Back in the heady pre-austerity days of 2006, when the BBC was still flashing the cash and could throw a party and actually mean it, I was downing the canapés by the dozen (writers always eat as much food as they can, especially if it’s free) at a swanky ‘BBC Talent’ party somewhere only moderately posh in London. Over there was George Alagiah; over there was Graham Norton, chatting to him animatedly was Simon Amstell; Michael Buerke was looking a little miserable…. And isn’t that Michael Portillo in the corner? Gosh, his head seems disproportionately large in relation to the rest of his body. Should I go over and say that I don’t dislike him half as much as I did when he was in office? Maybe not. Instead, I find myself talking inanely about my daughter’s dance classes to Anton du Beke and Arlene Phillips. They do a very good job of looking vaguely interested.
I could go on. This was name-drop central. A strange out-of-body experience where anyone and everyone from BBC Television was out guzzling and chomping their way through your precious license fee. If you’re a writer, you are essentially anonymous, and so although you have earned your right to be there, it’s not quite on an equal footing. You recognise pretty much everyone in the room – you feel like you know them personally, they are so familiar to you – but no one has a clue who you are. It’s a slightly surreal feeling of privileged powerlessness.
And then it happened. I’m chatting to one of the script editors from Holby City, when I feel a strong hand enclose itself around my right buttock, and give it a firm squeeze, one of the fingers most definitely engaging with the central crevice. Sorry. Too much information.
I flip around, startled, and find myself looking into the beaming face of an extremely well known TV Chef. He grins at me, enjoying my moment of surprise, his eyes twinkling, and says: ‘Just off to the loo’. He winks, and trots away.
Was that…? Yes it was.
Ok. So, obviously I knew who this guy was, but I had never met him before, I certainly hadn’t been talking to him, and had only cursorily noticed his presence earlier in the evening. The point I’m making is that this bit of hand-to-bum engagement came totally out of the blue. No flirting, no sexy come-ons across the vol-au-vents. Needless to say, I didn’t follow him to the loo, and had no further contact with him all evening. And, to be honest, I thought it was extremely funny. FFS I was 46! I texted and emailed my friends about it. I have dined out on the story. My Best Man quoted the tale at my wedding last year. Everyone laughed.
And look, I really, REALLY, don’t want to get po-faced about it. But recent events – Savile, Harris, Clifford, Stuart Hall – have made me re-evaluate it, just a bit.
Of course, I’m not traumatised by what happened one tiny bit. I genuinely thought it was extremely amusing. But there was something else going on.
Why did this man think it was ok to grope a complete stranger’s bum in such a very public place? Ok, so I’m 46 at the time, and this guy has no power over me, so there’s no threat as far as I’m concerned, but then on reflection… he doesn’t know that. If I’d been a dyed-in-the-wool homophobe, I could have turned around and hit him. I could have been a younger, more vulnerable BBC employee and felt incredibly compromised. What is it that gives him the sense that he can do this? Well, presumably he’d had a few to drink, but it’s more than that.
He’s famous, and I’m not. Even if I was inclined to grope mens’ bums at BBC Talent fests, there is absolutely no way I could randomly hook on to a well known celebrity’s arse in full view of everyone in the room, while they are talking to someone in what is, at least partly, a professional context. If I had, I would probably have been summarily ejected from the venue. This does say something about the ‘power’ of celebrity. I cringe at that phrase, but I can’t see a way round it. He knows I’m not going to make a fuss. It’s a media ‘do’ so I’m certainly not going to be openly homophobic!
And interestingly, although women experience such gropings as commonplace (although hopefully less so these days) I doubt very much whether any man would have groped a woman in that way at that particular industry function.
I’m not going to name this person, because I don’t want to cause any unnecessary embarrassment to a man I have no other knowledge of. I have no gripe with him. Like I say, it was trivial and did me no harm.
But even there… if, in the future, something more serious were to be associated with this individual (and I’m definitely not saying it will be) would I become complicit in not having done something to check potentially predatory behaviour?
I want the world to be fun. I don’t want to live in a world where we’re afraid to touch each other. I don’t mind being groped by the occasional TV Chef. But the line between fun and friendliness – and something darker that uses power for self gratification – is blurry.
Normally I end these blogs with some kind of pithy conclusion, but in this instance I’m floored. I suppose the answer is quite boring and dull. It’s about respect. Simple as that. The problem is I don’t want the world to be boring and dull.
So we’ll all have to work hard at being mischievous and cheeky, and occasionally flirty – but in a respectful way.
How’s that for a punchline?