After graduating from university in the summer of 2000, two mistakes were made. Firstly, I returned home to the family nest, which lured me into a comfortable, almost decadent, existence that would ultimately stifle any sense of urgency I should’ve had about finding my first post-grad position.
And secondly, when my mum and dad went to buy a Dyson from Currys one day they foolishly returned with a Sky digibox (and accompanying television package) instead. I remember us laughing heartily about how the introduction of Sky to the family home raised the terrifying possibility that I might never get off my arse and find work. Nine months later, however, mum and dad weren’t laughing quite so hard.
Still, Sky had provided me with the Biography Channel, which I watched on a daily basis to keep me inspired. Of course, I wasn’t watching with admiration at how the likes of Audrey Hepburn, David Niven, Truman Capote and Pablo Picasso spent every day in their pyjamas routinely spilling yohurt down themselves, while singing along to videos on MTV2. The point was, they actually did something with their lives.
My efforts to find work after graduating largely involved sending my appallingly bare CV out to lots of London-based film and television production companies, with genuine proclamations of how I was prepared to move south and work hard. However, the polite rejection letters kept on coming (along with a few responses that exposed my regrettably lazy research: “Dear Mr Tootell, we’re a television repair shop, not a television production company. Sorry we can’t be of any help.”)
In spite of the constant rejection, however, I did manage to get tantalisingly close to one London job in November 2000. I spotted a job in The Guardian, writing games reviews for GameSpot, so I immediately wrote a short review of Championship Manager: Season 99/00 (which I’d played relentlessly during my final year of uni) and sent it off without hope or expectation. But to my surprise it managed to secure me the nerve-jangling, big-city interview I’d been craving.
From there, I somehow made it through to the second and final interview (one of only three people) and foolishly started to plan my amazing London life. I was going to live in London and get paid to write for a living! Furthermore, the desk they were attempting to fill (my future desk) was kitted out with games consoles! My life was going to be sweet. But then came the final interview…and a buttock-clenchingly awful moment.
My interviewers asked me a simple question: what’s currently your favourite game? It was a question that was neither difficult nor unreasonable, given that I was being interviewed for the job of games reviewer. However, it was almost as if that sentence – in all its wonderful simplicity – acted as some kind of trigger for my mind to go completely blank. In an effort to create the illusion that I was trying to mentally sift through hundreds of games titles, I smiled and stared into the middle distance for what seemed like an age – but there was nothing there.
Then, a flicker of something. A game I used to play on the Playstation at uni came into my mind. Of course! That’s the one!
Unfortunately, my addled brain had only provided me with mere scraps about this game so I couldn’t remember the actual title. The country-sized gaps in my knowledge led to me clicking my fingers and throwing clues out to the floor: “Hmmm, oh, you know, what’s that one…hmm…that game with the little zombie people?”
If ever there was a gold-plated “I’ll get my coat” moment, that was it. My dreams went up in smoke. (Oh, and if you were wondering, the game was Silent Hill. And to add insult to injury there was nothing “current” about that game at the time.)
Anyway, let’s jump forward a bit. After a visit from my best friend in the summer of 2001, I made the decision to move to Birmingham. I still felt scarred by my experience of London so I thought Birmingham (the second city) would be a good option to try and kick-start some kind of career.
So while working in a few soul-destroying jobs (door to door market research for a local newsaper, and destroying old bankruptcy files at the Insolvency Service) I sent my CV out to several production companies in Birmingham. However, rather than trying to convince people that I should be given a chance simply because my degree had the word “television” in the title, I decided to go for the ‘humorous’ approach in the hope that I could charm any potential employers.
With a dash of humility and a basic acknowledgement that I’d be starting at the very bottom of the pile, my CV-accompanying letter outlined my coffee-making skills and proudly stated that I could work with either premium brands or barrel-sized tins of economy coffee. I admitted that I didn’t drink tea, but was willing to learn how to make a good brew.
I know. It sounds rubbish (and it was). I hated myself for writing all that. Still, I felt confident that it might be annoyingly ‘quirky’ enough to get my foot in the door somewhere (either that or it would be thrown on a pile of rejected CV’s marked ‘pitiful load of wank’).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I received several rejection letters. However, there was one – from Maverick Television – that asked me to “come in for a coffee and a chat”. Unfortunately, the coffee and chat was later cancelled due to a busy schedule, so I continued to spend my days dumping old bankruptcy files into confidential refuse sacks for a few months. But in March 2002, I finally received a call to go in for an interview/chat about a new production that was about to start: Car Sharks.
After I’d been to the interview I got a call from the production manager to say that they were going to offer me the runners position. She told me that the job would largely involve picking up vehicles for the show and driving them to location, which sounded great. I said yes to absolutely everything, which led to the production manager saying one final thing: “There might also be a bit of dressing up in a costume…a shark costume…are you OK with that?”
What do you think I said?
The “bit of dressing up” actually turned out to be a key responsibility, central to my role on the production. In fact, I dressed as Mr Sharky for 10 out of the 15 shows in the series. Yes, I went off around the country picking up vehicles (Hearses, VW Beetles, ice cream vans, Robin Reliants etc) but those journeys were often made all the more difficult by having to cart round a heavy, foamed-based shark suit.
To save it from getting damaged (or stolen) I often had to sit with the shark next to me on the train, which led to uncomfortable glares from the people stood around me in the stifling carriage. However, I do remember one time when the shark suit sparked off a conversation with an attractive girl sat opposite me. To preserve my dignity I told her that I was merely transporting it down to location as a favour for the team. What a fraud.
Anyway, the basic premise of Mr Sharky’s role was this:
At the start of each programme the two teams would gather by their vehicles with their blindfolded captains. Mr Sharky would then appear at the back of shot, waddle forward, remove the blindfolds, present each team with £500 in cash, then waddle off again.
With the inclusion of the blindfolds, I always thought the opening reveal could be described thus:
If sharks ever evolve to a stage where they can survive on land, handle a Kalashnikov, and decide to wage an unrelenting terrorist campaign against humans…this is what a grainy hostage video will look like.
The grand finale of each programme was much the same, except Mr Sharky appeared with the team’s winnings (which was supposed to be the difference they sold their souped-up vehicles for – but that never happened) and a bottle of Babycham (a champagne substitute for a low-budget production).
My first performance as Mr Sharky was on the top level of a multi-storey car park in Coventry. The contributors all looked like WWE SmackDown versions of the Mitchell brothers, so the prospect of dressing up in front of them was less than appealing.
Anyhow, my first effort as Mr Sharky was fairly uninspiring, which led to the director telling me to “have a little more fun with it”. However, when I did try and have more fun with it I was told: “Don’t milk your part, love.” This humiliation was later compounded by one of the contributor’s children repeatedly informing me that I was a rubbish shark and that his dad could do better. It was a low point. Especially as I couldn’t realistically punch an 8-year-old child.
I used to get the impression that Mr Sharky was somewhat disliked. I always felt slightly more vulnerable whenever a director called Francois was overseeing proceedings because he always seemed to encourage a more physical relationship between the contributors and Mr Sharky. I remember one time when I was bundled by a team of surfers in Newquay, before literally being thrown into the back of a Volvo estate.
As the driver sped off as part of a mock kidnap for the cameras, he shouted over his shoulder: “You all right, Mr Sharky?”
“Yes,” I whimpered. (I didn’t want to admit that I thought my arm/fin was broken and that one of my ping pong ball eyes may have popped off during the fracas.)
Another episode involved football fans from Wolverhampton and Aston Villa, who’d brought along their respective mascots: Wolfie and Hercules the Lion. We’d all gathered at Dudley Castle and I remember Francois (in his French-accented English) encouraging them: “OK, now beat up Mr Sharky!” My costume’s light foam padding was all that protected me from their oversized boots.
I was eventually rewarded for my hard work and dedication when I was made a researcher for the final five shows. It meant that I could finally hand over the increasingly battered shark suit to the demoted researcher I was replacing. Given that my second show as a researcher involved some attractive students from Nottingham Trent University, it was perfect timing. It meant that I could finally attempt to be the cool, chatty researcher I wanted to be rather than having to say: “Can you just excuse me for one moment while I put this shark suit on and waddle around like a twat. Back in five.”
I don’t know where the shark suit is now. If there wasn’t some kind of ritual burning at the end of the production, I suspect it might have been palmed off on a local primary school for the 2002 Christmas Nativity. If that was the case, I feel sorry for the kid who had to play the lesser-known fourth wise man.
Turning up at the stable dressed as a shark and bearing a bottle of Babycham was always going to be controversial.