Snowdon

At last, it’s in the public domain: episode 8 of the ninth series of Celebrity Mastermind. It’s on the iPlayer here but if you want to avoid knowing the score, please look away now and read this another time. I’ll throw in the traditional screen grabs to give you the chance to bail out before we talk numbers.

Right, if you’re still reading, you obviously either saw it, or don’t care enough to see it, so I can compare scores with impunity. I’ll tell you this much, if being in the famous chair is nerve-wracking, it turns out not to be half as nerve-wracking as watching the programme go out, on the television, with a roomful of your relations! All I have been telling people since recording the show in mid-November is: I didn’t make a total tit of myself. Which is, I think, true. My final score of 23 is not exactly off the charts, and it must forever genuflect at Richard Herring’s mighty 35 (which should please him), but it’s respectable and I think I can hold my head up in public, despite saying Snowdon to a general knowledge question whose answer was obviously Everest. (In mitigation, as if mitigation is required when you’re on bloody Mastermind, the question was to do with the height of the mountain being recalculated, and the keyboard in my brain called up the Hugh Grant film, The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain, in which he was sent to measure a mountain in Wales, so the wrong synapse crackled as a split-second result. Carve it on my gravestone if you must.)

I was no match for DCI Barnaby off Midsomer Murders, who scored a copper-bottomed 29, having stoically stormed his specialist round on Philip Larkin, and kept the same cool head for general knowledge. The close camera angles were not kind to Barnaby’s method of calling up information which involved physically pressing buttons on the keyboard inside his brain using only parts of his face, but like many actors, I doubt he will be watching his performance back, so we may snigger all we like: he won by a mile.

I had hoped that Canadian comedian Stewart Francis, who’d been called up off the subs’ bench at midnight after David Gest sent a sick note, would be unprepared, but he did well with his specialist subject of the Toronto Blue Jays – he may have been cooler than the rest of us because he’d already done a comedians-only Children In Need special edition of Celebrity Mastermind in 2010, when his subject was the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Spotting a theme?)

I had also hoped that Sandie Shaw would be nuts, and to a charming degree, she was. The life and soul of the green room from the moment she stepped glamorous and surprisingly shod foot in it, she really made our edition of the programme fun. What you didn’t see on television was the moment when, on the walk back to her seat, the battery pack of her microphone slipped from its moorings somewhere up her minidress and it fell down between her knees, dangling in a most unbecoming way. She laughed it off, and I asked if it was her puppet on a string, a wisecrack that went pretty much unheard. That’s showbiz.

Here are the final scores anyway.

I must admit, I am kicking myself over the questions I got wrong in my specialist round. I thought I’d revised disaster movies thoroughly, but gave the name of the director of The Medusa Touch when the question required the name of the man who wrote the novel. (“Jack Gold!” “Peter Van Greenaway.”) This just shows you how easy it is to give the wrong answer when you know the right one – who else would know the name of the director of The Medusa Touch, never mind the novelist? Both are, by definition, useless bits of information. But in this artificial situation which you have volunteered to be in, they become vital bits of information. Actually, unlike Richard’s experience, mine is not one bedevilled by retroactive frustration. Even if I’d got the Medusa Touch question right, and the Everest one, and the one where the answer was my favourite film The Poseidon Adventure and I said The Towering Inferno, I still wouldn’t have caught up with Barnaby. So I am able to sleep easy in my bed.

Lots of nice, supportive comments on Twitter, which I really appreciated. My parents thought I did well, although my Dad admitted that he was shouting, “Everest!” at the screen in Northampton. Oddly enough, after the show had aired, I was demonstrating how Twitter works to a family member who didn’t understand its appeal or how it worked but was curious to see it in action. He started an account and I was steering him around the basics. I showed him how to search for an account and he put in my name. In doing so, as well as my Twitter account coming up, he also started reading the stream of Tweets mentioning me by name, but not referring to my Twittername. I never do this, and was of course dismayed to find some less complimentary comments, which, in fairness to those who wrote them, were never aimed at me. Best not to dwell on them, especially not the one from the person who said I looked old, but one basically accused me of choosing a “nostalgic” subject, as if perhaps I was only capable of thinking about the past. I’m afraid I politely replied to them and said that I had asked the producers if I could ask questions about the future, but they had turned down my request, so I had to do the past.

Another asked me why I didn’t shake Stewart Francis’s hand, or at least why I left him with his hand out for seconds without shaking it. Here’s why: it is, as far as I know, Mastermind etiquette to congratulate the winner at the end. We all shook DCI Barnaby’s hand. However, Stewart thought he should shake my hand as well, which is very nice, but having shaken Barnaby’s, I  was not looking to my right, but straight ahead. I shook it when I noticed it though.

Honestly, it’s a social minefield! When you are on Mastermind, remember my mistakes. Ultimately, I am proud to be listed on the Wikipedia entry for Celebrity Mastermind, even if I am not a winner. I am among friends there. And I am still not a celebrity, thank God.

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2011: a real page-turner

Well, I’d love to bring you my favourite books of 2011, but I made a New Year’s Resolution on January 1 to only read book this year that I already own. I felt that this was a genius idea: I’ve got loads of books I’ve bought but never read and what better time than a global financial downturn to make the most of what I’ve already got? My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of mostly non-fiction books which I accumulated during the good years when more of my income was disposable. Staring down the barrel of another straitened year, and gazing up at all those unread books – books that I really wanted to read! – I had my eureka moment.

Thus, my 2011 has not been one of exciting new books. It has been one of exciting old books. I’ll be honest, I’ve not exactly torn through a lot of them. I put this down to two things: the New Yorker, again, which continues to fill my reading hours on public transport, and the news itself, which has required closer reading of the Guardian on a daily basis, as the international political and economic situation has become ever more compelling and grave, and more closely tied in with the way we live now.

My book-reading choices have been tied in with this. I vowed to finally finish Andy Beckett’s stirring and enlightening When The Lights Went, his study of Britain’s political 70s, which I’d carried over from the year previous. But guess what, I still haven’t finished it! Why? Especially when I love it so much? Because, around chapter 15, Brent Vs The Cotswolds, which looks in detail at the flashpoint Grunwick strike of 1976-1978, Beckett starts to quote in earnest from The Path To Power, Margaret Thatcher’s second autobiography. (She wrote The Downing Street Years first, then worked backwards.) I remembered that I’d bought The Path To Power a few years ago when I was planning a novel set during the Falklands war. It’s doubly ironic really – that I would even dream of writing a novel, when my publisher would in fact only allow me to write memoirs; and that The Path To Power ends just as Thatcher takes office, and thus does not cover the Falklands. Beckett’s book ends with Thatcher’s victory in 1979, as does The Path To Power. These books form an interesting pair. Although Beckett writes from the left, his account of the decade is fair-minded. Thatcher’s account is much more ideological and one-sided, as you’d expect. (In fact, you’d ask for your money back if it wasn’t.)

I decided to take it off the shelf and read it because I have a simple theory that the rot for this country set in during her long reign in the 1980s. However, she didn’t just turn up in 1979 and ruin everything, as Beckett’s book reminds us. And you need context if you’re to understand what went wrong. And something really did go wrong. The wreckage lies all around us. I hoped that reading about Thatcher’s formative years, I would come to understand why she dismantled British industry, broke up communities, screwed public services, sold us all down the home ownership river and turned us all into selfish bastards who’d do anything to get a better car than our neighbour’s. I’m still 100 pages off finishing – she’s currently telling me all about her international trips made as Leader of the Opposition and why it’s sometimes necessary to shake hands with dictators, and even socialists – but I think I’m starting to understand her.

She’s a far more complex and yet way more ideological individual than you’d ever guess from the forthcoming The Iron Lady film, with Meryl Streep. (I’ll be reviewing that in January – it’s pretty disappointing, I’ll tell you that much in advance.) Her belief in free market economics was sown early on, and her pathological distaste for “statism” as she always calls it, and the namby-pamby trappings of collectivism and socialism merely harden in office. It’s fascinating to read her gearing up for power, and how Labour handed it to her on a plate in 1979 under Callaghan, who attended a summit in the Caribbean sunshine during the Winter of Discontent. You rather suspect Thatcher would have snubbed Carter, D’Estaing and Schmidt to stay at home and drive through the streets in a tank.

In all, a fascinating book, albeit sometimes boring, as political memoirs tend to be, and a valuable insight not just into the woman who, I still maintain, ruined Britain, but to the climate that allowed that to happen.

I like films. And Scenes From A Revolution by Mark Harris sated my interest in this regard. Again, an old book – it came out in this ugly-looking hardcover version in 2008 – it looks in laser-surgical detail at the five films nominated for best picture in 1968 and what they tell us about the industry’s paradigm shift from the old-style roadshow-based studio system and the new, counterculture-reflecting handover of power from producers to directors and writers – Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, In The Heat Of The Night and Doctor Dolittle. It’s a poor title, as well as a horrible cover, but the book inside is engrossing, and full of great trivia! I do have a tendency to get into books that are either hardbacks or just massive, like Thatcher’s, which means they only get read at home. This makes the going very slow indeed. But Scenes From A Revolution, in skipping back and forth between each film as it grinds ever closer to release, has a lovely momentum. As you leave one film in production, you can’t wait to return to it, to see how it’s getting on, and this maintains your interest through the whole book. Frankly, I already knew the story of how Hollywood changed hands in the late 60s, but not, I found, in this much detail.

I thoroughly enjoyed Post Everything, Luke Haines’ follow-up to Bad Vibes, his rewrite of Britpop history. This is the only new book I read this year, and that’s because it was kindly sent to me. He is an incredibly funny writer, and afraid of no one, which is why his humour is so cutting. Haines is the only person alive to have a book in my Top 5 and an LP in my Top 20 (which I haven’t posted yet, bear with me).

And that’s kind of it for my literary year. I also have a copy of Pete Doggett’s The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and The 1970s, which someone kindly sent me and which is clearly a work of admirable industry about a man I love in a decade I love, but it’s not one for reading; rather, it’s for dipping into, which I have been doing.

I broke my New Year’s Resolution in November and bought a clutch of quiz books with which to test my general knowledge for Celebrity Mastermind, the best of which are pictured above, two from the Best Pub Quiz Book Ever series, which I came to rely on as a portable brain gym. I also caved a couple of weeks ago and bought a brand new paperback copy – from an actual bookshop! – of Keynes: Return of the Master by Robert Skidelsky, first published in 2009, which I’ve sneakily started reading as I’m pretty sure I’m a hardcore Keynesian but wanted to double check. (If Thatcher hates him, I’m probably going to love him.) Skidelsky positions JMK in the midst of today’s economic crisis, and his description so far has clarity on its side. I’ll get back to this when I’ve finished the other two books about British political history I’ve mentioned.

I’ve been glancing jealously over the endless book roundups in the newspapers and I wish I’d been able to read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, which is constantly mentioned in dispatches, and the much-fancied Walter Isaacson bestseller Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, and I wish I could have afforded to buy The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke in hardback as it would look nice on my hardbacks shelf even if I’d not got around to reading it yet, but these are hard times. Maybe I’ll get to them next year. I’m thinking about rolling over my 2011 New Year’s Resolution into 2012. It’s been pretty cool. Although I’ve just renewed my subscription to the New Yorker for another 47 issues, so maybe I won’t read any books at all.

2012: TV highlights

Apologies. No time for long blog entry as I’m really up against a scriptwriting deadline (something I’ve started, so I’ll finish). But the nice people at Celebrity Mastermind sent me these pics and they give me the chance to tell you that the series begins on BBC1 on Tuesday December 27 and I make my appearance on Thursday January 5. That’s it really. Make a note in your 2012 diary, Mum and Dad!

Do you expect me to talk?

This will not be a long entry about Celebrity Mastermind, which I filmed at MediaCity, Salford Quays, in Manchester, on Tuesday. I am under strict orders not to reveal anything about the show, for self-evident reasons. I have not even told my Mum and Dad how I got on, other than to say, it was fine. That’s all I will say. Having done this most surreal thing, what can I safely tell you? Well … they film four editions in a day, over three days, which is quite an endurance test for host John Humphrys and the producers, directors, floor managers, technicians, runners and caterers, not to mention the audiences who I assume sit there for the whole day, too. Because it’s shot in Manchester, it’s acting as a canary down the coalmine of the BBC’s financially-driven migration north, as are Blue Peter, CBeebies, 5 Live and various other TV and radio shows, including 6 Music’s Manc outposts, Radcliffe, Maconie and Riley, who only moved in this week.

MediaCity is vast, custom-built and labyrinthine, but then so was Television Centre. It’s clean, slick, digitised and freshly painted and thus has zero character – it’s more like the backstage part of a large arena venue – but it seems to work. Though the celebrities who take part very much occupy the full spectrum of “celebrity” – starting at me and Escape To The Country presenter Jules Hudson, and rising to the dizzier heights of, say, Jason Manford, Erin Boag, Sandie Shaw and cricketer Michael Vaughan OBE – all are treated equally. In this respect, it was fun for me to travel First Class to Manchester (not that I was truly able to relax and enjoy the journey as I was wracked with self-doubt and nerves), and to have a dressing room, and be escorted about the building by designated young men and women in headsets. When I met my fellow contestants – won’t spoil it by naming them, you’ll find out soon enough – I was fully aware that they probably didn’t know who I was, but that I knew who they were. This is fine. In many ways, Mastermind is a great leveller. You don’t score points for how many times you are recognised.

Here’s the weird thing. I was so nervous about the whole thing in the days leading up to Tuesday, and terrified when I woke up on the day. But once I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly and found my cab, the nerves started to dissipate. I think this was something to do with the inevitability of my fate as it got nearer. There was really no more time to revise. I had done all that I could. I had been using quiz books to “revise” general knowledge, and once I put my final quiz book in my bag around Macclesfield, I knew that I would not be needing it again. I liken the whole experience to my fear of flying. I don’t like flying, and yet I have flown a lot. What happens is: I get nervous and uneasy in the days leading up to a flight, and feel a bit sick when I wake up in the morning, but the closer I get to flying, the less nervous I become. Thus, my nerves dissipate when I travel to the airport, when I check in, when I go to the gate, and finally, when I board the plane, by which time, I am no longer nervous.

As we were introduced to the audience by warm-up man Ted Robbins and trooped to our seats (I was placed third from the left), I realised that there was no escape. It was happening. I was going to sit in one black leather chair and eventually be directed to sit in another one, there to be asked questions on my specialist subject for a minute and a half, and subsequently on general knowledge for two minutes. (I liked the fact that the two rounds were referred to by the production team as “SS” and “GK”.) Like all TV studios, especially ones you are used to seeing on TV, the real thing is oddly unimpressive and commonplace. I remember thinking this when I went to a studio recording of Have I Got News For You – the set looks like the pieces of wood it is actually made from, as opposed to being made of TV magic, which is what we expect. TV Burp is the same. With re-takes and pick-ups, Mastermind is no less real, but the one thing that isn’t faked is the answering of the questions: these take place in real time, by and large, and the buzzer actually sounds at the end. The main difference between watching it and being on it is that you are on it.

It was a treat to be recording on the same day as Justin Moorhouse, whom I haven’t seen since we lived together in Edinburgh last year. He kindly put me up for the night in his house, too, which meant I could hang around afterwards in hospitality and eat what amounted to three lots of catering, one after each show. It was only at the end of the day that John Humphrys turned up backstage, all relaxed and without a tie, to have a couple of cans of bitter. So we nabbed him for a photograph. I’m glad we did. Although, frankly, there will be enough visual evidence that I was on Mastermind in December. I’m such a star-struck passenger, I took the little insert from my dressing room door. More proof that this ridiculous thing actually happened to me. Now time to move on with my life.

I’m a celebrity … ?

I expect you’ve gathered that I have been asked to compete on the next series of Celebrity Mastermind, which is filmed in Manchester next week for broadcast on BBC1 over Christmas and New Year. It goes without saying that I am flattered to be asked, and excited, and terrified. I have known for three weeks and have been mainlining quiz books ever since. (Even though you can’t actually revise general knowledge – it is, after all, about everything – I have found that testing myself has been good exercise for my brain and it has unlocked quite a bit of knowledge that’s already in there. Also, it’s good fun.) I have been forbidden from revealing my specialist subject, for the simple reason that if anybody helpfully asks me a question on it in a public forum, that question will then be disqualified for use on the programme. (I seem to remember running into this grey area with Richard last year on 6 Music, when listeners helpfully sent in test questions on Rasputin, unless I’m getting the chronology of it wrong?) Anyway, after Tuesday, when I spend the day in Salford Quays, I’ll at least be able to reveal what many have already guessed, although not how I got on, obviously. I shall abide by Mastermind‘s official secrets act until it’s broadcast.

Here’s what’s really weird about what is already a surreal situation. I’ve always felt at one remove from the sort of people they get on Celebrity Mastermind – or indeed, Celebrity Anything. Quite a few people I know have been on Mastermind – Richard, Stuart Maconie, Stewart Lee, Lucy Porter, Rhys Thomas, Giles Coren – but I consider all of them to be more “famous” than me. Stuart’s an established name on Radio 2, and it doesn’t get much more mainstream and housewives’ favourite than that, while the others are on television regularly. (Despite Richard’s forelock-tugging humility shtick, I consider his having been a panelist on Have I Got News For You and Never Mind The Buzzcocks the equivalent of making it. I’m not sure being a panelist on What The Dickens? on SkyArts is.)

I don’t feel insecure about not being famous. I get stopped in the street about just as often as I can handle, and many of those occasions are for Mark Steel anyway. What I’m insecure about is the already generous net of “Celebrity” finally widening to include me. It seems they really are starting to run out of actual celebrities. It was bound to happen. Richard enjoys telling of the time he was described in Cheddar as “nationally known.” I am happy to be “known” – most of my work happens in the public domain, albeit as a writer, I feel more comfortable than I do as a performer or broadcaster. Radio is a much more subtle and intimate form of communication than being on the telly. So it’s ironic that Celebrity Mastermind will put me on early-evening BBC1. (If my early experience of Telly Addicts – another early evening BBC1 quiz show – was anything to go by, it might actually get me recognised in the street afterwards.) “Celebrity” is not a profession; it is a condition, and a condition that is conferred upon you. If the word has its roots in “celebration”, that no longer holds true; many of today’s “celebrities” are anything but celebrated. Cat Bin Lady was, briefly, a celebrity. So is Louise Mensch.

Again, I am sworn to secrecy, but I have been told the identities of the three co-participants I will be up against on the day, and they are all recognisably famous. Your mum and dad would know who they are, to look at, if not in all three cases, actually name. If they are still alive, even your grandparents would know them. This is not a given; I have not known everybody who competed on the previous eight series of Celebrity Mastermind – if they were presenters of TV shows that I don’t watch, I didn’t necessarily recognise them, or their names. I will be that person on the night. I will be the one whose face and name leave many viewers clueless. Let’s face it, I am now part of the problem. By being on a programme with Celebrity in the title, I am adding to the desecration and belittlement of the word. Journalists love to describe people like me as “Z-list” although this is ironic, as journalists are just as likely to be asked to be on TV, where only hardened newshounds will recognise them from their picture bylines.

When I was growing up, if I didn’t recognise somebody on Celebrity Squares, I assumed it was because I was too young. I accepted without question that they were celebrities, because it said so in the title of the show. By that same token, by being on Celebrity Mastermind, I will appear to be a celebrity. Just as, say, Pixie McKenna, James Redmond, Hilary Kay and others I did not personally recognise did on the last series. (I found out who all three of these people were when their captions came up, of course: TV doctor, actor, Antiques Roadshow.)

I’m really thrilled to be on it, but because it’s Mastermind, and it gauges and rewards cleverness, not fame, and I’ve watched it all my life, and I want to do well (not win, just do well enough not to look like an idiot). I’m also excited to be able to make some money for – and give much-needed primetime publicity to – the charity of which I’m patron, Thomas’s Fund. I like quizzes. I like my own specialist subject. I like playing Mastermind at home. The C-word is the only fly in the ointment. And only a semantic fly in any case.

The car firm that is being sent to pick me up from Piccadilly Station on Tuesday is called Star In A Car. What if they operate on the basis that if you are a star, the driver will recognise you and pick you up? If mine doesn’t – and unless he records and keeps every edition of What The Dickens? on SkyArts, or he watches 6 Music on the webcam when one of the regular daytime presenters is ill, he seriously might not – I may have to pay for my own cab to the studio.

Right, back to my revision.