Being suave with my agent in the Ivy

It’s the coolth, you see. It’s the coolth and the sophistication – that’s what I bring to any occasion.

I’m in London this week to pitch a drama series and it turns out my agent is here at the same time, so he invited me to dinner on Monday night.

I’ve never met my agent before. We’ve skyped a few times, which is to say I’ve sat in front of a laptop grinning like a ventriloquist’s dummy and nodding hopefully while his image freezes on the screen four seconds out of every ten and I manage to catch every third or fourth word. It’s important not to seem like a yokel when dealing with Hollywood agents. You can’t push your face up close to the screen and keep saying “What? What’s that?” like someone’s granny using skype for the first time. No, at all times, maintain your coolth. So although I’ve never really understood anything he’s ever said. I just nod and smile and think, “Ooh, I’m talking to My Agent!”

I like to think I’ve created a beguilingly sphinx-like air of agreeable mystique, but it’s possible that our conversations had erred on the side of the bafflingly incommunicative, so I wanted to make a good impression. His assistant messaged from LA to let me know that dinner was at The Ivy at 8pm. This shook my coolth.

Ever since the very first time I visited London, when I emerged from The Mousetrap at St Martin’s Theatre to see Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson hugging and laughing in the doorway of The Ivy, I’ve thought I might like to dine there. I tried once, but the maître d’ was a brittle young man in a suit more expensive than my car, and he icily informed me that I needed a reservation. When might one be free? I wondered. A day? A week? A month? He looked me up and down and said, “Perhaps a little longer than that.”

So to return to The Ivy with my agent paying – oh, what a dream! I fretted I didn’t have the right clothes. I was dressed for pitching, not for swanky wooing. If only I’d brought something more classy. Then I remembered I don’t have anything more classy.

I was twenty minutes away by foot and it was twenty to eight, so I called an Uber. The Uber took thirty minutes. I came running through the front doors, skidding to a halt at the desk. “Good evening, sir”, said an icy voice I recognized from seven years ago.

It was him! He’s a little older, now, with a touch of titanium at the temples, and wearing a different suit, but he has the same gimlet eye.

I tried to gather my coolth. “I am here,” I said, “to meet my agent.”

“Certainly, sir,” he said, all unction and ooze. “What name?”

I told him the name. The name was not on the list of reservations. A film of frost spread across his smile, as on a millpond in early winter. I told him my name. That didn’t impress him much. We looked at each other.

“He’s in there at the table right now,” I said waving my hand at the inner restaurant, whence issued the silvery sounds of famous people having fun.

“Mm,” said the maître d’.

“I could walk through,” I said, “and look around and see if I can spot him.”

“Ah,” said the maître d’, with the air of a Buckingham Palace tour guide spotting you trying to slip up the stairs to meet the queen. “No, I don’t think our guests would appreciate that.”

“But I’m one of your guests,” I insisted. “My agent invited me!”

This was insane. I was having to prove to a jumped-up waiter that I’m worthy of representation and a free meal! How could I persuade him, when most of the time I can’t even persuade myself?

“Perhaps I might see the invitation,” he said.

The email was on my phone. I’d dropped my phone that morning in the airport. The screen was a spiderweb of cracks and ruin. The maître d’ looked at my phone, then at my outfit. My coolth was ebbing.

 “Um,” I said. “Can I use your WiFi code?”

This wasn’t how I remembered Stephen Fry entering the Ivy, fumbling over a broken phone, trying to get online for free like a tourist at a Starbucks. By the time I reeled through to my table, half an hour late, sweating and weak, it wasn’t even a surprise to me that I should immediately knock over a famous person’s wine.

I sat in an anxious daze, trying to recover while people at the table discussed the business (did you know that they’re making Shantaram into a series with a budget of fifteen million dollars per episode?). Finally I had my coolth back. My agent turned to me and said, “So, you might want to know what we have planned for you for next year.” I nodded. I wanted to know very much indeed.

I watched his lips move, and I thought, “I’m in the Ivy! Talking about my career! With my agent! Everything’s going to be okay!” And then I noticed his lips had stopped moving, and he said, “How does that sound?” And then my heart sank as I realized that I hadn’t heard a word, and didn’t know what to say, and that it’s not skype that freezes up at important moments. It’s me.

The Times, 5 December 2019