Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Trouble with Balloon Reindeer

A story for the festive season.

This is from the time I worked in the BBC television studios as a lowly assistant, shepherding “the talent”—whoever would be appearing in front of camera—from dressing room to makeup, wardrobe, set, and into action. It was sometimes stressful and often boring, but overall I loved it.

There were 20 or 25 of us who worked that job. Some of us had our regular shows—one of mine was Top of the Pops, which meant I had the opportunity to shout at big recording stars of the 80’s as if I was their mother. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you! What time do you call this? Wait, are you wearing that?”

But everybody took their turn working other shows as well: the game shows, chat shows, kids’ shows: Play School, Jackanory, and the iconic Blue Peter, directed by the equally iconic (and deeply scary) Biddy Baxter.

As its name suggests, Play School was a doddle. The presenters were veterans, entirely self-minding, so once things were underway there was little for me to do but flirt with the sound guys and drink lots of coffee. The studio (and my services) would be booked for the day, but we usually wrapped early. There was, of course, the tedium factor: “Sorry, everyone, from the top again,” I would hear through my headphones, “and this time let’s try it with Humpty falling off the wall two seconds earlier.” But it was an OK assignment. So when my supervisor needed someone to work the Christmas show, which was to be filmed on Christmas Eve, I volunteered. I could use the overtime, and I reckoned I’d be free by two o’clock for some last-minute Christmas shopping.

When I pushed through the heavy double doors into the studio that morning, it was immediately obvious that this would not be a coffee/flirting day. The place was a hive of activity; something ambitious was up. Large cardboard boxes filled with balloons—the long, skinny sort people twist into shapes—were being lashed to the lighting rig overhead. The Play School set had been dressed in special wintery finery. And I had a special guest to look after.

“He’s elderly,” my Floor Manager told me. “Give him a little extra time to get everywhere.”


I don’t know why that bothered me; I’d had minor problems in the past with elderly actors and presenters—falling asleep in their dressing rooms, not hearing their calls, that sort of thing—but they were nothing like the problems created by, say, every single boy-band that appeared on Top of the Pops. Still, I mentally bade farewell to my hopes of an early getaway.

Apparently this chap had been a popular children’s entertainer years before, though I had never heard of him. It was easy to pick him out at Reception, partly because the place was virtually deserted (everyone else was obviously Christmas shopping), and partly because he looked like Central Casting’s version of a children’s entertainer. He was neat, dapper, white-haired, pink-cheeked, bright-eyed and smiley, and he walked with a spring in his step.

I can’t remember his name, but “Charlie” sounds about right. In any case, it became apparent, as I scurried to keep up with him, that Charlie was not going to need any extra time getting anywhere.

We went straight into camera rehearsal. The day’s show had been built around a single story, and Charlie was going to tell it to camera, while making a reindeer out of balloons. The story went like this:

Once upon a time there was a king.

Although his palace stood at the edge of a large forest, he had never seen any of the reindeer which were rumored to live there. How he longed to see one! So one day he called the court wizard and asked him to make a reindeer appear.

Unfortunately the wizard was completely useless and bungled the spell.

What appeared instead of a reindeer was “rain, dear!” (Ha, ha.) It poured!

Luckily, the wizard had the presence of mind to add an immediate supplementary spell. “Let us have a change of air!” he cried, and the rain turned into balloons.

This would be when, during the actual filming, the cardboard boxes above Charlie would be tipped over, and balloons would, indeed, rain down. For the rehearsal we just handed him a couple of balloons to make into a reindeer. No point emptying the boxes, only to have to fill them again. The story proceeded:

The wizard was better at balloon animals than he was at spells, and with a twist or two produced a balloon reindeer.

“If you place this in the palace window,” he told the king, “the real reindeer will be curious, and come out of the forest. That is how you will get your wish.”

I know. Not the BBC’s finest hour, plot-wise.

At this point, having fashioned his balloon reindeer, Charlie was to get up, walk over to the Play School windows, and set the reindeer there. Then he would peer out, and exclaim in delight that a real reindeer had turned up! After which, he was to walk back to the chair, while speaking the final lines:

The king was happy. His wish had come true at last.

And so…he lived happily ever after!

We rehearsed the whole thing twice without a hitch. Charlie made perfect balloon reindeer, and told the story with more skill and verve than it deserved. When we broke for lunch the mood on the studio floor was up: it would be a cute segment, everyone was rooting for the old guy, and we might get out early after all.

After lunch, we reconvened. Charlie hit wardrobe and makeup, and we were ready to go for real. The only thing we hadn’t rehearsed was the tipping of the balloons. If that went wrong, it would take a long time to reset, and the fact that the whole thing was being shot on a single camera created pressure to get it right first time.

Still, it was Christmas Eve. Things couldn’t help but turn out well. The director’s voice boomed cheerfully in everyone’s headphones, predicting that we would be wrapping up in half an hour. Thumbs up all round.

Charlie took his seat, and we got off to a brilliant start. Better yet, at the appropriate moment—“Let us have a change of air!”—the boxes overhead tipped perfectly, and balloons showered down as planned. Keeping his eye on the camera throughout, Charlie transformed a couple of them into a completely brilliant reindeer. The man was a genius.

Then he stood up, so as to walk the reindeer over to the window.

At this point, the entire population of the studio and gallery came to a sudden, shared realization: the floor between the chair and the window, the floor across which our elderly storyteller now had to walk, was covered with balloons. Covered. With balloons.

In a quiet voice, capturing the general mood, the director said: “Uh-oh.”

Charlie started walking. What made it tricky—well, trickier—was that Charlie had to do this while speaking to camera, not glancing down at his feet. He took a first step; the crew drew its collective breath. Another step; bigger breath. By the time he was halfway to the window we had all stopped breathing. Then he seemed to settle into a move that was more a shuffle than a step, pushing the balloons aside. It worked! We exhaled as quietly as possible.

He did his piece at the window, then turned, to walk back to the chair. I wanted to shout, Stay there! Save yourself! But Charlie was a pro. If the script said “walk”, he would walk. He started back. Again the studio-wide intake of breath; again the leaning in, eyes riveted on his feet.

“The king was happy. His wish had come true, at last,” said Charlie, as he shuffled the last inches. He put his hand on the chair back and twinkled at the camera.

“And so…” One last step, before he would say the final words: ‘he lived happily ever after.’

One last step, with which he trod on a balloon…


Coming when it did—just as we were about to be released from unbearable tension—the balloon pop hit us like an exploding bomb. We recoiled, in unison, and then stood, slack-jawed, silent, gaping at Charlie. I felt a stab of pity for the old guy. He had done so well! The mistake was ours! I hoped he wouldn't try to apologize.

He didn’t. He kept smiling to camera, his twinkliness undiminished. Then he finished the sentence he had begun, maintaining the same warm, cheery tone as before.

“And so…he shot himself."

This time, the explosion was laughter. We literally fell about, staggered, bent double. I had to take off my headphones before the director’s bellowing laugh actually deafened me.

Then, still giggling, we prepared for a second take, one in which Charlie would not have to run a balloon gauntlet. The mood in the studio was ebullient.

I can’t remember what time we wrapped. I don’t remember if I went shopping afterwards. In fact, I wouldn’t remember anything at all from that Christmas Eve if Charlie had not stepped on that balloon. As it is, I’ll never forget the moment when an elderly children’s entertainer took a minor disaster and, keeping his eye on the camera throughout, transformed it into a completely brilliant experience for us all.

The man was a genius.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Almost Lost in Translation

There’s no doubt about it; Stephanie and I are being followed.

It is the afternoon of our third day in the hills—Granny’s hills, as we think of them, since my grandmother worked here among the hill people for most of her life. Tonight we will stay in a guest room on the grounds of a school that was founded to continue that work.

We have had the official tour of many impressive aspects of the place—the classrooms and dormitories, the vegetable gardens and fruit trees—led by the dynamic, tireless director of the whole operation, Reverend Jonas. Now Dad is resting in our room before dinner, and Stephanie and I have ventured out for a less organized walk on our own. And we are being followed.

They are not exactly threatening, our tiny pursuers. There are about eight of them, all little girls, all in their school uniform, all giggling. They hold their distance, moving when we move, stopping when we stop, watching absolutely every little thing we do. We have tried chatting with them, but after discovering that the word “Hello” exhausts our common vocabulary, we have reverted to a regular exchange of smiles, and this strange procession about the grounds.

Their scrutiny, however, is making me uncomfortable. I am here to observe, after all, not to be observed. I am here to see India, to photograph it, jot down the odd brilliant thought, to ponder the Greater Significance of it all. It’s impossible to do any of that in front of such an attentive, giggly audience.

It makes me hyper-aware of my own movements, and how dull they are. When one’s every step and gesture is tracked by eight shining pairs of eyes, one feels an obligation to be interesting. Instead, we walk…like this…over to a bush…where we…point at a flower. I needn’t worry, though: our flower-bush viewing is a hit. They convulse in giggles, ducking their heads and covering their brilliant white smiles with their hands.

This is not the first scrutiny we’ve endured today. Arriving at the school, we were swept along by a boisterous, delighted crowd of students to Rev Jonas’ small whitewashed house, for a cup of tea. While the tea was poured, the the open doorway and all the windows filled with the faces of students. They jostled quietly into position, shifting here and there to allow fellow students a better view, and then settled down to watch us, in total silence.

Obviously, they had heard of Dad, and were excited to see him in person, but it still felt as though we were all on a talk show with not much to say. We sipped our tea as entertainingly as possible, and then Jonas suggested we start our tour. At which point, in a piece of singularly poor timing, Stephanie helped herself to a banana. Conversation in the room was officially over, so there was nothing for Dad, Jonas, and me—and all the people outside—to do, except watch in complete silence as Stephanie chewed. Which she did with difficulty, eyes widening in alarm, as she felt the weight of that huge collective stare settle upon her.


Stephanie and I have run out of things to look at, so we turn and approach the girls who’ve been shadowing us. I want to ask them to show us around, but I do not know the Tamil for “show” or “us” or “around.” We make some elaborate gestures, hoping to indicate our desire to walk with them—more likely indicating a confused mental state. They giggle. But then, either grasping our meaning or taking pity, they begin to lead us in a new direction. We end up outside one of the dorms, presumably theirs. Through the door, I see a clean, polished concrete floor, and a line of neat bedrolls against the far wall. Next to each roll is one small straw basket of personal possessions.

I don’t know how old these girls are; their size suggests six or seven. I also don’t know if they are orphans, or from villages so distant as to require boarding, but either way I feel a pang. My sympathy may be misplaced—they seem delighted with life, at the moment, and it is clear they are well looked after—but I long to gather them up in a hug. I’ve been told that’s probably not a good idea, but it’s the second time today I’ve had that longing.

The first was this morning, during a visit to another, much smaller school, at which we were firmly in the spectator role: a program had been prepared for us to watch. First some children danced in the schoolyard, then they ushered us towards the hall for the rest of the event. On the way, they showered us with flower petals. At least, it started as a shower. The problem was that there were lots of petals, and the children were eager to throw them all.

Time was running out as we started up the steps to the hall, so petals were flying thick and fast, coming in larger and larger handfuls. The petals at the bottom of the baskets were damp, and could be compressed into a clump for more efficient delivery. A direct hit from a wet clump of petals packs a bit of a sting, we discovered, especially when thrown overarm. We all but sprinted the last few feet to the doorway, and took our seats feeling the exhilaration of a narrow escape. Still, we could not have been welcomed with a more joyful enthusiasm. Or with better aim.

The children sat in rows on the floor and sang for us, in Tamil, really very loudly. Then they prayed in Tamil, with a similar passion. It’s not often that I feel all choked up at the same moment that my ears are actually ringing.

After that, we honored guests were invited to say something to the children—preferably something of an edifying, spiritual nature. Dad spoke first, through an interpreter, and I took those few moments to hastily plan what I could say. All too soon it was my turn to be edifying.

Having an interpreter translate your words into another language, I found, is a bit like being stared at while you admire a bush. The most ordinary thing is bathed in a light of unwelcome brilliance. I would say one sentence and then pause, inwardly wincing at the thought that anyone should exert the slightest effort translating such banality into another language.

At the same time, I was amazed that the exotic sounds then made by the interpreter had been prompted by my thoughts. At least, I assumed they had. For all I knew, he was rehashing one of his own edifying speeches.

I attempted a little humor. “I think you are all very clever,” I said, “because you can speak so fast in a language that I can’t even understand. How do you do that?" They laughed: a light, nervous flutter.

“I could not understand your prayers,” I said, “and perhaps you wouldn’t understand mine. But that doesn’t matter. God understands every prayer in the universe, even one that has no words. He does not need an interpreter.” I looked at my interpreter, hoping I hadn’t hurt his feelings. Then I sat down. The children looked pleased, probably more with my brevity than with my theology. They were, after all, the ones with their bottoms on the concrete floor.

When we left that little school, the children lined up outside to say goodbye. They stood up very straight, accentuating how tiny some of them were, and this was when I had to work hard to keep from scooping a couple of the teenies into a hug. It probably had more to do with my situation than theirs: I miss my own girls so much.


Well, we are having a fine old time, sitting on the edge of the porch with our flock of girls. Shyness has officially been thrown to the wind, and heroic efforts are being made to communicate with gestures, but Stephanie and I remain completely ignorant about every aspect of these little lives.

Suddenly one girl hops down and beckons to us to follow her as she skips a few feet away. Then she crouches down and points at the ground, her face shining. Steph and I peer down, and see…dirt. The others crowd around, also eager to see our reaction to…to what? We examine the ground more closely. I begin to wonder if they are playing a little trick on us.

But no, there is something there. It is a line of shallow bowl-shaped depressions in the soil, four or five of them. That’s it. Holes in the dirt. We hover, staring hopefully down at them, waiting for further revelation. Has the girl planted something here? Buried something? Is it a game-board, where pebbles are moved or thrown?

She and the others talk rapidly, their voices like the chatter of small birds. Whatever they are saying probably answers all our questions, but the sounds just bounce off our eardrums. So we just squat there for a while, all of us looking at the ground. It’s actually kind of restful.

I am here to see India, and I am seeing it: this patch of it, between my feet and this child’s. Her fingers flutter around the holes, patting and moving the soil so that it is just how she wants it. I revise my earlier assumption—that everything she owns is in the small basket next to her bedroll. Clearly, this patch of ground is hers, and whatever else the little scrapings in the earth might be, they are beloved.

She looks up and grins, then chatters on, her little toes gripping the dirt. The unfamiliar sounds continue to bounce off my ears. I accept that I will never know what she is telling me, or what it is that she has made, here. The only thing coming through loud and clear is the joy.

As translations go, I decide, it is pretty fine.