diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 30, 2005

Watching you watching me

It always amazes me how good the human brain is at spotting faces in a crowd. I pass thousands of people travelling around London every day and my brain manages to filter out almost every single one of them as people I don't know. Very occasionally, however, some mental alarm is set off as a face suddenly registers in my subconscious. "Hmmm, I'm sure I know that person from somewhere..." Sometimes it's a face from my distant past, someone I used to know through work or even school, and my brain has to confirm that the view I see before me is consistent with how that person might look decades after the last time I saw them, and then maybe suggest to my mouth that I might want to say hello, remember me? And sometimes, rather more often in London than anywhere I've lived before, it's the face of somebody famous. There are different levels of fame, of course, so it's only been mildly thrilling to recognise Peter Stringfellow, Bob Crow and that bloke who plays the bit parts in Little Britain, it was rather more exciting to notice Neil Kinnock, Ricky Gervais and Una Stubbs, and it was quite humbling to realise that I was in the presence of Glenda Jackson (behind me in a queue buying Christmas cards), Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan, no less) and Dermot O'Leary (twice now, such is my luck).

Last week I walked into a Central line carriage and sat down opposite Lee Hurst. I spotted he was famous comedian Lee Hurst straight away, but it appeared that nobody else in the carriage had recognised the man with the green Marks & Spencer carrier bag and the square-toed shoes (with the exception of Mr Hurst himself, that is). Everybody else carried on doing what they might normally do when sitting in a train carriage (reading books, staring out of the window at the passing blackness, picking their nose, etc) whereas I just became mildly self-conscious. I realised that stand-up comedians gather most of their material from observing what goes on around them (like the ever-astute Richard Herring, for example), and that I was in danger of becoming part of Lee's next act. I didn't want to be audience fodder so I tried to look normal and hid behind my newspaper. Then I realised that one glimpse of the masthead had probably pigeonholed me within a certain stereotypical subdivision of society, wondered whether it might be better to play a game on my mobile instead, thought better of it, stopped myself from instinctively picking my nose and hid back behind the headlines again.

At which point I realised that I was worrying about nothing. I was in no danger of being singled out by a comedian's sharp eye because there were far weirder people all around me. Lee, were he interested, would be far more likely to develop a comedy routine based on the nearby diamond-earringed fashion victim with a ridiculous woolly hat perched on his head, or the snoring drunkard displaying his beer belly behind paint-splattered overalls, or the teenage couple happily snogging each other in full view of the rest of the carriage. More importantly I realised that my blog probably has a slightly larger readership than the capacity of Lee's esteemed Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green. As a media-owning comic writer myself I was actually the one in control here, which gave me the power to turn the tables and write an in-depth routine about Mr Hurst instead. So I have.

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