This is your life, p.6
This Is Your Life, page 6
I wasn’t quite sure what she’d meant by that. Did she think that I used to sometimes happen to be running on the Downs at the same time that he was up here, or had she imagined that the two of us jogged side by side, chatting about life and then shouting US Marines-type encouragement to each other as we pushed ourselves through the pain barrier.
‘Melissa, can you just put a bit of powder on him. Mike, what do you think, with the sea behind or the Downs . . .’ All of a sudden, I felt important and interesting. A beautiful blonde was leaning right over me, wiping the sweat from my brow and putting a little powder there. It was surprisingly intimate.
‘Single?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, well, I just never found the right girl, you know . . .’
‘Sorry, I was talking to Maggie. Is this a single or a two-shot?’
The cameraman shook his head with rancorous pity and swore about me under his breath. They debated whether or not to clip a little microphone onto my T-shirt. The cameraman merely glanced at the perspiration soaking through the cotton to indicate there was no way he was risking ruining his equipment by exposing it to my disgusting sweat. So he fitted a long microphone onto the end of his camera, efficiently locking it on like a foam bayonet, and then it seemed we were ready to begin.
‘OK, Jimmy. Just tell me what you had for breakfast,’ said the cameraman.
I was unsure how a national news report on this shocking death was going to strike a sufficiently sombre tone by cutting to some anonymous local resident saying, ‘Now, let me think, I had a bowl of multi-cheerios ’cos I’d just run out of sugar puffs, oh, and half a pop-tart I found at the back of the bread bin.’
Maggie saw the surprise on my face and elucidated.
‘It’s just for sound level.’
‘Oh I see.’ My chance to be witty, I thought – to show them I could think on my feet. ‘Er – I had a bowl of cereal,’ I said. Well, you had to be there.
‘OK, Jimmy – I’m going to ask you a question, but I’ll be cut out in the edit so make your answers completely self-contained, OK?’
I didn’t really follow, but nodded anyway.
‘Jimmy, when did you last see Billy Scrivens?’
‘Yesterday!’ I said, but their faces suggested that I had earned no points for getting this particular quiz question correct.
‘Erm, sorry, Jimmy, just to explain again: my question won’t feature when this goes out, so someone just saying “yesterday” won’t mean anything. Can you give us a bit more? Did he seem his normal self? Did you chat about the usual things?’
She really did think I’d known him. The time had surely come to step back for a second and explain the truth here. Maggie was waiting for me to respond; I looked at the pretty assistant who regarded me with sympathetic sadness as a man who had just lost an old friend; I saw all the equipment; the monitor, the cables, and the camera pointing right at me.
‘I was chatting to Billy only yesterday,’ I said sombrely. ‘He was on such good form, it’s such a shock to us all . . .’
‘Was he as funny off the screen as he was on it?’ said Maggie eagerly.
It was too late to come clean now. This was probably costing thousands of pounds; I had to play along, give them what they wanted. And so what if I exaggerated our brief exchange on the Downs yesterday? I was only going to say nice things about Billy; I wasn’t planning to hurt anyone or make money out of this tiny deception. So I resolved to go for it, to do my very best for them, and so I really concentrated, slowed right down and said as mournfully as possible: ‘Billy was a great guy. A true professional, but that rare thing, a comedian who was as funny off the screen as he was on it . . .’ This was amazing stuff. These lines were coming into my head like some standard tribute speech I’d subconsciously learnt from watching too much television. ‘A great guy’ – I never used the word ‘guy’; where did that come from? Paul McCartney describing an ex-Beatle? Tony Blair mourning a former cabinet colleague? ‘And though he will always be remembered for the joy and laughter he brought to millions, we should not forget the tireless work Billy did for charity. We’ll all really miss him.’ And then I did a little sad shake of my head, staring at the ground with my mouth hanging slightly open as if I still couldn’t believe it.
I was brilliant, I was sure of it. As I finished, astonished at my own perfect performance, I realized that my speech had in fact expressed little of the genuine sadness and shock I felt at the news. After all, Billy Scrivens had been talking to me from that box in my living room every Saturday evening for so many years it really did feel as if I had lost someone I knew.
‘That was excellent, Jimmy, thank you very much,’ said the producer, touching my arm in sympathy. ‘You must be very upset.’
‘Er, yeah, well, you know, I was only talking to him yesterday’
‘Mmm,’ she said, with a slight suggestion that I might already have mentioned this. And then, as if she had just thought of the most poignant tribute possible, as if it would be what Billy really would have wanted, she added: ‘Jimmy, can we get a shot of you jogging down the hill?’
‘It’s a linking shot, to talk over while we’re saying who you are. If you could just jog towards us from that bench over there.’
‘Oh, I see. Um – OK. Do I know that Billy has died at this point?’
‘Er – Mike – what do you think? Should he look sad or just normal?’
‘Erm – well, neutral I think, I mean obviously not happy, but not running along blubbing either.’
After my word-perfect speech, ‘Jimmy one-take Conway’ felt pretty confident about an easy task like running down the hill. So I flattened down my hair and pulled my socks up and tried to jog as athletically and gracefully as possible. I imagined the Chariots of Fire theme as a soundtrack to my running across the horizon.
‘Er, that was OK, Jimmy, except for some reason you were running in slow motion. Could you just do it once more for us, and this time try jogging a teensy little bit more naturally? Just try and forget the cameras are here, OK?’
I felt my face go red, and hoped they’d put it down to the exercise, except that my slow-motion interpretation had not involved any actual exertion. OK, cut the Chariots of Fire theme, I said to myself as I skipped back up to the bench, and when they were ready, I ran towards them much more quickly, determined not to repeat this mistake, I tore past the camera like Jesse Owens on whizz and Maggie shouted, ‘Whoa! Whoa! You’re just out jogging; it’s not the hundred-metre dash at the Olympics!’
‘Sorry, sorry, too much the other way!’
‘That’s fine, don’t worry. Just relax and, when you’re ready, give us a normal jog down from the bench.’
‘Sorry. Bit nervous . . .’
‘Don’t worry,’ she said, and I noticed her glance at her watch while the cameraman’s loathing reached new heights. He spat at the ground as if no words could ever express his contempt.
‘A normal jog’ she had said. You wouldn’t imagine that the simple act of running could be difficult, but I seemed to have lost the knack. Each step became self-conscious and contrived. Suddenly I couldn’t remember how far I should stride with each step, how high to bring up my knees, how much I should swing my arms; I was paralysed by the embarrassing image of myself bobbing across the television screen like the wooden marionette of some 1950s children’s TV show. It was difficult enough concentrating on which limb to move next without simultaneously having to focus upon what sort of facial expression I should present. I settled on the gritty ‘loneliness of the long-distance runner’ look, and lumbered towards the camera with the forlorn look of a recently bereaved jogger. Perfect! I thought. The cameraman turned to the producer and without lowering his voice said:
‘Nah, the fucking idiot looked into the camera.’
‘Sorry, Jimmy, we should have said. Don’t look at the camera lens, look straight ahead to the side of it, and keep running straight past.’
‘Oh, OK, so I’
Notice how I said to the left ‘of camera’ not ‘of the camera’ – I couldn’t help picking up the jargon after only minutes in the biz. I did my little dash once more and kept running straight past as instructed. But then I was unsure whether or not the cameraman had swivelled round to film me running off into the distance, so I thought unless instructed otherwise I should probably just keep going.
Unbeknown to me the crew had stopped filming and gathered round a little monitor to check back the footage. Which is why they didn’t notice me dashing off up the hill, not daring to slow up in case I ruined another take or was shown on national television to be a rather weedy jogger. It must have been a minute or more later that the producer looked up from her screen to turn to me and ask what I thought, when she realized I was not in fact by her side but was still running with all my might up to the clifftop, desperately listening out for someone to shout ‘Cut!’ They got me back before I ran all seven miles to Beachy Head.
‘Are there any other joggers who might have seen Billy up here yesterday?’
As she said this I could see running down the hill the young woman who had stopped Billy Scrivens the day before and asked for his autograph. He had taken her pen and made her giggle by signing his name right across her naked upper arm.
‘What about her?’ they asked me. As she came closer I could still make out the smudge; she’d obviously not washed it off. What a great piece of TV news footage that would make.
‘No. She wasn’t here yesterday,’ I said. ‘Never seen her before.’
I felt myself shiver slightly. It must have been colder than I thought.
This is how famous Billy Scrivens was. The flyer outside the newsagent’s said, ‘BILLY IS DEAD’. Not ‘TV COMEDIAN DIES’, and you buy the paper and discover that it was someone who used to be in some long-forgotten American sit-com. Not ‘TOP COMIC DIES’ and you buy the paper to find out which one. Not even ‘TV’S BILLY SCRIVENS DIES’, but just his name, that was enough; they knew you’d be interested. ‘Billy is dead.’ That’s the true definition of fame, when they only have to say your first name when you die. What a proud moment for him.
Naturally it was the first item on the lunchtime news. Just the way the newsreader said ‘Billy Scrivens’, his voice dropping a couple of notes for the last syllable – that was all you needed to hear to know instantly that this superstar’s life was over. It was all very sad, very shocking and I checked that my video recorder was taping the right channel. There was a photo of him behind the newsreader with the dates of his life underneath and then they cut to the scene of his heart attack: ‘his holiday cottage just outside the Sussex coastal town of Seaford’. Seaford was pronounced slightly incorrectly, like it was a forerunner of the Model T Ford, but there was no time to be annoyed about this because there was Maggie Belfitt talking to camera, describing how Billy Scrivens had suffered a fatal heart attack after going jogging. And then suddenly there was me – jogging down the hill, looking pretty cool if I say so myself, as she was saying that these cliffs were a popular spot for local joggers, which they weren’t, adding that Billy often jogged here, which he hadn’t. Then the whole picture was filled with my talking head. ‘Billy was a great guy. A true professional, but that rare thing, a comedian who was as funny off the screen as he was on it. . .’ I sounded so convincing. Then a caption popped onto the screen. ‘Jimmy Conway. Billy Scrivens’s jogging partner.’
‘And though he will always be remembered for the joy and laughter he brought to millions,’ I continued, ‘we should not forget the tireless work Billy did for charity. We’ll all really miss him.’ But they cut my little sad shake of the head. I couldn’t believe they cut my little sad shake of the head. That was the best bit! Did these people have no idea?
The phone went immediately. Even though they were still talking about Billy’s sudden death and tracing the early years of his career, an even bigger news story had just broken for anybody who knew me: namely that I had just been on the television. And now they were phoning me for comment and reaction to the story of the day: Jimmy Conway was on the lunchtime news.
‘Jimmy, I can’t believe it – I just saw you on the telly.’
‘Oh hello, Dave. Yeah, they filmed it this morning. Terrible, eh?’
‘No, you were really good, mate. Like a real pro.’
‘No, I mean the news. About Billy Scrivens.’
‘Oh yeah, what was all that bollocks about you being his jogging partner? They do talk some rubbish, don’t they? You never knew Billy Scrivens, did you?’
I couldn’t help feeling slightly insulted by this, as if he was undermining my one moment of glory.
‘Well, actually we were chatting on the Downs only yesterday . . .’
‘You mean you really knew him then?’
‘Well, I didn’t want to sound like I was bragging about it or anything. . .’
‘Oh, sorry, mate, I didn’t realize.’ And then his voice turned from embarrassed sympathy to boyish excitement. ‘So will you be going to the funeral then? ’Cos there’ll be loads of celebs there!’
‘Come on, Dave, that’s not really the point, is it?’ I said.
‘Er, well, no, I suppose not, but I was just saying, you know . . .’ and he apologized and I told him not to worry about it, and explained that I was still a bit in shock from what had happened.
But Dave was right, there would be loads of celebrities there: soap stars, footballers, rock legends, quiz show hosts and maybe a couple of politicians hanging self-consciously around the edges. Just imagine being invited to that, being in the same room as all those people at once. But of course it was part of another world, a world in which I didn’t have any place. There was no question of me being invited, even though the BBC had called me Billy Scrivens’s jogging partner. Whoever got the job of drawing up the list of people to invite was never going to say, ‘Oh, and we must ask that bloke who was on the news, you know, the one down in Sussex who used to jog with Billy.’ It’s not as if any of them had ever met me or knew anything about me; just seeing the lunchtime news would never prompt them to invite me. They didn’t even know where I lived.
It was about this time that I wondered if it might be a thoughtful gesture to send a letter of condolence to Billy Scrivens’s wife. Just a few words to say that my thoughts were with her at this difficult time and perhaps mentioning how Billy had seemed in such good form when we’d chatted the day before he died. I thought in order to explain who I was I should say that although she and I had never met, I was the one on the lunchtime news given the dubious title of ‘Billy’s jogging partner’! And then I thought twice about the poor taste of this and removed the exclamation mark. Before I could change my mind, I dropped the letter in by hand to the big empty cottage in Cuckmere Haven that had been their holiday home and then went back to listen to all the excited messages on my answerphone.
Four days later I received a black-edged card inviting me to Billy Scrivens’s funeral. ‘Yes! I’m going to the funeral!’ I exclaimed to my excited dog. ‘What a result, way to go, Jimmy! Oh joy! Oh happy day!’ I couldn’t remember ever being so delighted.
27 Elms Crescent,
Fame is a two-edged sword. But they’re not both good edges, one of them is a bad edge. And the trouble with being the major celebrity that you are is that there are some pretty weird people out there who will probably stop at nothing to get close to you. Most will probably just want a brief taste of your exciting world, but others may have more sinister intentions. I don’t want to spoil all the fun of being rich and famous or anything but I feel I should warn you that there is a chance that you’ll be gunned down in the street by a crazed psychopath.
It is now eight months since John Lennon came to the end of his ‘Long and Winding Ro
So, James, I am writing to advise you that perhaps you too should take a few precautions. Don’t give autographs to people pointing guns at you. No, on second thoughts, do give them autographs. It’s probably advisable to do whatever they want. But if, say, a scary-looking man with lots of handguns and grenades and a dagger in his mouth climbs up the side of your house and wants to come in the bedroom window, then don’t let him in. He could be dangerous.
Of course, when you become famous, a certain amount of constructive criticism is to be expected. You’ve put yourself in the public eye and you have to be prepared to accept the odd dig or two. But if people try to shoot you then frankly I think that is going too far. Ronald Reagan, the Pope, JR – they’re all getting shot at the moment. And I blame the gunmen.
So, Jimmy, keep an eye out for a crazed assassin, and if you see one, stand behind a stone pillar or a bus until he’s gone. Because there are some pretty weird people out there.
It’s true, there really are some pretty weird people out there, I thought as I prepared to gatecrash the showbiz funeral of a celebrity I was pretending I’d known. But I wasn’t obsessed, I wasn’t a stalker; I was just a fame tourist. Some people liked to wander around Rome taking snapshots of the deities of a bygone age. I merely wanted to see the icons of today, to see all the new gods lined up on display.
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes