The Black Sheep of Burkedom

Lady: “Are you going to the Operation Smile Christmas Carols this year?”
Me: “No.”
Lady: “Why not?”
Me: “Because I’m not.” (turns to start another conversation with someone else.)

Those of you who think you know me…how do you see me? Those of you who read the blog…what do you think I’d be like if we met? What words spring to mind? Confident? Aloof? Witty? Chatty? Happy? Introvert? Extrovert? Rude?

I’m an Ambivert. I can be a great listener, or if the mood takes me, I can be a great conversationalist. Now even the shyest introvert or the noisiest extrovert isn’t 100% like that all the time…all of us have a bit of extrovert or introvert in us however hard we may deny’s just that most of us are more inclined one way or the other.

So how do I know I’m an Ambivert? Well I’ve taken many tests over the years starting at school to see what career I would be best suited to, to ongoing tests during my working life for “progression purposes.” It’s always the same, 50/50, straight down the line. I’m not shy, but in some situations I’m a happy observer – I don’t feel the need to be the centre of attention – that way you learn more about the people you’re with.

I enjoy conversation, but I hate small talk. I can do it when I put my mind to it, but on most occasions, I can’t be bothered. If someone is interesting enough, the conversation will start to flow organically and be more meaningful. Whilst those I know will say I’m loud (certainly not a shrinking violet) I will be reserved with those I don’t know very well and especially in situations when there is an extrovert commanding attention. Although sometimes the overwhelming extrovert can bring out the worst in me and it becomes a duel for supremacy.

I love spending time on my own. I have the confidence to go to the theatre, to travel abroad, to go running down quiet lanes on my own…BUT…then I start to wonder what I’m missing out on and why people aren’t contacting me to arrange social gatherings, I do like both you know! And I do like meeting new people, I really do, although I do prefer to have friends with me in those situations, but in many circumstances, they’ve taken over and I’ve missed opportunities to converse with interesting people (and people haven’t had a chance to find out what I’m actually like.)

I am opinionated, but I am interested in what others think too; so, I like to hear them out before I speak. And woe betide the person who shouts me down because their opinion is “the only correct one” and who refuses to listen and consider anyone else’s opinion…where is your empathy button? I’ll put up with this behaviour for so long, but there will come the time when I must wash my hands of these people for my own sanity. I prefer balance, if someone is talking, I want to listen, if they are quiet, I’m happy to talk…and yes, I’m not perfect, I will talk or shout all over someone if I’m not given any other option!

So, there we go…I’ve introduced myself…it’s a pleasure to meet you. Let’s see what else we learn together and why I now feel the time is right to share my dark secrets with you.

“All I wanted was a word, a photograph to keep” (Madness – Michael Caine)

On the morning of my A-Level English exam, I persuaded my friend J to go to Chester with me so I could get Stephen Hendry’s autograph. I have no idea why…I wasn’t a fan of snooker, but he was cute! The queue was long, and we only just got back home in time for me to sit my exam. I fear that had I missed the bus and my exam, my dad would have murdered me…fortunately he never found out about this little adventure!

In the same year, filming had taken place for Robin Hood in Frodsham. My school was used by some of the actors to get changed etc before shoots. This was the version starring Patrik Berger and Uma Thurman…names I hadn’t heard of, but thanks to an advert for Coffee Mate, I had heard of Owen Teale (Will Scarlet) so I went to the pub and got his autograph…that was more fun than staying in lessons. (Yet again, poor dad was non the wiser!)

Skip forward a couple of years and a band called Let Loose were coming to prominence. Readers…I joined their official fan club!!  I was sent a badge (there’s GOT to be a badge) a newsletter and some black and white studio shots of the band. Shortly after, I saw that they would be playing at the Student Union in Preston where I was studying. I managed to grab them after the show for their autographs; I handed over said B&W pics for them to sign, proudly announcing I was in their fan club! (I was a bit tipsy and to be fair never saw them again.)

They were fun days, but I never actually knew anyone who was REALLY into the same things as me. I had really good friends, true sports who were happy to share various experiences with me (however bored they were!) If I wanted to watch Let Loose, there was someone who would go with me. If I wanted to get dressed up to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show 21 times (it was its 21st anniversary and it seemed like a really good idea at the time) I had friends who would go with me. (They were also game enough to go and annoy poor Jonathan Morris backstage most nights – the doorman was a star for always letting me and C in!)

Cheering one another on. Not trying to outshine…

I still hold a membership card for Liverpool Football Club, although after Brendan Rodgers took over the helm the trips to Anfield became less frequent and I started getting obsessed with a different theatre of dreams! Going with a group of people to Anfield and discussing the game over egg and chips in the local café is possibly the closest thing I ever got to being involved with a group of people who were “obsessed” with the same thing; people who were passionate and wanted their team to do well. There was a sense of great community – everyone wanting the same thing – no-one trying to outshine one another.

So how did someone who had never really bothered with the trappings of fandom, end up so embroiled in the world of the Tom Burke fans? I’d been joyfully watching Tom Burke’s career unfurl on the TV after he appeared in a show called POW. (Not a great show if I’m honest, but the episode with him in was mesmerising and made me cry!) No-one I knew had ever heard of him, and to be honest, even now there are still many people who look at me blankly…yes, even after Cormoran Strike! I had joined the heady world of social media for the first time and people were wanting to engage with me. We tweeted the hours away with pictures and conversations about this new hit show on TV, The Musketeers. People had their favourite Musketeer; Tom, Luke, Howard, Santi. It was a strange new world and I really didn’t understand the concept of “followers.” Who would be interested in what contributions I had to make? If I’m honest…I still don’t understand the concept or why people engage with me as they do!

Twitter became a fun and cosy place to be, watching an episode of Musketeers and tweeting about it later. I’d do various screen shots and edits of Athos (Tom Burke) as conversation starters, and I “met” some wonderful people online. Twitter wasn’t used as it was supposed to be, it was more of a social gathering. People were having conversations every time an episode aired, and many people joined in with them. It was like having a chat around the table in the pub, a happy community.

Even the most strong-minded people can have their moments

But as time moved on and people started to meet Tom and The Musketeers became a part of TV history, things started to change. Initially people lost interest in the fan site forum, preferring instead to leave both that and the public gaze of Twitter and move to more secretive WhatsApp groups. At first it wasn’t too bad…it was a large group of friends, but it soon became dominated with outspoken comments that were sometimes found hurtful by people. I noticed more and more folk leaving the group. Then sub groups started forming, conversations to be had with the select few. These filtered down into even smaller niche groups. The sad thing was that most of those conversations weren’t particularly private, they could have been held in the original group, but now a power struggle was going on; which group should you align yourself with. There wasn’t a great deal of choice in the matter, a group would be set up and you would be put in it. You didn’t ask, you switched on your phone and noticed you were in a new group chat.

Whilst I knew it was wrong to be so secretive, it was enjoyable hearing people’s stories about their meetings with Tom, however airbrushed some of the tales might have been. At the end of the day, I hadn’t created or asked to be part of a specific group, so I took advantage of my position; but then the tide started to change.

Now it may surprise you that whilst I love and adore Tom, I don’t feel the need to go and see him in everything he does. If I lived in London it might be a different story, but I don’t. I’m sensible about what I choose to go and see. If I am travelling all the way to London and staying in a hotel, I want that trip to be productive and value for money; so, I might fit a Tom trip in with an exhibition I want to see, or another play I have been wanting to watch. I didn’t go to watch him at an event when he was reading Charlotte by David Foenkinos as it would have been a costly trip to make for just a couple of hours; and whilst I wanted to watch him at another event reading from The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart (I already owned a copy of that book and I was interested in meeting Sue Perkins too) I wasn’t going to cancel my prior engagement I had with a friend.

It turned out that not going to every event that Tom was involved in became the reason I decided to finally cut ties with the supposed fandom. People would report back on Facebook or Twitter the various conversations they had had with Tom.  Tom had said he didn’t want photograph requests anymore. Tom had said he would much rather have a conversation with people rather than selfies and autographs. Tom had said this. Tom had said that.

On one of my solo jaunts to London to watch some non-Tom related theatre, I ended up having dinner with someone and I got told another one of those “Tom said this” stories. He had been upset that that he couldn’t remember the name of a fan. Now this was nothing new. I remember someone joking with him at The Deep Blue Sea that we should all have name badges; he’d replied that we should! There was nothing secret in his frustration that he couldn’t remember everyone’s names; and he shouldn’t be embarrassed, I still can’t remember the names of everyone I work with…and I see them all regularly!!!

It transpired that Tom wanted an aide memoire to be created. A random number of people on a poster of some sort with names and photograph’s attached. I was honoured to know this information because it was classified, for want of a better word; only specific people knew about this "aide memoire." On an unrelated WhatsApp chat with someone, I mentioned the poster. The reply hit me like a bullet in the chest. I was NOT supposed to know about the poster. My name had come up and it had been agreed I would not be told about it. I was astounded by the response. I was, apparently, a trusted friend, but I was still someone who should not know about the poster. This was their secret...they would make it...they would deliver it.

Did I miss something?

My father in law had been diagnosed with terminal Mesothelioma mid-2017. As time progressed the bad days were getting worse; the good days were getting fewer. I couldn’t be bothered with the mind games that were being played, the snide comments written on social media, and I certainly didn’t have the time to wade through copious WhatsApp messages. I therefore missed the usual type of group conversation about organising a “Burke” trip to Exeter where he was taking part in a Q&A session with Judi Spiers about Don Carlos; the first production he was undertaking with his new theatre company, ARA.

Or at least that is what I was told.

Someone had asked the question in the sub-group if anyone was going to Exeter. A couple of replies were posted saying it was too far, that it was too expensive for one night. I read those comments a day or so after posting, but then the conversation had moved on to other non-Tom related discussions. I checked the main group where these types of events had been discussed in the past; the question hadn’t even arisen.

I found it hard to believe. No-one was going to see Tom Burke? In all my time in the fandom, there was always someone organising a group trip to visit Tom. A group trip meant more people could go and support Tom, costs could be shared, cheaper accommodation could be found.  

There’s more plotting, scheming and backstabbing in some parts of Burkedom than in the Complete Works of Shakespeare!

I didn’t have time to mess about seeking out who was organising what and why it was so covert. In the good ole days it would have been above board, posted on the main WhatsApp group. If someone was unnaturally quiet a private text would be sent to them asking if everything was alright…had they seen the post…did they want to go? We used to be a large, supportive group, of both Tom and each other. This distinct lack of openness was playing heavily on my mind. Rather than trying to find out who was going and who wasn’t, I decided if all was well at home I would drive down to Exeter, watch the Q&A, stay at the university (cheap & last min bookings available) and drive back home next morning. It wouldn’t cost me that much to stay in a university room, and I would get to hear all about Schiller’s work and about the play I was watching at the end of the year. (In a way I was also looking forward to being on campus again, reminiscing about my old university days and thinking how ironic it was that I didn’t make many of my lectures back then, yet now I was happy to travel the length of the country for one!)

Fortunately, I was able to make my trip. I made myself at home in my university room which looked remarkably like the one I had lived in over 20 years earlier! I made my way to the bar on my own, bought a beer and I sat quietly reading a book (this really was like living out my past!) I heard a group enter the bar, voices loudly laughing and joking with one another. As they found a place to sit, they commented on the travel arrangements of those who had not yet arrived. Tom appeared shortly afterwards, and I heard them rush to say hello to him. As he turned away from them, I got up and walked over to the group to say hi…these were people I knew well. Shocked faces greeted me, one lady even said, “you could have given me a lift if I had known you were coming.” How on earth could I offer a lift to someone if I wasn’t party to any arrangements; if I didn’t know they were going?

As he walked back past this small group of fans, Tom stopped briefly to say hello to me and went off to get ready for the Q&A. For a second, I felt welcome, like I was where I belonged…and then suddenly a bright light dawned in my brain; why this black sheep couldn’t be part of the secretive fold anymore...the innocouos plastic bag they had ready for Tom had a poster in it.

A few days later, I removed myself from the WhatsApp sub groups that were in regular use. I directly asked somebody why the trip had to be so secretive; I wanted to know if my gut feeling had been right. I was disappointed by the evasive answers I received. I counter argued the defensive answers given to me because they made no sense at all. A final response came back… “we can’t be friends.”

We can’t be friends???? What the hell is this? We’re not 6-year olds in the playground. Or is that what we’ve come to…that playground mentality of having to be in the right gang to be popular whilst everyone else is side-lined? That childish feeling of supremacy!

I can’t be surrounded by hypocrites, liars and schemers…

Whatever was going on, I decided that if this is how the fandom was starting to pan out, then I wanted no more part in it. It was bad for my mental health trying to second guess what the hell was going on. I’d already got fed-up of being introduced to Tom at events as “the pretentious one.” There’s having a joke with someone, but after a while jokes wear thin and you begin to wonder why there is the constant need to belittle you in front of someone you admire.

Don Carlos dawned. Tickets had been bought so far in advance that it would be a waste of money not to honour them…but in reality, the excitement of going to watch the play had worn thin. I was dreading evenings of fake civility. I was welcomed within a group knowing that I was only there because Tom might think it strange if I was sat on my own. As we spoke as a group, mid-conversation I was told quite emphatically that a point I had made was wrong. In the past I would have stayed quiet, even when I knew the point I had been making was correct; now I was blowing a gasket, and yes that gasket exploded in front of Tom. Once DC was finished, so was I…not with Tom's work (poor bloke) but I kissed goodbye to the fandom that had previously brought me so much joy.

One of the evenings I was actually greeted by someone with a big hug and a “so pleased to see you” comment. Really? You are so pleased to see me that you exited our WhatsApp group, which consisted solely of me and you only a few days earlier without warning! If you don’t want anything to do with me that’s fine, a simple hello would have sufficed. How I wish I had actually said that out loud!

Why do all good things come to an end?

It would be amazing to go back to the halcyon days of when the fandom first started running…but you can never go back, you must move forwards. I cannot and will not play the sycophant. I enjoy having a chat with Tom, but I don’t aspire to be his best friend.  My head can no longer listen to people who tell me they’ve “accidentally” ended up outside his house, creeping away and then craving reassurance that they’re not stalkers. The fun of the fandom, getting together, dressing up, doing nutty things, has died for me.

I still remember the first time I met Tom and the joyful feeling I had afterwards. I find it so sad that hopeful fans, who may only have one opportunity to say hi to him in their lifetime, face the risk of being told to go away by his other fans. What happened to the excited groups holding a conversation together, when did it change to such a battle of supremacy for Tom’s favour?

I know I sound very pessimistic, but I do hope that some change can be brought to bringing the fandom back to the pleasant place it used to be. I am not naïve though, and whilst I hope for its future, whether I can stay a part of it remains to be seen. To a large extent I have lost trust and faith in it all. I know that if a more public profile was adopted, there would still be secretive factions plotting and planning to ensure they get their “Tom time” above everyone else.  To me it feels that Tom is no longer a talented actor who people share an interest in anymore, he has become a commodity, something to be fought and leered over. Do I want to be a part of that? Not really. I’m lucky enough to have met him. He’s a lovely bloke who doesn’t deserve a group of fans so determined to outdo one another.

Now of course this is only the tip of the ice berg, 2018 was the year of the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is just a response to a number of questions I’ve being trying to avoid. Whilst I have enough material saved to make your toes curl and your hackles rise… I won’t be sharing it. Certainly not now at any rate…although I’m sure it could make an excellent play one day - if anyone’s interested of course!