It's a Mann's world: Having a butchers

Olly Mann

Olly Mann comes up against the drawbacks of his short-lived television career

Picture the scene. I’m at the butcher’s, standing by the tills. I’m sort of in the queue, but I’m also waiting for some chicken thighs to be marinated, and it seems likely I’ll reach the cashier before my order is ready. This is a stressful scenario because, when I get to the front, I’ll have to step out of line, hanging awkwardly at the counter, half-smiling at my fellow shoppers, establishing sufficient rapport to step back into the queue once my meat is packed.

The shop is silent, save for the tap of the cash register and the rustle of plastic bags. Then, without warning, an elderly woman ahead of me spins round and says, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

My heart sinks—not just because I don’t know her from Adam, but also because I detect in her tonal amusement, her twinkly eyes and conspiratorial grin that she, too, knows we’ve never met. In a flash, I’m sure: she vaguely recognises me off the telly, but has no idea who I am.

Here’s the issue. If I respond in the affirmative—forge a kindly smile, and mutter, “Oh, I used to be on TV…”—I know, from previous experience, that this will not be the end of it. She will assume that I’m a TV presenter, or at least a reporter or correspondent, which I’m not, and start harassing me for showbiz gossip. Or she might leap to some insane conclusion that I’ll struggle to politely dismiss, like that time a Yorkshirewoman in Bodrum insisted I was “the guy from the Boots ad”, wouldn’t take no for answer, told all her friends, and tried to buy me a drink.

Or she’ll be honest, and say she can’t quite place my face, but she knows she knows me from somewhere—and ask me to remind her which programme she might have seen me on. Delivering an appropriate answer, in the fraught and heavy silence of this butcher’s queue, as the rest of the patrons prick up their ears, is something I simply do not have the stomach to do. I will not be able to say, with a straight face, and without feeling the weight of her disappointment, “Erm, perhaps you saw me review the papers on Lorraine in 2011?”

So, instead, I say: “No—sorry. I don’t know you.” She looks deflated, and I feel bad.

This happens perhaps five times a year, and it’s disconcerting, every time. It’s distinct, by the way, from the rare occasions when an actual fan of mine—someone who listens regularly to one of my podcasts or radio shows, or even reads this very column—stops me in the street because they genuinely know who I am, enjoy my work, and want to meet me. That’s flattering, and delightful. What’s weird is this “being recognised” just because I have “one of those faces”—when the recogniser doesn’t even know why they recognise me, and clearly credits me with far greater fame than I possess.

"When I was about 25 I appeared to be part of the nascent Zuckerberg generation but as I got older my novelty wore off"

It’s tedious, I appreciate, when anyone in the public eye complains about being recognised. Big celebrities, for instance, work exceptionally hard to bolster their profiles precisely so the world does recognise their talents, then get well paid for their jobs; so when they then seem peeved to be pointed at, that’s grating. But I’m not exactly Lady Gaga, am I? I’m not even Eamonn Holmes. I’m someone who, ten years ago, went on This Morning to show Eamonn Holmes a clip of a farting dog.

I haven’t even been on telly for three years! During my most productive stretch, 2009-2015, I’d be invited on to daytime TV, or late-night news programmes, around twice a week. I’d review the papers, debate a topical issue, or—in my role as this publication’s technology columnist—comment on the release of a new gadget. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t my day-job: it was just a fun little side-hustle of mine to boost audiences to my audio work. But one appearance begat the next: BBC Breakfast, The Alan Titchmarsh Show, The Wright Stuff… and I accidentally became a “pundit”. A semi-pro Gob-On-A-Stick. I got good at understanding the formula: smile a lot, look relaxed, don’t say anything too challenging, wear clothes.

Then, the invites stopped coming, and because I wasn’t particularly bothered about being on TV, I didn’t particularly pursue them. I sensed that my niche in the commentariat had been my youth: when I was 25, and wheeled out to talk about blogging, or social media, or digital journalism, I appeared to be part of the nascent Zuckerberg generation I was discussing. But, as I got older, my novelty wore off. It’s not as if there aren’t other straight, white, middle-class men in their late thirties working in the media. The producers of the shows must have felt I was too indistinct. Fair enough.

Yet here, in the butcher’s shop, the public never forgets a face. Next time, I’ll just order the plain chicken.