Custard pie throwers, a Laughing Yoga Man, and the Reality Zone: poet Robert Garnham on the bizarre world of Britain's Got Talent
Comedy performance poet Robert Garnham was somewhat startled to be invited to audition for the hit TV show Britain's Got Talent hosted by Ant and Dec. But he was happy to go along with it. Here's his hilarious account of what happened next. (This wonderful extract is part of a book he is putting together on his career as a performance poet).
“You don’t know me,” the young man on the phone said. He was right about that one. I was standing in the meat aisle at the supermarket. I’d just got off a train from Bristol and I was dying for a wee, though I thought I’d pop in and get some dinner on the way home because I couldn’t be bothered to go out again. He sounded like he wanted something. He sounded like he knew that I wanted something. As well as a wee, of course. Something deeper, something primal within the heart of every performer, at whatever course of their careers.
Sustained and all-consuming fame.
“I’ve been watching quite a few of your videos online,” he continued. “Funny. Funny stuff. I laugh every time I see them. Especially the beard poem. That’s a classic. And you write all of them yourself, don’t you?”
“That’s what makes it even more amazing. Anyway, I was wondering - we were wondering - if you’d like to appear on Britain’s Got Talent?”
“You mean …”
“Yes, the TV show.”.
“The talent thing?”
“And come down to the London Palladium to perform in front of the cameras. And the judges, of course. And to an audience of three thousand. Now, how does that sound?”
“Yes, the theatre.”
And that was the part that got to me. Because it didn’t matter about the judges, it didn’t matter about the cameras, it didn’t matter about being on TV. It didn’t even matter that I’d get to meet Ant and/or Dec. What mattered to me was that there was a chance I’d perform at the London Palladium, where so many other comedians and performers had strut their stuff, people I’d always admired from Larry Grayson to Jerry Seinfeld. And soon, who knows? Maybe I’d be added to that list. In fact, it sounded like this might be a distinct possibility.
“Great. I’ll send you an email, and we’ll take it from there.”.
“And one more thing. Don’t tell anyone, right? Because it might not happen. And even if it does happen, they might not use the footage on the actual TV show. So let’s just keep this quiet for now, right? Don’t tell anyone.”
The phone call over, I bought some dinner, went home, had a wee, and then told absolutely everyone.
On a cold January evening I caught a train from Devon to London. The next morning I woke early and I was out the door before seven. Too excited to think properly, and too damn nervous, I made my way up to the Marriott hotel in Grosvenor Square, which is where I had been told to ‘register’ with my fellow contestants.
It was at this moment that things started to get a bit weird. On booking in I was taken to a room where there were four desks in which my name was taken and some paperwork filled out. They looked up my file on a computer and found the photo of the ‘costume’ that I’d said I’d be wearing, which included, of course, the blue sequinned top hat.
They looked me up and down three times.
“Is this what you’re wearing?”
A young man in a BGT T-shirt looked at me from several angles. He then invited another young man in a BGT T-shirt over and they both had a go at looking at me from several angles.
“We’re going to need to take a photo and send it to the producers,” one of them said.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, just . . . Different shoes.”
“And didn’t you have a sequin blue top hat?”
“I did. But there was a message saying that they didn’t want me to wear it.”
They pointed to an area of wall and took a photo of what I was wearing, then sent it to one of these mythical producers. In the meantime they asked that I stand there, while other contestants came in and went about the business of booking in. It all seemed so commonplace, like the departure gate of an airport, and I felt like the man who was about to be led away because there was a problem with his boarding card. At last one of the young men in BGT T-shirts came back.
“Yes, it’s fine,” he said. “They can do it without the blue sequined top hat. And there’s a very, very small logo on the side of your shoes which they reckon the cameras won’t pick up. So, if you’re just like to follow me …”
I was led upstairs to the hotel function room which, for the purposes of the TV show, had been transformed into what can only be described as a very camp waiting area. Gold chairs were arranged in circles in front of a glittering Union Jack in one corner and a giant representation of the BGT logo in another. Cameras were dotted around the room, too. And then I understood that even the act of waiting would be a performative act.
At that moment, I was the only person in the room. Performance waiting, I thought. If that’s what they want, then that’s what I’ll give them. I opened my backpack and brought out the Bob Newhart autobiography that I’d been reading, and read a couple of pages, all the time conscious that there was a camera pointed at me. And I must say, I really did give it my absolute best, the way that I read that book with the correct amount of concentration necessary to fake the fact that none of the words were sinking in at all.
Other contestants started to arrive. Most of them were already in their costumes. There was a dancer, a rapper, a kid in a suit wheeling his unicycle. And then came two middle-aged men who asked if they could sit with me. “Sure,” I said. I put down my book.
“What do you do?” one of them asked.
“I’m a comedy performance poet,” I replied. “And you?”
“I’m a laughter yoga instructor.”
“Making people feel good through the power of laughter.”
“That’s basically what I do, too,” I replied, mindful of the various poetry gigs where people Hadn’t Laughed.
His name turned out to be Phil, and he was accompanied by his friend, Lee. The weirdest thing about Phil and Lee were that even though they were good friends, they’d never met until the night before. Lee was one of Phil’s laughter yoga pupils, and when Phil had said that he would like someone to come with him to watch his appearance on BGT, Lee had been the only person to say yes.
“The thing is,” Lee said, “tonight is my wedding anniversary. I completely forgot. So here I am, on the night when I should be celebrating nine years with my wife, and instead I’m with a strange man I’ve only ever met over the internet, spending the night with him in a hotel in Soho.”
“It doesn’t sound suspect at all.”
I enjoyed their company. In fact, even though we’d only just become acquainted, it felt like I’d known them for a long time. And as more contestants came in, the room began to be filled with some incredibly bizarre people. A dancing dinosaur. A magician. A choir all dressed exactly the same. A troupe of Bhangra dancers all dressed in gold. And then came a young man wearing a glittering blue spandex suit with a bare chest and a red cape.
“Damn,” Lee said. “That’s what I was going to wear.”
Being with Lee and Phil was certainly a tonic and I’m sure that I would have felt so out of place had they not been there. Indeed, we seemed the only normal people in the entire room. Every now and then Phil would demonstrate his technique of forced laughter which, apparently, tricks the body into thinking that this is real laughter and therefore releasing the same chemicals into the bloodstream. Laughter, he said, helps us get through the world and feel better about ourselves. He was immensely likeable and the more he spoke, the more I thought, hmmm, I’d very much like him to win.
'Can you cut out the words comedy and performance ...
can you tell the camera you're a retail assistant?
Every now and then, young men in BGT T-shirts would come over and ask me to follow them. And off we’d go to a side room to be filmed from several angles, or to lean against a box and “look worried”. The first thing they did was sit me down for an interview.
“Look at the camera, and tell them who you are.”
“OK. Hello, my name is Robert Garnham, Professor of Whimsy, and I am a comedy performance poet.”
“Cut! OK, that sounded too professional. Can you do it again?”
“Too professional? OK, sure. Hello, my name is Robert Garnham, and I am a comedy performance poet.”
They whispered among themselves.
“Can you cut out the words comedy and performance?”
“Sure. Hello, my name is Robert Garnham, and I am a poet.”
More chatting among themselves.
“You work in a shop part-time, don’t you?”
“OK. Then tell the camera that you’re a retail assistant.”.
“Hello. My name is Robert Garnham, and I am a retail assistant.”
At this stage, I started to see how reality was being bent and manipulated in order to advance the idea of The Show. I was taken back to Lee and Phil, and then off again to another side room which had been dressed as the backstage area at the London Palladium.
“The real backstage is too small for filming,” one of the young men explained. “So we’ve created this fake backstage. It’s called The Reality Zone.”
“The fake stage is called the Reality Zone?”
“Not even ironically?”
“I know. Silly, isn’t it. Anyway, can you lean on this box and look a bit worried?”
I did as he asked and gave it my best worried expression, which they filmed from several angles.
“Now, you’re a poet, aren’t you?”
I wondered if this was a trick question and whether I should respond with, “No, I’m a retail assistant,” but I answered in the affirmative.
“Great! Now, sit on that box there, and pretend to write something in this notebook.”
He handed me a pen and paper and I did as he asked. I wrote a couple of lines and then stared into space as if looking for inspiration.
“That’s good. Now, the director wonders if there’s any chance you can chew the end of the pen. You know, just for the cameras.”
Again, I did as they asked and it was filmed, and there were one or two close-ups, and I so pleased them with my pen chewing that I wondered if I might get a Hollywood deal out of the whole endeavour.
The next interesting thing to happen was that a young man called Tom was brought in and we were sat on two big boxes in the ‘Reality Zone’, and asked to have a conversation. Tom was a magician who I’d seen briefly in the main room, and we chatted freely and amiably and had a laugh and generally felt relaxed in each other’s company, until the cameras were turned on.
“Talk about how nervous you are.”
“Gosh, I’m really nervous. Are you nervous?”
“Yes, I’m nervous. It’s very nervy, being so nervous, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know, I’m too nervous.”
“Cut! OK, now talk about how there are three thousand people the other side of this curtain. And don’t worry, we’ll add sound effects during post-production. Action!”
“Gosh, do you know how many people there are on the other side of this curtain?”
“I’ve heard a rumour that it’s as much as three thousand.”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve heard, too. Three thousand people.”
“Yup. Three thousand.”
“No wonder I’m so nervous.”
“Mmm. Me too.”
This lasted for around 20 minutes, and each time the director would give us something different to pretend to have a conversation about. It’s just a shame that they didn’t film our real conversations, because these were much more relaxed and fun than those we actually committed to camera. However, the highlight came when the director decided that he needed to film some ‘nodding shots’, which are basically our reactions to what the other person is meant to have just said.
To do this, one of us had to chatter away while the camera just filmed the other’s face. This gave me the chance to improvise a conversation about the merits of Wagon Wheel biscuits and their chocolate distribution, all the time Tom nodding and smiling in agreement without actually saying anything. And I think we then moved on to the subject of our favourite Tellytubbie. At last, the filming completed, we were allowed to go back to the main room and leave The Reality Zone.
I spent the time sitting with the Laughing Yoga Man and Tom the Magician. Tom had brought along his entire family and they were a joy to be around. But the middle of the day just dragged. By now we’d done all the little bits of filming that the TV company wanted from us with the exception of the actual audition itself.
The atmosphere in the function room reminded me of waiting for a delayed aircraft once at Vancouver airport. Our plane had been delayed because the toilet system had malfunctioned, and it took five hours for the airline to find another aircraft. I remember how we’d sat in that waiting room, and the clock was slowly approaching midnight, and the airline company, sensing restlessness within the room, put on a CD of rainforest sounds just to calm everyone down. Only this meant a perpetual sound of rainfall and the occasional hooting monkey, which is not what you expect to hear at Vancouver airport at midnight. And then when the pilot finally arrived, pulling along his little case, we all burst out into a spontaneous and very sarcastic round of applause. When he tripped over a rug, it just added to the comedy. By the time he picked himself up, walked back to the rug, and stamped it down flat to the floor, we were all in hysterics.
Anyway, that’s what it reminded me of.
Lee, Tom’s Dad and I soon started an impromptu game of Guess The Act. Those two over there, don’t they look like singers? I bet they’re singers. They look like singers. There’s something singerish about them. And that bloke there, that very stern looking gentleman who never smiles. I bet he’s an illusionist. And those people there, all those people wearing the red T-shirts, what are they going to be doing?
It turned out, naturally, that they were there to make an attempt on the official custard pie record.
“The current record,” one of them explained, “was 74 in a minute. But we beat that in practice, and got it up to 93.”
“And what constitutes a delivered pie?”
“It must hit the face or head of the person that it is being delivered to.”
“We’ve got an official adjudicator from the Guinness Book of Records coming along to verify our attempt.”
Obviously, this led to a lot of speculation as to what exactly was so talented about the ability to be hit by a custard pie, and how this would go down with the judges.
The most intense speculation was focussed on the young man in the spandex sparkling suit with the bare chest and the intense gaze. Sure, he looked as if he might be a dancer or a contortionist, but he carried what looked like a large pizza delivery box, and speculation soon began that this contained a snake. Naturally, it would only have been polite to go over and ask him, but there was something scary about both him and the fact that he might have a snake with him. Though he did also have his mother with him, and at one moment she got out her sewing kit and started sewing sequins back on to his cape.
After a wait of around four hours, one of the young men in BGT T-shirts came over to inform the Laughing Yoga Man and I that a minibus was waiting to take us over to the London Palladium.
There are moments when destiny blows on the wind. There are moments when destiny blows a raspberry. As the minibus neared the London Palladium, I was aware of two things. The first was that I badly needed a wee. The second was that I was so nervous that my voice was now a barely audible squeak. We were ushered backstage to a corridor, from where we could hear the roar of the audience, and a man came along and set me up with a hands-free microphone. I made some kind of weak joke about accidentally turning it on while I was in the loo, but he’d heard that joke before, or at least, he must have done, because he hardly laughed at all.
At the appointed time I was taken from the corridor to the actual backstage, and told to “look nervous to the cameras. Oh, and by the way, remember that when they ask who you are, to tell them that you’re a retail assistant. Remember that? You’re just a retail assistant.”
“OK. Anything else?”
“Yes. They might ask you what you would do with the money if you won. The answers have all been so worthy and boring. Try and say something interesting.”
“Like, oh I’d really love to win so that I can buy a yurt?”
“Yes. That’s good. Say that.”
The young man in the BGT T-shirt left me alone and I did what I thought was a very convincing job of looking nervous for the cameraman. But then the cameraman asked me to “walk around more”, so I walked around in a little circle. I then hoicked up my trousers, because it felt like they were falling down. Because by then I’d become so blasé about being in front of the cameras that it felt entirely nature to hoick up my trousers. And who knows, in this modern age, it might even become a meme.
“OK. It’s time now. Walk around this corner and you’ll be with Ant and Dec.”
I took a final deep breath, walked around the corner, saw Ant and Dec waiting there somewhat expectantly, and then someone yelled, “Hang on a minute. Turn around and go back.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Simon Cowell has gone to the toilet.”
He must have been talking a dump or something, because it seemed like forever just standing there backstage. In the gloom and the murk I could make out a table filled with what must have been 95 custard pies. I tried to start counting them, and then thought what an utterly bizarre way to spend my time at the London Palladium, counting custard pies in the backstage area of the nation’s biggest prime-time TV show.
And then at last I was called forward. And to be honest, everything after this is a bit of a blur.
About ten years ago I had an operation on a delicate part of my anatomy which meant a full day at the hospital. And just before the operation they knocked me out, but I can remember starting to count to ten thinking, well, that’s easy, just counting to ten, and the next thing I was aware of was that it was three hours later and I was in a hell of a lot of pain, and that’s more or less what this was like. I’d woken up with a delicate part of me thoroughly trampled on and hugely disfigured.
What can I remember? OK, here goes. I remember Ant and/or Dec asking what I’d be singing for them, and me saying something glib like, “I’m going to be performing a poem for you,”, and Ant and / or Dec replying, “Well, the world needs more poetry.”
I then remember walking out onto the stage ready go tell Simon Cowell about the yurt, but instead he asked, “I hear you come from Devon. What is it with you Devon people hating those who have second homes?”, which was certainly not what I had been expecting.
I remember him asking me, “What brought you to this point?” and I replied, “I came on the train.” He buried his head in his hands at that point and I thought, this ain’t gonna go well.
I remember the audience being big, but nowhere near the three thousand that we’d been jabbering about earlier in the day. I remember saying that the poem was called ‘Poem’, and the audience laughed, and I thought, OK, so maybe it won't be so bad after all, because they’ve laughed at one of the least funny parts of my routine. I then remember starting the poem, and within two words, Simon Cowell had already buzzed.
Two more had buzzed by the end of the first verse. Now, this was annoying because the poem deliberately starts very plain and uninteresting and then becomes progressively weirder and stupider and funnier and ends with all sorts of choreography and general silliness which builds to a crescendo. But the judges were like bored teenagers with the attention span of gnats. By the end of the second verse, they’d all buzzed to say no. And that was it.
Maybe I should have asked them if they’d have liked to hear the whole thing, you know, like actual proper human beings. But the panel said no, and then David Walliams said something daft like, “Why don’t you just give up poetry and grow a beard?”
There was a bit of chit-chat at the end and I remember Simon leaning to the other judges and saying, “Maybe? Or no?”, and I was thinking, maybe what? Start all over again? Do something different? And with hindsight, maybe I should have asked them if they’d have liked to hear the whole thing, you know, like actual proper human beings. But the panel said no, and then David Walliams said something daft like, “Why don’t you just give up poetry and grow a beard?”
I think he regretted saying this, because he then started backtracking, and also because it wasn’t funny. On the other hand, as far as he knew, I was just a retail assistant and not a professional performance poet. He didn’t know that I’d made TV adverts, and had one of the funniest jokes of the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, and headlined in New York, and toured the UK with Hammer and Tongue. In his mind, I just stacked shelves for a living, and maybe, having heard a verse and a bit of one poem, that was what I was best at.
And maybe, he was right.
I said thanks and then went backstage. Ant and/or Dec pointed to the route that I should take off the stage, and within minutes, I was back in the corridor and someone was removing the mic.
“Just stay here a minute,” one of the assistants said. “We’ll find out if the director needs you.”
I was put in a room with the security guards, who were having their dinner break. The security guards were very complimentary and they said that from what they’d heard, they rather liked the beard poem. Perhaps they were just being nice. And I felt like I needed to perform it to them. At last the assistant came back and said, “The director doesn’t need you any more.”
“The exit, if you need it, is just through that door and take a right.”
And this ended my career in prime-time television. As I write this, I have no idea if they’ll use any of the footage. Adopting the philosophy that all publicity is good publicity, I’m keen for them to feature two verses of the beard poem on the show, and also as much of the footage we’d filmed during the day as possible, because I was proud of what I’d filmed with Tom the Magician.
I caught the tube back to Earl’s Court and went to a burger restaurant. As I sat down at one of the plastic tables to eat, I realised that I was still wearing my BGT wristband. Looking around to make sure that nobody had noticed, I pushed it up under the cuff of my jacket.
Robert Garnham has been performing LGBT comedy poetry around the UK for 10 years at various fringes and festivals, and has had three collections published by Burning Eye. He has won slams in places such as London, Edinburgh and Swindon and headlined or featured at events such as Bang Said the Gun, Raise the Bar, and Milk and in 2019 was the Hammer and Tongue featured artist for a tour of the UK. He has supported artists such as John Hegley, Arthur Smith and Paul Sinha. More information on his website professorofwhimsy.com
Fri 3rd Jun 2022 09:41
There's a now retired poet on the Manchester circuit who tried to get in about five times I know on BGT, and I know he got twice they don't like poetry. Sorry to read this, Robert. I've had the chance to have you on Spoken Label (My Poetry Podcast) and you were really charming. It's their loss. That programme has a meanness to it that's never set well with me.
Thu 2nd Jun 2022 12:51
Thanks for sharing, interesting to know what it’s like behind the scenes. Would have been great to see on on BGT. I’m sure the Royal family would appreciate some comedy poetry rather than some dancing dinosaurs!
Thu 2nd Jun 2022 09:55
Wow Robert, what a brilliant description. As an ex-actor I relate to so much of what you've said, being manhandled in so many confidence-flattening, mind-bending ways. I salute you. I was in the profession for 12yrs Now I know why my self-belief still wobbles after so many decades. I was with Veronica & Robin Aaronson at the weekend and we ploughed through the programme hoping to see you. Know I know why we didn't. Thanks Rachael xxx
Wed 1st Jun 2022 22:09
An engaging and entertaining insight behind the scenes of BGT.
Perhaps an alternative name for this show should be "Britain's
Got Talent You Don't Get To See"!
Wed 1st Jun 2022 19:02
A wonderful read! Thanks for sharing, Robert
Wed 1st Jun 2022 18:08
Frighteningly real yet surreal Robert. None of this surprises me, considering the artificiality of reality as we are expected to consume it. I spent a few years doing talent shows as half of a musical duo and getting a decent shot at Opportunity Knocks (before your time!) but it was very professionally carried out. Like you on that occasion I never got the limelight but also like you I made a good living from the art.....
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