Many years ago, when your new favourite band were still in the womb, I was a contestant in the So You Think You’re Funny competition at the Edinburgh Fringe. For days before the heat, my stomach was jumbled and confused, my fight or flight mechanism was flashing, my eyes were a little wider than they had been in July. In those days, the nerves before a gig of any sort kicked in a week beforehand. I made it into the final and, due to a misunderstanding, I presumed I had to have a completely new ten minutes. The joy of winning the heat, quickly eclipsed by the new terror of being scrutinised all over again.
On the day of the final, I walked up one of Edinburgh’s less popular hills and stared down at the city, calming myself with the thought that almost all those people contained in the frame I was viewing would not see me tonight and know nothing of me by tomorrow’s dawn, whether I was success or failure.
I came second, the peak of my career for many years as my abilities slid downhill over much of the nineties. I was never fondly remembered by Karen Koren and the Gilded Balloon organisers, being possibly the only runner up never to be asked to do the long running Best of So You Think You’re Funny shows.
As the years pass, the length of pre-stage terrors becomes shorter. Lucky, as otherwise there would be a constant overlap of near nervous collapse as each night is a new town and new people. I am quite relaxed now before a gig, there is just a mild tremor of expectation in the last 30 minutes before I go on (stretch that to 14 – 24 hours when trying out new shows).
But tonight, all that red raw stomach blistering is there, for I am on Just a MInute. This is an iconic show to me. A show older than I am.
And I will be on with stalwarts – Paul Merton, Sheila Hancock, Nicholas Parsons and Graham Norton. What if the subjects are given to me and I blank? What if my brain, already tired from insomnia and touring, flicks the Vs at me and says, very publicly, “no more! these neurons are sick of having to make up stuff to make you look good, we have nothing left to retrieve or fabricate or imagine in the hope that some of the words within are entertaining. Let us switch off while you bang nails into wood or do something purposeful. Build something simple and useful. Sow seeds, watch them grow.”
I told Nicholas that I had been in a room of people shouting, “It’s Nicholas BLOODY Parsons!” a mere matter of weeks before.
The last time I was on, still in the times of Freud (Clement), my brain fired on all cylinders in the first round but, on the cusp of whistle blown victory, my mind was required to retrieve the name of a sitcom, it foolishly found “Allo! Allo!”
And there was Paul, so sharp and trained in the ways of Just a Minute, buzzing in with “repetition”, only Hi De Hi could have been worse.
In the 12 hours before the recording, I constantly rehearsed possibilities. Each object I saw, whether pedal bin, paperclip or Matthew Amroliwala, I imagined Nicholas Parsons telling me, “your subject is Matthew Amroliwala and your time starts now.” As it was, Matthew Amroliwala didn’t come up on the night.
At 18.45, they all assembled in the green room, with stories of vast book launches and gigs in cathedrals, I kept quiet about my parish church gigs and lack of interest from Tesco in my horror anthology. I was diminutive, some new thing, though grey and thinning – a remnant in an Alien Resurrection specimen jar.
I was slightly tethered by fear. My mind is always busy on such occasions reminding me that I am not good enough and people are disappointed, whether The Infinite Monkey Cage or Just a Minute or some benefit gig.
It was fascinating to watch the minds of them all at work on the show, Sheila had been doing it since series 2, the year before I was born, though I am not sure I have learnt enough in the intervening years. This was once a world of Nimmo, Freud and Williams.
It was filled with the sort of good nature and apologies rarely seen on TV panel shows. Interruptions followed by apologies that “I probably shouldn’t have buzzed in, it was barely a deviation, do continue Paul”.
I was repetitively kicking myself within. Every time I snatched a subject from someone else, I managed to repeat something within seconds, though I have no idea how I clumsily repeated both DNA and Schopenhauer. As with my last appearance on Just a Minute, Nicholas looked at me on a few occasions and said, “we have no idea what you are talking about, but it’s all jolly”.
Sheila Hancock remains one of my favourite Quakers.
I was disappointed with my performance, but drank some wine and talked about Laurel and Hardy with Paul Merton afterwards. I am going to watch Blockheads now.
there is a run of Christmas science shows in London with guests including Mary Beard (15th), Stewart Lee (17th and 20th), Brian Cox, Scroobius Pip and loads more, plus off on tour again http://www.robinince.com
and the new horror anthology is available here