Vanity, thy name is screen test

Observations on women in television (2)

By the time you read this, it will have started. Big Brother, I mean, not the summer. My heart sinks like a stone in a cold canal at the thought. In the early days, I admit I was hooked. But now we are beginning series SIX, for goodness sake, and all I can think is: if only the rain would keep off, I could lock the television in my leaky shed, bury the key under a bramble bush, and avoid the tiresome, squalid, silted-up mess altogether.

Of course, even if I were to do that, I would not be safe. Worse even than the show itself is its long, slow leach into everything else. Its tentacles are everywhere. In a recent documentary about Abi Titmuss, the journalist Rod Liddle suggested that Titmuss is as important a weathervane of sexual mores as Alfred Kinsey ever was. This is rubbish, naturally, but typical of the way many of our commentators look for significance in the shouty unpleasantness that is reality TV.

At bottom, when you shove to one side all the clever talk about the unnatural value our society places on celebrity, television is about vanity, isn't it? The money is nice, but it's a person's head that is turned, not their bank balance. I know this because, this month, in the face of everything that I believe and everything I know about myself, I took - oh, God - a screen test. Nothing will come of it. For one thing, I look not unlike a frog in still photographs, so the Lord alone knows how I might appear in motion - like a frog on speed, probably. For another, I appeared on TV once before, and it was a disaster of buttock-clenching proportions.

I was asked, by a friend, to appear in a BBC4 show called the Battle of the Books. The conceit was a courtroom-type situation, in which one book would be pitched against another. I was to speak on behalf of Wuthering Heights, which was up against Gone With the Wind. Now, I know Wuthering Heights intimately, but no sooner was I standing in the "witness box" than my mind turned to mush. For some minutes, I ranted on about windows and doors and, yes, orifices, in the manner of one who has read rather too much bad lit crit, while the good ladies of the Belsize Park book group looked on, amazed. The really bad part, though, was when they came to their deliberations. They were still MIKED-UP. "What was that girl on about?" whispered one. "I don't know," said another. "I couldn't understand a word she was saying." Everyone in the studio - presenters, experts, men with booms - heard this. I stared ahead, fixed-ly; they all tried to avoid meeting my eye. A verdict was soon returned. Gone With the Wind: 12. Rachel Cooke, sorry, Wuthering Heights: 0.

So why, last week, did I go back for more? Appalling vanity, as I told the producer as she shook my hand. Vanity of the highest and most disgusting order. I am one of life's writers, by which I mean not that I can turn out fantastic sentences, but that I am better off alone, quiet and anonymous. And yet . . . what television does is pay you a vast compliment, a wolf-whistle so loud that it might have been blown on a flugelhorn. Your wobbly thighs, that boy at school who called you ugly: suddenly, such things cease to matter.

Unless frenetic frogs take off, I am very unlikely indeed to appear on television any time soon. But, no matter. Today, at least, there is a certain, rather shaming, spring in my stride.

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