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This is your life, p.18

This Is Your Life, page 18


This Is Your Life

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‘Ooh, I dunno about that,’ I said. ‘I’d never be able to do it in a club again.’

  ‘What’s the fish stuff?’ said Lucy.

  ‘That’s one of Jimmy’s most famous routines.’

  ‘Oh, I love animal jokes, tell us the fish routine, go on,’ and there was a murmur of agreement around the table.

  ‘You can’t expect him to perform an entire stand-up comedy set sitting down to breakfast at eight in the morning,’ said Piers, coming to my rescue. I let out a huge sigh of relief. ‘Just give ’em the best bit, Jimmy,’ he added, and all the heads along the table leaned inwards in anticipation of this hilarious routine that everyone talked about. They were grinning in a ‘this is going to be really good’ kind of way and the only way out seemed to be to give them what they wanted. I cleared my throat. ‘The thing about fish,’ I began, hoping that a well-observed, yet surreal, word-perfect monologue on the subject of fish might suddenly pop into my head from nowhere. There was a chuckle of anticipation from the end of the table. ‘The thing about fish is . . .’ and then unsurprisingly the words dried up. There was a moment of awkward silence.

  ‘Can I get anyone more tea or coffee?’ said the waiter, and there were groans all around the table. Isn’t it always the way? You’re just about to tell the punchline of a joke and the waiter interrupts and shatters all the tension. ‘Oh no, I can’t do it now, the moment’s gone,’ I said, and then I deflected the attention by asking about why they thought I was right for the job.

  ‘Because we can’t afford Elle MacPherson!’ said a wag on the end of the table who wasn’t there at any subsequent meetings.

  ‘What is precious about you, Jimmy,’ said Piers, casting an annoyed look down the table, ‘is that you are well known to our target audience around the country but not via the television screen.’ Privately I wondered whether they needed to fire their market researchers, but I nodded modestly as if I was flattered but unable to contradict them.

  ‘Everyone who’s been to your gigs in all those little clubs around the country, they’re suddenly going to see you telling them to switch to text banking and because subconsciously they already trust you, it makes the message far more potent.’

  At this point I wondered if what I was now involved in could possibly be construed as some sort of commercial fraud. This agency were prepared to pay a lot of money because they valued the reputation I had built up in the provincial comedy clubs. They would be paying me for some unquantifiable aura that I didn’t actually possess; they were prepared to shell out for a fame that I had invented. That meant I would be trading under false pretences. You could go to prison for fraud. Unless you were famous, of course. Then you generally got let off. So if I was found guilty, the jury would have also decided that I wasn’t much of a celebrity. I tried to imagine the judge passing sentence in the packed courtroom. ‘James Elliot Conway: you are a duplicitous con artist who deliberately undertook an elaborate and perfidious fraud in order to swindle this poor defenceless advertising agency out of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Furthermore, millions of television viewers, many of them pensioners, were also taken in by your pathological lying and may have lost their life savings by mistakenly sending their money to someone else’s account while they were attempting to master text message banking. I therefore have no choice but to pass the maximum sentence for this offence. You will taken from this courtroom, thence to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy upon your soul.’ And throughout this speech my useless defence lawyer would be shaking his head in disappointment because he’d just coloured in the wrong bit of the animal silhouette in his copy of Puzzler magazine.

  I pushed the remainder of my fried breakfast away and resolved to dissuade the assembled company from this crazy course of action. ‘Look, Piers, I don’t know what your focus groups or whatever are telling you, but I don’t think I’m as famous as you think outside the narrow circles of Medialand. I mean, some of these provincial clubs only hold about a hundred people and I’ve not been gigging that long,’ I pleaded.

  Piers was reassuring. ‘Jimmy, it’s not all focus groups and market research, you know. I want you for this advert because I think you’d be the best person for the campaign. I don’t know how you do it but you just have an “ordinary bloke next door” quality about you. You’re smiley; you’re appealing.’

  ‘And you’re very good looking!’ blurted out Lucy and then immediately turned red.

  ‘I was in the audience for the ‘Biz awards,’ continued Piers, ‘and when you did that gag from the stage, I thought, Yup, we’ve just found the person we are looking for. The fact that you’re a popular stand-up and have just won an award reassures the client, but sure, this campaign will obviously still have to work for those viewers who don’t know who you are. Yet.’ And the word ‘yet’ was left hanging there meaningfully; the bait of greater fame that this repeated exposure would bring was dangled tantalizingly in front of me.

  Piers wanted Jimmy Conway and no one else for this advert. He was a very persuasive person, so confident that when he asked for the bill he didn’t even do a mime of scribbling on a little pad. He tried to get me to agree in principle there and then. I said I would sleep on it, but I didn’t sleep at all. Deceiving people is one thing, but deceiving people and getting large amounts of money for it suddenly felt like a far more dangerous game. I realized that it wasn’t the principle that was keeping me awake here; it was the price. If the advertising agency had shoved three twenties into my hand I would have thought, Brilliant, what a result! The trouble with their offer was that it was too high. Was I nervous about all this money because I still considered myself to be of so little value? If I was really going to become a celebrity shouldn’t I force myself to try and start thinking like one? This money might seem like a fortune to Jimmy Conway, the part-time TEFL teacher from Seaford, but to Jimmy Conway the top club comedian – well, it was barely enough to keep him in jet skis. And then I considered the morality of what I was about to do. I thought how Nancy’s life could be changed if she could afford a few things for herself once in a while, if she could have a little car and maybe move out of that oppressively cramped flat she shared with her mixed-up daughter. She needed the money more than this agency. I got out of bed and went downstairs to ring their office. I left a message on their answerphone saying I would be delighted to be the public face of text message banking.

  ‘The thing about fish . . .’ I mused at the mirror over the mantelpiece. ‘The thing about fish ... is that they can breathe underwater,’ I sighed. It needed work.

  My contract for this job must have been written by James Joyce after he decided that Finnegans Wake was not sufficiently challenging. Joyce is what they call a stream of consciousness writer, meaning that as soon as you read a couple of sentences your mind wanders off into its own individual stream of consciousness, remembering that you were supposed to take the Nissan in for its MOT, and then wondering if a car could fail for having moss growing along the window rims. This contract that I was supposed to read posed an even greater challenge to my level of concentration. In what was perhaps an obscure reference to the artist formerly known as Prince, they dubbed me ‘Jimmy Conway, hereafter known as the artist’, but beyond that first line all I can remember is a couple of the individual words such as ‘pursuant’ which I think is a term from heraldry, and sine qua non – which I’m sure was Spain’s entry in the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest.

  I rang the agency and one of the women who’d been at the breakfast was very reassuring about it all and informed me it was a ‘standard contract’. She tried to press me on which section I was unsure about, which reminded me of my German teacher asking me precisely which part of the prose comprehension I didn’t understand. ‘Well, um, just generally. I’m not quite clear what it’s saying in general terms.’

  ‘Which paragraph in particular?’

  I glanced at the contract in front of me. ‘Er, well, you know the bit where it
says, “This is an agreement between . . .”’


  ‘. . . and then at the end, where it says, “Signed on behalf of the artist”?’


  ‘Well the thirteen pages in between those two sections – that’s the bit I don’t understand.’

  I had come to realize that the figure of half a million pounds was an optimistic forecast of what I might potentially earn if the ad ran and ran and they continued to film subsequent commercials along a similar theme. But it was still more money than I could have imagined earning a few months earlier. The most bizarre aspect of it was that I got one lump sum of money for doing these ads, and then about twice as much on top of that for promising not to do any other commercials for anyone else. Someone said celebrity was the new royalty, and now I was being paid a fortune not to work I was beginning to get an idea of what they meant. I quickly scanned the contract one last time and when I was confident that I wasn’t committing myself to a time-share apartment in Lanzarote, I signed on the dotted line.

  A car picked me up from my parents’ house very early on the first day of filming. Obviously if I’d got there any later we’d only have been able to film the advert one hundred and twenty-seven times rather than one hundred and twenty-nine. I was shown into a bustling studio on an industrial estate in north-west London. It was like the inside of a huge aircraft hangar with people hammering sets, putting up lights, cameras on overhead booms swinging in from above; everywhere people were busy and knowing what it was they had to do. And all this activity was centred round me: Jimmy Conway, the ‘I’ of the storm.

  There is a fairly predictable sensation that develops when everyone starts to behave as if you’re really important. It is very tempting to completely agree with them. Like any human being, I’d spent my entire life seeing everything from my point of view, but now it seemed that everyone around me had come round to realize the merit of this perspective. ‘Jimmy, you must be wanting some breakfast?’ ‘Don’t worry about that drilling noise, Jimmy, we’re getting that sorted.’ ‘That was a great result for your team last night, Jimmy!’ Although I was well used to being the centre of attention at home, one Border collie watching my every move had never felt as gratifying as this. And when it is everyone’s job to make you feel special, it seems churlish not to cooperate. If the runner wants to know if he can get you another coffee, you sense that it is only polite to say yes please. You could jump up and say, ‘Oh no, let me get you one!’ but it would only create embarrassment on both sides. You just have to play out the role of exaggerated importance that has been allocated to you, like the bride on her wedding day or the captain on a cruise ship.

  The runner who brought me a coffee said, ‘Actually, it’s a bit of a coincidence, we have a slight connection.’

  ‘Oh really?’ I said, wondering if I ought to recognize him from somewhere.

  ‘Yeah, my ex-girlfriend went to the same school as you, though you weren’t there at the same time.’

  There was a slight pause while I struggled to find anything to say about this.

  ‘Oh. That’s, um, quite a coincidence.’

  ‘Angela Mullery – I don’t suppose you knew her?’

  ‘Er, no. Doesn’t ring any bells.’

  ‘No, well, she was there about ten years after you.’

  ‘Yeah, well, I was only held back a year nine times in a row, so we must have just missed each other.’

  I know he was employed to pander to my every whim, but he didn’t have to laugh quite that much.

  What a pointless piece of information, I thought as he left me with my cappuccino. And yet he had relayed it with such excitement – we were connected because he had gone out with a girl who went to the same school as me a decade later. ‘Jimmy Conway – oh yeah, we worked together and he went to school with my ex-girlfriend . . .’ But everyone was finding excuses to come and have a word with me. The assistant producer knocked on my dressing room door to ask if the big basket of fruit was OK, and I said it was fine, and then she pressed me again. ‘Are you sure – because we can change it if you’re not happy with it.’

  So I tried to imply that I was just an ordinary person, that they needn’t make quite so much fuss. ‘Actually, all those fancy fruits are a bit exotic for my liking, you know, kiwis and kumquats and all that – I couldn’t just have an ordinary apple, could I?’

  ‘Of course, Jimmy, that’s no problem at all. I’ll get you an apple right away,’ she said sweetly.

  ‘Only if it’s no trouble.’

  ‘It’s no trouble at all.’

  As my dressing room door swung shut I heard her shouting angrily: ‘Who put a fucking fruit basket in Jimmy Conway’s dressing room with no fucking apples?’

  The setting for this commercial was a small tatty comedy club, so obviously rather than go to a small tatty comedy club the agency had gone to great expense to recreate one in a film studio. While I was up on stage I would be holding the microphone with my left hand and discreetly writing a text message on my mobile phone with my right. Except, for the close-up, it wasn’t actually my right hand, it was the hand of Simon the hand model. I was introduced to him and we chatted for a minute or two while I tried not to stare at his hand too obviously. It was OK, you know. It was perfectly fine as hands go, but nothing to write home about if you ask me. I mean, it’s not as if my right hand’s got seven fingers covered in warts and boils or anything. I saw a horror film once where a zombie ripped out the priest’s internal organs. I wonder if that was the actor’s own pancreas or they used a professional pancreas model for the close-up. I didn’t care for Simon much. At lunch he wore gloves and then he was very angry that there was no pudding left and I heard him saying to the caterers, ‘Do you know who I am?’ How could they be expected to recognize him when he was wearing gloves?

  After much careful deliberation I had finally informed Piers that there was nothing really suitable in my stand-up set that I wanted to use on television so they talked about hiring a couple of gag writers to provide the jokes I’d do at the top of the advert. And then it was decided that with the time available they would only show the end of a routine, without any set up, but my audience would laugh and the viewers at home would just have to take our word for it that it was a great punchline, if only they’d been at the club to hear the rest of it. So I found myself endlessly having to repeat surreal phrases like ‘Talk about floppy disks!’ (huge laugh) or ‘So that’s why Mr Spock’s ears were so pointy!’ (big laugh and applause).

  It had started as one of the most exciting days of my life. A few hours later it had become one of the most excruciating. It was as if someone had said, ‘Right, Jimmy, we want you to make love to Marilyn Monroe in this speedboat riding the crest of a fifty-foot wave off the coast of Hawaii.’ And then they say, ‘Right, now can you do that another hundred and twenty times?’

  You see people saying things on the television and it looks easy and you think anyone can do that. But there were marks on the floor that I had to hit the moment I said a certain word, but I had to say it slightly differently for this take and remember not to look into the camera lens, and the first time I said my line I had taken sixteen seconds and at the second attempt I had taken fifteen seconds and Piers was asking if I could split the difference.

  So I tried to say the line taking exactly fifteen and a half seconds and after three more goes, the girl with the stopwatch said the timing was absolutely perfect and I felt pretty smug for a second.

  ‘No, Jimmy, you ended up about six inches ahead of your mark then – you’ll be completely out of focus.’

  A couple of the producers mumbled quietly to each other and looked in my direction. Although it was clear that Piers was the person in charge, there were all sorts of other chiefs around to give me notes that contradicted the previous instruction I’d been given. The clients in particular seemed to go out of their way to give me impossible notes that Piers was in no position to dismiss. During the morning I recei
ved instructions such as, ‘Can you say it slightly more quickly but make it sound less rushed?’ and ‘Can you try and make the word “and” more comedically interesting?’

  Although the instructions were impossible to fathom, they were at least presented to me with the utmost courtesy and caution, as if I was some unexploded bomb that might be detonated by the merest raised voice or unobsequious tone. ‘That was really fantastic, Jimmy. What might make it even more stupendous would be if you could just say the words in the right order like you did in the run-through.’ I can’t imagine there are many other jobs in which people are constantly addressed in this grovelling manner. You don’t get sergeant majors on the parade ground saying to their new recruits, ‘That was really, really super, I simply adore the way you’re all marching in the same direction now, but it would just be to-die-for if you could try a teensy-weensy bit harder to remember to march in step as well.’

  It was only because I was the star that they indulged me like this. The ‘supporting artists’ who were to play the part of my ‘audience’ were processed like refugees in a detention centre. The second assistant director couldn’t have treated them with less respect if he had herded them onto set with an electric cattle prod. Because they were supposed to be in a little comedy club, they all had glasses of beer placed in front of them. It was decided that the simplest thing would be to use real beer poured from cans, which the supporting artists had to sip occasionally, and which would then be topped up to the same level for reasons of continuity. You would have thought that somebody might have spotted the flaw in this plan. I know the advertising people were all on diets and didn’t smoke or drink or anything like ordinary folk. But they might have realized that if you force a group of poorly paid extras to sit all day in front of self-replenishing beer glasses, then several hours later they are going to be pissed out of their heads.

  Just before lunch I eventually said my line perfectly, the timing was right, I hit the mark on the floor at the right time and the word ‘and’ was sufficiently comedically interesting. And then one of the extras let out a huge guttural belch that echoed across the set and ruined the perfect take. ‘Oops, beg pardon!’ he giggled and this set the others off tittering. Piers tried to be cross with them but the person he was shouting at fell off his stool backwards and then lay there giggling.

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