Exactly two years ago, I experienced the worst, scariest, oddest gig of my career. I wrote about it back then, on my old blog, but I thought I'd repost it here, just in case any of you missed it the first time around.
They started it.
No, really, they did.
A major Chinese TV broadcaster, got in touch through my website and asked me if I'd like to come to Beijing and appear on their “Guinness world of records” TV show, and break a tablecloth-pulling-related record. That might be fun, I thought, so I said yes, I'd like to pull the biggest tablecloth ever successfully pulled. Fun, right? Right.
Over the next few weeks, emails flew to and fro from them to my agent to me then back to my agent and back to them. They repeatedly came up with other, way more complicated, ideas for a record. Could I pull a tablecloth from one table onto another, and then onto another, and another, each time the tables getting bigger? Well, unless you have a magically growing tablecloth, probably not. But also, I didn't want to be one of those people who has a record for something that was clearly just invented for someone to get a record in, y'know? Each time, I made it clear that the only thing I was really interested in doing was the biggest tablecloth ever. I figured it was a nice simple to understand record, a great trick, and a lovely TV visual. But they didn't let it lie. It was starting to get frustrating.
Finally, after dozens of emails, we settled on two records. I'd pull the biggest tablecloth, and also they'd have a line of a dozen or so smaller tables, and we'd see how many tablecloths I could pull and put back in a minute. The second challenge seemed a little bit cobbled together, but I guess they like time-based stuff, so I agreed. We liaised more about the construction of props and sizes of tables. I gave them web links to the exact items I wanted on the tables so they could buy them. All seemed complicated, but doable. I was going to go to Beijing to pull the biggest tablecloth ever, and I was going to come home with a genuine, bona-fide Guinness world record. Cool.
Here's how none of that happened.
So you know how when you're on a flight, after takeoff, once you get to cruising altitude, you can turn your phone back on in flight mode, so you can watch your carefully curated saved-for-the-big-trip folder of entertainment? Yeah, well not on Air China, because – and I'm directly quoting here - “CHINA LAW”. So, no wrasslin', no old Letterman shows stolen from YouTube, they wouldn't even let me listen to podcasts. BECAUSE LAW.
Sadly, I'd just necked a double espresso, so sleep wasn't an option for a while, and that, combined with their deeply worrying version of a vegetarian meal (Rice, something red and mushy in the corner, and a single cold carrot) meant that the first hour or so of my flight was spent in an entirely justified teenage sulk. I investigated the Vic-20 era seatback entertainment system interface (press button. Wait 4 seconds. Cursor moves. Not joking, I counted), and slowly scrolled through the available movies. Nothing of interest. Until the last page. There, tucked away where hardly anyone would have the patience to find it was a seam of pure gold. The Jackie Chan channel. Boom. So begun CHANFEST AT 5 MILES HIGH 2016. Police Story. Police Story 2. My Lucky Stars, and then, finally, sleep.
And then I'm in China.
I'm met at the airport by Peter, my handler, taken to the hotel, and immediately shunted into a private dining room for dinner. I meet some of the other performers – a couple of Ukrainian acrobats, a push-up expert from Norway and his trainer. It's odd. A bunch of people who can all do one thing better than anyone else, all jet-lagged and lightly confused, slumped around a big circular revolving table with bowls of food on it. They know I'm a vegetarian, so have prepared a large bowl of cabbage floating in warm water. I tell everyone it was nice to meet them and slink away to my room.
I'm told that although I gave them the information about which crockery, trays etc to get weeks ago, they haven't got it. There's some vague and mysterious talk about it being held at customs. Hmm. So me and Peter have to go out to buy the stuff. This is a bit of a concern. As you might imagine, any manipulative trick like this, when performed at this kind of high level, needs exactly the right props. I'm going to have to try to find the closest things to what I usually use, in a foreign country, on a tight deadline. This worries me, but I swallow it down and focus on the task at hand. First stop is an IKEA, and as I predict, no dice. Then we drive to a shopping centre full of little shops all of which sell stuff for the restaurant and hotel industry. That's more like it. We find some stuff close enough to my usual props that there's a chance the trick will work, and sit in the shop waiting for a couple of hours while it gets fetched from the warehouse. During this wait, I chat to the family who run the shop, who are lovely and funny and give me a souvenir to take home as a gift, and some nuts. I also watch their TV, and you know who's got a frankly terrifying show on Chinese Television? Bear Grylls. And the stuff he does on Chinese TV is a little, shall we say, more hardcore, then what he does on your TV. I only watched it for about ten minutes, but I witnessed him tear the wings of live birds and tell one contestant that “I can't make the jungle safe, you will get hurt, but I won't let you die”. Not the most reassuring pep-talk, if I'm honest.
Then the props arrive and we pile back in the car to head down to the studio.
Slumped in the back of the seven-seater, head resting on the tinted windows as I try to constantly elude the grasp of jet lag. Watching the blank, beige, broken down and – lets face it – old school communist cityscape of Beijing cruise past. It doesn't have the exciting glowy, smorgasbord of stuff smushed together that cites like Hong Kong or New York or Tokyo have. Rather, it looks like they stopped building and maintaining stuff in 1980, and since then the cracks have just been papered over, the pipes gaffer taped back to the wall. No wonder the government heavily censor the internet and television – can you imagine growing up here and then finding out that not all cities are this shabby?
However jaded and cynical you try to be, its always fun walking into a big TV studio. Nondescript and industrial on the outside, but once you're through the heavy doors, its all lights and cameras and shiny fun TV stuff. And this, since its for a show with lots of stunts on it, is a big hangar of a studio, with grids of dramatic lights designed to flash and strobe and sweep and shine and remind everyone of the importance and excitement of what they're watching. I meet someone who I guess is a producer, or at least a high ranking member of the production staff, and she shows me the tables they've had made for my tricks. And I get confused. There's no big tablecloth. No line of lots of smaller tables. Just two, medium sized tables. I question this. She tells me, no, I'm not doing the biggest tablecloth pull. What they'd like, instead, is for me to attempt to pull one cloth between two tables, repeatedly, as many times as possible in 30 seconds. I tell her that I came here to do the trick we agreed on. She says they never agreed anything of the sort. “Well”, I think to myself, “This went bad quick, huh.”
We go up to her office and talk about it. I tell her that I'll do her challenge if I can also do the biggest tablecloth. That's the reason I flew five thousand miles, and that's what we agreed I was coming here to do. There's some raised voices. I calmly tell her that I won't do their challenge, unless I'm also doing my challenge. She calms, and agrees. We talk about how big the table should be, how big the cloth should be, how many things would be on the table, etc. We apologise for shouting. Things seem to have been yanked back from the edge.
I'm sent back down to the studio to meet the Guinness officials, to work out the rules for their two table challenge. We run it a couple of times, and figure out that what with the time it takes to walk around the table after each pull, I can just about make three repetitions in 30 seconds. After conferring, the Guinness guys tell me that I'll be expected to do four on the show. I explain that this is impossible. It's not a test of my skill, it's just how long it takes someone to walk around a table after each try. They tell me, yes, but four is a good number. Okay then. I figure I'm failing this challenge, but thats ok, I don't care about that one, I'm just here to pull the biggest cloth. If I get that, I'm fine.
Back to the hotel. McDonalds in bed. Jet lag adding unliftable weight to my eyelids. I fall asleep wondering what the chances are that this will all work out fine. Not good, I figure. Not good at all.
Back to the studio. I'm supposed to be meeting the Guinness guys again to discuss the ins and outs of the big tablecloth pull so that, if I succeed, it's officially a record. I get put in a dressing room all day, and nothing happens until I get told to go back to the hotel. Hmm.
Well, I say nothing happens, but that's not quite true. I start to chat more to the other performers, and hang around on set observing things. I start to get a bad feeling in my gut, and it's not the bowl of soggy cabbage. Ok, perhaps its partly that.
I hang out with a gymnast who has come here to break the record for the highest side-somersault from the floor. Instead, they have him running up a sloping wall and doing a back somersault over a bar. Completely different skill. He's just going to give it a go, because what's the worst that could happen? Yikes.
I talk to an American circus performer who has come here to break the record for walking on the necks of free-standing bottles. She uses wine bottles back home, but she's arrived to find that they've given her beer bottles. Way harder, when that's not what you've been training with. Worse than that, there's a Chinese acrobat who's been brought in to compete with her for the record, and she's been training with the beer bottles for weeks.
There's an Italian acrobat who arrived to find that he, too, has had a Chinese performer sprung on him that he has to compete with, and worse still, the prop that they made for his stunt wasn't made correctly, and in rehearsals he badly cut his hand on it.
Then I remember in some of my emails with them, they very vaguely talked about the idea of a competitor. I flagged it up, and asked if there would be someone else doing my trick that I would be expected to compete with. Ohhh noooo, they said, noooo.
It started to really feel like this whole thing was a bit of a bait and switch. Performers being set up to fail, and worse, set up to be beaten in rigged challenges by Chinese performers. No. Come on now, Ricardo, Surely I was being paranoid. Sleep on it.
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.