I'm woken up by a phone call from the TV company. I'm filming my bit tonight. We haven't even talked to Guinness about the details of my record, but yep, apparently I'm filming tonight. Alright. I grab my suit, and off we go back to the studio. I share a ride with the bottle-walker, and another performer, who mentions in passing that yeah, he's done this show a bunch of times and they usually spring a surprise competitor on you, and change the record your attempting. Most people just go along with it because, y'know, TV.
We get to the studio at about noon, and we're rushed into make-up. Odd, since the show doesn't tape until seven. They give me a basic foundation to cover up the fact that I'm 46 ¾ and have lived a life, and then they go to work on my eyebrows. And boy do they. I walk out of the makeup room looking like a particularly startled Groucho Marx, and go right into the bathroom next door to wash off the borderline clown make-up. Odd.
Next is a camera rehearsal. We rehearse my entrance, walking down the stairs, waving to the imaginary audience, chatting with the host, and doing the trick. Doing their trick. No mention of the big tablecloth. No mention of the reason why I travelled five thousand miles. I bring it up. Everyone looks shifty, and confused, and shifty. I get told that we'll deal with that soon, that I'll talk to the producer again and we'll sort it all out, and then I'm told to go back upstairs and wait.
I've done enough TV to know that if something isn't covered in the camera rehearsal, it's not going to happen in the show, so once I'm back in my dressing room, I ask to speak to the producer. Sure, I'm told, she'll be right here.
I ask to speak to her every half hour. It becomes a bit of a running gag between me and the other performers. I use my grown-up “This is important” voice. Nothing. I say that there is a very real chance I won't be doing the show. Nothing. I spend my day sitting in a feezing cold dressing room, being ignored and not taken seriously.
Finally, at 6.45, literally fifteen minutes before the show is supposed to start filming, with a studio audience already filling the huge hangar downstairs, I get granted a meeting. I ask what about the big tablecloth trick. They immediately start shouting. What big tablecloth trick? There was never a big tablecloth trick agreed. You knew you weren't doing a big tablecloth trick. Why would you lie about this? The producer fixed me with a hard stare and told me that if I backed out of the show, they would cancel my return ticket, kick me out of the hotel, and “Your visa, perhaps not so good now”.
More shouting. In my face. Through translators. Midway through the yelling, I call my agent back in England. My wonderful, beautiful, alluring and fragrant agent., who, let's remember, didn't get me into this, but damn well got me out. I passed the phone to the producer who yelled down it for a couple of minutes and then passed it back. “Right. We'll take care of you and get you back home tonight. Get yourself out of there”, said the best agent in the world.
While I was still being yelled at by a room full of producers and translators, I calmly got up, and walked out, smiling sweetly. I think they thought I'd caved, that I was going to get ready for the show. They were wrong. I think they assumed that I'd feel pressured to just do the show on their terms, since by that point, the thing had already started filming. They misunderstood my ability to be a dick, when correctly inspired.
I went back to the dressing room, told the other performers, who I think were quite enjoying watching my story play out, what was going on. Packed my stuff, hugged them goodbye, and walked across the studio, and for the first and only time in my career, I walked out on a gig.
Out into an industrial estate on the outskirts of Beijing, on a freezing cold evening. The middle of nowhere. Shit.
The last few days had been a chaotic shambles, but now things were in sharp focus, and my task was simple. Get to the airport and get myself on the flight my agent was getting for me before they revoked my visa. I figured they wouldn't think I would be going right now, and besides, they were filming the show for the next few hours, and they'd be concentrating on that, so if I was quick, I'd be fine.
There was a little budget hotel across the street, so I went in and tried to get a taxi. No deal. Taxis don't come this far out of town, they said. Again, shit.
I crossed the street and went back into the studio, and found the youngest, coolest looking low-level TV employee, another talent handler. He wouldn't be doing anything until the show was wrapped, so I chatted to him, and bribed him 50 yuan to drive me back to my hotel. He went for it. Awesome.
Back to the hotel, pack my stuff, get a taxi to the airport, and by the time I get there, I'm booked on the 1.30am flight out of town. Nervous as I went through immigration, but my visa held, and by the time they had finished shooting the show I was supposed to be on, I was already in the air.
And the thing is, it's such a shame. The Guinness book of Records has been a childhood staple for everyone of my generation. A genuinely unique and treasured cultural object. I often got bought it for Christmas, and I think it was one of the first reference books I ever owned. A window into a world of weird, crazy, special, amazing people and things. I would have loved to have joined that club. I mean, if you're going to devote your life, as I have done, to learning some ultimately meaningless, ridiculous feats, then you might as well have the only authority that matters tell you that you're the best at it, right?
None of this was the fault of Guinness. It was the TV company that ruined it with their dishonest and disorganised approach, not just to me, but from what I saw, to many Western performers. It was absolutely shocking to be faced with a major broadcaster who were so ready to bring someone halfway across the world on false pretences, lie about what we'd agreed in dozens of emails, and then try to bully me into just going along with the whole sorry mess. What a pity.
Would I still like a chance to get that record? Hell yes.
Do I want to go back to work on TV in mainland China? Thank you, no.
Was it fun commandeering a car to speed across Beijing so I could get to the airport before the asshats revoked my visa? Yes. I did feel a bit like Jason Bourne. BUT SO WOULD YOU.