This is a true story.
In the mid-1990s, my wife Kate lived in a basement flat in Kilburn, Brondesbury Villas to be precise. Lots of people have lived in Brondesbury Villas, it seems.
Kate (who was not my wife at that point, but was my girlfriend) shared the flat with her good friend Lydia, and in the flat above were two brothers, Rupert and Jeremy.
As it turned out, Kate and Lydia got on very well with Rupert and Jeremy, and would often go to the pub with one or both of them, and sometimes go to the other’s flat for a drink. Nice and cosy, and quite rare for central London – neighbours getting to know each other.
The next flat up was home to a family who do not feature in this story, and in the top flat lived a mild-mannered out-of-work actor called Will.
Jeremy had a girlfriend called Sarah. She seemed like a perfectly nice, normal girl and sometimes joined in the pub-going and socialising.
So did I. At the time, I was living and working in Cambridge, but made my way down to London very regularly, probably every other weekend.
That’s all the introductions done. Now on to the story itself.
D’ya wanna be on TV?
Sarah wanted to get into television. She had contacts, it seemed, and was trying to come up with ideas for features on TV shows.
One day she came to the basement flat to ask Kate and Lydia a favour.
“Do you girls wanna be on TV?” she asked them.
It turned out she had been given the chance to try out one of her ideas on a late-night show on L!ve TV. Remember, this was before the advent of digital TV, and cable channels were still new. L!ve TV was one of the most notorious, famous for broadcasting piles of absolute rubbish from its Canary Wharf headquarters. That should have set alarm bells ringing, but it didn’t.
Sarah told Kate and Lydia that the idea was simple – it would be to re-create a famous painting live on telly, using a team of enthusiastic artists. All Kate and Lydia had to do was come along on the night, and join in.
Oh, and did they know any blokes who might like to come too?
Unexpected leather outfits
I was asked if I wanted to come along as well. I shrugged and said OK. After all, it was something different to do on a Friday night.
As it turned out, Will from the top floor flat also came along. Perhaps mysteriously, Rupert and Jeremy didn’t come. Maybe they’d made other plans. Maybe they knew more than we did …
We were told to just wear crappy old clothes that we wouldn’t mind getting covered in paint. So we did – Kate, Lydia, Will and I dressed up by dressing down, in old T-shirts and shorts.
Shortly before we were due to leave, Sarah came to the basement flat to collect us. She walked through the door, and our collective jaws dropped.
Rather than wearing old painting clothes like the rest of us, Sarah was wearing a startling leather outfit that left little to the imagination. She had her younger sister with her, similarly dressed. I didn’t know where to look.
We all piled into a car and sped off to Canary Wharf. The TV studio was half-way up the tower, and we had to take the express lift to get up there. Inside, it was all bright colours and comfy chairs. Studio bits were squashed side-by-side with office space, but the place was pretty much empty. Only the night crew were still working.
The show was a cheap alternative to The Word (anyone remember that?). It lasted all night, taking up the whole Friday-night primetime slot, and had a very simple structure: throughout the night there were 20 minute segments interspersed with adverts. Inside each 20 minute segment, the show would skip between five or six “content ideas” running simultaneously. These included:
- Our artistic project,
- Some arty-farty posh types sitting round a dinner table, talking bollocks
- Live outside broadcast from a house party somewhere in the UK
… and, um, probably a few others that I cannot remember for now.
The hosts would provide jokes and links between each idea, in the hope of creating some sense of continuity to the whole show. How anyone in their right mind would stay in and watch all four or five hours of it, I shall never know.
Anyway, we were given food and free beer, and told to set up in an empty bit of floor. I was a bit mystified at this point. Set up what, exactly?
At this point Sarah produced some huge sheets of paper and a box full of painting materials. She laid them out on the floor, and used some of the floor manager’s gaffer tape to secure them.
Before we knew it, our turn had come. The host stood next to Sarah, and the cameras pointed at them, while the rest of us lurked nervously and out-of-focus in the background.
The host asked: “So, Sarah, what’s this all about then?”
And she replied that we were a mysterious group of sexual deviants who met regularly, every Friday night, to do some Naked Body Art. Behind her, the rest of us gulped.
Sarah went on, saying this was more than just a hobby, this was our life choice, and that all of us were devoted followers of this bizarre pastime. Behind her, the rest of us wondered what on earth she was on about.
By the end of the night’s show, she said, we would have produced a wonderful work of art – with our bodies as our tools.
I think it was at this point that I started feeling a bit sweaty.
Rolling around for a dramatic finale
For the rest of the evening, we watched as Sarah and her sister did the actual art – creating a really quite nice picture of a woman that must have been about three or four metres across. Occasionally the cameras would come back to us and we would pretend that we were making it with our bodies, but in fact Sarah and her sister did all the work with brushes.
In between these live broadcast interviews, I wandered around the empty studio and offices. I poked my nose into the editing suite and the production room, peered into people’s desk drawers and generally mooched around. To be honest, as the hours went on, it got a bit boring.
Finally we were told to assemble for the last time. Sarah wanted us to do something special for the end, so we were all instructed to writhe around on the painting, panting and moaning as though we were in some kind of artistic ecstacy.
We did this, and from nowhere Sarah pulled out a huge leather whip, which she started cracking inches above our heads. We had no idea that this was going to happen. Suddenly we were live, and the presenter came over to ask Sarah a few more questions before saying thanks and going off to do the very final bit of the show.
Our work was done. We picked ourselves off the floor and looked at Sarah, who was delighted with everything. She calmly packed her whip away into the bag or pocket it had come from, and it was not mentioned again.
We went home. The painting was re-assembled and spent several years on Kate and Lydia’s living room wall. I’ve not done any other live TV shows since.