Downing in the Shallow End

by Charlie Mellor

About The Book

A darkly comic memoir about a secret obsession, revealing the depths to which people can sink, before they realise they’re in too deep…

For years, all Charlie Mellor wanted was to meet the alluring Pennie Fenton. Unfortunately for him, this wish came true. Captivation with the corrupting Miss Fenton quickly developed into an overpowering infatuation which sent his life spiralling out of control and jeopardised everything he held dear.

It was because of Miss Fenton that he lost touch with his family and friends, got involved with the occult, upset members of the Greek Underworld and even volunteered one of his own fingers to be crushed by a sadistic stranger. Before he could free himself from her curious charms, he would need to acknowledge her real identity and expose the deep, dark secret she had kept hidden from him. Only then, would he find the courage to rebuild himself through a bizarre appearance on national television, where in front of millions of viewers, he would abandon all dignity and reveal the full extent of his downfall.

This candid true story chronicles one man’s epic struggle to free himself from a cruel and manipulative companion. Peppered with black humour, it unveils the damaging impact of an unyielding obsession. Positioned as an offbeat tale of misplaced mesmerisation; this unconventional memoir taps into the universal themes of attraction, temptation and regret. It includes irreverent observations on life, loss and the enormous void between these two. Only at the end of the book do readers see that nothing is quite what it seems and this is in fact, a modern day parable about the redeeming power of love.

Get Up To Speed

At this point in the book, the hapless Charlie knows full well that he must put an end to his unhealthy relationship with Pennie Fenton. Recently acknowledging her true identity had certainly been helpful, but he remained powerless to resist her intoxicating charms. With his family life on the verge of collapse, his business in tatters and barely able to cope living on the edge of his frayed nerves; a desperate Charlie begins to hunt around for easy ways to solve the many problems he has forged for himself. Little did he know that the solution he so badly desired was just a whisper away. This rather unexpected intervention would provide him with an experience so ludicrous, that it would be impossible to ignore…

The Hook

Chapter 20: The Magic of TV

‘A wise man hath his foibles, as well as a
fool…the foibles of the one are known
to himself, and concealed from the world;
the foibles of the other… ‘

- John Mason (1818)

With my career in limbo, health undermined and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with my parenting skills; I had very little faith things could ever improve. Despondent and unable to see a way forward, I reflected on the Prairie Home Companion school debate and knew with certainty that the shores of Lake Wobegon were never further away. I badly needed some kind of break, a smattering of good fortune. Pennie Fenton had long convinced me about the importance of luck and I felt it was about time that I received some of it. Given that none of the big prize competitions I was entering or the multitude of lottery tickets I was wasting my money on, seemed likely to improve the situation; I started to look for other get rich quick schemes to transform the sorry mess I was in.

Although I’d never been bewitched by fame or celebrity status in the way new mate Nigel Flitton was, I had always been interested in the performing arts. While I wasn’t happy taking centre stage, I had in recent years developed a level of confidence after presenting various training courses. So, totally out of character, I trawled through the internet, in search of cerebral TV quiz shows which offered contestants the potential to win a large cash prize. Pokerface was one such show. This was a new programme where contestants were judged on their ability to keep their cool and bluff others into thinking they were telling the truth. I enjoyed watching the pilot show and really fancied my chances. If I retained my composure, I could win one million pounds, the largest sum available on British TV. Perhaps this would be my Andy Warhol Moment – my fifteen minutes of fame. This might be the perfect vehicle to help me deliver the dormant dream still nestled inside following my boyhood encounter with little Jimmy Clitheroe. Here may be my opportunity to capture a fraction of the admiration and applause which the entertainer had once been given. I failed to appreciate, that ambitions propelled by a dwarf in a caravan who died of an overdose of sleeping pills on the day of his mothers’ funeral, were unlikely to yield the best results.

Casting aside the remains of my prescription, I settled down to complete the application form with all the conviction of a man who had less than nothing to lose. Unfortunately, when filling it in, I probably tried a bit too hard to be quirky – when asked ‘Does anything frighten you?’ instead of putting ‘No’, I responded with – ‘Yes – old claustrophobic black and white movies about submarines’. Similarly, in response to a question about unusual talents, I answered ‘I am a proficient ear wiggler and have finely tuned listening skills (nb these two are unrelated)’.

Miraculously, one month later I received a call from a production company called Talkback Thames TV,

“Mr Mellor? Charlie Mellor? Good afternoon. I’m calling you from Talkback,” the voice said in a crisp southern accent.

“The makers of Pokerface?” I asked.

“That’s right – it’s to do with the application you kindly submitted. Do you have a minute?”

“Of course – however long you need, as you know from my application; I’m ‘all ears’,” I said.

“Ha, yes absolutely. The thing is, we really liked your application Mr Mellor, but when positioned next to other potential candidates for Pokerface; we felt that yours was… well, more suited to another show currently in production.

“If you’re interested in participating in this alternative show, you would need to find a friend or partner who was prepared to appear alongside you. Do you think this is something you’d be able to do Mr Mellor?”

“Yes, yes – definitely. I’m blown away you’ve contacted me. Whatever it is I’ll do it – and don’t worry I know lots of people who’d be interested in taking part in a television show,” I said.

Wow, positive feedback. I was pleased I’d captured their imagination with my application, and intrigued about what precisely had catapulted my submission to the top of the pile for this other exciting programme.

“I’m delighted you feel this way. Any potential partner would have to apply in the same way you did, so I can’t guarantee you will be on the show until we have assessed their suitability, however subject to the usual checks, I see no reason why this should be a problem.”

“Thank you so much. One quick question before you go, what’s the name of the actual show?” I asked.

“We’re re-launching the much-loved Supermarket Sweep and I’m delighted to say you’ve been recommended to be one of the first contestants to appear on an updated version of this iconic show,” she said with genuine pride, before adding, “So do I take it, you would like me to progress with your application Mr Mellor…”

It turned out I’d been shortlisted to appear as a contestant on one of the UK’s most awful cheesy programmes (dictionary definition: – cheap, unpleasant or blatantly inauthentic). The news was a real let down. This show didn’t have quite the same prestige as a Saturday night slot hosted by Ant and Dec. Originally created in the States, Sweep was about as low brow as you could possibly get – nestled comfortably alongside other daytime lovelies like The Jeremy Kyle Show and Loose Women. The only people interested in it were fans of kitsch TV, students, bored housewives and devotees of its rather affected host Dale Winton. The more I thought about it, the more I realised the game show sounded uncannily like the one we’d all ridiculed that afternoon stuck in a non-smoking hotel room in Sheffield. This wasn’t the twist of fate I had been expecting.

During each edition, three pairs of seemingly mentally challenged contestants attempt to earn as much time on their clocks as possible by answering astonishingly easy questions about food products and general knowledge. Time accrued in the earlier rounds can later be used for the big supermarket sweep, where one member of each team goes ‘wild in the aisles[7]’ trying to ram as many supermarket goodies as they can into their trolleys. The value of the goods in the trolley ultimately decides who wins the show and will later be allowed to play for a ‘big money’ bonus prize. Now I wasn’t sure exactly how much cash this was, but imagined it would be slightly less than the one million pounds up for grabs on Pokerface.

Pressed for a decision about whether I’d like to proceed, I paused for a minute to wonder what had made them think, …ahh, nice application, but he’s clearly much more suited to outrageously camp, mindless daytime slush aimed at people with too much time on their hands. However, still seduced by the possibility of a ‘big money prize’, I easily justified my potential involvement by telling myself I would present a kind of anarchic parody of a contestant. My intention was to outsmart the producers. If I made it onto the programme I would be the antithesis of their typical game show participant. Notwithstanding, I was approaching my mid-forties, the whole experience would be like being a student again, an exercise drenched in irony and black humour.

This was exciting! There was a strong possibility I was actually going to be on the telly. All I needed was one person to appear with me. I wasn’t at all surprised when my wife said a flat and immovable, “NEVER!” to the whole idea. I should have listened, but manacled to my own madness, I then phoned Nigel in Margate who I knew was enthralled by celebrity culture. Before I’d finished explaining what the show was about, Nigel was fully on board and emailing me his most PR friendly photograph, to submit for approval to the production team. Box ticked.

The week between Christmas and New Year in 2006, we received written notification that we’d been booked to appear on Supermarket Sweep and would be required for one day’s filming during the second week in January. Although we were pleased to have been selected, we were surprised at just how soon they needed us. Conscious of how washed out I looked, I decided to take an enforced break from Pennie, at least until after we’d been on the show. For some reason this crummy production seemed important.

The next two weeks, anxiously waiting to travel to the studios, were hell. Stressed beyond belief, I saw flaws in everything and was grouchy with the whole family. Ironically, by struggling so hard to manage my own temperament, I hardly had time to think about what we would actually need to do once we’d arrived on set. In fact with only eight days to go it was difficult to consider very much without first addressing the years of accumulated detritus which filled my mind.

While the original show had been axed years ago, old episodes were regularly repeated and so it remained something of a cult-hit. ITV had therefore taken a gamble and brought it back, along with its original super-tanned ‘gay icon’ presenter Dale Winton. The new ‘high profile’ version was heavily advertised and had been upgraded from its old daytime wilderness scheduling to a primetime 5:30 p.m. slot. On the week before Nigel and I were due to take part, Chris Moyles, Tony Blackburn, Bonnie Langford, Vic Reeves and Vanessa Feltz were all booked to launch the rejuvenated format through a week of celebrity based shows. It was impossible to avoid all the media coverage being lavished on the programme. I should have read the warning signs.

Dale Winton, explaining why this new incarnation of his beloved show was back, said to the Metro newspaper “I love doing this show because it’s ever so slightly, almost on the verge, of being conspicuously camp. In fact, come to think of it the only truly butch thing in the show is me! [8]”

On the face of it, what happens next begins like the introduction to a Danny Boyle movie; except that my own date with destiny would have no happy ending, contain no morality tale and definitely wouldn’t feature any romantic sub-plots. Instead of lifting me up, fortifying my soul and providing a platform for long term happiness; this particular production would, by contrast, turn out to be one of the most depressing days I’d ever encounter.

On Monday January 10 2007, Nigel and I arrived at Maidstone Studios in Kent. We were both a little apprehensive about what lay ahead. Following a whirlwind tour of its impressive studios the two of us sat around drinking as many varieties of caffeinated products as we could get our trembling hands on. After what seemed like hours waiting around, we were provided with a brief glimpse of the mock Supermarket set, where an epic contest of gladiatorial proportions would soon be played out. It was at this point I realised I was in big trouble. I knew nothing about supermarkets or about shopping for food. I didn’t know the price of groceries and certainly wouldn’t know where to begin looking for specific products. For over forty years I’d managed to skilfully evade the responsibility of purchasing my own food and instead had relied on the kindness of others to perform this most basic of functions. Now, here I was, about to be judged on my ability to provide insights and observations on a range of everyday grocery items, the very subject I knew nothing whatsoever about.

To make matters worse, there were no rehearsals prior to the filming of the show. Instead Nigel, me and four other hapless contestants were told to huddle together in silence, out of sight of the cameras. When signalled, we were expected to bolt from behind the scenery onto the set, waving our arms madly above our heads, navigating our way past the fake breakfast cereal boxes while carefully avoiding the labyrinth of power cables underfoot. Then, under the glare of the blinding studio lights we were to make our way over to the dominating central podium located in the middle of the studio. There was a lot to take on board and by now I was absolutely bricking it. Just what had I got myself involved with?

Although it was Pennie who’d encouraged me to take part, it had been a couple of weeks since we’d been in touch and as a result, I was craving her companionship. Just one more hour with her would I thought, be enough to get me through this unbearable afternoon. As more and more prescriptive instructions followed from an overbearing production team, any residual common sense I had left, welled up inside to alert me to the humongous error I was making by participating in the show, drug-free. Regret is usually experienced after something has happened, but on this day, it happened simultaneously with the event itself. The easiest way of explaining this feeling is to think about the sensation you go through when you’re driving a brand new car and make a move to overtake a random lorry up ahead. You pull out and begin to accelerate, only to discover the lorry is gritting the road and you are now being pelted with small sharp stones which are busy bouncing off your bonnet and windscreen. With vehicles speeding behind you, it is too late to decelerate, so wishing you had never initiated the move, you clench your teeth, fix your eyes ahead and plough on as quickly as you can.

Buddhists believe ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will always appear’. I’d imagined if I was ever fortunate enough to encounter such a sage, my guru would be some bearded old man, full of profound wisdom which could bring about personal enlightenment – someone a bit like Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid films. Little did I know this was the day I’d discover just how accurate that Buddhist saying was. Such individuals DID materialise when you were ready to hear their messages; however the mysterious stranger who would lead me to a higher level of awareness, turned out to be as diametrically opposed to my idealised image of a mentor as I could ever imagine.

Host Dale Winton flamboyantly arrived on set, flanked by a posse of nodding assistants. Although he was personable enough, he appeared to be a little distracted, so star-struck Nigel bravely attempted to break the ice with an innocuous comment.

“You will be gentle with us Dale, won’t you?”

To which our host countered in the campest voice imaginable, “Only if you two handsome fellas are going to be really ROUGH with me.”

Oh… my… God.

The speed of Dale’s amplified response was enough to send the sizable studio audience into fits of laughter, which in turn made me long for Pennie even more. For the briefest moment (before the next tsunami of paralyzing fear engulfed me), I was conscious that Nigel and I may be perceived as some kind of aging camp couple, taking part on the show just to spend time with our hero Dale. This worry was like being consumed by an unexpected eruption of homophobia which took over for a (small-minded) nanosecond and felt shamefully unpleasant. Hell, I had a gay sister and gay friends but was now all of a sudden concerned about how my sexuality was being perceived. Before I had time to reaffirm my respect for all sexual preferences; a natty young production assistant waltzed over clutching two rather fetching baby pink matching sweatshirts for us to change into.

Next thing I knew the signal was given to run onto the set wearing our snappy outfit along with our best sugary smile. Cue gaudy music and the announcement to, “Fill those trolleys because shopping has never been so much fun[7]”. We all ran over to the contestants’ podium, jostling for position like real life shoppers during the opening hour of the Next sale. My mind began to whirr… podium… podium, hold on wasn’t this linked to one of the Rubie Deramore predictions, “I can clearly see you stood on a podium, in front of lots of people under the glare of bright lights.”

Was this the pivotal day foretold?

I just about managed to flash a few mechanical grimaces across to our wrinkle-free anchor-man before the next landslide realisation, that many of the viewers watching this primetime programme would be my friends, my family as well as the remains of a rapidly diminishing customer base. Every one of them would soon be able to witness me running around the studio looking for fake tins of baked beans and evaporated milk. What would they think? What had possessed me to get involved? Why on earth was I putting myself through this? What does a tin of evaporated milk look like?

As soon as we’d settled into our designated places, Camera 1 glided along its well-oiled trolley track scanning the assembled row of contestants, before stopping right in front of me, no more than an arm’s length from my fretful face. Under the critical gaze of this camera, I was powerless to adjust a thing. Experiencing the greatest pressure I had ever known, there was nowhere in the world I wanted to be less.

Then, at this almost unbearable moment, something happened. I was overcome by a palpable sensation. It was as if some kind of internal recalibration was suddenly taking place. At this tipping point, the chaos around me started to fade away – the sense of exposure, the manic production team and the hysterical audience. Every single distraction was pushed into the background as I focused solely on the sizable camera obscuring my vision. Hypnotised by this monument to Japanese optical engineering, I looked straight at its gleaming convex lens and unexpectedly caught sight of my own reflection.

This was the closest my well-worn eyes had ever been to seeing the person I had become. Shocked by the barely recognisable face looking back at me, I was presented with a razor sharp picture of the lifeless, lonely little man I had turned into. This wasn’t easy viewing. Without the distracting presence of my unreliable companion, I was forced to consider how others might perceive me. For the first time since Pennie had ensnared me, I dared to recognise the compound effect of having her around. During this moribund moment of unpalatable clarity, I had no option but to accept the inescapable conclusion: that I was in too deep and my life had become unmanageable.

I was therefore still in a daze when the expressionless Mr Winton asked his opening question. I’d been expecting us all to introduce ourselves at the beginning of the show and so was totally shocked by this requirement to use our brains. Unfortunately for me, bright spark Nigel immediately stepped up, pressed our shared red buzzer and got the answer right. This meant before I had time to collect any of my levelling thoughts, I was required to run what was called the Mini Sweep[7]. To secure cherished bonus seconds, I was expected to dart around the studio flanked by a roaming cameraman while the easy-to-please audience watched me frantically search for a mystery object which had been hidden on one of the shelves. Contestant savvy Dale, picking up on my vacuous expression reminded me of what was expected:

“Charlie, are you ready to go wild in the aisles to find a… hairdryer?”

Huh? I thought.

On the televised edition you can literally see the colour draining from my complexion and my eyes blinking rapidly in an involuntary manner. Now I really was in trouble. The look of total dread which covered my face revealed I hadn’t got a clue what our host was talking about. Dale gave it one more go, his voice becoming decidedly more impatient with me.

“Charlie if you get this in the next thirty seconds not only will I give you ten seconds extra but I will also give you £50 – now, are you ready?”

I was barely audible as I hesitantly mumbled, “Re-e-dddiee.”

Next thing I knew a piercing siren was activated and I was sprinting in a directionless manner down one of the pretend supermarket isles, while Dale and the other contestants screamed a confusing mixture of instruction and laughter at me. What was I supposed to be doing? All I could think about was how tight the brand new trainers were on my feet and for a good ten seconds actually forgot what I was looking for. Fortunately many of the studio audience were more clued-up and behind Dale’s back helpful onlookers gestured the best way for me to find the bloody thing. Replica hairdryer now proudly clutched in hand, I rushed back with seconds to spare and obediently handed it to him. I must have looked like a nine-year-old boy who’d just passed his cycling proficiency test, chomping at the bit to show his parents the certificate.

Stood by his side, more humiliations followed as Dale looked straight at the camera and with one eyebrow arched, wryly said, “ I’m not surprised he didn’t know where it was – I don’t suppose he uses one of these very often these days, do you viewer?”

I was then given the right to reply, as the camera was turned towards me hoping to capture a humorous response to Dale’s quip. However still breathless, I was unable to summon up a single word and simply acquiesced by dipping my head as I rubbed my receding hairline. This was no place for flamboyant gestures, for making fun of my own failings or for parading all the peculiar peccadilloes which the unscrupulous Pennie Fenton had encouraged me to share. No this was serious.

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Following this whirlwind of an opening, Dale slowed things down a bit and returned to the podium to find out a little bit more about each of his contestants. Although charming, his memory was only marginally more effective than my own, regularly mixing up key details about each of the individuals in front of him. Nigel and I were inaccurately described as best friends – both born and bred in Scunthorpe – a place which, according to Dale, “Gets lots of stick but isn’t as bad as everyone makes out.”

I’m sure a massive sense of relief swept over the town’s population on hearing this magnanimous assessment. Other abasements came thick and fast, “Charlie, I understand you are a trainee manager…” he said.

Now, still conscious that many of my clients may one day see this program, I felt I had to interject at this misrepresentation. I’d let the ‘born and bred in Scunthorpe’ and the ‘best friends with Nigel’ bits go without a murmur, but thought there was no way I could appear on national TV show and position myself as some kind of youth apprentice.

So I interrupted our host, practically shouting, “TRAINING–ING Dale, TRAININ-ING …ING… ING, NOT TRAINEE!” at him.

In response to my brusque correction, Dale looked rather annoyed, shuffled his prompt cards and moved swiftly on to the next contestant.

Tedious introductions finally over, it was onto a number of high pressure quick-fire buzzer rounds. Here we were each asked a series of tasking questions such as, “Contestants, the main ingredient of hollandaise sauce is cheese – true or false?” or, “I’m now looking for a French word which begins with the letter ‘S’ and means all puffed up.”

Parking our acute embarrassment, Nigel and I bumbled our way through these rounds answering most of the banal questions correctly. By the half-way mark, we’d even crept into pole position. Motivated by a forty second advantage which we’d gained over the other contestants, Nigel volunteered to represent us in the Trolley Dash[7]. This was effectively the knockout round, to decide which of the teams would progress into the ‘big finale’. Fortunately for us, Nigel was on fire that afternoon and skated around the studio set like Christopher Dean at the Nottingham ice rink. In the three minutes, forty seconds we were allowed, he filled a total of four shopping trollies, all brimming with high value items.

As the commentator observed, “It’s Nigel we’re panning to now, who’s comfortably in front as he piles into those nappies with a fine sense of purpose.”

With all the extra time he had to play with and with such dedication to the cause, it was virtually impossible for the other contestants to catch up with him and, as a result, a hollow victory was ours.

Applauded as Dale’s champions we were then offered the opportunity to go for the final Big Money Super Sweep[7] with the possibility of winning £5000. Here was the only point in the show when we could have emerged with any dignity. Unsurprisingly we totally blew it. Away from the protection of the podium and forced back in front of that single probing camera lens, we crumbled. For me, that bastard of a camera had defeated me the instant it moved into position at the start of the show; so being called up to be measured by it again made me impossibly tense. As we were approaching the end of a knackering four hours filming Nigel and I were all too easily mesmerised by the (not too cryptic) cryptic clues. Replicating all the behaviours of every contestant we’d ever ridiculed for appearing on daytime TV, we spent far too long over-interpreting what each of the easy-peasy messages meant.

To compensate for the agonising silences which followed, the lugubrious commentator summed it up by interjecting with, “Charlie did the Mini Sweep and Nigel a fine job with the Trolley Dash – so they should know their way around, but all of a sudden they both seem to be at a total loss…” Which we were.

Failing the task, Dale provided his perfunctory commiserations, as the studio audience half-heartedly slow-clapped in the same sympathetic way parents do when watching the very last child cross the 100 metre finishing line on sports day.

Before we left the studios, as defeated champions, we were presented with a cheque for half of the amount of the shopping accumulated in our shopping trollies. While we’d effortlessly imploded during our attempts to win the ‘big money prize’, we were still entitled to take home the value of the goods collected during filming. We were each paid a paltry £132. It was a fraction of the money I could have earned by working that day, just less than the cost of the new trainers and return rail ticket to Maidstone and much, much less than the Pokerface prize I’d originally been attracted to. £132, not quite enough to transform my fortunes or regain any of my self-respect.

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