On Tuesday I bumped into an old work colleague and, after the usual pleasantries, we asked each other what we'd been up to. When it came to my turn, I found myself subjected to a barrage of sarcastic 'Oooo, get you' type comments. After a while, I got a bit miffed with it all and asked him why he was doing it. 'You've been name-dropping like it's going out of fashion', he said. Although his words stung a bit, I could see his point.
In my final year of being a police officer, I found myself straddling two worlds; by day I’d be walking around some sink estate in central London trying to get warring factions to work together to improve the area. By night I was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Philip Pullman and Alan Davies. It all sounds glamorous and sexy but people are just people, regardless of their media profile, publicity blurb or outrageous riders. As a cop I often came into contact with celebrities and, believe me, they were usually more daunted by the meeting than I was. It's a terrible truth but even Angelina Jolie has to poo.
But here's the thing ... the protocols don’t exist for someone like me who isn’t famous to talk about being with famous people without sounding like a braggard, boaster, arse-licker or fan boy. How do you drop famous people's names into conversation without sounding like some desperate ligger? You see, it's okay for Neil Gaiman to talk about having a few beers with Jonathan Ross as they're both 'talent'. But if I say I've had a few beers with Bill Bailey, I just sound like someone seeking to feel important by proxy, or, at worst, some kind of weird stalker. Consequently, whenever I told my police colleages about things happening in the other half of my life, they gave me a hard time for name dropping.
Let me give you an example. How would you tell this story if you were me?
Last week I attended two recordings for the new 'H' series of QI, which will be screened in the Autumn. I got to meet people like Ross Noble, Ruby Wax and Sean Lock, which was great. The second of the two recordings was particualrly exciting for me as some of my artwork was being used on the show on the screens behind the panelists. Stephen Fry kindly told the audience and, presumably the millions of viewers who will watch it later this year (if it makes the edit), that the artwork was by me. I was thrilled. And I was already pretty thrilled as I was sitting next to Mark Carwardine, naturalist and co-author (with Douglas Adams) of my favourite book of all time, Last chance to see. Later, I joined the cast and crew (and elves) at the end of series wrap party where I enjoyed happy banter and lots of wine. Then, 12 hours later, I was at Television Centre to appear on an episode - also being shown later in the year - of Dave Gorman's BBC series Genius. Dave and his people had asked me to take part in a game within the show where I would be cross-examined by Tim Minchin and Alexei Sayle ...
You see what I mean? The vocabulary doesn't exist to allow me to tell these kinds of stories without sounding like ten types of twat. And while we're on the subject of vocabularies ...
What do you call a celebrity who isn't really famous? On Tuesday I was walking through Soho between meetings and passed by Olivia Coleman and Jason Flemyng. Can you place them? She’s the lady in all the Mitchell and Webb sketches. She was also the monster in Matt Smith’s debut episode of Doctor Who and was the nudist in the flm Confetti. Jason Flemyng, meanwhile, was in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and, most recently, took the lead action man role in ITV’s sci fi series Primeval. Both Olivia and Jason are, in the modern sense, celebrities. But is that a correct use of the word? What's the alternative?
There has been much written about the cult of celebrity and the debasing of the term. ‘Celebrity’ no longer means what it once did; these days it is defined by the number of column inches and/or minutes of media exposure. There was a time, not so long ago, when a celebrity needed to earn their status. They had to have a corpus of work against which to contrast their odd behaviour and outrageous antics (‘He’s a dickhead … but, by jingo, he’s written some corking songs’). Now all that’s needed is the antics.
For me, celebrity is being known and respected for what you have given to the world. Celebrity is being so famous that you can be identified by a single name: Pacino. Elton. Madonna, Britney. DeNiro. Bowie. The aforementioned Stephen Fry doesn’t even need that, just a loud nasal ‘Meh!’ sound. If you have to use both names and people still need reminding of who you are, that’s not really celebrity is it? Sorry Olivia and Jason but what do we call you? I don’t want to use the term 'minor celebrity’ as it’s derogatory. It’s not your fault that the bar has been reset so low in recent years. And you're not alone; there are endless hordes of people who fall into this category. They're the sort of people you know and like but can’t necessarily recall their names ... Her off that show. Him who played that bloke.
Maybe we should just stick to their main business; rock guitarist, comedian, actor, pop singer, although that doesn’t cover the various WAGS and wannabes out there who feature heavily in Heat and such rags but who actually haven’t done anything of any note or worth. Katie Price is a moderately attractive and surgically enhanced Barbie Doll who is as famous as famous can be. But what does she actually do? She did go the jungle and eat the parts of animals that other animals leave behind (No animal eats the kangaroo’s anus. The Outback is littered with the things). And she did appear in a home sex tape that 'leaked' onto the internet. But is that all that's needed to be a celebrity? And then there's poor old Jade Goody who had celebrity quite literally dumped into her pudgy uncomprehending hands simply for getting naked on Big Brother and for being as thick as a whale omelette.
Kids today, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, quite often say rich, or famous, or a celebrity. That's a substantial jump from being an 'unknown' that used to be bridged by talent, skill, intelligence, bravery and lots of hard work. Maybe if we ditch the celebrity tag and only apply it where it’s properly deserved, we’ll see kids return to wanting to be pop stars, football players or TV presenters.