It was a weak look, that was the problem. Brenda sat in front of the mirror and screwed up her face, making crows feet in the outer corners of her eyes and puckering the skin around her lips. The softly falling waves of hair that framed her face so prettily had been a mistake, as was the smokey eye she had been talked into and the glossy, sticky lips that made her feel like a sex doll. It all said 'only good for one thing', and that thing was definitely not 'being funny on national television'. Some women could pull this look off and still come out with their best hits. Brenda couldn't. Brenda needed to look tougher than this if she was going to do her job properly. She stood up to get a better sense of the whole package. Planting herself in front of the patch of wall that, in a better dressing room, would have been a window over looking the Thames, she took in her reflection from head to toe. Black jacket - safe, slimming. Black T-shirt with an open pair of lips picked out in sequins - what the fuck had she been thinking? Jeans - whatever. Then the Surrey bride hair and the MTV make up - standard 'please don't abuse me when I'm trying to be sexy for you' TV girl fare.
'It's too late to get rid of it now,' said Brenda to herself, and by way of confirmation there was a knock at the door. When Brenda didn't answer immediately, she heard the code being punched in to the keypad and watched the handle twist gingerly. The door opened a little, and a timid looking face appeared around it. 'Oh, sorry, Brenda - I didn't realise you were in here,' the runner said in her tiny, tiny voice.
'Can I invite you down to set now? We'd like to get you miked up.'
'Can I just do a quick wee?'
'Of course - I'll wait outside.'
The timid face retreated, the door clicked, and Brenda turned back to mirror. She had a sense of foreboding about this evening's record - her insides were jangling. This was a panel show with a reputation for not much wanting women around, whatever they said in public, and the tight smiles and nervous eyes were all around her. She was not a household name, National Treasure-hood was some decades off yet, and there was no natural warmth for her from a viewing audience familiar with her face and style. The producers had been strong-armed into having her on by her agent, and there was the sense that she would probably fuck it up and they would have to cover it in the edit - she had deduced this from the continual visits to her dressing room by various producers and writers, offering to help her with some material 'just to fall back on, just in case.' None of this was terribly conducive to creating great comedy. And now the curls made her look weak, eager to please, ready to tow the line - had she sub-consciously agreed to this look in the make-up chair in order not to look in any way subversive? The knock came again and the voice through the door, less tiny now.
'How are we doing, Brenda?'
Brenda walked to the sink, turned on the cold tap and stuck her head under it as far as she could. She scooped a handful of water over the back of her hair, flattening it instantly. She wiped the back of her hand across her glossed lips. She shook her head violently, throwing droplets of water around the room, and then ran her fingers back through it. It looked an absolute state. It felt much better.
She opened the door and smiled confidently at the runner, who startled a little and then remembered herself and smiled back.
'Ok - shall we stop by make up quickly on the way down?'
'No - I'm fine.'
'We do usually like everyone to stop by make up...'
'Then we can stop by, if you like.'
'Ok great.' Relief flooded her face as they set off towards the studio. Brenda felt stronger already - stronger and brighter and a little dangerous. She had felt herself starting to get safe recently, to play nicely, and she didn't like it. She was trying to cultivate a reputation for fearlessness on stage and her career as a live stand up was not going to be helped by appearing cosy and clubbable on TV. She would end up with the wrong audience coming to her live shows and that would be disastrous. Brenda had seen it happen before to other promising comedians - people saw them on TV, then went along to a gig, find a very different tone to the one that was edited and packaged and politely delivered into the corner of their living rooms and leave furiously offended at the interval. Then she would be labelled a 'shock comic' by the Daily Mail, who would print a couple of her most challenging punch lines without the benefit of context or a playful tone of voice, or indeed the laughter of the crowd, and suddenly she would find herself in a paper bag she couldn't punch her way out of for fear of upsetting someone whose mother had died in a paper bag. No, better to represent herself properly on TV, even if she did look slightly demented. Better demented than compliant.
They turned into the make up room to find a weather girl tonging her highlighted hair as if it was somehow going to provide the answer to some unasked question, and James Royson, the show's genial host, lolling in a chair and scrolling through his phone. He glanced up, and smiled with his ears. 'Hey Brenda - how's things? Thanks so much for the doing the show.' And went back to his phone.
'No problem, thanks for having me,' Brenda replied and then the make up lady caught sight of her.
'Ok, let's get you in the chair so we can fix this.'
'No thanks, that's fine - I want it like this.'
A short pause.
'A bit of product, maybe?'
'No, I'll just leave it like this.' The make up lady nodded mutely and tried not to look appalled. Brenda's hair was fluffed up on one side and flat and lank on the other, with a small section of perfect curls two thirds of the way round which had escaped the waterfall. Jon Bounds sauntered in looking like he hadn't showered for a week and Brenda felt better. Jon knew what he was doing - he had perfected the art of being the same on and off screen, somehow managing to accurately represent his live persona on TV while avoiding total censorship. And he looked like shit. Jon greeted Brenda warmly but avoided a hug, to her relief.
'Saw you on Mock the Week - you did good,' he said.
'Thanks - it was fine.'
'I fucking hate doing that show.'
'Yeah well, it doesn't suit everyone.'
'Good money though.'
'Tell me about it - I'm still living off it.'
Jon nodded sagely. James was gazing at Brenda with some expression of suspicion.
'When did you do Mock the Week?'
'About two months ago.'
'Lucky to get on Mock the Week - you've only been going a year or so...'
'God, I know so many people who've been going for years who would kill for a spot on Mock the Week.'
'Uh-huh.' Brenda knew perfectly well that by 'people' he meant men, and by 'lucky' he meant woman. She turned away and pretended to examine her make up in the mirror as the producer of the show entered the room for a little pep talk.
'So, we're still waiting on Brian who's stuck in traffic, but I just wanted to say it's going to be a great one tonight. Just remember, it pretends to be a quiz show but really we want lots of funny, so don't just go for the answers - we want a chatty, relaxed vibe. Some shows want, you know, gag-gag-gag, but we're looking for something more conversational and natural. I know you're going to be fab.' He seemed to direct this at Brenda. As far as he was concerned, she was untested and therefore risky. Untested women were always risky - the viewers noticed them more, and so the awareness of any sub-par performance was heightened and the show could be compromised. This was why he did not like booking new female comics on his show. A bit of eye-candy, sure - good for giggling, and helping the audience to know where and when to laugh. And in any case, who doesn't like to see a pretty girl with her mouth open? But an untested female comedian could really fuck up a show if she got spooked and didn't deliver, and frankly, he could do without the social media fallout from a poor show, let alone management on his back.
Brenda flung up a high wall around her ego, pumped her fists twice by her sides, and turned her attention to the weather girl who was now tonging the same rogue strand over and over again.
'Hi, I'm Brenda.'
'Oh don't - it'll be fine.'
'Easy for you to say, you're funny for a living.'
'Not always. Anyway, it's meant to be a friendly sort of atmosphere.'
'TV friendly, not friendly-friendly.'
'Just try to enjoy yourself. And I think that bit's straight now.'
Lauren nodded and handed the tongs to Brenda.
'Here you go. Sorry for hogging them.'
'Oh, thanks but I don't need them.'
'But...ok. Is that your...'look', then?'
'For tonight, yeah.'
Brian Lloyd swept into the make up room, ready for a powder. A TV legend, he felt instinctively that nothing could begin until he arrived, and on this occasion it happened to be true.
'Just a bit of a dusting, darling, and perhaps a trim around the ears?' He shouted as he flopped dramatically into the closest make up chair. 'And could you do something about these?' He pointed to the dark circles under his jaundiced eyes. 'God what a fucking awful journey - they seem to be digging up every fucking road in West London. And why are we all the way out here in this fucking dump? Bit bleak, aren't they, these suburban studios. Bit Holby. They should never have sold TV Centre. I told Alan they shouldn't have - he knows, anyway. Still, could be worse, could be fucking Salford. Christ, what on earth have you come as? A fucking Tim Burton movie?' Brenda saw him looking at her in the mirror. She laughed - resistance was futile, and appearing vain or precious would be a red rag to a Brian.
'Just trying something out.'
'Well, it hasn't worked.'
'Are you a comedian? I love female comedians. COMEDIENNES. I had the most wonderful weekend in Venice with Margi Clarke a long time ago. Well done, darling. Show these silly boys how it's done.' He pinged his braces in delight at his own naughtiness. Brenda caught James's grimace.
A few moments later and all five were picking their way between thick black wires snaking down a black corridor behind a huge black curtain, the other side of which was a super hot and garishly lit set and an excited studio audience. Brenda could hear her friend Rupert warming up the crowd, a well paid but fairly thankless task - he would never now be seen as 'show material', and perhaps he never was. They came to a halt where the darkness ended and there was only light beyond, and stood in a ridiculous little queue, engines revving in the black, waiting to begin. Brenda, standing behind the quivering bulk of Brian, opened a small gap between two huge black curtains and could almost feel her pupils contract as they were assaulted by a glowing vision of red, orange and purple. A white, curved table matched the curve of the stage's edge, and five white chairs were set slightly back from the table and turned at an angle, ready for the performers to slide into position, and once in position to, 'please, not move the chairs because they are set on their marks for lighting'. Brenda could see the closest part of the audience in profile in foreground, and then in incremental shifts until their faces were full moon on the opposite side. They were unaware of her, standing so close, practically breathing into their cheeks, as they were all giving their full attention to Rupert, who was going through a middle-aged woman's handbag, much to her delighted mortification. Then, without warning a man turned his face to hers, suddenly and silently like an owl. He must have sensed her. Brenda froze for a moment, her nostrils flared and eyes widened and then she instantly forced herself to relax, and smiled her cheekiest smile and gave him a wink. He smiled back and put his thumb up, and turned away. Brenda felt her heart was racing - a strange, stolen moment of connection there, which she had not been intending to have. For all her need for eye contact with an audience at a live gig, here it suddenly felt violating, as if a person had actually stared at her through the TV screen, rather than in real life. It must be the lights, or rather, the contrast in light between where she stood and where he sat - she had felt like a trapped vole, an underground creature, vulnerable and exposed.
And then her name was being announced, and she forced down the urge to be sick and strode out confidently across the shiny black floor, waving to the crowd and sliding into her slightly angled seat, careful not to knock it off its marks.
As James began to read his opening monologue off the steadily rolling autocue, Brenda looked beyond the portcullis of cameras directly in front her and up into the darkened audience - who were these people? And then remembered attending just such a recording herself, years back, whilst at university. A friend she had recently made had got tickets to Have I Got News For You and Brenda had been one of these anonymous darkened faces, sitting in the visually blank spot, there for audio, atmosphere and authenticity, and nothing more. She had a feeling of displacement, recalling the strangeness of seeing familiar TV faces in the flesh, although not in any way that acknowledged they were breathing the same air - it wasn't as if anyone could get up from the crowd and go over and address any member of the panel. They, the audience, might as well not exist, but for their open laughing mouths, indicating to the viewers at home the consensus on what was funny. She was just one of many dark faces then. Now she was bathed in bright light, visible to all.
James said her name and Brenda smiled but not too broadly - she shouldn't look too eager, she had learned - as the red light on the camera diagonally opposite her flashed on to indicate that her face was filling a screen somewhere. It flashed off, and moved on. There was a combative spirit in the air - this was the first recording of the new series, and apparently everyone felt a bit out of practice. James had been involved in a small scale sex scandal during the break, and he seemed edgier than Brenda remembered him from nights on the circuit - something had hardened in his eyes. Something had hardened in his trousers too, one night in a lonely hotel with only a computer for company, and the oh so obliging girl at the other end of the wire who had oh so obligingly posted a screen grab of James's cock on Twitter the following morning, and his girlfriend had moved out by lunchtime, all helpfully documented as a matter of public record by the Daily Mail. If he'd had kids he probably wouldn't have kept his job here, but he was now 'happily single' as he put it, and his publicist had played a blinder, arranging a laddy interview with a top men's magazine as part of a strategy to brazen it out rather than issue some tearful mea culpa - once you've seen a comedian cry, she had reasoned correctly, that was game over. His live sales had never been better, but he now had to endure the long lonely nights in chain hotels without technological support - fool me once, etc... Lesson learnt.
Brenda realised the show was proceeding without her. If she was to earn her keep here, she needed to say something now. She knew the first thing she would say would not really get much of a laugh, and perhaps that was why she was putting it off. The audience did not know her - she didn't have their sympathy, like the weather girl, or their trust, like Jon, or their affection, like Brian. She was just the new girl, and when her voice was heard, it would take them a minute to get used to it. The trick was to get the first thing she said out the way quickly, but give it a distinct personality so that there would be a hook to hang her humour on for the rest of the show - a quick and easy shorthand for the audience to grasp hold of. Would she be dour and cynical - the jaded clown? Or bright as a button and a little ditsy - cute but dirty? Or scatty and vague, with sliding eyes and an adorable sense of whimsy? A loveable shambles? A sarcastic bitch? A playful girl-woman? She didn't know, and this was the trouble - she hadn't yet established a persona. Worse, she hadn't even chosen one - her tendency on the three panel shows she had done thus far in her career had been to swing around wildly in tone and style, just feeling it out as she went along and saying anything funny that came to mind. It sort of worked, but she hadn't exactly stood out, and it made the going feel tougher than it needed to. A TV persona would do half the work for her.
It was too late to decide now, though - for this recording it would just have to be her usual scattergun approach, with the hope that enough would make it through the edit barrier. By her calculation, if she said ten funny things over the course of the next hour and a half, she might get three or even four of them included in the actual broadcast, and that was enough to make an impression and stand a chance of getting rebooked.
'Yes, James?' Shit.
'Umm, religion is the opiate of the people?'
'Very good, but I think someone else had that thought first.'
'Any thoughts on which dog is the odd one out?'
'The black one.'
'Yeah, I am a notorious racist. Oh look - there goes Racist Brenda, with her little white dog...they say...where I grew up.'
'What's the dog's name?'
'They'll never keep this in.'
'Yeah, I'm sort of banking on that, Jon.'
'Shall we get back to the show we can broadcast?'
A joke grimace from Brenda, a good laugh from the audience and she was in the room. They'd never keep that little exchange in the final edit, but it got her going and that was the main thing. And the room understood her now - she was going to be a bit naughty - that was her persona for the night.
Later, in the green room with a beer in her hand, Brenda felt the pleasure of a job well done. The beer bottle, cold and masculine, signified that she had earned a drink but didn't need one. Beer after work - a good honest beer after a good honest day's work. Not a nervous white wine, not a burned out whiskey. Just a beer. She felt no need to talk, make jokes or get anyone's attention, though she was being paid plenty. A sense of completeness enveloped her, though she knew it wouldn't last. That was the beauty of comedy - it never finished.
'Brenda, just to let you know - your car's here when you're ready.' The tiny faced runner was here, ready to guide her back to the real world.
'I think I'll stay another half hour or so, if that's ok.'
'Sure, no problem. Just let me know.'
Cars home, beer, the warm glow of approbation - nothing wrong with TV tonight, as far as Brenda was concerned. The producer had even nodded to her from across the room - he didn't like to engage with females other than his wife, daughters and mother if he could help it, so this was a wild lavishing as far as he was concerned. And a grand in her pocket, too - that was a month's rent in four hours flat. Nothing wrong with that. Brenda practically bounced out of the building and into the purring silver Mercedes outside with 'Brenda Mank' written in heavy black marker on a wipeable board visible on the dashboard through the windscreen. No matter, thought Brenda, one day they'll get it right. 'They'll AAAALLLL get it right,' Brenda said out loud, offered a 'Mwah-ha-ha-ha-ha' laugh to James Royson's handful of hovering fans and realised she was drunk.
Pulling the car door shut with a muted thud, Brenda slid through London in a daze. Turning down Waterloo Bridge, she felt a flutter in her spirit at at the blue-black and bright white and sulphur yellow of the city, with its legs spread on either side. Canary Wharf in the distance exhaling smoke into the sky, St Paul's wondering what the hell happened, that giant Ferris wheel - playful yet dominant, OXO vertical in retro red, the twinkling, beckoning blue of the South Bank, and then the Houses of Parliament, glowing in amber, perfectly preserved. Shards of white light played, divvied and bounced along the water like silver night fish. Brenda shivered with magic. The LSD-like properties of a successful performance made her tingle all over. To anyone who looked in, she must have been shining.
And then she spoilt it by looking at her phone. And there, on her Twitter feed was a link to a newly uploaded Daily Mail piece under the headline, 'Outrage as BBC comic shocks at TV recording: 'Yes I am a racist.' Jesus they worked fast these days. Brenda clicked through the link to find a picture of herself pulling a crude face in a publicity shot for last year's Edinburgh Festival, and further down the page, a video someone had clearly recorded on an iphone held between their knees less than two hours earlier. There was also a picture of 'sex scandal James Royson' to bulk it all out, and give them the opportunity to reprint some of the more lurid details of his online indiscretion. Brenda skimmed the article, 'Female comic Brenda Monk told a shocked audience at tonight's recording of top BBC panel show 'Hold This For a Minute' that she was racist, before adding that she would only keep a white dog, whom she named PW Botha after the anti-black former president of South Africa. The crowd were stunned into silence by the eccentrically-attired comedienne's crass admission, with one saying, 'I was really upset by it. We just came to have a nice time for my wife's birthday - she loves this show - and this so-called comedian's horrible joke totally ruined it for us.' A BBC spokesperson said, 'there is often a lot of rough and tumble at these kinds of recordings, and we cannot be held responsible for what happens spontaneously between comedians on the night. However, the BBC operates under the highest standards for compliance and ethical broadcasting and would always seek to remedy this kind of mistake in the edit before the show goes out.' We contacted a representative for Miss Monk for comment but have as yet not had a reply.'
Brenda blinked twice, and then tried to focus on a text from Steve: 'Don't panic. Don't talk. Don't Tweet. It's under control. Will call in the morning.' The powerful agent could get her on the show, but could he get her out of this? Brenda lay in bed with a glass of vodka on her bedside table watching her Twitter feed snaking through her phone. Every three seconds it shed its skin and was reborn, with a sharper toothed head and a longer tail. '@BrendaMonk is a racist bitch and should be put down with her dog,' '@BrendaMonk I hope you never go to South Africa for real - you'd be raped to death white bitch,' '@BrendaMonk ur nit funny and never was been.' She took three sleeping pills with a swig of vodka and slipped under the duvet.
By morning the fever had broken and there were already two think pieces on The Guardian and Independent's websites defending her right to freedom of speech and discussing the importance of context in comedy. Twitter was still hissing at her, though now a little wearied and with some messages of support thrown in to dilute the fury. '@BrendaMonk just watched the vid - u r obvs joking but maybe bad choice of topic? ;-)'. Her phone rang - Steve.
'Alright? Bit of a night, was it?'
'I was just trying to get into the game - I knew they'd never use it.'
'Yeah but these days every fucker out there's got a recording device in their pockets that twenty years ago would've cost them five grand and been the size of a breeze block.'
'Am I fucked?'
'Course not - this is good.'
'Good? I'm getting death threats on Twitter.'
'If you're getting death threats on Twitter, you know you're doing something right, chick. We've already had three bookings for you this morning and it's not even midday.'
'Shit - ok.'
'Use it, don't moan about it. And when the ep goes out, we'll make sure everyone remembers this so you'll get double buzz.'
'Ok babe, got to go - Lucy'll be in touch about the diary, ok?'
He hung up. Brenda held her phone for a moment, watching its screen go to black - silent now, and yet containing all the information in the world. Including an awful lot more about herself.
No food in the house, of course, and so Brenda pulled on a pair of jeans and a nondescript grey jumper and headed out to hunt and gather. 11.30 on a Friday morning and the street was quiet and Brenda was grateful. She felt soft and shy, like a mollusc that had accidentally gone out without its shell. Somehow now part of her was oozing into the public consciousness in a way she didn't like but couldn't stop. Of course, if Steve was right, the commercial benefits may well start to outweigh the personal drawbacks, but it was still uncomfortable. She passed a man on the pavement and dropped her eyes, but he didn't notice her. Why would he? She was in one article on a website, and it had probably dropped down the page by now. She was hardly Kim Kardashian. She felt a little bolder and a part of the shell seemed to grow back across her chest. It didn't matter, not really. It was good to be out. A text from Dan.
'Fuuuuuucckkkkkkk. You ok? Coffee?'
Was she ok? Did she want a coffee? Yes, yes.
When she arrived half an hour later, Dan was already sat on a shockingly tiny and uncomfortable wooden chair at the back of the small, independent coffee shop on a quiet side street in Soho. The chair could barely hold his 6'4" bulk.
'You ok? You don't look very comfortable. Shall we go somewhere else?'
'No - I'm fine. I like this place - it's got good coffee and we should support places like this or they'll disappear.'
Brenda rolled her eyes and prepared to squat onto one of the chairs. A waitress appeared.
'Did you salvage these chairs from an old primary school?' Brenda enquired, laughing slightly.
'Uh, yeah, I think...yeah. So, can I tell you a little bit about our specialist coffee?'
'No thanks,' Brenda replied. There was a pause - it seemed no-one had ever refused this lovingly crafted monologue before.
'I'm sure you have done a great job sourcing the best coffee in the whole history of coffee, but I am happy to never, ever hear about it. I trust you. Implicitly. With my coffee.'
'Flat white, please, for me, thanks,' Dan said over solicitously
'I would like a large cappuccino and a piece of that massive cake, please,' Brenda said.
'Ok, great choices guys, thanks very much.'
She walked away.
'You didn't have to be such an arsehole like that, you know.'
'Was I an arsehole?'
'A little bit, yeah. They just care about coffee.'
'Really? I mean, do you really think she cares about the coffee? She's a waitress. I dunno - I can't believe she really gives a shit - didn't I just save her the trouble of having to go through her script for the millionth time?'
'Don't assume everyone is as cynical as you.'
Now that stung. Was she cynical? Brenda had always considered herself to be vaguely in touch with the mystery and magic of the universe, with a sense of levity and joy, and an understanding of the importance of the little things in life and all that guff. Realistic perhaps, pragmatic, but not cynical. She pouted a little bit.
'Don't pout - you'll get wrinkles. And so now, on top of everything else, you are a racist...?'
'Yes, that's right - I am a racist. A cynical, racist arsehole.'
The waitress set down their coffees and Brenda's cake.
'My friend would like to apologise for being rude earlier.'
A pause. Brenda blinked a couple of times.
'Sorry - I, uh, I just have a lot on at the moment and I, uh, didn't mean to be dismissive of your passion...for coffee.'
The waitress nodded, oblivious and untouched and walked away.
'See? Doesn't give a shit.'
'Yeah well, I give a shit. If you're going to be famous you're going to have to rely on friends like me to stop you from becoming a cunt.'
'Ok, fine - if I become famous, you can be in charge of stopping me becoming a cunt.'
'Are you feeling alright? Twitter went mental.'
'I know - I'm keeping off it for a few days.'
'God I couldn't - I'd be on there, arguing with everyone, defending myself.'
'I don't know if I want to start an argument with someone who wants to see me raped to death.'
'No, fair enough.'
'My agent thinks its good for business.'
'Yeah - think of all those BNP corporate gigs you'll get.'
'I've had three bookings already today - that's a few hundred quid right there.'
'As long as you're ok.'
'I think I am. I think so. I mean, nobody's actually trying to kill me.'
'So far as we know.'
'I'm just saying - the nutters are out there. They do exist.'
'Like I said: thanks. What are you doing today anyway?'
'I am in a period of internal creation.'
'So, fuck all then. Drinking in the Admiral Duncan until someone agrees to have sex with you...'
'There is no finer way to spend a grey Friday afternoon.'
Brenda found herself wandering down Charing Cross road until she reached the National Portrait Gallery. She found herself wandering into the wide, cool entrance hall of the National Portrait Gallery and walking up the stairs. Meandering through hall upon hall of the faces of the forgotten famous, she felt dozens of eyes following her progress. But these were the eyes of the dead - an altogether more detached kind of scrutiny than the hot stare of the living. Brenda wondered if she would like to be famous after all. It was a natural, unavoidable by-product of being successful at her job, and so she had always assumed that she wanted it. But would she like it, in reality? Looking up at these canvas faces, Brenda thought they must have been so sure, in their time, that they would be remembered as important men and women through the generations to come. And now, she could barely name one in a hundred portraits without looking at the accompanying notes. What did it take for fame to endure? Real fame, that is, not notoriety or fleeting celebrity. Marilyn Monroe fame. Although, in three hundred years time, would anyone even remember her? No, you have to apply more rigour than that - who were the truly famous, Brenda considered. Cleopatra - over 2000 years old and still going strong. Jesus, of course - he had half the globe with a vested interest in his ongoing fame. King Arthur? Napoleon? Hitler? Was that it? Did you have to be a warrior leader with a taste for blood in order to really achieve iconic status over centuries, even millennia? If so, Marilyn was fucked.