Toby Young's Week

The Perils of Walking and Talking
Feb. 11 2002 2:44 PM

Toby Young's Week

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I've spent the day shooting a pilot for Channel 4. A commissioning editor at Channel 4 has given me and a director some seed money and, hopefully, he'll like our five-minute pilot so much he'll commission a one-hour documentary. I'd tell you what the idea is, but the director is looking over my shoulder as I write and threatening to "walk out, right now" if I do. He seems to think someone might steal it. I'm not so sure.

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Making the pilot requires me to do a series of "pieces to camera", which means looking into a camera and jabbering away while walking along a street. In the past, I've been fairly scathing about television presenters who specialise in "walking and talking" on camera, but when it comes to my turn I find the art completely impossible. It seems to require a level of skill I simply don't possess. I feel like a little boy sitting in front of a grand piano without the first idea how to play it. And it looked so easy! After a dozen or so takes, the director decides it would be better if we confined ourselves to my bedsit in Shepherd's Bush.

In theory, relaxing on my sofa and "lolling and talking" should be a lot easier, but it turns out to be just as hard. I have no idea how to appear "natural". As soon as the camera starts rolling, I become incredibly self-conscious. I can barely remember how to breathe, let alone be myself. When I try and speak, my voice sounds strangulated and high-pitched, as if the director is standing on my testicles. Indeed, judging from the look on his face after the fifth retake, that's something he'd very much like to do.

After a while, he decides it might help me relax if I see some of the footage he's shot. "You're not as bad as you think," he assures me. He plugs the camera into my television set and, for the next 30 minutes, I stand in front of it transfixed. I've always thought that listening to your voice on tape is a horrifying experience, but it's nothing compared to seeing yourself on television. I had no idea I was that ugly! They say the camera adds 10 pounds to your appearance, but no one told me about the three chins. My face has disappeared into a billowing cushion of pink flesh, as though someone's has punched me very, very hard. It's official. I have a radio face. I look like Jabba the Hutt.

The director is keen to press on, and we'll give it another go tomorrow. But I'm completely despondent. I've never actually met the Channel 4 commissioning editor, and the reason he's asked us to make a pilot is to see how I'd "come across" on TV. Well, if today's footage is anything to go by, he has his answer. I'm what people in the industry call "tufty": Too Ugly For Television. What on earth was I thinking?

Toby Young is the author How To Lose Friends and Alienate People.