This blog, written on 9th August 2015, will be published immediately after the show is aired. So by the time you read it, the secret we swore to keep will be out, and we might have started to believe it. We aimed to spread awareness of Alopecia (right across the world!) and we also BEAT THE EGGHEADS! Only six teams in the history of the show have won a bigger jackpot. And in our case the whole £29,000 goes to Alopecia UK (well, minus the cost of chips all round, washed down with G and T at Glasgow Central station as we tried not to betray the result with screams, whoops or dance routines).
It all started late in 2014 when I was watching Eggheads, as I often do, and a rather obvious connection finally struck me, prompting a thoughtful stroke of my scalp. (In fact ‘egghead’ can be a catcall used in the street, as a change from ‘alien’ or ‘Martian’; I have to add hastily at this point that most people have more manners or empathy than this). One of my responsibilities as an Ambassador for Alopecia UK is to educate others about the condition, but my message for people with hair loss is that any difficulty overcome will make them stronger. The show seemed a great opportunity to prove it to a wide audience. I found myself investigating BBC’s Be on A Show…
Most challenging Eggheads teams are made up of students at the same university, work colleagues or friends and family, but I was looking for people I’d only met through Alopecia UK and in most cases merely in an online sense. I messaged everyone I could think of, on the basis that a) we’d have to be wigless in order to make an impact and b) any winnings, ridiculous as that idea seemed, would all go to the charity. To say it’s difficult to recruit a team of virtual strangers from around the country, all available to film on the same unidentified day, would be an understatement. And many Alopecia sufferers don’t show their nearest and dearest their bareheaded selves, never mind a global audience! At the first deadline towards the end of 2014, we were one member short of a team. But 12 Yards, who produce the show for the BBC, didn’t give up on us, and after they called again, five brave souls volunteered. We had a team and a name – putting a positive spin on our difference. Then it emerged that filming was in Glasgow! I lost two team members who couldn’t take that much time off work, and was given a weekend to find replacements. Time for a desperate – but successful – appeal on the AUK Facebook page…
Relieved, I had no idea that this was just the beginning of what felt like a full-time job, as I liaised, drew up a chart and forwarded each team member a total of what was eventually seven forms. We each had to send an audition video (thanks, Shoot-Me Studios in Berkhamsted for mine), and then wait… until late in July when the call came. We’d been selected – for filming at 7:30 a.m. on Friday 7th August. For Marie and Victoria in particular, this presented problems that would have defeated lesser mortals, because they had to begin their long journeys after work, arriving at Glasgow Central at 23:17. With trains booked one or two days before we travelled, there were jokes about hair that would have been lost or pulled out. But with four possible outfits for Wardrobe to choose from, scribbled notes (in my case Booker, Pulitzer and Turner Prize winners) and the Eggheads app, we headed northward under blue skies – from Berko, Basingstoke, Cheltenham, Coventry, Saltaire and Burton-on-Trent.
After minimal sleep, we all met for the first time for a Premier Inn breakfast an hour before our studio slot. As I distributed Alopecia UK wristbands we debated who should be kept back for General Knowledge and agreed how much we dreaded Politics – the ONLY subject not named as first, second or third choice by anyone. Suffice it to say that we were the noisiest as well as the most visible table in the hotel. Already we had bonded and already we were buzzing.
At the end of the long preparation process, were we self-conscious as cameras rolled? No. Our crew made sure of that. Suzie, the standby team member, has (great) hair but also, in Molly, an inspiring daughter with Alopecia areata. She was there for each of us through make-up and beyond, to encourage, provide a photographic record and make us laugh. We were thoroughly happy and hope it shows. Everyone at the studio was lovely to us and after the photo with the famous brains, I gave The Waterhouse Girl to Judith and Crazy Daise to Lisa; they could not have been kinder. Would the six of us who became A CLEARER HEAD have united so instantly and firmly without our shared experience of this odd condition? I very much doubt it.
As for the questions asked on air, if you haven’t watched it already you can find it for a while on I-Player, but yes, Politics came up and as captain I had to step up, but failing on Arts and Books (which didn’t come up) would have been much more disappointing. The others were utterly brilliant. No wild guesses necessary. Most of the very few answers they didn’t know were reasoned through with Egghead-style authority. And when, sitting in another room with the THREE defeated Eggheads, I heard the last question for Pat and Lisa after ‘we’ had got ‘ours’ all right, I had trouble containing myself because they clearly didn’t know it, and I did. Taranis, Celtic god of thunder, is named on the third page of my first ever book, Spirit and Fire. So even before Jeremy had revealed that the Eggheads’ answer was wrong, I was jubilant and very nearly beyond control. A CLEARER HEAD had won and are ‘officially cleverer than the Eggheads’.
For Alopecia UK, £29,000 is a genuinely massive sum, and on the end of the phone Jen and Amy, who run the charity, were incredulous and emotional. Because we don’t see any of it ourselves, the victory feels all the more special. As Emma said, it feels clean. By the time you read this I will have thanked the team a hundred times but it won’t feel like enough. Jeanette had never bared her head outside her home; Marie only went out without her wig for the first time on her fortieth birthday a few weeks before the show. My new friends are remarkable women. And are we stronger for this great adventure? No multiple choice necessary. There’s only one answer.
Back row: CJ, Kevin, Lisa, Judith, Jeremy and Pat.
Front row: Sue Barker-Mewis (standby member), me, Victoria Petkovic-Short, Marie Jenks, Jeanette Oliver and Emma Skipper
This morning’s Facebook post: Hoping people all over the world (it’s pretty global) will be heartened and encouraged by our spirit. It’s ok to be different/who you are. Life has its challenges, and some people will judge others for not being in their particular tribe or conforming to its rules, but we need to let the light inside us shine, each of us – refusing to allow anyone to put it out. That’s the point really. We’re all individuals finding our own way through but we’re together too. It’s way bigger than alopecia or the bodies we walk around in and if we let the light in others illuminate us there’s no way any of our differences can divide us.
N.B. The show will only be available on I-player for a month, and given the size of the jackpot won’t be repeated much if at all, but here’s my audition video courtesy of Shoot-Me Studios, Berkhamsted and Cynthia Nolan.