Too Real for TV?

I’ve got opinions and things to say, so I auditioned to be a panel-member on the RangaNation. How did it go?

The RangaNation is a BBC2 current affairs comedy show with a panel of ‘ordinary’ people (and Romesh’s Mum), discussing the events of the last week with Romesh, celebrity guests and a live audience. Last year, I noticed the show was being made via Zoom. As self-appointed ‘King of Zoom’, I applied to be on the panel. I didn’t hear anything back until this Summer, when I was asked to reapply, probably to do with data protection, I thought. Now with an MBE, I wondered if that might pique their interest. It did, and an audition via Zoom was arranged that week.

I have previous TV experience, Helen, a friend and I were audience members for a recording of an episode of ‘This Morning with Richard, not Judy’ in 1999. TMWRNJ was a double act sketch show also on BBC2, Richard Herring playing the impulsive adolescent to Stewart Lee’s intellectual parent. It was edgy and very funny, with characters and sketches I still think about today. Not using a wheelchair then but pretty unstable, the three of us got to sit on the sofas in front of the audience, on the stage floor.

A few minutes before the recording started, Richard came onto the set wearing the head of a giant chicken and holding a tennis racket. “Who am I?” he asked, swinging his racket in a slow back-hand motion. It was quite a risk. There was an awkward silence and Richard gamely did some more tennis moves to prompt us. I desperately wanted to help. Wimbledon was in full-swing that week, so I started there. After another couple of seconds of agonizing silence, I realised it was down to me and blurted out:

Tim Hen-Man

“Tim Henman?”

A huge wave of relief. The audience laughed, relieved that they will no longer on the spot, Richard beamed with relief that his joke had worked and I was relieved that I had gotten the answer right in front of my peers and a hero of mine.

“He’s a very clever man.” He said to the audience. As he passed where we were sitting, looked me in the eye and repeated. “You’re, a very clever man.” I’ve told that story a lot over the last twenty years, and am sure I have embellished it – but that’s how I remember it. You can ask Helen – she was there too!

Despite the pool of people who remember this show seeming to get smaller each year, this turned out to be one of my best ever interactions with a celebrity! We have seen Richard Herring at the Edinburgh Fringe and several local venues – I also listen to his excellent RHLSP podcast. We still see Stewart Lee whenever he is in Oxford. Looking back at the episode reveals how smart Richard was.

Back to The RangaNation. The application asked about my burning passion, most embarrassing moment and pet hate. Wide-open jumping-off points to show my personality. I talked about my achievements, but was careful to acknowledge the excellent support that has always made the difference. I hope I came across as a unique, modest and interesting person.

(me) Simon Bird – The Inbetweeners

In the application, I confessed that my most embarrassing moment was taking a briefcase to school. This was in the late eighties, twenty years before it was made famous by The Inbetweeners, so I was ahead of my time! (My legal team are checking if I am owed any royalties!) When it came up in the audition, I explained how I’d recently asked my old school friends on Facebook if they remembered my briefcase, secretly hoping that I’d imagined it or maybe they had all forgotten. No chance. They all remembered. It got a laugh and I was pleased with how I had turned an awkward teenage episode into an amusing anecdote about memory.

I knew I had to be very careful with my pet hates. I know that outsider viewpoints aren’t popular and I should definitely avoid getting on my soapbox and talking about access, ableism or poverty. I had attempted to dismiss the question on my application by explaining being angry is pointless and something I try not to do. In the audition, the interviewer sensed I was holding back, – “But there must be something that makes you angry?” Under pressure to show some passion, I replied that social injustice makes me very angry. Then the floodgates opened! I spoke out about austerity, Brexit, Trump and Covid. I think I mentioned social justice five or six times. I even mentioned disability and how the very common level of ignorance held by most people also makes me angry.

I was concerned that my outburst had made me look preachy and bitter. I knew the key here was to keep things light, but be quirky and funny. Maybe I should have wondered about why the shower suddenly goes from very hot to very cold or why people in TV commercials behave unrealistically.

We went on to talk about Lockdown life, Home-schooling and Zoom meetings – all things I have crafted into anecdotes and touched on in my blog. I thought I’d turned it round and overall, the audition went well. I was surprised and a little disappointed not to be called back later that week. But as Colin Kaepernick says in the excellent Colin in Black and White: “Rejection is not failure, it’s a calibrator. It can help you learn who you are what you want.”

Life carried on. When I caught an episode from the new series a few months later, I noticed they had kept many of the same contributors as before. Glam Gran, Dogfather, Wheeler Dealer, Lord Dave, Oxbridge and Romesh’s Mum. I realised that if the producers felt that if they were close to winning formula, and it was one-in, one-out, there was serious competition for places. A new panelist was unveiled, a circus trained Acrobat. Undoubtedly highly skilled and with lots of funny stories, her selection made it clear to me why I wouldn’t fit in with the bigger group.

Romesh Ranganathan

The Ranganation discussed a recent poll on Twitter which had asked people to choose who would be the best Prime between Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer. I would have gone in hard. Firstly, Boris Johnson is already Prime Minister, so we were being asked the wrong question. The question should have been: ‘Do you think Boris Johnson is doing a good job as Prime Minister?

Secondly, both have proved unfit for their jobs. Johnson’s main job is to avoid deaths, act with integrity, diplomacy and grace. Starmer’s one job is to form a credible opposition; I think both have failed, Johnson catastrophically so. I don’t think this observation would have gone down well on a light-hearted current affairs show. The discussion soon turned to which of the two to go for a drink or on holiday with and touched on Johnson’s (carefully manufactured) loveable, bumbling nature. This rambling conversation continued for almost nine minutes.

Romesh engages with the banter and then delivers a witty conclusion. It’s his show, he has to be the smartest, funniest one – the king of the discussion. He ended this one with the observation: “Neither are particularly inspiring, both look like they have been kicked out of the apprentice by week three.” Not the scorching polemic I was hoping for from a fellow admirer of the great Richard Pryor. Perhaps that was as far as Romesh and the writers on the show felt they could go on BBC2.

If I want to be taken seriously and change how the world sees disabled people. I need to think about how I get my message across. I also learned that I would be better at writing for TV rather than being on it. Perhaps my work as a thirteen-year-old to bring the briefcase back and that brief moment of connection with Richard Herring twenty years ago were signs?

Richard Brown MBE

November 2021

1 Comment

  1. Richard.
    Fascinating insight to your inner sanctum.
    I feel privileged to both know you and work with you as part of our Community Bus operation, however my distinct and lasting impression, is your subtlety in getting important messages across, in an unfloudered and positive way.
    That is a very special enabling style in my opinion.


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