Confessions of a Box Office Manager: An A-list disaster
Our Box Office Mole remembers a cringe-inducing occasion
One of the biggest challenges I've discovered in working from home is keeping a regular timetable. The lack of necessity to get fully dressed and factor in travel, coupled with the realisation that I'm always available thanks to the dubious dual miracles of email and mobile phone, means that, while a full days work always gets done, the actual hours have become decidedly flexible. I may have trouble dragging myself out of bed much before 9am these days but I'm also not precious about taking calls or responding to emails out of regular office hours. Aside from having to suppress the urge to hug everyone, the single biggest challenge for me when we do get back into the actual theatre again, will be disciplining myself into regular hours.
I'll also have to get used to working without the comforting background thrum of the television. Cancelling, exchanging and refunding tickets is a tedious, mechanical process, especially when it's pretty much all you're doing, so having one eye on warring American housewives or the miraculous transformation of a barely habitable hovel into a gleaming, state-of-the-art palace, makes it more bearable. I've also enjoyed half-watching various reruns of old series and spotting famous – and formerly famous – faces I've dealt with across the box office counter over the years.
One of my favourites popped up the other day, and my personal memory of her, even months later, still makes my toes curl and my face flush. With a career spanning several decades – although her youthful looks belie her professional longevity – she was instantly recognisable as she came in to sort out her seats for that night's performance. I was expecting her, the tickets having been arranged by the leading lady of our show at the time.
"Good afternoon, how are you?" I squawked, attempting to strike a balance between courteousness and friendly familiarity. I'm not sure I succeeded, but she seemed affable enough.
"Really well, thank you. And yourself?" she responded, placing her designer bag on the counter and running her fingers through her expensively blonded hair. (I assume it was dyed as it had been jet black at the beginning of her career. Either that, or huge success turns your hair fair: I wouldn't know.) Anyway, at close quarters she looked every bit as sensational as she does on stage and screen.
"I've got some tickets to pay for. Can I do that with you now?"
"That's what I'm here for!" Talk about stating the blindingly obvious. I annoy myself sometimes.
"Great. So it's two for tonight, thanks."
"Sure, I'll just find them on the system. I did see you on the reservations list when I checked earlier." It's sometimes hard to gauge with celebrities whether it's better to acknowledge that you know who they are right from the outset, or to wait for them to give you their names. I decided that she was at the level of fame where the former was the best policy.
I turned to my computer, press a key, and… nothing. I tried it again. And again. Still nothing.
"Oh dear, the system seems to have slowed right down. I know they were doing some maintenance on it, maybe they haven't finished..."
"No problem, I'm in no rush."
"They're great when they work but when they don't, well..." In the interests of filling the dead air, I nearly asked her if SHE worked with computers but just managed to stop myself as that would have been a pretty stupid question.
So we stood and smiled at each other. She got her phone out and sent a few texts while I bashed away manfully at the Return key to absolutely no effect whatsoever. Finally, I rang up to the technical department who confirmed that the system would be back up and running "any minute now" and that I should "keep ya wig on". Delightful.
"They've just told me we'll be in business very shortly", I bleated while she smiled encouragingly. I was wracking my brains trying to remember what I'd seen her in recently so that we could at least talk about that for a minute, but the combination of technical inefficiency (the computer's, not mine) with her high wattage glamour was turning my brain to mulch. In the end, she struck up the conversation.
"Do you get to the theatre a lot, or are you working every night?" she enquired.
"Not as much as I would like, but I do see a fair bit. I don't have many nights in at home, that's for sure." (What wouldn't I give to be able to say that last bit now!)
"What have you seen recently?"
Initially my mind went blank. Typical. Then I remembered an evening I'd spent recently at a prestigious off-West End venue, watching one of the most self indulgently pretentious pieces of nonsense that I've ever had to endure. I thought it might be fun to tell her about that, for comedy value.
"Well..." I began, "here's a couple of hours of my life I'm not getting back..." I then launched into a full scale critique, from the wooden nature of the acting ("not their fault, nobody short of God could make that material work") to the incomprehensible nature of the script ("sounded like a bad translation"), to the hyper-energetic staging ("lots of running about...but for what?!") to how poorly lit it all was ("mind you, if I was in it, I'd prefer to remain in the dark as well!")
She listened, nodding her head with a half smile on her face. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with her reaction, as I had induced paroxysms of mirth in some friends I'd recently had dinner with, delivering exactly the same amateur review. I was starting to feel a little foolish as I got to the end of my derisive babbling, and also a certain sense of unease had started to overtake me. I was about to find out why...
She stared at me, smiled tightly and very quietly said "yes, it wasn't my finest hour really, was it."
It's such a cliché but I really would have loved it if the ground had opened up and swallowed me right then. OF COURSE that is the last time I had seen her in anything! NOW I distinctly remembered the post-show dissection in the pub, where my flatmate and I discussed how we felt she should think about sacking her agent...
Mortified wouldn't even begin to cover it. My face suddenly felt incredibly warm. I was about to say something -anything- when the phone next to me rang.
"It's the technical department" yawned a bored voice "the system's back."
"I am very well aware of that, thank you very much" I snapped and slammed the phone down, still puce in the face.
"So! Let's get these tickets sorted shall we?!" I felt like I had to say something else though: "to be fair, YOU were very good...'
"Oh darling, no I wasn't."
She handed over her card, we completed the booking in silence, and I continued to feel like the biggest idiot in the world.
"Well, lovely to talk to you and thanks for your help" she said, with far more grace than I deserved, putting her purse and the tickets into her bag.
"Er...lovely to talk to you too..." I murmured weakly.
In the next moment she hoisted her bag off the counter, turned to me, and said, with a huge grin, "it was f***ing atrocious that play, wasn't it."
"Well..." I grimaced...
"No, it was. You can say. Well, you already did. The things one does to pay the mortgage, right?! Anyway, have a great day."
I felt simultaneously ashamed of myself and let off the hook.
So... here I am, blushing as I stare at her face on the TV, when I should be working. My flatmate sweeps in and glances at the screen.
"Oh!" he exclaims, "we like her don't we? Well, apart from when she did that Godawful play we saw her in last year. What was all THAT about?!"
"It wasn't that bad..."
"WHAT?! You said it's one of the worst things you've ever seen! And why are you so red?"
"Shouldn't you be going out for your daily exercise?"