What does a poster of a boy with a small penis advertise? That you can choose your gas supplier, of course

The other day, I was at a party after the screening of a film when I was introduced to one of the people involved in it. The conversation went something like this: "This is X, he was the penis?" "What?" "You know. The penis. On the slab." Then I remembered. There had been a scene in a morgue featuring what was supposedly the dead body of the leading character. I'm not very good with actors, especially when you meet them in the context of them just having acted in something.

Alan Bennett wrote very well about the art of going backstage to see actors after a play. The crucial thing is not to even hint at criticism. John Gielgud once made a disastrous Freudian slip going to see Richard Burton after what he thought was a terrible performance. He opened the dressing room door to find Burton half-dressed: "Sorry," he said. "I'll come back when you're better. I mean ready." Bennett said it wasn't enough to say "You were wonderful". There might be an awkward pause. You have to start saying "You were wonderful" halfway down the corridor so that you can be in the middle of saying it as you come through the door.

In my case, there was a definitely awkward pause. I couldn't work out what to say - "It was lovely" or "It was really rather big, considering". Instead, I just managed something like: "Oh! . . . Blimey . . . I've never met . . . well, . . . amazing." Anyway, it turned out that he was really the assistant assistant director, so it was something we could chuckle about. But I have sometimes wondered about actresses - especially actresses - taking their parents, siblings and best friends to see their role in a big film. In A Clockwork Orange, that applies to most of the actresses. "I'm only on for a bit, Mum. I'm the one that gets raped by four soldiers. I don't actually have any lines, but I do wear a purple wig." And now that it has been re-released 30 years after it was made, I imagine there are people saying: "Look, there's granny being raped by those droogs."

The only thing that makes the London Underground bearable is the campaign for Asahi beer that features D-list celebrities such as Debbie McGee and Dickie Davis in cod Japanese ads with captions saying things like: "Manly. Sophisticated. Most fine." The layers of semiotic complexity and irony are staggering; but nevertheless the campaign depends on the utter irredeemable naffness of the subjects. What did they themselves think when they were signed up? Is Dickie Davis detached enough from his public image to find the idea that it is amusing that anybody would find him sophisticated amusing? If you follow me. I would love to have been a fly on the wall listening to Debbie McGee's agent explaining to her why this campaign would be good for her career. I know that there is something in British culture saying that there is nothing more important than to be a good sport, to be game for a laugh, not to take yourself too seriously, but still.

But then, what can't you get celebrities, or ex-celebrities, or members of the public to do? Forgotten pop stars will appear in a line-up on a TV pop quiz in order to demonstrate before millions of people how humiliatingly forgotten they are. A gaunt, harrowed Neil Kinnock appeared on Have I Got News for You? so that he could be laughed at for being a failure. I had wondered what could be more bizarre and grotesque than an Italian clothes company putting posters up of American death row prisoners in provincial England. But then I saw a big new campaign for a gas company. The point, apparently, was that we now have a choice, though whether it is to get electricity from a gas company or to choose between gas companies for your supplier I can't remember.

Instead of just telling us that, the posters focus on the things in life we can't control, and the style for these is some sort of post-ironic, post-Chris Morris comedy of cruelty. A pubescent boy is looking down his pyjamas. Presumably it's his penis size that he can't control. (Or is it the equally plausible idea that men and boys can't control anything about their penis?) And then there is a portrait of a family so strange-looking that it seems like a picture from one of those weird medical textbooks from early in the 20th century in which slightly puzzled- looking people demonstrate an enormous deformity for the camera.

I think the point is that you may not be able to control your appalling ugliness, but you can choose where to get your gas. I just keep thinking of the strange-looking child being driven past one of the posters and pointing it out to somebody and being proud of it.

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