It all started a couple of weeks ago with an e mail from a producer. This would be the fifth time I was being filmed for television as a laughter facilitator, although this time was on set. Previously it has been on location. The producer’s warm style was typical of the first contact that has been made each time regarding filming. She didn’t mention immediately what the filming was for, checking first that I was interested and then once I’d replied, suggesting that we spoke. On the phone she was very friendly, introducing herself as Chantal and chatting a little, initially skirting around telling me what the programme was. After checking me out for a few minutes and giving me a vague sense of what she was after she told me that the programme was Big Brother and that I would have to sign a confidentiality agreement, which she e mailed straight away. I asked her if I could be joined by another laughter facilitator, and she agreed. She explained that the housemates would be doing a task in which they had been challenged not to laugh, and that we would be waking the housemates up with a laugh and trying to get them laughing. We agreed that I would think about it for a day or two and then get back to her with ideas and the contact details of the person who would join me. I was pretty sure who I wanted to go with me into the house. I gave myself a day to sit on it all without thinking about it too much. I was in a slight state of shock. I did my usual in these situations and ran around the house laughing aloud. Everytime the thought came it made me chuckle. The impulse to tell people was overwhelming.
The next day I rang Kate Sharp to ask her if she would join me. I met Kate eighteen months ago, newly engaged to her lovely man, and the two of them decided that for their honeymoon they would do their laughter training in Greece with me. My laugh is always fairly close to the surface, and so is Kate’s. We are like two little underground bubbly spas. There is instant recognition when we meet each other: it is pretty much impossible for us not to roar with laughter in each other’s company. From the minute I spoke to Chantal I had Kate in mind as the perfect partner-in-crime, although I fleetingly considered inviting my dad, who also has a massive laugh. But bearing in mind his feeling about reality TV shows and his somewhat unpredictable maverick approach to life, I didn’t entertain that idea for long. I could picture him taking a quick dip in the pool on his way out.
I put together a set of exercises that I thought would be appropriate, had a practice session in front of my camera, another practice session on Skype with Kate, and then went to Chantal’s house to do a run through with her and her housemate. I am chuckling again now thinking of it: another utterly inspiring and unexpected day-in-the-life of a laughter yoga teacher. Turning up at a strange house with the remit of making two strangers laugh despite themselves. The look on their faces as they tried to resist the giggles is something I will treasure. They loved the session, and I repeated it so that Chantal could film it to show her senior producer. I left their house to go to a job interview, reflecting on the fact that it was possibly the best warm up I could have had for an interview. (Got to do something to earn the daily crust: laughter isn’t always something people wish to reach into their pockets for. Although having said that, a big thank you to Chantal as we both got a fee and travel expenses for doing Big Brother: not always the case for media). A wonderfully strange and joyful warm secret to be traveling across London with.
We were asked to be at Elstree Studios for a 7am call. Kate is a Guide leader, and was committed to being at Guides, in Cheltenham where she lives, the night before. She arrived at mine at around 1.30am. The car came to collect us at 5.45am. We were a little tired, but we did our usual round of laughter warm-ups on our way to the studio. The driver took us round the back to a a large building labelled ‘The George Lucas Stage’ and what looked like a construction site. None of it was what I expected. We were directed through a doorway in a simple wooden fence. To the left was a large construction that looked unfinished. In front of it and to the right were some Portakabins, neatly arranged in rows. No one seemed to know exactly where we should go, and we were reticent about saying too much as we had signed our confidentiality agreements.
The whole thing was genuinely Orwellian in its strange futurism and quirks, and I kept thinking that he would have been proud and fascinated by this mutant relation of 1984. Among the Portakabins was a white signpost which could have been taken straight out of one of his books, although to be fair it wouldn’t have been out of place in the Wizard of Oz either. The writing was painted in black. On top of the signpost it said ‘Big Brother Square’. The signs read: ‘De-branding’, ‘Reality’, ‘Chillax’, ‘Library’, ‘Stationery’, ‘Seniors’, ‘BB’s Bit on the Side’, and plenty more. The Portakabins were all marked with a printed label. Our first stop was the kitchen Portakabin, where we had our first cup of tea of the day. I was particularly taken with the Portakabin next door, labelled ‘de-branding’. My mind whirred in amazement and amusement. I had no need for de-branding, but along with her signature rainbow skirt, Kate was wearing a pair of Kermit the Frog socks. Kermit had to be covered for the occasion.
We were waited on all morning. We arrived at 6.30am for a 7am call, but the plan was not to take us into the house until 9.30am as long as none of the housemates stirred before then. We were called into the producers’ Portakabin to do a practice run-through of the session with the production team. The Portakabin was full of computers and desks and had a busy feel. The team (around eight people) pretended to be asleep (over their computers). We ‘woke them up’ with a full-on laugh for a few minutes, before cracking into the exercises we had prepared. I wasn’t sure if Kate would be able to slow her laughter-motor enough for me to be able to kick off the session. She is wonderful. The team loved the session, exclaiming that they could do with something similar every morning.
They brought us our uniform. Two ‘small’ white T shirts which looked at least a large, with the words ‘LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE’ printed on the front. I decided, erring on the side of caution, not to put mine on until I’d eaten my breakfast.
We were taken to have a look around the House. This was by far the most intriguing and imagination-capturing part of the experience. We went through a Portakabin, signed in, and passed inside the outer wall. Once inside we had to be quiet, as the inner walls were not sound-proofed. There was a wide corridor between the inner and outer walls that ran all the way around the house. Everything was painted in black, and it was difficult to see until our eyes had adjusted to the darkness. There were wires running across the floors, and one-way windows (mirrors from the inside) which we could look through into the garden and sections of the house that are not being used this year, but for some reason had their lights switched on. Undecorated storage spaces with a couple of chairs and odd bits of junk inside. The most amazing sight was the cameramen. Every so often, as we walked around the periphery of the house, we would come across a cameraman sitting on a big moveable chair with a camera set up on a big moveable device at one of the one-way windows. It was cold in the corridor, as it was shaded and not heated, and the cameramen were wearing big coats. The effect seemed to me to be like half-human, half-mechanical creatures, tilting and moving and sweeping smoothly in actions that were neither entirely machine nor entirely animal. The camera equipment was all black, with the cameras poking underneath black curtains at the windows. The runners who were showing us around moved the curtains aside so we could see into the house. The house itself looks fairly spacious and luxurious on television. In reality it is tiny, and viewed through a window which is surrounded by black boards it has the feel of being anything but luxurious. We peeped into the bedroom where the housemates were asleep. It was so strange to be inches away from them, these sleeping beauties, and inches away from a space that is so minutely focused on. Like standing on the periphery of an entirely different world or another dimension. Perhaps a little like the miracle of a picture of a baby in the womb: the picture itself, and the equipment and technology that took it are so far removed from the baby’s knowledge or experience. I prayed they wouldn’t wake up for at least another half an hour as I had breakfast on the way.
Back in our Portakabin a full English arrived in a polystyrene box. It was another delightful moment. It was like riding in a yellow cab in New York. People really eat meals out of polystyrene boxes on set. I supped my tea in its paper cup and laughed again with the unexpected wonder of the experience. I am a person who cannot resist exploring every experience that life has to offer, but this one, with its undeniably strange quirks and charms, will be truly unforgettable.
Next into the Portakabin tumbled a number of people who were going into the house after us as ‘Super Fans’. They seemed fairly hazy on what exactly this was due to entail, although we caught a few titbits of conversation about chanting the housemates names, and the right way to do it.
At around 9am we went to another Portakabin to be miked up. This one was full of recording equipment, a huge mixing desk looking onto a room beyond through a large two-way glass window. This was what I had been expecting, although in retrospect I’m not sure why, as that had been my experience on radio but I didn’t know what to expect for television. Kate and I were both fitted with microphones, and I had a wizzycom put in my ear. I laughed heartily when they told me that was what it was called, but it is obviously so well-used in the business that any humour at its name is long-gone. It couldn’t have fitted in better with the Wizard of Oz-esque feel of the set-up. It whistled and fuzzed in my ear, but I was assured that it would stop doing that as we approached the House.
Nerves didn’t really kick in until we were making our way around the inner corridor again. This time we stopped by the door that said ‘bedroom’. It was an A4 printed sheet, stuck to the black boards with yellow and black stripy tape. A step beyond it was the glamorous inside of the House itself. The juxtaposition was, again, striking.
We had been carefully prepped for what was to come next. The lights were flicked on in the bedroom, and an announcement was made over the House speakers: ‘This is Big Brother. Would all housemates please switch on their microphones.’ I lifted the curtain next to the camera again and watched the shapes in the beds begin to move. Lots of rumpled hair and faces. I had been told to wait for the cue in my ear. I would be signalled when to go in to the bedroom, and signalled when to stop simply laughing and start the exercises. Kate was behind me cackling away. She looked at me and said ‘I just keep thinking of how it will feel to them from where they are looking at these,’ and she indicated her own lit-up, laughing face and pointed at mine. I was unbelievably grateful that she was there with me. She laughed us both through our nerves. I don’t remember opening the door, although I remember very distinctly the feel of the thick soft rug underneath my trainers. We stood back and let our best laughs rip, surrounded by a sea of bemused faces. The producers let it run for what felt like an age. Internally I was thanking my lucky stars that I have done so many laughter sessions, many of them to surly teenagers or at events where people are, at least initially, entirely unconvinced at the exercise. We laughed on regardless of the stony faces around us. I was also thankful that Kate was in there to keep me going, and that I had watched Big Brother the night before. The thought of housemates Ashleigh and Luke exchanging whispered confidences about their boob and ball sizes was the perfect nerves-antidote.
The session involved introductions followed by bursts of laughter, the same introductions again but this time in gibberish followed by a burst of laughter, the laughter box and metre, and then everyone making a tight circle and sitting ‘one, two, three’ on each other’s laps. The exercises were chosen to ensure the best camera angles, and unfortunately this did not include any lying down, which would have been my preference. After a few minutes Arron, perplexed, asked ‘why does their fake laughter sound so much like real laughter?’ Fabulous. I just kept hoping that one of my teachers from school, so tortured by my explosions of uncontrollable laughter in lessons, would see that it did have some value after all, in the right context. My personal favourite was Luke (of the odd-sized balls’) face. He stretched his mouth into a strangely hilarious ‘O’ shape in order to keep from laughing. It had me bending over double and roaring. A wonderful image to take away.
We were in for around fifteen or twenty minutes. The atmosphere was strange. A battle of wills, or a battle of energy. Our free-flowing guffaws trying to shimmy through their iron walls. We finished the session by saying goodbye, thank you, good luck and shaking hands. I remarked to the other Luke that we nearly had him. They relaxed as we were leaving, and there were some genuine thank yous and warmth. The barriers to connection were loosened a little. I walked away relived that I wasn’t trapped in the house, and thinking that this task not to laugh was probably much more subtle and psychologically tortuous than it appeared on the surface. There are very few ways for the housemates to rid themselves of tension. Most of them won’t have sex whilst in the house. There isn’t a great deal of space or quiet time to be had. There is no space for a run around or to do significant sports. There are no distractions from one another in the form of books or television. To keep them from laughing for forty-eight hours struck me as very severe. Having done experiments in taking away a natural faculty (i.e. not speaking for a month at a time) I am aware of the difficulty in working so hard to turn something instinctual off, and then the stickiness around turning it on again. For me, speaking again brought a great flood and intensity of emotion. I had imprisoned myself, and I didn’t realise the effects would be so profound and long-lasting. Strangely, there was a horror to it that I hadn’t expected. I wonder about the effects of all of this on them, although I guess it will be piled in among the effects of being a showcase in a massive popularity competition, and may be hard to distinguish.
We left the bedroom after the producer had made one request on the wizzycom for us to repeat the sitting on each other’s knees in a circle activity. At least I think that’s what he said. We stepped through the door, back into the equally weird and wonderful world of Portakabins, fantastical ideas, wires and activity, and were greeted everywhere with smiles and thanks. The production team had apparently greatly enjoyed our efforts and were pleased with the camera angles. It struck me more deeply than it has before the strangeness of the set-up. The production team are concerned with making a good programme. This is not to say that they are not concerned for the housemates’ wellbeing, but that the concern for their wellbeing is necessarily in the service of making the programme. The cooking pot of the House sits inside the busy bee-hive of the production enclosure, and the production enclosure sits inside the sedate and ‘normal’ Elstree, London Zone 6. The three worlds seem so different from one another that the mind boggles.
We had to sign release forms before we left. I signed mine after a brief skim-read, but Kate pointed out the clause that said that we agreed to the Contribution being used… bla bla bla… throughout the known Universe. Another quirky sci-fi moment to add to the collection. Just to be aired on Earth is clearly no longer adequate.
After signing our release forms, Kate and I went outside the Big Brother production enclosure and posed for some snaps with Chantal. We had been asked not to take snaps inside the strange world of the production enclosure, which added to the magical and mysterious cloud that seems to shroud the whole enterprise. Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t entirely unaffected by having had only a couple of hours sleep that night. The journey home was a little hazy. After a couple more hours sleep, I got up and went to teach that evening’s choir, ruby slippers firmly packed away, polished and ready for the next adventure.
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