The time I came runner-up in a BBC sitcom award (part 1)

In 2002, aged 21, I was waiting in a queue at HMV when I spotted a booklet at the tills for BBC Talent. It was an initiative designed to find new writing and presenting talent, and one of the contests was a comedy scriptwriting competition: the BBC Talent New Sitcom Writers’ Award.

I thought I was pretty funny, but had never written a script in my life. The BBC wanted applicants to send in the first few pages of a sitcom script, but I didn’t have one. Fine, I thought, with characteristic 21-year-old chutzpah: I’ll write one! I’d had a good run of luck in the previous few years – winning Miss Harrow and getting a First in my degree – and so I told myself it was worth entering, even if I didn’t get through.

I’d been staying with my religious Asian grandparents in Leicester the previous year. They’d had an arranged marriage when my nan was just 19, and I wondered what it would have been like to be forced to have one myself. Though it might not immediately seem like an ideal subject for a sitcom, I thought the idea of rebelling against such a marriage had comic potential. I’d considered writing about this idea since staying with my grandparents, but had been finishing my degree and hadn’t done anything about it.

I therefore began to create a family of sitcom characters. But I told myself I couldn’t write about a Zoroastrian family like my mum’s, ’cause who the hell had ever heard of Zoroastrians? Every time I mentioned being Zoroastrian to someone, they either asked ‘What-Austrian?’ or made a joke about Zorro!

So I decided to write about a different Asian religion, mainly so I could make a daft pun. My main character, a Punjabi girl called Leila, was a feminist who hated men (forgive me, fellow feminists, but I was young). She was being wooed by a builder called Darren Hyde, for the sole reason that I could then call my sitcom Hyde and Sikh. Again, I can only apologise…

Me mirror.jpg

Anyhow, the premise each episode was that Leila’s parents would set her up with an Asian suitor, in the hopes that she would agree to an arranged marriage with him. She would then team up with the besotted and unreconstructed English builder Darren in order to scare off the suitor.

So I wrote the script according to the online template the BBC had provided. I found it again in the deepest recesses of my hard drive, and here it is!

HYDE & SIKH

Episode 1: ‘A Hairy Situation’

OUTLINE

Sassy Sikh girl verbally outwits besotted builder, parents and potential husbands alike.

SYNOPSIS

Leila Kaur is a 25-year-old Sikh solicitor living in Newark with her parents, who are trying to find her a suitable husband. Unfortunately Leila thinks men are pathetic, a view compounded by her biggest admirer Darren Hyde – an English builder who lives down her road. Darren is totally infatuated with Leila, and makes it his mission to intercept and thwart all the suitors who come to visit her.

SCENE 1: INT. LEILA’S HOUSE, 48 WARWICK STREET (MORNING)

LEILA COMES INTO THE KITCHEN, DRESSED READY FOR WORK. HER PARENTS ARE HAVING BREAKFAST. LEILA POURS HERSELF A GLASS OF WATER AND STARTS DRINKING IT.

LEILA’S DAD: (STRONG INDIAN ACCENT)

Hello my sweet flower. You are looking very beautiful this morning. How are you today?

LEILA: (SUSPICIOUSLY)

What do you want?

DAD: (SMILING)

I have some good news.

LEILA: (DRYLY)

Don’t tell me – you’re finally starting to understand the jokes on Goodness Gracious Me?

DAD: (SHAKING HIS HEAD AND ROLLING HIS EYES)

Nay. (GRINS SLYLY AND PROUDLY) I… have found a man.

LEILA: (COUGHING, SHOCKED)

Blimey. You’re having a midlife crisis? Don’t worry, it’s cool with me.

LEILA’S MUM (MRS. KAUR) IS SMILING AND NODDING IN HER WHEELCHAIR.

MUM: (IN A VERY STRONG INDIAN ACCENT)

Very nice man.

LEILA:

And Mum seems okay with it.

LEILA’S DAD LOOKS VERY SHOCKED AND BEWILDERED, AND THUMPS THE TABLE.

DAD:

No! I have found a man, for you!

LEILA CHOKES ON HER GLASS OF WATER, SPILLING IT EVERYWHERE.

LEILA: (SPLUTTERING)

What? Well… well you can just go and put him back where you found him! I’ve told you since I was thirteen, you’re not arranging anything with me. Goodbye!

SHE GRABS HER COAT AND STORMS OUT OF THE HOUSE, SLAMMING THE FRONT DOOR. HER DAD RUSHES AFTER HER AND REOPENS THE DOOR.

DAD: (YELLING)

Leila, come back here now!

SCENE 2: EXT. THE BUS STOP, WARWICK STREET (DAY)

LEILA STOMPS OUT OF HER HOUSE AND SITS ON THE BENCH AT THE BUS STOP A FEW DOORS DOWN. SIMULTANEOUSLY, DARREN HYDE STROLLS OUT OF HIS OWN HOUSE, WHISTLING, AND DOES A DOUBLE TAKE WHEN HE SEES LEILA. HE COMES AND SITS AT THE OTHER END OF THE BENCH, STILL GAWPING AT HER. LEILA TAKES ONE LOOK AT HIS SCRAGGY VEST, PAINT-SPATTERED CLOTHES AND LEER, AND MOVES RIGHT TO THE END OF THE SEATING ARRANGEMENT.

DARREN(WOLFWHISTLING)

Cor!

LEILA GIVES HIM A DISPARAGING LOOK.

DARREN:

Asian babe!

LEILA:

Earth is full. Go home.

DARREN LOOKS A BIT SHOCKED, THEN REGAINS HIS COMPOSURE.

DARREN:

Nah, they don’t have anyone as fit as you there.

LEILA:

No, not if you’re anything to go by.

DARREN LOOKS INDIGNANT, AND PUFFS HIMSELF UP.

DARREN:

I’m the sexiest bloke in Newark, I am.

LEILA:

Which reminds me, I must relocate.

DARREN:

And I own my own company.

LEILA:

Then why don’t you keep your own company?

DARREN:

I’m an entrepreneur, me. I have to make crucial decisions every day.

LEILA:

Let me guess: Daily Star or Daily Sport?

DARREN SIGHS, LOOKING PUT OUT.

DARREN:

You’re not impressed then?

LEILA:

How many times am I going to have to flush before you’ll go away?

DARREN:

Okay, okay, but just tell me one thing – where are you from?

LEILA: (GESTICULATING TO THEIR SURROUNDINGS)

What does it look like?

DARREN:

No, I mean really from.

LEILA: (ROLLING HER EYES)

Newark, you imbecile.

DARREN:

Right, yeh. It’s just that you’re so beautiful and exotic, and Newark, well… Newark’s the only town in England that’s an anagram of ‘wanker.’

LEILA:

You must feel very much at home.

DARREN: (SOUNDING HURT)

Come on, I was only asking.

LEILA: (RELENTING)

My family originate from the Punjab. I’m Sikh.

DARREN: (LOOKING HER UP AND DOWN)

You look alright to me.

LEILA STANDS UP TO SEE IF THE BUS IS COMING (CLOSE-UP ON EMPTY STREET), THEN SIGHS AND SITS DOWN AGAIN. 

DARREN(HOPEFULLY)

I heard a good Asian joke the other day.

LEILA: (SARCASTICALLY)

Now let’s see, would that be the one about the Asian lesbian called Mingita? Or the one about Asian people being so bad at football because every time they get a corner, they build a shop?

DARREN:

Nah, don’t worry love – I’m sexist, not racist.  I’m Darren by the way, of Darren Hyde Construction. I just moved into number 72, so you could say I’m right up your street.

LEILA:

Right up my nose, more like.

THE BUS COMES AND LEILA RAISES HER HAND TO STOP IT.

DARREN:

Wait… can I see you again?

LEILA:

Sure. Let me see, are you free…. never?

SHE FLICKS HER HAIR BACK HAUGHTILY AND GETS ON THE BUS.

Continued in Part 2 tomorrow…

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 35

Me: 12st 5lbs (total loss in 35 days: 9.2lbs)

I fell so far off the wagon last night that it rolled away into the distance. This week is a write-off dietwise – I have a book launch, lunch with a publisher and endless treats in the house for the eight-year-old. Will do much better soon.

John: 14st 3.25lbs (total loss in 35 days: 4.25lbs)

Go John!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

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!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

The time I won £3,000 on Channel 5’s Brainteaser

In 2002, I came second in a BBC comedy scriptwriting competition. I was only 22 and took the runner-up prize with my very first script – which filled me with horror. I was a fraud! I had no idea how to write a script, and someone was bound to rumble me very, very soon.

Then a friend saw an MA in Scriptwriting advertised in the paper. It was at Goldsmiths College, University of London – a prestigious arts college. If I actually learned how to write scripts, I decided, maybe I wouldn’t feel so fraudulent. I submitted an application, initially got rejected, then finally accepted for sheer persistence after I metaphorically hammered on their door.

There was an ethnic minorities’ bursary for one student attached to the course, which would cover the £3,000 course fees. I told myself I’d most likely get it – after all, there were only 12 students on the whole course. The odds were good, right?

Unfortunately for me, the bursary went to the very talented Veronica McKenzie, the only other BAME student on the course.

Age 22 (3).jpg

This meant I had to find £3,000 from somewhere. I was leafing through the Metro newspaper one day, and an advert jumped out at me: ARE YOU GOOD AT ANAGRAMS? DO YOU WANT TO WIN £3,000? Yes and yes!

The ad was for contestants for the Channel 5 show Brainteaser, which was produced by Endemol’s studios in Oxford. After a short telephone interview, I was given a date to appear on telly. I remember that they refused to reimburse travel costs, so I paid the £30 return in train and Tube fares vowing that I had to win, rather than end up £30 down.

I entered the Endemol studios and met the other contestants in the green room beforehand. I remember one of them, a lady called Joanne, trying to psych me out by listing all the TV shows she’d been on, including Bargain Hunt. She seemed very competitive and I could tell that she really wanted to win. In the green room were goody bags containing a purple Brainteaser-branded mug and pen, but being a design elitist I planned to give them to my nan.

The first round featured me and Joanne. We took our places behind two stands, but then I realised I had a big problem – I couldn’t see the letters on the screen! It was too far away and the letters were all fuzzy and blurry in front of my eyes. I’ve always been shortsighted, but glasses really don’t suit me and I’m too squeamish for contacts or laser, so I just sort of muddle along (don’t worry, I don’t drive).

Luckily, one of the elderly secretaries at Endemol had a pair of rather unfetching glasses which she lent me. We must have had the same prescription (about -1.5) as when I put them on the screen was crystal clear. With my sight problems out of the way, battle commenced!

Brainteaser-1.jpg

In one round, we had to rearrange the segments to make a word. I was a bit rubbish at this on the day, though I can immediately see that the above word says INDIVIDUALISM. Joanne raced into the lead, but I fought back hard and eventually won by a single point.

We also had to fill in crossword clues in another round, which I was slightly better at. I remember that one of the words was about a religious day at Easter, and I got it right – ASCENSION – which is ironic given my later career activities!

The presenter didn’t seem to like me much, as between the rounds she came up and whispered to Joanne, ‘You can still win this, you know!’ Eventually, after a very hard-fought battle, I won. Joanne was disappointed and I felt sorry for her, but I had an MA to fund.

I remember that I was so tense, I kept whacking the buzzer super-hard instead of pressing it gently. The presenter told me off, and her link into the adverts was ‘Will Ariane survive the next round? Will the buzzer? Join us after the break to find out!’

Brainteaser-2.jpg

With Joanne gone, the presenter asked me a few questions about myself. This was only my second time on telly, and I remember saying hi to my nan, who was watching. The presenter said, referring to the tense rounds between me and Joanne, ‘Your nan’s probably had a heart attack by now’ and I replied ‘I hope she hasn’t’ and the presenter retorted, ‘Well, of course we hope she hasn’t too – what sort of people would we be?!’

Ah, the joys of live telly…

After the break, I played a middle-aged woman called Glenys who was very sweet and gentle. This was a much easier battle, and I managed to buzz in (generally too violently) on 95% of the questions. I found the above round especially fun and easy – I can immediately answer STUDIO.

Then we played a general knowledge round which was not exactly Mastermind. Four clues would appear on the screen and you had to buzz in as soon as you knew the answer. (This one is TESS DALY.)

Brainteaser-3

Throughout the show, the presenter kept telling people to phone in on a premium rate phone line to win a competition by answering the easiest anagram ever. Brainteaser would finally be cancelled when the show was implicated in the phone lines scandal of 2007.

As for me, I was through to the final round, which was a solo anagram round in which the questions progressively got harder. If you answered another clue correctly you’d get more money, but if you tried to answer and failed, you’d forfeit the lot.

Adding a D to the word SUE to form a new word was easy, but adding a V to AROUSED? When I reached AROUSED (so to speak) I wondered if I should stick at £1,500, and nearly did – but then I found the courage to go for the £3,000, as that was what I’d come on the show for…

Brainteaser-4.jpg

… and let’s just say I SAVOURED my win! The £3,000 was mine, and therefore I could afford the MA. Though it was a nightmare course and definitely wasn’t worth the £3,000, but that’s another story entirely.

Winning Brainteaser gave me the confidence to apply for Countdown, which was a brilliant experience. I got the telly bug and would go on to appear around 20 times on news and current affairs programmes on the BBC, ITV1 and Channel 4. Plus my nan liked her Brainteaser mug and pen, and thankfully she never did have a heart attack.

Those specs, though…

Brainteaser-5

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 27

Me: 12st 6.4lbs (total loss in 27 days: 7.8lbs)

Same old, same old.

John: 14st 3lbs (total loss in 27 days: 4.5lbs)

John has digested and excreted the elephant!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

I was a Countdown champion

Before I start this story, I should say that a Countdown champion is just a contestant on the Channel 4 show who wins at least one game of Countdown. It shouldn’t be confused with a Countdown series champion, or, god forbid, the ultimate Countdown winner’s title of Champion of Champions.

I used to love Countdown when I was growing up. I was always decent at anagrams, and could play along with the telly. I could do the maths too, though I was never quite as good at it as the letters. And I loved the urgency and excitement of the conundrum, especially if the outcome of the game hinged on it.

After winning an episode of Channel 5’s Brainteaser in 2002, aged 22, I decided to apply to be a Countdown contestant. It was a long process that would see me becoming friends with the show’s legendary executive producer (and former Champion of Champions) Damian Eadie.

After I applied, Damian and I struck up a friendship. First we wrote letters to each other (his were addressed to me in Pinner, mine to him in Leeds); then we graduated to emails. Then I did my first audition, which took place at the Holiday Inn in Euston – and I failed! It was really tough. I remember getting the rejection letter and feeling so depressed.

But Dame (his preferred short form of Damian) encouraged me to give it another go, so I bought some little handheld electronic Countdown games (way too rudimentary for 2019 – now potential contestants presumably practise with state-of-the-art computer games) and practised for weeks. I actually started seeing the letters dancing behind my eyes when I closed them, and I couldn’t look at any writing (shop signs, street names, etc) without starting to rearrange the words into different combinations. It’s fair to say I was obsessed.

It all paid off though – I sailed through the next audition and won a place on the show!

My excitement was dampened when I arrived in Leeds and checked into the Holiday Inn, and discovered to my horror that my second opponent would be a 14-year-old boy, Chris. But first I would have to vanquish the previous champion Adrian, a middle-aged man with a moustache.

Arriving at the Yorkshire Television studios, I discovered that everyone on the show was absolutely lovely, from Damian and production assistant Charlotte to Carol Vorderman and Richard Whiteley. I particularly loved Richard – he was just so goodnatured and warmhearted and enthusiastic, even after more than two decades hosting the show. Carol was kind and friendly too, and offered me a Haribo. I thought about joking ‘No thanks, I’m on the Carol Vorderman Detox Diet!’

We took our places behind the desks, and were given a pad of paper and a pen for working out the anagrams and numbers. The letters were also on a little screen embedded in our desks, in case we couldn’t see the big display. And before long, we were off! I remember my first opponent Adrian being very irritated with me for some reason, which might have had something to do with my defeating him 85-56 (sorry Adrian).

Age 23

[I’m behind Carol; Chris is to my left; Paul is to his left; Adrian is in the stripy jumper.]

They pretend in the show that games are filmed on separate days, but this is only because the viewer will have had a day between watching games. As a champion, you have to go straight into the next game, pausing only to change your top. Being quite proud of my cleavage, I had brought along an array of revealing tops. I remember Susie Dent saying that I looked glamorous in them, and joking ‘I could never get away with that!’

Countdown-3.jpg

[Me: ‘Hello television viewers, here are my boobs!’]

Next up was Chris Philpot, my schoolboy challenger from West Sussex. He and I both teased each other about knocking the other out of the game. If you’d like to read the quite entertaining summary of our episode, it’s here on the Countdown wiki – but the upshot was that I won 91-60 (unsurprisingly, given that I was nine years older). Chris was upset as he’d wanted the iconic Countdown teapot, but it’s only awarded to winners, so I gave him mine. (The Countdown wiki says I was altruistic; but to be honest, I’m heavily into interior design and it was an Art Deco monstrosity, so I was quite happy to let Chris have it!)

countdown-teapot

[The dreaded yet much-coveted teapot. Ugh!]

Finally, after two games, I met my match in teacher Paul Habershon. It was a very tough, low-scoring game, and I was eventually defeated 61-64 during the conundrum (my Kryptonite was always words that started with vowels; I just couldn’t ‘see’ them, and the conundrum was OFFICIOUS).

To my mind, the day was a success: I’d managed to beat a champion, avoid being beaten by a 14-year-old whizzkid (which would have been very embarrassing!) and only went out thanks to a -3 deficit. Plus I was immortalised in the Countdown wiki, and won a big set of dictionaries. Of course, I would have liked to achieve over 100 points in a game, and win eight games in a row and become an ‘Octochamp’, but oh well.

Here’s a short clip of 23-year-old me on the show with Chris, who memorably made the word ‘PUBIC’! Bonus points if you can work out what my six-letter word was:

After the show, wonderful Richard Whiteley signed my introductory cue card with ‘Remember me when you’re famous – I’m sure you will be!’ Tragically, he died only two years later. I was really upset when I heard the news. I don’t think any of the other presenters have come close to capturing that same boyish excitement and warmth he conveyed – it was so clear that he genuinely loved the programme.

Two amazing things happened as a result of my appearance on the programme – one was that I got to write for Countdown for three years, penning the poems and stories they read out at the start of the show. So I spent years writing poems like:

Dear Richard,

I’m sorry to say that your ties
Do terrible things to my eyes
It’s the colours, I think
With the purple and pink
Of the set – on the whole, most unwise

Overall Dick, you dress like a pro
With a sharp dapper suit for each show
But those things round your neck
Make me think ‘flipping heck,
‘Why did someone not say to him, “NO!”‘

After Richard Whiteley died, I was asked to go up to Leeds and be a fake contestant when they filmed three episodes of the show to audition Noel Edmonds, Des Lynam and Richard Digance as Richard’s replacement. Des Lynam won the part, and Carol Vorderman wanted to take over more of a presenting role, so I started writing poems and stories for both of them.

I remember writing a riddle about Des Lynam’s moustache for Carol Vorderman:

I’m pale white and very hairy
People find me hot but scary
I’m prickly but I know my place
I love to sit on Des Lynam’s face!

(Apparently Carol Vorderman refused to read it out!)

But the strangest, most bizarre thing that happened came from the fan mail I received. A singer called Chris Peck emailed me, saying he thought I was gorgeous. I was flattered, but received hundreds of emails after the show and never wrote back to him. Years later, we got in touch again via my ex-boyfriend who managed Shed Seven. Chris was in another indie band called Boy Kill Boy, and he told me he’d written a song called Suzie about me appearing on Countdown! 

Suzie reached number 17 on the UK Top 40 in 2006. I listened to it, and sure enough, the chorus went ‘Countdown, Countdown, Countdown to the disappointment/I’m yours tonight.’ But the oddest thing was the video, which you can view on MTV here – it features a brunette woman walking with numbers falling all around her! Having a hit song (and video) written about me is one of the craziest things ever to happen to me (and trust me, there have been a few).

Here’s the audio for the song:

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 17

Me: 12st 9.6lbs (total loss in 17 days: 4.6lbs)

weight.jpg

No change from yesterday. I am still flying the Japanese flag.

John: 14st 2.75lbs (total loss in 17 days: 4.75lbs)

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Shock horror! After weeks of trailing me, John takes advantage of my feminine state to soar into the lead! The worm has turned, and I need to up my game.

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

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon.

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

 

My first ever (technically illegal) job

On Twitter recently, there was a trend for people to list five jobs they’d had. I’ve had some truly crazy jobs – and that’s before we get to TV sitcom writing, journalism and broadcasting. Here’s my tweet:

My first ever job as far as HMRC are concerned was being a cleaner at McDonald’s in 1996, aged 16, which I wrote about for the Guardian in 2008. But a year before that, in 1995 when I was 15, my dad employed me for six weeks.

My dad was often a physically violent, emotionally abusive, utterly deranged monster. I still have regular dreams (nightmares, really) about escaping from him and my mum, running from the house and never looking back.

But he could also be kind, funny and encouraging – and he and my mum were always very generous with money. So when I couldn’t get a job aged 15, he agreed to ’employ’ me for £4 an hour, writing sticky labels for videos.

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[Dad and me in 1982, when I was 18 months old. I was slightly older than this when I wrote the video labels.]

My dad taught at the University of Westminster (which was called the Polytechnic of Central London for the first half of his career). He was Course Leader or Lecturer on each of three degree courses – Film & Television, Media & Communication Studies and Journalism – and it doesn’t take a Freudian to point out that these are all the areas I ended up going into as a writer. Excuse me while I get the brain bleach!

Dad lectured several future celebrities, a couple of whom I now know – Charlie Brooker and Jon Ronson – and I ended up going to the same university for my own first degree (a BA in Commercial Music). Sadly or happily though, depending on how you look at it, Dad didn’t give me any contacts in the media, and he didn’t help me get into university either. I had to graft and do all the hard work myself. I got into television aged 21 after entering a BBC scriptwriting competition I found in a leaflet in HMV, and got into journalism at the same age after applying to do work experience at the NME.

When I was a kid, Dad would occasionally take me into work with him, and I once disrupted a lecture aged four by screaming ‘Daddyyyyy!’ after I got my leg stuck in a chair. My dad had to stride down the theatre aisle and rescue me in front of hundreds of laughing students.

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[Me aged four. My parents were not the best at framing photos.]

Anyhow, my dad had amassed what I believe is technically called a ‘shit ton’ of video tapes. For over a decade, he’d illegally taped films off the telly to show in his seminars – every day, he circled all the films he wanted to record in the Guardian TV guide – but all these black cassettes were in blank cardboard VHS cases with yellow Post-it notes on.

Post-it notes aren’t very sticky after a while, as I’m sure you know, so my dad wanted me to transfer the information on them to proper white adhesive labels to stick on the sides of the videos. He could have done it himself – he certainly had lovely neat, precise handwriting. But it was a menial and boring chore, so he delegated it to me, even though my handwriting was very scrappy indeed. And he actually paid me 25p more per hour than the £3.75 I subsequently got at McDonald’s for cleaning toilets!

So I spent the summer I turned 15 holding a squeaky marker pen in the Film & Television department of my dad’s university, hunched over a roll of sticky labels, writing titles like ‘The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock, 86m).’ It was very dull, but school was very dull too, and at least I got paid for this.

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[Me aged 14, when I didn’t have any jobs at all. I did, however, have a horrible bag.]

My dad was forced to retire from the university in 2003 when he turned 65. It was truly sad to watch, as he was crushed by not feeling needed anymore. Ironically, it was a bit like the film About Schmidt, as Dad kept on going into the building unpaid until he was told he was no longer welcome. He threw himself into researching his family genealogy for the last 13 years of his life instead – I think it was a suitably academic task that made him feel needed again.

Still, I bet somewhere in a dusty library in the University of Westminster’s Film & Television department are several thousand illegal videotapes of films off the telly, recorded by my dad and labelled by 15-year-old me.

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE

Behold my toes, resplendent in neon orange varnish! I even partly waxed my legs for you, before I got bored and stopped. Don’t say I never spoil you.

Day 4

Me: 12st 10.6lbs (total loss: 3.6lbs in four days)

Hallelujah! Praise the Gods of weight loss. Yesterday I was downcast, but today it’s all turned around for me.

John: 14st 5.75lbs (total loss: 1.75lbs in four days)

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I am now doing over twice as well as John! Will he be able to catch up? Stay tuned…

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

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. Rewards start from just 85p ($1) a month.

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.