A Geordie, a Scouser and an Irishman walk into a bar…
Victoria saved the phrase to her phone, along with the date, September 13, 2011, thinking it might make a good lede for the column she was supposed to be writing. Of course, what had really happened was that Ross Noble, John Bishop and Dara Ó Briain sauntered into Skylon, a rather expensive venue known for cocktails that no self-respecting chav would be caught dead guzzling. They were now sitting in armchairs overlooking the river as a waiter took orders for drinks and nibbles.
Not nearly as funny, but relevant to a problem she was having with the assignment. She’d just been to the premiere of Derek Paravicini’s concerto at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Now she had to write about it, but she knew full well that it wasn’t the music or the performance of the Orchestra of St. John’s that anyone gave a damn about. It was the “miracle” of the blind, brain-damaged savant who had composed the piece, and Victoria had no idea what to say about that. She didn’t know if she was meant to add to the sheaves of hyper-emotional twaddle already written about Derek’s gift, as well as his amazingly good-natured personality, in conjunction with his disability. On the other hand, it was remotely possible that the Observer actually wanted her to write the truth; that the concerto would probably never have gotten this level of attention if it were composed by an equally talented musician who didn’t have the same obstacles as Mr. Paravicini.
She knew exactly what she couldn’t do, which was express the acute discomfort that she’d experienced following the performance of the concerto itself, when Derek was literally led out to interact with audience and display his skill at musical improvisation. Victoria might have felt that, but “Victoria Coren,” was not about to write any such thing. There was a level of sarkiness that was acceptable and then there was the one step further she might go on a panel show, to great titters of shock, but still within bounds.
Ross would understand. He could get away with taking the piss out of Bono and Geldoff because the audience had already bought into a talking owl with a blanket and whatever other madness came out of his mouth. Victoria had spent some time with Noble and knew he’d calculated both of those bits to a fraction of how long they could go on without going too far.
Too far, in her case, would sound like the barely whispered commentary on the performance, the composer and the audience she’d gotten from her “date” for the night. The original plan had been to go with Ronni Ancona, followed by dinner at Skylon, where they would hash out ideas for the column. Victoria was hoping to rely on Ronni’s ability to be subversive in the sweetest way possible. Ronni had phoned that morning to beg off as one of her daughters was ill, leaving Victoria looking for a substitute. David was out of the question, for many reasons, ranging from his loathing of both classical music and formal wear to the fact that he had specific plans for that night and they were the sort she knew better than to interfere with.
After being turned down by both French and Saunders, she’d ended up with Jo Brand. She knew Jo slightly, in that way she knew pretty much every comedian and presenter in the UK, through those awkward five minutes spent in a green room at ITV or the BBC trying to find some basis for comradeship before going out to face the cameras and a possibly hostile host together. When she reported this to David, he had raised his eyebrows in an expression that clearly said “this is a terrible idea, but I refuse to tell you why.” By that time it was too late to get another replacement and Jo couldn’t be that bad. “That is all just for the cameras, right?” Victoria had asked in a slightly desperate tone.
Jo was exactly the same bitter, bitchy Jo that she was in her stand-up act or on the QI panel, with none of the tact toward Derek Paravicini or his admirers that Victoria would have expected or at least hoped for from a former psychiatric nurse. It was brutal and hilarious at the same time, making life even more difficult for Victoria as she attempted to avoid inappropriate laughter at Jo’s remarks, which were ever so spot-on, especially regarding the level of exploitation and self-aggrandizing sympathy involved.
“It doesn’t matter how well the dog talks; it’s still a bloody talking dog, isn’t it? Might be reciting Shakespeare, but it doesn’t know Romeo and Juliet from James Wellbeloved.”
That was a bit harsh. The gift was real. The music was lovely, even if the composer had the IQ of a five year old and couldn’t button his own shirt.
There was a deadline looming. She could fall back on the fact that Derek’s story had clearly inspired that House MD episode with Dave Matthews a few years ago, but then she’d end up going off on a tangent about how no one ever pointed out that House was just a cross between Cracker and Doc Martin, which would generate hate-mail, most of it from Stephen Fry. It was worse than Brooker and his obsession with The Wire.
Maybe she’d ask John, Ross, and Dara for their opinions, since her initial impression was that they must have been to the concert as well. Dara with his background in mathematics could opine on the statistical chances of the phenomena or just go all sentimental on the loveliness of the music. John, she knew mostly through a bit of flirting done during a charity poker tournament a few years earlier. It hadn’t gone anywhere, more through lack of opportunity than any lessons Victoria might have learned about the perils of shagging married men. She could count on him to say something about the Derek Paravicini phenomena that would be both gentlemanly and middle-of-the-middle-class-road humorous, maybe with a reference to his wife and kids.
“Well, if it isn’t the Yoko Ono of British Comedy.”
Amazing what a man could get away with when he was good-looking and dressed in a nice suit, right down to a yellow pocket silk. He was smiling, but when a Liverpudlian calls you “Yoko,” it means something.
“You bastard,” she muttered, while grinning against her will and briefly wishing they could just piss off together and pick up where they’d left off, which amounted to no more than a quick snog behind the bicycle sheds.
She didn’t have the time to list all the ways in which she wasn’t a “Yoko,” starting with the sexism of the whole assumption and the unfairness to the real Ms. Ono. The fact that Robert and David were together in the flat working on new material and she hadn’t even bothered to ask David to don a tuxedo and accompany her to the concert should speak for itself.
“Hello Victoria,” said Ross, loping into view with his most simian gait. “Has John convinced you to join our team?”
“What kind of game are we playing,” she asked cautiously.
Victoria had taken notice of the clothing on her new table companions. Suits on Dara and John. Dara had matched John’s yellow pocket silk with a similarly hued tie. Certainly fashionable, but not suitable for the event she’d just attended. Ross’ loose-fitting bright sun-burst of a tunic would have brought not only the fashion police, but South Bank Security. In other words, they couldn’t have been at the concert.
They all looked vaguely guilty, which wasn’t a good sign either.
“Ah. Well, then,” Dara started with the look of a man about to lay some thick Irish blarney around.
She spotted a paper napkin in Ross’ hand, with what appeared to be a list of some sort, although the scrawl made it impossible to guess what it might be.
“Well, clearly you’re the yellow team.”
Ross nodded enthusiastically.
“Scavenger hunt?” she guessed.
“Nope,” John replied. “Skinner was supposed to be on our team, but he blew us off at the last minute. Some bloody concert he had to go to. Bastard!”
John looked properly miffed,
“Is this a Children in Need thing?”
“It is,” Dara admitted coyly. Of course. The event was in a few months and pretty much all of the British entertainment industry was being consumed in some way or another. David and Robert were trying to come up a sketch for the big show itself and the lead-up events were coming fast and furious, all slightly ludicrous, but you couldn’t argue the cause, any more than you could argue the magic of Derek Paravicini.
“It’s all about arses,” Ross announced, emphasising the last word. “We have to get back to the Chocolate Factory by midnight with the most perfect arse in England.”
Victoria felt an odd sense of relief and familiarity. Yes, this she was prepared to opine on. Bums were right up her alley as it were.
“What do we have so far,” she asked briskly, opening a new document on her phone, and catching Dara rolling his eyes as she apparently was taking over his role as team captain. Someone had to. Clearly this needed a methodical approach. And more drinks.
She caught John smiling slyly at her as he made himself comfortable in the chair opposite her, while Dara and Ross took the ones on either side. She put out her hand for the napkin, and squinted at it until she could make out what the boys had come up with.
1. Cheryl Cole
2. Kelly Brook
3. Pippa Middleton
4. Carol Vorderman
Then came some manic (and slightly obscene) doodling and at the bottom of the page the words “Ann Widdicombe,” followed by a large, bubbling question mark. Victoria assumed the Widdicombe suggestion meant they’d at least considered the other possible definition of “perfect arse.”
“Do the rules actually say which kind of arse we’re looking for? Are we talking beautiful buttocks or…I don’t know…Piers Morgan?”
“He’s more of a twat,” Dara pointed out. “The fact is, we can go either way, and I’ve got a tip that Paul Merton’s trying to get his “pal” Boris Johnson to do it for team blue. I figured we can’t beat that unless we actually got Rupert Murdoch or something.”
“And that would be a perfect cunt,” John stated, to agreeing nods all around.
“What about someone who just acts like an arse, but does it really well….Lee Mack, maybe?” Victoria suggested.
David always insisted that Lee was actually quite charming and the whole lad thing was a put on. Seeing as how she’d never been in a room with Lee for five minutes without some crude sexual remark ensuing, Victoria wasn’t convinced.
“That would be lovely,” Ross replied with a rueful grin, “if he weren’t the captain of the red team.”
“Yeah,” Dara agreed, “So how quickly can you help us find a woman with a great bum, who we can actually get onstage so we help raise money for the poor little kidddies?”
“Are the other teams all men as well?”
“Sue Perkins is on the black team,” John offered.
“Along with Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr and Wossy,” Ross advised.
“That’s an ASBO just waiting to happen.”
“It’s not like this whole event is exactly accumulating PC points, is it?” Dara pointed out.
“Right. Well allow me to remind you gentlemen that it’s not just ladies who can have attractive derrieres.”
As if to illustrate the point, a waiter in noticeably tight black pants with a nearly perfectly posterior region arrived with a smile and a new round of drinks.
Team Yellow were clearly looking a bit uncomfortable with the idea and even Victoria wasn’t quite brazen enough to suggest that they grab this fellow and abduct him to the Chocolate Factory to have his assets put on display, even if it was for a good cause. Better to find someone with a fabulous arse who was well-known for a lack of modesty. She had just the bum in mind. A few hints to Google and she had the evidence on her phone to share around. Never had a man looked so good from the back. The period clothes and the braces didn’t hurt, but honestly, he really did have a perfect arse.
She could still sense reluctance. They were men, after all, although none of them struck her as remotely homophobic or concerned about perception in that area. It just hadn’t occurred to them, but the idea was breaking through that if they could make this happen, there was chance to finesse the competition, and at the very least put on a good show.
“And you just happen to know where we can find our arse of arses do you?” Ross asked with a cheeky grin.
Victoria nodded, feeling just a bit smug. She tossed back a potent martini and raised a glass to her recently-acquired compadres who did likewise, before she led them out into the foggy night in search of a cab and the perfect arse.
“Sorry, he’s not here.”
It was starting to dawn on Victoria that in the haze of smugness and Sloane’s gin, she’d omitted the crucial step of making a phone call to ascertain that the quarry was actually in town.
Victoria felt three sets of eyes on her in the dim light outside John Barrowman’s townhouse in Holland Park. In the cab, the only eyes she’d been aware of were John’s as their knees got awfully close and their fingers managed to touch. She really had been swept away on the alcohol and her own cleverness.
Now everything was going tits up. For a second, she entertained the notion of inviting Barrowman’s extremely attractive partner to appear in his stead, but Mr. Gill was notoriously shy about those matters and while the glimpse she’d managed to get of the rear view wasn’t bad, it wouldn’t be good enough to match whatever political prat Paul Merton might manage to snag, much less some over-inflated reality show bimbo, which was what she imagined Sue and her Lost Boys would end up with.
Victoria had a phone list that was the envy of half the bookers at the BBC. She’d knock on 11 Downing Street and get Nick Clegg, if she had to. Or pop over to the Beckham’s and get both of them. You couldn’t get two more perfect arses in all senses of the world than those.
If only her hands would stop sweating, making the phone all slippery and the fog wasn’t helping either. Of course she ended up dropping the bloody thing, and immediately snapped, “No, I’ll get it,” before anyone else could kneel down. It was only after she’d bent over to pick the phone up, in a dress that she hadn’t realised until that moment was quite so tight around her bottom, that she saw her “team” looking at her a bit too avidly. John’s teeth were showing in a fully wolfish leer.
“Oh no!” she said emphatically. “No, no, no, NO!” One "NO" for each of the team and an extra one for Scott Gill who was still standing in the doorway looking slightly askance at the comedy that was unfolding on his doorstep. Scott shrugged, as if to say, “Hey, you got them into it,” before closing the door and leaving her alone with three desperate comics.
“No,” she said weakly, as Ross managed to get another cab, basically by jumping into the street in front of a cab who had his lights off and terrifying him into carrying them to the Chocolate Factory at something resembling the speed of sound. By then Victoria had mentally given in to the inevitable. It would certainly make an entertaining column, even if it wasn’t the one she was supposed to be writing.
“You was robbed, love.”
“That seems to be the consensus,” Victoria agreed, shaking her head and letting out an exhausted yawn that felt big enough to fill the back seat of yet another taxi. Finally, and with great difficulty, she turned her phone off. Within minutes of the final result being announced by a rather bemused David Tennant, who was serving as Master of Ceremonies, and taking a great deal of Doctor Who-related ribbing with good grace, Victoria had been deluged with texts of concern. All the British comedy world seemed to know that she’d come in second in The Most Perfect Arse contest and more importantly thought it was important enough to let her know how sorry they were.
It wasn’t as if she had cancer, Victoria thought in the voice that she imagined David would use.
No, she didn’t. And at least it had been second place.
Lee’s team, rather appropriately couldn’t be arsed to come up with anyone outside of their own team leader, who received a resounding round of applause when he dropped his trousers to prove the point, but at least kept his pants on, in deference to the BBC, who were filming and would be dropping highlights into the big broadcast. They still came in last, which caused Victoria at least a minimal amount of schadenfreude.
Her own appearance had gotten a restrained, but friendly response and she gave it her all, turning her back to the audience and gyrating to a hastily chosen Lady Gaga track while her “boys” stood around her with her arms crossed in various threatening postures as if to fend off anyone who would dare come near the perfection that was Victoria’s bottom.
The real competition had come from Paul Merton, Andy Hamilton, Danny Baker and Mark Steel, who actually scored quite the coup in presenting a truly epic arse. Victoria had gasped as she looked at the monitor and realised that they’d somehow got Robert Kilroy-Silk who was being booed royally and taking it like a good sport. Either the bastard had a great devotion to Children in Need or Paul had some really incriminating photos.
“Bloody hell,” exclaimed John and Dara, nearly in unison, while Ross began muttering “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” The cursing only got louder when Kilroy-Silk took the microphone and actually repeated his “immortal” performance of the words, “Their fate will be in each other's hands as they decide whether to share or to shaft.”
So under the circumstances, coming in second wasn’t half bad. She’d beaten Lee Mack and the odious Kilroy Silk, but she couldn’t beat Team Black. Sue may have spent the night stuck with four immature, lecherous lads, but she was also on the winning team, and she seemed to know it when she saw Victoria in the ladies room and wouldn’t tell her who exactly they’d brought. Maybe Victoria should have known that Jonathan Ross would pull in his most notorious partner in crime, but without Barrowman’s gorgeous globes there was nothing she could do about it.
Nothing and no one was going to beat Russell Brand in leather trousers. The Chocolate Factory exploded in shrieking so loud it was as if England had won the World Cup again. After that it was literally all over but the shouting.
“Nightcap?” John suggested softly, reminding Victoria that they were now alone in a cab, and it was very, very late. John had taken his jacket off and he was sprawled out against the seat facing Victoria. His hair was tousled, his smile was warm and she had that feeling again, this time with no alcohol and little smugness. Just exhaustion and vague regrets.
He was staying at Threadneedles. It would be simple enough to go, sit in a bar and pretend to make a decision about going up to his room. She had some interview to do in the morning, and a column to write, and David waiting at home. She looked at John again, sexy and sleepy-eyed and fuck all if life was sometimes extremely unfair.
John must have known what she was thinking.
“Was it the Yoko thing? Cause I know that was totally out of line.”
He looked so sincere, she practically changed her mind, but the cab was coming up onto her street.
“Yes, it was, and no it’s not that.”
“It’s really serious with you and Mitchell then?”
She nodded, and smiled before leaving him with a peck on the check and a ruffle of his hair that she couldn’t resist.
Victoria watched the cab taking John Bishop away again and sighed, even though she knew she’d done the right thing. She’d been that girl before and she might be again, but not tonight.
Cheating on David really would make her a perfect arse.