Oh What A Circus

In my ongoing discovery of what it means to be autistic, I have often come across the idea that autistic people take things literally. I have always thought this is one that didn’t apply to me. After all, I enjoy a bit of sarcasm… However, this week I saw a circus big top arriving in town and it reminded me of a time where my ‘taking things literally’ caused a major (if unusual) problem.

It must have been about 2004 and at the time I was working for the radio station, it was a really exciting time in my life and my work meant there was always something crazy going on. We were the only radio station in the area and so anything that happened on ‘our patch’ always involved us, meaning we got a lot of free stuff.

Because I had no money, I accepted every offer going no matter how rubbish the thing was. I have blogged before about how I opened a branch of Subway, went backstage at music events I knew I would hate and got some free cholesterol testing kits. None of this mattered, it was free and exciting. So when the circus came to town, complimentary tickets came my way and I shared them with the team.

For the purposes of this, I am going to change the name of my boss to Paul as he is still working on the radio and doesn’t need people like me bringing up idiotic stories from years ago. So, Paul was my boss at the time and became a good friend. He is a very generous man and I would often go into work very early and help out on his program, answering the phones and researching items. I wasn’t paid for this but it didn’t matter, I loved it and Paul’s team were great company.

In the days running up to this, Paul said he was going to be the ringmaster and open the circus from the back of an elephant. In retrospect, this was clearly a joke. He is a radio DJ and not a member of a travelling circus. However, my autistic brain didn’t register this and that evening I announced on my program that Paul would be riding an elephant at the circus. I just took it as true and made a feature of it “have you ever ridden an elephant?”, “if you were in a circus, what would your act be” and so on. The phones were busy. Several people rang to find out what performance Paul would be at and I told them it was opening night. As was standard when we did an event, I also contacted the local newspaper who agreed to send a photographer.

It seems like Paul must have been listening (or perhaps, people contacted him directly about it). Either way, all our friends rushed to get tickets for opening night which must have given poor Paul a problem. He was now committed to riding an elephant at the circus. A commitment the people running the circus were completely unaware of.

 Either way, he worked his magic and made it happen. My memory of that night is that he was dressed in a white suit (think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever) on the top of an elephant and looked completely terrified, his vertigo may have kicked in. I, however, was fairly distracted by being backstage at a travelling circus with complimentary popcorn which I promptly spilled and went on to be eaten by a Shetland pony (the popcorn, not me).

I have been trying to find the photos from the newspaper report but with no success. I think the moral of the story must be, don’t make things up and try to show off to autistic people. We might just announce it on the radio.

The Radio Years – Prizes

The year after I left the local radio stations, there was several scandals involving competitions on the BBC. The most notable when Blue Peter ran a competition to name a cat and then changed the results. Many others then followed and choice details from the ensuing enquiry included:

  • A competition was announced that appeared to feature genuine listeners phoning in to take part, one of whom would win a prize on air. In fact, in recorded programmes, there were no competitions or prizes and all of the callers were actually members of the production team and their friends.
  • Viewers were led to believe that a phone-in competition, open to the audience, had been won by a viewer. Due to a technical mistake, calls from the public did not get through and the name of a fictitious winner was read out on air.
  • A group had been interviewed on-air and unexpectedly offered listeners a pair of tickets to a gig. Nobody phoned in and “in order to spare the band, the programme and the presenter any embarrassment, the producer invented a winning name, which was broadcast”.
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That last one is particularly heart breaking. They were often caused by technical errors or people trying to make the best of bad situations. My confession is, this kind of thing was rife everywhere. It was commonplace for competitions to run which nobody would enter (so we made up winners) or where the prize did not exist (so we made up entire competitions) for which we never answered the phone. It really never occurred to us that we were doing anything wrong.

When we did have real prizes, we ran real competitions. However, these prizes were generally terrible. Every week, we would get a list of items from a PR company who would give us stuff in return for an on-air promotion (anyone who listens to the radio, knows this still happens). I would always send off for everything but since we were a small station all the good stuff would be snapped up by the big stations with the famous presenters, so we got the leftovers.

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I remember giving away:

  • A ‘years supply of crisps’ which translated to 26 packets, presumably calculated for somebody who doesn’t eat that many crisps.
  • A voucher for ‘a leading supermarket’, even though the nearest branch was 46 miles away
  • A ‘dog care package’ which contained 4 tins of dog food and a brush
  • A ‘cholesterol testing kit’ (goodness knows why), the winner for this was so excited she got in a taxi to pick it up from the station straight away.

It never seemed to matter how terrible the prizes were, people were always really excited to win them. I would call them, and they would scream with joy at the thought of a free bottle of sun cream or some orange squash. It all seems so innocent now.

The Radio Years – Events

For a few years in the early 2000s I had a program on a small radio station that has long since been disbanded. Although the pay was much too low to actually live on, those were the best days of my life.

As part of this, I found I was invited to a whole host of events. I went backstage at TV shows, to music festivals, film premieres and industry parties. All I had to do was phone up the number on the press release and ask. It was often clear that the relevant PR company had never heard of the radio station but that never seemed to stop them from saying yes. The peak of the madness was the summer of 2005, me and a colleague drove to London for something almost every weekend and being young and carefree I thought it was just brilliant.

As it was a long cross-country drive, we would stay in a cheap B&B somewhere in the capital (or on one occasion, slept in the car in a layby) and I would always pack my red inflatable hat. The idea was that it would make me stand out, without having to do anything, so the PR people would spot me, and we would get the best of the free stuff.

A lack of self-awareness goes a long way…

One of the strangest evenings must have been my attendance at the press night of the new musical ‘Patti Boulaye’s Sun Dance’ at the Hackney Empire, described in the notes as ‘a new musical featuring a cast of 36 dancers, singers and musicians who celebrate the colours and music of Africa in a display of ceremonial dances, rituals and initiation ceremonies’. To be clear, I had no reason to be there. I was not a theatre reviewer and it was much too far away to expect any of my listeners to book a ticket. I seem to remember being offered an interview to speak to Patti afterwards but am less clear about if that transpired.

The evening started with us going down the red carpet. My colleague was dressed as John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever and I had my infamous red hat (I was so confident back then) and on reaching the entrance being told we were supposed to enter through a side door, meaning we had to go back down the red carpet the other way again, giving the photographers a second chance to ignore us. Thinking back, it seems a complete mystery why we decided to treat everything as a fancy-dress party.

I have no real recollection of the show itself but do know that once the performance was finished, we went to the after-show party, held in an upstairs room above the theatre. Various celebrities were there, people from daytime TV, Big Brother contestants and people (like us) who were there mainly for the food and drink.

The other significant thing about that trip was that once we got back to the hotel, I spent the whole night locked in a toilet. The handle fell off and despite my knocking, nobody came to my aid. After a while I gave up and slept on the floor until a cleaner found me in the morning. My colleague never did believe that was what happened.

I should use this opportunity to apologise to Patti Boulaye and her team for abusing their hospitality and everyone involved will be happy to learn that I lost the red hat in a strong gust of wind several years ago.