This is your life, p.13
This Is Your Life, page 13
‘So are you coming for a pint or two tonight?’ said Chris.
‘Oh I’d love to, but I can’t – I’m playing the Comedy Store.’
‘The Comedy Store?’
‘Yeah, so I’ve got to head into town.’
‘What town’s that then?’
‘Well, London, obviously. Sorry – yeah, gotta head up to London. So I can’t make tonight.’
‘Hey, can we come and see you?’ said Nancy.
‘Er, not tonight. Trying out some new material, you know.’
‘Oh. Is that clothes material or comedy material?’ said Dave.
‘Comedy material. Oh, I see, you’re joking. Right. Hey, that’s my job!’
But they didn’t laugh at that. Dave just said, ‘Well, don’t forget to have a couple of cappuccini while you’re in town.’
Already it had started. Already there was a gap between me and them. I was treating my best friends slightly differently, and they had markedly altered their behaviour towards me. Honestly, there’s so much petty resentment in this country. Why can’t we just applaud and admire people who are doing well in life? It’s like, you stick your head slightly above the parapet, and all the whingers and embittered losers have to start resenting whatever you do. It’s pathetic, it really is. Tall poppy syndrome, they call it, except I suppose I was more of an opium poppy, a big white, escapist, trip-inducing poppy. I only stood out because I’d persuaded everyone that my hallucination was the reality.
It was on the Monday morning that I had my first call from an agent wanting to meet and talk about possible representation. His name was Viv Busby and he sounded like a bad actor playing ‘second East End gangster’ in The Bill.
‘No bullshit, Jimmy, you’re the guv’nor, you’re the main man, and I respect totally what you’re sayin’ about not wantin’ an agent an’ all that, but let’s have a chat an’ see if I can take some of the hassle out of arrangin’ gigs an’ that’ so you can concentrate on the comedy . . . ’cos that’s what you do best, mate.’
‘Oh, thank you very much. Have you seen my act then?’
‘To be totally honest with you, Jimmy, not for a while, mate, not for a while. But I’ve always loved what you do. That fish routine – bloody funny, mate! Comedy classic that is.’
This agent had read that I did not want an agent and his immediate reaction was to suggest that he became my agent. I suppose that’s the sort of person you want on your side. He was very persuasive about meeting up. I got the feeling that promoters and broadcasters would always find themselves forced to agree with him for fear of ending up inside one of the concrete pillars of the Channel tunnel rail-link. He attacked his half of our conversation, or rather his seven-eighths of our conversation, with such missionary zeal that it left me nowhere to go other than polite acquiescence. To question a single assumption would have involved going, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Back up there, you are not listening to what I am trying to tell you. Now just stop talking for five bloody seconds and hear what I am saying. I DO NOT WANT TO MEET UP WITH YOU, OK?’ But being rude to strangers on the phone is not something I was brought up to do and so a date was made for me to come to his office. His company weren’t ‘in town’, they were ‘up west’. By now I was sufficiently savvy to understand that ‘up west’ did not mean Lewes or Peacehaven. That night I left a message on his office voicemail saying that I couldn’t make that date after all. I was doing a gig ‘out of town’. And then I called three other agents that had rung me during the course of the day and left similar messages for them as well.
The article in the Sunday Times seemed to have precipitated a thousand private panics for all those people who thought they were in the know. I was suddenly the new fashion that nobody had foreseen, like text messaging or foot and mouth disease. What the feature had proclaimed was, ‘Hey, everyone, here’s a famous person you really ought to have heard of by now! You might think you’re in the in-crowd, but if this new star isn’t in there with you, then maybe you just became the out-crowd.’ And just as everyone had seen the emperor’s new clothes, a surprising number of people claimed to have seen a Jimmy Conway set. One person wrote to me anonymously c/o the Sunday Times just to say how much they’d enjoyed my show. What is going on inside that person’s head? I asked myself. If they had given a return address I might have been able to ponder some possible motive, but why should somebody send me an anonymous thank-you letter for a gig they had never seen? It was insane. But no one was behaving rationally. In Seaford, a solicitor and his wife I’d passed on my road a couple of times suddenly invited me to dinner. If my diary hadn’t been so full of fictitious gigs I might have said yes.
For fear of appearing out of touch, a number of other newspapers and magazines were soon doing little diary items or features on me. Some of them involved brief phone interviews; some of them used Jimmy Conway quotes from other pieces as if I had spoken to the journalist writing the piece. My mobile phone number seemed to become public property very quickly, as if there was a central register where researchers and journalists logged useful information, and I was now chalked up on the ‘latest additions’ board.
Even without the assistance of agent and probable horse decapitator Viv Busby, I got a number of requests to perform at various comedy clubs or at universities. One student union wrote: ‘Although we appreciate that you are one of the top performers in the country, I’m afraid we can offer you only £1000 for thirty minutes.’ A grand! For half an hour’s work! Imagine that, several nights a week! I had a ready-made career as a stand-up all lined up before me, if only I knew how to do it. It was as if all my life I had wanted to be a pilot and then suddenly the airlines said, ‘No problem! There’s the keys, take that jumbo jet there.’ However much you wanted it, the knowledge that you were going to crash the plane into a mountain was always going to be a fairly compelling disincentive.
More letters came my way via newspaper offices over the next few weeks. My favourite was from someone a few years younger than me who felt he had been aimlessly drifting along for too long now and wanted to know how to get where I was today. ‘I’m afraid there’s no substitute for hard work and experience,’ I wrote back. As well as the predictable requests from charities and students, there were also a handful of letters addressed in green ink. These were the rather disturbing appeals from people who wanted me to use my ‘access to the media’ to tell the world that their house had been bugged by Brussels bureaucrats or that Cecil B. de Mille had stolen their idea about doing a film based on the Bible. One correspondent believed that not only were our senior politicians all reptiles in disguise, but Jewish reptiles at that. In my reply I urged this man not to jump to conclusions. ‘OK, just because all the prime ministers and the American president and the other world leaders happen to be Jewish reptiles in disguise, I still think we should judge them on their record in government. It doesn’t automatically mean there’s any great conspiracy going on. Let’s judge these lizards on their actual policies . . .’
But everyone seemed to have gone insane for a while. When somebody marketed an astrology chart for cats, I was asked to go on the radio and talk about it. ‘We just thought you might have something funny to say,’ said the dippy researcher on the phone as if I was so desperate to publicize myself that I would go on Radio 5 Live to talk about feline star signs. Although when I listened back to the tape I thought I was mildly amusing about it: ‘Sagittarians are known to be good with money, stubborn and always licking their bum.’ It seemed that I had become appointed the first person producers and researchers thought of when they needed a sound bite about anything vaguely silly. ‘That new comic – Jimmy Wotsisname; get his take on it, put him on the panel/in the paper/in the radio car.’
Each interview or booking seemed to spawn another and for me these little media appearances became my raison d’être. They weren’t in order to sell my book or my hit single because there was no product to be promoted. They weren’t to raise money for a good cause or to draw
There is a clever trick of the brain by which you can immediately spot your own name on a whole page of newsprint. I expect Hugh Grant couldn’t help his eye locating his own name on the front page of the tabloid that said ‘Hugh Grant Arrested With Vice Girl’. But sometimes I would be flicking through a newspaper or magazine (not particularly looking out for references to myself; I bought Hello! for the recipes), when I would turn over a page and spot my name and then go back a few lines to see what was being said about me. I had this experience reading an interview in the Guardian with one of the major suits-in-chief at BBC television. ‘Agents are the enemy of talent,’ he said audaciously. ‘Every time some new comedian comes along, for example, they’re snapped up by this new breed of aggressive promoters, who then price their talent right out of the market. That’s why Jimmy Conway is such a breath of fresh air. Real talent doesn’t need pushy agents shouting down the phone about how brilliant their clients are. You mark my words – Jimmy Conway will go further than any of them.’
I was interviewed for a feature in one of the colour supplements called ‘What’s In My Fridge?’ in which minor celebrities talked about their beliefs, their career, their lifestyle and how all this was reflected in the contents of their fridge. Jimmy Conway had some milk, eggs and a raspberry yoghurt. That’s just what happened to be in there. Of course, if I’d been really uncool and preoccupied with how I came across, I would have spent hours walking around the supermarkets and delicatessens trying to select exactly the right balance of foodstuffs to convey the image of a creative yet busy single man; modern enough to cook interesting dishes just for himself, yet so in demand socially that he had to plan his catering well in advance. Some exotic pasta sauces, perhaps; a few unusual salad ingredients, a home-made salmon quiche, a little Parma ham and half a summer pudding with a big tub of fresh cream. But none of these appeared in Jimmy Conway’s fridge. I hid them all in the cupboard under the sink when I lost confidence in the whole gourmet image thing just before the photographer called. Still the raspberry yoghurt said something about me I think. I’m the kind of guy who likes yoghurt.
The journalist who did the ‘What’s In My Fridge?’ interview described the little house in Seaford as my holiday home. I suppose this was technically true; I had spent most of my holidays here because I’d usually been too skint to go anywhere else. ‘Jimmy Conway clearly values the peace he finds away from it all in his holiday cottage on the South Downs. His love for this part of the world is something he used to share with his good friend Billy Scrivens.’ My friendship with Billy had gone from strength to strength since he’d died. The vacuum created by his absence forced journalists to find other ways to refer to him and so they often mentioned this new comedian Jimmy Conway as if I was some sort of surviving disciple.
When I walked Betty up on the cliffs I would find myself going back to the spot where I had passed Billy, like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime. I could see his old holiday cottage in the distance and wondered if his widow Stella had any idea of the level of my deception. Since our brief conversation at the funeral I had thought about her often and wondered if our paths might cross again. Strange that I only ever walked the dog on this side of town these days.
It was her dog I saw first. Max was something of a celebrity-by-association himself, but as he came over the hill I feared there was no guarantee that it would be Stella walking him. I stroked him as he wagged his tail around me, then he tried to run on, but I held his collar tight and patted him some more until his owner came into view. It was indeed Stella. Her extraordinary good looks still glowed around her like luminous fairy dust. When Billy Scrivens had set out to get himself a trophy wife, he had to have the Champions League trophy wife, the Jules Rimet trophy wife, and frankly I was the Rotherham United reserve team and was never even going to make the play-offs. But despite her dazzling good looks and infectious smile, there seemed to be some sort of sadness about her. Maybe I am just gifted in this way, but I’m sure I detected some inexplicable distant sorrow in the woman who had very recently lost her husband while he was in his prime.
‘Hello again. Jimmy Conway – we met at Billy’s funeral.’ It wasn’t the best opener for someone who needed cheering up. But the dogs gave me an excuse to walk alongside her for a while and she commented on how much coverage I suddenly seemed to be getting.
‘I see you did “What’s In My Fridge?”,’ she remarked as she threw a stick that was grabbed by both our dogs. ‘Billy agreed to do that once. When the photographer opened the fridge door he was confronted by a midget dressed as an Eskimo sitting there reading the paper. He shouted, “Get out of my house!” and the photographer apologized and shut the door again. Then he realized he was the victim of a Gotcha! and the Eskimo midget came out and turned to the hidden TV camera to tell children watching at home never to hide in fridges.’
‘Yeah, I remember watching that, it was a great one,’ I said, admiring the way she was still able to talk about her husband’s career with a smile.
There was a pause while I wondered if it was acceptable to carry on talking about Billy’s show now that she had raised the subject.
‘Did you ever worry that any of the Gotchas went too far?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes, all the time. I mean that famous one of the old lady on the Portaloo. She was furious at first.’
This particular stunt was the stuff of television legend. An unsuspecting old lady entered a temporary toilet in the middle of Trafalgar Square. But once she was sitting down, all four walls were whipped away by an overhead crane, revealing her to everyone with her knickers and tights around her ankles.
It turned out to be a pivotal moment in the story of British television. A row about ‘dumbing down’ ensued in which the infamous prank was criticized by the culture secretary in the House of Commons. However, the look of indignant shock on the old lady’s face, followed by the hopeless action of reaching for a toilet-roll dispenser that was no longer there, had made this scene an incredibly popular TV moment, a national family joke that was on the front page of every tabloid. Downing Street were apparently furious that a minister had criticized the toilet lady stunt without first clearing this with Number 10 and the culture secretary ended up having to do a complete U-turn, saying it represented the best in ground-breaking and innovative programme-making.
‘Nobody has to sign the consent form so it’s always up to them,’ said Stella in defence of Billy’s show. ‘But you’re always going to upset somebody when you try to push back the boundaries. But that’s what Billy was all about – he was always searching for the next television first.’ And then she paused and did her brave face and I wanted to give her a consoling hug but I stopped myself because I knew my kindly motives of caring sympathy were mingled with rampant lust and desire. My dog brought back the stick so I threw it over the fields once more.
It was good to talk to someone about celebrity and show business who knew a great deal more about them than I did. I felt celebrity was something Stella and I had in common. My friends didn’t react as well as I had hoped to hearing about my latest radio interview or newspaper feature, but to Stella it was perfectly normal, it didn’t seem like showing off. She talked about the strange customs of the Planet Fame and I nodded and agreed while taking careful mental note of everything she said. Sometimes I wondered if I was struck by Stella because she fitted this new image I had of myself: the flashy comic with the exciting career who should have a beautiful model on his arm. A lot of today’s male celebrities had once had longstanding girlfriends whom they’d dumped the moment they started to get well known. It wasn’t that these men were shallow; it’s just that they didn’t feel comfortable speeding along
‘I read an interview with that old woman from Trafalgar Square the other day,’ I continued. ‘It was for a “Where Are They Now?” slot in some TV listings magazine. They called her “Toilet Lady”.’
‘She did very well out of it. Became a bit of a minor celebrity herself after the clip went into the opening titles of Billy’s show. For a while she made a living opening supermarkets and doing adverts for toilet paper.’ Stella asserted that being on Billy’s show was the probably the highlight of this old lady’s life. That most people’s lives were quite mundane and meaningless, with every evening spent slumped in a chair staring at a television. So for an ordinary person to be transported to the magical world on the other side of the screen gave them status and kudos of which they could previously have only ever dreamt.
‘Actually, the article said that she’d had quite an interesting life. She worked as a midwife in India in the 1950s and had campaigned for the rights of low caste pregnant women or something.’
‘Who, Toilet Lady?’
‘Yeah, what was her real name? Began with a T.’
‘Toilet Lady,’ confirmed Stella.
Max snapped aggressively at Betty and wrestled the stick away from her. Stella made a token attempt at telling her dog off. I knew there was some truth in what she had said. That you could discover a cure for cancer or bring peace to the Middle East but you were never really anybody until you had appeared on television. That was the modern definition of status.
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes