Battle of the Books

Added on 27 January 2009

Douglas Lindsay is currently engaged in writing The Final Cut, the upcoming barbershop death junkie comedy blockbuster. The following first appeared in his Letter From Belgrade on 21st May 2004:

This week, in keeping with the general feel of the Letter From Belgrade since it's inaugruation some eighteen months ago, I'm not going to talk about Serbia. Instead, the "most hilarious newsletter on the web by a mile" comes from London. Sometimes, as an international bestselling author of mystery and intrigue like myself, you get asked to do things a little different from the norm. JKF Rowling, for example, probably gets asked if she can do such and such, fifteen to twenty times a day, and can pick and choose. Me? I get asked once a year, if I'm lucky. So, a couple of weeks ago when I received an e-mail out of the blue from the tv producer, Robert Dawson-Scott, asking if I'd like to appear on BBC4's Battle of the Books, I leapt at the chance like a llama leaping over the side of the Titanic.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the show, Battle of the Books involves a studio audience having to choose which book of two they would rather read. The case for each book is put by an advocate and two witnesses. The show regulars are James Naughtie as the judge, and Kevin Day and Mariella Forstrup as the advocates. The show I was involved in was a contest between the books The Shipping News and The Talented Mr Ripley. Some researcher somewhere, in the bowels of Lion TV, the production company, must have rummaged up the fact that I have, in the past, quoted The Shipping News as an influence.

The writing in The Shipping News is fantastic, in turn lyrical and blunt, sweeping and concise. When I read it I wanted to write in the way that Annie Proulx writes. I tried, I failed miserably, and all that's left of the attempt are a lot of clumsily underwritten sentences in Long Midnight. However, it remains one of my favourite pieces of writing, and I was more than happy to speak on its behalf. So I turned up at Capitol Studios in Wandsworth, fresh-faced and excited about my first apearance before a tv studio audience. Shaved & showered, clean underpants, and with my shoes polished and wearing my best Homer Simpson socks just in case there was going to be a cameraman hiding underneath the desk.

The Shipping News side were Forstrup, me and Scottish children's writer Debi Gliori, author of the Pure Dead... novels, and picture books such as the wonderful 'No Matter What', which we've all snuggled up in bed and read to our kids, before angrily beaning them over the head with it when they piss us off five minutes later. The opposition were Day, writer, broadcaster and bloke from Brighton, Simon Fanshawe and inspirational speaker Mo Shaprio, who wrote the New York Times no.1 bestseller Neuro-Linguistic Blah Blah. Fanshawe, coming under the vague term of broadcaster, was pretty confident and smooth about the whole business; Shapiro, being in the business of speaking to large groups of people, was equally assured before kick-off. Then there was Debi and me, neither of us having done anything like this before and quivering in the corner clutching our g&t's and our security blankets.

Before the flag dropped for the start of the show, and as the studio audience gathered in excited clumps of threes and fours, our opponents huddled around and discussed tactics. This never happened for our lot, as Ms Forstrup played true to being the star of the show and stayed in her dressing room until the last second. Consequently, the bond was not there, our team never gelled and we were a goal or two behind right from the off.

We muddled into the studio. An arc of a desk, the two advocates at one end, Naughtie in the middle, the two witnesses on his other side, the audience all around. Debi and I were up first; I was scripted to be the initial witness of the two. So, the secrets of tv: Naughtie had an autocue for his introductory bits throughout the show, the rest of us had to wing it. I don't know if he gets paid more or less because he gets his lines written for him. Kevin Day's missus is the floor manager, or something, I don't know her official title. She worked the audience beforehand, gave them instructions on how to clap, that kind of malarkey, then we were off. The three show mainstays played their opening parts, and then it was time for the first witness. Me. I sat in my chair like a coiled spring of erudition, an unfettered eagle of sophisticated tv chatter, about to swoop and destroy the baby lamb of late-evening BBC4 programming. I was a snake, ready to pounce on the rat of jovial repartee, a velociraptor, poised to plunge the incisors of hilarity into the Sam Neill of easy-going chitchat. Already I was envisioning myself as a guest on Have I Got News For You, and was wondering what clobber I'd wear for my appearance on Parky. Then Forstrup, the star, tore the script up and started with Debi. I uncoiled, sat back, and concentrated on not scratching any unsavoury parts of my body in case it got picked up on camera.

Debi put in a good case and, from my point of view, sounded disconcertingly like she'd done this all her life, while I was left to stew in my own fragile confidence for another ten minutes. It's not like I was nervous, I wasn't. The only things that make me nervous are telephones and turbulance. (If I ever have to make an emerency phone call from a plane in a storm I'm going to be a right shambles.) So, no nerves, just a complete understanding that I'm utter mince at conversation. I forget words, I panic, I talk too fast, I mumble, I stutter, I ramble, I hesitate, the full panoply of conversational don'ts. And because I am generally one of life's fidgets, continually tapping some obscure African rythym on the desk in front of me, I look nervous. I exude it something rotten. Forstrup looked around the arc at one point and asked if I was all right. I smiled, and thought, oh God, here we go again, I look like I'm about to go in front of the firing squad.

Eventually my turn came and Forstrup asked me a question about humanity, and I thought, I don't really like that question very much, and went off - like a true politician - on a completely different tangent, talking much too fast. So, I babbled incoherently for ten minutes, rather than sparkled, and although I never at any stage completely ran out of things to say, nor put my shining and new-laced shoes deep into the dog poo, neither was I approached by a gaggle of tv executives offering me my own late night tv show to go out next year on BBC1 after the footie on a Saturday night. I read a couple of extracts from the book, got about one laugh, and then it was all over and Debi and I shuffled off to be replaced by the other two, more smooth and experienced media operators. They did their thing, and at the end the audience voted on which of the two books they'd rather read.

Now, at some stage in the future, and I'm not exactly sure when, this show will go out on BBC4, so just in case anyone reading this might think of watching it and likes a bit of tension, I won't spoil it for you by telling you whether the audience voted for the magnificently atmospheric, superbly crafted Shipping News, or the mundane and trite banality of The Incredible Mr Ripley. Although I will just say that the audience were stupid.

Okay, stupid's a bad word, as my daughter would point out.

It was a fun, low-key introduction into the world of tv, so that when I do get asked to appear on Letterman or Pebble Mill at One, I'll be prepped and relaxed, like a coiled muppet, ready to pounce on the doughnut of tv mega-stardom.

The following day, just as a wee aside, I had a few hours to mooch about London before the flight back to Belgrade. I was bimbling through Knightsbridge, as one does, when I passed a unisex hairdressing salon. Okay, I thought, I need my haircut, so in the interests of research I might as well dive in here. I was shown to the chair and Ramone the hairdresser minced over, all rogueish black hair and Latin romance. Now, my hair is a classic short back and sides. No.1 at the back, no.3 on top, no.2 in the middle for a bit of a blend. My wife usually does it in about ten minutes, doesn't charge a penny. There's a fellow in the centre of Belgrade who does it occasionally for two quid. Ramone, clearly, was going to charge more than that, so when he became insistent on a shampoo, I became even more insistent on not having any product of any description near my head. Reluctantly, Ramone - who's name might actually have been Julio or Ricky or Pedro or Enrique, but Ramone seemed about right - began the cut. Or, more accurately, the shave. Two minutes in he said, 'This will look lovely for you in the morning, sir.' Which flippin' morning was he talking about? The cut was taking place before 10am! Was he implying that it was going to look awful all day, and wouldn't improve until I'd attached it to a pillow for eight hours? Or maybe he was attempting to suggest that it was going to look rubbish until it was shampooed, because as soon as the cut was over, he once again started banging on about lathering me in some awful Clairol product. So I legged it, stopping only to pay on the way. Twenty pounds. For a five minute haircut that my wife could do for nothing, with her eyes closed. She had a few things to say about Ramone when I got home, I can tell you that.

Still, when you're a highly paid tv superstar such as me, you've got to do it. Particularly the day after you've just been on tele.