We all have stories of celebrity encounters, from passing one in the street to full-blown nights out where they’ve ended up sleeping on your sofa. They vary from the touching (literally) to the collapse-in-a-heap embarrassing. I am no exception and, alas, nearly all of mine…no, wait…all of mine fall into the latter category, and they come in all manner of guises. There are those encounters where you are certain you’ve met them before (because you recognise their face but can’t place them); in my case, I greeted Kelly Brook like an old friend as she stood outside the bar my brother ran in Notting Hill, calling out, “Oh, hi!” with far more enthusiasm than was necessary only to be met with a look of bemusement.
Other instances are those of verbal diarrhoea. I was at an awards dinner many moons ago and Hugh Grant was on the bridge of the good ship Four Weddings. Once the meal was over, I bounded over to discuss an idea with him. All was going fine until I noticed he’d barely uttered a word and had to interrupt my ramblings to point out the line of people that had formed behind me. At the far end of the spectrum is the ‘party encounter’ and I have a couple of those. On one occasion, emboldened by the free tequilas on offer, I got the hump with Mario Van Peebles for muscling in on the girl I was chatting up.
You’d have thought with twelve years of experience in the film and television industry behind me I’d be immune to the guiles of celebrity. And, truth be told, I should be. I don’t get star struck. I’m not intimidated by them. I’m not jealous of them (which is often the catalyst of an embarrassing encounter) with the possible exception of Mario Van Peebles that fateful night (I think she went home with him, by the way). And I’m pretty sure I don’t do it with any other form of human being one might naturally feel on edge with (politicians, mob bosses, billionaire businessmen) but I have this innate inability to have a normal conversation with anyone who has a modicum of fame. I can get through the pleasantries and the small talk, sure, but it’s filling uncomfortable silences often compounded by an attempt to be ‘chummy’ with them that gets me into trouble. So let me introduce you to Toby’s Foot-In-Mouth Disease and the crowning achievement in that pantheon: the day I met Martin Freeman.
The Office was at its zenith. Series 2 was just transmitting and everyone was talking about it. In my capacity in the media industry I attended the launch party of the forthcoming drama series, Charles II: The Power and the Passion. Martin made up a stellar cast that included Rufus Sewell, Helen McCrory and Emperor Palpatine himself, Ian McDiarmid and, on the invitation of the producer, my colleague and I were asked along where we could solicit the cast for publicity interviews. The event was held in the magnificent Banqueting House in Whitehall, the site of Charles I’s scaffold. Rather fitting, in fact, given I’d wish my own head be removed not two hours later.
We entered unfashionably on time, grabbed a glass of warm white wine from the waiter at the door and made our way to the producer. Pleasantries exchanged, we were ushered over to a small group where I spotted Martin in conversation with other guests. The subsequent sequence of events went something like this:
Firstly, naturally, came an introduction – no surprises there – and a brief explanation as to who we were and what our intent was. Martin amenably agreed to an interview with the customary diary / agent checking necessary before he could commit. All fine so far, very professional. Then something happened that I wasn’t expecting. Martin asked me if we’d met before. I knew that we hadn’t (I’d remember, surely?) but, for some reason, thinking it would be rude to say no, I feigned a quizzical, “Err, possibly, hmm…can’t think where though”. He dismissed it, certain that we hadn’t, and continued his conversation with the others.
I, on the other hand, didn’t let it go and, in my head, frantically tried to piece together a tenuous opportunity where we may have met. Then it came. I snapped my fingers in realisation and interrupted, “I know where we’ve met. It was at a party with Steven Merchant!” Why I said this, I have no idea. It was a complete fabrication. I’d have remembered. He’d have remembered. It was a foolish attempt to ingratiate myself further, not wanting to let go the opportunity that he might have known me. He replied, “No…no, it wasn’t that. I’ve never been to a party with Steven Merchant.” That, simply, made me look like an idiot. And rightly so. Was I so drunk at this ‘party’ that I couldn’t remember having met him and, by implication, if he couldn’t remember either, that he was similarly inebriated? Ridiculous. Then, to diffuse any further embarrassment, Martin placated the situation, “I know what it is, Toby. You remind me of someone.” Simple. He then went on to explain the connection before excusing himself.
The party continued, further introductions were made at which I attempted to calm my ‘friendliness’ and, as the evening wore on, as is often the situation at events where you don’t really know anyone, opted instead to prop up the bar. It’s the latter action which may have been responsible for what happened next.