The Zoot-Suited Pillock

This is the tale of my being involved in another televisual concoction of tat.

I was walking down Northumberland Street in Newcastle and noticed a team of people uniformed in printed T-shirts. One woman stopped me and asked me if I wanted to take part in a television programme, and she handed me a flier. The company was called Fever Media, and it wanted to recruit people to go on the show and ask for money to do whatever they wanted. She asked me whether there was something I had always wanted money for. I could ask for up to a million pounds. It could be for anything: a trip round the world, to drive a racing car, or even just a new pair of shoes.

Of course, alarm bells were already ringing in my head. This sounded like tacky reality television. Still, as long as I didn’t take it too seriously, I probably wouldn’t get fatally hurt.

I took the flier home and went to the website mentioned on it. There, I filled in an application form, and said that I’d like money for a swing dance festival in Newcastle. I thought I wrote a decent case for it, and clicked “send”, and then forgot about it.

Some while later, I got a 'phone call from a telly person, who, like most telly people, assumed that I had been thinking of nothing else since I clicked “send” and had been hanging next to the 'phone, waiting for the call, because nothing could be more important than telly. Perhaps they get this way because some recruits really do behave that way. They liked my idea. Apparently, they had received thousands of requests for money to pay off mortgages and debts, and were glad to receive to receive something a bit more entertaining. Would I go to an audition in Newcastle?

I cycled to a hotel in the centre of town, and signed in. All the staff was twenty-somethings, and friendly and enthusiastic in that tired way that telly people have. Other people auditioning looked more like charity people, complete with collecting tins, uniforms, and teams of disadvantaged-looking folk. Some had brought cakes and the like, to make an occasion of it.

I went up to a room with one girl and a camera, stood on a gaffer-tape cross on the carpet and did a three-minute pitch to camera, and then was interviewed by the girl for a fair while, and much of this she taped. I was alone, so had no one to dance with, but I suggested that I dance with her. She rushed off and found someone else. The girl, Jasmine, came in, and I made a point of not so much as touching her until the camera was rolling. I then put my arm around her and danced with her, leading her through a load of simple moves while doing some patter to the camera. She followed every step perfectly. I had illustrated that anyone can enjoy swing dance. “Swing is good,” I said to the camera, and left. I thought I had done pretty well.

I was told that if they liked me, I’d hear by mid-December, and that the shoot would be early in 2007.

Not much later, I got another call, asking me to come to a second audition in Manchester. Clearly, plans were changing fast, but I was not part of the ‘loop’. I had said in the first audition that for the real thing I’d get a partner to dance with. They asked me to bring a partner, because they wanted to see me dance. I tried to get an experienced dancer in Manchester to go along, but with only a couple of days’ notice, and this being on a Friday, this wasn’t possible. Luckily, one of my pupils from the Newcastle Swing Dance Society was going home to Liverpool that weekend, and she came along. We got to the hotel function suite and waited to be seen. More matt-varnished twenty-somethings looked after us, with their tired smiles. The pitch now had to be cut to less than a minute. They kept asking to hear it, and even to read it, but I wanted to keep it fresh and off-the-cuff. My pitch was approved and in I went with my partner to do the audition-come-rehearsal. I did the same sort of patter, and my partner was an absolute star. She represented the consumer-end of the enterprise, and her enthusiasm was a great asset. I started to think that maybe someone like her would be a better partner to use on the day that a slick professional dance partner.

This time I pitched to two producers, slightly older than the others, and these asked me more probing and challenging questions, but I fielded them well enough, and they, like all the other telly people from the start, sprayed me with words like “fantastic”, and declared that they thought I was in with a great chance, and that they really hoped that I would get the money. Yes. I had heard such words from media folk enough times to know that they meant nothing whatever. These people leave themselves no way of expressing themselves when they really mean such things.

We talked about costume. I said that I’d prefer not to do it in a zoot suit, because there was a danger that I’d look like some tit who thought he looked good in a zoot suit, whereas I’d rather just come across as a normal person who knew what he was talking about and would be the event’s organiser, not it’s wannabe star performer. My opinion seemed to prevail. This silenced a couple of alarm bells. It seemed that they would sometimes listen to me, and perhaps they didn’t want me to look a tit. I remained aware, though, that they and I had different vested interests, though they protested otherwise. I wanted the swing festival, and they wanted an entertaining TV show.

I learned that I could not negotiate over the amount of money. The panel would simply say yes or no. I had originally pitched for £40,000, thinking that I could accept a lower figure. I revised my request down to a still-ample £30,000. I managed to wrench a few more snippets of information from them. I got the impression that they had been living with the show and nothing else for long enough to forget that other people might not know these things. The panel would be made up of five people, like BBC’s Dragons’ Den, and I would have to persuade three out of five (minimum, presumably – they never mentioned any bonus for a misère) to get the grant. I also learned that the shoot had been brought forward to mid-December.

I noticed that the other people were pitching for more worthy-seeming causes, and were taking it very seriously. They all wore uniforms and pitched in rehearsed teams. One was a brass band that wanted to buy instruments for its youth section; another was a cricket and bowls club that wanted to buy the lease of its club house; another was some children’s football league.

In the week before the shoot, I received more telephone calls than I had had in the previous six months. Everything had to be confirmed in triplicate, and every time I spoke, it was to another first-name-only twenty-something. I felt sorry for them, because they were obviously having to work very hard. I was getting calls late in the evening from people still in the office.

I learned more about the show. Again, they expected me to know this all already. The panel would be millionaires, who would be giving away their own money, and who would be giving away one million pounds over twelve shows, and there would be about fifteen people pitching per show. That’s about £5,000 per pitch on average. Each show would be half an hour. This was later changed to an hour. The panel was Simon Jordan, who owns Crystal Palace Football Club; Jacqueline Gold, who trades as ‘Anne Summers’ the chain of sex/lingerie shops; Duncan Bannatyne, owner of a chain of health clubs and various other businesses, and veteran of the show Dragons’ Den in which he played the role of himself as a grumpy bully; Kanya King, who organises the MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) awards; and Jeffrey Archer, which meant that I should avoid prison gags. That set off at least five alarm bells, but I was in for a penny, so…

I spotted a flaw in the format. What happened if the panel granted money to all the early pitches, leaving none for the later ones? Or what if none of the early pitches got the dosh? – this would presumably mean that all the later requests would get the money, no matter how daft.

In the usual manner of telly, plans were changing so fast that every time they called they contradicted something that had gone before. The title of the show was different every couple of days. All the titles I heard were tacky, like Cash Grab, but the one they settled on was Fortune The Million Pound Giveaway which made no sense to me. By the time of the shoot, the twelve shows had been cut to seven.

The day they wanted me to do the shoot changed three times. After a while it was definitely going to be either the Thursday or the Sunday, and I’d be told very soon.

Tuesday it was.

Here you see the flier. There is no mention of a panel of millionaires posing as philanthropists - none of that was mentioned until I had agreed to do the show. Note how they demand genuineness and honesty in participants.

A girl rang me up to ask how many tickets I wanted for friends and family. Er… what? This was the first time this had been mentioned to me. So, there was a studio audience. More alarm bells. I said I’d send word via e-mail to the swing community in London and see who showed up. They were willing to pay transport, and even to lay on mini-buses for people in London.

Costume and partners were discussed back and forth. They wanted me in a zoot suit. I wanted to be in mufti. They wanted me to be like the guy who first pitched to camera on his own in the audition. One producer even had the brazen gall to use the word “eccentric”. Alarm bells agogo. They suggested I bring the suit just in case. I said that if I brought the suit, I knew that they’d ask me to wear it. I had been trying to get a partner, but my first two choices were going to be out of the country. They wanted me alone. The din of alarm bells was such now that I thought that it would be cruel of me to invite anyone else to join this sinking ship, so I agreed to do it alone.

They day before I went down, they sent out an e-mail to everyone asking them to avoid plain black, plain white, and stripes. My zoot suit is very stripy, and is worn with a plain white tie and black shirt.

The girl who was supposed to call me about transport left it so late that I just bought my own train tickets. When she called and heard what I had done, she seemed relieved. I arrived in London and went to the studio. The bored and unfriendly security guards had lots of high-tech equipment. They asked me to stand in front of a web-cam, and then to sign my name on a touch-sensitive graphics pad. They then printed out a security pass with a picture of someone who looked a bit like me on it, with a signature that consisted of half a dozen dots.

The first people I talked to were other contributors who were there for the second time. Apparently only five of the thirteen people called for the Sunday’s shoot had been used. One reason for the delay was that they were having trouble persuading anyone to sit in the audience.

I was then ushered into a white corridor made of breeze-blocks, and abandoned. I learned by asking that a production assistant had been assigned to me and that he’d be along shortly. I did see him for a few seconds a few hours later. The twenty-somethings were all bearing grins, but were clearly not having a great time. I was struck by what a rotten job it was they had, and concluded that the main reason that they were all young was that no one could stick a job like that for long. They wore head-sets that had an ear-piece over one ear and a microphone on a stalk in front of their mouths. Any attempt to speak them involved a glazed look coming over their faces when their attention wandered to what they could hear and I couldn’t. Each had a battery pack on his belt with someone else’s name clearly written on it.

Eating and drinking were not appealing things to do when feeling a bit nervous. There were many magazines to look at, but these were all called things like Heat, Hello, and The Mail on Sunday, so I had a sandwich and a satsuma.

I decided to look after myself, and got into costume, and arranged to see the make-up girls. These turned out to be very pleasant and efficient, and they heeded my request not to be painted orange.

I had been told that I would get a full rehearsal in the studio, and then a further run-through in a rehearsal studio. They were telling me this despite its becoming increasingly obvious that they were falling further and further behind in the shoot. One couple I talked to had been contacted by the TV company and asked to contribute, and had come from Derby to ask for money to fix the roof of their house-come-community-centre. It seems that the initial recruitment drive had just brought in lots of weirdos and debtors. These two, after visiting make-up, were taken aside and told that there wouldn’t be time to shoot their pitch. They weren’t happy. One PA told me straight-faced that nothing was going wrong. I pointed out that they were now so far behind that they were sending people home. He replied that nothing was wrong – they were just running a little behind. So, I asked, did they plan to run behind?

A band was sent home too. The group who wanted to investigate paranormal recordings made in an abandoned building was still about, as was the couple that wanted to move a hippo from a farm in Africa where, if it wasn’t moved, it would be shot. I liked that pitch – give us the money or the hippo gets it. I suggested that they give the hippo a name, because it’s harder to shoot something with a name. The name “Archie” was agreed on – just enough like “Archer” to press the button.

I never got to see the set before going on, but I did get to go into the rehearsal hall. I brought up, not for the first time, the issue of my hat. They wanted me in the hat that goes with my suit – a broad-brimmed black felt thing. I suggested that the lighting man would hate them for putting me in it. I suggested that I should walk on wearing it, and then ditch it to talk. This got assent.

I mentioned my thought that the format was flawed. One of the more senior producers admitted that it was a nightmare. They had to contrive matters to make sure that the successes and failures were fairly evenly spread, and that there was still some money left in the pot near the end. Did this mean that whoever went on last automatically got the money? She wasn’t sure.

A gospel choir from the Midlands came in looking happy. It had got the money. The old folks from the old folks’ home went off to make their pitch. I sat with the hippo couple, two PAs, and they guy who was to go on ahead of me – a very confident and nice guy who wanted money for an after-school club in south London. In he went. The PAs kept up the friendly act, but both looked fit to drop.

I was called. On the way to the entrance to the studio, I was told two new different things with regard to hat policy. I stopped in the doorway, and my escorting PA took me through my pitch one more time and asked me various questions which I fielded as best as my divided concentration allowed.

I entered the studio. Many people stood about in the half-dark. I saw the face of one of the panel in a monitor. I commented that he looked amazingly like Gerard Depardieu. I gathered that I wasn’t the first to spot this. This was Simon Jordan. I was passed from person to person. I gave the sound men a quotation from War of the Worlds for level. Some make-up people pounced on me and gave my face a final quick going-over, which involved dabbing powder in my left eye.

Was I ready? No, but let’s do it anyway. By this stage I was confident that I could deliver my pitch without any problems, but I was also fairly confident that I wasn’t likely to get the money, so I was happy just to go on to get it all over with. An AFM (assistant floor manager) took me through my entrance. I was repeatedly assured that I would walk on to the sound of entrance music, and audience applause, and that these would not be added on later in post production. I was now told to keep the hat on, but tip it back just far enough to stop it looking right. The AFM pulled the sash cord that parted the sliding doors and on I walked… to absolute pin-drop silence.

I looked first to my left and gave a nod to the audience. I then looked to my right and saw the panel on the set. Already Duncan Bannatyne had judged me, and had adopted his trademark bored look, looking up at the ceiling with his head resting on one hand. He never made eye-contact with me.

Perhaps I should have made some comment right away asking Duncan for his polite attention, but instead I did what I had rehearsed, and hit my mark and did my pitch. When I danced, there were some supportive claps and whoops from the sparse audience. I don’t know if anyone who knew me was in it. I was clear and articulate, mildly amusing, and utterly without any hope from the start.

The questioning started. Their tone was clear: We Are In Charge, You Are Dirt. I fielded the questions well enough I think, though there was a lot more I could have said. I never got to mention the crash-courses of lessons I proposed, or the schools’ follow-up project, nor the health and confidence benefits of swing dance, nor a few of the gags I had up my sleeve. While I was talking to someone else about something else, Jacqueline Gold suddenly sat up and smiled, and offered to come forth and dance with me.

One thing I had noticed was that all the panel was wearing ear-pieces. These would not be for decoration or curiosity-value. These would be so that they could hear instructions from the gallery. Clearly, she had just been given her cue. The producers of the show said that they loved what I did in both my auditions when I danced with a non-expert, and we had discussed my trying to get one of the two women on the panel to dance with me. Clearly the producers had persuaded Jacquie in advance that she would look a good sport if she gave it a go, and the director had just cued her in. TV people leave nothing to chance. She stood up, and tottered towards me in her inevitable stilettos. I have never seen the appeal or function of stilettos. All they do is make a person incapable of walking with grace or ease. I’m sure aliens looking down on Earth would speculate that they were some punishment device. Anyway, after two staggering steps, her microphone battery pack fell off, and she was hurried away for a refit.

While we waited, Simon Jordan seized the moment to be a git. “Is that a zoot suit?” he asked. I could have said many things in reply, but this was early on in the interview stage and I was still in polite-mode. The panel, however, had been in rude-mode all day, and we all had to overcome some inertia to change modes. “Yes, “ I said. “I hate zoot suits,” said he, as he preened himself and looked smugly about the room. Like Duncan, he never looked me in the eye. Again, many things came to mind, each howling for outlet from my springboard tongue, but I repressed them, because I was still being polite. Why did he have to ask if it was a zoot suit before making his statement? Did his mother not tell him to say nothing if he had nothing nice to say? What an utter tosser.

Jacqueline came back and we shot the bit where she rose from her seat again, and she came over to me and we danced. The crowd made nice noises, and she did all right for a person hobbled by ridiculous footwear. Suddenly, she called a halt, and went back to her seat. She had been told that that was enough by the director in the gallery.

Jeffrey Archer use the word “impresario” in his questioning, and seemed to try to make out that I didn’t know what it meant. I stayed polite. I used politicians’ tactics and said what I wanted to say regardless of his stupid questions. He did look me in the eye, although to be looked at by someone so famous for being a liar did not endear him to me. Liars of his calibre always can look you in the eye. They find it easy, and that is part of their shame.

It was very clear that no one wanted to back my idea. Duncan claimed to have seen swing dance and been unimpressed by it. This was clearly a lie. No one can witness a large hall full of people dancing really well and having a riotously good time, and not think that there is something to it. Most people who see swing dance wish that they could do it, and any businessman seeing a hall full of satisfied customers knows that there is something to work with there. I should have said this.

A feeling of power came over me. I was standing, and they were sitting. This was presumably to make them look powerful and good, but actually, they were immobilised and I was free to stride about. I should have used this power more. I also had nothing to lose. Of course I wasn’t going to get the money, but I could at least make them all look silly before I went.

Simon made an insulting remark about Newcastle, and I laid in to him. I can remember almost exactly what I said. It came out at very high speed: “Are you dissing my city? Are you casting aspersions against the great capital of the North? home of the inflatable ironing-board and waterproof teabag? birthplace of the steam turbine? How dare you sir!” Such was the high-speed mix of silly and sensible that he was quite unable to cope. He looked stunned, and never spoke again. As I write this I don’t know how they have edited my piece. I may end up on the cutting-room floor entirely, but if they use any of my bit, I hope they keep that bit. They probably won’t though, as it is a side-issue, and makes one of the panel look bad. Mind you, just showing Mr Jordan at all will make him look bad. He was wearing a watch that was painful to the eye from my distance of fifteen feet. It was nearly the size of a pack of playing cards, and appeared to be made of diamond. It occurred to me to say “I bet that watch tells the time ever so well”, and now I really wish I had. Could any man with true friends really be like him? I doubt it.

Cued in via their ear-phones, they started to declare that they were not in favour of the proposal. I noticed that the most favourably phrased statement came from the woman who had danced with me, and decided to make a joke of this, but alas I made a slip of the tongue and implied that she had declared in favour of my proposal. The fiends pounced, clearly joyous at having such an excuse to savage their prey. For some reason, the shooting had to stop at this point, and then when we started up again, order was restored, and Jacqueline started the talking, by smiling smugly and saying “I think I can speak for myself…” This would have seemed so much more convincing if she hadn’t said this on cue from the director. Of course, the pause will be edited out, so she won’t look so stupid.

Jeffrey now had fun calling out “Five-nil!” with schoolboy glee. I kept my cool, which I’m hoping will be scorn enough, but possibly I should have said something like “Okay, Jeff, do you think you can say that again, only this time with even more schoolboyish glee? It’s pointless malice like that that will endear you to the voters again.”

Being in Duncan’s presence had been pointless, and perhaps I should have said so, as it was something that I think he and I could have agreed on. I felt like daring him to look me in the eye. He was seated in the centre and clearly liked to think of himself as the leader of the pack. He wanted to have the last word, and he went about it pretty effectively. He sat forward in his seat and did his much-practiced stretch and yawn. He said that swing dance was of no interest, and I said, still keeping my voice enthusiastic, and amazingly enough, even polite, “You’ve just got to see it!” which was a good feed line for him. With his eyes closed, head to one side, and arms at full strength, he said “Seen it!” A very unpleasant person.

I don’t think these guys had quite got this philanthropy caper. In my opinion it involves being nice. One might argue that the role of charity is to alleviate misery, whereas the role of philanthropy is to spread the joy around. I should have pointed out that there is no more direct route from money to joy than swing dance, but it would have done little good, because they were getting their kicks through the feeling of power that came with the ability to say ‘no’ with any amount of rudeness.

Only Kanya kept her dignity throughout. She looked me in the eye, made a decent job of looking as though she was listening, talked to me straight, and even asked the most intelligent questions.

I had been told that Richard Madeley would interview me after my spot, at the end of a short walkway. Having had enough of their rudeness, I looked around for the floor manager or anyone else moving to bring matters to an end, saw no one, and so just turned my back on them and walked off. The interview place was in darkness, though, and Richard was nowhere to be seen. I wish now I’d said something like ‘So, Richard, how do you think that went?’ which might have forced their hand. I stepped down off the platform, handed in my microphone and left. The audience was silent. Why was this? Telly people are usually fairly thorough and formulaic with these studio matters, and if they wanted some crowd noise as I left, they would have orchestrated it, so it seems that they preferred silence. Did Richard not want to face me? Perhaps it was feared that I’d be dangerously articulate and riled.

I wasn’t annoyed that I hadn’t got the money. Before I went on I had good reason to suspect that I had been set up to fail, and as soon as it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get the money whatever, I felt it didn’t matter. I might have been a bit upset if I thought that the way I presented my case was at fault, or that a little slip had made the difference. I felt sorry for the couple who wanted the James Bond wedding, as I had good reason to fear that they’d be ripped to shreds.

I was disappointed not to be interviewed by Richard, though. I have long been an admirer of his ability to talk naturally in front of a camera, and I was keen to try and match him. I should for balance I suppose say that I have long been exasperated by the credence he gives to crackpot ideas like spirit mediums and astrology, but perhaps he does this out of sheer professionalism, knowing that that sort of tripe appeals to most of his typical audience. I had something in mind to say to him, which would have worked whether or not I got the money: that it struck me that a philanthropy show on mainstream television was a good thing. Philanthropy in the later Victorian age in Britain was common. Rich men would donate money to the benefit of others, and with this they would buy very useful good will in their local communities. If they built a library, they would see to it that their library was magnificent, with strongly built walls, and ornamentation. Today the word ‘philanthropist’ is used to imply or even mean eccentric or mad, and people expect central government to do everything, such as build libraries which now resemble shoe-boxes. By putting philanthropy on prime-time television, rich people are given a public platform to show off their generosity, and perhaps get philanthropy working again.

On the day of the shoot, though, a new thought had occurred to me. This show wasn’t about philanthropy at all. It was the equivalent of vanity publishing, mixed with cheap PR. Today (Dec 2006) it costs about £95,000 to buy the airtime for a thirty-second advert on prime time ITV. These five entrepreneurs were getting seven hours of prime-time television exposure for £200,000 – quite a bargain. Not only did they get the useful business promotion for this money, but, hey! they got to be on telly! I’m sure that they had even persuaded themselves that they were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. So, the woman who runs a chain of sex shops, a disgraced politician who had just come out of prison, a couple of arrogant tossers, and the organiser of a flagrantly racist award ceremony – what do these all have in common? I suggest that one uniting element is the need for good PR. I don’t think the telly company had played its hand as well as it could – it should have got the millionaires to pay for the making of the show as well.

So, did I lose any sleep over it? Actually, I have to admit to taking longer than usual that night to fall asleep – repeating in my head all the things I could have said, most of which I had in mind at the time but refrained from using out of a perhaps misguided notion that politeness mattered. How will they edit it? They certainly, if they use any of it at all, won’t use it all, and I know that they will always favour making their precious millionaire donors look good. I don’t expect to see it go out. I don’t know which show I’ll be in if I’m in any, and I don’t like the thought of watching seven hours of tat to find out.

Still, all good experience, eh?

Fools, I’ll destroy them all.


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