Lost At The BBC: The Buzzcocks Jazz Ribena Sock-Shuffle

Last week I was introduced to the dubious delights of ‘Jazz Ribena’, which I think involves port and know involves dancing to odd Balkan music in your socks. I was at the end-of-series wrap party for Buzzcocks and the delightful oddities on Phill Jupitus’ ipod had everyone dancing like loons. (Though to be honest we all looked pretty sane next to Noel Fielding, cavorting in a sequinned dress.)

At one point mid-boogie, I realised rather sharply that I was on the verge of bladder-explosion and so went in search of a toilet. Everything at the BBC involves an epic search. That place is a maze – you should be given either sat-nav or a sherpa upon entry. Open a broom cupboard and you’ll probably find a forgotten member of The Bay City Rollers who got lost between his dressing room and the Top of The Pops studio in 1973.

I found a toilet. Being able to read, even after numerous Jazz Ribenas, got me that far. However, after a worryingly long wee – a thunderous affair which left me marvelling at my dam-like pelvic floor muscles (tended to, I suppose by a stoic beaver) – I wasn’t so lucky in finding my way back. I think I took a wrong turn as I first stepped out of the door – the first of so many wrong turns – and there began a little adventure in my socks.

I shuffled down empty corridors of unmarked doors, past strangely abandoned printers, the canteen, green-rooms, dressing rooms. I stood in an empty studio all cloaked in shadows, and in its chill could almost hear the echoes of decades of laughter. I heard a noise that was probably just the clanking of a pipe, and hurried out. Back through the eternal curve of that circular behemoth, eyes dawdling on the framed faces of past and present glory, smiles all stopped still in the turgidity of TV make-up. The optical whip of walking in a constant spiral made them appear as though they were moving as soon as I took my eyes off them; dancing away in some other-worldly ball.

I could easily have panicked, alone in secreted round corners of that building and unaided by logic to find my way back, but instead I felt a bit enchanted by its ghostliness. Even in my tipsy haze I couldn’t help but be respectful of my surroundings – the history held in its walls. I thought about the institution it was, the fact it wouldn’t be there for much longer, the many people that had passed through its halls. I was achingly aware that it is all now tinged by the recent awful stories about it. It seemed a bit haunted by itself.

I came across Gordon the Gopher, who was encased in what looked like bullet-proof glass, and I stopped. Here was my childhood, inlaid in a wall. This little fella for years greeted me when I got in from school. I sat cross-legged on the floor watching his puppeteered moosh chatting to Phillip Schofield while I ate my stinky Space Raiders. Here he was, his mouth still, his little fluffy bum unanimated, his eyes an ungleaming black. I wanted to cuddle him but I thought cracking him out might get me arrested. (Though at least getting chucked out of the building would be better than being signed off as permanently missing, like a lost glove.)

The first time I went to the beeb was on a school trip as part of my GCSE Media course back in the mid 90s. Arriving on a coach at the postcode that I had memorised from Blue Peter competitions thrilled me, and going through the revolving doors into the foyer felt like passing into another hallowed dimension. Us girls, high on Cherry Drops and an endless chant of rude-word Ten Green Bottles, all hoped to spot ‘famous people’ (the word ‘celebrities’ wasn’t common in our vocabularies then). We were vaguely disappointed to only catch a glimpse of, yes, Jimmy Savile. He swaggered through like he owned the place, grinning, and we hoped he might just be the dud start to a much more impressive parade of stars. We would never have suspected that he was anything other than a harmless cheesy old duffer with a cigar. I would never have thought that I would be back in the building years later, with everything changed. I would never have thought that that swagger, that grin, that air of ownership about him, would have so dark a source.

I looked at Gordon and I felt anger. Real rage. About the abuse, about the sordid gatherings, about all the things that went on behind some of these doors. About the sullying of innocence and magic, about the trust and starstruck hope that was manipulated for the whims of an abhorrent clique of powerful movers and shakers. Childhoods, all our childhoods, somehow negated as stupid. We were scoffed at, even the lucky ones of us. We were fools; herded, unimportant, worthy of damage. It could have been any of us, and so is all of us.

I felt rage about the casual way in which some people go around affecting people’s lives. It’s one thing to have dodgy proclivities, to have dubious desires and habits – but to deny, underestimate, or (endlessly worse) completely disregard the effect your actions will have on others is truly evil.

Jimmy Savile didn’t just give in to vile urges. He trampled over people’s souls and changed the way they think of humans and the world forever. He gave them a heritage of mistrust, ugly thoughts, and nightmares for the sake of his own snatched subversive jollies. And his clever evasion of it – his defiance and his cynical-playful half-confessional denials, his twisting of the media which at times half-heartedly came for him – proves beyond a doubt that he knew it was all wrong.

He knew what he was doing was wrong.

That is what is beyond cruelty. He knew, and he chose all that over doing the right and kind – the ‘human‘ – thing. (Which was, if he couldn’t have guaranteed that his abusive urges be controlled, to undergo some very expensive psychological treatment, lock himself away from society, or to kill himself.)

Someone once said to me “If I am in your life, it must be as a good thing”, and for a while they weren’t in my life, and now they are again in a new and healthy capacity. I have always valued the consideration that went into saying that. He might have not cared. He could have stuck around and been a bad thing. But he didn’t. He chose not to affect me. He understood on a primary human level that people’s lives, that my life, is important, and that no one has the right to wilfully taint it. We all leave legacies in everything we do. We must always think of what imprints we will leave – on cherished family, on our friends, even on the chap that runs the corner shop.

The BBC has many legacies, for many people. I have been lost in it a good few times, but never, til now, knowing that for some people its legacies are far darker. There have been other things lost in that building, and it’s so so sad that as I found my way back to the party I wondered if it might take demolition to allow the BBC to move on from it all. Crush these hallowed halls and start afresh. Sad.

I carried on dancing, I drank more Jazz Ribena – but it didn’t taste the same.


The Small Tattoo of Flocking Birds

From time to time in any job it sometimes becomes necessary to employ the use of thought. In some strange spheres thought is even demanded on a regular basis. I would imagine day-dreaming during brain surgery is seriously discouraged – and doodling in the middle of a tattoo isn’t likely to earn you a tip – a spontaneously etched smoking chihuahua in the middle of an ‘I Love Mum’ garland would in fact probably lose you the tip of your phallus when Bob ‘Knifey’ McGinty comes to and realises what you’ve done. Yes, every now and then us dysfunctional dreamers are advised to concentrate.

I did a ‘job’ last week that I felt completely unnatural doing. I got paid to abandon thought and care, and to act like a bit of a nob. It was surprisingly hard. As a performer, the one thing I have always shied away from is improv. It scares the willies out of me – perhaps because my heart lies in writing and I like to hide behind these considered curlicues of thought. Writing is quite cowardly really. None of you can see me as I write this, stretched out on my bed in mis-matched pyjamas, naked in my musings and insecurities, with a spot on my cheek the size of Basildon. I can think, and type, and ever-importantly, I can delete. I panic when asked to do stuff on the spot; to just go with it and “feel the moment”. I can’t bear the thought of being rubbish at it, at not creating something ‘good’.

Last week I did a show called The Phill Jupitus Experiment – which was essentially a bespoke improv show designed by a wonderful comedian named Deborah Frances-White to mess with Phill’s head, who rocked up at the theatre not having a clue what was about to happen. The phwoarsome Russell Tovey and I were the goons employed to play scenes around whatever was thrown at us. Russell is a proper actor who’s been in loads of excellent stuff, and Phill has been the master of making things up in front of people for as long as he’s had a nose. He’s as comfortable on a strange stage as he is in his own armchair, and is master of the absurd as much as he is master of his dog. I tried not to waste time muddling over my own thoughts; “What the frick am I doing here?” being the most insistent. I looked at the small tattoo of flocking birds on my wrist and remembered that it was there to remind me to be brave. So I had a beer and put some lipstick on.

One of the only rules of improvisation is ‘accept and build’ – meaning you never say no, you never block another performer’s idea, you go with it and support each other. And see what trail of lunacy you end up on. Day-dreaming and doodling with the mind become valuable skills. My life-wench and improvisor extraordinaire Sarah Mayhew has often briefed me in the bullet-points of the art. I have watched her many times make something out of nothing on stage; that girl could turn a clanking oil-rig into a candle-lit Strauss ball. And here I was, woefully under-qualified, up on stage with two dudes at the top of their game. Holy Eff.

The show was fantastic. Phill was led from scene to scene by nothing more than a voice from the darkness, and people followed him like sheep with lanterns tied to their tails. There were funny scenes, and poignant scenes, and all of them born out of tiny sparks of the brain, spontaneous frissons of ideas bouncing between everyone. I had nothing to type on. It was writing on the spot, and there was no delete button. “Accept and build.”

There is something excruciatingly honest about staring out at an audience of hundreds of people, and – while cranking the illusory mechanics of character and craft – also holding a metaphorical placard bearing the truth: “I have no idea what I’m doing.” People respond to its vulnerability. Aside from wanting to be entertained and possibly moved, they also like knowing that you, like most people, haven’t got a clue what will come next.

Is Improv, then, the most honest, and thus liberating, art form? Life is an unplanned show, with unexpected scenes, and voices from the darkness, and the denouements aren’t neat. There is no Artistic Director making it all come together.

Perhaps there is only one clear rule. We just have to get up and see what happens. But the ‘getting up and being brave’ bit is the most important, because you can never be sure what beautiful scenes will come next.