One Thursday morning, my phone started buzzing.
‘Hello, I’m calling on behalf of Sky Arts’ said a voice.
My mouth went dry – I could guess what was coming. A few weeks before I’d quickly put together a rather half-hearted application for Portrait Artist of the Year. ‘We just wanted to let you know the judges loved your submissions, and you’ve been allotted a filming date for the new series!’
‘Oh.’ There was an enormous, Pinteresque pause.
‘Hopefully this is good news?’ asked the voice, pointedly. Another pause.
I had only recently started watching Portrait Artist of the Year. My studio mate and his wife loved it, and they suggested I apply. It sounded like my idea of hell. Contestants got just four hours to paint a celebrity on camera – whilst being gawped at by members of the public.
I’m uncomfortable with the idea of having my process seen. I almost never share work in progress shots on social media, and I dislike even one person watching me sketch or paint. I hate the idea of ‘timed creativity’ and generally work in a very slow, angst-filled way. Anyone who interrupts me risks a paintbrush in an orifice.
Yet I enjoyed the show as a viewer, and there was still part of me that just wondered what would happen if I masked my doubts and tried it. It looked, on some level, fun. As reality shows go, it seemed quite benign and kind. There was no Simon Cowell figure mocking people’s efforts, and the programme seemed in general to inhabit a gentler, more ‘Antiques Roadshow’ end of the spectrum. Joan Bakewell presented it, for goodness sake – how harsh could it be?
The Sky Arts producer called me back later that day for a 90 minute production interview, to flesh out my biography and find potential angles for presenting me onscreen. She seemed particularly tickled to learn that, as part of my art history degree, I had submitted a dissertation about the design of Tamagotchi virtual pets. The conversation left me in no doubt that I had stepped into a very effective machine – a conveyor belt that I would not easily be able to get off. This was really going to happen – and soon. My filming date was less than four weeks away.
All leave was cancelled and I entered a self-created painting bootcamp. I kicked it off the next day with a three hour life session in town, in which I tasked myself to create a full length oil painting of the sitter. I ended the afternoon bitterly disappointed with my weedy, schematic picture. I went to bed with a raging neckache, which morphed overnight into a horrible migraine and kept me bedridden for the next 36 hours.
This was so obviously stress related. Various legally binding and serious sounding documents were flying into my inbox from the Sky Arts people. I convinced myself I’d mistakenly applied for something to which I was unsuited on a molecular level. I was now going to fuck up in style, and then my humiliation would be broadcast on TV.
I managed to get a grip the following week, and knuckled down to some daily practice sessions, all very strictly timed. A range of my studio neighbours popped in for short sittings, which I then completed using iPad photos (technology is permissible on the actual show). It was an enjoyable process and I began to feel my confidence grow.
A vague timescale emerged as I practiced. Draw for 30 or 40 minutes. Aim for a quick block in by the end of hour 2. Try to bring it all together in the remaining time.
By the end of my self-imposed painting bootcamp, I felt rather humbled. I’d enjoyed myself immensely. I had left my comfort zone, and learned a great amount by submitting myself to a timed process.
I realized that, whatever the outcome of the filming might be, I could already wholeheartedly say that entering this competition had been entirely worthwhile.
Now I just had to do it.
The call sheet informed me the show was moving to a new filming location in Battersea Arts Centre. Participants would need to arrive at 7am, and be prepared for a 13 hour filming day. I booked a room at the nearest Premier Inn, then splurged on art materials and logo-free, non-stripy, TV friendly clothing.
I packed it all into a wheeled case and travelled down on the Monday afternoon. I decided to walk from the hotel to the Arts Centre and time my route, ready for the morning. When I arrived, I realized the previous day’s filming was still underway. I thought it might relieve my anxiety to go in and observe the scene for a bit.
The main hall of the Arts Centre was draped in huge light-fast curtains. Stepping through, I witnessed a hive of activity under glaring hot studio lamps. On a large circular dais, divided into three sections, sat the artists and their sitters. Nearest the entrance was rapper Tinie Tempah. Round the corner sat the actress Harriet Walter. Next to her was former Strictly judge Len Goodman.
The place was crammed with a respectful yet gently buzzing audience. Moving round the room was slow work. I peered over the shoulders of the nine artists, who were in the final half hour of their labours. They were all doing amazingly well.
I stepped back onto the street. ‘Kill me now’ was my dominant thought. This could not be happening to me. Someone wake me from this nightmare.
Back at the hotel, I could see I needed to chill out in quite a fundamental way. I had dinner in the restaurant, then a long hot bath. By 8pm I was in my PJs reading an e-book about managing anxiety.
I went to bed, though nothing at all in the way of sleep seemed remotely possible. I got a tiny bit drowsy between 2 and 3am. The rest of the time I lay there, observing an ever gyrating physical pain in my stomach and an inner voice which assured me I was about to fall from a great height. (I am aware my description sounds melodramatic, but it’s really how I felt.)
I was up and fussing with my case just before 5am. After zero sleep, the prospect of a 13 hour day of filming just felt laughably impossible. I noisily trundled my case through the silvery dawn of deserted London, making several extra detour laps up and down suburban back-streets because I was so early.
A friendly lady with a sort of headset radio mic loitered by the side entrance and ticked me off a clipboard.
‘Hello!’ she fizzed. ‘I’ll show you to the artists green room and then take your breakfast order.’
‘I won’t be able to eat…’ I said, grimly.
The green room was a tiny upstairs cupboard. I was the second to arrive. A middle aged Welsh guy paced round the room. We shook hands and commenced frenetic, silence-filling nervous small talk.
‘Did you sleep?’
‘Not a wink, I’m dead on my feet. You?’
As the others filtered in, it was encouraging to note that everyone else was in the same sleep-deprived state of disbelieving, brick-shitting horror.
We had mike packs fitted, then trooped downstairs for our first filmed task of the day – ‘walk ins’. For half an hour or so, in differing configurations, we were filmed ‘arriving’ at the Arts Centre. Several times over we wandered through the door in twos and threes, smiling and making pretend conversation with one another.
Next up was our first ‘vox pop’ of the day – an outdoors interview with one of the producers. We lined up in a corridor, firing squad style, and waited to be called out. I was at the far end of the queue. A young bespectacled runner with a prominent brace across her teeth attempted to chat with me.
‘So… are you excited?’ she said.
‘I want to be…’ I said guiltily, staring at my feet. ‘But I’m feeling a bit out of my depth.’
This sweet young lady, probably lowly paid and all of 19 years old, regarded me with a sudden, overwhelmingly kind, sympathetic expression, the sincerity of which gave me a jolt – like being zapped with jump leads.
‘Please back yourself’ she said in a low voice. ‘You’ve got to back yourself. It’s important to me that you do.’
Perhaps because I was still in a raw-eyed, sleep deprived state, her words seemed more significant to me, like a command from the universe to pull myself together and do a 180 in my mind. She was right, I had to back myself. I thanked her and steeled myself with new vigour for the first real task of the day.
The producer who interviewed me was a handsome guy with piercing blue eyes and a warm smile. He stood behind the camera and fed me a range of standard pre-show questions. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What are you excited about?’ ‘What sort of sitter are you hoping for?’ I was instantly paranoid about my dumb, halting responses. I’m not a man of many words at the best of times, and back then I was at my shyest. Several times, here and throughout the day, he would force me to re-take. ‘Can we do that again but maybe get a little more?’ I felt they were struggling to get good content from me.
Vox pops done, we were finally allowed into the space. The three portrait areas were referred to as ‘cheeses’ by the production staff.
‘Hello Peter, you’re in my cheese today!’ beamed a friendly young lady with a clipboard. ‘I’m your point of contact for everything – just wave me across for whatever you need. Tea, water, turps, snacks… Also’, she continued, ‘if you need the toilet I will have to take you. Once filming starts, you will need my express permission to leave your cheese.’
The implication here was clear – running away was not an option.
After a few camera tests, the next bit of filming was the set-up. We were filmed opening our bags, unloading our paraphernalia and squeezing out our paint. I found it particularly shaming to be caught on camera removing my stash of brushes from an old Sainsbury’s mixed peppers bag – the only suitable long and thin container I could find. I must seem very low rent.
The two fellow artists in my cheese seemed as awkwardly nervous as me. I had chatted to several of the artists by this point, and they all sort of had the same wild eyed sleep deprived look – shy introverted characters temporarily released from the veal crates of their studios, blinking helplessly under hot studio lights. I felt strangely comfortable in their presence. We were by no means ‘in competition’ with one another, there was certainly none of that.
Set-up complete, we had some time to relax and mingle before the doors opened to the public. My nerves had calmed enough to fish out a protein bar from my bag. I hungrily devoured it.
‘A bit of energy? Good plan!’ came a voice from beside me. A tall, handsome man had sidled right up to my shoulder without my noticing. It was Steven Mangan, the co-host. I loved the way he gently opened a chat with me, purposefully preventing me from feeling star-struck or tongue-tied. Before I knew it we were chatting quite easily.
‘You’re lucky in this section’, he said kindly. ‘I think you have a really great sitter.’
The doors opened and the public poured in. I felt much calmer now. The whole prospect of actually doing this didn’t seem quite so impossible. The director signaled for silence on the floor, and Joan Bakewell and Steven began their pieces to camera.
The opposite cheese was first to get their sitter – comedy actor Asim Chaudhry. Next up, on the second cheese, Joan Bakewell introduced Russell Tovey. I was slightly annoyed not to get him – I’m a big fan.
Before Steven introduced our sitter, the director briefed us.
‘Your sitter is registered blind. She will be helped to her seat and you should approach one by one to greet her.’
Out came Olivier award-winning, 90 something actor Doreen Mantle. We’d been told to applaud delightedly regardless of who it was, and it’s safe to say none of us recognized her at first. A surreptitious Google search told me she’d been Mrs Warboys in One Foot in the Grave, and on reflection I recognized her as Colin Fishwick’s mother in Corrie.
‘How do you feel about your sitter?’ came the inevitable vox pop question moments later.
‘Er… I think it’s really good because I’ve never painted, like, a really old person before.’ I cringed as the crassly expressed sentiment left my lips – but in essence it was true and I immediately knew what Steven meant when he said we were lucky to get her. Her face was full of the experience of a long life, cliché though it may be, and we had a lot to work with here. I was very pleased to have her.
‘Artists!’, came Joan’s loudly exclaimed words, ringing through the hall. ‘You have four hours to complete your portrait. Good luck.’ I quickly took some photos of Doreen, then cued up some lucky painting music on my headphones. I sat back and started.
The sitting went by in a flash. Initial fear turned to relief as I sketched a fair likeness straight off the bat. The live audience were easy to block out because I had my back to them and, as soon as I knew my basic sketch was good enough, I felt myself slightly enjoying the presence of onlookers – a new emotion for me. Doreen, being so elderly, was by no means a static sitter; in fact it’s true to say I’d have been utterly lost without the iPad reference as a back-up. Throughout the day there were also probably ten interruptions – for on camera interviews with the hosts and judges, plus over the easel vox pops with the producer.
Stephen was a lovely guy, and I also instinctively warmed to Joan Bakewell, who seemed genuinely fascinated by what we were all up to. I was probably more concerned about encountering the judges. Kate Bryan is an art historian, Tai Shan Schierenberg is a former BP prize winner and Kathleen Soriano is a curator. Usually I would have been rather tongue-tied at the prospect of an interrogation by such luminaries, but I was so on-message with my timed task that my nerves were somewhat undercut. I was at sensory overload, and there wasn’t room for any more distraction. The judges all seemed very kind and interested, anyway. Tai even carried on talking to me about my process after the cameras had stopped filming. It seemed like he was just really curious about other artists’ processes.
Lunchtime came halfway through the challenge, and I finally disengaged for a while. My friends Lesley and Julie were in the audience, keen to chat.
‘You’re doing really well’ said Lesley, ‘though… there’s a lady over there painting Russell Tovey. We think she might have it in the bag.’
After lunch I feel the vibe changed again for me. After my customary 2 hour block in, I began to lag. A certain initial magic, probably adrenalin fuelled, had powered me at the start, and it had faded. I had nothing left in the tank. I turned round, searching for a staff member in the crowd. I managed to beckon my friends over instead.
‘I need some sugar. I think I’m going to pass out.’ Lesley raced off and came back with a bag of my beloved Jelly Babies. They got me over the hump.
As time ran out, I resigned myself to the realization that I had blown my chance of doing something really cool with Doreen. It was just good – a nice portrait, though with little wow factor. I was disappointed. Nothing, however, could prevent the sense of elation I felt when Joan Bakewell announced that the time was up. The entire hall burst into applause. We artists hugged one another, knowing the significance of the personal fear barrier we’d all breached that day.
The next bit took a while to film. It involved each cheese turning their easel for the big reveal to the sitters. They would then react, comment and finally choose a favourite portrait to keep.
For our group, of course, this was a slightly different matter. Doreen had a pleasant, brown haired carer called David. In essence he would choose the portrait on Doreen’s behalf.
The artist next to me had produced a commanding full length study, while the other artist had produced a slightly more abstracted view. Doreen was ushered forward to go through the rather farcical charade of looking at the options. ‘Er… I think I can see an eye!’ she said at one point, as if to demonstrate that she could sadly discern little more than vague shapes.
David summarized the portraits for her. ‘This one is very modern’ he began. ‘This one is very imposing – matriarch Doreen.’ Finally he turned to me. ‘And this is your sweet side. Kind, vulnerable Doreen.’ Inwardly I punched the air. I had it in the bag.
Doreen slash David chose my portrait and the room once again applauded. My friends embraced me. It was a brilliant moment – though til my dying day I will also love and cherish the fact that I’m the first person in the history of Portrait Artist of the Year to have my painting chosen by a blind person.
After the celebs had spoken, we were ushered into a side room for afternoon tea plus more dreaded vox pops. Meanwhile the judges were in the empty hall, choosing a ‘shortlist’. Only one person from each heat could go through to the semi-final, but to add more televisual meat they always choose their three favourites from the day.
Eventually we were called back into the hall. The names were read out one by one. Eleanor, who my friend Lesley had pegged as an early winner, was picked first. I’d seen her portrait by now, and could see she’d made the strongest portrait of the day. Secondly, my name was called. I was absolutely delighted, plus a little scared. Oh hell, what if I got through?
We were ushered out for more vox pops while the judges chose their winner. I was pretty positive Eleanor would win it, but there was also that ounce of doubt. Genuinely I couldn’t say which outcome I was hoping for at this point. This whole experience had been very very stressful, and I’d put all other aspects of my career on hold whilst preparing for it. The travel, hotel and material costs were (save for a small ex gratia payment from Sky) borne by me. Part of me was looking forward to the whole experience being over. That said, we’re all competitive souls, and who knows what effect being a semi-finalist might have on my longer term prospects? I’d be a fool to wish against it.
They called us in. The audience had much dwindled – time was marching on. My friends Julie and Lesley had had to leave for their respective children. The three shortlisted artists’ work was lined up on easels and we stood in a row beside the judges. Stephen held a card which contained our fate.
The cameras lingered many minutes over various audience and contestant texture shots as we stood breathing heavily. I placed a hand on my stomach to fruitlessly try and quell a fulminating wave of internal butterflies..
‘Oh bless your heart’ whispered Kathleen Soriano with a sympathetic smile.
Stephen and Joan began. ‘The winner of this heat is…’
I had a moment, a kind of out of body experience as I stared at the audience, dazzled by lights. How many reality shows had I watched over the years? How accustomed was I to this comedically exaggerated pause for effect before an announcement? Now here I was, inside one of these strange televisual commas. I’m glad I was able to appreciate it. I think it was my highlight of the whole experience.
Eleanor won. It was very easy to be pleased for her and slightly relieved for myself. We scuttled off, but not until we’d done another vox pop of reaction. Amusingly I was asked to retake my piece three or four times, because the producers thought I didn’t look ‘genuinely pleased’ for Eleanor. I think I was just utterly shagged out.
A few weeks later I received a lovely note from Doreen to thank me for the portrait and let me know she’d really enjoyed the experience, which I was pleased about. I also chatted a fair bit over email with her carer David who I’d mistakenly assumed was a nurse but was actually just a good friend of Doreen’s and a TV scriptwriter.
It was a very long time before the show was broadcast, and I had to of course remain tight-lipped about the whole thing. In early 2020 my episode finally got an air date. Julie and Lesley came round to my flat. Having been there on the day it was great to have them there as I nervously prepared to watch the live broadcast. Of course, once I’d got past the initial horror of seeing my own face, it was fine.
At the end of all that I was finally able to look back and reflect that it was a great experience, for me, albeit more a personal development exercise than a ‘competition’. I felt, in particular, that I’d learnt a great deal about what I’m capable of doing under pressure – a broader lesson about my anxiety, which so often makes me fold and retreat, cancelling social engagements and inventing excuses. Here I’d been literally sick with worry, but I ended up doing what I needed to do and coming through it just fine. What fears can I conquer next? Answers on a postcard, please…