I STILL can’t believe the whirlwind of events which followed a suggestion, from the award-winning artist Rosemary Beaton, that I should enter a TV reality competition. But I did just that: and so began the biggest adventure of my life.
The BBC described the show thus: “Presented by Mariella Frostrup and the Reverend Richard Coles, BBC One challenges ten creative artists to pick up their paintbrushes for an intensive six-week, artistic bootcamp, in a bid to be crowned the overall champion.
“Inspiring mentors will guide ten contenders through different painting challenges, from portraiture to landscape to still-life and movement, at locations including the National Portrait Gallery and Whipsnade Zoo.”
Now, if that didn’t frighten the living daylights out of me, what would? Every Sunday they flew me to BBC headquarters in London, to be filmed on set from 7am till 9pm from Monday to Wednesday. Painting was delayed daily, however, during tedious rehearsals, obeying Armystyle commands like, “Walk in correct order, stand here, don’t go there, wait here, go out, come back in again, don’t talk. Do NOT post on social media or discuss your participation in the programme with anyone before, during or after the filming. You will have to wear the same outer garments for the whole episode (three days in a row to allow for continuity). No watches, hats or sunglasses, mobile phones, cameras, musical device, headphones etc are allowed on set.”
You’ll be glad to know that I did tell my family and that my patient wife got me three sets of suitable clothes – cleaned weekly. I avoided all those who wore the same gear three days in a row!
Curious friends would ask why I was off to London for three or four days each week. “Art competition, don’t ask.” But of course they all did.
Painting itself always came after all the interminable delays so the rather tired and uninspired artists would march in the correct order to our appointed easels to paint.
Every 10 minutes or so a camera and interviewer would appear in front of me, asking questions, blocking our view of the chosen pose – for example of sitter Floella Benjamin during portraiture, and she rarely sat still for long. Moving targets and inopportune interruptions became the norm.
There were 60 BBC personnel buzzing about the set, directing, filming, listening to us all day via our lapel microphones, but despite all that I did manage to have the time of my life – high on adrenalin – and I produced one or two good works.
Each week someone was eliminated by one of three esteemed judges, Daphne Todd, David Dibosa and our charming Scottish artist Lachlan Goudie. It was a bit like a public hanging: a judge was appointed to reveal the poor victim, but only after a 15-second delay, all filmed, tears and all, including the dreaded walk of shame down the street, and even this was repeated several times, rubbing salt into the wound. They filmed us
for a total of 1,200 hours, edited down to six one-hour programmes on BBC One, attracting 6 million viewers each week. Strangers spoke to me in the street.
Now the ten artists are great pals, even celebrating our first reunion recently in Glasgow. Coincidentally, the 2018 series was being filmed in Glasgow last month, and I popped in to say hello.
Richard Coles greeted me like a long lost friend. I commiserated about his departure from Strictly Come Dancing.
He kindly said: “Out of 6,000 applicants you reached the semi-finals, Jimmy!” How nice was that?