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This is your life, p.14

This Is Your Life, page 14

 

This Is Your Life
 


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  ‘Is that right, though? Is that what we want?’ I said.

  ‘Says the man who’s not on television yet,’ she smiled.

  Was my unease prompted by a concern about the values of our society or vain indignation that all my publicity so far counted for so little?

  ‘Yeah, but what about all the other media?’ I said. ‘Things definitely changed for me after that feature in the Sunday Times.’

  ‘Well, they all contribute a little bit, obviously,’ she conceded. ‘But without wishing to demean your standing, Jimmy, no one ever got mobbed by fans because of a particularly interesting discussion on Radio Four. Your name is known in certain circles, but that doesn’t make you famous. You’re not on television. People don’t see your face and think, Oh look, there goes Jimmy Conway.’

  This presented a problem for me. I’d only got as far as I had by apparently being the one performer who wouldn’t do television. This had been my Unique Selling Point, the thing that marked me out from the crowd. So to go to the next level of fame, to go on telly to do my ‘I won’t do telly’ line, might arguably be seen as a little bit hypocritical by one or two eagle-eyed pedants. As I wandered home towards Seaford I thought about what Stella had said. Down in the town below me, every chimney had a television aerial or satellite dish. Every home was endlessly consuming TV; thoughtlessly breathing it in and exhaling it just as quickly. My one appearance on the TV news was already forgotten. It wasn’t just a case of appearing once on the telly. You had to be on that screen over and over again for it to count for anything. Deep down I knew that Stella was completely right about my own status. Before I talked to her I’d thought that I must seem quite important, that everyone else had been just as aware as me of this supposed new comedian’s arrival on the scene. On reflection it was a fairly safe bet that the rest of the British population was not endlessly re-reading each newspaper feature about me or listening to my every minor radio appearance. Billy Scrivens had been a supernova, but I was barely visible with a telescope. And without the means to keep shining brightly, I’d never count for very much. One brief artificial glimmer of light in my mid-thirties and that would be it. I’d be famous for fifteen minutes like that bloke said, oh, what’s his name? I can’t remember. He’s not famous enough any more.

  7

  27 Elms Crescent,

  East Grinstead,

  West Sussex,

  England

  Dear James,

  Well, who would have thought it!! You were hoping for an MBE, but you got a knighthood as well! Congratulations – and you can take it from me as a semi-neutral outsider that it was most definitely deserved. Obviously these little accolades don’t really mean anything to you, it’s all rather embarrassing, but it might seem rude to refuse them and anyway if you turned them down you might not be offered any more. Although John Lennon gave back his MBE, but you don’t have to worry about that because the Vietnam war is over now and so you shouldn’t feel like it’s selling out if you accept it. Anyway, Jimmy Savile has OBE on the end of his name after his programme and that looks very impressive indeed. I don’t think it would look like you were copying if you did that when you get yours.

  Of course, these honours don’t just belong to you. They are also for all the ordinary people behind the scenes who have worked so very hard on your behalf and have been paid much less. How nice it must be for them that all their hard work has now been recognized with your knighthood. Perhaps it would be a nice gesture to send some of them a little present as a thankyou. Nothing too flash, but not too cheap either. A box of Matchmakers, or a Chocolate Orange maybe.

  At this time it is important that Nicholas is not made to feel inferior by all your success. Hard to imagine that he was once the high achiever of the family! You should be sensitive about how you break this happy news to your sadly rather embittered and jealous older brother. Perhaps it would be better coming from someone else and they could sort of just mention it in passing – e.g. your secretary could ring him up and say, ‘Could you hold, please? I have your younger brother, Sir James Conway MBE, on the line for you.’ Though if you wanted to hear his reaction you’d have to listen on the extension.

  I hope you enjoyed meeting the Queen. Some people criticize the royal family, which isn’t fair because they can’t answer back. In any case they do a lot of work for charity and it’s much better than having a dictator like Adolf Hitler. You are now the second person in your family to meet the Queen; a few years before you were born, Mum handed her a posy of flowers from the other side of the railings when she did a walkabout in Royal Tunbridge Wells. But I think you were right not to mention it. Her Majesty meets a lot of people like that and she probably wouldn’t have remembered it even if you’d shown her the photo from on top of the telly. Congratulations once again, and it just goes to show that if you really work at something, you’ll get there in the end.

  Mine sincerely,

  Jimmy

  When I was a child an MBE must have still meant something. I suppose I had regarded those awards as the ultimate accolades because they were given out by the Queen. I was now struggling to imagine exactly what benefits you got from being a Member of the British Empire when that particular club had been closed down some years earlier.

  The reason all those old-fashioned awards have lost their appeal is they are no longer marketed correctly. They’re still handed over at a stuffy private ceremony at Buckingham Palace, with maybe one quick snapshot afterwards for the Daily Telegraph. No wonder the public has lost interest. Who’s going to get excited by a photo of some anonymous civil servant holding up his medal and being completely upstaged by his wife’s enormous hat? As Stella said, if it isn’t on television it hasn’t happened. If the British establishment wanted people to care about the official honours system they should do a proper glitzy awards bash and put it out on ITV after Coronation Street. Five minutes of funny topical stand-up from Her Majesty before she introduced her first guest to read the nominations for the opening award of the night: ‘A big hand for His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh!’ And the band would play a couple of jazzy bars of the national anthem as Prince Philip skipped jauntily down the steps clutching a gold envelope. A little bit of scripted light-hearted banter between the Queen and her husband for good measure: ‘Phil, I like your medals . . .’

  ‘Thank you. This one here is for outstanding courage when confronted by the enemy.’

  ‘Yes, though to be fair, not many pheasants ever fired back at you!’

  And the laughter of the studio audiences would provide a little break in the tension over who’d won the phone vote for the coveted title of Commander of the Order of the Bath.

  In the twenty years since I had imagined that the ultimate prize was a medal from the Queen, a whole new royal family had emerged, bringing its own new honours system with it. A few letters after your name counted for nothing compared to the glamour and kudos attached to the glittering prizes regularly dished out on national television by the new kings and queens of British celebrity: the rulers of the House of Hello!

  I could never resist the drama and excitement of a televised awards ceremony. My attitude towards them always followed the same pattern. I would begin by attempting to appear cynical and knowing. ‘The Soap Awards!’ I’d exclaim in appalled disbelief. ‘What will they think of next? I’m not watching this. It’s just an extended trailer; an excuse to show a load of old soap-opera clips!’ An hour later I was still shouting at the screen: ‘How can you give “Soap of the Year” to Emmerdale?! Oh come on; it’s got to be between Corrie and EastEnders, surely?’

  I always ended up caring because I could not help but identify myself with one programme over another, with this actor rather than that one. That is how celebrity works, I suppose. It’s a process of associating yourself with various stars and then vicariously enjoying their successes and lifestyle.

  All these thoughts had been prompted by one small rectangle of cardboard that had landed on my doormat before
being half destroyed by Betty. In the grandest of loopy royal writing it informed me that the pleasure of my company was requested at the British ‘Biz Awards. And at the bottom of the gold-edged card, just above the teeth marks and doggy saliva, a solitary word proclaimed the grounds on which I had qualified for this invitation:

  Nominee.

  When I finally prised the accompanying letter out of Betty’s jaws, it informed me that I had been nominated for the category of Best New Stand-up. I shouted such a triumphant ‘Yes!’ that Betty jumped clear off the ground in excitement. I think she imagined I was so happy because of the excellent job she’d made of opening the envelope. I re-read the letter and then rang Nancy to tell her the incredible news.

  ‘I can’t believe it – me, nominated for Best Stand-up. It’s just ridiculous!’

  ‘Why’s it ridiculous?’

  ‘Well, er, because I’m not. Erm, probably.’

  I had wanted her to be happy for me, but she was curiously reserved about it.

  ‘So when are you moving to Hollywood then?’ she said.

  ‘I’ve already bought a place.’

  ‘Really?’ she said in amazement.

  ‘Nancy! How can you be taken in by your own joke?’

  Famous people had this line they always trotted out when they were interviewed on telly. ‘I’ve been very lucky,’ they would humbly admit, forcing the interviewer to contradict them and assert that their rare talent and hard work were much greater factors in their enormous success. I’d always thought that the ‘I’ve been very lucky’ mantra was fairly transparent false modesty, but now I began to realize what a huge part luck must really play. A screen goddess could never guarantee her next film would not be a turkey; a great band might emerge only if their type of music happened to come into fashion. Often the people who made it were no more talented than the next contender. Like myself they happened to be in the right place at the right time. Everyone in society is spinning around like a load of lottery balls in the drum; it’s luck who ends up rolling out and becoming someone special. And now it seemed that fate or some other more powerful force beyond my understanding was about to give my phantom career another big leg-up.

  Around this time I read a story in the newspaper about the unmasking of a bogus doctor. A man had been treating patients and prescribing drugs in an NHS hospital with no qualifications whatsoever. I presume he must have had some sort of medical knowledge. People would surely begin to notice if you were bluffing your way through open-heart surgery.

  ‘Er, right, let’s remove this big gristly lump here.’

  ‘But that’s the heart, doctor.’

  ‘The heart? Blimey, it doesn’t look like that on the Valentine’s cards, does it?’

  Over the years I had read about various bogus professionals, phoney aristocrats, refugees claiming to be Russian princesses, criminals impersonating police officers. It occurred to me that I had become the show business equivalent – I was a bogus celebrity. My fame was forged, I had risen without trace, I was a nobody-somebody, a plastic VIP. But the thing about fame is that either you are well known or you are not, and before long that’s all that counts. ‘Are you famous, then?’ is a question that answers itself. You wouldn’t say to Madonna, ‘Are you famous?’ If you have to ask, the answer’s ‘no’. Unless you were my dad, of course. Then you’d definitely ask Madonna if she was famous, before boring her for an hour about how much rubbish there was in the hit parade these days.

  The invitation to the award ceremony said ‘Black Tie’, which is a sort of euphemistic shorthand because there isn’t enough room on the invite to put ‘Dress Code: Look Like a Twat’. Since I’d never played the part of Mr Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs, I didn’t own a black bow tie or a pair of trousers with that shiny stripe down the leg, so I had to hire a complete outfit from a shop in Brighton where a rather camp man asked me if I would like a cummerbund. ‘Hmm, a cummerbund,’ I pondered out loud, hoping he might help me out, ‘do I want a cummerbund?’ while thinking: Is it a) a type of fruity bread; b) an item of clothing; or c) a bizarre gay sex act? Since at the time he was kneeling down in front of me with a load of pins in his mouth, I thought I’d better say no, just to be on the safe side.

  Unfortunately the clown’s trousers I had hurriedly said were fine turned out not to have any slots for a belt and since I didn’t own a pair of braces I ended up shuffling into the Grosvenor House Hotel with my jacket obscuring a row of safety pins where my trousers were hooked to my shirt to prevent them from falling down. I handed my invitation to one of the girls with the lists of names and when I said ‘Jimmy Conway’ she remarked, ‘Oh, you’re a nominee, aren’t you?’ and the other guests who were arriving all looked in my direction.

  ‘Er, yeah. Best New Stand-up . . .’

  ‘Good luck!’ and she gave me a smile. A large man with his own frilly shirt said, ‘Hi, Jimmy, Matt Margerison, Total TV. I’m producing a comedy-clips show for Sky One called “When Plastic Surgery Goes Bad” – I’d love to have lunch with you some time,’ and he gave me a card.

  ‘Oh, thank you very much, um, well, I’m busy on Wednesday and I’m going to see my parents on Monday although I could move them to Tuesday . . .’

  ‘Gimme a call,’ he shouted back as he headed off into the throng, already catching someone else’s eye.

  I walked into the bar and a man presented me with a tray that offered a choice of champagne or orange juice. This time I was not going to do anything as embarrassing as ask how much the drinks were. In fact, I thought I’d forgo the champagne and request a glass of beer from the curiously deserted bar. I got myself a lager and turned to survey the setting when I heard the barman calling me back. ‘Oi – that’s three fifteen.’ I’d never understand how this all worked. The really expensive drink was free, but if you wanted an everyday beverage you had to pay wildly over the odds. The extra fifteen pence was a touch of genius. They must have thought, Look, if we whack the price up to three quid it’ll be obvious we’re taking the piss, so let’s call it three fifteen and everyone will think it’s been carefully costed.

  I stood alone and sipped my drink, wishing that Nancy or another of my friends could be here to share it with me. Nancy would have loved all this glamour. No, on second thoughts, she would have hated it. She would have felt self-conscious and enormous just because she was a normal size fourteen and did not have the figure of a nine-year-old child. Actually Nancy described herself as a ‘fourteen-stroke-twelve’, the latter figure added on as a permanent aspiration. I had entered this hotel by walking on a red carpet. Nancy would have said, ‘We can’t walk on that. Come to the side.’ At the end of the meal she would have stacked up the dirty dinner plates to make it easier for the waiter. It would have been as much as I could do to stop her offering to help with the washing-up.

  ‘Hello, stranger,’ said a woman’s voice behind me, and I turned to see Stella looking stunning in a tiny dress made by sewing some sequins onto a handkerchief

  ‘Oh my goodness! Hello there!’ I said, and for the first time I gave her a kiss on the cheek, which went slightly wrong as she went to give me a second kiss on the other side and I realized this too late, leaving her craning her neck towards my retreating head.

  ‘You never said you’d be here tonight,’ I stammered.

  ‘Last-minute decision,’ she whispered. ‘But I told them to put me next to you on the table plan. Come on,’ and she took my hand and led me through to the dining room. Everyone stopped their conversations and stared at us open-mouthed. Who is that with Stella Scrivens? everyone seemed to be thinking. I followed her, offering a polite smile to the staring guests as the men tried not to let their suppressed envy cause them to snap their champagne glasses in two. She must be interested in me, I thought. To suddenly come along and get herself seated next to me, it’s because I’m really starting to make it, that’s what happens . . .

  The dining hall felt roughly the size of Shea Stadium, and was packed with large white circular tabl
es brimming with flowers and bottles of wine and glistening cutlery. They had invited about a thousand people for dinner, which was probably just as well. I mean, with a dining room this size you wouldn’t want to invite a couple of friends round for a bowl of pasta; it wouldn’t feel right. On every seat was a fancy carrier bag stuffed with presents: a T-shirt promoting a new cable channel, a soon-to-be-released comedy video, a box of cigars, aftershave and perfume, a disposable camera – all sorts of treats and surprises that were handed out free to everyone attending. As I arrived at my designated place, all the privileged overpaid people of the show business industry were greedily rifling through their goody bags like spoilt children on Christmas morning. The champagne was free, the food was free and obviously you’d expect a grown-up party bag as well to take home in your courtesy car. As far as I could work out, the richer you got, the less you had to pay for; they had taken ‘to each according to their need’ and turned it on its head.

  As I toyed with my cold starter I attempted a conversation with the man on my other side, a slightly drunk Scouser who had an uncomplicated analysis of the evening’s proceedings, though it was one he expressed quite emphatically. ‘These awards are a load of bollocks. It’s all bollocks, all of it. These people: bollocks; this whole industry: complete bollocks; these prizes: meaningless bollocks; all these free gifts: marketing bollocks; this food: pure bollocks.’

  At which point I think I pushed away the small plate of half-eaten pâté and popped a bit of gristle out from my mouth into a paper napkin. It seemed perverse that the people who were at the ceremony had less interest in the event than the people who’d be watching at home. We looked at the list of nominations and Stella seemed to know a fair bit about it all.

  ‘Who’s getting the Lifetime Achievement Award?’ I asked.

  ‘Benny “Bonk-bonk” Bullivant.’

  ‘For lifetime achievement?’ said the man on her other side. ‘But he’s only mid-forties.’

 
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