competition, the Britain's Got Talent of its day.  Bob still performs constantly at the highest level and bills himself, with complete justification, as Britain's Top Piano Entertainer. 

Unfortunately for me, he is also Britain's Top Hoarder.  If the inability to let go of ancient gas bills, hideous gifts and adoring letters from fans, and yellowed showbusiness newspaper cuttings which aren't even about him were an Olympic sport, Team GB would have one gold in the bag every four years.

He may have accumulated an inexcusable quantity of rubbish over the years but at least it was intriguing rubbish: whilst blitzing his large, packed-to-the-rafters, cobwebbed garage where snails had colonised the walls, and the dusty loft crammed with boxes unexamined since moving-in day in 1991, we uncovered:

* Christmas cards received most years since 1980 plus hundreds of blank cards, bought but never sent
* mobile phones bigger than breeze blocks
* stereograms and cassette players
* a wind-up gramophone with 78s
* digs lists for places like Bridlington and Cromer, 20 years out of date
* 200 unused second-class stamps
* two dead mice
* two of Billy Dainty's toupees, and
* Mr Pastry's moustache

I realise those last two items in particular not only beggar belief but also require explanation for younger readers: Billy Dainty was a comedian and eccentric dancer, a big star in the 60s and 70s when I was growing up.  Mr Pastry, meanwhile, was a bumbling, elderly, comedy character created by the actor Richard Hearne, a master of slapstick and a fellow comedic dancer most famous for a routine called The Lancers in which he charged through a ballroom, dancing out of step with an imaginary partner.  Children, in particular, adored Mr Pastry, and I was no exception.  If you had told me then that, 40 years later, I would be holding his fake moustache next to a skip on a freezing January day in north London, I would have given you a most peculiar look.

So, how did my friend come to own that 'tache and Mr Dainty's syrups?  Bobby has starred in pantomime almost every Christmas since his talent show triumph in 1972.  A few years ago, he realised his days as principal boy were numbered and so became a dame.  Unlike the other pantomime roles, the dame is expected to provide many of his/her own costumes, wigs and props.  When Billy Dainty, a great exponent of the art, passed away, his widow, Sandra, generously gave Bob all her late husband's wigs to get him started.  As Bob delightedly examined the various vast and suitably hideous purple, pink and orange coiffures, he came across what appeared to be a pair of flattened gerbils.  They were, in fact, Mr Dainty's hair pieces, included in error.  Billy Dainty and Richard Hearne's Mr Pastry often worked together and, somehow, the latter's fake 'tache had ended up in the same wig box.

The surreality of finding such items in a garage in Hendon was heightened by the fact that we were playing a 78 by the Beverley Sisters on the wind-up gramophone at the time which kept wowing and winding down.  When we added to this unique scenario by each donning one of the late Mr Dainty's hair pieces, I became quite hysterical and had to lean against the skip for support until I could control my laughter.

After three long, hard days, the skip was taken away with the contents of at least 50 boxes of tat.  It was then that an email dropped: would Bobby like to appear on a celebrity edition of Cash in the Attic?  It's not only comedy that's all about timing, is it?


Sunday, 17 January 2010

Many a mickle.....

I'm guessing most of you have never tried to kit out a budget-conscious Filipino with a kilt.  Lucky you.  Don't go there, it's a nightmare.

You might think the chances of needing such a warning are minimal, but you only need have Scottish friends and end up with a Pinoy boyfriend and you'll be glad you read this blog.

Even though I'm pure Sassenach as far back as I can trace, Burns' Night, when Scots around the world celebrate the birth of Robert Burns, their national poet, is one of my favourite dates of the calendar.  If you've never seen a dirk plunged dramatically into the Great Chieftain o' the Puddin' Race whilst Burns' Ode to the Haggis is recited, or heard the Selkirk Grace or eaten cranachan (or, worse, if you haven't a clue what I'm talking about), I'm sorry for you.  You are missing a treat, the perfect antidote to January's dark, depressing drear.

I celebrate with the same friends every year who request each guest wear tartan.  I bought tartan trews from the long-departed Scotch House in Knightsbridge when I was first invited.  Even though there was 50% off in the January sale, they still cost around £70.  I needed a not-so-wee dram to recover from the shock.  How a pair of trousers not encrusted with diamonds or featuring 24-carat gold thread could cost so much, I've never understood, although I suppose I've ended up having my money's worth; I may only wear them once a year but they're still going strong 16 years on.  And knowing I have to fit into them so soon after Christmas and New Year helps enormously when I'm being tempted by a fifth glass of mulled wine or nineth mince pie.

I have long fanticised about having a partner to initiate into the glory of tatties and neeps and peaty single malts, and finally, it has come to pass.  My Filipino boyfriend of 13 months will accompany me this year so we needed to get him kitted out with a Royal Stewart kilt, MacDonald trews or Culloden waistcoat.

Pay attention, entrepreneurs, for I have discovered a gap in the market.  In London's tartan shops, prices for a single item of clothing start in three figures.  They are all about top-end bespoke tailoring.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but what the capital also needs is a tartan Zara or H&M, a modern, inviting store with a youngish vibe and off-the-peg Scottish attire of reasonable quality at modest prices. 

It can be done.  Edingburgh, I'm told, has a chain of gift shops called Gold Brothers where you can get kitted out for comfortably under £100.  And in 2008, Lidl, the cut-price supermarket chain, offered, in its north of the border stores, full Highland dress including kilt in a choice of tartans, Jacobean shirt, leather sporran and kilt hose, for an astonishing £55. 

Despite its name, Gold Brothers is owned and run by Asians whilst Lidl, of course, is German.  Scottish outfitters, it seems, prefer to sneer at such cost-conscious retailing from their lofty, bespoke mountain tops, rather than get their sporrans dirty and deign to compete.  They dismiss these cheaper alternatives as 'tartan tat'; I don't doubt the quality doesn't compare, but if you are only going to wear it once a year for Burns' Night or perhaps at a couple of rugby matches, you may not want or need to invest in a Savile Row-level outfit. 

We are all far more aware of our cultural heritage these days.  England fans now invariably wave the flag of St George at sporting events, not the union flag.  Similarly, Scots who would never have bothered with highland dress a couple of decades ago now don the sporran and the dirk at every major social event.  They are not all wealthy, and many of them live in England, so I am convinced a big business opportunity is going begging.

Back in London, my partner, a hardworking, modestly paid nurse, couldn't justify splashing out a three figure sum, and so ended up buying a £14 tie.  It's hardly the major item of tartan attire our hosts request but we have explained, and they have graciously accepted, the situation. 

The shop from which we bought it was antiquated and with less atmosphere than the Moon.  The stock seemed aimed squarely at the over-70s.  The manager was brusque, apparently considering us time-wasting penny-pinchers.  It wasn't a shopping experience anyone young, fashion conscious or watching the pennies would have savoured.

The tie will suffice until Gold Brothers decide to come marauding across the border or Lidl runs another special offer.  At which point, the posh purveyors won't see our ghillie brogues for dust.


Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A card-carrying curmudgeon

I'm a hypercritical and ungrateful old so-and-so, as my nearest and dearest will willingly confirm.  Other people are delighted just to receive a gift; I moan about its colour, practicality, whether I have the space to store it.  Others are generous with praise and sparing with criticism when friends cook for them; although I bite my tongue, I'm thinking: "That salad was dreary; hasn't she ever heard of dressing?  And this bland mince is meant to be chilli?  A toothless crone has more bite!"   

I've just had another birthday.  51, since you ask, although I've the skin of a 29-year-old.  Actually, I must give it back to him, I'm stretching it!  Boom! boom!  (I'm afraid years of appearing in pantomimes takes its toll.)

Where was I?  Oh yes, my birthday.  As usual, I received about 20 cards and, as usual, I didn't deserve them.  Rather than be thankful for my caring friends and family, there I was, picking every one of them apart.  ("Ooo, this one's a bit naff.  Hmm, that one's dreary.  Why does my auntie still think I'm 15?") 

I'm not sporting a naughty-but-lovable schoolboy smirk as I write this.  I wish I wasn't like it, really I do, but I fear the spot-changing potential for quinquagenarian leopards is slight.

Before you condemn me, however, stop and think for a moment: aren't you just a little bit like me?  Doesn't tearing open at least some of the following on your big day make you tut and roll your eyes rather than smile and coo?

Cards that aren't birthday cards: I'll concede that any card is better than none - at least the sender remembered your special day - but surely they could have laid their hands on a birthday card rather than a reproduction of an impressionist painting or a dirty cartoon joke that's blank where the birthday rhyme or salutation should be.  "I was bothered about your birthday, just not that bothered," is the scent these cards give off.  And it's so easily avoidable; keep half a dozen assorted birthday cards in a drawer - girlie ones, men's ones, trad ones, modern ones, a couple for tinies, but nothing too specific - and you'll never get caught without.  Replenish supplies whenever you find yourself passing a card shop or even at the supermarket.  The recipient will never know their card was selected without them in mind.

Non-date-specific cards on important birthdays: stepping gingerly across the line into a new decade is a very big deal, so don't mark it with a general birthday card.  Every shop stocks ones with 30, 40, 60 or 80 emblazoned on the front.  Use them!  (If the recipient is trying to knock a few years off their age, you also gain the delicious pleasure of bursting their bubble of denial.  You may need to pull a convincing innocent face, of course.  Practice, if necessary.)

Cards that have nothing to do with the recipient: you hardly drink but receive a jokey effort with a little cartoon man who's clearly the worse for wear and is holding a giant pint, four times his size.  Or a golfer in plus-fours hopes you'll be 'in the swing' on your special day, even though you've never picked up a putter.  Has the sender somehow mixed you up with his Uncle Ernie?

E-cards: don't get me started.  E-cards are the very antithesis of what birthday cards are all about.  Sending a traditional card takes thought and effort.  Sending an email with attachment does not.  Neither does texting or sending greetings via social networking sites.  And let's not hear the saving-the-planet excuse.  Saving the sender time, trouble and money, more like.

I'm reaching the end of the blog now.  This is where I'm supposed to say something conciliatory like: "Still, at the end of the day, it's the thought that counts. As long as people remember and wish you well, perhaps it doesn't matter too much how they do it."

Never gonna happen.....

(Images courtesy of;;


Sunday, 10 January 2010

Pinoy parties: the westerners' survival guide

It's 3am and I'm lying in my Filipino boyfriend's bed in snow-flecked Walthamstow, East London.  He lives with his sister and her husband, and tonight was his sister's 31st birthday party.  I can't sleep yet because the last few die-hards are laughing and shouting a wall away over one last drink (at least, I'm hoping that's what it is).

I don't too much mind having to wait, as it's been a thoroughly enjoyable evening and it gives me a chance to ponder over the differences between Pinoy parties and British ones.

Food is a very big deal at Filipino dos.  I realise it often is at British ones, too, but not invariably.  The idea of a drinks party with just a few nibbles is anathema to Filipinos.  The kitchen table invariably groans with an array of meat dishes, fish, seafood and rice.   A selection of very sweet sweets will surely follow.  However much you eat, you will be entreated to take more.  It will never run short.  And a substantial doggy bag will be pressed into your hand upon departure.

There may not be wine.  Wine is no big deal in The Philippines as I discovered when I visited recently for the first time to attend the boyf's sister's wedding (see previous blogs).  Almost everything over there is ridiculously cheap by western standards.  A bottle of rum, whisky or vodka is yours for a jaw-dropping £3, for example (so is gin, although you'll have a devil of a job tracking down any tonic to go with it.  Filipinos tend us use Sprite).  However, a bottle of wine that would be £5 or £6 in the UK will cost you...£5 or £6.  This is so wildly out of kilter that it's unsurprising it hasn't caught on.

After a few days there, I really fanced a glass of red and so bought a bottle to take to a party.  My partner warned me that no-one would be interested in it so I had better be prepared to down it all myself.  He couldn't have been more wrong.  The younger crowd gave it a wide berth, but the 50- and 60-somethings were intrigued.  Not one of them had tasted red wine but they all gave it a go.  They sipped, hmmm'd and ha'd a bit, then one nipped to the kitchen and returned with ice cubes.  Ah, Ernst and Julio Gallo Merlot on the rocks - much better!

So, don't expect wine when you attend a Filipino party.  Take your own, to be safe.  Or get stuck into the beer and whisky that are sure to be on offer.

Do a few vocal exercises during your pre-party shower, as there will be a karaoke machine.  No party is complete without one, and you will have to withstand serious and repeated cajoling if you don't fancy performing.  Pretty much everyone else, from four-year-olds to octogenarians, will take their turn on the mic without bashfulness or hesitation.  Even Harry Enfield-esque teenagers will stop grunting and looking tortured and momentarily morph into Beyonce or Justin Timberlake.

Make sure you are looking your best because you will be photographed so often, you'll wonder whether they've mistaken you for a major celebrity.  And this being the digital, internet age, those photos will be all over the world by the following lunchtime.

Finally, prepare to be enveloped in a sea of warmth and friendliness.  You know how British parties can sometimes be stiff or cliquey, at least until the ice is broken?  There's none of that.  Everyone mixes, laughs, talks and smiles from the off.  Even the teetotal guests, of whom there will be a higher percentage than you are used to, seem relaxed, happy to be there, just downright joyful.

At Pinoy parties, the rice is always sticky, but never the ambience.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Give over, Gordon!

A few blogs ago, I expounded the theory that the world is divided into two groups; those with fascinating lives who are too busy to blog about them, and those with little to write about but all the time in the world to do so.

I have to confess that I have crossed the line from Group A to Group B.  Once, only the enforced inactivity of plane or train journeys afforded me the chance to hit the QWERTY.  I was stressed.  You can feel the pain in some of my blogs.  Sometimes the ironing didn't get done for three weeks, and I dreaded misreading my diary and missing a gig.  I was forever turning down invitation from friends.  I yearned for less pressure and more free time.

Then I gave up my full-time job without another to jump to.  I had several red-hot irons in the fire and was confident I'd get fixed up pretty quickly.  My confidence was misplaced: several months on, I'm still freelancing here and there but there are weeks when the diary is bare.

And I hate it.  I just can't do inactivity.  You know how when battery hens are released by animal liberationists, they stand around, baffled, disorientated and unhappy?  Their previous life might have been hideous but at least it was familiar.  It's quite a while until ancient instincts kick in and they start pecking and scratching.  I am that chicken.  I have all the time in the world and don't know what to do with it.

The question is: can I write an entertaining blog when I've hardly anything to write about?  That's a challenge, and any challenge has to be better than gawping at daytime TV ("Join us on This Morning tomorrow and meet the woman whose husband cheated on her with 53 other women," Philip Schofield just trailed after the ITV Lunchtime News.  Dear God!).

I know, let's do: "A Vist to the Charity Shop."  That doesn't sound like a particularly fecund terrain, does it?  Right, here goes....

My mantra these past few indolent weeks has been: keep busy!  One way of doing so was to give my flat a seroius declutter.  Consequently, yesterday found me struggling onto the 87 bus with six arm-breaking bagfuls of accumulated junk (quality junk, mind!).

And here's the interesting thing: I was given a Gift Aid form to fill in.  Gift Aid, as you probably know, is tax relief on money donated to UK charities.  Provided donors pay sufficient UK income tax, the charity can claim it back.  (Financial matters always make my head spin, but it seems to this layman it would be far simpler, kinder and fairer if the Government just declared charitable donations tax-exempt.  Pardon my naivety.)

I wasn't donating any cash, just clothes, CDs and books.  Believe it or not, tax is payable even on profits from the sale of my unwanted tat!  Do you think whilst Gordon Brown watches TV of an evening, instead of doing a spot of knitting, he squeezes stones in the hope of extracting a single drop of blood?

Every item I handed over had to have a sticker attached so that, when it was sold, it could be matched to my Gift Aid code number.  All this effort to earn extra coppers on the sale of a 20p paperback or 50p shirt.  The charity shop lady said she spent a minimum of three hours every week, bashing these codes into the computer.  What happens at charity shops without sufficient staff or where the volunteers don't have computer skills?  Are good causes missing out on revnue?

At least there's an upside to this tiresome bureaucracy: because a record must be kept of how much my items raise, the shop can email me the total in a few weeks' time.  This is supposed to create 'charity shop loyalty', ensuring I don't take the results of my next clear-out elsewhere.

The same evening, I donated online to another charity in recognition of a cousin's plan to run this year's London Marathon.  When it came to the Gift Aid section, one of the questions was: are you related to the person you are sponsoring?  It seems that, if you are, the charity can't claim back the tax!  Why?  How can our relationship possibly make a scrap of difference?  Should I have lied and said I was a friend?  It would have increased my donation by £10, according to my calculation.  Are public servants actually paid to investigate such matters instead of doing something remotely useful?  Can one be punished if such a well-intentioned deception is uncovered?

Maybe I should use some of my free time to start a campaign to stamp out all this mean-spirited, arcane nonsense.  I probably won't, though.  I have to stay positive and believe that, before long, another fabulous full-time broadcasting position will come along for me to grab, and I'll be back to stress, sleep deprivation and unironed laundry, happily complaining that I desperately need some free time.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Chance can be a fine thing

Showbusiness is a scary beast.  In what other walk of life can you be sacked after years of sterling service simply because your boss thinks a younger face might look better on screen?  Where else can you fail a job interview because you're the wrong gender or colour, or speak with the wrong accent? 

Actually, probably everywhere, the difference being that in other worlds discrimination is covert or even unconscious whereas in entertainment, it's deemed perfectly reasonable to say: "Sorry.  You're brilliant but we're looking for a woman/someone in their 30s/someone from the ethnic minorities."

Another unsettling aspect is that the bulk of your work will be instantly forgotten whilst one or, if you are incredibly lucky, several performances will forever define you.  And they aren't necessarily your best performances, or in classy or groundbreaking projects, either.

An actor toils for years bringing exciting new prespectives to Shakespeare's leading roles yet 999 people out of every 1,000 know him first, and probably only, as the perplexed dad in three series of a so-so sitcom.  A singer makes hundreds of recordings over the decades yet the one annoying novelty hit she knocked off in half an hour and never liked is the song she has to include in every performance of her career.

Five years ago, I was approached to take part in a new reality TV show for Channel 4.  It was to be called Come Dine with Me.  Five strangers would take turns, over a week, to host dinner parties for each other at their homes, the researcher explained.  Each night, the guests would mark that night's host's efforts out of 10.  The winner would receive £1,000.  It sounded okay and I was doing radio full-time at that point and fancied a bit of telly again, so I agreed.

Five years on, Come Dine with Me is, of course, one of TV's best loved and most watched shows.  There have been countless series, frequent celebrity editions and a rather brilliant book.  What's more, the early shows are still repeated frequently on Channel 4, More 4 and other, lesser, satelite channels.

My involvement took only four evenings and one full day.  It was neither the hardest work I've ever done nor the most enjoyable or rewarding.  It certainly didn't feel like we were making TV magic yet, because the format turned out to be a winner, because of brilliant editing and commentary and, more than anything, for the drearily prosaic reason that it keeps getting rebroadcast, it has become my calling card.

Every time it's back on, I receive a flurry of emails via my website.  Some say: "We wondered what had happened to you since That's Life."  For the benefit of younger readers, That's Life was a much-watched TV series that ran from the 70s to the 90s.  I was one of its many presenters (from 82 to 85) and it was my previous calling card.  I have worked non-stop ever since, earned a good living and done some work I'm immensely proud of, but a relatively short spell of Autocue reading in my mid-20s is what people remember.

To be fair, some of the emails also refer fondly to radio shows I've hosted on various stations over the decades.  But what of my six years globetrotting for BBC1's Holiday Programme?  I agonised over every line of every commentary, determined to give a full and fair account of the country or resort visited, yet no-one remembers my efforts (although, I suppose you could say free foreign travel, even when you're working long days and sometimes in challenging situations, is its own reward).  What about my years in Southampton presenting all kinds of regional TV shows, including some scary live ones which we got away with by the skin of our teeth?  Gone, and forgotten.

Of course, sometimes collective selective memory works in your favour.  I was a contestant on an appalling show on Five called Ann Maurice: Interior Rivalry.  The concept was that Ms Maurice, known as The House Doctor because of her ability to diagnose and cure faults in homes for sale, would choose her successor.  I was one of 12 hopefuls who, with a stunning lack of format originality, were to be put through a series of challenges and eliminated one by one.  I researched thoroughly: I arrived with business plans and a head full of innovatory but low-cost design solutions.  I even tracked down the guy who had assisted Ann on four series of House Doctor, filled him with cocktails and got him to spill the beans about her likes and dislikes, and what made her tick.

What I hadn't accounted for was living in a communal house, sharing an overheated bedroom with three snoring strangers and dealing with a dearth of bathrooms and toilets.  Funnily enough, I'm not at my best when sleep-deprived and constipated.  I suspect this was a deliberate ploy by the programme makers: not only is a shared house cheaper than 12 en suite hotel rooms, it also generates tears and fights.

Neither was I prepared for ripping up rotten carpets and banging cockroaches over the head with the heel of my shoe, as happened at the first (and only) house I worked on.  Why would I have been?  Ann Maurice's immaculate suits and manicured nails stated pretty clearly that she had never had to do that.  If God had intended her to, He wouldn't have given us tradesmen, would He?  Nor could I cope with 17-hour working days (another way to ensure trantrums and drama, of course), nor the blatant, shameless determination of fellow contestants to win regardless. 

I pretty much gave up and eliminated myself.  I couldn't get home quickly enough to hug my pristine toilet and sleep the sleep of The Dead in my cool, private bedroom.

I must have come across appallingly on the show; weak, half-hearted, defeatist.  I say 'must have' because I've never seen it.  It would be just too embarrasing and bring up truly painful memories.  The fortunate thing is, hardly anybody else has seen it, either.  It got terrible ratings initially and has been repeated only a handful of times on obscure satelite channels.

I also failed spectacularly on a radio presenters' special edition of The Weakest Link.  I was the second contestant to be voted off!  Again, that edition never gets re-aired, thank you, God, and everyone has long forgotten my ineptitude (unless they are kindly avoiding the subject and, believe me, neither my friends, family nor listeners are that kind of people!).

I suppose we professional broadcasters and entertainers should be thankful for even one hit in a lifetime, even if the utter flukiness of it will turn you into a paranoid alcoholic if you're not careful.  I'm still miffed, though, that, were I to mention my Indian travelogue of 1987 on BBC1 or my cool handling of The South's council election results on Meridian four years later, I would be met only with blank stares.  Damnit, I was good!

photos courtesy of,,