This is the second part of my tales about autograph-hunting and celebrity-meeting. Instead of calling these Part I and Part II, I have signalled the connection by threading a commonality into the title – this advanced literary technique will either cause confusion, or be copied far and wide in the writing community.
By the summer of 2003 I was living in London and had brought all my eBay prints, my in-person signings and my Liz McClarnon sunglasses with me. At least in the Tooting flat I had some nice spaces to put them, like the Natalie Portman and Britney Spears which I could place on the windowsill of my bedroom.
(This turned out to be a mistake as after some months the blaring sun had caused the signature element to fade. But the joke’s on you, Sun, the autograph probably wasn’t real anyway. Ha! Stupid gaseous ball…)
Signs of the Rimes
I was in my LeAnn Rimes phase. One of my better phases; it involved watching Coyote Ugly most nights (really, not an exaggeration), fancying the horsey wholesomeness of Piper Perabo, and savouring the musical stylings (and, if I’m honest, the weird eyes) of Miss LeAnn Rimes.
I had all the albums, the proper ones, unlike the lame-oids who only got the Coyote Ugly soundtrack. So when LeAnn launched a fan club, I was immediately involved. And if I was one of the first 1,000 people to join (and pay my dues) I’d get a goody bag of signed items from the girl herself.
I was indeed one of the first 1,000 members (this is no mean feat, Rimesy was at the height of her worldwide fame), but it was to be some weeks before I realised my good fortune. Because my welcome pack, including my signed goods, had been sent to my flat addressed to James Someone, and so the envelope lay untouched on our dining table while we tried to figure out who this James was.
One evening I caved in, “Fuck James, finders keepers” and found inside my country treats. A welcome letter, this time at least addressed to me, and half a dozen 8×10 prints, three of which were hand-signed. There was no pin badge or t-shirt, so in order for anyone to know I was a RimesTimes VIP, I had to tell them. Which I repeatedly did for a number of years.
Britney and Natalie, both since faded, were removed from my “best frames” and LeAnn went in, the frames replaced on the windowsill facing away from the sun not out towards it. (I’ll admit to being baffled in hindsight as to why I put Brits and Nats on the windowsill facing out but I had indeed done that; I guess some people put flags in the window to make a statement to passersby, this was my equivalent of that – long before the #freebritney hashtag I was advertising to anyone who broke into my back garden that this house was resolutely pro-Spears).
(In writing this story and the last, I’ve been listening to a heady, inspirational mix of Atomic Kitten and LeAnn Rimes – and thoughts have turned to the idea of a McCannecdotes Soundtrack album. Please leave a comment if you would buy this, and if you’d be interested in a Signed Deluxe edition.)
I went to see LeAnn Rimes perform at a venue I will describe, as a tribute to Billy Connolly, only has the Hammersmith Odeon. I didn’t meet her, so this is of no consequence to the signings stories, but it would be remiss of me not to talk about what is, categorically, one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.
I was comfortably sat in the middle not too far from the stage, in a very sparsely populated area – I didn’t quite understand this, there was no-one else in my row and hardly anyone in front or immediately behind. It was as if every seat in the area except mine had been block-booked and a coach-load of RimesTimers had broken down on the M25. I popped to the toilet during the intermission (I wouldn’t normally do this, I always “go before I leave” so it must have been the sheer fucking excitement).
When I returned and walked towards my seat things had filled up a bit. In fact there was a whole group of girls all sat around my seat. Wow! I started edging along the row, apologising as each person had to stand up to let me through. I was about seven or eight deep into this throng of country groupies, all decked in denim and cowgirl hats, when one of them said “I think you were sitting over there,” pointing behind me across the theatre.
I turned around and looked over to see where indeed my seat was. I was in completely the wrong section. Humiliated at having squeezed past them to get to a seat that wasn’t mine, I then had to squeeze back past all the people who had just sat down. I don’t know what happened, maybe just autopilot coming back from the loo and I’d come through a different entrance.
I was as red as the seats by the time I got back to my rightful and empty place. How could I not have been suspicious when my row suddenly had a whole range of different people in it. But wait a minute? How on earth did this group of randoms know where I was sat, with enough confidence to correct me? It didn’t ease my embarrassment but I guess they had looked over, saw me on my own with dozens of empty seats in every direction and thought “Aw, look at that poor sad git.” And if that was true, they probably thought I’d noticed them looking, saw it as a coy invite, and decided to pop over to join them, until they swiftly nipped that idea in the bud.
(It will be of no interest to you but that was a great gig, even featuring a guest appearance from Ronan Keating with whom LeAnn had released a duet. It takes some star power to get another star to come to a gig purely to join them for three minutes, even if her seat-filling power did seem to be dwindling).
My autograph-collecting had slowed, possibly due to space or alcohol, but I acquired a few new ones from the strangest of places.
A signed poster of Angelina Jolie as Tomb Raider came my way. My old boss from the job in Birmingham had also moved to London, and we’d stayed in touch. The poster had come into his possession via a close friend who was Jolie’s stunt woman in the film, and his interest in having or displaying this fine piece was basically zero. Sometimes, broadcasting your strange interests to everyone you meet can have its benefits, because when he wondered who could possibly want such a thing, only one name came to mind (mine).
It used to occupy a prime spot on my bedroom wall over the bed, beside my Flashdance, Dirty Dancing and Ghostbusters posters, until repeated feedback from women led me to replace all these posters with more traditional framed artworks in 2014.
One of the favourites of my collection next. A colleague in Iceland was in a bit of bother. He contacted his London-based “fixer” (me) for help. He had an urgent need for 80 (eighty) money-can’t-buy tickets to the UEFA Champions League Final. It wasn’t just that this was a ludicrous ask, but the deadline for even ordering these tickets had passed about six months before. The Final was in a few weeks, and the cream of Icelandic society were expecting to be there.
Through a combination of skills (often just plain begging and crying) I did the impossible and scraped together no less than the 80 prized sporting passes. As a feat, it is a highlight of my professional career, and a true wonder that it’s taken me over 10 years of McCannecdotes before I bragged about it.
My colleague knew that, for me, there were much more important competitive events happening in the month of May, and a few weeks later I received a signed Eurovision programme from my favourite of 2009 (and one of my all-times) – Iceland’s Johanna.
The Nordicana haul
In 2015, myself and flatmate Andrea were off to the Nordicana convention at the Troxy in London. A weekend of Scandi-themed goodness, leaning heavily on their popular genre of dark crime serials.
I had become obsessed with this some years before, and my Nordic Noir phase has been ongoing since. It started with The Bridge (possibly the greatest piece of television ever) and The Killing, and ventured beyond crime/noir into a whole range of Scandi (mostly Danish to be honest) series: Borgen, Follow The Money, and what was at the time my new favourite show The Legacy. It didn’t take much weaning to get Andrea involved in this too, and these shows were a regular fixture in our nightly “family time” tv-watching sessions.
Me and Andrea were beside ourselves at the idea of meeting Sofia Helin, who starred as Detective Saga Norén in The Bridge. She was the main attraction at this event. The deal was, you buy tickets to the event, which includes some stuff and lots of screenings of new unseen-in-the-UK shows or episodes, and you can also pay for separate signings taking place in various antechambers around the venue. I’d bankrupted myself with a whole suite of signings, but Andrea had also gone for Sofia and I think she may have been more excited than I was.
(Andrea went on to name her daughter Sofia – coincidence, I don’t think so. And whilst I was happy she chose this name in honour of the star of The Bridge, which she definitely did don’t let her tell you otherwise, I had been pressuring her to name her after an bit-part actress we’d seen in the end credits of The Legacy – her name was Emilia Leonora Imperatore Bjornvad. Unbeatable.)
I let Andrea go first, in case she said or did something stupid that would act as an ice-breaker when it was my turn; I can’t just be interesting or amusing straight off with a new person, I need a springboard. I was also somewhat starstruck so never thought to take any pictures. Luckily Andrea was more composed and we have her to thank for the ones that follow.
Sofia had a little trouble with both my name and my accent. I repeated a few times, but thought of the many Scandinavian Allans I either know or have seen in the credits of Scandi shows. This was a risk. My mind cast back to Maryam D’Abo’s charming but ridiculous “Alen” typo. This couldn’t happen again. Certainly not with the celebrity most revered in our household.
“Here I’ll spell it out for you,” I reached to take her pen. In normal life, what happens is by the time you reach to take a pen from someone, the person relaxes their grip, or holds it out for you, and the pen gently becomes yours. You barely have to think about it, it’s second nature. I gently tugged at the pen and it was like it was superglued to her hand. She was having none of it, and I backed off to explain further. “Can I have your pen, sorry, I’ll spell my name on this piece of paper beside you which seems to have ‘practice runs’ on it.”
She looked at me suspiciously, then eventually nodded and handed me the pen. My hand was shaking even more than it was before. Before I was just star-struck, but now I was reeling from a near-confrontation with tv’s toughest detective over a fucking Sharpie.
So there I was signing my own name for a celebrity to keep, for free, after paying £20 for precisely the reverse. That said, she did then sign a Blu-ray for me and all the chaos had at least avoided any typos on this now-prized item in my Nordic Noir collection.
She can even be seen here regarding me with a smile before I left. Perhaps one that says “yes, yes, now move on strange Scotch pen-thief”.
Between signings we were milling around the event, Andrea was checking out the various foods and homewares, I was checking out the fellow attendees. I think I had it in my mind that this event would be a great place to find a girlfriend, since we’d definitely already have something in common.
On top of that we had a busy schedule of live panels (one of which author Marian Keyes did a sinfully bad job of hosting, annoying or offending about 80% of what was a fairly small audience, and half the panel), and big-screen Scandi premieres, including the opening episode of the new season of The Legacy, which I was bursting to see.
I stopped by the books section on a tip-off that Camilla Hammerich, producer of Borgen, was there with her book – I chatted to her for ages and practically had to be torn away by Andrea. On the other end of the spectrum, I picked up a book about The Killing and the author was clearly absolutely, terminally fed-up with the whole fucking day and couldn’t wait for it, and people like me, to be over.
I left Andrea to go to a signing session with Sofie Gråbøl, Detective Sarah Lund in The Killing. Once again nervous at meeting a tv idol, I was overjoyed as I sized up the little fat fellow in front. His arms were chock full of presents for Sofie, and she instantly recognised him, from the 40 or so other times he’d come to one of her things. He was either in love, seriously obsessed, or simply demented, and seemed harmless enough – but this was great for me because even saying hello to a famous person I feel like they’ll think I’m a freak; I’d come across as fantastic after this guy, as long as I remembered not to touch her pen.
We chatted for a bit as she signed a DVD, of something I hadn’t seen because she had run out of the good ones, but she was definitely in it. “Funny story,” I said momentarily forgetting I was meeting a celeb and not hosting a session of McCannecdotes Live, “You were talking in the Q&A about [the twist at ending of The Killing] – I’m actually here with my flatmate, and she hasn’t got to the final series yet, OOPS!” She looked mortified and started to apologise profusely.
What the fuck was I doing!? From pen-wrangling one to berating the other for having the gall to talk about the plot of her series years after it finished. I backtracked, explaining it was fine, “Don’t worry, she has the memory of a goldfish, she’ll have forgotten by the time we get on the train*.”
*a smart get-out but not true – if it was, Andrea wouldn’t keep going on about the time her dad was visiting in 2011 and we went to the local pub and I had Pastis (French aniseedy drink) and they apparently had to “carry me home”.
As I was leaving, the guy who was before me was on his way back in to chat more. Poor Sofie. I think this guy had just kept rejoining the back of the queue for the last half-hour just to have another “go” on her.
I decided for the next signings I needed to keep my hands to myself (pen-wise) and stop trying to interact as I was clearly no good at it. I didn’t stick to this last one so you can confidently read on.
Next a panel with the cast of The Legacy. An absolute treat. And shortly after a meet and greet with those same stars. In the queue I noticed they were signing DVDs and as was the case with The Bridge we already had these; I spotted some prints beside the stack of discs, and asked one of the staff if I could maybe get those signed instead of the DVD I already had.
“Oh yeah, I’ve probably got four of five copies of that one myself. Yeah that’s fine, you can get both if you want.”
Great – I was used to a pay per item scenario as per Richard Kiel and his book from the NEC, this was just … wait a minute why does this guy have “four or five” copies of this series on DVD?! I was tempted to reply with “Yeah I’ve actually about 8 pallettes in my garage just of this DVD, definitely don’t have room for another one.”
It was my turn to meet the trio of Danes. Trine Dyrholm is a very famous Danish actress, with an extensive career in film and TV. Jesper Christensen is most recognisable from his appearance in three Bond films as the villain Mr White (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Spectre). It was appropriate to be returning to the Bond theme at my second multi-signing event.
Marie Bach Hansen was relatively unknown, but her character ‘Sunshine’ was the focus of The Legacy, and she was the one I was most nervous about meeting due to her quite unbelievably hot face.
I was the last person in the queue so used this as an easy ice-breaker as prints and a DVD (thanks, guy) were laid out in front of them. But my chat was exhausted. After a few moments of panicked silence, I eventually turned to Marie and said:
“I see your hair is as big in real life as it is on the show.”
WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT EVEN MEAN! Alan, why are you so fucking stupid around famous people, hot girls, and people who are both!
She smiled back, such a pro, and I anxiously waited for my things to be signed so I could run away. I really felt like running all the way back to my seat at the Hammersmith Odeon, that’s how embarrassed I was. On the evidence here, I was significantly more socially inept than the little guy who was obsessed with Sofie Gråbøl.
I dashed away, only cheered up by the irony of getting a genuine autograph from someone who played Sunshine, when sunshine had previously erased my fake autographs on the windowsill.
The last things of the day, a panel with the cast of 1864, a new historical drama (which was great), then a screening, and I’d just catch the end of the 1864 signing session. Then we were done. Problem was, by the time I headed to the signing (about halfway through the allotted time) they’d finished, packed up and gone.
I interrupted a bunch of demob-happy venue staff, who were winding down over some beers and they confirmed this to me. And then a few minutes later I interrupted them again, asking if I could at least get one of the Blu-rays (this was actually the one show I didn’t already own, and I had paid monies for this). With a sigh, the young lad fetched it from the upstairs, and we were done.
A meeting of minds
Everything else in life ground to a halt when in 2019 I discovered Professor Hannah Fry had a new book out and was doing a talk. Another all-time favourite, which won’t surprise you as you know how much I love maths and science.
Maybe you’re skeptical about this, and so to prove you wrong we need to journey back to Primary School, where I was a founding member of an unnamed but very puritanical science study group. There were three or four of us, and the rules were simple, you must study as much as possible, aim to know more about science than anyone else, and never be seen at playtime without an advanced GCSE studybook in your hand. I had more of these high school books at primary school than I ever did at high school…
One member of the group was almost ex-communicated after I once walked past his house – A-level chemistry exam guide in hand – and saw him playing football outside when he had assured us he’d spend the whole evening learning like a normal child.
I’m not trying to belittle the impact of kids being mean to other kids, but to this day I am just astonished that I wasn’t bullied more at school. I really should have been. I’ve previous said on here that I had techniques of making bullies laugh before they could land a punch, or that because I was so pathetically small and puny bullies felt genuinely ethically bad hitting me, but nonetheless … I was small, had glasses, and walked around the playground with pocket-sized science books beyond my years. I should have been bullied more.
We’d even take on the establishment, causing regular disruption in our Religious Education class (hugely at odds with our scientific mindset), and tenaciously pursued quite heated debates with teachers (often one in particular) about how we thought his God stuff was “silly”, “unproveable” and “shouldn’t be getting taught to malleable children”. The concept of faith was not mentioned once in our GCSE Physics revision guide.
He (I’ve capitalised He here to show that I’m talking about God, but it’s capitalised anyway because it’s the start of a sentence so I’ve had to put this bit in explaining it)… He got the last laugh anyway, as the one person in the science group that actually pursued a career in scientific research, is now a member of the clergy.
At high school, there was a similarly strange Star Trek clique. The sort of people who were usually bullied for being nerds were actually the mainstream. It was actually quite un-cool to not watch Star Trek. I did like it, but unlike the other members of the group, we didn’t have Sky so couldn’t watch the latest ones. I also preferred Babylon 5, which at our school was a big no-no. I think across my whole school career, this was the main thing I was bullied for. I take solace in the fact I know towards the end of school, one of the main ringleaders of the Star Trek crew did start watching it, even if he pretended he didn’t, and had started to backtrack on some of his views. He’s therefore likely been unable, in all conscience, to go meet Claudia Christian at a convention and have his picture taken with her, as I did.
It is against this deeply science-focussed background (squandered by later studies as outlined exhaustively here), that we return to my love for Professor Fry – her intellect, her scholarly work, her popular-science accessibility, and everything about her face and body.
I had some history with her already, given that she once almost killed me outside work.
I should explain, I was about to cross the busy Regent’s Street, a deathtrap at the most attentive of times. I was supposed to stop and wait before I crossed, but in the intervening moments I spotted Hannah Fry walking down the street towards me IN REAL LIFE, lost my shit and blindly crossed the road, narrowly avoiding a careering double decker bus. From star-struck to bus-struck in the blink of an eye.
And now here we were, in a Church of all places, listening to a fine lecture based on the Professor’s latest book. I’d already bought the book, but bought another so as to have a reason to be at the signing. I had no issues having two copies of the same book, it’s HANNAH FUCKING FRY. Her talk, around the human consequences of an increasing reliance on data and algorithms, touched upon various topics from artificial intelligence and face recognition, to privacy and surveillance. It included a particularly scary piece about how dodgy facial recognition could land you behind bars.
After it was done I giddily joined the queue to meet another of my niche heroes, with Andrea on standby to take photos, and coach me from the sidelines to not say or do anything tittish.
The first thing she said to me was “Have we met before?”
Well, I mean I’d definitely remember that, so no. Unless 20 years ago she was at the NEC dressed as Richard Kiel… WAIT, did she remember me as the guy she almost saw get flattened by a bus on Regent’s Street? Can’t be.
“Um no, definitely not,” I said.
“You’ve got quite a familiar face. I must be mixing you up with someone else.”
“No I … wait a minute. You’ve just done a talk about the dangers of CCTV and surveillance, and you’re now implying I’ve got a generic face. Should I be worried about this?!”
Andrea was about to intervene as discussed before I said anything stupid; actually no she wasn’t she was gleefully taking picture after picture of all of this, which I have now been able to stitch into this distracting GIF.
It was all good, she laughed and we chatted about the benefits and drawbacks of having a stupidly basic face like mine. I’d done it, I’d gone to a celeb thing and not bottled it or said or did anything freakish. And I’d remembered to wear my good shirt too. If she thought she remembered me before we’d even met, I’m sure she definitely would now.
Of course, all this new-found scientific information I’d learned about face recognition largely became redundant as months later everyone was wearing COVID face masks.
Maybe He really did have the last laugh on this one…