Let's make it clear before we start - I'm no novice at this game. I've been on television two times (count 'em) before, and like to think I made quite an impression on the medium. First off I appeared on a seasonal Tyne Tees news programme as an expert on angels (yes know - I suspect a wire or two may have got crossed there, but the show must go on). I wore an ill-advised shiny red blouse that made my upper half look like a roll-top desk, and I stared fixedly just to one side of the camera. The general effect was of an overweight hypnotised guinea-pig suffering from religious delusions. Then I was actually tracked down by a BBC Sunday morning (God slot) programme that discussed an admirably wide range of beliefs and spiritual concepts. Ah - you think you spot a theme emerging here? Nope - they didn't want angels, they wanted Vampires. Being interviewed in Whitby by the lovely blonde Ben, I decided that I'd go for a sort of Goth/academic crossover look. This might have worked if the crew hadn't trailed me round for 6 hours looking for the perfect setting in a freezing drizzle. By the time we decided on a damp pier, glamour and patience had both evaporated, along with most of my ultra-pale foundation. I had spider webs of mascara down my cheeks, hair fretted into damp tentacles and a general resemblance to a bag lady out of H P Lovecraft. We did the interview in one take and I've never watched it.
So imagine my enthusiasm when a chum suggested I try out for a new reality/quiz/adventure show called The Search, made by an independent production company for Channel 4. They need puzzle solvers and, er... experts, he said. You'd be perfect. Why did I fall for this? Why is flattery the universal language of bad decisions? What he meant was that he'd been inveigled in, and wanted company. And it sounded kinda great - six weeks during which a team of knowledgeable pundits was wafted to a sequence of exotic locations to solve profound cultural mysteries.
Alarm bells should have rung when this was compared to The Da Vinci Code. This, you may know, is a sensationalist novel which talks bollocks about art and religion. So much for any faint hope that The Search would be the perfect outlet for any inimitably stylish outpouring of my accumulated wisdom. But once you've made the first step, TV has touched you with its fairy wand and the air is full of spangly bits. Perhaps I shall go to the ball - even if it's actually an audition in a production office above a posh London shopping mall. I did feel that just finding the place should have won me my own series, while managing to get served in the chi-chi Italian eatery where I had lunch was worth an Oscar. Such massive obstacles overcome, I approached my selection for stardom sweating slightly and smelling of garlic bread. The series director was called Jason, may have been all of 15 and would have been great on Blue Peter. His raw enthusiasm accelerated my perspiration as he shut me in a small room full of recording equipment and asked me to solve a few puzzles. Eeek - it was a bloody exam! I was 10 years old again and geography and algebra had conspired to melt my brain. Deep breaths, calming thoughts of bacon sandwiches and the Angel of the North, and I focussed on the puzzles. One was an alphabetical code (easy) but the other two were riddles. I froze. I looked at the sound equipment and thought about fried eggs with chilli pickle. Then Jason came and explained rather carefully that the answers were Mount Rushmore and Nothing. I graciously said that their crappy punctuation had put me off track, but even so we proceeded to a camera test. I looked at the machine, the machine looked back at me, and when asked what animal I thought I resembled I said a baboon. No, I said a scabby old female baboon. This went down well. Then the nitty gritty. The series would be competitive - two teams taken each week to an unknown locale and given clues towards their goal. Oh, and tasks - a clue might lie on an island in the middle of a lake... Wait, did I hear right? Was there a physical component to this hideously energetic contest? It was explained that each team would have specialists, so one of my companions would presumably be a dedicated lake swimmer. I, perhaps, was there to provide the baboon impersonations? Worse still, each week the losing team would have to vote someone off - so you've got to be popular as well as clever. I failed to point out that as a diminished team would be more likely to fail again, a likely conclusion would be a final episode where the winning team competed with itself. But by then I didn't care. Six weeks of unpaid excitement and public humiliation (always assuming I didn't get voted off) couldn't possibly compare with staying at home and doing sod all.
And after all that, did I get selected? Darn tootin I did! One out of three correct answers and the proud bearing of a baboon were enough to have them howling on my tracks. It took several calls to convince Jason that, flattered as I was, my diary was just too full (not to mention that pesky need to earn a living.) Finally they gave up on me, but thoughtfully sent me a company circular about finding a new contestant, to fill the massive gap that I had left. An outspoken woman, it said, with esoteric expertise and rather in the Dawn French mould. I've decided to take that as a compliment, but I don't think I could keep it up for 6 episodes. I know my limitations - if any local TV company wants a 5-minute sound bite on angels or vampires, I'll be the one walking like a baboon and eating an all-day breakfast.
© Gail-Nina Anderson, 2005
This article first appeared in The Crack.