A few weeks ago I began the awkward business of starting work on a second series. This is always a frightening moment, as you’re told when the recordings are being held, and when the tickets are going out and when it’s being broadcast and you’ve got nothing, absolutely nothing. It seems possible, or even probable, that on the night of the first recording I’ll walk on stage and say “Good evening. I’m afraid I couldn’t really think of anything. I hope you haven’t had to come far. I’ve brought a box of Quality Streets to share so I hope that makes up for it a bit.”
Somehow the start of a second series is more daunting than the first. I reckon that when Dickens started writing his first novel he set off with a carefree demeanour, unaware of all the complications that awaited him. But years later, after a deal was signed, he’d sit there with a blank sheet, thinking “What the fuck is there to say about Christmas?”
The series is called ‘Mark Steel’s in Town’, for Radio 4, and I have to go to six more towns, and do a show about that town to any of its inhabitants that come along. The last series ended on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, where amidst the quarries it turns out there’s an insistence that no one says the word ‘rabbit’, as this is deemed extreme bad luck. At first I assumed this was a quaint jokey custom, like the law in Hereford that you can still fire an arrow at a Welshman if he’s in the church courtyard. But as I went round the place it turned out they mean it.
The local historian, whose book on the island was otherwise splendid, referred to ‘underground mutton’. When the Wallace and Grommit film ‘Curse of the Were-rabbit’ came to town, all the posters had to be re-written to read ‘Curse of the Were-bunny’. Kids have been sent to detention for saying the word (so if a kid says it and the teacher barks “WHAT did you just say?” they’d be better off replying “I said ‘cunt’, miss.”)
The marvellous part is how quickly you become tuned to this fear of a word. You sense the horror in the same way you know not to say ‘fuck’ if you’re on live radio, especially on Thought For the Day. So at the end of the show I said I felt the series had been a celebration of community, and for that reason we should finish on an old-fashioned sing-along, of a classic old Chas ‘n’ Dave song, and I started singing the chorus of their Rabbit song, the bit that goes “Oh she won’t stop talking, why won’t she give it a rest.”
And they gasped. The Weymouth people and the immigrants to the island shrieked with anticipation, but one of the islanders stood and thrust his middle finger, with a rage that reminded me of the Serb militia under Milosevic. I glanced at the producer, who gave an expression that suggested it might be advisable to not do the ending we’d planned.
“Oh come on Portland”, I said, “This is a show about bringing towns together, I’m not really going to ruin the whole series by coming to Portland and enraging you all by saying ‘rabbit’.”
And the middle finger man hurled a pound coin at me with impressive force, so that if I was a footballer my team would have been led off the field.
Once it had all calmed down, a waitress from the restaurant that was attached to the theatre told me she’d been warned she could be sacked for saying the forbidden word. And an elegant man in his seventies wearing a silk cravat told me he was delighted with how cross the word had made some of them, and then walked across the restaurant and started playing ‘Run Rabbit Run’ on the piano.
So now I’ve got to find the craziness in a new batch of towns. But whereas for the first series, a bit of me imagined this was just a bit of fun and no one would actually listen to it, this time I know that some people will. For example, a butcher in Lancashire told me that after listening to the show about Skipton, he and his wife went on a weekend break there.
This is the sort of power Nigella Lawson has, when she mentions gherkins as a possible side dish and the following day the world supply of gherkins is bought by five past eleven.
The first of the new series is in Dartford, the Kent town alarmingly near to the town of my upbringing, the charming Swanley. So I went to the library to take a glance at some of their local books, and an endearing bubbly man came over to tell me he’d heard the first series and ask what I was doing there. And when I told him I was doing one of the programmes in Dartford, and the date of the recording, he said he wasn’t sure he could come because he’d recently broken up with his wife and wasn’t sure when he was having his kids and then he burst into tears while lying on the table.
So I sat with him for a bit in a pathetic attempt to console the poor man, and I have to hope my programme wasn’t somehow the trigger for his divorce.
The recording is this Friday, 15th January, and to add to the tension I know at least thirteen of my old school mates will be there who, as much as I know this can’t be true, I’m convinced will still all be fifteen.
I’ve also visited the magnificent Cheshire town of Alderley Edge, where Alex Ferguson and Wayne Rooney and Andrew Flintoff live, along with Aston Martin showrooms and an off license that sells more champagne than any other in Britain, and about sixty beauty salons and a charity shop full of stuff from Gucci and Prada that doesn’t have the prices on its clothes. In the Post office, amongst the cards in the window that would normally say ‘Pram for sale’ or ‘Carpenter available – no job too small’, was an advert on a card that said “Ring me if you need a butler.” I think by the time I’m half way through the recording there, I’ll be wishing for the amiable charm of the rabbit moment.
Tickets for the recordings are available from the BBC ticket unit, which has a website, I believe. And they will be in Dartford on 15th January, Wilmslow (by Alderley Edge) on 12th February, Dumfries on 26th February, and then in Gateshead, Penzance and, if you fancy it, the Orkneys, sometime in March.
Also, it seems the BBC is making the first series available to download in March, which is as technologically advanced as I’ve ever felt since my Dad bought a TV that could get BBC2. The shows will go out in March and April, assuming that I’ve written the bloody things.