This two-part compendium is all about celebrity autographs, a true rabbit warren of a topic for me. What started out as “why don’t I tell the story about the time I met Hannah Fry at a book signing” (because I’d just been watching a tv show Hannah Fry was presenting and because I love Hannah Fry), extended into other signings, celebrity meets, and on and on as everywhere I looked in my house there was some kind of other signed item with a tale to tell.
I blame all of this, psychologically, on a harrowing incident at primary school, and I believe this is the first time I’ve had the courage to tell anyone about this since it happened.
A famous author was coming to visit our school. I do not remember who she was, only that she wasn’t a he. She wasn’t like massively famous, she’d done some books we hadn’t heard of, but those books were genuinely available in shops. Maybe not shops in Coatbridge, but if we got the bus into Glasgow we’d find them there. Glasgow even had shops that were ALL books.
She was to give a talk, and probably a reading – inspirational stuff to be sure, but if she had in any way inspired me to write my three unpublished novels in my late teens, or indeed inspired me to write McCannecdotes, safe to say I’d remember who she was, so she probably didn’t.
After the talk we could get autographs. I hadn’t met any famous people, even ones I hadn’t heard of, so this sounded like a momentous opportunity. Problem is, we were strictly only allowed to get autographs if we had a proper autograph books.
You might not know much about Coatbridge – but by way of an intro… On the Wikipedia page, in the opening summary, the phrase “scrap heap” is used, and Frankie Boyle once did a routine about how shit it was (“like Bladerunner without the special effects” if I remember the quote). On the plus side, the band Hue & Cry are from there – they were an 80s duo who sang Labour of Love and the much-better Looking for Linda, still to this day the best song about Lindas and one of the best about looking.
From this quick description, I’d ask you how many of the kids in this town do you think owned autograph books. Bespoke landscape-format blank books purchased for the sole purpose of collecting celebrity signatures.
You might want to be sitting down for the shock revelation that I did not have an autograph book. If at any point in my childhood I had acquired one (only way = stealing) this would have been instantly sliced up and put in the microwave as a frugal alternative to chips. But no, no book, and so like most I was strictly barred from going anywhere near the author.
A small elite of cunts, and I use that phrase carefully as we are talking about fellow primary school children but in this case they were, did indeed have autograph books and made their way to the front of the class to meet the author, chat about her work and get her signature (“Please sign it on page two, page one has Hue & Cry on it”).
And I have no doubt that this heartbreaking exclusion (the one time at school I was excluded, I was very well behaved) is single-handedly responsible for what I did as soon as I had money of my own to burn.
The signs were there
It started in the early 2000s, in my first ever job, when I went through a phase of buying autographed celebrity photos on eBay. Of all the phases I’ve had (including boxing), this is the one I resoundingly regret the most, and you can get a sense of this from the fact the vast majority of these (and there were about 30) are in a pile at the bottom of a cupboard somewhere.
I know now, as you probably knew the second I mentioned eBay, that the vast majority of these – if not all – will have been fake.
I’m now going to start a paragraph listing them. Whilst I don’t usually do much editing of McCannecdotes (which may or may not show), I suspect that as I write the rest of this story I will keep coming back to this paragraph to add new ones as I remember them.
[Ones I’ve remembered right now:] Milla Jovovich, Steven Spielberg, Jeremy Brett, Ali Larter, Britney Spears, Claire Danes, Natalie Portman, the cast of Heat, Liz Hurley, the cast of Superman, Steps, the cast of Titanic. [Ones I’ve remembered while writing the rest of the story:] Ashley Judd, Kate Beckinsale,
Jeremy Brett (removed, not signed just a print), Denise Richards, Neve Campbell, Michelle Ryan, Bridget Fonda, Anna Kournikova, Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Stacks of scribbled 8x10s from the genres of film, music, television, sport and hot women (with some overlap). I then had the challenge of framing them; sure, online shopping existed in 2001 but it was not quite the automatic choice that it is now. Instead I traipsed round various shops in Birmingham (where I lived, I didn’t go there specifically for frames), trying to find 8×10 frames and exhausting the shop’s supply. The result was that of the dozens of framed, “signed” prints, only 2 or 3 were ever in the same frame colour or design.
I lived in a single room bedsit. I didn’t even have anywhere to put these fucking things.
I guess I had been suspicious of the provenance of these all along, despite the high eBay ratings, and “Certificates of Authenticity” that came with them (usually printed on coloured paper with WordArt on them). Group signed photos were always more expensive but generally all seemed to have been signed with the same pen.
“Could you wait a moment, Mr De Niro, I need to chase Mr Pacino to get the pen back.”
Looking at the positives, they were generally very good prints and extremely well packaged, not a one of them arrived with any creases, and at the end of the day I could always see these as nice celebrity prints. It’s actually common these days when looking for photos or wall art to find “pre-printed” autographed shots. They are always clear about this in the description, and deep down I think this is the business model my 2001 sellers were forced into after a court case or two.
So I wound down my autograph-buying phase, save for a Martina Hingis-signed tennis ball, which came with an actual photo of the seller with Hingis signing it. It took a few days for me to realise that he could easily have kept the original, faked 100 balls and sent copies of the photo out, but at least he met her and this made it significantly closer to being genuine than anything else thus far.
The shady auction
I still liked autographs, even if I do admit it’s logically quite a silly thing to collect. But how would I get real ones. I wasn’t at Primary School anymore so I would never again have the chance to meet a famous author. Or where could I acquire autographs from that would be more trustworthy than JoeyBear from eBay.
And so when I saw a charity auction selling Atomic Kitten things, I was immediately involved. Charities wouldn’t do me over, right? Atomic Kitten definitely would have stricter controls over their signatures, possibly the strictest in the industry given that they were Europe’s number one girl band. At the time.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) were hosting this auction, and if I was prepared to spend big and shatter the rival bids of teenage girls, Liz McClarnon was auctioning off a pair of her sunglasses, signed across the front.
I couldn’t figure out if it was very appropriate or deeply inappropriate that a blind charity were auctioning a pair of sunglasses. Same goes for the marker pen autograph across the glass which would have rendered them useless to wear (or would it?)
Bank balances had been checked, credit lines pre-approved. I was not leaving here (my desk at work, it was online bidding) without Liz’s shades. These had been owned and worn by Elizabeth McClarnon – as well as teenage AK fans, I was likely to be up against millionaire overseas bidders and possibly the British Museum.
(To some this may sound like hyperbole, but I really cannot overstate how much I loved Liz McClarnon. Her music, her personality, and literally everything about her face and body. Recently, I was on Facebook and she popped up in the People You May Know section. A former colleague is a friend in common; unfortunately I did not know this colleague well and only spoke to her a few times but had added her on Facebook during that phase where you added people the day after you met them and that was fine. She’s therefore extremely unlikely to be a McCannecdotes reader and probably has me on a FB list called “Randoms to be culled”, but if she is reading can I please ask her to immediately ask Liz to add me on Facebook and start chatting to me every day, with a view to courtship. I’ve just realised I actually saw this colleague’s husband, who is proper famous from the telly, in a Harley Street hospital reception in 2012 while I was waiting for a potentially rectally-invasive pre-sobriety medical – I would probably have been better off asking him about Liz but I did have other things on my mind…)
For the princely sum of £120 or thereabouts, the shades were mine; they would take pride of place in my house (slummy bedsit) and definitely not form part of any Liz McClarnon costume I was planning to wear about the flat on the weekend with the stereo on, as some deviant friends suggested.
Finally, something real and genuine, that I could say for sure was definitely signed by the actual person (watch any Atomic Kitten video from the early 2000s, look at Liz’s face and try to tell me that face would swindle a charity and an adoring fan).
What can be more genuine than something signed that you’ve bought officially from the person, or from a designated charity intermediary? What if … what if you MET them, and you SAW them sign it.
Meet, greet, pay, sign, leave
Myself and my best friends were off to the NEC in November 2002 for the Memorabilia convention (a sort of a Comic-Con merch and celebs affair) which would feature a host of guest stars from lots of things we liked. As my best friends were gay (yes the same two I would later move to London with), I was keen to make haste to the Bond girls to make it clear to any observers I was that way inclined. This backfired as whilst Britt Ekland was there, she was in her sixties, and eagerly queuing to chat to an elderly woman about her time on the silver screen ironically made me seem more like a gay man.
I never spoke to Britt in the end, I found it took me some hours to come to terms with the fact she didn’t look like she did in The Man With The Golden Gun. As this was my first visit to such a show and first brush with celebrity I feel I was unprepared for the concept of people not looking like they did in decades-old films. I spotted Maryam D’Abo, from The Living Daylights. One of my favourite Bonds, and 1987 was practically yesterday.
Only last year while rummaging through old boxes, I happened upon a photo of this meeting that I genuinely had forgotten had been taken. It must have been snapped by Laurent. Then today, while doing some fact-checking with Thomas for this McCannecdote, it emerged that he also had a photo of this same moment.
Not only was I experiencing my first brush with celebrities, but I was seeing first hand what it’s like live under the spotlight and to be relentlessly pursued by the paparazzi. And clearly due to the pressures of fame and expectations, this is why I was at the time even skinnier than the skinniest Bond girl.
Maryam signed a photo for me, and whilst she didn’t ask how to spell my name, I feel confident she gave it her best shot: “To Alen, all the best wishes, Maryam”. She must have seen something special in me, as instead of writing “all the best” or “best wishes” she chose to combine these. She had also added a kiss, and to top it all off, clearly signed it in such a way that it would be effortless for me to track down Timothy Dalton and get his signature added in the blank space, which I would have definitely done had I not only just noticed it now.
Abuzz, which is the only word to describe it, I headed off to queue for my next Bond-related star. “What piece of eye candy was it this time Alan, you fucking perv” I hear you ask. (Genuinely I can’t hear you ask these things, you need to use the Contact Form or the Comments Section to get in touch with your reactions & opinions).
Well, actually, it was John Glen – prolific Bond film director (all the 80s ones). My controversial liking of the Timothy Dalton films was right within his era, and my opinion of him had sky-rocketed when I read somewhere that there was a scary pigeon in all his films. Even more so when I rewatched them and it was true; what a visionary.
I got to his table, prepared to have a long conversation with him about his career, and my own background as a student of film. We’d talk shots, angles, mise-en-scene and pigeons. Then I’d buy his book and he’d sign it “To Alan, a true peer, I’ll never forget our conversation, Love John”.
But he wasn’t fucking there. His table was empty, and an officious woman standing guard over his stack of books said he’d gone for a break and wasn’t sure when/if he’d be back. While my friends headed off to go track down some guy who once did the voice of a dustbin in Doctor Who in 1971, I decided to wait. And wait and wait.
By the time John returned, somewhat stunned to see someone expecting him (I don’t think his table had been busy), I was exhausted and could not manage the full gamut of film talk I had prepared, nor my line “Ah Mr Glen I’ve been expecting you”. He would have loved the play on the famous Bond quote, as he’d done something similar for the title of his book. But alas, I just complimented him on some of his Bond films (careful to exclude A View To A Kill which he’d know was bullshit), forgot to mention the pigeons, got my book signed and left.
He’d signed it “To Alan, thanks for waiting, John”.
From there it was straight to someone instantly recognisable from the Bond films. Richard Kiel – AKA Jaws – the massive guy with the metal teeth, an iconic if deeply silly villain. By now I had come to expect that these stars might look different in real life. But however old, and however lacking in actual metal teeth, this guy was going to be fucking massive.
He was sat at his table with, one feels, an almost deliberately tiny old woman. This pocket-sized biddy, guardian of the metal money box (which I like to think had been thriftily fashioned out of Jaws’ old teeth) was there to take the £20 from queuing fans, and also their name, and signal to Richard that he was clear to engage with them and write something on a book or photo.
This one has been an experience which stayed with me, as nowhere in this vast arena of minor celebs and their nerds was it more clear just how transactional this whole thing was. Richard was old, and very clearly unwell, his physical frame taking its toll with the years. The little woman was so efficient it was ‘take money, hand photo, write thing, next”, and it felt like for him this endless exercise of appearances was a trudging retirement necessity. I felt a little sorry for him, like I was queuing at the circus to pay my money and see the giant man.
“TO ALAN. Hi! RICHARD KIEL (JAWS)”. It seemed strange that the only bit not in capitals was the “Hi!”, but I imagine he’d received feedback over his life that when he shouts “HI!” at people, they would tend to scream and run away. I also got his book, and so handed the little woman another £20 and got that signed too.
Onward to George Lazenby; I was secretly hoping after the guy before me in the queue had gone and it was my turn, there would be some mistake or issue or his pen would run out and I could say “this never happened to the other fella”, but it didn’t and as that was the only banter I had prepared, it was a short visit. “To Alan. Thanks. George Lazenby 007” Was that thanks for the £20?
This wasn’t a James Bond convention, but looking back I did seem to focus quite heavily on the Bonds, so either I was not so much of a fan of the other shows and films whose stars populated the NEC, or if I did like those shows and films, the actor present was so underwhelming that I wasn’t paying £20. This was not a concern however when I returned to my wishlist and found Claudia Christian.
Claudia was one of the main stars of Babylon 5, one of my absolute favourite shows of the time. I had always been a bit of an outlier on this, having been surrounded by people at school and uni who either didn’t like science fiction, or did but hated Babylon 5 and only watched Star-prefixed sci-fis like -Wars, -Gate and -Trek. Thomas was different and this was one of the main reasons we were friends (alongside the fact he can use his gaypass to get us better seats at Steps concerts).
We were straight to Claudia, and there was some chatting. She was lovely and one of those people where when you watch them on tv you think they’re going to be really nice in real life. And she was. She’s come to my attention again recently as she has become quite an outspoken campaigner on sobriety and alcohol addiction; she’s based in the UK and I’d love to go see one of those talks perhaps with a printed out copy of my own McCannecdotes on the topic to hand to her. She would definitely remember me, she wrote “To Alan, all of my love, Claudia”.
I only lived in Birmingham for two years, but had crammed in a mighty amount of ropey signings, trustworthy signings and “I LITERALLY SAW THE INK GOING ON” genuine signings. Soon I was to be off to London, where all the famous people live.
If I tell you a few months back I was sat in a restaurant next to Bill Nighy, you can only imagine the wealth of autograph opportunities I’d had in the preceding 16 years of London living.
It’s probably not as much as you’re thinking, and if I was to hazard a guess it’s just enough to fill a second part of this McCannecdotes compilation…
Ah, so many memories. I remember the famous author’s visit (I can’t remember her name either, but then I’d never heard of her, before or since). I seem to remember the ‘audience’ was held in room 10 – the TV room – and I vividly remember the ‘no autograph book, no approach’ rule.
Perhaps the lady in question was averse to scrawling her signature on pieces of paper torn from those school jotters with the Ready Brek adverts on the batters.
My experience in the murky world of autographed photos is far less developed than your own, but I did send for a rather snazzy signed picture of Derren Nesbitt a few years ago, to go along with my Dad’s Christmas.
(Where Eagles Dare is a favourite of ours, and many a father-son bonding session has taken place watching Donald Houston being hoofed off the top of a cable car.) Given the C-list status of the actor that portrayed the villainous Major von Hapen, I thought it would be relatively inexpensive to procure a humorous piece of tat that my Dad could use to adorn the wall of his den.
It never struck me until afterwards, that the photo was of dashing Derren bedecked in the uniform of a Gestapo officer, and my Mum’s strict ‘no nazi paraphernalia’ rule meant that it remains in the cardboard-lined envelope that it was given in.
PS Labour of Love was a far superior song to Looking for Linda…
Alan, I’m shocked at how our memories of school days differ. Your lovely mum would never have let you steal an autograph book – she’d have done it for you! I’m wondering which of my former colleagues (please say it wasn’t me) insisted on autograph books – a control freak perhaps? Could the author have been Mairi Hedderwick who wrote the Katy Morag books?
My only brushes with celebs have been standing behind Paul Daniels in the ticket queue at Euston and meeting Richard Dreyfus on the QM2. He was fascinated by my husband’s kilt. Och aye the noo!
Surely the autograph book thing was an SMT decision…
It would be a turn up if it was the Katie Morag author. I used to watch the TV version with Phoebe on CBeebies. I was half expecting the next book to be called ‘Katie Morag and the student flat,’ given the rapid ageing of the actress that played the eponymous heroine.
‘Katie Morag and the Middle Management Existence,’ could be the follow up. Or ‘Katie Morag and the Comedy Blog…’
And the last time I saw Richard Dreyfuss on a cruise liner was in the film Poseidon.
I’m glad that his presence was the only similarity with your trip.
More likely a publisher’s decision. Can’t have such a ‘famous’ author signing bits of shiny Izal!
For sale on eBay: 1 autographed Rizla, can’t read name, circa 1988
I know that must be a fake because you were smoking Embassy at the time!