I give an after-dinner speech occasionally called ‘Media Training for Dummies’. That may sound condescending, but the dummy in question is me. It’s a compendium of anecdotes about my disastrous media appearances, each more humiliating than the last. At some point I’m going to turn it into a PowerPoint presentation, interspersing the talk with clips so the audience can see that I’m not exaggerating.
Until recently, my most embarrassing moment was in New York in 1995, when I took part in a spelling bee broadcast live on the radio. I was the first contestant and my word was ‘barrette’. I’d never encountered this before — it’s the American word for hairclip — and asked the quiz-master if he meant ‘beret’. I said ‘beret’ in a thick French accent to advertise just how cosmopolitan I was, but he was unimpressed. ‘No,’ he said. ‘The word is “barrette” and I’m pronouncing it correctly.’ A few seconds later I was leaving the stage, tail between my legs.
I now have an experience even more humiliating than that: my appearance on a television programme called Pointless Celebrities last Saturday. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with this I can hear you thinking: ‘Why would you agree to appear on something called Pointless Celebrities?’ But it’s not actually a programme in which D-list nonentities struggle to explain to a panel of people who’ve actually achieved something why they should have heard of them — although, come to think of it, that would be quite funny. (‘Hi, my name’s Jeremy and I’m the leader of the Labour party.’)
No, it’s the ‘celebrity’ version of a quiz show called Pointless in which the contestants are asked to come up with the most obscure answers they can to general knowledge questions. To judge how obscure your answer is, the same questions are asked of a hundred members of the public beforehand and the best possible answer you can give – a ‘pointless answer’ — is one that none of them have thought of.
The reason I was invited on the programme was because it was a special edition featuring journalists, although none of us are exactly household names. I was originally supposed to do it with Rachel Johnson — the contestants are divided into teams of two — but she withdrew at the last minute. The producer called me in a panic, asking if I could think of a replacement, and I suggested Melissa Kite. In retrospect, I should not have named a fellow Spectator journalist. It meant that when we appeared together we were billed as ‘the Spectator team’. We weren’t just representing ourselves. We were ambassadors for the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language.
There were eight contestants in total and the first thing we were asked was to think of words ending in ‘ord’. I was up first and the best answer I could think of was ‘smorgasbord’. But I didn’t dare risk it because I wasn’t sure it didn’t have an ‘e’ on the end and if you give an incorrect answer you automatically score 100 points. So I played it safe and said ‘fjord’. The presenter triumphantly announced that 19 members of the public had also come up with ‘fjord’ – not exactly a ‘pointless answer’ — so I scored 19 points.
Poor Melissa then had to wait until all the other contestants had had their turn before she was in the hot seat. Being journalists, the other three teams had all done well and the highest combined score was 31. This meant that for us to stay in the game Melissa had to come up with an answer that scored 11 or less. I cursed myself. If I’d been a bit smarter, Melissa wouldn’t have been landed with such a difficult task. In the end, the word she came up with just missed the mark and we were eliminated in the first round. To compound my sense of shame, the presenter then gleefully listed all the words that would have been ‘pointless answers’ and top of the list was ‘smorgasbord’. If only I was better at spelling!
Afterwards I told Melissa not to worry – no one we knew would watch it and certainly not anyone who worked at The Spectator. I was wrong. It was broadcast on BBC1 at 6.05 p.m. and seen by over four million people and when I went into the Spectator offices on Monday morning I was greeted with gales of laughter. This may be the last time you see my name in the magazine.
Toby Young is associate editor of