Five Seconds of Fame PART II: When Cambridge students hit the small time
TIM O’BRIEN is back with more of your really quite rubbish claims to fame.
A few weeks back I started an investigation into the stories behind Cambridge students’ most tenuous on-screen appearances. After asking you to send in your own, the reaction was astounding – my inbox was inundated with stories of your one-off flirtations with fame and success. Turns out a lot more of you have appeared on the telly than I thought. I went off to meet the people behind the best ones…
Charlie – Farmed Salmon Exposed: The Global Reach of the Norwegian Salmon Farming Industry
Farmed Salmon Exposed: The Global Reach of the Norwegian Salmon Farming Industry is of course a staple of every respectable film aficionado’s DVD rack, and so I was stunned to find out that a second year St John’s student played a crucial role.
Charlie, whose name has been kept the same on his request, meets me in the corner of a dingy Cambridge pub to explain how it came about. As with so many great achievements, it all began with a brief encounter on a lads’ holiday.
“I was on a salmon fishing trip in Norway with my dad and my brother, and a Canadian film crew stopped by and filmed me throwing a few casts.”
As he talks, Charlie seems somewhat aloof and agitated. Almost irritable. I get the feeling life hasn’t gone as swimmingly as the salmon he was out to catch that day.
“I’m actually a bit nervous about this article coming out, since I’ve only just stopped getting random Facebook adds from people asking about my Spey casting technique”, Charlie explains. “The fame was quite hard to deal with – it made me arrogant and insecure for a while.”
Clearly the attention has now subsided. Charlie continually glances round the room though, seemingly desperate for someone to wander over and ask him to sign their rod. I ask him if he feels like a failure. His eyes light up with rage.
“Look mate, fish farms are killing wild salmon at an extraordinary rate and nothing is being done to prevent it. My success is neither here not there, we just need to take the plight of the Atlantic salmon seriously.”
He stands up to get his coat, “I’m fucking done with your stupid interview anyway. This better not get published.”
He smashes his pint glass on the floor and storms out.
Fame is clearly a cruel mistress.
Jennie – Billy Elliot
You may not have met Jennie from Pembroke in person, but I guarantee you have seen her before. Forget cheap Canadian fishing documentaries, Jennie had a significant role in the original Billy Elliot as one of the ballet dancers.
As a seven-year-old, she was initially reluctant to go to the audition.
“Some people came in for a casting and said it was open to anyone who can do ballet,” she recounts, “and I remember thinking ‘ballet’s for chumps, I’m not going to do that – I’ve only done one lesson of ballet in my life and it’s stupid.’’’
Eventually she was talked into auditioning though, and was rather surprised to be offered a part.
“Once we saw the film, it became clearer why they had chosen to put me in. All the other girls were quite serious ballet dancers, with their hair up and in proper tutus – they all looked so pristine.
“If you look at me, I’m the shortest, which meant I was at the front for everything. Also, my tutu came down to my knees and had a massive coffee stain on the front because I spilt something on myself on the first day and they didn’t bother replacing it.
“On top of that, my hair was half up and half down and I was the only one wearing glasses because, according to the director, my glasses looked old enough to be period. And in every single scene I am falling over or off screen.”
Being turned into the comic relief for an historic British film might get some people down, but not Jennie. She recalls the whole experience rather cheerfully. The success clearly didn’t go to her head.
I ask if she had any lines.
“Well, not exactly, but in the bit where the dad comes in and sees Billy dancing for the first time, they didn’t tell us that was going to happen. So we were just doing a normal ballet rehearsal when he rammed the doors open and screamed at Billy. At first there was a dead silence, but I managed to completely ruin it by finding it hilarious and laughing.
“After shouting cut, Stephen Daldry [the director] immediately wandered over and said ‘stop stop stop, I love it – everybody laugh.’ Then they made us do it again, but with all the dancers laughing.”
[0.19 for Jennie cracking up]
Changing the way an iconic piece of British cinema turned out? Impressive stuff. I wonder if she feels the bar has been set rather high too early.
“By the time I was nine, I was definitely ready for an existential crisis” she recalls, “and my brothers always liked joking that my whole life had peaked at seven. And thus far that hasn’t proved inaccurate in the sense I haven’t appeared in anything more famous or award-winning.”
However, there’s a feeling talking to Jennie that things are going to turn out just fine. A beacon of hope on an otherwise desolate landscape of shattered dreams.
Sean – Spice Girls Live At Wembley Stadium
Sean is a third year undergraduate. His name has been changed, to protect his identity. Contacting me by email after the last piece, Sean sent the most tragic combination of words I’ve ever read:
We agree to meet on Clare Bridge at sunset. Rain clouds are starting to appear on the horizon, as the last punts for the day drift back up the river.
Quiet and unassuming, Sean walks with a slow shuffle. His smiles never quite feel full, like he’s missing a heart. No zest for life whatsoever. Sadly, his five seconds of fame are almost certainly the reason he’s dead inside.
Despite being seven years old at the time, Sean’s memories of the 1998 Spice Girls Wembley Stadium concert are fresh.
“I don’t know why but I ended up getting dragged along to this stupid concert with my sister and my Mum. I remember convincing myself I was the only boy in the stadium and spent most the night hoping we didn’t bump into anyone I know.
“To my horror we were sitting right in the middle of where they were filming. People around me kept popping up on the big screen and going wild. Every time they did I’d sink lower into my seat. It was like being on a battlefield, with people around me being picked off by a sniper. Except you didn’t die, you just got immortalized on the Spice Girls DVD.
“All of a sudden, my sister started screaming and jumped out of her seat. I looked to my right and the camera was there in the gangway, five feet away from us, beaming us up onto the huge screen.”
[Sean refused to tell us exactly where he appears, stating only ‘somewhere’ in this clip]
He seems disappointed by the whole experience. For most of us, getting onto the DVD of a historic moment in musical history would almost certainly change our lives. I asked if he felt like it ‘spiced up’ his.
“No. I think it ruined it to be honest.”
He gazes gloomily at a group of laughing students floating by below.
“That song in particular just gives me flashbacks to a really dark time.”
The sun sets slowly over the backs, as we walk our separate ways. A tear rolls gently off the end of my nose.
As I walk home I start thinking. What had I learnt from all these tales of momentary success? Is fleeting notoriety really a blissful diversion from the unending horror of daily existence? Was Oprah right when she said,“If you come to fame not understanding who you are, it will define who you are”? Does being on the telly really change the fundamental core of your very identity?