It’s a downside of often being on TV; complete strangers think they know me. They speak to me as if I’m a neighbour or someone they knew at school, testing my patience with inappropriate familiarity and an assumption that I want to know them. The really stupid ones can’t separate me from what they see on the screen and talk as if they’re on personal terms with the character that I play. They repeat the catchphrases to my face, ask how my fictional wife and mother-in-law are getting on, tell me what I should do about the neighbour who driven me mad for six series and four Christmas specials. They laugh as if I haven’t heard it a thousand times before, and sometimes wait as if I’m going to ask their name and whether they always come to Waitrose. I minimise my reaction; a little smile, a muttered ‘Thanks’, maybe a quick handshake from which I quickly step away. Sometimes I don’t pick up the Parma ham or aubergine so I can quickly put a few yards between us. I don’t pose for selfies or sign autographs when I’m shopping, and ignore it when they respond to that with a snide remark. And sometimes I have to take deep breaths, count to ten and stifle the urge to respond with the F word. Other actors, my agent, even some of my family tell me it’s the price of fame. I say it’s the price of there being a lot of ignorant idiots in the world.
The woman who made me crack didn’t look the type. She was about forty, tall with a lean face, a few pale freckles and brown hair, dressed in a smart grey jacket, black trousers and dark red cotton scarf. And there was a copy of The Guardian in her trolley. I caught the eye contact, thought there was no need to worry and responded with a faint smile. She came back with a wider smile and a sudden approach.
My heart dropped. I’m Jason. Clement is the character who has made me famous.
“Stocking up for the meltdown are we?”
That was a weak joke from the third series. I shook my head and tried to step back.
“I suppose this is the hunter gatherer in Greenwich.”
I forced a smile. What made it strange was that her voice was matter-of-fact, clearly pronounced with no strong accent. People who spoke like that usually pretended not to recognise me, and if they did speak it was to say something sensible. I was off balance. She broadened the smile.
“The world’s got its wires crossed again!”
That was it, the bloody catchphrase, but instead of walking away I was overcome by an urge to retaliate. I twisted my lips into a smile.
“Please don’t be confused,” I said. “I’m not Clement. I’m Philip.”
“You must have seen ‘The School Head’. I’m the headmaster who blackmails teachers with secrets, seduces one, drives another to suicide, then murders the one who threatens to expose him and drops her into a river.”
Her eyes betrayed a moment of confusion, then a memory. It had been four years since the show had been on TV, but I had been so thoroughly evil that it had left many viewers repelled. The misguided delight in her eyes melted into a glimmer of horror.
“They didn’t catch me, did they.”
A second series had been intended but never made. The writer had a heart attack and the co-star was given a big series by the BBC.
“The police arrested another man by mistake.”
I revealed a glint of my teeth, enjoying the shock on her face.
“Remember,” I said. “Clement is my hiding place. Philip is the real me, and one day I’m coming out again. I’ll have a little more fun.”
Her eyes froze, shoulders twitched. I took her hand and squeezed gently.
“It’s been very nice to meet you. Maybe we’ll see each other again.”
I turned away, walked slowly to the end of the aisle, then looked back and saw that the woman had abandoned her trolley and run towards the entrance. She disappeared without looking back. I realised she was seriously screwed up, felt a moment of discomfort and looked around. Nobody seemed to have noticed. I carried on with my shopping, pleased to find vine leaves in the deli and a new type of Rioja on the wine shelves. Queueing at the counter I drew a couple of stares and responded with an easy smile. Then I trundled out to the car park and loaded the bags into the boot of my car.
My ears were pricked by a car accelerating and wheels screeching in an arc – towards me. I had a split second to halt and fall backwards as it slammed into the shopping trolley, crushing it against the bumper of a shiny SUV. I rolled away onto all fours, eyes on the car as its door opened and the woman climbed out. She walked around to look at the damage she had caused, her expression suggesting it was a big surprise, then down at me. I looked up at her and screamed.
“You mad bitch! You were aiming at me!”
“Of course I was.” She spoke in a dangerously calm voice. “You’re dangerous.”
She turned back to her car, reached inside and came back out with a heavy duty handbrake lock, several pounds of yellow metal swinging at the point where its two main sections connected. She looked at the implement, folded the sections together and pushed down the lock. Now it was solid, more threatening. She swung it in her hands.
“If you’re really Philip I can’t let you walk away. You’ll hurt someone else.”
She raised the lock, I rolled onto my side and slapped my hands over my head.
“No! I’m not Philip!”
I looked up. She had raised the lock to shoulder height but stopped. I closed my eyes, raced through the memory of every TV role I had played, then grabbed at a name.
I looked up. Her eyes conveyed her brain processing the name.
“You must have seen it, fifteen years ago, at least. My mother murdered my father because she was having an affair with his best friend then she started telling everyone I was sick in the head and I had to be put away and years later they let me come out and she got suspicious and began plotting to murder me.”
She stared at me, still holding the gear lock at an angle to do serious damage.
“I don’t remember that.”
“It was called ‘Tom Has Come Home’. I told you it was a long time ago. Mother had drugged me and fixed it up look like I was gassing myself in the garage, but her sister came along and rescued me, but I was so traumatised that I couldn’t cope and had to go back to the mental home. I was messed up so badly, scared by everything. I pretended to be Philip to get over it.”
She didn’t react. I sat up, pushed myself back a few inches and took a breath. Then she stepped forward and raised the lock higher. I dipped my head, tried to roll away and felt a kick in the shin. Suddenly there were scuffling feet, more voices, and I opened my eyes to see a man and woman pulling her backwards, prising the car lock from her hand. A couple of seconds later there were more people and they were holding her back at a safe distance.
“Call the police!” I yelled. “She’s a bloody mad woman!”
I hadn’t noticed that someone was pointing their phone’s camera and caught me screaming that she belonged in a straightjacket. The video lasted seventeen seconds and went viral. The tabloids had a field day and I was the butt of jokes on panel shows. I quickly dropped the idea of pressing charges and said on TV that I appreciated the woman’s problems and wished her no harm. Privately I was pleased that they hauled her back to the institution where she had spent half of the past ten years. I hoped one of its resident psychos would get her.
Then ITV killed Clement. A young man with a hipster beard told me the focus groups now saw him as less sympathetic and that this “undermined the comedy dynamic of the series”. So they dropped it – then created a spin-off with every main character except Clement. And I didn’t get the part in the period drama that my agent said was a shoe-in. So he sent me to some auditions, but everybody decided I wasn’t quite right for the parts. I waited for phone calls that didn’t come and avoided the TV so I didn’t have to watch other actors at work.
After eighteen months the call finally came; my agent mentioned a big name TV writer who wanted me for a juicy supporting role. I said yes and he promised to fix up a meeting. I didn’t feel excited. I turned on the TV and sat up late watching drama and sitcoms, unmoved and not laughing. I went to bed and didn’t get much sleep, thinking of Clement, Philip and Tom and feeling distaste for all three. I got up early, went for walk and stopped at a café for breakfast. It was busy, every other table occupied, but when I had finished eating I realised that nobody had looked at me. In fact, it had been months since I had noticed any little glances, nods or hidden whispers. People were leaving me alone and I liked it.
Twenty minutes after I got home the agent called to say the meeting was set for the next day.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m not doing it.”
“What! You have to! You won’t get another chance like this!”
“I don’t want one.”
“I’m finished. I want to do something else.”
That was it. No more acting, no more characters, just me. A bloke nobody notices.