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“Get in a circle and say what you had for breakfast!”: what happened to me at an interview for a zero hours contract

Almost 700,000 people have a zero-hours contract for their main job, according to the Office for National Statistics. Ryan Ormonde shares his experience of an interview for a front-of-house role at a London theatre.

There are twenty of us in a studio space. Steve is our sparkly host for the next two hours. “Let's all get in a circle,” he says. “Classic drama style! Everyone say what you had for breakfast!”

Answers range from “a nutty cereal” to “chicken wings and two paracetamol”.

One of our number is not playing ball.

“Nothing,” she says.

“Nothing? How about for lunch?”

“Nothing.”

All eyes back on Steve: “Keep an eye on this one, she might faint!”

“Next up: I want you to imagine you only have half a minute left to live. Choose a memory from your past that you’d like to revisit for your last 30 seconds on Earth...”

I am at an interview for a front-of-house role in a London theatre, which includes some bar work and tearing tickets. We are competing for a zero-hour contract, and shifts are allocated to the people who reply the fastest to an email containing the new rota each week. There will be no guarantee of work for successful applicants, and whole months with no shifts on offer at all. 

In the spirit of theatre I am suspending my disbelief and trying to oblige Steve with an image of my last ebb of life.

Some people forget they are in an interview and reminisce on illegal raves and drug-fuelled euphoria. Catching up, the hopeful who skipped breakfast and lunch offers: “Cake…?”

Steve is now leading us in a game in which we throw and catch a ball while repeating things that we said before. This is followed by one of those team-building exercises in which we have to help one another get from one side of the room to the other without stepping on the floor.

Now we’re in smaller groups, responding to imaginary front of house scenarios, in order to win points for our team. One scenario: what would we do if a customer started shouting “this poster is gay”?

“Maybe they’ve got Tourette’s?” I suggest. 

Every now and then someone is taken out of the room for a “brief chat”. “Tell me about yourself,” says Steve. By now we have passed the two-hour mark, but Steve’s improvisation skills are serving him well. I like Steve; he makes the job sound fun – exciting even.

Afterwards I tell a friend with a full time job what I've just been doing and she looks alarmed: “It's like one of those crazy house viewings you hear about," she laughs, “where they have everyone round at the same time and they leave them to fight it out!”

The day after I get an email from the theatre. I didn't get the job. It's not my CV, it's me. Maybe I should change what I have for breakfast. Maybe I should work on my ball throwing. Maybe I should apply to be a contestant on Saturday Night Takeaway. I might win something.

Ryan Ormonde is a writer based in London. He attended the interview one evening after he had filled out an application form in which he included years of experience working front of house in a cinema and theatre. For the last year he has been self employed, picking up work where he can

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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue