The first time it happened was at the cinema. I was queuing for my ticket-for-one when the woman behind me exploded. ‘Omigod I saw you on television!’ ‘Oh, er, yes,’ I mumbled. The next time was in the cinema, as I squeezed down the row: ‘Sorry, but I have to say, I saw you on that show,’ grinned the young man. I suppose we were on the King’s Road, so it wasn’t surprising everyone had been watching Posh People: Inside Tatler. It was only when I was stopped by a blonde in Shoreditch the next day that I began to worry for my ego.
I joined Tatler last year — ten years after I started my career as a receptionist at The Spectator. On my first day, filming began for the BBC’s fly-on-the-wall documentary. It’s been a funny time, what with interviewing pigeons for a jewellery shoot and writing confessionals about threesomes. Strangest of all has been the past week, since the show aired. Perhaps it was inevitable that, of the 450 hours filming for three one-hour episodes, they would make something of the new boy. But I never expected it would lead to a proposition (from an older man) on Twitter. As a print journalist, your readership is maybe a few thousand. Show your face on telly, and 1.5 million people have clocked it. Many more on iPlayer. It goes to your head. You start to think there’s something special about you. When all I did was turn up for work.
The reaction hasn’t all been favourable. In the first episode, there’s a bit in which I say that the correct way to eat a pear is with a spoon. To which someone countered — on Twitter, naturellement — that the way to eat a pineapple is to ‘shove it up your overprivileged arse’. My sister says she cringed the whole way through, and I was horrified to see every hideous spot and hangover on screen in high definition. The Guardian’s media diary was quick to point out what a useless journalist the show makes me seem to be — failing to get a member of the Bullingdon Club to speak to camera, and getting thrown out of the Royal Academy summer party.
Then came the reviews. My face, my teeth, my voice were all up for discussion. I particularly enjoyed a piece in Vice calling me ‘the poshest man alive; a kind of smart-shirted, scruffy-haired real doll operated by Richard Curtis’. I began to wonder how actual celebrities ever get anything done — googling yourself is completely addictive. Help, I’ve become an overnight narcissist!
The weirdness got a bit much when the documentary featured on Goggle-box, the show in which you watch other people watching TV. Strangers sprawled on sofas gurned in horror as I enthused about being issued with a copy of Debrett’s Guide to Modern Manners. Watching them watching me was more than ‘holding the mirror up to nature’. It was surreal.
We had been prepared for the worst. Fearing for our mental health, the HR folk at Condé Nast, Tatler’s publisher, suggested we keep away from Twitter for a few weeks. As purveyors of ‘Britain’s poshest magazine’, we were ripe for trolling.
Funnily enough, the narkiest comments have come from former Tatler journalists, who obviously feel left out. Giles Coren wrote a piece about how much better the documentary would have been 15 years ago, when he worked there. This was padded out with imaginative anecdotes about how he received blow jobs from his colleagues, made less credible by a picture of a nerdy young Coren in spectacles. Camilla Long claimed they partied in the office with their knickers off till 1 a.m., while A.A. Gill’s insight was that it was funnier in his day. Rachel Johnson, who has never worked at Tatler, tried to yank the spotlight back to her, saying how much better the documentary about her editorship of The Lady had been.
Actually, they’re all right in a way: it’s because there aren’t too many fruitcakes at Tatler any more that they let the cameras in. Then again, the little bit of fame could be just the thing to send us crazy. On the tube, I look up to see people whispering.
By Christmas, I will have slipped back into obscurity, joining thousands of half-remembered faces who were once on TV. For now, I’m enjoying it. On Tuesday morning, I was introduced to a captain of industry at Pewsey station, hub of Wiltshire society. We had met years before, when I was a junior reporter. Uh oh, I thought, as he peered at me with recognition — had I written something disobliging? No, he too had seen me on TV. He mentioned David Frost, who said that strangers often thought they knew him because he spent so much time in their sitting rooms. I basked in the comparison as we boarded the train, he into first class, me into second. There were no seats, and I wondered if David Frost ever had to sit for an hour on the floor by the loo.
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Matthew Bell was formerly a gossip columnist for the Independent, and a receptionist for The Spectator.
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