Each morning, when I opened my eyes, there was another clump of hair on the pillow. Within two weeks, I was two-thirds bald with an absurd black tuft projecting two inches over my forehead. It was radiotherapy, of course, supposedly the only remedy after the surgeon failed to remove every bit of a brain tumour. Yes, it was worrying, but in hindsight it was also a time of high comedy.
After three weeks of treatment, I went on holiday to Cornwall. My young children looked a little more appalled each day and my wife Philippa pretended not to notice. After the holiday the treatment went on for another three weeks: a made-to-measure plastic mask bolted my head to the table, and the nurses directed two shafts of coloured light at the same tiny point on my brow. No one had told me the radio beams would leave a curious pattern of baldness and in the mirror I noticed that the pattern on my scalp looked exactly like the map of where we’d been staying: the left-hand bit of Cornwall from, say, Falmouth to St Ives, with the tuft marking out Land’s End.
When I went back to the hospital the doctor told me not to worry, it all looked totally normal. Normal? My job then was presenting a regional ITV current affairs series and I appeared two or three times per programme. I wasn’t entirely sure that the viewers would agree with the doctor’s idea of normal. ‘Oh yes, everyone looks like that after radiotherapy to the front of the head,’ said the doctor. ‘But don’t worry, the NHS provides free wigs.’ So I sat down to choose from a hospital catalogue. There wasn’t a great selection, but one that was black and quite thick looked nearest the mark. ‘What a wise choice,’ the doctor said. ‘We’ll put in the post.’
Some days later the wig appeared on the doormat. The postman had obviously had to squidge it through the letterbox. How could he have known that it was my passport to normality? It was in a ragged, half-sealed brown envelope with hair sprouting from the corners. Curious p&p, I thought, but still, salvation.
But when I tried it on, it wasn’t salvation, it was nylon and dreadful. ‘Can you put it in the dressing-up box, Dad?’ my youngest implored. My mother-in-law said I looked like a Hottentot. But I remembered what the doctor told me: put it on, take it to the barber’s, he’ll cut it to your old style and you’ll never know the difference.
The scissors snapped for a good half-hour at the barber. As he swept up the final bits of my cast-off nylon, I looked in the mirror and saw someone wild and deranged.
Back at work the following week, no one said a word. When I did talk to colleagues they refused to look me in the eye. On the Wednesday, I took the wig off and went back to the Cornish landscape.
My next grand plan was a wig made of real hair. A make-up assistant at work recommended a theatrical wig-makers in London. I rang them and they said the minimum cost was £650. I decided to turn to my boss. ‘Dear Clive,’ I typed, ‘since I appear regularly on your screen, and do not wish to put over an artificial nylon image that might let down the company’s reputation, could you possibly give me a cheque for £650?’ Back came the reply: ‘Don’t be stupid, just stop appearing on screen.’
Outrageous, I spluttered to myself. Without my face on it, the programme’s popularity would plunge (OK, regional popularity). I tried again. ‘Dear Clive,’ I wrote, ‘I am assured that this will not be just any old wig. It will be made from real Croatian hair and a team of seamstresses will spend literally weeks shaping it to perfection.’ (This is what the wig people told me. And what if they did salvage the hair from slaughtered East Europeans? If it’s a good match, I thought, I’ll take it.) No reply.
I was irritated. ‘Dear Clive,’ I wrote again, ‘I have given you the best hairs of my life and now you won’t even buy me a wig.’ Back came the memo with a handwritten scrawl: ‘OK, you win.’
I took the first train to London and a taxi to the wig-makers. A somewhat fey young man sat me down. ‘Did I want to keep it on full-time?’
‘No,’ I said, thinking of all that embarrassment. ‘Only when I’m on screen.’ ‘In that case,’ he said, ‘we’ll do a super hairpiece that can be fitted and removed within a minute, and all you need do is comb it in to the real hair on the back of your head. No one will spot the join. And that tuft at the front will also be useful.’
‘You’ve seen my work on telly,’ he said, with more than a hint of pride. ‘That’s if you’ve ever watched Dame Edna.’ I waited for the smile that would confirm his sense of humour. No smile. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘When you came here today, how many people did you see wearing wigs?’
‘None,’ I said.
‘Nonsense. I suspect you saw at least ten, but the point is, they looked utterly real.’ I wondered why he didn’t make a wig for himself. He was a young man, but three-quarters of his pate was bald except for a little swept-back quiff. ‘You see this quiff?’ he said. ‘It’s a hairpiece. Isn’t it perfect?’
‘Next,’ he said, ‘we must decide on the colour ratio.’ Colour ratio? Yes, the percentage of white hairs. He suggested 20 per cent white to 80 per cent black, which shocked me. I would have put the original white at no more than 2 or 3 per cent.
‘Oh no,’ he insisted, ‘look at the back of your head, much more than that — what about 15 per cent?’
What on earth was happening? First a malignant tumour, then an operation, then grief, stress and worry among all my family, and now ...I find myself bartering with a theatrical wig-maker about the amount of white in my hair.
We settled on 8 per cent. It took two fittings and 12 weeks before the call came to come and collect.
As soon as I looked in their mirror I knew it was wrong. It looked nothing like me. But of course I told him I was delighted and decided to wear it home. I was hoping for a little excitement from long-suffering Philippa, and I got it. Opening the front door, she gasped. ‘What on earth have you got on your head?’
I reminded her it was only for filming, and she said she didn’t care as long as I never, ever wore it in the house.
One other thing happened. I had been half offered a job at another TV station, and the editor asked to see me, not at the office but at a pub between our homes. On went the wig. The interview was all right, but I found myself thinking throughout, does he know it’s a wig? Please, no. If he does I’ll never get the job.
He didn’t know, I realised the next day. I was on a train to London, and wigless, when I felt that someone diagonally opposite was staring at me. It was him and he looked ...well, surprised and uncomfortable.
Needless to say, I didn’t get the job, and the Croatian wig has joined its nylon predecessor in the dressing-up box.
Incidentally, the radiotherapy was pointless. The tumour grew back and I had a second operation. But that went well and the remaining hair is long enough for my barber to sculpt around the Cornish coastline and feign a full head of hair. And, except in high winds, I am a happy man.
Steve McDonnell is editor of current affairs at ITV Meridian.