What it’s really like doing live telly

Every so often, a producer phones me up and asks if I’ll appear on live telly to talk about a particular issue (generally something to do with atheism). I don’t know why I fear this as much as I do – every telly appearance I’ve done bar one (The Alan Titchmarsh Show, which ironically wasn’t live) has been absolutely fine.

The thing is, I know that appearing on TV raises my profile slightly and I’ll meet interesting people and get a small fee (typically £50 or £100) – so I usually bite down my nerves and agree to go on. Then I dread it until it’s over. But I’ve done around two dozen live TV appearances now, and despite a few panic attacks when I was starting out, I’m beginning to get used to appearing.

So what happens when you go on live telly? Well, first you have to appear on the radar of a show’s producer for some reason. The Atheist Bus Campaign tends to be the way they find me, even ten years on. I reckon I’m now on some sort of atheist telly watch list!

Then they email, generally, and ask if I’d be willing to appear on their show the next day. I say yes if I can, for the reasons above. They then phone and chat to me about the topic in question, to check I’m articulate and can put across a strong point of view. Though obviously not too strong (‘they should all be killed!’ doesn’t tend to go down well).

During this conversation, I force myself to ask the producer what the fee is. I always worry that by bringing up money, I’ll rule myself out, and instead they’ll choose someone who isn’t as mercenary as me. But seriously: you don’t ask, you don’t get – and even if the fee is only £50, it covers any necessary travel and the time taken out of your day to appear.

If you don’t get a fee, you’re effectively paying to go on the show, which is ridiculous as it wouldn’t be a show without any guests – plus most of these shows have big budgets (you can bet the presenters are being paid several thousand pounds per episode).

[I wore this green Dorothy Perkins dress for several TV appearances.]

Sometimes the producer will book you a taxi to the studio – this always used to be the case – but lately I’ve noticed that, as I live in London, they often say ‘It’s probably quickest if you just jump on the Tube’.

It’s not really, as I live 20 minutes’ walk from the Tube station and  it takes £10 out of my fee, but I don’t want to be labelled difficult. Plus I often get car sick, though I’d deal with that this summer for a luxury air-conditioned ride!

I’ll spend the evening before the appearance deciding what to wear. It will largely depend on the colour of the sofa I’m going to be sitting in front of – you need to wear a contrasting colour so as not to blend in!

Then I’ll iron the outfit and put every part of it out ready to wear in the morning. I’ll spend that night tossing and turning in bed, feeling nervous, going over and over my argument for the show in my head, unable to sleep. But back to generalities…

When you get to the studio, you give the receptionist your name and the name of the show you’re appearing on, and they call the runner to come and collect you. They also print out a pass for you, which you’re not meant to wear. At the BBC, your bag gets X-rayed, which is reassuring as long as it doesn’t contain a sex toy. Then the runner collects you and takes you down in the lift to the green room.

The green room is a kind of hotel suite with more armchairs instead of a bed, where all the guests hang out before and during the show. It always has a telly so you can watch the show before you go on, and facilities for making tea and coffee, and sometimes if you’re lucky there’s a tray full of pastries.

You can chat to the other guests – I always do, though sometimes they’re not very friendly, especially if they’re taking the opposing side of a debate to you. One girl who I shan’t name looked me up and down like I was a piece of muck, then asked disdainfully, ‘Where did they find you, then?!’

Sometimes you’re taken into makeup in a separate room, where a woman tries to make you look more aesthetically pleasing; sometimes the makeup lady just pops her head round the green room door and says ‘You’re fine’ or powders your nose.

Huge Nose.JPG

Then, before you know it, it’s showtime! You’re taken up to the studio with the other guests. The presenters generally say hi then, and you’re seated in a specific place. The studio is always quiet with no windows, and sometimes you can see yourself on the screens and/or the autocue on the camera.

When the presenter starts talking to you, time speeds up. You try and put your point across succinctly and articulately, without interrupting anyone, but it’s all a bit of a blur. If you’re lucky, you can see the questions she’s going to ask on the autocue or her clipboard, so have a few seconds to think about the answer. Usually if I get nervous, I sip the water they put out for guests on the table.

However, almost as soon as you start, the segment’s over and you’re being escorted back to the green room to collect your bag. These days, I check Twitter as soon as I get back to my phone, to see what the reaction to my appearance is. Then, if you’re lucky, you get a taxi home and speak to your friends, who have watched you on live TV.

So to finish, here I am on BBC Breakfast ten years ago, talking about Fawlty Towers while wearing my favourite green dress. I didn’t realise the camera could see me sitting on my leg!

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 28

Me: 12st 5.6lbs (total loss in 28 days: 8.6lbs)

I’m back on the wagon and am determined to stay on!

John: 14st 5lbs (total loss in 28 days: 2.5lbs)

John has fallen off the wagon and seems determined to stay off!

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Ding-dongs and diet wrongs

Someone asked on Twitter, ‘Ever had a fight with a celebrity?’ To be honest, I’ve had a few, but the one which really stands out was my appearance on The Alan Titchmarsh Show on ITV1 in March 2010, just before my nervous breakdown. It was a debate about whether it was a shame that Britons are less aware of the Easter story these days – and it wasn’t a fair debate, either, because it was three Christians (Alan himself, Gloria Hunniford and some arse from Christian radio) against me. This was over nine years ago, so I’m trying to dredge up all the depressing details from the bit of my brain where I’ve repressed them – apologies in advance for any inaccuracies.

I will never forget that Alan, Gloria and The Arse were all horrible and made it very clear that they didn’t like atheists at all. They were making jokes and exchanging pointed glances at my expense, and I felt very isolated and upset. There was literally no one in my corner. If I had been cool-headed when the cameras were rolling, I would have made Barack Obama’s point that ‘We are no longer just a Christian nation, but also a nation of Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Sikhs and non-believers’ (I’m paraphrasing here). I would have asked Gloria, Alan and The Arse from Christian Radio whether they were aware of, say, Zoroastrian stories, or stories of all the other religions – and if not, why was it more of a shame that Britons of other faiths weren’t aware of the details of the Easter story than vice versa?

But prior to the debate, the producer had tried to polarise it and take all the nuance out of it, insisting I ‘go in really hard – it was great when you said on the phone that religion was stupid’. Worse, none of the other participants would talk to me when I tried to be friendly, and then Alan grimly deigned to tell me in a threatening way that the debate would be ‘VERY feisty, VERY feisty indeed.’ When I was introduced as an atheist, I got roundly booed by the blue rinse brigade audience, and Alan joked that the response ‘wasn’t very Christian’, but I could tell that he was loving it. I tried to laugh it off, but was rattled. Then I completely lost my thread during the debate, and said that the Easter story was effectively a snuff movie, but I wasn’t as articulate and cogent as I would have liked to be, as they were all ganging up on me. It was a pretty dreadful performance on my part.

Afterwards, off-camera, Gloria and The Arse laid into me, laughing smugly that I was ‘awful and scary’ and ‘showed atheists in a very poor light’, and I snapped at all three of them that they were ‘fucking arseholes!’ and walked away shaking. My brain was telling me that I was hated and that someone out there was going to kill me, and days later I became suicidal – and the suicidal ideation lasted for over a year. I also refused to appear on telly again for a ridiculous number of years (eight? I’m not sure). However, I’ve never blamed my nervous breakdown on my appearance on the show, because though it was probably a contributory factor, my mental health was already very poor and this was just the last straw.

I can see, though, that being ganged up on 3-1 (plus factoring in the 200-strong elderly Christian audience, who were clearly the last remaining churchgoers in the UK) was not right. Producers have a duty of care and I wasn’t taken care of at all – I guess they thought I could fend for myself, but they were totally wrong. So I can completely understand why there have been suicides after similarly combative shows such as Jeremy Kyle. Leaving a show with the idea that everyone hates you is horrendous, especially in the age of social media.

Alan was right when he said the show would be feisty, but he could also have applied the adjective to me – though very mentally ill and anxious, I am simultaneously quite hot-tempered. I come across as placid and easygoing, but if something riles me, I see red. So during and after filming, I was experiencing a very intense, confusing mixture of anger and fear. They say that all anger is really fear, and they’re probably right, though I was also harbouring fantasies of channelling Rocky. I didn’t kick Gloria in the fanny, Alan in the balls or The Arse in the arse though, even though I really wanted to, as I didn’t want my foot to smell.

*

Anyhow, fast-forwarding nine years to yesterday, I had an awful heated row about money with my ex-husband. We both dredged up lots of bitterness and resentment from our marriage (though friends, we both hold serious grudges and keep score massively. Some therapy would really help right now if either of us could afford it). He apologised for ‘being a dong’, though not before I had a huge emotional binge on all the junk food in the kitchen. So I’m back up to 13 stone again today and feeling very ashamed, which is miserable – but not as miserable as appearing on The Alan Titchmarsh Show.

I swear he’s the subconscious reason I don’t like gardening and have decked my whole back yard.

MY DAILY STATS

Weight: 13st (goal weight: 7st 11lbs)

Waist: 36.5″ (goal: 25″)

Bust: 43″ (goal: 32″)

This post has been made possible by my Patreon supporters Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Lucy Spencer, Mark White, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of amazing rewards in addition to this credit! Please support me on Patreon.