In my pocket there’s a one way ticket to a TV show in a country I adore, that pays enough for me to be here, in Gatwick airport, letting a flat white slowly persuade me that 5am is a time I should be anywhere.
At this point in a trip, especially a trip to do a foreign TV show, there are almost always many loose ends. My OCD (Oh, and professionalism) likes to know exactly what will happen and when for every moment of the gig. Ricardo likes a schedule. But sometimes that’s just not how things are going to work, and all you have is an end point – me doing some cool tricks in front of cameras – and you just have to go with the flow in terms of how we get there. This creates in me, as you might imagine, not insignificant amounts of stress and anxiety, but over the years I’ve learnt to re-frame the annoying uncertainty as adventure, and to let that redefinition remind me of what a privileged and exciting position I so often find myself in. This, again, is the kind of life the teenage me dreamt about, so lets work hard on enjoying it as its happening, and not just in a few decades time as a happy memory, shall we?
I arrive in Rome, am slid into a large, comfortable, dark car, and off we go. I still have little to no idea what I’m actually doing today, so I ask the driver if we’re going to the studio or the hotel. “Studio”, he says. Alright then. I slowly boot up the version of Mat Ricardo that the studio will need, and power down the version that is currently running, which just wants a nap.
The last time I was in Rome I was also filming something, but that was a lifetime ago. 30 years back, they brought me here to perform in a station ident for Rai-2. I remember it being a very fun shoot. They had booked another British performer to be my showgirl assistant, and I played a juggler on a beautiful theatre stage, who kept having his juggling clubs stolen, mid-juggle. I remember that the guy they’d hired to catch the clubs as I threw them, who told them he was a juggler, was in fact, not. So I had to secretly teach him how to catch what I was throwing, so the rest of the crew didn’t realise that he was a bullshitter. We filmed in at CineCitta studios, and, one lunchtime, as we sat in our dressing rooms enjoying our on-set catering (And you haven’t experienced on-set catering until you’ve had it in Italy – fresh pasta, warm bread, tiramisu, and WINE), we were startled by a series of loud bangs and cracks coming from nearby. We poked out heads out into the corridor and saw that they were coming from behind a door labelled “Godfather 3 special effects”, which explained everything.
I was still a teenager when I was in Rome last, but here I am again, as a not-teenager, sitting in a makeshift green room, signing contract after contract, mostly in Italian. Then being shown to a dressing room and told that we were doing a full camera rehearsal. And in a blur of prop-setting and tech-testing, I’m on a huge shiny stage, staring out at an empty auditorium, supervising camera positions to best show my tricks. There’s a microphone hanging off my right ear, and a live translation earpiece hanging off my left. Whenever I move, they both bang around a bit and feel like they might fall off. And then there’s the language. When I speak, my words are translated live, over the studio loudspeaker, and when one of the hosts asks me a question, someone translates it in the earpiece in my left ear. This means that in a simple question and answer, there are four voices all talking at the same time, and I have to focus on the right one to hear the question, and then block out all the others, in order to give my answer. I’m a juggler – I’m supposed to be good at doing several things at once, but this is tricky. I realise I’m going to have to work really hard if I’m going to look cool, and not like a deer caught in headlights desperately trying to make sense of the tumbling cacophony of words swirling around me. OK then, well, at least I know what I’m in for.
We run my spot, and everyone seems happy with it. The producer who booked me tells me it was perfect. Strikes me that that’s something that someone says either if (a) it’s perfect, or (b) they don’t care if it’s not and want to move on. Guess we’ll see, huh.
And then I’m signing all the contracts again because apparently I did it wrong the first time, and then I’m finally cleared for the day, and in no time am sitting in a restaurant next to the hotel, across the table from my agent, and we drink wine and have pizza, and still don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing tomorrow. But at least we have wine and pizza.
The hotel is just across the street from the studios. I say street, but lets be frank - huge motorway. Because although technically we are in Rome, we’re actually in a bit of a no-mans land mini-sprawl on a ring road on the outskirts. So when they say, as they have, that they probably won’t need me today, but they might, so stay in the hotel just in case, it’s a bit frustrating. There’s very little here. And the wifi in my room doesn’t work. So me and my agent disobey the orders and go for a wander up the road to see if there’s anything to find. There’s not much, but we do have an espresso and some cannoli in the roadside “Big Ben Bar” – because when you’re in Italy, you want to find an authentic medium-sized reproduction of the houses of parliament to hang out in. Then, a little further up, we sit in the sun outside the “Dubai Bar”, which is totally lovely, although in the back of my mind, the whole day, is a little voice saying “At any point they might call you and you’ll have to go and do a crazy-ass TV show, the details of which are stunningly unclear”, so I’d be a liar if I said I was completely relaxed at all times.
Finally we get the call that I won’t be used today, and decide that it’s a waste to be in Rome but not actually in Rome, so we jump in a taxi and get it drop us off right next to the Coliseum. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a hell of a thing. We amble around it and come across some street performers. My people. There’s an opera singer in a red ballgown singing in the twilight to a crowd of people all sitting along a low wall. She’s singing a song that used to be the backing music to a trapeze artist I did some seasons with. I get a bit emotional. I’ve written in the past about the global brother and sisterhood of street performers. The international family of people I’m so proud to be a part of, who all share such a specific and unique life. Whenever I see a busker work, especially in a foreign country, I wish there was a way I could easily communicate that I have lived their life. That I understand it. Some kind of secret handshake that would signal that we’re part of the same hidden society. I gave her some money, and she had some business cards laid out, and I took one, so maybe I’ll send her a secret handshake that way.
We went to a nice, slightly shabby, café for dinner – recommended by both websites and friends – and it didn’t disappoint. Big heavy bowls and plates full of thick, gloopy, rustic, sticky, fresh, beautiful food. And then a gelati, of course, and then back to the hotel. The only information I have about my schedule is that they will probably use me tomorrow, but they might not. Well, alright then.
Hard boiled eggs and swiss cheese in a soft roll for breakfast. Italy, I love you. But as I eat them, I still don’t know if I’m filming today or not. And If I’m not, then I’m filming tomorrow, and I have to go back home tomorrow, because a day or so later I have a tour date. Oh hello there, stress, won’t you make yourself comfortable?
Again, we get told that I might get used today, but I might not, so I have to stay in the hotel. They seem to have found out that we disobeyed yesterday, as they say it much more forcefully this time around. “You must stay. In the hotel. IN THE HOTEL. OK?”. Ok, sure fine whatever, mum. I’m coming down with a cold anyway, so I go back to bed. And that’s my day. Coughing and sniffing and reading, in my hotel room, all day. There’s no business like showbusiness. There are two bright spots – lunchtime, when my agent brings me a pizza from the restaurant next door, and late afternoon, when I realise that if I stand in the very far corner of my bathroom, by the window, I can get wifi. No business like it.
I’m filming today, they tell us. Be at the studio, ready to go, at 11am. So, another big breakfast, and we’re checked out of the hotel and back in the green room. And so commences a long day of things happening to other people, and little happening to me, except a few feverish checks of the timings for my flight home, and increasingly worried thoughts about how in hell I’m going to make it. And then, mid-afternoon, somebody puts a brick on the gas pedal and everything suddenly starts moving fast around me. I’m in my work suit, checking and setting props, ensuring my tie is straight and my fly is up, and I’m slapping a smirk on my face and swaggering out on to that same shiny stage as a few days ago, but this time, I’m under hot lights, and being stared down by a few Italian celebrities and a chattering full house audience. Here we go then.
I do my first couple of lines, and manage to cope with the three voices competing for attention in my earpiece. I do my first gag, and it gets a laugh. And I relax, and slide through the rest of the act. It feels easy and pleasant. The laughs come at the right places, and the tricks all hit their targets. My final bit is one of my new pieces, from “Mat Ricardo vs The World” – the routine with the knife. It goes good, and watching it back, their post-production really did it justice. Then I’m chatting to the celebs, and one of them wants to try the knife trick with her hand. The idea gets a laugh, so I gesture to the chair, as if daring her to do it. She takes the dare. Gets up and walks over to me. And my mind is racing, because I’ve thought about this being a nice extra part of that routine, but I’ve never done it. Never even tried. Not totally sure if it’s possible, bearing in mind the change in body positioning. But it’s happening, right now, on Italy’s biggest TV show, so, I think to myself, I guess its time to trust in my skills.
And she sits down, and she’s brave, and I’m good, and it works, and as I’m doing it, I’m thinking “well, this is some fun TV, right here…”
The celebs all say very nice things, unless the translator was lying to me. Many “Complimenti” and one “Terrific!”, according to an ipad that one of the hosts holds up, 92% of the audience thought I was great. I wave at them and blow them a kiss.
And then, half an hour later, I’m still sweaty from the studio, in a different suit, and in a taxi bombing to the airport. I get to my gate with just enough time to neck my last real Italian espresso for a while, grab a caprese and some fonzies, and buckle myself into my homeward journey. And breathe out.
Just before you go.. I am currently halfway through a UK tour of my new, Edinburgh fringe sell-out, 5-star reviewed, one man show “Mat Ricardo vs The World”. I would, of course, love you to come. Remaining stops over the next few weeks are Darlington, Camberley, Nottingham, Cumbria and Chelmsford. It’s a funny show about how I spent the last year of my life learning any trick suggested to me by strangers on the internet, and why I did it. Hopefully I’ll see you there. More info can be found by going to the tour page of this website.