I live in a sleepy Somerset village, and preparations for the summer solstice - in which yet another unsuspecting Police Community Support Officer will be lured to a fiery demise inside a large wicker effigy, thereby ensuring an abundant harvest this year – are in full flow. It's at times like this that my formative years in North London seem very, very far away.
Nowadays, of course, North London is famed and ridiculed in equal measure as the preferred stomping ground for anyone with even the merest hint of a media profile in our supposedly celebrity-obsessed culture. No newspaper or magazine article is complete without the obligatory mention of this or that celebrity's North London home. Michael McIntyre's £3.2 (or is it £3.7?) million house in Hampstead gets so much coverage you can only assume he brings his copy of the Home Information Pack to every interview. In his Observer column, David Mitchell name-checks a vaguely intimidating working-men's club near his home in Kilburn. He says he's never been in there, and that's probably wise: when I knew it a quarter-century ago, it had a 'No Tanned Persons' policy, and it's a fair bet that even today, that same robust lack of hospitality would extend to any Oxbridge-educated media darling foolish enough to wander in off the street looking for carrot juice and wi-fi.
Unlike the US, where every celebrity is at pains to tell the interviewer that they have to escape to their brownstone in New York or the ranch in Montana because they don't do “that whole Hollywood thing” (which must make for an awfully long commute whenever they feel the need to go shoplifting, drink-driving, or looking for a blow job), our home-grown celebrities aren't ashamed of their need to flock together within jogging distance of Primrose Hill. With hindsight, it's always been that way.
To a kid growing up in North London, being famous meant Being Famous. Only four channels of TV and no internet made for a lot less in the way of household names. No Big Brother contestants, no Heat magazine breathlessly reporting somebody called Joey Essex's latest visit to Nando's, no what's-his-face off that BBC News 24. Although there were less of what you might call “crap celebrities”, it was still more than possible to have what you could call a “crap celebrity encounter” - that is, a star struck encounter with a real celebrity that was, on reflection (and very often on the day), completely and utterly rubbish for all involved. Here are some of mine.
1. Being obnoxious to Jim Dunk.
Jim Dunk is, to be honest, a bit of a journeyman actor. He's had parts in Minder, both television incarnations of Crossroads, he's ended up in Casualty twice (the Holby City one, not a real one), and he got kneed in the bollocks by Tim Roth in Alan Clarke's 1982 television play Made in Britain. He is also, it has to be said, a man with considerable self-control. I know this because he denied himself the opportunity to twat me, despite ample provocation on my part.
For a couple of years there in the late 80s, Jim Dunk was The Man, and as the face of a the Molson Beer advertising campaign, even had his own slogan: “Jim Dunk Says Don't Drink It”.
Jim, I was that obnoxious show-off 17 year old prick that would not shut up about the beer commercials whilst you were trying to introduce the stage production of Look Back in Anger that you'd directed. I'm sorry, Jim. In retrospect, you should have punched me. It might have prevented a certain someone doing exactly the same thing to Clive Mantle over a decade later.
2. Having a literary character throw a milk bottle at you.
To be fair, Mad Mary wasn't a literary character when she launched an empty milk bottle at my head. It would be another twenty years before she would be immortalised in Zadie Smith's novel White Teeth. But when I was a kid, Mary was already a celebrity in my neck of the woods, and her madness was legendary. In some ways, the milk bottle incident is kind of a badge of honour: most people would just get spat at by her. Not me. I got the VIP treatment.
3. Kevin Rowland dated my sister.
For reasons that still remain largely unclear to me (sorry Sis), Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners sort of dated my elder sister for a few months when I was a teenager. This wasn't pre-fame Kevin Rowland, you understand. This was post-Come On Eileen Kevin Rowland (though, mercifully, a good decade or so before his very public flirtation with transvestitism). He seemed to have a kind of Pygmalion thing going on with her: he'd get her to listen to Billie Holiday records, buy her lots of denim clothes and one of those silver-buckled cowboy-type belts peculiar to the late 1980s and Levi's 501 commercials . I bumped into him a few times, but never actually spoke to him the whole time he was going out with my sister. What was I going to say - “Actually, I quite enjoyed 'Searching For The Young Soul Rebels', I don't care what the NME says”, “So, you shagging her, or what?”. In the end, I settled for quietly nicking the belt.
4. Sharing an aisle in Londis with Chaka Khan.
In a surreal precursor to Stella Street, multi-Grammy Award-winning funk diva Chaka Khan moved into a house just down the road from us (in fact, not too far way from Mr. Rowland). I have two abiding memories of Chaka Khan: seeing the video for her 1984 hit This Is My Night on The Tube and realising for the first time that she had a really quite amazing pair of breasts, and trying to squeeze past her a few years later in the local corner shop, realising once again that she had a really quite amazing pair of breasts. Now that I think about it, this doesn't qualify as a crap celebrity encounter at all. Thank you, Chaka. Thanks for the mammaries.
5. Pat Sharp's weirdly bemulleted family.
The office block that housed Capital Radio during the 80s (Euston Tower, “The Tower of Power”) also housed, for motives unknown, a JobCentre in the lobby. It was actually quite a good one, and the jobs advertised seemed a lot more attractive to the average 18-24 jobseeker (or unemployed dossers, as we were known back then) than the standard shelf-stacking crap you'd normally expect to find. Also, rather than the usual diet of security guard vs. Yosser Hughes punch-ups, you were treated to the likes of Kenny Everett, Chris Tarrant, and - one memorable afternoon - Leslie Nielsen sweeping grandly through the lobby and up the stairs to the radio studios above. One day I happened to spy legendary 80s mullet Pat Sharp joining his family for a lunch date in the nearby Warren Street branch of Maccy D's. At least, I assumed it was his family. Looking back, it could well have been his team of stunt doubles, as they all wore tight snow-wash jeans, black bomber jackets, winklepicker boots and, most striking of all, gorgeous blond mullets with the mandatory highlights. Even the wife. Even the children.
Dear sweet merciful God in heaven, even the children.
6. Grabbing a bite to eat with Frank Butcher.
It's a little known fact that every resident of North London is given at least one chance to be employed by the BBC. My chance came when I was taken on as a journalist for the Beeb's flagship regional news programme covering the London area, despite the fact that my only experience was babysitting the producer's kids. The newsroom was at the Borehamwood studios, from which the horror that is EastEnders is inflicted upon the nation. Thus I occasionally found myself rubbing shoulders with the stars of the show.
All I can say, dear reader, is if ever you found yourself across a lunch table from Mike Reid - TV's own Frank Butcher – hopefully you didn't attempt to communicate with the Mike Reid. Hopefully you didn't make eye contact with the Mike Reid, and in no way did you impinge on the consciousness of the Mike Reid. The Mike Reid would not have reacted amiably to your presence. There were two possibilities that presented themselves: Mike Reid was either a Very Serious Actor and a great believer in The Method, or he was a very troubled man. Decades later, having read his Wikipedia page, I realised it was the latter.
Actually, there is one more thing I can say. Submitting a news report with the words “UN lawyer” “donkey” and “buggery” in it will very quickly get you fired from the BBC.
7. The ninth rule of Fight Club is, do not mess with Clive Mantle.
Bit of a cheat, this one, as it didn't actually happen in London, but years later, over a number of nights in a very nice pub in Bath. Having escaped getting my lights punched out by Jim Dunk, I was still of the mind that sniggering at the completely innocent TV actor on the other side of the room was a viable way of spending an evening. Hur, hur, look, it's Mike from Casualty.
Except Clive Mantle wasn't only in Casualty. Flipping through television channels one evening, I chanced upon the Clint Eastwood film White Hunter, Black Heart. More accurately, I chanced upon the scene where Clive Mantle's character beats the living crap out of Clint Eastwood's character. More accurately still, where he VERY CONVINCINGLY beats the crap out of Clint Eastwood's character. That very night, I determined not to snigger at any more TV actors. At least not the ones who can give Dirty Harry a good kicking, and entirely sell you on the concept.
8. Kim Appleby tries to kill me.
Back to my misspent youth in North London now, and one half of pop duo Mel & Kim's repeated attempts to mow me down in her car. It got to the stage where I was augmenting my Green Cross Code with an additional step: Stop. Look. Listen. Check both ways for Kim Appleby before crossing the road.
I still have no idea why she chose to target me as the object of her vehicular homicidal urges, but I know it was her, even with the high speeds involved and my frantic attempts get out of the way of her front bumper. I know it was her because the third time she attempted to extinguish the spark of my life, on a quiet side street off the Kilburn High Road, I couldn't help but notice a visibly nervous Craig Logan from Bros in the passenger seat.
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