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!

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