28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Three, the Nerd and her Iguana

In which Willard encounters a fiscally prudent herpetologist.

So, for my third date, I was theoretically back in the realms of "normal" dating. I could steer away from the completely ridiculous niche sites that I'm doing for your benefit, dear readers, and concentrate on actually trying to find someone who I might be able to fall in love with. Yeah, maybe I am being unrealistic - but that's why I'm actually doing this.

Of course, it's me, so it never ends up that way - here's the Facebook chat to a mate this particular foray out into the wastelands of the internet produced:

Don't worry, we'll get on to exactly how a reptile of the family iguanidae got involved in a date. To be fair, it was probably my own fault for going on a website called "Geek2Geek".

Now, it was my desire to meet someone I might actually have something in common with to choose this particular dating site for a "normal" date - I am pretty unashamedly a bit of geek myself. I'm also not the kind of "soft" geek who is like "oh, yeah, I saw Lord of the Rings once, you know, erm, hobbits are cool". Not the kind of person who owns two "ironic" Star Wars T-shirts. I'm the real deal. World of Warcraft account; weekly 2000AD reader; I used to blog about model soldiers, for goodness sake. I occasionally write bitter reviews of how I feel "let down" by notable sci-fi writers.

I've never been lucky enough to date a girl who did anything more than really tolerate my hobbies - indeed, my longest term girlfriend once turned round to me in bed (we were living together at the time) and said "If I asked you to choose between loving me and toy soldiers, what would you choose?" I of course, replied "If you really love me, you wouldn't ask me to choose". Which obviously meant "FUCK YOU, MODEL SOLDIERS".

Not really. If she'd asked me, I'd have very reluctantly boxed them up and sold them, but I'm honest enough to admit it would have really hurt. I'll admit to a certain jealousy of friends who have lovely wives they can sit down and play X-box with, or curl up under a duvet and watch Aliens for the 200th time. I suspect Geek2Geek may not fit everyone's definition of a normal, mainstream, dating site of the Match/Soulmates variety - or does it? My own gut feeling is this sort of person, of whatever gender, is pretty common these days. I recently discovered one of my most stunningly attractive female friends is an avid roleplayer, for example (tragically, she's not attracted to men).

So I figured I could meet someone in that bracket. Now, I wasn't looking for someone with identical likes to me, just someone who might not react with abject horror if I said "so how about we go to that Alien movie marathon at the Prince Charles Cinema". Geek2Geek's community is pretty enormous, and although it's clearly bigger in the US than the UK, there were plenty of people in and around London. Within a week of trying, I'd arranged a date.

So, after work, I popped to a local pub and sat waiting for the person I was due to meet. She was 28, worked in "digital engagement", and in her profile picture, looked lovely, smiling, and obviously enjoying the great outdoors with flowers looped into her hair. Thus, I was a little surprised when someone who looked nothing like the picture tapped me on the shoulder and said "Hello, are you Willard?" Now, I understand in this online dating game, it's common to lie on your profile, but using a flattering photo from 8-10 years ago probably does you no favours. Yes, the person may meet you, but when they meet you, their initial reaction is always going to be "you don't look like your picture".

Indeed, where she'd had the picture taken (I thought it might have been at a music festival), she talked about how much she'd "had" to photoshop it. So, yeah. Digitally manipulated photograph. At least she was definitely on the level about her computer skills... So, we got to talking, over a couple of drinks. She talked about:

  • Water Filters - she does social media for a well-known brand of water filter, so, to be fair, this was in response to "so, what do you do for a living?". But her enthusiasm for them was, erm, palpable.
  • Social Media Jargon - She did at one point say, "I really love how you've diversified your personal brand", non-ironically.
  • Pensions - She LOVED personal finance. Loved it. I learned a great deal about retirement planning, the NEST scheme, SERPS and tax relief. It's fair to say, as a freelance journalist I didn't have much to add to this, but the look on her face when I told her I didn't have a pension at all at 32 was pretty priceless. It was the sort of look people reserve for those who say things like "So I said to the doctor, psychotic episodes be damned, I'm coming off those pills!".
  • Her beloved pet Iguana, Jolyon. Now, I have nothing against exotic pets, but I just find reptiles a bit repulsive. Well, I'll be honest, totally repulsive. She had photos of it (sorry, him) curled up on her duvet, with her in the bed, which to her was super cute, but to me were like some 21st century Hieronymus Bosch nightmare vision of hellish torture.

So, after about an hour, I explained I had a really important article to write the following day, made my excuses, and left, but not before saying "We should totally do this again, as friends." Pretty sure it was mutual; neither of us walked away from that date thinking "OMG that was the ONE". Probably for the best; even writing this, the idea of being woken up by a giant lizard crawling over me is making me shiver.

Now, I'm sure there's a fiscally prudent herpetologist for her out there somewhere on Geek2Geek; it's fair to say, that is not me.  So, back into the wilderness, it seems...

This post originally appeared at 28 Dates Later. Stay tuned as we catch you up with all Willard's disastrous dates so far over the next week.

This is exactly what Willard's date looked like. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.