This is your life, p.23
This Is Your Life, page 23
I was not due onstage for an hour or so into this TV marathon, but although I could hear the stage manager calling the various artists to the wings like some remote minicab controller, there was no way of knowing how the show itself was progressing. I had asked the runner if it was possible to hear what was happening on the stage via the speaker on my wall and she said she would check for me, but she never came back. We were under very strict instructions not to come down until we were called and so I waited and waited and tried to entertain myself as best I could until there was not a single blackhead left on the side of my nose. Because the security was so over the top, I must admit that I momentarily wondered if it was all for my sake; that it wasn’t really a variety tribute show, but at long last that surprise edition of This Is Your Life for Jimmy Conway. Then I remembered the gala being Pick of the Day in the television listings and I thought that would probably have been taking the cover-up to unnecessary lengths.
Eventually I received my five-minute call and gathered my thoughts together in the calmest, most professional way possible by splashing water all over my trousers and getting caught in Judi Dench’s dressing room with a hairdryer pressed against my pants; a focusing exercise that was curiously left out of An Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavsky.
In the wings I could feel the heat coming off the auditorium. The venue was completely full and even though the audience was out of my view I felt I could almost physically touch the expectant excitement. The stage manager attempted to engage me in a little bit of light-hearted banter to put me at my ease, although my jumpiness was exposed when my mobile phone went off.
‘Sorry! Sorry!’ I whispered and he gave me an exaggerated ‘naughty, naughty!’ look and then said, ‘OK, you’re on!’ adding, ‘I think you might be in for a nice surprise,’ which struck me as a curious thing to say. I heard the compère excitedly announcing my name and then suddenly I was out there. To the sound of applause and whistling I strode mock-confidently out onto the stage in the practised way I had seen celebrities jog onto TV chat shows. The first thing that struck me was the brightness. There was a wall of light that almost defied you not to shield your eyes but I knew I had to pretend I was comfortable. I had to make-believe I wanted to be there. The compère patted me on the back like an old friend and then it was just me and a distant microphone stand that looked far too thin for me to hide behind.
I had decided that instead of launching straight into my material, I would take a second or two to look around the space, to stare up into the upper circle and glance at the boxes on either side. I had seen Steve Martin do this on a video I had rented from Fish and Flicks and I thought it had given him the confident air of someone who was entirely comfortable out there. The trouble was that by looking around the audience it was horrifyingly apparent how huge this crowd was, and what a ridiculously tiny figure I must seem to the people at the back of the upper circle. It was like being a tightrope walker and having a good look at how high up you were. ‘Goodness me. That would be a very painful way to die if I fell off now!’
But many more thoughts were fighting for space in my spinning head. I was acutely aware that This Was It; that I was finally on stage, no going back, right here, right now, every breath and gesture magnified a hundred times and being scrutinized by thousands and millions of people watching at home. This realization led to another inevitable thought: What the fuck am I doing up here? It wasn’t one I felt I should share with all the families watching together at home.
With the applause having died down, I slowly took the microphone from the stand and began. ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Jimmy Conway . . .’ and then I delivered the first joke absolutely perfectly, bowled right down the centre to send the middle stump flying, and I paused for the first warm wave of laughter to wash right over me.
Nothing happened. No reaction at all. Not even a small titter from the odd individual in the stalls. It was like the ground disappearing beneath my feet. I was so completely thrown, so surprised that not one person in the audience seemed to understand basic English, that I rushed on to the next joke, wondering if perhaps I’d inadvertently ruined the opening gag by leaving out a key word or something. But as I delivered my second punchline, all circuits were still dead. Quick, flick the buttons, try all the switches, press the alarm, something’s happened, there’s no pulse, we’re losing him! Emergency! Emergency! As I came to the next joke I realized that it was not quite as strong as the previous two but I had always been confident that I would have built up sufficient goodwill by now to get a really big laugh. Still the sea of faces was lifeless: no response, just embarrassed, buttock-clenching silence. In my own personal tribute to a dead comic, I was dying up here live on television.
I ploughed on with the meaningless list of words that was my monologue, starting to sweat in places that I didn’t know had sweat glands and feeling my legs shaking so much it must have been visible. This wasn’t fair. I was being cheated. I had learnt this script off by heart, and I clearly remembered there were supposed to be sound effects of people laughing uproariously at regular intervals. Actors in a bad drama can pretend to themselves that the audience is silently but deeply moved, but the success or failure of a comedian is obvious to all. You could try telling yourself that they were laughing inside, I suppose, but you’d have to be desperate to believe it. I was really rushing now, gabbling the lines with no consideration or punctuation. I didn’t have the wit or experience to find a way to cut to the end of the routine and get off so I just kept going on and on and on. I momentarily wondered if there was a trapdoor somewhere on this stage; maybe I could stand over it in the hope that someone might pull the lever and mercifully send me plummeting into the vaults below.
Despite the glare of the lights I could make out many of the faces in the audience; surprisingly, many of them were smiling at me. I could only presume it was the sort of brave empathetic smile you give an old dog who’s off to the vets to be put to sleep. I suppose they were well behaved because this was a live TV recording for charity. No one was heckling or booing. I wasn’t interesting enough to provoke that much reaction. They just sat there waiting for me to finish, like brave-faced families in the departure lounge whose flight has been delayed but they aren’t going to let it spoil their holiday. Looking directly at them became too painful and after a while most of the monologue was perfunctorily recited to a section of floor a few feet in front of me. There was a bit of blue sticking tape coming off the floor. That’s a bit tatty, I thought. You’d think they’d make sure everything was properly prepared for a big event like this.
Then, just as I had managed to skip a bit of the monologue, the first creative thinking I had done since I had got up there, something inexplicable happened. I got a laugh. It was at the end of what I thought had been a brilliantly observed section about computers, and although the final joke was not the best in the routine, it got a big laugh. I glanced up, surprised, almost put out at being so rudely interrupted in the middle of this private recitation. It had been a big laugh as well. I could feel the atmosphere lifting. Then I got another laugh, a really huge one, with a second ripple, a sort of aftershock chuckle as I suppose they must have thought about what I’d just said, and I could feel my posture changing as I straightened up and puffed out my chest, transforming from defeated prisoner of war to goalscoring hero. This beast in front of me was so dangerously impossible to predict. It had suddenly stirred from hibernation and it appeared that I might have charmed it for the moment. But now I’d woken it up I feared it might choose to turn against me at any second.
My third big laugh was the most perplexing of all. It came halfway through a set-up line. There was no reason for them to laugh and yet as one they spontaneously erupted into joyous, delighted laughter and then applause. The comedian’s stock-in-trade response to such a surprise occurrence is to glance down at his trousers and say, ‘Unexpected laugh? Check your flies!’ Obviously this off-the-peg witty aside did not come into my hea
Standing on the stage to my rear, grinning at me in his trademark spangly jacket and bow tie, was Billy Scrivens.
* * *
A few weeks after St Peter had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, after he had witnessed the death of his Lord and mentor, Peter bumped into Jesus walking on the road to Jerusalem. It must have been a bit of a shock for him, I suppose, although being pretty rock-like Peter probably coped better than I would have done. Especially as he already had Jesus marked down as the Son of God, so if you thought about it you’d be able to rationalize that one pretty quickly. No, the apparition that confronted me was far more surprising. I mean, Billy Scrivens was a big star and a very versatile entertainer, but coming back from the dead? I’d have said that trick was beyond even his great talent.
To suggest that my world turned upside down in that moment would be cautious understatement: my whole existence had been totally invalidated in a split second. A deceased superstar I’d claimed as an old friend, whose dead body I had looted for its celebrity status, whose comic riches I had plundered before criminally pissing away his brilliant material while he stood listening in the wings – well, it was one of those situations in which it’s difficult to come up with a perfectly simple explanation.
Billy stood there for a second smiling at me like Banquo’s ghost. I was frozen in awestruck dread. I looked to the thousands in the audience now behind me, expecting them to be sharing my incomprehension and astonishment, hoping for some sort of solidarity in this moment of revelation, but they were all laughing at me, revelling in my numb bewilderment.
My instant response was provoked by some primeval survivalist instinct telling me to run away. Of course, I couldn’t do that. I was standing up on stage in front of two thousand people; I was live on national television. But I ran for it anyway – bolting for the huge wooden arched door on this church set, only to find it firmly locked against me. I rattled the big metal handle, hearing the delighted laughter of the audience of tricoteuses, cheering at and applauding my terrified reaction to being confronted by this grinning zombie who was now walking towards me with his arms outstretched. To hug me or to strangle me? It was hard to know. The door would not budge. I’d been deliberately trapped onstage, abandoned in this ring with no escape to provide easy prey for this man-eater of light entertainment.
I turned back to face Billy Scrivens, an expression of total horror and fear across my face.
‘Jimmy!’ he said with a warm smile. ‘Long time no see!’ And he gave me a huge hug as the crowd burst into joyous applause to see old showbiz friends reunited like this. Although I was too panic-stricken to register this at the time, the audience did not share my stupefaction. On the contrary, they were enjoying witnessing my own incredulity precisely because they’d had this very same surprise played on them at the start of the show. I was later to discover that a procession of major stars were having Billy Scrivens’s greatest ever hoax sprung on them live on national television in a two-hour Gotcha! special, in which celebrities who had openly wept at his funeral were now paraded onstage in a gala tribute to their late friend, where they would perform in his memory only to find him coming up behind them and tapping him on their shoulder. Billy’s death, his funeral and the whole charity gala tribute night were all part of an enormous extended prank contrived by Britain’s greatest TV star to top all the scams and tricks ever played out before a television audience. But it was OK because it was all for charity.
And because of my year of wild fabrication, I knew that this was also the moment that I’d be exposed as a charlatan and a liar.
Billy released his bear hug and led me down to centrestage as my mind tried to conjure up any sort of case for the defence.
‘So, Jimmy, how do you feel right now?’ said Billy finally, his arm around me as we stood facing the jury of two thousand people. In the gap where I was supposed to reply I emitted a pathetic half-giggle, but the euphoric tension in the theatre was so great that this was greeted with a tremendous burst of laughter.
The audience had clearly been aware that Billy was alive by the time I came out to perform. But what else had they been told? While I’d been sitting patiently in my dressing room, prevented from hearing what was happening on stage or coming down to watch from the wings, had Billy revealed the lie of my claims to be an old friend of his? Had the audience been shown photos of me gatecrashing his funeral? Had the pictures of my ‘home’ from OK! magazine been projected up on the monitors, followed by embarrassing secretly taken photos of my real house and an interview with the shocked Korean couple whose luxury flat it really was? Had Billy forewarned them that I was about to come out and do a comedy routine that I’d burgled from a box of personal documents in his house, stolen from a collection of Billy’s papers that I believed was being sorted out by his bereaved wife? I briefly considered making a dash for the huge plywood church door on the other side of the stage, but my guess was that that one would be firmly bolted as well.
‘Well, what can I say?’ I stammered. ‘I feel a bit, you know, embarrassed.’
The mob laughed again. Billy put his hand up to silence them and they obeyed.
‘Embarrassed? Why would you feel embarrassed, Jimmy?’
The vicious bastard, he was going to make me go over it all; no detail spared in front of thousands of people.
‘Well, all this,’ I said, gesturing to the set and the audience. ‘You know, and you suddenly being here,’ and then I attempted an ironic philosophical laugh which came out as a wheezy semi-snort.
‘Bit of a shock, eh?’ said Billy.
‘Er, yeah, you could say that. But can I just say, that whatever people think about it all, at the end of the day it’s not like anyone got hurt, is it? I mean, there’s no actual harm done.’
Still with his arm firmly around my shoulder, Billy nodded sagely and there was a slightly awkward round of applause, which was strangely encouraging. They were clearly prepared to give me a fair hearing.
‘Thank you, Jimmy. It’s very kind of you to say so. No doubt there’ll be the usual killjoys who’ll say the whole faked death and funeral thing was somehow in bad taste or not politically correct or something, but I think they’d do well to remember that this event is raising a great deal of money for charity, for British kids.’ This prompted a knee-jerk round of applause, with a lone ‘Yeah!’ being shouted out from the stalls. And then Billy punctured the tension by saying, ‘And anyway, how else was I supposed to put off paying that tax bill!’ and there was a huge laugh and more applause. Billy hadn’t realized I’d been talking about myself; he thought I was talking about what he had done. Typical, these celebrities; they’re so self-centred.
I could almost touch the love glowing up from the faces below us now. I realized that Billy wasn’t going to sour the mood by having it all out with me now on stage. Mr Family Viewing Light Entertainment wasn’t going to provoke some bitter row on live television in which he’d be seen throwing accusations and bitterly raking over past events. That would come later in private. No, I discovered that first the bastard was going to make me really suffer. He was going drum home the difference between his total mastery of an audience and my desperate failure even to illicit one titter wit
‘Anyway, Jimmy – I believe you were in the process of entertaining these good people before you were so rudely interrupted. So why don’t I get off stage and let you finish your act?’ Then he turned to the audience saying, ‘And I’ll see you later to see who will be next to get the shock of their lives!’ I attempted a half-protest at his suggestion but he was already skipping off and left me totally isolated in the middle of the stage once again. I saw his smile drop the moment he passed through the doorway to the wings, where he was handed a towel with which he wiped his brow.
Now I faced Billy’s fans as a condemned man. All right, so they may not know my secret yet, but soon it would be out and I’d be a national joke: the fantasist who had forged his fame.
‘Do you remember when Billy Scrivens came back from the dead?’ they’d say to each other. ‘There was that supposed comic who’d got famous claiming they’d been old mates, and he managed to get on telly and everything but he was really crap and it turned out he was just some tragic wannabe . . .’
‘Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about him. Jimmy something – was it? God, what a sad act he was!’
This was the identity that awaited me as my fourteen and a half minutes of fame now drew to a close. Left onstage to perform the last rites on my fading life as a celebrity; compelled by its crown prince to finish digging my own grave in public. Having failed completely to communicate with this audience first time round, I was now forced to stay out there and face them alone once more. Only now they’d all been reminded what a real comic sounded like.
‘Er, right, where was I?’ I shrugged, and surprisingly there was a ripple of laughter, I suppose more out of embarrassed empathy with my bizarre situation than anything else. I remembered that I’d been talking about computers when they had mysteriously started laughing at me – because, it now turned out, the late Billy Scrivens had been mugging right behind me in what must surely go down as the greatest bit of upstaging in the history of Western theatre. Gone was the beginning of my glittering career; this was now my swansong. I took the microphone from its stand, a shell-shocked and defeated figure. My fantasy was over, I was done for. I was no longer desperate for the love of the people in front of me. In fact, I felt a vague contempt for them. I had wanted this so much when I first walked out onto this stage what seemed like several hours ago. And now, I thought, I really couldn’t give a flying fuck.
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes